Courtesy NASAHistory 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.
Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. PyleNASA announced this week the discovery of two Earth-sized planets orbiting a star 1000 light-years away in the constellation Lyra. The star system, called Kepler 20, is orbited by five planets. The two planets of interest, named Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f, are the first exoplanets their size to be discovered around another star resembling our own.
Francois Fressin, the lead author of the study which appears in the journal Nature, said the Kepler mission's main goal is to discover Earth-sized planets located in the habitable zone of other star systems. "This discovery demonstrates for the first time that Earth-size planets exist around other stars, and that we are able to detect them,” Fressin said.
Kepler 20e is slightly smaller than Venus, while Kepler-20f is slightly larger than Earth. The exoplanets' host star is smaller than the Sun and a bit cooler in temperature, however, the orbits of Kepler-20e and 20f are closer to their star than Mercury is to our sun, which makes them far too hot to support liquid water and too inhospitable to support life.
But the discovery is a big step in the three-and-a-half year Kepler mission, which uses ground-based telescopes and space telescopes to search out possible planet candidates.
This cool timelapse of Comet Lovejoy rising in the morning skies over Western Australia was created by Colin Legg. The comet's dust tail and secondary plasma tail can be seen rising out of the treetops in the lower right of the frame. You can see more of Legg's meteorological videos on his Vimeo link below.
Courtesy NASA/Carla CioffiAs a brand new year approaches, It's the time for making year-end lists, so here's Space.com's contribution for 2011. Russia's TMA-03M Soyuz spacecraft (pictured at right) blasted off just today - December 21 - with three astronauts aboard and headed for the International Space Station. It wasn't included in this year's list. Cool photo nonetheless.
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.)