What’s the News: For the first time, astronomers have found molecular oxygen, which makes up about 20 percent of our air on Earth, in space. Using the large telescope aboard the Herschel Space Observatory, a team of researchers from the European Space Agency and NASA detected the simple molecule in a star-forming region of the Orion Nebula, located about 1,500 light-years from Earth. This takes astronomers one step closer to discovering where all of the oxygen in space is hiding.
The Orion capsule is dead; long live the Orion capsule. Yesterday in the New Mexico desert, NASA successfully completed a test of the resurrected craft’s launch-abort system. Rockets blasting with 500,000 pounds of thrust carried it more than a mile into the sky before releasing it for a parachute-aided descent back to the Earth.
The launch-abort system is designed to pull the astronauts and the Orion capsule away from the launch pad in the event of a problem such as fire. It is also designed to catapult them away from the rocket if an emergency occurs during the climb to orbit [The Denver Post].
Orion, however, may never need this launch-abort system. The craft was originally intended to be the crew capsule in the Constellation program, riding into space atop heavy-lift rockets and ferrying astronauts back to the moon or to Mars. Like the rest of Constellation it was left out of President Obama‘s January budget.
While NASA‘s central mission is the same as it always was–to send astronauts up, up, and away!–the details of how it will send bold explorers into the space frontier are suddenly, well, up in the air. After months of signaling displeasure with NASA’s operations, the Obama administration has ordered a 90-day review of the human space flight program. In a letter to NASA Acting Administrator Christopher Scolese, the president’s science adviser, John Holdren, wrote that “it would be only prudent” to review NASA’s human space flight program given the magnitude of its ambitions and “the significant investment of both funds and scientific capital” [Washington Post].
The crux of the matter is the Constellation program, which aims to replace the aging space shuttles with the newly designed Ares rockets and Orion crew capsule. But during the past several months, watchdog agencies have questioned whether NASA can deliver the Constellation program on time and within budget. Its estimated costs through 2015 have risen from $28 billion in 2006 to more than $40 billion today, and engineers still are wrestling with design flaws that would cause Ares I to shake violently during ascent and also possibly drift into its launch tower [Orlando Sentinel]. Back in December, Obama’s transition team reportedly asked NASA officials if military rockets used to launch satellites could be reconfigured to boost astronauts to the International Space Station and on to the moon.
The new budget proposed by President Barack Obama boosts funding for NASA and shows the new president’s commitment to exploration of the moon and our solar system’s planets. Under the proposed budget, the agency would receive $18.7 billion in 2010. Combined with $1 billion in funding provided in an economic stimulus package signed into law last week, NASA would get $2.4 billion more than it did in 2008 [New Scientist].
Like his predecessor George W. Bush, Obama wants to return people to the moon and send robots further into space [Reuters]. But while the proposed funding boost pleases many in the space community, the budget disappoints “shuttle-huggers” who hoped that Obama would keep the space shuttle flying past the 2010 retirement date set by the Bush administration. Instead, the proposal instructs NASA to stick to that deadline, although it does offer one concession.
NASA officials have long pronounced themselves ready to move on from the aging space shuttles, which could be retired as soon as 2010, but the incoming Barack Obama administration has raised new doubts about what the next step should be. Last week, news reports surfaced that Obama’s transition team was questioning NASA about alternatives to the Ares I rocket that is currently under development as the shuttle’s replacement, and now transition team members are reportedly considering using modified military rockets instead. No decision has been made and the concept raises major technical, funding and policy issues. But in recent weeks, the transition team assigned to [NASA] has been asking aerospace industry officials about the feasibility of such a dramatic shift in priorities [The Wall Street Journal].
The Ares I rocket is designed to bring the new Orion crew capsule to the International Space Station, and eventually back to the moon and on to Mars. Technical difficulties and budget problems have raised doubts about the program, but NASA officials have dismissed these issues as a normal part of the process, and have argued against a change in plans. NASA officials stressed that moving away from the current Ares rocket designs almost certainly would entail extra costs and lengthy delays in getting the shuttle replacement off the ground. With the first Ares 1 test flight tentatively scheduled for next summer, “going to completely different hardware would put a big gap” in the workforce focusing on rocket development, said Steve Cook, Ares program manager. “We would really be stepping backward” by deciding that the shuttle replacement could ride safely on an alternate rocket [The Wall Street Journal].
