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Space

NASA awards future aircraft contracts

Washington -- The U.S. space agency says it has awarded research contracts totaling $12.4 million for advanced concepts in subsonic and supersonic future aircraft.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration awards are for advanced concepts for commercial aircraft that could enter service within 25 to 30 years.

The contracts went to teams led by the Boeing Co., GE Aviation, the Lockheed Martin Corp., the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Northrop Grumman.

Each received an 18-month study contract valued at approximately $2 million.

"The future of air transportation is all about protecting the environment and responding to increasing energy costs in a balanced way," said Juan Alonso, director of NASA's Fundamental Aeronautics Program. "We will need airplanes that are quieter and more fuel efficient, and cleaner-burning fuels to power them. We are challenging industry to introduce these new technologies without impairing the convenience, safety and security of commercial air transportation."

NASA names astrobiology institute teams

Moffett Field -- The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has picked 10 U.S. teams to study the origins, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.

Each interdisciplinary team receives a five-year grant averaging $7 million and becomes a member of NASA's Astrobiology Institute, located at NASA's Ames Research Center.

Selected are teams from the University of Hawaii, Arizona State University, the Carnegie Institution of Washington, Pennsylvania State University, the Georgia Institute of Technology and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Teams from Ames, the Goddard Space Flight Center and two teams from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., also were selected.

"The research of these new teams reflects the increasing maturity of astrobiology," said NASA Astrobiology Institute Director Carl Pilcher. "They are focused on fundamental questions of life in the universe but their work has implications for all of science. The research of these teams, together with that of the four continuing institute teams, will bridge the basic science of astrobiology to NASA's current and planned space exploration missions."

International Space Station orbit altered

Moscow -- The International Space Station is now in a higher orbit above the Earth thanks to a Russian spacecraft, a mission control official said Saturday.

A mission control spokesman told RIA-Novosti that Russia's Progress M-65 spacecraft took part in the procedure, aimed at increasing the station's orbit by thousands of feet.

"The engine of the Progress M-65 spacecraft was fired for 282 seconds," the unidentified official said. "The average height of the ISS orbit has been increased by 1.25 km (4,100 feet) to become approximately 353 km (219 miles)."

The M-65 spacecraft was initially launched in September to deliver supplies to the station, where it has remained docked.

RIA-Novosti said the change in the station's orbit was necessary to help facilitate the upcoming arrival of the Soyuz spacecraft.

Scientists working on space elevator

Cambridge, Mass -- Scientists in Japan and the United States say creating a so-called space elevator that can be used to visit space is a real possibility.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Aeronautics and Astronautics Professor Jeff Hoffman said scientists around the globe are working toward creating an elevator-like device that could carry individuals into space, CNN reported Friday.

"We are now on the verge of having material that has the strength to span the 30,000 km (18,640 miles) ... but we don't have the ability to make long cable out of the carbon nanotubes at the moment." he said. "Although I'm confident that within a reasonable amount of time we will be able to do this."

Japan Space Elevator Association spokesman Akira Tsuchida told CNN that the materials needed for the futuristic creation likely wouldn't be ready until "the 2020s of 2030s."

Study finds the sun is not perfectly round

Washington -- U.S. space agency scientists say they have discovered the sun is not a perfect sphere.

The scientists said they used the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's RHESSI spacecraft -- the Reuven Ramaty High Energy Solar Spectroscopid Imager -- to measure the roundness of the sun with unprecedented precision. They discovered that it's not only not perfectly round, but during years of high solar activity the sun develops a thin "cantaloupe skin" that significantly increases its apparent oblateness -- the sun's equatorial radius becomes slightly larger than its polar radius.

"The sun is the biggest and therefore smoothest object in the solar system, perfect at the 0.001 percent level because of its extremely strong gravity," said study co-author Hugh Hudson of the University of California-Berkeley.

NASA extends the space station contract

Washington -- The U.S. space agency has given a two-year, $650 million contract extension to the Boeing Co. for engineering support of the International Space Station.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration extended the "On-Orbit Segment Acceptance and Vehicle Sustaining Engineering contract" awarded in January 1995 to Sept. 30, 2010.

NASA said work performed under the contract extension will include "completion of delivery and on-orbit acceptance of the U.S. segment of the station, sustaining engineering of station hardware and software, support of U.S. hardware and software provided to international partners and participants in the station program, and end-to-end subsystem management for the majority of station systems."

The contract work will be performed at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and at other domestic and international locations.

NASA-TV to cover ISS crew exchange

Washington -- The U.S. space agency said it will televise the launch of the next International Space Station crew and the return of the current crew to Earth.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration Expedition 18 Commander and Science Officer Mike Fincke, Soyuz Commander and Flight Engineer Yury Lonchakov and U.S. spaceflight participant Richard Garriott are to be launched Oct. 12 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Their Soyuz TMA-13 craft is to dock with the ISS on Oct. 14.

NASA Flight Engineer Greg Chamitoff, who has been on ISS since June, will remain with Fincke and Lonchakov until space shuttle Endeavour arrives on its STS-126 mission in November. NASA astronaut Sandy Magnus will arrive on that flight to replace Chamitoff.

NASA assigns crew for STS-129 mission

Cape Canaveral, Fla. -- The U.S. space agency has assigned the crew for space shuttle Discovery's STS-129 mission, which is targeted for launch in October 2009.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration said STS-129 will deliver two experiment racks to the International Space Station.

The space agency said U.S. Marine Col. Charlie Hobaugh will command the mission, with U.S. Navy Capt. Barry Wilmore serving as the pilot. Astronauts on the mission will be Robert Satcher, Navy Capt. Michael Foreman, Marine Lt. Col. Randy Bresnik and Leland Melvin. Wilmore, Satcher and Bresnik will be making their first trips into space, NASA said.

Canadian Space Agency astronaut Robert Thirsk will return to Earth aboard Discovery in what's slated to be NASA's final space shuttle crew rotation flight to or from the space station. He is scheduled to return to the space station next May aboard a Soyuz spacecraft and serve as a flight engineer during parts of Expeditions 20 and 21.

Messenger spacecraft returns to Mercury

Washington -- The U.S. space agency says its Messenger spacecraft will make the second of three flybys of Mercury next week to collect more science data.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration spacecraft is to pass 125 miles above Mercury, taking more than 1,200 pictures. NASA said the flyby also will provide a critical gravity assist needed for the probe to become, in March 2011, the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury.

"The results from Messenger's first flyby of Mercury resolved debates that are more than 30 years old," said Sean Solomon, the mission's principal investigator from the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

During its first flyby Jan. 14, Messenger's cameras returned images of approximately 20 percent of Mercury's surface never before seen. Those images, among other things, showed Mercury's magnetic field appears to be actively generated in a molten iron core and the planet has contracted more than previously thought.

Cabana to be Kennedy Space Center director

Cape Canaveral, Fla -- The U.S. space agency says William Parsons, director of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, will leave the agency in mid-October.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration said Parsons, is resigning to pursue opportunities in the private sector, He will be succeeded by former astronaut Robert Cabana, currently director of NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Gene Goldman, Stennis' deputy director, will become that facility's acting director.

Parsons joined NASA in 1990 and served as director of the Stennis Space Center. His other NASA assignments included launch site support manager, manager of the Space Station Hardware Integration Office, chief of operations of the Propulsion Test Directorate, Space Shuttle Program manager and deputy director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston.