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Oct 312014
Wallops Island

Wallops IslandFollowing the explosion of the Orbital Sciences Antares 130 rocket carrying the Cygnus spacecraft to the ISS on October 28, 2014, we were left with far more questions than answers.  As the clean-up effort progresses and investigation begins, we’re starting to get information, slowly.

The fires are all out, and debris is being collected. While most of the debris fell on and immediately around Wallops Island, some pieces have been found on Chincoteague Island, nearly four and a half miles away. NASA continues to caution people not to touch any debris they may find, but to contact their response team at 757-824-1295.  So far, they say, they’ve had reports of about 25 pieces of debris, ranging in size from that of a postage stamp, to the size of a piece of paper.

Orbital Sciences, who are leading the investigation, released an update statement. “Based on initial sweeps conducted by an Orbital safety team, it appears a significant amount of debris remains on the site and it is likely substantial hardware evidence will be available to aid in determining root cause of the Antares launch failure … An Orbital-led team has begun cataloging and documenting the location of all pieces of debris over the next several days after which the debris will be relocated to storage bays on the island for further evaluation.

“Some of the Cygnus cargo has also been found and will be retrieved as soon as we have clearance to do so to see if any survived intact.

“After up close visual inspections by the safety team, it still appears the launch site itself avoided major damage. There is some evidence of damage to piping that runs between the fuel and commodity storage vessels and the launch mount, but no evidence of significant damage to either the storage vessels or launch mount. Detailed evaluations by MARS and their engineering team will occur in the next couple of days.”

Orbital Sciences vice president of communications, Barron Beneski, also confirmed this morning in an email to CNN that the flight termination system on the Antares rocket was engaged; the rocket was intentionally detonated by an official at the Wallops Range Control Center in order to prevent it crashing into a populated area.

We’ll keep you up to date as more information is available.


Oct 292014
Wallops Island

Wallops IslandNASA and Orbital Sciences have both issued written press releases, giving updates on the situation on the ground at Wallops Flight Facility, following yesterday’s explosion of the Antares 130 rocket, which was to carry the Cygnus spacecraft to the International Space Station on a re-supply mission. The flight was unmanned, and all ground personnel are safe and accounted for. NASA has explained that the ISS crew is in no danger of running out of consumable supplies; in fact, the Russian craft Progress made a safe delivery to ISS earlier today. The next Space-X Dragon mission, which launches on December 9, 2014, may have its payload adjusted to compensate for some of the lost cargo from yesterday’s incident.

We do know that numerous experiments, including two from Jet Propulsion Labs, at least one from a group of public school students, and a test spacecraft from Planetary Resources were lost in the incident.

Chris Lewicki, chief asteroid miner at Planetary Resources said, “All of us appreciate the physical grit and emotional toll that went into the fabrication not only of the vehicle itself, but also from the many organizations who had payloads onboard. Our first Arkyd, a technology and system test platform (the Arkyd 3, or A3) was integrated on that rocket, which was destined for the International Space Station (ISS). The A3 was due to hibernate on the ISS for a few months until the crew deployed it into low-Earth orbit (LEO) out of the Japanese ‘Kibo’ airlock. Its mission was to space-test the avionics and controls systems, show us the strong points, failure points, and then burn-up in the atmosphere as its orbit slowly degraded back to Earth after about 90 days … We appreciate the support and well-wishes we’ve had pouring in from around the world, and want to remind everyone that the A3 was just a robot. We can and are building more, and we will live to fly another day. Onward!”

Orbital Science’s press release says, “Early this morning, range officials performed an aerial survey of the launch facilities and surrounding areas at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility where yesterday’s failure of the Antares rocket occurred after it lifted off from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport’s Pad 0A.  Shortly after, a team of representatives from NASA, MARS and Orbital entered the launch site to perform a preliminary assessment of the launch complex and related facilities.  The overall findings indicate the major elements of the launch complex infrastructure, such as the pad and fuel tanks, avoided serious damage, although some repairs will be necessary.  However, until the facility is inspected in greater detail in the coming days, the full extent of necessary repairs or how long they will take to accomplish will not be known.

“Also today, Orbital made progress forming a permanent Accident Investigation Board (AIB) comprised of company officials, along with representatives from NASA and the NTSB, with the FAA providing overall oversight of the process … Today, Orbital appointed Mr. Dave Steffy, Senior Vice President and Chief Engineer of the company’s Advanced Programs Group, a highly experienced engineer well-versed in launch vehicle engineering and operations, to serve as the permanent chairman of the AIB.”

In NASA’s press release, Bill Wroebel, the director of the Wallops facility said, “I want to praise the launch team, range safety, all of our emergency responders and those who provided mutual aid and support on a highly-professional response that ensured the safety of our most important resource — our people. In the coming days and weeks ahead, we’ll continue to assess the damage on the island and begin the process of moving forward to restore our space launch capabilities. There’s no doubt in my mind that we will rebound stronger than ever.”

