Courtesy Stratolaunch SystemsBillionaire and Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen, was always told that the sky was the limit.
Oh, and how those words chafed at him. They chafed and they chafed, until one day Allen finally pushed his nay-saying assistant into the koi pond and shouted, “’The sky’s the limit’? I’ll show you limits!” And on that day he founded Stratolaunch Systems, a company that would create a plane that would help propel a craft beyond the sky, to space!
And those people who still argued that space is part of the sky, depending on your definition? Allen had them frozen in carbonite and turned into coffee tables for his vast mansion. (The assistant eventually crawled out of the koi pond, but he kept his mouth shut after that, because he had already spent a summer encased in carbonite, and didn’t intend to repeat it.)
All of that may be true. But the parts that are certainly true are those directly concerning billionaire Paul Allen’s plan to build a gigantic plane that will carry a space rocket high into the atmosphere (about 6 miles up), where the rocket can more easily launch itself into orbit. And, by “gigantic,” I mean that the plane will have a wingspan of 385 feet, and a total weight of 1.2 million pounds.
This is an interesting thing because, a) a rocket-carrying plane has seemed like a good idea for a while, but has never been tried on this scale; and b) with the end of NASA’s shuttle program, we’re going to be looking for new (and hopefully cheaper) ways to get people and equipment into space. Private companies like Stratolaunch Systems and its partner on this project, SpaceX, will likely be a big part of the solution.
(SpaceX was founded by Elon Musk, one of the folks behind paypal. There’s also Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic company, and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. So Paul Allen’s motivation could also have been that he didn’t want to be the only eccentric billionaire without his own spaceflight company. Which is understandable.)
While this plane/rocket system won’t be able carry quite as much cargo into space as other rockets, the Stratolaunch plane has other advantages. (Together, the plane and the rocket weigh more than one and a half million points, and they’re using repurposed engines from 747 jets, so they think the payload limit should be around 13,500 pounds.) For one, it doesn’t require a complicated and stationary launch pad, meaning that launch costs should be lower, and the process of getting the rocket launched will be more flexible—if weather isn’t cooperating at the launch site, the plane can be flown somewhere else (with a 12,000-foot runway) and sent up there. Also, once a rocket is released, the plane can just turn around, land, and be fitted for another launch by the next day. So, you know, if you have a lot of stuff to get up into space, and not so much time, maybe this is yer bird.
But what’s the point? For that, let’s go back to “interesting thing b).” Aside from every billionaire’s dream of having a spaceship, Allen and co. expect the very costly project to be profitable (eventually). NASA may be done with the shuttle program, but they aren’t done with their work in space—currently astronauts rely on Russian launches to get into space, but contracts with companies like Allen’s could give them some more options.
And, of course, who isn’t interested in space?
The Stratolaunch system could be tossing rockets into space as soon as 2016. It'll start with unmanned rockets, but assuming that those launches prove to be safe and reliable, they hope to move to launching manned spacecraft. (And check out Stratolaunch's site for more on the launch system.)
Courtesy NASA/CaltechScientists have been studying a newly-forming star that’s blasting incredibly hot and gigantic pulses of water from its poles. The extreme temperature at work (180,000 degrees F.) means the water isn’t in liquid form but rather a super-hot concoction of unfused hydrogen and oxygen atoms. As the jet streams shoot into space away from the star’s accretion disk and outer gas cloud, they cool and the atoms interact with dust and each other, and water molecules form as ice.
The protostar, known as L1448-MM, is 750 light years from Earth, and located in the sky near the Pleiades star cluser. Using the European Space Agency’s,Herschel infrared orbiting telescope astronomers are able to measure the elements making up the baby star, and its bizarre behavior. Each powerful jet pulsating from the center of the star shoots “the equivalent of a hundred million times the water flowing through the Amazon River every second”, at a speed of about 120,000 miles per hour. More incredible is the fact that each “pulse” is estimated to last for about a year! Merely a flash of time in cosmic terms.
