Stories tagged nasa

Jun
22
2012

The Curiosity rover: It's going to look for signs of Mars' past habitability. Also, it's way bigger than the other Mars rovers; about 2,000 pounds, and the size of a compact car.
The Curiosity rover: It's going to look for signs of Mars' past habitability. Also, it's way bigger than the other Mars rovers; about 2,000 pounds, and the size of a compact car.Courtesy NASA JPL
Wait, who was I quoting in that headline? Me. I was quoting me, from when I described the upcoming Mars rover landing in my head as "pretty frickin' awesome." Or ... that was very nearly what I thought, but the specifics of what goes on in my brain pit are for adult ears only.

Which adult? This one. Me.

Anyway, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has produced a video about how the landing of the Mars rover Curiosity will go down, when the spacecraft carrying it reaches the Martian atmosphere on August 4. As you'll see when you watch the video below, there's dramatic music, scientists and engineers speaking dramatically, and dramatic flashing graphics. All very nice and of high production value, but it makes me want to say, "Hey, don't be dorks, dorks. Geez."

But I can't. Because it actually looks pretty awesome. The spacecraft is going to enter the atmosphere going 13,000 miles an hour, which will heat it up to about 1600 degrees. Then a giant, super tough parachute will shoot out, and slow it down to a couple hundred miles an hour. And then the capsule will break open (before it hits the ground), and another flying device will fall out, the "Sky Crane." The Sky Crane will use rockets to zoom away, and then hover above the surface of the planet. It will then lower the actual rover down on a cable. Once the rover touches down, the crane will blast off again, so it doesn't crash into the rover. Pretty amazing. Take a look:

August 4!

May
31
2012

Crash!: This illustration shows a stage in the predicted merger between our Milky Way galaxy and the neighboring Andromeda galaxy, as it will unfold over the next several billion years.
Crash!: This illustration shows a stage in the predicted merger between our Milky Way galaxy and the neighboring Andromeda galaxy, as it will unfold over the next several billion years.Courtesy NASA; ESA; Z. Levay and R. van der Marel, STScI; T. Hallas; and A. Mellinger
I think this is really interesting - below is straight from a release from NASA.

NASA astronomers announced Thursday they can now predict with certainty the next major cosmic event to affect our galaxy, sun, and solar system: the titanic collision of our Milky Way galaxy with the neighboring Andromeda galaxy.

The Milky Way is destined to get a major makeover during the encounter, which is predicted to happen four billion years from now. It is likely the sun will be flung into a new region of our galaxy, but our Earth and solar system are in no danger of being destroyed.

"Our findings are statistically consistent with a head-on collision between the Andromeda galaxy and our Milky Way galaxy," said Roeland van der Marel of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore.

The solution came through painstaking NASA Hubble Space Telescope measurements of the motion of Andromeda, which also is known as M31. The galaxy is now 2.5 million light-years away, but it is inexorably
falling toward the Milky Way under the mutual pull of gravity between the two galaxies and the invisible dark matter that surrounds them both.

"After nearly a century of speculation about the future destiny of Andromeda and our Milky Way, we at last have a clear picture of how events will unfold over the coming billions of years," said Sangmo Tony Sohn of STScI.

The scenario is like a baseball batter watching an oncoming fastball. Although Andromeda is approaching us more than two thousand times faster, it will take 4 billion years before the strike.

Computer simulations derived from Hubble's data show that it will take an additional two billion years after the encounter for the interacting galaxies to completely merge under the tug of gravity and reshape into a single elliptical galaxy similar to the kind commonly seen in the local universe.

Although the galaxies will plow into each other, stars inside each galaxy are so far apart that they will not collide with other stars during the encounter. However, the stars will be thrown into different orbits around the new galactic center. Simulations show that our solar system will probably be tossed much farther from the galactic core than it is today.

To make matters more complicated, M31's small companion, the Triangulum galaxy, M33, will join in the collision and perhaps later merge with the M31/Milky Way pair. There is a small chance that M33 will hit the Milky Way first.

The universe is expanding and accelerating, and collisions between galaxies in close proximity to each other still happen because they are bound by the gravity of the dark matter surrounding them. The Hubble Space Telescope's deep views of the universe show such encounters between galaxies were more common in the past when the universe was smaller.

A century ago astronomers did not realize that M31 was a separate galaxy far beyond the stars of the Milky Way. Edwin Hubble measured its vast distance by uncovering a variable star that served as a "milepost marker."

