Archive for the ‘Space Missions’ Category

Moonstruck   Leave a comment

MoonDaguerreotype

The Moon, as photographed by Louis Daguerre, 1839

I’m not kidding when I say I’ve been moonstruck since childhood. That’s when my parents dragged me out of bed on one sultry July evening. Mom opened the bedroom door, shook me and said, “Wake up! You have to see this!” Grumpily, I dragged my sleepy self down the hall and into the living room, where my parents, grandparents, sister and brother sat, glued to the TV. My seven-year-old self stared at the screen, impatient. After a few moments, Neil Armstrong hopped out of the LM and into history, followed shortly thereafter by Buzz Aldrin.

The whole concept seemed so wild to me. That giant Saturn rocket shooting them into space. Three men jammed into what seemed not much larger than a Volkswagen Beetle. Being able to see and hear them from an ever increasing distance. And then, the landing. Walter Cronkite’s gushing on air wasn’t much different from everyone in my house. Or the world, for that matter.

I didn’t really think about all the technology, or the training, or the money, or even the space race that evening. Other NASA missions came and went, and my family followed them all. But somehow, this one stood out from the rest. Three guys achieved something no one else has ever done then and since (although that will change shortly).

All I knew was that I wanted to be an astronaut. Desperately.

As the years went by, I shifted my interests to astronomy and learning the constellations, and the shifting planets in the nighttime sky, plus the occasional comet and meteor showers. I never did well in math, so I gave up my dream of becoming an astronomer. But my love for the offworld never faded, and I kept my sweet spot for the moon.

There’s nothing more entrancing than watching the glow of a full moon on a white blanket of snow, as the whitened trees glisten from its brightness. Or how a summer night feels so romantic with the moon sailing over the ocean. How welcoming the moon can be when it peeps out from a clearing sky, or transform into a mysterious red when it eclipses. Or blots out the sun and turns black.

Lots of sci-fi novels and movies use the moon as a backdrop or a plot device. It has religious significance for many. One can be mooned, have a moonface, or eat a moon pie, or wear a moonstone. Or be like Cher and Nicholas Cage and be moonstruck.

If you’re lucky and under the right conditions, you can catch the new moon in the old moon’s arms, or the old moon’s arm around the new moon. That means right before and after a new moon, there’s a thin ribbon of light, the slenderest of crescents, holding the dark side. Through a telescope or good binoculars, you can make out some details of the dark side too. This phase doesn’t last long, as it’s right before sunrise or just after sunset, and the moon is very close to the sun in the sky and very near the horizon.

If you catch it just at the right time, you can see an occultation, or the moon appearing to hide a star or planet. It’s literally now you see it, now you don’t. The moon slides in front of a celestial body, for a matter of minutes or hours. Then the celestial body magically reappears. It’s fascinating to watch.

During daylight, a moonrise might seem as if it’s almost see-through and blue. Spotting a full moon rising from a mountaintop is downright spectacular. You’ll never see something so big in your entire life. Or catching it rising over the ocean – the glow on the horizon, then a tiny, shy peep, as it creeps higher into the sky, a ribbon of light shimmering over the ocean’s surface, until, for a moment, the entire orb appears to be balancing on the horizon itself. Way cool!

I’ve already spent much of last and this week reliving the moon landing and the entire NASA early space mission by watching programs on PBS, or reading articles, or posts on my Twitter feed. I still marvel at this accomplishment.

But most importantly, I remember how unifying this singular moment was for our planet. How we all came together to marvel at such an achievement. It was an accomplished started out of competition and ended in peace. We need, not only as a nation, but as ambassadors of this legacy, to remember what good can come of scientific achievements, and to put aside all that makes us angry and frustrated, in order to move forward to use our discoveries to better the fates of all humankind.

 

A Busy Day for Space Fans   Leave a comment

blackhole

Credits: Event Horizon Telescope collaboration et al.

