Tag Archives: shuttle

Image: Sierra Nevada Corp.

NASA awards ISS cargo duties to a third private corp that uses a mini-shuttle

There’s a now a third private space entity that’s been screened and granted permission to ferry cargo to and fro the International Space Station. Joining SpaceX and Orbital will be the Sierra Nevada Corp. which plans to use a reusable winged craft that looks like a mini-shuttle. The design allows for a soft landing on a runway, instead of dropping the ocean, that might prove more effective for retrieving sensitive scientific instruments.

The space company worth billions you likely never heard about

Image: Sierra Nevada Corp.

Image: Sierra Nevada Corp.

In 2008, anticipating the impending decommissioning of the space shuttle, NASA awarded the first commercial space contract worth $3 bn. In 2012, a year after the shuttle was retired, SpaceX flew the first International Space Station re-supply mission. Orbital with its  Cygnus cargo spacecraft was also included in the program.

After it lost a very important bid to SpaceX and Boeing to transport astronauts to the ISS, Sierra Nevada Corp. finally hit the jackpot.

“Within a few short years, the world will once again see a United States winged vehicle launch and return from space to a runway landing,” Mark Sirangelo, vice president of Sierra Nevada’s space systems, said in a statement.

Artist impression of the Dream Chaser docked with the ISS. Image: Sierra Nevada Corp.

Artist impression of the Dream Chaser docked with the ISS. Image: Sierra Nevada Corp.

The fact that the company’s  Dream Chaser craft looks nothing like the capsules used by its competitors must have won it some points from NASA. It’s unique because it can land on a  traditional airline runway, instead of crashing in the ocean or burning on re-entry. This is very important as right now it will be the only company that will be able to perform certain missions with success — those that involve the retrieval of sensitive experiments. Biologists, most of all, will rejoice.

“There are a lot of reasons to use animal studies to look at things like balance and sensory motor effects (of microgravity), and those are going to change so rapidly on return that we need to have the animals back right away,” station chief scientist Julie Robinson told Reuters.

NASA declined to comment on the total cost of the three contracts, which will see a minimum of six flights by each of the three companies. The total budget was $14 billion, but Sirangelo said it will come nowhere near the cited maximum value of the contract. “Within a few short years, the world will once again see a United States winged vehicle launch and return from space to a runway landing,” he says.



Top-Secret Air Force plane lands after 2 year mission in Earth’s orbit

After exactly 674 days in orbit, the Air Force’s top secret spaceplane landed in California on Friday. There’s very little anyone knows about the plane, apart from its name – X-37B – and the fact that it can fly in orbit unmanned. The two main assumptions are that it’s either a space plane or a bomber. Maybe both.

A mysterious unmanned shuttle


Courtesy of Boeing

The X-37B first flew in 2010 and again in 2011 and 2012. It’s only been a couple of days since it returned from its last mission, which lasted nearly two years. A lot of people are wondering now what the plane has been doing all this time. Initially, the mission was slated to last only nine months, further fueling suspicions.

“Technologies being tested in the program include advanced guidance, navigation and control, thermal protection systems, avionics, high temperature structures and seals, conformal reusable insulation, lightweight electromechanical flight systems and autonomous orbital flight, re-entry and landing,” the Air Force said in a statement


Image: Boeing

Nothing mentioned of spy or weapon-carrying technology of course in the official statement. The air force also mentioned  it will take over former shuttle hangars at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, suggesting it plans to expand X-37B operations.

“The mission is our longest to date and we’re pleased with the incremental progress we’ve seen in our testing of the reusable space plane,” said the program manager of the mission in a statement. “The dedication and hard work by the entire team has made us extremely proud.”

To reach orbit, X-37B is piggy-bagged on a rocket and, once its mission is complete, returns from orbit like a plane.

“The X-37B is the newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft,” the Air Force said in the statement. “Managed by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, the X-37B program performs risk reduction, experimentation and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies.”

