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Friday, March 31, 2017

Photo of the Day: Mega-Rockets at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida...

Just thought I'd end this month by posting this awesome composite image that I found online showing NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) and SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket poised for flight at their respective launch sites at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Seeing a Falcon Heavy at Launch Complex 39A won't be a reality till sometime this summer, while the SLS won't be ready to soar on its maiden voyage from Launch Complex 39B till 2019. But the day will hopefully come when these two vehicles, which represent America's best chance at finally sending astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit and to other worlds for the first time in almost 50 years, stand side-by-side (so to speak) at Cape Canaveral...

Let's share the optimism.

A composite image showing SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket (foreground) and NASA's Space Launch System atop their respective pads at Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39.
NASA / SpaceX / Nathan Koga

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Orion Update: NASA Is Developing Technology That Will Revolutionize Deep-Space Communications With The Capsule...

An artist's concept of NASA's Orion spacecraft flying above the Moon.
NASA

NASA Laser Communications to Provide Orion Faster Connections (News Release)

NASA is working to forever change the way astronauts communicate to and from space using an advanced laser communications system called LEMNOS, which will enable exponentially faster connections than ever before.

Imagine being able to watch 4K ultra-high-definition (UHD) video as humans take their first steps on another planet. Or imagine astronauts picking up a cell phone and video-conferencing their family and friends from 34 million miles away, just the same as they might on Earth. LEMNOS, Laser-Enhanced Mission and Navigation Operational Services, may make these capabilities and more a reality in the near future. The project was named for the island, Lemnos, where the mythical hero Orion regained his sight, according to Greek lore. Similarly, LEMNOS will provide sight for NASA’s next-generation Orion spacecraft.

“Laser communications will revolutionize data return from destinations beyond low-Earth orbit, enhance outreach opportunities from outer space and improve astronauts’ quality of life on long space missions,” said Don Cornwell, director of the Advanced Communication and Navigation division at the Space Communications and Navigation program office at NASA Headquarters. “As we strive to put humans on Mars for the first time, it’s imperative that we develop a communications system to support these activities at the highest level possible.”

Laser communications, also known as optical communications, is the latest space communications technology, able to provide data rates as much as a hundred times higher than current systems. This means, for example, that astronauts could send and receive ultra-high-definition video from the surface of Mars. No mission to Mars has yet had that capability. Something that basic could have wide-reaching applications, allowing the American public to “ride along” as our astronauts explore deep space while also enabling scientific discoveries with much higher resolution images and data.

The Exploration and Space Communications (ESC) projects division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, has been tapped to build LEMNOS in collaboration with the MIT Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, Massachusetts. They worked with other NASA centers to determine specific needs the system can fulfill.

“As we started thinking about the possibility of laser communications on Orion, I spoke with the flight controllers at Johnson Space Center who are developing the communications plan for Orion’s deep space missions. They were talking about enabling communications capabilities that we take for granted, but that are so foreign in space, from streaming scientific data and video in real time, to allowing astronauts to watch the Super Bowl or keep up with an election,” said Mark Brumfield, deputy program manager of implementation for ESC. “Being able to connect with society could have great impacts to astronauts’ mental health during the mission. Right now, they wouldn’t be able to make those connections in a meaningful way, but optical communications will give us that capability.”

In the nearly 50 years between the Apollo program and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission, data return vastly improved, as evidenced by the difference between Apollo 8’s and LRO’s earthrise images, which were relayed to Earth via a much higher-rate system. While Apollo’s communications system supported 51 kilobytes of data per second, LEMNOS will be able to support communications at rates of at least 80 megabytes per second.

The project just got underway at Goddard, with a goal to test LEMNOS for the first time on the second flight of Orion beyond the moon. Scheduled for one week with the option to extend for a longer mission, it will be the perfect opportunity to test the laser communications system, operating it continuously for up to an hour a day.

After the initial mission, Brumfield speculates NASA could add more laser communications terminals on future Orion exploration missions. This would increase communications capability because of the line-of-sight requirement for LEMNOS. He says it would be an evolutionary change to the way NASA does space communications.

