Astronotes: November 28 - December 11, 2004

December 10

Flocking Together: Firefighting Robot Planes

Experts from NASA, the U.S. Department of Energy's Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL), and the U.S. Forest Service are testing ground-controlled aerial vehicles as part of a NASA-sponsored program to evaluate potential firefighting support from flocks of small, robotic planes.

Large forest fires are typically mapped using crewed aircraft, outfitted with thermal sensors that fly at night over hot spots and fire perimeters. Data from the plane's sensors are transmitted to staff at fire management operations centers - critical information to make decisions on when and where to send in firefighters and fire-taming gear.

NASA teams from the Ames Research Center and Dryden Flight Research Center are now studying whether it makes sense to use flocks of small, inexpensive Unmanned Aerial Vehicles -- known as UAVs. These winged platforms can tote through the sky a variety of sensors for such routine surveillance.

Engineers are investigating how best to coordinate and control numbers of UAVs, making them work in concert like a flock of birds or a school of fish. The evaluations are being done in the Idaho desert, using an array of the unique robot vehicles.

The hope is to appraise technologies that are reliable, user-friendly, and either improve the speed and safety, or decrease the cost of firefighting. Research, time and many more flights will tell whether UAVs can meet those needs and begin routinely taking to the air over the nation's forests.

-- Leonard David

December 9

Japan to Resume Space Rocket Launches

TOKYO (AP) -- A government panel Wednesday approved plans to send a weather satellite into Earth's orbit by February 2005, in the first scheduled launch for Japan's troubled space program since late last year, an official said.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, has suspended several missions since an H-2A rocket carrying two Japanese spy satellites was destroyed by mission controllers after it veered off course in November 2003.

The H-2A was meant to be a cheaper and more reliable replacement for its predecessor, and a key to Tokyo's hopes for advancing a commercial launch business. But critics say the agency has had to cut corners to stay within budget, compromising quality.

The government's space activities commission endorsed JAXA's plan to launch a multipurpose satellite aboard a redesigned H-2A rocket in January or February, an agency spokesman said on condition of anonymity.

The satellite, which will track weather patterns and relay air traffic communications in the Asia-Pacific region, will replace the Himawari 5, a weather observation craft that was launched in 1995 and no longer works properly, the spokesman said.

Since May 2003, Tokyo has relied on weather images from the U.S. satellite GOES-9, he said.

Japan in 1970 became the fourth country to put a satellite into orbit.

-- Associated Press

December 8

Nanosats Onboard Delta 4-Heavy Booster

Two "nanosatellites" are sitting atop that Delta 4-Heavy rocket - the maiden flight of the huge booster that's set for liftoff on December 10.

The nanosatellites weigh about 60 pounds and are the size of a large microwave oven. They are the high-tech offspring of students and faculty members at New Mexico State University (NMSU), the University of Colorado at Boulder and Arizona State University.

The main scientific project for the satellites will be to use digital cameras to capture stereo images of cloud formations that can later be converted into 3-D images.

Another goal of the project is to test how well commercial-grade components work in space. Most of the parts used for the nanosatellites, including the digital cameras, were ordered from catalogs and have not been space-proven, said Stephen Horan, a professor of electrical engineering at NMSU who directed the university's participation in the project.

The nanosatellites were built as part of the University Nanosat Program, a competition sponsored by the Air Force Office of Sponsored Research, the Defense Advanced Projects Agency and NASA.

-- Leonard David

December 7

Martian HiRISE Camera Gets into Focus

Here's the lowdown on HiRISE - a super snooper of a camera destined to fly on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) slated for liftoff next year.

The powerful High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE, will be able to spot objects on Mars as small as two feet in diameter. For instance, those adventurous red planet robots - Spirit and Opportunity - can be seen, no problem!

HiRISE is billed as the most powerful telescopic camera ever sent to orbit another planet. More data about Mars gullies, as well as helping scientists pinpoint landing spots for future spacecraft will be part of the camera's duties.

Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colorado designed, built and tested the camera, under contract with the University of Arizona. This week HiRISE was sent over to MRO's builder, Lockheed Martin Space Systems in neighboring Denver, for installation on the spacecraft.

The Mars probe is being readied for launch in August 2005.

The six instruments aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will return up to 40 times more data to Earth than any previous Mars mission.

-- Leonard David

December 6

Want to Reach Space?  Whip Out Your Charge Card

December 3

NASA-China Face to Face

NASA chief, Sean O'Keefe, met December 2 with China National Space Administration (CNSA) chief Sun Laiyan and his delegation. The meeting was held at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. and has been characterized as a courtesy meeting between the two spacepowers.

Last month, Chinese space officials took part in a NASA-sponsored gathering of spacefaring nations to discuss future Moon, Mars and beyond space exploration objectives.

According to China's Xinhua news service, Sun said the two sides explored possibilities in cooperation focusing on how to use space, geoscience and space science, and agreed to establish a regular exchange mechanism to promote bilateral contact and understanding.

China is planning to launch its second piloted Shenzhou spaceship next year -- the third nation in the world to have an independent capability of lofting humans into Earth orbit.

-- Leonard David

December 2

Fire breaks out at Vehicle Assembly Building

CAPE CANAVERAL -- A fire erupted this afternoon inside the Kennedy Space Center's Vehicle Assembly Building, where the first of two solid rocket boosters are being assembled for the return to flight of the space shuttles next year.

A small cloud of black smoke billowed out of the north side of the building about 1 p.m. today, forcing all personnel to be evacuated from 52-story building.

NASA officials could not say how many people were evacuated. No one was injured and no space flight hardware was damaged.

One of the two solid rocket boosters that will help power Discovery on its first-post Columbia flight is being installed on its mobile launch platform inside the massive building. NASA officials said none of the shuttle components were damaged by the small fire.

KSC fire and rescue teams quickly responded to the scene. The fire was extinguished shortly after it started.

The cause is under investigation. More information is expected from Kennedy Space Center officials later today.

-- Todd Halvorson Staff report/FLORIDA TODAY
Published under license from FLORIDA TODAY. Copyright © 2004 FLORIDA TODAY. No portion of this material may be reproduced in any way without the written consent of FLORIDA TODAY.

Canada's da Vinci Project Gets Closer to Launch

A private suborbital assault on space has taken a step forward by completing and qualifying for flight what the group tags as the world's largest reusable helium balloon.

The Golden Space Program powered by the da Vinci Project in Canada announced this week that the huge balloon is ready to support piloted flights to the edge of space.

The balloon will carry the project's Wild Fire MK VI piloted spacecraft to its launch altitude of 70,000 feet (21,340 meters). From there, the spaceship will part company from the balloon and rocket skyward.

"It's like everything else in this project" said team leader, Brian Feeney, "we've overcome barrier after barrier driving toward our goal of private manned space flight".

Feeney also reported in a press statement: "We're definitely moving toward a first flight as early as feasible in 2005".

The project's goal is to place the first Canadian piloted spacecraft into space and only the second private team to do so. If successful, the da Vinci Project will blaze a trail into suborbital space similar to that accomplished earlier this year by SpaceShipOne, the private rocket plane developed by Scaled Composites of Mojave, California.

-- Leonard David

December 1

North Dakota Consortium Wins NASA Research Job

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) -- NASA has awarded control of its DC-8 research aircraft to the Upper Midwest Space Consortium at the University of North Dakota, a move officials say will create new jobs at the university and give it added national prestige.

The plane will be stationed at Grand Forks Air Force Base during a five-year partnership, starting in March, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said Tuesday.

"UND now has the opportunity to be part of scientific research on the global scale," he said, adding that it likely will mean at least a dozen new jobs as well as opportunities for UND students and researchers.

George Seielstad, UND's associate dean of aerospace science, said several new NASA-funded positions will be created at the university, ranging from a project director to a software engineer and a mechanic.

He said the plane also will benefit the area economy. During missions, which will number three or four a year, "there will be as many as 100 scientists in Grand Forks working on their instrumentation," Seielstad said.

-- Associated Press

November 30

Progress Supply Ship to ISS Launch Date Pushed Back

MOSCOW (Interfax) -- The ship due to re-supply the international  space  station  will take off from Baikonur cosmodrome on December  24,  one  day later than planned, Interfax was told at Energia rocket and space corporation.

Initially the supply ship, named Progress, was supposed to take off with more  fuel and cargo to ISS on December 23, but the schedule had to be changed  after  officers failed again to increase the space station's orbit on November 17.

A commission  set  up to look into the causes has not yet announced the reasons  for  the  failure  to raise the station to an altitude most suited for docking with the supply vessel.

Earlier,  mission  control told Interfax that no further adjustment of the station's altitude is expected before December 24.

"The  Progress flight, its approach to ISS and docking are supposed to follow  the standard procedure lasting two days. Thus Progress should dock with  ISS  on  December  26," a source said. Any other takeoff date would require a three-day flight procedure.

Progress  M51  should deliver to ISS almost three tonnes of various cargo, including fuel, oxygen, water and food. The Expedition 10 crew of Salizhan  Sharipov  (Russia)  and Leroy Chiao (USA) are presently aboard the ISS.

-- Interfax

November 29

CanSat Motivates Can-do Spirit

The first national CanSat Competition is set for next year. Teams of innovative undergraduate and graduate college students are expected to build and fly their own home-grown "satellite" that fits into a 12-ounce soda can.

Each student payload would be launched on a rocket to an altitude of one-mile. During the flight, telemetry data is to be collected.

A CanSat team would write a mission proposal, design and build one satellite, travel to the launch site, and supervise preparations and launch their payload.

The CanSat concept intends to motivate and engage future space scientists and engineers by providing a hands-on, not paper-only, activity.

Although a CanSat only simulates low Earth orbit, when it comes to experience, it's the real thing, notes Ivan Galysh of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., one of the sponsors of the competition.

The college sponsoring the first-place team gets $2,500 and a plaque. The CanSat competition is to be held in Plaster City, California next June. But application and proposals for a CanSat design are due November 30 this year.

For more information:

-- Leonard David

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