Somewhere deep in the Marshall Space Center, in an unmarked beige hangar, NASA is building a spaceship. A spaceship built with spare parts, scrap hardware from the International Space Stations, a left-over aluminum-lithium cylinder and even museum mockups. One day, it may become the vessel that takes humans to Mars.
NASA engineers lead by Paul Bookout aretalking about it at the the Fifth Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium, happening now in Huntsville, Alabama. Bookout’s team is working with a team from the Johnson Space Center in Houston led by astronaut Benjamin Alvin Drew, a USAF Colonel who’s been to space twice, including on the last mission of the Space Shuttle Discovery.
According to Bookout, the team is using its spaceship habitat to look at volume studies: “Are the crew quarters going to be the right size, the waste and hygiene compartment, the wardroom, the exercise area—we’re looking at all those for this extended stay.”
The spaceship model that Bookout and his colleagues are building is a medium-fidelity version of the habitat that may shelter the astronauts that go to Mars for the first time. It includes crew quarters that are two times as big as the crew space in the ISS, with everything they need to survive, including food storage.
There’s also a science bay that also serves as a greenhouse in which they will be able to grow plants during their trip. You know, just like in the movies.
Water shields and the Star Trek-ish 3D replicator
The Mars spaceship habitat is surrounded by a wall of water, which will protect the astronauts against radiation. Water is a great insulator against the dangerous galactic cosmic rays and solar flares that may otherwise kill the astronauts after such an extended period of time in space.
But the awesomerest detail may actually be the onboard replicator. It will not be a Star Trekdevice, but rather a 3D printer that will make tools and parts as the crew demands, recycling old tools, food containers and any other discarded material.
It’s good to know that Mars plans are still advancing, even while NASA’s future budget depends on yet another election and faces perhaps yet another round of financial cuts. It’s still a move forward, even if it’s made of scraps and museum mockups.
A mission to land Europe’s first spacecraft on the Moon is to search for water that could be used to help astronauts survive during future manned visits to the lunar surface.
It could be the plot of a science fiction novel: a mission to find water on the moon, paving the way for man to settle on its surface.
But by 2018 a mission which includes British technology hopes to have landed a robot probe on the surface of the Moon to find out if it has ice present under the surface.
Finding ice would upend scientific orthodoxy and the results of previous lunar missions, which suggested that the Moon was dry.
The £500 million voyage, scheduled for 2018, is being planned by theEuropean Space Agency, of which Britain is a leading member.
It will also be man’s first attempt at landing an object on the south pole of the Moon.
Dr Simon Sheridan, a research fellow at the Open University who is part of the team designing instruments for the spacecraft, said: “We want to see if the resources are there to let astronauts live off the land.
“There is evidence of vast deposits of volatile chemicals like water from orbiting missions, but this will be the first ground-based mission to look in a polar region.”
The Lunar Lander, the size of a car and weighing about 1,800lbs, will blast off from Earth by rocket, then detach and descend to the Moon’s surface in a 12-minute flight.
An artificial intelligence system, directing engines and rocket propulsion, will help the craft to avoid craters and boulders as it comes into land at the Moon’s south pole.
At its landing spot, it will bore a few inches into the ground. A key instrument designed by British scientists will analyse the soil and beam the results by radio signal back to Earth.
If Lunar Lander is successful, it would open up the prospect of settling on the Moon.
Water is heavy and expensive to transport into space, so extracting it from the lunar surface would be a major step towards helping people live on the Moon – mirroring the plot of the Tintin cartoon book Explorers on the Moon, published 60 years ago, which portrays it as having caves filled with ice.
Experts have long believed that the Moon’s surface was completely arid.Recent measurements from orbiting spacecraft, however, have suggested that water may exist in the soil, with large deposits at its poles and in the shadows of meteor craters.
Richard Fisackerly, Lunar Lander spacecraft engineer at ESA, added: “We want to target very specific surface sites. We hope to carry out more ambitious missions in the future where we might want to land a sample return vehicle near to another lander.
