Friday, 18 March 2011



Astronaut Cody Coleman plays Irish tunes with instruments borrowed from The Chieftans to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day at ISS. NASA, 2011. Astronaut Cady (Catherine) Coleman played a couple of Irish tunes to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day on her 90th day living at the International Space Station.

Coleman claims a quarter Irish heritage from both of her parents and loves to celebrate her Irishness whenever she has the chance. She borrowed a couple of instruments from a famous Irish band, “The Chieftains

Cady played Matt Malloy’s 100 year old flute and Paddy Maloney’s tin whistle. A nice surprise for the famous folk Irish band as they were told that she was going to take the wind instruments to a business trip but never mentioned the trip was to the ISS.

Irish musical group: The Chieftains. Left to right: Seán Keane, Paddy Moloney, Kevin Conneff and Matt Molloy, 2010.


Messenger Mission: Mercury orbit insertion – 18 March 2011. NASA-JHUAPL, 2011. Today humanity reached another milestone in the exploration of space. Spacecraft Messenger successfully entered into orbit around Mercury, the fifth planet in our solar system around which we achieve orbit.

This is the opportunity to learn about the creation of our solar system and study the effects of time and solar radiation at such a close distance to our star.

This is a historical St. Patrick’s Day you can tell your grandchildren about.

Eric Finnegan, Messenger Mission Systems Engineer – 18 March 2011. NASA-JHUAPL, 2011. After 3 flybys close to Mercury, at 1:30 UTC on 18 March 2011, spacecraft Messenger entered into orbit after a successful burn of its engines to regulate its speed.

At an altitude of 281 km from the surface of the first planet of our system, the spacecraft performed perfectly, mostly in an autonomous way as there is an 8 minute delay in communications to and from Mission Operations Center at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md, USA.

The last moments of tension at Mission Operations dissipated when data sent by Messenger seemed to be almost exactly to that calculated by the engineering team lead by Eric Finnegan, Mission Systems Engineer.

Sean Solomon, Messenger Mission Principal Investigator – 18 March 2011. NASA-CIW, 2011. According to Sean Solomon, Principal Investigator of the mission, “It took 15 years from PowerPoint to Orbit.” He recalls that the original idea of gaining orbit emerged in 1976, shortly after Mariner 10 reached Mercury for the first time.

The mission was quite an achievement, particularly for the navigations team responsible of the precise calculations of the 6 and a half year trajectory of the spacecraft, launched in 2004.


Mercury is the smallest, the densest, the hottest, the closest planet to the Sun, it has the oldest surface and is the planet that receives the most radiation from the Sun. Understanding this planet can tell us a lot about the history of planetary systems, their composition and about how planets work.

Together with Venus, Earth and Mars, they make the innermost rocky planets of our solar system, therefore we expect to find some similarities. There are a number of questions that this mission will attempt to answer:

  • Why is Mercury twice as dense as Earth?
  • What is its geologic history?
  • What is in the 55% of its surface that we never had the chance to see?
  • Why does it have an internal global magnetic field like earth, not found in Venus or Mars?
  • What is the size of its inner core? And is it the outer core molten?
  • What is the highly reflective material inside the permanently shadowed craters at its poles? What is the composition of its thin atmosphere?


Messenger Mission: Projected orbit around Mercury. NASA-JHUAPL, 2011. Data from mission Mariner, 30 years ago was invaluable as that was the first spacecraft to reach the vicinity of Mercury and Venus. The monumental task of sending an autonomous spacecraft took 15 years to plan and develop.

Messenger, an acronym meaning “Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry and Ranging” is a spacecraft that cleverly uses the assistance of gravitational forces of the 3 planets on its 7.9 billion kilometre journey, to its destination.

Launched in the summer of 2004, it moved away from the Earth keeping its instruments side towards the sun, as they were designed to work at close to terrestrial room-temperature. As it moved towards the sun, it turned around to protect its sensitive side under the highly developed heat-shield. From then on a game of hiding from lethal solar radiation was to keep the spacecraft in working order.

This spacecraft is known as the “solar sailor” because it uses angulations of its own features as sails to use the energy of the sun to make slight changes to its trajectory as it travels at speeds of up to 225,300 km/h. Flying close to Venus and to Mercury itself, it used their gravitational pull to slow down enough to approach Mercury. The final burst of its engines slowed it down to a precisely calculated speed to enter into an elliptical orbit, which it will maintain for the next year.

