Wednesday, September 23, 2009

BBC's Spaceman -

This is relevant to my interests - so:

About BBC's Spaceman

Jonathan Amos Jonathan Amos, BBC science correspondent. Come here for a European and UK focus on space.
His use of acronyms

The thinnest, most delicate thing in space

Jonathan Amos | 11:34 UK time, Wednesday, 23 September 2009

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The line between the success and failure on a space mission can be a very fine one. Very fine.

We've had an illustration of that in recent days with the contrasting fortunes of two European Space Agency (Esa) missions - Goce and Cryosat.

The Goce satellite is in orbit and about to start its quest this week to make the most detailed global map ever obtained of Earth's gravity field.

Cryosat - or at least the second version of it - is heading back to the launch pad for another attempt to get its ice science off the ground following a disastrous rocket failure four years ago.

Artist's impression of Goce at separationLaunches are always high anxiety events.

I remember in March chatting with a member of the Goce team just 20 minutes prior to what would eventually prove to be a successful climb to orbit - and it was clear at the time that his stomach was doing some Olympic somersaults.

You could tell because he was ever so slightly struggling for breath as he spoke. We've all been there; we all know and sympathise with that experience.

Some of the stress comes from knowing all of the things that could possibly go wrong. One in particular on Goce caught my attention, and this concerned some spectacularly thin wires.

Goce will make its gravity map using an instrument called a gradiometer. Put very simply, it's a box that houses three pairs of platinum blocks.

These metal blocks, or test masses as they call them, sit across the three axes of the spacecraft; and as Goce bumps and grinds through the Earth's gravity field, the blocks sense the disturbance.

Of course that disturbance is fantastically small. It is so tiny in fact that if an electrical potential were to build up in the mechanism, the attraction between the blocks and their housing would totally swamp the measurements.

So to get over this problem, the engineers attached gold wires to the blocks to, in essence, "ground" them so that potential could not develop. But then the weight of the wire might also have introduced a bias to the measurements, so the engineers were forced to make the wires ridiculously slim and light.

The wires are just five microns (millionths of a metre) thick.

Problem solved? Yes, perhaps. But how would these astonishingly slender wires survive the violent shaking experienced on launch? If the vibration snapped them then Goce would arrive in orbit as a worthless hunk of junk.

This single puzzle kept Goce engineers engaged for 18 months while they carried out the tests needed to prove the wires were sufficiently robust.

Ultra-thin wires in Goce's gradiometerTheir confidence was well placed. All the wires did the business and Goce is now "go for science".

Cryosat, sadly, fell victim to a "circumstances beyond our control" event - the failure of its Russian Rockot launcher.

The Rockot is a converted intercontinental missile, a former war machine pressed into the civil service of space.

It had an excellent record at the time; there was nothing to suggest Cryosat might be at risk - but fail, it did.

Richard Francis, the Esa project manager on the mission, re-lives the gory detail (you can listen below).

It gives a remarkable insight into the emotions that exist in a control room when a shiny new satellite goes missing, and all the procedures to deal with an emergency that were practised in the pre-launch simulations fail to recover the situation.

To summarise: The Rockot is a three-stage vehicle. The first stage worked perfectly.

It was in the second-stage that something went amiss. An onboard command was executed out of sequence which meant the second-stage engine, instead of shutting down at the correct moment to allow for separation with the third-stage, continued to burn.

Cryosat-2 is ready to go to the launch padThe whole assembly - second and upper-stages, and the precious Cryosat on top - went tumbling out of control and fell back to Earth.

The descending mass was moving at about 5km per second and eventually exploded over the Arctic some 120km from the pole. It's said a Russian meteorological station saw the fireball come in.

A fireball that had taken in the region of 75m euros and 6,000 man-hours to build.

Richard Francis recalls:

"The flight operations director, who had normally been very careful at the end of each simulation as to how we should shut down our various computers, basically said, 'turn them off anyway you want, and go'.

And at that point a large number of the operations team were in tears."

Events have turned for Cryosat. The European Space Agency ordered a replacement.

We filmed the new spacecraft in Ottobrunn, Germany, last week. It was about to be packed up ready for despatch to the launch complex at Baikonur.

At the end of filming, as we turned to head out of the cleanroom door, the mission's chief scientist Professor Duncan Wingham mused: "That's probably the last time I'll see it."

Let's hope he's wrong. Let's hope he'll see Cryosat-2 again soon as a fast-moving dot in the night sky, heading pole-to-pole to acquire some of the best data yet on the state of the Earth's ice sheets.

Hubble still has what it takes

Jonathan Amos | 21:23 UK time, Wednesday, 9 September 2009

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Extraordinary Hubble. Some say it is the greatest scientific instrument since the telescope Galileo himself used to study the sky 400 years ago.

Certainly, it is hard to think of another machine that has changed so completely the way our species views its place in the cosmos.

Butterfly NebulaThe Pillars of Creation, the Eskimo and Cat's-Eye Nebulas, the Tadpole and Sombrero Galaxies - we all know the pictures even if we're not quite sure precisely what it is we're looking at.

The images fill books, adorn posters, and feature in TV docs and movies - they really are "iconic".

And so here we are again. Hubble 6.0. A repaired, refurbished, revitalised telescope ready to reveal yet more wonders.