So where does one begin on a day like today? I can’t honestly say what story could top seeing a photograph of an actual black hole. But the news certainly is fascinating. And check out the link. There’s a complete picture of Messier 87, a giant galaxy some 55 million light years away, located in Virgo.

Einstein theorized in a paper published in 1915 that star’s light rays curved around the sun during an eclipse. That meant the stars appeared about 1.75 second of arc away from their positions.

In May 29, 1919, when a six-minute total eclipse in Brazil caused British astronomer Arthur Eddington to determine that light rays from other stars bent when subjected to the gravitational field of our sun.  He proved this through the use of photographs, and others have proven it since.

Jump to 2016. MIT graduate student Katie Bouman created the algorithm that produced the first image of the black hole. Her contributions seem to be a bit underreported, but thanks to her work, we now see the image pictured above.

Falcon Heavy launching 400 x 600

Credit: Kennedy Space Center

The second big story (to me at least) is Falcon Heavy. It was supposed to launch today, but thanks to high winds aloft, we’re going to have to wait until tomorrow. But the cool thing about it is its three boosters, all expected to land perfectly. I’m always fascinated by this new generation of rockets. Elon Musk, for all his faults, is a genius. Not only did he create a better class of rockets, partly recyclable, he also made their capsules so sleekly modern.

And lastly, on April 11 NASA will host a teleconference on its study of its astronaut twins, Mark Kelly and Scott Kelly. This eagerly-awaited report will detail how Scott Kelly was affected by living in the ISS for 340 days, as compared to his twin brother, Mark Kelly, who remained on Earth. So far, these are the only twins who have both served on the ISS, and, as such, are uniquely qualified for this important study.

 

Otherworldly Saturn   Leave a comment

Few places capture our imagination like Saturn. With its myriad of rings and moons, it shines above us in the night sky as it travels along the ecliptic.  It’s always been inspiration for sci-fi fans too. Anyone who’s ever glanced at pulp sci-fi fiction covers might have noticed ringed planets hovering in the background as a elongated oval-shaped finned spaceship rocketed past.

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“Tommy Tomorrow,” created by Jack Schiff, George Kashdan, Bernie Breslauer, Virgil Finlay, and Howard Sherman, DC Comics

Take, for example, our friend Tommy Tomorrow. Created in 1947, he roamed the heavens in his futuristic 1988 space jet, zipping past a rather featureless Saturn-like planet, as illustrated above, while another Saturn-ish red planet with gold rings spins in the distance.

Systema Saturn

Early drawings of Saturn. From the Systema Saturnium (Fig. 67)

Early astronomers struggled to draw what they’d seen through primitive telescopes. While they seemed to understand that its appearance changed in relation to its orbit around the sun and the earth, they couldn’t always account for its rings. A quick glance tells the viewer that something’s going on with Saturn, but just exactly what, they couldn’t be sure.

As telescopes grew more sophisticated, astronomers were able to recreate more accurate  images of Saturn.

Antique Saturn

19th century Illustration of Saturn

 

And photographers capabilities grew, so did their ability to capture Saturn.

1879 Jupiter and 1885 Saturn

A composite photo of  Jupiter (1879) and Saturn (1885)

In 1973, NASA launched Pioneer 11. Its mission included photographing Saturn. While previous photos of this planet taken from the Earth resulted in blurry, yellowish images, Pioneer 11’s photos revealed tantalizing clues about its nature, as well as its moons.

Saturn Pioneer 11

NASA image, Saturn and Titan as seen by Pioneer 11

None, though, can compare to the 20-year mission of Cassini. Launched in 1997, the Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative partnership between NASA and ESA to conduct an exhaustive exploration of the ringed jewel of the solar system. The images sent back are like none other.

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NASA, Cassini-Huygens mission image of Saturn

On September 15, 2017, the Cassini mission will come to a fiery end, as it crashes into the atmosphere of Saturn, ending a glorious 13-year run. It’s been an amazing journey, and without a doubt, its legacy will continue to fascinate astronomers and ordinary folk like me. You’ve done well, Cassini!

