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10 Years Ago: The First Operational Cygnus Cargo Mission to the Space Station


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To replace the cargo and crew transportation services to and from the International Space Station following the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, the United States developed a novel approach to procure those services from American commercial entities. On Jan. 9, 2014, Orbital Sciences Corporation, one of two companies selected initially to provide cargo transportation services, launched the first operational mission of its Cygnus spacecraft. During its one-month stay at the space station, the onboard Expedition 38 crew unloaded its cargo and then filled it with trash and unneeded equipment before releasing it for a destructive reentry. The novel approach of the government procuring services provided by private companies opened a new chapter in human space exploration.

Photo of the Timeline of the first phase of Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) activities.
Timeline of the first phase of Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) activities.

On Jan. 14, 2004, President George W. Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE). In addition to proposing a return to the Moon, the VSE saw the retirement of the space shuttle after completing space station assembly. The VSE encouraged NASA to acquire commercial cargo services to the space station as soon as practical, and NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin established the Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office (C3PO) in November 2005. The program inaugurated a new business model for the space agency that instead of traditional procurement contracts with private enterprise to deliver hardware and services, NASA now relied on the companies investing their own capital to develop the needed spacecraft and rockets. The agency then purchased the transportation services from the companies. The C3PO devised a two-phase process to develop cargo resupply services to the space station – the Commercial Orbital Transportation System (COTS) program for commercial entities to develop and demonstrate reliable commercial services followed by the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program to actually deliver cargo to the space station. On Aug. 18, 2006, NASA announced that Space Exploration Corporation (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, California, and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma-based Rocketplane Kistler (RpK) had won the first round of the COTS competition and signed Space Act Agreements (SAAs) with the two companies. In October 2007, NASA terminated the agreement with RpK since the company hadn’t raised enough capital. Following a second round of competitions, NASA selected and signed a SAA with Orbital Sciences Corporation (Orbital) of Dulles, Virginia, on Feb. 19, 2008.

Workers integrate the Cygnus mass simulator with its Antares launch vehicle First launch of an Antares rocket in 2013, carrying a Cygnus mass simulator
Left: Workers integrate the Cygnus mass simulator with its Antares launch vehicle. Right: First launch of an Antares rocket in 2013, carrying a Cygnus mass simulator.

Italian aerospace company Thales Alenia Space built Orbital’s Cygnus cargo vehicle, relying on its experience building the European Space Agency’s Columbus research module and the Multi-Purpose Logistics Modules for the space station. Orbital developed the two-stage Antares rocket to launch the Cygnus spacecraft. On Dec. 23, 2008, NASA announced the award of the first CRS contracts to SpaceX for 12 space station resupply missions using its Dragon spacecraft and to Orbital for eight missions, in 2015 adding eight more Dragon and three more Cygnus flights. On Jan. 14, 2016, a second CRS-2 contract not only guaranteed at least six more SpaceX and Orbital missions but also added a third contractor, Sparks, Nevada-based Sierra Nevada Corporation to provide at least six flights of a cargo version of their Dream Chaser reusable space plane. Orbital launched the first test flight of its Antares rocket from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Virginia, on April 21, 2013, with a test payload to simulate the mass of a Cygnus spacecraft. The mission’s objectives did not include approaching the space station and the mass simulator burned up on reentry on May 10.

Liftoff of the Antares rocket carrying the Cygnus Demo 1 mission Cygnus Demo spacecraft grappled by Canadarm2 prior to berthing on the space station Expedition 37 crew member Luca S. Parmitano of the European Space Agency inside the Cygnus spacecraft during its Demo mission to the space station
Left: Liftoff of the Antares rocket carrying the Cygnus Demo 1 mission. Middle: Cygnus Demo spacecraft grappled by Canadarm2 prior to berthing on the space station. Right: Expedition 37 crew member Luca S. Parmitano of the European Space Agency inside the Cygnus spacecraft during its Demo mission to the space station.

