Shenzhou-8 Fueled and Set for Launch

China's unmanned Shenzhou-8 spacecraft is ready for launch.  It's Long March 2F booster will be fueled today.

Shenzhou-8 will attempt China's first space docking with the orbiting Tiangong-1 module.

Launch is now scheduled for:
  • November 1 5:58 am local time
  • October 31 21:57 GMT
  • October 31 5:58 pm EDT

The launch should be carried live on CCTV.

China's Shenzhou 8 docking mission ready to launch.

China has scheduled the launch of it's unmanned Shenzhou 8 for 31 October at 5:57 pm EDT (21:57 GMT; 1 Nov 5:57 am local time).  Shenzhou is China's manned spacecraft, but will be flying un-crewed for this flight. Shenzhou 8 will attempt to dock with the experimental space station module Tiangong 1, launched in late September.

Shenzhou 8 will be launched by a Long March 2F booster. The two stage rocket with four strap on boosters can place 19,000 lbs into low earth orbit. It has a 100% success rate in eight launches.
The Shenzhou 8 mission is the latest step in what will be a decade-long effort to place a manned permanent space station in orbit. Shenzhou 8 is scheduled to dock with the Tiangong 1 station two days after launch. The two will remain docked for twelve days, at which time the Shenzhou 8 will undock and then redock with Tiangong-1 before finally departing and returning to earth. Tiangong-1 will then raise it's orbit and await the arrival of it's first crew on Shenzhou 9 next year.

Shenzhou 8 will feature a Russian androgynous docking module in place of the usual orbital module, and will perform its docking operation under ground control.

The mission will also feature a biological sample supplied by the European Space Agency, which has been cited as an example of "international cooperation in the field of manned space" by Zhang Jianqi, deputy chief commander of China's manned space program.
Tiangong-1, meaning "heavenly palace," weighs about 19,000 pounds. It measures 13 feet in diameter and about 40 feet in length. It's intended to be used for about 18 months. China plans to build a 60 ton space station by 2020

The official Xinhua News Agency said Wednesday that the ship will carry out a series of maneuvers to couple with the Tiangong 1 module that was launched late last month and has been functioning as expected. It cited the launch center's chief engineer, Lu Jinrong.

The ship and it's booster were transferred early Wednesday to the launch pad at the Jiuquan space base on the edge of the Gobi desert in northern China.

China to launch unmanned space mission next month - Yahoo! News:
Shenzhou 8 - Wikipedia

Video of Successful Soyuz - Progress 45P Launch

The Soyuz U booster had a successful return to flight with the launch of the Progress 45P resupply ship at 06:11 EDT this morning.  If you missed it, below is a video of the launch courtesy of @ChrisAstro.

Soyuz Rocket Poised for Make or Break Launch to Space Station

30 October 03:29 Note:  Progress 45 successfully launched to orbit. Docking on Wednesday.

In a critical step towards restoring flights to the International Space Station a Soyuz rocket is set to launch a Progress freighter tomorrow. This is the first flight to the ISS since a third stage engine failure of a Soyuz rocket sent the Progress 44P cargo ship crashing into Siberia on August 24. A failure on this launch will lead to the temporary de-crewing of the space station.

The Soyuz rocket is scheduled to launch the Progress 45P spacecraft at 03:11 am PDT (10:11 GMT) from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. It's scheduled to dock with ISS two days later.

After the crash, all flights of the Soyuz rocket were halted while the cause of the failure was investigated. Since manned Soyuz spacecraft use the same booster, crewed flights to the ISS were also halted. This lead to the station's crew size being reduced to 3 when Expedition 28 returned to Earth in September.

The cause of the failure was eventually traced to a contaminated fuel line and the Soyuz rocket was cleared to fly.  Since the crash two Soyuz rockets have been successfully launched, though they were not configured identically to the failed booster. Tomorrows Progress 45P is the first time the same configuration has been flown since the accident.

