Successful Soyuz launch from Kourou, expanding the Galileo constellation

The European satellite navigation constellation, Galileo, just grew by two spacecraft: Galileo FM-10 & FM-11 were placed into orbit by a Soyuz rocket operated by Arianespace from Kourou in French Guiana today.  The two spacecraft will undergo a commissioning period, during which they will be put through a series of tests, before they are declared operational.

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India’s new spaceplane makes a successful test flight

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) is pretty serious about building a credible space program.  After already positioning themselves favorably in the competitive international launch business, they’ve already accomplished the remarkable feat of placing a spacecraft in orbit around another planet — one of only a handful of nations to do so.  Now they’re working towards reusable spaceflight, and also manned spaceflight by setting out on one of the holy grails of human spaceflight: the reusable orbital spaceplane that takes off and lands on a runway.  No one has yet come particularly close; the Space Shuttle is by far the most successful spaceplane, but it launched as a two-stage rocket and was only partially reusable.  Venturestar sought to become a single-stage-to-orbit fully reusable rocketplane, but was cancelled.  X-37 is a fully reusable spaceplane, but cannot launch itself and requires an expendable booster to carry it to orbit.  (Or the Space Shuttle.  It was originally envisioned as fitting into a Shuttle’s payload bay.)

As the first major step on this rather long path, ISRO has built and launched a scale model spaceplane very similar in appearance to the X-37.  Called the Reusable Launch Vehicle Technology Demonstrator, it launched early today from Sriharikota’s Satish Dhawan Space Centre atop a solid-propellant ATV sounding rocket, an unusually heavy sounding rocket built by ISRO largely for projects such as this one.  It accelerated the automonous spaceplane to at least Mach 5, reaching a maximum altitude of 65 km and a downrange distance of 450 km before making what was apparently a surprisingly well controlled bellyflop into the Bay of Bengal.  (The test article was not intended to be recoverable, as it survival was considered dubious.  But it will have recoverable successors.)  It carried out tests of the heatshield technology, guidance, flight control, and navigation systems.  It did not reach the Karman Line and thus is not a true spaceflight, but it was not intended to be; this is a subscale test to validate the basic design before proceeding to higher energies.

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Mercury and the Sun in 3D!

This is way cool.  Astronomy Picture of the Day for last Friday is a very clever stereo pair image of the Mercury transit.  A stereo pair is two images which, when you arrange for each eye to see one of them, will produce a 3D effect.  This one is set up to work by crossing your eyes.  Old time stereo viewers required a parallel view setup, so you’d need to edit the image and flip the two pictures if you wanted to see it that way. Try it, and you’ll see Mercury hovering in front of the Sun!  Realistically, too.  Our eyes obviously are way too close together to get any useful parallax at that range, but the relative motion of Earth and Mercury *does* give us enough parallax, so the clever thing here is that astrophotographer Stefan Seip took pictures at just the right interval to give us the right parallax to see the real distance relationship between the Sun and Mercury.

If you can, cross your eyes until these two suns appear one, and then see Mercury pop out!

MercuryTransit_3Dseip1024

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FANFIC FRIDAY: The Resurrection of Evil, Episode Four

Continuing our story, I am suddenly struck by something: every single one of the shops/restaurants/etc at the Mall of America that appear in this story have since either closed or changed hands.  The Mall stays busy, that’s for sure.

<< Back to Episode One . . . < Back to Episode Three . . . Forward to Episode Five (TBD) >

The Resurrection of Evil

Episode Four: Games People Play In the Middle Of the Night

“There’s evil brewing, getting out of control
And I’m helpless I can’t put it right
Something unrighteous is possessing my soul
And it’s cold in the heat of the night.”
— “May Be a Price to Pay,” the Alan Parsons Project

The broken glass clean up had taken half an hour. The body had been removed immediately for autopsy. The Doctor, Terri, and Methos had been released as soon as it was determined that they were only bystanders, protected by the Good Samaritan Law. The police were not called; it seemed to Mall security to have been nothing more than a sudden death by natural causes. A seizure, perhaps. Or some kind of drug overdose.

That last possibility was heavy on Terri’s mind as she stood with the Doctor and Methos on the balcony by the vast movie theater, which stretched all the way across the length of the South Side of the Mall, sprawled above the Third Floor food court.

Terri leaned out across the rail. Far below, the amusement park had gone dark. Security lights illuminated the pathways, but mysterious shadows played in the voids between, untouched by the lights.

“But how?” she asked. “And why?”

