kottke.org posts about space

A view of the Earth from the ISS in ultra high def 4KApr 25 2016

Full-screen this baby on the biggest high-definition screen you can find. A 5K iMac works spectacularly well.

Launching a fleet of nano-probes toward nearest starApr 12 2016

Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, with the help of Stephen Hawking and Mark Zuckerburg, plans to launch a fleet of nano-probes1 toward a star close to our solar system, Alpha Centuri. The craft, outfitted with lightsails, will be pushed along to their destination in just 20 years by powerful lasers on Earth.

In the last decade and a half, rapid technological advances have opened up the possibility of light-powered space travel at a significant fraction of light speed. This involves a ground-based light beamer pushing ultra-light nanocrafts - miniature space probes attached to lightsails - to speeds of up to 100 million miles an hour. Such a system would allow a flyby mission to reach Alpha Centauri in just over 20 years from launch, and beam home images of possible planets, as well as other scientific data such as analysis of magnetic fields.

Breakthrough Starshot aims to demonstrate proof of concept for ultra-fast light-driven nanocrafts, and lay the foundations for a first launch to Alpha Centauri within the next generation. Along the way, the project could generate important supplementary benefits to astronomy, including solar system exploration and detection of Earth-crossing asteroids.

The Atlantic and the NY Times have more information on the initiative.

  1. Sure, we can launch laser-powered nano-probes toward a distant star, but humanity still struggles with proper descriptive URLs.

An informative and entertaining look at space elevatorsApr 08 2016

The latest video from Kurzgesagt is on space elevators. How would you build one? Why not just keep launching rockets into space instead? Would be easier to build one on the Moon first?

The next 100 years of humans in spaceMar 30 2016

Integrated Space Plan

In 1989, a Rockwell engineer named Ron Jones published his Integrated Space Plan, a detailed outline of the next 100 years of human space travel, from continuing shuttle missions in the 1990s to the large scale habitation of Mars. The plan includes all sorts of futuristic and day-dreamy phrases like:

Create new moons for Mars if required
Humanity begins the transition from a terrestrial to a solar species
Humanity commands unlimited resources from the Moon and asteroids
Space drives global economy
Independent spacefaring human communities

Wired has a good look at how the plan came to be.

The graphic is divided into nine columns that show, in chronological order, the path toward human exploration of deep space. The center row of boxes, the "critical path," outlines the major milestones Jones decided were attainable within the next century of space travel; the boxes to the left and right of the critical path are support elements that must be realized before anything on the critical path can happen. The Integrated Space Plan can be read top to bottom and left to right. The big circles intersecting the boxes are the the plan's overarching long-range goals, which include things like Humanity begins the transition from a terrestrial to a solar species and Human expansion into the cosmos. In many ways, it's a graphical to-do list.

The keen observer will note that we are waaaaay behind in the plan. A lunar outpost was supposed to be up and running before 2008 and a self-supporting lunar base is due to happen in the next year or two. Can Musk and Bezos get us back on track? (via @ftrain)

The Chart of Cosmic ExplorationMar 11 2016

Cosmic ExplorationA new print from Pop Chart Lab "traces the trajectories of every orbiter, lander, rover, flyby, and impactor to ever slip the surly bonds of Earth's orbit and successfully complete its mission -- a truly astronomical array of over 100 exploratory instruments in all." Awesome. Basically, I am a sucker for things with curvy lines and planets.

Satellite view of a total eclipseMar 09 2016

The Japanese satellite Himawari caught yesterday's total solar eclipse as it moved across the Pacific Ocean.

Update: @paulmison sent along some better views of the eclipse: here and here. I tried to find a better YouTube embed, but no dice. This one, taken of the eclipse in Micronesia, is pretty amazing though...you can see the solar flares coming off the surface of the Sun as it reaches totality. Holy shit, I'm getting excited for Eclipsathon 2017!

The day we make first contact with another world (and they're jerks)Mar 08 2016

First contact with an alien civilization will be a momentous event in the history of Earth. Unless the other civilization is kind of a dick. Tim Urban didn't quite cover this scenario in his post about the Fermi Paradox.

Photos from a year in spaceMar 01 2016

Scott KellyScott KellyScott Kelly

After nearly a year in space, astronaut Scott Kelly and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko will return from the ISS to Earth. During his stay in space, Kelly took hundreds of photographs and posted them to his Twitter account. You can view all the photos here or a selection of the best ones chosen by In Focus' Alan Taylor.

We Can't Live Without CosmosFeb 16 2016

We Can't Live Without Cosmos is Konstantin Bronzit's 15-minute short film nominated for a 2016 Academy Award in the animated short category. It is about two friends who dream of going into space together.

They're best friends who revolve in the same centrifuge, swim in neighboring lanes, and read together at night. Their happiness and exuberance is infectious. It lifts the stone-faced scientists who track their progress; it even expresses itself in their space suits, which are winsomely shaped to accommodate their slightly different heads (one is square, the other rectangular). Even as they prepare for their high-tech journey, they embody old-fashioned, noble virtues: bravery, curiosity, strength, tenderness.

What's it like in space?Feb 05 2016

What's It Like In Space?

For her new book, Ariel Waldman asked dozens of astronauts about their experiences in space.

With playful artwork accompanying each, here are the real stories behind backwards dreams, "moon face," the tricks of sleeping in zero gravity and aiming your sneeze during a spacewalk, the importance of packing hot sauce, and dozens of other cosmic quirks and amazements that come with travel in and beyond low Earth orbit.

Waldman is the co-creator of the very cool spaceprob.es.

Update: This book is now out, shipping, released...launched, if you will.

On the 30th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disasterJan 28 2016

Today is the 30th anniversary of the final launch and subsequent catastrophic loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Popular Mechanics has an oral history of the launch and aftermath.

Capano: We got the kids quiet, and then I remember that the line that came across the TV was "The vehicle has exploded." One of the girls in my classroom said, "Ms. Olson [Capano's maiden name], what do they mean by 'the vehicle'?" And I looked at her and I said, "I think they mean the shuttle." And she got very upset with me. She said, "No! No! No! They don't mean the shuttle! They don't mean the shuttle!"

Raymond: The principal came over the PA system and said something like, "We respectfully request that the media leave the building now. Now." Some of the press left, but some of them took off into the school. They started running into the halls to get pictures, to get sound-people were crying, people were running. It was chaos. Some students started chasing after journalists to physically get them out of the school.

I have certainly read about Feynman's O-ring demonstration during the investigation of the disaster, but I hadn't heard this bit:

Kutyna: On STS-51C, which flew a year before, it was 53 degrees [at launch, then the coldest temperature recorded during a shuttle launch] and they completely burned through the first O-ring and charred the second one. One day [early in the investigation] Sally Ride and I were walking together. She was on my right side and was looking straight ahead. She opened up her notebook and with her left hand, still looking straight ahead, gave me a piece of paper. Didn't say a single word. I look at the piece of paper. It's a NASA document. It's got two columns on it. The first column is temperature, the second column is resiliency of O-rings as a function of temperature. It shows that they get stiff when it gets cold. Sally and I were really good buddies. She figured she could trust me to give me that piece of paper and not implicate her or the people at NASA who gave it to her, because they could all get fired.

I wondered how I could introduce this information Sally had given me. So I had Feynman at my house for dinner. I have a 1973 Opel GT, a really cute car. We went out to the garage, and I'm bragging about the car, but he could care less about cars. I had taken the carburetor out. And Feynman said, "What's this?" And I said, "Oh, just a carburetor. I'm cleaning it." Then I said, "Professor, these carburetors have O-rings in them. And when it gets cold, they leak. Do you suppose that has anything to do with our situation?" He did not say a word. We finished the night, and the next Tuesday, at the first public meeting, is when he did his O-ring demonstration.

We were sitting in three rows, and there was a section of the shuttle joint, about an inch across, that showed the tang and clevis [the two parts of the joint meant to be sealed by the O-ring]. We passed this section around from person to person. It hit our row and I gave it to Feynman, expecting him to pass it on. But he put it down. He pulled out pliers and a screwdriver and pulled out the section of O-ring from this joint. He put a C-clamp on it and put it in his glass of ice water. So now I know what he's going to do. It sat there for a while, and now the discussion had moved on from technical stuff into financial things. I saw Feynman's arm going out to press the button on his microphone. I grabbed his arm and said, "Not now." Pretty soon his arm started going out again, and I said, "Not now!" We got to a point where it was starting to get technical again, and I said, "Now." He pushed the button and started the demonstration. He took the C-clamp off and showed the thing does not bounce back when it's cold. And he said the now-famous words, "I believe that has some significance for our problem." That night it was all over television and the next morning in the Washington Post and New York Times. The experiment was fantastic-the American public had short attention spans and they didn't understand technology, but they could understand a simple thing like rubber getting hard.

I never talked with Sally about it later. We both knew what had happened and why it had happened, but we never discussed it. I kept it a secret that she had given me that piece of paper until she died [in 2012].

Whoa, dang. Also not well known is that the astronauts survived the initial explosion and were possibly alive and conscious when they hit the water two and a half minutes later.

Over the December holiday, I read 10:04 by Ben Lerner (quickly, recommended). The novel includes a section on the Challenger disaster and how very few people saw it live:

The thing is, almost nobody saw it live: 1986 was early in the history of cable news, and although CNN carried the launch live, not that many of us just happened to be watching CNN in the middle of a workday, a school day. All other major broadcast stations had cut away before the disaster. They all came back quickly with taped replays, of course. Because of the Teacher in Space Project, NASA had arranged a satellite broadcast of the mission into television sets in many schools -- and that's how I remember seeing it, as does my older brother. I remember tears in Mrs. Greiner's eyes and the students' initial incomprehension, some awkward laughter. But neither of us did see it: Randolph Elementary School in Topeka wasn't part of that broadcast. So unless you were watching CNN or were in one of the special classrooms, you didn't witness it in the present tense.

Oh, the malleability of memory. I remember seeing it live too, at school. My 7th grade English teacher permanently had a TV in her room and because of the schoolteacher angle of the mission, she had arranged for us to watch the launch, right at the end of class. I remember going to my next class and, as I was the first student to arrive, telling the teacher about the accident. She looked at me in disbelief and then with horror as she realized I was not the sort of kid who made terrible stuff like that up. I don't remember the rest of the day and now I'm doubting if it happened that way at all. Only our classroom and a couple others watched it live -- there wasn't a specially arranged whole-school event -- and I doubt my small school had a satellite dish to receive the special broadcast anyway. Nor would we have had cable to get CNN...I'm not even sure cable TV was available in our rural WI town at that point. So...?

But, I do remember the jokes. The really super offensive jokes. The jokes actually happened. Again, from 10:04:

I want to mention another way information circulated through the country in 1986 around the Challenger disaster, and I think those of you who are more or less my age will know what I'm talking about: jokes. My brother, who is three and a half years older than I, would tell me one after another as we walked to and from Randolph Elementary that winter: Did you know that Christa McAuliffe was blue-eyed? One blew left and one blew right; What were Christa McAuliffe's last words to her husband? You feed the kids -- I'll feed the fish; What does NASA stand for? Need Another Seven Astronauts; How do they know what shampoo Christa McAuliffe used? They found her head and shoulders. And so on: the jokes seemed to come out of nowhere, or to come from everywhere at once; like cicadas emerging from underground, they were ubiquitous for a couple of months, then disappeared. Folklorists who study what they call 'joke cycles' track how -- particularly in times of collective anxiety -- certain humorous templates get recycled, often among children.

At the time, I remember these jokes being hilarious1 but also a little horrifying. Lerner continues:

The anonymous jokes we were told and retold were our way of dealing with the remainder of the trauma that the elegy cycle initiated by Reagan-Noonan-Magee-Hicks-Dunn-C.A.F.B. (and who knows who else) couldn't fully integrate into our lives.

Reminds me of how children in Nazi ghettos and concentration camps dealt with their situation by playing inappropriate games.

