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SpaceX moves one step closer to launching astronauts into space from America, a weekend solar eruption is set to spark auroras, and a spacecraft buzzes the Moon.

Monitoring a Dragon that goes 0 to 100 mph in 1.2 sec

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Wednesday, May 6, 2015, 1:42 PM - SpaceX moved one step closer to launching astronauts into space from America today, a weekend solar eruption is set to spark auroras, and a spacecraft buzzes the Moon. It's What's Up In Space!

A new Dragon takes flight

At 9 a.m. ET, on Wednesday, May 6, SpaceX performed a very different kind of launch, as their new Crew Dragon spacecraft took part in what's known as a Pad Abort Test.

This test is designed to see how the capsule operates in a situation where the launch is already in progress, but it must be aborted due to an emergency. In this case, the capsule must separate from its booster rocket, blast clear of the area using its eight SuperDracos thrusters, and then deploy parachutes to deliver the crew safely back to Earth.

Since the booster rocket is not needed for the test (and it is a safer test overall without having to involve one), the Dragon V2 was only attached to its trunk - the part of the spacecraft that joins it to the booster rocket, accompanies it to its orbital destination and is only jettisoned when the booster re-enters Earth's atmosphere. During the test, this acted as support for the capsule on the launch pad, it helped stabilize the capsule during the flight up to the target altitude of 1.5 kilometres, and then it was jettisoned into the Atlantic Ocean just before the Dragon's parachutes were activated.

Credit: SpaceX

Although this is the capsule that will, one day, ferry astronauts to the International Space Station (and perhaps beyond), there were no people on board the capsule during this flight. Only an unnamed dummy made the trip.

After the test was completed, Elon Musk reported the results on Twitter.

In metric, those results are 0 to 160 km/h in 1.2 seconds, with a top speed in excess of 550 km/h. After some speedy calculations, Phil Plait, of the Bad Astronomy blog, reported that as nearly 4gs of acceleration, or 4x the force of Earth's gravity!

However, in a press conference after the test, Elon Musk said that if there had been people on board, "they would have been in great shape."

He anticipates that the Crew Dragon will be ready to take people into space sometime in 2017.

Aurora Watchers Look Out! Incoming CME!

Over the weekend, just after the Sun unleashed an immense filament from its eastern limb, another one tore its way free and launched out into space, directly towards Earth.

Credit: NOAA Space Weather

The above animation shows the progress of the coronal mass ejection as it spread out across space over the past few days, along with the scheduled impact on Wednesday morning (subtract 4 hours from UTC to get EDT).

Observations by the ACE spacecraft, currently orbiting a stable gravitational point in space between the Earth and the Sun known as LaGrange Point 1, alerted forecasters to the presence of the CME (a job that will soon be done by NASA's Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR).

While the CME makes a more-or-less direct hit on Earth's magnetic field, and it has sparked a minor geomagnetic storm, it is unlikely to cause any problems for orbiting satellites or power grids on the surface.

Auroras may result from this storm, though, so those living at higher latitudes should be on the lookout for these tonight.

LRO Buzzes the Moon

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has made its closest pass over the lunar surface ever, in its nearly six years in space.

Artist's conception of LRO close over the Moon's surface. Credit: NASA/GSFC/SVS

According to NASA:

On Monday, May 4, 2015 flight controllers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland performed two station keeping burns to change LRO’s orbit. The new orbit allows LRO to pass within 20 km of the South Pole and 165 km over the North Pole.
"We're taking LRO closer to the moon than we've ever done before, but the maneuver is similar to all other station keeping maneuvers, so the mission operations team knows exactly what to do," said Steve Odendahl, LRO mission manager from NASA Goddard.

From this new orbit, LRO's instruments - which have already delivered the best resolution images of the lunar surface we have so far - will be able to examine the surface even closer, including getting better terrain measurements from its Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA).

These new measurements may help scientists here on Earth solve some of the persistent mysteries about the lunar poles - especially about the presence of water and other volatiles that may be found at the bottom of craters there.

Sources: SpaceX | Bad Astronomy | NOAA | SpaceWeather.com | NASA

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