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13-Mile Practice Skydive for Record-Breaking Space Jump

Copyright Red Bull Stratos

Austrian adventurer Felix Baumgartner is hoping to make the world’s highest skydive this summer, in an event backed by energy drink company Red Bull. As a practice run, he leaped from a custom built capsule at an altitude of 71,581 feet (21,818 meters), marking his personal highest-jump ever.

Baumgartner’s ultimate goal is to jump from 120,000 feet (36,576 m) later this year in what he hopes will also be the first supersonic skydive.

Inscribe numbers in glass

Copyright ESA

Thanks to a new laser technology developed for space, a Belgian start-up company called Trackinside is now able to inscribe numbers in glass without cracking, heating or leaving any external marks on the glass.

“It’s the only technology that can mark glass without damaging it,” said Jean Michel Mestrez, Trackinside Managing Director. The low-impact laser inscribes serial numbers inside, rather than on the surface, of the glass used in medical syringes, perfume vials or drinks bottles.

The laser technology was initially developed in Belgium at the Centre Spatial de Liège (CSL), working with the LASEA CSL-spinoff group, which was initially devoted to developing cleaning processes using lasers. CSL is a partner of the Belgian Space Technology Platform, ESA’s national technology transfer broker.

There, it was created for things like etching the surfaces of lenses and mirrors that would then be used in space telescopes and measuring equipment.

The ‘femtosecond laser’ works much like the laser used in eye surgery, where it beams energy through the surface of the eye to make incisions deep below.

The Trackinside laser is calibrated for glass, sending beams of energy through the surface of, say, a syringe. [...]

Express map delivery from space

Copyright ESA

Meeting the environmental needs of an ever-expanding Europe requires consistent and regularly updated information on its land cover and use. As part of ESA’s GlobCorine project, a pan-European land cover and use map for 2009 is now available online.

The map, based on ESA’s Envisat MERIS data from 1 January to 31 December 2009, is the first of its kind to be produced in such a short time – nine months as opposed to years. GlobCorine shows how an automated service can generate and regularly update such maps, which are essential for environmental agencies.

The map, providing a resolution of 300 m, was delivered to the European Environmental Agency (EEA), the project’s main user, in October.

“The novelty of this map is that we can finally have relevant, timely global land cover information compatible with the time series of European Corine land cover data for decision-making,” EEA’s Chris Steenmans, Head of Programme, Shared Environmental Information System, said at the final GlobCorine meeting held at ESA’s Earth observation centre (ESRIN) in Frascati, Italy, last week.

“If you want to bring the environment into the context of economic and social development, then the speed of environmental information delivery needs [...]

Next step for ESA’s first Moon lander

Copyright ESA

Mission description: land autonomously with pinpoint precision near the Moon’s south pole, a region full of dangerous boulders and high ridges. The aim of ESA’s proposed precursor is to probe the moonscape’s unknowns and test new technology to prepare for future human landings.

The first mission to visit the south polar region of the Moon took a significant step forward today when a further study contract was signed with EADS-Astrium in Berlin, Germany.

The mission aims to land in the mountainous and heavily cratered terrain of the lunar south pole in 2018. The region may be a prime location for future human explorers because it offers almost continuous sunlight for power and potential access to vital resources such as water-ice.

To reach the surface safely, the lander must precisely navigate its way to a mountain peak or crater rim, carefully avoiding boulders and steep slopes before gently setting down to take in one of the most spectacular views in the Solar System.

The Moon is a favoured target for the human exploration missions outlined in the ‘Global Exploration Strategy’ by 14 space agencies around the world. The strategy supports international space exploration and calls for further [...]

Emerging Technologies May Fuel Revolutionary Launcher

Copyright NASA

As NASA studies possibilities for the next launcher to the stars, a team of engineers from Kennedy Space Center and several other field centers are looking for a system that turns a host of existing cutting-edge technologies into the next giant leap spaceward.

An early proposal has emerged that calls for a wedge-shaped aircraft with scramjets to be launched horizontally on an electrified track or gas-powered sled. The aircraft would fly up to Mach 10, using the scramjets and wings to lift it to the upper reaches of the atmosphere where a small payload canister or capsule similar to a rocket’s second stage would fire off the back of the aircraft and into orbit. The aircraft would come back and land on a runway by the launch site.

Engineers also contend the system, with its advanced technologies, will benefit the nation’s high-tech industry by perfecting technologies that would make more efficient commuter rail systems, better batteries for cars and trucks, and numerous other spinoffs.

It might read as the latest in a series of science fiction articles, but NASA’s Stan Starr, branch chief of the Applied Physics Laboratory at Kennedy, points out that nothing in the design [...]

Sailing Among the Stars

Copyright NASA

This fall, NASA researchers will move one step closer to sailing among the stars.

