June 18, 2009
Posted: 08:51 AM ET
I recently spent a miserable 10 hours on a flight from Europe to the U.S. and it made me think of how wonderful it would have been to be able to take the Concorde and cut that time in half.
My misery, and a conversation with a colleague about it, inspired an article on the status of supersonic flight six years after the Concorde fleet was retired from service.
Those planes flew at twice the speed of sound, but what if you could travel even faster?
Research continues into hypersonic flight, defined as least five times faster than the speed of sound. The first human to travel at hypersonic speeds was Russian Major Yuri Gagarin 1961 during the world's first piloted orbital flight, according to the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission.
Future generations might one day zip around the globe in planes that reach those speeds with the help of supersonic combustion ramjets. Also known as scramjets, these engines use external air for combustion, according to NASA.
But there are lots of obstacles to overcome.
“It really comes down to the faster you go, the higher the temperatures associated with the external shape of the airplane,” said Peter Coen, principal investigator for NASA’s supersonic fundamental aeronautics program.
To illustrate, the temperature on the surface of an object that is traveling at five times the speed of sound reaches 1,800° F, according to the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission.
“That really requires an airframe that has the life that would be associated with commercial success. That material has not been envisioned yet, never mind invented,” Coen said.
May 22, 2009
Posted: 09:02 AM ET
The crew of the International Space Station (ISS) tasted their own urine Wednesday - and NASA didn't even have to double-dog dare them.
Astronauts celebrated by "clinking" their drinking bags together in a traditional cheers before sipping water composed of recycled urine, sweat and atmospheric moisture. The cheers marked the initiation of a closed loop water recycling system aboard the ISS.
NASA claims each crew member creates about a gallon of water from urine every six hours, but the source water doesn't just come from the space station's human occupants. "Lab animals on the ISS breathe and urinate, too, and we plan to reclaim their waste products along with the crew's. A full complement of 72 rats would equal about one human in terms of water reclamation," Layne Carter, a water-processing specialist with NASA, said in a statement released by the space agency.
On NASA TV, Flight Engineer Mike Barrett confirmed "the taste is great," as another astronaut swam through the air catching floating bubbles of the recycled water. "This has been the stuff of science fiction," Barrett said on the program. "Everybody's talked about recycling water in a closed loop system, but nobody's ever done it before. Here we are today with the first round of recycled water."
Tom's Hardware is less enthusiastic about drinking the potent potable:
Similar water purification technology was employed after the Asian tsunami in 2004, but with large scale use there is typically a much larger gap between urine and tap.
Would you be willing to drink reclaimed urine, or are you sticking to bottled water while Evian is available?
November 21, 2008
Posted: 09:40 AM ET
Okay, that headline is the only joke in this post about turning astronaut waste into drinking water.
The newly-delivered Water Recovery System uses filters and chemicals to purify astronauts’ perspiration, urine, and station waste water into drinkable H20. NASA photo
So please get the "yuck" factor out of your system and read on.
Among tons of equipment that the space shuttle Endeavour hauled to the International Space Station (ISS) is a new water-purification system that recycles everything - humidity, condensation, sweat and yes, even urine - into purified drinking water.
(CNN's intrepid space correspondent Miles O'Brien sampled an earth version of the H20 during his coverage of Endeavour's launch on Friday. Other than a hint of an iodine aftertaste.... he pronounced it OK. Miles did several live shots on CNN TV, and eventually finished the bottle.)
The WRS, or water recovery system, includes two refrigerator-sized racks packed with a distiller and filters.
"We use some traditional technology, such as filtration systems, but some of the technology is unique to our operation, like working without gravity," said Bob Bagdigian of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. He's the project manager for NASA's Environmental Control Life Support System (ECLSS).
Each crew member on the ISS uses just under a gallon of water a day. Water is needed for drinking, brushing teeth, flushing toilets, showering, and washing hands, clothes and dishes. About two thirds of that water now comes from Russian Progress resupply vehicles, the European Space Agency's Jules Verne automatic transfer vehicle, and NASA space shuttles. The remaining third comes from a small water processor on the Russian side of the station. That system captures sweat, and other water vapor in the air as it passes through the air-conditioning system, filtering it and turning it into drinkable water.