Orbital carried out a single demonstration mission, designated Cygnus Demo 1, launching on Sep. 18, 2013. The company began a tradition of naming their spacecraft after deceased astronauts or other aerospace notables, christening this first one the G. David Low after the former astronaut and Orbital employee who died in 2008. Orbital executive and Low’s fellow Class of 1984 astronaut Frank L. Culbertson said during a preflight press conference, “We were very proud to name [it] the G. David Low.” Eleven days after its launch, Expedition 37 crew member Luca S. Parmitano from the European Space Agency grappled the spacecraft with the Canadarm2 remote manipulator system and berthed it to the station’s Node 2 Harmony module’s nadir or Earth facing port. The crew unloaded the 1,543 pounds of supplies that it brought and on Oct. 22 unberthed it, loaded with 2,850 pounds of cargo for disposal. The next day, Cygnus fired its engine to begin the fiery reentry over the Pacific Ocean. The mission completed Orbital’s flight certification for its cargo vehicle.

Liftoff of the first operational Cygnus cargo resupply mission The space station’s Canadarm2 robotic arm about to capture the first operational Cygnus spacecraft named SS C. Gordon Fullerton The first Enhanced Cygnus arriving at the space station in 2015; compare against the smaller standard Cygnus
Left: Liftoff of the first operational Cygnus cargo resupply mission. Middle: The space station’s Canadarm2 robotic arm about to capture the first operational Cygnus spacecraft named SS C. Gordon Fullerton. Right: The first Enhanced Cygnus arriving at the space station in 2015; compare against the smaller standard Cygnus.

The mission patch for Orbital’s first operational cargo resupply mission to the space station
The mission patch for Orbital’s first operational cargo resupply mission to the space station.

The first operational Cygnus mission, designated Orb-1, got underway on Jan. 9, 2014. The spacecraft named after NASA astronaut C. Gordon Fullerton, who died the previous year, arrived at the space station three days later. Expedition 38 crew member NASA astronaut Michael S. Hopkins used Canadarm2 to grapple and berth it to the Harmony module. The onboard crew unloaded the 2,780 pounds of supplies that the spacecraft brought to the station and unberthed it on Feb. 18. It disposed of 3,240 pounds of trash and other unneeded cargo. To date, 19 Cygnus spacecraft have lofted more than 64 tons of logistics to the space station, with only one launch failure, the Orb-3 mission in October 2014. This launch failure and one with SpaceX in June 2015 highlighted the wisdom of the decision to use two separate and independent systems to launch cargo to the space station. Beginning in late 2015, Orbital introduced an Enhanced Cygnus with a 50% increase in internal volume to carry more cargo. In addition to upgrading its spacecraft and rocket, Orbital underwent some corporate restructuring over the years, first merging with Alliant Technologies in 2015 to form Orbital ATK. In 2018 Northrup Grumman acquired Orbital ATK to form Northrup Grumman Innovation Systems. Upgrades to the space station itself, such as opening up a second berthing port on the Unity module in 2015 allowed two cargo vehicles to be docked at the same time, with a third port available in 2019 for SpaceX crew and cargo vehicles to dock directly at the station without the need for astronauts to use Canadarm2 to grapple and berth them. Beginning in 2024, a fourth port will allow four cargo and crew vehicles to remain at the station simultaneously.

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    • By NASA
      With the dress rehearsal completed during Apollo 10 in May 1969, only a few weeks remained until Apollo 11, the actual Moon landing mission to meet President Kennedy’s goal set in 1961. Apollo 11 astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin and their backups James A. Lovell, William A. Anders, and Fred W. Haise entered the final phase of their training, rehearsing their mission in simulators and practicing for the lunar surface activities. Teams in Mission Control supported the simulations. A successful countdown demonstration cleared the way to start the actual countdown leading to launch. In the Pacific Ocean, U.S. Navy and NASA teams prepared for the recovery of the astronauts returning from the Moon, and for their postflight quarantine.
      Apollo 10
      After returning from their successful Moon landing dress rehearsal mission on May 26, 1969, Apollo 10 astronauts Thomas P. Stafford, John W. Young, and Eugene A. Cernan passed on their knowledge and lessons learned to the Apollo 11 Moon landing crew during postflight debriefs. On June 8, they accepted Emmy Awards on behalf of all Apollo crews for their television broadcasts from space, with special recognition for Apollo 10’s first use of color TV in space. On June 19, Stafford, Young, and Cernan returned to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida to thank the employees there for getting them safely into orbit. On June 30, President Richard M. Nixon hosted them and their wives at a White House black tie dinner in their honor.

