Stories tagged Earth and Space Science


Dextre robot addition to ISS
Dextre robot addition to ISSCourtesy Canadian Space Agency

STS-123's 16 day mission

The space shuttle Endeavour's STS-123 crew is on track for a March 11 launch to the space station for a marathon construction flight expected to last about 16 days. The busy construction flight will include five spacewalks to assemble the Canadian Space Agency's two-armed robot Dextre, install the first segment of Japan's massive Kibo laboratory, test a shuttle heat shield repair method and deliver spare parts to the ISS. Europe's maiden ISS cargo ship Jules Verne will hover nearby, waiting to deliver its load of cargo.

Japan will add components to the ISS

Japanese astronaut Takao Doi will help deliver the storage room for his country's Kibo laboratory to the ISS for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). Japan's Kibo facility consists of a storage pod, a massive pressurized laboratory and an external platform equipped with its own robotic arm.

Canadian Space Agency will assemble a huge robot

Putting together Dextre, a Canadian robot, will be one of the main jobs for the seven Endeavour astronauts. Standing 12 feet tall and 8 feet wide, Dextre has two 7 jointed arms that are each 11 feet long.

Repairing heat shield tiles

When the space shuttle Atlantis flies to repair the Hubble Space Telescope in August, any damage to its space tiles will need to be repaired in space. Waiting for rescue at the space station will not be an option. A practice run of such a repair will be carried out on this mission.

Learn more - 114 page info packet

For a really complete information package describing the STS-123 mission in detail you might check out this 114 page press release (4.4MB, pdf).


Stranded Columbus crew starving in Jamaica

Lunar eclipse Feb 20, 2008
Lunar eclipse Feb 20, 2008Courtesy NASA Kennedy Space Center
Christopher Columbus sailed to the "New World" several times after his 1492 voyage. On his fourth and last journey ship worms so decimated his four ships that Columbus had to put ashore on the North coast of Jamaica and wait for rescue. Initially, the Jamaican natives welcomed the castaways, providing them with food and shelter in exchange for trinkets and whistles. When the natives no longer wished to provide food after more than six months, half of Columbus' crew mutinied, robbing and murdering some of the natives. With famine now threatening, Columbus formulated a desperate, albeit ingenious plan.

A bad moon is going to rise

Columbus, like all good sailors, had an almanac containing astronomical tables providing detailed information about the sun, moon and planets. Using its tables, Columbus calculated that on the evening of Thursday, Feb. 29, 1504, a total eclipse of the moon would take place soon after the time of moonrise. Three days before the eclipse Columbus told the chief that

his Christian god was angry with his people for no longer supplying Columbus and his men with food. Therefore, he was about to provide a clear sign of his displeasure: Three nights hence, he would all but obliterate the rising full moon, making it appear "inflamed with wrath," which would signify the evils that would soon be inflicted upon all of them.

According to Columbus's son, Ferdinand, when the moon started to eclipse, the natives ". . . with great howling and lamentation came running from every direction to the ships laden with provisions, praying to the Admiral to intercede with his god on their behalf." Just moments before the end of the total phase Columbus reappeared, announcing to the natives that his god had pardoned them and would now allow the moon to gradually return. Columbus and his men were well supplied and well fed until a relief caravel from Hispaniola finally arrived on June 29, 1504.

Total Lunar eclipse Wed. Feb 20 from 9-10 p.m. CST

Click this for information on when the lunar eclipse occurs around the world.The moon will start entering Earth's shadow at 7:43 pm CST Wednesday. Click this next link for an explanation of how and why you see the moon colored blood red, bright orange, or even a gentle turquoise.


Inside Victoria Crater: View of Martian stratigraphic layer informally named "Lyell", the lowermost of three layers found inside of Victoria Crater by the Mars rover Opportunity.
Inside Victoria Crater: View of Martian stratigraphic layer informally named "Lyell", the lowermost of three layers found inside of Victoria Crater by the Mars rover Opportunity.Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University
The science gathered so far by the two Martian rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, suggests the Red Planet may have been a bit too inhospitable to support even the toughest forms of life.

Although strong evidence of water (at least in the planet’s past) has been found on Mars, recent assessment of the data shows it contains a much higher salt content than expected and that practically puts the kibosh on hopes of any microbes flourishing there.

