French, Russian Cosmonauts Return to Earth

The first French woman in space and two Russian cosmonauts returned safely to Earth Monday, September 2, when their Soyuz TM-23 capsule landed in Kazakhstan.
    French guest cosmonaut Claudie Andre-Deshays spent just over two weeks in space, while Yuri Onufrienko and Yuri Usachev spent 194 days aboard the Russian space station Mir, much of that time shared with American astronaut Shannon Lucid.
    Andre-Deshays went into orbit August 19 on the Soyuz TM-24 capsule with cosmonauts Valery Korzun and Alexander Kalery. Korzun and Kalery remained on the station, relieving Onufrienko and Usachev.
    France gave Russia nearly $14 million for the two-week mission. Future missions involving French crewmembers will be of longer duration, according to French officials. "Short flights like those the Russians have carried out so far now look obsolete," Francois Fillon, the French minister in charge of space, said last month.

Is It A Comet or Is It An Asteroid?

The discoveries of two new solar system objects in recent weeks -- an asteroid in comet-like orbit and a comet in an asteroid-like orbit -- have caused confusion among astronomers as they try to determine what these objects are and how they got into their unusual orbits.
    Last month, NASA announced that scientists has discovered an object described as "an unusual comet or extinct comet," according to a press release. The object, designated 1996 PW, looks like an asteroid in telescopes but is in a highly eccentric orbit usually reserved for comets.
    "This is a misfit in the grand scheme of things," according to Eleanor "Glo" Helin, a planetary astronomer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena who focuses on discovering near-Earth asteroids.
    Meanwhile, astronomers puzzle over another recent discovery. Comet Elst-Pizarro, discovered last month, has a tail, but is in a stable orbit between Mars and Jupiter -- a typical orbit for an asteroid, but unheard of for a comet.
    One proposed explanation is that the object is an asteroid that was struck by another asteroid, and the tail is rock and dust blasted away from it. However, the odds of witnessing such an event are very small, according to scientists.
    "I've never seen anything like it," Dr. Brian Marsden, director of the International Astronomical Union's Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, told the Boston Globe. "Together, they make it very difficult to figure out what we're talking about.

KSC Memo Protests Planned Layoffs

A memo from Kennedy Space Center director Jay Honeycutt to NASA Headquarters expressed concern that layoffs planned for the center in 1998 may leave the center unable to carry out many of its programs.
    "The reduction predicted... effectively removes all but direct mission operations support as of October 1, 1998," Honeycutt wrote in the August 7 memo, released to press late in the month.
    According to Honeycutt, 547 employees would have to be laid off by October 1, 1998, to meet the agencies goals. Such cutbacks, according to Honeycutt, would force KSC to end a number of activities ranging from shuttle upgrades and facility inspections to educational and co-op programs.
    "After FY 98 [fiscal year 1998], KSC's core engineering skills, technical expertise and development capabilities in mechanical, automation, and checkout/control and data communications systems are seriously eroded.
Honeycutt wrote.

Shuttle Launch Scheduled for September 14

The launch of the shuttle Atlantis on the fourth Mir docking mission has now been scheduled for September 14, as mission planners keep an eye on both a Delta launch and active tropical weather.
[Images of hurricanes]    NASA had hoped to launch Atlantis on September 12, but the date conflicted with a Air Force Delta launch previously scheduled for the date. As the Delta flight had priority, the shuttle launch was rescheduled for the 14th to give the Air Force 48 hours to reset tracking equipment.
    NASA meteorologists are keeping an eye on an active tropical weather pattern. Initial preparations were made late last week when it appeared Hurricane Edouard might approach Florida. Although Edouard has since turned north towards New England, Hurricane Fran and Tropical Storm Gustav still pose a threat in the Atlantic Ocean.
    "We'll be ready to roll back to the assembly building within 12 hours if we have to," said KSC spokesperson Lisa Malone.
    The mission, originally set for launch on July 31, was delayed due to problems with an adhesive within the shuttle's solid rocket boosters. The shuttle was rolled back to the Vehicle Assembly Building in mid-July when Hurricane Bertha approached the Florida coast, and remained there until late August.
    Should the shuttle launch as scheduled, Atlantis would return with American Mir resident Shannon Lucid on September 23.

