News & Current Affairs

July 21, 2009

Asia set for total solar eclipse

Asia set for total solar eclipse

Total solar eclipse photographed in Egypt, 2006 (Darren Baskill)

Stargazers will travel long distances to see the eclipse

Millions of people in Asia will see the longest total solar eclipse this century on Wednesday as swaths of India and China are plunged into darkness.

Scores of amateur stargazers and scientists will travel long distances for the eclipse, which will last for about five minutes.

The eclipse will first appear in the Gulf of Khambhat just north of Mumbai.

It will move east across India, Nepal, Burma, Bangladesh, Bhutan and China before hitting the Pacific.

The eclipse will cross some southern Japanese islands and will last be visible from land at Nikumaroro Island in the South Pacific nation of Kiribati.

Elsewhere, a partial eclipse will be visible across much of Asia.

The previous total eclipse, in August 2008, lasted two minutes and 27 seconds. This one will last six minutes and 39 seconds at its maximum point.

Alphonse Sterling, a Nasa astrophysicist who will be following the eclipse from China, scientists are hoping data from the eclipse will help explain solar flares and other structures of the sun and why they erupt.

“We’ll have to wait a few hundred years for another opportunity to observe a solar eclipse that lasts this long, so it’s a very special opportunity,” Shao Zhenyi, an astronomer at the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory in China told the Associated Press news agency.

Solar scientist Lucie Green, from University College London, is aboard an American cruise ship heading for that point near the Japanese island of Iwo Jima, where the axis of the Moon’s shadow will pass closest to Earth.

“The [Sun’s] corona has a temperature of 2 million degrees but we don’t know why it is so hot,” she said.

“What we are going to look for are waves in the corona. … The waves might be producing the energy that heats the corona. That would mean we understand another piece of the science of the Sun.”

The next total solar eclipse will occur on 11 July next year. It will be visible in a narrow corridor over the southern hemisphere, from the southern Pacific Ocean to Argentina.

TOTAL SOLAR ECLIPSE
Infographic (BBC)
In the area covered by the umbra (the darkest part of the shadow), a total eclipse is seen
In the region covered by the penumbra (where only some of the light source is obscured) a partial eclipse is seen

solar

July 20, 2009

Space station toilet breaks down

Space station toilet breaks down

Toilet (Nasa)

The $100bn ISS has been blighted by toilet trouble

The main toilet has broken down on the International Space Station (ISS), currently home to a record 13 astronauts, Nasa said.

Mission Control told the crew to hang an “out of service” sign until the toilet can be fixed.

The crew of the shuttle Endeavour is confined to using the craft’s loo. ISS residents are using a back-up toilet in the Russian part of the station.

If repairs fail, Apollo-era urine collection bags are on hand, Nasa said.

“We don’t yet know the extent of the problem,” flight director Brian Smith told reporters, adding that the toilet troubles were “not going to be an issue” for now.

Bad plumbing?

The main toilet, a multi-million-dollar Russian-built unit, was flown up and installed on the US side of the space station last year.

ISS, July 17 (Nasa)

It had broken down once before, requiring a rush delivery of a replacement pump by the shuttle Discovery in 2008.

And another toilet-related row broke out earlier this year, when a Russian cosmonaut complained that he was no longer allowed to use the US toilet because of billing and cost issues.

Despite the latest housekeeping setback, astronauts managed to transfer spare parts from the shuttle Endeavour to the ISS on Sunday, the second day of a planned 11-day mission.

Nasa was also investigating why Endeavour’s tank shed an unusually large amount of insulating foam during its launch.

July 19, 2009

New images of Moon landing sites

Filed under: Latest — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 5:25 pm

New images of Moon landing sites

Apollo 14 (Nasa)

Apollo 14: Science instruments (circled left) and the lunar module descent stage (circled right) are connected by a footprint trail

A US spacecraft has captured images of Apollo landing sites on the Moon, revealing hardware and a trail of footprints left on the lunar surface.

The release of the images coincides with the 40th anniversary of the first manned mission to land on the Moon.

The descent stages from the lunar modules which carried astronauts to and from the Moon can clearly be seen.

The image of the Apollo 14 landing site shows scientific instruments and an astronaut footpath in the lunar dust.

It is the first time hardware left on the Moon by the Apollo missions has been seen from lunar orbit.

The pictures were taken by Nasa’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft, which launched on 18 June.

Buzz Aldrin in front of lunar module

The Apollo 11 mission touched down on the Moon on 20 July 1969

The spacecraft is carrying three cameras on board: one low-resolution wide-angle camera and two high-resolution narrow-angle cameras mounted side-by-side.

These are known collectively as the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) instrument.

“The LROC team anxiously awaited each image,” said the instrument’s principal investigator Mark Robinson of Arizona State University.

“We were very interested in getting our first peek at the lunar module descent stages just for the thrill – and to see how well the cameras had come into focus. Indeed, the images are fantastic and so is the focus.”

Astronaut trail

The camera instrument was able to capture five of the six Apollo sites, with the remaining Apollo 12 site expected to be photographed in the coming weeks.

Future LROC images from these sites will have two to three times greater resolution.

Long shadows from a low sun angle make the locations of the lunar modules’ descent stages particularly evident.

Apollo 11 (Nasa)

A long shadow is cast by the Apollo 11 descent stage

The image of the Apollo 14 landing site had a particularly desirable lighting condition that revealed additional details.

The Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Package, a set of scientific instruments placed by the astronauts at the landing site, is discernable, as are the faint trails between the module and instrument package left by the astronauts’ footprints.

The LRO satellite reached lunar orbit on 23 June and captured the Apollo sites between 11 and 15 July.

Though it had been expected that LRO would be able to resolve the remnants of the Apollo missions, these first images were taken before the spacecraft had reached its final mapping orbit.

“Not only do these images reveal the great accomplishments of Apollo, they also show us that lunar exploration continues,” said LRO project scientist Richard Vondrak of Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, US.

“They demonstrate how LRO will be used to identify the best destinations for the next journeys to the Moon.”

Although the pictures provide a reminder of past lunar exploration, LRO’s primary focus is on paving the way for the future.

Data returned by the mission will help Nasa identify safe landing sites for future explorers, locate potential resources, describe the Moon’s radiation environment and demonstrate new technologies.

December 30, 2008

Private firms to haul ISS cargo

Private firms to haul ISS cargo

Dragon capsule (SpaceX)

The Dragon capsule is designed to carry cargo or crew

Cut off in the seclusion of space, crew members living aboard the International Space Station (ISS) depend on regular deliveries of air, water, food and fuel for their survival.

But when the ageing space shuttle fleet is retired in 2010, the US space agency (Nasa) will lose a principal means of ferrying crew and cargo to the ISS.

The shuttle’s replacement – Ares-Orion – will not enter service until 2015 at the earliest.

And in April, Nasa told legislators it would stop asking for Congressional permission to buy cargo space on Russian Progress re-supply vehicles after 2011.

I don’t think the market can support more than two companies. And it’s going to be hard for it even to support two
Antonio Elias, executive VP, Orbital

That leaves the US dependent on European and Japanese spacecraft for delivering supplies to the space station.

But Nasa has also been pursuing a commercial approach.

Three years ago, the space agency took the unprecedented step of fostering the development of private spacecraft designed to carry crew and cargo to the ISS.

It offered $500m (£340m) in “seed money” to help stimulate a competitive market for supply flights to the space station.

This month, Nasa awarded two companies – SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation – with lucrative contracts to provide cargo delivery flights to the ISS up to 2016.

Nasa’s administrator Michael Griffin said he hoped the commercial ventures would succeed. But he told BBC News recently: “It’s not commercial if Nasa is sitting around telling them what to do and how to do it. I don’t think they need that.”

Elon Musk, the South Africa-born entrepreneur who co-founded SpaceX, says: “Even when [Ares-Orion] does come online, it’s sort of overkill to use it for servicing the space station. It would be incredibly expensive. So Nasa looked to the private sector to solve its problem.”

Mr Musk made a fortune from the sale of his internet payment service PayPal to eBay and has invested at least $100m (£68m) of his own money in SpaceX, based in Hawthorne, California.

The company’s cargo re-supply plans are based around a rocket called Falcon 9. The standard version of the Falcon 9 is arguably a medium-lift launcher, says Mr Musk, designed to place 9,900kg into low-Earth orbit (LEO).

Assembly of the first Falcon 9 at SpaceX’s new launch site at Cape Canaveral, Florida, should be complete by 31 December 2008.

“To external appearances, it looks like something from the Apollo programme, or Gemini, or Soyuz. But the materials are much more advanced, it’s designed to be reusable – which is an important characteristic,” Mr Musk told BBC News.

