Tempel Encounter

As mentioned previously, NASA’s Stardust spacecraft completed its journey and close approach of comet Tempel 1.

Tempel imaged from Stardust-NExT

NASA's Stardust-NExT mission took this image of comet Tempel 1 at 8:39 p.m. PST on Feb 14, 2011. - Click for full-sized version - Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

As Stardust approached Tempel 1, it began snapping images;61 out of the 72 have been released at this point. After passing its point of closest approach, it turned to face the comet to image the comet as it shrinks back into the distance.

I had thought it would make be interesting to take the images and string them together into an animation, but before I had a chance I found the following one that was excellently done by Emily Lakdawalla at The Planetary Society Blog:

Animation of Tempel 1 by Emily Lakdawalla

This animation consists of 61 images of Tempel 1 taken by Stardust during its flyby on February 15, 2011. The images have been rotated 180 degrees (so that illumination appears to be coming from above) and aligned. Credit: NASA / JPL / Cornell / animation by Emily Lakdawalla

The Planetary Blog has a bunch of great information on the Tempel 1 encounter, and so much more; I recommend reading it on a regular basis.

So, what about that impact crater made by Deep Impact in 2005? Well, that crater is visible and recognized in some of the images that Stardust grabbed. You can check out this page to view some before-and-after images as well as other highlights of the recent fly-by. To my untrained eye, I even have a hard time noticing it when it’s pointed out to me. I’m sure skilled observers see a lot more than myself and further data will be used to better represent what we’ve learned from these new images.

Mission managers have called Stardust-NExT (New Exploration of comet Tempel) a 100% success, and for now, Stardust sails off on its orbit. I anxiously await to see what it might be called upon to do next!

How NASA Celebrates Valentine's Day

Many people on Earth take St. Valentine’s Day to celebrate the love they share with the special someones in their lives. It’s a day of roses by the dozens, chocolates in heart-shaped boxes, and sweet little love notes.

NASA will be marking February 14 a little differently, by revisiting an old friend whom NASA last left on less-than-amicable terms.

But first, a little history on a couple of previous NASA missions that make this third one possible.

So, Stardust was launched just over 12 years ago, on February 7, 1999. Its duty was to investigate the composition Comet Wild 2 and its coma (the nebulous arrangement of material surrounding a comet’s nucleus). After traveling back to Earth, Stardust dropped a capsule, containing material collected from Wild 2, down to Earth. It became the first sample return mission to sample and return cosmic dust to Earth. After 3 billion miles of travel, a visit to within miles of comet Wild 2, and a return of cosmic samples, Stardust could retire peacefully knowing it had accomplished its mission. NASA, wasn’t done with Stardust yet, however…

Stardust Capsule

NASA's Stardust sample return capsule successfully landed at the U.S. Air Force Utah Test and Training Range at 2:10 a.m. Pacific time (3:10 a.m. Mountain time). The capsule contains cometary and interstellar samples gathered by the Stardust spacecraft. / Source: NASA

Deep Impact:
The second mission that adds to this story is Deep Impact, which was launched in 2005. Its primary mission was to analyze the composition of 9P/Tempel, by releasing an impactor to smash into the comet, and then analyze the debris kicked up.
High Resolution Instrument, Visual CCD (HRIV) during encounter

High Resolution Instrument, Visual CCD (HRIV) during encounter / Source: NASA / Click for bigger version.

On July 2005, the impact was a success, and added to our understanding of comets, their origins, and was further proof that NASA can successfully undertake significantly ambitious projects. That being said, the impact created a very bright dust cloud which made observations of the impact crater difficult to impossible.

Now, back to Valentine’s Day:
After Stardust’s return to Earth and release of the samples capsule, NASA had to decide what to do, if anything, with Stardust. In 2007, they decided to maneuver Stardust over to Tempel for a second chance at observing the impact crater Deep Impact left during its impactor mission. 4 years later, Stardust is nearly there and ready to report its findings. On Valentine’s Day, February 14 at 8:56pm (PST), Stardust will make its closest approach to Tempel and NASA will be providing a number of venues for coverage.

Beginning at 8:30pm (PST), NASA will be broadcasting coverage of the encounter on NASA TV as well as through their website. From the press release:

The coverage will include live commentary from mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., and video from Lockheed Martin Space System’s mission support area in Denver.

A news briefing is planned for 10 a.m. on Feb. 15. Scheduled participants are:
-Ed Weiler, NASA’s associate administrator, Science Mission Directorate
-Joe Veverka, Stardust-NExT principal investigator, Cornell University
-Tim Larson, Stardust-NExT project manager, JPL
-Don Brownlee, Stardust-NExT co-investigator, University of Washington, Seattle

In a way, the whole situation fits a Valentine’s theme (if not a dramatic made-for-TV movie). Exchange the spacecraft and Tempel for people, and you’ve got instant drama. “After a break-up that left their relationship in ruins, they reunite in a surprise encounter on Valentine’s Day”. (Okay, so maybe I’m being a little too imaginative, and in this case it’s a different craft visiting Tempel… and umm, I’m not sure how taking pictures fits the storyline…)

Luckily, space science is exciting and interesting enough that I don’t need to try to enhance it with personification and drama. I just need to tell you when to watch!

Gather the family and enjoy the coverage. Happy Valentine’s Day.

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.

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.


Planet-A | Suisei



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.

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.