The Google Lunar XPRIZE

Be the first team to land a spacecraft on the Moon, travel at least 500 meters, transmit HD images and video back to Earth, and you’ve won yourself $20 million. Oh, and you also have to do this 90%-funded by private investment and do it by the end of 2017. That’s the mission for the Google Lunar XPRIZE.

XPRIZE logo

The XPRIZE is the name of various competitions organized by the non-profit XPRIZE Foundation.

The XPRIZE mission is to bring about “radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity” through incentivized competition. We foster high‐profile competitions that motivate individuals, companies and organizations across all disciplines to develop innovative ideas and technologies that help solve the grand challenges that restrict humanity’s progress.

One of the most famous XPRIZE competitions was the Ansari XPrize. In 2004, Mojave Aerospace Ventures took that $10 million prize with their SpaceShipOne, after they became the first team to “build a reliable, reusable, privately financed, manned spaceship capable of carrying three people to 100 kilometers above the Earth’s surface twice within two weeks”. The prize was a major step forward for the development of a private space industry. A few other XPRIZEs have included developing super-efficient automobiles, solutions for cleaning the ocean after oil spills, improving sensor systems for health care services, and to improve our understanding of ocean acidification.

Google Lunar XPRIZE

The Google Lunar XPRIZE is the biggest competition yet, and sets-out to”ignite a new era of planetary exploration by lowering the cost to explore and capturing and inspiring the imagination of a new generation.” More than thirty teams initially registered for the lunar competition. Of those, sixteen participated in all of the required registration activities. But as of January 1st, 2017, the pool was reduced by another eleven. Five teams currently remain, all of which have active contracts to launch to the Moon this year. Those teams are:

SpaceIL (Israel)

SpaceIL was the first team to secure a launch contract. They plan to land their “hopper” craft on the Moon, then fly–in a single ‘hop’–the required 500 meters and land again to secure the prize.

Moon Express (United States)

Moon Express was the first country to secure their government’s authorization to operate on the lunar surface. They intend to launch their “hopper” craft from New Zealand in late 2017.

Synergy Moon (International)

Synergy Moon isn’t contracting with a launch provider for their launch, they’re doing it themselves thanks to Interorbital Systems being a part of the team. Their launch is expected to take place from the Pacific Ocean, off of the coast of California, in the second half of 2017.

Team Indus (India)

Team Indus is planning on launching their adorable 5kg rover, ECA, on December 28 of this year. ECA will include science instruments and cameras from the French national space agency: CNES.

Team Indus's ECA rover

Team Indus’s ECA rover – Source: Team Indus

Hakuto (Japan)

Hakuto’s rover is hitching a ride on the same lander as Team Indus, and boasts some big “partnerships, including au by KDDI, Suzuki, rock band Sakanaction, and a longterm Moon-resources-exploration plan with the Japanese space agency JAXA“.

The Prize

The first team to pull this amazing feat off will earn themselves the $20 million grand prize. In addition to the grand prize, the second place finisher will receive a respectable $5 million. Also, Google has handed out over $5 million in Milestone Prizes for teams (former and current) that have accomplished various important steps to make the mission possible.

Thanks to the Google Lunar XPRIZE, 2017 is set to be an exciting year for private space exploration–The New Space Race is on.

If you’d like to learn more about the Google Lunar XPRIZE, check out the excellent documentary series: Moonshot.

Which Star Is The Smallest?

Like most of my good blog posts, this started with a question from my daughter: What is the smallest star? As much as I love answering her space questions off the top of my head, sometimes it’s even more fun when I get to say, “I don’t know; let’s find out!”

There are many different types of stars, ranging from the smallest red dwarfs to the largest red super giants. Aside from diameter, stars vary tremendously in temperature, mass, brightness (or luminosity, depending on context), color and lifespan. The Universe is home to an amazing amount of stellar variety.

So back to the question: Which star is the smallest?

Before we answer that, I feel I do need to provide a sort of disclaimer: In the context that we’re going to answer the question, when we refer to “smallest”, we’re referring to the diameter of the star, as in the size of its shape. We’re not talking about how massive (think weight) the star is1, or how bright it appears to us on Earth, but how large it would be if you lined it up next to other stars and compared its size. We’re also going to exclude neutron stars (the remnants of supernova explosions of massive stars), white dwarfs  (the remnants of dead stars that are less massive than the ones that create neutron stars), and brown dwarfs (commonly referred to as ‘failed stars’). One more thing: The Universe is huge and there are trillions of stars in it that we’ve never observed. So, our answer is only going to be based on stars that have actually been observed.

