NASA Finds Problem with New Hubble Instrument

One of the three cameras in the new NICMOS instrument installed on the Hubble Space Telescope cannot focus properly, NASA officials announced March 25.
[image of NICMOS dewar]     NASA announced the problem in a status report on the telescope, which showed that the other new instrument as well as existing instruments were working as expected.
     "The Hubble Space Telescope is checking out extremely well overall, and the few anomalies we see give us no reason to believe we will not be able to meet all our scientific goals," said Dr. Ed Weiler, HST program scientist.
     The focus for camera 3 of the Near-Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrograph is beyond the mechanical range of the instrument, according to NICMOS principle investigator Rodger Thompson. The other two cameras in NICMOS are working fine, he said.
     The focus problem may be linked to a problem with a dewar of solid nitrogen used to cool the instrument. The dewar apparently is expanding as the nitrogen heats up, putting pressure on areas of the instrument.
     The expanding dewar may also be the cause of an unexpected thermal contact which is heating the solid nitrogen to a higher temperature than planned. This temperature increase will shorten the lifetime of the instrument, as nitrogen is used up fasted than planned.
     Engineers can do little at this point but hope the thermal contact releases in the coming weeks or months, restoring NICMOS to its normal state. NASA officials said the focus on camera 3 would likely return to normal when this happened.
     Despite the problems with NICMOS, the rest of the Hubble Space Telescope is working as expected. The other instrument installed in February's shuttle mission, the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS), has passed its tests and may be ready for science observations later this month.
     The Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2, which was not affected by the servicing mission, returned to service in early March. Among the first images it returned were some of the highest resolution images of Mars taken from the vicinity of the Earth.

Hale-Bopp Focus of Attention in Night Sky

Comet Hale-Bopp has become one of the brightest objects on the night sky and the focus of attention by scientists and others, including some undesired attention as the possible trigger of a California mass suicide.
[image of Hale-Bopp]     The apparent magnitude of the comet approached -1.0 by late March, making it one of the brightest objects in the night sky. The comet is easily visible in the northwest sky after sunset for most observers in the northern hemisphere, easily visible even in the middle of bright city lights.
     Although the comet already made its closest approach to Earth on March 22, the comet may continue to brighten for the next few weeks as it passes perihelion on April 1 and begins its trek back into the outer solar system.
     The comet has become the focus of considerable scientific attention about its nature and origin. Analysis of Hubble Space Telescope images of the comet taken while the comet was still far from the Sun show its nucleus is 30 to 40 km (19 to 25 mi.) in diameter, several times the size of Comet Halley.
     Observations of the comet taken with the now-defunct International Ultraviolet Explorer suggests that the comet ices are not well-mixed, contrary to predictions and observations of other comets. Astronomers expected that carbon dioxide and other gases would be contained within water ice, but this appears not to be the case with Hale-Bopp.
     Comet observations with the Infrared Space Observatory have drawn a link between the comet, stellar dust, and the Earth. Astronomers have found dust grains of the mineral olivine in the comet. Olivine is the same mineral that predominates in the Earth's mantle and which also has been seen in dust clouds around old stars.
     "Now we can say with real confidence that we stand on a congealed pile of mineral dust, like that contained in the comets swarming around the Sun 4500 million years ago," said Jacques Crovisier of l'Observatoire de Paris-Meudon
     However, the comet has gained unwanted notoriety in the media as the possible trigger for the suicides of 39 members of the "Heaven's Gate" cult in San Diego. Members of the cult believed an alien spacecraft was trailing the comet, and that their suicides would allow them to meet up with the aliens.
     Stories of a UFO trailing the comet have been flying across the Internet and talk-radio shows since an amateur astronomer took an image of what appeared to be a "Saturn-like object" trailing the comet. The object turned out to be an overexposed star that was missing on the astronomer's star charts, but the UFO reports persist.

For more information about Comet Hale-Bopp, including the most complete list of links on the Web, visit out special Hale-Bopp Section.

