Stories tagged spacecraft

Interstellar space graphic
Interstellar space graphicCourtesy NASA
Voyager 1, an unmanned NASA space probe is nearing the outer edge of our solar system and will soon enter the vast, unknown region known as interstellar space. The crossover will remove the spacecraft from the influence of solar winds (from our Sun), into a relatively empty expanse of cold space influenced mostly by countering pressures created by supernovae, collapsed stars that died in immense catastrophic explosions. Voyager 1's primary mission, when it was launched 34 years ago on September 5, 1977, was to visit and photograph the giant gas planets in our solar system. It accomplished that goal and sent back spectacular images of the planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Right now Voyager 1 is about 11 billion miles from the sun, its cameras switched off, and poised for the next stage of its journey. The edge of the heliosphere is estimated to be somewhere between 10-14 billion miles from the Sun, so the probe could crossover anytime soon. NASA's Voyager program included two probes sent out with data gathering instruments and cultural souvenirs from the inhabitants of planet Earth, just in case they somehow got intercepted by some extraterrestrial lifeforms. Voyager 2, although launched two weeks before , trails some 2 billion miles behind Voyager 1, and will cross the boundary after its twin. You can read (and hear) more about it at the NPR website.


Zoom, zoom, zoom: Retro rocket style lives on today.
Zoom, zoom, zoom: Retro rocket style lives on today.Courtesy xparxy
Do you yearn to relive the glory days of space travel, back when the space industry was run by scientists and engineers rather than hindered by politicians and the Military-Industrial Complex? Do you drool at the prospect of riding in one of those oh-so-very-cool retro rococo-style rockets popularly portrayed in the media during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s?

Well, then you better get your Earth-bound behind out to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada for the Burning Man Festival starting at the end of this month. This year, the annual counter-culture festival will feature a full-sized cigar-shaped Raygun Gothic Rockethip being constructed right now in a warehouse in Oakland, California.

Three artists, Sean Orlando, David Shulman, and Nathaniel Taylor came up with the idea for the rocket and even got a Burning Man grant to fund the project. Orlando, whose father worked as a contractor at NASA, said he hopes the project will re-convey the wonderment space travel elicited in the industry’s early pre-NASA days.

The vehicle will be out-of-this-world (pun intended) and when completed will stand 40-feet tall with three levels of circular rooms setting upon the 17-foot steel legs. The entire massive steel frame will be covered in a skin of brushed aluminum (polished on site) and held in place by thousands of rivets. A team of more than 60 people is hard at work on the structure, and lest you think it’s just some frivolous art project, well you couldn’t be more… actually you’re probably absolutely right. But just recently Dr. Wade Enright, a leading high voltage researcher from New Zealand joined the team along with Dr. Alan Rorie, a high voltage artist to help develop the Uira Engine, a kinetic, high voltage sculpture serving as the rocket’s power source and engine. Uira means “lightning” in the language of New Zealand's indigenous Maori. This ought to add some excitement and sparks to the rocketship and to the festivities.

The plan is to unveil the spaceship during the festival with great ceremony on a launch pad in the desert. Festival participants will be permitted to climb aboard and make their way up through the three compartments where they’ll interact with all sorts of early-to-mid-twentieth century gadgetry, and navigational components complete with blinking lights. A telescope (for deep space scanning) will be included, and a pilot seat in the cockpit will allow neo-retro (?) astronauts to swivel around to check the instruments, most of which I suspect will have been built by the Acme Corporation. After exploring the vastness of space (both inner and maybe outer), visitors will exit across a bridge to a gantry and back down to terra firma.

If you think this would be something you’d like to see, but can’t make it to the Nevada desert, check out the Raygun Gothic Rocketship site where you can see plans, specs, sketches, photos and videos. There’s even a retro countdown clock so you can follow the spaceship’s progress to blast-off.

