Sunday, August 31, 2008

Book: Where the WIld Things Were

Where the Wild Things Were: Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators, is a new and important contribution to conservation and ecology by William Stolzenburg (Bloomsbury, 2008)
The author looks at cases, both experimental and real-life, where the top predators have been wiped out, and looks at what happens next. It turns out that a lot of things happen, none of them good. One result is an explosion of "mesopredators" (the second-tier carnivores, ranging from coyotes to raccoons to feral domestic cats) which wreak havoc on ecosystems without the larger predators to compete with (and sometimes eat) them. Plants and prey animals have evolved for one type of ecosystem and are often helpless in an altered one. While his examples come from all over the world, it's the North American ones that will cause the most consternation to most readers. Who foresaw that killing the eastern wolves and cougars would result in a gigantic deep population explosion that wrecked the habitats of many smaller creatures? Who knew that bringing in a new apex predator (whalers) wiping out the northern Pacific great whales started a cascade that drove the former apex predator (killer whales) to decimate seal and sea otter populations in many areas, resulting in kelp forests being replaced by barren seafloor overrun with the urchins the otters used to keep down? There are many such examples, some almost despair-inducing. One of Stolzenburg's other important points is that, ecologically, human hunters don't replace the predators: they hunt in specific seasons rather than all year round and pick off the largest animals instead of the weakest.
COMMENT: He doesn't use this example, but there's an obvious application in the case of Alaska's wolves. Alaska governor and Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin (who I personally like overall) is one of the officials who has bought into the argument that killing wolves means more moose for hunters. Well, it does, but it will also have many other repercussions on an ecosystem which relies on the wolves to keep moose numbers reasonable.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Lost cities of the Amazon

OK, we're not talking about the legendary cities of gold that lured explorers like Percy Fawcett to their deaths. But this is an interesting story nonetheless. An area of the Amazon river basin thought of as virgin forest inhabited only by hunter-gatherers of the Kuikuro tribe has yielded the remains of well-organized towns from the 15th century. The Upper Xingu region was host to a network of towns up to 60 hectares in area, each organized around a central plaza and surrounded by earthworks. Inhabitants engaged in agriculture and likely aquaculture (fish farming). The towns may have been decimated by disease or may have been attacked by early Europeans, although no records of contact have been found.

Friday, August 29, 2008

MicrospaceNews: Microspacecraft will test artificial gravity

It's often suggested future manned spacecraft should be rotated to provide some approximation of a gravitational field. The idea is fine in theory, but it's never been tested in space. Now it will be - with a microspacecraft supported by the Mars Society. The concept for the satellite, called TEMPO 3, won the Society's Mars Project Challenge. A development schedule was not announced.

New species of giant clam discovered

Scientists studying giant clams in the Red Sea have found a rare new species hidden among the common type they were studying. Tridacna costata, the first species of giant clam described in some 20 years, can be 60 cm in length. There is evidence these clams were once abundant, and marine ecologist Claudio Richter suspects the species was overhunted by early humans. The population appears to have crashed about 125,000 years ago. Richter calles it "the first example of marine overexploitation."

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Two experiments lost on test rocket

ATK recently unveiled a new rocket, a one-time suborbital test vehicle to check out unspecified new proprietary technologies. NASA, always desperate for low-cost rides, put two payloads, the HyBolt Hypersonic Boundary Layer Transition experiment and the SOAREX sub-orbital re-entry experiment, on board. The two-stage solid-fuel bird had to be destroyed, though, only 27 seconds into its flight from Wallops Island. NASA acknowledged it had accepted the risk of flying the payloads on an untested rocket.
COMMENT: In a sadly familiar refrain, NASA also acknowledged there had been no budget to build backups, and the important experiments won't be reflown. ATK wasn't happy, either: any rocket failure reflects badly on its insistence that its technology for the Ares I booster is mature (it's not clear how closely this rocket was related, but some shared technology seems likely.) Finally, it's a sad comment on American journalism that countless stories and headlines referred to the lost payloads as "satellites."

New insect species found - on eBay!

