Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Catching HTV

Last Friday I was sitting in my box, minding my own business and working on the September 11, 2001 post, following our brief and localized power outage, when a sudden explosion, two of them, occurred outside, shaking my box a twidge, making my stacks of books jiggle. This event was notable and made me a bit nervous. Anyone who has lived in California for a long period of time, or is a native like me, has a great appreciation for sudden movements of buildings they happen to be in as this area is prone to massive earthquakes. And one of my fears is that I'll still be living in Los Angeles when the predicted "Big One" strikes, leaving me and my box, and the rest of Los Angeles in a shambles. Fortunately I have two gallons of emergency water stashed away for just this occasion. And six cans of tuna. And I plan to move to Ireland where as far as I know they have no earthquakes. Just freaking Leprechauns! Wiley bastards.
My television was on at the time, tuned onto MSNBC, and after about two minutes after this event a live picture of the space shuttle Discovery landing at nearby Edwards Airforce Base was presented. Then it dawned on me, ahh... sonic boom. I should have known, as the shuttle lands here rather frequently when the weather is to crappy back in Florida for it to land safely. NASA doesn't like to land here because it costs several million dollars to ferry it back to the Kennedy Space Center, piggybacked on top of a 747. It was waved off from Florida though after two attempts were scrubbed due to thunder storms there, adding another day to the mission.
The sonic boom is caused by the shuttle slowing down from the supersonic speeds it was experiencing while in Earth orbit, slowing through Mach 1, or at about 761 miles per hour to speeds slower than sound. The double boom is caused by the difference in air pressure as sound shock waves pass this barrier from the nose to the tail of the vehicle.
Discovery and its crew were up there after a 14 day successful mission to the International Space Station, delivering equipment, supplies, and personnel. Two refrigerator sized science racks were delivered, one to conduct experiments on solids such as metals and ceramics in the micro gravity of outer space, which for those worried about the costs of space exploration when we have so many pressing problems back on Earth, could lead to making better materials for us to use at home. The other rack will be used for fluid physics research which could also provide better fuel tanks and water systems right here.
They also delivered a new sleeping compartment, air purification system (which is very important as there is almost no air outside at all), and the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill, named after Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert, after he stuffed the ballot box, if you will, by urging his viewers to vote for him. But this is a serious piece of equipment as humans tend to experience bone and muscle loss while in zero gravity for longs periods of time, which can only be countered by regular, sustained exercise. This, plus shielding from cosmic and solar radiation are major obstacles which must be overcome if man is to ever land safely on the planet Mars, and return.
Astronaut Nicole Stote flew aboard Discovery to begin a three month mission upon the Space Station, replacing Tim Kopra who wanted to come home. I don't blame him. After you've been up there for a while, seen what there is to see, there isn't all that much to do besides re-read Moby Dick.
Nicole has been trained to do a very interesting thing tomorrow, if all goes well. She is going to use a new robotic arm, delivered to the Station in April, and provided by our neighbors in Canada, to catch the Japanese HTV unmanned supply vehicle, which is slowly sneaking up on the Station this very moment. The HTV, or the H-II Transfer Vehicle as the Japanese like to call it, will deliver three qand a half tons of equipment and food. If everything goes right, and the astronauts aboard the Station are able to capture and unload the HTV, they will then unload their accumulated trash onto the HTV, which will return to Earth and burn up as it enters the atmosphere. The capture will happen at about one forty seven in the afternoon Pacific Standard Time.
There are only six more scheduled shuttle launches planed before the 3 remaining vehicles are to be retired, which have been operational since 1981, and successful in 126 of its 128 missions so far. It will be replaced in 2014 by the Orion Spacecraft, which besides being able to return astronauts to the International Space Station, is planned to send them back to the moon as well, and possibly on to Mars.
As for the Space Station itself, I plan to walk out to our garden on Saturday September 26th, at around seven fifteen in the evening when it may be visible in the skies above Los Angeles for about five minutes, and wave hello.

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