Inflatable hotel

Falcon 9 is the intended launch vehicle for a capsule, called Dragon, measuring some three and a half metres (12ft) in diameter. Dragon is designed to carry more than 2,500kg of cargo, or a crew of up to seven, into LEO.

DRAGON CAPSULE
Infographic (BBC/SpaceX)
Pressurised capacity of 2,500kg or 14 cubic metres
Crewed version will carry up to seven astronauts
Highly heat resistant material protects craft on re-entry
Designed for water landing with parachute

It is capable of carrying both pressurised items – those that need to be kept at Earth pressure and are to be used inside the space station – and unpressurised cargo – to be used outside the ISS, such as control moment gyros.

“The Falcon 9-Dragon system is intended to replace the function of the space shuttle when that retires in 2010,” says Elon Musk.

Falcon 9 will place Dragon in an initial parking orbit. From there it will manoeuvre towards the ISS. Dragon will make a slow approach and, once in range, will be grabbed by the space station’s robotic arm and berthed.

During the high speed return to Earth, Dragon will be protected by a heat shield made of phenolic impregnated carbon ablator (PICA). This highly heat-resistant material is barely scathed at heat fluxes that would vapourise steel.

The capsule will parachute down to the sea for recovery.

Safety is of paramount consideration: the manned version will have an escape tower to rescue the crew if something goes wrong – a feature absent from the space shuttle.”

“Hopefully we’ll do the first demonstration flight next year of the Falcon 9-Dragon system, then particular demonstrations in 2010 and start doing operation missions possibly by the end of 2010,” Mr Musk told BBC News.

PICA heatshield (SpaceX)

A heatshield made of PICA protects Dragon during re-entry

First of all, Dragon will carry astronauts from Nasa and from other space agencies to the ISS. But Mr Musk hopes also to transport space tourists to private orbiting stations.

One company, Bigelow Aerospace, is planning to assemble an orbiting “space hotel” based on a series of inflatable modules.

“We have also thought of perhaps carrying private space adventurers on a loop around the Moon,” says Mr Musk, adding that this would probably cost on the order of $40m-$50m per person.

“I think there is a wide range of applications. Perhaps the Falcon 9-Dragon system will ultimately evolve into something that will take people to Mars.”

‘Big empty can’

The other winning bid in Nasa’s cargo re-supply contract was made by Orbital Sciences Corporation, based in Dulles, Virginia.

Orbital’s vehicle consists of a medium-lift rocket called Taurus 2 which will be used to launch the Cygnus capsule. Unlike Dragon, Cygnus will only carry cargo – not astronauts.

CYGNUS CAPSULE
Cygnus (Orbital Sciences Corporation)
Pressurised capacity of 2,000kg, or 18.7 cubic metres
Service module contains propulsion, power and avionics
Accommodates pressurised, unpressurised and cargo return modules
Space station robotic arm used to berth capsule

Launching from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, the medium-lift rocket will be able to ferry 5,500kg into LEO. Orbital is due to carry out a demonstration flight in the fourth quarter of 2010.”We took a bunch of existing parts but combined them in a way that is very, very efficient,” says Dr Antonio Elias, Orbital’s executive vide-president, who is overseeing the development of the new system.

Cygnus is based around a common service module, containing the vehicle’s propulsion, power systems and avionics. To this common module is added one of three types of specialised cargo modules – each designed for different mission scenarios.

One of these specialised modules will carry pressurised cargo, another will transfer unpressurised cargo, and a third type of module will return cargo items from the space station to Earth.

“The one that will be used the most, I believe, is the pressurised cargo module,” Orbital’s executive vice president told BBC News.

Dr Elias describes this module as a “big empty can”. It is “volumetrically efficient and light” because, says Dr Elias, “all it has to do is bring cargo up”.

The task is significantly bigger than anything either company has ever done
John Pike, GlobalSecurity.org

“It gets attached to the station, the hatch opens and crew empty the pressurised ‘can’ of its contents. They fill it up with trash, close the hatch. The service module backs it out of position and de-orbits it over the Pacific Ocean. Both can and service module then perish in a fiery ball of plasma,” Dr Elias told BBC News.

The unpressurised module is less efficient because some complex, heavy mechanisms are required to attach cargo: “The boxes you carry have to be very far apart because the (ISS robotic arm) has to come around and handle them. You have to give it lots of clearance,” says Dr Elias.

The efficiency of the cargo return module, he says, is relatively low because of the shielding, parachutes and other paraphernalia required. He expected only a fraction of re-supply flights would require the use of this module.