A British entomologist, Dr. Richard Harrington, spotted an interesting-looking insect fossil offered by a Lithuanian man on eBay. He paid 20 pounds for it. When he could not identify the amber-encased insect after viewing it directly, he sent it to a Danish aphid expert who told him it was a new species: Mindarus harringtoni. Harrington said, "It's not uncommon to find insects in amber... but I'm not sure that one has turned up on eBay that has been undiscovered before."

MicrospaceNews: Dnepr going up with five satellites

Britain's Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. will soon launch five small imaging satellites in one throw on a Russian Dnepr rocket, scheduled to go up August 29. Germany's RapidEye AG will operate the medium resolution constellation, built in cooperation with Surrey and with Canada's MacDonald Dettwiler, to enhance imaging services available around the globe. Mean orbital altitude is 620km, and the constellation's planned lifespan is seven years.
COMMENT: There will be many fingers crossed, since the Dnepr does not have a perfect record as of late. Nonetheless, I'm always partial to converted Soviet ballistic missiles in general (the Dnepr is modified from the medium-range SS-20), since in my Air Force days of commanding a Titan II ICBM site, I was one of their prime targets. It's a weird sort of connection.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A very big new fish species

The goliath grouper, Epinephelus itajara, was always considered a species with a very large range, as it occurred in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. A genetic examination, though, has shown there are two species of this fish, which still look very similar but have been reproductively isolated for about 3.5 million years. Researchers led by Dr. Matthew Craig of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology have named the new Pacific species Epinephelus quinquefasciatus. Both species can be 1.8m long and weigh some 450 kg. Both are critically endangered.

Elephants can do math

Elephants are not going to do calculus anytime soon, but they can count small numbers and discern the difference between quantities in tests requiring basic addition. This report comes from experiments with an Asian elephant by Naoko Irie of the University of Tokyo. Ecologist Mya Thompson of Cornell commented that this finding leads to a new mystery: "It really is tough to figure out why [elephants] would need to count."

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

New Species: a robin from Africa

The bird world has a newcomer - Stiphrornis pyrrholaemus, the olive-backed forest thrush. The colorful little bird has (as one would assume) an olive back, a white underbelly, a yellow breast, and an orange throat. It was discovered in southeastern Gabon. Brian Schmidt, the species' discoverer, noted that the bird "is definitely a reminder that the world still holds surprises for us."

Has Iran launched a satellite?

The answer appears to be "no," but that wasn't clear from the official press dispatches (some of which contradicted others). It now looks like Iran launched a three-stage orbit-capable booster with a dummy satellite, but the U.S. reports it did not orbit a payload despite some Iranian claims to the contrary.

COMMENT: It does appear Iran is quite close to being able to orbit a small satellite, which matters for a couple of reasons. One is that any small satellite launcher is technically the close cousin of an IRBM (America's first launcher, the Jupiter-C, was a modified Redstone ballistic missile, and the Iranian launcher is a similar concept: an existing missile with upper stages). The other is that technology has advanced to the point where microspacecraft, either bought whole or constructed from commercially available components, can do economically and militarily important work in communications, Earth observation, and electronic intelligence, among other fields.

MicrospaceNews: Important new technology

One of the problems in very small spacecraft is controlling internal temperature, since there's no room for the active cooling systems used on larger craft. At a meeting of the American Chemical Society, researchers led by Dr. Prasanna Chandrasekhar, announced a solution - a thin film which changes color when triggered by an electrical signal. The film could wrap around a microspacecraft and change its visual and infrared absorption/reflectance as needed to maintain temperatures. Ground tests indicate the film could withstand the space environment, and the researchers are working with NASA to get the film, which is 1/100 of an inch thick, tested in space.

COMMENT: This is potentially a lot more interesting than it may sound. Being able to control the temperature inside a microspacecraft greatly expands the types of equipment. instrumentation, and experiments that can be carried.

