In 2014, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe will enter orbit around a comet — the first time this will have ever been done — and then drop a lander on it — and oh yeah, that’s the first time this will have ever been done, too.
I’m pretty excited about this mission, and NASA and ESA have put together this really well-done video explaining the mission and what it’ll do:
I found this on the Rosetta Blog which has been a great source of info over the years. Rosetta has already been a very successful mission without even having reached its target yet: it’s swung by Mars, took stunning closeup images of the asteroid Lutetia, flew past another asteroid called Steins and got nifty pix of that, and also flew past Earth —
twice! three times! — to steal some of our orbital energy to propel it on its way… and snapped one of my favorite pictures of Earth ever taken (seriously, click that link; have you ever seen a crescent Earth that beautiful?).
And yet all that is a prelude to what’s coming in a little over two year.
And if you can’t wait, the folks at JPL created a game called Comet Quest (for iPad and iPhone) where you control the Rosetta probe as it orbits the comet. You have to deploy the lander, identify and avoid hazards (like jets and rubble from the comet), an communicate with Earth to transmit your results. I played it for a while on the iPad and I have to admit it was fun. Give it a shot!
[Update (February 13, 2012): The launch was a success! Congrats to the ESA for this achievement.]
The European Space Agency’s new launch vehicle, Vega, has its first "qualification flight" scheduled for Monday morning: the launch window is from 10:00 to 12:00 UTC (05:00 to 07:00 Eastern US time). ESA has a page where you can watch the launch live.
Vega is a smaller rocket, designed to haul 300 – 2000 kg payloads to low Earth orbit. It’s 30 meters tall by 3 meters wide (100 x 10 feet), so we’re not talking huge here. But this is a size needed for smaller payloads that don’t need huge thrust. This first launch will loft nine satellites in total: the AlMaSat demonstration satellite (30 cm on a side); another called LARES which is 390 kg in mass, designed to test an aspect of relativity called frame dragging (where a spinning object such as the Earth warps space by dragging it along with its spin, like a viscous fluid); and seven tiny satellites called picosats.
Given that this is the dead of night my time, I’ll watch it in reruns, but if the timing is more amenable to you give it a look! It’s not often you get to see the maiden voyage of a new rocket.
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
Almost exactly one year ago, I posted a beautiful picture of a phytoplankton bloom as seen from space. And here’s another one, and it’s way, way more spectacular!
Holy wow! [Click to enalgaenate.]
This shot of a bloom in the southern Atlantic Ocean was taken by the ESA’s Envirosat, which — duh — is designed to observe our environment. In this case, scientists keep a keen eye on phytoplankton blooms: while this bloom is breathtaking and gorgeous, many can be hazardous. Besides producing toxins that can harm sea life, they can also consume more oxygen in the water than usual, which is obviously tough on any life in the area. The color of the bloom can be found quickly using satellite imagery like this, and the algae species determined. Also, phytoplankton are sensitive to some climate changes, so observing them can act as a "canary in the coal mine" for climate change.
Sometimes, the best view of the Earth around us is from above. And sometimes that view is amazing, but a reminder that our ecosystem is a dynamic balance… and it’s best that we understand all the forces that can upset that equilibrium.
Tip o’ the petri dish to Alan Boyle on Google+. Image credit: ESA
The Russian space probe Phobos-Grunt was an ambitious attempt to send a spacecraft to Mars, land on its moon Phobos, and return a sample to Earth. However, once it achieved low-Earth orbit after launch in November, the rocket that would have sent it on its way to Mars failed to fire, stranding the probe here at Earth. There have been numerous attempts to communicate with Phobos-Grunt, but they have been met with very limited success and most usually failure.
And now another nail has been driven in the coffin: the European Space Agency, which was tasked with spacecraft communications during the cruise phase to Mars, has announced they will no longer try to talk to Phobos-Grunt, declaring the mission "no longer feasible". Ouch.
NASA joined in the effort to talk to the probe, but had to abandon those efforts when the antennae were needed for other missions. It’s unlikely Russia will give up on the mission soon, but my own opinion is that the outlook’s pretty bleak. If they can’t get the probe on its way, or even boosted to a higher orbit, it’ll burn up in an uncontrolled re-entry over Earth sometime in February. The Russians are saying the fuel onboard will burn up as well and shouldn’t pose a threat to people on the ground. I expect we’ll be hearing more about that as time goes on.
I’ll note that Curiosity, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover, launched successfully recently and is looking good as it heads to Mars, so there’s that.
The Sun is literally a middle-aged star; approaching the midpoint between its birth over 4 billion years ago and its eventual death about 6 billion years from now. But the Sun is one of hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way galaxy, and we see them at all different ages, from their spastic births to their (in some cases) hyperspastic deaths. In many cases the way a star dies is foretold by how its born, so the study of star birth is a rich and fascinating field.
