May 30, 2011

Skylon Spaceplane Finally Gets Approval

Filed under: Cool, Earth, Gadgets, Inner Solar System, Military, Space Ships — bferrari @ 7:05 pm

British and European space agencies have given the go ahead for the development of a reusable spaceplane that’s been under development for 30 years.

Artist's impression of the Skylon spaceplane taking off from a conventional runway.

Artist's impression of the Skylon spaceplane taking off from a conventional runway. (Reaction Engines Ltd.)


  • The Skylon will launch like a conventional aircraft and reach low-Earth orbit without the help of expendable (and expensive) booster rockets.
  • After 30 years on the drawing board, funding is finally being allocated to this innovative design.
  • It is hoped that the spaceplane will make access to space cheaper and more routine.

After 30 years of development, the UK and European space agencies have given the go-ahead for the Skylon Spaceplane.

The Skylon, which is being developed at the UK’s Oxfordshire-based Reaction Engines Ltd., is an unpiloted and reusable spacecraft that can launch into low-Earth orbit after taking off from a conventional runway.

Looking like something out of Star Wars, Skylon is a self-contained, single stage, all-in-one reusable space vehicle. There are no expensive booster rockets, external fuel tanks or huge launch facilities needed.

PROJECT ICARUS: Conventional Propulsion to Support an Interstellar Probe

The vehicle’s hybrid SABRE engines use liquid hydrogen combined with oxygen from the atmosphere at altitudes up to 26km and speeds of up to Mach 5, before switching over to on-board fuel for the final rocket-powered stage of ascent into low-Earth orbit.

The Skylon is intended to cut the costs involved with commercial activity in space, delivering payloads of up to 15 tons including satellites, equipment and even people into orbit at costs much lower than those that use expensive conventional rockets.

Once the spacecraft has completed its mission, it will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and return to base, landing like an airplane on the same runway, making it a totally re-usable spaceplane, with a fast mission turn around.

NEWS: Airplanes in Space?

Skylon has received approval from a European Space Authority panel tasked with evaluating the design. “No impediments or critical items have been identified for either the Skylon vehicle or the SABRE engine that are a block to further development,” the panel’s report concludes.

“The consensus for the way forward is to proceed with the innovative development of the engine which in turn will enable the overall vehicle development.”

The UK Space Agency says that Reaction Engines will carry out an important demonstration of the SABRE engine’s key pre-cooler technology later this summer.



May 28, 2011

Science of Spirit: Obituary of Mars’s robot geologist

Filed under: Cool, Gadgets, Inner Solar System, Mars, Space Exploration, Space Ships — bferrari @ 9:35 am
Spirit overhead self portrait

Spirit overhead self portrait

From surviving bouts of amnesia to an escape from a sandy dungeon, sometimes it seemed that NASA’s Mars rover Spirit had at least nine lives. But yesterday, after hearing not a peep since March 2010, NASA decided to cut communications with the rover, putting an end to a six-year Martian mission during which it travelled 7730.5 metres. Daredevil escapes aside, here we assess the scientific legacy of this robot geologist.

Spirit was part of a robotic duo, along with its twin Opportunity. One of the aims of their joint mission was to look for signs of water, and from the start Spirit helped to gather clues towards this goal.

The rover’s adventure began on 3 January 2004 when it landed safely in the 170-kilometre-wide Gusev crater in the Martian southern hemisphere, a location chosen because orbital images suggested Gusev might once have held a giant lake. By 12 January, using a mini-Thermal Emission Spectrometer (mTES) – an infrared instrument that indicated the composition of nearby soils and rocks – the rover had already beamed back images of minerals associated with water.

Once it had left its landing platform, Spirit set off on a 2.5-kilometre trek across Martian plains, a journey that revealed little but basaltic lava flows. But upon reaching the Columbia hills in July, the rover uncovered more evidence for water by comparing the mineral content of the plains with that of the hills.

In February 2005, it found more evidence of water in an outcrop of rock dubbed Peace that contained a lot of sulphur. Two possible formation mechanisms, both involving water, were suggested.

