Entries in NASA (103)


NASA's Actual Plan to Deflect an Approaching Asteroid

Hemera/Thinkstock(HOUSTON) -- Asteroids are frightening things. With the approach of QE2, a big one that would end civilization, the galaxy briefly put Earth on notice.

Thankfully, QE2 missed the planet Friday night.

“Scientists have concluded that the asteroid poses no threat to planet Earth,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on Friday, reassuring mankind it will live another day. ”I never really thought I’d be standing up here saying that, but I guess I am.”

But what if an asteroid were headed straight for Earth?

NASA evidently has us covered. In 2005, in a bill authorizing space-program funds, Congress asked NASA for a plan to identify, track and deflect – yes, deflect – all manner of PHOs (potentially harmful objects) that could pose a threat.

The directive, according to NASA, is known as the George E. Brown Jr. Near-Earth Object Survey Act, named after the late Democratic chairman of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, who died in 1999 and didn’t live to see NASA’s asteroid plan on paper. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., successfully included it in the 2005 bill.

With that congressional prompt, NASA considered many science-reality options, including some that bore resemblance to film plots.

Among the solutions NASA studied were firing a nuclear missile at the asteroid, landing a nuclear bomb on the surface, drilling into the great space rock and exploding a nuclear bomb there (which Bruce Willis attempted to do in the film, Armageddon), and all those same strategies with conventional bombs.

The scientists also gamed out some weirder possibilities designed with more warning time in mind.

Those included flying a spacecraft near the asteroid for a long time to act as a “gravity tractor” and pull it off course (deemed ineffective, unsurprisingly); using a large mirror to focus sunlight and “boil off” some material from the asteroid; a spacecraft “rendezvous” with the asteroid to “boil off” some material using a “pulse laser”; landing on the asteroid, drilling into it, and “eject[ing] material from PHO at high velocity”; “attach[ing]” a spacecraft to the asteroid and pushing it out of the way; and what NASA called the “Enhanced Yarkovsky Effect” – altering the reflectiveness of a rotating asteroid and  counting on the “radiation from sunheated material” to push the asteroid off course.

NASA charted how effectively each method could push a gigantic space rock off course.

The winner: nuclear bomb. For a fast-approaching comet, the only recourse may be drilling into it and detonating a nuclear bomb, according to NASA research.

But, in general, NASA favored simply firing a missile at a space rock and detonating it nearby. Landing on the asteroid, or drilling into it, would make for a better explosion, but NASA was wary of fragmenting the big rock.

Unfortunately, nuclear explosions in space are banned under a 1967 U.N. space treaty, so other nations would have to sign off on the plan.

From the 2007 NASA report to Congress:

    In the impulsive category, the use of a nuclear device was found to be the most effective means to deflect a PHO. Because of the large amount of energy delivered, nuclear devices would require the least amount of detailed information about the threatening object, reducing the need for detailed characterization. While detonation of a nuclear device on or below the surface of a threatening object was found to be 10-100 times more efficient than detonating a nuclear device above the surface, the standoff detonation would be less likely to fragment the target. A nuclear standoff mission could be designed knowing only the orbit and approximate mass of the threat, and missions could be carried out incrementally to reach the required amount of deflection. Additional information about the object’s mass and physical properties would perhaps increase the effectiveness, but likely would not be required to accomplish the goal. It should be noted that because of restrictions found in Article IV of the “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space,” including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, use of a nuclear device would likely require prior international coordination. The study team also examined conventional explosives, but found they were ineffective against most threats.

So there you have it: The government’s plan if an asteroid approaches is to shoot a nuclear missile at it. The planet has George E. Brown, Dana Rohrabacher and NASA to thank.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio


Amazon CEO Recovers NASA's Apollo Engines from Bottom of Atlantic

Bezos Expeditions(CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.) -- Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos announced Wednesday that his underwater expedition had successfully recovered the mangled wreckage of two rocket engines from NASA’s Apollo program from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

After spending three weeks at sea, Bezos wrote on his personal blog that he and his team were heading back to Cape Canaveral, in Florida, with a treasure trove of NASA artifacts from the space era.

