Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/12/18/up_in_space_in_2010/

Space 2010 - the future is fantastic!

Solar sailing, Venus weather, dark matter, and more

By Austin Modine

Posted in Science, 18th December 2009 07:02 GMT

Highlights of space exploration missions in the year 2010.

The year 2010 is shaping up to be a watershed in space exploration. The biggest change will doubtlessly come after America's planned retirement of its venerable space shuttle fleet next September in favor of the Constellation program (a program that's far behind schedule, by the by, and trapped somewhere in budgetary limbo).

But policy shifts are far from the only thing to look for in 2010. Among other missions, the ISS will attempt to uncover the secrets of antimatter, a non-profit will send a spacecraft sailing on beams of light, and Japan will provide us with an unprecedented look at weather beneath the clouds of Venus. Here's the complete list of the sweet, sweet space science you can look forward to digesting in the year ahead. Or thereabouts.

Solar Dynamics Observatory

Scheduled launch date: February 3, 2010
Mission duration: 5 years, 3 months

The Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) seeks to unravel the many mysteries surrounding the Sun's highs and lows, and their effects on Earth and space weather.

The SDO spacecraft will measure and observe the Sun's magnetic field, which drives solar activity. Flow of hot, ionized gases deep inside the Sun act as electrical currents to generate the star's magnetic field. Old Sol usually shifts in 11-year cycles from minimum to maximum activity. During maximum activity, scores of sunspots swirl on the sun's surface. During minimum activity, observable sunspots become rare.

The ebb and flow of solar activity can have a major impact down on Earth. During the Maunder Minimum — a solar lull spanning roughly from 1645 to 1715 — Europe and North America were subject to bitterly cold winters and very short summers in what later came to be known as the Little Ice Age. During maximums, solar magnetic activity can bring satellites out of orbit and shut down power grids. In short, the sun is a big stinking deal 'round these parts. Better to keep a close eye on it.

SDO will measure the properties of the Sun and solar activities by employing three sophisticated instruments. The Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager (HMI) will map the surface of the Sun's magnetic fields and the plasma flows that generate it. The Extreme Ultraviolet Variability Experiment (EVE) will measure how much energy the sun emits at extreme ultraviolet wavelengths that are blocked out by the Earth's atmosphere but can affect satellites and astronauts in space. The Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA) will snap full-disk shots of the Sun's atmosphere at a pace of once every 10 seconds. The previous best rate of full-disk images of the Sun was once every three minutes.

SDO will be collecting data at an enormous rate. According to NASA, the spacecraft will produce enough data to fill a single CD every 36 seconds as it watches the Sun almost 24 hours a day on a figure-eight orbit with Earth. SDO is designed to fly for five years, but may continue operating years after its initial mission life.

Endeavour mission STS-130

Scheduled launch date: February 7, 2010
Mission duration: 13 days

STS-130 crew

The STS-130 crew, image courtesy NASA

Six astronauts aboard space shuttle Endeavour will blast off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in early February to deliver the International Space Station's third connecting module, Tranquility.

The new section provides extra room for cramped ISS crew members and for some of the station's squeezed-in life support and environmental control systems already on board. Because if the life support systems ain't happy, ain't nobody happy. Tranquility was built for NASA by Thales Alenia Space in Turin, Italy, under contract to the European Space Agency. It will be owned and operated by NASA.

Tranquility also provides several docking points for the ISS, one of which will be occupied by Cupala, which features a robo-work station inside for aiding ISS assembly and maintenance and includes seven windows (six on the sides and one on top) for earth observations.

STS-130 is the 32nd shuttle mission to the station.

Discovery mission STS-131

Scheduled launch date: March 18, 2010
Mission duration: 13 days

sts-131 badge

STS-131 will ferry to the ISS a Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) — which is NASA-speak for a big, pressurized cargo container for bringing up supplies and sending back waste and finished experiments. The MPLM for STS-131 will be filled with science racks to be transferred to the ISS laboratories upon arrival.

Three spacewalks planned for the mission will include replacing an ammonia tank assembly and retrieving a Japanese experiment from the station's exterior.

Atlantis mission STS-132

Scheduled launch date: May 14, 2010
Mission duration: 11 days

Shuttle Atlantis and its crew of six will visit the ISS in May to deliver the Russian Rassvet mini-Research Module, US pressurized cargo, and a spare elbow for the orbiting outpost's European Robotic Arm.

Three spacewalks are planned to place spare components outside the station, including extra batteries and spares for the Canadian Dextre robotic arm.

Only two more shuttle missions remaining...

Akatsuki

Scheduled launch date: May 2010
Mission duration: 2 years

Image by Akihiro Ikeshita, courtesy JAXA

Akatsuki (meaning dawn) is a Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) deep space mission, aimed at understanding the mysterious atmosphere of Venus.

Formerly known as Planet-C, the spacecraft is planned to enter the orbit of Venus about a half a year after launch. It will serve about two years as the world's first interplanetary weather satellite.

