Satellite sent to investigate Sun after spacemen mark Hallowe'en

 

A $9-million satellite was released from the space shuttle Discovery yesterday for two days of free-flying solar studies, NASA officials said.

The small Spartan spacecraft was set free from the end of the shuttle's robot arm as Discovery sailed 341 miles above Earth, near Baja, California.

The success made up for an embarrassing 1997 failure when the crew of shuttle Columbia botched the deployment of the satellite, forcing NASA to reschedule its solar science mission for this flight.

Veteran astronaut John Glenn (77), making his first space flight since his historic 1962 orbital mission, did not play a role in the release, but may have snapped some photos of the event, NASA officials said.

Shuttle skipper Curt Brown fired thrusters to back Discovery away from Spartan as the two craft sped above the United States and moved over the Atlantic Ocean. Tomorrow the shuttle will return to pick up the satellite for return to Earth.

On the 1997 mission Columbia's crew omitted to send a crucial command needed to activate the satellite and then set it tumbling in space when they tried to retrieve it with the robot arm. Two space-walking astronauts eventually retrieved the satellite by hand after it had drifted for three days.

NASA's official inquiry into the mishap determined human error was the root cause, with poor computer software a contributing factor.

The Spartan satellite carries two instruments to study the sun's fiery outer atmosphere and the energetic solar wind that blows through the solar system. Scientists hope to learn more about the material ejected from the sun which can affect the earth's magnetic field, disrupting communications and power supplies.

Later yesterday, John Glenn participated in his first news conference from space. As part of the research into ageing, Glenn is to wear for the first time a web-like helmet with 23 sensors that measure everything from his brain waves to how much he snores.

Upon awakening, he is to record the dreams he has while floating 340 miles above Earth.

Glenn will wear the sleep helmet for four nights, as will Japanese astronaut Chiaki Mukai.

Mukai is taking the hormone melatonin at night to test its effects on sleep, but Glenn is not. He was dropped from that portion of the flight for undisclosed medical reasons.

NASA scientists say the sleep research may give insight into why the elderly have problems sleeping on Earth.

The septuagenarian and his six crewmates sent a Hallowe'en greeting to Earth on Saturday night when they all held a picture of Glenn in front of their respective faces. As the astronauts unmasked themselves, a beaming Glenn emerged from behind a picture of himself.