December 6, 2013
So far, Asia’s new solar system missions seem to be proceeding without a hitch.
China’s Chang’e-3 spacecraft entered lunar orbit late Friday afternoon Beijing time, and will attempt the country’s first robotic moon landing on December 14. Once on the surface, the main lander will deploy a desk-size wheeled rover named Yutu (Jade Rabbit) to roam the lunar landscape.
Meanwhile, India’s Mars Orbiter Mission, nicknamed Mangalyaan (“Mars craft”), escaped the gravitational pull of Earth on December 4, and is now in interplanetary space, headed for Mars. The next milestone is scheduled for December 11 — the first of three rocket burns to tweak the spacecraft’s trajectory before its arrival at the Red Planet in September.
Chang’e-3 is scheduled to land on the flat floor of a large crater, a region known as Sinus Iridum. The lander is equipped with solar power arrays and reportedly also has a nuclear power source. Yutu carries instruments not unlike those on NASA’s Mars rovers, including a rock abrasion tool, like a small drill, for boring into rocks so their fresh surfaces can be photographed with very high-resolution cameras.
Here’s a good animation showing the Chang’e-3 mission from launch to lunar exploration:
December 2, 2013
Between them, Steve Hinton and his son Steven have won six championships in the Unlimited class at the Reno air race.
Join them at the National Air and Space Museum on December 3 as they discuss their winning ways as part of the GE Aviation Lecture series.
Admission to the Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater is free, or you can watch the 8:00 p.m. lecture on the web.
November 26, 2013
Remember those exciting new Earth-viewing satellites we told you about in our September issue? They’re starting to launch into space, as promised.
Last Thursday a Russian Dnepr rocket delivered 32 satellites to orbit, among them SkySat-1, the first of Skybox Imaging’s constellation of Earth cameras. On the same Dnepr were two of Planet Labs’ tiny cubesats, called Doves. The first operational “flock” of Doves is due to reach space in mid-December, on the same Antares rocket that carries the Cygnus 2 cargo vehicle to the International Space Station.
Yesterday, a Progress cargo vehicle blasted off from Baikonur, Kazakhstan, also bound for the space station. Onboard is an Earth-viewing camera built by Urthecast of Vancouver.
The age of near-real-time, low-cost Earth imagery from space is about to begin.
Here’s a video of the Dnepr launch:
November 21, 2013
There have been other presidential airplanes, but the one known, prosaically, by its serial number — SAM 26000 — is the most famous by far. It’s the one Jackie Kennedy had a hand in designing, the first built specifically to transport the U.S. head of state around the world, and the scene, 50 years ago, of some of the most emotional moments in presidential history.
On November 22, 1963, 28 people crowded into the staff room of this specially outfitted Boeing 707 to watch Lyndon Johnson take the oath of office, with the widow of assassinated President John F. Kennedy standing at his side. Just inside the rear door of the aircraft, in the aft galley, sat her husband’s coffin. The presidential party had arrived in Dallas only three hours earlier, on this same airplane.
The sites associated with that awful day have become part of American lore — Dealey Plaza, the book depository, the grassy knoll. For this 50th anniversary, two writers turned their attention to the airplane that carried one U.S. president to Dallas and brought a different one back to Washington on the same day. Washingtonian editor Garrett Graff has written a slim book, Angel is Airborne, set inside SAM 26000 on the day of the assassination (you can read it here). Esquire writer Chris Jones covers the same subject in his article “The Flight From Dallas.” Both rely heavily on previously published accounts, but they still make riveting reading, if only to remind us of all the accidents of timing that led some 40 people — including future LBJ aides Jack Valenti and Bill Moyers — to be on board the airplane during those climactic hours.
Among them was the man who took the pictures of LBJ’s hastily arranged swearing-in. As a White House photographer, Cecil Stoughton had shot many of the iconic images we associate with Kennedy’s Camelot. Before that, he had been a wartime photographer in Guadalcanal, and had documented the early space program from Cape Canaveral (he was on the recovery ship when the monkeys Able and Baker splashed down in 1959).
At the time of the assassination, Stoughton was riding in the motorcade several cars back from the president. He heard shots, but couldn’t see what had happened. In fact, it wasn’t until he arrived at Parkland Hospital that he learned Kennedy had been hit and was likely dead. Then, as Stoughton recalled it years later in an oral history interview, as he was standing around at the hospital:
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Mr. Johnson, Mrs. Johnson, [Secret Service agent] Rufus Youngblood and a couple of other people making mad dashes for the door, which was behind me….I kind of nodded. “Where’s he going?” And [another aide] said “The president’s going to Washington.” That was my clue that the president I came with was no longer there, and I said “Well, so am I.”
Stoughton climbed into a car and raced to Love Field, where the presidential airplane was waiting on the tarmac.
A policeman drove us out. There were four of us in the car. We made a mad dash to the airport using a different route because you didn’t know which way they had gone, really, and they were under security cover anyway, no radios. So we came up to Love Field and we came in the wrong entrance. It turned out that we came in towards the active runway and, actually, we crossed the active runway and came barreling down this active runway, under the guns, we found out later, of security guys who had been posted there just in the last five minutes. We almost got shot, because, “What’s this black car?” It might be official and all that, but here it comes charging towards Air Force One.
The photographer rushed up to pilot Jim Swindal, whom he knew, and got the okay to come aboard. Within an hour, with the plane still on the ground, Stoughton took some of the most recognized photos of the 20th century while standing on a couch looking down. In all the pictures, according to Graff, he was careful to frame Mrs. Kennedy from the waist up so the blood stains on her skirt wouldn’t show.
Stoughton didn’t fly back to Washington with the new president — he rushed off to have his negatives developed instead.
By the time they were dried and we’d made all [the] selections and so forth, the plane had landed at Andrews [AFB] one hour and fifty-two or -three minutes later; fastest time in history, I guess, from Dallas to Andrews because they got into a tremendous tail wind. By the time they got there and they were taxiing on the ground, someone told me [who] was on the plane that they put the pictures on the [TV] screen. AP had moved them. They put them on the screen and the new President then saw himself being sworn in just two hours ago.
Today SAM26000 is retired and on display at the National Museum of the Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. For the 50th anniversary of the fateful flight to Dallas, the museum asked photographer Lyle Jansma, who also created our gallery of inside-the-cockpit views, to make a virtual tour of the inside of the historic airplane.
Look around the (since remodeled) room where LBJ was sworn in, from the photographer’s vantage point:
Or take the full tour of the airplane:
November 20, 2013
Packed tightly among the 28 tiny satellites hitching a ride on last night’s ORS-3 rocket launch from NASA’s Wallops Island, Virginia, spaceport was the first-ever satellite built by high school students.
That’s right—space has now been conquered by super-smart teenagers.
TJ3SAT is named for the state-chartered magnet school where it was built, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia. The “3” stands for cubed—the 10 x 10 x 11-centimeter satellite is part of a family of spacecraft called cubesats, whose size and shape are standardized to make them easier to fit into the leftover space around bigger launch payloads.
The project began in 2006 as a course in systems engineering, in collaboration with Orbital Sciences, the Virginia-based company that funded the project. Orbital gave technical guidance to the students, but they built the satellite themselves. Once in orbit, TJ3SAT will receive messages from students and amateur radio operators all around the world and, through phonetic voice synthesizer software, speak the messages “aloud” over a designated radio frequency so they can be heard on the ground.
Adam Kemp, the faculty sponsor for the project, had no trouble getting students excited about sending a satellite to space. He likens Thomas Jefferson to Hogwarts, the wizarding school of Harry Potter fame (U.S. News & World Report ranks it the fourth best high school in the country). “The kids really want to be there,” he says, “so we can take advantage of the fact that they want to be there and start proposing these really high-level tasks. And the kids just eat it up.”
Over the past nearly eight years, Kemp estimates about 50 students have participated in the cubesat project. Almost all have graduated, and many have gone on to top engineering schools like MIT, and from there to jobs in the aerospace industry. At one point the school’s administration cut the course under which TJ3SAT was being built, but Kemp and a few students carried on under the auspices of a senior research project. Over the last few months, only senior Rohan Punnoose has been directly involved in seeing the project through to its hour of glory.
Punnoose is already an accomplished engineer—among other things he’s led another team at Thomas Jefferson in building and successfully deploying an autonomous rover from a high-powered rocket. But, he says, TJ3SAT is the coolest thing he’s ever done. Standing in a chilly field a few miles from the launch pad with Kemp and several former students who worked on the project, Punnoose got to watch his school’s crowning achievement blast into space on a sun-bright arc of fire and sound. The kids cheered while Kemp let out a euphoric laugh.
“Alright, TJ!” he shouted.
Like many cubesats, TJ3SAT had to wait for its ride to space. The team’s opportunity finally came when there was extra room on Orbital’s Minotaur I rocket, which was delivering a larger and much more expensive satellite into orbit (the U.S. Air Force’s STPSat-3 will measure the sun’s energy output). TJ3SAT made it onto the manifest through NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) program, along with cubesats from nine universities around the country. Punnoose had the honor of escorting his school’s completed cubesat to Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, where it was added to the payload that would eventually be shipped to Wallops for the launch. “I was the last person to touch it, which is amazing,” he says.
Punnoose says the cubesat, if it works, should last at least a few months, but could go a couple of years before it no longer answers its mail. The cubesat itself, like any technology, will eventually stop working, but it may deorbit and burn up in the earth’s atmosphere long before that.
In the meantime, TJ3SAT has a lot of work to do. Amateur radio operators can start submitting short messages on the project’s website today after the satellite makes its first pass within range of the ground station at Thomas Jefferson, and if all goes well, the spacecraft will start talking immediately.
The first official message TJ3SAT returns to earth will be something like “Go Colonials,” a shout-out to the high school’s mascot. But before that will be another message, some kind of inside joke between the satellite and its makers, but Punnoose won’t let on what it is.
“That’s a secret,” he says, practically winking at the sky.
Mark Betancourt is a writer based in Washington D.C. and a frequent contributor to Air & Space.
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