Posts Tagged ‘space’


The Solar System – Our home in space

25 August 2013

I really like this video. It uses simple infographic-type visuals to describe the layout and components of our solar system.


Google+ Hangout with NASA was amazing

23 February 2013

We live in increasingly amazing times.

Earlier today NASA hosted a Hangout on Google+. Through that social media channel a group of schools and kids were able to ask live questions to two astronauts on the ground. Even more exciting is they were able to link in the middle of the Hangout to three astronauts on the International Space Station. And more exciting yet was that the entire world could participate by asking questions via YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

It only lasted an hour. I didn’t join live because it happened between 2 and 3am Sydney time, but I’ve just finished watching the replay on YouTube. You can too:

The fact that people can go to space and live there for months at a time is amazing. The fact that that place lets us do research there that’s not possible anywhere on Earth is incredible. But the fact that those people, in those places, can use modern communications technology to have a live, interactive session with all of us is world-changing. How many kids might be inspired by taking part in this sort of thing? It’s thrilling.


Canberra to be NASA’s eyes for Mars landing

4 April 2012

From the SMH, when the latest Mars rover touches down on the red planet’s surface on August 6th, it will be Australia telescopes that will be in position to watch. Read more here.


Toronto teens send Lego man into space

27 January 2012

A great tribute to DIY science: two Canadian teenagers designed a balloon with cameras that ascended into the fringes of the atmosphere, recording cool images and then plummeting back to Earth. That link has a great video summary.


NASA gives nod to first private spaceflight to ISS

12 December 2011

From the AP:

A private U.S. company will attempt the first-ever commercial cargo run to the International Space Station next year.

NASA announced the news Friday, one year and one day after Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, became the first private business to launch a capsule into orbit and return it safely to Earth.

On Feb. 7, SpaceX will attempt another orbital flight from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. This time, the unmanned Dragon capsule will fly to the space station and dock with a load of supplies.


Scientists to sail robot boat on methane lake of Saturn’s moon Titan

15 May 2011

From the Guardian:

Space engineers are planning to build the first extraterrestrial boat. They want to launch the craft towards Titan – Saturn’s largest moon – and parachute it on to the Ligeia Mare, a sea of methane and ethane on its surface.

The robot ship would sail around this extraterrestrial sea for several months, exploring its coastline and measuring the winds and waves that sweep its surface.


The Mountain: Space and wilderness photography

18 April 2011

Terje Sorgjerd makes beautiful time-lapse videos.

This one, which is making the rounds of science blogs, captures not only stunning views of the Milky Way but also El Teide, the highest mountain in Spain.

The Mountain, posted with vodpod

European space concepts enter competition

27 February 2011

From the BBC: the European Space Agency has selected four new mission concepts to compete for a launch opportunity at the start of the 2020s.

  • Large Observatory For X-ray Timing (LOFT): The mission would go after the fast-moving, high-energy environments that surround black holes, neutron stars and pulsars – objects that can produce sudden and very rapid bursts of X-rays. By observing this emission, scientists would hope to address questions related to fundamental physics: they could probe the effects of matter entering ultra-strong gravitational fields and ultra-dense states. They could also measure more accurately the mass and spin of black holes; and in the case of the biggest such objects in the Universe, this has something interesting to say about how they, and the galaxies that host them, formed.
  • Space-Time Explorer and Quantum Equivalence Principle Space Test (STE-Quest): Again, this mission would address some big physics topics. One objective would be to test “the equivalence principle”, which underpins several fundamental assumptions including the idea that gravity will accelerate all objects in a vacuum equally regardless of their masses or the materials from which they are made. The Apollo 15 astronaut Dave Scott famously demonstrated this principle when he dropped a hammer and feather on the Moon in 1971 and both hit the surface at the same time. STE-Quest would put very sensitive instrumentation on an orbiting to do a far more precise test of whether gravity really is so blind or perhaps varies on some scales.
  • MarcoPolo-R: This is an idea that has been around for a while. The mission would attempt to return a sample of material from an asteroid for detailed analysis in Earth laboratories. The most primitive asteroids contain geochemistry not observable in Earth rocks because they are constantly recycled. As such, asteroids can tell scientists a lot about conditions in the early Solar System, and about the original “stuff” that went into making the planets billions of years ago. One potential target is actually two asteroids in close proximity – a binary known as (175706) 1996FG3. The larger rock is about 1.5km across; its companion is less than half a km in diameter.
  • Exoplanet Characterisation Observatory (ECHO): This is a 1.2m telescope that would study planets circling far-away stars. In recent years, hundreds of these so-called exoplanets have been detected, but we no precious little about them yet. Echo would observe the planets as they moved in front of their stars. From the way the light is attenuated, the telescope’s detectors would be able to probe the atmospheres of these worlds. Echo would look for the presence of molecules such as ozone and carbon dioxide in the atmospheres. These and other markers might tell us something about whether any of the exoplanets have conditions capable of supporting life.



