Category: NASA

Wanna see the space station overhead? NASA will send you mail!

By Phil Plait | November 7, 2012 10:16 am

Seeing the International Space Station pass overhead is pretty cool. It glides soundlessly across the sky, getting brighter as it gets closer to you, whizzing by hundreds of kilometers above your head at 8 kilometers per second.

I usually go to Heavens-Above when I think of it to check when the next few passes will be. But wouldn’t it be nice if you get a text or email letting you know that a pass is about to happen?

NASA has set up a service to do just that: Spot The Station. You can give it your email or phone number, your location, and whether you’d like to see evening passes, morning ones, or both (because the station is lit by the Sun, you can only see it just after sunset or before sunrise).

That’s all there is to it. The next time the station is going to be visible from your location, NASA will send you a note. They also have a page describing what the message means, so you can go outside and figure out not just when to look, but where.

I’ll note there’s another service that does this as well: Twisst, which uses Twitter to let you know about good station passes at your location. It would be fun to compare them, actually. And useful, because they may have different criteria for what constitutes a good viewing opportunity. If you want to see the station, it might pay to hedge your bet.

And don’t forget to try to take a picture! The shot above is one I took a few years ago with nothing more than an off-the-shelf point-and-shoot camera set up on a tripod in my back yard. There are two streaks because one (on the right) is the station, and the other is the Space Shuttle Atlantis! I can guarantee you can’t get that shot again, but we do send other spacecraft to the station, so if you time it right you might get something like this. If you don’t try, it’s a sure thing you never will, so give it a shot!


Related Posts:

- Watch the skies for the Shuttle and ISS
- And I saw a star rising in… the WEST?
- SERIOUSLY jaw-dropping pictures of Endeavour and the ISS!
- Ridiculously awesome pic of Discovery and the ISS taken from the ground!

A step in the right direction… but there are many more steps to go

By Phil Plait | November 6, 2012 11:44 pm

Well, it was quite a night.

I’m trying to parse it all, and there’s a whole lot to parse. The big news, duh, is that President Obama won, and yes, I’m happy about that. Despite a lot of smoke and mirrors from pundits and campaign managers during this unending election cycle, the President has done a lot of good for this country, and has been a net positive in many ways. I think a lot more can improve in the next four years, and I’ll be curious to see just how he rolls up his sleeves and gets to it.

Having said that, I’m not all rainbows and unicorns with him, which I’ll get to in a sec.

I’m thrilled Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock lost. I have to think that their, ah, extremely poorly thought-out comments about rape had something to do with that. I saw a lot of tweets along the lines of "Hey Republicans, if you want to win next time you’d better not talk about rape!", which I think is wrongheaded. I think politicians should be talking about it, but they should be getting it right. It’s one thing to score a political zinger, but another to actually change the hearts and minds of those same politicians. I want real change, not change in rhetoric.

I’ll note that it looks like in January there will be 18 women Senators, an all-time high. That’s a bit short of the 50 or 52 needed to reflect the true composition of our population, but it’s better than it ever has been. This seems to me to be pretty good evidence that women listen, and they vote. As do men who are concerned over women’s issues. That’s a fine thing, and a really good sign.

Tammy Baldwin is one of those women. She’s the first openly gay Senator in our nation’s history. And four states – Maine, Washington, Minnesota, and Maryland – approved marriage equality acts. I’m OK with that. I’m more than OK with that. For why, see here and here and here and here and here.

But the news isn’t all good. I poked around a bit, and saw that a lot of the antiscience Congresscritters were re-elected. Climate change deniers Ralph Hall (head of the House Science Committee) and John Sensenbrenner, and many others will still retain their seats (but not Akin, yay!). [UPDATE: Turns out Hall is term-limited as chairman and will give up the gavel. That link also discusses the changes in the Committee]. Relatively moderate Republican Roscoe Bartlett lost, and he acknowledged the reality of climate change. He’ll have to be replaced by the Republican majority, and sadly, there’s a long list of global warming deniers to choose from. Don’t forget Paul Broun ran unopposed, and he’s a full-blooded antiscience Big-Bang-denying antievolution creationist.

