Where life might live beyond Earth
May 15th, 2013
05:12 PM ET

Planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft in trouble

By Matt Smith, CNN

The future of NASA's planet-hunting Kepler space observatory was in question Wednesday after a part that helps aim the spacecraft stopped working, the U.S. space agency said.

Controllers found Tuesday that Kepler had gone into a "safe mode" and one of the reaction wheels needed to orient the spacecraft would not spin, Associate NASA Administrator John Grunsfeld told reporters. NASA engineers are trying to figure out whether they can get the balky part back into service or whether they can resume control by another method, Grunsfeld said.

"We're not ready to call the mission over," he said. But at roughly 40 million miles from Earth, "Kepler is not in a place where I can go up and rescue it."

The Kepler mission has identified 132 planets beyond our solar system since its launch in 2009, leading scientists to believe that most stars in our galaxy have planets circling them. It has gone into a "safe mode" with its solar panels facing back at the sun, giving controllers intermittent communication with the craft as it spins.

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Filed under: In Space • Kepler
February 27th, 2013
02:50 PM ET

Group aims to send 2 humans on Mars mission in 2018

Follow @CNNLightYears on Twitter for more space and science updates.

By John Zarrella, CNN

If newly unveiled plans pan out, a man and a woman may represent humanity on one journey that has never been attempted before: a mission to Mars.

“It’s incredibly feasible. It’s not crazy talk," Taber MacCallum, CEO of Paragon Space Development Corp., told CNN.

MacCallum and millionaire Dennis Tito announced their plans Wednesday to send a couple of earthlings on a 501-day trip in a spacecraft that would fly by the red planet. The proposal was unveiled at the National Press Club in Washington.

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Filed under: Mars • News • the Moon
Atlantis: The final space shuttle to enter retirement
Space Shuttle Atlantis is seen in 2009, landing after 11 days in space.
November 1st, 2012
03:55 PM ET

Atlantis: The final space shuttle to enter retirement

By John Zarrella, CNN

This is it. Until now there was still a faint heartbeat, a bit of a pulse. But Friday, space shuttle program veterans will have sent the final orbiter into retirement: Atlantis.

“We will look after her as long as we are allowed to do so,” says Stephanie Stilson, who spent a decade preparing the shuttle Discovery for each flight.

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Filed under: In Space • News
SpaceX to launch flight to space station
SpaceX will begin its first official resupply flight to international space station on Sunday, NASA said.
October 5th, 2012
06:29 PM ET

SpaceX to launch flight to space station

For SpaceX, every flight is the real deal. It’s that way for any rocket company. But this time around, more than in the past, the private company contracted with NASA is flying without a safety net.

Sunday, if all goes well, at 8:30 p.m. ET, a Falcon 9 Rocket with a Dragon capsule on top will lift off from launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

This will be the first of a dozen NASA-contracted flights to resupply the international space Station, at a total cost of $1.6 billion.

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Filed under: Hardware in Orbit • In Space
A short history of Endeavour
Endeavour as seen from the International Space Station in 2009.
September 17th, 2012
03:00 PM ET

A short history of Endeavour

Space Shuttle Endeavour will begin its final journey Wednesday, flying atop a 747 on its way to the California Science Center. It will make various stops along the way.

Endeavour's departure was originally scheduled for Monday, but it was postponed because of a forecast of unfavorable weather Monday and Tuesday, NASA said.

This shuttle was born out of tragedy. It would never have been built if not for that terrible disaster on a bitterly cold January morning in 1986.

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Filed under: On Earth
Neil Armstrong, through the eyes of his colleagues
September 12th, 2012
09:48 AM ET

Neil Armstrong, through the eyes of his colleagues

His family, in the statement they released upon his death, called Neil Armstrong a "reluctant hero." The fame bestowed upon him as the first human to walk on another world, by all accounts, weighed upon him. Throughout his life, Armstrong shied away from stardom and limelight.

But the men who worked beside him during those heady glory years of the moon race saw and knew a man none of us did. "A lot of guys could have done that," Walt Cunningham, who flew on Apollo 7, said of being the first human to walk on the moon. But Cunningham added emphatically, "Nobody in our group, nobody else could have handled the fame and glory that came his way."

The Apollo astronauts I spoke with all said of Armstrong that it was never about him. It was always about the team.