The private space race

2 August 2010

If you thought that it was only Richard Branson who was trying to make private, commercial space flight an attainable goal for most people, think again. There are a whole bunch of moneyed-up entrepreneurs who are getting ready to launch. This photo show from the Guardian’s technology pages lists some of them.

Elon Musk - who developed PayPal - stands beside the Dragon space capsule at SpaceX HQ


First of the last shuttle launches

15 May 2010

NASA’s Space Shuttles have become an icon of science, engineering, space, and – if I can wax lyrical – the spirit of human adventure. They’ve been in operation since 1982, and by the time they retire this year will have launched 130 missions into space. They’ve launched satellites, run experiments, and made possible the construction of the International Space Station. And, sadly, there have been two shuttle disasters. There’s a lot of space shuttle history, and it’s all been made in my lifetime, before my eyes.

But the end is near. The shuttles are old, and won’t be up for the job much longer. New orbiting vehicles will need to be developed if we want to remain in space. So the last few shuttle missions are being treated with the importance they deserve. Dan sent me a link to a series of excellent photos showing shuttle Atlantis’ recent activity, as it returned from orbit last year, landed, and has been prepared for yesterday’s final launch. There will be two more launches after this, for Discovery and Endeavour.

Check out the Atlantis pics.

Atlantis on the launch pad (Photo: NASA/Amanda Diller)


Tiny cube to tackle space debris

27 March 2010

I nifty idea is under development at the Surrey Space Centre in the UK: a little cube that attaches to dead satellites or other space junk, deploys a sail, and drags them out of orbit faster than they would on their own. It’s very much like a parachute that deploys to slow down a dragster faster than it would on its own.

It’s also written up here.

CubeSail. Photograph: EADS/Astrium/Surrey Space Centre

They’re aiming to demonstrate their idea next year.


Obama drops moon mission funding from NASA

1 February 2010

US President Barack Obama is planning to axe the NASA funding for Constellation, the space program that would see NASA return to the Moon by 2020. They’ll put development plans for the shuttle replacement into the hands of private industry.

This is bad news.

I’ve waffled on many times in this blog about the apparent short-term wisdom but long-term foolishness of abandoning (or putting at great risk) research like this. I know that times are tough, and money is needed elsewhere. And US space funding has roller-coastered over the decades.

But this is important for the future. It was important enough that Obama made it a campaign pledge, as did John McCain. It’s important because we can’t even imagine today what might be discovered by scientists who don’t have to make profits. Here are a few historical reasons that represent only the spinoffs of the space program, to say nothing of actual space exploration:

Under the Space Act of 1958, NASA has had a mandate to share all the information it has gained with the public. Here are a few of the practical applications that have resulted from technologies and information learned by space scientists:

  • CAT scans
  • MRIs
  • Kidney dialysis machines
  • Heart defibrillator technology
  • Remote robotic surgery
  • Artificial heart pump technology
  • Physical therapy machines
  • Positron emission tomography
  • Microwave receivers used in scans for breast cancer
  • Cardiac angiography
  • Monitoring neutron activity in the brain
  • Cleaning techniques for hospital operating rooms
  • Portable x-ray technology for neonatal offices and 3rd world countries
  • Freeze-dried food
  • Water purification filters
  • ATM technology
  • Pay at the Pump satellite technology
  • Athletic shoe manufacturing technique
  • Insulation barriers for autos
  • Image-processing software for crash-testing automobiles
  • Holographic testing of communications antennas
  • Low-noise receivers
  • Cordless tools
  • A computer language used by businesses such as car repair shops, Kodak, hand-held computers, express mail
  • Aerial reconnaissance and Earth resources mapping
  • Airport baggage scanners
  • Distinction between natural space objects and satellites/warheads/rockets for defense
  • Satellite monitors for nuclear detonations
  • Hazardous gas sensors
  • Precision navigation
  • Clock synchronization
  • Ballistic missile guidance
  • Secure communications
  • Study of ozone depletion
  • Climate change studies
  • Monitoring of Earth-based storms such as hurricanes
  • Solar collectors
  • Fusion reactors
  • Space-age fabrics for divers, swimmers, hazardous material workers, and others
  • Teflon-coated fiberglass for roofing material
  • Lightweight breathing system used by firefighters
  • Atomic oxygen facility for removing unwanted material from 19th century paintings
  • FDA-adopted food safety program that has reduced salmonella cases by a factor of 2
  • Multispectral imaging methods used to read ancient Roman manuscripts buried by Mt. Vesuvius

But if you don’t want to bother, America, feel free to drop it. China will happily step in.


Kepler: lookin’ good

7 June 2009
Cluster of stars in Keplers sight

Cluster of stars in Kepler's sight

Remember Kepler? It’s NASA’s mission to look for planets that we believe might be candidates for sustaining life. It launched in March. In mid-May all of the checks and calibrations were done and it started looking in earnest.

So far the satellite is operating well and the data it’s collecting are, apparently, very good:

The data are of very high quality and the scientists are very pleased with the precision of the data. Hundreds of eclipsing binaries and variable stars were seen in this data.


Herschel and Planck: the ESA looks for the early years of the Universe

14 May 2009

Just over 3 hours from the time I write this, the European Space Agency will launch two satellites. Both will study the early stages of the universe. Watch it live at this link, or follow them on Twitter.

What will they do?

  • Herschel will carry an infrared telescope. That means it won’t capture visual-spectrum images like Hubble has. What it will catch, in frequencies and detail never before achieved, is information about early star and planet formation. Because its sensitivity is so high, and because radiated heat is infrared, the satellite has an elaborate cryogenic system to keep it super-cool.
  • Planck won’t take visual images either: it’ll measure, in great detail, the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation (that is, the radiation left over from just after the Big Bang).

Each will do lots of other things, too. Read the links.

Ariane 5 enclosing Herschel and Planck

Ariane 5 enclosing Herschel and Planck

Image from ESA.


Expecting big things from an upgraded Hubble telescope

11 May 2009

The Hubble telescope has already brought us many amazing images from space. Today the shuttle Atlantis will launch on a mission to improve and upgrade the telescope. Who knows what other pictures it could show us?

From the BBC:

Expect “shock and awe in science” from a repaired and upgraded Hubble Space Telescope.

If all goes completely to plan on Hubble Servicing Mission 4, the orbiting observatory will be reborn as the most productive telescope in history, with even greater powers to probe the Universe’s deep history and help cosmologists make sense of one of their biggest problems – “dark energy”.

Over five long days of well rehearsed but exhausting work on Hubble, the astronauts on the shuttle Atlantis have the task of installing a new panoramic camera and a latest-generation spectrograph.


GOCE launch approved for today: getting the details on gravity

16 March 2009

The Russian State Commission has given the green light for the launch, in just a couple of hours, of a sophisticated satellite to investigate the Earth’s gravitational field. The Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE), a European Space Agency (ESA) project is to be launched today at 15:21 CET.

GOCE data will let us accurately measure sea-levels and ocean circulation, which are affected by climate change. So what? you say.

Well, we all know the Earth (like all objects with mass) results in gravity. However, the effect of gravity depends on the amounts of mass involved and on the distance away from the mass. Although it’s usually sufficient to think of the Earth as a big round ball, it is in fact neither a perfect sphere on macro (a big sphere in space) nor micro (hills and valleys and seabeds) levels. Neither is its mass distributed uniformly around the globe nor through the layers of its interior. Thus, gravity varies around the surface of the globe.

If we want to get down to the nitty-gritty of the dynamic processes taking place on Earth’s surface and in its interior – sea level changes due to climate change, seismic activity, etc – we need the nitty-gritty detail of how gravity varies around the world. An accurate gravity map – called a geoid – thus becomes an important thing to understand.