On a better note, I’ll add that Bill Foster, a moderate Illinois Republican Democrat, won a seat. He’s a high-energy physicist! Man oh man, I’d love to see him get on the Science Committee. Boulder’s own Jared Polis retained his seat in Congress, too, and he’s pro-science as well.

Now, having said all that…

I am still unhappy about President Obama gutting NASA’s space exploration funding, and I am unhappy he still hasn’t talked much about climate change… and those are just science topics. And it’s important to note that it’s still a Republican house, a Democratic Senate, and a Democratic White House, just as it’s been for two years now. These same two years where almost no legislation has been passed, and a whole lot of science has been ridiculed or simply ignored.

The takeaway here? Overall, I’m pleased. Some things got better, and not much got worse. A lot is still the same, so we have to be ready for more of what we’ve already been through. And while this is a time of celebration for many of us, we must acknowledge that the forces against reality and science are still out there and still have a lot of power. We must not flag, not give up, and never tire.

Ever onward!

MORE ABOUT: Election 2012

The single greatest vacation picture ever taken

By Phil Plait | November 4, 2012 6:00 am

On Halloween 2012, when people were assembling their costumes and candy, the Mars Curiosity rover was assembling something truly spectacular: a jaw-dropping high-definition self-portrait that has to be seen to be believed:

[Click to enjohnny5enate. And yes, oh my yes, you want to.]

This incredible picture is a mosaic made up of 55 hi-res images taken by the MAHLI, the Mars Hand Lens Imager. That’s a camera designed to be able to take close-up shots of nearby rocks and other feature, but can also focus all the way out to infinity, allowing it to take pictures of distant geographical features as well.

Or, in this case, itself! Now get this: MAHLI is located at the end of the two-meter robotic arm. That was extended and then aimed back at the rover so it could take the pictures (think of every Facebook pic you’ve seen of party revelers holding a camera up and taking a snapshot of themselves). So why don’t you see the arm in these shots? It’s because it was edited out! The camera took several pictures which overlapped. So you’d get two shots of, say, the main body of the rover, each with the arm blocking a different part of the rover’s body. By combining the parts of each picture that don’t show the arm, you can edit it out of the final product. [UPDATE: What I said is technically possible, but not in fact what happened! Emily Lakdawalla has - haha - the scoop on this.]

In the end, you’re left with a pristine (if somewhat distorted) view of the rover as if you were standing there. And there’s so much more than just the rover! The rocks and sand covering the ground, the wheel tread prints in the surface, the small plain the rover sits on. And you can see the layered hills in the distance; those rise up to become the central peak of Gale Crater, Curiosity’s home… and also the rover’s eventual destination. Remember, it’s a rover. It roves.

Pictures like this also let engineers assess the rover’s status. They can look over the different parts and make sure everything’s OK, and also use it as a baseline in case something goes wrong later. It’s far more than just a pretty picture.

But oh my, it’s such a pretty picture!

You can get more info at Universe Today, and Emily Lakdawalla at The Planetary Society Blog points out some fun stuff to look for in the shot, too.

And, I suppose, the title of this post is somewhat misleading. It may look like Curiosity is sitting on a sandy beach somewhere, taking its own "Wish you were here!" picture. But in reality, it’s no vacation. Curiosity is there to work. And it has just two Earth years to unravel a few billion years of Martian history.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems


Related Posts:

- Pew! Pew! Take *that*, Mars!
- Now you will feel the firepower of a fully armed and operational Mars rover
- Wheels on Mars
- One small tread for Curiosity, one giant leap for roverkind
- Curiosity looks Sharp
- Gallery – Curiosity’s triumphant first week on Mars

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures

Splashdown!

By Phil Plait | October 28, 2012 9:56 pm

Because why not: raw (that is, shaky) footage of the splashdown of the SpaceX Dragon capsule from Sunday morning, taken by the SpaceX dive team:

SpaceFlightNow is reporting the capsule was recovered and will soon be on its way first to NASA, and then the SpaceX facilities in Texas.


