Friday, April 29, 2011

Space Shuttle Endeavour's Launch Delayed at Least 72 Hours.

An issue with Endeavour's Auxiliary Power Unit 1 heaters forced the postponement of launch. The APU system provides power to the hydraulic system for the shuttle, the heater's prevent the system from freezing in orbit. The earliest possible launch time would be Monday, May 2 at 2:33 p.m. EDT, but an actual launch time appears tenuous.

NASA launch director Mike Leinbach confirmed in an interview on NASA TV that it would take at least 72 hours for engineers to turn things around. “Today the orbiter is not ready to fly and we always say in this business we will not fly until we are ready and unfortunately we just aren’t ready,” Leinbach said.

NASA TV launch commentator George Diller explains, “There’s not a way to do the kind of troubleshooting we need to do and still be able to stay in a count configuration. So we will be scrubbing for today.”

The external fuel tank (the big orange thing) had just finished being filled when the problem was identified, and the astronauts suited up and half way to the launch pad. The astronauts turned around and headed back to the Kennedy Space Center. The external fuel tank must now be emptied before troubleshooting can begin.

The delay is a disappointment for the hundreds of thousands who came to Florida to witness Endeavour's final flight and second to last of the space shuttles. This includes STS-134 commander Mark Kelly’s wife, Gabrielle Giffords, and President Obama and his family. The President still plans to travel to Cape Canaveral and tour the facilities there.

The launch team will meet soon to put together a plan for a new target launch based on the work that has to be performed. Expect an update with the new launch time sometime soon. Below is the video of Leinbach explaining the scrub:

Thursday, April 28, 2011

SETI Setback

Allen Telescope Array. (Credit: ATA)

SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence has been hit by a budget crunch. The result is that one of their best tools, the Allen Telescope Array, has been mothballed. The CEO of the SETI Institute, Tom Pierson told donors in a letter on April 22 that the ATA has been put into "hibernation." To elaborate the letter explained, "starting this week, the equipment is unavailable for normal observations and is being maintained in a safe state by a significantly reduced staff."

The hope is that this is a temporary shuttering while the ATA operators search for a way to fund its continued use.

The ATA is a field of 42 radio dishes in rural northern California built to seek out transmissions from distant alien civilizations, the only set dedicated to this search. With ATA offline, SETI researchers will have to attempt to gain access to other telescopes, where, according to John Matson, writing for Scientific American, "competition for observing time can be fierce or piggyback their searches on other ongoing observations."

The ATA is run by a partnership between the SETI Institute, which is responsible for building the telescope array, and the University of California, Berkeley, which is responsible for operating it. But because of reduced funding from various sources, including the National Science Fund (NSF) and California State, UC Berkley was forced to withdraw from the project.

Pierson said that the SETI institute has been looking for additional funding for over two years, such as providing assistance to the U.S. Air Force in tracking orbital debris. ATA operating costs are about $1.5 million a year, with an additional $1 million annually to pursue the SETI science campaign at ATA. (Source)

A fundraising campaign is currently underway by the SETI institute to raise $5 million to use the ATA to focus on the potential habitable planets found by the Kepler telescope. If you are interested in donating, please visit their website.

Personally, I think SETI is a bit of a needle in a haystack. Although that analogy fails to grasp the scope of the size, it's more like looking for one needle in all the haystacks on Earth. I don't think its a bad idea to search though. Keeping our eyes, and ears, open will be the only way to tell if anyone really is out there. It is true that SETI may not turn anything up any time soon, but the longer it runs, the higher chance of success it has.

Reminder: Endeavour Launch

A view of the shuttle launchpad at Kennedy Space Center as seen by astronaut Mick Fincke flying in his T-38.

The Space Shuttle Endeavour is scheduled for liftoff at 3:47 P.M. EDT Friday and everything looks like a "Go" for launch.

Endeavour is on the launch pad, prepping for its final flight. The flight crew of the mission, STS-134 is on sight, also prepping for flight. U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is there, after recovering from being shot in the head at a public event in January in Tuscon, AZ. She is supporting her husband and mission commander Mark Kelly. President Obama is also going to attend the launch.

The forecast calls for an 80 percent chance of favorable conditions for the launch. Storms may delay the rollback of the support structure tomorrow, but shouldn't affect the Friday morning external tank fueling.

Endeavour final flight is a 14-day mission to the International Space Station. There it will deliver the Express Logistics Carrier-3, Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2 (AMS), a high-pressure gas tank and additional spare parts for the Dextre robotic helper.

More info on the shuttle mission from NASA, and you can watch the launch on NASA TV.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

D.C.'s Public Observatory

I used to volunteer at the Public Observatory at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. Yes, there is an observatory right in the middle of D.C.! It is a little dome right next to the National Air and Space Museum and I definitely recommend it as a must see if you are ever in D.C. I still hear from them every once in awhile and I thought I would share their work with you all.

