Category: 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

ISS^3

By Phil Plait | October 10, 2012 7:00 am

Here’s a slice of weird: a photo taken by an astronaut on the International Space Station of three small cubes floating by:

What could they be? Balok’s warning buoy? Tiny little Borg ships? The ISS trying to roll a crit 18?

Nope. Those are CubeSats, small satellites about 10 cm (4 inches) on a side and having a mass up to a little over a kilo. Even though they’re teeny, they can be packed with a lot of equipment. Typical mission payloads are pretty diverse, from testing hardware for communications and satellite attitude control, to taking images (and other observations) of Earth, monitoring the satellite’s radiation environment, and even detecting dust in space. Because they’re small and relatively cheap (well under $100,000 including launch), space missions using CubeSats can be done by smaller institutions, including schools.

The picture above is from the deployment of three CubeSats on October 4 – the 55th anniversary of the Sputnik launch, humanity’s first artificial satellite. Two other CubeSats were sent out in a separate deployment as well.

Here’s another shot of the three regular Platonic hexahedrons over Earth:

These three are amateur radio satellites: they transmit a signal amateur operators on the ground can pick up. You can find more pictures and technical info at the UK Amateur Radio Satellite webpage.

It’s amazing that we’ve come so far that satellites can be done this inexpensively. Heck, people can even hold a contest to put stuff on small satellites like these! It’s really opened up what kind of space science and exploration can be done, and I have to admit, is something I never thought of when I dreamed of space travel as a kid.

Or heck, as an adult either. People are clever, and for them the sky is no longer the limit.

Tip o’ the Borg nanoprobe to my editor at the Hive Overmind, Amos Zeeberg. Image credit: JAXA and NASA


Related Posts:

- Blasts of high-energy radiation from Earth win a spot on a satellite
- In which I become… SPACE JUDGE
- Kickstart your way to an experiment on a satellite!
- New Moon from a new moon

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Pretty pictures, Space
MORE ABOUT: CubeSats, ISS, space station

Curiosity got shaved?

By Phil Plait | October 9, 2012 3:08 pm

Yesterday, the Mars rover Curiosity was using its scoop for the first time to grab a sample of Martian regolith (the crumbled sand, rock and dust covering the planet) when scientists back here on Earth spotted something funny looking. It was an object roughly a centimeter long that appeared shiny, in contrast to the rust-colored dust-covered pebbles and rocks around it.

Using the ChemCam, they took this close-up picture of the object:

I added the arrows. My first thought was that it looked like a piece of shredded plastic, and it may very well be something like that. Not from any Martian litterbugs, though! It’s probably something from the rover itself; it was spotted just after the scoop had dumped the regolith sample into a shaker which vibrated the material to help separate and analyze it. It seems likely whatever this thing is may have come off then.

No matter what it is, it’s stopped Curiosity’s mission progress until it can be figured out. If it’s something that got shaved off the rover itself that might be kindof important. Also, if something like that got caught in the sampling scoop, or someplace else, it could do anything from mess up the observations to damage the rover itself (if it wasn’t the result of some kind of damage in the first place). That strikes me as pretty unlikely, but better safe than sorry when you’re dealing with a $2.5 billion chem lab on a planet a couple of hundred million kilometers away.

It may very well be something benign, but it’s certainly cause for concern, and the folks at JPL are looking into it. Stay tuned for more.

You can also read more about this at Universe Today and USA Today.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Pretty pictures, Space
MORE ABOUT: Curiosity, Mars, rover

The Sky Is Calling

By Phil Plait | October 9, 2012 12:26 pm

So I sit down to go through my email, and it’s the usual slew of press releases, spam, space enthusiast questions, and marriage proposals. No, wait, I don’t get those last ones. Still, it’s a lot of email.

But one cataches my eye. The subject line is "Space Pop". Just that. Huh. So I click it, and right away I know I was about to be happy.

The opening line is, "I’m a fan. Of you. Of space. Of inspiring curiosity about science. "

I love hearing that. The email is from Kim Boekbinder, an independent pop music artist, and she wants to make a space album. Or more accurately an album of music based on and inspired by space and astronomy, and in the email she’s asking me to be an advisor on it (along with Matt Everingham). She also links to her first song from the album: "The Sky Is Calling". I listen to it, and I’m hooked.

Here’s the song:

I know, right? Kim’s awesome. By the way, she fed an image of the Tarantula nebula through an audio program to create the background for that song. So, yeah.

Kim’s raising funds to get this album [wait for it, wait for it] off the ground [hahahahahaha! I kill me], so she’s got a Kickstarter page for it. As I write this she’s already more than 1/3 of the way to her goal of $30k, which is great! I’d really like to see this album get made. She and I have been chatting back and forth, and every time I send her some astronomy note, she gets really excited and wants to write music about it.