Related Posts:

- The Dragon returns to the nest
- Frankenstorm and the Dragon
- SpaceX Falcon 9 lost an engine on the way up; Dragon on its way to ISS
- History is made as Dragon splashes down safely in the Pacific!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Space
MORE ABOUT: Dragon capsule, SpaceX

The Dragon returns to the nest

By Phil Plait | October 28, 2012 1:38 pm

As I write this, moments ago, the SpaceX Dragon capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean after a two week mission to the International Space Station. Splashdown occurred at 19:22 UTC. Yay!

[UPDATE (20:30 UTC): SpaceX has a picture of the Dragon floating in the Pacific:

Click to ensmaugenate.]

This ends the first operational mission of the Dragon. It’s the first of twelve contracted by NASA to bring supplies up to and back from the ISS. There was no live coverage of the splashdown, unfortunately (and no, I don’t know why; I imagine that’ll come out soon) but NASA did get footage of the Dragin un-berthing from ISS. Here it is, sped up 15x:

I should add the "Enterprise leaving drydock" music from Star Trek II in there.

Anyway, congrats to everyone at SpaceX and NASA. I’ll note that while most of this mission went smoothly, there is still the issue of the engine that failed during launch, resulting in the loss of an ORBCOMM satellite secondary payload. Hopefully SpaceX will discuss this more during the mission wrap-up.

Image credit: SpaceX


Related Posts:

- Frankenstorm and the Dragon
- SpaceX Falcon 9 lost an engine on the way up; Dragon on its way to ISS
- History is made as Dragon splashes down safely in the Pacific!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Space

Frankenstorm and the Dragon

By Phil Plait | October 26, 2012 3:01 pm

Holy wow, check this out: I grabbed a screenshot from footage on October 26 of Hurricane Sandy from the International Space Station:

Yegads. Look at the storm center; you can see it towering above the cloud deck and feeder bands of the storm. As if that’s not cool enough, that bit of hardware on the left is actually the SpaceX Dragon capsule, berthed to the ISS since October 10. It is expected to undock and return to Earth on Sunday, splashing down in the Pacific ocean at 12:20 PDT.

Looking at this, I’m not sure if I should be awed or terrified. I think I’ll take a little of both.

[Update: Just to be clear, I am not making light of this hurricane. It's already killed over 20 people in the Caribbean, and I noted how dangerous it is in my earlier post. As I said in a post about Hurricane Isaac: "Pictures of hurricanes from space are amazing. As always, there’s a fascinating dichotomy to pictures like this, a simultaneous ethereal beauty and repellent violence. Hurricanes are magnificent, and terrifying."]

Image credit: NASA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures, Space

Endeavour’s final voyage

By Phil Plait | October 20, 2012 7:00 am

The Space Shuttle Orbiter Endeavour made its way from LAX to the California Science Center a few days ago. A huge throng of people showed up to watch and take pictures. Among them was Matthew Givot and his team, who took many thousands of pictures, and then created a stunning and moving time lapse tribute to NASA’s youngest and now-retired Orbiter.

That was wonderful. As I’ve written several times, my feelings about the Shuttle program are mixed. But even as this amazing machine is put on display, Earthbound forever more, I’m hopeful about American space flight. We stand on the cusp of the future, and it won’t be long before we make that next giant leap.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Piece of mind, Space

The raw power of the Sun

By Phil Plait | October 19, 2012 11:00 am

Early this morning, while you were sleeping, or working, or reading Twitter, the Sun had different plans: it erupted, blasting an immense tower of plasma upward off its surface:

[Click to enheliosenate.]

This image was taken by NASA’s Solar Dynamic Observatory at 08:15 UTC this morning. The scale of it is staggering. The Sun is 1.4 million kilometers across – 860,000 miles – so this plume was at least 400,000 km long. Going back through the images, it had been brewing for hours, but really got its start around 05:00, meaning it erupted upwards at well over 100,000 km per hour. That’s fast enough to cross the face of our planet in less than 8 minutes.

