Webb Enters Giant Test Chamber for 3 Month Final Deep-Freeze Before Launch Next Year

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope sits in front of the door to Chamber A, a giant thermal vacuum chamber located at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. The telescope was moved into the chamber on June 20, where it will spend the summer undergoing 93 days of tests at sub-freezing cryogenic temperatures. The telescope will operate below an extremely cold 50 K (-223° C or -370° F) in space, so NASA is simulating those conditions on the ground, ensuring the optics and instruments will perform perfectly after launch. Photo Credit: NASA / Chris Gunn

In 16 months, the most powerful space telescope ever built is scheduled to launch from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, rising with the morning sun from the edge of the Amazon. The James Webb Space Telescope aims to show us the universe like we’ve never seen before, but unlike the Hubble Space Telescope, which operates in orbit around Earth and is (or was) accessible to NASA’s astronauts, Webb will operate at a special “gravity island” called Lagrange Point 2 (L2), one million miles away.

That said, there is nobody to call to go visit and make repairs if something breaks or doesn’t work once it reaches space. Potential issues need to be addressed on the ground through rigorous testing, and now the multi-billion dollar observatory is ready to begin its final cryogenic thermal vacuum testing before launch at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, TX.

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SpaceX Launches Iridium NEXT-2, Lands Offshore and Pulls Off 'Double-Header' Weekend

The Upgraded Falcon 9 thunders downrange in the first minutes of Sunday afternoon’s flight. Photo Credit: SpaceX/Twitter

With Sunday’s spectacular launch-and-landing of an Upgraded Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., almost a quarter of all of SpaceX’s missions have flown in 2017 alone. Nine launches in the first six months of the calendar year establishes a new “personal best” for the Hawthorne, Calif.-headquartered organization, which previously achieved eight flights in 2016 and six fully successful missions in 2015 and 2014 apiece. SpaceX has long insisted that it aims to launch its Upgraded Falcon 9s at intervals of around two weeks—a boast which, by and large, it has accomplished in 2017—but this weekend also offered a unique “double-header” for CEO Elon Musk, coming a mere 48 hours after Friday’s successful BulgariaSat-1 launch. It also secured another record for SpaceX, which has now launched three missions in the span of a single calendar month.

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PHOTOS: SpaceX Launches and Lands Second Reused Falcon with BulgariaSat-1 Mission

Bulgaria’s first national communications satellite launches atop the eighth Upgraded Falcon 9 of 2017. Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace

Yesterday, SpaceX launched their 8th mission of the year to deliver Bulgaria’s first national communications satellite to orbit, and in doing so tied their own personal record for number of launches flown in a single year – in just the first 6 months of 2017.

But the successful launch, and offshore landing on an autonomous drone ship that followed minutes later, also marked the second flight for a previously-flown Falcon 9 rocket, as well as the first time a rocket has launched missions from both sides of the United States; Cape Canaveral AFS / Kennedy Space Center in Florida and Vandenberg AFB in California.

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SpaceX Ties Own Record for Most Launches in Single Year With BulgariaSat-1 Mission

Bulgaria’s first national communications satellite launches atop the eighth Upgraded Falcon 9 of 2017. Photo Credit: SpaceX

For the record-tying eighth time in a single calendar year, SpaceX has successfully launched one of its Falcon 9 boosters to deliver a payload into orbit. At 3:10 p.m. EDT on Friday, 23 June—60 minutes into a two-hour “window”—the Hawthorne, Calif.-based organization transported Bulgaria’s first national communications satellite into  Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO).

Liftoff from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida came after several days, caused by technical and weather-related issues. Within minutes of launch, the first stage of the 229-foot-tall (70-meter) Upgraded Falcon 9 returned to execute a controlled touchdown on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “Of Course I Still Love You”, positioned about 420 miles (680 km) offshore in the Atlantic Ocean. As well as representing the second “re-used” Falcon 9 first stage, today’s mission saw the first time that a SpaceX bird has landed twice on ASDS.

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New Horizons Team Successfully Observes Transit of Next KBO Target, and Clouds on Pluto!

Four members of the South African observation team, who helped to track the occultation of a star by the KBO called 2014 MU69, the next target for the New Horizons spacecraft. Photo Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Henry Throop

With the Pluto flyby now well behind them, the New Horizons team has been busy preparing for the next encounter, the small Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) called 2014 MU69. New Horizons is scheduled to fly past 2014 MU69 on Jan. 1, 2019, and it will be the farthest Solar System body to ever be visited so far. From June 2-3, astronomers in Argentina and South Africa pointed their telescopes at 2014 MU69, hoping to catch its “shadow” moving across a background star as it transited the star (also known as a stellar occultation). This would help determine the object’s exact size and allow the mission team to fine-tune the planned flyby. Back at Pluto, there is more evidence, from data gathered by New Horizons during the flyby, for clouds in Pluto’s thin atmosphere.