 

 

When Reality Mirrors Science Fiction, or Vice Versa   Leave a comment

Why make things up when reality is just as entertaining? Here’s a few inspiring snippets for your sci-fi/reality consideration. Become inspired and write your own story based on what you see below!

 

New Horizons Spacecraft

Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Alex Parker

New Horizons has left Pluto and gracefully exited out into extended space, lurking around the Kuiper Belt in search of, well, new horizons.

Chinese Riot Robot

Credit: People’s Daily, China

This egg-ish thing is actually a Chinese riot control robot, capable of mowing down people on flat surfaces while ambling along at 11-ish miles per hour and work without complaint (I’m assuming anyway) for 8 hours.

SpaceX Mars Ship

Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX to launch unmanned mission to Mars in 2018. The above ship is no relation to the above Chinese riot control robot.

Hall Thruster

Credit: NASA

Aerojet Rocketdyne will develop an advanced solar electric propulsion system, or SEP, for deep space exploration. Mars, and other exotic extraterrestrial locations.

Hope you found a few good ideas!

Ham Radio and the International Space Station   Leave a comment

BritainAstronautCall-07e18

Credit: 15 December 2015 File Photo

Sure, everyone’s done it. You pick up the phone, take a quick glance at a number you’ve never seen before and dialed it. A voice connects at the other end and it sure sounds unfamiliar. Still, you ask for the person you intended to reach, hoping a friend or a wife or a kid answered the phone. And no, they’re not there because you’ve dialed the wrong number.

No biggie. It happens.

Except when that wrong number happens to originate from the International Space Station.

British astronaut Tim Peake mistakenly called someone and later tweeted about his wrong attempt and apology. I’m sure the person at the other end thought it was a bunch of bored kids pranking and though little of it until the story broke in the news. It just goes to show you that no matter who and where you are, accidents happen, even at the ISS.

But here’s something: do you know that anyone can contact the ISS? That’s right. If you’re a licensed ham radio operator, you have an opportunity to contact the ISS when it’s above your neck of the woods.

Last summer, Adrian Lane contacted the ISS while it flew over Britain. After sending out a call signal, Lane’s signal was received. He and an American astronaut spoke for about 45 seconds before contact was broken.

As it turns out, there are three ham radios aboard the ISS: an Ericsson MP-X handheld radio, a Kenwood TM D700 and a Kenwood D710.

John Phillips and Ham Radio

Credit: NASA – John Phillips at an ISS Ham Radio 

Obviously, their frequencies operates on different ones than Houston. Its purpose is exactly the same as Adrian Lane discovered – as a means of public education. Schools, for example, reach out to the inhabitants of the ISS to ask questions.

When astronauts have free time, they choose to make random, unschedule contact with whomever is choosing to reach them. Though their work schedules dictate their availability, an astronaut’s waking period is weekdays between 7:30 am – 7:30 pm UTC during the week, which means during that time they’re generally working. However, at either end of that schedule they might be available, as well as weekends, when more free time is also available.

Crews don’t scan but switch between frequencies, depending upon their location. Since the ISS travels rapidly, a person only has about 45 seconds worth of contact time.

If you are interested in contacting the ISS, visit this excellent website hosted by Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS). It details location prediction maps, frequencies, and everything else you’ll need to set up contact and once you do, how to receive a QSL card to prove it! And though it’s entirely random, you might just get lucky like Adrian Lane.

 

 

Space Objects   Leave a comment

Credit: Project Helium Tears

A few weeks ago I wrote about space junk.  This entry’s a bit different.  And yes, while this stuff was deliberately placed there, it’s not your garden-variety space program detritus.  It’s all simply for fun.

My first entry has an awful lot to do with “Star Wars,” which, thanks to Disney utterly saturating the market without mercy, hasn’t quite gone this far to promote their film.  In fact, the producers of this little clever snippet are garnering worldwide attention just to snatch a couple of opening night tickets.  Hey, for what it’s worth, I say these guys deserve it!  Attaching an X-wing fighter to a weather balloon’s a pretty nifty idea and puts a bit of a scientific spin on a sci-fi icon.

