Astronotes: July 11 - July 24, 2004

July 23

Mystery Solved: The Case of the Missing Apollo 15 Panels

Thirty-three years ago today, Apollo 15's Command Module Endeavour launched with three astronauts at its controls. The vehicle and its interior panels would orbit the Moon 74 times and then return to Earth.

Today, the spacecraft rests solemnly under floodlights, the centerpiece of the Space Flight Gallery at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. But unlike any other flown Apollo spacecraft on display in museums, Apollo 15's side hatch is closed. It's interior can only be glimpsed through the small portals of the five spacecraft windows, and then only from a distance.

The restricted interior view isn't meant to frustrate curious museum visitors. It's just that there really isn't much to see inside this Command Module. A significant part of the interior, including the main control panels, is missing.

The mystery as to where Apollo 15's control panels had disappeared has eluded even those in the museum community for years. John Fongheiser, President of the exhibit manufacturing and consulting company Historic Space Systems, searched through NASA's archives to discover the panels' fate.

So where had they gone? The short answer is that Apollo 15 control panels are... well, they're in Apollo 16! But to reach that conclusion, Fongheiser followed a history that crossed paths with the Soviet Union and NASA budgets and even the Space Shuttle.

The complete history, with NASA paperwork citations, can be read on

July 23

Tour de France: The Race from Space

A new satellite positioning system tracked riders in the Tour de France as they struggled up the most difficult climb of the 20-stage race.

Operational as of this summer, the European geostationary navigation overlay service (EGNOS) recorded the real-time positions of 10 riders on Wednesday during stage 16, a 15-kilometer Alpine ascent from Bourg d'Oisans to L'Alpe d'Huez. The bikers were fitted with receivers that continuously calculated their location and speed using signals from satellites.

The technology is still in the experimental phase, but it may help team directors in future Tours keep tabs on their riders, as well as the competition.  Fans, too, may follow the action on interactive websites with virtual maps of the French countryside showing where their favorite rider is with respect to the pack, or the peloton, as the French say.

Developed by the European Space Agency, EGNOS augments the US GPS and Russian GLONASS military navigation systems with three geostationary satellites, as well as ground stations.  The new network does not stand-alone but instead corrects the data provided by GPS and GLONASS to improve positional accuracy down to about a meter.

EGNOS is the Europeans' first crack at satellite navigation, as well as their contribution to the global navigation satellite system (GNSS).  Besides tracking the likes of Lance Armstrong, EGNOS will help sailors and pilots, who can benefit from the higher precision. On the horizon, the European Space Agency and the European commission are funding a fully civil navigation system, called Galileo, which is scheduled for 2009.

-- Michael Schirber

Chandra X-ray Observatory Turns Five

NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory launched five years ago. The observatory has unlocked many secrets of the cosmos by providing a powerful new tool to explore high-energy radiation coming from black holes, neutron stars, hot gas and other relatively unexplored objects and phenomena.

The orbiting telescope was launched and deployed by the Space Shuttle Columbia on July 23, 1999.

The observatory has provided a bounty of data and imagery, and last year NASA awarded a five-year mission and contract extension for the operation and science outreach having to do with Chandra. The telescope is operated by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.

Last year, published 10 of the best images from Chandra's first four years.

-- Staff

July 22

Private Falcon Rocket Heads for California Liftoff

The privately-built Falcon 1 booster is moving toward its maiden flight in a few months.

Built by Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) of El Segundo, California, the rocket is to depart Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Later flights include liftoffs from the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean.

Internet entrepreneur, Elon Musk, is heading the company and backing the venture.

The word from SpaceX about Falcon 1's premier comes from a newly issued company newsletter: "Our current schedule calls for transferring the rocket to the pad in September, performing a short duration vehicle hold down firing and launching as soon thereafter as possible, without compromising safety or reliability. We will not launch until all engineers are two thumbs up, so that date may get pushed back."

After many delays and a few setbacks, the Falcon 1's main engine, the Merlin, along with associated hardware and flight tanks, have been put through the rigors of roaring to life.

The Merlin motor will also be used in a cluster configuration for the firm's more powerful Falcon 5 booster. First firing of five integrated engines on flight tanks for Falcon V is scheduled for early 2005.

Falcon 5 is slated for a maiden voyage at the end of 2005. Set to fly on that rocket is a prototype of a space inflatable module designed by space entrepreneur, Robert Bigelow.

-- Leonard David

July 21

Airbags for Astronaut Landings Tested

If they are just right for robot landings on Mars...then they are good to go for Earth-landing astronauts.

Forget winging your way home from space. Space travelers returning in the future may have their touchdown on terra firma cushioned by airbags.

Lockheed Martin performed a series of drop tests last month at the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground in Yuma, Arizona. The tests validate soft landing technology that can be used for astronaut crew capsules upon return to Earth. The technology makes use of an array of dual airbags that, upon ground impact, releases air from the outer bags of the system, allowing the capsule to settle softly to the ground on its inner airbags.

