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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

EFT-1 Update: Orion's Chutes Pass Yet Another Challenge...

The three main parachutes on the Orion test article successfully deploy above the U.S. Army's Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona, on June 25, 2014.
NASA

Parachutes for NASA's Orion Spacecraft Hit No Snags in Most Difficult Test (Press Release)

NASA completed the most complex and flight-like test of the parachute system for the agency's Orion spacecraft on Wednesday.

A test version of Orion touched down safely in the Arizona desert after being pulled out of a C-17 aircraft, 35,000 feet above the U.S. Army's Yuma Proving Ground. It was the first time some parachutes in the system had been tested at such a high altitude. Engineers also put additional stresses on the parachutes by allowing the test version of Orion to free fall for 10 seconds, which increased the vehicle's speed and aerodynamic pressure.

"We've put the parachutes through their paces in ground and airdrop testing in just about every conceivable way before we begin sending them into space on Exploration Flight Test (EFT)-1 before the year's done," said Orion Program Manager Mark Geyer. "The series of tests has proven the system and will help ensure crew and mission safety for our astronauts in the future."

After Orion's free fall, its forward bay cover parachutes deployed, pulling away the spacecraft's forward bay cover, which is critical to the rest of the system performing as needed. The forward bay cover is a protective shell that stays on the spacecraft until it has reentered Earth's atmosphere. The parachutes that slow Orion to a safe landing speed are located under the cover, so the cover must be jettisoned before they can be unfurled.

Engineers also rigged one of the main parachutes to skip the second phase of a three-phase process of unfurling each parachute, called reefing. This tested whether one of the main parachutes could go directly from opening a little to being fully open without an intermediary step, proving the system can tolerate potential failures.

The test also marked the last time the entire parachute sequence will be tested before Orion launches into space in December on its first space flight test, EFT-1. During the flight, an uncrewed Orion will travel 3,600 miles into space, farther than any spacecraft built to carry humans has been in more than 40 years. Orion will travel at the speed necessary to test many of the systems critical to NASA's ability to bring astronauts home safely from missions to deep space, including an asteroid and eventually Mars.

During its return to Earth, Orion will reach a speed of up to 20,000 mph and experience temperatures near 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Once Orion has made it through the atmosphere, the parachute system, with two drogue parachutes and three massive main parachutes that together cover almost an entire football field will be responsible for slowing it down to just 20 mph for a safe splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

Orion's next parachute test is set for August and will test the combined failure of one drogue parachute and one main parachute, as well as new parachute design features. It is one of three remaining tests needed to demonstrate the system's capability for human missions, but does not need to be completed before Orion's first flight later this year.

Source: NASA.Gov

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The Orion test article is about to successfully land at the U.S. Army's Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona, on June 25, 2014.
NASA / Rad Sinyak

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Photo of the Day...

The International Space Station orbits above the dark side of the Earth, with the three stars of Orion's Belt about to emerge above the planet's atmosphere (lower left of center frame)...on June 23, 2014.
NASA

Orion's Belt Rises Through the Atmosphere (Press Release)

On June 23, 2014, Expedition 40 Flight Engineer Reid Wiseman captured this image which connects Earth to the International Space Station and to the stars. Among the "stellar" scene is part of the constellation Orion, near the center of the frame. The U.S. laboratory or Destiny is seen in the upper right.

Source: NASA.Gov

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Asteroid Initiative...

Computer animation depicting an Orion vehicle about to dock with the asteroid retrieval spacecraft.
NASA

NASA Announces Latest Progress, Upcoming Milestones in Hunt for Asteroids (Press Release)

NASA is on the hunt for an asteroid to capture with a robotic spacecraft, redirect to a stable orbit around the moon, and send astronauts to study in the 2020s -- all on the agency's human Path to Mars. Agency officials announced on Thursday recent progress to identify candidate asteroids for its Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), increase public participation in the search for asteroids, and advance the mission's design.