One of the biggest challenges was to shelter the instruments from the extreme heat of the Sun at such a close distance. The shield had to allow the instruments to work at room temperature while it receives temperatures close to 450 degrees Celsius. The instruments were also protected from temperatures in the dark side of Mercury, which can be as low as 0.2 degrees Kelvin.

The shield is made of a ceramic cloth developed originally to protect jet aircraft from the heat of their engines. This was improved with layers of special plastics.

The rest of the spacecraft is mostly fuel. The instruments had to be crafted over a carbon fibre structure to keep it as light as possible.

In order to save fuel, Messenger uses solar energy generated by solar panels but the sun is so strong that they had to be modified to avoid high temperatures as they only work within freezing and boiling water temperatures. Their structure includes 3/2 mirrors and 1/3 solar cells to diverge light, instead of facing the sun they are tilted so that the exposure is feathered for protection.

Instruments on board Messenger. NASA-JHUAPL, 2011. Other instruments on board include:

  • Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS): A set of 2 cameras, one with a long lens for the distant points of the elliptical orbit and a wider angle when the spacecraft is close to the planet.
  • Gamma-Ray and Neutron Spectrometer (GRNS): Detects titanium and hydrogen, which will come useful in determining the possible presence of ice water.
  • X-Ray Spectrometer (XRS): Determines the composition of the surface of Mercury. Magnetometer (MAG): Measures the magnetic field.
  • Mercury Laser Altimeter (MLA): Infrared laser to map the surface of the planet.
  • Mercury Atmospheric and Surface Composition Spectrometer (MASCS): Measures Ultraviolet and Infrared light to determine the composition of the atmosphere.
  • Energetic Particle and Plasma Spectrometer (EPPS): Studies charged particles around the planet.
  • Radio Science (RS): Measures the precise distance from Earth and takes care of communications. Signals travelling at the speed of light take 8 minutes to arrive to Earth.


The first images received gave a sense of reality to the project. They showed areas hardly seen before, including the area known as “the spider” formed of large concentric valleys and possible proof of volcanism with craters partially filled with flows of lava. More images will come later in the year. As Messenger orbits Mercury going around the planet twice a day.


Initially, the next revolutions around Mercury will provide data to establish if the orbit is correct. Then the real mission starts, collecting and analysing data captured by all the instruments on board. Understanding of the planet is the final goal to help us explain how planets were born and what will happen next.


¤ Mariner 10 to Venus and Mercury (2011). NASA-JPL. [Online]. Available here. (Accessed: 18 March 2011).
¤ Messenger (2011). NASA. [Online]. Available here. (Accessed: 17 March 2011).
¤ Tunis, W. (2010). The Musical Box: The Chieftains. [Online]. Available here. (Accessed: 18 March 2011).


¤ All images edited by ren@rt. Source: NASA.

Friday, 11 March 2011


After a total of 365 days of space flight, Space Shuttle Discovery retires from the fleet of NASA’s Shuttle Space programme.

Shuttle Discovery’s Mission STS-133 – The Final Mission – Landed 9 March 2011. NASA, 2011. Discovery’s crew of six completed their mission at the International Space Station clocking 7 days 23hr of “Open Hatch” or the time the spacecraft were structurally inter-connected. They successfully performed 2 space walks, installed the Express Logistics Carrier 4, delivered Robonaut-2 and the Permanent Multipurpose Module

This new addition was the final US structural contribution to the station, which is almost complete with a total weight of approximately 408tons, most of which was carried by Shuttle Spacecraft. Among the few modules due for delivery in the next months are the ELC3 and the Russian MLM module.

The Space Shuttle Discovery visited the International Space Station in 13 successful missions since 1999. Like in all previous occasions, the crew followed a carefully scripted undocking procedure marking the conclusion of a very productive and memorable stay at the station.

ISS crew closing the hatch after the crew of Mission STS-133 returned to the Shuttle Discovery – 7 March 2011. NASA, 2011. The crew of Mission 133 moved back to the Shuttle and verified the safety of the hatch on their side. Their colleagues at the Space Station went through a similar procedure; Commander Scot Kelly and astronaut Paolo Nespoli removed the sheath and padding from the connecting chamber and inspected every centimetre of the hatch for damage and debris, making sure that the interface was clear and the elastic seal was operating efficiently.

In the next couple of hours the integrity of the space station was finally restored when the hatch was closed after several tests by the astronauts. A hermetic closure of all hatches is vital for the control spaceship’s environment to avoid dangerous leakage of gases and loss of pressure.