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Akatsuki is in business!

The Japanese space probe that wouldn’t quit, Akatsuki, has completed its commissioning phase and is now beginning its primary mission around the planet Venus.  It arrived at Venus five months ago, and five years after it was originally scheduled to do so.  A faulty engine valve prevented its orbit insertion burn from happening, but JAXA mission controllers didn’t give up; they developed a plan using maneuvering thrusters that would give Akatsuki a second chance for orbital insertion.  And last December, it made it.  JAXA is very optimistic about the spacecraft; after completing the in-orbit checkout, they believe it will definitely last its two-year primary mission, and perhaps even make it to the next decade.  To commemorate the start of its operational phase, Akatsuki’s mission team released this infrared image of Venus, showing clouds on the nightside of the planet in unprecedented detail.  (Akatsuki is not the first spacecraft to reach Venus, but it has the best infrared camera ever sent there.)

venus-akatsuki

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Soyuz ROCKETCAM!!!!!

Russia almost never does rocketcams; I never saw a Soyuz rocketcam until Arianespace started operating them out of Kourou.  But not any more!  Roscomos has released this lovely video of the inaugural Soyuz 2 launch from the new Vostochny Cosmodrome.  Feast your eyes:

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External Tank is almost to California, and rescued four fishermen on the way!

The last External Tank from the Space Shuttle program has been slowly making its way from Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans, Louisiana to its final home at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, California.  The trip by ocean-going barge left April 12, took it down to Panama, crossed over via the Panama Canal, and then up the Pacific Coast.  It isn’t the first ET to do this; another ET took this route back in the early 80s when NASA was preparing for west coast Shuttle launches from Vandenberg AFB; an ET was delivered to VAFB to be stacked along with two SRBs and the prototype shuttle Enterprise for fit checks.  After the Challenger accident, west coast Shuttle preparations ended, and that ET when back through the Panama Canal and around to Florida, where it eventually flew to space.

This ET, of course, never went to space.  ET-94 was one of a set of three Lightweight Tanks built after production of the Super Lightweight Tank began, ordered for use on non-ISS science missions.  Why continue to build Lightweight Tanks at all?  It had to do with logistics mainly, and would have been a cost saving decision.  Ultimately, however, only two of the “deferred build” Lightweight Tanks were ever built.  After ET-94 was completed, ET-93, the first of the deferred build LWTs, was stacked and went to space on STS-107, the fateful final flight of Columbia.  With Columbia and her science-only missions gone, there was no reason to build the third LWT — and as foam shed from the ET was quickly identified as the root cause of the Columbia accident, ET-94 immediately became the target of intense scrutiny.  Large sections of foam were removed from it for testing, to determine whether a design flaw was behind the accident.  These sections were never replaced, as ET-94 was too heavy to support ISS missions, and it was removed from flight status and kept essentially as a spare.

The final SLWT flew on STS-135, the final flight of the Space Shuttle program, leaving ET-94 as the only flight ET left in existence.  (All the tanks that flew were destroyed, as it is by design an expendable component.)  So with the Shuttle program over, and hardware gradually filtering out into museums around the country, this one needed a home.  The California Science Center came up with what may be the perfect proposal — when they proposed taking Endeavour, they also proposed taking ET-94, and building a set of high fidelity mock SRBs and actually stacking the whole thing together as if it were a real Shuttle stack, ready to launch.  The upshot is that all three Orbiters will be displayed in different configurations: Endeavour ready to launch, Atlantis as if in flight, with payload bay open, and Discovery on her landing gear, as if just returned from space.  (Enterprise, the flight prototype, is also displayed on her landing gear.)

So, once CSC was ready to receive, preparations were made for ET-94 to leave the MAF, and it’s been slowly motoring its way around.  This week, as it headed up the Mexican coast, they had an extra surprise: a fishing boat sunk off the coast of Mexico, leaving its crew of four stranded in a lifeboat.  The tugboat Shannon Dann was able to retrieve the crew, and brought them along.  Yesterday, they arrived with the ET in San Diego, to go through US Customs.  The rescued fishermen got off there, and the Shannon Dann resumed her journey north towards Los Angeles, and are expected to arrive at Marina del Ray on Wednesday.  There will be a parade next Saturday through the streets of Los Angeles, following the ET to CSC much as they did with Endeavour a few years ago.

Here, ET-94 passes through the Gatun locks in the Panama Canal (thankfully, sped up — locks are not particularly speedy):

And here’s from the Centennial Bridge to the Pedro Miguel lock:

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