NASA highlights from 2009

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2009 was a critical year for NASA. The space agency saw its very existence reviewed by the United States Human Space Flight Plan Committee and it watched as its venerable space shuttle fleet ticked off five of its remaining 10 missions. But there were plenty of other projects that took centre stage, such as the development of the next generation heavy lift rocket, Ares, and the extension of the agency's Antarctica's sea ice monitoring program as well as its ongoing Mars operations. Here we take a look at some of the more interesting projects the space programme took on in 2009.

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To fly humans in space or not to fly humans in space

Arguably the project that took a ton of NASA's time this year was testifying before and providing information to the Review of United States Human Space Flight Plan Committee, which in October came to the conclusion that while NASA is the most accomplished space organisation in the world, its human spaceflight activities are at a tipping point, primarily due to a mismatch of goals and money. According to the report, NASA's fundamental conundrum is that it essentially has the resources either to build a major new system or to operate one, but not to do both.

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Space shuttle swan song?

The venerable space shuttle flew five missions this year with a few main goals: retrofitting the Hubble Telescope to operate years into the future and transporting solar arrays for electricity as well as parts and supplies for the International Space Station. In November for example, Atlantis delivered 27,000 pounds of ISS equipment. The next space shuttle, Endeavor, STS-130 is aiming for a Feb 4, 2010 liftoff. The five space shuttle missions slated for 2010 are likely the last unless something changes.

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Stepping up commercial space race

As it looks to reshape its future, NASA this year said it would partner with the US Air Force Research Laboratory to develop a technology road map for use of reusable commercial spaceships. The study of reusable launch vehicles, or RLVs will focus on identifying technologies and assessing their potential use to accelerate the development of commercial reusable launch vehicles. The study results will provide road maps with recommended government technology tasks and milestones for different vehicle categories.

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Commercial space development part 2

NASA this year said it would offer $50 million in stimulus money to further develop private commercial spacecraft. NASA said its Commercial Crew and Cargo Program looks to develop and demonstrate safe, reliable, and cost-effective capabilities to transport cargo to low-Earth orbit and eventually send a crew to the International Space Station. By maturing "the design and development of commercial crew spaceflight concepts and associated enabling technologies and capabilities," the program will let several companies move a few steps towards the ultimate goal of commercial human spaceflight to orbit, NASA said.

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Moon bombers

In one of the wildest experiments NASA has ever undertaken, the agency crashed two satellites into the moon in search of water. NASA's Lunar CRater Observing and Sensing Satellites (LCROSS) took dead aim and crashed into the moon on October 9. The impact of the $80 million LCROSS satellites into the moon was to create what the space agency hopes is an ice-filled debris plume that was analysed for water content.

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Moon water

Not only was the LCROSS flight successful, in November NASA confirmed just how successful by declaring the experiment showed "significant amounts of water" on the lunar surface. NASA said scientists long have speculated about the source of significant quantities of hydrogen that have been observed at the lunar poles. The LCROSS findings actually confirm the presence of water and are shedding new light on the question with the discovery of water, which could be more widespread and in greater quantity than previously suspected, NASA said.

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A little ice to go with all that water

While NASA was crashing into the moon to look for ice, it was also looking for the frozen stuff on Earth, only in a more conventional way. The space agency in October began a series of 17 flights to study changes to Antarctica's sea ice, glaciers and ice sheets. The flights are part of what NASA calls Operation Ice Bridge, a six-year project that is the largest airborne survey ever made of ice at Earth's polar regions. Data collected from the mission will help scientists better predict how changes to the massive Antarctic ice sheet will contribute to future sea level rise around the world, NASA stated.

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The asteroid issue

In October, NASA scientists recalculated the path of a large asteroid known as Apophis and found it had only a very slim chance of banging into Earth. That's a good thing because the Apophis asteroid is approximately the size of two-and-a-half football fields and there was some concern that it might come a little too close to Earth on April 13, 2036. That NASA saw and tracked this asteroid isn't so much news, but earlier in the year the National Academy of Sciences reported NASA's capability to perform that duty was lacking, saying that while Congress mandated that NASA detect and track 90% of near earth objects (NEO) it has not authorised any funds to build additional observatories to help NASA achieve its goals.

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Stuck in the sand

As of this posting, NASA's long running Mars rover Spirit is still stuck in a sand trap - a situation the space agency would like to fix. NASA engineers are trying to extricate Spirit by sending commands that could free the rover. Spirit has been stuck in a place NASA calls "Troy" since April 23 when the rover's wheels broke through a crust on the surface that was covering a bright-toned, slippery sand underneath. After a few drive attempts to get Spirit out in the subsequent days, it began sinking deeper in the sand trap. Driving was suspended to allow time for tests and reviews of possible escape strategies, NASA stated.