Why sasquatch matters

Eoin O'Carroll, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, offers a cogent analysis of why sasquatch, real or not, matters in a world fearful of environmental degradation and the loss of connection to nature. I can't resist quoting his last paragraph:'

"Perhaps our desire to find the Bigfoots of the world represents an ancient longing for the wild twin who helped bring us into the world, whom we then abandoned along the way to creating a civilization. As for me, I’m now firmly in the skeptics’ camp. But I hope that others will keep up the hunt. After all, there aren’t too many wild places left, and it would be a shame if the poor beast – on the off chance that he exists – were to become extinct before we could thank him."

Monday, August 18, 2008

Canada searches for the Franklin expedition

Canada is launching an expedition to solve one of polar exploration's great myteries - the fate of the Franklin expedition. Sir John Franklin's two-ship expedition to find the Northwest Passage vanished sometime after 1845. Three bodies have turned up since then, but no signs of the ships. Inuit whose ancestral tales relate contact with the explorers are assisting on the expedition.

What next for military space?

The top-level Allard Commission has come out for a thorough restructuring of American military space efforts. They argue there is currently no central authority or responsibility and a dismal acquisition system, among other problems. They propose a radical restructuring including abolishing the National Reconnaissance Office.

COMMENT: There's not much to disagree with here. "Black world" and "white world" space were properly given separate agencies over 45 years ago, but the separation makes little sense today. Here's hoping this report gets written into policy... though the record of intelligent recommendations being adopted is not very good, either.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

And yet another headache - Russian transportation

With a five-year gap between the Shuttle and the CEV, NASA was planning to rely on Russian transportation to the ISS. Russia's invasion of Georgia has added a new obstacle to that.

Like NASA needed another headache ... USA v ATK

United Space Alliance (USA), NASA's prime Space Shuttle contractor, has sued Alliant Techsystems and ATK Launch Systems, Inc., seeking damages for fraud and breach of contract, and seeking an injunction against further piracy of USA employees with skills needed to flying out the Space Shuttle manifest. USA says:

"The lawsuit is in response to ATK's failure to negotiate a long-term contract in good faith during the past two years. More importantly, ATK concurrently undertook an aggressive campaign to hire critically skilled USA employees, who have been performing specialized work in support of both the Ares and Space Shuttle programs in order to solely perform work on Ares."


Friday, August 15, 2008

Press conference: no sasquatch and no point

Tom Biscardi, Matthew Whitton and Rick Dyer today held the most pointless press conference in history. They had promised evidence of sasquatch, a specimen of which which they claimed to have stuffed in a freezer. They provided... nothing.
DNA they had submitted to a biologist for testing came back as (really a mixture of human and opossum segments. Biscardi said scientists would soon be allowed to examine the body, which prompted skeptics to make the obvious point that you should have the examination and then the press conference. And there is no excuse for providing poor images that look remarkably like a commercially available sasquatch costume if you do, in fact, have a sasquatch handy and can take the time to photograph it thoroughly.

So far, this looks like one of the boldest and dumbest in a long series of sasquatch hoaxes. If the animal is really out there, I hope he has the intellect to tune in and understand what's going on. He may kill himself laughing and leave a real corpse to discover.

NASA News conference: News is not good

In 2005, NASA announced the goal of having the new Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) flying in 2011. Three years into the Constellation program, that goal has now officially slipped four years. It sounds like one of Zeno's paradoxes: for every year of the program, you slip 1.33 years, so you never fly.

COMMENT: OK, some of the problem is budget (with blame to share among the President and Congress), and some is the nature of all large high-tech programs to develop unforeseen difficulties and require changes as the managers and engineers accumulate data. But you can't absolve NASA management on this. They knew roughly what was going to happen with the budget, and it was obvious some time ago that premature commitment to a launch vehicle solution was not the best path they could have chosen. Development of the Orion seems to be going pretty well in most areas (with the exception of the crater made by the with the Parachute Test Vehicle) , but integrating it with a launch vehicle that seems frighteningly marginal is not. The Ares-1 looks more and more like Vanguard every day: a vehicle which was sold as a simple upgrade of existing stages when the engineers suspected (and soon knew for sure) it was going to be a completely new rocket, with chronic technical problems and budget overruns. They eventually made Vanguard work, but there's a lot more riding on the Ares - literally.

