Cosmic Paparazzi: A Planet Called Home

Here’s what Home looked like today:

Full Disk Image of Earth Captured Feb. 7, 2011
(NASA / NOAA GOES-13 satellite image showing earth on Feb. 7, 2010 – Click through image for higher resolutions.)

Ain’t she a fine looking planet? Enjoy the wallpaper fodder.

Ham: The Mercury Program's First Astrochimp

Last week, we recognized sad and tragic events in space history; with the anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire and the Challenger disaster. Today, we lighten things up a bit with a look back in space history and introduce you to the Mercury program’s first astronaut: Ham.

50 years ago today, a chimpanzee named Ham1 was strapped to a rocket and launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on a 16 minute, 39 second sub-orbital flight. The flight was part of NASA’s Mercury Project which sent the first American into space.

Chimpanzee Ham and technician go over equipment in preparation for launch.

Chimpanzee Ham and technician go over equipment in preparation for launch. – Source: NASA

The NASA publication, This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury, gives an explanation of Ham’s mission:

Having the same organ placement and internal suspension as man, plus a long medical research background, the chimpanzee chosen to ride the Redstone and perform a lever-pulling chore throughout the mission should not only test out the life-support systems but prove that levers could be pulled during launch, weightlessness, and reentry.

Levers could be pulled, and just about as well as they could be pulled in training on Earth. In fact, Ham’s reaction time was only .02 of a second slower than his performance of the same task on Earth.

During the flight, Ham’s capsule suffered from a partial loss of pressure; however, Ham’s spacesuit saved him from harm. All said and done, Ham returned to Earth in great physical shape, save a bruised nose.

The famous "hand shake" welcome. Chimpanzee Ham is greeted by recovery ship Commander after his flight on the Mercury Redstone rocket.

The famous “hand shake” welcome. Chimpanzee Ham is greeted by recovery ship Commander after his flight on the Mercury Redstone rocket. – Source: NASA

After his flight, Ham spent the next 17 years living at the National Zoo, in Washington D.C. He made numerous television appearances, and appeared in film with Evel Knievel. He died of natural causes in 1983, at the age of 26. Ham has a grave at the International Space Hall of Fame in New Mexico.

So today, we look back 50 years and remember Ham and thank him for his contributions to space science.

 

  1. Technically, he wasn’t named Ham until after his successful mission and return to Earth. Until then, he was simply, #65. This is reportedly because officials were concerned with the bad publicity that would result if an unsuccessful mission was compounded with a named chimp. His handlers, however, called him Chop Chop Chang.

Remembering Challenger

25 years ago today, seven explorers gave their lives in the pursuit of scientific understanding. 73 seconds after lift-off, Challenger broke apart and disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean.

Crew of Challenger STS-51-L

Crew of Challenger STS-51-L

We remember Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair; (back row) Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik.

We thank them for assisting in this planet’s quest to reach for the stars.

It's Official… Probably

While funding from Congress isn’t complete, NASA added the 135th and final mission for the Shuttle Program. The agency has scheduled the shuttle Atlantis for a launch-date target of June 28.

Space Shuttle Atlantis

Space Shuttle Atlantis following liftoff of STS-129. - Source: NASA

In October of last year, President Obama signed the 2010 NASA Authorization Act which allowed an additional shuttle flight before the fleet retires. Congress, however, has yet to appropriate the full funding required for the mission. Funds to get the mission started are available in existing budgets, but complete funding will have to come from Congress; expected in March.

The mission will take a four-member crew, the Raffaello multipurpose logistics module, and supplies to the International Space Station. One spacewalk is scheduled, and they’ll be returning a faulty ammonia pump module that has been troubling engineers.

I personally hope NASA can keep squeaking through additional shuttle missions. It’s not so much that I don’t want to let the program go, it’s that I don’t want to let it go without a replacement ready to fly.

Remembering Apollo 1

Today marks 44 years since the tragic fire of Apollo 1, which claimed the lives of all three crew members.

We remember Command Pilot Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Senior Pilot Edward H. White II, and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee, who gave their lives then, so we can touch the stars today.