Each pulse produces shockwave in the surrounding space. Scientists are uncertain of how long the pulsing phase continues during a star’s birth. It could be anywhere from 1 to 10 million years. But astronomers think “water” fountains like that detected on L1448-MM are a common occurrence in the creation of stars, and that our own Sun went through the same process as it was forming.
Courtesy Lockheed Martin/NASAWork on the heat shield and thermal protection backshell of the new Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) ground test article, or GTA, was completed recently in preparation for environmental testing. This image is of the MPCV at the Lockheed Martin Vertical Test Facility in Colorado. The MPCV will undergo rigorous testing to confirm its ability to safely fly astronauts through all the harsh environments of deep space exploration missions.
A major eruption on the Sun on June 7 sent high-energy particles spewing into space. They are expected to reach Earth on the night of Wednesday June 8 (Minnesota time). Astronomers are predicting a major aurora event, with the Northern Lights visible overhead as far south as Milwaukee, and possibly visible on the northern horizon as far south a southern Indiana and Washington DC! For Buzzers in the northern US / southern Canada, if the sky is clear tonight, go out, find a dark place away from city lights, face north and look up. No telescopes or other fancy equipment needed. You can even try to photograph them (use a long exposure, no flash, and set the camera on something steady.) If you get any photos, post them here in the comments.
For more info, and up-to-the-minute predictions, visit the Aurora Forecast page.
Courtesy kitchenpantryscientistWhen NASA scientists wanted to study star dust (particles from comets and interstellar dust), they had to find a way to slow down the tiny pieces of matter as they flew through space. By the way, interstellar means “between stars.” NASA’s Stardust spacecraft would encounter star dust traveling 6 times the speed of a rifle bullet! At these speeds, a collision with most materials would shatter, or burn up the space dust they were trying to collect.
In order to solve this problem, the scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California crafted a special “space jello” called Aerogel which could slow space particle down and trap them, undamaged, for study. Aerogel is similar to glass, but is 1000 times less dense. In fact Aerogel is 99.8 percent empty space. Imagine a box of air filled with tiny, tiny glass threads. When space dust hits this jello-like substance, it makes a tiny tunnel in the aerogel that helps scientists find and collect the dust under a powerful microscope. Then they can study the dust to see what it is made of!
I was luckily enough to get a sample of Aerogel from Stephanie Smith, who works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Aerogel looks like light-blue smoke when you hold it in your hand. It is as light as a feather, but it feels solid, dry, and harder than jello when you touch it! You can read more about Aerogel and the Stardust missions by clicking here, on the JPL website! It’s amazing science. They’ve found many interesting elements and chemical compounds in the star dust already. I can’t wait to see what they find next!
Here’s a video of us playing with the Aerogel Stephanie brought to the NASATweetup! (courtesy of MindspaceLTD)
(This blog post was originally posted on the Kitchen Pantry Scientist blog.)
By Brady Anderson
Growing up as a boy in a small farming community in rural Nebraska one of my favorite things to do was to stare at the night sky. It was always so beautiful. I would often fantasize of traveling from planet to planet to uphold intergalactic peace as a Jedi knight. Among these imaginations I always wondered where all these planets came from. I especially always wondered where the moon came from. Was it really made of cheese? Did a man truly live there? Could a cow jump over it? And was there actually anything worth seeing on its dark side? Well, now that I am older I don’t look at the sky as often as I used too—darn city lights!—but I do still wonder how exactly the moon come about. As it turns out many in the scientific community have also been concerned with this question and over the years there have been a few different theories as to the origin of the moon.