Space Activists Get Their Message Across in Chicago

Despite only a virtual lack of attention to space in the Democratic Party platform, space activists worked to get their message across to delegates and others attending the party convention in Chicago last week.
    "We are working to reinvent the national laboratories and revitalize America's space program, including support for the space station," is the only sentence in the party platform that mentions space.
    Party officials had a lukewarm attitude about the space program, despite last month's announcement of the possible discovery of ancient life on Mars. When asked if the discovery would have an impact on the party's space policy, Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT), co-chair of the Democratic National Committee, told Florida Today, "I don't know. Do they vote up there?"
    A position paper recently issued by the Clinton/Gore campaign does make additional mention about space. A paper on science and techology points to Clinton's support of NASA, including the International Space Station, new spacecraft development, and reusable launch vehicles.
    However, activists from Chicago-area NSS chapters assembled at rallies outside the convention site at the United Center and in Grant Park in downtown Chicago for a series of pro-space rallies and a teach-in.
    Speakers at the NSS events included Dr. Robert Zubrin, chairman of the NSS's executive committee and an advocate of manned exploration of Mars, and Dr. Betty Hull, a pro-space Democratic candidate for Congress from Illinois.

Did Space Junk Collide with a Satellite?

A French microsatellite that suddenly started to tumble in its orbit apparently collided with a piece of space junk while in low Earth orbit, engineers report.
[image of CERISE]    The CERISE microsatellite, which have been operating perfectly for one year, started tumbling rapidly end-over-end on July 24 while maintaining its 700 km (430 mi.) orbit. After an analysis by the United Kingdom Space Track Network and NASA, they concluded that the satellite struck a piece of debris at a speed of 50,000 kmph (31,000 mph).
    The impact with a piece of debris from an exploded Ariane upper stage took place on the spacecraft's stabilization boom, 6 meters from the main body of the spacecraft. Mission planners will reload new attitude software into the spacecraft's computer to permit it to reorient itself.
    "Luckily the sophistication of the microsatellite systems should allow us to recover the mission despite the major loss of a limb!" said Professor Martin Sweeting of Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd., makers of the satellite.
    CERISE was launched on an Ariane 4 rocket in July 1995. It was ordered by the French company Alcatel Espace for broadband radiometric measurements.

NASA, OSC Finalize X-34 Contract

NASA and the Orbital Sciences Corporation (OSC) have finalized a $50-million contract to develop and fly the X-34, a vehicle designed to demonstrate technologies for reusable launch vehicles.
    The single-engine rocket, 17.7 m (58.3 feet) long, is designed to be carried aloft by an L-1011 aircraft, in much the same manner OSC's Pegasus rockets are launched. The X-34 will reach speeds of Mach 8 and altitudes of 75,700 m (250,000 feet) before landing on a runway.
    The contract includes two test flights in the fall of 1998 from White Sands, New Mexico. NASA has the option to add up to 25 additional test flights over a 12-month period after the end of the contract. The additional test flights would be conducted out White Sands or the Kennedy Space Center.
    The X-34 project will "demonstrate low-cost reusability, autonomous landing, subsonic flights through rain, safe abort conditions, and landing in 20-knot cross winds," according to a NASA press release.

NASA to Assist in TWA Crash Investigation

Engineers who investigated the space shuttle Challenger accident in 1986 have been called in help study the cause of the crash of TWA Flight 800 in July.
[Image of salvage ship]    The engineers, based at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, will use electron microscopes and other equipment to study fragments of the plane recovered by search crews. They will focus on the fuel pumps, fuel controls, and flight engineer's control panel, according to officials.
    "They want to see how these things were working," said National Transportation Safety Board Vice Chairman Robert Francis. "They're stripping them and trying to find out anything they can about the possibility of something malfunctioning.
    While a malfunction in the plane's systems has not been ruled out as a cause of the July 17 crash, investigators have been focusing on the possibility that a bomb planted on the plane caused the explosion. NTSB officials hope the NASA engineers will be able to make a final conclusion on the possibility of a malfunction as the cause of the accident that killed 230 people.

Source of Martian Meteorite Located

Two Martian craters have been identified as the possible source of the Martian meteorite that contained possible evidence of life, according to research by a Florida scientist.
    Dr. Nadine Barlow, a planetary scientist at the University of Central Florida, located the candidate craters using a catalog based on Viking Orbiter images of the planet. She looked for craters no more than 16 million years old in regions of the planet where the rocks are 4.5 billion years old.
    These criteria were based on the age of meteorite ALH84001, which is over 4 billion years old, and the date when it was ejected from the planet in an impact, 16 million years ago. These craters were easy to identify because their appearance was relatively unmodified.
    Two candidate craters were discovered: a 23 x 14.5 km (14.5 x 9 mi) crater in the Sinus Sabaeus region south of the large Schiaprelli crater, and a 11 x 9 km (6.8 x 5.6 mi) crater near the Hesperia Planitia region.
The second crater is located near a region which shows evidence of flowing water on the planet, billions of years ago.

Meteorite Search Begins Again in Antarctica

Scientists are preparing to head back to the same ice field in Antarctica where, a dozen years ago, the meteorite ALH84001, later found to harbor evidence of possible ancient life, was discovered.
[image of Martian meteorite]    Ralph Harvey, head of the program, estimated that up to 1,000 meteorites would be collected during the seven-week expedition. "We use a superb scientific instrument [to find meteorites] -- the human eye.
    The first meteorite picked up by a team in a similar expedition in 1984, ALH84001, turned out after later analysis to be from Mars, and was found last month to harbor signs of primitive, ancient life within it.
    While the 1996 expedition will be looking in the same region as the 1984 team, it was only coincidence and not a result of last month's announcement. Meteorite expeditions to Antarctica require months of logistical planning and cannot be easily changed on short notice.

Other News and Errata:

The FAST spacecraft successfully launched on August 21. The launch had been delayed three days due to a communications problem between the L-1011 used to carry the Pegasus XL launcher and ground controllers. The spacecraft will study the plasma physics of the aurorae... Brazil plans to launch its first microsat launch "in the next few months," according to government officials. The VLS will carry payloads of up to 350 kg (770 lbs) into orbits as high as 1,000 km (620 mi.). Four prototype launches are planned before an environmental satellite is orbited.

Mission HOME off course? The Mission HOME town hall meeting scheduled for September 14 in Boston has been postponed. According to a staffer with Fleishman Hillard, the St. Louis advertising firm operating the program, the meeting may be rescheduled for some time in 1997. No reason was given for the cancellation. A similar town hall in Los Angeles may also be delayed. A call to the Mission Home toll-free space hotline (888/SPACE-US) found the automated system still operating, however.

Mac Attack: A band of 100 employees at the Johnson Space Center is fighting to keep the center from eliminating all its Macintosh computers and replacing them with Intel-based computers running Windows. The group, derisively known as 'Mac Huggers' according to a MacWeek report, is fighting to keep the center's 2,800 Macs from being phased out. They are now pinning their hopes on a report due in September from the NASA Inspector General, which they believe will show that Macs are more cost-effective than PCs.

If the employees don't get their Macs, they can always work with cattle: JSC has reached an agreement with a local school district to allow cattle to graze on a 60-acre parcel of land owned by the center. According to a UPI report, JSC is also "providing technical expertise." We hesitate to ask what kind of expertise they have that's related to cattle... A British insurer announced in August that they are the first company in the world to provide insurance against perhaps the most insidious threat to humankind: alien impregnation. Yes, for only 100 pounds (US$155) a year you can get 100,000 pounds ($155,000) of protection against alien abduction, twice that for alien impregnation. Both males and females are eligible for this insurance. "I personally would not buy a policy of this nature," said Simon Burgess, director of GRIP, the insurance company offering the coverage, "but if there is the fear of these things out there, we are justified in offering to cover people against them.

Errata: In the August 20th issue of SpaceViews Update, an article on the completion of the ALFLEX test flights referred to the Woomera test range in "south Australia." In fact, the range is in the state of South Australia. SpaceViews regrets the typo.

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