Astronotes: October 17 - October 30, 2004

October 29

Ansari X Prize Award Ceremony Set for Nov. 6 in St. Louis

The $10 million ANSARI X PRIZE will be awarded to Scaled Composites, LLC, creators of SpaceShipOne, during a special ceremony and public rally on Saturday, Nov. 6. The event begins at 10 a.m., at St. Louis University High School's athletic field next to the St. Louis Science Center.

Mavericj engineer Burt Rutan, Scaled Composite's team leader, will accept the check from Peter Diamandis, the founder and chairman of the X PRIZE Foundation.

Visitors are asked to arrive by 9:30 a.m. for a rally to greet the Scaled Composites' team. The entire team, from engineers and builders to the pilots, will attend. The check presentation ceremony is scheduled to take place at 10:30 a.m. followed by a full day of activities at the Science Center.

From approximately 11 am-3:30 p.m. visitors can meet the Scaled Composites team, including Rutan and pilots Brian Binnie and Mike Melville, get their autographs, and take photos.

In addition to meeting the team members at the Science Center, visitors can participate in numerous hands-on activities related to space flight, sign a giant congratulations banner for the Scaled Composites team, see demonstrations of rocket launches, and take photos alongside an image of SpaceShipOne.

October 28

Satellites Could Change Shape to Alter Orbit

A new study shows it should be possible to build a satellite that can change its orbit by reshaping itself in flight.

Imagine a dumbbell-shaped satellite about the size of a football field, with one bulbous end closer to Earth than the other, suggests physicist Michael Longo of the University of Michigan.

The mass of the inner bulb feels more gravity than the outer one. Now pull the masses together, Longo says, and the center of mass of the dumbbell can be moved toward Earth, causing its orbit to change.

Doing this would cause the football-field-sized satellite to move 1 millimeter closer to Earth on each orbit. The satellite would not need propellant but could rely on batteries and perhaps solar energy to alter its shape and course.

Longo's study, based on basic Newtonian physics, appears in the October issue of the American Journal of Physics.

-- Staff

October 26

Security Around Kennedy Space Center Increased

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) -- A NASA official says security has been increased at Kennedy Space Center because of fears of a terrorist attack before next week's election.

Cal Burch is chief of the Protective Services Office at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration center in Cape Canaveral. He says they believe the center is a highly visible target, as other major government facilities are around the country.

Among the stronger security measures are more officers at the visitor complex and hands-on badge checks.

Burch says he can't confirm a specific threat. Burch says it's not clear how long the realignment of security forces at the center will continue.

-- Associated Press

October 25

New Soyuz M-2 to Make Maiden Flight on Oct. 29

MOSCOW (Interfax) - The new Russian medium launch vehicle Soyuz M-2  will  make  its  maiden  flight  from  Plesetsk cosmodrome on October  29,  Defense  Minister  Sergei Ivanov announced at a conference with the president on Monday.

He said this is giving Russia a chance  to  launch  military satellites with its own launch vehicles and from its own territory.

"It  will be a dual-purpose launch vehicle also permitting to place civilian and commercial payloads in orbit," Ivanov said.

He  said that under an understanding with France the launch vehicle will be used at Kourou space center.

The advanced Soyuz-2 launch vehicle is meant to replace the Soyuz family of launch vehicles and coupled with Fregat booster also Molnia-M. It is designed for taking satellites under the Federal Space Program and commercial  contracts  to  low,  medium,  high, solar synchronized, geo-transitional  and  geo-stationary  orbits,  and  also  manned  and cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS).

Soyuz-2 boasts the latest digital control system at least doubling the precision  of  its  operations.  In addition its launch will require only 20  ground  personnel - not 70 as previously - and only two instead of 40 persons to monitor its control system.

Soyuz-2 offers superior carrying capacity thanks to its advanced energy parameters. The Fregat booster can jettison it to longer missions such as flights to planets of the solar system.

