Archive for February 2019

After a reset, Curiosity is operating normally

Curiosity encountered a hurdle last Friday, when a hiccup during boot-up interrupted its planned activities and triggered a protective safe mode. The rover was brought out of this mode on Tuesday, Feb. 19, and is otherwise operating normally, having successfully booted up over 30 times without further issues.

Throughout the weekend, Curiosity was sending and receiving technical data, communicating with the team in order to help them pinpoint the cause of the issue.

“We’re still not sure of its exact cause and are gathering the relevant data for analysis,” said Steven Lee, Curiosity’s deputy project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. JPL leads the Curiosity mission. “The rover experienced a one-time computer reset but has operated normally ever since, which is a good sign,” he added. “We’re currently working to take a snapshot of its memory to better understand what might have happened.”

Out of an abundance of caution, Lee said, science operations will remain on hold until the issue is better understood.

“In the short term, we are limiting commands to the vehicle to minimize changes to its memory,” Lee said. “We don’t want to destroy any evidence of what might have caused the computer reset. As a result, we expect science operations will be suspended for a short period of time.”

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NASA’s Space Shuttle Rises From the Dead to Power New Vehicles

Modified left-over Shuttle engines will power NASA’s delayed Space Launch System (SLS), a giant launch vehicle intended for lunar missions and, eventually, Mars. An experimental autonomous DARPA spaceplane, called the Phantom Express, will also rely on a Shuttle engine. This vehicle is designed to offer swift, aircraft-like access to space. Both projects are being built by Boeing.

Now yet more Shuttle hardware is getting ready to fly again, also within Boeing’s empire. A Space Act Agreement signed in 2018 shows that the aerospace company wants to include a handful of the Shuttle’s smaller orbital maneuvering engines in a secret Department of Defense project. Known as the R40b, the engine was originally developed to allow Shuttles to adjust their speed and direction while in orbit, helping the iconic spacecraft to deploy the Hubble Telescope and parts of the International Space Station.

Under the $818,000 agreement, NASA will select eight engines that are currently mothballed at its White Sands Test Facility, in New Mexico. The agency will clean up, inspect, and test-fire them to identify the best four, before handing them over to Boeing for “return to service” in an unnamed DoD program.

The NASA agreement was signed in September by an engineer at Boeing’s facility in El Segundo, California. According to the LA Times, development work for DARPA’s Phantom Express spaceplane is being carried out there. Phantom Express is an uncrewed, reusable spaceplane that will take off vertically to deploy small satellites or other spacecraft, and then glide back down to land horizontally, like the Shuttle.

The Shuttle, which cost around $450 million per mission, was supposed to fly once a month but never got close to its goal. DARPA hopes the Phantom Express will be faster on its feet, able to launch, land, and launch again in as little as a day, with a price tag of just $5 million per flight. That would be a fraction of the cost of today’s SpaceX launches, though that company is also aiming to turn around its reusable rockets in about a day, which is expected to then shrink its price tag.

Unlike their larger brethren, though, the latest Shuttle engines to be resurrected may not be destined for the Phantom Express. El Segundo is also where Boeing builds most of its satellites, and the small engines could be used to boost large military satellites into geostationary orbits. NASA and Boeing both declined to comment on this story.

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