The Space Communication and Navigation program office at NASA Headquarters provides programmatic oversight to the project. The communications team at Goddard has been tapped to build and implement the system in collaboration with MIT Lincoln Laboratory.

Source: NASA.Gov
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An improvement in deep-space communications has allowed better-quality images to be relayed to Earth. 'Earthrise' as seen from Apollo 8 (top photo) in 1968 and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (bottom photo) in 2015.
NASA

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

NASA Plots Out Its Journey to the Moon, Mars and Beyond...

An artist's concept of NASA's Orion spacecraft approaching a deep space gateway orbiting the Moon.
NASA

Deep Space Gateway to Open Opportunities for Distant Destinations (News Release)

NASA is leading the next steps into deep space near the Moon, where astronauts will build and begin testing the systems needed for challenging missions to deep space destinations including Mars. The area of space near the Moon offers a true deep space environment to gain experience for human missions that push farther into the solar system, access the lunar surface for robotic missions but with the ability to return to Earth if needed in days rather than weeks or months.

The period of exploration in the vicinity of the Moon will begin with the first integrated mission of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the Orion spacecraft, and will continue as we explore further. NASA aims to begin a cadence of one flight per year after the second mission, and the agency has established an initial set of integrated human exploration objectives combining the efforts aboard the International Space Station, SLS and Orion, and other capabilities needed to support human missions to explore deep space.

Flight hardware for SLS and Orion is currently in production for the first and second missions, life support and related technologies are being tested on ISS, and habitation and propulsion development activities are also underway. NASA is working with domestic and international partners to solve the great challenges of deep space exploration. Missions in the vicinity of the Moon will span multiple phases as part of NASA’s framework to build a flexible, reusable and sustainable infrastructure that will last multiple decades and support missions of increasing complexity.

Deep Space Gateway

This first phase of exploration near the Moon will use current technologies and allow us to gain experience with extended operations farther from Earth than previously completed. These missions enable NASA to develop new techniques and apply innovative approaches to solving problems in preparation for longer-duration missions far from Earth.

In addition to demonstrating the safe operation of the integrated SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft, the agency is also looking to build a crew tended spaceport in lunar orbit within the first few missions that would serve as a gateway to deep space and the lunar surface. This deep space gateway would have a power bus, a small habitat to extend crew time, docking capability, an airlock, and serviced by logistics modules to enable research. The propulsion system on the gateway mainly uses high power electric propulsion for station keeping and the ability to transfer among a family of orbits in the lunar vicinity. The three primary elements of the gateway, the power and propulsion bus and habitat module, and a small logistics module(s), would take advantage of the cargo capacity of SLS and crewed deep space capability of Orion. An airlock can further augment the capabilities of the gateway and can fly on a subsequent exploration mission, Building the deep space gateway will allow engineers to develop new skills and test new technologies that have evolved since the assembly of the International Space Station. The gateway will be developed, serviced, and utilized in collaboration with commercial and international partners.

“I envision different partners, both international and commercial, contributing to the gateway and using it in a variety of ways with a system that can move to different orbits to enable a variety of missions,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “The gateway could move to support robotic or partner missions to the surface of the Moon, or to a high lunar orbit to support missions departing from the gateway to other destinations in the solar system.”

Deep Space Transport

The second phase of missions will confirm that the agency’s capabilities built for humans can perform long duration missions beyond the Moon. For those destinations farther into the solar system, including Mars, NASA envisions a deep space transport spacecraft. This spacecraft would be a reusable vehicle that uses electric and chemical propulsion and would be specifically designed for crewed missions to destinations such as Mars. The transport would take crew out to their destination, return them back to the gateway, where it can be serviced and sent out again. The transport would take full advantage of the large volumes and mass that can be launched by the SLS rocket, as well as advanced exploration technologies being developed now and demonstrated on the ground and aboard the International Space Station.

This second phase will culminate at the end of the 2020s with a one year crewed mission aboard the transport in the lunar vicinity to validate the readiness of the system to travel beyond the Earth-Moon system to Mars and other destinations, and build confidence that long-duration, distant human missions can be safely conducted with independence from Earth. Through the efforts to build this deep space infrastructure, this phase will enable explorers to identify and pioneer innovative solutions to technical and human challenges discovered or engineered in deep space.