Orbital says this approach of using specialised modules keeps development costs low.

Rocket origin

Dr Elias was chief designer of Orbital’s Pegasus rocket, the first privately developed launch vehicle, which made its maiden flight in 1990.

A few years ago, he says, Orbital came up with an idea to re-supply the space station using Pegasus. But, at the time, the benefits were not clear to either Orbital or Nasa.

In fact, the origins of Orbital’s Taurus 2-Cygnus system can be traced to the demise of the Delta 2 rocket.

For two decades, the Delta 2 had been the US fleet’s most reliable medium-lift launcher for military, scientific and commercial payloads. It is still a perfectly good rocket, but Nasa plans to make its final Delta 2 launch at the end of the decade, shifting more of its medium-lift launch traffic to the Atlas 5 or Delta 4 heavy launch vehicles.

SpaceX HQ (SpaceX)

The SpaceX HQ occupies 50,000 sq m in Hawthorne, California

The US Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs), though significantly bigger, are expected to be comparable in cost in the long run – if not cheaper – than the Delta 2.

“We became concerned that the US government satellites we were bidding for, winning and building in this class would disappear for lack of a launch vehicle,” Dr Elias explains.

“We were concerned this would favour the larger spacecraft launches on [EELVs] and that the market would go to the big companies, such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman.”

Orbital began designing a successor to the Delta 2 with its own money. Although the company was on solid financial ground, finding a market to justify the expense was not easy. But a new opportunity was about to present itself.

Market forces

In August 2006, Nasa selected two companies – SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler – to develop and demonstrate orbital re-supply vehicles under its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) programme, setting the firms aggressive timelines.

The space agency dropped Rocketplane Kistler a year into the programme; the company reportedly failed to meet a development milestone to Nasa’s satisfaction.

“We decided to make an offering whereby Orbital would provide out of its own funds not only the additional money to develop Taurus 2, but also a space vehicle that would be suitable to provide those services,” said Dr Elias.

Cygnus (Orbital Sciences Corporation)

Cygnus will be grabbed by the space station’s robotic arm

Orbital filled the void left by the departure of Rocketplane Kistler, winning a Nasa contract under Phase II of COTS.

Each of the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contracts awarded to SpaceX and Orbital in December is worth a potential $3.1bn (£2.1bn). But the market itself remains very small.

“I don’t think the market can support more than two companies. And it’s going to be hard for it even to support two,” Dr Elias told.

“However, as prudent businessmen, we did not embark on this venture believing we would grab 100% of the demand. So we are willing to be profitable in a situation where we only have half of it.”

Artist's impression of Taurus 2 rocket (Orbital)

Orbital’s Taurus 2 rocket uses tried and tested technology

Observers point out that Nasa is betting on vehicles which do not yet exist, an approach which presents a major risk for the space agency.Not only is it relying on two companies to keep supplies coming to the ISS, Nasa hopes the rocket and cargo vehicles can be developed in months – not the years it has usually taken other agency programmes.

“The task is significantly bigger than anything either company has ever done,” John Pike, a space policy analyst for GlobalSecurity.org, told the LA Times.

“All of these things strike me as significant challenges for even the biggest aerospace companies.”

But Nasa is not putting all its eggs in one basket. It can still barter for cargo space aboard the European Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) and Japan’s H-2 Transfer Vehicle, or HTV, which is due to enter service in 2009.

Europe also plans to modify the ATV so that it can bring cargo back from the space station, a capability Nasa is eager to have.

Announcing the award of the CRS contract, Bill Gerstenmaier, Nasa’s chief of space operations, said: “This is a pretty monumental thing for us, this is a contract that we really need to keep space station flying and to service space station.”

He added: “I think it’s exciting we’re doing this from the commercial side. We’ve got some good proposals and we’ve chosen the two winners.”

Elon Musk (Getty)

September 8, 2008

China sets dates for space launch

China sets dates for space launch

Shenzhou VI launches in 2005

China has already launched two manned flights

China will launch its third manned space mission in late September, state-run news agency Xinhua reports.

The Shenzhou VII flight will feature China’s first ever space walk, which will be broadcast live with cameras inside and outside the spacecraft.

Three “yuhangyuan” (astronauts) will blast off on a Long-March II-F rocket sometime between 25 and 30 September.

Previous reports in state media had put the launch in October, possibly during the National Day holiday.