      Left: Apollo 10 astronauts debrief their mission with the Apollo 11 astronauts. Middle: Apollo 10 astronauts John W. Young, left, Eugene A. Cernan, and Thomas P. Stafford hold their Emmy Awards. Right: At NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, Stafford, left, Young, and Cernan hold photographs of their launch presented to them by KSC Launch Director Rocco A. Petrone.

      Apollo 10 astronauts Thomas P. Stafford, left, John W. Young, and Eugene A. Cernan wave to employees as they ride in a convertible through NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
      Apollo 11

      The document from NASA’s Office of Manned Space Flight stating Apollo 11’s primary objective.
      On June 26, Samuel C. Phillips, Apollo Program Director, and George E. Mueller, Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., signed the directive stating Apollo 11’s primary objective: perform a manned lunar landing and return. The focus of the crew’s training, and all the other preparatory activities happening across the agency, aimed at accomplishing that seemingly simple, yet in truth extremely complex and never before accomplished, task.

      Left: Apollo 11 astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, left, and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin in the Lunar Module simulator at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Right: Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins in KSC’s Command Module simulator.

      Apollo 11 Flight Directors Eugene F. Kranz, left, Glynn S. Lunney, Clifford E. Charlesworth, Milton L. Windler, and Gerald D. Griffin pose in Mission Control.
      The final weeks leading up to the launch of their historic mission proved quite busy for Apollo 11 astronauts Armstrong, Collins, and Aldrin and their backups Lovell, Anders, and Haise, as well as the ground teams preparing their rocket and spacecraft for flight. To train for the different phases of their mission, the astronauts conducted many sessions in Command Module (CM) and Lunar Module (LM) simulators at both the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC), now NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, and at KSC. For many of these sessions, teams of operators in MSC’s Mission Control monitored their activities as they would during the actual mission. Flight Directors Eugene F. Kranz, left, Glynn S. Lunney, Clifford E. Charlesworth, Milton L. Windler, and Gerald D. Griffin led the Mission Control teams.

      Apollo 11 astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, left, and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin practice their lunar surface activities at the Manned Spacecraft Center, now NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, left, and at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
      Apollo 11 would conduct the first spacewalk on another celestial body and only the second spacewalk of the Apollo program. At training facilities at MSC and KSC, Armstrong and Aldrin practiced setting up a television camera that would relay their activities back to Earth during the 2.5-hour excursion, deploying the three science experiments, and collecting rock and regolith samples for return to Earth.

      Left: Apollo 11 Commander Neil A. Armstrong prepares to fly the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle (LLTV) at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston. Middle: Armstrong airborne in the LLTV. Right: Apollo 11 backup Commander James A. Lovell following a flight in the LLTV.
      On June 6, NASA managers approved the resumption of astronaut training flights in the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle (LLTV) at Ellington Air Force Base (AFB) near MSC. The LLTV simulated the flight characteristics of the LM and astronauts used it to train for the final 200 feet of the descent to the lunar surface. Managers reached the decision after reviewing findings from the Review Board headed by astronaut Walter M. Schirra that investigated the Dec. 8, 1968 crash of LLTV-1 as well as results from flights in LLTV-2 made by MSC test pilots Harold E. “Bud” Ream and Jere B. Cobb. Between June 14 and 16, Armstrong flew LLTV-2 eight times to complete his training program with the vehicle. He had previously completed 12 simulated Moon landings in the LLTV and its predecessor, the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV), narrowly escaping the crash of LLRV-1 in May 1968. Backup Commander Lovell completed four flights in the LLTV between June 19 and July 1. Armstrong, Aldrin, Lovell, and Haise also practiced landings in the Lunar Landing Research Facility (LLRF) at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

      Left: Senior NASA managers monitor the Apollo 11 Countdown Demonstration Test (CDDT) in Firing Room 1 of the Launch Control Center at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Right: The team of controllers in Firing Room 1 monitor the Apollo 11 CDDT.

