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Friday, 29 February 2008

Columbia Debris Display at NASA Promotes Safety

A new exhibit aimed at promoting the importance of safety to NASA employees is using debris recovered from the loss of space shuttle Columbia to underscore its message.

Developed by the agency's space shuttle program office, the "Columbia Safety Exhibit" incorporates recognizable remnants of the fallen orbiter's hardware, including one of the flight deck window frames, control panels and hand controllers from the crew cockpit, heatshield tiles and one of the thrusters used to maneuver the spacecraft in orbit.

The concept of building a safety exhibit was spearheaded by outgoing shuttle program manager Wayne Hale, whose new appointment as deputy associate administrator for strategic partnerships was announced by NASA Feb. 22. Hale described the reason behind the exhibit in an e-mail sent to employees at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

"The only bulwark between an accident and a safe, successful space mission is the competence and attention of highly focused individuals. If we are to truly honor the sacrifice of these crews, we must teach that lesson to every new person that comes to work here and live each day with the utmost commitment to safety in all its details," said Hale.

"To this end, we have constructed a traveling memorial that will spend this year visiting every NASA center," he continued. "We hope this memorial will provide the thoughtful contemplation of our duty, similar to a visit to the Vietnam War memorial or Arlington," concluded Hale.

The glass-encased, self-standing safety exhibit features nine components from Columbia, including four pieces recovered from the compartment where the STS-107 crew rode. Nearby panels put each artifact into the context of position and use within the shuttle, including a controller used by Commander Rick Husband, a window that once overlooked the payload bay and a pyro initiator T-handle from the crew's access hatch.

Heatshield tiles and wing leading edge material are also displayed, as is one of the thrusters recovered from the nose of the orbiter.

The sides and back of the exhibit show photographs of the recovery and reconstruction of Columbia as a cause for the accident was sought and found, along with the inscription, "Everyone that touches a mission on every level, is responsible for what it represents and the lives that are involved." The word "Everyone" appears in several places alone, stressing the roll of all employees.

The Columbia Safety Exhibit first went on display at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, in the lobby of one of its operation support buildings. Since Feb. 26, it has been on display in the lobby of Johnson Space Center's headquarters building. It will remain in Houston for a few weeks, before continuing to 11 other NASA locations.

Additional stops planned for the exhibit include centers in Mississippi, Alabama, Ohio, Virginia, Washington, D.C., Maryland, New Mexico and California. Intended only for the space agency's employees, the display areas are not accessible by the general public.

The exhibit, which pays tribute to Columbia, the crew of STS-107, and the recovery effort following their loss, will ultimately return to Kennedy Space Center. There, the Columbia hardware will be added back to the controlled storage facility on the 16th floor of the Vehicle Assembly Building, where all 84,000 recovered parts are cataloged and preserved for posterity and research.

Space shuttle Columbia and its STS-107 flight crew of seven astronauts were lost on Feb. 1, 2003 as they returned from space after a 16-day science mission. By studying the orbiter's debris, investigators concluded that a hole in Columbia's left wing was caused by its own fuel tank's insulation falling off and striking the vehicle during launch, leading to its later break-up during reentry.

The Columbia Safety Exhibit is not the first time NASA employees have had an opportunity to see the debris. In addition to access to the reconstruction hangar during the 2003 accident investigation, at least one component from the orbiter, a flight data recorder, has been on display at the Johnson Space Center since August 2007.

NASA has loaned pieces from the debris to researchers for study but to date, the hardware has not been lent to museums, though it was reported that several submitted requests for their displays. The Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. exhibits an embroidered STS-107 mission patch that flew on-board Columbia and was found along with the shuttle's remains.


Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Spysat SmackDown: A Touch of Star Wars History

All signals are apparently go for the attempted missile smackdown of the errant U.S. spysat and its frozen cargo of nasty-to-be-near hydrazine.

During a Valentine Day Department of Defense media briefing, NASA Administrator, Mike Griffin joined Deputy National Security Advisor James Jeffrey, as well as General James Cartwright, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - all there to talk about steps to counter the failed National Reconnaissance Office spacecraft.

It turns out that the NASA chief has some history — not noted at the media briefing — in regards to head-on collisions in space.

