Artist's concept of NASA's new SLS

Today NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and members of Congress announced an agreement to build the most powerful rocket in US history. The launch system (or SLS for space launch system) is intended to take astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit, including asteroids and Mars. The SLS is a derivative of the space shuttle in that it uses 5 space shuttle engines and a fuel tank based on the design of the shuttle’s external fuel tank. There will also be two solid rocket boosters on either side of the main stack. The key difference is that the multi-purpose crew vehicle (MPCV), which is already under construction, will sit atop the entire stack, and will have an escape rocket system that will enable the crew to safely escape almost any type of failure or explosion at any stage during ascent. In many ways this new system is a hybrid of the Apollo-era Saturn V system and the space shuttle. For more info check out the official story on NASA’s website.

This is an exciting announcement, and it’s good to know that many aspects of this new SLS are based on or directly utilize existing technology. This means that the overall cost should be significantly lower than if we’d tried to build something entirely new. I’m glad there was bipartisan agreement that led to this decision being made relatively quickly. The target date for the initial launch of this new SLS is 2017. That seems realistic and I certainly hope it is. Humanity is long overdue to reach beyond low-Earth orbit and explore deep space.

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If all goes as planned, tomorrow’s scheduled launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis will be the beginning of the end for the shuttle program. And when it touches down, the shuttle era will officially be over. With the program literally being almost exactly as old as I am (the first shuttle flight was on April 12, 1981, and I was born on Nov. 20th, 1981), it just seems surreal to know that the shuttles will no longer be operating. They were the face of NASA as I was growing up- they were “it.” But it is time for NASA to move on, let the private spaceflight industry take over the now routine task of ferrying astronauts to the ISS, and focus on exploring beyond low earth orbit.

The last I read, weather is going to be a big concern for the launch tomorrow, so there’s a decent chance it’ll get pushed back days or even weeks. But when it does happen, you should watch it. Especially if you’ve never seen one before. It’ll be all over the media so it’ll be hard to miss.

I decided to gather a few of the more interesting shuttle-related links I’ve come across over the past few days in my various science and space-related RSS feeds:

I’ve been waiting since the end of May for this:

(Click to enlarge) Credit: NASA/Paolo Nespoli

THAT is something that has never been captured on film before. It may not seem like a big deal, but the opportunity to to photograph a space shuttle docked to the ISS from space has never happened before, and never will again. The schedules happened to line up so that a Russian Soyuz capsule undocked from the ISS carrying three astronauts home while Endeavour was still docked. This gave astronaut Paolo Nespoli the opportunity to take photos of the shuttle/ISS combo from the window of the Soyuz capsule as they floated away. They paused the Soyuz some distance away and the space station actually performed a “flip” maneuver to allow for more angles. Please click through to the NASA image gallery and see the rest of these amazing images.

Think the idea of humans boarding a massive spaceship headed into the cosmos for 100’s or even 1,000’s of years (a.k.a. real-life Star Trek) is completely in the realm of science fiction? Think again. Last fall DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the highly secretive experimental arm of the Department of Defense who happened to invent the internet, released an official Request for Information regarding a “100-year starship plan.” Basically, they want people to come up with a fully thought-out plan for forming a team of researchers/engineers/scientists to investigate the technology necessary to build such a spaceship. Needless to say, this is one tiny baby step in a project that could cost many billions of dollars and require decades of advances in propulsion technology, but it’s still rather amazing that there is real, serious effort being put into something that has always seemed so far out of reach for humankind. As pointed out in their RFI, there will no doubt be unanticipated discoveries and technological advances as a “side-effect” of this research. So the actual spaceship itself is not the only purpose of this initiative. It really makes me happy to see something like this happening because I think manned space exploration has been quite stagnant for the last couple of decades. We need this kind of spark to really push forward the technology needed to extend our presence beyond low-Earth orbit. (Via Universe Today)

Ok, that’s really it for this week. Probably. I can’t fathom any more posts because tomorrow morning I will be heading to Manchester with the rest of the Scene/Cream team to photograph Bonnaroo. Keep your eyes on the Nashville Cream for updates on our shenanigans, and to see some of my photos.

Endeavour launched through a low deck of clouds Monday morning. Credit: NASA

As I’m sure you know, Space Shuttle Endeavour launched Monday morning, and is now docked with the International Space Station. I want to point out one very special part of this mission that could change mankind’s understanding of the universe forever- the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. This device is the brainchild of Nobel Prize winner Professor Samuel Ting. It cost about $2 billion to build, but the knowledge gained from it will be well worth the money. The device will be mounted on the exterior of the ISS and will run its experiments for the rest of the duration of the ISS (currently the ISS is to be funded and run through 2025). Basically, this amazing piece of equipment has a ring of immensely powerful magnets that will bend the path of any nearby cosmic rays so that they pass through a very sensitive detector. The velocity of these cosmic rays out in space is many orders of magnitude greater than anything we can create in a collider here on Earth (the Large Hadron Collider, for example). These rays do hit the Earth’s atmosphere, but most of them are scattered, deflected, or broken up by the ozone layer. That’s why this space-based experiment is so important. The main things Ting will be looking for are evidence of antimatter, dark matter/dark energy, strangelets, and other aspects of cosmic radiation that could affect future missions involving manned spaceflight. For a good breakdown of each of these scientific objectives, visit the AMS’s official website. The wikipedia page and this space.com article are also pretty good.