Plesetsk is the main cosmodrome in Russia today from which Molnia, Soyuz, Rokot  and  Kosmos launch vehicles take off. In the future launch vehicles of the Angara family will also be using it.

-- Interfax

October 22

Neil Armstrong Hall of Engineering

Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana has broken ground on its newest engineering building, naming it after its most famous alumnus: Neil Armstrong, the first person to step onto the Moon.

The Neil Armstrong Hall of Engineering is a $47.7 million facility, part of the college's plan to increase the size of the engineering complex by 60 percent and improve existing facilities for teaching and study in such areas as materials, manufacturing, and nanoscale technology.

Armstrong earned a bachelor's degree from Purdue's School of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 1955. He was selected for astronaut training in 1962, and in 1969 commanded NASA's Apollo 11 mission, which landed the first humans on the moon.

And a bit of the moon will also come to Purdue. Martha Chafee, whose husband Roger was one of two Purdue alumni to die during a simulated test for the Apollo I mission in January 1967, is providing a moon rock to be housed in Neil Armstrong Hall.

Purdue has graduated 22 men and women who have been selected for space flight.

-- Leonard David

NASA Names New Chief Scientist, Dr. James B. Garvin

On Thursday, Administrator Sean O'Keefe appointed Dr. James B. Garvin, chief scientist for NASA's Mars and lunar exploration programs, as the new Chief Scientist for the space agency, effective immediately.

Garvin is replacing veteran astronaut John Grunsfeld, who is returning to Johnson Space Center in Houston to begin training for an astronaut assignment to a long duration mission, the specifics of which will be announced at a later date.

He will also provide expert support and counsel to NASA's Astronaut Office. Grunsfeld was appointed NASA's Chief Scientist in Sept. 2003. He has been supporting Administrator O'Keefe in Washington directing NASA's space-based science objectives and ensuring the scientific merit of agency programs.

"John's extensive background in physics and astronomy, together with his unmatched hands-on experience in conducting science operations in space, made him the ideal advisor to steer agency science decisions during his management tenure in Washington," Administrator O'Keefe said in a press statement. "His unique skills will be sorely missed here, but I know he will continue to provide his valuable input to the decision process from his Johnson Space Center vantage point as well."

Garvin, who earlier this year announced the Mars Exploration Rovers had found strong evidence liquid water once existed on the martian surface. According to a press statement, he will cotinue to work to ensure the scientific merit of NASA's programs, including those embracing exploration.

October 21

New Robotic Telescope to Respond to the GRB Call

Some, but perhaps not all, GRBs are thought to result from a massive star exploding in a distant galaxy.  The "embers," which radiate in X-rays to radio, can be as much as 1000 times brighter than the brightest known quasars, but these afterglows steadily become fainter and fainter after the initial burst - disappearing within hours to days. 

The rapid decay of light is why telescopes have gone robotic, so they can rapidly point themselves to wherever a burst originates. PAIRITEL can automatically move into position in under two minutes after receiving a GRB alert from NASA's Swift satellite, which launches on November 8 from Kennedy Space Center. Swift will give the general vicinity of a burst, but follow-up observations by PAIRITEL and other ground telescopes will help locate precisely where the explosions originate.

The hope is to find GRBs at distances of 12 billion light years or more, when the universe was less than a billion years old.  These primordial explosions could tell astronomers a lot about the first stars that formed.  PAIRITEL's infrared sensitivity is especially suited for this search, since visible light from these distant GRBs is scattered by intergalactic gas along the way.

Once Swift is operational, Bloom and others will sit back and wait for the good stuff to come in.

"My ultimate vision is to have astronomy robots talking to robots with no human intervention," said Joshua Bloom of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and UC Berkeley. "As it is, PAIRITEL only e-mails us when it's found a particularly interesting source, or when something goes wrong and it needs help!"

  • X-ray Echo: Astronomers Catch Remnants of Cosmic Shout
  • New Clues to Nature's Greatest Explosions

October 20

Orionid Meteor Shower Peaks This Week

The Orionid meteor shower is active this week. This relatively minor display of shooting stars can produce between a dozen or two dozen meteors per hour during peak activity, for skywatchers with dark skies away from all light pollution.