Aside from water, Spirit was also tasked with hunting for clues to the forces and events that shaped the development of the young Red Planet. Spirit’s ascent of Husband Hill in 2005 revealed a diversity of rocks and meteorites whose structure and high nickel content hinted at an explosive history.

Then, in September 2005, Spirit snapped a 3D panoramic view from the top of the hill, providing a unique view of “the geological promised land”. Almost a year later, in June 2006, Spirit went on to discover metallic meteorites, echoing a discovery found by its twin Opportunity the year before.

Spirit also made discoveries of an unplanned nature, including taking Mars’s temperature using its mTES, a feat not thought possible before the rover landed. Also unplanned was the length of Spirit’s active life: it was originally designed to last just a few months.

Spirit’s scientific abilities became severely limited in April 2009, when its wheels broke a thin surface crust and got stuck in loose sand. After months unsuccessfully trying to free the rover, NASA announced in January 2010 that it would remain a stationary mission.

Now, after 10 months of calling out to Spirit without response, NASA engineers have decided to end communications completely. Equipment and assets that the rover used are needed for the Mars Science Laboratory, aka Curiosity, due to launch towards the Red Planet next year.

There is however, a sliver of hope for Spirit. Dave Lavery, NASA’s programme executive for solar system exploration, says, “While we no longer believe there is a realistic probability of hearing from Spirit, the Deep Space Network may occasionally listen for any faint signals when the schedule permits.”

Meanwhile, Opportunity is still rolling across the surface of the Red Planet today.


May 26, 2011

Is it possible we’ve found the first White Hole?

Filed under: Big Bang, Black Holes, Cool, Cosmology, Supernova, Wierd — bferrari @ 4:40 pm
The first White Hole ??

The first White Hole ??

White holes are the opposite of black holes, objects into which nothing can enter but are constantly spewing out matter. They were thought to be completely hypothetical, more a mathematical oddity than a real thing…but we may have seen one.

Our opinion??  Maybe this is what is on the other end of a Black Hole….

The basic idea behind them is that the laws of physics aren’t comfortable with things that happen in only one direction. In other words, if black holes exist, then it should be possible to reverse the equations governing them so that you get something that’s reversed but otherwise identical. That’s what a white hole is.

Of course, just because something can happen going both forwards and backwards in time doesn’t mean that, in practice, we’ll actually observe both of those phenomena. (The fact that entropy only increases when the laws of physics say it could just as easily decrease is a famous example of this, but we’ll leave a discussion of that for another day.) At its most basic, white holes simply wouldn’t be as stable as black holes are, and it seems that they would collapse almost immediately under the weight of its own gravity.

Here’s where things get interesting. A gamma ray burst back in 2006 didn’t fit with our understanding of where they come from – its long duration (102 seconds) meant that it had to be created in a supernova explosion, and yet there were no supernovas there for it to have come from. Its discoverers actually said that “this is brand new territory; we have no theories to guide us.”

Now, five years later, it’s being suggested that we might actually have caught sight of a white hole. The fierceness and duration of the explosion could well fit with a white hole briefly popping into existence, spewing out some matter, and then quickly collapsing into itself, resulting in this massive explosion. Although it’s not the most likely explanation – after all, it invokes something that many astronomers have concluded is exceedingly unlikely, verging on impossible – it can’t be immediately discounted.

The trouble is that we’ve found out all we’re going to from this particular burst, so all we can do now is wait for another of these strange hybrid bursts and see how it behaves. If these hybrid bursts really are white holes, then the universe is about to get a lot stranger.


Antimatter Breakthrough — Electron is Stunningly Spherical, Scientists Discover

Filed under: Big Bang, Cool, Gadgets, Wierd — bferrari @ 9:55 am
Part of the laser system used for measuring the shape of the electron.

Part of the laser system used for measuring the shape of the electron.

The electron was hailed by British scientists Thursday as the roundest natural object in the universe.

