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STS-51F: Shuttle becomes observatory
Space shuttle Challenger was transformed into an orbiting observatory to study the sun, stars and space environment during the Spacelab 2 mission in the summer of 1985. But getting into space wasn't easy. The shuttle suffered an engine shutdown on the launch pad, then during ascent two weeks later lost one of its three main engines. It marked the first Abort To Orbit in shuttle history. In this post-flight film, the crew of STS-51F narrates highlights of the mission that includes tests using a small plasma-monitoring satellite was launched from Challenger's robot arm.

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STS-51G: Space truck
A seven-person crew featuring payload specialists from France and Saudi Arabia flew aboard the June 1985 mission of space shuttle Discovery. They narrate the highlights of STS-51G in this post-flight film. Three communications satellites -- for Mexico, the Arab countries and the U.S. -- were launched from the payload bay. And the SPARTAN 1 astrophysics spacecraft was deployed from the shuttle's robot arm for a two-day freeflight to make its science observations before being retrieved and returned to Earth.

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STS-51B: Monkeys, bubbles and auroras
The flight of Spacelab 3 aboard Challenger in April/May 1985 was a week-long scientific research mission using a laboratory tucked in the shuttle's payload bay. Experiments focused on material and fluid behaviors in weightlessness, plus observations of monkeys in the lab. The crew also watched amazing auroral displays over Earth. This post-flight crew film shows the highlights of STS-51B and includes remarkable views out the shuttle cockpit window during launch showing the Chesapeake Bay, New York City and Cape Cod as Challenger soared up the eastern seaboard.

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STS-51D: Flyswatter spacewalk
Discovery launched April 12, 1985 on the STS-51D mission. A U.S. military communications satellite, known as Leasat 3, failed to activate after its deployment from the payload bay. That set the stage for a spacewalk -- the shuttle program's first unplanned EVA -- to attach handcrafted "Flyswatter" objects on the shuttle robotic arm to hit a timing switch on the satellite. The rescue attempt did not succeed. Upon landing at Kennedy Space Center, Discovery blew a tire. The crew, including Senator Jake Garn of Utah, narrate this post-flight film of highlights from the week-long mission.

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Fuel tank update
NASA managers hold this news conference April 28 to give an update on plans for the next space shuttle mission, the ongoing external fuel tank testing and debates over further modifications.

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CALIPSO and CloudSat
The Boeing Delta 2 rocket carrying the CALIPSO and CloudSat atmospheric research spacecraft lifts off at 3:02 a.m. local time April 28 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

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Tank meets SRBs
Inside the Vehicle Assembly Building, the external fuel tank for the STS-121 space shuttle mission is hoisted into position for attachment with the twin solid rocket boosters atop a mobile launch platform. The tank, ET-119, will carry the liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen to feed Discovery's three main engines during launch.

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Discovery payload bay
In preparation for space shuttle Discovery's departure from its Orbiter Processing Facility hangar for rollover to the Vehicle Assembly Building and mating with the tank and boosters, the ship's 60-foot long payload bay doors are swung shut.

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Spitzer telescope sees trail of comet crumbs
Posted: May 10, 2006

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/W. Reach (SSC/Caltech)
Download larger image version here

NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has snapped a picture of the bits and pieces making up Comet 73P/Schwassman-Wachmann 3, which is continuing to break apart on its periodic journey around the sun. The new infrared view shows several chunks of the comet riding along its own dusty trail of crumbs.

"Spitzer has revealed a trail of meteor-sized debris filling the comet's orbit," said Dr. William T. Reach of NASA's Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. Reach and his team recently observed the comet using Spitzer.

Comet 73P/Schwassman-Wachmann 3 consists of a collection of fragments that file along like ducks in a row around the sun every 5.4 years. This year, the bunch will pass by Earth beginning on May 12 before swinging by the sun on June 6. The fragments won't get too close to Earth, about 7.3 million miles, or 30 times the distance between Earth and the moon, but they should be visible through binoculars in the countryside night skies.

The icy comet began falling apart in 1995 during one of its tropical trips to the sun. Astronomers believe that its crusty outer layer cracked due to the heat, allowing fresh ice to evaporate and split the comet apart.

During the past six weeks, amateur and professional astronomers have been watching the comet fall apart before their telescopes' eyes. Spitzer viewed the broken comet from its quiet perch up in space May 4 to May 6, covering a portion of the sky that allowed it to spot 45 of the 58 known fragments.

The observatory's infrared view also provides the first look at the dusty trail left by the disintegrating comet after it splintered apart in 1995. The trail is made up of comet dust, pebbles and rocks that occasionally rain down on Earth in what is called the Tau Herculid meteor shower. From May 19 to June 19, as Earth passes through the outskirts of the trail, only a weak meteor shower is expected, with just a few "shooting stars" visible in the night sky. A larger meteor shower might occur in 2022 if Earth crosses near the comet's wake as predicted.

Spitzer's infrared eyes were able to see the dusty comet bits lining the trail because the dust is warmed by sunlight and glows at infrared wavelengths. Most of the dust particles, specifically the millimeter-sized nuggets, had never been seen before. Reach said that these particles probably represent the natural deterioration of the comet over the years, a process commonly observed in intact comets.

The comet dust also adds up to more evidence for the "icy dirtball" theory of comets. In recent years, more and more astronomers are coming to think of comets not as snowballs coated in dust, but as dirtballs crusted with ice.

"By measuring the brightness and extent of the debris trail, we are trying to find out whether most of the comet's mass disintegrates into vapors from evaporating ice, the house-sized chunks seen in images from the Hubble Space Telescope, or the meteor-sized debris seen in the Spitzer images," said Reach.

Reach and his team will continue to study the Spitzer data for clues to how the comet broke up. Their infrared data will tell them the sizes of the major fragments, which might indicate whether the comet did, as believed, crack under the thermal stress.

Comet 73P/Schwassman-Wachmann 3 should be dimly visible through binoculars on a clear night between the Cygnus and Pegasus constellations from May 12 to May 28. For more information about viewing the comet or the meteors, visit None of the comet's fragments pose a danger to Earth.

Members of Reach's team include: Dr. Michael Kelley of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities; Dr. Carey M. Lisse of the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md.; Dr. Mark Sykes of Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Ariz.; and Dr. Masateru Ishiguro of the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, Japan.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology. Spitzer's multi-band imaging photometer, which made the observations, was built by Ball Aerospace Corporation, Boulder, Colo.; the University of Arizona, Tucson; and Boeing North American, Canoga Park, Calif. The instrument's principal investigator is Dr. George Rieke of the University of Arizona.