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Declassified US Spy Satellites Reveal Rare Look at Secret Cold War Space Program

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Twenty-five years after their top-secret, Cold War-era missions ended, two clandestine American satellite programs were declassified Saturday (Sept. 17) with the unveiling of three of the United States’ most closely guarded assets: the KH-7 GAMBIT, the KH-8 GAMBIT 3 and the KH-9 HEXAGON spy satellites.

The vintage National Reconnaissance Office satellites were displayed to the public Saturday in a one-day-only exhibit at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport, Va. The three spacecraft were the centerpiece of the NRO’s invitation-only, 50th Anniversary Gala celebration held at the center last evening.

Saturday’s spysat unveiling was attended by a number of jubilant NRO veterans who developed and refined the classified spacecraft and its components for decades in secret, finally able to show their wives and families what they actually did ‘at the office’ for so many years. Both of the newly declassified satellite systems, GAMBIT and HEXAGON, followed the U.S. military’s frontrunner spy satellite system CORONA, which was declassified in 1995.

This National Reconnaissance Office released graphic depicts the huge HEXAGON spy satellite, a Cold War era surveillance craft that flew reconnaissance missions from 1971 to 1986.

This National Reconnaissance Office released graphic depicts the huge HEXAGON spy satellite, a Cold War era surveillance craft that flew reconnaissance missions from 1971 to 1986. The bus-size satellites weighed 30,000 pounds and were 60 feet long.

Big spy satellites revealed

The KH-9 HEXAGON, often referred to by its popular nickname “Big Bird,” lived up to its legendary expectations. As large as a school bus, the KH-9 HEXAGON carried 60 miles of high resolution photographic film for space surveillance missions.

Military space historian Dwayne A. Day was exuberant after his first look at the KH-9 HEXAGON.

“This was some bad-ass technology,” Day told SPACE.com. “The Russians didn’t have anything like it.”

Day, co-editor of “Eye in the Sky: The Story of the CoronaSpy Satellites,” noted that “it took the Soviets on average five to 10 years to catch up during the Cold War, and in many cases they never really matched American capabilities.”

Phil Pressel, designer of the HEXAGON’s panoramic ‘optical bar’ imaging cameras, agreed with Day’s assessment.

“This is still the most complicated system we’ve ever put into orbit …Period.”

The HEXAGON’s twin optical bar panoramic mirror cameras rotated as the swept back and forth as the satellite flew over Earth, a process that intelligence officials referred to as “mowing the lawn.”

Phil Pressel, one of the developers of the KH-9 Hexagon's panoramic camera system, proudly points out some of the spacecraft's once highly-classified features, which he had been unable to discuss publicly until the NRO's Sept. 17, 2011 declassification.of

Phil Pressel, one of the developers of the KH-9 Hexagon’s panoramic camera system, proudly points out some of the spacecraft’s once highly-classified features, a life’s work that he had been unable to discuss publicly until the NRO’s Sept. 17, 2011 declassification of the massive spy satellite.

Each 6-inch wide frame of HEXAGON film capturing a wide swath of terrain covering 370 nautical miles — the distance from Cincinnati to Washington — on each pass over the former Soviet Union and China. The satellites had a resolution of about 2 to 3 feet (0.6 to nearly 1 meter), according to the NRO. [10 Ways the Government Watches You]

According to documents released by the NRO, each HEXAGON satellite mission lasted about 124 days, with the satellite launching four film return capsules that could send its photos back to Earth. An aircraft would catch the return capsule in mid-air by snagging its parachute following the canister’s re-entry.

In a fascinating footnote, the film bucket from the first KH-9 HEXAGON sank to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean in spring 1972 after Air Force recovery aircraft failed to snag the bucket’s parachute.

The film inside the protective bucket reported contained high resolution photographs of the Soviet Union’s submarine bases and missile silos. In a daredevil feat of clandestine ingenuity, the U.S. Navy’s Deep Submergence Vehicle Trieste II succeeded in grasping the bucket from a depth of 3 miles below the ocean.

Hubble vs. HEXAGON

Former International Space Station flight controller Rob Landis, now technical manager in the advanced projects office at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, drove more than three hours to see the veil lifted from these legendary spacecraft.

Landis, who also worked on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope program, noticed some distinct similarities between Hubble and the huge KH-9 HEXAGON reconnaissance satellite.