Researchers from Imperial College London conducted a decade-long laser experiment on the subatomic particle and discovered that it differs from a perfect sphere by less than 0.000000000000000000000000001 of a centimeter — making it “spherical to within the breadth of a human hair.”

“I don’t know of any naturally-occurring object that is rounder and has been measured to the same level of accuracy,” said research leader Dr. Jony Hudson, writing in the journal Nature.

The breakthrough on the shape and structure of one of the fundamental building blocks of atoms could advance research on why more matter than antimatter exists in the universe.

The electron was previously considered to have a distorted shape — causing the subatomic particle and its antimatter opposite, the positron, to behave in different ways — but that theory now seems unlikely.

“As we’ve found that so far as we can tell, the electron is round, this rules out some of the possible explanations for the fate of antimatter,” Hudson said.

Professor Edward Hinds, another member of the research team, added that “physicists just do not know what happened to all the antimatter, but this research can help us to confirm or rule out some of the possible explanations.”

“It’s been a very difficult measurement to make, but this knowledge will let us improve our theories of fundamental physics,” Hudson said.


Part of the laser system used for measuring the shape of the electron.

May 21, 2011

Galactic Census Confirms Existence of Mysterious ‘Dark Energy’

Filed under: Big Bang, Cool, Cosmology, Gamma Ray Bursts — bferrari @ 7:45 am
New results from NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer and the Anglo-Australian Telescope atop Siding Spring Mountain in Australia confirm that dark energy (represented by purple grid) is a smooth, uniform force that now dominates over the effects of gravity (green grid). The observations follow from careful measurements of the separations between pairs of galaxies

New results from NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer and the Anglo-Australian Telescope atop Siding Spring Mountain in Australia confirm that dark energy (represented by purple grid) is a smooth, uniform force that now dominates over the effects of gravity (green grid). The observations follow from careful measurements of the separations between pairs of galaxies (examples of such pairs are illustrated here). (NASA/JPL Caltech)

A census of 200,000 galaxies may confirm that the mysterious force of dark energy is what is pulling the universe apart at ever-increasing speeds, a new study finds.

The results of the five-year galactic survey offer new support for the favored theory of how elusive dark energy works — as a constant force, uniformly affecting the universe and driving its runaway expansion.

The new findings contradict an alternate theory that gravity, and not dark energy, is the force pushing space apart and causing it to expand. That alternate theory challenges Albert Einstein’s concept of gravity, because it has gravity acting at great distances as a repulsive force rather than an attractive one. [6 Weird Facts About Gravity]

The survey, which looked at galaxies that were up to 7 billion years old, used data from NASA’s space-based Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) and the Anglo-Australian Telescope on Siding Spring Mountain in Australia.

An unsolved mystery

Dark energy has long been an unexplainable force, and the theory of its existence remains unproven, but the results of this new study could provide independent confirmation that it is behind the strange way that galaxies are being pulled from one another, against the tug of gravity. [What Is Dark Energy?]

“The action of dark energy is as if you threw a ball up in the air, and it kept speeding upward into the sky faster and faster,” said Chris Blake of the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia. Blake is lead author of two papers on the study appearing in an upcoming issue of the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

“The results tell us that dark energy is a cosmological constant, as Einstein proposed,” Blake said in a statement. “If gravity were the culprit, then we wouldn’t be seeing these constant effects of dark energy throughout time.” [Top 10 Strangest Things in Space]

Dark energy is thought to dominate the cosmos, making up roughly 74 percent of the universe. Dark matter, a slightly less mysterious substance, accounts for 22 percent. “Normal” matter, which consists of anything with atoms, or the materials that make up living creatures, planets and stars, makes up only about 4 percent of the universe.

Where did it come from?

The theory of dark energy was proposed during the late 1990s, based on studies of distant explosions of dying stars called supernovas. Supernovas emit constant, measurable light, which make them useful guideposts for astronomers to calculate the dying stars’ distance from Earth.