A successful launch will pave the way for sending the manned Soyuz 28S spacecraft to the ISS on November 14.  A failure will undoubtedly delay it.  With the current ISS crew scheduled to leave on November 22, this would leave the ISS unmanned.

How reliable is the Soyuz rocket? According to Jonathan's Space Report the Soyuz FG, used to launch crews to the International Space Station, has a 100 percent success rate since 2001. By comparison, the Soyuz U, which failed in launching Progress 44P, has had 20 failures in 761 launch attempts since 1973. That translates to a 97.4 percent success rate.

Credit: Roscosmos and Energia

Delta II Successfully Orbits Weather Satellite

OShare photos on twitter with TwitpicOn its final flight Delta II has successfully orbited the NPP weather satellite from Vandenberg AFB.

The launch occurred at 02:48 am PDT and could be seen from hundreds of miles away.  (I know this because I saw it from 200 miles to the north)

For this launch Delta II was in it's 7920 configuration, which includes 9 strap-on GEM (Graphite Epoxy Motor) solid boosters, 6 of which are started at liftoff and 3 air started. 

The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project (NPP) weather satellite. NPP is the first satellite designed to collect critical data to improve weather forecasts in the short-term and increase understanding of long-term climate change.

NPP is an effort led by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center that is carrying the first of the new sensors that will be utilized as part of that next-generation system called the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS). The mission will continue critical weather and climate measurements by flying advanced sensor packages. NPP will measure various properties of the Earth's atmosphere, land surface and oceans. Its five-year mission life will help to bridge critical weather data collection before JPSS is ready for operations in 2016. 

Last Delta II set to launch from Vandenberg tonight

The last flight on the manifest for the venerable Delta II rocket is set for the early morning hours of Friday 28 October from Vandenberg AFB north of Los Angeles. Scheduled to launch at 2:48 a.m. PDT (5:48 a.m. EDT; 0948 GMT) the Delta II is making its 151st launch.

Delta II will depart on a southerly heading from the west coast facility's Space Launch Complex 2 destined for polar orbit. Clear sky's are forecast tonight for Southern California, so it should be spectacular viewing for anyone awake and away from city lights at launch time.

For this launch Delta II will be in it's 7920 configuration, which includes 9 strap-on GEM (Graphite Epoxy Motor) solid boosters, 6 of which are started at liftoff and 3 air started.

Delta II will loft the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project (NPP) weather satellite. NPP is the first satellite designed to collect critical data to improve weather forecasts in the short-term and increase understanding of long-term climate change.

NPP is an effort led by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center that is carrying the first of the new sensors that will be utilized as part of that next-generation system called the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS). The mission will continue critical weather and climate measurements by flying advanced sensor packages. NPP will measure various properties of the Earth's atmosphere, land surface and oceans. Its five-year mission life will help to bridge critical weather data collection before JPSS is ready for operations in 2016.

United Launch Alliance, the builder of Delta II, has 5 more of the birds in it's inventory and has recently decided to continue marketing them, so it's possible Delta II may one day fly again.

Image credit: NASA

Photo of the Day: Color image of Mercury

Dominici crater, the very bright crater to the top of this image, exhibits bright rays and contains hollows. This crater lies upon the peak ring of Homer Basin, a very degraded peak ring basin that has been filled by volcanism. This image contains several examples of craters that have excavated materials from depth that are spectrally distinct from the surface volcanic layers, providing windows into the subsurface. MESSENGER scientists are estimating the approximate depths of these spectrally distinct materials by applying knowledge of how impacts excavate material during the cratering process. The 1000, 750, and 430 nm bands of the Wide Angle Camera are displayed in red, green, and blue, respectively.

Faraway Eris is Pluto's Twin

European astronomers have accurately measured the diameter of the dwarf planet Eris for the first time. Using the faint light of a distant star as Eris passed in front of it, astronomers were able to ascertain the dwarf planets size.

