FIRST EVER FEMALE SPACE SHUTTLE COMMANDER NAMED
On March 5th, First Lady Hillary R. Clinton announced that astronaut Eileen Collins (Lt Col U.S. Air Force) will become the first woman ever to command a shuttle mission. Collins, who previously piloted two other shuttle missions in Febuary and May of 1997, will command the shuttle Columbia on its December 1998 mission to deploy the Advanced X-Ray Astrophysics Facility, or AXAF.
DUST AND SOIL EXPERIMENT CHOSEN FOR MARS 2001 MISSION
Potiential hazards from the soil and dust of Mars will be studied extensively by one of two experiments choosen for the Mars 2001 lander. The experiment, the Mars Enviornmental Compatibility Assessment, or MECA, will sample the soil and mix it with water to investigate such topics as the acidity or alkalinkity of the soil, the potential for oxidization, and the presence of toxic dissolved ions on Mars. The 2001 Mars missions represent the first step in an agency initiative to fly experiments supporting NASA’s Human Exploration and Development of Space program on robotic exploration missions carried out by NASA’s Office of Space Science. The 2001 lander is scheduled to launch in April 2001, while its companion orbiter spacecraft is set to launch approximately one month earlier.
ASTRONOMERS FIND KUIPER OBJECTS HAVE TWO FACES
The March 5th issue of the science journal, Nature, reports that at least two different types of surfaces exist among the some 60 Kuiper Belt objects discovered so far. One group exhibits a neutral color while a smaller group is reddish in color. Why there is a difference in color is a mystery to astronomers, who thought that all the Kuiper objects had roughly similar surface colors. The Kuiper Belt is believed to be the source of various short period comets. (Comets with orbits of no longer than a hundred years or so.) The first of the Kuiper Belt objects was discovered in 1992 by astronomers Dave Jewitt and Jane Luu. These objects are of various sizes somewhat like that of the width of Oaklahoma.
NASA scientists declared a definite end to the Mars Pathfinder mission on March 10, 1998. Mission controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California attempted one final attempt to communicate with the Pathfinder lander and Sojourner rover, after several months of inactivity. Controllers spent nearly four hours alternately commanding the lander to turn on its transmitter, then listening for a response via NASA’s Deep Space Network’s 34-meter antenna at Goldstone, California. No transmissions from Pathfinder were detected, and no further attempts will be made to communicate with Pathfinder
X-38 ATMOSPHERIC VEHICLE COMPLETES FIRST UNPILOTED FLIGHT TEST
Development of the X-38 atmospheric test vehicle passed a major milestone on March 12, 1998 with a successful first unpiloted flight test. The vehicle, planned for use as a future International Space Station emergency crew return “lifeboat,” was dropped from under the wing of a NASA B-52 aircraft at the Dryden Flight Research Center in California and completed a descent from a 23,000 foot altitude. The test focused on the use of the X-38’s parafoil parachute, which successfully guided the vehicle to landing. Atmospheric drop tests of the X-38 will continue for the next two years using three increasingly complex test vehicles. The drop tests will increase in altitude to a height of 50,000 feet and include longer flight times for the test craft prior to deploym ent of the parafoil. In 2000, an unpiloted space test vehicle is planned to be deployed from a Space Shuttle and descend to a landing. The X-38 crew return vehicle is targeted to begin operations aboard the International Space Station in 2003.
COMET HALE-BOPP HOLDS CLUES TO CREATION OF COMET ICES
An astronomy research team at the University of Massachusetts released findings on March 12, 1998 that suggest that comet ices are created inside huge interstellar clouds of gas, dust and ice. Based on evidence from last year’s passage of Comet Hale-Bopp, the team’s findings contradict current theories of comet formation, which had held that comet ices form in the outer regions of the solar system, where comets themselves are formed. Researchers measured the ratio of deuterium ions in hydrogen cyanide mol ecules emitted by Hale-Bopp to be consistent with that of hydrogen cyanide molecules in interstellar or protostellar clouds. The team’s findings also cast doubt on current theories of the formation of the solar system, concluding that the temperature of the interstellar cloud that formed the solar system could not have been colder than 30 degrees Kelvin, a temperature considerably higher than scientists previously believed.
DISCOVERY HELPS PROVE IMPACT THEORY
Researchers found more evidence of an impact 65 million years ago that lead to the end of dinosaur dominance over the earth. Around the rim of the Chicxulub crater, off the coast of Yucatan, Mexico, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Geo Eco Arc Research team found ejecta that had been fluidized by what is believed to have been a 6-to-8 mile wide asteroid or comet. The fluidized ejecta lobes are very rare on Earth, but not so on the planet Mars where the surface has been virtually unchanged for billions of years. In addition to lending credence to the impact-extinction theory, the find could give scientists a glimpse of objects that may be found on a future robotic or manned mission to the red planet.