By looking farther into space, scientists are effectively able to peer back in time, since the light we see from distant objects is light that left there billions of years ago. Astronomers observed many supernovas at different distances to determine how fast they are speeding away from us, and these measurements subsequently implied a strange force – dark energy – was flinging the objects out at accelerating speeds.

The new survey provides two separate methods for independently checking these results. This is the first time astronomers performed these checks across the whole cosmic time span dominated by dark energy.

Astronomers began by assembling the largest three-dimensional map of galaxies in the distant universe, as spotted by GALEX.

“The Galaxy Evolution Explorer helped identify bright, young galaxies, which are ideal for this type of study,” said Christopher Martin, principal investigator for the mission at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. “It provided the scaffolding for this enormous 3-D map.”

Mapping the cosmos

Detailed information about the light for each galaxy was obtained from the Anglo-Australian Telescope, and the team of astronomers studied the pattern of distance between them. Sound waves from the very early universe left imprints in the patterns of galaxies, causing galactic pairs to be separated by approximately 500 million light-years.

Blake and his colleagues used this figure as a yardstick to determine the distance from the galaxy pairs to Earth. Similar to the supernova studies, these distance data were combined with information about the speeds the galaxy pairs are moving away from us.

This revealed, yet again, that the fabric of space is stretching apart faster and faster.

The astronomers also used the galaxy map to study how clusters of galaxies grow over time like cities, eventually containing many thousands of galaxies. The gravitational pull of the clusters attracts new galaxies, but dark energy appears to tug them apart, and scientists are able to measure dark energy’s repulsive force.

“Observations by astronomers over the last 15 years have produced one of the most startling discoveries in physical science: The expansion of the universe, triggered by the Big Bang, is speeding up,” said Jon Morse, director of the astrophysics division at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. “Using entirely independent methods, data from the Galaxy Evolution Explorer have helped increase our confidence in the existence of dark energy.”


May 20, 2011

Mystery Planet: Is a Rogue Giant Orbiting Our Sun?

Filed under: Cool, Exoplanets, Outer Solar System — bferrari @ 7:48 pm

The quest for Planet X always starts out with celestial objects behaving badly. Astronomers notice that a known planet, or a bunch of comets, begin moving in ways Newton’s laws of motion can’t explain. They propose that it’s caused by the gravity of something massive and still undiscovered lurking out in the Solar System, and they head to their telescopes to search for it.

Most often it’s all a big mistake; the unexplained motion turns out to be just an incorrect measurement. (The great exception concerned Neptune, spotted in 1846 after observers noticed Uranus wandering from its predicted path). So when a pair of University of Louisiana astronomers, writing in the journal Icarus, advanced their recent theory about a new mystery planet in our solar system — and a very, very big one — their colleagues mostly just listened politely, then went back to work. (See TIME’s photoessay “Amazing Photos of the Sun.”)

They reckoned without the Web, though. A few days ago, the British Independent ran an article about the possible planet, and suddenly the idea went viral. The likely reason the story caught fire: a key sentence that read “But scientists now believe the proof of its existence has already been gathered by a NASA space telescope, WISE, and is just waiting to be analysed.”

That’s just close enough to the truth to be dangerous, something that John Matese, co-author of the Icarus paper, admits — sort of. “What we’re really saying,” he explains, “is that there’s suggestive evidence there might be something out there.” And if a new planet exists — something Matese is emphatically not claiming at this point — then the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) satellite should already have an image of it stored somewhere in its enormous database.

How suggestive the evidence actually is, though, depends on whom you ask. If you ask Ned Wright, a UCLA astrophysicist and WISE principal investigator, he’ll tell you, “It’s really kind of flimsy. It’s there, but they don’t have super data.”

The argument Matese and his colleague Dan Whitmire have been making since the late 1990s is that some comets seem to be moving in toward the Sun from a skewed direction. They start out in the Oort Cloud, a vast collection of perhaps trillions of small, icy chunks that hover at the very outer edges of the Solar System. Every so often, a passing star or the tidal effect of the Milky Way itself jostles the cloud, sending some of the chunks sunward to light up the night sky as comets. (See The Hubble Telescope’s Greatest Hits.)