Story on


Doing it right now: just not venting yet.
Doing it right now: just not venting yet.Courtesy NASA
Fine. Be a jerk about it—apparently there are only two reasons I could be an astronaut. There are definitely plenty of reasons why I should be an astronaut—including, but not limited to, 1) people love astronauts, 2) when aliens come, you’ll want someone on the front lines with gumption and verve, 3) I’ve seen Apollo 13, like, twice, etc—but nobody seems to care about those. No, it’s always “but what are your qualifications? Are you a pilot? An astronomer? How do you handle heavy g-force? Have you a buzz cut?”

Numerous and impressive. No. Not technically. Pretty well, I assume. Not at the moment, no.

But let’s look at the important things: primarily that I have a fully functional renal system, and can pee with the best of them. And that’s an important thing at NASA these days. Or so I hear.

An internal memo from NASA, calling for donations of urine, has been, um, leaked to the public. It seems that during the last ten days of July, NASA will be requiring about 8 gallons of fresh urine a day (the output of about 30 people) for super-secret, awesome space tests. That is to say, to help figure out how to build a better space bathroom.

It turns out that while peeing in space is probably a little tricky (and hilarious), storing and getting rid of that pee is at least equally problematic. The Orion space capsule, which will help ferry astronauts to the moon, will eventually have to vent stored astronaut pee into space. This, amazingly, isn’t as easy as spitting out a mouthful of lemonade—urine has lots of tiny solids suspended in it, and those solids clog up the venting system. And you don’t want clogged vents. Not here, and not in space.

To test the space urinal, NASA needs pee. And, as NASA’s head of life support systems says, you can’t make fake urine.

But I can make the real stuff. And I don’t want to brag, but it’s actually pretty easy for me.

Unfortunately, NASA only wants NASA pee (the original memo was internal, after all). But I’ll be waiting by the phone, ready to do my duty for America. In return, I only ask that a seat be saved for me on the lunar lander.

Would this make you less likely to want to join a space exploration crew on the International Space Station? On its next mission, space shuttle Endeavor will be delivering equipment that NASA has developed that will recycle astronauts' eliminations -- more specifically urine -- into drinking water. With crews of the space station growing from three to six people in the near future, the technology is needed to keep up with the water demands for a larger crew. You can get all the details here from USA Today.


Rosetta: It didn't want to cause any trouble. All it wants to do is chase comets.
Rosetta: It didn't want to cause any trouble. All it wants to do is chase comets.Courtesy Wikimedia commons
Just in case you were concerned, the planet earth isn’t about to get creamed by an asteroid.

Oh? You weren’t concerned? Never mind.

Apparently, last week the Minor Planet Center was just about to release an emergency warning that a large, extra-terrestrial body was just about to pass a hair’s breadth from the earth – it should have skimmed by about 3,500 miles away. That’s creepily close, when we’re dealing with space.

Fortunately (for our stress centers, I guess) a clever Russian scientist actually took the time to look at the nearly earth-bound mass, and to track its trajectory, and realized that it was, in fact, the European, comet-chasing probe, Rosetta. Rosetta is about the size of a utility van (with wings), and we are quite safe from it.

So, thanks to one plucky Russian astronomer, the world is safe again. You all still have a pretty good chance of getting hit by cars tomorrow, though, or by dead birds falling from the sky. Or of choking on something you thought would be harmless, like pudding.


The Orion crew exploration vehicle: This rendering represents a concept of the Orion crew exploration vehicle. NASA's Constellation Program is getting to work on new spacecraft that will return humans to the moon and blaze a trail to Mars and beyond.  Image courtesy:Lockheed Martin Corp.
The Orion crew exploration vehicle: This rendering represents a concept of the Orion crew exploration vehicle. NASA's Constellation Program is getting to work on new spacecraft that will return humans to the moon and blaze a trail to Mars and beyond. Image courtesy:Lockheed Martin Corp.
Here are some more random questions that were submitted to our featured Scientists on the Spot that had nothing to do with their area of expertise. A few were space related, so I gathered them up to answer together.

We had two similar space travel questions. ”How many days does it take to get to the moon?” and, ”How many years does it take to get to Mars?”

First, the moon, which is closer, and rotates around the Earth. That simple fact may make you a lot of money some day.

How long it takes to get to the moon depends on how fast you are traveling and whether or not people are on the ship.

