Ever wondered how the Tiangong-1 module of China’s in-progress space station measures up to, say, the International Space Station? Over at the astronomy blog Supernova Condensate, molecular astrophysicist Invader Xan has created an infographic comparing the sizes of various spacefaring vessels. It’s fun to see how different ships stack up next to each other, like the British spaceplane Skylon versus the U.S.’s recently retired spaceplane (i.e., the Space Shuttle). And Invader Xan also made a bonus image to demonstrate how our past may compare to the future, where no man has gone before.
[via Boing Boing]
Today, weather permitting, the last space shuttle will launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Watch the launch live here at NASA TV.
For live tweets, follow @NASAKennedy and the journalists on the ground: Alan Boyle (@b0yle), Dave Mosher (@DaveMosher), and Xeni Jardin (@xenijardin) are a good start, and for from-a-distance commentary, follow Phil Plait at @badastronomer.
What’s the News: With NASA’s last shuttle launch slated for July 8, the news is filled with retrospectives on the shuttle program. And a few of them make this shrewd point: even though the US has no replacement program, even though the vehicles allowed the construction of the International Space Station…good riddance.
What’s the News: Scientists have known for a while that if you put harmful bacteria into outer space, they tend to get even more harmful. Since that discovery, researchers have been itching to know if the zero gravity and radiation of space will have similar effects on beneficial bacteria. With Monday’s launch of Endeavor, scientists can finally try to answer that question: alongside the astronauts, NASA launched the first ever space-faring cephalopod, along with the bioluminescent microbe with which it has a symbiotic relationship, to see if their relationship can stand the stresses of space travel. “This is the first [study] to look at beneficial bacteria” in space, lead researcher Jamie Foster told New Scientist.
What’s the News: With Congress yet to pass a budget, the country is facing a government shutdown unless lawmakers reach an agreement by midnight tonight. In addition to shuttering many government offices, the shutdown would likely cause present serious difficulties for federal government-funded research.
Difficulties Such As…
For NASA, this was a week of launches and lack of launches. The space shuttle Discovery successfully blasted off yesterday on its final mission, but NASA’s climate-watching Glory satellite, which was scheduled to launch on Wednesday, is still stuck on the ground.
With an estimated 40,000 viewers at the Kennedy Space Center, Discovery launched at 4:53:24 p.m. ET on Thursday. Its crew of six is bound for the International Space Station, after four months of delay due to fuel tank repairs.
“Discovery now making one last reach for the stars,” the Mission Control commentator said once the shuttle cleared the launch tower. [CBS News]
Also on board is the first ever space-bound humanoid robot: Robonaut 2, or R2. This robot resembles a human from the waist up, and may eventually take on tedious chores and complete station repairs that are too dangerous for humans. At it entered space the robot tweeted (via its earthly handlers): “I’m in space! HELLO UNIVERSE!!!”
Hubble’s successor will be late, and over-budget. So concluded a NASA panel this week that investigate the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s next big thing, intended to survey the skies in infrared light with its 18-segment mirror. The word all along has been that James Webb would launch in 2014 at a cost of $5 billion, but the independent review (pdf) concluded that the earliest possible launch would be September 2015, and at a cost of more like $6.5 billion.
The report raised fear that other projects would be hurt. “This is NASA’s Hurricane Katrina,” said Alan P. Boss, who leads the subcommittee that advises NASA’s astrophysics program. The telescope, he said, “will leave nothing but devastation in the astrophysics division budget.” [The New York Times]
John R. Casani, who managed missions like Cassini and Voyager that are the picture of NASA success, led the panel. The technical side of the Webb telescope isn’t the problem, the report found–the management side is. The report faulted the management team for failing to make realistic estimates of the project’s costs and timetable, and further criticized NASA headquarters for not calling the managers on their impractical assessments.
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When the space shuttle Discovery launches on Thursday (weather and technology permitting), it will be ferrying an unusual passenger to the International Space Station: Robonaut 2. This humanoid robot was designed by NASA and General Motors to work alongside astronauts on the space station, and could eventually take over some tedious or dangerous tasks.
Human beings who dream of becoming astronauts acquire things like advanced science degrees or the ability to fly jet planes in hopes of catching NASA’s eye and being chosen as astronaut candidates. If they do become candidates, there’s still scads of training before they can take a flight up to the ISS. But how does a robot qualify for and prepare for that trip to orbit? DISCOVER spoke with Marty Linn, General Motor’s principal engineer of robotics, to find out.