To achieve the agency’s goal to extend humanity’s presence in the solar system will require the best research, technologies and capabilities from international partners and the private sector. NASA will look to partners for potential contributions of spaceflight hardware and the delivery of supplemental resources. The gateway and transport could potentially support mission after mission as a hub of activity in deep space near the Moon, representing multiple countries and agencies with partners from both government and private industry. NASA is open to new ideas of both a technical and programmatic nature suggestions as we develop, mature and implement this plan.

Source: NASA.Gov

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Another art concept of the deep space gateway orbiting the Moon.
NASA

Thursday, March 23, 2017

EM-1 Update: A New "Brain" for One of the Space Launch System's RS-25 Engines Is Tested...

An RS-25 engine is test-fired inside the A-1 test stand at NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi...on March 23, 2017.
NASA / SSC

NASA Tests New Engine Controller for First Space Launch System Flight (Press Release)

NASA marked a critical milestone March 23 with a test of the first RS-25 engine controller that will be used on the first flight of the new Space Launch System (SLS), the world’s most powerful rocket.

The new controller or “brain” has the electronics that operate the engine and communicate with the SLS vehicle. Engine Controller Unit-2 (ECU-2) was installed on RS-25 development engine No. 0528 and test fired for 500 seconds on the A-1 Test Stand at Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Once test data is certified, the engine controller will be removed and installed on one of four flight engines that will help power the first integrated flight of SLS and the Orion spacecraft.

This year, two more engine controllers for the first SLS mission will be tested on this development engine at Stennis, and then installed on flight engines. The fourth controller will be tested when NASA tests the entire core stage during a “green run” on the B-2 Test Stand at Stennis. That testing will involve installing the core stage on the stand and firing its four RS-25 flight engines simultaneously, as during a mission launch.

“This an important – and exciting – step in our return to deep space missions,” Stennis Director Rick Gilbrech said. “With every test of flight hardware, we get closer and closer to launching humans deeper into space than we ever have traveled before.”

The RS-25 engines that will help power the SLS vehicle on its first flights are former space shuttle main engines, built for NASA by Aerojet Rocketdyne. Four engines will fire simultaneously to provide 2 million pounds of thrust and operate in conjunction with a pair of solid rocket boosters to power the SLS launch.

Space shuttle main engines were tested extensively and used to power 135 missions from 1981 to 2011. For SLS, the engines have been upgraded to operate at a higher level and under different conditions, and the flight controller was one of the critical new parts of the engine to enable performance under these new conditions.

Prior to a flight, performance specifications, such as the percentage of thrust needed, are programmed into the controller. The controller then communicates the specifications and monitors engine conditions to ensure they are being met, controlling such factors as propellant mixture ratio and thrust level.

Testing for the upgraded engines and new controllers is vital to ensure they will perform as needed within the operating parameters. For instance, space shuttle main engines operated at a maximum of 104.5 percent of power level capability. For SLS flights, the RS-25 engines must fire at 109 percent of capability. The engines also will operate with colder liquid oxygen and engine compartment temperatures, higher propellant pressure and greater exhaust nozzle heating.

“The importance of this testing cannot be overemphasized,” A-1 Test Director Jeff Henderson said. “Each test has specific objectives to determine how the engine will respond. The goal is to learn as much as we can about the performance of the engine.”

RS-25 testing at Stennis is conducted by a team of NASA, Aerojet Rocketdyne and Syncom Space Services engineers and operators. Aerojet Rocketdyne is the prime contractor for RS-25 engines. Syncom Space Services is the prime contractor for Stennis facilities and operations.

Source: NASA.Gov

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 Is Signed into Law...

An artist's concept of NASA's Orion spacecraft flying above the Moon.
NASA

NASA Acting Administrator Statement on the NASA Authorization Act of 2017 (Press Release)

The following is a statement from NASA acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot on President Trump signing Tuesday the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Transition Authorization Act of 2017:

“We would like to thank President Trump for his support of the agency in signing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Transition Authorization Act of 2017.

