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EXPLORATIONS  - Space Digest - 2004-06-22


Broadcast: June 23, 2004

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VOICE ONE:

This is Phoebe Zimmermann.

VOICE TWO:

And this is Steve Ember with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English. Today we tell about the Cassini-Huygens (HOY-guns) spacecraft. It will soon be in orbit around the planet Saturn. We also tell the latest news from the two vehicles that are exploring the surface of the planet Mars. We begin with a report about the first attempt by a private company to launch a vehicle into space.

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VOICE ONE:

A rocket plane called Space Ship One has completed the world’s first privately financed manned space flight. The rocket plane was launched into space Monday from the Mojave Civilian Aerospace Test Center near Mojave, California. It flew to the edge of space, one-hundred kilometers above the Earth. It landed like an airplane ninety minutes later.

Sixty-three-year old Michael Melvill was the pilot of Space Ship One. Mister Melvill said he had a problem with one of the devices on Space Ship One, but he was able to control the aircraft. He said looking down at the Earth from space was almost a religious experience. Thousands of people watched the event in California.

VOICE TWO:

The rocket plane was built by the Scaled Composites company of California. Aviation designer Burt Rutan (roo-TAN) planned the project. Mister Rutan is already famous for designing and building the first airplane to fly around the world without stopping for fuel. The plane called Voyager did this in nineteen-eighty-six.

Paul Allen helped pay for the fight of Space Ship One. He is one of the founders of the Microsoft computer software company. Mister Allen says he spent more than twenty-million dollars on the project. He says he has wanted to be part of space research ever since he was a small boy.

VOICE ONE:

Space Ship One was carried into the air by another airplane designed by Mister Rutan. An aircraft named the White Knight carried the smaller Space Ship One to an altitude of fifteen kilometers. It then released Space Ship One. Pilot Melvill then fired the rockets that gave it the power needed to reach space.

Space Ship One was designed to reach an area of space called sub-orbital. This is just below the area where a spacecraft would enter an orbit around the Earth.

VOICE TWO:

Mister Rutan and Mister Allen say they believe the successful flight of Space Ship One is proof that privately financed space flight is possible. They say it is also proof that private companies can work in space in the future without government help.

Mister Rutan says this first successful flight of Space Ship One is only the beginning of many more flights in the future. He says some of these future flights may include passengers who might pay about ten-thousand dollars each for a flight into space.

The flight of Space Ship One was a step toward an international competition called the Ansari X prize. The competition is to create a reusable aircraft. The aircraft must be able to launch a pilot and two passengers into sub-orbital space and bring them back safely two times within two weeks. The prize is ten-million dollars. At least twenty-seven teams from several countries are reportedly working to compete for the prize. It must be claimed by the end of this year.

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VOICE ONE:

On July first, the Cassini-Huygens (HOY-guns) spacecraft will arrive at the planet Saturn. It will move toward Saturn from below the famous rings that circle the planet. As it passes through Saturn’s rings, it will turn its cameras down to photograph the rings. The rings are made of dust and small rocks.

Cassini will cross through a large space between two of the huge rings. Just after the spacecraft passes through the rings, it will fire its rocket engines. This will cause it to slow its speed, permitting the spacecraft to be captured by Saturn’s gravity. In this way, the Cassini spacecraft will enter an orbit around Saturn.

VOICE TWO:

Cassini has already sent back important information. On June eleventh, it passed within two-thousand kilometers of Saturn’s moon, Phoebe. NASA scientists say the photographs of Phoebe showed evidence of large amounts of ice.

The photographs showed the ice was covered with a thin amount of dark material. It also showed huge holes in the surface of the moon.

Torrence Johnson is the Cassini imaging team member at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. He says the photographs of Phoebe are very unusual and important. Mister Johnson said the photographs show the moon may be a rock from the beginning of our solar system.

He says Phoebe may have been formed about four-and-one-half-thousand-million years ago. Mister Johnson says it is important to use all of the instruments that Cassini carries in an effort to learn all possible information about this small moon. Scientists plan to use the information gathered by Cassini’s eleven instruments to understand what Phoebe is made of and its size.

VOICE ONE:

When Cassini flew by Phoebe, it completed its first task in a four-year exploration of Saturn. Cassini is to pass near and gather information from seven of Saturn’s thirty-one known moons.

The most important moon it will investigate is the huge moon Titan. It will pass by Titan forty-four times to gather information. It will do this during seventy-four orbits of Saturn.

On December twenty-fifth, the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft will separate into two parts. The Huygens part of the spacecraft will begin its twenty-one day trip to the surface of Titan. It is to land on the surface of Titan on January fourteenth of next year.

Titan is a big moon. It is larger than the planet Mercury and our own moon. It is of extreme interest to scientists because it is the only moon in the solar system with its own atmosphere.

The Cassini-Huygens spacecraft was launched from the Kennedy Space Center in the southern state of Florida on October fifteenth, nineteen-ninety-seven. Seventeen nations took part in building the spacecraft. The American Space Agency, NASA, built and controls the Cassini orbiter. The European Space Agency built the Huygens lander. The Italian Space agency provided some of Cassini’s communications equipment.

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VOICE TWO:

In April, the two NASA vehicles on the surface of Mars completed their three-month exploration of the Red Planet. NASA officials decided to extend the working life of the two vehicles, Spirit and Opportunity. NASA reports that both Spirit and Opportunity are still working successfully.

Spirit has driven more than three kilometers since arriving on Mars five months ago. It now has reached an area called the Columbia Hills. Scientists think rocks in the Columbia Hills may provide information about how hills form on Mars. The hills may hold information that will tell scientists if this part of Mars was wet.

Scientists have seen the Columbia Hills before. In nineteen-ninety-seven, scientists could see the hills with the cameras of the Mars Pathfinder vehicle. But they could not be reached by the Pathfinder.

VOICE ONE:

Half way around the surface of Mars, NASA’s Opportunity vehicle is also still exploring.

Earlier this month, Opportunity began exploring a large area called the Endurance Crater. The crater is about the size of a large soccer football field. It may have been made by a huge object that hit the Martian surface many years ago.

Scientists who are controlling Opportunity moved the vehicle into the crater very carefully and slowly. First they moved Opportunity a short way down the side of the crater. Then they moved it back out. They wanted to make sure its six wheels would be able to climb back out of the crater. Opportunity has already used many of its instruments to study the inside of the crater.

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NASA officials who control Opportunity have begun to use a special command to shut down the vehicle during the Martian night. The command is called “deep sleep.” This method saves energy and permits the vehicle to work as much as three times longer during the Martian day. However, the “deep sleep” command is not without risk. NASA scientists say it is possible that a device on the vehicle called the thermal emissions spectrometer may be damaged. They say this has not happened yet. However, as Mars moves into its winter season, officials say the spectrometer will be lost.

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VOICE ONE:

This program was written by Paul Thompson. It was produced by Mario Ritter. This is Phoebe Zimmermann.

VOICE TWO:

And this is Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another EXPLORATIONS program in VOA Special English.

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