Ascent – Commemorating The Shuttle Program

This video is making its rounds on the internet. It serves as a beautiful tribute to NASA’s shuttle program. The video is 45-minutes long, but you don’t have to watch it in one sitting; in fact, you can skip around a bit and just enjoy the amazing high-definition, slow-motion, videos of the shuttle systems.

It’s going to be very difficult to say goodbye to the shuttle program, early next year.

Akatsuki Fails Venus Orbit Attempt – Oh Well, We’ll Try Again… In Five Years

Akatsuki - Planet-C

Planet-C Akatsuki | Image credit: Akihiro Ikeshita and JAXA

JAXA’s (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) third planetary explorer, Planet C (Akatsuki), failed to enter Venus’ orbit following a journey that lifted off in May of this year.

According to JAXA:

The Institute of Space and Astronautical Science of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (ISAS/JAXA) performed Venus orbit insertion maneuver (VOI-1) for the Venus Climate Orbiter “AKATSUKI” at 8:49 a.m. on December 7 (Japan Standard Time,) but, unfortunately, we have found that the orbiter was not injected into the planned orbit as a result of orbit estimation.

 

JAXA has set up an investigation team to try and understand why the orbit insertion failed. While control has been reestablished, “the spacecraft is functioning but has put itself in a standby mode with its solar panels facing towards the Sun. It is also spinning slowly — about every 10 minutes — and radio contact is possible only for 40 seconds at a time.

If control is able to be completely regained, there will be an opportunity to re-try entering Venusian orbit in five years — Akatsuki doesn’t have the fuel to hit the brakes and go back for another go at it.

This will mark the second JAXA planetary explorer that failed to complete its mission. Planet-B — dubbed “Nozomi” — failed to enter Mars orbit in 2003. That mission was abandoned, but the spacecraft is currently still active.

While the challenges of space travel have proven frustrating for JAXA, the agency cannot be said to not have its successes. Planet-A (“Suisei”) came within 151,000km of Halley’s Comet in 1986, as part of an international armada of probes sent to the renowned iceball during its last approach to our neck of the solar system.

Suisei

Planet-A | Suisei

IKAROS

IKAROS

In addition to that, they have another very nifty, and successful, vehicle out there named IKAROS (“Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun”). IKAROS is an experiment designed to demonstrate solar-sail technology as a means of traveling interplanetary space. IKAROS is an exciting little machine and I intend to devote an entire post to it in the near future.

Space exploration has come a long way in a very short amount of time, but we continually have these pesky failures to continually remind us that it is also very challenging. As frustrating as these complications may be, we can still appreciate the lessons learned and apply them to the success of future endeavors.

Cosmic Paparazzi – Pismis 24

Pismis 24
(Click to biggify)

The small open star cluster Pismis 24 lies in the core of the NGC 6357 nebula in Scorpius, about 8,000 light-years away from Earth. The brightest object in the center of this image is designated Pismis 24-1 and was once thought to weigh as much as 200 to 300 solar masses. This would not only have made it by far the most massive known star in the galaxy, but would have put it considerably above the currently believed upper mass limit of about 150 solar masses for individual stars.

However, Hubble Space Telescope high-resolution images of the star show that it is really two stars orbiting one another that are each estimated to be 100 solar masses.

In addition, spectroscopic observations with ground-based telescopes further reveal that one of the stars is actually a tight binary that is too compact to be resolved even by Hubble. This divides the estimated mass for Pismis 24-1 among the three stars. Although the stars are still among the heaviest known, the mass limit has not been broken due to the multiplicity of the system.

The images of NGC 6357 were taken with Hubble’s Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 in April 2002.

ImageCredit: NASA, ESA, and J. Maíz Apellániz (Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía, Spain)

(Source)

To Boldly Go

Mars, from Hubble 2005The Journal of Cosmology recently published a proposal (Journal of Cosmology, 2010, Vol 12, 3619-3626.) for the exploration settlement of Mars. This proposal, however, is a little different than most consider when thinking of interplanetary travel.