Astrophysicists and engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and the Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., have designed and built NanoSail-D, a “solar sail” that will test NASA’s ability to deploy a massive but fragile spacecraft from an extremely compact structure. Much like the wind pushing a sailboat through water, solar sails rely on sunlight to propel vehicles through space. The sail captures constantly streaming solar particles, called photons, with giant sails built from a lightweight material. Over time, the buildup of these particles provides enough thrust for a small spacecraft to travel in space.

Many scientists believe that solar sails have enormous potential. Because they take advantage of sunlight, they don’t require the chemical fuel that spacecraft currently rely on for propulsion. Less fuel translates into lower launch weight, lower costs and fewer logistical challenges. Solar sails accelerate slowly but surely, capable of eventually reaching tremendous speeds. In fact, most scientists consider solar sailing the only reasonable way to make interstellar travel a reality.

Of course, it’s not as easy as it sounds.

For scientists to really [...]

Star Wars Meets UPS as Robonaut Packed for Space

Copyright NASA

Getting into space isn’t necessarily easy for astronauts, and it’s not much easier for a robotic astronaut, either.

Cocooned inside an aluminum frame and foam blocks cut out to its shape, Robonaut 2, or R2, is heading to the International Space Station inside the Permanent Multipurpose Module in space shuttle Discovery’s payload bay as part of the STS-133 mission.

Once in place inside the station, R2, with its humanlike hands and arms and stereo vision, is expected to perform some of the repetitive or more mundane functions inside the orbiting laboratory to free astronauts for more complicated tasks and experiments. It could one day also go along on spacewalks.

Making sure the first humanoid robot to head into space still works when it gets there has been the focus of workers at NASA’s Kennedy and Johnson space centers. Engineers and technicians with decades of experience among them packing for space have spent the last few months devising a plan to secure the 330-pound machine against the fierce vibrations and intense gravity forces during launch.

“I think back in May we realized we had a huge challenge on our hands,” said Michael Haddock, a mechanical engineer designing the [...]

NASA’s Hibernating Mars Rover May Not Call Home

Copyright NASA

NASA mission controllers have not heard from the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit since March 22, and the rover is facing its toughest challenge yet – trying to survive the harsh Martian winter.

The rover team anticipated Spirit would go into a low-power “hibernation” mode since the rover was not able to get to a favorable slope for its fourth Martian winter, which runs from May through November. The low angle of sunlight during these months limits the power generated from the rover’s solar panels. During hibernation, the rover suspends communications and other activities so available energy can be used to recharge and heat batteries, and to keep the mission clock running.

On July 26, mission managers began using a paging technique called “sweep and beep” in an effort to communicate with Spirit.

“Instead of just listening, we send commands to the rover to respond back to us with a communications beep,” said John Callas, project manager for Spirit and its twin, Opportunity, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “If the rover is awake and hears us, she will send us that beep.”

Based on models of Mars’ weather and its effect on available power, mission [...]

NASA’s ATHLETE Warms Up for High Desert Run

Copyright NASA

Engineers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are currently putting their All-Terrain, Hex-Limbed, Extra-Terrestrial Explorer (ATHLETE) through a series of long-drive tests on the long, dirt roads found adjacent to JPL. The JPL grounds do not include an unpaved area of sufficient size for testing such a large robot over a long distance. Some of the dirt roads in the Arroyo Seco (a wash located next to JPL) are wide enough for ATHLETE, and its close proximity to JPL allows the robot to be secured in its hangar between test runs.

The engineers want to test the moon rover’s ability to meet a NASA milestone of traveling at least 40 kilometers (25 miles) over 14 days under its own power. The official demonstration is slated to begin in the Arizona high desert next month.

ATHLETE is a 1/2-scale working prototype of a robot under development to transport habitats and other cargo on the surface of the Moon or Mars. The ATHLETE concept is a level cargo deck carried by six wheels, each on the end of a configurable leg. The prototype stands approximately 4.5 meters (15 feet) tall and 4.5 meters (15 ft) wide and weighs about (about [...]

A Perfect STORRM

Copyright NASA

It was a perfect STORRM. On Tuesday, July 20, NASA and its industry partners Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., successfully demonstrated a new sensor technology that will make it easier and safer for spacecraft to rendezvous and dock to the International Space Station.

This new docking navigation system prototype consists of an eye-safe lidar Vision Navigation Sensor, or VNS, a high-definition docking camera, as well as the avionics and flight software. Both sensors will provide real-time three-dimensional images to the crew with a resolution 16 times higher than the current space shuttle sensors. This next generation system also provides data from as far away as three miles – three times the range of the current shuttle navigation sensor.

“You are looking at the future of rendezvous and docking right here,” said David L. Taylor, president and CEO of Ball Aerospace, as he welcomed dozens of NASA and industry engineers to the demonstration.

The hardware will be tested by astronauts aboard STS-134, the last planned shuttle mission, currently scheduled for February 2011, as part of the Sensor Test for Orion Relative Navigation Risk Mitigation (STORRM) Development Test Objective (DTO). On Flight Day 11 [...]