I need hardly mention, but will anyway, that, as with all my posts, the comments in this one are strictly my personal opinions.

What's up at NASA? Not Constellation

I can't resist linking to this arch Klyde Morris cartoon strip summarizing NASA's current management dilemma.

Microspace News: Surrey opens U.S. branch

From a Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) press release:

"Surrey Satellite Technology US opens for business
Leading small satellite manufacturer, Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL), has set up a new subsidiary in the United States to take advantage of the growing international demand for economical, responsive and highly capable spacecraft for a broad range of applications.

The new company, Surrey Satellite Technology US LLC (SST-US), has opened an office in Colorado and will eventually have centres in California and Washington DC enabling SSTL to work much closer and more efficiently with its customers.

SSTL’s Commercial Director, Dr John Paffett, has been appointed CEO of the new company and can see great potential: “The US is the world’s largest satellite market and presents a great opportunity for us. Surrey Satellite Technology strives to improve and increase the application and utility of small satellites that address the need for operationally responsive space. With budgets coming under increasing pressure, we’ve now reached the point where the price performance of some of these systems is opening up space to a whole new range of customers, applications and services.”

COMMENT: Welcome Aboard!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

We have bigfoot ... maybe

Cryptozoology websites and newsgroups have been crushed under the weight of response and comment to this story about people who claim to have a dead bigfoot. From what I've seen so far in images released to the world, I'm not very impressed. I'll be surprised - very suprised - if these folks deliver what they have promised to reveal this coming Friday.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Happy 100,000th orbit, Hubble

On its 100,000th orbit, the Hubble Space Telescope captured this image of Star Cluster NGC 2074 in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Words cannot do justice to the revealed magnificence of theu niverse.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

The fungus is glowing amongus

Biologist Dennis Desjardin describes in the linked article a very successful foray into southern Brazil in search of a rare phenomenon - mushrooms that give off bioluminescent glows. What his team found is that such mushrooms were not quite so rare as thought. A single evening's work uncovered eight new species, brining to about 65 the number of species (out some some 9,000 known mushrooms) which put out a yellow-green light for reasons not yet fully understood.

Big fuss over smallest snake

As I blogged earlier (see below), biologist S. Blair Hedges recently described the world's smallest known snake from the island of Barbados. He named the 10-cm snake Leptotyphlops carlae. The citizens of Barbados, though, are up in arms over the claim of someone to have "discovered" something islanders have known about for a long time. Hedges notes that it's common for "discovered" species to be locally known, and he is claiming only to be the first to assign the animal a scientific name and write a formal description.

COMMENT: This is an interesting issue, and it's not the first time it's come up. There's a difference, though, between "discovered" in the sense of "first to see the thing" and "discovered" in the scientific sense. I always prefer the term "described" for the latter, and Hedges has the right of the argument here.

Things found lying around dead

I always hesitate before posting about any unidentified carcass (indeed, I may never have done it) because if you wait awhile, such things usually become identified. So it is with the "Montauk Monster." This thing, despite being pretty small (certainly not over a couple of feet long, excluding tail) allegedly washed up on a beach and non-allegedly started a media sensation. Now we have an almost certain ID (a bloated, dead raccoon) but the media has not died down. There are at least three competing claims about where the thing came from and who has it, and someone rushed out a fairly accurate replica and put it on eBay.

Will the same thing happen for the "beast-walrus," or qaqrat, washed up on Alaska's Nunivak Island?

It may. Or the thing may slip quietly out of the news.

I do believe there are some large animals in the oceans yet to be identified, and they may well be discovered via a carcass on the beach (as several species of cetacean have). But the record advises caution. There's almost no point in writing news article until and unless an expert takes a look at the item in question and says "unidentified."

