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Alan Boyle: Cosmic Log

SpaceShipOne pilot says, 'We're going to win it.'

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July 9, 2004 | 1:17 a.m. ET
X Prize attempt in late September
(Note: Alan's still on vacation; this is his editor, Lori Smith, filling in.)
If you’re still kicking yourself for missing SpaceShipOne’s historic flight last month, you might pencil in a trip to Mojave for late September. That’s when, according to SpaceShipOne pilot Mike Melvill, the same team is going to launch their bid for the $10 million Ansari X Prize.

Appearing on MSNBC’s "Deborah Norville Tonight" Thursday, Melvill confirmed earlier reports that Scaled Composites is closing in on an official try, which requires 60-day notice.

“We plan on [trying] toward the end of September this year,” said Melvill, adding that he didn’t know who would be the pilot for that attempt.

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“I’m hoping to encourage another individual to do it, but I’ll be standing by in case they need me,” he told Norville.

A video clip of Melvill talking about the attempt (including some mild trash-talking) can be watched by clicking here. Another video from the show, in which Melvill describes his history-making flight, can be watched by clicking here.

July 7, 2004 | 6:40 p.m. ET
All systems go for private spaceship:
The problems that dogged SpaceShipOne during its historic spaceflight last month have been resolved, and the rocket plane's next launch will kick off an attempt to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize, team leader Burt Rutan told Wired News.

As the craft climbed to a space-qualifying altitude of 62 miles (100 kilometers) on June 21, it suffered an unexpected roll as well as what Rutan characterized at the time as a serious flight control problem. But Rutan told Wired News that the flight control glitch turned out to be "not serious." The problem was traced to an actuator that hit a stop as it tried to move one of the plane's flaps.

Wired's Dan Brekke quoted Rutan as saying that the roll problem had a different cause: wind shear, which was the main reason why SpaceShipOne didn't go as high as intended and barely made the 100-kilometer milestone.

Resolving these questions opens the way for Rutan and the rest of his Scaled Composites team to schedule a formal Ansari X Prize attempt. Such an attempt would require 60-day advance notice, and the rocket ship would have to carry an extra 396 pounds of ballast to represent the weight of two passengers.

Two qualifying flights would have to be made in the course of two weeks, but Rutan has said he intends to do three launches in a two-week span — to provide an extra margin for winning the prize.

The report from Rutan has already started a drumbeat of anticipation, even though there's no word that the 60-day notice has been given yet. SpaceShipOne pilot Mike Melvill and millionaire space passenger Dennis Tito are scheduled to appear Thursday on MSNBC's "Deborah Norville Tonight," and even the "Foxtrot" comic strip is getting into the X Prize action. (Tip o' the Log to Clark Lindsey.)

July 7, 2004 | 7:30 p.m. ET
Space mission to the sea:
Three astronauts and a NASA engineer will test space station equipment — and practice for living in space as well — in a station-size habitat 62 feet (19 meters) beneath the ocean surface in the Florida Keys.

The July 12-21 tour of duty in the Aquarius Underwater Laboratory is part of the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations project, or NEEMO. John Herrington, the first Native American to fly in space, heads a team that also includes astronauts Doug Wheelock and Nick Patrick as well as biomedical engineer Tara Ruttley.

Craig Cooper and Joe March, systems engineers from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, will work side by side with the NASA crew. The Aquarius facility is owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, operated by the university and funded by NOAA's Undersea Research Program.

For more on Project NEEMO, check out the Web information from NASA or Aquarius. The schedule includes a Webcast at 1 p.m. ET July 15; this page provides more information and gives you a chance to submit questions to the crew.

July 7, 2004 | 7:30 p.m. ET
Road trip:
Following in the footsteps of John Kerry, I am heading out to Cascade, Iowa, for a family visit — then embarking on a westward highway odyssey worthy of the Lewis and Clark bicentennial. Updates to the Log will be sporadic for the next week or so, but don't be surprised if you get a virtual postcard from Yellowstone, or at least Dubuque.