It’s been a while since I’ve talked much about exoplanets- one of my favorite areas of science and astronomy. I’m happy to report that our old friend Gliese 581 has yet another surprise: one of its well-confirmed planets may actually have liquid water on its surface, which means the temperature range would generally be suitable for human life. For a few years now we’ve known about several planets orbiting this red dwarf star that sits about 20 light-years away from us. The latest exoplanet discovery associated with this system (Gliese 581g) is being hotly contested, so it may not even exist at all, but the one we’re now talking about is certain to exist. It could be a while before we can definitively say whether or not this exoplanet (Gliese 581d) actually has liquid water on its surface, but a new set of computer models/simulations has shown that if the atmosphere of this rocky super-earth is dense enough, it would be stable and keep the temperature range suitable for liquid water, and possibly even life. This all hinges on an assumption that this world has a thick atmosphere full of CO2, so scientists aren’t really certain about the climate. But, based on what is known about planet formation and the makeup of Gliese 581d, a thick CO2 atmosphere is very likely to exist. This is certainly not the “holy grail of planet-hunting” a.k.a. an earth-twin because the planet is about twice the size of Earth/has about 7 times the mass, is tidally locked (meaning the same side always faces its star), and has an atmosphere of mostly CO2. Indeed, if life exists at all on this world, it would be vastly different from what’s found on Earth, but this news is very exciting nonetheless.

50 years ago today, the USSR beat the US in the first milestone of the space race: they put the first human, Yuri Gagarin, into space. Gagarin’s accomplishment is celebrated each year in a series of “Yuri’s Night” parties. Obviously this year is a big deal, since it’s the 50th Anniversary, and not only does Discovery News have a gallery of photos from various Yuri’s Night parties around the globe, but this story also clued me into something I didn’t yet know about- a feature length film by director Chris Riley that attempts to re-create what Yuri would have seen from his capsule. Audio from the flight has been released, as have video clips of Gagarin’s face during the flight, but no video of the earth below was taken during the flight. So, Riley teamed up with Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli to capture video footage from the International Space Station’s Cupola as the passed over the same areas Gagarin’s capsule did during that first flight. Check it out on YouTube here.

30 years ago today, the US reached another milestone, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of Gagarin’s flight- they launched the first space shuttle flight. It was shuttle Colombia, with astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen on board. Thus it’s only fitting that today, during a ceremony celebrating 30 years of shuttle flights, NASA will announce the final resting places of the 3 remaining shuttles after they’re decommissioned. Many museums and towns with history tied to the space program have made their cases for getting one of the shuttles, but it’s expected that one will go to the Smithsonian and another to the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess, but I have a feeling the 3rd will go to Houston, as it’s home to NASA’s mission control. (Update: the announcement was just made, and Discovery goes to the Smithsonian, Atlantis goes to Kennedy Space Center, and Endeavour goes to the California Science Center in L.A.) This celebration at KSC is just getting underway as I type this at 11:50am CDT, and the announcement regarding the shuttles’ destinations is scheduled for 3pm EDT (2pm here in Nashville). Watch it all at NASA TV if you’re interested. I’ll update this post after the announcement is made.

Some amazing and unique footage of Space Shuttle Discovery’s launch last thursday from an airplane window. The people on this plane got very lucky, as this is something rarely seen by the public. It’s one of those “right place, right time” deals. Be sure to pump it up to HD resolution.

(Via Bad Astronomy)

If you’re in Nashville and are a fan of local music, be sure not to miss tonight’s Road to Bonnaroo 8 off 8th at Mercy Lounge. This is the third year of RTB, and tonight’s lineup looks great. This event really brings out the best in these bands, as most will have some sort of trick up their sleeve. We’ve seen just about every type of gimmick you can think of at these events in the past two years. If you didn’t know, the bands’ scores are made up of 50% audience vote and 50% judge vote. Tonight’s lineup:

Evan P. Donohue
Courtney Jaye
Chancellor Warhol
Majestico
Heartbeater
Kink Ador
The Kicks
Tyler Byant

For more info on the bands/artists and sample mp3s, visit the Mercy Lounge calendar.

Credit: NASA

Space Shuttle Discovery is ready for launch later today (4:50pm Eastern/3:50 Central) on its final trip to space. This mission has been delayed extensively- it was originally scheduled to launch in November of last year, but fuel leaks and then tiny cracks discovered on the external fuel tank caused major delays. The shuttle had to be returned to the massive vehicle assembly building (VAB) for repairs that took several months. But so far all is good for the launch today. The shuttle is carrying an additional storage module (essentially a storage closet in space) to the ISS, along with an external logistics platform and a humanoid robot called Robonaut 2. Robonaut 2, known as R2 (ha!) is basically an experiment to allow engineers to determine how the robot will work in space, and how to best control it from inside the ISS. The end goal is to have a humanoid robot that can venture outside the space station and assist spacewalking astronauts with repairs and upgrades. The robot will be controlled by an astronaut inside the space station via some sort of virtual reality-like interface.

As I said, this is the last flight of Discovery. The only confirmed remaining flight is that of Endeavour, scheduled for launch in April. This mission will carry a very important piece of scientific equipment called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the ISS. The AMS will help physicists answer some of the most daunting questions in cosmology. An additional flight of Atlantis is likely, though not 100% confirmed. It would launch in June and be the absolute final flight of the Space Shuttle program.