This event was seen at the end of 2010 by telescopes in Chile, including the Belgian TRAPPIST telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory. The observations show that Eris is an almost perfect twin of Pluto in size. Eris appears to have a very reflective surface, suggesting that it is uniformly covered in a thin layer of ice, probably a frozen atmosphere. The results will be published in the 27 October 2011 issue of the journal Nature.

ESO - eso1142 - Faraway Eris is Pluto's Twin

Photo of the Day: Enceladus New to Old

The Cassini spacecraft takes a close view of some of the southern terrain of Saturn's moon Enceladus, where newly created terrain is on display.

See New to Old on Enceladus for a mosaic of this geologically active moon's leading hemisphere that shows the more recently created terrain of the south polar region meeting older, crater-filled terrain farther north. The area shown here is between the leading hemisphere and Saturn-facing side of Enceladus (313 miles, or 504 kilometers across). This view is centered on terrain at 35 degrees south latitude, 45 degrees west longitude. North is up.

The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Sept. 13, 2011. The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 26,000 miles (42,000 kilometers) from Enceladus and at a Sun-Enceladus-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 52 degrees. Image scale is 830 feet (253 meters) per pixel.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging team is based at the Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colo.

For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission visit or . The Cassini imaging team homepage is at .

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Ancient Supernova Mystery Solved

Modern telescopes have solved a mystery that began nearly 2,000 years ago, when Chinese astronomers witnessed what would turn out to be an exploding star in the sky. New infrared observations from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, reveal how the first supernova ever recorded occurred and how its shattered remains ultimately spread out to great distances.

The findings show that the stellar explosion took place in a hollowed-out cavity, allowing material expelled by the star to travel much faster and farther than it would have otherwise.

"This supernova remnant got really big, really fast," said Brian J. Williams, an astronomer at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Williams is lead author of a new study detailing the findings online in the Astrophysical Journal. "It's two to three times bigger than we would expect for a supernova that was witnessed exploding nearly 2,000 years ago. Now, we've been able to finally pinpoint the cause."

NASA Telescopes Help Solve Ancient Supernova Mystery - NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

Image credit: NASA

Photo of the Day: A Quartet of Saturn's Moons

A quartet of Saturn's moons, from tiny to huge, surround and are embedded within the planet's rings in this Cassini composition.

Saturn's largest moon, Titan, is in the background of the image, and the moon's north polar hood is clearly visible. See PIA08137 to learn more about that feature on Titan (3,200 miles, or 5,150 kilometers across). Next, the wispy terrain on the trailing hemisphere of Dione (698 miles, or 1,123 kilometers across) can be seen on that moon which appears just above the rings at the center of the image. See PIA10560 and PIA06163 to learn more about Dione's wisps. Saturn's small moon Pandora (50 miles, or 81 kilometers across) orbits beyond the rings on the right of the image. Finally, Pan (17 miles, or 28 kilometers across) can be seen in the Encke Gap of the A ring on the left of the image.

This view looks toward the northern, sunlit side of the rings from just above the ringplane.

The image was taken in visible blue light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Sept. 17, 2011. The view was obtained at a distance of approximately 1.3 million miles (2.1 million kilometers) from Dione and at a Sun-Dione-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 27 degrees. Image scale is 8 miles (13 kilometers) per pixel on PDione.

Last Delta 2 to Launch NPP Weather Satellite Friday

NASA is planning a early Friday 28 October launch of the first Earth-observing satellite to measure both global climate changes and key weather variables from Vandenberg AFB. The flight is the last on the manifest for the venerable Delta 2 rocket.

The early Friday's liftoff is scheduled for 2:48 a.m. PDT (5:48 a.m. EDT; 0948 GMT) from Vandenberg Air Force Base California, located  northwest of Los Angeles. The Delta 2 rocket, making its 151st and possibly last launch, has no further missions scheduled. 

The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project (NPP) is the first mission designed to collect critical data to improve weather forecasts in the short-term and increase understanding of long-term climate change.