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Mars is where it's at

NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) in November said they are aiming to cooperate on all manner of robotic orbiters, landers and exploration devices for a future trip to Mars. Specifically, NASA and ESA recently agreed to consider the establishment of a new joint initiative to define and implement their scientific, programmatic and technological goals for the exploration of Mars. The programme would focus on several launch opportunities with landers and orbiters conducting astrobiological, geological, geophysical, climatological, and other high-priority investigations and aimed at returning samples from Mars in the mid-2020s.

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Who wants $1M?

NASA in November awarded $1.65 million in prize money to a pair of aerospace companies that successfully simulated landing a spacecraft on the moon and lifting off again. NASA's Centennial Challenges program, which was managed by the X Prize Foundation, will give a $1 million first prize to Masten Space Systems and a $500,000 second prize to Armadillo Aerospace for successfully completing the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. To win the prize, teams had to demonstrate a rocket-propelled vehicle and payload that could take off vertically, climb to a defined altitude, fly for a pre-determined amount of time, and then land vertically on a target that is a fixed distance from the launch pad.

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We have a rocket (sort of)

With a hiss and roar NASA's protoype Ares X rocket blasted off in October, taking with it a variety of test equipment and sensors but also high hopes for the future of the US space agency. The short test flight, about 2 minutes, provided NASA an early opportunity to look at hardware, models, facilities and ground operations associated with the mostly new Ares I launch vehicle. The mission went off without a hitch undefined except for its return parachutes, which failed to deploy, as the upper stage simulator and first stage separated at approximately 130,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean. The unpowered simulator splashed down in the ocean.

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Ga-ga for gigabits

On its current space scouting mission, NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) is using a pumped up communications device to deliver 461GB of data and images per day, at a rate of up to 100Mbps. As the first high data rate K-band transmitter to fly on a NASA spacecraft, the 13-inch-long tube, called a Traveling Wave Tube Amplifier, is making it possible for NASA scientists to receive massive amounts of images and data about the moon's surface and environment.

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The ultimate run-flat tyre

NASA and Goodyear this year developed an airless tyre to let large, long-range vehicles transport heavy loads across the surface of the moon. The "Spring Tyre" has inside 800 load bearing springs and is designed to carry heavier vehicles over greater distances than the wire mesh tyre previously used on the Apollo Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV). According to Goodyear, NASA requires tyres that can handle vehicles that will weigh 10 times what Apollo required.

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The stink heard 'round the world

What started out innocently enough as a product naming contest quickly became a PR nightmare for NASA. After weeks of controversy over its voting methodology, NASA told Comedy Central comedian Steven Colbert it wouldn't name its new space module after him, but did say it would identify a treadmill with his name on it: the 'Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill,' or COLBERT.

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NASA network security torched

While NASA may be focused on keeping its manned space flight plans intact, apparently it has seriously neglected the security of its networks. Watchdogs at the Government Accountability Office issued a report pretty much ripping the space agency's network security strategy stating that NASA has significant problems protecting the confidentiality, integrity and availability of the information and variety of networks supporting its mission centres.

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Hot stuff here

NASA in April made one of the most important decisions for the future of its space flights, the heat shield material that will protect future space explorers from the hellish heat of space travel. The space agency went with a technology it was quite familiar with, a fiberglass, silica, epoxy combination known as Avcoat. The heat protection technology was used on the current space shuttle missions as well as the Apollo spacecrafts, NASA said.

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The mountain climbing robot

NASA researchers say they had built and tested a robot that can rappel off cliffs, travel over steep and rocky terrain, and explore deep craters. The prototype rover, called Axel, might help future robotic spacecraft better explore and investigate foreign worlds such as Mars. On Earth, Axel might assist in search-and-rescue operations in locations where people might not be able to reach.

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Partly cloudy with a chance of hot plasma

A NASA-funded study showed some of the first clear economic data that quantifies the risk extreme weather conditions in space have on the Earth. The study, conducted by the National Academy of Sciences, notes that besides emitting a continuous stream of plasma called the solar wind, the sun periodically releases billions of tons of matter called coronal mass ejections. Such space weather can impact the performance and reliability of space-borne and ground-based technological systems, NASA said.

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Speaking of hot plasma

Astronauts and satellite integrated circuits are at most risk of an ongoing tempest of galactic cosmic rays that scientists say is at an all-time high. According to observations by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in October, galactic cosmic rays come from outside the solar system and are made up of subatomic particles accelerated to almost light speed by distant supernova explosions. Cosmic rays cause showers of particles when they hit Earth's atmosphere but they pose their greatest health hazard, radiation, to astronauts in space. They aren't too healthy for satellites either as a single cosmic ray can disable the unit if one hits an unlucky integrated circuit, NASA said.

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