A new technical problem with NASA‘s next generation Ares I rocket is causing headaches for the space agency, and could leave engineers scrambling to keep the project on time and on budget. Rumors are flying that this new glitch, in addition to other technical issues that have cropped up in the past few years, may cause the agency to abandon the design altogether. A former Florida congressman and current lobbyist told state officials that NASA’s next rocket is “on the chopping block” and that a new administration may abandon the Ares I as successor to the space shuttle. The next president may look instead to use military rockets to launch NASA astronauts [Orlando Sentinel blog].
After the space shuttles retire, NASA expects to complete work on the Ares I rocket and its matching Orion crew capsule, with hopes of resuming manned flights by 2015. But the Ares I has already been criticized for lacking lift power, and then for a vibration problem that could dramatically shake up astronauts. The latest concern arises from computer models showing that the Ares I could crash into the launch tower during liftoff.
NASA celebrated its 50th anniversary yesterday, looking back on a half-century that saw the growth from an 80-person agency sending up the first communication satellites to a massive network of scientific and engineering hubs capable of sending the Voyager probes to the edge of our solar system and sending the robotic Mars Phoenix Lander to dig in the dirt on Mars.
But even as officials raised their glasses of champagne in celebration, many observers questioned NASA’s current direction and wondered whether it will have enough money to carry out its goals. “It’s a rather unfortunate time to be celebrating a 50th anniversary,” says space historian Joan Johnson-Freese of the Naval War College. “Right now, we’re at best at a plateau, if not — I hate to say this — heading downwards” [USA Today].
NASA officials are quietly considering keeping the three remaining space shuttles in service past their planned retirement in 2010. According to an internal email obtained by the Orlando Sentinel, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin asked his team to study the possibility of keeping the shuttles flying, in what is being seen as a surprising reversal. Griffin has steadfastly opposed extending the shuttle era beyond its 2010 retirement date, arguing it could kill astronauts and cripple the agency’s fledgling Constellation program, a system of new rockets and capsules meant to replace the shuttle. But geopolitics and political pressure are undermining his position [Orlando Sentinel].
Under the current official plan, NASA will not be able to send astronauts into space between the shuttles’ retirement in 2010 and the launch of the new Orion crew capsule in 2015. NASA has planned to purchase seats on the Russian Soyuz spacecrafts to send astronauts to the International Space Station during those five years, but Russia’s recent invasion of Georgia has chilled relations between Russia and the United States, and may imperil the Soyuz agreement.
News of two spectacular failures involving NASA hardware have giving the space agency a bad publicity week. First, the agency quietly released photos of a crash during a test of the parachute landing system for the Orion crew capsule, the next-generation craft that will replace the Space Shuttle. Then, this morning, NASA announced that a suborbital rocket built by the private contractor Alliant Techsystems (ATK) had to be destroyed during a failed launch. The rocket was carrying two NASA hypersonic experiments.
In the first fiasco, the mock-up of the Orion capsule crashed into the Arizona desert because of one faulty parachute. The good news: All but one of 18 parachutes inflated. The bad news: That 18th one was responsible for orienting the mock-up for a safe landing…. The space agency said it was torn and didn’t inflate properly [Scientific American]. This caused the other parachutes to inflate while the mock-up was going too fast; a NASA video shows that they inflated correctly but immediately tore away from the capsule, sending the mock-up tumbling towards the ground. In a classic understatement, NASA declared that the the result was a landing that “severely damaged the mock-up” [Wired News].
Yesterday, NASA announced its solution for the potentially dangerous vibrations that have plagued the rocket that is expected to boost NASA’s next generation spacecraft, the Orion, to the moon and maybe beyond. The Ares I rocket is part of the Constellation program that calls for a replacement for the space shuttle to be ready by 2015, and a manned mission to the moon by 2020.
The fix involves two devices that will act like giant springs, which NASA engineers say will act like the shock absorbers on a car: The high-tech absorbers should limit the violent shaking, called “thrust oscillation,” down to a level that NASA officials compared to driving over the rumble strips of a highway [Orlando Sentinel]. The first spring will sit between the first-stage solid fuel rocket booster and the second-stage liquid fuel booster. The second device will consist of a ring of 16 cylinders containing 100-pound weights around the inside of the skirt-like base of the rocket’s first stage. Sensors will move these weights so they actively cancel out the vibration [New Scientist].