NPP is an effort led by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center that is carrying the first of the new sensors that will be utilized as part of that next-generation system called the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS). The mission will continue critical weather and climate measurements by flying advanced sensor packages. NPP will measure various properties of the Earth’s atmosphere, land surface and oceans. Its five-year mission life will help to bridge critical weather data collection before JPSS is ready for operations in 2016.

Image credit: NASA

DLR's ROSAT Satellite Reentry - Updated

ROSAT re-entered Earth’s atmosphere over the Bay of Bengal

On 23 October 2011 at 01:50 UTC (03:50 CEST), the German research satellite ROSAT re entered the atmosphere over the Bay of Bengal; it is not known whether any parts of the satellite reached Earth’s surface. Determination of the time and location of re-entry was based on the evaluation of data provided by international partners, particularly the USA. Read more:
Germany's space agency (DLR), is now predicting that it's ROSAT X-Ray observatory will make an uncontrolled reentry sometime between Friday, October 21 and Monday, October 24. Much of the X-ray satellite will burn up in the atmosphere, although 30 pieces are expected to survive reentry. The largest single fragment could weigh up to 1.7 tons. Aerospace engineers from Analytical Graphics, Inc. (AGI) used the company's analysis and visualization software to create this video depicting:
• ROSAT in its current orbit
• The satellite's ground track
• Its burn-up in reentry
• Statistical debris break-up model
• Estimated size of debris region

Although it is too early to predict the time and location of the re-entry, DLR says that predictions of the time period will become more refined as the date of reentry draws nearer.
DLR's ROSAT Satellite Reentry - Updated - YouTube

Dawn Scientists Share New Discoveries at Vesta

 Among the significant early science discoveries the Dawn mission team has revealed is the discovery of one of the largest mountains in our solar system in the southern hemisphere of the giant asteroid Vesta. Team members presented findings at the recent annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Minneapolis, MN, and the joint meeting of the European Planetary Science Congress and the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society in Nantes, France.

The Dawn spacecraft has been orbiting Vesta since mid-July. Team members presented findings at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America (GSA) in Minneapolis, MN, and the joint meeting of the European Planetary Science Congress and the Division of Planetary Sciences in Nantes, France."

Discovery News:

Photo of the Day: North America Nebula

Swirling Landscape of Stars

This swirling landscape of stars is known as the North America Nebula. In visible light, the region resembles North America, but in this image infrared view from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, the continent disappears.

Where did the continent go? The reason you don't see it in Spitzer's view has to do, in part, with the fact that infrared light can penetrate dust whereas visible light cannot. Dusty, dark clouds in the visible image become transparent in Spitzer's view. In addition, Spitzer's infrared detectors pick up the glow of dusty cocoons enveloping baby stars.

Clusters of young stars (about one million years old) can be found throughout the image. Some areas of this nebula are still very thick with dust and appear dark even in Spitzer's view.

The Spitzer image contains data from both its infrared array camera and multi-band imaging photometer. Light with a wavelength of 3.6 microns has been color-coded blue; 4.5-micron light is blue-green; 5.8-micron and 8.0-micron light are green; and 24-micron light is red. This image is from February 2011.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Soyuz launches two Galileo satellites from French Guiana

The European Space Agency scored a double success on 21 October with it's first launch of a Soyuz rocket from  French Guiana followed by the successful deployment of it's first two operational Galileo navagation satellites.

The successful Soyuz rocket launch also cleared the way for a similar rocket to launch a Progress freighter from Baikonur to the International Space Station on 30 October. After a Soyuz rocket crashed on 24 August, Progress freighter and Soyuz manned spacecraft launches have been on hold, threatening the temporary de-crewing of the ISS.

The first pair of satellites for Europe's Galileo global navigation satellite system were lofted into orbit by the first Russian Soyuz vehicle ever launched from Europe's Spaceport in French Guiana in a milestone mission.