NASA plans to launch the ARM robotic spacecraft in 2019 and will make a final choice of the asteroid for the mission about a year before the spacecraft launches. NASA is working on two concepts for the mission: the first is to fully capture a very small asteroid in open space, and the second is to collect a boulder-sized sample off of a much larger asteroid. Both concepts would require redirecting an asteroid less than 32 feet (10 meters) in size into the moon’s orbit. The agency will choose between these two concepts in late 2014 and further refine the mission’s design.

The agency will award a total of $4.9 million for concept studies addressing components of ARM. Proposals for the concept studies were solicited through a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) released in March, and selected in collaboration with NASA's Space Technology and Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorates. The studies will be completed over a six-month period beginning in July, during which time system concepts and key technologies needed for ARM will be refined and matured. The studies also will include an assessment of the feasibility of potential commercial partners to support the robotic mission.

"With these system concept studies, we are taking the next steps to develop capabilities needed to send humans deeper into space than ever before, and ultimately to Mars, while testing new techniques to protect Earth from asteroids," said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.

NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope made recent observations of an asteroid, designated 2011 MD, which bears the characteristics of a good candidate for the full capture concept. While NASA will continue to look for other candidate asteroids during the next few years as the mission develops, astronomers are making progress to find suitable candidate asteroids for humanity’s next destination into the solar system.

"Observing these elusive remnants that may date from the formation of our solar system as they come close to Earth, is expanding our understanding of our world and the space it resides in," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "Closer study of these objects challenge our capabilities for future exploration and will help us test ways to protect our planet from impact. The Spitzer observatory is one of our tools to identify and characterize potential candidate targets for the asteroid mission."

Analysis of Spitzer’s infrared data show 2011 MD is roughly 20 feet (6 meters) in size and has a remarkably low density -- about the same as water, which supports the analysis of observations taken in 2011.

The asteroid appears to have a structure perhaps resembling a pile of rocks, or a "rubble pile." Since solid rock is about three times as dense as water, this suggests about two-thirds of the asteroid must be empty space. The research team behind the observation says the asteroid could be a collection of small rocks, held loosely together by gravity, or it may be one solid rock with a surrounding halo of small particles. In both cases, the asteroid mass could be captured by the ARM capture mechanism and redirected into lunar orbit.

To date, nine asteroids have been identified as potential candidates for the mission, having favorable orbits and measuring the right size for the ARM full capture option. With these Spitzer findings on 2011 MD, sizes now have been established for three of the nine candidates. Another asteroid -- 2008 HU4 -- will pass close enough to Earth in 2016 for interplanetary radar to determine some of its characteristics, such as size, shape and rotation. The other five will not get close enough to be observed again before the final mission selection, but NASA’s Near-Earth Objects (NEO) Program is finding several potential candidate asteroids per year. One or two of these get close enough to Earth each year to be well characterized.

Boulders have been directly imaged on all larger asteroids visited by spacecraft so far, making retrieval of a large boulder a viable concept for ARM. During the next few years, NASA expects to add several candidates for this option, including asteroid Bennu, which will be imaged up close by the agency's Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission in 2018.

NASA’s search for candidate asteroids for ARM is a component of the agency’s existing efforts to identify all NEOs that could pose a threat to the Earth. Some of these NEOs could become candidates for ARM because they are in orbits similar to Earth’s. More than 11,140 NEOs have been discovered as of June 9. Approximately 1,483 of those have been classified as potentially hazardous.

In June 2013, NASA announced an Asteroid Grand Challenge (AGC) to accelerate this observation work through non-traditional collaborations and partnerships. On the first anniversary of the grand challenge this week, NASA officials announced new ways the public can contribute to the AGC, building on the successes of the challenge to date. To that end, NASA will host a two-day virtual workshop June 19 and 20 on emerging opportunities through the grand challenge, in which the public can participate.

"There are great ways for the public to help with our work to identify potentially hazardous asteroids," said Jason Kessler, program executive for NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge. "By tapping into the innovative spirit of people around the world, new public-private partnerships can help make Earth a safer place, and perhaps even provide valuable information about the asteroid that astronauts will visit."