The normal public hours for the observatory are Wednesdays and Thursdays from 1:00 PM – 3:00 PM, Fridays and Saturdays from 11:00 AM – 3:00 PM, closed Mondays and Sundays. These hours may vary depending on weather (and closed if it's overcast/raining) and occasionally they do night activities.

Since this is open to the public during the day, what you are going to see is the Sun. And boy do you get a great look at it. They have even been kind enough to upload images that they have taken to share with the world. In addition to that, not everyone can make it to D.C., but with the awesomeness of todays technology, they are experimenting with streaming live video of the view through their telescopes, using Ustream. Mostly they show the Sun through the 100mm H-alpha telescope. But it is only available during observatory hours.

Most of the people who make the observatory work are volunteers, so if you ever do make it to the observatory, please thank them for all of their hard work and dedication!

Also, new poll is up, go and vote to the right!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Astro-Lesson: Asteroids

So the poll was a tie between the Sun and asteroids. I just picked asteroids, and will do the Sun next week while I think of new topics to populate the poll. Honestly, I might go back to the question and answer format I did when I started the blog, at least temporarily. It's funny though, even though I've been wanting to do the asteroids, I am having some problems on thinking of how to get started...

Artist Concept of the Asteroid Belt. (NASA)
Astronomers have been studying asteroids for a couple hundred years. The first asteroid discovered was Ceres, in 1801. Now there are over a million asteroids that have been observed flinging like crazy throughout our Solar System. It is estimated nearly 2 million asteroids 1 km or larger reside in the asteroid belt, a region of space between Mars and Jupiter, but other significant populations include Near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) and Trojans. They are left over remnant from the early Solar System and can say a lot about the composition of those early conditions.

The asteroid belt is incredibly diffuse, where spacecraft can fly through it without worry of hitting anything, unlike what may be portrayed in science fiction. The asteroid belt also isn't likely to have been a planet that never formed or got ripped apart by Jupiter, the total mass off the asteroid belt is less than that of our Moon. Collisions do happen between asteroids though, spawning more smaller asteroids, and because they share orbital characteristics and make up, they are grouped into "families." The characteristics of each family also casts doubt on the possibility of planet formation.

Vesta (left) and Ceres (middle) compared to the Moon (right). (NASA)
The largest and  most massive object in the asteroid belt is the dwarf planet Ceres. For a half a century after it was discovered, it was considered a planet, along with the asteroids Pallas (discovered 1802), Juno (1804), and Vesta (1807). No new asteroid would be discovered for nearly 40 years. With the discovery of more, the term planet fell out of favor (no vote or decision was needed like in the case of dwarf planets.) Asteroid had been used interchangeably with planet to describe these objects from the beginning, and took over to describe these "minor planets." Asteroid literally means star-like, because of the objects initial appearance in telescopes was like that of a star, except they moved like planets.

The Asteroid Belt (white) and Jupiter's Trojans (green). (Wikipedia)

Trojans are populations of asteroids that share an orbit with a larger planet or moon, but do not collide with it because they orbit in one of the two Lagrangian points of stability, L4 and L5, which lie 60° ahead of and behind the larger body. The largest group of these are the Jupiter Trojans, which, though few are currently known, may be as numerous as the asteroid belt. Trojans are also found around Neptune and Mars.

Near-Earth asteroids are ones with orbits that pass close to the Earth's orbit. These asteroids are divided into families: The Atens, usually inside the Earths orbit; The Apollos, which have average orbital radii more than that of the Earth and perihelia less than Earth's aphelion; and the Amors, which have orbits between Earth and Mars and are more like to cross Mars' orbit. As of April 27, 2011, there are 7919 close approach asteroids with 1218 potentially hazardous asteroids. (IAU Minor Planet Center is my source)

From the wonderful Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.

Asteroids probably the greatest space-based threat to life on Earth. We know it is a threat from the history of the Earth (see the picture above, part of the reason why I wanted to make this post). Asteroids have had a hand in several mass extinctions, including that of the dinosaurs as evidence from the Yucatan Peninsula crater suggests. It WILL happen again, that factor just being time. I won't even address the whole Asteroid Apophis thing, because it won't hit us. Apophis will get close, even inside the orbits of geosynchronous satellites, but at best, it will be a bright object to watch.

Asteroid Defense Force...

But, that doesn't mean NASA and other space programs aren't doing anything. Aside from the actively searching and tracking potentially hazardous asteroids, scientists are hard at work on designing potential defenses. NASA, ESA, the Planetary Society, and Roscosmos (the Russian Federal Space Agency) are all studying possible deflection methods that include ideas such as nuclear bombardment, kinetic impactors, and gravitational tractors.