July 7, 2004 | 6:40 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
Science @ NASA: The reality behind a blue moon
Xinhua: Ancient 'European' skeletons found in China
BBC: China plans moon mission in 2007
The Age: Love really is blind

July 6, 2004 | 8:30 p.m. ET
New look at a two-faced moon:
Over the weekend, the Cassini spacecraft took its best snapshots yet of Saturn's bizarre two-tone moon, Iapetus, from a distance of about 1.85 million miles (3 million kilometers).

The images show the black-white, yin-yang pattern that makes Iapetus so distinctive. As detailed in this Space.com report, scientists are still debating what's behind the high-contrast surface. Some believe that as Iapetus spins in its orbit, its leading edge sweeps up a dusting of dark space debris, perhaps including material blown off the dark moon Phoebe. Others say the pattern is more suggestive of dark material welling up from Iapetus' interior.

Cassini could help settle the question during a closer flyby due in September 2007, when the spacecraft comes within 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) of the moon's surface.

Image: Iapetus
NASA / JPL / SSI
A raw image of the Saturnian moon Iapetus, captured by the Cassini spacecraft on July 3, shows the icy satellite's distinctive two-tone surface.

Cassini also pointed its camera toward four other moons over the Fourth of July weekend: Mimas, Rhea, Enceladus and Tethys. You still can't make out much detail in the raw imagery, however. All those moons will get better close-ups later in Cassini's four-year mission.

For the next few weeks, things will be fairly quiet as Cassini whirls through the outward arc of a 116-day orbit around the ringed planet. That will give scientists time to digest the data they've already acquired, and get ready for the next milestone.

"The next really big thing is the close Titan flyby in October," spokesman Guy Webster said from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. To get an overview of Cassini's full tour, right down to the dates for close approaches, check out the Planetary Society's orbital guide.

July 7, 2004 | Updated 2:30 p.m. ET
Cosmonaut controversy:
Memorials for Soviet space pioneer Andrian Nikolayev, who unexpectedly died of a heart attack on Saturday, were marred by a bitter dispute over the disposition of his remains, NBC News space analyst James Oberg reports.

"His family and friends had wanted him interred near Moscow, at the cosmonaut training center called Star City," Oberg explained in an e-mail report. "But he died while visiting his home province, and the local leader decreed that he be buried there, at a space museum in his honor."

The 74-year-old Nikolayev was stricken while preparing to officiate at a sporting event in his native Chuvash region, and died in a hospital in Cheboksary, the provincial capital, about 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) east of Moscow.

His daughter, Yelena Mayorova, told local authorities to ship her father's body to Moscow. Nikolai Federov, the president of the Chuvash Autonomous Region, promised her that her wishes “would be considered.” But according to Oberg's report, Federov quickly organized a funeral for Monday, with interment at the museum in Nikolayev’s boyhood home, the village of Shorsely on the Volga River.

Mayorova and several of Nikolayev's cosmonaut colleagues objected to the plans, according to Russian television reports. Despite those objections, the interment took place as ordered, Oberg reported.

Nikolayev was selected for the first Soviet cosmonaut team and went on two record-breaking space missions, in 1962 and 1970. After his first space mission, he was assigned to coach a new group of women cosmonauts — among whom was Valentina Tereshkova, who became the first woman in space in June 1963 and married Nikolayev the following November.

The following year, Tereshkova gave birth to Yelena, the first child of parents who both had been in space. Tereshkova and Nikolayev were later divorced — but the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets reports that after her ex-husband's death, Tereshkova took up Yelena Mayorova's argument with Federov, to no avail.

July 6, 2004 | 8:30 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
Discovery.com: Flies have mammal-like sense of taste
N.Y. Times (reg.req.): Virtual camp trains soldiers in Arabic
New Scientist: Evolution could speed Net downloads
Science News: How anesthetics work their magic

The fine print: Looking for older items? Check the Cosmic Log archive. Share your perspective on cosmic subjects with Alan Boyle. If you link to this page, you can use http://cosmiclog.msnbc.com or http://www.cosmiclog.com as the address. MSNBC is not responsible for the content of Internet links.


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