Earthrise Courtesy of KAGUYA

It’s been a busy few weeks and I have a lot of draft posts added to the list for publishing in the near future; everything from the origin of the Moon to NASA’s opening of its first solar-sail. In the mean-time, enjoy this wonderful video captured by JAXA’s SELENE (Selenological and Engineering Explorer) orbiter; also known as Kaguya.

(I recommend the highest HD resolution and full-screen, if your connection and hardware allows.)

The video was captured in November of 2007. After orbiting the Moon for one year and eight months, SELENE was purposely dropped out of lunar orbit and crashed into the lunar surface.

Cosmic Paparazzi: Saturn Storm

Saturn

Saturn Storm - Credit: Credit: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA; Color Composite: Jean-Luc Dauvergne

Explanation: Late last year, a new, remarkably bright storm erupted in Saturn’s northern hemisphere. Amateur astronomers first spotted it in early December, with the ringed gas giant rising in planet Earth’s predawn sky. Orbiting Saturn, the Cassini spacecraft was able to record this close-up of the complex disturbance from a distance of 1.8 million kilometers on December 24th. Over time, the storm has evolved, spreading substantially in longitude, and now stretches far around the planet. Saturn’s thin rings are also seen slicing across this space-based view, casting broad shadows on the planet’s southern hemisphere. – NASA Astronomy Picture Of The Day

Follow-Up To Kepler Announcement

Kepler Mission Logo

Kepler Mission logo

As mentioned in the last post, NASA’s Kepler mission made an announcement today, about the confirmation of another exoplanet.

This was a fascinating find, as the planet discovered — Kepler-10b — is only 1.4 times the size of Earth, and probably terrestrial (rocks and metal; not a gas giant) in nature. This discovery marks the smallest exoplanet yet discovered! Not bad, for something 560 light years away.

Remember, Kepler’s goal is to discover “Earth-like” planets, and then determine how many of them might be in a habitable zone. Is Kepler-10b habitable? It would be highly unlikely. The planet orbits its host star, Kepler 10 (see how they do that?), in an orbit that brings it much closer than Mercury is to the Sun; more than 20 times closer. This means Kepler-10b is hot… several thousand degrees hot! On top of that, it has more than 4-and-half times the mass of the Earth. Standing on Kepler-10b would give new meaning to the phrase, “hot and heavy”.

Planet Kepler-10b Transiting Its Host Star (Artist's Depiction)

Planet Kepler-10b Transiting Its Host Star (Artist's Depiction) / Credit: NASA/Kepler Mission/Dana Berry

Another interesting bit of information, is that it’s expected to be tidally locked to Kepler 10. Just as the Moon only shows its one face to Earth, Kepler-10b only shows one face to its star. My imagination quickly conjures up an imagination of a planet habitable on one side, and a scorched realm of hellfire on the other — but the facts probably indicate the entire thing is closer to the latter; a big dense glob of molten material.

So, let’s quickly recap some of the highlights of Kepler’s 9th confirmed exoplanet discovery.

Diameter: 1.4 Earths
Mass: 4.6 Earth mass
Smallest exoplanet ever discovered
Orbital period: .84 days (that thing is screaming around the Kepler 10)
Harbors Life?: Highly improbably (no, not even arsenic-based life!)

Following the announcement, NASA/Kepler held a chat with Kepler Mission expert, Natalie Batalha. It was open to anyone who wanted to join in, and I noticed about 250 participants during the event. There were some great questions and answers, and a full transcript should be up within a couple of days.

I collected a few questions and answers to keep you interested while we wait:

Q: Can Kepler determine anything about the chemical content of a candidate planet’s atmosphere to determine if it would be suitable for life as we know it?

Natalie: Kepler can not probe the atmosphere of the planet, no. However, I fully expect other telescopes and missions to do transmission spectroscopy to see if it has an atmosphere. With transmission spectroscopy, you observe the planet when it is right in front of the star (allowing starlight to stream through its atmosphere) and then you observe it when it is not in front of the star. Then, you compare the two to see what the atmosphere might have done to the starlight.

Q: How do you measure the planet mass, size and the distance to the star? And the planet composition?