The Soyuz VS01 flight, operated by Arianespace, started with liftoff from the new launch complex in French Guiana at 10:30 GMT (12:30 CEST) on 21 October.

All of the Soyuz stages performed perfectly and the Fregat-MT upper stage released the Galileo satellites into their target orbit at 23 222 km altitude, 3 hours 49 minutes after liftoff.

ESA Portal - One Soyuz launcher, two Galileo satellites, three successes for Europe

Opportunity will winter on north rim of Endeavour Crater

Opportunity Keeps Rolling With an Eye on Future Havens for Next Winter

The project has made the decision that Opportunity will winter over on the north end of Cape York on the rim of Endeavour crater where northern tilts are favorable for energy production.

Opportunity is moving generally north across Cape York on the rim of Endeavour crater with an eye ahead to the next winter.

With her solar arrays dustier and atmospheric opacity higher than in past years, the winter will be more challenging. So, Opportunity has been surveying regions with favorable northerly tilts so she can spend the winter months actively exploring.

On Sol 2738 (Oct. 7, 2011), the rover drove north toward the feature "Shoemaker Ridge" with a 28-meter (92-foot) drive. On the next sol, Opportunity continued her scouting trek with a 78-meter (256-foot) drive to the north-northeast. On Sol 2742 (Oct. 11, 2011), the rover conducted a reconnaissance of the local area with a zigzag drive totaling almost 40 meters (131 feet). The plan ahead is more northward driving surveying Cape York.

As of Sol 2744 (Oct. 13, 2011), solar array energy production was 316 watt-hours with an atmospheric opacity (Tau) of 0.791 and a solar array dust factor of 0.498.

Total odometry is 20.98 miles (33,761.36 meters, or 33.7 kilometers).

Image credit:NASA

Photo of the Day: Europe at Night

Incredible view of Central and Eastern Europe at Night from the ISS taken on 10/02/11.

This is one of a series of night time images photographed by one of the Expedition 29 crew members from the International Space Station. It features Central and Eastern Europe, extending from the Netherlands to Hungary and Italy to northern Poland. Overall, the view includes the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Poland, and Hungary. When the photo was taken on Oct 2, 2011, the station was over Corsica at 43.18 degrees north latitude and 9.95 degrees east longitude.

Editor's note: Incredible photos from the ISS! This has also been added to the NASA Views Earth at Night photoset:

Image credit: NASA

Photo of the Day: Aurora Australis Over Indian Ocean

Aurora Australis Over Indian Ocean (NASA, International Space Station, 09/17/11)

This is one of a series of night time images photographed by one of the Expedition 29 crew members from the International Space Station. It features Aurora Australis over the southern Indian ocean. Nadir coordinates are 50.16 south latitude and 48.11 degrees east longitude.

Watch Soyuz's first launch from it's new South American Launch site

A historic launch for Arianespace: First Soyuz mission from Guiana Space Center a success; First two Galileo satellites in orbit
Kourou, October 21, 2011
On Friday, October 21, at 7:30 am local time (10:30 UT), Arianespace successfully launched the first Soyuz rocket from the Guiana Space Center (CSG) in French Guiana, orbiting the first two satellites in the Galileo constellation. This historic launch signals the advent of the world's broadest range of commercial launch services, and will ensure Europe's independence in satellite positioning and navigation services.
A success story for Europe and Russia 

The "Soyuz at CSG" program carries on the partnership between Europe and Russia that started in 1996 with the creation of the Starsem joint venture to operate Soyuz commercial launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. It gives Europe access to a proven medium launch vehicle, while allowing Russia to increase its annual production of Soyuz launchers.
With Ariane 5, Soyuz and shortly the Vega light launcher, Arianespace is the only launch services company in the world capable of launching all types of payloads to all orbits, including communications, scientific and Earth observation satellites, constellations, cargo missions to the International Space Station and more.