“I see a lot of Hubble heritage in this spacecraft, most notably in terms of spacecraft size,” Landis said. “Once the space shuttle design was settled upon, the design of Hubble — at the time it was called the Large Space Telescope — was set upon. I can imagine that there may have been a convergence or confluence of the designs. The Hubble’s primary mirror is 2.4 meters [7.9 feet] in diameter and the spacecraft is 14 feet in diameter. Both vehicles (KH-9 and Hubble) would fit into the shuttle’s cargo bay lengthwise, the KH-9 being longer than Hubble [60 feet]; both would also fit on a Titan-class launch vehicle.”

The ‘convergence or confluence’ theory was confirmed later in the day by a former spacecraft designer, who declined to be named but is familiar with both programs, who confided unequivocally: “The space shuttle’s payload bay was sized to accommodate the KH-9.”

The NRO launched 20 KH-9 HEXAGON satellites from California’s Vandenberg AFB from June 1971 to April 1986.

The HEXAGON’s final launch in April 1986 — just months after the space shuttle Challenger explosion — also met with disaster as the spy satellite’s Titan 34D booster erupted into a massive fireball just seconds after liftoff, crippling the NRO’s orbital reconnaissance capabilities for many months.

A side view of a KH-7 GAMBIT spy satellite on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport, Va., on Sept. 17, 2011.

A side view of a KH-7 GAMBIT spy satellite on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport, Va., on Sept. 17, 2011.

The spy satellite GAMBIT

Before the first HEXAGON spy satellite systems ever launched, the NRO’s GAMBIT series of reconnaissance craft flew several space missions aimed at providing surveillance over specific targets around the world.

The  satellite program’s initial system, GAMBIT 1, first launched in 1963 carrying a KH-7 camera system that included a “77-inch focal length camera for providing specific information on scientific and technical capabilities that threatened the nation,” according to an NRO description. A second GAMBIT satellite system, which first launched aboard GAMBIT 3 in 1966, included a175-inch focal length camera.

The GAMBIT 1 series satellite has a resolution similar to the HEXAGON series, about 2 to 3 feet, but the follow-up GAMBIT 3 system had an improved resolution of better than 2 feet, NRO documents reveal.

The GAMBIT satellite program was active from July 1963 to April 1984. Both satellites were huge and launched out of Vandenberg Air Force Base.

The satellite series’ initial version was 15 feet (4.5 m) long and 5 feet (1.5 m) wide, and weighed about 1,154 pounds (523 kilograms). The GAMBIT 3 satellite was the same width but longer, stretching nearly 29 feet (9 m) long, not counting its Agena D rocket upper stage. It weighed about 4,130 pounds (1,873 kg).

Unlike the follow-up HEXAGON satellites, the GAMBIT series were designed for extremely short missions.

The GAMBIT 1 craft had an average mission life of about 6 1/2 days. A total of 38 missions were launched, though 10 of them were deemed failures, according to NRO documents.

The GAMBIT 3 series satellites had missions that averaged about 31 days. In all, 54 of the satellites were launched, with four failures recorded.

Like the CORONA and HEXAGON programs, the GAMBIT series of satellites returned their film to Earth in re-entry capsules that were then snatched up by recovery aircraft. GAMBIT 1 carried about 3,000 feet (914 meters) of film, while GAMBIT 3 was packed with 12,241 feet (3,731 meters) of film, NRO records show.

The behemoth HEXAGON was launched with 60 miles (320,000 feet) of film!

A mission description of the NRO's GAMBIT 3 spy satellite flight profiles.

This image shows the flight profile for the NRO’s GAMBIT 3 spy satellite missions between 1966 and 1984. The program was declassified in Sept. 2011.

HEXAGON and GAMBIT 3 team up

During a media briefing, NRO officials confirmed to SPACE.com that the KH-8 GAMBIT 3 and KH-9 HEXAGON were later operated in tandem, teaming-up to photograph areas of military significance in both the former Soviet Union and China.

The KH-9 would image a wide swath of terrain, later scrutinized by imagery analysts on the ground for so-called ‘targets of opportunity.’ Once these potential targets were identified, a KH-8 would then be maneuvered to photograph the location in much higher resolution.

“During the era of these satellites — the GAMBIT and the HEXAGON — there was a Director of Central Intelligence committee known as the ‘Committee on Imagery Requirements and Exploitation’ that was responsible for that type of planning,” confirmed the NRO’s Robert McDonald, Director of the Center for the Study of National Reconnaissance.

NASA’s Rob Landis was both blunt and philosophical in his emotions over the declassification of the GAMBIT and HEXAGON programs.