The Shuttle undocked from the Station and continued with their plan with a fly-by around ISS. No opportunity is lost and that moment was important to inspect and record the status of the outside features of the Space Station. Similarly, an examination of the top of Discovery was viable from the station. To facilitate recording this manoeuvre, the shuttle kept its cargo bay open, extending Canadarm 1 as it revolved around the station before a final burn to head towards Earth.

Shuttle Discovery: Fly-by around ISS with the cargo bay open and Canadarm1 exposed. Surveying the ISS – 7 march 2011. NASA, 2011. Shuttle Discovery: Fly-by around ISS, as both pass over Italy – 7 March 2011. NASA, 2011.

On 7 March, a day after undocking from ISS, the crew received a surprise wakeup call with a message from actor William Shatner, famous for playing the role of Captain Kirk in the 1966-1969 television series “Star Trek,” now a classic in Sci-Fi circles.

Still orbiting the planet, the astronauts conducted a final inspection of the heat protection system using a camera mounted on the Canadarm. The images were transmitted to Kennedy Space Centre for analysis before receiving authorisation to go ahead with re-entry procedures.

     Shuttle Discovery: Use of Canadarm-1 to inspect the Thermal Protection System; images sent to Mission Control for evaluation before re-entry – 7 March 2011. NASA, 2011.

Shuttle Discovery: Canadarm-1 retracted into the cargo bay for the last time after surveying the underside of the Shuttle. NASA, 2011. Shuttle Discovery: Canadarm-1 retracted into the cargo bay for the last time after surveying the underside of the Shuttle. NASA, 2011. Shuttle Discovery: Canadarm-1 retracted into the cargo bay for the last time after surveying the underside of the Shuttle. NASA, 2011.


Shuttle Discovery approached our atmosphere orbiting more closely in preparation for the final descent. Flying over the west side of Australia, the crew performed the final 3-minute deorbit burn at 15:57 UTC.

Shuttle Discovery: Deorbit burn as the vehicle flies over the West side of Australia – 9 March 2011 at 15:57 UTC. NASA, 2011. At deorbit burn, Discovery was rotated tail-first with the cockpit oriented towards our planet. This is the only time it actively brakes, firing its engines against the direction of flight.

Shortly after the burn, the spacecraft was turned around keeping her nose pointing downwards for an initial angle of re-entry. As the vehicle gained velocity, at an altitude of approximately 129 km, her nose was lifted by 43 degrees to find the best angle to reduce velocity while facing the immense heat formed at that stage.

The heat generated at re-entry is the resultant of friction between air particles and the surface of the spacecraft travelling at extremely high speeds, this creates an increase in air compression without time to cool off. The speeds involved could be as high as 7.5 km per second, releasing temperatures as hot as 1,593 degrees Celsius, enough to melt nickel and iron.

In order to survive re-entry, spaceships must be fitted with a heat protection shield that stands extreme temperatures.

Shuttle Discovery: Artist impression of heat image at re-entry, tolerating temperatures as high as 1,6500 degrees Celsius. NASA, 2011. The fleet of the Space Shuttle Programme is fitted with the Thermal Protection System (TPS), which consists of various materials that form part of the outer skin of the vehicle. These materials are largely derived from highly processed sand.

The system is designed to withstand temperatures from minus 156 degrees Celsius of cold space, to approximately 1,650 degrees Celsius at re-entry .

The materials of the TPS include:

  • Reinforced carbon-carbon (RCC): On the wing leading edges, nose cap, external tank attachment. Protects from temperatures that exceed 1,260 degrees Celsius.
  • Black high-temperature reusable surface insulation (HRSI) tiles: On the upper forward fuselage, around the forward fuselage windows, the entire underside, leading and trailing edges of the vertical stabilizer, wing glove areas, elevon trailing edges and areas adjacent to RCC in the upper wing surface and upper body flap surface. They protect from temperatures below 1,260 degrees Celsius.
  • Black fibrous refractory composite insulation (FRCI) tiles: Replace some HRSI in selected areas.
  • White low-temperature reusable surface insulation (LRSI) tiles: On most of the fuselage, vertical tail, upper wings and the Orbital Manoeuvring System/Reaction Control System (OMS/RCS) pods. They protect from temperatures below 649 degrees Celsius.
  • White advanced flexible reusable surface insulation (AFRSI) fabric: This quilted material replaces most LRSI tiles in Discovery and Atlantis. They also protect from temperatures below 649 degrees Celsius.
  • White blankets made of coated Nomex felt reusable surface insulation: On upper payload bay doors, portions of mid and aft fuselage sides and portions of the upper wings and (OMS/RCS) pods. They protect from temperatures below 370 degrees Celsius.
  • Other materials vary from thermal panes for the windows, gap fillers for hatches, umbilical doors, vent doors, and gaps between tiles.