The Orionids run from Oct. 2 through Nov. 7, but the bulk of activity is expected to occur late Wednesday, Oct. 20 and into Thursday morning. The best hours tend to be near and after midnight through daybreak, when the side of Earth you stand on is plowing head-on into the orbital track of the planet, so more meteors are scooped up into the atmosphere. [Meteor Watching Tips]

The Orionids might produce an hourly rate of anywhere between 14 and 31 meteors for viewers with dark skies, according to the International Meteor Organization. Viewers in city and suburban locations will see considerably less activity.

The meteors radiate from a point in the sky near the constellation Orion, which hangs above the eastern horizon at midnight from mid-northern latitudes and is high in the south by dawn. The streaks of light can appear anywhere in the sky, however. The tiny bits of material that create the event are left behind be previous passages of Halley's comet through the inner solar system. They vaporize upon entering the atmosphere, giving off light.

Next on tap will be the Leonid meteor shower, which might produce a slightly more active display on Nov. 17. will publish a Leonids Guide on Nov. 12. [Meteor Photo Galleries]

October 19

Progress on Large New Telescope in Arizona

Two important developments on the progress of the planned Discovery Channel Telescope in Arizona were announced Friday.

The U.S. Forest Service issued a "no significant impact" finding, allowing construction to proceed. The telescope will be the fifth largest in the continental United States and will be located near Happy Jack, Arizona, about 40 miles south-southeast of Flagstaff.

A Forest Service report said the ability to share facilities and roads with a nearby ranger station means there will be "minimum resource issues" relative to heritage resources and wildlife -- land won't be disturbed too much.

"There appears to be an overwhelming local and non-local support for this project," the report stated.

Meanwhile, the nearly 7,200-pound, 14.1-foot (4.3-meter) primary mirror was fused together at a Corning, Inc. facility, marking an early milestone in the long process of building and polishing the most important element of the large observatory.

The telescope will search for potentially threatening asteroids, among other tasks. It is expected to begin operations by 2009, officials said.

-- Staff

October 18

Returning Chinese Scientific Satellite Crushes Apartment

BEIJING (AP) -- A section of a Chinese scientific satellite that was returning from orbit crashed into an apartment building, wrecking the top floor but causing no injuries, a newspaper said Sunday.

The capsule crashed into the four-story building Friday in Penglai, a village in the southwestern province of Sichuan, the Tianfu Morning News said. It said a woman who lived there had left five minutes earlier.

The incident was a minor embarrassment for a Chinese space program that sent its first astronaut into orbit last October and has launched 20 recoverable scientific satellites.

A photo in the Tianfu Morning News showed the kettle-shaped capsule, which appeared to be about two meters (six feet) long, lying amid broken bricks, beams and roof tiles.

Another photo showed the capsule being lifted off the building as spectators crowded onto surrounding rooftops.

"The satellite landed in our home. Maybe this means we'll have good luck this year," the tenant of the wrecked apartment, Huo Jiyu, was quoted as saying.

The capsule was part of a satellite that spent 18 days in orbit, the newspaper said.

The rest of the satellite will remain in orbit, the government's Xinhua News Agency said.

-- Associated Press

Private Booster on the Pad

The privately-built SpaceX Falcon 1 is on the launch pad at the Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

Arrival of the rocket for its maiden flight is a milestone for Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) of El Segundo, California. "At this point, it looks like the first available launch window that works for both SpaceX and Vandenberg is mid-to-late January," explains SpaceX, with a number of checkouts underway pre-launch.

Still to come before the booster roars skyward is formal flight qualification program for the engines; a full vehicle hold down engine firing on the launch pad as a final verification for flight; integration of the booster's payload, the TacSat-1 spacecraft; and obtaining a range safety go-ahead for launch next year.

-- Leonard David

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