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.

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.

Space Science in 2010

It’s time to start a new year (possibly a new decade, depending on how you want to look at it), but before we do that, let’s take a look back at what 2010 meant for the space sciences.

Let’s talk launches.
As far as lobbing the most things up into space this year, Russia takes the cake. There were 74 space launches in 2010, and close to half of those (31) were undertaken by Russia. The USA and China each had about half as many as Russia; 15. The European Space Agency sent up 6 rockets. Rounding out the remainder were India with 3, Japan with 2, and Israel and South Korea each with 1. Four launches in the world were unsuccessful.

The European Space Agency had a successful year. Their Cryosat-2 Earth explorer launched in April (following the failed launch of Cryosat-1 in 2005) is live and collecting data on how Earth’s ice fields are responding to global climate change.

The Planck orbiting observatory released its first all-sky scan data, and the produced image definitely ranks among the top for 2010 and beyond:

Planck all-sky survey

Click for full size. - Source: ESA - Planck

(For the above image labeled with reference points, check this link.)
You’re seeing the microwave sky as seen by Planck, which will continue in 2011 to map out the Cosmic Microwave Background.

ESA’s comet-chaser, Rosetta, performed a fly-by of the asteroid 21 Lutetia.

Closest fly-by of 21 Lutetia

Click for large version - Source: ESA / Rosetta

One of my favorite Rosetta images so far is of 21 Lutetia, but from a bit further away; however, from that distance a special treat comes into view:

21 Lutetia with Saturn in background.

Click to biggify - Source ESA / Rosetta

Saturn! And I can’t help to notice that this is just about what Saturn looks like on Earth through a Galileoscope.

I’m just beginning to scratch the surface of ESA’s contributions to space science in 2010, but we’ll have a chance to get to know what they’re up to over the next year, as we continue to cover Rosetta, Planck, Cryosat, and more!

NASA had a big year in 2010. President Obama laid out a new direction for NASA in February, and in April, detailed plans for future space exploration.

“Early in the next decade, a set of crewed flights will test and prove the systems required for exploration beyond low Earth orbit,” the president said. “And by 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the moon into deep space. We’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it.”

I certainly hope to see it too!

NASA launched a new set of eyes to observe the Sun, in the SDO (Solar Dynamics Observatory). Of course I have a pretty image to share from SDO:

Solar Eclipse Seen From SDO

Click for large version - Souce: NASA / SDO

This October 2010 image shows a solar eclipse from SDO’s vantage point.

Following last year’s bombing of the Moon (okay, not bombing, but they did punch a pretty nice dent into it with their Centaur impactor, sending a plume of debris 12 miles high after a 5,600 mph impact), NASA’s LCROSS (Lunar Crater Remote Observation and Sensing Satellite) released some new and promising data:

Scientists determined the soil in the moon’s shadowy craters is rich in useful materials, including water in the form of mostly pure ice crystals. Researchers also found the moon is chemically active and has a water cycle. By understanding the processes and environments that determine the delivery of water to the moon, where water ice is, and the active water cycle, future mission planners may be able to better determine which locations will have easily-accessible water. – NASA

Finally, NASA brought us the science (and unncessary hooplah) around some arsenic-munching bacteria. With rampant and irresponsible speculation following NASA’s pre-announcement teaser — “an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life” — release, many of us anxiously awaited the release of the actual report. Unfortunately, NASA didn’t announce the discovery of alien life. It also didn’t announce that it found life on Earth actively consuming arsenic — although many media reports said otherwise. These bacteria were collected from a lake and brought to a lab where biologists replaced some of its phosphorus with arsenic, to which it apparently managed to continue growing. Simply, all life as we know it uses phosphorus as a backbone of its DNA, so knowing that something could survive and grow with arsenic in place of phosphorus would re-write what we know about how life exists in the universe. However, at the time of this writing, there’s some serious criticism of the findings. Hopefully, it will be ironed out in 2011.

News also came from the Voyager mission, which has been unfolding our understanding of our solar system for more than 30 years. The Voyager 1 spacecraft reached a point on the edge of the solar system, where the solar wind no longer has any outward motion. The wind is no longer in Voyager 1’s sails, yet it continues on. (Expect more on the Voyager mission from this blog, as it’s probably deserves the most credit for getting me interested in space science.)