Hubble went on to discover the expanding universe where galaxies are rushing away from us, but it has long been known that M31 is moving toward the Milky Way at about 250,000 miles per hour. That is fast enough to travel from here to the moon in one hour. The measurement was made using the Doppler effect, which is a change in frequency and wavelength of waves produced by a moving source relative to an observer, to measure how starlight in the galaxy has been compressed by Andromeda's motion toward us.

Previously, it was unknown whether the far-future encounter will be a miss, glancing blow, or head-on smashup. This depends on M31's tangential motion. Until now, astronomers had not been able to measure M31's sideways motion in the sky, despite attempts dating back more than a century. The Hubble Space Telescope team, led by van der Marel, conducted extraordinarily precise observations of the sideways motion of M31 that remove any doubt that it is destined to collide and merge with the Milky Way.

"This was accomplished by repeatedly observing select regions of the galaxy over a five- to seven-year period," said Jay Anderson of STScI.

"In the worst-case-scenario simulation, M31 slams into the Milky Way head-on and the stars are all scattered into different orbits," said Gurtina Besla of Columbia University in New York. "The stellar populations of both galaxies are jostled, and the Milky Way loses its flattened pancake shape with most of the stars on nearly circular orbits. The galaxies' cores merge, and the stars settle into randomized orbits to create an elliptical-shaped galaxy."

The space shuttle servicing missions to Hubble upgraded it with ever more-powerful cameras, which have given astronomers a long-enough time baseline to make the critical measurements needed to nail down
M31's motion. The Hubble observations and the consequences of the merger are reported in three papers that will appear in an upcoming issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

May
24
2012

So it's true?: Not necessarily the moon thing. The other part.
So it's true?: Not necessarily the moon thing. The other part.Courtesy Thomas Fowler and OZinOH
What does that title even mean?! I don’t know! Yakov Smirnoff stopped making jokes when I was a baby!

In Russia, phone dials you! In Russia, self-tanner applies you! In Russia, wife buys you! They’re all just meaningless words without the code!

Could it be that Russia has plans to establish a permanent base on the moon? Could that be? I mean, on one hand, my conception of Russia is more or less summed up by an imagined scene in which an old woman and a bear fight over a wilted cabbage. The old lady has a broom … but the bear wants the cabbage too! Does that sound like a space-colonizing nation?

Then again, the mighty USA has been hitching rides into space on Russian rockets for a while now, since we apparently decided that spaceships weren’t something we wanted to buy.

So who knows? Maybe Russia will put a permanent base on the moon. (Or maybe China or Japan will.) Maybe the US will go to an asteroid or to Mars. Maybe, in Russia, asteroid will go to you. Or maybe it’s all just astronaut pillow talk.

STS-1 Launch

by Joe on Apr. 13th, 2012

STS-1: In this image, the two solid rocket boosters are aglow after being jettisoned.
STS-1: In this image, the two solid rocket boosters are aglow after being jettisoned.Courtesy NASA
April 12, 1981 was the date of the first space shuttle launch. I remember it.

From NASA:

On April 12, 1981, astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen launched into space on space shuttle Columbia on the STS-1 mission--NASA's first mission aboard a reusable spacecraft. STS-1 was NASA's first manned mission since the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975.

Feb
10
2012

I'm not complaining: But astronaut ice cream is old news. I need new gifts all the time.
I'm not complaining: But astronaut ice cream is old news. I need new gifts all the time.Courtesy Raiden256
I like to think of myself as a fair man.

With this in mind, I try to live my life under two basic philosophies: an eye for an eye, and you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Sometimes I mix and match those ideas, but the essential thing is that my life is a series of reciprocated acts of scratching and eye gouging, and I think I’m better off for it. So, to make sure I’m being fair, I often find myself asking, “What have you ever done for me?”

Like, hey, Mom, what have you ever done for me? Birth? Well that was probably an accident. And what have you done for me lately?

Oh, hello, stranger. You want me to call the police? Maybe, but what have you ever done for me? Because from where I stand, all I think you’ve ever done for me is ruin my walk with your crying, and I’m on a 450-minute calling plan. I need those minutes for prank phone calling the animal shelter.

Why, sure, doctor, I’d love to pay you. But what have you ever done for me? You took that worm out of my eyeball? That’s pretty good, but I don’t know if it’s $2500 good. Here’s $37.25, and let’s call it square.

And so on. It works out pretty well, I think. Obviously it best applies to direct interactions, but I believe it’s reasonable to apply it to all things, which is why I spend most of my free time making lists of things (e.g. pineapples, leather, Gorbachev, Roman numerals, NASA, whispering, stickiness, shoe, minty, etc.) and then examining just what each item has done for me, so that I can better understand the balance of our relationship. As you may have guessed, I’m currently on “NASA.”