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Filed under: Voices
September 7th, 2012
11:42 AM ET

Space Shuttle Endeavour's final flight charted

Space Shuttle Endeavour will soon make its final journey and will retire at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. But it will make some stops and flyovers along the way, NASA said Friday.

Endeavour, piggybacked on the back of a modified 747 airplane, is scheduled to leave Florida's Kennedy Space Center at sunrise on September 17. After flyovers of the area it will head west. Endeavour will make low flyovers of NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi and the Michoud Assembly plant near New Orleans.

The next stop, NASA says, will be Houston, which bid for a retired shuttle but did not get one. Several members of the Texas legislative delegation were outraged and expressed their displeasure to NASA, but to no avail.

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Filed under: On Earth
Curiosity gets its learner's permit
Curiosity's rear right wheel was tested to check the steering ahead of the rover's first drive on Mars.
August 21st, 2012
03:25 PM ET

Curiosity gets its learner's permit

The Mars rover Curiosity is about to take its first test drive. It's kind of like getting a rover learner's permit.

The science team is sending up commands to Curiosity telling the six-wheeled rover to drive forward, turn and back up. Mission manager Mike Watkins says the entire maneuver should take about 30 minutes. Watkins says we will, "definitely see tracks and definitely see it move." In all, Curiosity will move about 10 feet.

This is a major event. Nearly the entire two-year mission hinges of Curiosity's ability to drive to rocks or terrain of interest, gather samples and analyze them. It would be considered a major failure if for some reason Curiosity can't move.

NASA will hold a news conference after the drive to discuss how it went. A successful test drive will set the stage for Curiosity to head out likely by the weekend on its first real traverse of the Martian landscape.

Several other tests have already been successfully completed. Watkins says, "We continue to hit home runs here." The arm with the hammer drill attached has been "stretched" to put in NASA terms. The team also told Curiosity to wiggle its right rear wheel. It did.

So far, throughout all of the testing of Curiosity's system, the science and engineering teams say they've only found one problem. A wind sensor on Curiosity's Mars Weather Station has sustained permanent damage. The science team believes wires on the sensor are broken. The scientists say they may never know what caused the damage.

One possibility is that small rocks hit the circuit board on the wind sensor. The rocks may have been lofted into the air by wash created from the rocket motors during the rover's descent to the planet.

Deputy Project Manager Ashwin Vasavada says, "It degrades our ability to detect wind speeds from certain directions." Vasavada added there are ways to work around it.

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Filed under: Mars • News
August 5th, 2012
12:00 PM ET

Rover to search for clues to life on Mars

Program note: Tune in to CNN.com/Live and CNN Mobile for live coverage of the Curiosity's landing on Mars, starting at 11:30 p.m. ET Sunday.

Here’s the bottom line, says Ashwin Vasavada: “If life were obvious we would find it with this rover. If there’s some texture of the rock, some clear sign of vegetation or whatever, you might see microbial life. We don’t expect to see that necessarily,  but if it were that obvious, we’d find it.”

Vasavada is the Mars Science Lab Mission deputy project manager. For Vasavada and the rest of the mission team, that would be like discovering the Holy Grail of Mars. At best, the likelihood is remote.

But this mission could and should get them infinitely closer to answering the Mars life question, scientists say, than any previous Mars venture.

The centerpiece of the mission is a 2,000-pound, car-sized rover named Curiosity. It is bigger and more sophisticated than any rover ever sent to Mars. You could call Curiosity the Sherlock Holmes of rovers. It has the capability to do science that is far more than just elementary, hunting for the building blocks of life.

“One of the key goals is to look for the key ingredients that life requires,” says Vasavada, “Water, of course, is one of the most, one of the things we always look for on Mars.”

If Curiosity makes it safely onto the Martian surface, it is going to a place where scientists believe water might once have been present. It’s called the Gale Crater. On one side of the landing site is a crater wall and on the other a huge mountain. Engineer Adam Steltzner is the lead on landing, “We’re landing quite literally between a rock and a hard place.”

Scientists say one can think of the landing site like the Grand Canyon. Each layer of rock represents a period in history. In this case, the history of Mars dating back billions of years to a time when it was most Earthlike and most likely to have sustained life.

Says Vasavada, “So, the rover over two years climbs up this mountain. We’ll be able to see different environments that represent different periods of time and ask the habitability question along the way.”