Akatsuki's probe vehicle will enter an elliptical orbit that spans between 300 and 80,000 km away from the planet's surface. This wide variation will allow for unprecedented observations of the Venusian surface and the atmospheric particles escaping into space.

JAXA says it hopes swooping close to Venus will allow the probe to take photos of the surface and to observe the planet's storm winds that reach up to 100m per second.

Akatsuki will use infrared light to observe the atmosphere hiding under the planet's opaque layer of highly reflect clouds composed of sulfuric acid.

The mission also intends to confirm the presence of active volcanoes and thunder that's been suggested by earlier unmanned missions to the planet.

Endeavour mission STS-134

Scheduled launch date: July 29, 2010
Mission duration: 10 days

Although the space shuttle fleet had previously been scheduled for retirement after STS-133, nerd rage over having to cancel nifty new ISS components to meet the deadline caused the US to pony up funding for one extra mission.

CG image of AMS-02, courtusy NASA

STS-134's primary payload will be the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (also called AMS-02), one of the gizmos whose early retirement most upset the howling boffins.

AMS-02 is a state-of-the-art particle physics detector being constructed and operated by an international team of 56 institutes spanning 16 countries under the auspices of the United States Department of Energy. The device is looking for antimatter and dark matter. Although dark matter is thought to add up to 95 per cent of the total mass known to exist, the exact nature of the stuff is unknown. As for antimatter: All evidence points to the universe being made out of matter. But in order for the Big Bang theory to work, the universe would require equal amounts of matter and antimatter. Whether or not there is significant amount of antimatter is one of the fundamental questions to understanding the origins of the universe.

Endeavour mission STS-133

Scheduled launch date: September 16, 2010
Mission duration: 8 days

STS-133 is the last planned mission of NASA's space shuttle program, which began service in 1981. Discovery and its crew of six will deliver critical spare components to the International Space Station on an MPLM (see above) and an exPRESS Logistics Carrier, an unpressurized payload container.

The mission will be the 134th shuttle flight and the 36th shuttle mission to the station.

GLORY

Launch date: October 1, 2010
Mission timespan: 3 years; 5 year goal

Though greenhouse gases are usually fingered as the big nasty in any global climate change debate, a significant amount of Arctic warming may be influenced by tiny airborne particles called aerosols.

Some aerosols, like black carbon from traffic exhaust, can cause warming by absorbing sunlight. Others, like sulfates from coal power plants, may cause cooling by reflecting solar radiation. Some aerosols like natural dust particles may even play a role — although it's not exactly clear how. Aerosols are largely still a big fat mystery when it comes to climate change. That's where Glory floats in.

Glory above us, Image courtesy NASA

NASA's Glory satellite seeks to measure the distribution, properties, and chemical composition of both natural and human-produced aerosols and clouds to help understand their direct and indirect effects on climate.

Glory carries three instruments to get the job done. Its Aerosol Polarimetry Sensor (APS) is a continuous scanning sensor that collects visible, near infrared, and short-wave infrared data scattered from aerosols and clouds to distinguish the various properties and types of aerosols. Glory's Total Solar Irradiance (TIM) instrument is designed to measure the absorption and reflection of solar radiation by the Earth's atmosphere and determine the global average temperature. The spacecraft also sports a cloud camera to determine if measurements are being done on clear or cloud-filled areas, because clouds can have a significant impact on the quality of measurements.

According to Glory mission project manager, Bryan Fafaul, the most important goal of Glory is to help understand whether temperature increases and climate changes from aerosols are by-products of natural events or man-made sources.

Glory is slated to launch no earlier than October 1, 2010. Fafaul said there are currently no significant technical issues threatening the readiness of the mission.

LightSail-1

Scheduled launch date: End of 2010
Mission duration: ??

LightSail-1 is an extremely odd spacecraft developed by the non-profit organization The Planetary Society to demonstrate that pressure from sunlight alone can propel a craft in Earth's orbit.

When light from the sun reflects off the surface of the space craft's solar sail, the energy and momentum of photons are transferred to the sail, and it pushes the craft through space. While the acceleration is slight, it is continuous and requires no fuel. In theory, it will also move faster than a chemical engine over time.

The Society launched a similar solar sailer, Cosmos 1, in June 2005, but the craft was lost when its launch rocket failed shortly after liftoff from a Russian submarine.

Now the ambitious project has returned in the form of the smaller LightSail-1 following an anonymous $1m donation to the Planetary Society. LightSail-1 seeks to prove the concept will work in orbit and two future missions over the course of several years hope to reach farther into space.

The next hurdle the mission needs to overcome is getting LightSail-1 into space. The Planetary Society plans to have the spacecraft ready for launch by the end of 2010, but its actual date of departure will depend on which launch vehicles are available to take on a secondary payload. According to the organization, it has identified several candidate American and Russian launches and hopes to make arrangements for a piggyback rocket ride early in 2010. ®