It’s also surpassingly beautiful, since stars are formed from the swirling chaos of thick clouds of gas and dust, lit up by the various newborns embedded within. You’ll find no finer example of this than the large nebula called Sharpless 2-239, a sprawling stellar nursery about 500 light years away in the direction of Taurus, and you may find no finer picture of it than this one taken by astronomer Adam Block using the 0.8 meter telescope at the Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter in Arizona:
[Click to ennebulenate, and yes, you want to.]
Isn’t that breathtaking? This image shows a portion of a much larger complex which currently has over a dozen stars forming inside it. Several of the stars you see here are quite young, only a few million years old. Since these are low mass stars like the Sun, and will merrily fuse hydrogen into helium for billions of years, this is like seeing a human baby when it’s less than a month old.
And, like babies will, these stars eject material from both ends: called bipolar outflow, twin beams of material (typically called "jets") are screaming out of these newborns at several hundred kilometers per second in opposite directions. These jets slam into the dense surrounding material, compressing it, heating it up, and causing it to glow. The structure you see fanning out to the lower left is from one of these jets, the one headed more or less toward us. The one moving in the other direction is mostly hidden from our view by the thick dust in the region.
But there’s much much more going on here…
Yesterday, I posted a beautiful picture of the Orbiter Endeavour docked to the International Space Station. The shot was taken by European Space Agency astronaut Paolo Nespoli from about 200 meters away; he was inside a Soyuz capsule that had just disembarked. What I didn’t know last night is that NASA wanted a series of pictures of the Orbiter and ISS together, a legacy gallery to commemorate Endeavour’s last flight.
The ESA has just posted the gallery, and it’s truly wonderful.
You really need to take a stroll through those images. They are the last ones that will ever be taken of Endeavour docked to the space station it helped build. The one above is my favorite, but there are a couple of dozen others that give you a good idea of how huge and how complicated ISS is.
Not only that, but NASA just released video taken by Nespoli as well:
Endeavour landed safely on June 1, and Atlantis, the last Shuttle launch, will make its way skyward on July 8.
Credits: ESA, NASA
[UPDATE (April 5, 2011): It turns out some of the descriptions I used below to describe a geoid were not accurate. I refer you to this page at the University of Oklahoma for a good description. I've made some changes below to hopefully ease any confusion.]
Most people think of the Earth as being a sphere. For most purposes that’s close enough, but it’s actually a spheroid, something close to but not precisely a perfect sphere. It bulges in the middle (as so many of us do) due to its spin, the Moon’s gravity warps it, the continents and oceans distort the shape. And the surface gravity changes with all this too; it’s different on top of the highest mountain, for example, compared to its strength in Death Valley.
So if you could map out the average shape of the Earth’s gravity, a shape where the gravity is the same no matter where you stood on it, what would it look like?
So if you could map out the Earth’s gravity — essentially, a diagram showing you the direction of "down" — what would it look like?
It would look like this:
That is a (somewhat exaggerated for easy viewing) map of the Earth’s geoid, produced by the European Space Agency’s GOCE satellite. A good way to think of the geoid is the shape a global ocean would take if it were governed only by gravity, and not currents or tides or anything else.
If the Earth’s gravity were a little stronger in one place, water would flow toward it, and if it were weaker water would flow away. In the end, the surface of this global ocean would feel the same gravity everywhere, shaping itself to the geoid. If the Earth’s surface were an actual geoid, then the direction of "down" would point perpendicularly toward the geoid surface (or, in the same vein, if you had a carpenter’s level, the level would be, um, level if it sat parallel to the geoid). It’s the ultimate "sea level".
This may seem esoteric, but this knowledge is actually important. Read More
I had heard that there were severe and extensive fires raging out of control in Russia, but I had no idea how bad it was until I saw this picture:
This image was taken by the European Space Agency’s Envisat Earth-observing satellite. Moscow is in the lower left corner of the frame, and the field of view is several hundred kilometers across. Dozens of plumes from forest and peat bog fires can be seen scattered everywhere.
That area of the world is experiencing record heat, with temperatures over 35° C, far higher than usual. That’s dried out the region, making it a tinderbox for fires. Smoke blowing over Moscow is making pollution ten times normal amounts.
When I lived in California, a fire in a town about 25 kilometers away made life difficult for us; the smoke was awful. I imagine things must be incredibly bad in Russia right now, and I hope very much that these fires can be put under control as rapidly as possible.
The European space probe Rosetta passed about 3000 km from the asteroid Lutetia on Saturday, July 10, 2010, and it sent back incredible closeup images of the rock. Check ‘em out below!
Emily Lakdawalla at the Planetary Society Blog has more details, as always.