Even in the extermination camps, the children who were still healthy enough to move around played. In one camp they played a game called "tickling the corpse." At Auschwitz-Birkenau they dared one another to touch the electric fence. They played "gas chamber," a game in which they threw rocks into a pit and screamed the sounds of people dying.

  1. Also, does anyone remember the dead baby jokes? They were all the rage when I was a kid. There were books of them. "Q: What do you call a dead baby with no arms and no legs laying on a beach? A: Sandy." And we thought they were funny as hell.

Two Saturnian moons, lined upJan 06 2016

Saturn Two Moons

The Cassini spacecraft took a photo of two moons of Saturn, Tethys and Enceladus, beautifully aligned with each other. The cosmic ballet goes on. (via slate)

The sizes of solar systemsDec 14 2015

As of last month, 685 multi-planet solar systems (with 1705 planets) have been discovered outside our own. This video shows the relative sizes of those systems compared to ours. Please note:

The size of the orbits are all to scale, but the size of the planets are not. For example, Jupiter is actually 11x larger than Earth, but that scale makes Earth-size planets almost invisible (or Jupiters annoyingly large).

(via @daveg)

Unusual views of JupiterDec 08 2015

When you see photos of Jupiter, they're almost always the of same view: the north pole at the top, the gaseous bands perfectly horizontal, and the Red Spot somewhere in the mix. But @robdubbin reminds us that there are other ways of looking at Jupiter. Here's a view of the planet's southern hemisphere:

Jupiter

And the northern hemisphere:

Jupiter

If you take photos of the whole of Jupiter's surface and stretch it out flat, you get something like this:

Jupiter Flat Map

That last one in particular is worth checking out at full resolution. (via @tcarmody)

Best views yet of PlutoDec 07 2015

Pluto New Horizons Closest

NASA's New Horizons probe has sent back the first of the sharpest images of Pluto it took during its July flyby of the planet.1

These latest images form a strip 50 miles (80 kilometers) wide on a world 3 billion miles away. The pictures trend from Pluto's jagged horizon about 500 miles (800 kilometers) northwest of the informally named Sputnik Planum, across the al-Idrisi mountains, over the shoreline of Sputnik, and across its icy plains.

View the new image at high resolution here or watch a video scroll of the imagery:

  1. Oh yes, I went there. Bring it, NDT.

Space miniaturesDec 01 2015

Mini SpaceMini SpaceMini Space

Using a tilt-shift effect, St. Tesla created miniature versions of galaxies, nebula, and supernovas. So cute!

A final test of relativityNov 27 2015

A European Space Agency probe will be launched into space early next month to help test the last major prediction of Einstein's theory of general relativity: the existence of gravitational waves.

Gravitational waves are thought to be hurled across space when stars start throwing their weight around, for example, when they collapse into black holes or when pairs of super-dense neutron stars start to spin closer and closer to each other. These processes put massive strains on the fabric of space-time, pushing and stretching it so that ripples of gravitational energy radiate across the universe. These are gravitational waves.

The Lisa Pathfinder probe won't measure gravitational waves directly, but will test equipment that will be used for the final detector.

LISA Pathfinder will pave the way for future missions by testing in flight the very concept of gravitational wave detection: it will put two test masses in a near-perfect gravitational free-fall and control and measure their motion with unprecedented accuracy. LISA Pathfinder will use the latest technology to minimise the extra forces on the test masses, and to take measurements. The inertial sensors, the laser metrology system, the drag-free control system and an ultra-precise micro-propulsion system make this a highly unusual mission.

(via @daveg)

Bezos' rocket achieves controlled landing back on EarthNov 24 2015

A rocket built by Blue Origin, an aerospace company backed by Jeff Bezos, recently reached space and executed a controlled landing back on Earth, which allows it to be used again. Bezos himself joined Twitter1 this morning to announce the news. Elon Musk, whose SpaceX company has been trying (and failing) to do something similar lately, congratulated Bezos and his team on Twitter2 but also threw a little shade on BO's efforts to reach "space" vs. SpaceX's efforts to reach "orbit".

It is, however, important to clear up the difference between "space" and "orbit", as described well by https://what-if.xkcd.com/58/. Getting to space needs ~Mach 3, but GTO orbit requires ~Mach 30. The energy needed is the square, i.e. 9 units for space and 900 for orbit.

Welcome to Twitter, Jeff.

  1. I like his bio: "Amazon, Blue Origin, Washington Post".

  2. Musk's bio reads: "Tesla, SpaceX, SolarCity & PayPal". Oh, these boys and their toys.

11 years of Saturn photos from the Cassini probeNov 20 2015

The Cassini probe, launched from Earth in 1997 (six months before I started publishing kottke.org), has been taking photos of Saturn and its moons for 11 years now. The Wall Street Journal has a great feature that shows exactly what the probe has been looking at all that time. (Note: the video above features flashing images, so beware if that sort of thing is harmful to you.)

Thermonuclear ArtNov 03 2015

In a nod to our nation's recreational drug users, NASA has created this 30-minute ultra high-resolution look at our Sun, assembled from thousands of photographs taken by the Solar Dynamics Observatory, which snaps a 16-megapixel image of the Sun every few seconds. Duuuuuuuude...

Cassini sippin' on EnceladusOct 28 2015

Whoa, how have I not heard about this before today: the Cassini spacecraft is going to dive through a jet of water erupting from Enceladus, a Saturnian moon.

Discovering life was not on the agenda when Cassini was designed and launched two decades ago. Its instruments can't capture microbes or detect life, but in a couple of dozen passes through the plumes of Enceladus, it has detected various molecules associated with life: water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, molecular nitrogen, propane, acetylene, formaldehyde and traces of ammonia.

Wednesday's dive will be the deepest Cassini will make through the plumes, only 30 miles above the icy surface. Scientists are especially interested in measuring the amount of hydrogen gas in the plume, which would tell them how much energy and heat are being generated by chemical reactions in hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the moon's ocean.

That's pretty crazy...it sounds like science fiction. NASA is doing a wonderful job producing great science with the lean budgets they are given.

A recent Saturday night in NYCOct 19 2015

Astronaut Scott Kelly, who is spending a continuous year in space,1 tweeted out a photo by fellow ISS resident Oleg Kononenko of NYC on Saturday night.

NYC Sat Oct 2015

Of the many possibilities, I'd like to point out just three interesting things.

1. Times Square! And not just that, but the whole of central Midtown is now lit up like a Christmas tree from 34th Street to Central Park.

2. The bright spot of light in the upper right corner of the image above is Citi Field. The photo must have been taken during Game 1 of the NLCS between the Mets and the Cubs. The Mets won that game 4-2. #LGM!

3. You'll notice that the streetlights in much of the city are orange. But in the bottom right corner, in Brooklyn, you can see the future. NYC is currently replacing all of the orange-glowing sodium vapor streetlights with blue-glowing LED lights that are longer lasting and more energy efficient. But they are also brighter and some are already complaining about the harsh blue light.

The new LEDs may be environmentally sensitive, but they are also optically harsh.

"The old lights made everybody look bad," said Christopher Stoddard, an architect, who lives at the corner of Fuller Place. "But these are so cold and blue, it's like 'Night of the Living Dead' out there."

"We're all for saving energy," his wife, Aida Stoddard, also an architect, said, "but the city can do so much better."

A few blocks away, Rose Gallitelli taped up black garbage bags on her bedroom windows so that she could sleep. "They're the heavy-duty kind," she said.

The lighting refit is scheduled to be completed in two years. The city will look different when it's done, in real life, on Instagram, and in film. (via @ginatrapani)

Update: Photographer Pari Dukovic has a shot of one of the old sodium vapor street lamps in the New Yorker this week.

  1. Scott also recently broke the American record for the most days spent in space. Today marks his 386th day in space.

This is what it looks like to land on MarsOct 07 2015

When the Curiosity rover landed on the surface of Mars, it took high-resolution photos all the way down. Luke Fitch took those photos and stitched them together into a first-person HD video of the rover's landing.

Update: I was wondering if someone had done a stabilized version of this video and lo:

(via @willhains)

NASA: there's liquid water on the surface of MarsSep 28 2015

Mars

NASA's press conference doesn't start for a few minutes yet, but the NY Times has the scoop: NASA has found "definitive signs" of liquid water on the surface of Mars. Like, right now on Mars, not millions of years ago.

In a paper published in the journal Nature Geoscience, Dr. McEwen and other scientists identified waterlogged molecules -- salts of a type known as perchlorates - in readings from orbit.

"That's a direct detection of water in the form of hydration of salts," Dr. McEwen said. "There pretty much has to have been liquid water recently present to produce the hydrated salt."

By "recently," Dr. McEwen said he meant "days, something of that order."

This is fantastic timing for the release of The Martian movie, which comes out this weekend.

Update: And here's the official press release from NASA.

"Our quest on Mars has been to 'follow the water,' in our search for life in the universe, and now we have convincing science that validates what we've long suspected," said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "This is a significant development, as it appears to confirm that water -- albeit briny -- is flowing today on the surface of Mars."

These downhill flows, known as recurring slope lineae (RSL), often have been described as possibly related to liquid water. The new findings of hydrated salts on the slopes point to what that relationship may be to these dark features. The hydrated salts would lower the freezing point of a liquid brine, just as salt on roads here on Earth causes ice and snow to melt more rapidly. Scientists say it's likely a shallow subsurface flow, with enough water wicking to the surface to explain the darkening.

Time lapse video of a scale model of the solar systemSep 17 2015

A pair of filmmakers, Wylie Overstreet and Alex Gorosh, built a scale model of the solar system in the Nevada desert and made a time lapse of the result. For orbits, they drove their car in circles around "the Sun". The Earth they used was the size of a marble, which made Neptune's orbit seven miles across. (via the kid should see this)

Sunset on PlutoSep 17 2015

The backlit photos of Pluto just posted by NASA are breathtaking. Look at this:

Pluto backlit

Just 15 minutes after its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft looked back toward the sun and captured this near-sunset view of the rugged, icy mountains and flat ice plains extending to Pluto's horizon. The smooth expanse of the informally named Sputnik Planum (right) is flanked to the west (left) by rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high, including the informally named Norgay Montes in the foreground and Hillary Montes on the skyline. The backlighting highlights more than a dozen layers of haze in Pluto's tenuous but distended atmosphere. The image was taken from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 kilometers) to Pluto; the scene is 230 miles (380 kilometers) across.

As they say, best viewed large. Some of those features don't look like mountains at all, but like reptile scales or huge shards of ice pushed up into the sky. Fantastic.

Flyby video from latest photos shows Pluto in all its gloryAug 26 2015

Bjorn Jonsson used the photos taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft to make an animation of the probe's flyby of Pluto.

The time covered is 09:35 to 13:35 (closest approach occurred near 11:50). Pluto's atmosphere is included and should be fairly realistic from about 10 seconds into the animation and to the end. Earlier it is largely just guesswork that can be improved in the future once all data has been downlinked from the spacecraft. Light from Pluto's satellite Charon illuminates Pluto's night side but is exaggerated here, in reality it would be only barely visible or not visible at all.

Fantastic...and Pluto's moons flying about in the background is the cherry on the top. (via @BadAstronomer)

Europa or frying pan?Aug 25 2015

This image was tweeted out by the NASA Europa Mission account the other day:

Europa or Frying Pan

One of these images is of Europa, Jupiter's icy moon, and the other eight are frying pans. Can you pick Europa out? Hint: frying pans tend not to have impact craters.

Update: The photos of the frying pans were taken by Christopher Jonassen, whose work I featured back in 2011 (which I had totally forgotten about). At the time, I even joked about the pans looking like a Jovian moon. kottke.org is a flat circle. (thx, tony)

Explore Mars from the comfort of your officeAug 12 2015

Mars Sat PhotoWhat are you doing today Jason? Oh not much just exploring Mars. The hell you say. Like fun I am! NASA has released a pair of web apps: one lets you drive Curiosity around the surface of Mars and the other is a 3D visualization of the planet. Oh cool that's what I'm doing today now too. And when you're done with that, follow NASA's new Tumblr. Far out man.

