Saturday, May 28, 2011

Space News With Lots of Pictures.

Lots of astronomy stories have been published in the past week, and I've been rather busy trying to keep track of them all. The best things about these stories, and about astronomy in general, are the pictures. They can tell so much and most of them look beautiful. So, I've rounded up a bunch of the amazing pictures published in the past week or so, and will probably give a short paragraph about them:

Lets start with the star that changed the Universe. The Hubble telescope viewed this variable star that actually resides in another galaxy, our neighbor, Andromeda. Before this star was discovered, the fuzzy patches of galaxies were just called nebula, and thought to be just gas inside our own galaxy. Edwin Hubble (the Hubble telescopes namesake) changed all that in 1923, discovering that these nebula were indeed other galaxies, and used this variable star to determine that they were millions of light years away. You can read the historic story here.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
NASA released these amazing raw images taken by Cassini of Saturn's moons Titan and Enceladus. These images, haven't been processed or colorized yet, but absolutely blow my mind. A couple of the highlights can be seen here, while the full set is over here.

Image Credit: Gemini Observatory/AURA/Andrew Levan

Probably the most distant object ever seen, for now. This is a gamma ray burst, known as GRB 090429B. I made a post about GRBs awhile ago. If you want to know more about the science behind how this sort of stuff is determined, Bad Astronomy has got you covered. And here is the original story with a link to the paper.

WISE, the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, was turned off awhile ago, but the work still goes on. NASA released a gallery of nine spiral galaxy images taken by WISE. For more info on each galaxy, check out the NASA release. (There is also a really huge version of the image, which is drool inducing.)

Docked Endeavour at ISS through a fish-eye lens. Image Credit: NASA

Photos from the last space shuttle spacewalk, it also marked the formal completion of the U.S. segment of the International Space Station. You can go through the entire photo set here.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Toledo
This graphic illustrates a stellar fountain of crystal rain, beginning with a Spitzer picture of the star in question, and ending with an artist's concept of what the crystal "rain" might look like. The full article is here.

Of course, there are a couple of stories out there that just really don't have good pictures to go with them. A few of them I suggest checking out are: New arm discovered in outer edge of the Milky Way Galaxy; The Moon is wetter then we thought; For Mars, rapid formation stunted growth; and Info on OSIRIS-REx, NASAs new science mission to asteroid launching in 2016. Have a good Memorial Day weekend to everyone in the U.S. Everyone else, just have a good weekend.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle Infographic

At the end of my Wednesday post about the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's Moon Speech, I had mentioned that NASA had recently announced more information about its next manned spacecraft, the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV). The guys over at put together an excellent infographic summing up the MPCV and how it compares to other human spaceflight vehicles.

I would also say, I erroneously said that the vehicle was being developed with possibly going to Mars in mind. It seems that was only sorta true; the MPCV would be capable of making that journey with modification and additional support.

Also, let it be known that I think that the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle is horribly named right now. After having projects like Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Orion, and the space shuttles, MPCV just sounds dry. There is no catchy edge to it, from a group of people known for naming and acronyms. Heck, they just announced an asteroid probe called OSIRIS-Rex (Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer). Hopefully somebody changes this terrible name before it hits the launch pad.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Communication With Spirit Rover Ends

NASA Model of the Spirit Rover on Mars.
 In the early hours of May 25, 2011, NASA's Mars Exploration Rover team sent the final command in attempt to reestablish contact with the Spirit rover. The rover hasn't sent a message since March 20, 2010. Since then, over 1,200 commands have been sent and a reply hasn't been heard from the stuck rover.

The rover is likely frozen and dust covered, unable to generate enough power from its solar cells to reawaken. It was hoped that the Martian summer would thaw it out, but it doesn't seem to be the case. It is a sad loss for NASA, the plucky rover has been a scientific workhorse on the Martian surface.

Spirit was originally designed to work for just three months, but ended up roving for over 6 years! That's 25 times what was expected, imagine living 1500 years! It has accomplished so much in its short time, including studying interesting rocks, climbing hills, examining soil, peaking into craters, and traveling 7.7 kilometers since landing.

Spirit's "twin", Opportunity, is still functioning on the opposite side of Mars, working just as hard for just as long as Spirit has. They will be joined by a new rover soon, in a few months, the golfcart-sized "Curiosity" Mars Science Laboratory will be launching. This rover will be able to cover a wider range of the Martian surface and has better instruments than any previous mission.

Spirit will be missed. However, we got more then our money's worth out of the little fellow. It's work will aid in the future study and exploration of Mars. Perhaps, one day, a human will find Spirit among the deserts of Mars, since we hope to be going there soon. We might find out exactly what happened to the rover to cause it to shut down. But until then, we have to be thankful for all the hard work of the rover and scientists involved in the mission.

Spirit on Mars as interpreted by xkcd.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

50 Years Since Kennedy's Moon Speech

[Rather than doing my usual Astro-Lesson, today marks a historic event, although it is still educational.]

President Kennedy Addressing Congress. (Source)

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy gave the 'Decision to Go to the Moon' speech before a Joint Session of Congress. It announced the ambitious goal of safely sending and returning an American to the Moon before the end of the decade.