“As well as testing the technology there is a lot of science to be done. We hope to investigate the environment there, what the properties of the dust are and look for oxygen, hydrogen and even water in the form of ice.”
Lunar exploration has previously been dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union. Only the Americans have put men on the moon, with the last Apollo landing in 1972.
The ESA, based in Paris, has 19 member nations which provide 80 per cent of its funding, with the European Union providing the remaining 20 per cent. Science ministers from the member nations are due to meet later this year to discuss further funding for the mission.
Bérengère Houdou, Lunar Lander project manager at ESA, said: “The primary goal of the mission is to place Europe in a strategic role in the future exploration of the Moon.
“The kind of landing we are trying to do will be much more accurate than what the Russians and Americans tried before. We are aiming for a specific landing site so it will need to navigate itself while avoiding any hazards on the ground.
“We have been doing some tests on the engines in the past month and had some quite positive results already.”
The age of the universe is about 13.75 billion years. The diameter of the observable universe is estimated at about 28 billion parsecs (93 billion light-years). As a reminder, a light-year is a unit of length equal to just under 10 trillion kilometres (or about 6 trillion miles).
The Observable Universe consists of the galaxies and other matter that we can, in principle, observe from Earth in the present day—because light (or other signals) from those objects has had time to reach the Earth since the beginning of the cosmological expansion.
The word observable used in this sense does not depend on whether modern technology actually permits detection of radiation from an object in this region (or indeed on whether there is any radiation to detect). It simply indicates that it is possible in principle for light or other signals from the object to reach an observer on Earth. [Source: Wikipedia]
The numbers are pretty hard to comprehend even when you know what each unit represents. To even think of how long 10 trillion kilometers might be, let alone 93 billion times that distance, can cause your brain to hurt. Andrew Z. Colvin has attempted to put some of this incomprehensible size into perspective by starting with our own planet and zooming out from there.
For those interested, the eight images below can be found on Wikipedia in a much higher resolution here:
2. Solar System
3. Solar Interstellar Neighborhood
4. Milky Way Galaxy
5. Local Galactic Group
6. Virgo Superclusters
7. Local Superclusters
8. The Observable Universe
9. Pale Blue Dot
The geysers of Enceladus
The Saturnian moon Enceladus vents water into space from its south polar region in this mosaic composite photograph from the Cassini spacecraft, captured on Dec. 25, 2009. The moon is lit by the sun on the left, and backlit by the vast reflecting surface of its parent planet to the right. Ice crystals from these plumes are thought to feed Saturn’s nebulous E ring, within which Enceladus orbits.
See some of our solar system’s greatest sights, as captured in “Planetfall: New Solar System Visions,” a large-format book by Michael Benson.
Spacecraft engineers may not think of themselves as artists, but in the right hands, the fruit of their labors can be as artistic and as revolutionary as Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical sketches — as evidenced by the stunning views on display in Michael Benson’s “Planetfall: New Solar System Visions.”
“It’s an amazing thing that in the last 50 years, we have expanded the realm that’s accessible to us either directly or indirectly as a species,” Benson told me. “As a result, we have a new chapter in image-making and photography. In a way, this brings science and art together, as it was in the Renaissance.”
“Planetfall” presents more than 120 images of solar system bodies ranging from our own home world to the sun and moon, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and asteroids and comets — all in a whopping 12-by-15-inch (30-by-38-centimeter) page format. Some of the photos stretch out over double-folds, triple-folds, even quadruple-folds (which translate into roughly 5-foot-wide panoramas).
To create the photos, Benson went back to the raw data from NASA and European Space Agency missions. “It’s a point of pride to build most of these images from the ground up,” Benson said.