Source: NASA.Gov

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A Spitzer Space Telescope image of asteroid 2011 MD (the bright dot in the middle), which is a candidate for NASA's Asteroid Redirect Mission...scheduled to launch in 2019.
NASA / JPL - Caltech / Northern Arizona University / SAO

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

EFT-1 Update: Getting to Know More About Orion's First Flight

The Orion EFT-1 capsule now sits atop its service module at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
NASA Kennedy Space Center

Five Things We’ll Learn from Orion’s First Flight Test (Press Release)

All the superlatives associated with Orion's first mission this year – farthest a spacecraft for humans has gone in 40 years, largest heat shield, safest vehicle ever built – can be dazzling, no doubt. But the reason engineers are chomping at the bit for Orion's first mission is the promise of crucial flight test data that can be applied to the design for future missions. Orion only has two flight test opportunities before astronauts climb aboard for the first crewed mission in 2021 – so gleaning the maximum information possible from Exploration Flight Test (EFT)-1 in December (and later, Exploration Mission-1 in 2017) is of the highest priority. Here are the top five things the engineers will be paying attention to:

1. Launch Abort System Separation – The launch abort system (LAS) is a key reason that Orion is intended to become the safest spacecraft ever built. In an emergency it could activate to pull the crew module and the astronauts it will carry away from the launch pad and the rocket in milliseconds. Hopefully it’s never needed, and since no crew will fly on EFT-1 the rescue system won’t be active.

But even when a launch goes perfectly, the 904-pound LAS jettison motor has to perform flawlessly. If it doesn’t get rid of the LAS 6 minutes and 20 seconds into the mission, there will be no landing – the LAS protects the crew module during ascent, but to do so, it blocks the parachutes that allow Orion to safely splashdown.

The Launch Abort System separation is just the first of 17 separations or jettisons that have to happen exactly as planned for the mission to be successful.

2. Parachute Deployment – For EFT-1, Orion will travel 3,600 miles above the Earth so that when it performs its deorbit burn, it will come screaming back into the Earth’s atmosphere at almost 20,000 miles per hour. Before it splashes down in the Pacific Ocean, it needs to slow down to 1/1000th of its entry speed – a relatively gentle 20 miles per hour.

Earth’s atmosphere does its part to put on the brakes, but to make landing survivable, Orion relies on its parachute system – primarily two drogue parachutes and three massive mains that together would cover almost an entire football field. They’ve been tested on Earth; test versions of Orion have been dropped from airplanes with a multitude of failure scenarios programmed into the parachute deployment sequence in an effort to make sure that every possible problem is accounted for.

But the sheer number of possible problems to be tested indicates how complicated the system is – each parachute must deploy at the exact right time, open to the exact right percentages in the exact right stages, and be cut away exactly as planned. And no test on Earth can exactly simulate what the spacecraft will really experience on its return from space.

3. Heat Shield Protection – Before the parachutes even get a chance to deploy, Orion has to make it safely through Earth’s atmosphere. The reason that Orion is traveling so far and coming back in so fast is to give the heat shield a good workout – the idea is to get as close as possible to the temperatures Orion would experience during a return from Mars. At the speed it will be traveling, the temperature should reach almost 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. At that same temperature, a nuclear reactor would melt down.

Standing between the crew module and all that heat is no more than 1.6 inches of Avcoat, a material that’s designed to burn away rather than transfer the temperatures back to Orion. Some 20 percent of the Avcoat will erode during the spacecraft’s journey back to Earth, and although it’s not the first time the materials has been used for this purpose, at 16.5 feet wide, Orion’s heat shield is the largest ever built. Technicians filled with Avcoat each of the 320,000 honeycomb cells that make up the shield’s structure by hand, then machined them to the precise fractions of inches called for by the design. Getting it exactly right is all that will get Orion through one of the most dynamic periods of its mission.

