Anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s spaceflight marks fifty years of human space travel

On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin lifted off on Vostok 1, the first human spaceflight in history, completing one orbit of the Earth in just under two hours. Tuesday marks the anniversary of Gagarin’s flight and fifty years of human space travel.

Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, the first human in space, completing one orbit of the Earth in just under two hours.

Celebrations were to take place all over the world and aboard the International Space Station. Yuri’s Night, started in 2001 for fortieth anniversary celebrations, is a global celebration of the history of spaceflight, including the first Space Shuttle launch on April 12, 1981, the twentieth anniversary of Gagarin’s flight. There were to be more than 400 events in 71 countries celebrating Yuri’s Night this year.

Gagarin’s flight lasted 108 minutes, just under two hours, and consisted of one full orbit around the Earth. His trip to orbit came just four years after the launch of Sputnik 1 and the beginning of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union (USSR).

Vostok I capsule used by Yuri Gagarin, now on display at the RKK Energiya Museum outside of Moscow.

The crew on board the International Space Station (ISS) also marked the fiftieth anniversary by delivering a message from space. While addressing viewers, station commander Dmitry Kondratyev referred to the portrait of Gagarin floating next to him as a representation of the achievement of “humankind at large”.

A movie, entitled First Orbit, was filmed in parts in space when the orbit of the ISS matched that of Gagarin’s flight. The movie, produced by filmmaker Christopher Riley, was filmed by ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli and matches the radio communications, times, and views of the flight. The film is freely available to the public and made its debut on Tuesday to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the human race becoming a space-faring species.

NASA Simulates the Sun’s Power on Earth to Test Hardware Intended for Space

In the hostile environment of space, satellites could get burned by the ultra-hot sun in front of them and chilled by the frigid cold conditions of space behind them.

Researchers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., are using their Solar Thermal Test Facility to simulate some of the harshest conditions space has to offer to learn what these extreme temperatures can do to flight hardware close to the sun. They’re currently testing Strofio, a unique NASA instrument that will fly aboard an upcoming European Space Agency mission, in this facility to test the thermal balance before the instrument is on its way to Mercury.

The Solar Thermal Test Facility's concentrator mirror is composed of 144 smaller hexagonal segments. When all the mirrors are fully uncovered, the mirror beams about 1,000,000 watts per square meter of solar energy intensity into the vacuum chamber at the focal point. (NASA/D. Oliver)

The facility looks like it belongs in a galaxy far, far away. A two-story tall curved mirror — actually is made of 144 separate mirror segments, each hexagonally shaped and about 18 inches in diameter — forms the backbone of the facility.

About 50 yards away, sitting in a field, lies another mirror tilted at a slight angle. This secondary mirror reflects the sun towards the primary mirror, which captures the energy and then focuses inside a small vacuum chamber mounted in front of the mirror’s focal point.

The instrument currently being tested only needs 14,700 watts per square meter intensity so the facility covers most of the mirrors, or those that appear white, only uncovering a few with holes, those that look glassy, to beam sunlight into the vacuum chamber. Normal solar intensity at the Marshall Center with no mirrors is 1000 watts per square meter. (NASA/D. Oliver)

The giant wall of mirrors works by capturing the light from the sun and redirecting that energy to whatever happens to be sitting in the vacuum chamber. That superheats the instrument, allowing scientists to know how their hardware will behave as it nears the sun. Of course they can’t use all 144 mirror segments at once — that would beam 5000 watts worth of energy onto whatever happens to be inside the vacuum chamber. For the Strofio tests, engineers will only need to partially uncover about 26 mirror segments. They’ll reach temperatures hot enough to test their instrument, but not so high that they melt away their hard work.

But that’s only half the equation. Thanks to the Southwest Research Institute, the NASA facility has installed a liquid nitrogen shroud on the inside of the vacuum chamber that will flow super-cold liquid nitrogen. That will allow engineers to chill the vacuum chamber to the freezing cold temperatures, just like those in deep space.

Engineers put the instrument inside this vacuum chamber where the pressure is lowered to the vacuum conditions of space. The black liquid nitrogen cooled walls simulate the super-cold conditions space has to offer. The sun is illuminating the front of the instrument bright white. (NASA/D. Oliver)

In the front, the mirrors expose the instrument to the hotness of the sun. In the back, the nitrogen exposes it to the coldness of a vacuum. Together they accurately mimic the conditions of space, allowing scientists to test how their instrument will perform on its actual mission.

“It really gives you a good opportunity to understand how your instrument will perform in the conditions of deep space,” says Dr. Jimmy Lee, mission manager for Strofio. “We’re trying to understand on Earth how our tool will perform thousands of miles away in radically different conditions. That’s critical for a mission like ours.”