X-37 B secret US Air Force space plane

Highly secretive unmanned Air Force spacecraft launches into orbit

X-37 B secret US Air Force space plane

Yesterday morning, the U.S. Air Force launched its X-37B robotic space plane into orbit via an Atlas 5 rocket from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. This is the spacecraft’s third launch since 2010, however very little is known about X-37B itself and more importantly about its mission. Officials claim that its goal is scientific, however it’s rather clear than the Air Force has a secret agenda of its own.

First launched in 2010, the solar- and battery-powered X-37B orbited Earth for 224 days. On its second launch, it stayed aloft for 469 days, before it touched down on autopilot at a specially prepared runway at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Both for previous missions and its current one, the X-37B carried a secret payload in its pickup truck-sized cargo bay. The whole operation has been totally classified to the public, which has garnered a lot of international criticism, especially from China which on numerous occasions accused the US of carrying spy sensors or equipment for hacking satellites. Actually, the Chinese government announced they’ll be building a space plane of its own.

X-37 B secret US Air Force space plane

Some 18 months ago, NASA retired its manned shuttle program indefinitely. The shuttle weighed 120 tonnes, while the  Boeing Government Space Systems built space plane only weighs six tones. A reusable spacecraft that isn’t meant for carrying people, cargo for the International Space Station or deploying satellites in space is obviously very suspicious. Still, the Air Force maintains that the space plane is exclusively meant for deploying science experiments in space.

“Take a payload up, spend up to 270 days on orbit,” is how Gary Payton, Deputy Undersecretary of the Air Force for Space Programs, explained the X-37′s mission. “They’ll run experiments to see if the new technology works, then bring it all back home and inspect it to see what was really going on in space.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a Massachusetts-based think tank, recently issued a statement in which it voiced its … concern.

“Because it is an Air Force project and details about it are classified, and because it does not have a clear mission compared to simpler systems, this project has generated confusion, speculation and in some cases concern about its purpose.”

“The ability to return to Earth carries a high cost,” according to the think tank’s fact sheet. “Many missions in space do not require bringing a spacecraft back to Earth, and the space plane makes no sense for those. And even in cases when return does make sense, a spacecraft can land using a parachute rather than wings and landing gear.”

The  29 feet (8.8 meters) long and 15 feet (4.5 m) wide space plane is currently under the jurisdiction of the  U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, tasked with expediting the development and fielding of select Department of Defense combat support and weapon systems by leveraging defense-wide technology development efforts and existing operational capabilities.

via Wired

SpaceX Dragon crew in evaluation test. (c) SpaceX

Boeing and SpaceX split $1 billion NASA founds – commercial spaceflight on demand

Both Boeing and SpaceX are set to split as much as $1 billion in federal awards destined to spur development of next-generation manned spacecraft. This follows other funding ventures awarded in the past few years to private space companies, in NASA‘s attempt to delimit itself from suborbital ventures, so that it may concentrate on deep space ventures.

SpaceX Dragon crew in evaluation test. (c) SpaceX

SpaceX Dragon crew in evaluation test. (c) SpaceX

The total amount available is likely to be between $800 and $1 billion through the middle of 2014. Sierra Nevada Corp., a manufacturer of satellite components and other aerospace hardware, is set to be awarded a third place funding award, albeit in a smaller amount. Following President Obama’s decision to retire the space shuttle last year, NASA has been left to rely on renting flight from Russia in its Soyuz spacecrafts for missions to the International Space Station. By helping develop private space ventures, the administration hopes to relieve itself from this dependency, and in fact open up the whole market.

Just three months ago, SpaceX’s Dragon capsule successfully docked, unmanned, with the International Space Station and completed its mission with a flawless re-entry, landing in the Pacific. Within a few years, the system will allegedly be fully integrated in the International Space Station docking circuit.