Opportunity spent time recently examining strata exposed on the inner wall of Victoria Crater. NASA scientists hoped it would show a record of the ground surface as it existed prior to impact that created the crater. But analysis suggests it to be the top of an underground water table, and after reassessing earlier data, and performing some computer modeling, researchers think the environment may have been too harsh to support life.

"At first, we focused on acidity, because the environment would have been very acidic," said Dr. Andrew Knoll, a Harvard biologist who is a member of the rover science team. "Now, we also appreciate the high salinity of the water when it left behind the minerals Opportunity found. This tightens the noose on the possibility of life."

Knoll spoke at the annual meeting of the American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston.

"Life at the Martian surface would have been very challenging for the last 4 billion years. The best hopes for a story of life on Mars are at environments we haven't studied yet -- older ones, subsurface ones," he said.

Lower, more ancient, geological layers may hold a more hospitable picture of a less briny Martian environment, but the current rover missions aren’t set up to examine that.

"Our next missions, Phoenix and Mars Science Laboratory, mark a transition from water to habitability -- assessing whether sites where there's been water have had conditions suited to life," said Charles Elachi, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "Where conditions were habitable, later missions may look for evidence of life."

The Phoenix lander is expected to reach Mars on May 25, 2008 in an area farther north on the planet where it will study the icy subsurface for viable signs of life. The Mars Science Laboratory will launch in the fall of 2009.

Opportunity and Spirit, the two rovers operating presently on opposite sides of the Mars, were sent there with one mission in mind: finding evidence of water. The missions were expected to last a mere three months, but have far surpassed that due to the robots’ high endurance, and problem-solving ingenuity of NASA engineers back on Earth. The robots are now entering their fifth year exploring the Martian surface.

NASA press release
BBC story
Mars info
More about Mars (with less salt)


It seemed like a good idea at the time: But immediately after this photo was taken, the alien bored its way through her skull and nested in the right hemisphere of the singer's brain. We might learn something from this.
It seemed like a good idea at the time: But immediately after this photo was taken, the alien bored its way through her skull and nested in the right hemisphere of the singer's brain. We might learn something from this.Courtesy aymanshamma
The future of the human race, indeed the future of the planet Earth, has been foolishly gambled on the taste and temper of distant alien civilizations, some scientists say.

This week, NASA began to beam the Beatles’ song “Across the Universe” across the, er, universe. Well, not across the universe exactly—the transmission was aimed at the North Star, 431 light years away. Sir Paul McCartney was enthused over the action, and Yoko Ono had something to say (which I skipped over, because it was weird and boring). Ringo Starr, oddly enough, seems not to have been notified.

The transmission has also raised discussion over just what humans should be broadcasting to other planets, and what potential risks might be associated with such actions. This has been a particularly hot topic among SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) Institute researchers at the “Sounds of Silence” conference at the Arizona State University in Tempe this week. “Before sending out even symbolic messages, we need an open discussion about the potential risks," says one SETI member.

I agree entirely. I’m afraid, however, that the damage may already have been done. As the article points out, transmissions from Earth have long been washing across the universe. Military transmissions have already penetrated deep space, and, more worryingly, old episodes of “I Love Lucy” and “Star Trek” pass through an average of one star system a day. We can only hope that some of the more sensitive aliens haven’t been paying close attention to their television sets—I’m not sure how many aliens they can watch William Shatner punch out, or how cheerfully they can bear Lucy’s cough-syrup addiction, before they decide that the universe might be better off without humanity. Then again, maybe aliens are into that kind of stuff. They might just be on the edge of their seats (or whatever aliens sit on, if they sit), waiting for the next episode of Full House. What will happen to Comet? Is the family safe under Danny’s tentative grip on normal human behavior? And what about Uncle Jessie’s hair? Don’t laugh, people—you all know that things work out for the Tanners, but the aliens are way behind us.

Another SETI researcher sensibly pointed out to those who might harbor serious concern over the Polarisians reaction to “Across the Universe” that "the one thing we know about aliens - if they do exist - is that they are very, very far away."

Yes. That’s true.