Prior to his NASA top job, Griffin held a post at The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory where he was a Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) project engineer for the 1986 Delta 180 experiment. It was the first space intercept of a target during powered flight - codenamed Vector Sum.

That experiment involved two Delta upper stages that were intentionally collided in low Earth orbit, orbital debris expert, Donald Kessler, advised me. The planning of that event was classified at the time, but is listed in the History of On-Orbit Satellite Fragmentations, issued by the NASA Johnson Space Center in July 1998.

Kessler worked with Griffin at that time as part of a safety panel to ensure that the experiment did not cause a hazard to other spacecraft. Griffin, the entire SDIO team, along with NASA, performed a safe experiment, obtaining loads of data in the process, Kessler added.

Griffin is very much aware of what could be done in the slamming of the rogue U.S. spysat, Kessler pointed out. “The on-orbit issues are nearly identical as in 1986 and the NASA orbital debris team has since developed the capability to understand the hazard on the ground,” he added.

“So NASA did have a lot to bring to the table for the spysat case,” Kessler concluded.


Friday, 1 February 2008

Rebuild Life After Tragedy

Space Shuttle Columbia widow Evelyn Husband-Thomas is shown in this 2005 image as she stops to read the memorial plaque dedicated to the Columbia astronauts on Feb. 1, in downtown Houston. All seven astronauts died in the accident. Credit: AP Photo/Pat Sullivan.

This image of the STS-107 crew in orbit was recovered from wreckage inside an undeveloped film canister. The shirt color's indicate their mission shifts. From left (bottom row): Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist; Rick Husband, commander; Laurel Clark, mission specialist; and Ilan Ramon, payload specialist. From left (top row) are astronauts David Brown, mission specialist; William McCool, pilot; and Michael Anderson, payload commander. Ramon represents the Israeli Space Agency.

Five years after the loss of shuttle Columbia and seven astronauts, the widow of mission commander Rick Husband is striving to turn tragedy into triumph.

Evelyn Husband-Thompson remarried in early January during an emotional ceremony attended by NASA Administrator Mike Griffin and several members of the astronaut corps.

Her daughter, Laura, is 17 and a high school senior who soon will be deciding what college she'll be attending in the fall. Just like her dad, her passion is music. She is a talented singer who also plays piano.

Son Matthew, 12, is a sixth-grader and a brilliant student who wants to be an engineer, just like his dad. He wants to be an "aerospace architect" and design moon bases.

Life is relatively good, but returning to Kennedy Space Center today — the fifth anniversary of the February 2003 accident — is going to be hard.

"You know, it's not going to be a cakewalk by any stretch,"
Husband-Thompson said. "But we're going to be surrounded by people who love us and care and shared our grief, and that makes a huge difference."

Husband-Thompson and her children were at the KSC shuttle runway the day Columbia and its crew — which also included pilot Willie McCool and mission specialists Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon of Israel — were lost during an ill-fated atmospheric re-entry.

Serious wing damage that went undetected during a 16-day science mission led to the shuttle's disintegration over Texas and Louisiana 16 minutes before a planned landing at the Florida runway.

Husband-Thompson and her kids were beaming in a photo taken in front of a countdown clock at the landing strip 11 minutes and 21 seconds before the scheduled touchdown. She believed her husband, their dad, was almost home.

What followed was a devastating emotional blow. The fate of the crew became apparent and she felt a shocking, heart-pounding numbness.

"I mean, this is not something that's ever going to be gone. We are forever changed by this, and everybody has to find their own way in life on their grief journey," Husband-Thompson said.

"You know, all of us (the Columbia families) have sought to not let this define the rest of our lives but maybe refine who we are and absolutely honor our family member."

Husband-Thomas will be the keynote speaker at a memorial ceremony today at the Astronaut Memorial "Space Mirror" at the KSC Visitor Complex. Griffin will be there along with former NASA astronaut Eileen Collins and a host of other senior NASA leaders.

It won't be the first time Husband-Thompson has been back. She came to both the STS-121 launch and landing back in July 2006. The mission was commanded by Steve Lindsey, who served as the family's "casualty assistance officer" after the accident and has since become the agency's chief astronaut.

