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Goodbye old friend...

The space shuttle program ended this morning when the Atlantis lander touched down at 5:57 AM Eastern Standard Time at the Cape Canaveral spaceport. The national and international media has elegiacally noted the end of the 30 year program, most commonly with articles which sound a dirge-like note concerning the final end of the manned space program (with undertones of America’s decline as a spacefaring, scientific, and military power as well). I am glad those articles are out there because I feel that our inability to ensure adequate funding for basic blue sky research has put the nation’s economic future in jeopardy. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, national greatness has come not from abundant natural resources or a large hard-working population (although the United States has both of those things) but from innovation after innovation.  To quote Representative Frank Wolf, a member of the NASA appropriations committee,“If we cut NASA, if we cut cancer research, we’re eating our seed corn.”

We are all the turkey...

However, I am concerned that the story is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy of defeat and it shouldn’t be.  Despite its ever shrinking budget, NASA is actually doing a great deal in space right now as, to a lesser degree, are the world’s other space programs. Five days ago NASA the spacecraft Dawn went into orbit around the protoplanet Vesta, the second largest object in the asteroid belt.  Next July Dawn will power up its ion thrusters and fly to the dwarf planet Ceres, an enigmatic pseudo-planet which seems to harbor secrets of the solar system’s beginning under its oceans.  Dawn is only one of ten planetary missions currently in orbit (or, indeed onworld) across the rest of the solar system. These are MESSENGER, Venus Express, Chang’E 2, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Mars rover Opportunity, Dawn, and Cassini.  Additionally the following eight spacecraft are currently in flight: New Horizons is headed for the dwarf planet Pluto, Rosetta is currently flying to the comet Churymov-Gerasimenko, Japan’s Akatsuki and IKAROS are both in solar orbit, the spacecrafts Deep Impact and ICE, are awaiting further instructions, and finally Voyager 1 and 2 are still out there exploring the distant edge of the solar system.  I picked out the projects involving NASA in green (I have already written about the Japanese solar sail Ikaros and our Mercury mission so check out my hyperlinks).  These are just the far traveling missions–there are also dozens of near-Earth spacecraft studying the sun, the stars, deep space, and, most of all, the earth.

NASA Spacecraft Dawn firing its ion thrusters with Vesta and Ceres in the Backgound

The shuttle program is not quite as dead as it seems, the Air Force still has two small robot space shuttles and DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency which spawned all manner of world changing technology) is working on next generation spaceplanes.  A single-stage-to-orbit space plane (which takes off and lands like a normal plane) is still far off, but aerospace engineers seem confident they could build a two-stage-to-orbit crewed space plane around scramjet technology.

Artist's Concept of a Scramjet Spaceplane Entering Orbit

I’m going to miss the shuttles—the white behemoths were major features of my childhood. Back in the early eighties they seemed to hold out all sorts of promises for a glorious future in space. But childhood comes to an end and the shuttles really never lived up to expectations.  Now as we Americans sit grounded (unless we want to pay the Russians 50+ million dollars for a seat on one of their old Soyuz spacecrafts), it is time to think about what we want.  Maybe humankind will catch a break and see breakthroughs in molecular or nuclear engineering which leave us with a new range of materials and energy possibilities (despite its long quiet phase, I still have high hopes for the National Ignition Facility).  I have always harbored fantasies of a nuclear power plant on the moon with an attached rail gun for space launches.  I also like the idea of a space elevator, or a twirling toroid space habitat with false gravity.  The always deferred Mars mission is exciting too (although we have talked about it so long that some of its glitter has come off).  But I’m open to other ideas.  We all should be. We need to talk about it and then we need to decide on some ideas and fund them quickly. Seeds need to be planted to grow.

If we call it an orbital railgun, people will be upset. How about "orbital railfriend"?

When the Japanese space program successfully launched the solar sail IKAROS last year, Ferrebeekeeper noted that NASA had its own solar sail missions planned.  Last Friday, January 21st 2011, the United States Space Agency successfully deployed a 100-square-foot polymer sail in low-Earth orbit.  To quote the Satellite Spotlight website, the tiny craft, unromantically named “NanoSail-D2” was, “designed to demonstration the deployment of a compact solar sail boom system for use in deorbiting satellites and as an alternate means of propulsion to move satellites in space that doesn’t require fuel.”

Artist's Conception of NanoSail-D2--Picured Actual Size (Ha! I'm just kidding--the actual craft has a 14 foot diameter)

Although NASA’s Nano press page does not dwell on the mission’s problems, it has hardly gone off as planned.  As the name indicates, NanoSail-D2 is a tiny satellite.  Furled up in preparation for launch it was only 30 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm—about the size of a men’s size 12 shoe or a medium sour-dough loaf.  The satellite was supposed to be launched from its mother satellite, FASTSAT–a multi-experiment platform about the size of a dishwasher–on December 6th, but nothing happened.  Even though the launch door opened, the little sail remained folded up it in its launcher.   The solar sail mission was deemed a failure and NASA concentrated on the FASTSAT’s five other microsatellite experiments. Then, unexpectedly the solar sail spontaneously launched on January 19th.  It finished unfurling on the 21st and amateur ham radio enthusiasts tracked the craft’s beacon signals until its batteries wore out. You can find the satellite’s orbital path at the following link.  It should be quite visible traveling across the sky at night for another 70-120 days after which the drag of the sail will cause it to deorbit and burn up in the atmosphere.

NanoSail-D2 was the successor to the unsuccessful NanoSail-D which fell into the Pacific Ocean (along with an Air Force satellite, a pharmaceutical satellite meant to study yeast in zero gravity, and a canister of cremated human remains) on August 3rd, 2008 when the Falcon I rocket carrying these respective payloads veered off-course.  The FASTSAT (along with the NanoSail-D2 and sundry other payloads) were launched from Kodiak on a Minotaur IV—a Peacekeeper ICBM modified for commercial and research purposes.

A Minotaur IV Rocket Launched from Vandenberg on September 25, 2010

Although I applaud NASA’s ingenuity and celebrate the successful launch of an American solar sail, I note that on December 8th, as NanoSail D2 sat malfunctioning in its launch bay, the Japanese IKAROS sail completed its primary mission when it flew by Venus at a distance of about 80,800 km (50,000 miles).  Japan is now planning a series of larger and more spectacular solar sail missions which they hope will culminate with a mission to Jupiter.

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