Solar system exploration updateAug 11 2015

Emily Lakdawalla provides an update on all of the exploration that's going on in our solar system this month. Here's a quick map view of the 20+ spacecraft exploring our solar system beyond Earth:

Solar System Spacecraft Map

Mars remains the most active spot beyond Earth in the solar system. This week, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter reaches its 10th anniversary of service in space, but it's far from the oldest spacecraft in orbit at Mars; Mars Express and Mars Odyssey are still at work up there. Mars Orbiter Mission has ventured into an extended mission and is still returning photos, though apparently none of the full-disk images in a variety of phases that I had hoped for from its 4-Megapixel color camera. Even Mars' newest resident, MAVEN, is three-quarters of the way through its one-year primary science mission, which began on November 16, 2014. MAVEN's mission will undoubtedly be extended long beyond that, as it will be needed to support surface missions if and when Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter eventually fail.

Both Opportunity and Curiosity have been very active lately. Opportunity has finally reached Marathon Valley, a site identified from orbit to have signs of clay chemistry. The team is excited about the science prospects even though the rover's memory problems persist.

The Moon crossing the sunlit face of the EarthAug 05 2015

This is just flat-out incredible... NASA's Deep Space Climate Observatory satellite captured a series of photos of the Moon as it moved between it and the Earth.

Earth Moon Anim

The image shows the "dark side" of the Moon, which we can't see from Earth because it's always pointed away from us.

The lunar far side lacks the large, dark, basaltic plains, or maria, that are so prominent on the Earth-facing side. The largest far side features are Mare Moscoviense in the upper left and Tsiolkovskiy crater in the lower left. A thin sliver of shadowed area of moon is visible on its right side.

"It is surprising how much brighter Earth is than the moon," said Adam Szabo, DSCOVR project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "Our planet is a truly brilliant object in dark space compared to the lunar surface."

I don't know why, but this image gives me chills up my spine! Is anyone else freaking out about this?

The sounds of Voyager's Golden RecordJul 29 2015

When they were launched in 1977, the two Voyager spacecraft each carried with them a 12-inch gold-plated copper record containing images and sounds of Earth for the viewing pleasure of whichever aliens happened across them. NASA has put the sounds of the Golden Record up on Soundcloud. Here are the greetings in 55 different languages (from English1 to Hittite to Polish to Thai):

And the sounds of Earth (wild dogs, Morse code, trains):

What's missing from the two playlists is UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim's greeting:

...as well as several other UN greetings overlaid with whale sounds:

Due to copyright issues, also missing are the 90 minutes of music included on the record. Among the songs are Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry, The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky, and Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground by Blind Willie Johnson. Here Comes the Sun by The Beatles was originally supposed to be included, but their record company wouldn't allow it, which is pretty much the most small-minded thing I have ever heard.

  1. The English greeting was spoken by Nick Sagan when he was six years old. Nick is the son of Carl Sagan, who chaired the committee that selected the contents of the record.

This is the best-ever photo of Pluto. Tomorrow's will be MUCH better.Jul 14 2015

This morning, the New Horizons probe zinged safely1 past Pluto. Before it did, it transmitted the best photo we've seen of Pluto so far...the last one we'll get before we get the really good stuff. Look at this:

Pluto

The probe's "I'm OK!" message will reach Earth around 9pm ET tonight and we'll start seeing photos from the flyby Wednesday afternoon...there's a NASA press conference scheduled for 3pm ET on July 15. So exciting!

Update: The photo above is also the best full-disk image of Pluto that we will get...the rest will be close-ups and such. So that's the official Pluto portrait from now on, folks.

  1. Well, hopefully. The probe is due to transmit a "I'm OK!" message back to Earth later today (at around 9pm ET). *fingers crossed*

What we'll see from New Horizons' flyby of PlutoJul 10 2015

As the New Horizons probe nears Pluto, I've been reading a bit more about how it's going to work and what sort of photos we're going to get. Emily Lakdawalla has a comprehensive post about what to expect when you're expecting a flyby of Pluto. The post contains an image of approximations of the photos New Horizon will take, using Voyager images of Jovian and Saturnian moons as stand-ins. The highest resolution photo of Pluto will be 0.4 km/pixel...it'll have this approximate level of detail:

Pluto

Which is pretty amazing and exciting considering that before the mission started this was our best view of Pluto:

Pluto HubbleNASA's Eyes app lets you see a simulation of the probe as it approaches Pluto, but if you don't want to download anything, you can watch this video of the flyby instead:

I had no idea the probe spun around so much as it grabs photos & scans and then beams them back to Earth. And the flyby is so fast! New Horizons is currently moving at 32,500 mph relative to the Sun...it's travelling just over 9 miles every second. (via @Tim_Meyer_ & @badastronomer)

This is the best-ever photo of Pluto. Tomorrow's will be better.Jul 08 2015

Pluto is so far away that we haven't even been able to get a good look at it, not even with the crazy-powerful Hubble telescope. But with NASA's New Horizons mission closing in on our solar system' ninth planet,1 we are getting a better and better view of Pluto every day.1Here's the latest, from just a few hours ago:

Pluto Closeup

New Horizons will reach its closest approach to Pluto in just under 6 days, on July 14. The probe will pass within 7,800 miles of the surface...I can't wait to find out what that day's photos look like.

Update: You don't even need to wait until tomorrow for that better image...here's one that NASA released just a short while ago. Tune in tomorrow for an even better view.

Pluto closeup

  1. Oh yeah, I'm not letting this one go.

  2. New Horizons' imaging capability of Pluto surpassed Hubble's on May 15, 2015. So every picture since then has been better than what we've had previously.

Compasses don't work on Mars, so how do you navigate?Jul 02 2015

Unlike the Earth, Mars and the Moon don't have strong directional magnetic fields, which means traditional compasses don't work. So how did the Apollo rovers and current Mars rovers navigate their way around? By using manually set directional gyroscope and wheel odometers.

While current un-crewed rovers don't have to return to the comfort of a lunar module, some aspects of the Apollo systems live on in their design. Four U.S. Martian rovers have used wheel odometers that account for slippage to calculate distance traveled. They've also employed gyroscopes (in the form of an inertial measurement units) to determine heading and pitch/roll information.

One of the fun things about reading The Martian is you get to learn a little bit about this sort of thing. Here's a passage about navigation on Mars where astronaut Mark Watney is trying to get to a landmark several days' drive away.

Navigation is tricky.

The Hab's nav beacon only reaches 40 kilometers, so it's useless to me out here. I knew that'd be an issue when I was planning this little road trip, so I came up with a brilliant plan that didn't work.

The computer has detailed maps, so I figured I could navigate by landmarks. I was wrong. Turns out you can't navigate by landmarks if you can't find any god damned landmarks.

Our landing site is at the delta of a long-gone river . NASA chose it because if there are any microscopic fossils to be had, it's a good place to look. Also, the water would have dragged rock and soil samples from thousands of kilometers away. With some digging, we could get a broad geological history.

That's great for science, but it means the Hab's in a featureless wasteland.

I considered making a compass. The rover has plenty of electricity, and the med kit has a needle. Only one problem: Mars doesn't have a magnetic field.

So I navigate by Phobos. It whips around Mars so fast it actually rises and sets twice a day, running west to east. It isn't the most accurate system, but it works.

I wonder why the rovers in the story weren't outfitted with directional gyroscopes and wheel odometers? (See also the operations manual for the lunar rovers.) (via @JaredCrookston)

The Soviet Union's abandoned space shuttleJun 09 2015

BuranBuran

From Ralph Mirebs, photos of the abandoned Baikonur Cosmodrome, which houses the remains of the Buran programme, the Soviet version of the Space Shuttle program. (thx, tim)

A Soyuz spacecraft docking with the ISSJun 02 2015

Could you imagine floating out in the vastness of space, even the relatively tiny vastness of space in low Earth orbit, in a tiny space capsule waiting to hook up to a slightly larger space station and if something goes wrong, you might die? But on the other hand, look at that incredible view! This HD video of a Soyuz capsule docking with the International Space Station gives you a small sense of how that might feel.

The docking itself takes place starting at around 17:00. The whole thing takes a bit longer than I remember from that Gravity movie. (via @badastronomer)

The Apollo lunar rover user's manualApr 30 2015

NASA Lunar Rover ManualNASA Lunar Rover ManualNASA Lunar Rover ManualNASA Lunar Rover Manual

From NASA, the operations manual for the lunar rover. Rovers were used on the final three Apollo missions: 15, 16, and 17. (thx, daniel)

The Hubble Space Telescope turns 25Apr 27 2015

The Hubble Space Telescope was deployed into space on April 25, 1990 and began snapping images of the sky shortly thereafter. Phil Plait, the NY Times, NPR, and How We Get To Next have chosen some of their favorite Hubble images, and Taschen published a coffee table book of Hubble images called Expanding Universe.

Hubble 25Hubble 25Hubble 25Hubble 25Hubble 25

I still find it incredible that we have a telescope orbiting the Earth. Happy birthday, Hubble. Here's to many more.

A Year in SpaceMar 26 2015

On Friday, astronauts Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko will be launched into space, where they will spend an entire year on the International Space Station. Time is doing a documentary series on Kelly's stay in space.

On March 27, the veteran of three previous space flights will take off for the International Space Station (ISS) and, along with cosmonaut Misha Kornienko, remain aloft for a full year. Meantime, Scott's twin brother Mark, a veteran of four space flights, will remain on the ground. The two men with their matching backgrounds, similar health and identical genomes, will serve as the perfect controlled experiment to learn more about how the human body handles weightlessness-and what can be done to minimize the damage during long-term trips to Mars and elsewhere.

The trailer is available here. Kelly and Kornienko will be the fifth and sixth people to spend at least a year in space...cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov spent 437 straight days in space in 1994-5.

Flying through an eclipseMar 24 2015

A group of astronomy enthusiasts rented a plane and flew through the shadow cast by the recent eclipse of the Sun. One passenger took the following video. Look at that shadow creeping across the cloud cover! So cool.

P.S. Still super excited for the 2017 eclipse! (via slate)

High definition Pluto needs namesMar 23 2015

HD Pluto

Ok, Pluto fans. They evicted Pluto from our solar system's planetary pantheon, but a NASA mission launched in 2006 is nearing the dwarf planet with its cameras. We'll soon have photos of Pluto that are much more high resolution than we currently have, which means scientists will need names for all the new geographic features. The Our Pluto site has been set up to help suggest and vote on names for these features. Naming themes include historic explorers, travelers to the underworld, and scientists and engineers. Go vote! (via slate)

Space ProbesFeb 20 2015

Voyager 2The Spaceprob.es site tracks the active probes in operation in and around our solar system, from Voyager I (19.56 billion km from Earth) to the Artemis probes (358,000 km away). (via @BadAstronomer)

Update: Spaceprob.es now has a shop with posters, pillows, t-shirts, and stickers.

Replacement SunsJan 26 2015

From the Russian Space Agency, a video of what the sky would look like if the Sun were replaced by some other stars. It starts off with the binary star system of Alpha Centuri, but watch until the end for Polaris, which has a radius 46 times that of the Sun.

See also the view from Earth of different planets replacing the Moon and imagining Earth with Saturn's rings.

Amazing Hubble imagesJan 07 2015

The Hubble Space Telescope was launched 25 years ago, and to start the celebration, NASA has released a pair of images that actually did make this space nerd's jaw drop. The first is an update of a classic: a much sharper photo of the so-called Pillars of Creation:

Hubble Pillars

Although NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has taken many breathtaking images of the universe, one snapshot stands out from the rest: the iconic view of the so-called "Pillars of Creation." The jaw-dropping photo, taken in 1995, revealed never-before-seen details of three giant columns of cold gas bathed in the scorching ultraviolet light from a cluster of young, massive stars in a small region of the Eagle Nebula, or M16.