“We’ve seen an underwater wonderland — an incredible sculpture garden of twisted F-1 engines that tells the story of a fiery and violent end, one that serves testament to the Apollo program,” Bezos wrote.

Bezos’ team used remotely operated vehicles to dive down 14,000 feet (almost three miles) to the dark depths of the ocean floor, where they recovered “major components” of two Saturn V F-1 rocket engines flown during the Apollo program (1963-’72). The program included lunar missions and earth orbiting missions, most famously Apollo 11, which sent Neil Armstrong to the moon in 1969.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement to ABC News that Bezos approached the space agency nearly a year ago with his plan to recover the engines and praised the team’s efforts.

“We share the excitement expressed by Jeff and his team in announcing the recovery of two of the powerful Saturn V first-stage engines from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean,” Bolden said. ”This is a historic find and I congratulate the team for its determination and perseverance in the recovery of these important artifacts of our first efforts to send humans beyond Earth orbit.”

After decades of being exposed to water, many of the engine components are missing serial numbers or pieces, “which is going to make mission identification difficult,” Bezos wrote.

NASA will work with the expedition team to restore the engine hardware and prevent further corrosion. Bezos hopes to then put the engines on display.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio


Space Shuttle Columbia Crew Remembered 10 Years Later

NASA/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- Ten years ago on Friday, space shuttle Columbia exploded while re-entering the Earth's atmosphere, killing everyone on board.

On Friday, at 9:16 a.m. ET, the time Columbia would have landed at the Kennedy Space Center on Feb. 1, 2003, there will be a minute of silence. 

A bell will toll seven times at the Johnson Space Center for the seven astronauts who died on Columbia's final mission, STS 107: Commander Rick Husband, Pilot Willie McCool, Mission Specialists Michael Anderson, David Brown, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla and Ilan Ramon.

NASA's Mission Control suspected that something might have been wrong with the shuttle before it made its descent, but opted not to say anything.

Wayne Hale, who later became space shuttle program manager, struggled with whether or not to tell the astronauts.  He recently wrote about the debate in his blog, recalling a meeting to discuss the dilemma:

"After one of the MMTs (Mission Management Team) when possible damage to the orbiter was discussed, he (Flight Director Jon Harpold) gave me his opinion: 'You know, there is nothing we can do about damage to the TPS (Thermal Protection System).  If it has been damaged it's probably better not to know.  I think the crew would rather not know.  Don't you think it would be better for them to have a happy successful flight and die unexpectedly during entry than to stay on orbit, knowing that there was nothing to be done, until the air ran out?"

The dilemma for mission managers was that they simply did not know if the space shuttle was damaged.  The doomed astronauts were not told of the risk.

One of the most dramatic moments after Columbia crashed came when entry Flight Director Leroy Cain ordered the doors locked and computer data saved.

There were tears in his eyes and stunned silence in Mission Control.  The space shuttle had disintegrated over Texas, killing the seven astronauts on board and scattering debris across hundreds of miles.

While no one knew for sure what caused Columbia's accident, there were engineers at the Johnson Space Center who were pretty sure they knew what happened, who had tried to alert senior management, and who were ignored.

Rodney Rocha was one of them, and on that sunny Saturday morning in Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center, when data from the orbiter stopped coming in, and the position display froze over Texas, he was concentrating on the unusual buildup of sensor telemetry on the crippled orbiter.

Several engineers at the space agency suspected something was wrong.  Fuzzy video showed foam breaking off the orbiter's external fuel tank and hitting its left wing during blast off.  But no one knew if there was damage.  

At that time, NASA had no options for repair.  The crew was on a science mission, nowhere near the International Space Station.  They had no robotic arm to look at the wing, no way to repair the wing if they had damage, and it would take much too long to send up another space shuttle to rescue the crew.