When Matese and Whitmire analyzed the orbits of these Oort Cloud comets, about 20% of them seemed to come not from the random directions you’d expect, but from a narrower section of sky. This might suggest a giant planet, at least the size of Jupiter and maybe up to four times as big. Its size would not be its only remarkable feature; it’s remote orbit would be another — a tidy trillion miles from the Sun, or more than a thousand times more distant than Pluto. “This is not a crazy idea” says Bad Astronomy blogger Phil Plait. And indeed, WISE project scientist Davy Kirkpatrick went so far as to propose a name for the possible new world: Tyche, for the Greek goddess of good fortune.

That might have been a subtle dig, though. In Greek mythology, Tyche was usually invoked along with Nemesis, the goddess of bad luck. Nemesis was also the name given to a mystery object that was in vogue in the 1980s, shortly after it was generally agreed that a comet might have killed the dinosaurs. A few astronomers thought they could see even more of a dino-cosmos link — a pattern of mass extinctions occurring like clockwork in the geologic record. Their explanation: a faint, far-off companion star to the Sun was sending down a rain of comets when it reached just the right point in its orbit. That sounds an awful lot like the current thinking about Tyche’s possible influence — and thus the possible dig. See TIME’s graphic: “Where Things Are Just Right for Life.”

After a brief flurry of interest, most astronomers decided the evidence of Nemesis was pretty flimsy, and the idea went away. So did the long-ago speculation about another huge putative planet, one that was said to be messing with Neptune’s orbit; astronomers who went looking for that version of Planet X in the 1920s could only scare up puny Pluto — whose influence on schoolchildren is huge, but which doesn’t affect Neptune a whit (the original evidence for Neptune’s orbital anomalies turned out to be wrong). And Pluto itself has recently lost its planetary distinction and been busted down to dwarf planet. Then too there was the mystery planet said to be orbiting Barnard’s Star, detected via wobbles in the star’s motion by Swarthmore astronomer Peter Van de Kamp in the 1960s.. Turns out that the wobbles were caused by the removal, cleaning and replacement of his telescope’s mirror. No planet there either.

So while the latest version of Planet X could certainly exist in theory, it’s way too early to start rewriting the textbooks. The evidence isn’t even strong enough to have triggered an active search for Tyche; it’s only because WISE happens to be surveying the heavens anyway that it could be found at all. If Tyche really is out there, says Wright, “we might be able to tell you something in a year or two.”

See the top 50 space moments since Sputnik.


May 13, 2011

Stunning Video: Comet Collides With the Sun

Filed under: Cool, Inner Solar System, Oort Cloud, Outer Solar System, The Sun — bferrari @ 4:40 pm
NASA captured a stunning video showing this fairly bright white comet as it dove towards the Sun -- and was never heard from again.

NASA captured a stunning video showing this fairly bright white comet as it dove towards the Sun -- and was never heard from again.

Now THAT’s a close encounter.

NASA’s solar observatory captured a stunning video of a comet streaking towards the sun between Tuesday and Wednesday — and the aftermath when it collided with the tremendous ball of plasma.

The video, captured by NASA’s Solar & Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), appears to show a fireball jet out following the collision. That’s not quite what happened, NASA explained. Instead, a coronal mass ejection coincidentally blasted out to the right just as the comet approaches and is vaporized by the sun.

The comet is probably part of the Kreutz family — remnants of a single giant comet that broke up many centuries ago, and crash against its surface from time to time. It was discovered by amateur astronomer Sergey Shurpakov, the space agency said.

In this coronagraph, an opaque disk blocks the glare of the sun like an artificial eclipse, revealing faint objects that no Earth-bound telescope could possibly see. It’s intended to allow scientists to view the faint structures in the sun’s corona — but it also reveals sungrazing comets like this one.

NASA has discovered hundreds of such comets over the years — but none that have ended their existence in such an eye-opening fashion. In late December, 2010, the sun dealt with an entire storm of icy comets that dove into its heart and died a similar, fiery death.

