Category: NASA

One small tread for Curiosity, one giant leap for roverkind

By Phil Plait | October 9, 2012 7:03 am

I’m posting this just because I can: a closeup of the tread track left by the Mars Curiosity rover’s wheel in the sand:

That image was taken by the left MASTCAM on Sol 57, the 57th Mars day after the rover landed – October 3, 2012 to you and me, stuck as we are here on Earth.

If this picture looks familiar, if it tickles some part of your brain as it did mine, then it’s probably because it bears a remarkable similarity to the bootprint left on the Moon by Buzz Aldrin. That iconic image will forever represent the moment humanity’s foot first set upon an alien world.

Perhaps currently there is no one iconic picture from Mars that has earned its place in history’s archive. But that day may yet come when we see a picture very similar to Buzz’s… and the dust compressed by a human boot will be red, not grey.

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

SpaceX set to launch Dragon to the ISS tonight!

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

[UPDATE: The Falcon 9 carrying the Dragon capsule successfully launched right on time, at 20:35 Eastern US time. 15 minutes later the Dragon was in orbit with its solar panels successfully deployed. Amazing. Next up: rendezvous with the ISS at 05:00 Eastern US time Wednesday morning.]

Tonight, Sunday, October 7, at 20:35 Eastern (US) time (or 00:35 UTC on the morning of October 8) the private company SpaceX is scheduled to launch a Falcon 9 rocket to the International Space Station (PDF). Sitting on the top of the rocket is a Dragon capsule loaded with half a ton of supplies for the astronauts on the ISS.

This is very exciting! They have accomplished this amazing feat once before, back in May, as part of a demonstration flight. Because of that, NASA gave them a contract for twelve more flights, and this is the first one of those dozen – it’s designated Commercial Resupply Services-1 or just CRS-1.

[Click to tsiolkovskenate.]

That’s this mission’s Falcon 9 rocket there, lying on its side. As you can see, it’s quite a beast. As with all rockets, most of the main body you see there is for carrying fuel, and the payload, the Dragon, is at the very top.

Once launched, the Dragon will detach, and is scheduled to rendezvous with ISS on Wednesday, October 10. It’ll dock with the station and remain berthed there for two weeks. It’s carrying supplies, including equipment, hardware, and even clothes for the astronauts on board. Once all that is offloaded, the astronauts will load it back up with 350 kilos of material to bring back to Earth, including results from experiments and now-unneeded hardware.

I have my suspicions there might be a stowaway on board though. Anyone seen Bernadette lately?

Anyway, on October 28, the Dragon is scheduled to undock, do a de-orbit burn, and splash down in the Pacific off the coast of southern California.

A complete overview of the mission is available as a press kit (PDF; same link as above). It’s pretty good reading, so if you plan to watch you should give it a once-over.

If you do want to watch, there will be a live video stream both from SpaceX and NASA.

There’s also a nice collection of photos of the rocket on the SpaceX site, including this nice one of a test firing of the actual CRS-1 rocket sans Dragon:

Coooool. There’s also video of this short test burn:

This mission is really important. Well, they all are, of course, but it’s critical that SpaceX can show not only that they can do this, but that they can do it again. When I was in high school band, we’d rehearse the music, and if we played it perfectly the band instructor would say, "Let’s do it again to make sure that wasn’t by accident." The earlier Dragon mission was almost completely flawless, but it’s when you can do it again that you can really show you know your stuff.

My best wishes to the team st SpaceX. And I’ll be live-tweeting the event, so follow me on Twitter for that. I’ll update this blog post as I can and if needed, too.


Related Posts:

History is made as Dragon splashes down safely in the Pacific!
Video: SpaceX Dragon mission highlights
NASA chooses SpaceX to return US astronauts to space (though read the note at the top of that post)
Rocky Mountain (very) high

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

Interview with NASA's Blueshift podcast

By Phil Plait | September 28, 2012 10:56 am

My friend Sara Mitchell works at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center doing education and public outreach for the space agency. She and her partner, Maggie Masetti, interviewed me a while back for their podcast Blueshift, and the first part is now online.

