ATREX – Observing the Air Up There

I suspect we might hear about strange sky phenomena and UFOs occurring over the US Eastern Seaboard tomorrow, thanks to NASA’s ATREX mission.
After previously being scrubbed, the next launch attempt has been set for the wee hours (2am – 5am EST, or what I might consider late tonight) of March 27. ATREX, or the Anomalous Transport Rocket Experiment, is designed to study ultra-high altitude, high-speed wind patterns that have been observed on the very edge of space1. Data suggests that 200 – 300 mile-per-hour winds occur at an altitude of 62 – 68 miles; though little is yet understood about the phenomena. The atmosphere at that height is incredibly thin, and it essentially takes a rocket to get there.

The project will complete its test with the use of five of what are referred to as sounding rockets, launched within minutes of each other. These sounding rockets are smaller than those that are used to achieve orbit or carry heavier payloads, but will work just fine for this experiment. After reaching an altitude of 50 miles, the rockets will release a chemical tracer that will be observed from camera facilities both North (New Jersey) and South (North Carolina) of the Wollops Flight Facility in Virginia. The chemical, trimethylaluminium, was selected due to its reaction to oxygen; it glows and produces aluminium dioxide, carbon dioxide, and water vapor (each already present in our atmosphere).

Diagram of ATREX mission
(Graphic showing various aspects of the ATREX mission. Click for larger version.)
[Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center]

If you’re not on the US East Coast, but still want to try and watch the show, NASA has a webcast available here: and a UStream will carry it here:

For more information, you can follow the Wollops Flight Facility on Twitter, and check out the video below.

  1. For an important point of clarification, when I use the term “edge of space”, I mean it literally. You will often hear about an amateur balloon going to space, or a sky-dive from or near space, but those are exaggerations in my opinion. In my book, we’re talking at least 50 miles (the point at which NASA gives you astronaut wings) or better yet, the Kármán line.

Quotable: Mary Roach on NASA Impact to Technology

Packing For Mars

“If it’s cordless, fireproof, lightweight and strong, miniaturized, or automated, chances are good NASA has had a hand in the technology. We are talking trash compactors, bulletproof vests, high-speed wireless data transfer, implantable heart monitors, cordless power tools, artificial limbs, dustbusters, sports bras, solar panels, invisible braces, computerized insulin pumps, fire-fighters’ masks. Every now and then, earthbound applications head off in an unexpected direction: Digital lunar image analyzers allow Estée Lauder to quantify “subtleties otherwise undetectable” in the skin of women using their products, providing a basis for ludicrous wrinkle-erasing claims. Miniature electronic Apollo heat pumps spawned the Robotic Sow. “At feeding time a heat lamp simulating a sow’s body warmth is automatically turned on, and the machine emits rhythmic grunts like a mother pig summoning her piglets. As piglets scamper to their mechanical mother, a panel across the front opens to expose the row of nipples,” wrote an unnamed NASAfacts scribe, surely eliciting grunts from superiors in the NASA Public Affairs Office.”

Roach, Mary . Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void (p. 334). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.


Mary Roach offers this concise description of how the investment in NASA and the space sciences benefits everyone. And this is just a footnote in her brilliant book, “Packing For Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void”. Packing For Mars answers the questions about space travel that many of us wouldn’t even know where to begin looking for answers to, and even if we did we just may not have the nerve to ask some of these! Packing For Mars is highly recommended for anyone curious about what it took to get humans in space, what demands were placed on us once we got there, and what we can continue to expect in the future. This book offers history, documentary, and a generous helping of humor. You won’t be able to put it down.

Check out: Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void

Favorite Space Images of 2011

With so many wondrous space-related images being captured on a daily basis, it is difficult to single any out as “the best”. That said, there are those that just stick in your mind… the images that run through your head when you’re trying to go to sleep, that make you ask questions, that inspire you to spend hours doing research, and those that make your jaw drop to the floor. Here are a small handful of the ones that have done that to me this year.

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I hope you enjoyed these as I have, and I look forward to what 2012 has in store for us!

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.

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!

My Name Is Earl

I neglected to post this a couple of days ago.

@Astro_Wheels tweets from 173 miles above and, as you can see, has an amazing vantage point to capture awesome images of our planet and its systems.