Photo gallery: Exploring Mars

To answer these questions, Curiosity had to be equipped with unique tools. There’s a laser that scans for tantalizing targets. When the science team finds one, the rover’s hammer drill smashes the rock to tiny pieces and then deposits the samples into the rover’s onboard chemistry laboratory. This lab can sniff out organic materials such as carbon.

The vast majority of Curiosity’s tasks will be orchestrated by the science team on Earth. Each day they will send up a set of commands for the rover to carry out. Because it takes 15 minutes for a signal to travel one way between Earth and Mars, it would be impossible to conduct the mission in real time.

Jessica Samuels handles the rover’s surface operations. Samuels says, “So if you imagine half an hour just to find out if the first thing you wanted to do was successful or not just isn’t the way that we could operate our spacecraft on Mars.”

While the mission is expected to last two years, past rovers have gone much longer. At the end of the mission the science team hopes to finally understand whether Mars could ever have sustained life or maybe even still does. “We’re taking a long-term view with this mission,” says Vasavada, “We’re not trying to get a home run early on, but over the two years that we’ll be operating we’ll build up a really convincing story about the habitability of Mars.”

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Filed under: In Space • Mars
August 3rd, 2012
12:31 PM ET

Mars landing will be ‘seven minutes of terror’

Program note: Tune in to CNN.com/Live and CNN Mobile for live coverage of the Curiosity's landing on Mars, starting at 11:30 p.m. ET Sunday.

The future of Mars exploration is, at least in the short term, riding, pardon the pun, quite literally on a two thousand pound car sized rover called Curiosity.

The weight of the two and a half billion dollar mission, called the Mars Science Lab, is not lost on the scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California who built Curiosity. Mission Chief Engineer Rob Manning doesn’t sugar coat it. “If it does fail is that the end of exploration? Well, it may be the end for awhile. It may require a stop and regroup. Certainly it will.”

Engineer Adam Steltzner is in charge of EDL, that’s the Entry, Descent and Landing phase of the mission. “Full nights of sleep have eluded me for a couple of years now,” says Steltzner.

Why the anxiety? NASA has a good track record landing vehicles on Mars. What is so different this time around? Well, other than the planet, just about everything is different. In fact, the landing method has never been tried before. It is so unique and complicated the Space Agency has dubbed it, “Seven minutes of terror.” From the time Curiosity touches the top of the Martian atmosphere to the time it lands is seven minutes.

In the past, NASA has used either legged landers or has tucked its rovers inside giant airbags that would bounce along the Martian surface. But Curiosity is too big to be stuffed inside an airbag cocoon. And, where it is going requires a far more precision landing than every attempted before. Steltzner says, “We’re going to a place on Mars called Gale Crater and we’re landing quite literally between a rock and a hard place.”

Nestled inside a protective shell, Curiosity will hit the Martian atmosphere at thirteen thousand miles per hour shedding energy as it falls. But unlike in the past Steltzner says, “This time we’re steering as we fly through the upper atmosphere of Mars and using that steering to shrink our landing uncertainty.”

The next step is to deploy a parachute to further slow the spacecraft. But that only reduces the speed down to two hundred miles per hour. So, the spacecraft is equipped with a kind of jetpack.

“At about two kilometers above the surface, a little less,” says Steltzner, “she lets go of her parachute, turns on the rockets and flies until she’s just twenty meters above the surface. Then twenty meters above the surface the rover is lowered below the jetpack and the two together descend their way to the Martian surface.”

The scientists and engineers determined this was the only feasible landing method to get them to the Gale Crater site inside of which sits a mountain. Steltzer says, “At the end of the day we feel that the net result is a very reliable system. This architecture although it looks challenging really in the end results in a higher reliability, safer way of getting a rover of this size onto the surface of Mars.”

It’s a tight fit, says Manning, “To get there safely though we need to be able to land on the one big flat spot that sits right at the foot of that mountain inside the walls of the crater. Now, if we fly outside of those walls and hit the mountain or the walls of the crater, we’re not in good shape.”

Of course, if it all works, the payoff could be historic. Curiosity is designed to detect the building blocks of life. Scientists think water, a primary ingredient, might at one time have flowed inside the Gale crater. If this Sherlock Holmes of rovers finds that life could have existed on Mars or perhaps still does that could spark a new wave of Mars exploration fever.

With limited exploration dollars in the NASA budget, failure, on the other hand, would put a damper on or perhaps end future robotic exploration of Mars.

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Filed under: In Space • Mars
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