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Archive for 1999

23-Dec-99 | Congratulations

Congrats to contributor Justin Ray, who has left Florida Today to become chief reporter for a new online magazine, A good-looking site with a rapidly-burgeoning collection of articles, photos, and video clips, it’s worth checking out. Of course, Justin is continuing the up-to-the-minute flight journals that have been indispensable to this reporter during launches not carried live on t.v. or the web.

23-Dec-99 | MPL and DS-2 lost

Mars Polar Lander and Deep Space 2 were both lost on 3 December, striking another blow against NASA’s “Faster, Better, Cheaper” mission strategy. The as-designed lack of telemetry during the EDL phase makes it unlikely we’ll ever know exactly the fate of the lander or the two microprobes with the inspired names of Amundsen and Scott. Even so, NASA has convened a review panel, which will likely find design and/or managerial flaws that, once resolved, may improve chances for the success of future Mars missions. That is, if funding remains available for those missions, which is always a concern in the aftermath of failure.

Editorial: In this critic’s opinion, NASA’s streamlined mission strategy is a marked improvement over the “egg baskets” of the past, giant probes such as Galileo and Cassini, that were burdened with too many instruments and overly-long development periods. In particular, the billion-dollar Mars Observer revealed the folly of that approach. All the same, NASA has not gone far enough to simplify its designs. The spidery gear and descent engine landings of Viking were made possible by massive support staffs and extremely conservative (read: dull) landing sites. The use of the same design on Polar Lander was a sign of under-simplification and over-complacency. Frankly, I’m surprised future Mars missions aren’t taking their cues from the supposedly pathfinding Pathfinder: toss it at the planet, wrap it up in airbags, and just let it bounce. And for Pete’s sake, put a little omnidirectional antenna on it so we have some idea of what’s happening during the dangerous and critical phases of entry, descent, and landing. In conclusion, I’m saddened not only by the loss of new science and of an inspiring Mars mission (with my name aboard), but also by the waste of two pinpoint-perfect Delta II launches.

10-Nov-99 | ICO returns to schedule

Three of five ICO flights expected in 2000 have returned to the schedule, following the announcement that a group of investors led by Teledesic will be providing up to $1.2 billion to the beleaguered company over the next year. The investment is a win-win situation for the two companies: it allows ICO to pull itself out of Chapter 11, and enables Teledesic to begin building its constellation of “Internet-in-the-sky” satellites earlier than originally planned.

04-Nov-99 | MPL on course

Mars Polar Lander and Deep Space 2 completed a minor course correction burn on 30 October and are on course for arrival at Mars on 3 December. MPL will soft-land near the Martian south pole to study climate history and composition of the polar ice cap. DS-2 consists of two micro-probes which will impact Mars and penetrate to a depth of up to one metre in order to analyse sub-surface soil.

04-Nov-99 | Schedule update

As expected, the launch of NASA’s Earth Observing-1, an advanced land imaging mission that is part of the New Millenium Program, has slipped into April 2000. The next Delta launch will be another batch of Globalstar satellites, to fly from Cape Canaveral on 27 January. This will be the longest hiatus for the Delta program since 1995.

20-Oct-99 | Ice rivers in Antarctica

Canada’s RADARSAT, launched aboard a Delta II in 1995, has been used to generate the first high-resolution radar map of Antarctica. Among other items of interest, the map reveals what are known as “ice rivers,” vast rivers of — you guessed it — ice, which amazingly flow up to 100 times faster than the ice through which they channel. (18-Oct-99 NASA Press Release)

Meanwhile, though this author has not yet found any offical word, it seems that RADARSAT-II may have resolved (pardon the pun) its clarity issues, as it now appears in Florida Today‘s extended launch schedule for November, 2001. Previously it was reported here that the radar mapper’s ground resolution of 3 metres exceeds the clarity allowed by the U.S. government for non-military satellites by 2 metres, thus preventing it from being launched from a U.S. site.

20-Oct-99 | MCO hits Martian atmosphere, is lost

On Thursday, September 23, Mars Climate Orbiter fired its main engine for approximately 17 minutes to drop out of heliocentric orbit and begin Mars Orbit Insertion. Sadly, a navigational error led MCO to pass some 80 kilometers closer to the planet than was intended, and the spacecraft was destroyed during the pass through the Martian atmosphere. The mistake has been traced to confusion over units of measurement: spacecraft builder Lockheed Martin specified the force of manoeuvring thrusters in pounds; JPL controllers assumed the thrust was in newtons.

Though NASA is downplaying the loss as part of the risk involved in their “faster, cheaper, better” strategy, the mistake is a major embarrassment to the agency, and a review board has been convened for “process improvement.” One of two ships in the Mars Surveyor 1998 program, MCO was intended to perform a full Martian year of observations to better understand the seasonal changes on that planet. It was launched from Cape Canaveral on 11 December, 1998, the 264th launch of a Delta rocket.

12-Oct-99 | Next launch

The next Delta launch will be from Vandenberg AFB in California on 15 December, the longest hiatus of 1999. It will carry NASA’s Earth Observing-1 (formerly Earth Orbiter-1), an advanced land imaging mission that is part of the New Millenium Program. (This date is expected to slip somewhat.)

12-Oct-99 | Delta flight 275 – NAVSTAR IIR-3

The first NAVSTAR GPS satellite to replenish the constellation since November 1997 was launched aboard Delta 275 on Thursday, October 7, from Cape Canaveral’s SLC-17A. The flight of GPS 2R-3, which was a complete success, had been delayed by several months thanks to numerous bouts of bad weather, including a heavy rain in May that led to the original spacecraft for this flight being returned to Lockheed Martin for repairs, last month’s threat from Hurricane Floyd, and lightning indications during the time slated for second stage fuelling. Oddly, the last day’s delay was caused not only by a forecast of lousy weather, but also by the sun — a satellite used to relay telemetry from Antigua passed in front of the sun and would have resulted in a 6-minute data blackout during the flight. Following all of that, it only stands to reason that the countdown was flawless and the bird flew a mere 0.686 seconds after the opening of the launch window. The payload separated into its transfer orbit 68 minutes later. Seventeen more GPS satellites are manifested aboard Delta II; nine are set to fly before the end of 2001.

13-Sep-99 | Next launch

The next Delta launch will be from Cape Canaveral. It will carry the first Navstar GPS satellite to replenish the constellation since November 1997, and the first of 13 set to fly before the end of 2001. Preparations for launch have been put on hold, and workers are securing the launch vehicle, mobile service tower, and all of Complex 17 (as well as KSC and the rest of CCAFS) in expectation of Hurricane Floyd, which may strike Florida as early as Wednesday. Improvements to the 17A white room in the wake of the water impingement in May are complete, although the spacecraft will remain in the Payload Processing Facility until the all-clear is sounded. Any possible delay to the launch schedule is, like the weather, uncertain.

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