Tag: Space Shuttle Discovery

Deconstructing Discovery

By Phil Plait | April 11, 2011 7:00 am

Spaceflight Now has an amazing and bittersweet series of pictures showing NASA technicians taking apart the Orbiter Discovery for cleaning and decommissioning.

The parts need to be cleaned of potentially noxious chemicals before the Orbiter goes wherever it is it’s going; NASA is selling the fleet to museums or other institutions which can guarantee they will be displayed properly.

It’s sad, but the future is still out there. That future is a little shaky and uncertain, but still holds lots of promise.

Tip o’ the nose cone to Fark. Image credit: NASA.


Discovery spacewalk seen from the ground

By Phil Plait | March 9, 2011 12:49 pm

I should copyright the phrase, "Thierry Legault has done it again!" because he does keep seeming to do it again! He is an "amateur" astronomer in Europe, and takes phenomenal pictures of spacecraft from the ground. And this one is pretty incredible: it shows NASA astronaut Steve Bowen doing a spacewalk during Discovery’s last flight to the space station!

Wow. In space, you can orbit but you can’t hide. [Click to enastronautenate.]

Thierry helpfully annotated the picture. The body of the station is to the right, and the bent joint of the robotic arm is obvious. The big blob labeled ammonia pump is just that; a pump that has failed, which Bowen was moving to a storage location. Just next to it, on the left, is a blurry but distinct blob that is a living, breathing astronaut in space! Thierry included a still from a NASA video to provide further support that what you are seeing is actually a man orbiting the Earth at nearly 30,000 kph.

[UPDATE: Thierry just informed me that as far as he can tell, this is the first clear shot of an astronaut ever seen from the ground. There have been claims in the past (like this one from 2009), but they have been very blurry and unable to be confirmed. Thierry’s still frame from the NASA video makes it clear he truly did see Bowen in his image. I did a quick search and was unable to find any other pictures taken from the ground that unequivocally show an astronaut. So, to Thierry: congrats!]

I am a rational person, or at least I try to be. I know the equipment Thierry used, the size of the space station, and the distance to it. It’s a simple matter of math to understand that an object as small as a man in a spacesuit can be seen from the ground, and distinguished from other objects nearby.

But to actually see it in a picture like this is thrilling. Simply wonderful.

Image credit: Thierry Legault, used with permission.

Related posts:

Insanely awesome solar eclipse picture
ANOTHER insanely awesome shot of the solar eclipse
When natural and artificial moons align
Extremely cool 3D space station video taken from the ground

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures


By Phil Plait | March 9, 2011 10:09 am

Today, Wednesday, March 9 at 11:57 a.m. Eastern time, Discovery — the Orbiter that launched Hubble in to orbit, then serviced it twice; that deployed Ulysses; that was the last Orbiter to dock with Mir; that twice was the first Orbiter in space after another was lost; that served more flight days than any other Orbiter, 365 in total, a solid year; a spaceship built by humans that’s logged 238,000,000 kilometers (148 million miles) in space, the most used spacecraft ever built by humans — set her wheels to Earth one final time.

I’d say "Welcome home", but the ground is not a spaceship’s home.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Pretty pictures

Discovery's last moment in the Sun

By Phil Plait | March 8, 2011 11:33 am

Alan Friedman’s shot of the solar prominence was not the only amazing picture he took of the Sun last week. He also caught something pretty special: the Orbiter Discovery, docked with the International Space Station, as the pair crossed the face of our star:

Amazing. He had to rush from giving a talk, drive to the location, set up, and be ready to snap this event… which lasted only a fifth of a second! As it was he barely made it; had he missed his location by a few hundred meters the docked spacecraft would’ve been off to the side of the Sun. He took this picture on March 1, 2011, a week after launch, midway through Discovery’s final mission.

The Orbiter is on the bottom of the ISS as seen here; I drew a line pointing to it in this zoomed shot (the configuration is clearer in this picture from last year of the ISS and Atlantis transiting the Sun by the always-amazing Thierry Legault). To give you an idea of the scale, the ISS is about 100 meters long, about the length of an American football field from goal post to goal post, and orbits the Earth at a height of 350 km (210 miles). The Sun is 1.4 million km (860,000 miles) across and 150 million km (93 million miles) away.

