Category: NASA

Live Hangout with me at RocketFest!

By Phil Plait | September 3, 2012 11:55 am

As I write this I am in Huntsville, Alabama at Space Camp! I’m here for
RocketFest, a celebration of space with music, talks, and a Saturn V full of fun stuff. We’re doing this to raise money for the U.S. Space & Rocket Center Foundation.

We’ve set up a live Google+ Hangout, and if all is well it’s embedded below. It starts at 2:00 Central time (19:00 UTC), and you’ll see performances by Molly Lewis, Ken Plume, Joseph Scrimshaw, and Marian Call.

You can donate to this great cause at the RocketFest page!

And here’s the video!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Geekery, NASA, Science, Space

Lo Stivale d'Italia

By Phil Plait | September 1, 2012 7:00 am

My Italian is a little rusty, so I hope I got the title right. Either way, here’s what I was referring to:

Isn’t that gorgeous? It’s Italy, of course, seen on August 18, 2012, at night by astronauts aboard the International Space Station. The ISS was well to the southeast, probably over Libya or Egypt in Africa, when the astronaut took this shot facing northwest. I poked around a bit, and the ISS was in this position twice on that date. Once was during the day, and the other around local midnight, so that fits.

It’s pretty neat to see Italy from space; I’ve posted an image like this before (though the ISS was much more overhead for that one). In this one you can see the arc of green airglow caused by oxygen atoms about 100 kilometers up giving up energy after getting whacked by ultraviolet light from the Sun. To the left and along the top you can see some of the ISS structures, too.

I’ll note that on Thursday, August 23, NASA announced that the private company SpaceX had been approved for a dozen cargo flights to and from ISS; this comes after their successful demo mission in May. The first of these flights is scheduled for October 2012. Not only that, but the aerospace company XCOR will be opening a new facility in Florida, near NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. XCOR is building a reusable suborbital spaceplane called Lynx, and expects to phase into orbital work eventually.

It’s exciting to see private industry getting involved! And it shows that, when it comes to space travel, America is still looking up.

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


Related Posts:

Buonanotte, Italia
The softly glowing night sky
Turns out, it *is* a river in Egypt
Debating space

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: ISS, Italy, SpaceX, XCOR

I'm going to Space Camp!

By Phil Plait | August 30, 2012 11:00 am

I am very excited to invite everyone to a fantastic event: RocketFest, a field day at Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama!

Rocketfest is a celebration of Space Camp and what it does to inspire kids to explore space. It’s open to families and kids of all ages, and it’ll be on Monday, September 3rd, 2012 from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. at Space Camp itself. All proceeds raised go to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center Foundation.

I’ll be giving a short talk there about space exploration, and a few geeky friends will be there too: George Hrab, Molly Lewis, Ken Plume, Joseph Scrimshaw, and Marian Call! Marian organized this whole thing because she is constructed of awesome. Also, ThinkGeek is donating prizes for it, too.

Marian has details on her blog, and you can read more about it on the Space Camp page, or the Facebook events page Marian set up.

The event will be streamed live on the web from the Space Camp page. I’ll try to tweet it and all that (but bear in mind we’re leaving straight from Dragon*Con to Hunstville, so my ability to internet may be limited – so follow Marian, Molly, and George on Twitter just to be sure).

We also have this cool retro poster:

I hope to see lots of BABloggees there, or on the live stream. You’ll love this, I promise.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Geekery, NASA

OK, *one* more Curiosity descent video

By Phil Plait | August 28, 2012 11:25 am

I know, I’ve posted a few of these, but a new video came out showing the descent of Curiosity to the surface of Mars that’s worth a look.

YouTube user "hahahaspam" did a clever thing. The Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) is a camera that points straight down, past the rover, so engineers on Earth could later see the exact path Curiosity took on its way down to the Martian surface and also get an overview of the area. It took a series of images that were later put together to make various animations (see Related Posts below). The motion appears jerky because the camera only took about four pictures per second.

What hahahaspam did was interpolate between the frames, making the motion appear much more smooth. The animation he made is really quite wonderful:

Nice, huh? Interpolation is a math term that involves estimating the value of something between two measurements. A simple example involves someone running. You measure their progress: after one second they’ve traveled 2 meters, and after two seconds they’ve run 4 meters. How far did they get in 1.5 seconds?

Obviously, the answer is 3 meters. It may not be exact – a person’s running speed might change – but it’s probably close. There is a precise mathematical way to do interpolations like this, and that’s what hahahaspam did. Digital pictures are really just long strings of numbers, and video is the same thing except each pixel value changes with time. All you need to do is take two frames taken some time apart, then interpolate the value at each pixel for what it would be halfway between the time of the first frame and the second, and boom! You’ve made a video with twice the frame rate and the motion looks smoother.

It’s actually a lot harder than this in practice (rapid brightness or color changes makes this more difficult and less accurate, for example), but I hope this gives you the idea of how it works. The result in this case is pretty cool. Hahahaspam also created a side-by-side comparison of the original and interpolated videos, too, so you can see how they look together.

Very nice! And well done. I think it’s great that so many folks are so inspired by this that they want to play with the data. It really shows how much this has affected people.


Related Posts:

Two amazing Curiosity descent videos
Watch as Curiosity touches down gently *and* its heat shield slams into Mars
Video of Curiosity saying bye bye to its heat shield
VIDEO of Curiosity’s descent… from the rover cam itself!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures

Curiosity looks Sharp

By Phil Plait | August 28, 2012 6:30 am

The Curiosity rover is still going through its shake down phase, using new equipment and making sure all is well. A few days ago, engineers fired up its 100 mm camera – a telephoto that has a bit more zoom to it than the cameras from which we’ve been seeing pictures. They pointed it to the base of Mount Sharp, the big mountain in the center of its new home of Gale Crater. And what it saw is, simply, breath-taking:

Holy moley. That’s fantastic! [Click to barsoomenate.]

It looks a lot like rock formations I’ve seen in Arizona and Utah… but then, the geologic processes that formed this region are similar. At some point in the past it was flooded with water, and looking at the layering this happened many, many times. The sediments built up and then were worn away over the eons, forming this gorgeous striped sedimentary rock.

Inset here is part of the same scene with distances to various landmarks labeled [click to embiggen]. It looks like there’s the edge of a hill 230 meters away, and then it’s up, up, up, to a series of broad, eroded buttes 16 km away. That would be a fun day’s bike ride here on Earth, but it’s a long way for the rover.

But that is the destination. And it’s not so much the goal as the journey that’s important here. The geology of this region is pretty interesting, and should reveal a lot about the history of the area including how it interacted with water (and what kind of water it was; probably very salty).

You should also take a look at this stunning hi-res wide-angle mosaic of Mount Sharp, too. It’s so wide that if I shrink it to fit the blog it would just look silly. So go look.

These pictures are really exciting. The thing is, the first few times we sent landers to Mars they had to go to relatively boring places – not that any site on Mars is boring, but they had to be relatively flat and free of dangers to the terrestrial machines. Curiosity is the first rover we’ve sent to a place that has real honest-to-Ares geology. I mean, look at it! It’s like the Grand Canyon. But it’s on Mars.

The next couple of years are going to be very cool.


Related Posts:

Curiosity rolls!
Curiosity spins its wheels!
Curiosity’s looking a little blue
Gallery – Curiosity’s triumphant first week on Mars

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures

Update: New NASA map of sea ice minimum

By Phil Plait | August 27, 2012 12:12 pm

Earlier, I wrote that arctic sea ice had yesterday reached record low levels, blowing through the previous lowest-seen minimum in 2007, even though there’s still a lot of melting left to go.

NASA just released this visualization of the arctic region showing just how bad it is:

The white area is the extent of sea ice as of August 26, 2012. The orange line is the average minimum extent from 1979 – 2010, the time covered by satellite observations. In other words, every year they measure the outline of the ice when it reaches its minimum, usually in September, and then averaged those positions for that timespan.

As you can see, we’ve been well below the usual minimum ice extent for some time – not just where we usually are this time of year, but the actual minimum amount… and we still have weeks of melting yet to go.

I want to note that this does not necessarily mean we’ll see sea level rising from this. That ice is floating on the water, and in general when ice melts the water level stays the same. You can see this for yourself: put ice in a glass, then fill it with water. Mark the level. Wait until the ice melts and you’ll see the level hasn’t changed. The ice displaces (pushes aside) an amount of water exactly equal to its own weight, so when it melts that water fills up the same volume the ice displaced. The level stays the same.

However, because ice is frozen fresh water, and the sea is salt water, floating ice may actually raise the sea level a bit. Still, the far bigger concern is ice on land that melts and flows into the ocean. That certainly can raise the sea level. Greenland has the second largest reservoir of frozen water on Earth, and it’s seeing unprecedented melting.

So yeah, global warming is a concern, no matter how many people deny it. And it’s not something we should blow off and worry about later. It’s happening now.

Image credit: Scientific Visualization Studio, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center


Related Posts:

Arctic sea ice now at record low levels
Arctic ice at second-lowest extent since 1979
Sea ice, coming and going
As arctic ice shrinks, so does a denier claim
Our ice is disappearing

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Debunking, NASA, Piece of mind

Neil Armstrong: 1930 – 2012

By Phil Plait | August 25, 2012 1:54 pm

The first human to set foot on another world has died. Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong was 82.

There is so much that can be said about this man, from his incredible career to his notorious shying away from the spotlight. He had history thrust upon him, and performed in a way that will be an inspiration to generations of explorers.