By the way, did I mention the total mass of such a prominence is billions of tons? And the Sun does this kind of thing all the time.

We’re in no real danger from an eruption like this, especially this one: it’s on the Sun’s limb, so it was heading away from us. But these events can trigger storms like coronal mass ejections, where billions of tons of material is sent hurtling across the solar system at mind-crushing speeds. Those can interact with our magnetic field, creating havoc with our satellites and causing power outages.

But that’s why we keep an eye – many eyes, in fact – on our Sun. Never forget: our Sun is a star, with all the power and fury that implies. The better we understand it, the better we can protect ourselves from it when it gets angry.

Image credit: NASA/SDO. Tip o’ the welder’s glasses to Camilla SDO.


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MORE ABOUT: prominence, SDO, solar storm, Sun

Space Leap of Faith

By Phil Plait | October 16, 2012 11:44 am

On Sunday, skydiver Felix Baumgartner stepped out of a high-altitude balloon and plummeted 40 kilometers back to Earth. I wanted to watch it live but missed it due to an appointment I had to keep. I heard it was heart-pounding, and Twitter went nuts over it. I wish I had seen it!

Still, my feelings on it are mixed. While I really am glad it got people excited, I couldn’t shake the feeling it wasn’t more than a stunt. A cool stunt, but a stunt. It was plugged as a way to learn more about spacesuits and all that, but I had my doubts. Having it sponsored by a sugary caffeinated energy drink marketed to teens also made me a bit wary.

I was thinking of writing something up about it, but then my friend and space historian Amy Shira Teitel wrote an excellent piece crystallizing my thoughts, so go read her article for more in that vein (which is also mirrored on Discover Magazine’s blog The Crux).

But what I really wanted to write about was this image I saw around Twitter and Facebook:

Why do I want to write about this? Because, in a nutshell, it’s everything wrong about attitudes on our space program. If I sound a little peeved, I am. Here’s why.

This meme was started in a tweet by revulv. I suspect it was just a joke, and to be honest it’s funny enough; I smirked when I read it. But someone took that joke and added the picture, and then it got spread around. And I can tell by the comments I’m seeing people really think it’s true – this idea has been around since the Shuttle retired, and it’s unfair. It’s simply not true.

First, as Amy points out in her post, Baumgartner’s jump was a record breaker, but he wasn’t in space. Our atmosphere thins out with height, and doesn’t really have an edge where air ends and vacuum begins. Because of this, there’s an arbitrarily agreed-upon height where we say space "starts" – it’s called the Kármán line, and it’s 100 km (62 miles) above sea level. Baumgartner was less than half that high. When I talked about his jump I used the phrase "edge of space", which is probably fair. He was in a pretty good vacuum by ground standards, but in space itself he was not.

Second, he wasn’t in orbit. A lot of folks confuse being in orbit and being in space, which is understandable. When we say something is in space that means it’s just higher than that arbitrary limit. You can get there via rocket by going straight up 100 km and then back down, for example. That’s a suborbital flight.

But being in orbit is different. An orbit is where you are free-falling around the Earth. Think of it this way: in orbit the Earth is pulling you down to the surface, but you’re going fast enough sideways that you never actually hit (to paraphrase Douglas Adams: orbiting is learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss). Your velocity down and your velocity to the side add together to give you a circular (or elliptical) path.

Baumgartner used a balloon to go straight up. He wasn’t in orbit.

And that’s two of the three things that bother me about that meme picture: he wasn’t in space, and he wasn’t in orbit, two things the US has rockets that can do.

Now, some people will point out that in fact the US cannot do that, at least not with people. We don’t have any rockets rated for human flight into space.

That’s true, but brings up my third point, the most important, what a lot of people don’t seem to get: you need to add the words "right now" to the end of that sentence.