Now, without further ado. The smallest star that we have currently observed is the prosaically-named: 2MASS J0523-1403.2 The size of 2Mass J0523-1403 was listed in a 2013 paper published in The Astronomical Journal. The researchers of that paper (Sergio B. Dieterich, Todd J. Henry, Wei-Chun Jao, Jennifer G. Winters, Altonio D. Hosey, Adric R. Riedel, John P. Subasavage) set out to determine the point when a body becomes a star rather than a brown dwarf (failed star). They took data from existing sky surveys and chose 63 nearby red and brown dwarfs to study. Armed with the luminosity and temperature of these bodies, they calculated their diameters using the Stefan-Boltzmann Law. They then plotted the calculated diameters against the temperatures and were able to discover a theoretical lower limit for the diameter of a star: .086 the diameter of the Sun (roughly the size of Saturn). At that point, sat 2MASS J0523-1403, located about 40 light years from here, in the constellation Lepus.

2MASS J0523-1403 identified in its starfield

2MASS J0523-1403 identified in its starfield – Adapted from Source: Strasbourg Astronomical Data Center

And as I said before, we don’t know that this star is the smallest star in the entire universe but because of this research we know that this star is the size that marks the smallest point a star could be.

The relation between size and temperature at the point where stars end and brown dwarfs begin

The relation between size and temperature at the point where stars end and brown dwarfs begin – Image credit: P. Marenfeld & NOAO/AURA/NSF.

The above graphic shows the relationship between size and temperature, at the point where stars end and brown dwarfs begin. Interesting to note is that there are brown dwarfs that are actually larger than some stars.

8.6% is a small fraction of the Sun’s size, but compared to the Earth our new little star friend is still pretty big. You could stack 9 Earths in a row and they still wouldn’t be quite as wide as 2MASS J0523-1403. 2MASS J0523-1403 is just slightly larger than Saturn, and could easily fit inside Jupiter.

Comparison graphic between the Sun, 2MASS J0523-1403, and Earth.

Comparison graphic between the Sun, 2MASS J0523-1403, and Earth. – Source: TheStarSplitter.com

And there you have it: The smallest star in the Universe (that we know of, but this is as small as they can be, but then again there are trillions of stars we have never seen so it’s likely there’s one slightly smaller, maybe by only a few meters, but this is close enough….).

  1. You might think that the size of the star would be relative to how massive a star is, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Just as a shotput is smaller than a basketball yet has more mass, many stars have a smaller diameter yet more mass than others.
  2. The star gets its name from the sky survey that cataloged it: the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS).

Luna 9 – The First Lunar Soft-Landing

The Soviets claimed many firsts in their space race with the United States. First person in space (and orbit), first woman in space, first satellite in orbit. Most would agree, however, that the United States accomplished the biggest first by being the first (and to this day, only) to land humans on the Moon. But the Soviet space program did claim a important lunar firsts of their own: the first lunar fly-by, the first pictures of the far side of the Moon, and the first soft-landing of a probe on the Moon’s surface.

Luna 9 model

Luna 9 model – Source: NASA.gov

On February 3, 1966, the Soviet spacecraft, Luna 9, completed its 3-day journey to the Moon and landed safely on the lunar surface. This ‘soft-landing’ (as in: not a crash-landing) marked the first time a human-made craft survived a landing on any body other than Earth. The successful landing was accomplished by a number of systems that all had to work flawlessly: inflation of an airbag system to cushion the impact, the retrorocket burn to slow the craft, and the deployment of a contact sensor to determine the precise altitude above the Moon. At an altitude of 5 meters, the contact sensor was triggered: engines were shut off and the landing capsule was ejected. Though the craft’s speed was reduced significantly, it still impacted the Moon at a velocity of 22 km/hr (13.7 miles per hour). The airbags allowed the capsule to safely bounce several times before it came to rest.

Following landing and an approximately four-minute pause, four petals that served as the craft’s shell unfolded and stabilized the probe the ground. Antennas were deployed and the craft’s television camera began recording the lunar landscape, capturing the first views ever seen from the surface of the Moon. In addition to the images and radiation readings, the landing also disproved models that suggested that the Moon was covered in a thick layer of dust that would cause any craft (and eventually, persons) who landed there to sink.