I’ve said many times that we can divide all of history into two parts: before humans landed on the Moon, and after. It was not just an important moment, it was the moment, a defining, crystallizing slice of time that confirmed that we humans had become a space faring race. One world could not and would not contain us, and the sky itself was no longer the limit.

We have had our missteps since that one small step, and we can argue about the directions we are or should be taking. But given what we’ve done, and what we are capable of, I have the spark of hope that the future will look back at July 1969 and recognize it for what it was: the dawn of a new era. The end of homo sapiens terrestrialis and the birth of homo sapiens cosmos.

Neil Armstrong was the human who literally stood at that dividing line.

And I wonder… will there someday be a holiday in his honor? In my mind’s eye I can see people lining the streets, watching parades, talking about that day, smiling and laughing… and all the while, through a quartz window in the dome, the crescent Earth will be hanging in the black sky above them.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Space

Two amazing Curiosity descent videos

By Phil Plait | August 23, 2012 9:52 am

In case you’re not getting enough Curiosity in your life, here are two videos, both showing the descent from the rover’s eye view. However, these are new and pretty different!

The first video shows the descent using the high-resolution images from the MARDI (Mars Descent Imager), which have been further cleaned up and sharpened. It’s truly magnificent! Make sure you set the video to hi-res and make it full screen:

The second video is really clever: it keeps the heat shield centered in the screen, so you can follow the entire fall of the shield down to its impact on the surface of Mars.

I’ve been a scientist a long time, and I’ve worked on astronomical and space imagery since I was in high school. I’ve used film I loaded, developed, and printed myself; I’ve used giant glass plates sprayed with film emulsion and hand-guided a telescope for hours; I’ve used a digital detector that was less than a megapixel and felt like it was the greatest invention ever; and I’ve had a hand in building a camera with three digital detectors that went on board Hubble. So I’ve watched as – and participated in – this revolution in astronomical imagery as it’s unfolded.

And I strongly suspect the single greatest thing about it is the power of pictures it puts into people’s hands. We have images taken by far-flung spacecraft beamed back to Earth at the speed of light, and then sent around the world in minutes by space agencies. From there space enthusiasts and professional filmmakers alike can take that vast archive of data and play with it, show different things, bring out details we at first hadn’t seen.

And we are seeing the results now, as we literally follow the rover down to Mars in high-def, or watch as an ejected piece of hardware plummets to the surface of an alien world.

I’ve said before, and it’ll always be true: The future! We are in you!


Related Posts:

Curiosity rolls!
Curiosity spins its wheels
Gallery – Curiosity’s triumphant first week on Mars
Watch as Curiosity touches down gently *and* its heat shield slams into Mars

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

Curiosity rolls!

By Phil Plait | August 22, 2012 11:27 am

Just a few minutes ago, engineers at JPL here on Earth commanded the Mars Curiosity rovers to make its first test drive! The rover rolled a few meters, stopped and took a picture of its progress:

[Click to enaresenate.]

Wow! This image was taken by the left NAVCAM (NAVigation CAMera) on Curiosity at 15:00:53 UTC (there’s a matching one by the right NAVCAM, too, and there’s already an anaglyph that’s been made). You can easily see where the wheels have disturbed the Martian surface, and where the rover made a bit of a turn as well.

I’m also fond of this picture, taken just a few minutes later at 15:03:56 UTC, also by the left NAVCAM:

Seeing the rover in the picture itself, ironically, brings home the idea that this machine is far, far away from home.

Actually, wait, scratch that. Curiosity was built to work on Mars.

It is home.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


Related Posts:

Curiosity spins its wheels
Now you will feel the firepower of a fully armed and operational Mars rover
Watch as Curiosity touches down gently *and* its heat shield slams into Mars
Curiosity’s looking a little blue

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures, Top Post
MORE ABOUT: Curiosity, Mars, rover, tracks

Multi-billion dollar traffic jam

By Phil Plait | August 22, 2012 6:30 am

I’ve been stuck in some epic traffic jams, but I think this one wins:

Those are the Space Shuttle orbiters Endeavour and Atlantis [click to embiggen] at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Endeavour has just finished being processed for travel, and will soon be on its way to California to eventually go to the California Science Center in LA. Atlantis is staying at Kennedy Space Center itself at the Visitor’s Center.

Funny – a year ago I posted a similar picture Endeavour and Discovery, saying it was the last time we’d see a shot like that. I guess I was wrong.

Either way, there won’t be too many more like this… but soon we’ll be launching humans back into space once again. My hope is that when we do it’ll be easier, less expensive, more reliable, and the beginning of not just tentative toes-in-the-water, but plunging full into the ocean of space.

Image credit: NASA


Related Posts:

Discovery makes one final flight… but we must move on.
Two Shuttles, nose to nose
The last views of Endeavour and ISS
The fiery descent of Atlantis… seen from space!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures, Space
NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »