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.
November 13, 2013
Where is our Moon Base? What about those Earth-like planets we’re supposed to have found by now? Extraterrestrial life? A human mission to Mars? In short, what happened to the 20th century dreams that were fueled by the Apollo missions and Viking landings on Mars?
There is still plenty of excitement in the fields of space science and technology. That was evident at the recent Kepler Science Conference, held at NASA Ames to report on the discovery of new exoplanets, and is regularly found at astrobiology science meetings. But these days, there are at least as many setbacks as advances. The NASA-sponsored 2014 Astrobiology meeting has been postponed due to federal spending restrictions on conferences, and when it comes to launching new missions to address big scientific questions, progress is painfully slow. Why should we wait years for another mission to search for second Earths? Why send another orbiter to Mars (MAVEN is scheduled to launch next week) when we have the technological capability to search for life on the planet’s surface, or launch a probe to splash down on one of Titan’s hydrocarbon lakes?
Is it really all about budget? Or did we lose the type of risk-taking ability that propelled Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen to the South Pole and NASA to the Moon—the willingness to also accept failure, which is inherent when you attempt giant strides. Frustration with the slow pace of progress extends all across the public, including college students, scientists and fiction writers.
It’s also been noted by government agencies. In 2011 NASA finally reinstated the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program to fund far-horizon research, but since then only ten in-depth studies have been funded, with another five to seven to be selected in August 2014. The National Science Foundation initiated its INSPIRE program with the goal to promote “bold interdisciplinary projects.” But innovation frequently gets short-changed when review panels realize that a high-impact study often comes with a high risk of failure. All too often, the word “innovative” ends up being only lip service, because reviewers and funding agencies prefer to play it safe. The result is that many scientists are becoming high-tech technicians who only try to optimize past inventions rather than propose something truly revolutionary. And the ones still willing to take risks are chronically underfunded.
Another possibility is that we really are running out of ideas. “You’re the ones who’ve been slacking off!” said Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, addressing science fiction writers at the Future Tense Conference a couple of years ago. Good science fiction not only helps us set goals, but also shows ways to reach the envisioned technological future. According to writer Neal Stephenson, implementing new technologies on a heroic scale is no longer the childish preoccupation of a few nerds, but is the only way for the human species to escape from its current predicaments. One outcome of the Future Tense Conference was the proposal to produce an anthology of new science fiction, referred to as the Hieroglyph Project, to show new pathways to invention and discovery. Finally, two years later, one of the major academic science publishers took up this idea and came out with a new Science and Fiction book series.
Just envisioning the future won’t take us there, however. Maybe it’s just me, but I miss the cowboy mentality of the 1960s. We decided to go to the Moon and we did it – even if it seemed dangerous, reckless, even insane. Now we’re on a much more timid course, exploring from our safe, computer-generated virtual environments. Perhaps this is the true solution of the Fermi Paradox – the reason why we haven’t met other spacefaring civilizations. It’s time to turn things around.
Dirk Schulze-Makuch is a professor of astrobiology at Washington State University and has published seven books related to the field of astrobiology. He is also adjunct professor at the Beyond Center at Arizona State University.
June 27, 2013
I’m not usually a fan of celebrating NASA anniversaries—too much looking backwards and pining for the good old days. But I was at the head of the line to salute this month’s 30th anniversary of STS-7, which carried Sally Ride as the first American woman in space. And it got me reflecting on Sally’s legacy as we approach the one-year anniversary of her death last July.
I was pleased to work with her on several occasions, both inside and outside of NASA and never dreamed we would have such a fruitful partnership—given that initially I couldn’t stand her.
In 1982, when she was preparing for her first shuttle flight, I was managing NASA’s Shuttle Student Involvement Program, a national competition that gave high school students a chance to fly experiments on the space shuttle. When I asked the STS-7 mission planners at the Johnson Space Center if room was available on the flight, they said no. According to them, Sally Ride didn’t want to have to mess with student experiments on an already busy flight.
I had only been at NASA a couple of years, so I assumed information sent to headquarters from the field centers was true. So I’m thinking, What does Sally Ride have against student experiments?
Fast forward to 1986. After serving on the presidential commission to investigate the Challenger accident, Sally came to NASA headquarters to lead a task force on long-range national goals for space. A mutual friend thought I could help Sally navigate the headquarters bureaucracy. She and I immediately hit it off, so I became, in effect, her sidekick. And I learned the truth: It turned out she had no idea there had ever been a request to place student experiments on STS-7.
Sally did a fabulous job in leading the task force, which produced Leadership and America’s Future in Space, known as the Ride Report (if you’ve never read it, you should check it out). She made sure the working groups that produced the report had ample representation from women and younger NASA staff, which was a departure from most study groups at the time.
You can see Sally’s commitment to education on the report’s last page:
“An informed public is essential to both the near- and long-term interests of the nation’s civil program…This means capturing the imaginations and interests of young people at an early stage…and encouraging them to pursue studies that will prepare them to actively participate in the space program.”
This from the person I was told was against student experiments! I can’t help but think that the seeds for her namesake organization, Sally Ride Science, might have been planted with these words.