Arianespace Flight VS01: Soyuz ST-B – Galileo IOV-1; Launch set for Friday, October 21, 2011

Kourou, October 20, 2011
Following the work performed on the Soyuz launch facility and the associated additional checks, Arianespace has decided to restart the countdown operations for the launch VS01, Soyuz STB – Galileo IOV-1.
Liftoff of the Soyuz ST-B launcher is now set for Friday, October 21, at exactly:
10:30:26 a.m.  (UTC) Friday, October 21, 2011
07:30:26 a.m.   (French Guiana time)
12:30:26 p.m.  (Paris time)
06:30:26 a.m.   (Washington DC Time)
02:30:26 p.m.  (Moscow time) 

The launch of Europe’s first Galileo navigation satellites on Russia’s first Soyuz rocket to depart from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana is on schedule.

Liftoff is scheduled for Thursday, 20 October at 12:34 CEST (10:34 GMT, 06:34 EST time). Streaming video begins an hour before launch.

The launch will be the first time that Russia’s venerable Soyuz vehicle has ascended from European territory, adding a trusted workhorse to Europe’s launchers family.

This Soyuz-2 version is the latest in the renowned family of Russian rockets that began the space race more than 50 years ago by carrying both the first satellite, Sputnik, and the first man, Yuri Gagarin, into space.

Riding Soyuz will be the first two operational satellites in the Galileo constellation that will provide Europe with an independent global satellite navigation system.

Click here for ESA video page

Image: ESA

Spacecraft View of Aurora Australis from Space

"From space, the aurora is a crown of light that circles each of Earth’s poles. The IMAGE satellite captured this view of the aurora australis (southern lights) on September 11, 2005, four days after a record-setting solar flare sent plasma—an ionized gas of protons and electrons—flying towards the Earth. The ring of light that the solar storm generated over Antarctica glows green in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum, shown in this image. The IMAGE observations of the aurora are overlaid onto NASA’s satellite-based Blue Marble image. From the Earth’s surface, the ring would appear as a curtain of light shimmering across the night sky."

ROSAT - Will it fall on you?

Note:  ROSAT_Reentry Twitter updates are live in the right column.

ROSAT, a defunct German x-ray observatory, is scheduled to make an un-controlled reentry this week.  Current predictions are pointing to October 22 and 23 as the most probable days.

It's expected that up to 30 pieces could survive reentry.  The largest single fragment being the telescopes mirror, weighing 1.7 tons.

ROSAT's orbital inclination is 53 degrees, which means that, at the moment, the impact point for any surviving fragments could be anywhere on Earth between latitudes 53 degrees north and south.

Will it fall on you?  Not likely.  As you can see from the image above, ROSAT spends most of it's time over water.  There's about a 70% chance it will fall into an ocean.  And if it does fall on land there's not much chance you'll be under it.

DLR Portal - ROSAT re-entry:

Images: DLR

Photo of the Day: Kanto and Nagoya areas of Japan at night

Check out the fantasic night photo of Japan from JAXA astronaut Satoshi Furukawa aboard the ISS.  The photo is of the Kanto and Nagoya areas.

Photo of the Day: Stars Adorn Orion's Sword

This image for NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope focuses on an active stellar nursery near the sword in the constellation Orion.  Thousands of young stars and developing protostars are imaged here. Many will turn out like our sun. Some are even more massive. These massive stars light up the Orion nebula, which is seen here as the bright region near the center of the image.

NASA - Stars Adorn Orion's Sword

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Photo of the Day: Vesta equatorial troughs and dark material

The DAWN image team has released this photo of Vesta's equatorial region.

"This Dawn FC (framing camera) image shows the equatorial troughs of Vesta running obliquely across the image. These troughs occur around most of Vesta’s equatorial region and are one of its most striking features. They both overlie and are overlain by impact craters. A large linear structure seems to cut across these troughs in the bottom left side of the image. Also distinctive is the dark material which is associated with the troughs, impact craters (right side of image) and the dark hill (center of image). This dark hill remains dark from many different viewing angles in a selection of images, so its dark appearance is not just due to shadowing effects. Many possible formation mechanisms for this dark hill are currently under investigation."