      Left: Apollo 11 astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, front, Michael Collins, and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin about to board the transfer van to Launch Pad 39A for the Countdown Demonstration Test (CDDT). Middle: Workers in the White Room assist Collins, left, Armstrong, and Aldrin to enter their spacecraft for the CDDT. Right: Armstrong, left, Aldrin, and Collins leave Launch Pad 39A at the conclusion of the CDDT.
      At KSC, engineers completed the three-day Flight Readiness Test on June 6, ensuring the flight readiness of the Saturn V rocket and the Apollo spacecraft perched on Launch Pad 39A. On June 17, top managers from NASA Headquarters and the Directors of MSC, KSC, and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, held the Flight Readiness Review at KSC. The meeting reviewed all aspects of readiness for the launch and mission, clearing the way for the next milestone, the Countdown Demonstration Test (CDDT). The CDDT, a full dress rehearsal for the actual countdown to launch, consisted of two parts. The “wet” test, conducted from June 27 to July 2, included fueling the rocket as if for flight, with the countdown stopping just prior to first stage engine ignition, and did not involve the flight crew. The “dry” test followed on July 3, an abbreviated countdown without fueling the rocket but with the astronauts boarding the CM as if on launch day. Controllers in Firing Room 1 of the Launch Control Center at Launch Complex 39 monitored all aspects of the CDDT as they would for an actual countdown. The successful test cleared the way for the start of the launch countdown at 8 p.m. EDT on July 10, leading to launch on July 16.

      The three commemorative items carried aboard Apollo 11. Left: The Lunar Flag Assembly. Middle: The stainless steel commemorative plaque. Right: The silicon disc containing messages of goodwill from world leaders.
      On July 2, NASA announced that Armstrong and Aldrin would leave three symbolic items behind on the Moon to commemorate the historic first landing – an American flag, a commemorative plaque, and a silicon disc bearing messages from world leaders. The astronauts would plant the three-by-five-foot flag near their LM during their spacewalk. The stainless steel plaque bore the images of the two hemispheres of the Earth and this inscription,
      HERE MEN FROM THE PLANET EARTH
      FIRST SET FOOT UPON THE MOON
      JULY 1969 A.D.
      WE CAME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND
      The signatures of the three astronauts and President Richard M. Nixon also appeared on the plaque. Workers mounted it on the forward landing leg strut of the LM. The one-and-one-half-inch silicon disc contained messages of goodwill from 73 world leaders, etched on the disk using the technique to make microcircuits for electronic equipment. The crew placed the disc on the lunar surface at the end of their spacewalk.

      Left: Apollo 11 astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, left, Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins hold a copy of the commemorative plaque they will leave behind on the Moon and their mission patch. Right: The Apollo 11 astronauts in the glass-enclosed room at the Lunar Receiving Laboratory.
      During a July 5 press conference in the MSC auditorium, the Apollo 11 astronauts revealed the call signs for their spacecraft. They named their CM Columbia and their LM Eagle. “We selected these as being representative of the flight, the nation’s hope,” said Armstrong. Columbia served as a national symbol represented by a statue atop the Capitol in Washington, D.C. They named the LM after the symbol of the United States, the bald eagle, featured on the Apollo 11 mission patch. In a second event, the astronauts answered reporters’ questions from inside a glass-enclosed conference room at MSC’s Lunar Receiving Laboratory (LRL). After their mission, the returning astronauts completed their 21-day quarantine in the LRL to prevent any back contamination of the Earth by any possible lunar microorganisms.

      NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, workers simulate the arrival of the first Moon rocks and other items returned from Apollo 11. Middle: Workers practice docking the Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF) with the LRL. Right: In Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, workers barge the prime and backup MQFs to load them onto the U.S.S. Hornet. Image credit: courtesy U.S. Navy.
      At the LRL, other preparations for the return of the Apollo 11 astronauts from the Moon included a simulation of the arrival and processing of the Moon rocks and other items following the mission. The rocks, crew biological samples, and film would be flown from the prime recovery ship to Houston ahead of the crew. Engineers and technicians also rehearsed the arrival of the crew with a dry run of docking a Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF) to the LRL’s loading dock. Following the test, workers loaded two MQFs, a prime and a backup, onto a cargo plane for transport to Hawaii and loading onto the prime recovery ship.

      Left: Workers in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, prepare to lift a boilerplate Apollo Command Module onto the U.S.S. Hornet for splashdown and recovery rehearsals. Image credit: courtesy U.S. Navy Bob Fish. Middle: Crews from the U.S.S. Hornet practice recovery operations. Right: Recovery team members dry their Biological Isolation Garments aboard the U.S.S. Hornet following a recovery exercise.
      On June 12, the U.S. Navy notified NASA that it had selected the U.S.S. Hornet (CVS-12) as the prime recovery ship for Apollo 11 to undertake the most complex recovery of an astronaut crew. The same day, with Hornet docked in her home port of Long Beach, California, its commanding officer, Capt. Carl J. Seiberlich, held the first recovery team meeting to review the Apollo Recovery Operations Manual, written by MSC’s Landing and Recovery Division. Between June 12 and 25, Hornet onloaded NASA equipment required for the recovery. On June 27, Hornet left Long Beach for a three-hour stop in San Diego, where air group maintenance and support personnel embarked. The next day, after Hornet left for Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, pilots flew the aircraft required to support the recovery onto the carrier. During the cruise to Pearl Harbor, Hornet’s 90-man team detailed for Apollo 11 recovery operations held numerous meetings and table-top simulations. After arriving in Hawaii on July 2, workers loaded a boilerplate Apollo capsule onto the aircraft carrier to be used for recovery practice. The NASA recovery team, the Frogmen swimmers from the U.S. Navy’s Underwater Demolition Team 11 (UDT-11) who assisted with the recovery, and some media personnel arrived onboard. For the recovery operation, Capt. Seiberlich adopted the motto “Hornet Plus Three,” indicating the goal of a safe recovery of the three astronauts returning from the Moon. On July 3, Capt. Seiberlich introduced the 35-member NASA recovery team to the Hornet’s crew. Donald E. Stullken, Chief of the Recovery Operations Branch at MSC and inventor of the inflatable flotation collar attached by swimmers to the capsule after splashdown, led the NASA team. His assistant John C. Stonesifer oversaw the decontamination and quarantine operations. Stullken and Stonesifer briefed Hornet’s Command Module Retrieval Team on all events associated with the recovery and retrieval of an Apollo capsule and its crew. On July 6, workers loaded the two MQFs aboard Hornet. The prime MQF would house the returning astronauts, a flight surgeon, and an engineer from shortly after splashdown until their arrival at the LRL in Houston several days later. The second MQF served as a backup should a problem arise with the first or if violations of quarantine protocols required additional personnel to be isolated. Along with the MQFs, Navy personnel loaded other equipment necessary for the recovery, including 55 one-gallon containers of sodium hypochlorite to be used as a disinfectant. Between July 7 and 9, the Hornet conducted nine Simulated Recovery Exercises in local Hawaiian waters. Lieutenant Clarence J. “Clancy” Hatleberg led the team as the designated decontamination swimmer with U.S. Navy Frogmen serving as stand-ins for the astronauts, all wearing Biological Isolation Garments as they would on recovery day. The Hornet returned to Pearl Harbor to pick up the rest of the NASA recovery team before setting sail on July 12 for its first recovery position. 
      Apollo 12

      Left: Apollo 12 astronauts Charles “Pete” Conrad, left, Alan L. Bean, and Richard F. Gordon prepare to enter their Command Module for an altitude test. Right: Conrad after completing a flight in the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle.

