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America in Space-April 2009Posted Tuesday, April 21, 2009, at 7:35 PM
Photo Provided by NASA: An artist's rendition of the (L to R) Ares V and Ares I spacecraft, that will replace the shuttles in sending humans to space--the International Space Station, the Moon, and eventually, to Mars.
First, NASA is making preparations for the Ares I-X flight this fall, an unmanned version of the Ares I spacecraft, which is the manned part of the Constellation program--the program that will replace the Shuttle (to conclude in 2010), and, beginning in 2014, launch humans to the International Space Station in Earth orbit, to the Moon, and eventually Mars. The Ares I contains the Orion crew capsule, while the unmanned Ares V contains the lander (on Moon flights) and cargo. When lunar landings begin in the 2020's, both Ares I and Ares V will launch, the Orion will dock to the lander/cargo craft, and go to the Moon. Russian spacecraft, and, possibly, Chinese spacecraft (this is currently in negotiations) will send people, including American astronauts, to and from the Space Station during the 2010-2014 time lapse between the Shuttle and the new Constellation program.
Various probes are in the works to prepare us for the above lunar landings, and long-term survival on the Moon (unlike the Apollo program in the 1960's and 1970's, we will set up living quarters and a permanent base on the Moon), including the planned May 20, 2009 launch of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and attached LCROSS. The orbiter will scout the lunar landscape for landing locations, while an upper Centaur stage of the rocket and the LCROSS will slam into a lunar crater near the north or south pole. This crater, due to its location, is permanently shaded and should contain unevaporated ice from the early formation of the Moon. The collision of the rocket stage should send up a plume of water vapor to be detected by the LCROSS flying through it, and the later collision of the LCROSS at another location should send up another plume. Both plumes should be visible for study by ground-based telescopes. Finding ice in permanently shaded areas of the Moon is important for on-site production of drinking water or fuel at a long-term lunar base, as it costs in excess of $10,000 a pound to bring water or fuel to Earth orbit or the Moon. Stay tuned to this column for results of this probe later this year. Earlier lunar orbiters have detected some form of Hydrogen (possibly water?) near the poles of the Moon.
On March 6, NASA launched Kepler, named after the 16th century astronomer who developed the laws of orbital motion. It has just returned "first light", its first photograph. Kepler is designed to study continuously, for a 3 ½ or more years, the light output of about 100,000 stars of our Milky Way galaxy, in the Northern sky (mainly in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra). Very slight, regular decreases in the light output of a star would indicate a planet passing across its disc. The amount and the period of the decrease will give scientists information on the size and distance (from the star) of the planet, and, therefore, the percentage of planets that are in such an orbit to possibly have liquid water, and therefore, the possibility of life. Follow up of these candidate stars will be done by earth-based or space (such as Hubble) telescopes.
The next space shuttle, Atlantis, is on Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A awaiting its launch on May 12 to the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). For probably the last time in shuttle history, a second shuttle is currently on the neighboring Pad 39B, the Endeavour, for the unlikely case of a problem with Atlantis at the telescope. Unlike the flights to the International Space Station (ISS), the flight to HST is slightly more dangerous, in a higher orbit, and the ISS is not available in case of an emergency. HST is about 450 miles above the earth, while the ISS is about 220. As of now, 9 shuttle flights are planned to the ISS, in addition to this one, before the 3 shuttles (Atlantis, Discovery, and Endeavour) will be retired to (very large) museums.
At Mars, the 2 rovers are continuing to amaze scientists with their durability. Despite an original 90-day mission length, Spirit and Opportunity are in a fine, although slightly aged, condition at 5 years--20 times their planned duration. At Saturn, Cassini in doing well in a 2-year extended mission, after completing a highly successful 4-year tour of the ringed planet. For more information about the numerous spacecraft exploring our Solar System, as well as the Earth and Moon area, hear or read the transcript of my recent podcast for the International Year of Astronomy, "Exploring Space from Space," at http://365daysofastronomy.org/2009/04/12....
For a free presentation at your school or organization by one of the over 500 NASA Solar System Ambassadors nationwide, go to http://www2.jpl.nasa.gov/ambassador/inde.... My webpage is at http://www2.jpl.nasa.gov/ambassador/prof.... For a telescope viewing of Saturn, now nearly edge-on in the Eastern sky, see the Saturn Observation Campaign at http://soc.jpl.nasa.gov/index.cfm.
Kenneth Renshaw NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador/Saturn Observation Campaign Kenneth is one of 494 volunteer educators and astronomers who donate their time to educate America's youth, and the general public, about astronomy and the U.S. space program. Organized in 1999 by NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab,it focuses on spacecraft built by the JPL such as Voyager, Mars Rover, Galileo, Cassini as well as the Hubble Space Telescope. Renshaw is one of four ambassadors in Arkansas, and makes presentations to all age and experience groups from pre-school to university science level. His official NASA website it www2.jpl.nasa.gov/ambassador/profiles/Kenneth_Renshaw.htm His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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