One of the first images taken from the Moon's surface

One of the first images taken from the Moon’s surface – Source: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Luna 9’s batteries lasted for three days after landing, during which the craft was able to record a number of panoramic images and beam them back to Earth.

Joddrell Bank, the British observatory located at the University of Manchester, had been paying close attention to the race between the Soviets and the United States. Scientists there not only tracked Luna 9’s progress, but they also recognized the type of signal that the craft was beaming back. They deployed the correct receiving equipment and were able to acquire the lunar images and publish them before the Soviets even managed to see them. There’s still debate as to whether the Soviet scientists let this happen on purpose or not.

While the Soviets soft-landed their craft first, the United States wasn’t far behind. Three months after Luna 9, the US landed Surveyor 1 on the Moon’s surface. Various robots continued to explore the Moon, paving the way for the humans that followed them. After the United States stopped sending astronauts to the Moon in 1972, the next soft-landing wouldn’t occur until 2013, when the Chinese lander Chang’e-3 brought the rover Yutu to explore our celestial neighbor.

How NASA’s Shuttle Numbering System Worked

Space Shuttle program patch

Space Shuttle program patch

It has been nearly six years since NASA’s final shuttle launch ended an era, but I’m still just not ready to let it go. As I’ve written previously, I’ve dubbed my generation ‘the space shuttle generation’. Today, I want to tell you how the shuttles were numbered and explore whether or not the number scheme changed due to one NASA administrator’s triskaidekaphobia (the fear of the number 13).

Space Transportation System

The official name for the space shuttle program was Space Transportation System (abbreviated STS). The program was envisioned to be America’s routine link to orbit, designed to reuse many major components with the idea of a quick return to service and reduced costs. After a few unmanned test flights of the Enterprise prototype, shuttle Columbia became the first shuttle to complete an orbital mission with astronauts aboard (mission commander John W. Young and pilot Robert L. Crippen). This milestone flight carried the simple designation: STS-1. Subsequent missions were given the numbers STS-2 – STS-9. The mission that would have been numbered STS-10 was cancelled due to payload delays. So, you’d expect the next flight to be designated STS-11, right? Wrong. Try STS-41-B.

Shuttles Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour

Shuttles Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour – Public Domain

A New System

Beginning in 1984, NASA switched to a new flight numbering system. The change is credited to a growing complexity of the program’s launch manifest, as well as an anticipated increase in the number of flights and launch locations. The new system, while more complicated than the original system, isn’t that difficult to understand once you know the formula. The STS prefix was continued, followed by a two-digit number, followed by a letter.

Let’s break down STS-41-B:

The first number, 4, indicated which fiscal year the mission was to launch in (dropping the first three digits of the year). In this case, the year was 1984. The second digit, always a 1 or a 2, indicated the launch location: 1 for Kennedy Space Center and 2 for Vandenberg Air Force Base. Since STS-41-B launched from Kennedy Space Center, it carried that second digit of 1. (Note: Vandenberg was never used to launch shuttle missions, and therefore the ‘2’ digit was never utilized). The final part of the scheme, the letter, indicated which planned launch it was for that fiscal year. In our case, B, indicated it was the second intended launch for that year. Keep in mind, the letter designation was assigned for the planned sequence.

STS-41-B = Space Transport System – Fiscal Year 1984, launching from Kennedy Space Center – the second mission of the fiscal year.

Now let’s decode one to see if we got it:

STS-61-A. Using what we learned above, we know that this was the first mission planned for fiscal year 1986 and launching from Kennedy Space Center. Easy!

Return

The new numbering scheme didn’t last for long. On January 28, 1986, STS-51-L, ended in tragedy, as the Challenger shuttle disintegrated 73 seconds after take-off. There wouldn’t be another shuttle launch for 2 years and 8 months, while NASA rigorously reviewed every aspect of the shuttle program to determine the cause of the catastrophe and to greatly increase safety standards before a return to flight. In the interest of safety, fewer launches would be planned each year. As a result, plans to add Vandenberg as a launch site for the shuttle were abandoned. There was no longer a need for the more complex numbering system. When the shuttle returned to flight on September 29, 1988, that mission was designated STS-26. For the remainder of the program, the simplified numbering system was utilized.