These missions would be one-way.

Myriad space-exploration resources and money go into making the return-trip possible, and many argue that that cost is too great, financially and politically. The authors of the article, Drs. Dirk Schulze-Makuch and Paul Davies, agree. They say to scrap the return mission.

What they propose is that we (the humans of Earth) send two space crafts to Mars, each with two people on board. Those initial four people would create the infrastructure and conduct science and research for future one-way missions. Prior to this, some robotic exploration would be advised, to deploy power generators, deliver a couple years supply of food, supply agricultural equipment, seek out areas on Mars suitable to shelter human habitation (lava tubes are mentioned), and to research any Martian biota that may exist (primarily to understand what effects it could have on human health, as well as what impact human interference could cause to Martian life).

Future missions would follow, bringing additional tools, supplies, and resources, and additional human inhabitants. They reason that within several decades after the first pioneers land, a possible population of about 150 Mars emigrants would exist. This could constitute a viable gene pool for a permanent reproduction plan on Mars.

Why? I can think of thousands of reasons.

For starters, because the project is technically feasible to begin today. With current technologies and capabilities, a successful mission of this sort is quite feasible. We did it on a nearer scale with the Apollo missions to the Moon, and that was more than 40 years ago. Sure, there are greater challenges related to the distance (about 6 months with current chemical rockets to Mars vs. 3 days it took the Apollo missions to get to the Moon) and environment of Mars compared to the Moon; but again, you can subtract the return portion of the mission from the equation.

Additionally, our species will not survive on Earth forever (super volcanoes, intolerable global warming, asteroid impacts, pandemics, etc.). Mars could function as a lifeboat for human species, and the advances we make in the process could accelerate our ability to become an interstellar race. If the human race is to survive, we simply must travel. [We cannot forget, that within a small handful of billions of years, the Earth will be cremated as the sun converts into a red giant; expanding to a point that the Sun’s equator will possibly exist at a point further than the current orbit of the Earth.]

Aside from utilitarian reasons, exploring and populating new frontiers is part of what makes us human. It’s what we do. We’ve accomplished amazing things in the short history of our species. We’ve conquered the lands, seas, and air. Humans have descended to the deepest depths of our oceans (Jacques Piccard and Lieutenant Don Walsh descended to Challenger Deep in the Marianas Trench, aboard the Bathyscaphe Trieste, in 1960) and climbed the Earth’s highest peaks. We’ve learned to fly and have had an uninterrupted human presence in Earth orbit for more than a decade. We’ve gone as far as putting our species on our nearest natural neighbor, the Moon, on multiple (the last being 38 years ago; Apollo 17) occasions. And while we have explored, and are currently exploring, our solar system, it has always been by proxy. Our probes (Voyager 1 & 2 are still returning data after 33 years, as well as other probes) and rovers (Opportunity is humming along on the Martian surface, and I’m hoping Spirit will eventually wake back up.)

Mars is the next step in the walk of human destiny. If we can’t muster the political will to take that step, then our journey is over and we’ll live out the rest of our existence — a flash in time — on this currently habitable rock. The question we must ask ourselves is whether or not this is good enough.

I’ve spent hours staring at Mars, whether with my eyes, or through the eyepiece of my cheap telescope.

If given the opportunity to participate in one of these missions, I’d sign up; if for nothing else, to have the same view of Earth, behind the eyepiece of a cheap telescope on Mars.

The Deathstar…. Err… Mimas

Cassini never ceases to amaze me.

Saturn has moons. Lots of moons (at least 62). And I find each one of those moons to be equally interesting.

Recently, the orbiter, Cassini, snapped the following photo of one of Saturn’s moons, Mimas.