"Landing was extremely painful. I did not even get off the bus to the landing strip before I was crying very hard," she said.

"Laura and I just sat there for a long time after the shuttle landed and just had to take it all in. It just looked so easy, and I know it's not," she said.

"But it was just very hard to watch and wonder why it couldn't have gone that way with Columbia. But it didn't."

Husband-Thompson came back last October, too, to see family friend Scott Parazynski — who ushered at her wedding along with Lindsey — launch aboard shuttle Discovery.

She and the man who would soon become her spouse — Bill Thompson — sat on a bench in front of the Space Mirror memorial and she cried for about a half-hour. Thompson held her the whole time.

"It was glorious because I was anonymous," Husband-Thompson said.

"I wasn't in a ceremony. Nobody was looking at me. There were some people looking at the memorial, but they didn't know who I was," she said. "I was thankful I had the time and the place to do that � where I didn't have a whole bunch of people staring at me."

Husband-Thompson will return to the memorial today. An ordinary mom thrust into extraordinary circumstances, she'll detail her journey during the past five years — a walk through the valley of the shadow of death, one in which she feared no evil because God was with her.

"It's just a true statement about how God has walked us through such phenomenal grief and how there is triumph that can come out of tragedy," she said. "Laura, Matthew and I are all three standing and proving that."

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Orbital Traffic for Space Station

he Jules Verne Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) is prepared to be loaded with Russian propellants at its European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.

This artist's concept, featuring an older space station configuration, depicts ESA's Jules Verne Automated Transfer Vehicle arriving at the ISS.

The European Space Agency's (ESA) first Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) is set to launch toward the space station as early as Feb. 22 between a pair of U.S. shuttle missions hauling new modules to the orbital laboratory.

"We've been developing this vehicle for more than 12 years now and we're within touching distance of getting it on orbit," said Alan Thirkettle, the ESA's station program manager, in a Thursday briefing. "We're very excited."

But before the new spacecraft lifts off, astronauts aboard the space station must cast off a spent Russian cargo ship on Feb. 4, then welcome fresh one on Feb. 7 — the same day NASA's shuttle Atlantis is due to haul the ESA's Columbus lab toward the ISS.

The ATV, christened Jules Verne, has a narrow window to dock at the ISS between Atlantis' 11-day mission and the planned March flight of the shuttle Endeavour to deliver the first segment of Japan's Kibo laboratory.

"Things really start to stack up," said NASA's station program manager Mike Suffredini, adding that another Russian spacecraft and a shuttle hauling the centerpiece of Kibo are also due at the outpost in April. "In fact, we've been talking to the crews about being some sort of air traffic controllers; we're just going to have so many vehicles on or around ISS."

Suffredini said that if the ESA's Jules Verne ATV performs flawlessly during its two-week shakedown, NASA may delay Endeavour's planned March 11 launch to allow the cargo ship to dock at the ISS on March 15.

"The key to our success is going to be flexibility amongst all the spacecraft that are coming to the ISS," he added.

Jules Verne's shakedown cruise

The Jules Verne ATV is the first of five ESA cargo ships built to launch fresh supplies to the ISS as payment for European experiments, hardware and astronaut slots on future crews.

"Five flights in total will cover us in our obligations out until 2015," Thirkettle said.

The 1.3 billion-euro ($1.9-billion) ATV is a 20-ton spacecraft capable of hauling a maximum of 7.5 tons of cargo — three times that of Russian supply ships — to the ISS inside its cylindrical shell.

"We're going to be the largest carrier of cargo to the International Space Station," said John Ellwood, ATV project manager.

The first ATV mission will launch atop an Ariane 5 rocket from Europe's spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. It is expected to run about 15 days, which includes the 10-day flight to the station and a series of demonstration days to test its autonomous docking and collision avoidance systems.

The spacecraft uses an optical rendezvous system that relies on lasers to guide its approach and docking. Astronauts aboard the station won't be able to take remote control, as they can with Russian spacecraft, but could press a red button that would back Jules Verne away should it stray off-course.

If all goes well, the cargo ship could dock as early as March 15, or else take up a holding pattern and rendezvous at the ISS after the Endeavour shuttle flight, ESA officials said.