SpaceX's Elon Musk speaks on the Falcon 1 problwm

To abbreviate the message from SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk reports:

"The problem arose due to the longer thrust decay transient of our new Merlin 1C regeneratively cooled engine, as compared to the prior flight that used our old Merlin 1A ablatively cooled engine. Unlike the ablative engine, the regen engine had unburned fuel in the cooling channels and manifold that combined with a small amount of residual oxygen to produce a small thrust that was just enough to overcome the stage separation pusher impulse... As it turned out, a very small increase in the time between commanding main engine shutdown and stage separation would have been enough to save the mission...It looks like we may have flight four on the launch pad as soon as next month."

COMMENT: As others have pointed out, SpaceX needed only days to identify a cause and post the cause and intended fix for the whole world to read. NASA should learn something here. Good luck next time to Elon and company.

Ares/Orion troubles continue

The link above goes to a discussion on a NASAWatch board, which also has a link to an Orlando Sentinel story about continued problems in coming up with an Ares I design that is workable and safe. NASAWatch's Keith Cowing reports the Astronaut Office practically vomited on the latest proposal to control oscillations in "The Stick" design.

COMMENT: As I always say on this topic:
1. I'm not an engineer.
2. I am speaking purely my own opinion.
3. I never liked this design - it seemed marginal to begin with, and the more they have to keep tweaking it, the further away they get from the original claim this solution to launching the Orion was "safe, simple, soon." Yes, we have spent a lot of money and done a lot of work on the Ares I, but if I was Mike Griffin, I would still lean toward scrapping it and working instead to man-rate one of the existing EELVs.

If you go to NASAWatch, they also have posts on the first failure of the Orion Parachute Test Vehicle. It's not the failure that bothers me - it's a test vehicle, and that's why you do tests. It's that the failure was identified thus in a NASA memo: "This situation occurred because of hard buffeting produced by the wake formed by the PTV and the stabilization parachutes." In other words, it's not a one-time component failure. It's another thing needing redesign in a program where everything seems to need redesign.

Friday, August 08, 2008

The US 193 satellite intercept

James Oberg has published the most thorough analysis yet of this incident. His conclusion is that the reasons given by the U.S. government were valid. The satellite's hydrazine tank would not have disintegrated on a normal reentry. He also describes the technical side and explains how this was even more difficult than it looked. Congratulations on a first-rate article, Jim.

Opportunity to support a lunar mission

This message was sent to my fellow science blogger Darren Naish. I reproduce it in full here. I encourage this kind of endeavor and hope someone has the money and inclination to help these fellows out.

From: Will Baird
Date: 2008/8/6
Subject: *grovel*


I am writing with a small plea. I am involved with the Lunar Lander
Challenge[1] and if we successfully complete that, the Google Lunar X
Prize[2]. My team[3,4,5] has hardware on order;however, we have just been hit by
a a sudden rule change by the FAA that will increase our testing
costs a lot.

I am not asking you for a donation. I know about families and money
woes - even with a steady paycheck its not easy! - However if you
would be willing to put up a post suggesting readers contribute, I'd deeply
appreciate it. I've been pounding pavement for well over six months
for this and now IDK if I can raise the dinero in any other way than a paypal drive
in time. If I had another year, yes, but...

Thanx for considering it, Darren.



Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Gorilla population more than double estimates

I didn't blog on this story when it came out because I had trouble believing it wasn't a misprint, with a zero or two added somewhere. But, no, it's accurate, according to the WIldlife Conservation Society. The total western lowland gorilla population (one of four usually-recognized subspecies of the lowland gorilla (technically, its name is Gorilla gorilla gorilla)) had been estimated at under 100,000 and falling. A new census, though, puts the number in the northern Congo region alone at 125,000.

COMMENT: There is some uncertainly about the estimate (based on counting sleeping nests, since individual gorillas are hard to keep track of), but it's clear the animal is doing much better than conservationists feared. A previously unknown population of about 6,000 is part of the estimate. Cryptozoologists have been quick to point out the implications here. If an entire population, around 6,000 animals which may individually weigh upwards of 200kg, has been missed all these years, what else have we missed, in Africa and elsewhere?

