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Posts tagged ‘NASA’

New Horizons starts its FlyBy of Pluto

Tomorrow, the Space Probe New Horizons will begin its historic flyby of the Dwarf Planet Pluto.

Launched in 2006, New Horizons quietly ground its way out to theKuiper belt object over the majority of a decade and now is within hours of cruising around Pluto in a series of flybys.

Already New Horizons has given us better images of Pluto than we have ever seen before. Previous images of Pluto were taken with the Hubble

Seriously, this is it?

Seriously, this is it?

telescope and were, to put it mildly, not adequete. But in the past few days as New Horizons approaches Pluto it has whetted out appetites. Details are now visible, including geological details. Once the flyby NewHorizonsPlutostarts we should get more and more details.

Once Pluto is reached, New Horizons will do several flybys over the course of the next five months. Afterwards, depending on NASA’s whims and New Horizon’s remaining functionality it will try to study other Kuiper Belt objects. New Horizons actually has a spare hydrazine fuel tank for this purpose but that may not ensure functionality. The likey targets are the might-as-well-be-unnamed PT1, PT2 or PT3. Of those, PT1 is ceratinly reachable, the others potentially reachable.  Interestingly enough, PT1 was discovered using Hubble images some 8 years after New Horizons was launched.



SpaceProb.es – I’m on your webz, tracking your Space Probes!

The various NASA and European Space Agency Space Probes have produced wonderful results: gorgeous pictures, incredible scientific data, treading where no human can go, and much more. The problem is that there really hasn’t been any comprehensive way to keep track of all the various Space Probes out there. Sure each NASA probe will have a detailed page on the NASA page, but since each probe is a different project with different webmaster, servers and engineers each one will have a different layout style (NASA’s style guide seems to be limited to suggestions). Not to mention finding those Space Probe pages can involve quite a bit of google-fu sometimes, especially if you are forgetting the name and mission (“The probe on Mars? Which one?”). The situation isn’t horrible, mind you, but it could be so much better.

Enter Spaceprob.es, which was launched on Feb 19th of this year and covers 29 active Space Probes:



Neil Armstrong, first man to walk on the Moon, R.I.P.

We’re a couple of days late with this, since we don’t update on weekends, but as many of you have probably heard, Neil Armstrong passed away on August 25th from complications from a previous bypass operation.  Neil Armstrong was the first person to walk on the Moon.

Neil Armstrong, along Buzz Aldrin, were in the lander portion of the Apollo 11 mission, which was the first manned vehicle to land on the Moon.  (Michael Collins remained in Lunar orbit). Neil Armstrong had to land the “Eagle” manually after the computer chose a surface strewn with boulders while Buzz Aldrin called out navigation data. Neil safely landed the craft and uttered the famous line “Houston, Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed”. The schedule for Apollo then had them taking a nap (no, really). Armstrong and Aldrin refused to do this and instead embarked on their extravehicular activities. Armstrong, due to his position in the cockpit was the first to leave the Lander. Once Armstrong reached the bottom of the lander he utter the line “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”, which often sounds like “one small step for man…” in recordings. Armstrong & Aldrin would spend less than a day on the Lunar surface before returning.

Even before the space program, Armstrong had an incredible career. He earned an aeronautical engineer’s degree from MIT. After graduation he went into the US Navy and flew in Korea. Afterwards he worked as a test pilot before applying to become an astronaut.

Armstrong was a very private person and did not do much to ‘cash in’ on his fame.  He was very quiet and unassuming compared to his more outgoing lunar partner, Buzz Aldrin. Despite some claims, however, he was not a recluse and did grant interviews on a regular basis. He did refuse to sign autographs after finding out that people were selling them for money. After Apollo 11 he elected to become an engineering teacher. He also served on the committees to examine to Apollo 13 incident and the Columbia disaster.

A national hero…no a planetary hero has passed away. This has been a tragic year for astronauts.


Sally Ride, First female US astronaut, RIP.

Yesterday, Sally Ride, the first female US astronaut, and third woman in space overall, died after a long fight against pancreatic cancer.


Sally Ride was not the first woman in space, and she was not even the second woman in space.  Valentina Tereshka was trained in a crash course (she was a parachuter but not a pilot) and her flight was considered more of a stunt than anything else – mind you this was the era of public space stunts by the superpowers – but the lack of training and the superficial  nature of the her flight was indicative of the ‘propaganda over progress’  nature of USSR space flights that led to them to fall behind the US program. Svetlana Savitskaya was a more fully trained astronaut, but her training had started in 1980, wheras Sally Ride had been part of NASA’s astronaut program since 1978.
Sally Ride faced a higher level of scrutiny from the media due to her gender. While NASA was well past the age of  ‘male, clean-cut types only’, there was still a degree of chauvinism displayed. Sally Ride was asked once if she cried when things went wrong, some wondered if the space flight would damage her reproductive organs, some less-than-stellar experts claimed her hair (done in an 80’s style perm) would destroy everything inside the shuttle, and the question of how she would go to the bathroom in the shuttle was asked- a lot. Although to be fair ‘how do astronauts go to the bathroom in space’  is the most commonly asked question of the astronaut program, male or female.  Ride answered most questions skillfully,but pointed out the double-standard by asking “how come Rick (Hauck) doesn’t get these questions?”, and just outright not answering a couple of others.

Ride flew twice on the Space Shuttle, on flights STS-7 and STS-41-G. She also acted as the ground-based Capsule Commander for the 2nd and 3rd Shuttle flights. When disaster struck the Challenger in 1986 she was on the investigation team.  Even though she left NASA in 1987, she was asked back to help the accident investigation of the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster.