In 1992, I again became Sally’s wingman when Bill Clinton asked her to join his transition team and lead the Science, Technology, and Space planning group. Not long after, the president-elect also asked Sally to return to NASA as administrator, but she turned him down.
“You can’t turn down the president,” I exclaimed when she told me of Clinton’s request. In her typical no-nonsense way, she replied, “Well, I did it this morning.” Not even Bill Clinton could compete with her beloved west coast and office view of the Pacific Ocean. Many have speculated on whether Sally would have made a good administrator. Although I’m sure she would have done a superior job, I think the politics and budget challenges would have deflated even her normally positive spirit.
I last interacted with Sally in my position at NASA as head of Public Involvement. A grant from the Office of Communication last year enabled Sally Ride Science to expand schools’ use of an Earth-viewing camera on the space station. As we worked out the details, Sally and I emailed and spoke on the phone several times, but private to the end, she never mentioned her fight with cancer.
During the past month, celebrations of her life and legacy were held at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. She received numerous awards and posthumous honors, including the designation of the Sally Ride EarthKAM, a NASA internship named in her honor, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
NASA even named the spot where the GRAIL spacecraft crashed into the moon last December as the Sally Ride Impact Site. At the Los Angeles tribute, her sister, Bear, noted that the family calls it as the Sally Ride Gulch. I think Sally would have agreed and smiled.
Alan Ladwig has worked for space advocacy organizations, aerospace companies large and small, and NASA. Before retiring from the agency last month, he was Deputy Associate Administrator for Public Outreach. He is now the head of To Orbit Productions.
June 7, 2013
The Mercury Seven astronauts had a rendezvous with destiny, and it turns out their wives did too.
“To be an astronaut wife,” writes Lily Koppel in her new book The Astronaut Wives Club, “meant tea with Jackie Kennedy, high society galas, and instant celebrity.” When their husbands were selected by NASA, these seven women went from being military wives on Navy and Air Force bases to intense, unrelenting scrutiny in the public eye.
Koppel, who interviewed many of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo wives, fills the book with interesting tidbits: While a student at the University of Hawaii, Trudy Cooper flew a Piper Cub, making her the only pilot in the group. Who would have guessed that demure Betty Grissom (pegged as an “unsophisticated Hoosier”) owned a pair of fur hot pants? The nine Gemini wives were given “$1,000 gift certificates to Neiman Marcus from an anonymous priest,” who had anticipated that the women would not always be able to afford the right clothes for their many galas. Koppel also describes friction between the Mercury and Gemini wives, at least initially. For the last Mercury mission, on May 15, 1963, the Gemini wives were invited to watch the launch party at Trudy Cooper’s house—but they watched Gordo Cooper’s blastoff on the living room television, while the Mercury wives huddled in the master bedroom.
Eventually, the women developed a kind of sisterhood—they were sharing the same experiences, after all. When an astronaut kid played house, for instance, you might overhear him say, “Good-bye now, I’m going to work. I’ll be back in a couple of weeks.” The wives contended with “sightseers from the space tour buses who climbed over fences to steal a glimpse of a real spaceman,” and the morning ritual of removing sunbathing copperheads from the warm hoods of parked station wagons.
There were many perks, though, including post-spaceflight world tours. When Gemini 5 wives Jane Conrad and Trudy Cooper exited the airplane at Haile Selassie’s Jubilee Palace in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, “a noble and slightly bored lion greeted them at the top of the metal steps and had to be led down with great ceremony before they could disembark. Two chained leopardesses greeted them on the palace steps, which smelled of big-cat urine.”
Now, that’s a memory.
April 30, 2013
The Herschel Space Telescope was never meant for hot astronomy topics. It was meant for the cool ones. The European Space Agency spacecraft officially ended its observations yesterday when the last of its liquid helium, used to keep the telescope’s temperature close to absolute zero, was exhausted after three years of operation.
Herschel was launched in 2009 and spent its mission orbiting at L2, one of five Lagrangian points in the Earth-Sun system that are gravitationally stable. L2 is nearly a million miles farther from the sun than Earth is — ESA’s Planck Space Telescope, among others, is already stationed there, and it’s the future location of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. That far from the Sun is an ideal place to look at cool objects.
Observing in a broad spectral range from the far infrared to submillimeter wavelengths, Herschel could study dim objects, like asteroids in the Kuiper belt at the edge of our solar system, or debris disks where planets are forming around other stars. It also saw red-shifted light from early and active star-forming galaxies. Herschel hunted for water around the universe, finding ice particles heated by ultraviolet light from stars in many protoplanetary disks, and discovering that nearly all the water in Jupiter’s atmosphere was brought to the planet by comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 in 1994.
Herschel had the largest infrared mirror ever launched into space — at 3.5 meters in diameter, it’s more than a meter bigger than the Hubble Space Telescope’s. (JWST’s mirror, however, will be almost twice as big as Herschel’s.) Scientists are still reviewing data from the space observatory, so even though the spacecraft has gone dead, discoveries will likely still be made. Indeed, astronomers are hoping that a brand new ground-based observatory can leapfrog off of Herschel’s contributions in studying the “cool” universe: ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile, began operating earlier this year and should be fully operational in September. Combining their data should tell us much about the early universe and galaxy formation.
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