4. Radiation Levels – Traveling 15 times farther into space than the International Space Station will take Orion beyond the radiation protection offered by Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field. In fact, the majority of EFT-1 will take place inside the Van Allen Belts, clouds of heavy radiation that surround Earth. No spacecraft built for humans has passed through the Van Allen Belts since the Apollo missions, and even those only passed through the belts – they didn’t linger.

Future crews don’t plan to spend more time than necessary inside the Van Allen Belts, either, but long missions to deep space will expose them to more radiation than astronauts have ever dealt with before. EFT-1’s extended stay in the Van Allen Belts offers a unique opportunity to see how Orion’s shielding will hold up to it. Sensors will record the peak radiation seen during the flight, as well as radiation levels throughout the flight, which can be mapped back to geographic hot spots.

5. Computer Function – Orion’s computer is the first of its kind to be flown in space. It can process 480 million instructions per second. That’s 25 times faster than the International Space Station’s computers, 400 times faster than the space shuttle’s computers and 4,000 times faster than Apollo’s.

But to operate in space, it has to be able to handle extreme heat and cold, heavy radiation and the intense vibrations of launches, aborts and landings. And it has to operate through all of that without a single mistake. Just restarting the computer would take 15 seconds; and while that might sound lightning fast compared to your PC, you can cover a lot of ground in 15 seconds when you’re strapped to a rocket.

Source: NASA.Gov

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The Orion EFT-1 capsule now sits atop its service module at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
NASA

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Life Aboard the ISS...

The main lights inside the Destiny laboratory module are shut off while the Expedition 40 crew sleep aboard the International Space Station.
NASA

Inside the International Space Station's Destiny Laboratory (Press Release)

This view in the International Space Station, photographed by an Expedition 40 crew member, shows how it looks inside the space station while the crew is asleep. The dots near the hatch point to a Soyuz spacecraft docked to the station in case the crew was to encounter an emergency. This view is looking into the Destiny Laboratory from Node 1 (Unity) with Node 2 (Harmony) in the background. Destiny is the primary research laboratory for U.S. payloads, supporting a wide range of experiments and studies.

Source: NASA.Gov

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

EFT-1 Update: Becoming One with the Service Module...

Engineers conduct a center of gravity test on the Orion EFT-1 spacecraft at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida...on June 8, 2014.
NASA / Glenn Benson

NASA's Orion Spacecraft Stacks Up for First Flight (Press Release)

With just six months until its first trip to space, NASA’s Orion spacecraft continues taking shape at the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Engineers began stacking the crew module on top of the completed service module Monday, the first step in moving the three primary Orion elements – crew module, service module and launch abort system – into the correct configuration for launch.

"Now that we're getting so close to launch, the spacecraft completion work is visible every day," said Mark Geyer, NASA's Orion Program manager. "Orion's flight test will provide us with important data that will help us test out systems and further refine the design so we can safely send humans far into the solar system to uncover new scientific discoveries on future missions."

With the crew module now in place, the engineers will secure it and make the necessary power connections between to the service module over the course of the week. Once the bolts and fluid connector between the modules are in place, the stacked spacecraft will undergo electrical, avionic and radio frequency tests.

The modules are being put together in the Final Assembly and System Testing (FAST) Cell in the Operations and Checkout Facility at Kennedy. Here, the integrated modules will be put through their final system tests prior to rolling out of the facility for integration with the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket that will send it on its mission.

Orion is being prepared for its first launch later this year, an uncrewed flight that will take it 3,600 miles above Earth, in a 4.5 hour mission to test the systems critical for future human missions to deep space. After two orbits, Orion will reenter Earth’s atmosphere at almost 20,000 miles per hour before its parachute system deploys to slow the spacecraft for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

Orion's flight test also will provide important data for the agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and ocean recovery of Orion. Engineers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, have built an advanced adapter to connect Orion to the Delta IV Heavy rocket that will launch the spacecraft during the December test. The adapter also will be used during future SLS missions. NASA’s Ground Systems Development and Operations Program, based at Kennedy, will recover the Orion crew module with the U.S. Navy after its splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

Source: NASA.Gov

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The Orion EFT-1 spacecraft is about to be mated with its service module at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida...on June 9, 2014.
NASA / Rad Sinyak

Thursday, June 5, 2014

EFT-1 Update: Getting Prepared to Face the Wrath of Re-entry...