Once Ride left NASA, she continued to keep most of her life private while working for private companies. She acted as an inspiration to young girls in science but never pressed the issue very far – accepting her duty as a role model. But she considered herself a scientists & astronaut, not a celebrity.  She rarely exploited her fame – (a commercial for Office Depot was about it).

Sally Ride was 61.



Mars Science Laboratory AKA Curiosity – The Landing

As of this writing, the Mars Science Laboratory is scheduled to make landfall in less than 19 days (clock countdown here).  The Mars Science Laboratory, nicknamed Curiosity, is one of the biggest rovers to go to Mars, measuring at 10 feet long (often compared to a Mini-Cooper in size). Only the Viking Lander was comparable in size and that didn’t move or do anywhere near as much as Curiosity will.

Since Curiosity is a bit of a bear, it is going to be delivered in what we consider to be the coolest method of landing a roving Mars vehicle ever:


Look like fun? The lander will need to go from 13,000 mph to zero in under 7 minutes. Sound like real fun? Well if youhave an XBOX360 and XBOX account you can actually play a Curiosity  landing game designed by NASA. It is free, just look up “Mars Rover Landing” on XBOX live. It even works with the Kinect.

Curiosity is full of equipment,that mast has a camera that covers a large portion of the spectrum, so it can see in Infrared and Ultraviolet. The camera has several filters and modes to get the best imaging. Curiosity also carries a Spectrometer, Robot Arms (with cameras), Sample analysis equipment, and much more.

Curiosity is scheduled to land on August 5th or 6th depending on your position on the planet.




Happy Belated Birthday to Hubble

On April 24th, 1990 the Hubble Space Telescope was launched. Despite some ‘issues’ with the mirror shape (it was a fraction of a wavelength out of shape – the size of 1/50  the thickness of a piece of paper)the problems were soon sorted out and the Hubble started to give us some of the best images of deep stellar objects that we could ever expect to see.


Yesterday was Hubble’s 22nd Birthday:

Sadly, Hubble does not have many more birthdays. It is expected to come to an end of useful life in 2013 or 2014, and with the Shuttle Program new ended it will not be able to get any more maintenance. It is possible it useful life may continue beyond the expected end date much like some of the Martian Rovers continued past their short-expected lifespan, but that remains to be seen.

The Hubble does have a replacement in the James Webb Space Telescope.



Opportunity on Mars – Still going after 8 years.

On January 24th, 2004 NASA’s Opportunity Rover touched down on Mars with its sister rover, Spirit. Today, eight years later, Opportunity is still going, well beyond expected performance. Spirit died last year after getting mired in the sand in such  a way that it could not use its solar panels to recharge . Both rovers were not expected to last beyond a 90 working period. But they ended up lasting well beyond their operation period and Opportunity still rolls along. With this “opportunity” NASA scientists have been using the rover to search out as much information as they can on the Endevour Crater.

Opportunity has traveled over 21 miles since landing (poor Spirit only covered a little under 5 miles). Detailed trverse maps can be found on NASA’s webpage.







More details on Opporunity


40th Anniversary of the first spacecraft to orbit Mars

40 years ago, November 14th 1971 the Mariner 9 became the first spacecraft to orbit another planet. It wasn’t supposed to be the first; Mariner 8 was supposed to have that honor. But Mariner 8’s engine cut out soon after launch on May 8th, 1971 and it crashed to Earth. Mariner 9, the survivor of the pair was launched on May 30th, 1971 and went on to orbit Mars as well as send back large amounts of data. Mariner 9 was able to confirm that Earth basesd assumptions that there were sand-storms on Mars were a reality. because these storms were obscuring the view Mariner was kept in orbit longer than originally planned. When the dust cleared the first images of canyons, craters, and volcanos were obtained.

Mariner was shut down in October of 1972 having used all of its altitude control gas. Its orbit around Mars will fail on or after 2022.


Mercury Getting a Little Pockmarked!

Mercury is the innermost planet in our Solar System, and until recently it was mostly considered to be unchanging. Scientists having sent a couple of probes towards it conclided that there wasn’t much changing on its surface. That is, until the MESSENGER mission  started sending back images of the surface that showed some rather odd changes to Mercury’s surface:

These pock-marks, or hallows were found on Mercury’s surface and were as big as a mile across. The weren’t impact craters as they were not deep enough. While rockey planet surfaces are not uncommon in our Solar System (our own Moon and many of the outer planet’s moons).

The likely culprit would seem to be minerals brought to the surface by actual impacts – the dramaticly changing temperature of Mercury’s surface means some elements and chemicals might be ‘erupting’ in a chemical, rather than a geological volcano of sorts.

In any case, it sheds some interesting light on little Mercury. You can read more as the story develops on NASA’s webpage


Sputnik Day!

On this day, in 1957, the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik, into orbit.  This was the first step on people in space and the landing on the Moon. It also was the first ‘shot’ in the Space Race between the USA and the USSR and a massive propaganda victory for the latter.

Sputnik did not do very much, simply sent a beeping radio signal on two bands that amateur radio operators could listen to. It also only remained in orbit for a few months before burning up in January of 1958.  But its effect was amazing. In the USA, which had been muddling through the 50’s, Sputnik jump-started an incredible amount of science education initiatives. Science Education in the US had taken a bit of a back seat to to other fields of study but soon many resources were poured into technology and science education. Sputnik also caused a minor panic in the USA as people now worried that the USSR could use satellites to drop nuclear warheads on top of them. This would become reality shortly (the fact that both the US and USSR could drop waheads, mind you, not that they did).

54 years later and the world is much different. Artificial satellites are common in our orbit, but plans for manned space programs are slow to move in the USA. Meanwhile, China has said it plans on a whole host of manned space missions.  Oh and the USSR collapsed, making its propaganda victory a bit hollow.