Natalie: Mass comes from the Doppler measurements of the wobble of the star as the planet/star orit about their commone center of mass. Radius comes from the amount of dimming of starlight that occurs during transit. The distance can be derived if you know the surface temperature and radius of the star. Together they give the intrinsic brightness. We know how bright the star appears to us. Knowing how right it SHOULD be instrinsically allows us to determine how far away it is — 560 light-years for Kepler-10.

Q: What are the prospects for additional planets in the Kepler 10 star system? Any hints?

Natalie: There is actually already a very compelling signature of another potential planet in this system. There is a transit event that recurs once every 45 days and is suggestive of a planet a bit larger than 2 times the radius of the Earth.

The Kepler Mission is a wonderful tool to unlocking our understanding of planets outside our own solar system. It’s an exciting time to be on the one known planet (so far!) that allows us to enjoy it.

Kepler Planet Discovery Announcement On Monday

Kepler Mission Logo

Kepler Mission logo

NASA’s Kepler mission will be holding a press conference tomorrow, to make an announcement about a “new planet discovery”.

From the Kepler website:

A new planet discovery will be announced Monday Jan. 10 during the ‘Exoplanets & Their Host Stars’ presentation at the American Astronomical Society (AAS) conference in Seattle, Washington.

Natalie Batalha of the NASA Kepler Mission Team will be online answering your questions about this new planet finding on Monday, Jan. 10 from 3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. EST / 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. PST. Natalie will be chatting with you live from the conference in Seattle.

The chat can be found at this website.

Painting of the Milky Way, with details of Kepler Mission added - Credit: NASA Kepler and Jon Lomberg


To summarize the mission, Kepler is a space-observatory –launched in 2009 — designed to discover Earth-like planets orbiting other stars. It has a planned mission lifetime of 3.5 years. Kepler measures light from stars, and watches for dimming which could indicate a planet transiting in front of the star. Many of the stars Kepler has observed have been variable stars — stars whose brightness changes naturally, as opposed to anything blocking some of its light. These variable stars are dropped from the target database, and replaced with new candidates.

What types of exoplanets is Kepler looking for specifically? According to the Kepler mission page:

The challenge now is to find terrestrial planets (i.e., those one half to twice the size of the Earth), especially those in the habitable zone of their stars where liquid water and possibly life might exist.

The Kepler Mission, NASA Discovery mission #10, is specifically designed to survey a portion of our region of the Milky Way galaxy to discover dozens of Earth-size planets in or near the habitable zone and determine how many of the billions of stars in our galaxy have such planets.

So far, Kepler has found more than 700 planet candidates, which require further data-analysis and ground-based observations to rule out any “false signatures”. Kepler has 8 confirmed planets. These have ranged in mass from 7.7% to more than double the mass of Jupiter. For comparison, Jupiter is 317 times more massive than the Earth — or, Earth is .3% the mass of Jupiter.

So, we wait until tomorrow (or today for many of you) to find out the details of our newly discovered exoplanet friend.

10-Year-Old Girl Discovers Supernova

Supernova Remnant N49

Supernova Remnant N49 in the Large Magellanic Cloud - Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

Across the world, many children spent their Christmas vacation sleeping in, making snowmen (and snowwomen), and playing video games.

10-year-old Kathryn Aurora Gray, instead discovered a supernova!

Kathryn was studying images sent to her father at an amateur observatory. To find supernovas, astronomers comb through dozens of past images of star fields and compare them to newer images; specialized software helps indicate potential supernova candidates.

The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada confirmed the find (.pdf) on January 3.

Her discovery made her the youngest to accomplish such a feat. Her father set the same record in 1995, when he was 22.

I can only imagine how cool she’s going to be in science class from now on. My kids’ teachers sometimes have to face my kids correcting them when they point out a planet incorrectly (“No, that’s not Jupiter, that’s Venus… My dad pointed it out and we were talking about it this morning!”), but they have yet to pipe up in class and say “Of course I know what a supernova is, I already discovered one!”

It’s quite exciting to see a young student so interested in science, and at such a young age, already carving a name out for herself in the astronomical community.

Congratulations Kathryn! Keep up the good work!