Google+ Hangout with NASA was amazing

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.

NASA gives nod to first private spaceflight to ISS

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

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.

European space concepts enter competition

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.

First of the last shuttle launches

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)