NASA has cleared Discovery for its final launch on Thursday, February 24 at 4:50 pm. Discovery is the most traveled manned spacecraft in history, having traveled nearly 143 million miles in its 38 missions since its first launch in 1984. This mission will take Discovery to the International Space Station.
The Stardust-NExT probe flew to within 112 miles of Comet Tempel I on February 14, taking a series of photos of the comet. Comet Tempel had previously been visited by a NASA spacecraft in 2005, when Deep Impact collided with the comet. This is the first time a comet has been revisited after a complete orbit. Photos have shown that erosion has changed the face of the comet, but the impact crater left by Deep Impact appears to have partially healed itself.
A small asteroid (2011 CQ1) discovered on February 3, passed around 7,500 miles from Earth on February 4 at 19:40 UT. This is about a quarter of the distance that 2010 TD54 passed by the Earth in October. 2011 CQ1 is between 1 and 2 metres across, making it smaller than a standard sofa. Had the asteroid hit Earth, it would have vaporized in the atmosphere.
Mark Kelly, whose wife Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head during a public meeting on January 8, has confirmed that he will command the final scheduled flight of the space shuttle Endeavour, currently scheduled for an April 19 launch. Kelly has flown three previous shuttle missions and his brother is currently on the ISS.
United Space Alliance has proposed the Commercial Space Transportation Service, which would keep two orbiters in the space shuttle fleet, Atlantis and Endeavour active and flying two missions each year from 2013 through 2017 while the United States gets a new generation of manned launch vehicles ready. NASA has not officially commented on the USA plan and is publicly stating that the current plans to send the three orbiters to museums.
Results from the first four months of observation from the Kepler space observatory have been released indicating the discovery of more than 1200 potential planets, including 165 Jupiter-class planets, 662 Neptune-class planets, 288 superEarth class planets, and 68 Earth-class planets, 54 of which are considered to be in the habitable zone. Kepler has been searching a portion of the sky that includes the constellation Cygnus and Lyra and looked at 156,000 stars during the period covered by the released data.
Kathryn Aurora Gray, a 10-year-old from Fredericton, Canada, discovered a supernova in the constellation Camelopardalis on January 3 in an image she took with her father on New Year’s Eve. Supernova 2010lt is a magnitude-17 supernova in galaxy UGC 3378. The supernova is about 240 million light-years away from Earth.
Waleed Abdalati has been named Chief Scientist at NASA by NASA Administrator Charles Borden. Abdalati will assume his new position on January 3, 2011. Currently the director of the Earth Science and Observation Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Abdalati will serve as the principal adviser to the NASA administrator on agency science programs, strategic planning and the evaluation of related investments. Previously, Abdalati was head of the Cryospheric Sciences Branch at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD.
The Voyager 1 space probe has entered the Heliosheath, an area where the solar wind drops to zero velocity. The heliosheath is the final region of our solar system and scientists believe that Voyager is within five years of crossing the heliopause, the edge of the solar system, and entering interstellar space. Scientists had previously thought Voyager was preparing to make the jump to interstellar space in 2005, but since the probe is in unknown territory, it is still sending back data which is changing astronomers’ models of the solar system. Launched in 1977, Voyager completed its mission to study the Jovian planets in 1989 when it passed Neptune. It is now located about 17.4 billion miles from Earth and is still sending back data.
Recent measurements of Eris, the dwarf planet discovered in 2005 which led to the reclassification of Pluto, indicate that the object may be smaller than originally believed. Eris’s high density means that the plutoid is most likely smaller, although more massive, the Pluto, which may now be the largest of the dwarf planets. The new measurements of Eris were conducted during an occultation by the plutoid of a star in Cetus, observed in the Chilean Andes on November 6.