“The storm began on Dec 13th and ended on the 22nd,” said Karl Battams of the Naval Research Lab in Washington, DC. “During that time, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) detected 25 comets diving into the sun. It was crazy!”

Scientists have yet to find a convincing physical connection between sun-grazing comets and coronal mass ejections, according to NASA.


Laser designed to tear apart the vacuum of space-time

Filed under: Big Bang, Black Holes, Cool, Cosmology, Gadgets, Wierd — bferrari @ 3:33 pm
Laser designed to tear apart the vacuum of space-time (ELI)

Laser designed to tear apart the vacuum of space-time (ELI)

Recently the European Commission approved the construction of three high powered research laser. The primary purpose of these lasers is to search for theoretical particles. They are hoping to build a fourth laser that could potentially “tear apart the vacuum of space-time” to reveal the matter and anti-matter within.

The fourth laser, that will be located at the ELI-Ultra High Field Facility, will combine 10 beams into 200 petawatt pulses that will only last 1.5 x 10^-14 second. This is 100,000 times the power of the world electric grid in a tiny fraction of a second. This fourth laser could produce a new understanding of particle physics, nuclear physics, gravitational physics, nonlinear field theory, ultrahigh-pressure physics, astrophysics and cosmology.

It is still unclear if this will produce anything more than a massive electric bill, but the nearly 40 research and academic institutions involved in the project seem optimistic.


May 10, 2011

JetMan Quietly Makes Historic Flight Over Grand Canyon

Filed under: Cool, Gadgets, Space Ships, Wierd — bferrari @ 8:22 pm
Yves Rossy, the adventurer better known as Jetman, makes his historic first U.S. flight over the Grand Canyon.

Yves Rossy, the adventurer better known as Jetman, makes his historic first U.S. flight over the Grand Canyon.

With a pair of rockets strapped to his back, Swiss  adventurer “JetMan” Yves Rossy soared over the Grand Canyon over the weekend, marking the flying man’s first U.S. flight.

Steering only with movements of his body, JetMan launched from a helicopter at 8,000 feet over the canyon and skimmed the walls of one of the America’s grandest natural formations on a sunny weekend morning, before deploying his parachute and descending to the Canyon floor.

Just don’t ask when it happened.

While a spokeswoman for the adventurer said that the flight was a success, and issued a picture of Rossy over the Grand Canyon, she could not specify what time Rossy flew, or even whether the flight was on Saturday or Sunday.

“My first flight in the U.S. is sure to be one of the most memorable experiences in my life,” Rossy said in a press release issued Tuesday. “Not only for the sheer beauty of the Grand Canyon but the honor to fly in sacred Native American lands.”

“Thank you Mother Nature and the Hualapai Tribe for making my lifelong dreams come true.”

The adventurer was unavailable for comment after the event, which representatives said was staged quietly over the weekend — because the historic flight was merely a test run.

The Hualapai Tribe calls the rugged area home, and gave assent for Rossy to fly near Eagle Point on the tribe’s reservation, an event that occured days after JetMan abruptly cancelled a planned press event with little explanation.

The adventurer claimed complications with the Federal Aviation Administration led him to scrap his first flight, though a representative for the FAA told that Rossy simply didn’t request a permit early enough. Indeed, the spokesman explained that the agency reached out to Rossy to warn him of the need for a permit, and struggled with how to define his jet suit — airplane or a power glider?

Rossy, who calls himself the JetMan, has rocketed above the English Channel and the Swiss Alps in his custom-built wing suit. Rossy’s jet suit averages 124 mph and has a 6.5-foot wing span; he wears it on his back, sending fuel to the four engines with a slight roll of his hand. The FAA ultimately grouped it with airplanes.

The agency usually requires 25 to 40 hours of test flights but waived that rule for Rossy, saying he already had a significant amount of flight time with the jet suit.

The Hualapai Reservation is known for the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a glass bridge that extends 70 feet from the canyon’s rim and gives visitors a view of the river. The reservation lies west of Grand Canyon National Park.


