Tag: Emily Lakdawalla

Crotchety spacecraft

By Phil Plait | June 1, 2012 10:44 am

I have creative friends.

Emily Lakdawalla is a scientist, science journalist, and tireless advocate for space exploration. She also does handcrafts, and recently asked me for my mailing address. Hmmm… I thought. This’ll be good.

And I was right! Here’s what she sent me:

How cool is that? It’s a satellite model made with plastic canvas. That’s a plastic mesh you can cut to size, then stitch yarn in and out of the holes to cover it. I did a live video chat with Emily when Phobos-GRUNT re-entered, and she lamented my not having a good model of a satellite to use for demos. So she made me this one. And look how she signed the letter! I hope you recognize the little guy in her doodle.

I (and many others) suggested she make more spacecraft this way, and she has; she wrote a post at the Planetary Society Blog about them. She’s also created both the patterns and kits for MESSENGER (currently orbiting Mercury) and Dawn (orbiting Vesta, soon to leave for Ceres) which you can buy at her Etsy store (called SpaceCraft, of course). She also has the pattern for the twin GRAIL spacecraft available for free.

I’ll add that Emily scolded me that this is not crochet since you don’t use a crochet hook. However, the title was too much fun to resist. By the time you read this I’ll be at SpaceFestIV; Emily will be there too. I hope she’ll forgive me.

But either way, I know have this awesome little model to use for the next time I do a live video chat. Thanks, Em!

Related Posts:

Snapshots from space
Rosetta’s stunning Mars
What happened to Phobos-Grunt?
Come to SpaceFestIV

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Geekery, Space

Snapshots from Space

By Phil Plait | March 16, 2012 1:14 pm

My pal Emily Lakdawalla from The Planetary Society has started making a series of short videos about astronomy and space science. She’s made one about NASA images, seasons on Mars, and now this one on asteroid impacts:

And she’s wearing an SMBC shirt!

These are pretty good: short, informative, and I’d bet useful in the classroom as well. Emily writes The Planetary Society blog, too, so you should make sure that’s in your RSS feed. And subscribe to their YouTube channel, too!

Related Posts:

Rosetta’s stunning Mars
What happened to Phobos-Grunt?
Women as planetary science role models
Asteroid comparison chart, Part II

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Space

Rosetta's stunning Mars

By Phil Plait | January 26, 2012 6:52 am

In 2007, the European Space Agency probe passed by Mars on its way to visit a comet. It used Mars for a gravity assist to help it on its way, and got close enough to take some very detailed pictures (it also passed by the asteroid Lutetia and returned amazing shots; see the gallery at the bottom of this post). That data wasn’t initially released by the mission leader (that’s fairly common in some missions), but they were finally made available late last year. My pal Emily Lakdawalla from the Planetary Society Blog grabbed a bunch of them and put together some simply amazing pictures from them, including this jaw-dropper:

Yeah. You really want to click that to Barsoomenate it. Holy dry ice polar caps!

In fact, you should go over to her blog where she gives all the details and has more incredibly cool pictures of the Red Planet as well. I don’t want to spoil her fun by giving it all away here. Go!

Credit: ESA / MPS / UPD / LAM / IAA / RSSD / INTA / UPM / DASP / IDA / processed by Emily Lakdawalla

Related posts:

Rosetta’s cometary goal now in sight
Lutetia may have witnessed the birth of the Earth
Curiosity on its way to Mars!


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

What happened to Phobos-Grunt?

By Phil Plait | January 17, 2012 11:05 am

On Sunday, January 15th, 2012, the Russian spacecraft Phobos-Grunt fell to Earth after a failed attempt to get it to Mars. It burned up in our atmosphere some time around 18:00 UTC, though the exact time isn’t clear.

During its final orbit, I did a live video chat on Google+ with my friend, science journalist Emily Lakdawalla of The Planetary Society, and we talked about the probe. The entire discussion is now on YouTube:

It’s an hour and a half long, as we were following the news and rumors of the probe in real time. The big question the whole time was: where and when did the probe fall?

It’s a good question. Moving at 8 km/sec (5 miles/sec) as it came in, it covered a lot of territory — as you can see in the map above showing the final track of the spacecraft. And since the final moments apparently happened over the Pacific ocean and southern South America — places where there aren’t many observers — it’s not at all clear just where, or even when, the spacecraft came in. As Emily and I discussed in the video, it’s possible that the US intelligence people may know, since there are many spy satellites that observe the Earth and may have seen the spacecraft’s demise. However, understandably, the government may not want to release that data. Or even acknowledge it.