The NASA press release continues, “The initial assessment is a cursory look; it will take many more weeks to further understand and analyze the full extent of the effects of the event. A number of support buildings in the immediate area have broken windows and imploded doors. A sounding rocket launcher adjacent to the pad, and buildings nearest the pad, suffered the most severe damage.

“The Wallops team also met with a group of state and local officials, including the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, the Virginia Marine Police, and the U.S. Coast Guard.

“The Wallops environmental team also is conducting assessments at the site. Preliminary observations are that the environmental effects of the launch failure were largely contained within the southern third of Wallops Island, in the area immediately adjacent to the pad. Immediately after the incident, the Wallops’ industrial hygienist collected air samples at the Wallops mainland area, the Highway 175 causeway, and on Chincoteague Island. No hazardous substances were detected at the sampled locations. Additional air, soil and water samples will be collected from the incident area as well as at control sites for comparative analysis.

“The Coast Guard and Virginia Marine Resources Commission reported today they have not observed any obvious signs of water pollution, such as oil sheens. Furthermore, initial assessments have not revealed any obvious impacts to fish or wildlife resources. The Incident Response Team continues to monitor and assess.”

Once again, officials stress the importance of not picking up souvenirs from the area surrounding Wallops Island. Anyone who finds debris or damage to their property in the vicinity of the launch mishap is cautioned to stay away from it and call the Incident Response Team at 757-824-1295.

No additional press conferences are planned at this time, and additional information will come in the form of press releases. We’ll stay on top of the developing news, and keep you posted!


Oct 232014
partial solar eclipse
This NASA animation shows how the Moon's shadow will pass over the Earth this afternoon.

This NASA animation shows how the Moon’s shadow will pass over the Earth this afternoon.

Today’s partial solar eclipse is the last eclipse North America will see until the next total solar eclipse in 2017.  It will begin at about 2:00 p.m. PST this afternoon, October 23, 2014. In most areas, the sun will be about half covered. The eclipse will occur over most of the continent — except for a small slice of eastern Canada and eastern New England.

A solar eclipse occurs when the new moon passes between Earth and the sun, casting a shadow on Earth’s surface.

Overall, the farther west and north you are the better. In western states, the entire eclipse will happen while the sun is still fairly high in the afternoon sky. For example, NASA says the eclipse will start for Los Angeles at 2:08 p.m. and end at 4:40 p.m. In most of the eastern half of the North American continent, you’ll still be able to see it at sunset. In New York, the eclipse starts at 5:49 p.m. and ends when the sun sets at 6:03 p.m.

This is the third eclipse visible in North America this year. The first two were lunar eclipses, one in April and the other earlier this month.

We remind you that it is extremely important not to look at the eclipse with the unprotected eye, as the ultraviolet and infrared radiation will cause permanent damage to the retinae in your eyes. Instead, punch a small hole in an index card or piece of paper, then stand with your back to the sun and focus the image of the eclipse through the hole in the paper onto another piece of paper. Without special equipment, this is the only safe way to observe the eclipse. Have fun. Be safe.

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Oct 112014
comet C/2013 A1, also known as Siding Spring, as captured by Wide Field Camera 3 on NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.
comet C/2013 A1, also known as Siding Spring, as captured by Wide Field Camera 3 on NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.

comet C/2013 A1, also known as Siding Spring, as captured by Wide Field Camera 3 on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

Mars and Earth are both looking to the skies, for a once-in-a-million-year visit from an Oort Cloud comet. NASA held a press conference last evening with representatives from the various teams who are preparing for the close approach of comet Siding Spring to Mars on October 19, 2014. “Close” is a relative term: at its closest, the comet will be 88,000 miles from the center of Mars. Although the comet itself is “only” 5 miles in diameter (about 109 tons of material), its tail would reach half the distance from Earth to the moon. This is the closest any comet has come to Earth in the past 500 years, and with NASA, ESA, and ISRO having so many instruments on and around Mars, mankind has a ringside seat for this rare event.

The comet was discovered in January 2013, at Siding Spring Observatory in Australia, by astronomer Rob McNaught. Scientists believe that the comet formed in the first million years of our solar system, somewhere between Jupiter and Neptune, and was then thrown by some force out to a multi-million-year orbit. It was knocked into its current orbit by the passage of a star near the Oort Cloud, where the comet had been traveling.

This is the first opportunity we’ve had to image an Oort Cloud comet. A huge variety of scientists and instruments are coordinating to “maximize the science” from this encounter. Preliminary studies of the comet show that it’s made up of about half rocky dust and half volatile organic ice, made of volatiles like methane. As the comet came closer to the Sun than ever before, the intensity of light from comet increased, then dropped. Scientists hope to find more evidence to explain this, but one current hypothesis is that some of the hypervolatiles may have burned up when the comet got closer. As one scientist explained, “kind of like nitrous oxide would behave in a car engine.”