May 9, 2011

US Military Launches New Missile Warning System Into Space

Filed under: Cool, Gadgets, Government Policies, Military, Space Ships — bferrari @ 4:00 pm
A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket blasts off from Space Launch Complex-41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida with the Air Force's Space Based Infrared Systems (SBIRS) GEO-1 satellite on May 7, 2011.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket blasts off from Space Launch Complex-41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida with the Air Force's Space Based Infrared Systems (SBIRS) GEO-1 satellite on May 7, 2011. (Pat Corkey, United Launch Alliance)

A new U.S. military satellite launched into orbit Saturday (May 7) on a mission to enhance the country’s missile defense and detection capabilities.

The satellite blasted off atop an unmanned Atlas 5 rocket from a seaside pad here at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 2:10 p.m. EDT (1810 GMT). The mission had been delayed one day due to bad weather.

The Atlas 5 rocket carried the first satellite in the U.S. military’s planned four-satellite Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS). The satellites, the first of which is called GEO-1, will replace the military’s Defense Support Program satellites that are currently in orbit.

“Today, we launched the next generation missile warning capability,” Air Force Space Command commander Gen. William Shelton said in a statement. “It’s taken a lot of hard work by the government-industry team and we couldn’t be more proud. We look forward to this satellite providing superb capabilities for many years to come.” [Video: U.S. Defense Satellites Watch Entire World]

The rocket launch provider United Launch Alliance (ULA) oversaw Saturday’s successful liftoff. The GEO-1 satellite rode atop an Atlas 5 configuration that did not use solid rocket boosters.

U.S. military’s latest space sentinel

The $1.3 billion GEO-1 satellite is expected to provide the military with advanced warning of potential incoming threats while they are on the battlefield. It will circle the Earth in a geosynchronous orbit about 22,000 miles (35,406 kilometers) above its coverage area.

“It’s a great day for United Launch Alliance, we have been entrusted to launch the most important missions for this country – be it for NASA, the military or for the private sector,” said ULA spokesman Chris Chavez. “This is our 50th launch overall, our 26th using the Atlas 5 launch vehicle and our fifth launch this year already.”

This new satellite will give better early warning of incoming missiles. GEO-1 will also provide related information such as intelligence-gathering, missile defense and situational awareness for military personnel.

“SBIRS GEO-1 represents the dawn of a new era in overhead persistent infrared surveillance that will greatly improve our national security for years to come,” said Brig. Gen. (select) Roger W. Teague, the U.S. Air Force’s Infrared Space Systems Directorate director, in a statement.

The satellite can track multiple areas and potential threats at once as opposed to the system currently in orbit. The satellite utilizes heat-sensitive technology to perform its mission and has an expected design life of about 12 years.

“This launch represents the culmination of hard work and dedication from an elite team of individuals,” said Michael Friedman a spokesman for Lockheed-Martin, which built the satellite. “Together we’ve built and launched a spacecraft that will protect citizens for years to come a spacecraft the U.S. Air Force and Lockheed Martin SBIRS team knows the nation will be very proud of.”

Space surveillance for missile defense

The SBIRS program is viewed as one of the nation’s highest priority space security programs as it is expected to provide global, constant infrared surveillance that will accomplish a number of national defense requirements, program officials said. The system is expected to provide accurate early warning of incoming missiles to the U.S. President, Secretary of Defense and military commanders in the field. [Most Destructive Space Weapons Concepts]

GEO-1 will compare the heat signature of potential targets (in this case the heat from a missile’s exhaust) against the ambient background temperature and relay its observations to its control team.

The launch had been originally schedule to take place on Friday, but intermittent rain and cumulous clouds thwarted the attempt. Weather was not a concern at the time of launch with completely clear skies in the Cape Canaveral area.

“The Atlas 5 has a 100 percent success rate, we simply cannot ask more from this launch vehicle,” said U.S. Air Force spokeswoman Glorimar Rodriguez. “This mission was number 26 for the Atlas 5 rocket; again and again the launch vehicle performs flawlessly.”

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