The drop tests were conducted under Lockheed Martin funding to demonstrate technology and risk reduction for space exploration. The airbag system was provided by Irvin Aerospace of Anaheim, California. Instrumentation indicated that the short-duration deceleration forces would be very benign for both spacecraft and crewmembers.

The 11,500 pound (5,216 kilogram) test capsule - a "mass simulator" -- was designed using the mass and center of gravity properties of astronaut crew capsules that are being considered for a future Crew Exploration Vehicle.

"Unlike the Apollo program that limited the capsules to water landings, the technology that we are testing today could allow a future crew exploration vehicle to safely return the crew to land, providing more flexibility in landing the crew and making it more affordable, as well," said Michael Coats, vice president and deputy of Space Exploration at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver, Colorado.

-- Leonard David

July 20

Apollo 11 Mission Would Have Dominated Cyberspace

If only today's Internet existed in 1969.

Then most web surfers could have watched NASA put men on the moon from the comfort of their own desktop, which apparently most people would have done given the chance.

According to a survey of 1,200 Internet users, NASA's first landing of humans on the moon was the number one historical event that online folks wished they could have followed live in cyberspace.

About 65 percent of those polled said they would like to have tracked the Apollo 11 mission, which put astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon on July 20, 1969, via the Internet if it were possible.

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy was second with 54 percent of interest and the bombing of Pearl Harbor, with 52 percent interest, was third. The Vietnam war and the Cuban Missile Crisis rounded out the top five.

The poll, part the EarthLink Internet Lifestyles Survey to study consumer's Internet habits and attitudes, was conducted by Harris during EarthLink's 10-year anniversary.

-- Tariq Malik

July 19

First Single Star Beyond Sun is Weighed

Astronomers have for the first time measured the mass of a single star other than our Sun. The dim red star is about one-tenth as massive.

The masses of stars in binary systems have been determined by the gravitational effect each has on the other. But lone stars have until now eluded being weighed. The new observations were made with the Hubble Space Telescope and the Mount Stromlo Observatory in Australia and involved a natural trick of alignment.

A star in our galaxy slowly passed directly in front of a more distant star that's located in a nearby galaxy called the Large Magellanic Cloud. The foreground star magnified the light of the background star by an effect called gravitational microlensing. Researchers watched the pair for a decade as the nearer one crossed the more distant one.

Each stars' distance from Earth was calculated (1,800 and 170,000 light-years). This along with knowledge of the brightening effect allowed the astronomers to figure the mass of the foreground star.

The mass estimate matched what astronomers expected based on the star's color and brightness. Future telescopes could make similar observations more routinely.

"It's possible that by getting these kinds of measurements, we will be able to test our theories of stellar structure," said Andrew Gould, professor of astronomy at Ohio State.

-- Robert Roy Britt

July 16

Exploration Vision Focuses on Partnerships

NASA has revved up to warp speed its call for talen t and technology to help shape a Moon, Mars and beyond national vision.

The space agency's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate is holding a pre-pr oposal conference on July 29 in Washington, D.C. for the "Human and Robotic Te chnology (H&RT) Systems-of- Systems Broad Agency Announcement (BAA)". That's p art bureaucracy, part technospeak for "get ready to do business" with NASA.

To keep an eye on how things are shaping up, take a look at:

NASA centers around the country are showcasing in-house expertise as they focus on making a new space vision real.

For example, the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California is hosting an Exploration Systems Technology Partnerships Forum. The forum is set for July 22-23 with Ames highlighting many of its capabilities and technologies.

There's a long list of NASA human and robotic technology needs. Ames technologists see those needs as including:

  • Entry Systems Technology and Thermal Protection Systems
  • Integrated Systems Health Management
  • Autonomy and Robotics
  • Human-system interactions and collaboration technologies
  • High-end computing
  • Nanotechnology
  • Use of on-the-spot resources to "live off the land"
  • Analog mission campaigns
  • Advanced life support and bioastronautics
  • Habitat development and design

July 15

Moon is Magnet for Private Sector Push

Hotels on the Moon, traffic lane congestion from Earth to our cratered neighbor, even the need for a lunar lighthouse.

This month marks the 35th anniversary of Apollo 11's "one small step" for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin onto the surface of the Moon. But if entrepreneurs have their way, there's going to be a lot of lunar dust kicked up throughout the 21st century.

The largest public lunar settlement symposium is being held since President George W. Bush put the Moon back on NASA's agenda earlier this year. Lead sponsor of The Return to the Moon meeting is The Space Frontier Foundation with experts from around the world meeting July 16-18 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

This movement is the most important change in space policy since President John F. Kennedy started the Apollo program, said Rick Tumlinson, conference co-chairman.

But there are caveats amongst the craters on the Moon.