What does that all mean? Well, see that sunspot cluster on the left? It looks to be about the same apparent size as the ISS… but it actually spans a region as big as Jupiter!

This is the final flight for the Orbiter. Discovery is scheduled to land in Florida tomorrow, Wednesday, March 9, 2011, just before noon local time. That means that Alan’s picture shows, almost literally, Discovery’s last moments in the Sun.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Pretty pictures

Discovery and ISS make twin stars in the night sky

By Phil Plait | March 7, 2011 3:00 pm

Earlier today, Discovery undocked from the International Space Station for the last time. It has backed off from the station, and if conditions are right, you might be able to see them as a pair of bright stars moving across the night sky! Universe Today has the scoop, as well as links to see if the pair will be visible from your area.

If you have clear skies and they happen to be visible, you really should check it out. Watching the two bright dots glide silently across the sky is a surreal experience. It’s very easy to photograph as well; here’s a shot I took from my back yard of the ISS and Atlantis from June 2007:

Discovery lands on Wednesday, and this is her final flight… meaning this is literally your last chance to see it together with the space station.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures

Ridiculously awesome pic of Discovery and the ISS taken from the ground!

By Phil Plait | February 28, 2011 6:30 am

At some point, you look at a picture and think, it is seriously insane that we can do this. Behold: the Orbiter Discovery approaching the International Space Station, as seen from the ground:

I think I remember that scene from Star Wars!

This remarkable picture was taken by Rob Bullen on Saturday February 26 from the UK, using an 8.5″ telescope. I’ll note that’s relatively small as telescopes go! But the ISS is now over 100 meters long, and if it’s directly overhead (that is, the closest it can be to an observer on the ground) it appears large enough to easily look elongated in binoculars — in fact, it would be big enough to look elongated to someone with good eyesight and no aid at all*! Still, images like this are difficult to obtain even with a carefully guided telescope equipped with a video camera.

Oh — did I mention that Rob hand-guided his telescope for this shot?

Yeah. Wow.

This is a remarkable piece of photography involving excellent timing, good weather (it had been cloudy at Rob’s location almost up until that moment), and luck. But the equation for luck is really just (hard work + preparation) x (time) x (statistical fluctuations).

Clearly, the "hard work + preparation" was the most heavily weighted factor for Rob, and it paid off for him handsomely.

[UPDATE: Another phenomenal astrophotographer, BA favorite Thierry Legault, has posted a stunning animation of an ISS/Discovery flyover on his website.]

Image used by permission of Rob Bullen. Tip o’ the unsharp mask to Wil Wheaton, who let me know about this on reddit.

* Here’s some math for you: The minimum distance to the ISS if it’s overhead is about 350 km. It’s about 100 meters across, so, using the small angle formula, that means it’s apparent size is about 1 arcminute (a degree is 60 arcminutes, and the full Moon is about 30 arcminutes in size). The unaided human eye, assuming normal eyesight, can resolve objects that are about that size, so as I wrote the ISS would barely appear elongated to someone with good eyesight, and would be easily resolved in binoculars. The farther it is from overhead, the smaller it would appear, so conditions have to be just about perfect to see it as more than a dot without binoculars.

Related posts:

INSANELY awesome solar eclipse picture
When natural and artificial moons align
ISS, Shuttle transit the Sun
Check. This. Out. Amazing photo of the Sun!
Shuttle and ISS transit the Sun

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures

A shadow across the Shuttle

By Phil Plait | February 27, 2011 9:57 am

On Saturday, the Orbiter Discovery was in space, circling hundreds of kilometers above our planet. Here’s an interesting picture of it… but wait a sec! If it was in orbit, what could cast a shadow across it?

Why, it’s the International Space Station itself! This shot is from Paolo Nespoli, an astronaut on the ISS. He snapped it as the Orbiter approached the station — docking was achieved on Saturday afternoon Eastern time. [UPDATE: As people have noted in the comments below, that’s the coastline of Peru under the Orbiter. Awesome.]