With the planned doubling of the station crew from three to six, there's a need to look for more efficiency in handling supplies - especially water, that is plenty heavy and therefore plenty expensive to bring up from the ground.
Any long-term outpost on the moon or Mars will have no choice but to recycle liquids. So it made sense that an early version of such a system be tested on the space station. If this system works as planned, it should cut the need for water delivery by 65 percent, producing 6,000 pounds of potable water each year.
The environmental team at Marshall in Huntsville, Alabama, does more than just water purification. These microbiologists, chemists, materials, chemical, mechanical, and software engineers are part plumbers, part HVAC workers and part environmental police for the space station crew. Their systems do everything from providing oxygen and potable water to removing carbon dioxide from the cabin air and maintaining cabin temperature and humidity levels.
So how sure will the station residents be that the water is fit for human consumption?
They won't drink a drop until several samples have been flown back to Earth and are tested and re-tested.
The purification technology design also has provided assistance on Earth. Similar equipment has been used in aid centers after earthquakes in Iraq and Pakistan, said Bagdigian.
Does Bagdigian, trained as a biologist and chemical engineer, ever get tired of the bathroom humor?
He laughed. Non-scientists, especially kids, can identify with such a basic human function, he said.
"Everybody is interested in living in space and how that is going to become a reality."
–Marsha Walton, Producer, CNN Science and Technology
November 18, 2008
Posted: 10:57 AM ET
Dozens of bloggers kept their thoughts flowing during the countdown to the launch of Endeavour on Friday. Only one person did it from Firing Room 3 of the Launch Control Center at the Kennedy Space Center.
Steve Siceloff in the Firing Room the day before the launch of STS-126. His Endeavour launch blog Friday was the first written from this nerve center of the countdown. NASA photo
“It’s a great environment. The only better seat would be on the shuttle itself,” said Steve Siceloff, public affairs web writer at KSC.
Bloggers around the world got much of their countdown information from Launch Commentator Candrea Thomas on NASA TV.
Siceloff had a lot more raw information to process.
“I’m listening to eight different audio loops. That takes some training of its own,” he said.
The rocket scientists talking on all those other channels are monitoring the orbiter, three main engines, an external fuel tank, two solid rocket boosters, and oh, a couple million other parts.
So what’s the atmosphere in the firing room?
“It’s actually very calm. Everybody’s into their books and into their own world. They’ve all got headsets on so they don’t talk loudly,” he said.
Siceloff, who says he’s been a space geek since he was a kid, used to cover NASA for the Fort Pierce Tribune and Florida Today.
He’s been blogging, writing and producing for the NASA web pages for a year and a half.
Endeavour’s launch blog got underway at 2:30pm. For the most part, it was a very quiet countdown.
“The launch team is working no technical issues” was a very common refrain on NASA TV.
But about 15 minutes before the scheduled 7:55pm eastern launch, we “civilians” in the NASA press room suddenly displayed the loud, rough, somewhat chaotic personality of most newsrooms.
There were a few words on NASA TV about a technical issue. Something about a door not being latched.
After miles of checklists and a near flawless countdown, could an open door stop this launch?
Here’s how Siceloff handled that first flare of a problem on the launch blog:
(The White Room is an environmental chamber that mates with the orbiter, where the Closeout Crew assists the astronauts in boarding and getting strapped into their seats on the shuttle.)
While scores of us in the press room were on the phone with our editors with a “Danger Will Robinson… this COULD be a showstopper” tone in our voices, Siceloff said the scene was far more serene in the Firing Room.
“It was very calm, very confident, very thorough. I never heard anyone on a loop sound excited,” said Siceloff. His next entry:
7:46 p.m. – T-9 minutes and counting . . . Launch controllers have cleared the door issue, saying it does not pose a hazard to Endeavour as it climbs away from the launch pad. All launch teams are go for launch.
So do rocket scientists ever get excited?
“When the shuttle clears the tower, there’s a whole lot of clapping,” said Siceloff.
And yes, said Siceloff, the stuff they say about rocket scientists is true.
“They really are the smartest people in the world,” he said.