It was agonizing for Rocha, who had begged the Mission Management Team to ask the Department of Defense to use whatever it had to take high resolution photos.  He was turned down.  In an exclusive interview with ABC News in 2003, he detailed how his requests were repeatedly denied.

"I made a phone call to the manager of the shuttle engineering office, the same person that had relayed the 'No' message to me from orbiter management.  I was still pretty agitated and upset.  Had he spoken to our engineering director about this?  I wanted the director of JSC engineering to be informed.  Had he been informed?  And he said no.  I was thunderstruck and astonished again," Rocha said.

About three minutes after all data stopped, astronaut Charlie Hobaugh, who was the capcom in Mission Control, began transmitting in the blind to Columbia on the UHF backup radio system.

"Columbia, Houston, UHF comm.  Check," he repeated every 15 to 30 seconds, but with no response.  

In central Texas, thousands of people at that moment were observing the orbiter break up at Mach 18.3 and 207,000 feet.

A few minutes later is when Cain ordered the doors locked and the computer data saved.

The painful investigation in the year that followed determined foam was the physical cause of the accident.  A piece of foam the size of a briefcase -- weighing 1.67 pounds -- slammed into Columbia's left wing during blast off, gouged a hole in the protective tiles, which left the shuttle vulnerable to the brutal temperatures of re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere.

But investigators soon found more than foam was to blame.  For years foam had been coming off the external tank and hitting the shuttle, and for years NASA had come to accept foam debris as normal.

Hale is the only person at NASA who publicly accepted blame for the "normalization of the abnormal."  He went on to lead NASA's return to flight for the space shuttle program.  And he vowed that the space agency would never again leave anyone behind.

"After the accident, when we were reconstituting the Mission Management Team, my words to them were 'We are never ever going to say that there is nothing we can do,'" Hale said.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio


Mars Opportunity Rover: Nine Years and Still Going

Cornell/JPL/NASA(NEW YORK) -- When the Mars rover Opportunity settled on the Martian surface nine years ago on Friday, mission managers at NASA said they would be pleased if it lasted for 90 days.

Instead, it's been 3,201 days, and still counting.  The rover has driven 22.03 miles, mostly at a snail's pace, from one crater to another, stopping for months at a time in the frigid Martian winters.  The six motorized wheels, rated to turn 2.5 million times, have lasted 70 million, and are all still working.

"Opportunity is still in very good health, especially considering what it's gone through," said John Callas, manager of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover project.  "The surface of Mars is a pretty tough place; there can be temperature fluctuations of a hundred degrees each day.  That's pretty hard on the hardware."

When Opportunity and its twin rover, Spirit, reached Mars in January 2004, there was a fair bit of sniping that NASA, with all that 90-day talk, was playing down expectations.  It escalated when Steve Squyres of Cornell University, the principal investigator for the missions, said things like, "We're on Sol 300 of a 90-Sol mission."  (A Sol is a day on Mars, and lasts 24 hours, 39 minutes.)

Callas and others have insisted that the prediction was based on engineering, not a nod to public relations.

"There was an expectation that airfall dust would accumulate on the rover, so that its solar panels would be able to gather less electricity," said Callas.  "We saw that on Pathfinder," a small rover that landed on Mars in 1997. "The cold climate was also expected to be hard on the rovers' batteries, and changes in temperature from night to day would probably pop a circuit or two."

Instead, the temperatures weren't quite as tough as engineers had expected, and the rovers proved tougher.  They did become filthy as the red Martian dust settled on them, reducing the sunlight on the solar panels -- but every now and then a healthy gust came along, surprising everyone on Earth by cleaning the ships off.

Spirit, in hilly territory on the other side of the planet, finally got stuck in crusty soil in 2009, and its radio went silent the next year.  But Opportunity, though it's had some close calls, is still going.