Check here for the main GOCE site.

The GOCE Ion Propulsion Assembly being prepared for testing in QinetiQ's thermal vacuum chamber

The GOCE Ion Propulsion Assembly being prepared for testing in QinetiQ's thermal vacuum chamber


NASA’s Kepler mission to look for other planets capable of sustaining life

5 March 2009

Tomorrow evening (US eastern time) is the earliest window in which NASA’s Kepler mission may launch. This is very exciting because Kepler’s main mission is to locate planets that are similar, and in similar positions, to our own. Planets like Earth are the ones where we’d be most likely to find life as we know it.

Nearly all of the planets we’ve spotted that are located outside our own Solar System have so far been gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn. They’re easy to spot, though, because they’re big and hot. Kepler will find smaller, rockier, Earth-like planets.

Photometer Being Lowered onto Spacecraft

Photometer Being Lowered onto Spacecraft

There’s a huge amount of really fascinating science, from the general to the detailed, on the mission page. Here are some excerpts I really like.

How will Kepler look for extrasolar planets? By looking at stars, and watching for signs that something has moved across the front of them:

The Kepler spacecraft…will orbit our own Sun, trailing behind Earth in its orbit, and stay pointed at Cygnus starfield for 3.5 years to watch for drops in brightness that happen when an orbiting planet crosses (transits) in front of the star. Cygnus was chosen because it has a very rich starfield and is in an area of sky where the Sun will not get in the way of the spacecraft’s view for its entire orbit.

How does a transit tell us that there’s a planet there?

Transits by terrestrial planets produce a small change in a star’s brightness of about 1/10,000 (100 parts per million, ppm), lasting for 2 to 16 hours. This change must be absolutely periodic if it is caused by a planet. In addition, all transits produced by the same planet must be of the same change in brightness and last the same amount of time, thus providing a highly repeatable signal and robust detection method.

Once detected, the planet’s orbital size can be calculated from the period (how long it takes the planet to orbit once around the star) and the mass of the star using Kepler’s Third Law of planetary motion. The size of the planet is found from the depth of the transit (how much the brightness of the star drops) and the size of the star. From the orbital size and the temperature of the star, the planet’s characteristic temperature can be calculated. From this the question of whether or not the planet is habitable (not necessarily inhabited) can be answered.

What else will Kepler do?

The scientific objective of the Kepler Mission is to explore the structure and diversity of planetary systems. This is achieved by surveying a large sample of stars to:

  1. Determine the percentage of terrestrial and larger planets there are in or near the habitable zone of a wide variety of stars;
  2. Determine the distribution of sizes and shapes of the orbits of these planets;
  3. Estimate how many planets there are in multiple-star systems;
  4. Determine the variety of orbit sizes and planet reflectivities, sizes, masses and densities of short-period giant planets;
  5. Identify additional members of each discovered planetary system using other techniques; and
  6. Determine the properties of those stars that harbor planetary systems.

This is a really exciting mission to undertake during the International Year of Astronomy.


British space agency proposes mission to study Moon interior through dart probes

7 December 2008

From the UK Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills:

A possible UK-led Moon mission involving ‘penetrator’ darts that would impact into the Moon’s surface will be the focus of a technical study to ascertain its feasibility, the British National Space Centre (BNSC) announced today (5 December 2008).

Known as MoonLITE (Moon Lightweight Interior and Telecom Experiment), the unmanned mission aims to place a satellite in orbit around the Moon and deploy four penetrators to deliver scientific instruments below the surface of the Moon.

The satellite orbiter would then act as a telecommunications station between the surface network and the Earth, relaying information to the Earth during the penetrators’ one year life on the strength and frequency of Moonquakes and the thickness of the crust and core. It might also determine whether organic material or water is present in the polar regions.

NASA will support the study in order to establish its potential contribution to the science and technology of the mission.

Okay, with recent Mars missions, the Moon may not seem so cool anymore. But the idea of a satellite firing giant space darts into it is WAY cool.


xkcd: The universe, top to bottom, on a log scale

29 September 2008

It’s always brilliant, but I really like today’s cartoon. There’s very little cooler than a logarithmic scale, to be honest.

Hey, look: it’s Ford Prefect.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 871 other followers