Orbital Sciences chose Russian engines again for its rocket Antares

RD-191 rocket engine

RD-191 rocket engine

The news was leaked a few days ago and later confirmed by Orbital Sciences. The American aerospace company has signed a contract with Russian NPO Energomash for the supply of the model RD-181 engines for the Antares rocket. They will replace the AJ-26 engines used so far and discarded after the fault that led to the explosion of Antares on October 28, 2014.

The RD-181 engines are one of the evolutions of the model RD-171 and are very similar to the model RD-191 (photo ©Vladislav Chernyy) adopted for the new Russian rockets Angara. Orbital Sciences chose the model RD-181 because it was the one that was best suited to the Antares rocket. It has many features similar to the AJ-26 engines starting from the use of RP-1, a very highly refined form of kerosene, as fuel and liquid oxygen as the oxidizer.

Orbital Sciences will proceed with the modifications to its rocket Antares for the engine change. The company worked with NPO Energomash to choose the engine model that required the least amount of redesign work. With the RD-181 engines the Antares core stage should remain nearly identical and this should allow the company to resume the launches in 2016.

The choice of the RD-181 engines was also made for their price and especially for their availability as a delivery of 20 of them is scheduled for mid-2015. Orbital Sciences has two options for two more supplies of 20 engines each. There are no official announcements on the total cost of the purchases. According to totally unofficial sources, the total contract value is close to a billion dollars. Orbital Sciences only stated that the total figure is significantly lower.

Eventually, after considering various alternatives, both American and foreign, Orbital Sciences has again chosen a Russian engine. Recently, the USA decided various sanctions against Russia following the tension due to the situation in Ukraine. Among them there’s a ban on the use of Russian engines for rockets used in launches related to national security. The Antares rocket engines can implement Russian engines because it has civilian uses, even more because it launches the Cygnus spacecraft carrying supplies to the International Space Station, managed in collaboration also with Russia.

2016 will be a pivotal year for Orbital Sciences. The company must demonstrate that the Antares rocket with the new engines RD-181 is reliable. It may do so by continuing with success the launches to the International Space Station still remaining in the contract with NASA. It’s the only way to hope for a renewal of the contract and for other contracts for commercial satellite launches.

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The mission of the Venus Express space probe has ended

Artistic concept of ESA Venus Express space probe orbiting Venus (Image ESA)

Artistic concept of ESA Venus Express space probe orbiting Venus (Image ESA)

ESA has declared the end of the Venus Express space probe’s mission. As of November 28, 2014, contacts have become unstable and the mission control center lost control of the spacecraft. It was known that it was almost out of fuel but ESA hoped that there was still some increase the altitude of Venus Express to allow it to extend its mission for some more days. Now it’s expected to fall in the atmosphere of the planet Venus, where it will be destroyed by its enormous pressure and its high temperatures corrosive compounds.

The Venus Express mission was proposed in 2001 to exploit the existing design of another spacecraft, the Mars Express. The new spacecraft was built with the necessary adaptations to send it into the orbit of a planet much closer to the Sun than Mars.

Some instruments were developed for the Rosetta mission and various spare parts were available were therefore used to this new mission. In particular, VIRTIS (Visible and Infrared Thermal Imaging Spectrometer) is almost identical to that of Rosetta.

The Venus Express space probe was launched on November 9, 2005 on a Soyuz-FG/Fregat rocket and reached the orbit of Venus on April 11, 2006. Its primary mission lasted 500 Earth days and at its end there was a series extensions that lasted until the spacecraft ran out of fuel. In the course of over eight and a half years, it studied the planet Venus as no probe had ever done before.

In particular, the Venus Express space probe studied the climate of Venus to understand why a planet in many ways very similar to Earth has become a hell. The instruments have also observed the Earth from the orbit of Venus to understand how an inhabited planet is seen from far away. During the mission there were also surprises such as the discovery that the day of Venus is becoming longer.

During last summer Venus Express performed various maneuvers, a kind of surf on the upper limit of the planet’s atmosphere. ESA knew that it was about run out of fuel and decided to use most of the remaining that way. The last maneuvers to raise its altitude that were intended to extend the spacecraft’s life weren’t completed, a clear sign that it ran out of fuel.

For several days ESA engineers tried to stabilize the contact with Venus Express and send maneuver commands without success, confirming it ran out of fuel. Eventually, ESA declared the end of a mission that was very successful in improving our knowledge of the planet Venus.

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Quantico by Greg Bear

Quantico by Greg Bear

Quantico by Greg Bear

The novel “Quantico” by Greg Bear was published for the first time in 2005.

A new terrible terrorist attack struck the USA and is one of the symptoms of an unprecedented wave ready to strike around the world. Some young FBI agents who are still attending the Academy in Quantico are involved in various investigations that may be connected. Their difficulties come from the fact that the FBI itself is under investigation.

The US government responded to the last terrorist attack by opening new law enforcement and intelligence agencies that should increase national security. While the FBI is under the threatens of being shut down, its agents try to follow various tracks to fight religious fundamentalism and also threats arising from the use of genetic engineering.