      Left: In the Manned Spacecraft Operations Building (MSOB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, workers finish attaching the landing gear to the Apollo 12 Lunar Module (LM). Middle left: Workers in the MSOB prepare to mate the Apollo 12 Command and Service Modules with the Spacecraft LM Adapter. Middle right: Workers move the assembled Apollo 12 spacecraft from the MSOB to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). Right: In the VAB. workers lower the Apollo 12 spacecraft onto its Saturn V rocket.
      With Apollo 11 on its launch pad, workers continued to prepare Apollo 12 for its eventual journey to the Moon, targeting a September launch should Apollo 11 not succeed. If Apollo 11 succeeded in its Moon landing mission, Apollo 12 would fly later, most likely in November, to attempt the second Moon landing at a different location. In KSC’s Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), the three-stage Saturn V stood on its Mobile Launcher, awaiting the arrival of the Apollo spacecraft. In the nearby Manned Spacecraft Operations Building, the Apollo 12 prime crew of Charles “Pete” Conrad, Richard F. Gordon, and Alan L. Bean and their backups David R. Scott, Alfred M. Worden, and James B. Irwin completed altitude chamber tests of the CM and LM during the first two weeks of June. Workers removed the spacecraft from the vacuum chambers, mated them on June 27, and transferred them to the VAB on July 1 for stacking on the Saturn V rocket. At Ellington AFB in Houston, Conrad completed his first flights aboard LLTV-2 on July 9-10.
      Apollo 13

