May 31, 2008

Toilet Technology

Posted: 07:25 PM ET

The Discovery crew is on a mission to repair perhaps the most famous commode in the solar system. They are carrying a 35 lbs pump that provides the suction necessary to remove liquid waste – and separate out gases. The pump in the station's sole toilet failed more than a week ago. The toilet is part of the Russian made living module called Zvezda. The crew installed one spare and it failed. Put in the second spare (same manufacturer lot number) and it failed as well. The Russians then gave another pump (from another lot) to a NASA employee who carried it in a diplomatic pouch from Moscow to Orlando – drove to the Cape and loaded it onto Discovery in the wee hours of Thursday morning. The fact that two spares failed is kind of odd. But put that together with the seriously odd things that have happened on the last two Soyuz landings (malfunctions led to a backup landing mode that amounts to a pretty scary 9-G ride back from space) and you have to wonder what is happening with Russian space manufacturing. I asked NASA Administrator Mike Griffin if he has any idea what is going on with the Russian hardware – particularly the Soyuz.

"They are honestly perplexed as they should be," said Griffin, "but they are admitting they are perplexed as they dig into it they are not covering anything up – there is no obvious change that we or they can spot."

Girffin says the Russians are being very open about the whole investigation and have allowed a NASA observer to sit in as they do their work.

Miles O'Brien/Space Correspodent

Filed under: NASA • Space

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Griffin on Kibo

Posted: 07:13 PM ET

This is a big milestone for the space station program. The Japanese built Kibo laboratory will greatly add to the scientific potential of the station. So far, the station has not generated much good science. It takes two people just to run this 900,000 lbs orbiting ship – leaving only one person to mind the lab. Kibo lays the (way-above-the) ground work for doubling the crew size of the station from 3 to 6 next year.

"If you have got a crew of six," Griffin told me, "four of those people can be involved in doing research which is why we are building it in the first place."

-Miles O'Brien/Space Correspondent

Filed under: NASA • Space

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Posted: 07:08 PM ET

Nice to hear from all the foamologists out there. For the record, at least five pieces of foam fell off the external fuel tank at about 3:30 after liftoff.

This is outside the zone of "aerodynamic concern" about foam. That is NASAese for the simple fact that stage of the ride uphill, the shuttle is in some very thin air indeed. The result: the foam does not accelerate significantly as it breaks free of the tank – and thus does not pose a serious risk of breaching the orbiter's thermal protection system. That said, engineers will be poring over that imagery, along with high resolution still images and video of the tank shot by the crew after it separates from the orbiter. Those images will tell the team much more about the size of the pieces that broke free. On docking day (Monday), Discovery will perform the now standard rotational pitch maneuver (RPM) – or back flip – to allow the station crew to snap some high resolution still images of the tiles. If there is any damage to the tiles, they will likely see it then. Later in the mission, they will attach an extension to the shuttle robot arm – and give the hard to see spots a good look-see. So bottom line here: unlikely the falling foam is a problem – and even if so, there is little doubt the shuttle team will see it. If there is damage, they will need to determine if it is serious enough to attempt some sort of repair.

Miles O'Brien/Space Correspondent

Filed under: NASA • Space

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Shuttle: Cornucopia of cool cargo

Posted: 05:29 PM ET

The most talked about cargo on the shuttle Discovery?

There’s that billion dollar Japanese laboratory…

The spare parts for the toilet…

And Buzz Lightyear!

Buzz in space: talk about product placement!

And depending on whether you’re a Japanese scientist, a space station crewmember tired of dealing with a primitive potty, or the PR folks at Walt Disney World… the order may vary.

The Japanese lab, known as Kibo, will be the nerve center of a scientific outpost that’s been in the works for years. Eventually, researchers will be able to work in five different experiment modules, focusing on everything from cell biology to fluid physics.

Far less scientifically exotic, but ever so necessary in this orbiting home away from home, a gas-liquid separator, urine collector bags, filters and other hardware to fix an only partially functioning toilet in the Zvezda service module.

And one of the goofier objects to hitch a ride on a shuttle (with an important educational component, of course) is a foot tall Buzz Lightyear action figure.

Astronaut and moonwalker Buzz Aldrin shows his lighter side in a video counseling young Buzz Lightyear about what it’s like flying in space. Catch it here:

Lightyear will try to get kids interested in the space program, and especially in math and science. And of course, encourage them to check out a new ride called Toy Story Mania! at both Walt Disney World in Orlando and Disneyland in California. The younger and smaller Buzz is scheduled to spend several months on the International Space Station, and return to Walt Disney World later this year.

A few sports items are also making the journey.

Among them, according to NASA: One of Lance Armstrong’s yellow jerseys from the Tour de France bicycle race, a backup jersey that New York Giants’ Eli Manning took to the Super Bowl, and the last jersey baseball's Craig Biggio wore in a game. (He played for the Houston Astros, OF COURSE!)

Marsha Walton, CNN science and technology producer at the Kennedy Space Center

Filed under: NASA • Space

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Mike Griffin's week on CNN

Posted: 03:04 PM ET

Mike Griffin may have set a record this week for appearances on CNN by the NASA Administrator (or "Code A" as they call him inside the agency). We met on Sunday at the jet Propulsion Lab for the Phoenix landing on Mars. On Tuesday, he appeared on American Morning and he just sat down for an interview with us here at the Cape. But for those of us who keep track of such things, he gets "credit" for six interviews. There werre a ton of people around us as we taped the JPL interview, and they created a visual and aural distraction. We had to abort the interview twice before finally getting it right. Then today, just as he sat down to speak with me, a pair of NASA Huey choppers made an appearance near the Press Site (we call it "the Mound") and started re-enacting scenes from "Apocalypse Now" or something. I didn't hear any Wagner – but then again I couldn't hear myself think. When it became evident they were loitering in the vicinity, I released Code A to do other media calls (little did the chopper pilots know they were messing up the Boss's schedule). Anyway, he came back a short time later and we finally put something on tape. So for those of you keeping score at home, Code A, in a sense, logged six interviews with CNN this week.

Miles O'Brien/Space Correspodent

Filed under: NASA • Space • Uncategorized

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Movin' on up: Classy Japanese lab heading for space

Posted: 12:18 PM ET

Make room for the Japanese space program!

A big room, actually. STS-124 is the second of three shuttle missions to deliver Kibo (pronounced Kee-bo) components to the International Space Station. This scientific lab is far bigger than the European Space Agency lab, Columbus, or NASA's Destiny lab.

JAXA employees are busy at the Space Center

And it's also a big deal for JAXA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

"This mission is the first step to getting everything working,” said Asaka Hagiwara, a JAXA public affairs officer. She is one of about 60 JAXA employees now at the Kennedy Space Center, as the heart and soul of the Japanese laboratory is poised for delivery to the International Space Station.

Hagiwara, whose background is in astronomy and engineering, says she sees her job as making the Japanese space program interesting to a general audience in Japan.

She says the Discovery launch is a “pretty big deal” in Japan. Japanese TV networks, newspapers, and Internet reporters are following the countdown, with about two dozen Japanese journalists on site at KSC.

Discovery will be transporting the Japanese Pressurized Module (JPM) and the Japanese Experiment Module Remote Manipulator System. The JPM will be the nerve center of the lab. Most experiments, robotic operations, and communications with earth will take place inside it.

Kibo, (which means hope in Japanese) has been described as the “Lexus” of ISS labs. It is cylindrical, about 37 feet long and 14 feet wide. When it is fully assembled, the billion dollar facility will weigh about 16 tons. Think: really, really nice tour bus!

So what’s inside? The Clean Bench is a germ free environment, with a specially designed microscope for biotech experiments. There is also a Cell Biology Experiment Facility, a Fluid Physics Experiment Facility, Protein Crystallization Research Facility, and an Image Processing Unit.

And yes, it does help to be a rocket scientist to understand what’s ahead for this laboratory!!!

JAXA astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, a mission specialist on the Discovery crew, is scheduled to lead other crew members inside Kibo for the first time at the end of flight day five. Eventually the lab will have a “porch” for outside the spacecraft experiments, and two of its own robotic arms.

Kibo will be monitored both by NASA Mission Control in Houston, and the Mission Control Room at the Tsukuba Space Center in Japan.

Hagiwara is looking forward to the Discovery launch, at the very civilized time of 5:02pm Eastern. Kibo’s first delivery mission started with a middle of the night shuttle Endeavour launch in March.

“I was very tired!” she laughed.

Marsha Walton, producer CNN Science and Technology

Filed under: NASA • Space

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May 30, 2008

Shuttle - all systems "go" for launch

Posted: 11:56 AM ET

The launch control team says everything everything is looking good for lift-off of the shuttle Discovery Saturday afternoon at 5:02pm. They are working no issues of note with orbiter, and the weather is looking great - 80% go for launch.

Shuttle Discovery. Source: NASA

Here's a quick look at the milestones of this flight:
-123rd shuttle flight
-35th flight of Discovery
-26th shuttle mission to the ISS
-98th post-Challenger mission
-10th post-Columbia mission
-11 flights (including this one) remaining in the shuttle program

The main goal of this mission is to take up the primary component of the Japanese Kibo laboratory to the station. They will also switch out ISS crew members (Greg Chamitoff goes up, Garrett Reisman comes home), and do some additional troubleshooting of the balky starboard rotary joint that has the solar arrays on that side of the station pretty much in a lock-down position.

All that aside, the headline grabber in this run-up to launch is the broken toilet on the ISS. A replacement part has been rushed to the Kennedy Space Center (in a diplomatic pouch, no less!) and has been stowed in the Discovery's cargo bay for emergency delivery to orbit. Basically the liquid waste collection system on the toilet is not functioning properly, and the astronauts are having to go through a time-consuming manual "flush" procedure multiple times a day. Hopefully, the new part will work and the crew can put this all behind them. In order to equip the station to transition from a three to six person crew, a second potty will be going up to the ISS on the shuttle in the near future.

Miles O'Brien will be reporting live from the Kennedy Space Station in Florida for the launch. He'll be joined by astronaut Doug Wheelock. Please join us!

–Kate Tobin, Senior Producer, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: International Space Station • NASA

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May 29, 2008

Atmospheric freefall

Posted: 09:18 AM ET

As a meteorologist I’ve been fascinated by the French skydiver trying to jump from a balloon at 130,000 feet.  Flying thru the stratosphere at the speed of sound with nothing but a skimpy space suit is just crazy to me.  Michel Vournier dreams of breaking the freefall record were postponed again this week when his balloon flew off without him.  Regardless, the whole story got me wanting to jump.   So up I went with a plane full of other more experienced skydivers at Freefall Adventures in south Jersey.  Going “tandem” with a pro attached to me for safety, we jumped at 15,300 feet (solidly in the troposphere).  That’s about 600 mb of atmospheric pressure (surface is around 1000mb).  So the breathing isn’t easy and I got a little light headed and cold (temperature is less than 40 degrees at that height).  Doesn’t matter cause you’re not there for long, and once you jump the adrenaline erases any chill in the air.  A quick acceleration to a peak speed of 138 mph and you realize Newton was right about this whole gravity thing!  Wow what a ride!!!!  At that altitude the air is thin but oxygen isn’t required… no helmet or space suit either.  Tee shirt, jeans, and instructor Range Luda strapped to my back is all that was needed.  Freefalling for 70 seconds was incredible… spiritual in fact.  I’ve been on top of high mountains, but being that high with NOTHING beneath you is mind blowing.  The view, of course, is phenomenal.  All you hear and feel is the air rushing around you.  You want it to last forever but the ground approaches quickly.  At 5000 feet I pull the chute and Range guides us to a smooth landing.  It’s a rush to say the least.  Admittedly this was my second jump, but the butterflies were swirling just as much as during my first leap 6 years ago.  You say you like roller coasters, a nice view, and being buffeted by the wind?   Well jumping out of a perfectly good airplane may be just the thing for you… just don’t forget to pull the rip cord!!! 

Rob Marciano    CNN Meteorologist


Filed under: Uncategorized

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May 28, 2008

Comm issues resolved, Phoenix starts flexing its arm

Posted: 03:13 PM ET

Tuesday's communications glitch between Phoenix and the Mars Recon Orbiter is resolved, Phoenix Project Manager Barry Goldstein today reporters at today's press briefing.

”Fisheye” view of Phoenix Mars Lander looking down on itself. Source: NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona

Engineers designed Phoenix to use the two NASA satellites orbiting Mars as relay stations to send and receive data and commands with mission controllers. That relay link failed Tuesday morning when MRO experienced a radio transmission malfunction just as it was to send Phoenix its do-list for the day. The evening transmission went off without a hitch - but, while they sort out exactly what happened with MRO, project managers are going to use the other orbiter, Mars Odyssey, to do much of the communications heavy-lifting. Both satellites make at least two good passes over Phoenix every day, so the impact on the mission should be minimal.

In the mean time, the team is testing out Phoenix's robotic arm today and tomorrow, and if all goes well they'll start digging operations early next week. Phoenix is designed to dig down into the Martian dirt to scoop up soil and ice. The lander is equipped with a suite of instruments designed to look for organic chemicals frozen in that permafrost layer that may indicate whether or not Mars was once an hospitable place for life to have existed.

–Kate Tobin, Senior Producer, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: Astrobiology • Mars • NASA • Space

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160+ tornadoes in less than a week: Why?

Posted: 12:23 PM ET

(Updated from its original posting on the AC360 Blog)

In all my years as a professional meteorologist and spending my younger years living in tornado alley, I have never witnessed anything near the unpredictable, awesome power of the tornado that crawled across Hennessey, OK on Saturday.

A tornado rips through Hennessey, Oklahoma, on Saturday destroying a hog farm in Kingfisher County.

I was watching north central Oklahoma for the threat of tornadoes and a warning was issued for Kingfisher and Garfield counties.

Next thing I know, my newsroom executive producer is running over telling me to get hooked up, we have live chopper shots of a possible tornado; they want me on the air.

We broke into programming just before 3:30p.m. EDT. Along with our CNN audience, I witnessed a large rotating wall cloud with a slight lowering. It turned into a funnel that gradually lowered to the ground and became a large, violent tornado.

It was a classic looking “stovepipe” tornado, meaning it was very straight, up and down. The clarity of the funnel was amazing. It was in the middle of a field.

Moments later, it leveled a hog farm. The roof was peeled away and debris was flying everywhere. It was an eerie feeling seeing this happen live, not knowing the status of the people that could have been in the building.

A minute later, the tornado lifts. (It turns out, there were 6 employees that were in the barn, who ran into a brick office building and all were uninjured. Most of the pigs and piglets survived, too!)

We rewind the tape, and show the tornado bearing down on the barn. Next thing we know, another tornado has formed and is on the ground. Back to live aerials.

This happened 11 more times, and miraculously the tornadoes never hit any other structures. Due to the slow movement of the parent storm, Lake Carl Blackwell was evacuated, and I-35 was shut down to allow the tornado to pass.

This undoubtedly helped save lives. Most tornadoes move much faster than this, usually somewhere between 30-40mph. They can rip along as fast as 65 mph.

The storm was a persistent supercell that didn’t stop rotating until 6 hours after the first touchdown.

The pictures were likely so good and Helicopter Pilot Mason Dunn of KWTV in Oklahoma City was likely able to stay with the storm so long, because it was out there all by itself and was moving so slowly.

There were no other storms to try and avoid or make the air more turbulent. It was an LP storm, or Low Precipitation, so, the tornado wasn’t wrapped in rain providing clear shot.

Dunn knew what he was doing. He’s a legend in the Oklahoma City area. He was in contact with his meteorologist back at the TV station the entire time.

Dunn says he has been chasing tornadoes for about 20 years, and was in awe of what he saw. I’ve had a lot of people ask me since Saturday why would he do this, isn’t it unsafe?

Won’t this draw people to the tornado instead of encouraging them to seek shelter? What Dunn and KWTV did, was a tremendous community service. Because he is trained and knew where to safely shoot the tornado, many people knew exactly where the tornado was and where it was going, giving them the best information possible to keep them safe.

Of course there is always a risk, and Dunn said despite being about 2 miles from the storm, he could feel the pull of the tornado and had to work to stay far enough away from it.

Saturday’s tornado was just one of more than 150 twisters that ripped through the nation’s midsection over 5 day’s time.

It all started on Thursday with the monster in Colorado. Friday, Kansas was hardest hit including an EF4 tornado that flattened 3 houses in Quinter. The winds were nearly 200mph! Saturday…the Hennessey tornado, and then Sunday, 5 miles from the home I grew up in, a tornado struck and caused catastrophic damage in Hugo, MN, a suburb or the Twin Cities.

A two year old was killed, that child’s sibling is in critical condition, and their Mom and Dad are in the hospital with injuries. All this, despite ample warning that the tornado was on the way, and the sirens were blaring.

Sometimes it just breaks your heart to know that no matter what you do, no matter what you say, no matter how great the meteorologists in Minnesota are, no matter how much we understand the science of storms, no matter how great Doppler radar is, how great technology is… sometimes, there’s just nothing you can do except pray.

150 homes damaged, 50 destroyed.

The Holiday weekend had many Minnesotans at their cabins (that’s Lake Home to the rest of you), and authorities say the death toll and number of injuries would have likely been much worse otherwise.

This same evening, a massive tornado struck and demolished about half of the city of Parkersburg, IA. 8 people are dead from that storm. From the video I’ve seen, it doesn’t get much worse than this.

Monday, we were staring down day 5 of tornadoes.  With a bit of a respite Tuesday and Wednesday, we're expecting things to pick up again on Thursday. 

If all 167 tornadoes from the past 4 days verify, we will have seen as many tornadoes in the last 5 months as we would typically see in an entire calendar year. The same is true for the number of tornado related deaths.

Why? We don’t know for sure. Part of it is likely due to the jet stream pattern that is being influenced by La Nina (the unusual cooling of the equatorial waters in the Pacific that impacts the large scale circulation).

Another reason for our high numbers is due to all the tornadoes in February on Super Tuesday. It’s quite rare to have an outbreak like that in the middle of winter.

- Jacqui Jeras, CNN Meteorologist

Filed under: environment • meteorology • Tornadoes

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