Firing Room 1 configured for space shuttle launches - Source:

Firing Room 1 configured for space shuttle launches – Source: NASA

Rumors of Triskaidekaphobia

At the beginning, I mentioned that the fear of the number 13 might have played a part in the numbering system change. That fear has a name, and it’s a doozy: triskaidekaphobia (pronounce it like this: trice-kai-dek-aphobia). Some, including astronauts (like Paul Weitz) and other NASA employees, believe the numbering system changed, at least in some part, due to then-NASA Administrator James Beggs’s fear of the number 13. Not far from anyone within NASA’s mind was the perilous flight of Apollo 13. Apollo 13 launched at 13:13:00 Houston time, and suffered an oxygen tank explosion on April 13. While it’s possible this played into the numbering system change, NASA officials deny it.

This didn’t stop the crew of STS-41-C from having some fun. Had the numbering scheme not changed, their mission would have been designated STS-13. Coincidentally, it was originally scheduled to launch of Friday the 13th of April, 1984 (the launch date was ultimately changed to April 4, but it returned on that Friday the 13th).

“[The crew] created their own “Black Cat” mission patch. Former crewmember James “Ox” Van Hoften recalls, “We flew around with our STS-13 patch on, and that was a lot of fun. We ended up landing on Friday the 13th, so that was pretty cool.”

The 'alternative' patch designed to make light of the triskaidekaphobia surrounding this mission.

The ‘alternative’ patch designed to make light of the triskaidekaphobia surrounding this mission. Source: Wikipedia / CC

And there you have it. Just like so many things associated with the space program, even the most overlooked items often have fascinating stories behind them.

In Memoriam: Apollo 1

Today marks the sad anniversary of the day we lost the crew of Apollo 1.

On January 27, 1967, heroes Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White II, and Roger B. Chaffee, were conducting a launch rehearsal test in an Apollo Command Module. Their mission was to be the first crewed mission of the Apollo program, which would ultimately put humans on the Moon. These three men paid the ultimate sacrifice so that humanity could spread its reach into the cosmos.

Apollo 1 Mission Patch

Apollo 1 Mission Patch – Credit: NASA

Virgil Ivan “Gus” Grissom

Virgil "Gus" Grissom

Virgil “Gus” Grissom – Source: NASA/Public Domain

Gus Grissom was born on April 3, 1926. He joined the United States Army straight out of high school, in the midst of Word War II. His early military career was spent as a clerk at Boca Raton Army Airfield. Grissom was discharged after the war ended, a few months after marrying his wife, Betty Moore. Utilizing his G.I. Bill, he earned a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Purdue University. Upon graduation, Grissom re-enlisted into the newly-formed United States Air Force, and began flight training. He received his pilot wings in 1951. Grissom flew 100 combat missions during the Korean War. He requested to fly another 25 flights in Korea, but his request was denied. For his service, he was promoted to First Lieutenant and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Grissom went on to earn a Bachelor of Science in Aeromechanics from the U.S. Air Force Institute of Technology, before enrolling at the USAF Test Pilot school. He was assigned as a test pilot of the fighter branch at Wright-Patterson AFB.

In 1958, Grissom received a “Top Secret”-classified letter, instructing him to report to an address in Washington D.C. in civilian clothing. He was ultimately one of 110 military test pilots who were invited to learn more about the space program and Project Mercury. Though he knew competition would be extremely fierce, he submitted to the program and began a rigorous set of physical and mental examinations. On April 13, 1959, Grissom received notice that he had been selected as one of the seven astronauts for Project Mercury.

Gus Grissom became the second American in space, when his ‘Liberty Bell 7’ capsule flew a 15 minute and 37 second sub-orbital flight. Grissom flew a second flight as a member of Project Gemini, in March of 1965, becoming the first NASA astronaut with two spaceflights under his belt.

His third flight would have him as commander of the Apollo 1 mission.

Roger Bruce Chaffee

Roger Chaffee

Roger Chaffee – Source: NASA/Public Domain

Roger Bruce Chaffee was born on February 15, 1935 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In his youth, he was the quintessential Boy Scout. He excelled in the program, earning many badges that typically weren’t earned by members as young as he was. He continued in the program as an Eagle Scout, earning ten more merit badges. His participation in the scouts was cited as a benefit to his astronaut training that he’d participate in years later–particularly during survival training missions.

In his youth, he gained an early love of flying and had a natural affinity for mechanical and artistic skills. Chaffee graduated in the top fifth of his high school class and accepted a Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps scholarship, using it to enroll in the Illinois Institute of Technology. After his first year, he combined “his love of flying with his aptitude in science and mathematics in order to pursue a degree in aeronautical engineering.” He applied for a transfer and was accepted into Purdue University, to enter its renowned aeronautical engineering program. As a junior at Purdue, he met his future wife, Martha Horn.