No Consensus Yet on Mars Life

The research community has yet to reach a consensus on the possible existence of past life on Mars, as scientists on both sides of the debate presented their results at a conference last month.
[image of possible microfossil]     "I think that one thing we can all agree on at this point is that it's really too early to come to a final conclusion about life on Mars," said Douglas Blanchard, chief of the earth science and solar system exploration division of NASA's Johnson Space Center. "We're sort of in the discovery process for this."
     Although research results announced last month that meteorite ALH84001 maintained temperatures low enough to be consistent with the life hypothesis, other scientists maintained that other evidence pointed to an inorganic origin for the features spotted in the meteorite.
     Ralph Harvey of Case Western Reserve University, one of the original proponents for a high-temperature, inorganic origin for the meteorite, said that features in the meteorite thought to be microfossils show defects "characteristic of a high-energy environment" that would exist at high temperatures.
     Laurie Leshin, a geochemist at UCLA, said an analysis of oxygen and calcium in samples of the meteorite also pointed to an inorganic origin, and said the possibility the meteorite harbored life at one time was no more than 1-in-20.
     Scientists who believe the meteorite shows evidence of past life on Mars, though, believed current research supported their position. "There are no show-stoppers to the ideas that we published last August," said Everett Gibson, one of the NASA scientists involved in last year's announcement.
     "We feel stronger about our position now than we did" last year, he added.
     The discussion and debate over past life on Mars took place during a special session of the Lunar and Planetary Sciences Conference held in Houston the week of March 17. The afternoon of March 19 at the conference was devoted to the Mars life question.

Shuttle Launch Delayed to Friday

Launch officials at the Kennedy Space Center have delayed the launch of mission STS-83 by one day to replace some thermal insulation on a cooling pipe.
[image of STS-83 mission patch]     The launch of the shuttle Columbia was scheduled for 2:01pm EST (1901 UT) Thursday, April 3. However, shuttle workers noticed that insulation on a water pipe used in a cooling system was missing. The pipe could have frozed during the long mission had the insulation not been replaced, forcing an emergency landing of the shuttle.
     The insulation may have been missing on the pipe since 1983, according to late reports. The shuttle launch has been rescheduled for 1:07pm EST (1801 UT) Friday, April 4.
     The seven-person crew will split into two 12-hour shifts during the mission, named Microgravity Science Laboratory-1. The crew will perform 30 experiments in the Spacelab module in Columbia's cargo bay to study the effects of weightlessness on a variety of objects and processes, from plant growth to combustion.
     If the shuttle launches on the 4th, it will land at the Kennedy Space Center on the morning of April 20.
     Meanwhile, the shuttle Endeavour returned to the Kennedy Space Center last week after completing a maintenance period at the Boeing North American (formerly Rockwell) facility in Palmdale, California. The Endeavour's next mission was to be the first space station assembly mission, originally slated for this December, but delays in the space station will likely push the launch date back into 1998.

Distant Galaxy May Be Source of Gamma Ray Burst

An international team of astronomers using satellites and groundbased telescopes believe a distant galaxy may be the source of a gamma ray burst detected in February, possibly resolving a 30-year mystery about these objects.
[image of possible gamma ray burster]     The team, led by Dr. Jan van Paradijs of the University of Alabama Huntsville and the University of Amsterdam, started their work with the detection of a gamma ray burst by the BeppoSAX satellite February 28. The instruments on the satellite narrowed the location of the burst to a small area of the sky.
     Images of that area of the sky were taken with the 4.2-meter William Herschel Telescope in the Canary Islands approximately one day and one week after the burst. The first image showed a bright area which does not appear on the second. Van Paradijs and his coworkers interpreted this as an "optical transient" created by the gamma-ray burst.
     An image of the exact same region of the sky taken later in March shows a dim, distant galaxy where the burst was located. The BeppoSAX satellite also detected a faint X-ray source where the burst was located, which faded away a few days after the burst.
     "To me, this is fairly convincing evidence that the transient X-ray and optical sources are the same, and that both are associated with the gamma-ray burst," van Paradijs said. "If these transients are from the distant galaxy, we have, for the first time, found the site of a gamma-ray burst."
     Since their discovery by satellites in the 1960s, gamma-ray bursts, or sudden, brief flares of gamma rays, have mystified scientists. No source objects had been firmly associated with the bursts, and theories on their origin ranged from objects within the solar system to far distant galaxies and quasars.
     UCLA astronomers earlier this year announced that their researched showed that distant, bright galaxies were more likely to be the source of gamma-ray bursts than objects within our own galaxy, based on the analysis of the location of these galaxies and the estimated locations of gamma-ray bursts.

