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NASA sets remaining space shuttle launches

Houston -- The U.S. space agency says it's selected target launch dates for the remaining eight space shuttle missions for 2009 and 2010.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration missions include one flight to the Hubble Space Telescope, seven assembly flights to the International Space Station and two station contingency flights, planned to be completed before the end of fiscal year 2010.

The agency previously selected Oct. 8 and Nov. 10 as launch dates for Atlantis' STS-125 mission to service Hubble and Endeavour's STS-126 mission to supply the space station and service truss supports that hold equipment and solar arrays.

NASA said the target dates -- subject to change -- reflect its commitment to complete assembly of the station and to retire the shuttle fleet as transition continues to the new launch vehicles, including Ares and Orion.

ESA plans ISS organizational meeting

Paris -- The European Space Agency is planning a meeting during which the International Space Station's future activities will be decided.

The ESA says it will host a July 17 meeting, during which leaders of the space agencies participating in the International Space Station program -- the ESA for Europe, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for the United States and the Canadian, Japanese and Russian space agencies will decide on future activities.

"At the meeting, the ISS Partners will address the challenging task of completing assembly of the Space Station, review operations and utilization aspects and assess the space transportation strategy," the ESA said.
The meeting will take place at ESA headquarters in Paris.

NASA reveals new discoveries about Mercury

Greenbelt, Md. -- The U.S. space agency says it has determined Mercury's smooth plains were produced by volcanoes and its magnetic field is produced in the planet's core.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration scientists have argued about the origins of Mercury's smooth plains and the source of its magnetic field for more than 30 years. Those mysteries have now been solved by data from the January flyby of the planet by the Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry and Ranging spacecraft called Messenger.

NASA scientists said they also studied the chemical composition of Mercury's surface, analyzed the composition of the planet's thin atmosphere, sampled charged particles (ions) captured near the planet and demonstrated new links between both sets of observations and materials on Mercury's surface.

Scientists await spacecraft Ulysses' death

Paris -- The European Space Agency said its Ulysses spacecraft, whose mission was expected to end Tuesday, is still operating.

But ESA said spacecraft controllers are waiting for a sign of the expected fuel freeze that will end the mission.

"Controllers will know that the fuel needed to keep the antenna pointing towards Earth has started to freeze when Earth-pointing maneuvers become less efficient and the radio signals from the spacecraft grow weaker," ESA scientists said in a statement.

But while the spacecraft is still operating, it is providing important science data as it pursues its exploration of the heliosphere -- the sun's sphere of influence. Although the spacecraft can now transmit data only in real time, ESA said the amazing 17.5-year-old mission continues to add to the wealth of information collected so far.

Phoenix soil analysis might be ended

Pasadena, Calif. -- The U.S. space agency says the next sample of Martian soil to be analyzed by the Phoenix Mars Lander might be its last.

A team of National Aeronautics and Space Administration engineers and scientists who assessed the spacecraft's Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer, or TEGA, after a short circuit was discovered last month has concluded another short circuit could occur when the oven is again used.

"Since there is no way to assess the probability of another short circuit occurring, we are taking the most conservative approach and treating the next sample to TEGA as possibly our last," said Peter Smith, Phoenix's principal investigator.

Although mission teams will "stand down" until Saturday evening to mark the Fourth of July holiday, skeleton crews -- including ones at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., which manages the Phoenix mission -- will monitor the spacecraft and its instruments, NASA said.

NASA plans two ISS spacewalks next week

Houston -- The U.S. space agency has detailed the activities to be included during two International Space Station cosmonauts' spacewalks next week.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration said Expedition 17 Russian cosmonauts Sergei Volkov and Oleg Kononenko will conduct the first spacewalk July 10 from the Pirs docking compartment's airlock.

As part of the inquiry into ballistic landings by the last two Soyuz return spacecraft, Volkov and Kononenko will inspect their Soyuz vehicle and remove one of the pyrotechnic bolts used to connect two of the spacecraft's sections, NASA controllers in Houston said. They also will install a docking target for a new Russian module scheduled for launch late next summer.

During the second spacewalk July 15, Volkov and Kononenko will attach additional docking equipment and experiments to the hull of the Zvezda service module.

NASA begins new type of astronomy

Berkeley, Calif -- The U.S. space agency says its Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatories, or STEREO, have detected particles from the edge of the solar system.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced last year's event Monday, saying it marked the beginning of a new type of astronomy.

"The two STEREO spacecraft were launched in 2006 into Earth's orbit around the sun to obtain stereo pictures of the sun's surface and measure magnetic fields and ion fluxes associated with solar explosions," NASA said. "From June to October 2007, sensors aboard both STEREO spacecraft detected energetic neutral atoms originating from the same spot in the sky, where the sun plunges through the interstellar medium."

Mapping the region by means of neutral, or uncharged, atoms instead of light "heralds a new kind of astronomy using neutral atoms," said University of California-Berkeley Professor Robert Lin, lead scientist for the suprathermal electron sensors aboard the STEREO spacecraft.

ESA holds robotic vehicle competition

Paris-- The European Space Agency says it has selected eight European university proposals for development of robotic vehicles capable of exploring the moon.

ESA's General Studies Program challenged university students to develop a robotic vehicle capable of working in difficult terrain. The eight university teams were chosen for funding to proceed to the design stage of ESA's Lunar Robotics Challenge.

The vehicles are required to weigh no more than 220 pounds, consume no more than 2 kilowatts of power and occupy a volume of no more than 17.6 cubic feet with deployable appendages stowed.

The vehicle will be remotely operated by a workstation placed outside a simulated crater and with no direct visibility of the crater or rim, the ESA said.

NASA ponders student satellite initiative

Washington -- The U.S. space agency says it is considering inviting U.S. students, to participate in a university-based satellite development initiative.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration said the concept would be designed "to begin passing the space exploration torch to a new generation."

The American Student Moon Orbiter, or ASMO, concept would invite U.S. students, faculty and industry leaders to respond to a 90-day "Request for Information" that's planned for release this month. The orbiter would be a small satellite that could orbit the moon and carry scientific instruments designed and developed by students.

"It is important to provide meaningful experiences to our next generation of engineers, but we need to do it in a thoughtful way,"

NASA mission would look at black holes

Greenbelt, Md. -- A U.S. space agency mission under evaluation might discover the shape of space that has been distorted by a spinning black hole's crushing gravity.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration says the Gravity and Extreme Magnetism, or GEMS, mission would use new technology that can explore the structure and effects of the formidable magnetic field around magnetars -- dead stars with magnetic fields trillions of times stronger than Earth's.

"Current missions either don't have the resolution to do this, or … simply can't do this because magnetic fields are invisible," NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, which proposed the mission, said in a statement.

The principal investigator of the project, Jean Swank, said the extreme environments around black holes, magnetars and the shocks from exploding stars called supernovae all produce X-rays.