Chaffee earned his BS in aeronautical engineering in June, 1957, and completed his Naval training in August of the same year. He began military flight training and learned to fly the T-34, T-28, and F9F Cougar, advancing quickly through the programs. He earned his wings in 1959 and flew numerous missions including reconnaissance duties, among them taking aerial photography of the Cuban missile buildup. Chaffee continued to work hard towards advancement.

Ever since the first seven Mercury astronauts were named, I’ve been keeping my studies up… At the end of each year, the Navy asks its officers what type of duty they would aspire to. Each year, I indicated I wanted to train as a test pilot for astronaut status.” (On Course to the Stars – C. Chrysler/R. Chaffee)

When NASA began recruiting for Astronaut Group 3, Chaffee was included as one of the initial pool of 1,800 applicants. He continued to work on his Master’s in engineering, while undergoing the multitude of invasive tests conducted on astronaut candidates. On October 18, 1963, Chaffee was officially admitted to the astronaut corps along with 13 other pilots.

During the Gemini program, Chaffee served as capsule communicator (CAPCOM) for the Gemini 3 and 4 missions.

Apollo 1 would have been his first space mission.

Edward Higgins “Ed” White II

Edward Higgens White

Edward Higgens White – Source: Public Domain

Ed White was born on November 14, 1930 in San Antonio, Texas. Like Chaffee, White was also active in the Boy Scouts of America. His father was a major general in the Air Force, who nurtured his son’s interest in flying. After graduating high school in 1948, he was accepted into the United States Military Academy at West Point where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree. While at West Point, he met Patricia Finegan, whom he would marry in 1953. He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Air Force when he began his flight training. After earning his wings, he was assigned to the 22nd Fighter Day Squadron at Bitburg Air Base in West Germany. He spent three and a half years flying missions in defense of NATO.

White was an excellent athlete, and record-setting hurdler. He missed a chance to join the 1952 U.S. Olympic team by only the narrowest of margins.

White returned to the U.S. in 1958 and enrolled in the University of Michigan. There, he earned a Master of Science degree in Aeronautical Engineering, before entering test pilot training in 1959. After completing the program, he was transferred to Wright-Patterson Air Force base, where he served as an experimental test pilot and training captain in the Aeronautical Systems Division. During his military career, he flew more than 3,000 hours and earned the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

White was one of the nine men chosen for Astronaut Group 2, and was selected to fly into space on the Gemini 4 mission. That mission would have White and Command Pilot James McDivitt spending four days in Earth orbit, from June 3-7, 1965. During the mission, White became the first American to conduct a spacewalk, as he enjoyed 21 minutes outside of the Gemini capsule. White had to essentially be ordered back into the craft, remarking that re-entering the capsule was the “saddest moment of his life”.

Ed White, conducting America's first spacewalk

Ed White, conducting America’s first spacewalk – Source: NASA / James McDivitt

Upon Gemini 4’s return to Earth, “President Johnson promoted White to the rank of lieutenant colonel and presented him with the NASA Exceptional Service Medal and the U.S. Air Force Senior Astronaut Wings.

Ed White’s next mission assignment was as senior pilot for Apollo 1.

Apollo 1

Apollo 1, initially designated AS-204, was slated to be the first crewed mission of the Apollo program which carried the ultimate goal of landing humans on the Moon and returning them safely back to Earth. Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Ed White carried the honors of being assigned the first mission of the program. They were to spend up to 14 days in Earth orbit, while testing many systems implemented with the new program.

On January 27, 1967, the three crew members were conducting a rehearsal for their upcoming mission. An electric spark ignited the high pressure pure oxygen environment inside the capsule, and the flammable materials inside quickly caught fire. The hatch was sealed, and the pressure differential between the inside and outside of the capsule made it impossible for the crew to escape. The three heroes didn’t have a chance to make it out alive.

Roger Chaffee, Gus Grissom, and Ed White gave their lives that day, becoming the first casualties of the U.S. space program. They gave them not only to their country, but to all of humanity. Their sacrifice made future flights safer and successful.