“You have to give credit to leaders like President Eisenhower who had the vision to initiate reconnaissance spacecraft, beginning with the CORONA and Discoverer programs,” Landis said. “He was of the generation who wanted no more surprises, no more Pearl Harbors.”

“Frankly, I think that GAMBIT and HEXAGON helped prevent World War III.”

 

Via Space

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Incredible time-lapse video from the International Space Station

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It took Phileas Fogg 80 days to circumnavigate the world but, thanks to the wonders of technology, it is now possible to do it in just a minute.

This whirlwind video tour of the planet is a compilation of time-lapse images shot from the International Space Station (ISS).

James Drake spliced together the images from the ISS, which travels at about 220 miles above the surface, to create the one-minute footage which he posted online – and it has become an internet sensation.

Science teacher Mr Drake used some 600 free-to-access images on the website The Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth, and knitted them together so everyone can enjoy the amazing view of North and South America.

The Earth is shown at night - and the yellow flashes here show the ionosphere - a part of the upper atmosphere, comprising portions of the mesosphere, thermosphere and exosphere

The Earth is shown at night – and the yellow flashes here show the ionosphere – a part of the upper atmosphere, comprising portions of the mesosphere, thermosphere and exosphere.

The science teacher, James Drake, stitched together over 600 images to create the amazing video

The science teacher, James Drake, stitched together over 600 images to create the amazing video.

The film, which was uploaded on September 15 and has attracted almost 50,000 hits on YouTube, starts over the Pacific Ocean and then moves over North and South America before entering daylight near Antarctica.

Some cities and landmarks can be spied, and they include, in chronological order, Vancouver Island, Victoria, Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, San Fransisco, Los Angeles, Phoenix, various large conurbations in Texas, New Mexico, Mexico City, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Yucatan Peninsula.

Further around lightning can be seen in the Pacific Ocean, before other countries included in the video are Guatemala, Panama, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and the Amazon.

The sun is shown rising in the incredible pictures taken from the ISS, which takes 91 minutes to orbit the Earth

The sun is shown rising in the incredible pictures taken from the ISS, which takes 91 minutes to orbit the Earth.

Some 600 images were used to make the one-minute video

In addition, the Earth’s ionosphere (thin yellow line) and the stars of our galaxy can be made out in the fascinating footage.

The Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth, where Mr Drake downloaded the pictures from, has been storing over a million images from space, beginning with the Mercury missions in the early 1960s.

The website’s blurb reads: ‘Our database tracks the locations, supporting data, and digital images for these photographs.

‘We process images coming down from the International Space Station on a daily basis and add them to the 1,118,120 views of the Earth already made accessible on our website.’

The ISS has been manned for almost 11 years, and images of the Earth are regularly beamed back by their astronauts

The ISS has been manned for almost 11 years, and images of the Earth are regularly beamed back by their astronauts.

The ISS is currently on Expedition 29, and the astronauts will be on the space station until mid-November, when they will be replaced by another crew

The ISS is currently on Expedition 29, and the astronauts will be on the space station until mid-November, when they will be replaced by another crew.

The ISS, a habitable, artificial satellite in low Earth orbit, follows the Salyut, Almaz, Cosmos, Skylab, and MIR space stations, as the 11th space station launched into orbit by humanity.

It serves as a research laboratory that has microgravity environment in which crews conduct experiments in many fields including biology, human biology, physics, astronomy and meteorology.

The station has a unique environment for the testing of the spacecraft systems that will be required for missions to the Moon and Mars.

The station is expected to remain in operation until at least 2020, and potentially to 2028, when some Russian modules will be separated to form the OPSEK space station.

And the European Space Agency estimate that the cost of the station will be €100 billion over 30 years.

On November 2 last year the ISS marked its 10th anniversary of continuous human occupation, and it was launched almost 11 years ago, on October 31, 2000.

At the time of the anniversary, the station’s odometer read more than 1.5 billion statute miles (the equivalent of eight round trips to the Sun), over the course of 57,361 orbits around the Earth.

Flashes of lightening can be shown over the Pacific Ocean

Flashes of lightening can be shown over the Pacific Ocean.

The South American coast can be seen from the space station which travels at about 220 miles from the Earth's surface

The South American coast can be seen from the space station which travels at about 220 miles from the Earth’s surface.

The 29th expedition crew settled in to their new home for the next couple of months last week, with Mike Fossum commanding and being aided by Satoshi Furukawa and Sergei Volkov.

They will be up there, travelling about 17,000mph – meaning it takes about 91 minutes to orbit the Earth – until mid-November.

The Expedition 29 crew which will continue to support research into the effects of microgravity on the human body, biology, physics and materials.

The trio took over from Expedition 28 last week, and Commander Andrey Borisenko and Flight Engineers Alexander Samokutyaev and Ron Garan – who had spent 164 days in space – landed their Soyuz TMA-21 spacecraft in Kazakhstan a few seconds before midnight on Friday.

The space station and its large solar arrays is the size equivalent of an American football field – including the end zones – and weighs 861,804 pounds (390,908 kilograms), not including visiting vehicles.

The complex now has more liveable room than a conventional five-bedroom house, and has two bathrooms, a gymnasium and a 360-degree bay window.

The International Space year celebrated a decade of human occupation

The International Space year celebrated a decade of human occupation.

ISS IN NUMBERS

1.5bn: The number of statute miles the ISS managed in a decade (November 2, 2010)

57,361: Orbits around the Earth managed in the same time period

136: Number of launches to the ISS – up to September 2011 – since the launch of the first module, Zarya on November 1998

161: Total number of space walks performed from the ISS – over 1,015 hours

861,804: Pounds it weighs (390,908 kilograms)

2.3m: Number of lines of computer code used

17,239.2: Average speed – in miles per hour

91 minutes: Time it takes to orbit the Earth

€100bn: The estimated cost of the station over a 30-year period, by ESA

 

Via DailyMail

Written by Nokgiir

September 19, 2011 at 3:29 am

Southern lights are sweeter in space

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NASA

The greenish glow of an auroral display sweeps around Earth’s south polar region in this photo, captured from a vantage point on the International Space Station. The shuttle Atlantis and its robotic arm, as well as one of the station’s solar arrays, loom up in the foreground.

The pilot for NASA’s last space shuttle flight, Doug Hurley, says one of the highlights of Atlantis’ trip to the International Space Station was seeing an “incredible” display of southern lights — and after seeing these pictures, I’d have to agree with him.

This photo from the space station shows the greenish auroral glow sweeping around the south pole, following the edge of the atmosphere. Atlantis is in the foreground with its robotic arm extended into the center of the frame, and one of the station’s gold-colored solar arrays juts in the right edge. You can even see the stars hanging in the night sky.

Another picture provides a more detailed view of the shimmering lights, with Atlantis’ inspection boom poking through the frame.

NASA

Thursday night’s southern lights shimmer in a picture taken from the International Space Station, with Atlantis’ inspection boom angling through the picture.

The southern lights, like the northern lights, are sparked when electrically charged particles from the sun interact with Earth’s magnetic field. For more amazing views of Atlantis’ auroras, check out NASA’s photo gallery for the shuttle mission, as well as Space.com’s report about the pictures.

 

– Alan Boyle.

SpaceX chief sets his sights on Mars

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Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk stands alongside rocket models at the National Press Club as he announces plans to build the Falcon Heavy rocket. Observers say the heavy-lift launch system could send an 11-ton payload to Mars.

Don’t expect to hear any nostalgia about the soon-to-end space shuttle era from Elon Musk, the millionaire founder of Space Exploration Technologies. Musk isn’t prone to look to the past, but rather to the future — to a “new era of spaceflight” that eventually leads to Mars.

SpaceX may be on the Red Planet sooner than you think: When I talked with him in advance of the shuttle Atlantis’ last liftoff, the 40-year-old engineer-entrepreneur told me the company’s Dragon capsule could take on a robotic mission to Mars as early as 2016. And he’s already said it’d be theoretically possible to send humans to Mars in the next 10 to 20 years —  bettering NASA’s target timeframe of the mid-2030s.

You can’t always take Musk’s timelines at face value. This is rocket science, after all, and Musk himself acknowledges that his company’s projects don’t always finish on time. But if he commits himself to a task, he tends to see it through. “It may take more time than I expected, but I’ll always come through,” he told me a year ago.

Since that interview, a lot of things have come through for SpaceX. The company has conducted successful tests of its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule. Before the end of the year, another test flight is expected to send a Dragon craft all the way to the space station for the first time. If that test is successful, SpaceX can start launching cargo to the International Space Station under the terms of a $1.6 billion NASA contract.

The company is also in line to receive $75 million more from NASA to start turning the Dragon into a crew-worthy space taxi for astronauts by 2015 or so. And just today, the company broke ground on a California launch pad that could be used by the next-generation Falcon Heavy rocket starting in 2013.

Once the Dragon and the Falcon Heavy are in service, the main pieces would be in place for a Mars mission, Musk said.