MicroSpaceNews: SpaceDev sees positive in recent launch loss

While the microspace community was uttering a collective "Aw. _&%_(#!!!" at the failure of SpaceX's Falcon 1 booster, SpaceDev, DoD's partner in the Jumpstart Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) aspect of this mission, was quick to point out what went right. SpaceDev notes its Trailblazer satellite for the mission was delivered on relatively short notice and met all DoD criteria except of course for a functional demonstration on-orbit. SpaceDev announced it remained committed to the SpaceX (there's no corporate connection, despite the similar names) Falcon 1 launch vehicle program.

MicrospaceNews: New Indian Microsat Effort

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), will help the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur develop a new microspacecraft focused on agricultural and disaster monitoring. Based on Indian technology, the microsat will take about 18 months to develop.
COMMENT: Note there is no description of this as a research or experimental satellite. It's simply being developed to do a job - another sign of the maturity of microspacecraft.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Top 10 "Mad Scientists" offers, as today's diversion, a list of "mad scientists" - actually scientists with eccentricities or multiple interests, neither of which is a bad thing. Einstein gets the top spot because, among other reasons, no ever had better mad-scientists hair.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Microspace News.... Another Falcon falls short

I would have bet money SpaceX's Falcon 1 would make orbit on Flight 3. Alas, I would have lost.
While the main engine and first stage worked fine, there was a problem with separation. The DoD and NASA satellites aboard were lost, always a crushing blow to satellite engineers who have to wait months to years for launch opportunities.

CEO Elon Musk was resolute. His statement after the mishap reads,

"Plan Going Forward

It was obviously a big disappointment not to reach orbit on this flight [Falcon 1, Flight 3]. On the plus side, the flight of our first stage, with the new Merlin 1C engine that will be used in Falcon 9, was picture perfect. Unfortunately, a problem occurred with stage separation, causing the stages to be held together. This is under investigation and I will send out a note as soon as we understand exactly what happened.
The most important message I’d like to send right now is that SpaceX will not skip a beat in execution going forward. We have flight four of Falcon 1 almost ready for flight and flight five right behind that. I have also given the go ahead to begin fabrication of flight six. Falcon 9 development will also continue unabated, taking into account the lessons learned with Falcon 1. We have made great progress this past week with the successful nine engine firing.
As a precautionary measure to guard against the possibility of flight 3 not reaching orbit, SpaceX recently accepted a significant investment. Combined with our existing cash reserves, that ensures we will have more than sufficient funding on hand to continue launching Falcon 1 and develop Falcon 9 and Dragon. There should be absolutely zero question that SpaceX will prevail in reaching orbit and demonstrating reliable space transport. For my part, I will never give up and I mean never.
Thanks for your hard work and now on to flight four.

--Elon-- "

COMMENT: I'm a bit curious about the "significant investment."

Three failures is not necessarily a sign the design is bad, only that this whole space launch thing is complicated. By historical standards, it's not the best or worst of performances. The Saturn V worked on every flight, but Wernher von Braun's simpler Redstone went into its tests as a ballistic missile with a program of 62 launches. (It was cut to 35 when it was clear the major bugs were worked out.) I feel very bad for the SpaceX folks and even worse for the satellite developers who waited months or years for a launch, but I don't think SpaceX is out of the launch business.

ADDED COMMENT: I note the press releases before this flight, as with the second Falcon attempt, described numerous upgrades and improvements over the previously launched vehicle. In other words, SpaceX has really flown three different configurations, which raises the possibility that new failure modes have been introduced. Folks, I'm not an engineer, but here's my unsolicited advice: Freeze the configuration. Find out what went wrong on Flight 3 and fix that - ONLY THAT - and get a successful flight accomplished before you turn to upgrades. Sure, a test flight is just that, and is often intended to try out something new, but prospective customers have to be getting a little nervous at this point. Sometimes, no matter how good your engineers are, you have to rein them in a bit and say "Just make sure the next one orbits." Just one guy's opinion....