Dawn Mission: News & Events > Equatorial troughs and dark material :

A Tour of NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA)

I enjoyed a tour of NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFOA), which was on display at Moffett Field near San Francisco this weekend.  The aircraft is a Boeing 747SP modified to carry a telescope in its fuselage. SOFIA is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR)

The heart of SOFIA is a 2.5 meter (100 inch) Bent Cassegrain/Nasmyth telescope built in Germany.  It needs to be flown to high altitude, above most of the infrared absorbing water vapor in the atmosphere, to function.  The telescope can collect data at infrared wavelengths between 0.3 and 1600 microns. It's hoped that the lower limit will be pushed to 1.5 microns soon. Peering perpendicular to the direction of flight the telescope has a range of motion of + 15 to + 70 degrees above the horizon and can move about + or - 3 degrees fore and aft to correct for the motion of the aircraft.

Interchangeable instruments can be mounted to the telescope.  One of these is the Faint Object Infrared Camera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST). FORCAST is a mid-infrared camera that records images at infrared wavelengths of 5 to 40 microns that are used to study celestial objects such as planets and star forming regions.

FORCAST being installed in SOFIA - NASA
George Gull, a Cornell University research support specialist and now lead engineer for the FORCAST infrared camera talked with me a few minutes about SOFIA and FORCAST.  

First, he said, the research flights are marathons, normally lasting 10 hours.  The aircraft inatally climbs to 35,000 feet, instruments are adjusted and observations made.  As fuel burns off, reducing the weight of the aircraft, SOFIA will climb to 39,000 feet, instruments are readjusted and more observations made. Finally the aircraft climbs to 45,000 feet and the cycle is repeated.

Secondly, the FORCAST instrument is cooled to 3 degrees kelvin by liquid helium and can detect temperatures as low as about 30 degrees kelvin, which means it can see very faint infrared sources.  

Thanks Mr. Gull for taking the time to speak so enthusiastically to that continuous line of visitors. It was the highlight of my day.  That's him wearing the blue shirt in the photo by the way. 

SOFIA's flightplans are carefully designed to maximize observing time.  Area's of the sky move out of view as the earth rotates or the aircraft turns.  Careful planning can mean up to 8 hours observing time on a single flight. A planned future flight path from New Zealand to Australia will allow SOFIA to keep the center of our Milky Way Galaxy in view for 10 continuous hours. 

One of the major advantages of SOFIA over ground based observatories is that it can move to where the action is.  This was demonstrated recently when the aircraft flew 1800 miles out over the Pacific Ocean from its base in Southern California to position itself in the center of the dwarf planet Pluto's shadow's as it eclipsed a distant star. It was the only observatory capable of doing so.

I also got a chance to talk to one of the pilots and asked him how the aircraft behaved when the door opened.  He said the aerodynamics of the door were so well designed that there was no difference in the planes handling characteristics. 

Here are some fun facts about the 747SP that became SOFIA:
  • It was delevered to Pan American Airlines in May of 1977 and christened "Clipper Lindbergh" by Anne Morrow Lindbergh on the 50th year anniversary of Charles A Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic.
  • In 1986 it was sold to United Airlines after the bankruptcy of Pan Am. 
  • In 1989 the above mentioned George Gull, just happened to notice the "Clipper Lindbergh" insignia on his plane when he flew from Hong Kong to San Francisco, so he was actually the first member of the team to fly on the aircraft.
  • In 1995 it was retired and stored at the Las Vegas airport. 
  • NASA bought the aircraft in 1997 and moved it to Waco Texas for modification and installation of the telescope.  
  • It remained in Waco until the heavly modified plane finally flew again in 2007.  It's test pilot was former NASA astronaut Gordon Fullerton, who was 71 at the time.
  • And in a real touch of class by NASA, SOFIA was rechristened "Clipper Lindbergh" by Charles Lindbergh's grandson Eric Lindbergh in May of 2007.
  • On 5/25/2010 SOFIA made its "first light flight." 