NASA Science, Human Spaceflight Sections Agree on Mars Spacecraft

Two of NASA's major enterprises, space science and human spaceflight, have agreed to work together on a pair of spacecraft set for launch to Mars in the year 2001.
     The Space Science and Human Exploration and Development of Space (HEDS) divisions of NASA will jointly fund and manage a robotic orbiter and lander, each of which are scheduled for launch in early 2001.
     "This joint effort is a sign that NASA is acquiring the information that will be needed for a national decision, perhaps in a decade or so, on whether or not to send humans to Mars," said Wil Trafton, associate administrator for space flight.
     The lander, which includes a rover capable of traveling for tens of kilometers over the Martian highlands, will now carry experiments that would support planning for any future human missions to Mars. The experiments include a test of making rocket propellant using gases in the Martian atmosphere as well as soil chemistry and radiation monitors.
     The orbiter, which will use aerocapture to enter Mars orbit, will conduct a detailed mineralogical analysis of the planet's surface from orbit and measure the radiation environment.
     The two spacecraft, which will cost no more than $311 million combined, will be managed by a team led by JPL and including representatives from the Johnson Space Center and Lockheed Martin. It's the first time since the 1960s that the space science and human space flight branches of NASA have cooperated in a planetary exploration mission.

Ariane 5 Launch Delayed until September

The second launch of Europe's heavy-lift Ariane 5 booster has been delayed again until mid-September, as engineers sort out additional modifications for the troubled booster.
[image of Ariane 5]     The modifications to the booster's electrical systems and software are meant to improve the robustness of the booster, according to an European Space Agency press release. The modifications are not meant to call into question the design or flight readiness of the booster, the release noted.
     The Ariane 5 has been grounded since its maiden flight in June 1996, when it veered off course and had to be destroyed less than 40 seconds after launch. The problem with the booster was traced to problems with the software in the booster, which was unable to handle certain inputs, crashing the program and sending the booster off course.
     Last fall, officials announced the cause of the accident and said they planned two Ariane 5 launches in 1997, one in mid-year and a second late in the year. The revised schedule made no announcement about plans for a second Ariane 5 launch in 1997.

First Amateur Rocket Launch into Space Delayed

Problems with an electrical system and high winds forced a group of amateur rocketeers to cancel plans for the launch of what they hoped to be the first amateur rocket to fly into space.
[image of HALO launch balloon]     Members of the High Altitude Lift Off (HALO) group, a project of the Huntsville, Alabama NSS chapter, has hoped to launch a hybrid-fuel rocket from a balloon flying high above the Atlantic Ocean off the North Carolina coast. The "rockoon" would have flown to an altitude of at least 80 km (50 mi.).
     An electronic timer associated with a backup safety system on the rocket failed to work as planned, and other backups were not functioning at the scheduled liftoff time early in the morning of March 22. By the time the problem was corrected, winds had increased and more air traffic was flying through the region where the rocket-carrying balloon would pass.
     With no promised of improved weather the next day, the HALO group scrubbed the launch attempt. They have tentatively planned a second attempt sometime in May, with a more ambitious launch from a barge in the Gulf of Mexico scheduled for June.
     The HALO project was conceived as a way to make space access more affordable for students, researchers, and others. If successful it will be the first amateur rocket, and the first hybrid-fuel rocket, to fly into space.