So if you can, kick in some filthy lucre for her. I’ll note that when she got to $5k she wrote a short and quick song based on a post I wrote about the expansion of the Universe. Seriously. And when she got to $10k she wrote a short song about Mars Rovers.

If you want a taste of more of her music, she has some you can listen to on her website. Note: One of them is massively NSFW. You’ll know when you get to it.

The past couple of years has seen a lot of artists looking to include more science in their work (see Related Posts below). Maybe that’s always been there, but what I know is that recently they started contacting me. I think that’s fantastic. After all, isn’t a Hubble picture art? Doesn’t seeing a photo from Curiosity make your heart beat a little faster? Doesn’t something like this pluck at the wires connecting the two halves of your brain?

Science and art are inextricably linked, and I’m more than happy to help more people solidify that connection. So thanks, Kim, for your unabashed love of science. I hope we make beautiful music together.


Related Posts:

- Libration libretto
- Something Fierce
- The Universe Has Us in Its Crosshairs (and this followup)
- Zen Pencils: Welcome to Science

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Geekery, Space

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 Falcon 9 lost an engine on the way up; Dragon on its way to ISS

By Phil Plait | October 8, 2012 9:20 am

Last night (Sunday October 7), SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon capsule full of supplies on a mission to the International Space Station. The Dragon was deployed successfully (as were its solar panels to give it power) and it’s on its way to ISS.

However, not everything went as planned. One of the nine Merlin engines powering the Falcon 9 had a failure 90 seconds into the flight. It’s not clear what happened just yet, but there is pretty dramatic footage of the engine failure; in the slow motion video below you can see some sort of flash and puff of flame at the 30 second mark (I’ve set the video to start 22 seconds in):

You can see a bright spot glowing on the upper right engine, then what looks like shrapnel blowing back as well, so it appears something catastrophic happened to the engine. I can think of many things that could’ve caused this – a crack in the engine bell that failed when it got hot, a faulty valve, something in the pipes – but I’m just spitballing; hopefully the folks at SpaceX will be able to determine the cause from the engine telemetry.

[UPDATE: SpaceX issued the follow notice at 17:00 UTC today:

"Approximately one minute and 19 seconds into last night’s launch, the Falcon 9 rocket detected an anomaly on one first stage engine. Initial data suggests that one of the rocket’s nine Merlin engines, Engine 1, lost pressure suddenly and an engine shutdown command was issued immediately. We know the engine did not explode, because we continued to receive data from it. Our review indicates that the fairing that protects the engine from aerodynamic loads ruptured due to the engine pressure release, and that none of Falcon 9’s other eight engines were impacted by this event.

As designed, the flight computer then recomputed a new ascent profile in real time to ensure Dragon’s entry into orbit for subsequent rendezvous and berthing with the ISS. This was achieved, and there was no effect on Dragon or the cargo resupply mission.

Falcon 9 did exactly what it was designed to do. Like the Saturn V, which experienced engine loss on two flights, Falcon 9 is designed to handle an engine out situation and still complete its mission."]

Although this looks scary, the engine nozzles are coated with Kevlar to protect them specifically in case something like this occurs, so the other engines continued working. Also, the onboard computer immediately shut down the failed engine, and then on the fly – literally – recalculated all the needed changes to the thrust of the other engines to compensate. In the end, the first stage boost lasted an extra thirty seconds to cover for the failed engine. It’s important again to note that the Dragon capsule was delivered on orbit and will rendezvous with ISS on Wednesday.

Having said that, there may have been another problem as well: my friend Jonathan McDowell of Jonathan’s Space Report is reporting the upper stage didn’t make its second burn, so an Orbcomm satellite that was carried as a secondary payload didn’t make the correct orbit. I don’t have any more information about that, but I’ll update this post when I hear more.

[UPDATE: ORBCOMM has confirmed the satellite was placed into the wrong orbit due to the engine failure. They, along with aerospace company Sierra Nevada, are looking into using the satellite's onboard propulsion system to raise the orbit.]

Elon Musk at SpaceX is expected to have an announcement later today about the launch. Again, I’ll update this post as info comes in.

Tip o’ the nose cone to AstroEngine for the alert about the video.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space

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

SpaceFest IV interview

By Phil Plait | September 29, 2012 7:00 am

In May I attended SpaceFest IV, a gathering of space enthusiasts, astronauts (who, I suppose, are legit space enthusiasts), astronomers, and more. It’s a lot of fun, and great to see old friends and meet new science geeks. I missed last year’s, unfortunately, but was happy to be able to go this year again.

While I was there I was interviewed about the Mayan apocalypse, Symphony of Science, and building a real Enterprise. It was an eclectic series of questions.

There are also video interviews of my friends Dan Durda and Meteorite Man Geoff Notkin, too.

I hope there’ll be another SpaceFest next year! I had a lot of fun, and I bet a lot of you reading this would too.


Related Posts:

- Come to Space Fest IV!
- A Spacefest Odyssey
- Spacefest 2009
- Spacefest wrapup

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
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