But why stop at an X-wing fighter?  Haven’t you ever wondered what would happen if a pink glazed doughnut took a updraft hike?

Credit: Stratolys

Curiosity knows no bounds as a small team of Swedes gather in what appears to be a running track and launched the first doughnut into space.  There’s little fanfare, but it seems the Coast Guard comes to the rescue.

Now that you fought a war and ate a doughnut because you’re starved, how about celebrating your achievements with some space whisky?  Ria Misra from i09 writes about gross-tasting, overpriced whisky that Ardbeg, a single malt Islay Scotch whisky company tested, was sent in space to the ISS in 2011 and returned to earth in 2014.  Hey, it was worth a try, eh?

crater

Credit: Ardbeg

Clearly, those with enough money and resources know what’s going to capture attention.  Sure, doughnuts and X-wing fighters are great do-it-yourself projects.  But we’re talking classy booze here!  Discriminating palates await!  After a hard day’s walk out into the Great Vacuum, you’re going to relax and take a nip or two.

But for those of us stuck here on the ground, there’s always this:

 

 

Space Junk   Leave a comment

4-8-nrc-evaluates-nasas-orbital-debris-programs

Credit: NASA

Maybe you read The New York Time’s July 16, 2015 article regarding a fragment of a Russian weather satellite passing near ISS caused one astronaut and two cosmonauts to enter a Soyuz capsule until the all clear was issued.  It wasn’t the first time something like this happened, nor will it be the last.

Take a look at the above picture.  That’s a graphic representation of all of the flotsam and jetsam from the entire planet’s space industries. First, blame it on the United States and Russia. Then, blame it on any nation that dared test the limits of gravity.  Pretty soon, anything as minuscule as a paint fleck to a section of a satellite remained at various levels of orbit, zooming around at 175,000 mph/281,640 km/h.  Occasionally bits fall to earth, succumbing to gravity and burning up harmlessly as they enter the atmosphere.

NASA and the Department of Defense keep an excellent log of anything larger than a softball and if any debris comes close enough to the ISS, both Houston and Moscow work together to plan a strategy to keep the inhabitants safe.  If a threat is deemed plausible, all are instructed to go into the ISS’s lifeboats – the Soyuz capsules – in case a quick getaway is necessary.

But this poses a larger problem: what’s being done to clean up the mess?  Simply ask this question to Google and you’ll get numerous responses on various sites.  Space.com has an article listing 7 Wild Ways.   Popular Mechanics has its own solutions.   Here’s what Mental Floss has to say.

The truth is, nothing’s being done…yet.  Sure, the idea’s been kicked around, maybe even a few plans surfaced.  It seems getting there and back takes priority over all the mess it takes to accomplish our goals.  It’s a junkyard, for sure, and like the neighbor who refuses to let go of all the cars (and their subsequent parts) owned over the past 30 years, it’s unsightly, only getting worse, and isn’t going away.

Of course, there’s been a multitude of sci-fi inspiration drawn from this.  Take, for example, the recent movie “Gravity,” wherein Sandra Bullock’s character Ryan Stone finds herself floating in space untethered thanks to a run-in with remains.  David Brin’s novel, “Existence” tells the story of an alien artifact tucked among the pieces of debris.

Sadly, this is a commentary on how the inhabitants of this planet choose to deal with exploration and conquering the impossible.  Mt. Everest is defiled by the remains of extreme tourism.  Roman ruins scattered about their former empire faced years of abuse from casual visitors seeking an up-close inspection.

SpaceX, to its credit, is developing multistage rockets that return to earth to be used in future missions.  It’s facing challenges with no successes yet, but it’s not giving up and it’s getting closer with each try.  They do seem to be one exception, though.

Until we learn that exploration often results in exploitation and near-irreversable damage, perhaps any further missions might benefit from following SpaceX’s lead.  If not, there won’t be any room up there to put a satellite nor will be be safe to remain in any space station.

 

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