Monday, April 6, 2009

What's Up? A New Age of Manned Space Exploration

Welcome back to What's Up?

On Sunday, March 15, the space shuttle docked with the International Space Station. During the mission the astronauts installed a final set of solar panels to bring space station up to full power and allow for a crew of up to six people. The solar arrays now have a total collecting area of over one acre and an electrical production capacity of 100 kW, or about enough electricity to power 52 average households.

The US space shuttle is very expensive, is limited to low Earth orbit and has been scheduled to retire in 2010. In 2004, George Bush signed the Vision For Space Exploration, which is designed to start a new age of human space exploration for NASA. NASA will accomplish this through the Constellation program.

The Constellation program will consist of the Ares rocket, Orion crew module, and the Altair lander. Constellation is what Michael Griffin, NASA's previous head administrator, calls "Apollo on Steroids."

The Ares rocket will come in two sizes, the Ares I, which will carry the Orion crew module into space and the Ares V cargo launch vehicle, which will launch heavy cargo and/or the Altair Lander with the Earth Departure Stage (EDS). The Altair lander will be used to land on the Moon.

Once the Orion crew module and the Altair lander/EDS are launched they will meet and head on their way to the Moon or Mars using the EDS' main rockets. Once they arrive, the lander will detach from the crew module and will land while leaving the Orion module in orbit. When the astronauts finish their work they will use the Altair lander to blast off into space to meet up with the Orion crew module. They will then head back to Earth to land.

The first test flight will occur in the Summer of 2009 while the first manned flight is scheduled for 2014. The long awaited return of humans to the moon is then planned for 2019, the first manned moon landing since 1972!

The US returning to the moon may seem like old news to most people, but the interesting thing is this time we are going settle on the moon, creating permanent colonies.

At the moment NASA is the space agency with the most concrete plans for returning to the moon by the 2020's. Among the other countries that have announced that they have plans to go to the moon are Europe (18 countries are currently working together in one large collective space agency), Russia, Japan, China, and India.

Russia recently announced that they plan on landing on the moon before NASA does, reigniting memories of the space race back in the 1960's. Russia is still having problems switching to democracy, is going through very tough times, and has its space agency running on little more than 10% of NASA's budget, and has a very uncertain future in space exploration.

Countries all over the world are about embark humanity on its greatest manned exploration effort ever, by humanity finally entering the final frontier. Most first world countries are going to be involved in this, as well as a few developing nations, so where is Canada's place in all of this?

The Canadian Space Agency has provided the robotic space arm to the International Space Station and has also supplied Dextre, a robotic "hand" that allows external space station repairs without putting astronauts at risk.

Although the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has had some great achievements in the past, its future is somewhat uncertain. Its budget has not been increasing to keep up with inflation and is actually going to drop over the next few years.

Even though there are budgetary concerns, the agency continues to work with NASA and other agencies to keep involved. The CSA is conducting underwater robotic experiments with a robotic "surgeon," and early designs for a lunar rover have been made. Canada's part in settling the Moon and Mars will clearly be robotics, as it has excelled with past robotic components designed and made for NASA.

While the world has its sights set for outer space, let's set our gaze upwards and see what's up this month.

On Saturday, April 4, is the wrap up event for 100 Hours of Astronomy. 100 Hours of Astronomy is a worldwide event in celebration of this year being declared the International Year of Astronomy. The goal of 100 Hours of Astronomy is to get as many people as possible to get a look through a telescope just like Galileo did 400 years ago when he discovered the craters on the moon and Saturn's rings.

Charlottetown's astronomy club will have a display set up at the Charlottetown Mall Atrium during the day and have a viewing at the North Shore Dark Sky Site in the parking lot across from the Dalvay hotel in participation of the 100 Hours of Astronomy. All are welcome to come.

Summerside's club, the Athena Community Astronomy Club will be having a public viewing session at the waterfront boardwalk in Summerside that evening if the weather agrees. If you're on your way by, or around town and you have a few minutes to spare, stop by for a peek through a telescope.

The full moon will be a few days later on April 9. It is called the egg moon because it occurs right before Easter. It will become a new moon again by April 25.

Saturn will be fairly high in the southeast in the evening sky while Jupiter, Mars, and Venus will be hiding in the morning sky.

Finally, to finish off the month is the monthly meeting of the Athena Community Astronomy Club at the Wilmot Center. The meeting is from 7pm to 9pm on Sunday, April 26. Guests are always welcome.

Until next month, just look up!

Hey Kids...
Last month the record for most people in space at once was tied for the third time. On March 26, there were 13 people floating around in space, including one space tourist. The space tourist, Charles Simonyi, payed $35 million dollars for his ticket to space. No space tourist has ever been to space twice. So if any of you out there win the lottery or have a few extra bucks to spend, a space flight would be a great way to spend it.

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