In 2003, China became only the third country in the world to send a human into orbit. It followed with a two-man mission in 2005.

The spacecraft will be launched from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the country’s north-western Gansu province.

Technically demanding

Technicians have been busily checking the readiness of the spacecraft, which will carry the crew into orbit on a mission lasting up to five days.

This flight will be more technically demanding than the last.

Performer in space suit during Olympics opening ceremony (Getty)

China highlighted its space successes during the Beijing Olympics

For the spacewalk, two crew members will go into the spacecraft’s vacuum module. One yuhangyuan will carry out the spacewalk; the other is there to monitor the activity and assist in case of an emergency.Two types of spacesuits – one made in China, the other from Russia – will be carried up on the flight.

It is unclear why China has opted for two different types of spacesuit.

Spaceflight analyst Dr Morris Jones commented that China might want to test the suits against each other. Alternatively, he said, it might not be ready or willing to fly a mission exclusively with its own suits.

The crew members, whose identities have not been released, have been training in a water tank to get used to weightlessness and to study procedures for the flight.

Bad vibrations

The Shenzhou spacecraft closely resembles the Russian Soyuz capsules, but is substantially larger. Unlike the Soyuz, it has an orbital module that is equipped with its own propulsion, allowing autonomous flight.

Testing of the spacecraft and the Long-March II-F rocket which will loft it into orbit is now complete, a Chinese space official told Xinhua.

Engineers have reportedly made over 30 technical improvements to the new rocket.

“There were some rocket vibrations after it took off which sometimes made our astronauts experience physical discomfort,” Jin Muchun, the Long-March II-F’s chief designer, told the state-owned television channel CCTV9 in July.

“So we have been trying to eliminate the vibrations by changing the frequency of the engine and the electric circuit of the rocket.”

According to reports, a small satellite will also be launched during the mission.

China launched an unmanned Moon probe last year about one month after rival Japan blasted its own lunar orbiter into space.

In July, Dr Michael Griffin, the head of the US space agency (Nasa), told News that China was capable of sending a manned mission to the Moon in the next decade, if it so wished.

August 28, 2008

Hacker loses extradition appeal

Hacker loses extradition appeal

Gary McKinnon

Gary McKinnon could face a long prison sentence

A Briton accused of hacking into secret military computers has lost his appeal against extradition to the US.

Glasgow-born Gary McKinnon was said to be “distraught” after losing the appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. He faces extradition within two weeks.

The unemployed man could face life in jail if convicted of accessing 97 US military and Nasa computers.

The 42-year-old admitted breaking into the computers from his London home but said he sought information on UFOs.

Mr McKinnon asked the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to delay his extradition pending a full appeal to the court against his extradition but his application was refused.

He claimed the extradition would breach his human rights.

‘Absolutely devastated’

His solicitor Karen Todner said this had been her client’s “last chance” and appealed to Home Secretary Jacqui Smith to intervene.

Our client now faces the prospect of prosecution and imprisonment thousands of miles away from his family in a country in which he has never set foot
Solicitor Karen Todner

“He is absolutely devastated by the decision,” she said. “He and his family are distraught.

“They are completely beside themselves. He is terrified by the prospect of going to America.”

She added Mr McKinnon had recently been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome and would ask for the case to be tried in this country.

“The offences for which our client’s extradition is sought were committed on British soil and we maintain that any prosecution ought to be carried out by the appropriate British authorities,” she added.

“Our client now faces the prospect of prosecution and imprisonment thousands of miles away from his family in a country in which he has never set foot.”

Mr McKinnon, from Wood Green, north London, was arrested in 2002 but never charged in the UK.

He first lost his case at the High Court in 2006 before taking it to the highest court in the UK, the House of Lords.

Computer nerd

The US government claims he committed a malicious crime – the biggest military computer hack ever.

The authorities have warned that without his co-operation and a guilty plea the case could be treated as terrorism and he could face a long jail sentence.

The former systems analyst is accused of hacking into the computers with the intention of intimidating the US government.

It alleges that between February 2001 and March 2002, he hacked into dozens of US Army, Navy, Air Force, and Department of Defense computers, as well as 16 Nasa computers.

Prosecutors say he altered and deleted files at a naval air station not long after the 11 September attacks in 2001, rendering critical systems inoperable.

However, Mr McKinnon has said his motives were harmless and innocent. He denies any attempts at sabotage.

He said he wanted to find evidence of UFOs he thought was being held by the US authorities, and to expose what he believed was a cover-up.

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