The Netherlands has a long history of flooding – over half the country is below sea level – and during the North Sea flood of 1953, nearly 2,000 Dutch lost their lives in a flood after sea water breached several dikes and water poured into unsuspecting villages during the night of February 1, 1953. Even before this particular natural disaster, the Dutch had been dealing with the problems of living in a low-lying area, and in the 1950’s embarked on a massive civil-engineering project called Delta Works.

Delta Works is a network of dams, sluices, locks, dikes, and storm surge barriers that are set up to protect the Netherlands from future flooding. The work is incredibly vast, and was completed in 1997 when the Maeslantkering (the largest moving structure on Earth) was completed.

But now, the Netherlands faces another problem – global warming – and the associated risk of increased winter rain in Europe, according to the climate-change models. That will bring high water to the Meuse and Rhine rivers that flow into Holland. The strategy is now different. Instead of the historic approach of raising the heights of the dikes to contain the rivers, the Netherlands is going to lower some dikes to allow flooding in certain areas of the country to relieve pressure in others. So instead of keeping the water out, they are allowing the water, to a certain extent, go where it wants. The plan, called “Room for the River”, was featured in a recent NPR story. The story includes a cool feature that shows the impact of climate change on low-lying regions around the world.


Moon or Mercury?: This image from the recent Mercury passby of the Messenger spacecraft shows the planet's surface to be much like our Moon's.
Moon or Mercury?: This image from the recent Mercury passby of the Messenger spacecraft shows the planet's surface to be much like our Moon's.Courtesy NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington
Just like that person heading back from the photo shop with a new packet of developed film, NASA is sharing its latest views of the planet closest to our solar system’s center. And what we’re seeing is surprising astronomers.

The images were among 1,2000 collected by the Messenger spacecraft as it passed Mercury two-and-a-half weeks ago. A full series of photos and movies is available through this NASA link.

These new photos have uncovered some new discoveries about Mercury’s geology. Particularly interesting is a formation called “The Spider,” a crater-like depression with more than 100 narrow troughs radiating from it.

Also discovered were a bunch of ancient volcanoes and a very cratered, rocky surface that makes Mercury look a lot like our Moon.

Messenger will pass by the planet a couple more times in the coming years before settling into an orbit around the planet in 2011 to do further study. Among the tasks it will tackle on that part of the journey is to examine the magnetic fields that spur out from the planet. As far as astronomers can tell, Mercury is the only other planet along with Earth that has such strong magnetic fields.


Deadly space potato: Expect all basketball games to be canceled tonight.
Deadly space potato: Expect all basketball games to be canceled tonight.Courtesy NASA
Late on the evening of January 29, astronomers expect an asteroid the width of several football fields to pass within spitting distance of the Earth. So close will the proximity be, in fact, that NASA has issued a global statement urging all people over six feet in height to spend the night of the twenty ninth lying down, or at least ducking.

The consequences of a direct collision between a human head and an asteroid somewhere between 150 and 600 meters in diameter, doctors say, could potentially be devastating. Due to the peculiar physics of the situation, it is very likely that the head would suffer the greater damage, turning first into something like strawberry pudding, and then immediately into something like cherry-scented mist. The asteroid may or may not receive a small stain.

Ecologists have expressed concern over the impending event as well. Most humans will easily dodge the astral body by simply reducing their height temporarily. Many animals, however, will not have this option. Giraffes, for instance, are expected to suffer heavily.

As distressing as the prospect of bonking your forehead into such a large piece of space rock may be, astronomers suggest that we look on the bright side, and consider ourselves lucky that the asteroid will not actually impact upon the planet. It is thought that the Earth undergoes a collision of similar scale every 37,000 years or so. Were such an asteroid to hit on land, it would explode like a 1500-megaton bomb, and create a crater three miles wide. Were it to fall in the ocean, which is more likely, it would result in a massive tsunami.

As it will actually be passing about 334,000 miles away from the Earth (about 100,000 miles further out than the moon), any buzzketeers interested in seeing the asteroid should be able to do so with a “modest-sized” telescope, It’s going to look small, though.