The second image isn't so immediately amazing but is my favorite of the two. It's a photo of half of the Andromeda galaxy, the big galaxy closest to our own in distance but also in rough size and shape. Here's a very very scaled-down version of it:

Hubble Andromeda

The largest NASA Hubble Space Telescope image ever assembled, this sweeping view of a portion of the Andromeda galaxy (M31) is the sharpest large composite image ever taken of our galactic neighbor. Though the galaxy is over 2 million light-years away, the Hubble telescope is powerful enough to resolve individual stars in a 61,000-light-year-long section of the galaxy's pancake-shaped disk. It's like photographing a beach and resolving individual grains of sand. And, there are lots of stars in this sweeping view -- over 100 million, with some of them in thousands of star clusters seen embedded in the disk.

The original image is 1500 megapixels (1.5 gigapixels!), which is so big that you'd need 600 HD televisions to display the whole thing. But if you take the biggest reasonable size available for download (100 megapixels) and zoom in on it, you get this:

Hubble Andromeda Close

That looks like JPEG compression noise, right? Nope, each one of those dots is a star...some of the 100 million individual stars that can be seen in the full image.

Keanu Whoa

That's right, Keanu. Whoa. For an even closer look, check out this annotated close-up released by NASA:

Hubble Andromeda Closer

If you're curious and feel like crashing your browser and/or Photoshop a bunch of times (I did not), the full-res Andromeda images are available here. And Phil Plait writes much more joyfully and knowledgeably about these images than I do...go take a look at his Pillars of Creation and Andromeda posts.

Update: Rob Griffiths took 50+ photos from the Hubble web site and made them into Retina iMac-sized wallpapers. (via @djacobs)

You are a small speckDec 22 2014

It is nearly inconceivable how small we are in comparison to the size of the universe, but this video may make it a little less inconceivable. Do you know that the Sun is tiny compared to some other stars?

(via devour)

2014 Physics Breakthrough of the YearDec 12 2014

Physics World, the magazine of the Institute of Physics, has named their 2014 Breakthrough of the Year and nine runners-up. The top spot goes to the ESA's Rosetta mission for landing on a comet.

By landing the Philae probe on a distant comet, the Rosetta team has begun a new chapter in our understanding of how the solar system formed and evolved -- and ultimately how life was able to emerge on Earth. As well as looking forward to the fascinating science that will be forthcoming from Rosetta scientists, we also acknowledge the technological tour de force of chasing a comet for 10 years and then placing an advanced laboratory on its surface.

The other nine achievements, which you can click through to read about, are:

Quasar shines a bright light on cosmic web
Neutrinos spotted from Sun's main nuclear reaction
Laser fusion passes milestone
Electrons' magnetic interactions isolated at long last
Disorder sharpens optical-fibre images
Data stored in magnetic holograms
Lasers ignite 'supernovae' in the lab
Quantum data are compressed for the first time
Physicists sound-out acoustic tractor beam

Curiosity: stronger support for life on MarsDec 11 2014

Whilst roving about Mars, Curiosity has slowly but surely racked up evidence for a past Mars that was warm, wet, and possibly habitable.

John P. Grotzinger of Caltech, the project scientist for the mission, reported at a news conference on Monday that the rover's yearlong trek to Mount Sharp provided strong new evidence that Gale Crater had large lakes, rivers and deltas, on and off, for millions to tens of millions of years. The geology shows that even when the surface water dried up, plenty of water would have remained underground, he said.

Moreover, the team concluded, numerous deltalike and lakelike formations detected by orbiting satellites are almost certainly the dried remains of substantial ancient lakes and deltas. None of this proves that life existed on the planet, but the case for an early Mars that was ripe and ready for life has grown stronger.

"As a science team, Mars is looking very attractive to us as a habitable planet," Dr. Grotzinger said in an interview. "Not just sections of Gale Crater and not just a handful of locations, but at different times around the globe."

See also the interactive 28 Months on Mars.

Update: And right on cue, Curiosity has recorded a two-month-long methane burst on Mars. One explanation for the methane is that it's a waste product of living organisms.

The presence of methane is significant because the gas cannot exist for long. Calculations indicate that sunlight and chemical reactions in the Martian atmosphere would break up the molecules within a few hundred years, so any methane there now must have been created recently.

It could have been created by a geological process known as serpentinization, which requires both heat and liquid water. Or it could be a product of life in the form of microbes known as methanogens, which release methane as a waste product.

Even if the explanation for the methane turns out to be geological, the hydrothermal systems would still be prime locations to search for signs of life.

Update: And now Curiosity has found "biologically useful nitrogen" on Mars.

There is no evidence to suggest that the fixed nitrogen molecules found by the team were created by life. The surface of Mars is inhospitable for known forms of life. Instead, the team thinks the nitrates are ancient, and likely came from non-biological processes like meteorite impacts and lightning in Mars' distant past.

Features resembling dry riverbeds and the discovery of minerals that form only in the presence of liquid water suggest that Mars was more hospitable in the remote past. The Curiosity team has found evidence that other ingredients needed for life, such as liquid water and organic matter, were present on Mars at the Curiosity site in Gale Crater billions of years ago.

"Finding a biochemically accessible form of nitrogen is more support for the ancient Martian environment at Gale Crater being habitable," said Jennifer Stern of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Update: The analysis of a year of weather and soil data collected by Curiosity indicates that a small amount of liquid water could exist below the surface of Mars.

Martian weather and soil conditions that NASA's Curiosity rover has measured, together with a type of salt found in Martian soil, could put liquid brine in the soil at night.

Perchlorate identified in Martian soil by the Curiosity mission, and previously by NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander mission, has properties of absorbing water vapor from the atmosphere and lowering the freezing temperature of water. This has been proposed for years as a mechanism for possible existence of transient liquid brines at higher latitudes on modern Mars, despite the Red Planet's cold and dry conditions.

New calculations were based on more than a full Mars year of temperature and humidity measurements by Curiosity. They indicate that conditions at the rover's near-equatorial location were favorable for small quantities of brine to form during some nights throughout the year, drying out again after sunrise. Conditions should be even more favorable at higher latitudes, where colder temperatures and more water vapor can result in higher relative humidity more often.

The Guardian and other media outlets have translated this news into Nasa's Curiosity rover finds water below surface of Mars even though NASA's release clearly states "we have not detected brines". Come on, guys.

A cinematic tribute to spaceDec 08 2014

A tribute to outer space in movies, featuring clips from Gravity, The Fountain, Alien, Star Wars, Solaris, Sunshine, Guardians of the Galaxy, and more.

Music is from Hans Zimmer's soundtrack for Interstellar, which I was initially lukewarm on but have been listening to consistently over the past week or so. (via devour)

The meteorite collectorDec 03 2014

A weight-loss doctor from Indiana owns a surprising number of the world's known meteorites, including about 2/3s of an unusual Martian meteorite called Black Beauty, which is valued at more than $10,000 per gram.

There is one diva in particular that I'm here to pay homage to: Black Beauty, a shiny, scaly-skinned, 4.4-billion-year-old rock from Mars. It began its journey to Earth more than 5 million years ago, about the time humans and chimpanzees were splitting from a common ancestor. That is when an asteroid struck Mars, catapulting the rock into space. Sometime in the last thousand years or so, orbital mechanics and gravity delivered the wandering rock to Earth. Surviving an incendiary plunge through the atmosphere, it landed in more than a dozen pieces in the western Sahara. There the fragments sat, untouched except by wind and sand. Finally, a nomad plucked a piece from the dunes. After passing through the hands of several Moroccan middlemen, the first piece wound up in Piatek's hands in 2011. He would acquire nine more.

Black Beauty has since set the collecting world on fire, reaching values of more than $10,000 per gram. (Gold trades for $40 per gram.) The price is in no small part due to the parade of scientific discoveries emerging from the rock's jumbled-up guts. It is the oldest rock from Mars and chock-full of the planet's primordial water. Most intriguing of all, it appears to be the first martian meteorite made of sediment, deposited by wind or water. That makes Black Beauty not only a cosmic blessing-sedimentary rocks are fragile and thought unlikely to survive interplanetary launches-but also a boon for astrobiologists. "If you're going to look for life, you want a sedimentary rock," says Munir Humayun, a meteoriticist at Florida State University in Tallahassee who led a study that last year pinpointed the rock's age.

Our future in the solar systemNov 30 2014

Why do humans explore space? We "love to sail forbidden seas". This is a beautiful short video narrated by Carl Sagan showing future human exploration of our solar system.

Without any apparent story, other than what you may fill in by yourself, the idea of the film is primarily to show a glimpse of the fantastic and beautiful nature that surrounds us on our neighboring worlds -- and above all, how it might appear to us if we were there.

The shot starting at 2:25 of the exploration of one of Jupiter's moons (Europa?) is fantastic. (via ★interesting)

RadioISSNov 26 2014

RadioISS plays streams of the radio stations that the International Space Station passes over on its continual orbit of Earth. As I'm writing this, the ISS just floated over the southern tip of South American and RadioISS is playing Radio 3 Cadena Patagonia AM 789 from Patagonia, Argentina. Ah, it just switched to Alpha 101.7 FM out of Sao Paulo, Brazil. They're playing One by U2.

Lunar Mission OneNov 19 2014

Now this is an ambitious Kickstarter project: Lunar Mission One wants to send an unmanned probe to an unexplored area of the Moon, land on the surface, drill a hole at least 20 meters in depth to analyze geological composition of the Moon, and then drop a time capsule in the hole that will last 1 billion years. That's. Insane.

We're going to use pioneering technology to drill down to a depth of at least 20m -- 10 times deeper than has ever been drilled before -- and potentially as deep as 100m. By doing this, we will access lunar rock dating back up to 4.5 billion years to discover the geological composition of the Moon, the ancient relationship it shares with our planet and the effects of asteroid bombardment. Ultimately, the project will improve scientific understanding of the early solar system, the formation of our planet and the Moon, and the conditions that initiated life on Earth.

The Rosetta mission has opened the way for a new era of pioneering space exploration and demonstrates the public appetite to engage with the secrets of the solar system. We want this to be a truly international mission that everyone everywhere can get involved in, so we are using Kickstarter to finance the next phase of development. This is your chance to be part of Lunar Mission One and to reserve your place in space. Your pledge will reserve you a digital memory box that will be buried in the moon during the mission as part of a 21st Century time capsule.

Relative sizes of the planetsNov 18 2014

This is a great way to think about how big the planets of our solar system are: in terms of fruits.

Fruit Solar System

(via boing boing)

We're landing on a cometNov 11 2014

Comet Landing

A European Space Agency landing craft the size of a washing machine is scheduled to land on a comet tomorrow, November 12, 2014. How cool is that?

Never before has a space mission put a lander on a comet. But the European Space Agency (ESA) plans to change that. Its Rosetta craft has been orbiting comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko since August and is set to release the washing-machine-sized lander, Philae, on 12 November. This would set in motion a nail-biting seven-hour fall designed to deliver Philae to a landing site called Agilkia on the comet's surface. Philae is programmed to beam data and images back to Earth to help scientists to understand comets, including whether these conglomerations of ice, rock and dust supplied our planet with water and other building blocks of life when they smashed into it billions of years ago.

You can watch the landing live (or here too)...touch down on the comet's surface is scheduled for 11:03 AM EST. Here's a full rundown of the events on landing day. Good luck, Philae!

Update: Randall Munroe of XKCD is live drawing the landing.

Information Graphics: SpaceNov 07 2014

Space Information Graphics

A children's book about space featuring information graphics illustrated by the completely awesome Jennifer Daniel!?

The third in a visually stunning series of information graphics that shows just how interesting and humorous scientific information can be. Complex facts about space are reinterpreted as stylish infographics that astonish, amuse, and inform.

INSTANT PURCHASE. February 2015 cannot come fast enough.

Galileo still right about gravityNov 03 2014

If you believe in gravity, then you know that if you remove air resistance, a bowling ball and a feather will fall at the same rate. But seeing it actually happen, in the world's largest vacuum chamber (122 feet high, 100 feet in diameter), is still a bit shocking.