We talked a bit about my history as a skeptic, and why we all need to keep asking, "Why?" There are three more segments to the interview that will go up in the next few weeks, so stay tuned to the Blueshift website and collect ‘em all!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA

Endeavour's last flight… seen FROM SPACE!

By Phil Plait | September 25, 2012 11:24 am

I didn’t say much about the last flight of the Space Shuttle Orbiter Endeavour here on the blog (though I did tweet links to some cool pictures, so follow me on Twitter to stay up on that sort of thing) mostly because I knew pictures would be coming in so fast I wouldn’t be able to keep up!

But then one very special image came along, and I just had to put it here: Endeavour and its 747 ride as seen from the DigitalGlobe satellite:

This image was featured on the Google Earth blog (which also provides a KML file so you can see it for yourself if you have the GE software installed). At the time, the 747 and the Orbiter were about 40 km southeast of Las Cruces, New Mexico. Note that I rotated the picture a bit to fit better here on the blog.

Here’s a zoom of the plane and Orbiter. The blue shadow is an artifact, created due to the satellite swapping out filters as it took pictures. Because the plane was moving, you get what’s essentially a double exposure. But you can see the real shadow in the big picture above.

Endeavour was on its way to Edwards Air Force Base at the time (and eventually to the Los Angeles Airport) in California, and will soon be transferred via surface roads to the California Science Center in Los Angeles. If you thought LA traffic was bad before…

I’ll note that a lot of people were sad to see this last flight of the Orbiter. I’ll admit my own feelings are mixed – I’ve written about this before. While the Shuttles were magnificent machines, they were only designed to go into low Earth orbit, and our destiny is in much deeper space. And it’s my strong fact-based opinion that we are still well on our way to that destination. It won’t be right away, but it won’t necessarily be too long, either.

The last flight of Endeavour may be bittersweet, but looking back only helps if you use the past as a basis to venture farther in the future. And we have the whole sky open to us. We just have to choose to do it.

I choose the future. I hope others do as well.

Image credit: Google Earth


Related Posts:

Discovery makes one final flight… but we must move on.
Debating space
NASA chooses SpaceX to return US astronauts to space (NOTE: the title I chose for this was misleading, so I wrote an addendum to the post in the first paragraph)

Space Shuffle

By Phil Plait | September 24, 2012 3:32 pm

I’m not sure I want to trust plans for NASA from the same guy who wonders why airplane windows don’t open.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Humor, NASA, Piece of mind, Politics, Space
MORE ABOUT: Mitt Romney

Looking down on the snow of Kilimanjaro

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

In May, 2012, when the International Space Station was passing over Africa at 8 kilometers per second, astronaut André Kuipers took this stunning picture of Mount Kilimanjaro:

[Click to hephaestenate.]

The stratovolcano is nearly 5900 meters (19,000 feet) high. The iconic "Snows of Kilimanjaro" are transcendently beautiful, but may not be around much longer. The ice is receding, and it’s expected the volcano will be ice-free in as little as ten years. While the recession has been going on for a century now, the past couple of decades have seen phenomenal acceleration in ice loss, just as we’ve seen in glaciers across the planet and in the arctic sea ice as well.

Global warming is doing more than heating the planet and potentially threatening our lives. It’s robbing Earth of its beauty. I wonder for which we’ll be judged more harshly by future generations?

Credits: ESA/NASA


Related Posts:

The ancient shields of paradise
Dating an active volcano. And I don’t mean metaphorically.
Desktop Project Part 20: Angling in on a smoking volcano
Greenland sees unprecedented melting

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Pretty pictures, Space

Rocketfest!

By Phil Plait | September 16, 2012 7:00 am

In early September, the day after Dragon*Con, I traveled with some good friends to Huntsville, Alabama to raise money for Space Camp. We put on a show called Rocketfest – it was the brainchild of singer/siren Marian Call, and we had a fantastic time.