We can’t launch humans into space right now. But in just a few years we’ll have that ability. In spades.

SpaceX is working on making sure their Falcon 9 rocket is human-rated for flight – even as I write these words they have a Dragon capsule berthed to the International Space Station. ATK is another. There’s also Sierra Nevada, Blue Origin (which just had a successful engine firing test), XCORR, and others. Let’s not forget Virgin Galactic, too. [Update: D'oh! Shame on me, and ironic too: I forgot to add Boeing and ULA's work on this as well.]

Both SpaceX and ATK think they’ll be ready to take people into orbit in 2015. Virgin Galactic and XCORR may be ready to do commercial suborbital flights before that date. [Note added after posting: I want to be clear; these are not NASA programs, but some have contracts with NASA, and I'm talking about the US as a nation, not necessarily as a government space program.]

The Space Shuttle was retired in 2011. We’re in the middle of what’s planned to be a five year gap where the US can’t take humans into space. Mind you, when the Apollo program shut down there was a nine year gap before we had a program to take humans to space again (with the exception of a few Saturn flights to orbit for Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz mission; even then there was a six year gap until the Shuttle launches began).

My point? Things aren’t nearly as bad as people think. Yes, the Shuttle is retired, but to be brutally honest, while it’s an amazing machine, it could not nor would it ever be capable of taking humans beyond low-Earth orbit. It also cost way more than promised, and couldn’t launch as often as promised. I’ve made this point before, and it’s one we need to remember. Getting to space is not easy, and if we want to do it we have to do it right.

And let’s not forget we are still throwing rovers at Mars, probes at Jupiter, and one satellite after another into Earth orbit. We’re still going into space, if by proxy. Humans won’t have to wait much longer.

We need to learn from the past and keep our eyes on the future. By looking at the past we can see by comparison things are not so bad right now; we’re just in a lull before the storm. We’ll soon have not just the capability to put humans in space, but many capabilities to do it! Space travel will be easier and cheaper than it ever has been since the dawn of the Space Age.

My goal is to see nothing less than the permanent colonization of space by human beings, and I strongly suspect we are not that far from achieving it.

Image credits: Baumgartner pic via Red Bull; orbit diagram via Wikimedia Commons.


Related Posts:

- History is made as Dragon splashes down safely in the Pacific!
- Discovery makes one final flight… but we must move on.
- Debating space
- Will ATK beat everyone into space?

Wheels on Mars

By Phil Plait | October 11, 2012 7:00 am

Speaking of amazing pictures from Mars, over the weekend Emily Lakdawalla tweeted about a shot from the Curiosity rover that is simply too too cool:

I love the perspective on this! [Click to hotwheelsenate - and you really should to see just how awesome this picture is.]

It was taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on October 6, 2012. MAHLI is a color camera that’s mounted on the end of Curiosity’s robotic arm. It provides detailed (1600 x 1200 pixel) color images, and can take close-ups to show microscopic detail of Martian rock samples.

But it can also take spectacular shots of the rover itself. You can see details on the rover wheels, including some of the dings they’ve gotten as they roll over rocks. It also gives you a sense of the size of the rover: it’s as big as a car, and those wheels in the picture are 50 cm (18 inches) in diameter! That’s about the same size as the wheels on my own car.

… and then, while thinking about all this, I remember: this is on Mars. That’s another world, a planet tens of millions of kilometers away, a nine-month trip even by rocket! And Curiosity will be there for two full Earth years, returning vast amounts of incredible data about its surroundings.

I literally get a chill down my back when I think about that. It’s so easy to get mired down worrying about the present and the future, but, quite literally, pictures like this give me hope for humanity. It’s amazing what we can do when we put our minds to it.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems


Related Posts:

- A solar eclipse… FROM MARS!
- Curiosity’s self-portrait
- Curiosity looks Sharp
- Now you will feel the firepower of a fully armed and operational Mars rover
- Gallery – Curiosity’s triumphant first week on Mars

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures, Space
MORE ABOUT: Curiosity, Mars
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