Even now, days later, it’s still not clear what’s what. The Russian Space Agency and news organizations have released statements I find a bit difficult to swallow, to say the least — like this one "suggesting" US military radar damaged the spacecraft, or this statement from Vladimir Popovkin — the chief administrator of the Russian space agency Roscosmos — suggesting foreign sabotage. Seriously.


Emily has a solid wrapup of what’s known right now. I’ll post more if we find out more, but it seems unlikely. The Earth has a lot of real estate, and even with seven billion people we’re spread relatively thinly across the surface. We may never find out what happened with Phobos-Grunt, which is too bad. The more we learn about how and why spacecraft fail, the more likely we can prevent such problems in the future.

Image credit: Robert Christy, the Zarya website

Related posts:

Phobos-Grunt to come down today
Doomed Russian Mars probe seen from the ground
ESA writes off Phobos-Grunt
Phobos-Grunt scheduled to launch at 20:16 UT
Final: ROSAT came down in the Bay of Bengal
UARS official re-entry… and up next: ROSAT

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Piece of mind, Politics, Space

Video chat about the new Kepler planets

By Phil Plait | December 21, 2011 7:00 am

Yesterday, astronomers announced the discovery of a compact solar system orbiting a distant star, with two of the planets being very close to the size of the Earth.

My friend Fraser Cain, from Universe Today, put together a video chat Q&A about the discovery with me, Nancy Atkinson from UT, Emily Lakdawalla from the Planetary Society Blog, and Alan Boyle from the MSNBC Cosmic Log blog. We talked about the discovery, how it was made, what it means for exoplanetary science, and a few other topics just for good measure.

Fraser did this using Google+ Hangout, the social network’s video chat software. They rolled out a new feature just a few days ago where a few people can chat on camera, and the whole thing can be broadcast on G+ at the same time. Not only that, but, obviously, it can be recorded and uploaded to YouTube as well. This is brand new stuff, and not widely available just yet, so we had some issues with it (notably Fraser’s window never was displayed on the main screen; the images he displays at 13 minutes in can be found on the Kepler website).

Since I’ve got you here, there’s one very cool thing I’d like to expand on. Later in the video, we chatted about the physical characteristics of the Kepler-20 system, including how the planets’ orbits were tilted, and how you can determine that from the Kepler data. I poked around on the web afterwards, and found that the Kepler site has an amazing feature; an interactive display of all the confirmed planets they’ve found. For example, here’s the one for Kepler-20-f, the outermost of the five planets in the system, and the one closest to the size of Earth.

You can watch an animation of it going around the star, with a display of how it blocks the light. You can also see how the orbit is slightly tilted to the line of sight, and how it cuts a chord across the star. It’s truly a splendid way to show folks what they’ve found, and I highly suggest playing around with it (though it may be slow due to heavy use right now). When it loads, click the button labeled "Perspective" and then click "go to view from Earth". That’ll show you how a transit works pretty well.

From those pages, I found that these planets do orbit their star almost — but not quite — edge-on. An orbital inclination of 90° would be edge-on, and the planets, in order from the star, have tilts of 86.5, 88.4, 89.6, 87.5, and 88.7°. I was surprised to see that there is a spread of even as much as 3°. I wonder why? The planets probably formed farther out and migrated in toward the star; we know planetary migration happens for many (if not all) solar systems when they’re young, including our own. As these planets got closer, they could interact more strongly via gravity. Maybe that amplified their tilts somewhat. Or maybe I’m totally wrong in thinking the tilts should all be aligned in the first place.

We’re still new at this game, so there’s a lot left to learn. But that, my friends, is where the fun is. May we have lots more fun systems like Kepler-20 to investigate.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff

Reminder: ROSAT's coming down soon

By Phil Plait | October 18, 2011 10:30 am

Last month, after the UARS satellite burned up over the Pacific, I mentioned that the German Astronomical satellite ROSAT will be burning up soon as well. It’s looking that will happen next week, with some models pointing to October 23rd. The exact time and even the date are still a bit uncertain, because it’s impossible to perfectly model the incredibly complex interaction between the satellite and the very thin atmosphere hundreds of kilometer up.