Mimas
(Click image to BIGGIFY)
Mimas is the twentieth largest moon in our solar system, yet is the smallest astronomical body that is believed to be round in shape due to its self-gravitation. Mimas has an interesting feature in a huge crater named Herschel. Compared to Mimas, this crater is huge. It is 80 miles (130km) wide, which is about a third of the total size of the moon itself (wider than Canada). As Phil Plait points out, the impact that created this crater was just about as big as it could have been without obliterating Mimas.

The results are beautiful. Some see the crater resembling a big eye. To many, including myself, it looks like the Deathstar:
Deathstar
(That’s no moon. It’s a space station. – Obi-Wan Kenobi)

For a mission that began in 1997, Cassini (Cassini-Huygens originally, until the Huygens probe was sent to land on the surface of Titan) just keeps on keepin’ on. It has had its missions and extended multiple times, and will most likely keep snapping these shots until it makes a flaming plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere in 2017. NASA, and its counterparts from around the globe, have done a fantastic job of completing their main missions, and then coming up with ways to continue using them for additional missions. We’re learning new and amazing things on a regular basis, and I think that’s just grand.

Ursa Major

The following video is my first real attempt at time-lapse astrophotography. I chose one of my favorite constellations, Ursa Major (best known for containing The Big Dipper). The video shows the motion of the constellation over a 45-minute period.

I live in a small city, so some light pollution factored into the result but overall the night was quite clear. You can clearly make out “The Horse and Rider”, two stars that make up what is typically seen as the second star in The Big Dipper’s handle. The ability to see these two stars, Mizar and Alcor, was used by the Arabs, Romans, and English to test the eye-sight of their warriors.

But there’s even more to Mizar and Alcor than meets the (unaided) eye. Mizar is actually a quadruple system of two binary stars and Alcor is a binary system. Together, they make up sextuple system, as they are all apparently gravitationally bound.

To put it simply, Mizar — which we see as the brighter star, the horse, making up the Horse and Rider — is two sets of two stars orbiting each other. Alcor, is a single set of two stars orbiting each other, and is in turn interacting with the Mizar system. Six stars, dancing together in a cosmic folk dance, appearing to us on Earth as one or two stars (depending on your eyesight).

Additionally, this all goes to show that as much as we think we know about the cosmos, there is so much more out there to discover. Mizar and Alcor have been two of the most observed objects in the night sky for millennia, yet we still continue to unravel more of their magic.

Ursa Major

Ursa Major

Black Eye Galaxy

Black Eye Galaxy
(click image to largeify)

The Black Eye Galaxy (Messier 64), in the constellation Coma Berenices, is a spiral galaxy, visible with even a small telescope. It was discovered in 1779, by Edward Pigott (and independently a month later by Johann Elert Bode and in 1880 by Charles Messier). In a majority of galaxies, the stars all orbit in the same direction. Interestingly though, the gases in the outer region of M64 rotate in the opposite direction of the gases and stars within the inner region. To clarify the scale, the inner region has a radius of 3,000 light years, while the outer region extends an additional 40,000 light years. (That’s big, but take note that M64 is 19,000,000 light years from Earth.) The boundary between the two regions is believed to trigger a very productive birthing ground for many new stars. Astronomers believe that this pattern was caused when M64 absorbed a satellite galaxy brought in on a collision course, approximately 1 billion years, or more, ago.

The darkened band that gives the galaxy it’s nickname is a dust feature that’s obscuring the light from the nucleus of the galaxy.

Dying A Beautiful Death

The red giant AFGL 3068 is dying a beautiful death. Like all red giants, as they expand they spew their outer layers into space in a spherical shape. What’s unique about AFGL3068 however, is that it’s actually a binary star — two stars orbiting each other. Due to the orbits of the two stars, the material that’s ejected isn’t able to expand into a sphere, but in this amazingly perfect (and awesomely huge at 3 trillion kilometers!) spiral.

Look for yourself:

AFGL 3068

AFGL 3068

(Click image to embiggerify)

Thanks Hubble!