In the late 1500s, Galileo was the first to show that the acceleration due to the Earth's gravity was independent of mass with his experiment at the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but that pesky air resistance caused some problems. At the end of the Apollo 15 mission, astronaut David Scott dropped a hammer and a feather in the vacuum on the surface of the Moon:

Science!

The size of astronomy stuffOct 30 2014

It can be difficult to understand how large (or small) astronomical objects are, so here are some handy comparisons to things on Earth. Here's the size of Mars compared to the United States & Canada:

Mars vs USA

And here's a neutron star nestled next to Liverpool on the northwest coast of England:

Neutron Star vs Liverpool

A neutron star also crams in over 1.5 times the mass of the Sun into a tiny ball maybe not much bigger than your daily commute to work, and the Sun is huge (see the size of the Sun later). So this thing is incredibly dense, so dense in fact that just a tea spoon of it would weigh over a billion tonnes, and if you could stand on its surface you'd feel the gravitational pull of 200 billion times that of our planet...not that you'd ever survive it of course.

(via @theclintmcleod)

Around the World in 92 MinutesOct 29 2014

Hadfield Venice

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield became a celebrity while aboard the International Space Station. Now he's publishing a book of photographs he took during his time in orbit: You Are Here: Around the World in 92 Minutes.

During 2,597 orbits of our planet, I took about 45,000 photographs. At first, my approach was scattershot: just take as many pictures as possible. As time went on, though, I began to think of myself as a hunter, silently stalking certain shots. Some eluded me: Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, and Uluru, or Ayers Rock, in Australia. I captured others only after methodical planning: "Today, the skies are supposed to be clear in Jeddah and we'll be passing nearby in the late afternoon, so the angle of the sun will be good. I need to get a long lens and be waiting at the window, looking in the right direction, at 4:02 because I'll have less than a minute to get the shot." Traveling at 17,500 miles per hour, the margin for error is very slim. Miss your opportunity and it may not arise again for another six weeks, depending on the ISS's orbital path and conditions on the ground.

In an interview with Quartz, Hadfield says the proceeds from the book are being donated to the Red Cross.

Rocket launch viewable on the East Coast tonightOct 27 2014

An Antares rocket on its way to the International Space Station is taking off from a launch pad in Virginia tonight at 6:45 ET and the launch should be visible from South Carolina to central Massachusetts. Here's where you should be able to see the launch, if your skies are clear:

Antares Launch 10 2014

Cool!

Update: The launch has been scrubbed for today...some idiot boat was in the "hazard area". Same time tomorrow? (Smaller update: Not quite...launch is scheduled for 6:19 ET tomorrow.)

CosmigraphicsOct 17 2014

Cosmigraphics

From Michael Benson comes Cosmigraphics, a survey of many ways in which humans have represented the Universe, from antiquity on up to the present day.

Selecting artful and profound illustrations and maps, many hidden away in the world's great science libraries and virtually unknown today, he chronicles more than 1,000 years of humanity's ever-expanding understanding of the size and shape of space itself. He shows how the invention of the telescope inspired visions of unimaginably distant places and explains why today we turn to supercomputer simulations to reveal deeper truths about space-time.

The NY Times has an adaptation of the introduction to the book.

Among the narrative threads woven into the book are the 18th-century visual meditations on the possible design of the Milky Way - including the astonishing work of the undeservedly obscure English astronomer Thomas Wright, who in 1750 reasoned his way to (and illustrated) the flattened-disk form of our galaxy. In a book stuffed with exquisite mezzotint plates, Wright also conceived of another revolutionary concept: a multigalaxy cosmos. All of this a quarter-century before the American Revolution, at a time when the Milky Way was thought to constitute the entirety of the universe.

The squid and the geostationary satelliteSep 02 2014

Squid SatelliteTrevor Paglen speculates that human civilization's longest lasting monuments will be the satellites in geostationary orbits around the Earth.

Humanity's longest lasting remnants are found among the stars. Over the last fifty years, hundreds of satellites have been launched into geosynchronous orbits, forming a ring of machines 36,000 kilometers from earth. Thousands of times further away than most other satellites, geostationary spacecraft remain locked as man-made moons in perpetual orbit long after their operational lifetimes. Geosynchronous spacecraft will be among civilization's most enduring remnants, quietly circling earth until the earth is no more.

Geoff Manaugh attended a lecture of Paglen's, where Paglen suggested a possible discoverer of these artifacts:

Billions of years from now, he began to narrate, long after city lights and the humans who made them have disappeared from the Earth, other intelligent species might eventually begin to see traces of humanity's long-since erased presence on the planet.

Consider deep-sea squid, Paglen suggested, who would have billions of years to continue developing and perfecting their incredible eyesight, a sensory skill perfect for peering through the otherwise impenetrable darkness of the oceans -- yet also an eyesight that could let them gaze out at the stars in deep space.

Perhaps, Paglen speculated, these future deep-sea squid with their extraordinary powers of sight honed precisely for focusing on tiny points of light in the darkness might drift up to the surface of the ocean on calm nights to look upward at the stars, viewing a scene that will have rearranged into whole new constellations since the last time humans walked the Earth.

And, there, the squid might notice something.

Note: Illustration by Chris Piascik...prints & more are available.

The Sweden Solar SystemAug 27 2014

Sweden Solar System

Spanning from comets in the south to the termination shock zone in the northern part of the country, The Sweden Solar System is a scale model of the solar system that spans the entire country of Sweden, the largest such model in the world.

The Sun is represented by the Ericsson Globe in Stockholm, the largest hemispherical building in the world. The inner planets can also be found in Stockholm but the outer planets are situated northward in other cities along the Baltic Sea.

The 2017 total solar eclipse awarded to the United StatesAug 21 2014

2017 Eclipse

I do not officially have a bucket list1 but if I did have one, watching a total solar eclipse would be on it. Was just talking about it the other day in fact. Well. I am pretty damn excited for the Great American Eclipse of 2017!

In August 21, 2017, millions of people across the United States will see nature's most wondrous spectacle -- a total eclipse of the Sun. It is a scene of unimaginable beauty; the Moon completely blocks the Sun, daytime becomes a deep twilight, and the Sun's corona shimmers in the darkened sky. This is your guide to understand, prepare for, and view this rare celestial event.

It goes right through the middle of the country too...almost everyone in the lower 48 is within a day's drive of seeing it. Cities in the path of the totality include Salem, OR, Jackson, WY, Lincoln, NE, St. Louis, MO (nearly), Nashville, TN, and Charleston, SC.

Weather will definitely play a factor in actually seeing the eclipse, so I will be keeping an eye on Eclipser ("Climatology and Maps for the Eclipse Chaser") as the event draws near. Early analysis indicates Oregon as the best chance for clear skies. Matt, I am hereby laying claim to your guest room in three years time. So excited!!

  1. Also on this hypothetical bucket list: dunking a basketball, going to outer space, learning to surf, and two chicks at the same time.

Ambient space sounds playlistAug 13 2014

From YouTube, a playlist of 12- and 24-hour-long videos of ambient space noise, mostly of the sounds of spaceships like the Tardis, the USS Enterprise, and the Nostromo (from Alien). I think the Death Star is my favorite:

Or the completely unrelaxing 12 hours of Star Trek red alert sound:

Sadly, the list is missing my favorite spaceship sound, Sebulba's podracer from Phantom Menace. See also Super Mario Bros Sound Loops and Extended Star Wars Sounds. (via @finn)

A Spacecraft For AllAug 11 2014

Spacecraft For All

Oh man, this is great. A Spacecraft For All is an interactive video about the ISEE-3 Reboot Project, in which a group of scientists working out of an old McDonald's crowdfunded an effort to communicate with a nearly forgotten satellite launched by NASA in 1978 to observe the Sun and chase a comet. After the intro, click on "See the Journey"...it's well worth your time if you're at all interested in space or science.

For instance, did you know there exists several points between the Earth and the Sun at which a satellite can orbit around, enabling spacecraft to stay more or less in the same spot for observation purposes? So cool!

Interstellar trailer #3Aug 05 2014

Christopher Nolan + Matthew McConaughey + space + doomed Earth. Oh man, this is looking like it might actually be great. Or completely suck.

Please don't suck, please don't suck, please don't suck, please don't suck, please don't suck, please don't suck, please don't s (via @aaroncoleman0)

Live TV coverage of Apollo 11 landing and moon walkJul 20 2014

Apollo TV teaser

45 years ago today, the lunar module from the Apollo 11 mission landed on the Moon. For the 40th anniversary of the landing in 2009, I put together a page where you can watch the original CBS News coverage of Walter Cronkite reporting on the Moon landing and the first Moon walk, synced to the present-day time. I've updated the page to work again this year: just open this page in your browser and the coverage will start playing at the proper time. Here's the schedule:

Moon landing broadcast start: 4:10:30 pm EDT on July 20
Moon landing shown: 4:17:40 pm EDT
Moon landing broadcast end: 4:20:15 pm EDT
{break}
Moon walk broadcast start: 10:51:27 pm EDT
First step on Moon: 10:56:15 pm EDT
Nixon speaks to the Eagle crew: approx 11:51:30 pm EDT
Moon walk broadcast end: 12:00:30 pm EDT on July 21

Here's what I wrote when I launched the project:

If you've never seen this coverage, I urge you to watch at least the landing segment (~10 min.) and the first 10-20 minutes of the Moon walk. I hope that with the old time TV display and poor YouTube quality, you get a small sense of how someone 40 years ago might have experienced it. I've watched the whole thing a couple of times while putting this together and I'm struck by two things: 1) how it's almost more amazing that hundreds of millions of people watched the first Moon walk *live* on TV than it is that they got to the Moon in the first place, and 2) that pretty much the sole purpose of the Apollo 11 Moon walk was to photograph it and broadcast it live back to Earth.

(FYI, I didn't test it, but I'm almost positive this will *not* work on mobile...it uses YouTube's Flash player to show the video. Sorry.)

Where to stand in solar systemJul 02 2014

xkcd solid Solar System

From XKCD, an illustration of the solar system's solid surfaces stitched together. Best viewed large (if only to find the "all human skin" label). Randall Munroe is just the best, isn't he?

What else is out there?Jun 26 2014

Great post on the Fermi Paradox, aka if there are so many potential intelligent civilizations out there in the universe (possibly 10 quadrillion of them), why haven't we heard from anyone?

Possibility 5) There's only one instance of higher-intelligent life -- a "superpredator" civilization (like humans are here on Earth) -- who is far more advanced than everyone else and keeps it that way by exterminating any intelligent civilization once they get past a certain level. This would suck. The way it might work is that it's an inefficient use of resources to exterminate all emerging intelligences, maybe because most die out on their own. But past a certain point, the super beings make their move -- because to them, an emerging intelligent species becomes like a virus as it starts to grow and spread. This theory suggests that whoever was the first in the galaxy to reach intelligence won, and now no one else has a chance. This would explain the lack of activity out there because it would keep the number of super-intelligent civilizations to just one.

Update: If you prefer to watch engaging videos instead of reading text, here's six minutes on the Fermi Paradox:

The Moon, closerMay 19 2014

If the Moon orbited the Earth at the same distance as the International Space Station, it might look a little something like this:

At that distance, the Moon would cover half the sky and take about five minutes to cross the sky. Of course, as Phil Plait notes, if the Moon were that close, tidal forces would result in complete chaos for everyone involved.

There would be global floods as a tidal wave kilometers high sweeps around the world every 90 minutes (due to the Moon's closer, faster orbit), scouring clean everything in its path. The Earth itself would also be stretched up and down, so there would be apocalyptic earthquakes, not to mention huge internal heating of the Earth and subsequent volcanism. I'd think that the oceans might even boil away due to the enormous heat released from the Earth's interior, so at least that spares you the flood... but replaces water with lava. Yay?