If found some theories about how the moon was formed on the Planetary Science Institute’s website. One theory is that the moon was a planet that was form around the same time as the earth was formed but was pulled into orbit around the earth due to its smaller density. This theory was largely discredited because the moon does not have any iron. The lack of iron is evidence that the moon was not formed from the same process as the earth was because if it was it would contain iron as the earth does. In response to this lack of iron another theory suggested that the moon formed in some other part of the solar system where there was little iron and was then somehow captured into earth’s orbit. This was disproved when lunar rocks were analyzed and showed the same isotope composition as the earth. The fact that they have the same isotope composition gives evidence that the earth and the moon were formed in the same area of the solar system. Another theory suggested that the moon the early earth was spinning so quickly that the moon flung off the earth. However, it has been proven that the angular momentum and energy need for such a thing to happen are impossible given what we know about the size and composition of the earth and moon.
The leading theory of the moon’s origin is an idea put forward by Dr. William K. Hartman and Dr. Donald R. Davis (http://www.psi.edu/projects/moon/moon.html). They proposed that the moon was formed by a body about the size of mars impacting the earth some around 60 million years after the earth’s initial accretion (Earth System History Third Edition, p. 248). Apparently this celestial body blasted into the earth with such speed and impact that some of the mantle of the body was separated to form what is now the moon. The Planetary Science Institute (http://www.psi.edu/projects/moon/moon.html) shows a computer simulation of what the impact probably looked like.
This impact theory explains several facts about the moon and so lend to its probability. First, the moon does not have any water whatsoever. The theory suggests this is so because water and other compounds were expelled from the moon during its formation. Second, the moon has a small metallic core. This is explained by the theory because when the mars sized body impacted the earth its core sank into the earth and became part of its core, but the body’s mantle exploded from it to form the small core of the moon. Third, the moon has a feldspar-rich outer layer. The theory accounts for this because of the heat involved in the impact formation of the moon. The early moon would have had a magma ocean early on much like the early earth (Earth System History Third Edition, p. 248-249).
So there you have it! The moon was most likely formed from an impact of a smaller celestial body on the earth. It was definitely not made of cheese.
Courtesy Public domain (via Wikipedia)Fifty years ago today, 27 year-old Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin became the first human to be launched into space. On April 12, 1961, Gagarin and the Soviet Vostok-1 spaceship were sent skyward for a 108 minute ride above and around Earth. He made a single orbit around the planet before returning to earth where he received a hero's welcome and became an instant celebrity world-wide. The feat accelerated the so-called Space Race between the Soviet Union and the United States. A mere eight years later, US astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the Moon on July 20, 1969. Unfortunately, Gagarin didn't live to see that day, having died the year before in a crash while test-flying a Soviet MiG jet.
Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech Yesterday NASA's Stardust spacecraft performed a final burn with its main engines which effectively ended the life of NASA's most traveled comet hunter. Called a "burn to depletion", the procedure will help to answer the question of how much fuel Stardust had left in its tank. While it sounds like running your snow blower until it runs out of gas to store it for the summer, this was an important test as no one has invented an entirely reliable fuel gauge for spacecraft. Part of the process of approximating fuel use is looking at the history of the vehicle's flight and how many times and for how long its rocket motors have fired.
Stardust's burn to depletion is expected to be useful especially because the spacecraft has been proverbially "running on empty" for a long time. Stardust has been in space for over 11 years and has flown past an asteroid (Annefrank), collected particle samples from a comet (Wild 2) and returned them to Earth in a sample return capsule in January 2006. Then, after these primary objectives, it was then re-tasked to perform a flyby of comet Tempel 1, a task it completed last month.
Before the burn to depletion Stardust pointed its antenna at Earth and sent information on the burn as it happened. The command ordering the rockets to fire was sent for 45 minutes, but the burn lasted just 146 seconds. 20 minutes after the engines burned out, Stardust's computer commanded its transmitters to turn off. Without fuel to power the spacecraft's attitude control system, Stardust's solar panels will not remain pointed at the sun. When this occurs, the spacecraft's batteries are expected to drain of power and deplete within hours.
Its a fitting end to a very impressive mission for NASA.