Physical Fitness: Human astronauts have to pass the NASA long-duration space flight physical to prove that they’re healthy, fit, and strong enough for astronaut duties. Robonaut 2 has to be pretty strong, too: Here on Earth, he proved that he can do arm curls with 20-pound free weights. “The limitation is grasp strength,” says Linn. “The weak link is how strong the fingers are.” The robot didn’t have to spend any time on the treadmill, though, because this model doesn’t have lower limbs—it’s simply a torso with arms and a head.
Intelligence: To be honest, R2 (as its buddies call it) isn’t that bright—it can’t make independent decisions. NASA’s top priority for the experimental bot is guaranteeing that it won’t pose a threat to the astronauts or the space station, so for now R2 will be under the strict control of astronauts and ground crew. R2 “isn’t going to go berserk,” Linn stresses, but it’s still nice to have an off switch. He also explains that the robot’s actions can be programmed joint by joint, or it can be controlled by a tele-ops system, in which an astronaut dons the tele-ops gear and puts the robot through its paces by moving her own arms or head.
Vision: NASA has always paid careful attention to the eyesight of its astronaut candidates, and only recently decided that people who have gotten laser surgery to correct their vision can still be considered for the job. R2’s vision is top-notch. It’s equipped with high-resolution digital cameras, can detect motion and distinct objects, and has a 3D mapping tool to allow it to determine where objects are in space. It also has lower resolution cameras for tele-operation, Linn explains, which “allow the operator to see through the eyes of the robot.”
Finally, after spending much of 2010 sparring over the future direction of NASA, Congress approved the space agency’s reauthorization bill (pdf) last night. It was not a moment too soon, as the new fiscal year begins tomorrow.
Over at Bad Astronomy, Phil Plait documents the reactions of Congressional representatives, and that unsavory feeling of watching the sausage get made in Congress. Here are the basics of the bill, which President Obama is expected to sign.
The measure covers the next three years, appropriating $19 billion to NASA for 2011 and slightly more over the next two years, adding up to about $58 billion through 2013.
Along with the reauthorization bill, the House also passed a continuing resolution to grant NASA the money to get moving. But Congress doesn’t reconvene from its current break until after the November elections, and that’s when they’ll have to pass appropriations to actually get NASA this money.
The program is still going away, and sooner rather than later. The Congressional compromise tacked on one additional shuttle flight to the last two that currently remain. But after that, it’s curtains.
With the end of that program, scores of jobs at NASA and its contractors will be lost. In fact, on Oct. 1 nearly 1,400 shuttle workers will be laid off at NASA contractor United Space Alliance – a joint venture by Boeing and Lockheed Martin. [Space.com]
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NASA this week made what may be one of the last decisions it will ever make about the space shuttle program, selecting a backup crew in case it needs to make a rescue mission for the last scheduled shuttle flight in February. While the space shuttle’s close draws nearer, the race to replace it gets stronger.
Now Boeing has entered the fray, unveiling the design of a spacecraft it will build for the task of taking astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The ship could be ready by 2015. Boeing joins both the companies trying to build crafts to meet NASA’s needs and those of space tourists who dream of leaving the planet.
Here’s a (non-comprehensive) refresher:
Boeing’s ship would be called the Crew Space Transportation-100, and would carry seven passengers. Like all the private space competing to carry NASA astronauts, Boeing is competing for NASA money. It won $18 million this February for the project, making it one of five companies to get seed money at that time.
Its venture is also a collaboration with Space Adventures, a space tourism firm. If NASA chooses to send up only four astronauts at a time, that leaves three empty seats.
If NASA chooses Boeing’s spaceship for the job, Vienna, Va.-based Space Adventures will sell the open seats when they are available. Space Adventures has organized eight trips to the space station for seven space enthusiasts on a three-person Soyuz rocket owned by the Russian government. [Los Angeles Times]
2. Sierra Nevada
DISCOVER’s September cover story followed the dreamers at Sierra Nevada who are behind the Dream Chaser space vehicle. Their design is actually taken from an experimental one called the HL-20, which NASA investigated as a possible space shuttle replacement or space station rescue vehicle before tabling the idea. The Dream Chaser relies on another piece of NASA tech to get it into orbit: the proven Atlas V rocket.
Sierra Nevada received $20 million from NASA this year to develop the reusable craft.