Shuttle Discovery’s projected route of approach to Kennedy Space Centre. NASA, 2011. Once inside our atmosphere, the spacecraft slowed down further thanks to a manoeuvre of roll and roll-reversal. This meant that the shuttle performed three 8-minute rolls of up to 80 degrees, which progressively slowed her down from a speed of Mach 25 (2,8000km/h) to gradually slower speeds as it flew over South America, Guatemala and the Gulf of Mexico, towards Florida. This gave NASA the opportunity to take pictures of Discovery at Mach 18 and Mach 6 for further analysis to learn more about high speed flight.

First images of Shuttle Discovery’s as it approaches Kennedy Space Centre. NASA, 2011. Shuttle Discovery’s position on the map of Mission Control Centre at Kennedy Space Centre. The map shows the landing site a few minutes before touchdown. NASA, 2011.

By the time Discovery reached the vicinity of Kennedy Space Centre, it was still flying at supersonic speeds, producing an spectacular sonic boom; an experience shared with the world via live broadcast of the events by NASA-Television.

The world followed Discovery as she continued her trajectory home entering Florida flying over the city of Sarasota. At 225 km from the landing site, it entered the range of the Tactical Air Navigation System (TACAN), which provides bearing information to aid steering toward the runway. On-board computers normally control the flight up to 40 km from its target, when the commander takes over for manual control. At that stage the vehicle followed a semi-circular trajectory around the landing strip, using an approach aid called the Microwave Scanning Beam Landing system.

The final manoeuvres involved a very rapid final descent, 20 times faster than a commercial airliner, slowing down rapidly by lifting the nose on the very last moments before touchdown of the rear landing gear. The front landing gear followed and the pilot deployed a drag chute to help stop the aircraft. The point where the front gear stopped on the runway will be permanently marked to commemorate the final flight of Space Shuttle Discovery.

Shuttle Discovery: Last approach as it lands on runway 15 of Kennedy Space Centre. NASA, 2011. Shuttle Discovery’s Touchdown on runway 15 of Kennedy Space Centre at 16:57hr UTC, 9 March 2011. NASA, 2011. Thermal Images of Shuttle Discovery as it lands. Shows the high temperature of the rear landing gear as the right side touches the runway first. The nose cone and underside are also hot. NASA, 2011. Shuttle Discovery: The pilot deploys a chute just before the front gear touches the runway to help stop the vehicle. NASA, 2011.

Touchdown on runway 15 of Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, at 16:57 UTC on Wednesday 9th March 2011, marked the conclusion of Mission STS-133 with a total elapsed time of 12 days, 19 hours, 4 minutes and 4 seconds.

After the memorable landing, a caravan of vehicles approached the spacecraft stopping at a safe distance to wait for heat and gases to dissipate. When they received clearance from Mission Control they proceeded to inspect and secure the vehicle.

Shuttle Discovery: Stopped on the runway. Technical teams waiting for dissipation of gases. NASA, 2011. Shuttle Discovery stopped at the end of runway 15. A caravan of support vehicles approach the Shuttle. NASA, 2011.

The Astronauts were transferred to a temporary enclosure for a health check and finally emerged to meet the party of officials and fellow team members from Mission 133. They gathered around Discovery and received all types of congratulations for a job well done.

Pic 20: The crew of Shuttle Discovery’s Mission STS-133 is greeted by NASA officials and ground team members of the mission. NASA, 2011. Pic 21: Welcome to the crew of Shuttle Discovery’s Mission STS-133 gathering around the vehicle. Top: Stephanie Stillson. Bottom: Technician marks a spot of interest on the tiles. NASA, 2011.

NASA administrator, Charles F. Bolden was there to greet the crew. Among other officials, Flight Director Brian Lunney was also present to welcome the astronauts. All along, the technical team of Kennedy Space Centre were looking after the spacecraft and commencing the retrieval of the vast amounts of data collected during the mission.

In a short statement for the media, with Discovery in the background, Commander Steve Lindsey thanked the team involved in one of the most successful and trouble free missions of the Shuttle Space Programme. Next, the astronauts boarded the Astro-van, the vehicle that drove astronauts since the first missions; they retired to meet their families.