      Left: In the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, workers place the first stage of the Apollo 13 Saturn V rocket onto the Mobile Launcher to begin the stacking process. Middle: The Apollo 13 Command and Service Modules arrive at KSC. Right: The ascent stage of the Apollo 13 Lunar Module arrives at KSC.
      In the event that neither Apollo 11 nor 12 succeeded in landing on the Moon, NASA stood prepared to try a third time with Apollo 13 in November or December, still in time to meet President Kennedy’s deadline. The Apollo 13 Command and Service Modules arrived at KSC on June 26, followed by the LM ascent and descent stages on June 28 and 29, respectively. The Saturn V’s S-IC first stage arrived on June 16 and workers placed it on its Mobile Launcher two days later. The S-IVB third stage and S-II second stage arrived June 13 and 29, respectively, and workers stacked the stages in mid-July.
      To be continued …
      News from around the world in June 1969:
      June 3 – Eric Carle publishes children’s picture book “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.”
      June 3 – The final episode of Star Trek airs on NBC.
      June 5 – The Tupolev Tu-144 became the first passenger jet to fly faster than the speed of sound.
      June 10 – The Nixon Administration cancels the U.S. Air Force Manned Orbiting Laboratory program.
      June 15 – “Hee Haw,” with Roy Clark and Buck Owens, premieres on CBS.
      June 20 – Georges Pompidou sworn in as the 19th President of France.
      June 20 – 200,000 attend Newport ’69, then largest-ever pop concert, in Northridge, California.
      June 23 – Warren E. Burger sworn in as U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice.
      June 28 – Police carry out a raid at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York, beginning the modern LGBT rights movement.
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      For the first time, a phenomenon astronomers have long hoped to image directly has been captured by the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope’s Near-InfraRed Camera (NIRCam). In this stunning image of the Serpens Nebula, the discovery lies in the northern area of this young, nearby star-forming region.
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    • By NASA
      6 Min Read First of Its Kind Detection Made in Striking New Webb Image
      The Serpens Nebula from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Alignment of bipolar jets confirms star formation theories
      For the first time, a phenomenon astronomers have long hoped to directly image has been captured by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam). In this stunning image of the Serpens Nebula, the discovery lies in the northern area (seen at the upper left) of this young, nearby star-forming region.
      Astronomers found an intriguing group of protostellar outflows, formed when jets of gas spewing from newborn stars collide with nearby gas and dust at high speeds. Typically these objects have varied orientations within one region. Here, however, they are slanted in the same direction, to the same degree, like sleet pouring down during a storm.
      Image: Serpens Nebula (NIRCam)
      In this image of the Serpens Nebula from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, astronomers found a grouping of aligned protostellar outflows within one small region (the top left corner). Serpens is a reflection nebula, which means it’s a cloud of gas and dust that does not create its own light, but instead shines by reflecting the light from stars close to or within the nebula. The discovery of these aligned objects, made possible due to Webb’s exquisite spatial resolution and sensitivity in near-infrared wavelengths, is providing information into the fundamentals of how stars are born.
      “Astronomers have long assumed that as clouds collapse to form stars, the stars will tend to spin in the same direction,” said principal investigator Klaus Pontoppidan, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “However, this has not been seen so directly before. These aligned, elongated structures are a historical record of the fundamental way that stars are born.”
      So just how does the alignment of the stellar jets relate to the rotation of the star? As an interstellar gas cloud crashes in on itself to form a star, it spins more rapidly. The only way for the gas to continue moving inward is for some of the spin (known as angular momentum) to be removed. A disk of material forms around the young star to transport material down, like a whirlpool around a drain. The swirling magnetic fields in the inner disk launch some of the material into twin jets that shoot outward in opposite directions, perpendicular to the disk of material.
      In the Webb image, these jets are signified by bright clumpy streaks that appear red, which are shockwaves from the jet hitting surrounding gas and dust. Here, the red color represents the presence of molecular hydrogen and carbon monoxide.
      “This area of the Serpens Nebula – Serpens North – only comes into clear view with Webb,” said lead author Joel Green of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. “We’re now able to catch these extremely young stars and their outflows, some of which previously appeared as just blobs or were completely invisible in optical wavelengths because of the thick dust surrounding them.”
      Astronomers say there are a few forces that potentially can shift the direction of the outflows during this period of a young star’s life. One way is when binary stars spin around each other and wobble in orientation, twisting the direction of the outflows over time.
      Stars of the Serpens
      The Serpens Nebula, located 1,300 light-years from Earth, is only one or two million years old, which is very young in cosmic terms. It’s also home to a particularly dense cluster of newly forming stars (~100,000 years old), seen at the center of this image. Some of these stars will eventually grow to the mass of our Sun.
      “Webb is a young stellar object-finding machine,” Green said. “In this field, we pick up sign posts of every single young star, down to the lowest mass stars.”
      “It’s a very complete picture we’re seeing now,” added Pontoppidan.
      So, throughout the region in this image, filaments and wisps of different hues represent reflected starlight from still-forming protostars within the cloud. In some areas, there is dust in front of that reflection, which appears here with an orange, diffuse shade.
      This region has been home to other coincidental discoveries, including the flapping “Bat Shadow,” which earned its name when 2020 data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope revealed a star’s planet-forming disk to flap, or shift. This feature is visible at the center of the Webb image.
      Future Studies
      The new image, and serendipitous discovery of the aligned objects, is actually just the first step in this scientific program. The team will now use Webb’s NIRSpec (Near-Infrared Spectrograph) to investigate the chemical make-up of the cloud.