The moon is 238,855 miles from Earth. If you were to travel at a rate of 60 miles an hour from the Earth to the moon it would take165 days to get there. Luckily, spaceships can travel a lot faster.

The first man-made spacecraft to reach the moon was the Soviet Union’s unmanned Luna 2. It reached the moon in 33½ hours, meaning it traveled at an average of 7,131 miles an hour.

Manned spacecraft take longer to reach the moon as you have to take into consideration g-forces, safety and probably resting by the crew. The first manned lunar landing, Apollo 11, was launched from Earth at 1:32pm on July 16, 1969, achieved orbit around the moon some nearly 76 hours later, and made landing on the moon at 8:17pm on July 20, 1969. Apollo 12, the second moon mission, took the longest to get to the moon – over 83 hours, while Apollo 16 was the fastest at just under 72 hours. So, I would say it takes around three days to get to the moon.

Apollo 17 was the last lunar landing, back in December of 1972. NASA has plans to return to the moon in 2019.

Like going to the moon, the time it takes to get to Mars is influenced by how fast you travel, but another crucial factor is that Mars’ distance from Earth changes as the two planets rotate around the Sun, so how long it takes depends on when you leave. Recent unmanned missions to Mars included Spirit (launched June 10, 2003 – arrived January 3, 2004), Pathfinder (December 4, 1996 – arrived July 4, 1997), Mars Odyssey (launched April 7, 2001 – arrived October 24, 2001) and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (launched August 12, 2005 – arrived March 10, 2006), and they average just over 6 months.

Supernova Cassiopeia A: This image from the orbiting Chandra x-ray observatory shows Cassiopeia A, the youngest supernova remnant in the Milky Way. Image courtesy: NASA/CXC/MIT/UMass Amherst/M.D.Stage et al.
Supernova Cassiopeia A: This image from the orbiting Chandra x-ray observatory shows Cassiopeia A, the youngest supernova remnant in the Milky Way. Image courtesy: NASA/CXC/MIT/UMass Amherst/M.D.Stage et al.
It would be about the same about of time for a manned spaceflight, if launched during the time when the two planets are in opposition to one another. The length of time spent on Mars will be impacted by this as well – it will either be a 30-day stay (a total 600+ day mission) or a 450+ day stay (a total 900+ day mission). Again, the difference lies in when the planets are in opposition, which only occurs every 26 months.

The final space question is “What are super novas?”

Super novas are stars blowing up. (Sweet.) Basically, the blowing up star becomes much brighter (because it is blowing up) as the material that made up the star is blown away.

More on supernovas can be found here, here or here.

The start of Apollo 11's historic adventure: Images courtesy NASA via Wikimedia Commons.
The start of Apollo 11's historic adventure: Images courtesy NASA via Wikimedia Commons.
On this date (July 16) 38 years ago, a Saturn V rocket blasted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida beginning the most extraordinary and historic adventure in human history: the first manned mission to land on the moon.

The Apollo 11 crew included commander Neil Armstrong, lunar module pilot Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, and command module pilot Michael Collins. The rocket reached Earth orbit in twelve minutes and made one and a half orbits. Not long after, the command service module and lunar module were docked together and sent on a trajectory toward the moon. The trip across the 225,000 miles of space would take slightly more than 3 days.

I breathed a big sigh of relief when I heard that the space shuttle Discovery landed safely this morning at about 9:14 EDT. Thank goodness.


Grainy Mars Orbiter pictureCourtesy NASA

For the first time ever, a spacecraft has taken a picture of another spacecraft orbiting around another planet. The Mars Global Surveyor, which has been floating around Mars since 1997, was able to take this grainy picture of its sister probe, Odyssey. Odyssey arrived at Mars in 2001. It's exciting to be able to see evidence of our successful missions to another planet beamed back from millions of miles away.

In the future these probes may be able to take pictures of fellow spacecraft to help us fix problems and guide discovery. Imagine if a lander got lost on the Martian surface: orbiting probes might be able to tell us back here on Earth what happened, and where things went wrong. This sort of interaction between probes will be essential for our further exploration of the universe, especially to places where humans might not be able to travel.