Astronotes: December 12 - December 25.html

December 24

December 23

December 22

European Moon Probe Ready for Science Duties

Europe's SMART-1 began its 12th orbit around the Moon on December 9, spiraling in ever-closer to Earth's celestial neighbor since its lunar gravitational capture mid-November.

European Space Agency (ESA) scientists plan to start "lunar commissioning" of the spacecraft in late January, said Bernard Foing Chief Scientist, ESA Science Program.

"Since capture we have been mostly thrusting or pointed the medium gain antenna to the Earth, and therefore could not operate as yet the remote sensing instruments," Foing explained. From December 29 to January 2 the plan calls for pausing SMART-1's electric propulsion engine, with scientists expecting to take some lunar views during a few orbits, he added.

Since the first start of the electric propulsion engine in the gravitational field of the Moon on November 15, the motor has been working well and has fired 20 pulses with a total "on" time of 333 hours.

-- Leonard David

December 20

Nanosat Launch Vehicle Tested

A California rocket team recently achieved a key milestone in their efforts to develop a Nanosat Launch Vehicle (NLV).

Roaring skyward on December 4 from the Reaction Research Society's Mojave, California test area, the Prospector 5 was flown - a developmental version of an NLV first stage.

"This was the latest in a series of incremental flight tests that go back to the late 1990s," said John Garvey, head of Garvey Spacecraft Corporation in Huntington Beach, California. The small aerospace R&D company is focusing on cost-effective development of advanced space technologies and launch vehicle systems.

Garvey Spacecraft Corporation and California State University/Long Beach are working together on their rocket projects under the banner of the California Launch Vehicle Initiative.

The rocketeers are dedicated to serving the nanosat niche, defined loosely as payloads with masses of up to 22 pounds (10 kilograms). Building the NLV is in direct response to emerging interest for such a dedicated, domestic launch capability by universities, small companies and other research organizations, Garvey said.

The early test of the NLV reached a modest altitude of just 5,000 feet. It is anticipated that high altitude suborbital flights could begin in one to two years. Discussions are now underway with several nanosat developers, Garvey added, about the potential for manifesting prototype versions of their own spacecraft hardware on these future flights.

-- Leonard David

December 17

New Image of Fractured Moon of Saturn

A new picture of Saturn's moon Dione from the Cassini spacecraft reveals features on the surface are not what they once seemed.

What scientists had thought were thick ice deposits are actually fractured ice cliffs created by movements in the moon's crust.

Until now, the highest resolution image of Dione was taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft.

The new image was taken Dec. 14 and released yesterday at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. A full analysis of it and other images of Dione have yet to be made.

  • Cassini Special Report

December 15

Mars Rover Eyes Foreign Object

Fresh from some six months of driving inside Endurance Crater, the Opportunity Mars rover now has a piece of foreign space hardware in its sights.

After successfully climbing out of the stadium-sized crater, engineers are now steering the robot toward a part of the spacecraft's entry hardware. The discarded gear tumbled to the surface of Mars, part of the landing equipment that protected the rover from its heated plunge through Mars' atmosphere in January.

A goal of Mars scientists is to inspect the deepest, freshly dug hole known on the red planet. Meanwhile, spacecraft engineers are itching to assess just how well the heat shield withstood its fiery fall through the Martian atmosphere. Photos sent back could be helpful in designing or testing future heat shield designs.

Wheeling itself across Meridiani Planum, Opportunity remains in excellent health with its solar power meter nearly as high now as it was at the start of its Mars mission.

-- Leonard David

December 14

Astronaut's Son Buys Lindbergh Rocket

A small bronze model rocket that was sculpted by Charles Lindbergh's grandson and was flown to space on-board the first private spacecraft, was sold on eBay December 13, to the son of a Skylab astronaut.

Richard Garriott, whose father Owen lived on-board the United States' first space station and who later flew on the sixth flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia, won Erik Lindbergh's "Retro Bronze Mini Rocket" for a winning bid of $15,450. The "Retro Rocket" was one of six flown to space aboard SpaceShipOne on its $10 million X PRIZE winning flight on October 4, 2004.

"This fine piece of art, combined with the story of the X Prize, Erik's family history and most especially the [SS1] flight, made this a must have for me!" wrote Garriott in a e-mail to

"I am extremely pleased at the 'Meteoric' interest in the Retro Mini Rocket auction on eBay," said Erik Lindbergh of his sculpture's sale. "In a time of reduced donations to the [Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh] foundation, it is especially heartening to see such an incredible fundraising success with this auction," said Lindbergh, who serves as Vice Chairman of the Foundation.

Further information about this auction and other space memorabilia sales can be read on

December 13

China Prepares Second Piloted Space Trek

Work is underway for China 's second human space voyage. The flight hardware for the Shenzhou 6 trek is under testing and qualification.

According to Xinhua, a Chinese news agency, the flight is being prepped for liftoff in September of next year. Citing an official statement from the China Aerospace Science and Technology group, the online news outlet said that Shenzhou 6 is expected to orbit the Earth for five days with a crew of two onboard.

New lighter and removable spacesuits are to be utilized on the upcoming flight by the crew, with the duo able to dive into 50 different kinds of space food and make use of an onboard space toilet.

Next year's flight would build on the 21-hour Shenzhou 5 mission of China's pioneering Taikonaut, Yang Liwei, in October 2003.

-- Leonard David

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