In its first weeks, NASA said Opportunity found chemical proof that there had once been standing water on the surface of Mars -- good news if you're looking for signs that the planet could once have been friendly to life.  Since then, it's been sent to other places, with rocks and soil that are probably older, and with clay that may have been left by ancient rivers.

About 20 NASA staff members still work full-time on Opportunity at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.  Another 60 split their time between Opportunity and other projects, such as the Curiosity rover that landed last August.  About 100 scientists, doing research on Mars, pop in and out.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio


Astronaut Scott Kelly to Spend Year in Space, Make Room for Space Tourists

NASA/Bill Ingalls(WASHINGTON) -- Astronaut Scott Kelly will become the first U.S. astronaut to spend a year in space. Why? He is volunteering to be a human guinea pig -- to help NASA collect detailed medical and psychological data about the effects of long-term spaceflight on a human. He and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko are scheduled to launch to the International Space Station in 2015 and return to Earth in 2016.

He was on the space station when his twin brother Mark was struggling to deal with the trauma of his wife's shooting. Mark Kelly, now retired from the astronaut corps, is married to former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords – and Scott could only offer long-distance support to his twin brother when his wife was shot in January 2011.

Jared Loughner has now pleaded guilty to 19 federal charges in the mass shooting that killed six and injured 13, including Giffords, who was hosting a congressional event that day.

Scott Kelly wished he could have done more to help. That is one of the drawbacks of a long-term mission -- there is no easy way home if something happens to a loved one on Earth.

Kelly clearly understands the risks -- and the rewards -- of long-duration space flight. He is, after all, a Navy fighter pilot, used to assignments overseas. He told ABC News in an interview before his last mission to the space station that his research was important to the future of space travel.

"We need to learn how people can live and work in space for long periods of time, also how the equipment can survive and operate for long periods," he said. "If we are ever going to send people to live on the Moon, we are three days away, or to live on Mars where you are potentially 18 months away, we need to have some very robust systems to allow them to survive there. And the only place you can learn how to build and operate those systems is on the space station."

We already know many of the risks -- NASA has documented the damage to the eyesight of seven astronauts after they returned from spending months in space. Their flight surgeons have gone on record discussing bone density loss, decreased muscle mass, and the psychological isolation.

Why would anyone volunteer for this? The International Space Station is, after all, the only game in town if you are an astronaut and a mission to the dark side to the moon, while a popular topic, isn't funded yet, and Mars? Still decades away.

When will the U.S. space program get back into flying NASA astronauts into space? Hopefully by 2017. Several companies are working to build and certify human-rated spacecraft to take crew and cargo to the International Space Station.

While NASA touts the medical research accumulated from a year in space, the reality is that this also frees up a couple of seats on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to sell to tourists.

When the U.S. space shuttles quit flying last year, they created a conundrum for companies like Space Adventures, whose business -- sending rich tourists into space -- depended upon the resources of Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency. Roscosmos is the only space agency willing to send tourists to space (NASA won't do it, and now they don't have a spacecraft anyway so it's a moot point). Singer Sarah Brightman announced she is buying one of the seats -- and then launched a concert tour, so time will tell if she is really serious about training for a flight.

Kelly is an experienced astronaut -- he served as pilot on space shuttle mission STS-103 in 1999, commanded STS-118 in 2007, was flight engineer on the International Space Station Expedition 25 in 2010 and commander of Expedition 26 in 2011.

Kelly has logged more than 180 days in space, and a yearlong mission would bring his total to almost 550 days. Impressive numbers, but the record will still belong to Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, who, over six missions, spent 803 days, 9 hours and 39 minutes of his life in space.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Space Shuttle Endeavour Hits Los Angeles for Final Journey

NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis(LOS ANGELES) -- Space shuttle Endeavour embarked on its final mission Friday, traveling through the streets of South Los Angeles to reach its new home at the California Science Center.

