Category: Space

Uwingu wants you to submit names for their planetary baby book

By Phil Plait | November 8, 2012 9:38 am

Astronomers are discovering a lot of planets these days. The official count is 800+, with thousands of more candidates (unconfirmed but suspiciously planet-like).

Right now we give them alphabet soup names. Alpha Centauri Bb. HR 8799b (through HR8799 e). And of course, everyone’s favorite, 2MASS J04414489+2301513b.

These catalog names are useful, but less than public friendly. In science fiction we get Vulcan, Psychon, Arrakis, and other cool names. So why not in real life?

The folks at Uwingu asked themselves this very thing. Uwingu (pronounced oo-WIN-goo) is an astronomy and space startup company that’s looking to fund scientific research and exploration. I wrote an intro to Uwingu back when it was soliciting funds to get initially rolling (happily, that goal was met). The idea is to sell goods and services to space enthusiasts, and use the proceeds toward doing real science. The folks in charge are professional astronomers and space scientists at the tops of their fields, people like Alan Stern and Pamela Gay. Full disclosure: I am on the Board of Advisors for Uwingu, an unpaid position, but I’d write about it and support it anyway. These are top-notch scientists behind the project.

What does this have to do with the letter and number salad that is the current state of exoplanet names? As their first foray, the folks at Uwingu decided to let people create a suggested names list for these planets. For $0.99 a pop, you can submit a name you like to the database, and for another $0.99 you can vote for your favorite in the current list. I’ll note these names are not official – they are not assigned to specific planets, and only the International Astronomical Union can make these official (and mind you, they’re the ones who so elegantly handled the Pluto not being a planet issue (yes, that’s sarcasm)). But, these names will be seen by planetary astronomers, and eventually those planets are going to need names. Why not yours?

I think this is a fun idea. There are currently nearly a hundred names in the database as I write this, but it’s expected to grow rapidly. If you think there should be a Q’onoS, Abydos, or even Alderaan – in memoriam, of course – then head over to Uwingu.


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Space
MORE ABOUT: exoplanets, IAU, Uwingu

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!


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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.


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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


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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

OSU marching band boldly goes

By Phil Plait | October 25, 2012 9:30 am

A little while ago, the interwebz went all twitterpated over the Ohio State University marching band doing a halftime show tribute to gaming. Don’t get me wrong: it was really cool, especially the part starting at 6 minutes in. I was in a marching band for many years (shocker) and I’m amazed at what OSU did.

But somehow that particular show overshadowed the one OSU did on September 15 that was way cooler. And by cooler, I mean geekier.

Behold:

I don’t want to spoil it, but if you want a cheat sheet, the You Tube page for the video has a list of the highlights and their times in the video.

My favorite part – duh – starts at 4:50. Make sure you keep watching for a minute. Make it so.

Tip o the shako to Heather Curtis.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Geekery, Humor, Space

Space art competition for kids

By Phil Plait | October 24, 2012 9:30 am

More art and science are colliding! The Lunar and Planetary Institute is hosting the Humans in Space Youth Art Competition. Kids from anywhere in the world ages 10 – 18 are encouraged to express their feelings about human spaceflight using "…visual, literary, musical and video artwork".

I’m a big supporter of scientific art, and I think this is a great idea. If you’re that age, or know someone who is, let them know! The deadline for submitting the work is midnight U.S. Central Standard Time, November 15, 2012. The website has the details.

Go! Be artistic!


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Blue Origin successfully tests its crew escape system

By Phil Plait | October 23, 2012 7:43 am

Reliance on American vehicles to take humans back into space took another step up over the weekend, when the private company Blue Origin – founded by Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos – successfully tested their crew escape system.

Putting people in space isn’t easy, and is fraught with danger. NASA requires that, in the case of an emergency, there is a proven escape system for the crew in case the rocket underneath them goes kablooie. One reliable system is to have a small solid rocket above the crew capsule that can pull it away to safety (which is how it was done for Apollo).

Interestingly, the Blue Origin method is to use a rocket underneath the capsule, so they call it a "pusher". Unlike other methods, this rocket is reusable, a technology NASA likes to explore. It lifted a full-scale suborbtial crew capsule to a height of 700 meters (2300 feet) and carried it 500 meters (1600 feet) downrange.

I couldn’t embed the video of the launch, but you can see it at the Blue Origin site. I recommend it. It’s pretty cool.

Blue Origin is notoriously secretive about what they’re working on. They have a crew capsule, and they’re working on an unmanned suborbital space vehicle called New Shepherd. They have their sights set on orbital flight, but it’s not clear exactly how they’re going about doing that. Currently, plans are to use an Atlas V for launching vehicles. However, just last week Blue Origin successfully tested a rocket engine they’re developing, and it’s obvious this is what they hope to eventually use to get to orbit.

Currently, the only private company that can go to space is SpaceX – their Dragon capsule is still berthed to the space station as I write this – but it looks like they won’t be alone for long. Sierra Nevada, another company, is also working on a suborbital vehicle called Lynx Dream Chaser [oops! Got the name mixed up originally; Lynx is the XCOR spaceship] with an eye to orbit.

The more the merrier. With better tech, and competition, the price for getting to space will drop, and accessibility will go up. Some people wonder why I’m optimistic about space exploration in the near future. Well, here you have it. NASA can save a lot of money contracting out to these and other companies. If these plans go well, in ten years, maybe less, the face of space travel will have changed dramatically.


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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

My God, it’s full of star trails

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

You know, I was all ready to go to bed, with a blog post all ready to go first thing in the morning… and then astrophotographer Christoph Malin sent me an email about a video he put together. It’s called "The ISS Stacks" – instead of a normal time lapse where you take hundreds of still images and play them as individual frames of a video, he stacked them, so that each one adds to the last. It creates a dizzying, blurred version of reality that’s seriously trippy. See for yourself, but make sure it’s in HD and full screen first for maximum impact.

Whoa. Now I know what David Bowman felt.

Is there anything to be learned from this video? Probably not, to be honest. It’s just way, way cool.


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures, Space
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