A plaque in their honor is affixed to the launch pedestal of Launch Complex 34, the site of the fire. It reads:

IN MEMORY

OF

THOSE WHO MADE THE ULTIMATE SACRIFICE

SO OTHERS COULD REACH FOR THE STARS

 

AD ASTRA PER ASPERA

(A ROUGH ROAD LEADS TO THE STARS)

 

GOD SPEED TO THE CREW

OF

APOLLO 1

 

Apollo 1 Crew. Left to right: White, Grissom, Chaffee - Public Domain/NASA

Apollo 1 Crew. Left to right: White, Grissom, Chaffee – Public Domain/NASA

 

Introducing: The Star Splitter

Hey everyone.

I wanted to explain the changes that you’re ultimately noticing here and on my associated social media presence. The Forty-Six Billion Light Year Zone (46BLYZ) is no more. In its place is the new brand: The Star Splitter. All of the old posts and other content created under the 46BLYZ name will live on under The Star Splitter brand, and old links should redirect to the new domain (let me know if you see anything funky).

For those that are curious, I’ll briefly explain why the change is taking place and how I decided on the new brand.

For starters, the 46BLYZ brand was an idea that sounded good in my head but never really got the traction I had hoped it would. Many visitors to the site never knew what 46BLYZ stood for, or if they did, they still didn’t understand the meeting.

46BLYZ came out of my frustration with the attention paid to celebrity culture, and a lack of such attention placed on the sciences. I wanted to imitate celebrity sites like TMZ. TMZ, as you may or may not know, stands for Thirty Mile Zone–alluding to its coverage of celebrity news within Hollywood and the 30 miles that surrounds it. 46BLYZ stood for the Forty-Six Billion Light Year Zone; 46 billion light years being the radius of our observable universe. I did a poor job explaining this or following up on my promotional plans to get this message out and ultimately just created a space website with an impossible-to-remember address that many people probably thought was just some sort of spam site.

Lesson learned.

The Star Splitter takes its name from the Robert Frost poem of the same name. The poem tells the story of a man that burned down his house for the insurance money, so he could afford a telescope that the whole town could use. Telescopes have the ability to resolve what might appear as a single star to the naked eye into multiple stars, thus the nickname ‘star splitters’. It’s a beautiful poem, but it also carries bits of mischief and humor. These are qualities that I try to capture in my space writing.

Aside from the brand, not a lot will change around here–at least in the short-term. I am committing to a more regular posting schedule however, and I have some pretty interesting stories coming up soon.

Thanks for taking the time to view this site. Please share it with your friends on social media. If you ever have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to contact me through Twitter, Facebook, or by leaving a comment on any of these posts.

Today Is the Winter Solstice – Here's What That Means

What’s A Solstice?

For many of us, December 21, 2016, marks this year’s Winter Solstice. But for plenty of others, it’s also the Summer Solstice. How can this be? What is actually unique about today from an astronomical sense? What is a solstice anyhow?

First, let’s be considerate of all people regardless of whether they live in the northern or southern hemisphere. Let’s refer to today’s event as the December solstice. We do this because while those of us that live in the northern hemisphere consider it to be Winter, our friends south of the equator are in the middle of their Summer. This, of course, is because the Earth is tilted on its axis–which means that for part of the year, the northern part of our planet is tilted towards the Sun (and thus receiving more exposure to solar radiation i.e. Summer), while the southern half is tilted away (less solar radiation i.e. Winter). The other half of the year, this is reversed. (If you live directly on the equator, you can call it whatever you want because you get to have Summer 365 days a year.)

A solstice occurs on the day when the planet’s hemisphere has its maximum (or minimum) amount of solar exposure (in December, it’s the northern; in June it’s the southern’s turn), which in turn gives us the longest and shortest days of the year. Contrast that to the equinoctes (yes, that really is the plural form of equinox), in which the length of day is equal to the length of night.

Now, you might have heard the solstices being referred to as the “First Day of Spring/Winter”, which if you live in a geographic area that has noticeable seasons you know this isn’t true. It would be more appropriate to consider a solstice as the middle of a season. Starting today, the daylight hours get longer in the northern hemisphere and shorter in the southern.

So where did the “First Day of Spring/Winter” idea come from?

 

I really don’t know.

If you find out, please let me know.

NASA's Penguin Patch

How An Imaginary Constellation Ended Up On An Official NASA Mission Patch

There are some great stories behind the patches that NASA issues for each of its missions, and the latest one I have learned about is no exception. I picked the story up from former astronaut, Rhea Seddon, via her newsletter and blog. (Seddon was featured in this previous post about NASA’s first female astronauts.)

 

STS-41-D - The Penguin Patch

STS-41-D Mission Patch – Source: NASA

STS-41-D was Space Shuttle Discovery’s first mission. Flying that mission were: Commander Henry W. Hartsfield Jr., Michael L. Coats, Richard M. Mullane, Steven A. Hawley, Judy Resnik, and Charles D. Walker. The launch was originally scheduled for June 26, 1984, but had to be aborted six seconds prior to launch. The mission finally launched two months later on August 30.

The patch bears the icon of the ship Discovery, one of the three ships in the fleet that founded Jamestown, Virginia. Around the outer edge are the last names of the crew members. Shuttle Discovery is shown with a large solar array rising from the payload bay. This array was part of the OAST-1 payload, a project to demonstrate the feasibility of large-scale solar arrays in space. In the background is a field containing twelve stars: symbolic of STS-41-D being NASA’s twelfth Shuttle flight.

But there’s a bit more to the story of those twelve stars. According to Seddon, Shuttle program patches had to be approved by the Director of Flight Crew Operations, a post held at that time by George Abbey. As the story goes, her husband, Robert “Hoot” Gibson (also an astronaut), had something to do with the design of the patch for STS-41-D. He presented it to Abbey, only to have it denied. Why? Because, Mr. Abbey said:

“There isn’t a penguin on it.”  

Hoot replied, “Why a penguin?”  

“Because there has never been one.”  

So, Hoot hurried back to the office in dismay to see what the crew could create.  He returned a few days later with a modified patch.  

“Where is the penguin?”  

“Here it is.  Those stars at the top are from the constellation Penguinus Australis.”  

Whether Abbey was convinced or not, the design was approved. The constellation, Penguinius Australis, of course, was a complete fabrication. 

STS-41-D Crew

The STS-41D mission crew: (seated left to right) Richard M. (Mike) Mullane, mission specialist; Steven A. Hawley, mission specialist; Henry W. Hartsfield, commander; and Michael L. (Mike) Coats, pilot. Standing in the rear are Charles D. Walker, payload specialist; and Judith A. (Judy) Resnik, mission specialist. – Source: NASA

The Penguin Patch joins a long list of interesting stories about some of NASA’s most overlooked gems. 

OSIRIS-REx – A Sample Return Mission To Asteroid Bennu

Tomorrow, September 8, 2016, NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) is slated to launch from Cape Canaveral. It will take two years for the craft to reach its destination, the asteroid Bennu, where it will collect a sample and return it to Earth. The mission is a partnership between the University of Arizona, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the Lockheed Martin Company.

OSIRIS-REx Mission Logo - Source: NASA

OSIRIS-REx Mission Logo – Source: NASA

The OSIRIS-REx mission will send a spacecraft to 101955 Bennu (hereafter referred to simply as Bennu), a potentially Earth-impacting asteroid with an average diameter of 492 meters (1,614 ft; 0.306 mi). The mission has five primary science objectives (the mission, OSIRIS-REx, takes its name from an acronym of these objectives):

• Origins: Return and analyze a pristine carbon rich
asteroid sample
• Spectral Interpretation: Provide ground truth or
direct observations for telescopic data of the
entire asteroid population
• Resource Identification: Map the chemistry and
mineralogy of a primitive carbon rich asteroid
• Security: Measure the effect of sunlight on the
orbit of a small asteroid, known as the Yarkovsky
effect—the slight push created when the asteroid
absorbs sunlight and re-emits that energy as heat
• Regolith Explorer: Document the regolith (layer
of loose, outer material) at the sampling site at
scales down to the sub-centimeter

The $800-million (not including launch vehicle costs) mission budget will support the program through the return of the sample capsule in 2023, and two years of analysis and cataloging.

The spacecraft, built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company at its facility near Denver, Colorado, is 6.2 meters (20.25 feet) long with its solar arrays deployed, and 2.43 meters (8 feet) by 2.43 meters (8 feet) wide. It’s 3.15 meters (10.33 feet) tall. The total weight of the spacecraft, including fuel, is 2,110 kilograms (4,650 pounds)–unfueled, it weighs 880 kilograms (1,940 pounds). It boasts two solar panel generators that produce between 1,226 watts and 3,000 watts of electrical power depending on its distance from the Sun.