There are other reasons to study asteroids as well. Near-Earth asteroids may contain resource deposits that could be mined. This is one of the interesting reasons why I support a manned mission to an asteroid. Though returning to the Moon is a nice idea, asteroids would be easier to mine for resources with the lesser gravity. Those resources could be returned to the Earth to make consumer products, or be manufactured in orbit into necessities and spacecraft for further exploration. Mining them would also reduce ecological destruction on Earth. The key result would be that whichever country did this first would become an economic powerhouse and the sole superpower. But hopefully it would spur competition in other nations and more advance into space, pushing humanity into another golden age.

{Click to Enlarge} Montage of all the asteroid close-ups at this time, to scale. (Planetary Society)
But moving back to the subject, the definition of what exactly an asteroid is is something that has yet to be determined. Technically, based on the 2006 IAU decision that created the dwarf planet classification, everything smaller then a dwarf planet is a 'small solar system body', though the term 'minor planet' is still acceptable. These objects have traditionally been classified as asteroids, comets or meteoroids. 
Meteoroids are the easiest to define, typically anything smaller than ten meters across. The line between asteroids and comets has blurred with further study of the Solar System though. So much so that a new classification, Centaurs, has entered the vernacular. These exhibit both asteroid and comet behaviors, comets have a tail and coma of gas around them, and typically lie inwards of the Kuiper belt and outside the orbit of Jupiter. Kuiper belt objects have also been labelled "objects" to avoid classifying them as either asteroids or comets. This leaves us with a general working definition of asteroids as being minor planets of the inner Solar System, such as the asteroid belt, Jupiter Trojans, and near-Earth objects.

Vesta as seen from the Hubble Space Telescope. (NASA)

There are a few large asteroids in the asteroid belt that need clarification too. Vesta, Pallas, and Hygiea may be classified as dwarf planets when their shapes are better known. My bet is that they will remain asteroids, but for Vesta, a definitive answer will be reached soon. The NASA Dawn mission is orbiting Vesta this year and reach Ceres in 2015. This will provide much needed information on these objects, the largest two in the asteroid belt. (And hopefully I will right an article on both of them soon, as Vesta has become dear to me.)

I took this image of Vesta for my university observational astronomy class.

So there is a basic overlay about asteroids. You can see there are many nuances on this level, and it takes some familiarity to really know about them. There are several different "families" and subgroups, as well as problems with those classifications and how they are determined. But this is all I will leave you with. I hope you learned a lot about asteroids, and you will gain a better understanding on them as more missions are carried out to study them.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Chocolate Creme Egg Cosmology

I'm sure a few of you had a Cadbury creme egg this Easter. They are pretty delicious, and if not, well, they are about to be on sale so that stores can clear their stock. (I'll probably have to grab some, YUM!) Anyways, this video is part of the University of Nottingham’s Sixty Symbols science video series, this week they have been featuring eggs for Easter. The video explains the possibility of tiny eggs from other dimensions, essentially a way to view the fifth and sixth dimension when dealing with the cosmological constant. I hope you enjoy, but take heed of the warning!

P.S.: Poll Closed, Asteroids Won!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Space Bunny!


or Passover, or Ä’ostre, or Zombie Day, or Sunday, or Nothing, or Something...
Just enjoy the space bunny!

From one of my favorite Webcomics: Natalie Dee

Also! Happy Birthday to the Hubble Space Telescope!

Animals in Space

Since it is Earth Day weekend and Caturday (well it was when I started writing this, then I got seriously distracted), I decided what would a better way to celebrate then to talk about some of the animal we've sent to space.

Human's aren't the only animals from this planet to have gone to space, we have often sent animals to test conditions or for scientific research. Most people know this and tend to think of dogs and chimps, but really the list is a lot more diverse then that. And there are those who proclaim animal cruelty, but it is part of the process for ensuring safe travel in the future. Most of the time these days, animals are put in no real danger, no more then their astronaut counterparts.

So far six national space programs have flown animals to space: the Soviet Union, the United States, France, China, Japan, and Iran.

The first animals sent into space, the first travelers from Earth, were fruit flies. Dramatic, I know... They were accompanied by rye and cotton seeds aboard a U.S. V2 rocket launched on February 29, 1947. The experiment was to test radiation exposure at high altitudes, and the rocket made it past both the US 50 mile and international 100 km definitions of the edge of space. The experiment was a success, the fruit flies were recovered alive and the seeds were able to grow. Future V2 missions would also carried biological samples too. (Source)
What Earth's first emissary to the stars might have looked like. (UW-Madison)

On June 14, 1949, a rhesus monkey named Albert II became the first monkey in space, reaching about 83 miles in his V2 rocket. The first Albert had died due to rocket failure during the missions ascent. Albert II died on impact after a parachute failure. Monkeys would continue to be used throughout the 1950s and 60s, implanted with sensors to measure vital signs and usually under anesthesia.