In other news, a new study commissioned by the U.S. and Florida governments forecasts that private suborbital spaceflights, which reach 63 miles above Earth’s surface and dive back through the atmosphere, would bring between $600 million and $1.6 billion in revenue in their first decade of operations.  Nearly 80 percent of the demand for commercial suborbital flights will be driven by tourism, according to the report, while the rest for research. [source]

An artist's impression of the Orion spacecraft as it enters Earth's atmosphere. (c) NASA

Orion maiden test launch set for 2014, manned flight pushed to 2021

Last year NASA permanently retired the iconic shuttle program, since it became obsolete, too expensive, difficult to maintain and no longer resonated with the agency’s goals. Its successor is no other than the Orion capsule, a spacecraft capable of deep-space exploration missions developed by Lockheed Martin in collaboration with NASA. So far, it’s more or less complete, with its first unmanned test run scheduled for 2014, however the manned flight has been pushed back to 2021, after initially it was supposed to launch only two years after the first test. Meanwhile, NASA is renting Soyuz launches from Russia for at least $50 mil. a piece, and although private space flight carry some of NASA’s loads into space, it still seems like that shuttle could’ve still come in handy.

An artist's impression of the Orion spacecraft as it enters Earth's atmosphere. (c) NASA

An artist's impression of the Orion spacecraft as it enters Earth's atmosphere. (c) NASA

The Orion spacecraft is one of the most ambitious aerospace projects in the world at the moment. When completed, it should be able to carry man safely to missions in deep-space, asteroids and even Mars. However, there are a lot of variables to consider and for this multi-billion dollar project, there is absolutely no room for error. The first test, scheduled for 2014, is meant to demonstrate that its design can handle the harsh Earth re-entry conditions, where temperatures of over 4,000 degrees are expected.Pacific landing mock-up tests have been so far excellent.

“The entry part of the test will produce data needed to develop a spacecraft capable of surviving speeds greater than 20,000 mph and safely return astronauts from beyond Earth orbit,” Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations William Gerstenmaier said in a press release. “This test is very important to the detailed design process in terms of the data we expect to receive.”

The 2021 manned push back announcement, however, comes as a huge disappointment, and most likely is intended to sync with with the testing schedule for the Space Launch System, an advanced rocket launch system which will allow Orion head on trip to an asteroid in 2025 and a journey to Mars around 2030, but even these dates might likely suffer modification – the optimist in me hopes for an earlier advance.

“President Obama and Congress have laid out an ambitious space exploration plan, and NASA is moving out quickly to implement it,” NASA Associate Administrator for Communications David Weaver said. “This flight test will provide invaluable data to support the deep space exploration missions this nation is embarking upon.”

What about the up and going administrations to follow? Will they see space flight as man’s prime path towards evolution or decide to divert funds towards the military? The optimist in me.


Shuttle Atlantis as it enters Earth's glowing atmosphere. Click for a better, larger view. (c) NASA/Johnson Space Center

[Amazing Photo] Atlantis re-entering Earth’s atmosphere

Shuttle Atlantis as it enters Earth's glowing atmosphere. Click for a better, larger view. (c) NASA/Johnson Space Center

Shuttle Atlantis as it enters Earth's glowing atmosphere. Click for a better, larger view. (c) NASA/Johnson Space Center

I know some of you are either nostalgic or plain tired of all the Atlantis posts we’ve been publishing lately, but this one absolutely takes the cake. The photo above, taken from aboard the International Space Station by one of the astronauts there, shows Atlantis as it enters Earth’s atmosphere, leaving a trail of golden plasma behind it. The plasma glow is actually a leftover from super-heated air around Atlantis’s heat shield, as the shuttle plunged at hypersonic speed into the atmosphere as it safely landed on the Kennedy Space Center runway yesterday.

Take a swell look at the photo, we won’t be seeing a new one for good, good while.

NASA via Popsci

I'll admit, it doesn't look like much here, but wait till you hit play on the embedded video.