November 17, 2008
Posted: 02:09 PM ET
As the shuttle Endeavour pursues its expansion and re-supply mission to the International Space Station, the political world still turns nearly 200 miles below. Will a President Barack Obama and a fractured economy spell change for NASA and space exploration?
The space shuttle Endeavour blasts off successfully Friday night.
The agency's $17 billion annual budget - about a third of which goes to fund the shuttle and other space missions - may be under scrutiny, along with everything else, in our new financial climate.
On the campaign trail this year, Obama said, "We cannot cede our leadership in space. That's why I'm going to close the gap, ensure our space program doesn't suffer when the shuttle goes out of service."
But skeptics raise multiple questions, starting with the fact that the president-elect made that statement in the heat of a tight campaign and in NASA's Florida backyard. It wouldn't be the first time that a president abandoned a lofty promise to reach for the stars. In his 2004 State of the Union speech, President Bush announced an ambitious effort for manned missions to the Moon and Mars. But the money never came through, and it's rarely been mentioned since.
With the shuttle slated for retirement in 2010, how long will it take to get the replacement vehicle ready? Many think the 2015 deadline for the Orion craft and its Ares rocket is too rosy.
Can we afford it? NASA's budget is only about two-thirds of one percent of the Federal budget, but is it high enough on our national priority list?
And just what are we getting back for our dollars? Is the science we're getting from the Shuttle and the ISS going to pay for itself?
Proponents say it would be shortsighted to ditch our science and exploration efforts because America can't afford to fall farther behind in tech and science literacy.
To be sure, NASA's had its triumphs and tribulations in recent years. On the down side, there's been uncertainty over the shuttle, the Columbia disaster, a couple of failed Mars missions, the earth-bound controversy over political censorship of the agency's climate scientists and NASA's first successful launch into the tabloid world with last year's bizarre astronaut love-triangle story.
NASA's victories, however, are unmistakable: The Hubble Space Telescope has led what's now routinely called "The Golden Age of Astronomy;" the Mars Rovers' unexpected five years of service; and groundbreaking research in space, on land, and in the oceans.
So let's hear from you: What should the Obama Administration do? Has NASA earned our continued support? Does the mission need to be corrected? Or should we put the money elsewhere?
Watch CNN's Situation Room Monday at 5 p.m. ET for a report from Miles O'Brien on Obama and the future of space policy.
And you can read the Obama campaign's space policy here.
- Peter Dykstra, Executive Producer, CNN Science, Technology, and Weather
November 10, 2008
Posted: 09:29 AM ET
The ozone hole over the Antarctic, which grows to its maximum annual size in September, peaked at the fifth-highest size ever since measurements began in 1979 this year, according to scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
But experts say that the "fifth-largest" designation may not necessarily be bad news at all. They're sticking to predictions that the ozone hole will repair itself over the rest of the 21st Century. Colder-than-average temperatures and strong high level winds helped widen the hole this season. Warmer weather as the Antarctic summer starts up helps close up the hole each year.
It's been nearly four decades since the first research drew links between man-made chemicals and destruction of ozone in the upper atmosphere. Chlorofluorocarbons and freon - once widely used in air conditioners and spray cans respectively, were among the substances that broke down stratospheric ozone - the key to protecting us from harmful solar radiation. Projections indicate that a thinning ozone layer could lead to increases in human skin cancer, eye cataracts, and other maladies. Dutch scientist Paul Crutzen and Americans Mario Molina and Sherwood Rowland shared the 1995 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their discoveries.
Global concern over ozone damage led to what is widely regarded as a remarkably successful international treaty. The Montreal Protocol was ratified in 1987 and took full effect nine years later, banning most uses of ozone-destroying chemicals.
Scientists have reported a substantial reduction in the levels of ozone-destroying chemicals reaching the stratosphere. But CFC's, freon, bromides, and other ozone-eaters are particularly long-lasting, and may take much of the rest of this century to dissipate. "The decline of these harmful substances to their pre-ozone hole levels ... will take decades," said NOAA chemist Stephen Montzka.
Translation: Don't lose the sunscreen. Ozone layers have thinned planet-wide, and during the late-winter weather in either hemisphere, ozone protection reaches its lowest levels near the poles. Less ozone in the upper atmosphere means more exposure to the ultraviolet radiation that can cause skin cancer.
NOAA's Ozone measurements page can be found here
NASA offers daily updated graphics and animations on the size of the ozone hole here.
Peter Dykstra Executive Producer CNN Science, Tech & Weather
October 23, 2008
Posted: 11:50 AM ET
Workers at the Kennedy Space Center will roll the space shuttle Endeavour from launch pad 39B to 39A Thursday in advance of a mission to the International Space Station targeted for November 14.
Space shuttles Atlantis, left, and Endeavour on their launch pads last month.
Endeavour has been undergoing preparations for launch on pad 39B for the past month. For a time, it was second in line for launch behind Atlantis on pad 39A, which had been scheduled to fly the fifth and final Hubble Servicing Mission this month.
A Hubble mission carries additional risk because astronauts cannot take refuge in the space station in the event of Columbia-style catastrophic damage to the orbiter on lift-off. So before the final Hubble mission was approved, NASA managers decided it would only be safe to fly if a rescue vehicle was prepared and ready to launch on very short notice. Endeavour was to have been that rescue vehicle.
The Hubble launch was postponed in late September due to a computer failure on the telescope. Mission managers now want to replace that computer - but the spare needs to be prepared for flight, and the astronauts need time to train on how to do the replacement. The Hubble mission is now scheduled to fly no earlier than February. Workers rolled Atlantis back from pad 39A to the vehicle-assembly building on Monday.
Launch pad 39B, where Endeavour is currently located, it being modified to launch NASA’s next generation of manned spacecraft called Orion. While it is still technically possible to launch a space shuttle off 39B, NASA would prefer to keep the modification work underway – which is not possible when there is a shuttle parked there. So the launch team has opted to move Endeavour from 39B to the now empty 39A, and allow the construction work on 39B to resume.
Endeavour’s crew, led by Commander Chris Ferguson, will carry up additional equipment and supplies to the space station that will make it possible to expand the station crew from three to six people next year.
Spacewalkers will also work on a malfunctioning rotator joint on the left side of the station that is designed to rotate and track the sun. It has been out of commission for the last year, and complete repairs will continue into 2010. But station engineers hope the Endeavour astronauts can make it functional again.
–Kate Tobin, Sr. Producer, CNN Science & Technology
October 17, 2008
Posted: 12:15 PM ET
Engineers at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland have hit a snag in their efforts to bring the Hubble Space Telescope back on-line after a major equipment failure in space last month.
The Hubble Space Telescope. Image: NASA
Hubble's Science Instrument Control and Data Handling (SIC&DH) system went down September 27. This is the telescope's on-board computer that coordinates commands to the various instruments and then downlinks the scientific data to the ground.
While that computer is off-line, most science observations are at a standstill.
The good news is that the computer was built with a fully redundant back-up channel called "Side B" designed to come on-line in the event "Side A" ever failed. Hubble team members at Goddard began a complicated process to switch over to "Side B" on Wednesday. This involved sending comprehensive software commands up to the telescope to essentially take control of Hubble's suite of telescopes and other sensors through "Side B," recalibrate all those instruments which went into safe-mode when the computer went down, start and stop gyroscopes, downlink data, and then check the data quality against some older "Side A" samples to make sure all is square.
Problems cropped up somewhere in that process Thursday night. We haven't been told yet exactly what happened. The team is meeting today to discuss a further troubleshooting plan. We may get additional details later when that meeting ends. I am told they don't expect the issue to be resolved today.
As noted, the switch-over process is extremely complicated, and it is probably to be expected that they would hit some sort of snag. Hopefully, they will work through it in the coming days and science operations can resume soon.
Even if the switch-over to "Side B" fails (and it is far too soon to go there), the Hubble design team had the foresight 20 years ago to build a spare SIC&DH system, which has been warehoused at Goddard all this time while the original instrument perked along just fine. Astronauts are scheduled to conduct a fifth and and final Hubble servicing mission in the February time frame, and will almost certainly remove and replace the malfunctioning computer with the spare. That mission was supposed to fly this month, but was postponed when the failure occurred to give the ground teams time to check out the spare and astronauts time to train on the removal and replacement procedure (which is apparently a relatively straightforward, two-hour spacewalk task).
If there is any silver lining to this whole thing, it's that the failure happened before the servicing mission - while there is still the opportunity to fix it. Imagine the disappointment if it had happened right after the astronauts returned!
I'll update later today if and when I get more information.
–Kate Tobin, Sr. Producer, CNN Science & Technology
October 16, 2008
Posted: 10:49 AM ET
I'd seen the news stories of past zero-gravity flights. I'd watched the instructional video. I'd received personal coaching. I knew exactly what was going to happen when the plane hit that first parabola and made earth gravity go away. Still, my brain was telling me, "This can't really be happening!" when my body floated off the floor of the 727 for the first time.
Reporter Reynolds Wolf and G-Force One
I was producing a story on how Northrop Grumman is chartering a specially-modified jet to take teachers on zero-gravity plane rides. The idea is to have math and science middle-school teachers conduct experiments during a once-in-a-lifetime weightless flight, and have them take that thrilling experience back to their students, inspiring and motivating a new crop of scientists, astronauts, and engineers.
We'll bring you that story in the near future. But while I'm still in the grip of my zero-G hangover, I thought I'd share my personal encounter with weightlessness.
The day started before dawn at a hotel just outside the Atlanta airport. Reporter Reynolds Wolf, cameraman Jonathan Schaer and I met up with 30 teachers and the "floatmasters" (my term, not theirs) who would guide us during the flight. We were provided a breakfast of pastries and fruit. The floatmasters recommended avoiding dairy, protein, and excessive caffeine. They had also recommended not drinking alcohol the night before. (Not a problem for me, but I could see how a more nervous person might want a shot.) All of this, of course, was to avoid turning the flight into a "vomit comet" - the nickname of the parabolic flight jet used for training astronauts.
We were all issued navy blue jump suits with "G-Force One" patches. We watched a training video that repeatedly drilled into us: Don't Jump, Don't Kick, Don't Swim. During weightlessness, jumping will send you into a neck-crunching collision with the plane's padded ceiling. Kicking is likely to connect painfully with a nearby zeronaut, as we were called. And swimming just doesn't move you anywhere in zero G - it just makes you look silly.
We took shuttles to the small private terminal serving the flight and passed through TSA security just like ordinary, gravity-tethered travelers. Then, like the pioneering spacemen of "The Right Stuff," we strode to our craft - a modified 727 dubbed "G-Force One." We entered via what in a conventional plane would be the rear emergency door. The jet had seven rows of seats in the back. The front 2/3 of the plane was an open area, with thickly-padded walls, floor, and ceiling. No windows, except in the emergency exits.
Illustration: Zero Gravity Corporation
Soon, we were off for a half-hour or so ride to airspace over the Atlantic. A 100-mile-long, 10-mile-wide area, 24,000-32,000 feet in altitude, is dedicated to these parabolic flights. Parabolas are essentially arcs. As the plane flies up the arc at a 45-degree angle, passengers feel increased gravity, about 1.8 times that on earth. But when the plane crests and starts down the arc you get reduced, or zero, gravity for about 30 seconds. To acclimate the passengers on our flight to zero G, the first parabola created the 1/3 Earth gravity environment of Mars. The second and third parabolas created the 1/6 gravity of the moon, and the last 12 were the real deal - weightlessness.
The teachers chatted and laughed excitedly on the flight out, even cheering "Wooo!" and "Yeah!" when the plane dipped unexpectedly. Turbulence on a normal flight might make you nervous. But on this day, it seemed to be just a foretaste of the great adventure to come.
As the time for the first parabola neared, we were told to lie down on the floor and stare at a point on the ceiling to avoid disorientation. The increased gravity wasn't as bad as I thought it would be - it was like a heavy weight pressing on my head and chest. Then a floatmaster cried out "Martian One!" to warn us that the first Mars-gravity episode was approaching, and my body started feeling really light. (On Mars, a 150-pound person would weigh only 50 pounds.) Laughter and shouts of amazement filled the plane. People stood up - some bounding up, despite our "Don't Jump" orders. Thank goodness for the padding. Teachers were dancing like out-of-control marionettes. (Journalists, too.) Some folks did one-handed push-ups – easily! Then, all too quickly, the order "Feet down!" rang out and we had to lie flat again.
The next two parabolas, "Lunar One" and "Lunar Two," made us feel 1/6th lighter than on Earth. You could pick your feet up off the floor and float gently down (unless your out-of-control neighbors were falling or flailing into you.) I, of course, was one of those out-of-control neighbors.
Then, weightlessness. The Zero Gravity Corporation brochures liken the experience to a zen-like, exalted state of bliss. But for the teachers (and journalists) on our flight, I think there was too much fun going on for anyone to experience zen. You had absolutely no control. If you got yourself moving in one direction, you couldn't stop until you hit something. Bodies were bouncing off the walls, floor, ceiling, each other. The first few zero-G parabolas were absolutely hilarious - chaotic, but hilarious. Every face had a broad, silly, marveling grin.
Well, nearly every face. By the end of the flight, a few teachers - I counted eight out of the thirty - had returned to their seats, fighting the effects of motion sickness. I didn't see any evidence that the flight had actually become a "vomit comet," but these folks definitely were not feeling well.
Not a lot of science got done in those first few parabolas. Folks (including Reynolds, our correspondent) flew through the air like Superman. Teachers played catch - using each other as the ball. We tried to eat flying M&M's and drink floating globs of water. But during the last several parabolas the educators did complete at least some of their experiments, which tested Newton's Laws of Motion.
Floating photojournalist Jonathan Schaer
Throughout all of this, my photographer, Jonathan, wrestled with his camera, which was mounted inside a steering wheel-like device to help him maintain its stability. Even when we were supposed to be lying prone, Jonathan remained sitting, and sometimes standing, so he could get the best video he could. And he didn't get sick. Neither did my correspondent, Reynolds, who even photographed his unused airsick bag as proof.
When the floatmasters yelled "Feet down!" during the last parabola, I wanted more. But as we were flying back to Earth, I started feeling a bit of malaise. I then figured that maybe the floatmasters knew what they were doing, stopping at 15 parabolas. (NASA's "Vomit Comet" flies 40 or more per flight.) Others may have felt the same way; the teachers were much quieter on the way back, perhaps reflecting on their Superman leaps and successful experiments - or perhaps just waiting for heads to stop spinning and stomachs to settle.
Even today, the day after, I still feel sort of dragged out and a bit fuzzy-brained. But I would do it all again in a heartbeat. You could do it, too - for a price. The Zero Gravity Corporation makes regular flights out of Kennedy Space Center, Florida, and Las Vegas, Nevada. They cost five thousand dollars a seat.
So, assuming you have a spare $5,000. . .would you have The Right Stuff to do zero G?
Diane Hawkins-Cox, senior producer, CNN Sci-Tech Unit
October 14, 2008
Posted: 01:19 PM ET
Check out these new Cassini pictures of the vortex at Saturn's southern pole.
Vortex at Saturn's southern pole. Image: NASA/JPL/Space Science Inst.
The new images, captured in July, are ten times more detailed than any taken before of this phenomenon. Experts say the vortex is not unlike a hurricane here on Earth...except it rages all the time, and it is anchored to the pole. And it is much larger than any terrestrial storm, about the diameter of the Earth itself, with wind speeds nearing 350 miles per hour.
Like a hurricane, the vortex is awash in convective atmospheric turnover, with warmer gases being pumped up and away from the interior. A detailed image of the eye itself show smaller storms within it...in previous images these just looked like puffy clouds.
Scientists are interested in studying this vortex because it will help them better understand the dynamics of Saturn's atmosphere. It's yet another fascinating target for Cassini as it continues its tour of the Saturn system - the rings, the moons (especially Titan, which is often compared to the primordial Earth, and the geyser moon Enceladus), and these intriguing weather systems.
–Kate Tobin, Sr. Producer, CNN Science & Technology
Are you a gadgethead? Do you spend hours a day online? Or are you just curious about how technology impacts your life? In this digital age, it's increasingly important to be fluent, or at least familiar, with the big tech trends. From gadgets to Google, smartphones to social media, this blog will help keep you informed.