Jupiter's Great Red Spot is shrinkingMay 15 2014

Jupiter Spot Shrinking

Jupiter's Great Red Spot is becoming more of a Medium Red Spot. The gas giant's signature beauty mark was recently measured by the Hubble as spanning 10,250 miles across its widest point, down from a high of 25,500 miles across.

Historic observations as far back as the late 1800s [2] gauged this turbulent spot to span about 41 000 kilometres at its widest point -- wide enough to fit three Earths comfortably side by side. In 1979 and 1980 the NASA Voyager fly-bys measured the spot at a shrunken 23 335 kilometres across. Now, Hubble has spied this feature to be smaller than ever before.

"Recent Hubble Space Telescope observations confirm that the spot is now just under 16 500 kilometres across, the smallest diameter we've ever measured," said Amy Simon of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, USA.

Amateur observations starting in 2012 revealed a noticeable increase in the spot's shrinkage rate. The spot's "waistline" is getting smaller by just under 1000 kilometres per year. The cause of this shrinkage is not yet known.

The truth of science with your own eyesMay 14 2014

Clive Thompson recently saw the moons of Jupiter with his own eyes and has a moment.

I saw one huge, bright dot, with three other tiny pinpoints of light nearby, all lined up in a row (just like the image at the top of this story). Holy moses, I realized; that's no star. That's Jupiter! And those are the moons of Jupiter!

I'm a science journalist and a space buff, and I grew up oohing and aahing over the pictures of Jupiter sent back by various NASA space probes. But I'd never owned a telescope, and never done much stargazing other than looking up in the night unaided. In my 45 years I'd never directly observed Jupiter and its moons myself.

So I freaked out. In a good way! It was a curiously intense existential moment.

For my birthday when I was seven or eight, my dad bought me a telescope. (It was a Jason telescope; didn't everyone have a telescope named after them?) We lived in the country in the middle of nowhere where it was nice and dark, so over the next few years, we looked at all sorts of celestial objects through that telescope. Craters on the Moon, the moons of Jupiter, Mars, and even sunspots on the Sun with the aid of some filters. But the thing that really got me, that provided me with my own version of Thompson's "curiously intense existential moment", was seeing the rings of Saturn through a telescope.

We had heard from PBS's Jack Horkheimer, the Star Hustler, that Saturn and its rings would be visible and he showed pictures of what it would look like, something like this:

Saturn through a telescope

But seeing that with your own eyes through a telescope was a different thing entirely. Those tiny blurry rings, visible from millions of miles away. What a thrill! It's one of my favorite memories.

If the Moon was only 1 pixelMar 05 2014

Moon 1 pixelNice visualization of the solar system; the Moon is one pixel across and everything else is scaled to that, including the distances between planets. Get ready to scroll. A lot.

It would be neat to do this with a plutonium atom or something. Related: typographically speaking, what's the point size of the Moon?

The Moon's tiny art galleryDec 17 2013

There's art on the Moon, a small sculpture called Fallen Astronaut. Artist Paul van Hoeydonck made it. Commander David Scott of Apollo 15 placed it on the Moon in 1971. Instead of a triumph, the whole thing fell into scandal and was forgotten.

In reality, van Hoeydonck's lunar sculpture, called Fallen Astronaut, inspired not celebration but scandal. Within three years, Waddell's gallery had gone bankrupt. Scott was hounded by a congressional investigation and left NASA on shaky terms. Van Hoeydonck, accused of profiteering from the public space program, retreated to a modest career in his native Belgium. Now both in their 80s, Scott and van Hoeydonck still see themselves unfairly maligned in blogs and Wikipedia pages-to the extent that Fallen Astronaut is remembered at all.

And yet, the spirit of Fallen Astronaut is more relevant today than ever. Google is promoting a $30 million prize for private adventurers to send robots to the moon in the next few years; companies such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are creating a new for-profit infrastructure of human spaceflight; and David Scott is grooming Brown University undergrads to become the next generation of cosmic adventurers.

Governments come and go, public sentiment waxes and wanes, but the dream of reaching to the stars lives on. Fallen Astronaut does, too, hanging eternally 238,000 miles above our heads. Here, for the first time, we tell the full, tangled tale behind one of the smallest yet most extraordinary achievements of the Space Age.

The first video of the Moon orbiting the EarthDec 11 2013

In a fly-by of Earth on its way to Jupiter, NASA's Juno probe took a short movie of the Moon orbiting the Earth. It's the first time the Moon's orbit has been captured on film.

(via @DavidGrann)

Saturn without its ringsOct 17 2013

Over at The Planetary Society, Emily Lakdawalla highlighted an image taken by the Cassini spacecraft of Saturn separate from its rings.

This enormous mosaic showing the flattened globe of Saturn floating amongst the complete disk of its rings must surely be counted among the great images of the Cassini mission. From Earth, we never see Saturn separate from its rings. Here, we can see the whole thing, a gas giant like Jupiter, separated at last from the rings that encircle it.

Taking this idea one step further, I removed the rings completely, along with the "ringlight" lighting up the night hemisphere, creating a more-or-less pure look of what Saturn would look like without its rings.

Saturn Without Rings

Larger version is available on Mlkshk.

The moon rocket asteroidSep 26 2013

An amateur astronomer discovered asteroid J002E3 orbiting the Earth in 2002. By observing how the object was moving and measuring its spectrum, it was determined that the asteroid was man-made and probably the third stage of Apollo 12's Saturn V rocket.

In early September 2002, spectral and photometric observations of J002E3 were made at IRTF and Mt. Biglow in an effort to determine whether the object was an asteroid or a human-made. Early observations yielded a possible spin-rate and orientation. Additional spectral observations were completed in May 2003 at the Air Force Maui Optical Supercomputing (AMOS) site. Through the modeling of common spacecraft materials, the observations of J002E3 show a strong correlation of absorption features to a combination of human-made materials including white paint, black paint, and aluminum. Absorption features in the near IR show a strong correlation with paint containing a titanium-oxide semiconductor. Using the material model and the orbital information, it was concluded that J002E3 is a human-made object from an Apollo rocket upperstage, most likely Apollo 12.

Here's a cool animation showing how the Earth's gravity temporarily captured J002E3.

Long photograph of the MoonSep 16 2013

NASA created this lovely high resolution view of the Moon doing one complete rotation using footage from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

(via @Colossal)

The night lightSep 11 2013

Paul Bogard recently published a book on darkness called The End of Night. Nicola Twilley and Geoff Manaugh interviewed Bogard about the book, the night sky, astronomy, security, cities, and prisons, among other things. The interview is interesting throughout but one of my favorite things is this illustration of the Bortle scale.

Bortle Scale

Twilley: It's astonishing to read the description of a Bortle Class 1, where the Milky Way is actually capable of casting shadows!

Bogard: It is. There's a statistic that I quote, which is that eight of every ten kids born in the United States today will never experience a sky dark enough to see the Milky Way. The Milky Way becomes visible at 3 or 4 on the Bortle scale. That's not even down to a 1. One is pretty stringent. I've been in some really dark places that might not have qualified as a 1, just because there was a glow of a city way off in the distance, on the horizon. You can't have any signs of artificial light to qualify as a Bortle Class 1.

A Bortle Class 1 is so dark that it's bright. That's the great thing-the darker it gets, if it's clear, the brighter the night is. That's something we never see either, because it's so artificially bright in all the places we live. We never see the natural light of the night sky.

I can also recommend reading David Owen's 2007 NYer piece on light pollution.

How many people are in space right now?Aug 26 2013

How many people are in space right now? is a single serving site that will give you the answer, along with the astronauts' names, ranks, nationalities, and how long they've been in space.

As of August 26, 2013, these six people have emigrated from Earth's atmosphere and not yet returned:

  • Pavel Vinogradov, Commander (Russia): 151 DAYS IN SPACE
  • Alexander Misurkin, Flight Engineer (Russia): 151 DAYS IN SPACE
  • Chris Cassidy, Flight Engineer (USA): 151 DAYS IN SPACE
  • Fyodor Yurchikhin, Flight Engineer (Russia): 90 DAYS IN SPACE
  • Karen Nyberg, Flight Engineer (USA): 90 DAYS IN SPACE
  • Luca Parmitano, Flight Engineer (Italy): 90 DAYS IN SPACE

When I was a kid, I always thought that by the time I was an adult, we would have town-sized colonies in space stations around Earth, even if nowhere else. But getting and keeping human beings in space is hard, and robots have gotten very smart. Still, when I think about the rise of commercial human spaceflight, part of me is like "I don't just want to shoot into space like a soda can and do one lousy orbit!" -- as if that wouldn't be the most magical experience of my life. It doesn't matter. What I really want is to do a semester abroad.

Hats tipped to Zach Seward, Melody Kramer, and Sharon Jacobs.

The Apollo Guidance ComputerAug 23 2013

A 30-minute documentary from the 60s on the Apollo Guidance Computer.

The Pioneer DetectivesAug 13 2013

If you're at all interested in the Pioneer Anomaly (and you really should be, it's fascinating), The Pioneer Detectives ebook by Konstantin Kakaes looks interesting.

Explore one of the greatest scientific mysteries of our time, the Pioneer Anomaly: in the 1980s, NASA scientists detected an unknown force acting on the spacecraft Pioneer 10, the first man-made object to journey through the asteroid belt and study Jupiter, eventually leaving the solar system. No one seemed able to agree on a cause. (Dark matter? Tensor-vector-scalar gravity? Collisions with gravitons?) What did seem clear to those who became obsessed with it was that the Pioneer Anomaly had the potential to upend Einstein and Newton -- to change everything we know about the universe.

Kakaes was a science writer for The Economist and studied physics at Harvard, so this topic seems right up his alley. Available for $2.99 for the Kindle and for iBooks on iOS.

The Saturn V rocket, simplifiedJul 31 2013

Randall Munroe of XKCD drew the Saturn V rocket (aka Up Goer Five) annotated using only the 1000 most common English words.

Up Goer Five

See also Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity In Words of Four Letters or Less.

Waltz Around SaturnJul 25 2013

Fabio Di Donato made this fantastic short film about Saturn using hundreds of thousands of images taken by the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft.

I love the editing technique employed here...the film feels like a silent short from the 1920s but also very contemporary. (via ★interesting)

ISS in transitJul 25 2013

Romanian photographer Maximilian Teodorescu recently caught the International Space Station in transit across the Sun.

ISS Sun

Teodorescu has also taken photos of the ISS in transit across the Moon.

ISS Moon

These photos make the ISS seem tiny and huge all at the same time. And be sure to click through on the links to see the full-sized photos.

Trailer for GravityJul 24 2013

The latest trailer for Gravity, starring Bullock and Clooney and directed by Alfonso Cuarón (who directed Children of Men).

Holy God, this looks terrifying. Can't wait. (via ★interesting)

The Sun telescopeJul 02 2013

Turning the Sun into a giant radio telescope through gravitational lensing will take some work, but it is possible.

An Italian space scientist, Claudio Maccone, believes that gravitational lensing could be used for something even more extraordinary: searching for radio signals from alien civilizations. Maccone wants to use the sun as a gravitational lens to make an extraordinarily sensitive radio telescope. He did not invent the idea, which he calls FOCAL, but he has studied it more deeply than anyone else. A radio telescope at a gravitational focal point of the sun would be incredibly sensitive. (Unlike an optical lens, a gravitational lens actually has many focal points that lie along a straight line, called a focal line; imagine a line running through an observer, the center of the lens, and the target.) For one particular frequency that has been proposed as a channel for interstellar communication, a telescope would amplify the signal by a factor of 1.3 quadrillion.

Personal pocket spacecraft to the MoonJun 27 2013

This is incredible: an outfit called Pocket Spacecraft are making paper-thin "spacecraft" the size of CDs, hundreds of which will be placed into a rocket and sent to the Moon. They're funding the project on Kickstarter and you can purchase your very own Moon-bound spacecraft for as little as £199.

A space telescope for everyoneMay 30 2013

Planetary Resources, an asteroid mining company (no, really!), has launched a $1 million Kickstarter campaign for "a space telescope for everyone".

The ARKYD is a technologically advanced, orbiting space telescope that will be controlled by YOU, the crowd, through your pledges and community involvement! You can even direct your telescope time to non-profit science centers and universities for use in your communities!

How long before Reddit raises a bunch of funds to point the telescope at some venting gases on Uranus all day every day?

How does copyright work in space?May 24 2013

When Commander Chris Hadfield covered David Bowie's Space Oddity on board the International Space Station:

how were the intellectual property rights handled?

The song "Space Oddity" is under copyright protection in most countries, and the rights to it belong to Mr Bowie. But compulsory-licensing rights in many nations mean that any composition that has been released to the public (free or commercially) as an audio recording may be recorded again and sold by others for a statutorily defined fee, although it must be substantively the same music and lyrics as the original. But with the ISS circling the globe, which jurisdiction was Commander Hadfield in when he recorded the song and video? Moreover, compulsory-licensing rights for covers of existing songs do not include permission for broadcast or video distribution. Commander Hadfield's song was loaded onto YouTube, which delivers video on demand to users in many countries around the world. The first time the video was streamed in each country constituted publication in that country, and with it the potential for copyright infringement under local laws. Commander Hadfield could have made matters even more complicated by broadcasting live as he sang to an assembled audience of fellow astronauts for an onboard public performance while floating from segment to segment of the ISS.

We live in a world where sending a guitar into space is trivial while ironing out rights agreements is the tough part. (via waxy)

David Chang cooks space food for Chris HadfieldMay 17 2013

Momofuku's David Chang cooks up some gourmet space food for celeb astronaut Chris Hadfield.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work out so well. Who knew that gravity was so useful? But stay for the best part of the whole thing...right at the end, Hadfield feeds himself asparagus like a fish.

Meme star chartMay 16 2013

From XKCD, a chart of the memes that various star systems are just hearing from the Earth's light-speed communications.

Pop Culture Star Chart

This is the meme version of Contact's opening credits scene, which is one of my favorites:

The Soviets cloned the Space ShuttleMay 14 2013

How appropriate that at the height of the Cold War, in which the United States was attempting to spend the Soviet Union into collapse (a task at which they eventually succeeded), the Soviets cloned the buggiest, most inconsistant part of the US space program.

Russian Space Shuttle

Called Buran (Russian for blizzard or snowstorm), the program was launched by the Kremlin as a reaction to NASA's space shuttle and an attempt to gain an edge in space against the backdrop of Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" Strategic Defense Initiative. It was also an attempt to fulfill the Soviet Union's dream of reusable spacecraft and payloads, ideas that predated the American space program.

A massive effort began. Over a million and a half people worked on the multi-billion dollar project, while researchers developed new, elaborate schemes for Russian space exploration. Among other tasks, Russian scientists hoped that the Buran would be able to carry the space station back to Earth, and -- the reported reason for its inception -- to allow the USSR to carry out military attacks from space.

And from Maciej Ceglowski's epic takedown of the Shuttle program, this little tidbit:

The Soviet Shuttle, the Buran (snowstorm) was an aerodynamic clone of the American orbiter, but incorporated many original features that had been considered and rejected for the American program, such as all-liquid rocket boosters, jet engines, ejection seats and an unmanned flight capability. You know you're in trouble when the Russians are adding safety features to your design.

(via @Mike_FTW)

Life in spaceMay 09 2013

The quick progress of the US space program in the 1960s and 70s and the science fiction of the 70s and 80s seemed to point towards humans living permanently in space. What happened?

Ironically, our actual experiments in space living have largely reinforced this stark perspective. Real life in space is often cramped, unpleasant and even pointless. Some years back, I visited Star City near Moscow, the training centre for cosmonauts since Gagarin, where I had a chance to clamber inside a full-scale training mock-up of the Mir space station. The experience was more like residing inside a computer terminal than one of O'Neill's cylindrical islands, so proximate and abundant were tubes, wires, levers, buttons and unnameable gadgets.

More disorienting was the placement of controls and conveniences: because space was limited, these were distributed throughout the station without reference to Earthly gravity, thus making use of 'ceilings' as sleeping quarters, walls for toilet cubicles and virtually any other surface for any other activity. One could get used to such things (and you'd have to be a true cynic to tire of the view outside your window). But it's a far, far cry from strolling the wide corridors of the Starship Enterprise.

They promised us life in space, flying cars, and jetpacks but all we got were pocket-sized rectangles containing all human knowledge. FAIL.

It's a bird, it's a plane, no, it's a bolide!May 09 2013

Since 861 AD, almost 35,000 meteorites were recorded hitting the Earth but only 1,045 were actually seen falling. This animated infographic is a good way to visualize the data. Bolides is the perfect domain name. (via @DavidGrann)

Wringing out a washcloth in spaceApr 18 2013

What happens when you wring a washcloth out in zero gravity? Something cool.

Commander Hadfield is the best. I love when he casually lets go of the wireless mic and it just floats there right in front of his face. (thx, dusty)

Trippin' to MarsApr 16 2013

Great article by Burkhard Bilger about NASA's Curiosity mission to Mars.

The search for life on Mars is now in its sixth decade. Forty spacecraft have been sent there, and not one has found a single fossil or living thing. The closer we look, the more hostile the planet seems: parched and frozen in every season, its atmosphere inert and murderously thin, its surface scoured by solar winds. By the time Earth took its first breath three billion years ago, geologists now believe, Mars had been suffocating for a billion years. The air had thinned and rivers evaporated; dust storms swept up and ice caps seized what was left of the water. The Great Desiccation Event, as it's sometimes called, is even more of a mystery than the Great Oxygenation on Earth. We know only this: one planet lived and the other died. One turned green, the other red.

Perfect read if you've been curious about what Curiosity is up to on Mars but needed something a bit more narrative than the mission home page or Wikipedia page to guide you. Also features the phrase "a self-eating watermelon of despair", so there's that. Oh, and here's the Seven Minutes of Terror video referred to in the story.

How well did Galileo observe Jupiter's moons?Mar 13 2013

In the pages of Sidereus Nuncius, Galileo described the four large moons of Jupiter in a series of 64 sketches which looked a lot like ASCII art in the text:

Sidereus Nuncius

Using an online tool for computing the positions of Jupiter's moons, Ernie Wright compared Galileo's sketches to the moons' actual motions.

Galileo moons

Click through for an animated GIF of all the comparisons. Not bad for the telescopic state of the art in 1610. For a taste of how celestial objects actually appeared when viewed through Galileo's telescope, check out this video starting around 7:30. (thx, john)

Thar's platinum in them thar 'roidsMar 12 2013

It's science fiction for now, but two companies are betting that mining asteroids for minerals will be possible in the near future.

The potential bonanza is, well, astronomical. A single 500-metre metal-rich asteroid might contain the equivalent of all the platinum-group metals mined to date. Icy bodies could provide water to sustain astronauts or be processed into rocket fuel for future missions to Mars.

The vortex view of planetary motion around the SunMar 01 2013

Since the Sun moves relative to the other stars around it at about 45,000 miles/hr, if you change the frame of reference from the Sun to the surrounding stellar system, you get planetary motion that looks something like this:

I would take this video with a grain of salt though, especially when it says things like "the Sun is like a comet, dragging the planets in its wake"...the planets don't lag behind the Sun. Better to think of the thing as a conceptual schematic: resembling reality but not really accurate. (via @pieratt)

Update: There's a new version of the video that addresses some of the concerns raised about the first video:

(thx, john)

Update: Phil Plait from Bad Astronomy has posted a pretty thorough takedown of this video.

However, there's a problem with it: It's wrong. And not just superficially; it's deeply wrong, based on a very wrong premise. While there are some useful visualizations in it, I caution people to take it with a galaxy-sized grain of salt.

Photograph from the surface of TitanFeb 05 2013

So far, humans have taken photos from the surfaces of Earth, the Moon, Venus, and Mars. But I had no idea that a photo from the surface of Titan existed:

Titan Surface

The photo of the Saturnian moon was taken in 2005 by the Huygens probe, which was designed to land safely on the moon's surface. From Wikipedia:

After landing, Huygens photographed a dark plain covered in small rocks and pebbles, which are composed of water ice. The two rocks just below the middle of the image on the right are smaller than they may appear: the left-hand one is 15 centimeters across, and the one in the center is 4 centimeters across, at a distance of about 85 centimeters from Huygens. There is evidence of erosion at the base of the rocks, indicating possible fluvial activity. The surface is darker than originally expected, consisting of a mixture of water and hydrocarbon ice. The assumption is that the "soil" visible in the images is precipitation from the hydrocarbon haze above.

And a special close-but-no-cigar award goes to the NEAR Shoemaker probe, which snapped this photo from about 400 feet above the surface of the near-Earth asteroid Eros:

Eros surface

The probe landed on the surface of Eros in February 2001 and transmitted usable data for about two weeks afterwards, none of which was photographic in nature.

What if: the Milky Way were visible in NYCFeb 04 2013

It would look something like this:

NYC with stars

That's from a series called Darkened Skies by Thierry Cohen; he photographed various cities (NYC, Paris, Tokyo, SF) and matched them up with starry skies from more remote places like Montana, Nevada, and the Sahara. New Yorkers can see Cohen's work at the Danziger Gallery starting March 28.

See also Imagining Earth with Saturn's Rings.

Can you fly a plane on Mars?Jan 30 2013

Another fine installment of XKCD's What If? series: What would happen if you tried to fly a normal Earth airplane above different Solar System bodies?

Unfortunately, [the X-Plane simulator] is not capable of simulating the hellish environment near the surface of Venus. But physics calculations give us an idea of what flight there would be like. The upshot is: Your plane would fly pretty well, except it would be on fire the whole time, and then it would stop flying, and then stop being a plane.

(via stellar)

Richard Feynman and the Space Shuttle Challenger investigationJan 28 2013

The Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated shortly after liftoff 27 years ago today. Physicist Richard Feynman had a hand in determining the reason for the disaster.

I'm an explorer, ok? I get curious about everything and I want to investigate all kinds of stuff.

Here's Feynman's appendix to The Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident in which he dissents with the majority opinion of the commission. His conclusion:

If a reasonable launch schedule is to be maintained, engineering often cannot be done fast enough to keep up with the expectations of originally conservative certification criteria designed to guarantee a very safe vehicle. In these situations, subtly, and often with apparently logical arguments, the criteria are altered so that flights may still be certified in time. They therefore fly in a relatively unsafe condition, with a chance of failure of the order of a percent (it is difficult to be more accurate).

Official management, on the other hand, claims to believe the probability of failure is a thousand times less. One reason for this may be an attempt to assure the government of NASA perfection and success in order to ensure the supply of funds. The other may be that they sincerely believed it to be true, demonstrating an almost incredible lack of communication between themselves and their working engineers.

In any event this has had very unfortunate consequences, the most serious of which is to encourage ordinary citizens to fly in such a dangerous machine, as if it had attained the safety of an ordinary airliner. The astronauts, like test pilots, should know their risks, and we honor them for their courage. Who can doubt that McAuliffe was equally a person of great courage, who was closer to an awareness of the true risk than NASA management would have us believe?

Let us make recommendations to ensure that NASA officials deal in a world of reality in understanding technological weaknesses and imperfections well enough to be actively trying to eliminate them. They must live in reality in comparing the costs and utility of the Shuttle to other methods of entering space. And they must be realistic in making contracts, in estimating costs, and the difficulty of the projects. Only realistic flight schedules should be proposed, schedules that have a reasonable chance of being met. If in this way the government would not support them, then so be it. NASA owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources.

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

Clear thought, clear writing. Feynman was perhaps the most efficient mechanism ever conceived for consuming complexity and pumping out simplicity. (via @ptak)

A tour of NASA's fake lunar surface in ArizonaJan 23 2013

Cinder Lake NASA

At a training site in Arizona called Cinder Lake, NASA created a "simulated lunar environment" for the purpose of testing lunar rovers and other pieces of equipment.