"If it can be implemented without much new spending, avoid becoming a political football, and if NASA can be changed enough to do it right, we will see the first human settlement on the Moon in our lifetime," Tumlinson predicted.

-- Leonard David

July 14

ISS Astronauts, Cosmonauts Have Separate Water Supplies

PARIS -- The U.S. and Russian astronauts living on the international space station breathe the same air but do not drink the same water, according to a study performed by an Italian company involved in Europe's role in ferrying supplies to the orbital complex in the future.

Alenia Spazio of Rome is one of the companies building Europe's Automated Transfer Vehicle cargo tug, which starting in late 2005 is scheduled to bring fuel, food and other supplies -- including water - to the space station at regular intervals.

Paolo Piantella, an Alenia Spazio senior advisor, said Alenia asked a water-distribution company to analyze the water-quality specifications of the Russian Space Agency and compare them to NASA's requirements. Russians and Americans share station resources but each have their own, individual segments.

Piantella said Alenia had assumed the water requirements would be just about identical. It turned out otherwise.

"Depending on whether you are on the Russian part of the station or the U.S. side, astronauts drink different water," Piantella said July 13 during the signing ceremony in Bremen, Germany, for the delivery of six Automated Transfer Vehicles to the European Space Agency. "The U.S. water is almost completely de-mineralized. The Russians prefer certain minerals in the water, so it's tastier."

July 13

Two Stars Fail Together

A brown dwarf is a type of failed star that is not quite massive enough to trigger the thermonuclear fusion that powers our Sun. Or, it might be considered an oversized planet that glows dimly, depending on your definitions for stars and planets. Scientists struggle with this.

Most brown dwarfs have been found either alone or orbiting a normal star. But some have been spotted in tightly bound pairs, orbiting each other at less than half the distance between Pluto and the Sun.

Now a pair of brown dwarfs -- 25 and 50 times the mass of Jupiter and 540 light-years away -- has been found in a very loose orbit, separated by six times the Pluto-Sun distance and otherwise alone together in space. That provides a clue to how they formed.

One idea for brown dwarf development is that they're birthed in a chaotic and crowded region of intense star formation, then gravitationally booted out to lonelier locales before they have the chance to grab enough gas to grow to full girth. That may still be true for some. But had the newfound duo been born in such a manner, it's unlikely it would have maintained the tenuous tether. Any small perturbation by another star would have stripped them into loners. Their brightness suggests they were born just a million years ago or so.

"It is likely that these baby brown dwarfs formed ... in a relatively gentle and undisturbed manner," said lead researcher Kevin L. Luhman of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The finding will be detailed in the Astrophysical Journal.

"Luhman's discovery strengthens the case for the formation mechanism of brown dwarfs being similar to that of stars like the Sun, and hence for brown dwarfs being worthy of being termed 'stars,' even if they are too low in mass to be able to undergo sustained nuclear fusion," said Alan Boss, a planet-formation theorist a the Carnegie Institution.

-- Robert Roy Britt

July 12

Ariane 5 to Boost Mega Payload

A Telesat Anik F2 payload sits atop an Ariane 5 booster and is billed as the largest commercial telecommunications payload ever launched.

The satellite is slated for a July 12 spaceport sendoff from Kourou, French Guiana. The high-power satellite was built by Boeing and is intended to deliver North America's first commercial satellite-based broadband communications service.

Tipping the scales at 6 metric tons (5,950 kilograms), Telesat Canada's Anik F2 is headed for geostationary orbit. Once on the job, the spacecraft is designed to provide two-way, high-speed Internet access to businesses and consumers from the southern continental United States to the northern reaches of Alaska and Canada.

Anik F2 will also open the door to new government broadband services for such applications as tele-learning, tele-health, and e-services.

Telesat's Anik F2 uses the new Boeing 702 platform built by Boeing Satellites Systems, Inc. (BSS) in El Segundo, California.

Telesat is among the world's longest-standing commercial satellite operators. A wholly owned subsidiary of BCE Inc., Telesat is a leading telecommunications company with shares listed in the United States, Canada and Europe.

For Arianespace, the French rocket-for-hire company, this marks the sixteenth commercial mission of the Ariane 5 launcher.

-- Leonard David

Missed something from last week? Astronotes Archive

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: Staff
News and editorial team is the premier source of space exploration, innovation and astronomy news, chronicling (and celebrating) humanity's ongoing expansion across the final frontier. Originally founded in 1999, is, and always has been, the passion of writers and editors who are space fans and also trained journalists. Our current news team consists of Editor-in-Chief Tariq Malik; Editor Hanneke Weitering, Senior Space Writer Mike Wall; Senior Writer Meghan Bartels; Senior Writer Chelsea Gohd, Senior Writer Tereza Pultarova and Staff Writer Alexander Cox, focusing on e-commerce. Senior Producer Steve Spaleta oversees our space videos, with Diana Whitcroft as our Social Media Editor.