World's Smallest Snake Discovered

A lot of people would say that, if we have to find new snakes, it is best those snakes are small. Well, Leptotyphlops carlae, a new snake from Barbados, is as small as they come. It's the size of a 10-cm-long spaghetti noodle. The snake is so small that, like its slightly larder cousins in the group called the threadsnakes, it can produce only one egg at a time. If it had two, the hatchlings would be too tiny to survive. Biologist Blair Hedges of Penn State, who described the animal along with a companion species nearly as long from the island of St. Lucia, thinks this may be as small as snakes get. "Snakes may be prevented by natural selection from becoming too small because, below a certain size, there may be nothing for their young to eat."

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Microspace News: NASA"s microsats ready to go

NASA's press release on an exciting mission ready for launch:



MOFFETT FIELD, Calif. - NASA will fly two nanosatellites as secondary payloads aboard the SpaceX Falcon 1 rocket planned for launch in August or September.

Spaceflight engineers and project managers at NASA's Ames Research Center, and NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala., teamed together to arrange a fast-paced, low-cost mission. The mission provides an opportunity to demonstrate NASA-developed spaceflight technologies and the Ames-developed modular approach to constructing the PharmaSat Risk Evaluation (or PRESat) and NanoSail-D satellites. This same approach was used successfully on a previous mission, GeneSat, and will be used for the upcoming PharmaSat mission, scheduled to launch later this year.
"This mission provides NASA with a unique opportunity to evaluate how our nanosatellite spacecraft and its payload perform, while demonstrating our ability to conduct fast turn-around, low-cost spaceflight projects," said John Hines, chief technologist at Ames' Small Spacecraft Division and PRESat-NanoSail-D technical director. "This collaborative mission has enabled NASA to demonstrate and support cutting-edge technologies."

After successfully entering a low Earth orbit, PRESat will create a stable, space science laboratory using innovative environment control and biological detection techniques. NanoSail-D will deploy an ultra-thin, highly reflective solar sail for the first time in history, and validate cutting-edge, propellant-less space propulsion technologies.

"We have an experimental payload loaded into an experimental satellite, onboard a privately developed vehicle," said Edward "Sandy" Montgomery, NanoSail-D payload manager at NASA's Marshall. "We're thrilled with this opportunity to combine our solar sail experience and technology with a new way of doing business."

The PRESat micro-laboratory is a controlled environment with sensors and optical systems that can detect the growth, density and health of yeast cells. PRESat will also monitor the levels of pressure, temperature, and acceleration. This data will be relayed in real-time to mission managers and engineers for further analysis.

Packed inside the NanoSail-D satellite is a 100 square foot sail, made of ultra-thin, light gossamer fabric, coated with a layer of aluminum to enhance its thrust-producing properties. The reflective sails are designed to intercept the constantly streaming solar energy and change the orbit of the spacecraft. If the deployment is successful, the mission team will be able to pick up slight changes in NanoSail's orbit due to solar pressure and aerodynamic drag a few days into the mission.
Marshall Space Flight Center provided materials for the NanoSail-D spacecraft and the solar sail payload, including harvesting the sail material from an earlier Marshall solar sail propulsion mission tested at NASA's Glenn Plum Brook Station in 2005. The team also includes academic and industry partners who provided economical commercial-off-the-shelf components that were quickly configured and integrated to create the satellite.

The Falcon 1 rocket is on the pad at the Marshall Islands launch site, where SpaceX is conducting final checkouts. SpaceX has announced that the rocket could launch at any time during two launch windows: July 31 to Aug. 6 and late August to early September. SpaceX will notify news media 36 hours in advance of a launch.

After both satellites are ejected from the Falcon 1 rocket into orbit, they will activate and begin transmitting radio signals to two ground control stations operated by students from Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, Calif. One station is located at the Universidad Centroamericana in San Salvador, El Salvador. The other is an innovative, mobile station, positioned near the launch site at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Students will monitor the spacecraft, provide mission data to NASA engineers and coordinate with amateur radio operators around the world to tune in to the satellites' broadcasts.

For the most current NanoSail-D and PRESat launch and spacecraft information, visit:

For more information about NASA programs, visit:

To view the launch via webcast, please visit:

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