“One of the ideas we’re talking to NASA about is … using Dragon as a science delivery platform for Mars and a few other locations,” he told me. “This would be possibly be several tons of payload — actually, a single Dragon mission could land with more payload than has been delivered to Mars cumulatively in history.”

SpaceX is working with NASA’s Ames Research Center in California on an interplanetary mission concept that could theoretically be put into effect for a launch “five or six years from now,” Musk said.

By that time, astronauts will once again be riding on U.S.-made spaceships to the space station, including the Dragon — that is, if the current schedules hold true. But there’s a lot of doubt surrounding those schedules. As you’d expect, the end of the space shuttle program and the shape of spaceships to come were major themes in my conversation with Musk. Here’s an edited version of the Q&A on those subjects:

Cosmic Log: A lot of people are saying that when the space shuttle stops flying, that might be the end of the American space program. The idea is that commercial spaceflight providers are not going to be able to do the job, and there won’t be sustainable interest in building the beyond-Earth-orbit rocket that NASA has on the drawing board. What’s your response to the claim that this is really the end?

Elon Musk: It flies in the face of the facts. Six months ago, we had the second launch of the Falcon 9 and the first launch of the Dragon. The Dragon orbited Earth twice, it performed orbital maneuvers, it made a precision re-entry under the control of thrusters, and it landed within a mile of our target. We brought the Dragon back, and it was actually in good enough condition that we could fly it again if we wanted to.

So as far as I’m concerned, it’s not the death of anything. What we’re really facing is quite the opposite. I think we’re at the dawn of a new era of spaceflight, one which is going to advance much faster than it ever has in the past.

The space shuttle was designed in the ’70s, and it really didn’t improve after almost 40 years. They’ve upgraded the electronics here and there, but that’s about it. That’s incredibly static when you consider how other fields of technology have improved.

Now, with the public-private partnership that NASA has established with SpaceX, and the efforts made by other companies, we’re actually going to see dramatic improvements in spaceflight technology for the first time since the ’60s. The Dragon is taking technology to a whole new level beyond the shuttle.

The shuttle is fairly constrained because it’s a winged vehicle with a landing gear. It can’t land anywhere except Earth, and even on Earth, it can land only on certain runways. It doesn’t have any ability to go beyond Earth orbit. But because the Dragon has a propulsion-based landing system and a much more capable heatshield than the shuttle’s, it can land anywhere in the solar system with a solid surface — as long as you can throw it there. The Falcon Heavy can throw it pretty much anywhere in the solar system.

Q: The Dragon certainly looks different from the shuttle, and some people might get the impression that it’s a step backward, back to the days of Apollo.

A: I’ve heard that. But I hope we can make it clear that this is actually a big step forward from the shuttle. It can do all sorts of things that the shuttle can’t do. People look at something like wings and say, yeah, that’s how a spaceship should look. But let’s say you had a boat, and you put wheels on it and drove it down the road. It’d look pretty silly, right? Well, why do you have wings in a vacuum?

Q: One of the issues that always comes up when discussing commercial involvement in NASA spaceflight is the safety issue. A lot of the critics of your program have focused on that concern as the sticking point. NASA certainly devotes a lot of attention to safety assurance, and some say that’s why it’s so expensive to put humans into space. Any attempt to cut corners on that would make the whole enterprise look questionable. How do you respond to that?

A: Well, first of all, I suspect that the people saying that wouldn’t have a problem flying on Southwest Airlines or driving a car or taking other types of transport that are not government-operated. The government does have a role in safety oversight, and anything we do for NASA goes through an extremely rigorous safety and liability examination. But I think what actually needs to happen is a dramatic improvement in safety. The current state of affairs with the shuttle is not acceptable at all. The shuttle’s accident rate is not OK. Who would get on an airplane if you had a 1.5 percent chance of dying?

Q: Do you see any sign that NASA has different standards for oversight of commercial operations and for the shuttle program? After all, there’s a whole army of engineers dealing with shuttle operations and processing.

A: I do think there are different standards. For us, the standards are higher. The shuttle, for example, has no escape system. We would not launch [astronauts on] our vehicle without an escape system, nor would NASA want us to. Also, with our vehicle, there’s far less to go wrong on any given flight. With the shuttle, if anything serious goes wrong with this extremely complex vehicle, it’s curtains. There’s no escape. If the shuttle’s level of reliability was acceptable, we could fly astronauts this year.

