Sunday, November 18, 2007

Chandra Sees Star Formation in NGC 281

Here's a short little post about the star forming nebula NGC 281, captured by NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory. This photograph is actually a composite of several wavelengths, imaged by ground and space-based observatories.

The optical data (red, orange and yellow) shows the clouds of gas and dust, and the dark lanes of obscuring dust where stars may be forming. The Chandra X-Ray data is in purple, and reveals more than 300 individual X-ray sources - most of them are associated with the central star forming region.

There's another group of X-ray sources on the other side of the molecular cloud. Based on the elements in the region, astronomers think that a supernova went off in the region recently.

But really, it's a pretty picture.

Prototype Heat Sheild for Orion

It's a prototype heat shield, developed by Boeing for NASA's Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle.

When Orion returns from space, it needs to decelerate from orbital velocity to be able to land safely. Just like the space shuttle, the capsule will point this heat ablating surface into the atmosphere, and let it get super hot. The heat shield can rise to extremely high temperatures, while the astronauts stay nice and safe.

The lunar protective system will need to be much more capable that the shuttle's system, since capsules will be returning directly to the Earth after flying from the Moon. In some cases, Orion's thermal protection will face 5 times as much heat as vehicles returning from the International Space Station. That's hot.

It was the catastrophic failure of Columbia's heat shield that doomed it when it was re-entering the Earth's atmosphere. Needless to say, NASA wants to get this right.

The contract for the new Thermal Protection System was awarded to Boeing Advanced Systems about a year ago. Last month, a NASA Ames technical and quality inspection team completed an acceptance review of the shield.

The shield is made from Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator (PICA). That's a mouthful, but it uses a special trick to keep the capsule cool. As the heat shield heats up during reentry, the PICA material "ablates". It chars, melts and then sublimates to create a cool boundary layer that protects the spacecraft.

Boeing will continue working on the heat shield, to meet Orion's TPS preliminary design review in early 2008.

NASA Tests New Parachutes for Ares Spacecraft

This has been an exciting week for NASA’s Constellation program – the missions that will bring humans back to the moon. Earlier in the week, NASA announced plans for testing abort systems and inflatable moon habitats.

But on Thursday, November 15 actual tests were conducted for some of the genuine hardware that will be used for the Ares launch vehicles.

Near Yuma, Arizona, engineers tested the parachutes that will bring boosters from the first stage of the massive Ares rockets back to Earth.

Certainly, parachutes and rocket booster recovery is nothing new for NASA. But this new parachute is a whopper. Spanning 150 feet across and weighing 2,000 pounds makes this the largest chute of its kind ever tested for parachutes that will carry some of the heaviest payloads ever delivered.

And the new parachute worked perfectly, if not patriotically, with its red, white and blue striped canopy. Made of Kevlar, which is stronger and lighter than the nylon chutes used for the space shuttle’s solid rocket booster recovery, these bigger and stronger parachutes can still fit into the same size canister used for the shuttle boosters but yet be lighter.

Although the Ares boosters will actually come down in the Atlantic Ocean, the tests were conducted in the desert near the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Ground. Additionally, the tests used only a 42,000 pound weighted tub as opposed to the 200,000 pound weight of the actual boosters. But the drop tests from 16,000 ft. from a C-17 airplane simulated the peak loads at parachute opening and measured the drag area to validate the design.

The parachute system will allow the Ares I and Ares V boosters to be recovered and then refurbished and reused for future flights. Ares I will launch the Orion vehicle, which will carry humans to the moon, while the larger Ares V will be used for the Cargo Launch Vehicle.

The boosters are scheduled to be flight tested in 2009.