Albert II's launch. (Smithsonian)

The U.S. launched a mouse into space on August 31, 1950 aboard a V2. Called Albert V, unlike the earlier Albert flights, did not fly a monkey. The rocket disintegrated due to parachute failure. Several other mice would be launched in the 1950s.

The Soviet Union launched the first two dogs into space aboard the R-1 IIIA-1 flight on January 29, 1951. The dogs were Tsygan and Dezik, and although they reached space, they did not orbit. Both dogs survived the flight, but one would later die on a subsequent flight.

The dog Laika would become the first animal to orbit, aboard the second spacecraft to achieve orbit. Sputnik 2 (nicknamed Muttnik in the West) was launched November 3, 1957 with the dog. Laika died a few hours in orbit as planned since there was reentry strategy from orbit developed yet. She was a small stray picked up from the streets. Ten other dogs would reach orbit before Yuri Gagarin's flight on April 12, 1961.

Laika in her flight harness.
Of those other dogs, Belka and Strelka of Sputnik 5, launched August 19 1960, were the first animals to achieve orbit and be returned alive. One of Strelka's pups after the mission was given to Caroline Kennedy as a gift and many descendants are known to exist.

On December 13, 1958, the first squirrel monkey, named Gordo, was put into space aboard a Jupiter IRBM. He was lost to yet another parachute failure, the capsule landed in the Atlantic ocean and was never recovered. Telemetry data from the mission was considered a success though, Gordo survived the stress of launch and weightlessness, alleviating concerns about affects on humans. (Also, you can read about how awesome squirrel monkeys are over at Leaving the Next: An Expat Survival Guide.)

Baker on a model V2 rocket (not his actual spacecraft). (U.S. Army)

Soon after Gordo's flight, a rhesus monkey named Able and a squirrel monkey named Baker would become the first monkeys to survive spaceflight on May 28, 1959. Both survived in good condition. Unfortunately Able died during surgery to remove an infected medical electrode. Baker would live as the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama until 1984.

Ham the Chimp, hamming it up after his spaceflight. (NASA)

The first chimp in space, Ham the Chimp, launched in a Mercury capsule aboard a Redstone rocket on January 31, 1961. He was trained to pull levers to receive banana pellets and avoid shocks. During the flight this was used to show the ability to perform tasks during spaceflight. About 3 months later, Alan Shepard would become the second human and first American in space. Enos the Chimp would become the first chimp in orbit on November 29, 1961.

France had a relatively short lived animal testing program, running from 1961-67. They first flew a rat (Hector) on February 22, 1961, then two more rats later. Then the first cat, Felix, on October 18, 1963, who was recovered alive. The second cat in space was not. The final launches were of two monkeys in March 1967.

China launched mice and rats in 1964 and 65; two dogs in 1966; and guinea pigs in 1990.

In the 1960s, Argentina launched a series of rats (the first was Belisario, recovered successfully) aboard Orion II rockets. And later two cai monkeys on separate flights, the first using a two-stage Rigel 04 rocket the second using a X-1 Panther rocket. The monkeys never reached the 100 km space mark, and it is unclear if any of the rats did.

Japan launched its first animals, a species of newt, into space on March 18, 1995 aboard the Space Flyer Unit.

Bigelow Aerospace has the distinction of being the only private/commercial launching of animals into space (not counting humans which would include Virgin Galactic). On June 12, 2006, their Genesis I inflatable space module launched with Madagascar hissing cockroaches and Mexican jumping beans (they contain live moth larvae). Genesis II launched on June 28, 2007, with more Madagascar hissing cockroaches and added South African flat rock scorpions and seed-harvester ants.

Tardigrades... IN SPACE!

In September 2007, the European Space Agency's FOTON-M3 mission carried tardigrades, aka water-bears, who were able to survive 10 days exposed to open-space with only their natural protection.

Iran was the latest county to launch animals into space on February 3, 2010. They launched a mouse, two turtles, and some worms on top of the Kavoshgar 3 rocket and returned alive to Earth.

First spider web made in space. (NASA)

Over the years several other animal species have been sent to space, including: macaques, monarch butterfly larva, roundworms, nematodes, many species of ants, crickets, snails, carp, brine shrimp, various insects and insect eggs, spiders, silkworms, sea urchins, various fish species, quail eggs, chicken embryos, bullfrogs, frogs, toads, turtles, tortoises, meal worms, flies, and parasitic wasps.

All of these missions have gone on to help understand the effects of life in space. Our earthly compatriots join us on our journey to the stars and are important to understand because we will likely need them when we leave Earth. The study of the effects of living in space is a part of astrobiology.

Who knows what we will send next? Any of you guys have any suggestions? I know I would personally like to see bird in space (that isn't an egg/embryo), but would be tough to do with their fragile bone structure.