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'To Make Life as Good as Possible': 25 Years Since STS-50 Stretched the Space Shuttle

A quarter-century ago, STS-50 set a new record for the longest Space Shuttle mission at that time. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Twenty-five years ago, next week, the crew of Columbia roared into orbit to begin the longest shuttle mission ever attempted at that time. Equipped with the Extended Duration Orbiter (EDO) hardware—a pallet of additional hydrogen and oxygen reactant tanks in the payload bay, together with other associated upgrades—Columbia and her seven-strong crew were expected to remain in low-Earth orbit for almost 13 days, a full 48 hours longer than the next-longest mission in Space Shuttle Program (SSP) history. As circumstances transpired, the STS-50 astronauts completed a record-breaking mission, landing just a few hours shy of 14 days in space, and in doing so they set an important benchmark in preparation for the construction and operations of today’s International Space Station (ISS).

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Watch Orbital ATK Test Fire NASA's Orion Launch Abort System

The abort motor for Orion’s launch abort system fired for five seconds in a test at the Promontory, Utah facility of manufacturer Orbital ATK. Credits: Orbital ATK

As summer 2017 quickly gets underway, NASA’s Orion program is making steady progress on a series of different testing programs. In the Neutral Buoyancy Lab at Johnson Space Center in Houston, teams are evaluating Orion’s updated airbag splashdown system, while the team developing Orion’s parachute system just conducted another successful drop test of a mock crew capsule over the U.S. Army Proving Grounds in Yuma, Arizona.

But another critical test of the spacecraft’s ability to keep astronauts safe took place this week too, when Orbital ATK successfully test fired the abort motor for Orion’s launch abort system (LAS) on June 15, at the company’s site in Promontory, Utah.

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Grand Final Part 4: Cassini Completes Eighth Ring Crossing, and a 'Tour of Saturn's Moons'

A haunting raw image view of Saturn and its rings taken on June 7, 2017 by Cassini. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

As Cassini’s “Grand Finale” journey continues, the spacecraft has completed its eighth dive past the innermost rings of Saturn (known as a ring crossing), and there are now just under 100 days left until it plunges into the giant planet’s atmosphere, never to come back. Although time may be running out, Cassini continues to devour every drop of science data that it can, which builds upon other data that has transformed our view of the Saturnian system – a complex array of worlds like a miniature Solar System. This includes, of course, more fantastic images of Saturn and its rings and moons. The detail seen in the rings is nothing short of staggering.

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'Magic Carpet Ride': 40 Years Since Enterprise Took the Space Shuttle to Altitude (Part 2)

Enterprise’s Captive-Active flights, which began 40 years ago, this month, laid the groundwork for the Free Flights and eventually the maiden Space Shuttle mission. Photo Credit: NASA

The Approach and Landing Test (ALT) series of the Space Shuttle, which began 40 years ago, in the summer of 1977, were “just that”, in the words of NASA astronaut Joe Engle. Their goal was to deliver Orbiter Vehicle (OV)-101, nicknamed “Enterprise”, to an altitude of 25,000 feet (7,600 meters), atop a heavily modified Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA), above Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. Engle and fellow astronauts Fred Haise, Dick Truly and Gordon Fullerton, would place Enterprise—a near-identical version of the orbiters which would someday launch 135 times from Earth—into aerodynamic flight, exercising its hydraulic, electronic, flight-control and landing systems in conditions as close as possible to those the real Space Shuttle would experience during its descent and landing.

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'In a Real Flight Environment': 40 Years Since Enterprise Took the Space Shuttle to Altitude (Part 1)

Flying Enterprise for her test flights were (from left) Gordon Fullerton, Fred Haise, Joe Engle and Dick Truly. Photo Credit: NASA

Four decades ago, this summer, a shuttle (though not a “space” shuttle) took to the skies above Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., to show the world what she could do. Outwardly, Orbiter Vehicle (OV)-101, nicknamed “Enterprise”, bore all the hallmarks of her five sisters who would someday voyage into low-Earth orbit, with the notable exception that she would never fly higher than about 25,000 feet (7,600 meters). The role of Enterprise and the men who flew her—Fred Haise, Joe Engle, Dick Truly and Gordon Fullerton—enabled a more comprehensive understanding of the shuttle’s flying characteristics in the low atmosphere and laid much of the groundwork for the maiden voyage of Columbia in April 1981.

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