And so … NASA: what has it ever done for me?

My initial thought was, “very little.” I mean, it’s not that I don’t appreciate space ships and moon men, and all that. It has all been very inspiring. But, NASA, what have you done for me lately? I’ve never been given the chance to take a crack at microgravity, or to punch someone wearing a spacesuit in the stomach while wearing a spacesuit myself. Those are the kinds of things that could pull NASA up from the eye-plucking category into the back-scratching category, but they just haven’t happened.

Well, imagine my surprise when I saw this: NASA’s “Spinoff” page. Spinoff is basically NASA’s way of saying, “here’s what we’ve done for you, you ungrateful little punk.” I don’t like being spoken to that way, even when I’m the one who invented the less than cordial paraphrasing, but they and I have a point. Spinoff is about all the ways that NASA science makes it into the lives of norms—not just inventions like Tang (which, as it happens, NASA didn’t actually invent), but technologies that directly impact our everyday lives, and that create thousands of jobs and billions of dollars. It’s difficult to fully quantify the benefits from NASA tech, but NASA estimates that technologies featured in Spinoff since the year 2000 have saved about 12,000 lives, and extended or enhanced 86 million more; that efficiency engineering developments have saved companies about $6.2 billion; that NASA partners have created about 9,200 jobs; and that agency partner companies have generated $1.2 billion in revenue with the help of NASA technology.

I’m not going to list individual developments here because there are just tons of them, and because I’m super lazy, but they range from more aerodynamic semi-trucks, to better fire-extinguishing systems, to advances in energy efficiency, to … well, right, tons of stuff. But I would highly recommend taking a look at NASA’s 2011 Spinoff book, which can be found (free) in PDF form here. It’s over 200 pages, but it’s an entertaining and informative skim (or an informative read, I guess, but what has reading ever done for me?)

Check it out—it’s pretty interesting, and it should help you avoid a lengthy, crushing comeback when you ask NASA what it’s done for you lately. (That can be very embarrassing.)

Feb
03
2012

Why is that spaceship covered in flamethrowers?!: Oh. Maybe they're rockets.
Why is that spaceship covered in flamethrowers?!: Oh. Maybe they're rockets.Courtesy SpaceX
With the closure of NASA’s flamethrower program, flamethrower enthusiasts have expressed concern that America would fall behind the rest of the world in flamethrower exploration, and that it would ultimately be a loss to flamethrowers and humanity in general.

Fortunately, government and private industry partnerships have continued to pursue flamethrower development, and, as it happens, a prominent company in this field, FlamethrowerX, has just recently begun testing what looks to be a pretty sweet flamethrower.

Oh … man, I just realized something. I re-read those last two paragraphs, and it seems like I made multiple typos. I don’t believe in editing electronic documents (frankly, I find it to be egregious JGordon on JGordon censorship, and it makes me sick), so I’ll just walk you through the last couple sentences.

Where I wrote “flamethrower” at the beginning of this article, I meant to type “space shuttle.” And immediately after the first comma, where it says “flamethrower,” it’s actually supposed to read “space.” Near the end of that same sentence, the term “flamethrower appears two more times, and it should read “space” and “science,” respectively.

Now, in the second paragraph, you might have noticed that I wrote “pursue flamethrower development”—of course I meant to say that they’re pursuing “spaceflight development.” And when I wrote “FlamethrowerX,” I should have written “SpaceX,” because SpaceX is actually the name of the company I was referring to.

Finally, when I referred to “a pretty sweet flamethrower,” I really meant “a pretty sweet flamethrower.” Unless I meant, “rocket.” Making the flamethrower/rocket distinction can be pretty tricky sometimes.

See, SpaceX has already developed a huge rocket, called “Falcon 9,” which can propel a cargo capsule (the “Dragon capsule”) into orbit. When the Dragon capsule returns to Earth, it has to do so the old-fashioned way; straight up falling like some stupid rock in a parachute. I mean it works fine and everything—it was good enough for the Apollo astronauts returning from the moon—but what if you wanted a soft landing on, say, the moon or mars, where there aren’t convenient oceans there to catch you? Well, shucks, in that case you’d probs want some pretty sweet rockets (or flamethrowers?) on your capsule.

That’s what SpaceX is testing. They have developed a rocket for the capsule (each capsule would have 8 rockets) that will allow it to land gently and with “pinpoint accuracy” on Earth and other potential destinations. These “SuperDraco” rockets would serve another purpose as well: they could function as a launch abort system for the capsule. If something were to go dangerously wrong with a payload rocket (like the Falcon 9) while it was launching a capsule full of astronauts into space, the SuperDraco rockets could fire with enough force to cause the capsule to safely separate from the larger rocket. And the whole system would be reusable, too. Pretty slick.