Q: Do you think NASA has the right vision for spaceflight? The idea is that space station resupply in low Earth orbit would be left to commercial ventures, freeing NASA up to develop the heavy-lift Space Launch System for exploration beyond Earth orbit. Some people have wondered whether the Space Launch System is really going to be necessary.

A: Personally, my view is that space transport overall should be much more of a private-public partnership, and that applies to heavy lift as well. The best use of NASA’s resources is to focus on the unique scientific instruments and payloads that are truly one-off items. That’s actually how it works right now for Earth-observing and space science missions. They launch the spacecraft primarily on United Launch Alliance rockets, a Delta or an Atlas. If it’s a probe to Mars, or to the asteroid belt, or it’s a weather satellite, it’ll go up on a United Launch Alliance rocket. Obviously, in the future, they’ll go up on our vehicles as well. I think that works pretty well, and I think it makes sense to extend that model to all sizes of rockets.

Q: So it sounds as if you see a role for SpaceX in exploration beyond Earth orbit. Do you see any scenario where a mission to the moon or Mars could be completely private-sector?

A: It’s not out of the question. I do think missions like that are ideally handled as public-private partnerships. There are questions about how you’d pay for the missions. But the absolute goal of SpaceX is to develop the technologies to make life multiplanetary, which means being able to transport huge volumes of people and cargo to Mars. So we’ll do whatever is necessary to achieve that goal.

 

Via MSNBC

Is the space effort dying or evolving?

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Pessimists are bemoaning the end of U.S. human spaceflight, but optimists see the next few years as a transition to a new paradigm that will energize commercial ventures and get astronauts beyond Earth orbit for the first time since the Nixon administration. Which way do you see it?

There seems to be plenty of gloom to go around as the space shuttle program nears its end. Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson, a former member of the NASA Advisory Council and other commissions sizing up the space effort, had this to say via Twitter: “Apollo in 1969. Shuttle in 1981. Nothing in 2011. Our space program would look awesome to anyone living backwards through time.”

One of the astronauts on the first space shuttle flight in 1981, Bob Crippen, told me that he was disappointed that the shuttle program’s end would leave NASA “without the capability to put our astronauts in orbit ourselves.” And he questioned whether NASA had the right vision for future exploration. “I personally favored going to the moon,” he said.

The frustration flared up today during a House committee hearing with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden as the sole witness, or sole target. “We have waited for answers that have not come,” Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Ralph Hall, R-Texas, told Bolden. “We have run out of patience. … I would like to point out today that the committee reserves the right to open an investigation into these continued delays and join the investigation initiated by the Senate.”

Bolden, a retired Marine general, took the hostile fire. “You have the right guy here to criticize,” he said. “I am the leader of America’s space program.”

He laid out the main points of the post-shuttle plan:

  • Rely on the Russians and other partners for resupply of the International Space Station, at least until U.S. companies can finish work on the space vehicles they’re developing with NASA’s backing. The first commercial cargo craft could be flying to the station by the end of this year, and U.S.-made “space taxis” could be taking on astronauts by 2015.
  • Continue work on the Orion crew vehicle, which should be capable of carrying four astronauts on more ambitious trips beyond Earth orbit. Orion had been canceled as part of the Constellation back-to-the-moon program, after $5 billion had been spent on the program, but it was essentially resurrected as NASA’s “multipurpose crew vehicle,” or MPCV.
  • Build a new Space Launch System, or SLS, which will be based on shuttle-era and Apollo-era rocket technology. The design for the SLS has not yet been announced, which is why members of Congress are so frustrated. Bolden said it could take until the end of summer or even longer to get the SLS plan through its financial review. Congress passed a law calling for the MPCV spaceship and the SLS rocket to be ready by 2016, but Bolden said the 2017-2020 time frame was more realistic.
  • NASA is aiming to send astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025, and to Mars and its moons by the mid-2030s. Other stopovers, ranging from the moon to gravitational balance points in outer space, may be added along the way.

“We are not abandoning human spaceflight,” Bolden said. “American leadership in space will continue for at least the next half century because we have laid the foundation for success.”

So there is an evolving plan for the future … just as there was an evolving plan for the space shuttle system in the early to mid-1970s when the Apollo program came to an end. Under the best-case scenario, that plan will lead to actual flights within four to six years, which is less time than it took between the last Saturn 5 and the first shuttle launch. But there are lots of questions surrounding the post-shuttle plan:

  • How much money will NASA get? A draft report from the House Appropriations Committee calls for trimming the space agency’s budget by roughly 10 percent. (For details, check Space Policy OnlineParabolic Arc and Space News.) NASA officials as well as commercial spaceship developers say that budget reductions will slow down the transition to post-shuttle spaceflight even more.
  • Will the commercial sector succeed? Right now, NASA is committed to paying the Russians $56 million for each seat on a station-bound Soyuz craft, and the price is due to go up in 2014. Commercial providers such as SpaceX, Sierra Nevada and the Boeing Co. say that they can beat that price, but that they need NASA’s money to help cover development costs. Shuttle program veterans say the commercial providers still have to prove that their craft will be safe and reliable.
  • Will the commercial space taxis for low Earth orbit and the Orion MPCV/SLS system for going beyond Earth orbit complement each other the way NASA hopes? Larry Price, Lockheed Martin Space Systems’ deputy manager for the Orion program, told me that the two-track system served as an insurance policy for the post-shuttle space effort. “There’s a little bit of competitive pressure,” he acknowledged. “If the commercial guys run into any problem or delay for any reason, then we could back them up. And similarly, if we don’t meet our milestones, the commercial guys could evolve into our niche.”

After 30 years of grand successes, tragic failures and unfulfilled promises, the era of the space shuttle is ending. We may not yet know exactly what kind of American spaceship will be the next to fly. And because of that, thousands of people will be laid off by NASA and its contractors in the weeks ahead. But we’re not witnessing the death of the American space program. At least that’s the way Elon Musk, the millionaire founder of SpaceX, sees it.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s not the death of anything,” he told me. “What we’re really facing is quite the opposite. I think we’re at the dawn of a new era of spaceflight, one which is going to advance much faster than it ever has in the past.”

Now why would he say that? Over the next few days, we’ll be presenting a series of Q&A interviews with Musk and other folks involved in shaping the post-shuttle era. What they’ve told me runs counter to the gloom-and-doom talk, but you might well have a different opinion. Feel free to weigh in with your comments.

 

Alan Boyle

Space junk solution in the works

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A next-generation space surveillance system will rely on high-resolution radar and high-performance computing.

The space-junk alerts that have been sounded on the International Space Station over the past couple of weeks highlight the need for the “Space Fence,” a next-generation system for tracking orbital debris that’s due to begin operation in 2015.

One of the alerts, on June 28, came so late that the station didn’t have time to get out of the way. The six astronauts living aboard the orbital outpost had to take shelter in Russian Soyuz lifeboats while debris of unknown origin zoomed past at a distance of just 850 feet (260 meters).

The other alert came Sunday, just as the space shuttle Atlantis was beginning its last visit to the space station. Initially, mission managers worried that the station-shuttle complex would have to be moved out of the way of some Soviet-era satellite debris, but today they said the junk would pass by harmlessly at aNA distance of 11 miles (18 kilometers).

The first case in particular demonstrates why debris-trackers need to know more about what’s out there, said Doug Burgess, manager for space situational awareness programs at Raytheon.

“They only had 15 hours to make a decision about whether to maneuver or not, and clearly human life was at stake,” Burgess told me today. “If the capability that Space Fence brings to bear were available, they would have had a much longer lead time.”

Today, orbital-debris trackers at NASA and the U.S. Strategic Command can keep track of only the tip of the iceberg: About 20,000 pieces of space junk have been cataloged, but experts estimate that somewhere between 100,000 and 500,000 objects larger than a centimeter (half an inch) are in Earth orbit. At orbital speeds of up to 17,500 mph, even an inch-wide piece of debris could destroy a satellite or damage the space station if it struck in the wrong place.

 

Lockheed Martin video explains the concept behind the Space Fence.

“This issue has always been on the minds of people who are trying to use space for all the things that it’s used for today. … We really are heavily reliant on space,” John Morse, director of Lockheed Martin’s Space Fence Program, told Discovery News.

More satellites in orbit tend to breed more space junk, as illustrated by the 2009 collision of a defunct Russian weather satellite and an Iridium telecom satellite, which left thousands of additional pieces of debris in orbit. “The situation is only going to get worse in time,” Burgess said.

That’s where the $3.5 billion Space Fence comes in. The existing radar tracking system, known as the Air Force Space Surveillance System, uses VHF and UHF frequency bands to track orbital debris, but those wavelengths are too wide to catch the small stuff. The new system will be far more sensitive because it’ll operate in finer-resolution S-band wavelengths.

“It’s an order-of-magnitude improvement,” Burgess said.

But that’s just the start: The next-generation Space Fence will also rely on high-performance computing to identify and keep track of orbital paths for what’s likely to be hundreds of thousands of bits of orbiting junk. That should provide better “predict-ahead ability,” Burgess said. Right now, NASA’s rules call for the space station’s crew to take evasive action — or prepare to abandon ship — if a piece of debris is projected to fly within an imaginary “pizza box” that’s about 15 miles (25 kilometers) on each side and a half-mile (0.75 kilometers) above and below the station. The Space Fence would reduce the margin of error.

“Things like the pizza box get smaller, your uncertainty gets smaller, your ability to predict orbital tracks in advance becomes greater,” Burgess said.

 

Raytheon video focuses on the company’s experience with radar technology.

Raytheon and Lockheed Martin are in competition for the Space Fence contract, and in February, the U.S. Air Force provided each company with a $107 milllion, 18-month design contract. The designs are to get a preliminary review next February, with the contract awarded a year from now. The first of three planned globe-girdling radar installations is to be in operation in 2015, and the Space Fence should be fully operational in 2020. The favored sites for the installations are in Australia, the Marshall Islands and Ascension Island.

$3.5 billion may sound like a lot to pay for an invisible fence. But when you consider that the space station alone is a $100 billion-plus investment that needs to last until at least 2020 … well, it just seems to me that they can’t build that fence fast enough.

 

Via MSNBC

Android phone goes into orbit

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The mobile-phone space race has ended in a tie: Last month we found out that NASA’s final space shuttle flight was taking a couple of iPhones to the International Space Station, and it turns out that an Android phone was aboard the shuttle Atlantis as well.

The Google-powered Samsung Nexus S phone will be used on the station in a series of experiments aimed at developing free-flying robotic assistants — zero-gravity gizmos that were inspired by the zippy little training sphere that helped Luke Skywalker practice his lightsaber skills in “Star Wars.” These volleyball-sized free-fliers are known as SPHERES — which is short for Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient Experimental Satellites.

SPHERES prototypes have been in the works for more than a decade. The camera-equipped, thruster-driven devices were developed by students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in cooperation with the Defense Department and NASA, for possible use as remote-controlled observers in microgravity environments. You could imagine a spyball floating through far-off modules of a space station to make sure all systems were go, during times when the station’s human crew is otherwise occupied. Future versions of the device could also look over the shoulder of a spacewalker to give Mission Control an up-close video view of the action.

The beauty part is that the SPHERES prototypes have an expansion port for plugging in extra devices or appendages — and the Samsung Nexus S is the first smartphone to be plugged in.

“By connecting a smartphone, we can immediately make SPHERES more intelligent,” D.W. Wheeler, lead engineer in the Intelligent Robotics Group at NASA’s Ames Research Center, said in a NASA news release. “With a smartphone, the SPHERES will have a built-in camera to take pictures and video, sensors to help conduct inspections, a powerful computing unit to make calculations, and a Wi-Fi connection that we will use to transfer data in real time to the space station and Mission Control.”

Neither the Android phones nor the iPhones are being used to make actual phone calls: Space station residents have special satellite-linked Internet phones for that. But today’s smartphones pack so much computing power that they could come in handy as backup navigation devices (in the iPhones’ case) or satellite controllers (in the Android phone’s case).

“We’ll start by simulating a mobile inspection of the station to test how well SPHERES can move around and collect data using the smartphone’s camera and sensors,” said Terry Fong, director of the Intelligent Robotics Group. “This will tell us basic information about the light and sound levels inside various areas of the station. Then we’ll use SPHERES to conduct an interview with a crewmember — a task that usually requires two crew members to complete. We’ll have Mission Control and the smartphone-enhanced SPHERES take the place of the astronaut holding the video camera.”

Just having the phones on the space station serve as status symbols for the companies involved.

“Samsung is proud to have the Nexus S chosen to be aboard NASA’s final space shuttle launch, an event that is historical,” Dale Sohn, president of Samsung Mobile, said in the news release. “The research that is being conducted with SPHERES using the Nexus S will help monitor and communicate from the International Space Station.”

So what about all the other smartphones and tablets that are out there? Because this is the last shuttle flight, future gizmos will have to be certified for flight on other types of space transports, such as the Russian Soyuz or Progress craft, European and Japanese cargo spaceships, or on commercial vehicles that are currently under development.

The future telecom space race may well be a contest to see which company can extend its calling network to the final frontier. I’m sure there are some future space tourists who’d love to flip on their phone while flying on SpaceShipTwo, call down to their pals and say, “Can you hear me now?” What do you think?

 

Via MSNBC