The 165,000-pound shuttle will be on the road for two days as it makes the 12-mile trip from Los Angeles International Airport, where it had been since late September.  Once it arrives at the CSC, it will be put on permanent display.

Endeavour was built after the loss of the shuttle Challenger in 1986 and became NASA’s fifth space shuttle orbiter.  It made its first flight in 1992 and in its 25 missions, it orbited the Earth more than 4,600 times and spent 299 days in space.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Gabrielle Giffords, Mark Kelly Watch Endeavour Space Shuttle Fly Over Tucson

NASA/ Robert Markowitz(TUCSON, Ariz.) -- The space shuttle Endeavour arrived in California Thursday after taking a detour over Tucson as former astronaut Mark Kelly and his wife, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, watched from a rooftop at the University of Arizona.

Kelly, Endeavour's last commander, asked Wednesday that Endeavour make a detour and fly over Tucson, so that Giffords could see it one last time.

The last-minute suggestion was a bit of a surprise to NASA, but it put out a statement saying it would honor Kelly’s request.

“As part of the delivery of Endeavour to Los Angeles, Endeavour will be flown over the city of Tucson,” said the agency.  “NASA decided to honor that request to pay our respects to a long-time agency supporter in former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and Kelly, who commanded Endeavour’s final mission, STS-134. The flight over Tucson will add no additional time or cost to the delivery of Endeavour.”

Kelly was training for the flight in January 2011 when Giffords was wounded in an assassination attempt in Tucson, where she was meeting with people from her district.  After weeks of watching to see how she was recovering, Kelly decided to go ahead with the flight.   It was bittersweet, but he had been training for two years with his crew, and said he had had faith in the medical team treating his wife.

This week Endeavour, now retired like the other space shuttles, flew a victory lap across the South, taking off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, dropping from 14,000 feet to 1,500 to circle historic locations in space shuttle history.

On Wednesday, the orbiter, on top of its 747 carrier plane, circled over Houston and the Johnson Space Center. Endeavour then headed to El Paso Thursday, where it refueled and went on to Edwards Air Force Base, north of Los Angeles.

On Friday it will fly to Los Angeles International Airport, and then it will be prepped for transport through city streets to its final home -- as a permanent display at the California Science Center.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


NASA to Fly Space Shuttle Endeavour Over Tucson to Honor Gabby Giffords

NASA/ Robert Markowitz(HOUSTON) -- The space shuttle Endeavour is on a 2,700-mile cross-country trip. So you have to wonder why it couldn’t make one small detour -- especially at the request of former astronaut Mark Kelly, who commanded Endeavour’s last mission before it was retired.

Kelly’s wife, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was struggling to recover from an attempted assassination in Tucson early last year, and his mission to the International Space Station conflicted with her recovery, so his decision to command it was bittersweet, but he had been training for so long and had faith in the medical team treating his wife.

Endeavour is flying a victory lap across the South, taking off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, dropping from 14,000 feet to 1,500 to circle historic locations in space shuttle history. The orbiter, on top of its 747 carrier plane, circled over Houston and the Johnson Space Center Wednesday. Endeavour will overnight in Houston, then head to El Paso, where it will refuel, then arrive in Los Angeles late in the week. It is to go on permanent display at the California Science Center.

Mark Kelly’s request for Endeavour to make a detour and fly over Tucson, so Giffords could see it one last time, doesn’t take it that far out of the way, especially when the idea is for it to be seen anyhow.

The last-minute suggestion was a bit of a surprise to NASA, but late in the day it put out a statement saying it would honor Kelly’s request.

“As part of the delivery of Endeavour to Los Angeles, Endeavour will be flown over the city of Tucson,” said the agency.  “NASA decided to honor that request to pay our respects to a long-time agency supporter in former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and Kelly, who commanded Endeavour’s final mission, STS-134. The flight over Tucson will add no additional time or cost to the delivery of Endeavour.”