Kennedy's decision and timing of announcement was influenced by political factors. At the time the United States felt greatly embarrassed to be losing the space race. In the four years after the Sputnik flew in 1957, the Soviet Union managed to get the first human into space, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, on April 12, 1961. On May 5, the first American, astronaut Alan Shepard, made it into space. Unlike Gagarin, Shepard did not orbit the Earth, completing a suborbital flight.

The U.S. needed a program that they had a strong chance of at achieving before the Soviets. Kennedy consulted with Vice President Johnson, NASA Administrator James Webb, and other officials, concluding on the Moon. Landing an American on the Moon had the potential to push the U.S. to the lead in space exploration.

The technological feat would be most challenging in human history, only the Manhattan Project and the construction of the Panama Canal are comparable. The enormous expenditures and human efforts were deliberated on carefully before being made public, leading to the reality of Project Apollo in 1969.

Kennedy's words would guide NASA's overall human spaceflight efforts. The later half of Project Mercury, Project Gemini, and Project Apollo were all designed to this goal. His goal was achieved on July 20, 1969, when Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong stepped off the Lunar Module's ladder and onto the Moon's surface.

Men would return the Moon five more times through the early 70s, on Apollos 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17. (13 malfunctioned and did not land.) The six missions that landed on the Moon returned a wealth of scientific data and almost 400 kilograms of lunar samples. Experiments included soil mechanics, meteoroids, seismic, heat flow, lunar ranging, magnetic fields, and solar wind experiments.

I listened to the roughly 45 minute speech last night, and was blown away. (You can also read the transcript in the link.) There was a lot more discussed then just the race to the Moon, it is a study in American politics at the time. The funny thing is how little things have changed, replace the words 'communists' and 'Soviets' with 'terrorists' and 'al-Queda' and you almost have a speech for modern America.

The most impressive part is Kennedy's words on space exploration, which come late in the speech. His enthusiasm is palpable and impressive. You can feel that this was the right decision for the nation, something we could do, something to be proud of, despite all the hurdles that would have to be cleared.

More over, even though this was program was framed during the cold war, and the context of most of the speech belongs there, this was a human achievement. It reflects tenacity of the entire human race, our drive for exploration and pushing onto new frontiers, expanding our boundaries. In less than 70 years of flight, we had reached the Moon. For the first time in the history of Earth, life had visited another celestial body. It was a pretty good start.

Since then it has been a bit sad that we haven't physically continued this trend. We have tread cautiously into space, with the use of probes and robots. In the context of the Universe, the Moon isn't even very far. But our mechanical messengers and explorers have dominated the Solar System. We have visited every planet and studied them closely, we are now studied major small Solar System objects; this includes Pluto with New Horizons and Ceres and Vesta with Dawn. The Voyager 1 & 2 probes are about to leave the comfort of our Sun, passing into interstellar space.

We have come to a point in 50 years of knowing an immense amount about our Solar System, and even our Universe. We are now getting ready to tread out into those waters again, to reach new frontiers and vistas. NASA, in the last day, has released more information on the new crew spacecraft vehicle, dubbed the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV). (read more on it here) With the shuttles retiring, the world looks to NASA for the next step in human history. This new spacecraft is being designed with future missions in mind, these include returning to the Moon, supporting the International Space Station, an asteroid mission, and eventually reaching Mars.

The space age is not over, it has just begun.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Atlantis on Deck

With Space Shuttle Endeavour in space completing its final missions, the shuttle Atlantis has been moved in to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) in preparation for the final shuttle mission, STS-135, on July 8 around 11:40 AM EDT.
Atlantis rolls over from the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF-1, at right) processing hanger to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB, at left) at KSC for the STS-135 mission. Credit: Ken Kremer

A wonderful set of photos has been uploaded of this transition. You can really see some of the wear and tear on the shuttle. You also get an impression of the massive scale of things. You can find another set here.

The all veteran STS-135 crew poses with Atlantis during rollover to the VAB. Credit: Ken Kremer

If you don't know much about the VAB, located at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, here are a couple facts:
  1. It's the fourth largest building in the world by volume
  2. The largest single-story building in the world
  3. Originally built to allow vertical assembly of the Saturn V rocket for the Apollo program, the space shuttles were designed around the building's doors.
  4. The painted American flag on the building's exterior is one of the world's largest, the blue area is the size of a basketball court and each stripe is the width of a standard road lane.
  5. The building has withstood several direct encounters with hurricanes and tropical storms with minimal damage, with a foundation consisting of 30,000 cubic yards of concrete and 4,225 steel rods driven 160 feet into limestone bedrock.
  6. The four doors to the bays inside the building are the four largest doors in the world. At 456 feet (139.0 m) high, it takes 45 minutes for the doors to completely close or open.
  7. The building is so vast inside, it has its own weather. Rain clouds have formed beneath the ceiling on very humid days. The air can be completely replaced in an hour to keep moisture under control.
Aerial view of the VAB. Credit: NASA

As you can see, the building itself is a technological marvel and an asset to the space program. Despite the end of the shuttle missions, the building will remain a key asset. It will continue to be used in the assembly of rockets for space missions. For further reading on the VAB, check out NASA's page on it, or its Wikipedia article.

P.S. I had mentioned that our cat, Bella, was in the animal hospital. Things looked bad, so we made the tough choice. She is no longer with us, and I will miss the sweet little darling, it is part of life though. We were able to say our goodbyes before she went, which is a relief, if heart-breaking.