And that’s just a tiny sampling of what NASA is continuously kicking out.

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) had a bittersweet year.

Bitter: Their third planetary explorer Planet-C (Akatsuki) failed to insert itself into Venus’ orbit. The mission isn’t lost though, as they’ll get a re-do in six years when the craft re-approaches Venus. I’m sure JAXA will find ways to conduct science with Akatsuki in the meantime.

Sweet: They launched the first space-kite! IKAROS (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun) is the first project to demonstrate interplanetary travel using solar-sail technology. So far, IKAROS is working beautifully and may form as the basis for alternative means of getting around in the galaxy.

Sweet+: JAXA’s Hayabusa craft also completed the legwork on a mission that launched in 2003. The mission was to approach an asteroid, touch-down to collect particle samples, and then return them to Earth for analysis. While the mission ran into a number of complications, ultimately it was a very remarkable feat of engineering and technology. The spacecraft, and samples capsule, returned to Earth in June of 2010; with the spacecraft burning up on re-entry (as planned). In November, JAXA confirmed that most of the particles collected were in fact from the target asteroid, Itokawa. Further analysis is ongoing. The mission is an exciting example of what JAXA is capable of, and I recommend reading a full account of the entire mission.

The Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), as mentioned before, took the lead on putting things into orbit. Roscosmos had 31 launches, more than the US and China combined. Here’s an explanatory image (a picture is worth a thousand words, ya’know), showing Russia’s space plans in 2010, and reality:

Russian Space Plans and Reality 2010

You'll want to click the image for the large version - RussianSpaceWeb.com

The private sector also began to get involved with spaceflight in a big way in 2010.
SpaceX conducted the first successful launch and recovery of its Dragon capsule in early December 2010; the first time this has been accomplished by a private company.
Virgin Galactic’s sub-orbital SpaceShipTwo completed a number of manned glide tests, paving the way for SpaceShipThree, which will be an orbital craft.

While we’ve covered a number of major events in 2010, I’ve actually only scratched the surface. A single blog, let alone a single blog post, simply can’t cover everything that multi-billion dollar budgets, devoted to space sciences from dozens of countries around the globe, accomplish in a given year — and 2010 was a great one!

So to 2010, “Well done!”, and now on to 2011!

Total Lunar Eclipse

If you have clear skies, be sure to take the opportunity to view the total lunar eclipse of December 20/21, 2010. My forecast isn’t looking good, but I’m holding out hope that I’ll get a clear view and get some photographs of the event. The following image does a great job of detailing when to look, and what you can expect:
Total Lunar Eclipse of December 2010
*Note, the times listed on this image are for Alaskan time, which is 4 hours earlier than Eastern time.
I got the image from Mr. Eclipse who not only explains what you’re seeing, but provides a wealth of other information, including how to photograph it.

A lunar eclipse occurs when the Moon enters the shadow of Earth. This can only happen during a full moon, but not every full moon coincides with an eclipse. Why? Because the Moon’s orbit is inclined about 5.1° to the Earth. So a lunar eclipse will occur when a full moon also happens to be on the same plane, or 0°, as the Earth.

If you’re plagued by cloudy skies, you can still watch it and participate in a live chat, courtesy of NASA/JPL.

So there you have it, no excuses. If you miss this one and reside in the North America, you won’t have another chance until 2014.

Happy observing!

Geminids Meteor Shower – Live Webcam

Cloudy skies, but still want to see the Geminids?

NASA has created a live webcam feed from their all-sky meteor camera at the Marshall Space Flight Center. A radio-static “soundtrack” is being played along with the video.

When a meteor burns up in the atmosphere, it also produces a trail of ionized particles that reflect radio waves. If the meteor is located in the right spot in Huntsville’s sky, the signal from the station transmitter is reflected to the radio receiver, and you will hear a “ping” above the static noise. – NASA

If you have clear skies, make it a late night and watch what should be a brilliant meteor shower. If the handful of fireballs I’ve seen over the past few nights are any indication, we should have a nice show as the Geminids peak this evening and into tomorrow morning. The best views will certainly be after the Moon sets, especially between 1am and 3am local time; however, if you cannot stay up that late look towards the East before you go to bed and you should see a handful.

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.