Emily Lakdawalla at The Planetary Society Blog has a nice write up of this, as does Dan Vergano at USA Today (featuring a quote by me, of all people, from that post last month). I imagine Space Weather will have info too as it comes out.

There’s a ROSAT Twitter stream with fairly up-to-date information as well. I’ll be paying attention to that carefully.

Just to be clear, I’ll state that even though more pieces of this satellite will survive re-entry than UARS did, the odds of anyone getting hit by a piece are still many thousands to one against, and of any particular person getting hit (meaning you) are trillions to one against. So while I don’t want satellites to fall from the sky every day, I’m not too concerned over this one.


Planetary Society radio show interview

By Phil Plait | April 6, 2011 10:40 am

A fun and lively interview I did with Mat Kaplan on Planetary Radio — The Planetary Society’s radio/podcast — is now online. Mat and I talked about the terrible media reporting lately on science and astronomy stories, including Apophis, a possible planet in the outer solar system, and, of course, the "Supermoon". As usual, I’m bombastic and occasionally accurate, so give it a listen.

Other segments of the half-hour podcast have my pal Emily Lakdawalla talking solar system missions (MESSENGER, Dawn, Mars and more), Bill Nye (yeah, that Bill Nye!) talking Kepler and Earth-like planets, and Bruce Betts on a biological experiment going up on Endeavour’s final flight.

I hope you like it! And please consider becoming a member of TPS. They do a great job promoting scientific exploration of the solar system.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Debunking, Space

Kleopatra and her kids

By Phil Plait | March 26, 2011 7:00 am

One of my favorite asteroids is Kleopatra: a big, 217 km (135 mile) long main-belt rock that’s a wee bit weird. This image may give you a hint as to why:

It’s shaped like a cartoon dog bone! It circles the Sun out past Mars, tumbling end-over-end, and its origins have always been something of a mystery. However, new observations and analysis reveal quite a bit about how this asteroid got its unusual shape. I won’t spoil it, but instead simply point you to Emily Lakdawalla’s excellent summary of Kleopatra on The Planetary Society blog. It’s a tale of collisions, spin, and eventual reconciliation, as many good stories are.

One thing I didn’t know is that Kleo has two moons: Alexhelios and Cleoselene. They orbit the asteroid in the plane of the its rotation, and may be cast-offs from the formation of Kleo itself. Read Emily’s article for the whole scoop.

Man, the solar system is a cool place. And there’s still so much left to see!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

MESSENGER arrives at Mercury today!

By Phil Plait | March 17, 2011 11:17 am

Just a quick note to y’all, since I’m in the middle of about eight things all demanding my full attention: the MESSENGER spacecraft will enter orbit around Mercury tonight at 9:00 p.m. EDT, after a tortuous 7-year journey. Once safely circling the planet, engineers will be focusing on making sure the probe is safe and sound, so it’ll be a while (days) before we start getting images.

I’m quite sure my pal Emily Lakdawalla will be poised for attack on every tidbit of news that comes in, so follow her on Twitter and on her blog at the Planetary Society.

Related posts:

MESSENGER’s family portrait
MESSENGER’s third tryst with Mercury
Mercury hides a monster impact
MESSENGER contacts the Borg queen


The shadow of a moon goes passing by

By Phil Plait | December 15, 2010 2:00 pm

The Viking 1 space probe settled into orbit around Mars in 1976, dropping a surface lander in the process. The probe stayed in orbit to monitor the planet, returning thousands of pictures from millions of kilometers away.

Those pictures are sitting in an archive, and sometimes have hidden jewels in them. As Emily Lakdawalla reports, somehow the keen-eyed Daniel Macháček spotted an amazing thing: the shadow of the Martian moon Phobos passing over a dust storm:

Wow! This animation is sped up by a factor of 10, and you can see the tiny moon’s shadow slip across the face of the planet. He also has one sped up 40X, and there you can see the slow movement of the dust storm, too… though it’s only slow due to distance; I’m sure someone standing on the surface would laugh ruefully at describing the 100 km/hr gusts as "slow". If they could breathe, that is.

Anyway, Emily has more information on the animations. I think this is amazing work, and we’ll be seeing more things like this as the planetary (and astronomical) databases get plumbed by the public. A lot of folks out there are very talented at digging out treasures, and equally adept at creating beautiful imagery and animations, too.

Related posts:

Martian Swirly
More incredible Phobos imagery
Phobos, close-up of fear
Martian dunes under a microscope

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

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