At the end of a four-day period of controlled explosions, USGS scientists had succeeded in creating a 500 square foot "simulated lunar environment" in Northern Arizona -- forty-seven craters of between five and forty feet in diameter designed to duplicate at a 1:1 scale a specific location (and future Apollo 11 landing site) on the moon, in a region called the Mare Tranquillitatis.

If they faked the Moon landing, this is probably where they did it.

Apollo 16 lunar rover dash camJan 23 2013

I had no idea there was footage shot on the Moon from the perspective of a lunar rover passenger...basically a lunar rover dash cam. It's the second half of this short video:

Amazing. The first part shows the rover speeding off (at about 6 miles/hr), being put through its paces. From the transcript of the "Grand Prix":

124:58:52 Duke: The suspension system on that thing is fantastic!

124:58:54 England: That sounds good. We sound like we probably got enough of the Grand Prix. We're willing to let you go on from here. Call that a (complete) Grand Prix.

124:59:03 Duke: Okay. (Pause) Man, that was all four wheels off the ground, there. Okay. Max stop.

124:59:12 Young: Okay. I don't want to do that.

124:59:13 Duke: Okay. Excuse me.

124:59:16 Young: They say that's a no-no.

124:59:22 Duke: Okay, DAC off; Mark. Okay, John. DAC's off.

124:59:27 Young: Okay. I have a lot of confidence in the stability of this contraption.

124:59:30 Duke: Me, too.

124:59:32 England: Sounds great.

Also, we took a fucking car to the Moon! Three times!

Why the Moon landing wasn't fakedJan 22 2013

Filmmaker S.G. Collins argues that in 1969, it was easier to send people to the Moon than to fake the landing in a studio. Technologically speaking, it was impossible to shoot that video anywhere other than the surface of the Moon. Which sounds crazy.

(via devour)

NASA's Smart SPHERES, floating robot drones on the ISSJan 14 2013

NASA is testing something they call SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites) on the International Space Station...they are spherical robots that can fly around the station and perform simple tasks. They were inspired by the floating droid remote that Luke trains with in Star Wars. The most recent test was in December.

The Smart SPHERES, located in the Kibo laboratory module, were remotely operated from the International Space Station's Mission Control Center at Johnson to demonstrate how a free-flying robot can perform surveys for environmental monitoring, inspection and other routine housekeeping tasks.

In the future, small robots could regularly perform routine maintenance tasks allowing astronauts to spend more time working on science experiments. In the long run, free-flying robots like Smart SPHERES also could be used to inspect the exterior of the space station or future deep-space vehicles.

They are outfitting the Smart SPHERES with Android phones for data collection:

Each SPHERE Satellite is self-contained with power, propulsion, computing and navigation equipment. When Miller's team first designed the SPHERES, all of their potential uses couldn't be imagined up front. So, the team built an "expansion port" into each satellite where additional sensors and appendages, such as cameras and wireless power transfer systems, could be added. This is how the Nexus S handset -- the SPHERES' first smartphone upgrade -- is going to be attached.

"Because the SPHERES were originally designed for a different purpose, they need some upgrades to become remotely operated robots," said DW Wheeler, lead engineer in the Intelligent Robotics Group at Ames. "By connecting a smartphone, we can immediately make SPHERES more intelligent. With the smartphone, the SPHERES will have a built-in camera to take pictures and video, sensors to help conduct inspections, a powerful computing unit to make calculations, and a Wi-Fi connection that we will use to transfer data in real-time to the space station and mission control."

Here's some video from a past test:

A tour of the International Space StationJan 02 2013

NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, who has spent almost a year in space, gives us a 25-minute tour of the International Space Station. AKA the nerdiest episode of MTV Cribs.

(via @durietz)

Timeline of the far futureDec 26 2012

The timeline of the far future artice is far from the longest page on Wikipedia, but it might take you several hours to get through because it contains so many enticing detours. What's Pangaea Ultima? Oooh, Roche limit! The Degenerate Era, Poincaré recurrence time, the Big Rip scenario, the cosmic light horizon, the list goes on and on. And the article itself is a trove of fascinating facts and eye-popping phrases. Here are a few of my favorites. (Keep in mind that the universe is only 13.75 billion years old. Unless we're living in a computer simulation.)

50,000 years: "Niagara Falls erodes away the remaining 32 km to Lake Erie and ceases to exist."

1 million years: "Highest estimated time until the red supergiant star Betelgeuse explodes in a supernova. The explosion is expected to be easily visible in daylight."

1.4 million years: "The star Gliese 710 passes as close as 1.1 light years to the Sun before moving away. This may gravitationally perturb members of the Oort cloud; a halo of icy bodies orbiting at the edge of the Solar System. As a consequence, the likelihood of a cometary impact in the inner Solar System will increase."

230 million years: "Beyond this time, the orbits of the planets become impossible to predict."

Timeline Future

800 million years: "Carbon dioxide levels fall to the point at which C4 photosynthesis is no longer possible. Multicellular life dies out."

4 billion years: "Median point by which the Andromeda Galaxy will have collided with the Milky Way, which will thereafter merge to form a galaxy dubbed 'Milkomeda'."

7.9 billion years: "The Sun reaches the tip of the red giant branch, achieving its maximum radius of 256 times the present day value. In the process, Mercury, Venus and possibly Earth are destroyed. During these times, it is possible that Saturn's moon Titan could achieve surface temperatures necessary to support life."

100 billion years: "The Universe's expansion causes all galaxies beyond the Milky Way's Local Group to disappear beyond the cosmic light horizon, removing them from the observable universe."

1 trillion years: "The universe's expansion, assuming a constant dark energy density, multiplies the wavelength of the cosmic microwave background by 10^29, exceeding the scale of the cosmic light horizon and rendering its evidence of the Big Bang undetectable."

1 quadrillion years: "Estimated time until stellar close encounters detach all planets in the Solar System from their orbits. By this point, the Sun will have cooled to five degrees above absolute zero."

10^65 years: "Assuming that protons do not decay, estimated time for rigid objects like rocks to rearrange their atoms and molecules via quantum tunneling. On this timescale all matter is liquid."

10^10^56 years: "Estimated time for random quantum fluctuations to generate a new Big Bang, according to Caroll and Chen."

Read the whole thing, it's worth the effort. (via @daveg)

Note: Illustration by Chris Piascik...prints & more are available.

What would realistic space battles look like?Nov 21 2012

This impressive 7,000 word essay written by user Memphet'ran on the appropriately named Spacebattles.com forum attempts to answer that question.

There are only a handful of engines that allow a combination of high thrust and low mass ratio. The most promising are Orion nuclear pulse propulsion and the nuclear salt water rocket. Some nuclear thermal designs also have thrust high enough to possibly be useful, although only for a small ship. The user "RJP" on Spacebattles also suggested something called a fission fragment drive which works by throwing high-velocity fuel fragments out the back of the ship, but other sites I've researched suggest it would be a low-thrust high-ISP [in-space propulsion] system more suitable to an explorer than a warship. Orion works by the (seemingly insane, but actually quite effective) method of throwing nuclear bombs behind the spacecraft and having it ride the blasts. The hot gasses from the detonations hit a heavy pusher plate at the back of the ship and drive it forward. NSWR [nuclear salt water rocket] is similar, but it instead uses a solution of fissionables in salt water that spontaneously explodes as it leaves the rocket nozzle. Both systems cleverly shift the propulsive reaction outside the spacecraft, eliminating the need to deal with most of the heat it produces and allowing it to be made much more energetic.

And previously on kottke.org:

For the same reason that we have Space Shuttle launch delays, we'll be able to tell exactly what trajectories our enemies could take between planets: the launch window. At any given point in time, there are only so many routes from here to Mars that will leave our imperialist forces enough fuel and energy to put down the colonists' revolt.

If you've got a hankering to go hands on, the video games EVE and FTL approach realistic space battles in their own ways.

(via @BenKuckera)

Earth-sized planet found only 4.3 light years awayOct 16 2012

A European team of exoplanet hunters has discovered a planet about the size of Earth orbiting Alpha Centauri B, which is in a group of stars closest to the solar system, a mere 4.3 light years away. Lee Billings explains the significance.

At a distance of just over 4.3 light years, the stars of Alpha Centauri are only a cosmic stone's throw away. To reach Alpha Centauri B b, as this new world is called, would require a journey of some 25 trillion miles. For comparison, the next-nearest known exoplanet is a gas giant orbiting the orange star Epsilon Eridani, more than twice as far away. But don't pack your bags quite yet. With a probable surface temperature well above a thousand degrees Fahrenheit, Alpha Centauri B b is no Goldilocks world. Still, its presence is promising: Planets tend to come in packs, and some theorists had believed no planets at all could form in multi-star systems like Alpha Centauri, which are more common than singleton suns throughout our galaxy. It seems increasingly likely that small planets exist around most if not all stars, near and far alike, and that Alpha Centauri B may possess additional worlds further out in clement, habitable orbits, tantalizingly within reach.

Photos of the Space Shuttle being driven through Los AngelesOct 15 2012

On Saturday, the Space Shuttle Endeavour was driven 12 miles through the streets of Los Angeles on its way to the California Science Center. It was a tight fit at times.

Space Shuttle LA

1850s poster of the planetsOct 05 2012

I love this poster:

Solar System Poster 1850

(via @ptak)

The boomerang meteorOct 03 2012

While driving a couple weeks ago, I happened to catch a meteor shooting across the sky:

Saw one of the coolest things ever tonight: a meteor burning up in the lower atmosphere. Super bright, exploded at the end like a firework.

It turned out that "one of the coolest things ever" wasn't hyperbole. You see, earlier that day over the UK, a meteor streaked across the sky for about 50 seconds:

And then the one I saw happened about two-and-a-half hours later. Spurred by this unlikely coincidence, mathematician Esko Lyytinen of the colorfully named Finnish Fireball Working Group of the Ursa Astronomical Association did some calculations and determined that the two events were actually the same meteor.

He believes a large body grazed the upper atmosphere, dipping to an altitude of 33 miles (53 km) over Ireland before escaping back to space. Because it arrived moving at only about 8 miles (13 km) per second, barely above Earth's escape velocity, it lingered for more than a minute as it crossed the sky. (This explains why some witnesses mistook it for reentering spacecraft debris.)

Lyytinen says the brief atmospheric passage took its toll. As the meteoroid broke apart, its velocity dropped to just 5.7 miles (9.2 km) per second, too slow to make an escape back to space. Instead, it became a temporary satellite of Earth, looping completely around the globe before reentering the atmosphere -- this time for good. "It looks now that the fireball witnessed 155 minutes later in U.S. and Canada, may have been one fragment of the British fireball, most probably the biggest one," Lyytinen explains.

Boomerang Meteor

These earth-grazers are not common but they do happen from time to time. But a visible Earth grazing meteor that enters the atmosphere twice? Unprecedented. So cool! (thx, alex)

In which Mars Curiosity finds a river bedSep 27 2012

Earlier this month, the Curiosity rover photographed a dry stream bed on the surface of Mars.

Mars Curiosity River Bed

That's the Mars river bed on the left and an Earth river bed on the right. Note the flat smooth rocks in the Mars pic. Pretty cool.

Zero gravity yo-yo tricksSep 20 2012

It turns out that yo-yos work pretty well in space. Astronaut Don Pettit demontrates from the International Space Station.

(via explore)

The story of Mars Curiosity's gearsSep 07 2012

From Our City, Our Story, the story of a Rockford, Illinois gear factory that made all of the gears for the Mars Curiosity rover.

What might be more remarkable than creating crucial equipment destined for Mars? For a second time? Well, creating a thriving motivated company culture with a team of career employees -- the kind who lie in bed at night thinking, "what can I do in the morning when I get there?" The kind who take on responsibility, impose their own high standards and like Amy Sovina, have the "mindset something I touched is now on the surface of Mars."

I would love to have seen a live feed of these gear shop employees watching the landing.

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