Pic 22: Shuttle Discovery’s technical team from KSC pose with the astronauts. NASA, 2011. Pic 23: The crew of Shuttle Discovery’s Mission STS-133 briefs the media on the runway, next to NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden. Bottom: Flight Director Brian Lunney talking to Commander Steve Lindsay – 9 March 2011. NASA, 2011. Astro-Van on top. Bottom: Caravan of support vehicles drive Shuttle Discovery to KSC’s hangar for further maintenance and storage. NASA, 2011. Shuttle Discovery driven to the hangars of KSC. NASA, 2011.

After lunch, they gathered again for the official media conference, in which the crew mentioned the sadness of leaving behind such a healthy vehicle, a testament to the passion, dedication and attention to detail of all teams at Kennedy Space Centre. Although no comment was done about plans of commercial companies taking over space flight; Commander Lindsay highlighted the virtue of discipline to maintain a vehicle of this complexity. They also stated that this is the best time to become an astronaut as many nations are now joining efforts to continue space exploration, which will become a part of the world of the future.

Shuttle Discovery’s Mission STS-133 arrive to the media conference – 9 March 2011. NASA, 2011.
Shuttle Discovery’s Mission STS-133: Commander Steve Lindsey. NASA, 2011. Shuttle Discovery’s Mission STS-133: Pilot Eric Boe. NASA, 2011. Shuttle Discovery’s Mission STS-133: Mission specialist medic Mike Barratt. NASA, 2011. Shuttle Discovery’s Mission STS-133: Astronaut Steve Bowen. NASA, 2011.
Shuttle Discovery’s Mission STS-133: Astronaut Alvin Drew. NASA, 2011. Shuttle Discovery’s Mission STS-133: Astronaut Nicole Stott. NASA, 2011.

The end of this mission was also particularly significant to ISS Flight Director Brian Lunney, who after 10 years working at NASA, with 300 shifts at his post, will be moving to work with a private space research company (Odyssey Space Research), a trend followed by many talented people at NASA as the 30 year programme comes to an end.

Farewell Discovery!

Animation of Shuttle Discovery’s Main engines movement. NASA, 2011.

”Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened.” Theodor Seuss Geisel, attributed.

Notable landmarks:

  • Discovery clocked 365 days of flight, the longest in history.
  • Discovery flew 13 times to the ISS since 1999, most than any other shuttle.
  • Discovery completed 39 successful flights without major flaws.
  • Discovery was the first shuttle to do the rotation inspection manoeuvre.
  • This spacewalk marked the 200th in the history of NASA.

24 Feb – 9 Mar 2011 + Great Soundtrack! Courtesy of NASA-TV



Shuttle Discovery’s Mission STS-133: Collage based on Spacewalk preparations removing gases from the blood before isolation period, leading to spacewalk. Astronauts Bowen and Drew at ISS. NASA, 2011. Mission Control Centre at Kennedy Space Centre just before touchdown and after a safe landing with a message of welcome to Shuttle Discovery and Mission STS-133 – 9 March 2011 at 14:57hr UTC. NASA, 2011. Shuttle Discovery’s Mission STS-133 joined the crew of the International Space Station for 8 days of collaborative work. NASA, 2011. Shuttle Discovery’s Mission STS-133: Crew posing in the Shuttle before re-entry and at the bottom during training before the mission. NASA, 2011.


¤ “Captain Kirk wakes up shuttle crew” (2011). MyFox. 7 March 2011. [Online]. Available here. (Accessed: 9 March 2011).
¤ “International Space Station” (2011). NASA. [Online]. Available here. (Accessed: 9 March 2011).
¤ “International Space Station Imagery: Underside view of Discovery” (2005). NASA. [Online]. Available here. (Accessed: 9 March 2011).
¤ “NASA Developing New Heat Shield for Orion” (2006). NASA. [Online]. Available here. (Accessed: 9 March 2011).
¤ “NASA Television” (2011). NASA. [Online]. Available here. (Accessed: 9 March 2011).
¤ “Real World: Space Shuttle Thermal Protection System” (2008). NASA. [Online]. Available here. (Accessed: 9 March 2011).
¤ “Space Shuttle” (2006). NASA. [Online]. Available here. (Accessed: 25 February 2011).
¤ “Space Shuttle Basics” (2003). NASA. [Online]. Available here. (Accessed: 10 March 2011).
¤ “Space Shuttle Orbiter Systems: Thermal Protection System” (2000). NASA. [Online]. Available here. (Accessed: 9 March 2011).
¤ “STS-133: Discovery” (2011). NASA. [Online]. Available here. (Accessed: 25 February 2011).
¤ “STS-133: The Highlights” (2011). NASA. [Online]. Available here. (Accessed: 10 March 2011).


¤ All images edited by ren@rt. Source: NASA.