“Quantico” is considered part of the series called Quantum Logic, however it’s set before the other novels so you can read it as a totally independent story. In a series in which the science fiction elements were very important, this novel is primarily a thriller with elements of espionage.

This novel has a strong inspiration in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks though the references are to a following attack of that level. Another important historical element consists of the anthrax attacks of 2001, which began a week after the September 11 ones.

The American response to a new terrible attack and threats both external and internal is the creation of new agencies to increase security. This too is inspired by the reality and the creation of agencies such as Homeland Security and TSA as a result of the September 11 attacks.

In “Quantico”, those measures have become the center of power struggles at the political level that are very important in the novel. The various agencies have quickly developed a competition amonge them and the result is that instead of working to increase national security they’re often at war.

The FBI pays the highes price as it’s at risk of being shut down. The FBI agents who are the protagonists of “Quantico” are involved in various investigations but in some cases the problems also come from interference from other agencies. There are times when they really continue to investigate at their own risk because certain power struggles at political level affect them personally.

These elements of thriller, politics and espionage often overshadow the science fiction. When Greg Bear wrote “Quantico” he set it in a near future, which now is our present. There are some scientific and technological developments that may still be considered science fiction but could soon become reality. In the end, it’s the kind of story you hope is science fiction but you fear is not.

All these elements are potentially very interesting. Greg Bear is an author who has always put a lot of ideas in his novels but at the same time has also been developing his characters. All this is true in “Quantico” as well, the problem of this novel is that the story is extremely fragmented.

In “Quantico” there are a number of subplots that sometimes intertwine but often diverge. Greg Bear is supposed to have the experience to handle this type of novel but in this case I don’t think he succeeded. I found this novel chaotic and it hasn’t helped that several chapters are only one or two pages long.

“Quantico” is composed of a total of 74 chapters for a novel a little over 400 pages long and with each new chapter Greg Bear moves to another subplot. The consequence is that the jumps from one subplot to another are a lot and sometimes very quick. That makes it even more difficult to follow the various parts of a story already very complex.

“Quantico” is a novel I wanted to like for the interesting contents but the way it was developed at least partially spoiled its reading for me. If you don’t get dispirited by a chaotic narrative you might like it.

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A success for the suborbital test of the Indian rocket GSLV Mk. 3

The GSLV Mk. 3 rocket on the launch platform (Photo courtesy ISRO. All rights reserved)

The GSLV Mk. 3 rocket on the launch platform (Photo courtesy ISRO. All rights reserved)

A few hours ago ISRO, the Indian space agency, carried out the first test launch of the new carrier rocket Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark III, also known simply as GSLV-III, LVM3 or GSLV Mk. 3. This test lasted about twenty minutes since it was only a suborbital flight. The result is a success though the analyzes of the recorded data and the CARE capsule will be made later.

The GSLV Mk. 3 carrier rocket mustn’t be confused with the GSLV successfully launched at the beginning of 2014. Both rockets are designed to carry cargos up to geosynchronous orbit but between the two of them there are several differences. The GLSV is an evolution of the old carrier rocket PSLV with the addition of liquid propellant boosters and above all a fourth cryogenic stage. The development of the latter was complex and that’s the reason why this rocket is still in its experimental stage. The GSLV Mk. 3 rocket has a core stage that uses liquid propellant instead of solid, two very large solid propellant boosters and a cryogenic upper stage.

The way the GSLV Mk. 3 works during the launch is unusual, even compared to other Indians launchers. In fact, generally the first stage is the core stage, constituted by the lower part of the rocket and the possible booster used to ensure an extra thrust. In this case however the boosters are so big because they constitute the first stage and are the only ones to provide thrust at take-off and the first part of the flight. The core stage is the second stage so it’s not ignited at take-off but only after the exhaustion of the boosters fuel.

This was a suborbital test in which the upper stage that consists of the cryogenic stage wasn’t activated because it’s still under development. The delays with various launch failures of various versions of the previous GSLV model rocket caused a slowdown in the testing program of the GSLV Mk. 3. ISRO plans to complete and test the version of the cryogenic stage for the new carrier rocket during 2015.

Putting the GSLV Mk. 3 rocket into operation will enable India to launch satellites to geostationary orbit expanding the launch services offered by ISRO in a market that is very rich and expanding. However, stimulated by the rivalry with China, India has started developing a manned space program as well. For this reason, in this test the cargo was a CARE (Crew Module Atmospheric Re-entry Experiment), a test vehicle of the orbital vehicle prototypes under development by ISRO to bring its astronauts in orbit.

The purpose was to test the systems for CARE’s reentry. This spaceship that looks similar to the American Mercury was slowed down by a parachute system to its splashdown in the Bay of Bengal. From this point of view, the test was similar to that of the Orion spacecraft carried out in recent days by NASA.

