NASA is once again open for business in a big way. While we were out, several of our on-going missions achieved significant milestones, and although it will take a little time to fully assess the impacts of the government shut down on our other operations, this week will make clear USA is back to our core mission implementing America’s ambitious space program.
NASA’s latest moon mission, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, or LADEE, entered lunar orbit on Oct. 6th, and now is preparing to begin its study of the moon’s atmosphere. We also are pleased that the Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration currently orbiting the moon with LADEE achieved an error-free laser communication downlink with a data rate in excess of 300 megabits-per-second. This new NASA-developed, laser-based space communication system will enable higher rates of satellite communications, similar to the high-speed fiber optic networks we have here on Earth. This will dramatically improve space communication, especially during future human missions to an asteroid and Mars.
On Oct. 9th, our Juno spacecraft, launched in 2011 on a five-year journey to Jupiter, made its closest approach to Earth. This gave Juno a chance to take some stunning pictures of our planet and it gave us the opportunity to confirm that the spacecraft is operating as expected with a current trajectory that is “near perfect.”
Looking ahead for this week, the Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus cargo spacecraft that was launched from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Sept.18, will complete its successful maiden cargo mission on Tuesday when it un-berths from the International Space Station and burns up harmlessly in Earth’s atmosphere during re-entry the following day. Orbital joins SpaceX as NASA’s second American commercial partner capable of successful resupply missions to the ISS. Sierra Nevada Corp. is poised to resume testing of its Dream Chaser spacecraft at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in California. Sierra Nevada Corp., Boeing and SpaceX are among the U.S. companies working with NASA to develop commercial crew transportation vehicles. Our commitment to launching astronauts from American soil again soon is moving forward.
Things are getting busy at the International Space Station, humanity’s home away from Earth for almost 13 years now. The European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vehicle-4 is set to undock on Oct. 28 after more than four months at the station. Then, on Nov. 1, Expedition 37 crewmates Karen Nyberg, Luca Parmitano and Fyodor Yurchikhin will relocate their Soyuz 35 from one station docking port to another.
Less than a week later on Nov. 7, three new station crew members — NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Koichi Wakata and Soyuz commander Mikhail Tyurin of the Russian Federal Space Agency – will launch aboard their Soyuz 37 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome and dock to the station about six hours later.
For four days, nine astronauts and cosmonauts will live and work together aboard the station before Yurchikhin, Nyberg and Parmitano return to Earth after more than five months in space.
Meanwhile, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft remains on track for a Nov.18th launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. MAVEN is the first spacecraft devoted to exploring and understanding the Martian upper atmosphere. It will orbit the planet in an elliptical orbit that allows it to pass through and sample the entire upper atmosphere on every orbit. The spacecraft will investigate how the loss of Mars’ atmosphere to space determined the history of water on the surface.
Finally, on a sad note, on Oct.10, in the midst of the shutdown, we learned of the passing of Scott Carpenter, who in 1962 became the second American to orbit Earth. Scott was one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts who helped set the stage for more than a half-century of American leadership in space. We will miss his passion, his talent and his life-long commitment to exploration.
As we power back up, we draw inspiration from the legacy of Carpenter and so many others who overcame every obstacle to keep NASA flying high.