Following its September 8, 2016 launch, the spacecraft will undergo an Earth flyby in September of 2017, before arriving at Bennu in August of 2018. According to the program fact sheet, “[t]he spacecraft will begin a detailed survey of Bennu two months after slowing to encounter Bennu. The process will last over a year, and, as part of it, OSIRIS-REx will map potential sample sites. The sample is expected to occur in July of 2020, when the craft’s sampling arm will contact Bennu’s surface, release a burst of nitrogen gas, and capture the resulting particles. It’s expected to collect up between 60 grams (2 ounces) and 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds). After the sample is taken, OSIRIS-REx’s Sample Return Capsule will wait for a proper alignment with Earth for the return trip home. The sample is expected to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere on September 24, 2023–just over seven years after its 2016 launch.

OSIRIS-REx Survey Animation - Source: University of Arizona

OSIRIS-REx Survey Animation – Source: University of Arizona

Why Bennu?

In addition to Bennu being a good candidate to study the building blocks of our solar system (“An uncontaminated asteroid sample from a known source would enable precise analyses, revolutionizing our understanding of the early solar system, and cannot be duplicated by spacecraft-based instruments or by studying meteorites“), I mentioned above that Bennu is a “potentially Earth-impacting asteroid”. The chances of Bennu impacting Earth are slim–0.037%, and that’s not even until the period between 2175 – 2196–but it still serves as a good model to use to understand both the hazards and resources that coincide with near-Earth asteroids.

Here’s to a successful launch tomorrow, and a successful mission over the next seven years!

Godspeed OSIRIS-REx! Ad Astra!

Want more information on the mission? The NASA Press Kit has a wealth of information.

Yuri Gagarin – Hero of the Soviet Union and First Ambassador to the Cosmos

Gagarin - 1964

Yuri Gagarin – 1964


Today marks the anniversary of one of the most historic moments in human history. It was on this day in 1961, that Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to take a journey into outer space. Aboard his Vostok spacecraft, not only did Gagarin become the first person in space, he also was the first to orbit the Earth — something NASA didn’t accomplish until its third manned Mercury mission, some nine months later.

While strapped to the top of a Soviet Vostok-K rocket, Gagarin hummed and whistled “Lilies of the Valley”, cracked jokes, and found plenty of time to laugh, all the while waiting for the ignition below to send him where no man had gone before.

Gagarin : Thank you. Goodbye. See you soon, dear friends. Goodbye, see you soon.

“Poyekhali! (Off we go!)”

Gagarin spent 108 minutes from launch to landing, completing a single orbit of the Earth. It took 25 minutes for ground controllers to be sure he had successfully reached orbit. Gagarin remained calm through the whole ordeal 1 and seemed to rather enjoy himself. He described weightlessness as an unusual, yet enjoyable, experience and radioed back the things he could see out of the windows in his capsule.

Gagarin's Vostok 3KA Capsule

Gagarin’s Vostok 3KA Capsule

A 42-second retrofire burn took place over Angola, approximately 5,000 miles from his landing site. When the commands were initiated to separate the service module from the reentry module, a bundle of wires unexpectedly kept them attached. The two components began reentry together, but finally separated following some extreme gyrations. The gyrations continued after separation, but Gagarin radioed that “Everything is OK”, reasoning that the gyrations could be expected from the spherical shape of the craft and didn’t want to “make noise” about it. At 7km above the ground, Gagarin was ejected — as planned 2 — from the Vostok and his parachute immediately deployed. Vostok fell until about 2.5km (8,200 feet) before its main parachute deployed. A couple of schoolgirls witnessed Vostok’s landing and described the situation: “It was a huge ball, about two or three metres high. It fell, then it bounced and then it fell again. There was a huge hole where it hit the first time.”




Gagarin landed on the ground as a world hero. The Soviets were emboldened by their great accomplishment, and you could be certain that the early American space program had to pick their collective jaws off the floor and wonder how they would catch up.

We tip our hats to Yuri Gagarin and the bold first step he took to get us to where we are now–more than half a century later.

Yuri Gagarin's Signature

Gagarin’s signature

To learn more about Yuri Gagarin and his historic flight, check out: YuriGagarin50.org

*This post originally published April 12, 2011. It has been slightly modified from its original version.


  1. Just prior to launch, Gagarin’s pulse was at a mere 64 beats per minute.
  2. It wasn’t until 1971 that the Soviets acknowledged that he didn’t land with his craft. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale regulations required that a person land with their craft for it to count as a successful spaceflight. The Soviet government forced Gagarin to lie in press conferences to get the FAI to certify his flight, which they did.