[VIDEO] The ISS and Atlantis shuttle as seen in broad daylight

I'll admit, it doesn't look like much here, but wait till you hit play on the embedded video.

I'll admit, it doesn't look like much here, but wait till you hit play on the embedded video.

Incredibly enough, using a a simple, standard issued astrophotography set-up, amateur astronomer Scott Ferguson was able to film in incredible detail the ISS docked together with Atlantis as they both orbited above him – all in clear sky, broad daylight.

How did he do this? Well, as equipment goes Scott, like I said, used a simple 20 cm (8 inch) telescope and a video camera optimized for astrophotography, but what really helped him with his en-devour was a piece of software that predicted the position and path of the two orbiting spacecraft. Seeing how the ISS is so hard to spot during daylight, this software was critical for the catch on film.

Phil Plait, who writes at Bad Astronomy, claims that during its overhead pass, when the ISS is only 350 km above the Earth’s surface, a simple pair of binoculars is enough to see it, albeit only a distinguishable dot in the skyline. With a telescope, as you’ve probably amazed yourself already in the above video, that’s something different, and for the short time Atlantis – the last shuttle mission in fact – is still docked above, maybe you can catch the same glimpse for yourself as well. You can start from heavensabove.com so you can begin timing preparations.

The STS 135 crew met with a standing ovation from the crowd. From left to right: Mission Specialists Rex Walheim and Sandy Magnus, Pilot Doug Hurley Shuttle Commander Chris Ferguson. (c) Ken Kreme

NASA’s last ever shuttle mission in photos

Despite unfriendly whether filled with low lying clouds and a last moment countdown glitch, which gave of all the 750,000 spectators gathered at Kennedy Space Center venue to witness the launch a pretty big scare, Atlantis was catapulted into low-orbit with dazzling success yesterday, July 8th.

Photo by NASA.

STS 135 was, as the name implies, the 135th and final shuttle mission, marking an end to more than 30 years of breath taking flights, and hopefully clearing the way for a new era of more advanced, safe and economic means of space transportation.

Take it as a weekend treat or simply as a tribute to the iconic shuttle missions, in this post I’ve taken the liberty to scour the internet for illustrated moments of the shuttle’s grand finale.




Joining Ferguson (left in photo) for the 12-day STS-135 mission to the International Space Station are pilot Doug Hurley (second left), and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim. (c) NASA

On the eve of the shuttle’s “Final Countdown”

Space shuttle Atlantis will embark this Friday on its final journey, symbolizing the end of NASA’s illustrious space shuttle program. Yesterday, the last crew of the orbiter Atlantis arrived at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, where the launch will take place.

Commander Chris Ferguson said: “I think I speak for the whole crew in that we are delighted to be here after a very arduous nine-month training flow and we’re thrilled to finally be here in Florida for launch week.”

Joining Ferguson (left in photo) for the 12-day STS-135 mission to the International Space Station are pilot Doug Hurley (second left), and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim. (c) NASA

Joining Ferguson (left in photo) for the 12-day STS-135 mission to the International Space Station are pilot Doug Hurley (second left), and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim. (c) NASA

Once with the retirement of the space shuttle, NASA will be left with no kind of means of launching manned flights into orbit. Outsourcing are planned to other governments space programs, like the Russian Soyuz which costs $50 million a flight. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, though, named private ventures such as SpaceX as the best way to get astronauts to the ISS, “rather than continuing to outsource this work to foreign governments”, while leaving NASA to focus on the bigger picture. This certainly remains to be seen.

NASA moving on to bigger goals

Bolden also insisted last week that America was set to embark on the “grand challenge” of human space exploration beyond Earth orbit and the Moon. Apparently he relates how president Obama has entrusted NASA with circling and eventually landing a man on Mars, as well as surfacing an asteroid, as primarily goals for the agency in the forthcoming half a century.