This is the last scheduled flight of Discovery. When she undocks from ISS next week, it will be for the final time. However, you can experience this flight at least by proxy through Nespoli, who has an astonishing series of pictures on Flickr that he uploads in near real-time from space (I like this one too).

Think about that: a guy living in space is taking hi-res digital pictures and uploading them to the web so everyone with internet access can see. You can keep your flying cars: we do live in the future.

[UPDATE: I have posted a seriously awesome followup picture of the ISS and Discovery taken by an amateur astronomer from the ground. Take a look!]

Image credit: NASA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures

Discovery waits for her final flight

By Phil Plait | February 23, 2011 4:00 pm

NASA just posted this lovely picture of the Space Shuttle Discovery sitting on its pad, awaiting the command to light her engines and take her final flight into space.

[Click to embiggen.]

The picture was taken a couple of weeks ago; note the thin crescent Moon on the left.

In fact, the sight of the Moon and the Orbiter together makes me a little sad. The Shuttles can’t get Americans back there, and barring this and one more flight of Endeavour later this year, it’ll be a while before we can put humans into space at all. But I still think that we can once again make our presence known in space. And next time, I hope it’s to stay.

Discovery is due to launch tomorrow, Thursday, at 16:50 Eastern time.

Image Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

Related posts:

Fanning the flames of the near future
Ten years of the International Space Station
Challenger astronauts memorialized on the Moon
Congress passes NASA authorization bill but I’d rather watch sausages being made


Discovery's last voyage is go for February 24

By Phil Plait | February 19, 2011 7:00 am

The last scheduled launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery has been set for February 24 at 16:50 Eastern time.

You can keep up with the latest info and NASA’s launch blog on their Shuttle website. The launch will be live, as usual, on NASA TV. As it happens I’ll be on a plane traveling to Florida to visit family at that time, so ironically I’ll be headed toward the launch but won’t be able to see it. The launch window is a very short ten minutes, so if they delay it at all maybe it’ll be for a day and I can see it.

The mission is to go to the International Space Station, as all the final flights have been. I just found out that if all goes as planned, Discovery will have spent a total of 363 days in space, just short of a solid Shuttle-year. That’s pretty amazing.

This flight has been much-delayed due to external tank problems, but NASA says those have been fixed. It’ll be carrying components of the ISS up to orbit, as well as Robonaut 2, a human-like robot designed to help astronauts in space and hunt down Sarah Connor. Not disturbingly at all, you can follow R2 on Twitter too.


News quickies

By Phil Plait | November 16, 2010 11:39 am

Some quick news items:

The Space Shuttle as seen from the space station1) The launch delay for Space Shuttle Discovery may be longer than originally announced: a fourth crack has been found in the external fuel tank. While this isn’t in an area where the fuel actually is (it’s in an instrument panel) I imagine NASA will be extremely conservative about launch. It’s the last scheduled flight for Discovery, and the penultimate Shuttle launch.

hayabusa_samples2) The Japanese space agency has announced that the asteroid mission Hayabusa did in fact successfully collect samples of the asteroid Itokawa! This is HUGE news. The probe landed on the asteroid in 2005 and returned to Earth earlier this year, but the sampling device failed. They were hoping a few particles from the asteroid made it into the chamber anyway, and it appears that they did! Scientists now have well over a thousand particles collected in situ from the surface of an asteroid sitting in their labs.

earthonfire3) Climate scientists report that a sharp uptick in carbon dioxide 40 million years ago caused a huge temperature increase on Earth of 5 – 11°F. An increase like that today would be catastrophic, to say the very least. To those Congresscritters and others who claim CO2 is no big deal: I hope your Antarctic beach house is comfortable.

Tip o’ the thermometer to Dan Vergano

365 Days of Astronomy podcast4) Some great news: the wonderful podcast 365 Days of Astronomy just got renewed for another year! This will be its third year of educating and entertaining people about astronomy. And it’s citizen-driven: you can create your own entry and upload it. I love the podcast, and if you listen to it you will too.

ROG_astrophotowinner5) The Greenwich Royal Observatory has posted their Astronomy Photographer of the Year contest winners. Holy Emulsion! The pictures are incredible. Go take a look, and be inspired. I was.


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