So, NASA, ESA, and ISRO are preparing their planetary instruments on Earth and Mars and orbital instruments to capture every shred of data possible. They’ll gather a x-ray, ultraviolet, and infrared images; collect data from Mars’ ionosphere, upper and lower atmosphere, and surface. The Hubble telescope is already observing the nucleus of the comet and the dust coming off of it, while the Spitzer space telescope observes the dust and carbon dioxide. NASA’s Swift satellite is observing the water molecules in and around the comet; about half the ice had come off by June 2014). The NASA ISRF telescope on Mauna Kea is preparing to make daytime observations of the comet’s composition, and its effects on the Martian atmosphere. The Chandra x-ray Observatory will monitor the ions and neutral particles around Mars, looking for changes as the comet approaches. About 25 hours after the comet’s closest approach to Mars, the Kepler Observatory will be able to make unprecedented observations with its photometer.

Graphic courtesy of NASA

Graphic courtesy of NASA

It’s a mind-boggling cooperation, and it doesn’t end with the professional scientists at the various space agencies. A group called Coordinated Investigations Of Comets (CIOC) has enlisted and organized the efforts of “a global army of eager amateur and pro-amateur astronomers.” A NASA representative explained, “amateur photos provide the legacy data and reference system against which to place hi-res images.” They also provide global coverage for the event.

What is the comet’s nucleus really made of? Will there be meteors as a result of its passage? How will the Martian atmosphere react? We don’t know, but it’s going to be really exciting to find out! Stay tuned for lots more coverage, and updates on planned “comet social” events on line and in person.


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Oct 092014
Alyssa Carson and Bill Nye

by Gene Turnbow, station manager

Thirteen-year-old Alyssa Carson of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has an indomitable dream: to be the first human to set foot on the planet Mars. She may just have a shot at it. She’s been training for nine years so far. She’s been to NASA Space Camp eleven times already, and NASA Space Academy three times. She’s the first person ever to complete all three Space Camps on Earth, and the first person ever to complete the NASA Visitors Center Passport program.  She speaks Spanish, French, Chinese, and English, as well as some Turkish, and studies classes in these languages.  She’s got her whole academic career planned out years in advance, and she’s possibly been to more space-science-related facilities than any single person in history.  From the age of three, she’s known she wanted to be an astronaut.

What motivates her? On her web site, NASABlueberry.com, Carson writes:

I would love to go to Mars because it is a planet that no one has been to before. It’s about the same size as the Earth and there are ice caps at the top and bottom of Mars. That means there is water on Mars. This could possibly be our next Earth. Just think about all the things that are in Space. For example: planets we have never explored, galaxies that we have never heard of, stars that are just babies, black holes that are as wide as the Sun to Pluto multiple times and has the mass of a billion suns, parts of the universe that we have never seen. Just think of all that stuff just floating around. It’s more than you can imagine. I AM THE MARS GENERATION.

Carson’s drive and dedication are unmatched. She has already given a TEDx talk in Greece, and according to her blog, has already graduated from the National Flight Academy in Pensacola; the VA Space Flight Academy at the NASA facility in Wallops Island, Virginia; and the Gladiator School in Rome.

NASA currently hopes to launch a manned expedition to Mars in 2033. Before then, Carson is planning on improving her knowledge and study at the Cambridge and International Space University. Paul Carson, NASA’s spokesperson, said that they take people like Alyssa Carson seriously. He added that she is doing all the correct things to help her become an astronaut and potentially visit Mars one day.

Will she make it to Mars? We’re not sure.  A lot can happen in 20 years. But we think she has the right stuff.  In her own words, “Failure is not an option.”

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Oct 032014
RAW image from the Back to Front Hazcam, Sol 3800 (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

by Cat Ellen, contributing writer

Mars Teams Focus on Comet Siding Spring

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

With the recent arrival of NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN), five scientific missions at Mars are now joining forces to observe the Comet Siding Spring, expected October 19, 2014. From the skies: Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey, and MAVEN each have their assigned observation objectives. And providing ground support, the two working rovers–Curiosity and Opportunity–plan to take measurements and send observational data back to their respective teams.

Oppy Still Working

RAW image from the Back to Front Hazcam, Sol 3800 (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

RAW image from the Back to Front Hazcam, Sol 3800 (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

“The Little Rover That Could” continues to take photos on Mars, taking driving instruction from the team back on Earth, and perform scientific analysis. And after 3800 Sols (a solar day on Mars, roughly 24 hours and 39 minutes), the view from NASA’s Opportunity rover looks fantastic.

Currently, Opportunity is headed towards “Marathon Valley” while taking photos on the west rim of Endeavour Crator. Oppy’s team intends to have the rover collect panoramic images of the ejecta field of a small crater named “Ulysses.” Also, the rover has been taking twilight test photos help the team prepare for the Comet Siding Spring expected on October 19, 2014.

Since the flash memory reboot in early September, Opportunity has driven an additional 0.14 miles this past month, displaying a total mission odometer at 25.34 miles. In addition to driving and photography, Opportunity continued to use the Rock Abrasion Tool brush, collect some material attempt to process scientific observations and calculations. And although the rover occasionally still experiences anomalies with the Flash file system, the team reports Oppy is “otherwise in good health.”

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