“We are not ending human space flight, we are recommitting ourselves to it and taking the necessary – and difficult – steps today to ensure America’s pre-eminence in human spaceflight for years to come,” he said.

Watch the last shuttle launch

Taking our eyes a bit off the future, and onto the present to more delicate things, if you’re a few states within the Kennedy Space Center, then I’d recommend you don’t miss the chance of witnessing first hand the last shuttle launch. You’ll be joining, though, another 750.000 people who will also be attending, says NASA, however most likely the number is somewhere over one million.

NASA sold tickets for two launch viewing sites – NASA Causeway, about 6 miles (9.6 km) from the Atlantis’ Launch Pad 39A, or from Kennedy Space Center’s Visitor’s Center. Both options have been totally sold out, however. Tickets are actually going as much as $1000 on eBay at the moment.

You don’t need to be that close to the launch anyway. Being even a dozen miles away from the launch sites will offer an once in a lifetime glimpse. Space.com recommends the city of Titusville, just 12 miles across the Indian River from Kennedy Space Center, as a premiere spot. The town of Port Canaveral, a popular harbor for cruise ships, is also a good choice, affording largely unobstructed views. Another good option for shuttle viewing is a spot along the coast in the nearby city of Cocoa Beach.

Of course, for those of us nowhere near the United States in the first place, there’s always the online alternative. NASA, as well as countless other media outlets, will broadcast the launch countdown and liftoff live on its NASA TV channel.

Atlantis is due to lift off at 15:26 GMT on 8 July

STS-135 mission crew: commander Chris Ferguson (centre right in photo), pilot Doug Hurley (centre left), and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim. (c) NASA

Final ever shuttle mission scheduled for July 8

STS-135 mission crew: commander Chris Ferguson (centre right in photo), pilot Doug Hurley (centre left), and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim. (c) NASA

STS-135 mission crew: commander Chris Ferguson (centre right in photo), pilot Doug Hurley (centre left), and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim. (c) NASA

NASA just confirmed the shuttle’s last-ever mission will launch on July 8th. The space shuttle Atlantis will blast off headed for the International Space Station this Friday for a very important mission, in which it will deliver the Raffaello multipurpose logistics module to the orbiting outpost, bearing supplies, food for a whole year and spares.

The 12-day STS-135 mission will be launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This will be the 135th shuttle mission, Atlantis’ 33rd flight and the 37th shuttle mission to the station.

Bill Gerstenmaier, assistant administrator for space operations, said: “We had a very thorough review. This flight is incredibly important. The cargo that is coming up on this flight is really mandatory for space station.”

Mike Moses, Space Shuttle Program launch integration manager, chipped in with: “We’re really looking forward to achieving this mission, putting station where it needs to be and finishing strong with the shuttle program here with STS-135.”

Besides the Raffaello logistics module, Atlantis will also be responsible for delivering the Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM), which in a nut shell can be considered as a ‘robot gas station’ designed to try out the tools, technologies and techniques needed to refuel satellites in space. This also includes satellites that were never designed to be serviced. So, a pretty fitting important job for NASA’s last ever shuttle mission before permantely shelving it.

When it returns from its final 12-day trip, Atlantis will be put on permanent display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.


Endeavour launch delayed due to Russian schedule

Endeavour was set to take of in a really short time, and everybody was ready for this, but in an attempt to avoid a scheduling conflict with a Russian supply ship headed for the International Space Station (ISS), the launch of Endeavour has been delayed until April 29. The Russian spaceship will be launched on April 27 and will reach the ISS two days later, on April 29.

Endeavour was set to go less than three weeks from now, on April 19, but NASA was forced to delay the launch due to these events. There have also been some fears expressed regarding the recent violent storms that hit Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday and Thursday. Officials found “only minor damage” and “evaluations indicate there was no damage to the spacecraft,” NASA said.