Russian Sample Return mission to Martian Moon Phobos aims for November Liftoff

Russian Sample Return mission to Martian Moon Phobos aims for November Liftoff:

"In just over 3 weeks’ time, Russia plans to launch a bold mission to Mars whose objective, if successful , is to land on the Martian Moon Phobos and return a cargo of precious soil samples back to Earth about three years later."

Space Station probably won't have to evacuated

A panel of experts told U.S. lawmakers on October 12 that the International Space Station likely won't have to be evacuated due to the failure of a Soyuz rocket launching a Progress cargo craft to the orbiting lab.

A Russian investigating commission pinpointed the likely problem as contamination in fuel lines in the third stage of the Soyuz.  An independent NASA team agrees with that assessment.

The finding clears the way for another progress launch on October 30 and a crewed Soyuz launch on November 14.  The current three person crew on the ISS is scheduled to return to earth on November 22. That time frame would keep the orbiting outpost staffed, giving the new three-person crew about five days to learn the ropes from the departing space flyers.

If that launch gets delayed, the station would be completely de-staffed for the first time in more than a decade. But that wouldn't spell disaster for the orbiting lab, the panelists said.  The station can be flown remotely from Mission Control for a time.

Source: Fox News:

Photo of the Day: Crescent moons below Saturn's rings

Saturn's moons Enceladus and Tethys adorn Saturn's rings in this image from the Cassini spacecraft.

Enceladus (313 miles, or 504 kilometers across) appears just below the rings here, near the center of the image. Tethys (660 miles, or 1,062 kilometers across) is near the bottom center of the image. Tethys is closer to Cassini than is Enceladus.

Image credit: NASA/JPL

Watch Opportunity's drive to Endeavor Crater

NASA's remaining Mars rover Opportunity has spent most of the last three years driving from Victoria crater, which is near it's landing site, to Endeavor crater, over 13 miles away. At the end of each drive an image of the horizon was recorded. Those images have now been assembled into a video.

Japan's Venus probe's engine exploded

The latest test performed on Japans Akatsuki Venus probe indicate that it's "main engine combustion chamber no longer exists." This means the engine probably exploded on December 6, 2010 as the spacecraft was preforming it's critical Venus orbit insertion burn, causing it to fly past Venus.

The thrusters were supposed to fire for 12 minutes, but an unexpected pressure drop in the fuel line caused them to fail after only 2.5 minutes, JAXA officials have said.

Currently the Japanese Space Agency is planning to make another attempt at Venus orbit insertion in 2015, the next time the probe will pass the planet.  The missing main engine means that the attempt will have to be made with Akatsuki's RCS thrusters.

Photo of the Day: ISS flying over aurora

This amazing photo was found on the Fragile Oasis Facebook page. The caption reads: 

"Good evening #FromSpace and @Astro_Aggie/Mike Fossum, current commander of the International Space Station, and a sensational space photographer. Enjoy!"

Mars Science Laboratory mated to heat shield

Mars Science Laboratory mated to heatshield

Now in final preparations for launch, the Mars Science Laboratory, already attached to it's back shell and proplussion package, has now been mated to it's heat shield.

The operation was performed by technicians at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The heat shield and the spacecraft's back shell form an aeroshell that encapsulates and protects the rover from the intense heat it will experience during the final leg of the trip to Mars-the friction-filled descent through the Martian atmosphere.

The mission is scheduled for launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station during the period from Nov. 25 to Dec. 18. Arrival at Gale Crater on Mars is expected in August 2012.

After arrival, the Curiosity rover will investigate whether the landing region has had environmental conditions favorable for supporting microbial life and favorable for preserving clues about whether life existed."

'via Blog this'