“We also want to express our gratitude to a bipartisan Congress for its thoughtful consideration of the agency’s path forward. We are grateful for the longstanding support and trust of the American people, which enables our nation’s space, aeronautics, science, and technology development programs to thrive.

“Our workforce has proven time and again that it can meet any challenge, and the continuing support for NASA ensures our nation’s space program will remain the world’s leader in pioneering new frontiers in exploration, innovation, and scientific achievement.”

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Under the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017, the International Space Station will remain in operation till at least 2024.
NASA

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Congress Reveals the 2018 Budget Proposal for NASA...

An artist's concept showing the Space Launch System soaring through a layer of clouds following lift-off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
NASA / MSFC

NASA Acting Administrator Statement on Fiscal Year 2018 Budget Proposal (Press Release)

The following is a statement from NASA acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot on the Fiscal Year 2018 agency budget proposal:

“The President mentioned in his speech to both houses of Congress that, ‘American footprints on distant worlds are not too big a dream.’ NASA is already working toward that goal, and we look forward to exciting achievements that this budget will help us reach.

“NASA teams continue to do amazing work to develop and launch our missions and increase this nation’s technical capabilities across the board. America needs NASA more than ever, and the agency’s work every single day is vitally important.

“While more detailed budget information will be released in May, we have received a top line budget number for the agency as part of an overall government budget rollout of more than $19 billion. This is in line with our funding in recent years, and will enable us to effectively execute our core mission for the nation, even during these times of fiscal constraint.

“While the budget and appropriation process still has a long way to go, this budget enables us to continue our work with industry to enhance government capabilities, send humans deeper into space, continue our innovative aeronautics efforts and explore our universe.

“The budget supports our continued leadership in commercial space, which has demonstrated success through multiple cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station, and is on target to begin launches of astronauts from U.S. soil in the near future.

“The budget also bolsters our ongoing work to send humans deeper into space and the technologies that will require.

“As discussions about this budget proposal begin with Congress, we continue to operate under the funding provided by a Continuing Resolution that runs through April 28.

“Overall science funding is stable, although some missions in development will not go forward and others will see increases. We remain committed to studying our home planet and the universe, but are reshaping our focus within the resources available to us – a budget not far from where we have been in recent years, and which enables our wide ranging science work on many fronts.

“This budget also keeps aeronautics on stable footing allowing us to continue our forward movement in many areas, including the New Aviation Horizons initiative.

“While this budget no longer funds a formal Office of Education, NASA will continue to inspire the next generation through our missions and channel education efforts in a more focused way through the robust portfolio of our Science Mission Directorate. We will also continue to use every opportunity to support the next generation through engagement in our missions and the many ways that our work encourages the public to discover more.

“We remain committed to the next human missions to deep space, but we will not pursue the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) with this budget. This doesn’t mean, however, that the hard work of the teams already working on ARM will be lost. We will continue the solar electric propulsion efforts benefiting from those developments for future in space transportation initiatives. I have had personal involvement with this team and their progress for the past few years, and am I extremely proud of their efforts to advance this mission.

“This is a positive budget overall for NASA. I want to reiterate that we are committed to NASA’s core mission of exploration – in all the ways we carry that out.

“As with any budget, we have greater aspirations than we have means, but this blueprint provides us with considerable resources to carry out our mission, and I know we will make this nation proud.”

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NASA

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Photo of the Day: Another Successful Drop Test for Orion in Arizona...

The three main parachutes on the Orion test article successfully deploy above the U.S. Army's Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona, on March 8, 2017.
NASA

NASA's Orion Spacecraft Parachutes Tested at U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground (News Release)

Engineers successfully tested the parachutes for NASA's Orion spacecraft at the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona Wednesday, March 8. This was the second test in a series of eight that will certify Orion's parachutes for human spaceflight.

The test, which dropped an Orion engineering model from a C-17 aircraft at 25,000 feet, simulated the descent astronauts might experience if they have to abort a mission after liftoff.

Orion, which will launch atop NASA's Space Launch System rocket from the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is built to take astronauts farther into the solar system than ever before. The spacecraft will carry crew to space, provide emergency abort capabilities, sustain the crew during their mission and provide safe re-entry through Earth's atmosphere.

Source: NASA.Gov