The mission will be the last one for Endeavour, which will be retired, just as fellow orbiter Discovery, which went on its last mission this year. It will be led by Commander Mark Kelly, whos brother is also an astronaut and returned only recently from the ISS – imagine the dinner conversations around that table.

Crew practices for Endeavour last mission

After Discovery, another legendary orbited is heading towards retirement – Endeavour is only one mission away from a lifetime of well deserved rest. But until that, the astronauts which will ride Endeavour on its last trip are preparing intensely for it; after all, they have to prepare a major astrophysics experiment, as well as deliver some supplies to the International Space Station (ISS).

“My crew and I will get to strap in,” Endeavour commander Mark Kelly told reporters after arriving in Florida Monday. “We practice the launch countdown that day and I know these guys are excited to do this. TCDT, or the terminal countdown demonstration test, is when the processing and the training kind of comes together.”

“We like coming in to see the space shuttle,” Kelly said. “It’s always exciting, especially when you’re three weeks away from launch.”

I bet it is ! I can only imagine the thrill and the excitement that come with a mission such as this one, but for Endeavour, this is not really such a big deal. After all, after 24 missions, you kind of get used to it; after this mission, Endeavour will enter its retirement – hopefully, to be replaced by a more performant shuttle.

Discovery shuttle prepares for final landing

As I told you yesterday, the Discovery shuttle is preparing for a well deserved retirement, after 365 days spent in space, during which it traveled more than 150 million miles. All systems are go for landing at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, thus concluding its 13th and final mission.

The shuttle left the International Space Station (ISS) yesterday after the crew performed one last check on Tuesday, and found that everything is working correctly. Discovery’s orientation and steering. Cmdr. Steve Lindsey, pilot Eric Boe and mission specialists Alvin Drew, Michael Barratt, Nicole Stott and Steve Bowen also put away hardware and equipment.

When they wake up, Wednesday morning (if they haven’t already) they will begin the preparations, and if everything goes according to plan, the de-orbit burn will begin at 10:52 and Discovery will land at 11:57 a.m, according to NASA.

After the shuttle returns to Earth, it will be given a golden retirement at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, but only after NASA will turn it into an unflyable mechanism.

Space Shuttle Discovery heads home after final mission

When launched in 1984, Discovery was top notch; it was the best available around, and only the third operational orbiter; now, after 3 flights, over five thousand orbits and no less than 365 days spent in space, during which it traveled 150 million miles Discovery left the International Space Station (ISS) for the last time; it is still, for a few days, the oldest orbiter still working. It was a sentimental moment for many people, and station skipper Scott Kelly rang his ship’s bell in true naval tradition, paying tribute to the shuttle after its last departure.

“Discovery departing,” he called out.

Discovery is due to Earth on Wednesday, after which it wil be retired and sent to the Smithsonian Institution for display. Discovery’s astronauts got a special greeting from actor William Shatner, who portrayed captain James Kirk on the original “Star Trek” TV series.

ZME Science would like to take a bow and pay homage to Discovery, and thank all the people who were involved in any way in it’s remarkable achievements !

Picture sources: 1 2 3 4

Get me to the Moon on time

aresNASA’s space shuttle is set to take off on its last mission in 2010; the agency is really busy preparing to get a ship on the moon until 2020 [Update: Atlantis mission ends the NASA program]. But recent developments suggest that there may be delays, as does Nature news.

NASA officials say that the programme is still on track, but others are less optimistic. The thing is that they first have to fly astronauts in low-Earth orbit in an Apollo-like capsule called Orion.

But apparently there is a vibration; vibration is a natural part of solid-fuel rockets. In an unmanned rocket, it might not matter. The thing is that the spacecraft’s design has to be adjusted so that it will not resonate at the same frequency as the rocket.

The bad thing is that there aren’t many alternatives to this so the whole program will probably be delayed a couple of years; this could have no importance, but it could also be very important in the long run as well.