And, for scrolling all the way through this nonsense about flamethrowers, here’s a video of the rocket test for you, complete with sweet canned rock and roll:

(It looks kind of like a totally awesome flamethrower, doesn’t it? Although I suppose you wouldn’t really want a flamethrower that would crush you to pieces, and send you flying into the upper atmosphere. Or would you?)

Jan
04
2012

A lonely space-bot searches for its brother: We all know what that's like, don't we?
A lonely space-bot searches for its brother: We all know what that's like, don't we?Courtesy NASA
Man, I had this dream last night that my brother and I had each taken a long trip, and at the end of the trips we met up and floated around the sky while singing to each other about our feelings. What a strange dream. I think it means that I’m afraid of death. That’s what my dream analysis book says anyway, just like it says for every dream.

On an unrelated note, one of NASA’s latest experiments, the “GRAIL mission,” is ticking away smoothly.

If, like me, you assumed that the GRAIL mission was a lot like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, I’m afraid you’re about to be sorely disappointed. “GRAIL,” in fact, stands for “Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory,” so you shouldn’t expect any bullwhips or crusty old knights. No, the GRAIL mission will be carried out by the two identical satellites that just reunited in orbit around the moon, after a slow trip from Earth (Apollo program vessels made it to the moon in just three days, but the GRAIL satellites sort of took a scenic route that required less energy to get to the moon, but a lot more time—between three and four months.)

The satellites arrived at the moon on different days (the 31st and the 1st), but now that they’re back in the same neighborhood they’re going to be traveling around the moon together at about 35 miles above the surface. As they move, they’ll be transmitting radio signals to each other, which will allow them to precisely calculate the distances between them. As one or the other of the satellites flies over an area of the moon with greater or lesser gravity, the distance between the satellites will change slightly.

Because tiny differences in gravity are determined by the interior composition of an object in space*, these satellites will tell us more about the inside of the moon, and how it formed. And because the moon originally came from Earth, we’ll learn more about the formation of our planet from this mission as well.

*More mass means more gravity, so the satellites will be able to detect not only visible features on the moon, like hills and craters, but underground structures as well. Moons and planets after all, aren’t totally uniform inside—they’re less like giant marshmallows than giant scoops of rocky road ice cream.

The things that happen in space … amiright? Crazy!

Dec
22
2011

This is not real: But it will be. This is an artist's rendering of the Dragon spacecraft delivering cargo to the ISS. (Dragon is the little winged cylinder and truncated cone.)
This is not real: But it will be. This is an artist's rendering of the Dragon spacecraft delivering cargo to the ISS. (Dragon is the little winged cylinder and truncated cone.)Courtesy NASA
Not a real dragon, of course. I mean, that would be awesome—just picture it, trying to fly around up there, starting things on fire and eating up all the astronaut food—but actual non-alien monsters in space never work out the way you would hope.

Don’t believe me? I present to you exhibits A and B: Jason X and Leprechaun 4: Leprechaun in Space. Jason and Leprechaun were really out of place up there. Sure, they did a lot of damage, but so did I on Labor Day weekend. It’s just a lot of confusion and flailing—nothing to get very excited about.

No, the dragon I’m referring to perhaps is something to get excited about. It depends on what sort of things get you worked up, but seeing as how this dragon, or Dragon, is a spaceship, I think I can put some good money on somebody out there getting excited. A spaceship!

We clever humans have made plenty of spaceships, but what’s special about Dragon is that it’s the first commercially-built and –operated spacecraft to be recovered from orbit. About a year ago, the private company SpaceX launched the Dragon craft into orbit around the planet, and safely brought it back down a few hours later. Dragon was unmanned on that launch, but the vessel is constructed so that it could carry up to seven human passengers into orbit (its pressurized cabin space—where humans would have to be—is about 350 cubic feet, and it has an additional 490 cubic feet of unpressurized cargo space.)

Given the success of the test launch, Dragon is on its way to another first: docking with the International Space Station. Never before has a commercial spacecraft rendezvoused with the ISS. This is like … like a billionaire’s son going on a date with the president’s daughter. (Not the current president’s daughters, though. They’re too young to be dating.)

Before this billionaire gets to take out the First Daughter, however, it has to complete safety checks and a flyby of the ISS (like making sure the kid is dressed appropriately, doesn’t smell of cognac, and doesn’t crash into the Whitehouse’s garage door). Assuming everything checks out ok, the ISS will use its huge robotic arm to grapple the Dragon, and connect it to one of its modules, where the dragon can unload its cargo. Sort of like the president’s daughter using her giant, cybernetic arm to … actually, let’s abandon this analogy. The point is that for the first time a ship that doesn’t belong to the US or Russian government (or any government) will hook up with the ISS, ushering in a new era of Earth to orbit transportation, etc.