For more information about Project HALO's first launch attempt, turn to a more in-depth article in our Articles section.

NASA Announces Biomedical, Microgravity Institutes

NASA officials announced last month the formation of several multidisciplinary institutions for the study of the biological effects of space travel and the effects of microgravity of materials.
     On March 12, NASA named the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, as a center for research into the biological effects of the space radiation environment. NASA will give the center approximately $1 million a year for 5 years to conduct research in this field.
     On March 14, NASA selected Baylor College of Medicine to lead a consortium for broader research into the biological effects of space travel. The consortium, which includes Harvard, MIT, Rice University, and Texas A & M, among others, will develop "the solutions to medical risks associated with extended human space flight," according to the NASA release.
     The previous day, NASA signed an agreement with Case Western Reserve University and the Universities Space Research Association to establish a national microgravity center. The center, the first of its kind in the nation, will focus on the effects of weightlessness on fluids and combustion.

Late Lews: Lyman Spitzer, who created the concept for an orbiting space telescope that became the Hubble Space Telescope, passed away on the evening of March 31. The Princeton University astronomer proposed the concept of an orbiting telescope in 1946 for Project Rand, stating that such a telescope could observe at wavelengths invisible at the Earth's surface and overcome the "seeing" problems caused by turbulence in the Earth's atmopshere. The Hubble Space Telescope "was quite in a literal sense Spitzer's brainchild," said Princeton University Provost Jeremiah P. Ostriker. Spitzer was 82.

Other News

[image of AXAF mirrors]AXAF's Sharp Vision: While engineers struggled with the focus problems with one of Hubble's new instruments, those working on ground tests for the Advanced X-Ray Astrophysics Facility telescope were more than pleased with the first round of tests. The set of four nested, cylindrical mirrors focused 70 percent of the x-rays received into a circle only a half-arcsecond in radius, ten times better than previous X-ray satellites. "The first ground test images ever generated by the telescope's mirror assembly...are as good as -- or better than -- expected," said Marshall Space Flight Center scientist Martin Weisskopf. AXAF is on track for a launch in August 1998.

Space, the Federal Government, and Public Opinion: While the public likes to criticize many aspects of the U.S. federal government, one area of widespread public support is space exploration, according to a report issued March 21 by the Council of Excellence in Government. Eighty-five percent of respondents to a poll said the government was fairly or very successful in promoting space exploration. Over half said the government was very successful, making it the only one of 16 categories, which included national defense and the economy, to be rated so highly. However, only a third of the respondents said they strongly supported funding for NASA, compared to about two-thirds for Social Security, Medicare, and defense.

Japanese Satellite Tests: Japan will launch two satellites this fall to test unmanned docking techniques for use in the International Space Station project. The two satellites, named Orihime and Hikoboshi for two stars in the Chinese Star Festival, will go into Earth orbit and conduct a series of docking and undocking maneuvers, controlled by engineers on the ground. Japan hopes to use the experience gained from these tests on its plans to build an unmanned shuttle-like spacecraft for ferrying supplies to the space station.

In Brief: Antonio Rodota was named the head of the European Space Agency last month. The Italian director of space and high-tech companies replaces Jean-Marie Luton, who decided not to run for another four-year term as head of ESA... After MTM Productions announced last month that it would not renew the syndicated drama "The Cape", about astronauts at the Kennedy Space Center, fans are banding together to launch a letter-writing campaign to save the show. More information is online at It worked for Star Trek, after all... Author Martin Caidin died of cancer in Florida last week. Caidin wrote Marooned, the drama about three astronauts trapped in their spacecraft in orbit that became a movie starring Gregory Peck... NASA shut down the operation of the Pioneer 10 spacecraft at the end of March. The spacecraft, which turned 25 years old at the beginning on the month, was running out of power to run its instruments and maintain communications with Earth, and NASA officials felt that the money spent to maintain the project would be better-spent elsewhere. The sturdy craft will be left to sail into the cosmos alone...

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