"We are, I think, very ready to embark on the Jules Verne operations," said Bob Chesson, ESA human spaceflight and operations chief. "We're just waiting now to get the go-ahead."

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Rogue Stars.The Miscreants of Galaxy

A young star speeding away from the Milky Way is in fact an alien visitor, astronomers have confirmed. The wayward object is one of several rogues that are giving astronomers a glimpse into the volatile nature of our galaxy and others.

Astronomers have found about 10 stars hurtling away from our galaxy, at speeds that exceed its gravitational grasp. While most stars rush through space at speeds on the order of hundreds of kilometers per second, these aptly-named "hypervelocity stars" are rocketing away at least twice as fast.

Most of these speedy stars are thought to be exiles from the center of our galaxy, flung out into intergalactic space by the powerful forces of the massive black hole at the center of our galaxy. Their violent creation is giving astronomers insight into the almost impenetrable world at the center of the Milky Way, the mysteries of our nearby galactic neighbors, and the nature of intergalactic space.

Volatile origins

Hypervelocity stars were first theorized to exist in 1988. The theory was that binary star systems at the galaxy's center would occasionally wander too close to the massive black hole looming there, which would disrupt their orbital dance. While one of the pair was captured by the black hole, the other would be sent rocketing off at an incredible speed.

"That's the only way you can accelerate a star to go thousands of kilometers per second," said astronomer Alceste Bonanos of the Carnegie Institution for Science, a member of the team that made the discovery of the alien star's origins.

Of the billions of stars in the Milky Way, only a tiny fraction are thought to be shot out from the center like this. This explains why they weren't found until 2005, Bonanos says, "because there aren't very many."

Astronomers looked at the spectra of stars at the most outer reaches of the Milky Way and found a few that "were going very, very fast, which isn't normal," Bonanos said.

By examining the age of these exiled stars, astronomers concluded that they seem to have had time to come from the center of our galaxy.

The galaxy's center is shrouded in gas and dust and normally hard for astronomers to peer into, Bonanos said. Gas clouds usually act as excellent stellar nurseries, but the violent tidal forces from the black hole were thought to prevent any nearby stellar births.

The rogue stars seem to contradict that idea, as they seem to have come from the vicinity of the black hole, Bonanos told LiveScience.

Except for one, which is an alien passerby.

'Alien' traveler

Of these 10 strange stars, one, dubbed HE 0437-5439, seemed a bit stranger than the rest.

"This one is different from the other nine," said study team member Mercedes Lopez-Morales, also of the Carnegie Institution.

Based on its current position, the star would have to be 100 million years old to have come from the center of the Milky Way. But it is only 35 million years old.

Bonanos and Lopez-Morales took a closer look at the elemental composition of the star and found that it seemed to be a visitor from our small galactic neighbor, the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC).

"Stars in the LMC are known to have lower elemental abundances than most stars in our galaxy," Bonanos explained, which seemed to fit HE 0437-5439's make-up.

But while the elemental profile matched, there's one big conundrum: The LMC "is not known to have a massive black hole that could eject it," Bonanos said.

The usual tell-tale signs of a big black hole, such as strong X-ray and radio signals, are missing. Astronomers aren't sure if dwarf galaxies like the LMC have huge black holes in their center, so "this star might be a hint for something important," Bonanos said.

Collision course?

Another strange consequence of these roving stars is the contradiction they provide to the long-held notion that intergalactic space is pretty much empty.

'There seem to be all these stars flying around between galaxies," Bonanos said. If stars are shot out from our galaxy, they are likely propelled from others, she says, though we are unlikely to be able to see them because stars are too hard to individually identify from the distance of most galaxies.

It is predicted that thousands of hypervelocity stars have been spit out by the Milky Way's black hole, Bonanos said, though many are still hurtling through the galaxy.

So far all of the hypervelocity stars found are moving away from us, but they could be shot out of the galaxy's center in any direction, up or down from the galactic plane, or even toward us.

But there's no need to worry about a stellar roadrunner knocking into Earth, or any other planet or star, Bonanos says.

"There's a lot of empty space" in the solar system, she says, so these speeding stars will likely have a clear path out of the neighborhood.