[Click to vonbraunenate. From left to right: Joseph Scrimshaw, Ken Plume, Marian Call, moi, Molly Lewis.]

But don’t just believe me! My friend Melissa Kaercher went there too, and wrote a brief blog post about it. Melissa’s also a great photographer, and took the wonderful shot above of all of us posing under the huge full-scale Saturn V model suspended from the ceiling.

You can see more of these photos on her Flickr page. I kinda like the photo inset here, too. Noble, isn’t it? I didn’t wind up buying the jump suit, but Molly Lewis got herself one. Melissa’s pictures of her – of everyone – are great.

The concert was streamed live using Google Hangouts, and the whole thing is archived online:

[My part starts at 1:18:50, but you should watch the whole thing!]

It was HUGE fun, and we raised money to help get kids to go to Space Camp, which fills me with joy. It was an amazing place to visit, and if you’re ever anywhere Hunstville, it’s well worth your time to check out.

The Sun glints off a water world

By Phil Plait | September 13, 2012 11:00 am

You know what? Our planet is awesome.

[Click to thalassenate.]

This photo was taken by ESA astronaut André Kuipers, on board the International Space Station. Frustratingly there’s no info I could find on when this was taken, or what part of the planet it shows… but then, in a way, maybe that’s OK. It’s a reminder of how big Earth is, how easy it is to get lost here, and how much of it there’s still to explore.

Of course, that glint we see of reflected sunlight can tell us so much. It tells us we live on a world of water, which we already knew. But sometimes we see glints from alien worlds, and that tells us liquid exists there too.

And that tells me to take nothing for granted. Even the simplest thing we see so often can reveal amazing knowledge of things we’d otherwise never see.

Credit: ESA/NASA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind
MORE ABOUT: André Kuipers, Earth, ISS

Curiosity's self-portrait

By Phil Plait | September 10, 2012 6:49 am

I’m on travel in the UK right now – I’m filming a part for a documentary which I’ll talk more about in a later post – but I want to make sure you get a chance to see this really quite fun self-portrait the Mars Curiosity rover took over the weekend:

[Click to narcissusenate.]

I love how it almost looks like the rover is surprised to see itself.

The picture was taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), a camera mounted on the end of the robot arm. It’s designed to look up close at specimens of rocks or whatever else the rover happens to see as it rolls across Mars. It has a transparent dust cover on it, which is why the image is a bit fuzzy. It’s covered in Mars dust!

But engineers commanded the dust cover to flip open, and then it took this picture looking straight down (again, click to embiggen). Those may just look like rocks, but they’re rocks on Mars! That alone makes them awesome. But in fact pictures like this will tell scientists back home volumes about the geology of Mars, and the history of its surface in this region.

Even just looking at how the rocks are laid out can be telling; water flowing over a rocky area redistributes rocks in certain patterns, and that can be seen right away in pictures. A lot of science can be gleaned just from a shot like this. But the rover can also drill into this surface, scoop up samples to test, or zap them with its laser to see what they’re made of. All in all, this is the little rover that could… which is actually a big rover that does.

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


Related Posts:

Curiosity looks Sharp
Curiosity rolls!
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
MORE ABOUT: Curiosity, MAHLI, Mars

New Moon from a new moon

By Phil Plait | September 9, 2012 7:00 am

When I get too frustrated with things, when I’m annoyed at people, when the dickishness of the commentariat gets too overwhelming, I’ll just click the bookmark I made that goes to this picture:

Sigh. Much better.

The International Space Station was 400 kilometers (240 miles) above the US northwest coast on August 21, 2012 at 05:42 GMT (9:42 p.m. August 20 local time) when an astronaut faced west, looked over the Pacific ocean, and took this picture of the new Moon just after sunset.

Nice.

Image credit: NASA. Tip o’ the spacesuit visor to Fragile Oasis on G+.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, NASA, Pretty pictures
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