Saturday, June 6, 2009

Ocean Circulation Explorer, the Formula 1 of satellites


Those hip Europeans. They make the sleekest cars, and now they’ve taken that chic design sense into space with the Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE), perhaps the most badass satellite to ever ply the cosmos. This shiny space ornament is set to blast into orbit on September 10th, and will be using its Electrostatic Gravity Gradiometer to measure the earth’s gravitational fields. Its main mission is to figure out the speed and direction of ocean currents, and along the way maybe even determine when the next big volcano is going to blow.

Powered by an electric motor charged up with solar panels, it will get its readings of Earth’s gravitational field by flying in a relatively low 167-mile-high orbit. Because there’s still some wispy remnants of the earth’s atmosphere at that altitude, this baby has those streamlined fins like a ’57 Chevy to fly straight and true. This snazzy bird is sure to be the envy of all the other satellites, not to mention that clunky-looking International Space Station.

Astronauts ferried to the International Space Station by the Discovery space shuttle are hard at work this week to get its latest addition online: the $1 billion Kibo science lab module. The Kibo module, named for the Japanese word meaning "hope," will be the station's largest room at 37 feet in length — about the size of a bus's interior. Supplies for Kibo were already delivered to the station in March, and something resembling a porch will be shipped up to it next year, where astronauts will be able to conduct "outdoor" experiments.

Another important item went up with the Kibo: an inspection boom to check the Discovery spacecraft for any signs of damage during liftoff. The shuttle tore off 1,500 square feet of the flame trench during liftoff — the most damage to the launchpad in 27 years — and a few pieces of foam insulation for the Discovery's external fuel tank were also spotted falling away. The boom, equipped with a scanning laser, will allow the astronauts and mission crew here on Earth to determine whether or not the Discovery is in good enough shape to reenter the atmosphere.

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