Nasa's PR machine has been in overdrive to find the pictures that best illustrate the observatory's new capabilities following its fifth and final servicing mission in May.

A TV producer came to see me before the announcement to say they were worried that Wednesday's new batch might not be as exciting as past releases. "Don't be," I said. "They'll be spectacular; they always are."

And I haven't been disappointed. The picture of the Butterfly Nebula, showing the end stages of a star, I predict will become the wallpaper on umpteen computers in the next few days.

For sure, we've been given the "money shots" - the ones that tell US and European taxpayers that their orbiting investment continues to be well spent (remember that Hubble is 15% a European Space Agency mission).

But it is some very fuzzy - and on the face of it, pretty dull - pictures that I'm anxiously waiting to see.

Hubble servicingThese will also come via Hubble's new Wide Field Camera 3.

It has the power to look deeper into the Universe than ever before, to peer at events so far back in time and so faint that their light will be arriving at the telescope's detectors just a few photons at a time.

Even before the latest servicing mission, Hubble could spy events occurring a mere 700 million years after the Big Bang, when the Universe would have been just 5% of its present age.

"New Hubble" should be able to stretch that vision still further, taking us into an epoch when we think the very first stars and galaxies came into being.

Theory would suggest that the first stars were monsters - more than a hundred times the mass of our little Sun. They would have burned brilliant but brief lives, blowing themselves apart to seed the cosmos with the very first heavy elements.
Iron, magnesium, calcium, carbon - the stuff from which we're all made.

Who knows? Some of that material could be in our bodies right now.

Can New Hubble see this early action? I hope so.

Astronomy's great "discovery machine" is back in action.

Bugs, 'pineapple cans' and a commercially savvy ISS

Jonathan Amos | 12:40 UK time, Tuesday, 8 September 2009

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Bugs are battling worms in space right now, and the outcome could have profound implications for our health here on Earth.

MRSA bacteriaThis isn't the plot of some sci-fi movie but the description of a fascinating scientific experiment taken up to the International Space Station (ISS) by the shuttle this past fortnight.

Discovery astronauts have been running an investigation which could one day lead to a vaccine for MRSA, or some other novel approach to combating a bug that has come to blight modern hospitals worldwide.

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus results in hundreds of thousands of infections every year, delaying the recovery of some patients and hastening the deaths of others.

Its refusal to budge in the face of some of our best antibiotics has sent scientists scurrying for new solutions. Space may have the answer.

You needn't worry that the astronauts on the station will have been infected. The experiment they took up was in a tightly sealed container about the size of a pineapple can.

Astronaut cranks the canInside this vessel are a series of eight tubes divided into compartments. In some compartments are armies of Caenorhabditis elegans - the tiny roundworms so loved by laboratory scientists because their biology on a very simple level resembles our own.

In others are different types of MRSA bacteria. These have been modified at a genetic level to try to reduce their virulence - to remove their ability to infect a host.

The astronaut simply takes the can in hand and cranks a handle, at which point the tubes' contents are mixed, and the C. elegans and the MRSA go at each other hell-for-leather.

The worms eat the bacteria and the bacteria fight back.

Now, something really odd happens in the weightless conditions experienced in orbit. Bacteria can multiply rapidly and their ability to cause disease can become greatly amplified. The bad become worse.

C. elegans wormsQuite why this happens is still a bit of a mystery. What it means, though, is that few worms will be expected to survive unless their particular MRSA foe has been severely weakened by the modification process.

In other words, find the worms that are flourishing and you may have identified a "flavour" of bacterium which looks just like a virulent form but doesn't actually cause disease.

And that's the basis for a vaccine - something which will provoke a sustained immune response without inducing an illness.

The pineapple can - or assay, to give it its correct term - has already delivered some smart results for salmonella.

Astronaut studies have identified two genes in the infamous food-borne bacterium which, if you delete them, will cause the bug's virulence to go away.

An application will soon be filed with the US Federal Drug Administration to start initial clinical trials on a salmonella vaccine.

Inside the ISS Columbus labAll this work is being led by a company operating out of Austin, Texas, called Astrogenetix.

The US space agency (Nasa) has guaranteed the firm experiment opportunities on all the remaining shuttle flights to the ISS.

It's a facility that's priceless, Dr Jeanne Becker, the company's chief science officer, told me:

"In order for us to do any of this has required iterative opportunities for science - to be able to ask a question, do the flight, get an answer, and then go forward with the next series of investigations.

"This is all about using space for product development; this is what ISS was built for. We really feel that ISS is a platform for new discovery."

Astrogenetix is something of a rarity - a commercial venture that has sought to exploit the space station to advance new applications.

That so few others have come forward in the same way has something to do with the difficulties the ISS has gone through in its construction phase. Utilisation has taken a backseat.

But it probably also now has something to do with the uncertainty over the station's continued existence.

It's a truism in business that companies need confidence to invest; and currently there are considerable risks in getting involved in a project that may not be flying beyond the first few months of 2016 if no mission extension is granted.

The review President Barack Obama has called to look at the future of Nasa's human spaceflight programme will have far-reaching consequences beyond just identifying a spaceship to replace the shuttle.

It will also decide whether some of the original goals set out for the space station are ever to be fully realised.

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