There’s so much going on the ol’ astronomy block, let’s hop on the imaginary Spaceship MarQ and take a quick look around the celestial neighborhood.
NASA HAS A SPACESUIT SHORTAGE—How on Earth can this happen? But it is true. Of the original 18 spacesuits manufactured around the year 2000 for spacewalks outside the International Space Station, only 11 remain, and seven are being used for training on Earth. That leaves just four spacesuits on the ISS for the maintenance spacewalks necessary every two months or so, according to an audit by NASA’s Office of Inspector General.
These are the white Extravehicular Mobility Units (EMUs), not the orange flight suits used at launch. EMU spacesuits are complicated and cost around $12 million each, and those that have been used the past 15 years are getting worn out. NASA has spent $200 million on the next generation spacesuits, but they are still years away from production.
One of the biggest problems are the space gloves, which are prone to lots of wear and tear from tools and sharp, microscopic spurs on the exterior of the ISS. The pressure inside a spacesuit makes it difficult to bend fingers and thumbs, in fact some Apollo moonwalkers had bleeding fingertips and aching joints from the work on the lunar surface. The space gloves are now in their sixth generation of construction, more flexible and durable—but still prone to damage.
With NASA budgeting only through 2024 for their occupation of the 17-nation consortium sharing the ISS, they are hoping their remaining spacesuits will last. But just how are your work clothes holding up after from 15 years of use?
SATURN BEING BUZZED BY CASSINI—The final days of NASA’s $2 billion Cassini spacecraft are upon us, and it is now buzzing between the Saturn’s cloud tops and the innermost rings sending back spectacular images and gigabytes of rare data.
One of the most interesting photos is the ringed planet’s bizarre “eye,” a north pole cap that is shaped like a hexagonal stop sign staring out into space.
And the unique perspective inside the rings is dazzling the planetary scientists at Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations (CICLOPS). The headquarters for unmanned robot that has spent 13 years analyzing the data that has revolutionized everything we know about the sixth planet and its retinue of more than 60 moons.
Cassini has begun the “Grand Finale” phase of its mission, a series of 22 dives between Saturn and the planet’s innermost rings. On Sept. 15, the orbiter will end its life with an intentional dive into Saturn’s thick atmosphere, a maneuver designed to ensure that the probe doesn’t hit and contaminate moons Titan or Enceladus with microbes from Earth.
To amaze yourself, check out the images of Cassini that are posted for the world to see at www.ciclops.org. As an American taxpayer, you actually own them!
NEW SPACE TELESCOPE UNDER BIG CHILL—NASA’s next big telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, is undergoing a 100-day test in a super frigid chamber used to check out systems on the Apollo moonships.
Comprised of 18 hexagonal segments of gold-coated beryllium, the mirror is what the JWST will use to gather light from the distant Universe. It spans over 21-feet in diameter, making it nearly six times larger in area than the 8-foot mirror on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope currently in orbit around Earth.
The JWST has been carefully pieced together at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Now the telescope has been delicately shipped to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where the spacecraft will undergo extreme, minus -200 below zero temperature testing to make sure it’s ready to be launched into deep space where it will work in a special orbit one million miles from Earth.
JWST will also make a pit stop at Redondo Beach, California, at the headquarters of Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems where it will be folded in a protective shroud before being shipped to South America and a European Space Agency launch pad in French Guiana for it scheduled October 2018 launch aboard an ESA Ariane 5 rocket.
TOP SECRET MINI-SHUTTLE FINALLY LANDs—Amid sonic booms that surprised Central Florida residents on May 5th, the top secret U.S. Air Force X-37B unmanned mini space shuttle landed at Kennedy Space Center after spending 718 days in orbit. The spacecraft lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015.
Since April 2010, the Air Force has now flown its two operational X-37B spacecraft each twice for mystery missions of 224, 468, 675 and now 718 days. Each spaceship is 29-foot-long and weigh about 11,000-pounds with a cargo area the size of a big pickup truck. Stubby wing make them a glider when landing on pie-plate size retractable wheels. What the X-37Bs are taking to orbit inside that cargo space is Top Secret except what the government wants us to know. It was announced that this last mission tested an ion-powered engine and the long endurance exposure of two dozen classified materials, each the size of a quarter.
Whether surveillance devices were aboard the X-37B is not known. But space watchers do know its orbits did at times pass over sensitive areas of the Middle East and Southeast Asia. A retractable solar panel supplied the necessary power to the X-37B, which in photos appears to have areas in its forward section for possible windows and room enough for an astronaut or two.
Just when one of the X-37Bs will fly again, or exactly how many the Air Force is building for its fleet, is, of course, Top Secret. Just keep in mind it’s all for national security and that the Department of Defense has its own space program as part of the National Reconnaissance Office with an undisclosed budget thought to more than NASA’s current $19 billion annual allowance. Spy vs. spy is very much alive in the 21st Century Cold War being waged in outer space.