Now ISRO must complete the development of the cryogenic stage to be able to carry out a full test of the GSLV Mk. 3 rocket. Concerning the manned program, the situation is more complicated because it’s not clear when the necessary technologies will be ready. If things go well, the first Indian astronauts could fly in the next decade.

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The Mars Rover Curiosity detected a methane spike and other organic materials on Mars

The Mars Rover Curiosity

The Mars Rover Curiosity

At the American Geophysical Union Meeting held in San Francisco, NASA scientists revealed that the Mars Rover Curiosity found methane concentrations ten times higher than earlier and later measurements in the Martian atmosphere. It’s a very interesting result but despite the optimism of some sources of information it’s not evidence of the presence of life forms on Mars.

The presence of methane on Mars isn’t new. In 2004, ESA announced that its Mars Express space probe detected it in the Martian atmosphere. The measured concentration was minimal, 10 parts per billion by volume. For comparison, the Earth’s atmosphere contains about 1,800 parts per billion by volume of methane. Moreover, the Earth’s atmosphere is tens of times more dense than the Martian one.

Over the following years, new measurements were made with various instruments but this recente one made by the Mars Rover Curiosity gave the most interesting results as the methane concentration was much higher for a certain period of time. For its analysis, Curiosity used its Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM), a small but sophisticated chemical laboratory. It includes various instruments and in this case in particular the Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS) was used.

Since the beginning of its mission, the Mars Rover Curiosity has carried out a series of measurements of the levels of methane in the Gale Crater where is traveling and analyzing the atmosphere and soil samples. The basic level of methane detected is 0.7 parts per billion, really low. Between late 2013 and early 2014, Curiosity detected a concentration ten times higher.

There are various possible sources for methane. Biological activity is the most intriguing possibility, also thinking about the recent announcement that Gale Crater used to be a lake, but there are others. There are geological activities that can lead to the creation of methane and other possible sources. The methane recently detected might have been imprisoned underground for millions of years.

NASA scientists have carefully analyzed the measurements taken by the Mars Rover Curiosity to try to identify the cause of the methane spike. The most likely hypothesis is that it came from some area of Gale Crater. The problem is to understand its origin. The optimists see that concentration as an indication of the existence of life on Mars but there are many other possibilities so it’s necessary to continue the research.

In addition to methane, the Mars Rover Curiosity found other organic molecules in a sample of a rock called Cumberland. SAM analyzed the sample finding materials such as chlorobenzene. Again, those are compounds that can be created by biological activities but also from other phenomena such as certain geological activities.

NASA will keep on analyzing the data from the Mars Rover Curiosity but also from its space probe Maven and will work with the Indian space agency to compare the results with those obtained by its probe MOM. The instruments available may be not enough to solve the mystery. In this case we may need to wait for new missions to get different kind of measurements.

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The Milky Way’s magnetic field like a Van Gogh painting

The Milky Way's magnetic field along the Galactic plane (ESA/Planck Collaboration. Acknowledgment: M.-A. Miville-Deschênes, CNRS – Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale, Université Paris-XI, Orsay, France)

The Milky Way’s magnetic field along the Galactic plane (ESA/Planck Collaboration. Acknowledgment: M.-A. Miville-Deschênes, CNRS – Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale, Université Paris-XI, Orsay, France)

At first glance it might seem a Vincent Van Gogh painting, actually it’s the visualization of data collected by the Planck Surveyor satellite during its mission, which ended just over a year ago. In the course of about four and a half years, Planck observed the oldest light in the history of the universe but also a nearer light emitted by dust and gas in the Milky Way. The interaction between the interstellar dust in our galaxy and the structure of the galactic magnetic field is portrayed in this amazing image.

ESA already presented a map of the galactic magnetic field based on data from the Planck Surveyor satellite in May 2014. As always in these cases, the data gathered keep on being analyzed for a long time after the end of a mission. This time the study was focused on the polarized light emitted by interstellar dust using it to study the galactic magnetic field.

The interstellar clouds of gas and dust are influenced by the galactic magnetic field: the dust particles tend to align their longest axis at right angles to the direction of the field. The consequence is that the light emitted by the dust grains is partially polarized and could be captured by Planck’s polarization-sensitive instruments.

Scientists at the Planck collaboration have been exploiting this polarization for some time in their studies of the galactic magnetic field. In this case, the scale of the colors in the image represent the total intensity of the emission of dust, revealing the structure of the interstellar clouds in the Milky Way.

The magnetic field is more ordered along the galactic plane, where it follows the spiral structure of the Milky Way. Small clouds can be seen just above and below the plane, where the structure of the magnetic field becomes less regular. The filamentary interstellar clouds are preferably aligned with the direction of the ambient magnetic field, emphasizing the important role of magnetism in the evolution of the galaxy.

The purpose of this analysis is precisely to study the role of the galactic magnetic field in the build-up of structure within the Milky Way that lead to star formation. The data collected by the spacecraft Planck are really useful for research into the origins of the universe but also for those about the formation of stars. In this case there’s also the “bonus” of an image that seems an extraordinary work of art.

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