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Neil Armstrong to Have Private Funeral Friday

NASA(WASHINGTON) -- Neil Armstrong, remembered after his death Saturday as a quiet man, is to have a quiet funeral on Friday near his Cincinnati home, NASA confirmed Monday. The service is to be private, though Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who called Armstrong “a good friend and adviser,” will be there for a eulogy. While there have been discussions of a national memorial service, nothing has been confirmed yet.

The White House issued a proclamation Monday afternoon that flags would fly at half-staff on Friday. The Armstrong Air & Space Museum in Armstrong’s birth place of Wapakoneta, Ohio, plans a tribute Wednesday night; Purdue University in Indiana, where he studied engineering, announced a late-afternoon memorial to take place Monday.  Streaming video of the service can be found on the Purdue website.

So far everything is in keeping with his family’s description of him -- “a reluctant American hero who always believed he was just doing his job.”

Armstrong -- who commanded the world’s attention in 1969 when he became the first human being to walk on the moon -- died Saturday of complications following heart surgery.  His family would not say where he died, though he had spent the last several decades in his native Ohio.

There were tributes from around the world -- from President Obama and Mitt Romney, from fellow astronauts and celebrities -- but his family asked people to dispense with words.

"Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty,” they said in their statement announcing his death, “and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Obama Calls Mars Rover Team, Considers Mohawk

File photo. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza(WASHINGTON) -- The team behind NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover received a congratulatory call from the president today. Phoning into the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., Obama told the technicians and administrators he “could not be more excited” about what they have been up to.

“Somebody asked me the other day whether you had already found Martians,” the president said. “I said we have to give you a little bit of time but we know you’re all hard at work and getting some well deserved rest after a successful landing. I just wanted to call and say congratulations to the entire Mars Science Laboratory team and really all of JPL.”

Obama would later tell those NASA employees, “If in fact you do make contact with Martians, please let me know right away.”

Several hundred NASA employees crammed a mission control center to hear the call. The president said their dedication had, “captured the attention, imagination of millions of people. Not just across our country, but people all around the world.”

Curiosity touched down on the red planet during the early hours of Aug. 6, executing what may be regarded as the most complex robotic landing ever successfully attempted in space. In what NASA had previously dubbed as “seven minutes of terror,” a complicated series of parachutes, rocket boosters, and a new “sky crane,” lowered the Mini Cooper-sized rover into the rust-colored soil.

Of 40 spacecraft sent to Mars from the U.S., Russia, Japan, and European Union, 26 have failed.

Obama said their “mind boggling” success in the operation — and its future scientific payoff — “embodies the American spirit.”

“Curiosity is going to be telling us things that we did not know before, and laying the ground work for an even more audacious effort in the future and that is a human mission to the red planet.”

The president thanked the team leaders present for the call, but had a special shout out for flight director Bobak Ferdowsi, whose Mohawk hairdo turned him into an internet celebrity this week when he was spotted by viewers of the landing.

“In the past I thought about getting a Mohawk myself,” the president joked. “My team keeps on discouraging me. Now that he’s received marriage proposals and thousands of new Twitter followers I think I may go back to my team and see if it makes sense.”

The president attempted to remind listeners of his administration’s dedication to math and science education, hoping it would inspire more young people to take up the pursuit of knowledge.

“We’re fortunate to be part of a society that can reach the outer planets; explore frontiers that were only imagined by our ancestors. So it’s inspiring to all of us.”

The president made the call from aboard Air Force One as he flew between Chicago and Omaha, Neb., on a campaign trip.

President Obama wasn’t the only candidate to praise the Mars mission today. Addressing supporters in Florida, Mitt Romney said, “We just landed on Mars and took a good look at what’s going on there.”

“And I know the Chinese are planning on going to the moon and I hope they have a good experience doing that,” he said. “And I hope they stop in and take a look at our flag that was put there 43 years ago!”

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio