May 21, 2008

Mission to Mars, Shuttle launch mark a busy week in space

Posted: 12:37 PM ET

On Sunday, a few hours after the checkered flag signals the winner of the Indianapolis 500, a much, much longer trip will conclude: After a nine-month, roundabout 422 million mile journey from Earth, NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander will take aim at a site near the Martian North Pole.

Source: NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona

And like the fans at Indy, everyone will be waiting to see if there's a wreck.

Phoenix will enter the Martian atmosphere at 12,500 miles an hour. After deploying parachutes and firing thrusters, and at a speed of about 5.4 miles an hour, it will touch down at about 7:38pm Eastern Time. Or so NASA hopes. Mars landing craft have a roughly 50-50 success rate since the twin Viking landers touched down 32 years ago. With a communications delay of about 15 minutes, we'll get our first info on the landing status at 7:53pm ET.

CNN's Miles O'Brien will cover the landing live in a special hour broadcast beginning at 7pm ET. CNN International will carry the broadcast worldwide, featuring Miles's international counterpart, Kilometers O'Brien (sorry, it's an old joke around here......).

Later in the evening, around the 10pm hour, we hope to show the first images from Phoenix. Unlike the spectacularly successful Mars Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, Phoenix is not a mobile craft. It's a digger.

Equipped with a small backhoe, Phoenix will dig into the Martian tundra in search of evidence of water, or other clues of past life on the Red Planet. Its predecessor in Martian Polar research, the Mars Polar Lander, was lost on landing in 1999.

Miles and CNN producers Kate Tobin and Alex Walker will broadcast the hour from NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California, mission control for the landing. They'll blog here to keep you updated - including after that tense moment at 7:53pm, when we learn whether a team of scientists and engineers will see years of work turn into a smashing success, or a smashup.

Next Saturday, the space scene shifts to the Kennedy Space Center, where the Shuttle Discovery is set to launch at 5:02pm ET on a mission to install a Japanese-built lab on the International Space Station, and to swap out ISS crew members. Miles will be live from KSC for the launch as well.

-Peter Dykstra, Executive Producer, CNN Science & Tech

Filed under: Astrobiology • European Space Agency • International Space Station • Mars • NASA • Space

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March 28, 2008

Showtime for "Jules Verne"

Posted: 01:15 PM ET

If all goes as planned, the new European Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) will dock with the International Space Station next week. It's a task that has flight controllers at NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Russian Space Agency hugely excited, and nervous. Up until now, the only vehicles to dock with the ISS have been the space shuttle and the Russian Progress and Soyuz spacecrafts. All of them have long and mostly reliable track records in orbit.

Source: ESA

As the guys in Monty Python would say, "now for something completely different."

Christened "Jules Verne," this ATV is the first of five that will resupply the International Space Station at a rate of one every year and a half or so. It launched to space on March 8, but has been essentially parked in orbit for the duration of the space shuttle Endeavour's assembly mission to the ISS.

Before ESA gives the final "go" for docking, flight controllers will put the spacecraft through a series of tests to make sure all the onboard systems are working properly. A malfunction close to the station could spell disaster.

On Monday, flight controllers will practice maneuvering the spacecraft within 36 feet of the station, to work out any kinks before executing the actual docking on Thursday. The main objective is to test the close range sensors and the guidance and navigation systems. The station crew will also call for an "abort" to make sure they can successfully call off a docking in the event something goes wrong. Closest approach should happen about 12:45pm ET.

If all checks out as planned, the docking will happen at 10:40am ET on Thursday. "Jules Verne" will latch onto the Russian Zvezda Service Module, where it will remain for about six months. After it is unloaded, it will be repacked with trash and eventually directed on a "death dive" into the atmosphere, burning up over the Pacific Ocean.

When I mentioned that last fact in a previous blog entry, we got a tidal wave of outraged comments about the waste and inefficiency of discarding the hardware in such a manner. For the record, currently there are two ways to "take out the trash" on the ISS. The Russian Progress resupply vehicles are used in the way described above. Additionally, some "trash" is returned to Earth by the space shuttle. Much of what they take the trouble to bring back is broken equipment that they want to either refurbish for future use, or take apart to figure out why it broke and how to modify the design to make it more durable in the future.

If you want to watch the "Jules Verne" demo day/docking day events, check out NASA TV.

–Kate Tobin, Sr. Producer, CNN Science & Technology


Filed under: European Space Agency • International Space Station • NASA • Space

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