      The astronomers are interested in determining how volatile chemicals survive star and planet formation. Volatiles are compounds that sublimate, or transition from a solid directly to a gas, at a relatively low temperature – including water and carbon monoxide. They’ll then compare their findings to amounts found in protoplanetary disks of similar-type stars.
      “At the most basic form, we are all made of matter that came from these volatiles. The majority of water here on Earth originated when the Sun was an infant protostar billions of years ago,” Pontoppidan said. “Looking at the abundance of these critical compounds in protostars just before their protoplanetary disks have formed could help us understand how unique the circumstances were when our own solar system formed.”
      These observations were taken as part of General Observer program 1611. The team’s initial results have been accepted in the Astrophysical Journal.
      The James Webb Space Telescope is the world’s premier space science observatory. Webb is solving mysteries in our solar system, looking beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probing the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it. Webb is an international program led by NASA with its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency).
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      View/Download all image products at all resolutions for this article from the Space Telescope Science Institute.
      Science Paper: The science paper by J. Green et al., PDF (7.93 MB) 
      Media Contacts
      Laura Betz – laura.e.betz@nasa.gov, Rob Gutro – rob.gutro@nasa.gov
      NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
      Hanna Braun hbraun@stsci.edu Christine Pulliam – cpulliam@stsci.edu
      Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md.
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      Last Updated Jun 20, 2024 Editor Stephen Sabia Contact Laura Betz laura.e.betz@nasa.gov Related Terms
      Astrophysics Goddard Space Flight Center James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) Nebulae Science & Research Star-forming Nebulae The Universe
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    • By NASA
      From the left, NASA Kennedy Space Center’s, Maui Dalton, project manager, engineering; Katherine Zeringue, cultural resources manager; Janet Petro, NASA Kennedy Space Center director; and Ismael Otero, project manager, engineering, unveil a large bronze historical marker plaque at the location of NASA Kennedy’s original headquarters building on Tuesday, May 28, 2024. Approved in April 2023 as part of the State of Florida’s Historical Markers program in celebration of National Historic Preservation Month, the marker commemorates the early days of space exploration and is displayed permanently just west of the seven-story, 200,000 square foot Central Campus Headquarters Building, which replaced the old building in 2019.Photo credit:: NASA/Mike Chambers Current and former employees of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida gathered recently to celebrate the installation of a Florida Historical Marker cast in bronze at the location of the spaceport’s old headquarters building.
      The first of its kind inside the center’s secure area, the marker is the latest example of the center’s commitment to remembering its rich history as it continues to launch humanity’s future.
      At the forefront of NASA Kennedy’s commitment to preservation is Katherine Zeringue, who serves as cultural resources manager, overseeing the center’s historic resources from buildings to historic districts to archaeological sites.
      “Traditional approaches attempt to preserve things to a specific time period, including historic materials,” Zeringue said. “But that’s a challenge here because we still actively use our historic assets, which need to be modified to accommodate new missions and new spacecraft. Therefore, we rely on an adaptive reuse approach, in which the active use of a historic property helps to ensure its preservation.”
      Many iconic structures are still in service at NASA Kennedy, like the Beach House where Apollo astronauts congregated with their families, the Vehicle Assembly Building where NASA rockets are still stacked, the Launch Control Center, and Launch Complex 39A. All told, 83 buildings, seven historic districts, and one National Historic Landmark are either listed or are eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
      To conserve these resources, the spaceport follows a variety of federal laws, regulations, and executive orders, including the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. This includes making a reasonable and good faith effort to identify any historic properties under its care and considering how its decisions affect historic properties.
      “The Cultural Resources Management Program aims to balance historic preservation considerations with the agency’s mission and mandate to ensure reliable access to space for government and commercial payloads,” Zeringue said. “Finding that proper balance is challenging in the dynamic environment of our spaceport.”
      Perhaps no other location embodies the center’s commitment to the past and the future more than Launch Complex 39A. Created in 1965, the launch complex was initially designed to support the Saturn V rocket, which powered the agency’s Apollo Program as it made numerous trips to the Moon. Outside of launching Skylab in 1973, the pad stood unused following Apollo’s end in 1972 until the agency’s Space Shuttle Program debuted in 1981. The transition from Apollo to space shuttle saw Launch Complex 39A transform from support of a single-use rocket to supporting the nation’s first reusable space launch and landing system.
      By the time the program ended in 2011, 135 space shuttle launches had taken place within Kennedy’s boundary, 82 of which were at Launch Complex 39A. Many of those were among the program’s most notable, including the flights of astronauts Sally Ride, NASA’s first woman in space, and Guion Bluford, NASA’s first Black astronaut in space, as well as the first flight to the newly created International Space Station in 1998.
      The launch complex began another transformation in 2014 when NASA signed a 20-year lease agreement with SpaceX as part of Kennedy’s transformation into a multi-user spaceport. SpaceX reconfigured Launch Complex 39A to support its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, which today launch robotic science missions and other government and commercial payloads, as well as crew and cargo to the space station. Apollo-era infrastructure is incorporated in the SpaceX Crew Launch Tower.
      “Launch Complex 39A exemplifies the balance between historic preservation and supporting the mission,” Zeringue noted. “Each chapter of the space program brings change, and those changes become additional chapters in the center’s historical legacy as we continue to build the future in space exploration.”
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