As I understand it, the plan was originally to do three launches—the initial one, where Dragon was shot into orbit, and then recovered; a second one that would include a flyby of the ISS and a test of Dragon’s onboard systems, and then finally the launch that would have it connect with the ISS. However, it looks like NASA and SpaceX have decided to combine the second and third missions. Dragon will be launched on February 7, 2012, and if the flyby and system tests go well, it will dock with the ISS on the same trip. It will not be carrying any passengers on that launch, but—assuming everything goes well—that’s in the plans for future flights. And there will be future flights. In fact, NASA has a $1.6 billion contract with SpaceX, requiring SpaceX to provide them with at least 12 resupply flights to the ISS.

Any thoughts, Buzzketeers? What about commercial spaceflight? What about commercial spaceflight replacing government-run spaceflight? And how do you feel about dragons?

Dec
21
2011

A helpless astronaut is attacked by robospheres: Or not. But I don't believe for a second that Red, Blue, and Orange aren't thinking about it.
A helpless astronaut is attacked by robospheres: Or not. But I don't believe for a second that Red, Blue, and Orange aren't thinking about it.Courtesy NASA
History has shown us time and time again that careless exploration of backronyms can be a dangerous mistake. Think of Sir Isaac Newton, who had a mild stroke while constructing his theory of Green Round Apples Veer Inward To Dang. Or consider the vicious beating Roald Dahl received after founding his youth literacy and mentoring program, Real Everyday Adults Delivering Intelligence Not Gum. Constructing an acronym to fit an already decided upon word or phrase is a process fraught with the threat of physical harm (or, at the very least, mild embarrassment).

Thank goodness for the ironically straightforwardly acronymed NASA and MIT, who are braving the field of wild, retroactively applied acronyms so the rest of us don’t have to.

NASA’s and MIT’s current research in the field centers on its SPHERES project. SPHERES stands for “Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites.” Or perhaps it’s the other way around. For the time being, NASA is attempting to sneak up on the principles of causation by pretending that it was a coincidence.

In addition to stressing linguistic credibility to the extent that its breaking point may become clear, the SPHERES project has a physical component with secondary objectives. SPHERES is actually composed of three separate robots, each about the size and shape of a bowling ball (get it?! “SPHERES”?!) The robots will be taken to the International Space Station, where they’ll just kind of float around together.

Or, I guess, they won’t just be floating around. I mean, if you’re in space and not tied down, you’ll float around. But if you, like the SPHERES robots, have your own onboard power supply (AA batteries), navigation and propulsion system (CO2 jets), and computer system, you can do a lot more than just float. The SPHERES robots will practice flying around the ISS in tightly controlled formation with each other.

I suppose it doesn’t sound all that tricky—after all, dumb ol’ birds can fly in formation, and they’re dumb. But, then again, birds have evolved for millions of years to do that sort of thing, and being in space—where there really isn’t a true “up” or “down”—presents its own challenges. These simple little robots have to coordinate with each other and their surroundings perfectly to stay in formation. And once they (that is, the people that make and program the robots) get the hang of that, there are some pretty slick applications for objects in space that can automatically stay in perfect formation.

For one, it should make the processes of servicing, re-supplying, reconfiguring, and upgrading the ISS and other space systems easier, because these things all involve two or more extremely expensive floating objects that need to be oriented just right to get a job done and avoid smashing each other up while doing it.

Also, it turns out that a formation of itty-bitty satellites (sort of like the SPHERES spheres) can do some of the work of a much bigger, more expensive satellite. For example, instead of using a satellite telescope that relies on one huge mirror, a formation of lots of small satellites could gather bits of light that could be put together into an image. That way, if one small satellite was damaged, it wouldn’t wreck the whole project. Also, the formation of satellites could potentially be larger than a single mirror (or mirror array on one satellite).

And then there’s also the notion that each astronaut could have his or her own fleet of tiny floating robots. They could be used to feed and clean the astronauts, and, of course, fight for their amusement.*

Here’s a video of the a recent (recent-ish—it’s from 2009) test run of the spheres. Watch as they do what they do best:

And here’s MIT’s SPHERES website, where they delve more into the motivations of the SPHERES project (but not so much into the acronym issue.)

For more pictures of the spheres floating in the ISS, scroll to the bottom of this page.

*This paragraph contains no NASA endorsed ideas. It just seems to me like the obvious thing to do.