These tests prove vital for equipment like Stofio that are destined to travel close to the sun. Strofio will fly in polar orbit around Mercury where it will determine the chemical composition of Mercury’s surface using a technique called mass spectroscopy, providing a powerful new data to study the planet’s geological history. It will launch with the ESA’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter mission in 2014.

When Strofio reaches its orbit around mercury, the sun will expose it to temperatures over 120 degrees Celsius or 248 Fahrenheit. That’s a stretch even for the relatively resilient NASA computers which historically only operate at around 24 degrees Celsius or 75 Fahrenheit. Engineers will have to continuously test Strofio to handle the tough Mercury conditions.

For now, the Solar Thermal Test Facility’s team continues to test Strofio in preparation for its upcoming mission. Hopefully, they’ll continue to have the opportunity to bring the conditions of deep space to the middle of Huntsville, Ala.

NASA and ESA’s First Joint Mission to Mars Selects Instruments

PASADENA, Calif. — NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have embarked on a joint program to explore Mars in the coming decades and selected the five science instruments for the first mission.

The principal investigator for one of the instruments, and the management for NASA’s roles in the mission, are based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, scheduled to launch in 2016, is the first in a series of planned joint robotic missions to the Red Planet. It will study the chemical makeup of the Martian atmosphere with a 1000-fold increase in sensitivity over previous Mars orbiters. The mission will focus on trace gases, including methane, which could be potentially geochemical or biological in origin and be indicators for the existence of life on Mars. The mission also will serve as an additional communications relay for Mars surface missions beginning in 2018.


“Independently, NASA and ESA have made amazing discoveries up to this point,” said Ed Weiler, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Working together, we’ll reduce duplication of effort, expand our capabilities and see results neither ever could have achieved alone.”

NASA and ESA invited scientists worldwide to propose the spacecraft’s instruments. The five selected were from 19 proposals submitted in April. Both agencies evaluated the submissions and chose those with the best science value and lowest risk.

The selection of the instruments begins the first phase of the new NASA-ESA alliance for future ventures to Mars. The instruments and the principal investigators are:

— Mars Atmosphere Trace Molecule Occultation Spectrometer — A spectrometer designed to detect very low concentrations of the molecular components of the Martian atmosphere: Paul Wennberg, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif.
— High Resolution Solar Occultation and Nadir Spectrometer — A spectrometer designed to detect traces of the components of the Martian atmosphere and to map where they are on the surface: Ann C. Vandaele, Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy, Brussels, Belgium.
— ExoMars Climate Sounder — An infrared radiometer that provides daily global data on dust, water vapor and other materials to provide the context for data analysis from the spectrometers: John Schofield, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
— High Resolution Color Stereo Imager — A camera that provides four-color stereo imaging at a resolution of two million pixels over an 8.5 kilometer (5.3 mile) swath: Alfred McEwen, University of Arizona, Tucson.
— Mars Atmospheric Global Imaging Experiment — A wide-angle, multi-spectral camera to provide global images of Mars in support of the other instruments: Bruce Cantor, Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego.

The science teams on all the instruments have broad international participation from Europe and the United States, with important hardware contributions from Canada as well.

“To fully explore Mars, we want to marshal all the talents we can on Earth,” said David Southwood, ESA director for Science and Robotic Exploration. “Now NASA and ESA are combining forces for the joint ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter mission. Mapping methane allows us to investigate further that most important of questions: Is Mars a living planet, and if not, can or will it become so in the future?”

NASA and ESA share a common interest in conducting robotic missions to the Red Planet for scientific purposes and to prepare for possible human visits. After a series of extensive discussions, the science heads of both agencies agreed on a plan of cooperation during a June 2009 meeting in Plymouth, England, later confirmed by ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in a statement of intent that was signed in November 2009.

The plan consists of two Mars cooperative missions in 2016 and 2018, and a later joint sample return mission. The 2016 mission features the European-built ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, a European-built small lander demonstrator, a primarily-U.S. international science payload, and NASA-provided launch vehicle and communications components. ESA member states will provide additional instrument support.

The 2018 mission consists of a European rover with a drilling capability, a NASA rover capable of caching selected samples for potential future return to Earth, a NASA landing system, and a NASA launch vehicle. These activities are designed to serve as the foundation of a cooperative program to increase science returns and move the agencies toward a joint Mars sample return mission in the 2020s.

NASA’s Mars Exploration Program seeks to characterize and understand Mars as a dynamic system, including its present and past environment, climate cycles, geology and potential for life. JPL, a division of Caltech, manages the program and development of the NASA-supplied instruments for the 2016 orbiter for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

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