Alan Shephard takes a mulligan: The Apollo 14 astronaut duffs one using a makeshift 6 iron. NASA wouldn't let him bring his own clubs.
Alan Shephard takes a mulligan: The Apollo 14 astronaut duffs one using a makeshift 6 iron. NASA wouldn't let him bring his own clubs.Courtesy NASA
There are a couple new films out about the Apollo moon program. Well, at least they’re new to me since I haven’t seen them. I really enjoyed IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON when I saw it last fall, but I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff. I thought the Apollo program was the cat’s pajamas, and a high point of the good ol’ USA’s spirit of adventure and exploration. Not to mention our chutzpah for pulling off such an astounding feat in less than a decade from when we declared we were going to do so.

One giant sandtrap for mankind: Alan Shephard's duffed golf ball sets just in front of the near end of the javelin (or is it  the shaft of his broken club?). According to NASA officials, he couldn't hit the broadside of a crater with a handful of moon dust.
One giant sandtrap for mankind: Alan Shephard's duffed golf ball sets just in front of the near end of the javelin (or is it the shaft of his broken club?). According to NASA officials, he couldn't hit the broadside of a crater with a handful of moon dust.Courtesy NASA
The first of the new films is the most recent. Its title is THE WONDER OF IT ALL and I guess deals with the human aspect of the adventures of the 12 men who walked on the Moon back in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The film played last weekend at Kennedy Space Center as a benefit for the US Space Walk of Fame in Titusville, Florida in hopes to drum up funds for a planned memorial there for the Apollo program and the astronauts involved.

According to the producers, the award-winning documentary tells “a humanistic story” through interviews with 7 of the Apollo astronauts, that details their lives and how each was affected by walking on the Moon.

The other film is called MAGNIFICENT DESOLATION and is an IMAX production in 3D. It was released in 2005 under the tutelage of none other than Forrest Gump, …er I mean Tom Hanks, who’s listed as producer, co-writer, and narrator. From what I understand, this film is more of a reenactment that simulates what the astronauts saw and did while on the Moon’s surface. It was shot in 3D on a soundstage, and according to Apollo 16’s Charlie Duke “It felt like you were on the Moon driving a rover with those guys. It brought me right back onto the lunar surface.” Hey, maybe they used the same stage where conspiracy theorists claim the real moon missions were faked (there has been criticism that the film provides fodder to those sorts). No matter. I still want to see it. Perhaps the Science Museum will bring it in for a run, if not for our visitors’ sake, at least for mine.


You know, this isn't the picture I'm talking about: Sorry.
You know, this isn't the picture I'm talking about: Sorry.Courtesy billypalooza
Ahoy, Buzzketeers! Put on your astronomy hats and your alien diapers, because Spirit, the Mars rover, has got something crazy to show you: a picture of a person (a Martian person) sitting on a rock on the surface of Mars! (Check out the link for the actual photos.)

“A person on Mars?” you say. “What would a person be doing on Mars?” I knew you would say that, because you’re such a doubter, and the answer is obvious from the picture: they’re waiting for a bus, clearly. At least that’s how the article describes it, and it makes sense, because there’s nothing else to do on the surface of Mars. Unless you’re into rocks.

“You know,” you add, “We’ve seen faces and stuff on Mars before. And they’re made of rock. And they don’t even look very facey when you really check them out.” I knew you would say that, too. Sure, they’re probably just made of rock, but if you’re waiting for a bus (and I didn’t see any buses on the way, so it looks like a long wait) on the frosty surface of mars, it probably helps to be made of rock. I mean, really, take off your astronomy hat for just a second, and put on your thinking cap, because you’ve got to try stepping outside the box on this one.

Pretty rad, huh? Although, I always thought Martians would be, I don’t know, greener.


Artist's concept of Messenger at Mercury.
Artist's concept of Messenger at Mercury.Courtesy NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington
Yesterday at 1:04 p.m. Central Time the Messenger spacecraft passed within 124 miles of Mercury – the first of three gravity assist flybys used to get the spacecraft into orbit around the planet in 2011.

Messenger, launched in 2004, took more than 1,200 images of the planet (including images of the never before seen opposite side of the planet) during this flyby. It is the first spacecraft to visit Mercury since the Mariner 10 in 1975. The data should be arriving back to Earth as I write this on Tuesday.

Follow the links to learn more about the planet, spacecraft and mission.