Orion's heat shield is now installed onto the spacecraft at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
NASA

NASA's Orion Spacecraft is Ready to Feel the Heat (Press Release)

NASA and Lockheed Martin engineers have installed the largest heat shield ever constructed on the crew module of the agency's Orion spacecraft. The work marks a major milestone on the path toward the spacecraft's first launch in December.

"It is extremely exciting to see the heat shield in place, ready to do its job," said Mark Geyer, Orion Program manager at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. "The heat shield is such a critical piece, not just for this mission, but for our plans to send humans into deep space."

The heat shield is made of a coating called Avcoat, which burns away as it heats up in a process called ablation to prevent the transfer of extreme temperatures to the crew module. The Avcoat is covered with a silver reflective tape that protects the material from the extreme cold temperatures of space.

Orion’s flight test, or Exploration Flight Test-1, will provide engineers with data about the heat shield's ability to protect Orion and its future crews from the 4,000-degree heat of reentry and an ocean splashdown following the spacecraft’s 20,000-mph reentry from space.

Data gathered during the flight will inform decisions about design improvements on the heat shield and other Orion systems, and authenticate existing computer models and new approaches to space systems design and development. This process is critical to reducing overall risks and costs of future Orion missions -- missions that will include exploring an asteroid and Mars.

Orion's flight test also will provide important data for the agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and ocean recovery of Orion. Engineers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, have built an advanced adapter to connect Orion to the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket that will launch the spacecraft during the December test. The adapter also will be used during future SLS missions. NASA’s Ground Systems Development and Operations Program, based at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, will recover the Orion crew module with the U.S. Navy after its splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

The heat shield was manufactured at Lockheed Martin's Waterton Facility near Denver. Construction was completed at Textron Defense Systems near Boston before the heat shield was shipped to the Operations and Checkout Building at Kennedy, where Orion is being assembled.

In the coming months, the Orion crew and service modules will be joined and put through functional tests before the spacecraft is transported to Kennedy’s Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility for fueling. The spacecraft then will be transferred to the Launch Abort System (LAS) Facility to be connected to the LAS before making the journey to Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 37 for pad integration and launch operations.

Source: NASA.Gov

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Paving The Way for the Future...

An artist's concept depicting the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle soaring in orbit above Mars.
NASA

NASA Statement on National Research Council Report on Human Spaceflight (Press Release)

The following is a statement from NASA regarding the National Research Council report, “Pathways to Exploration – Rationales and Approaches for a U.S. Program of Human Space Exploration” --

“NASA welcomes the release of this report. After a preliminary review, we are pleased to find the NRC’s assessment and identification of compelling themes for human exploration are consistent with the bipartisan plan agreed to by Congress and the Administration in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 and that we have been implementing ever since.

“There is a consensus that our horizon goal should be a human mission to Mars and the stepping stone and pathways thrust of the NRC report complements NASA’s ongoing approach. The key elements of that approach include the facilitation of commercial access to low-Earth orbit to sustain fundamental human health research and technology demonstrations aboard the International Space Station (ISS); the development and evolution of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft to enable human exploration missions in cis-lunar and deep space, including to an asteroid; and the development of game-changing technologies for tomorrow’s missions, all leading the way on a path to Mars.

“NASA has made significant progress on many key elements that will be needed to reach Mars, and we continue on this path in collaboration with industry and other nations. We intend to thoroughly review the report and all of its recommendations.”

Source: NASA.Gov

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An illustration depicting the Space Launch System soaring away from Launch Complex 39B at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
NASA