Benson, a writer/filmmaker/photographer, has done this before. His earlier books, “Beyond” (2003) and “Far Out” (2009), presented imagery from planetary probes and deep-space views, respectively. At first, Benson thought he’d just update the “Beyond” book for a new edition. “But then I thought it would be fun to change the format of the pages, and simply look at 21st-century planetary photography — because we really have had a renaissance of these missions in the past decade,” he said.
For the book’s title, Benson used a word that capitalizes on the concept of an explorer making landfall. “Planetfall” is defined as the moment when visual contact is made with a celestial body. Following through on that theme, the book is structured as a series of movie-like journeys — beginning with an establishing shot, then moving in for glorious close-ups.
The section on Mars starts out with a long-range view of the Red Planet from ESA’s Rosetta probe during its flyby on the way to a comet encounter. “It’s one of the very rare pictures where you see a planet with the Milky Way behind it,” Benson said. The point of view zooms in to reveal the terrain as seen from orbit, including a marvelous shot of ground fog lying at the bottom of a Martian canyon, as seen by ESA’s Mars Express probe (page 100). Then there’s that stunning series of panoramas from NASA’s Mars rovers, ending with a blue-tinged sunset as seen by the Opportunity rover.
With only a few exceptions, Benson tries to come as close as he can to the view that human eyes would see, which sometimes requires some tricky image processing. For example, a picture of Saturn’s geyser-spewing moon, Enceladus, is based on image data from the Cassini orbiter in infrared, green and ultraviolet wavelengths. Benson said he tweaked the data to come up with a red-green-blue combination (page 187).
“I think I got away with it pretty well,” he said. “It makes a very worthy color image. … To my knowledge, it’s the first time that a global portrait of Enceladus has been released where you see the geysers in color.”
In addition to the book, which is published by Abrams, Michael Benson is working on a “Planetfall” photo exhibition that will be on view at New York’s Hasted Kraeutler Gallerystarting in December, and at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington next year.
How scientists see art
So how does Benson’s work sit with planetary scientists? “Obviously everybody’s worried about the funding [for future planetary missions]. Anything that can get the word out about these missions is good by them,” Benson said.
He’s also heartened by an endorsement from Paul Geissler, a planetary scientist at the U.S Geological Survey who has collaborated with Benson in the past. “He has an artist’s eye, so he sees things differently than a scientist would,” Geissler told The Wall Street Journal last year. “I honestly think that he has done as much to support and further solar-system exploration as many scientists who are working in the field.”
Benson said he has just as much respect for the scientists who make his artistry possible.
“We have a fantastic chapter in the history of photography that has been brought to us, almost as a side effect of these missions,” he told me. “Their primary reason for happening is scientific research, but we also have this opportunity to see what these places look like. I believe we will inevitably end up expanding as a species. It may take longer than the visionaries of the 20th century thought, but I do believe it will end up happening. This is still the opening chapter: We’re seeing the end of the beginning of that move.”
Update for 5 p.m. ET Oct. 19: I originally wrote that Benson coined the term “Planetfall,” but commenters have rightly pointed out that the term has been around in science fiction for quite a while, meaning the interplanetary equivalent of landfall. In fact, it was picked up as the name of a computer game in the 1980s. Benson tweaks the meaning a bit, using it to define a visual discovery rather than an actual landing. I’ve revised this item accordingly.
From Earth to space
The Pacific Ocean glows at sunset in this view from the International Space Station, captured from an altitude of 235 miles on July 21, 2003. This wide-angle view of our home planet is among more than 120 large-format photos featured in “Planetfall: New Solar System Visions,” by Michael Benson. Benson defines “planetfall” as the moment of visual contact with the planets, and his book is aimed at conveying the thrill of that moment through beautiful interplanetary images. Click onward to see more highlights from “Planetfall,” published by Abrams.
Our living sun
The solar corona and magnetic loops blaze during an eclipse of the sun by Earth on April 2, 2011, as seen by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. In this image, the outer plasma atmosphere of the sun, 200 times hotter than the sun’s surface, is occulted by our planet. The graduated reduction in our view is due to the variable density of Earth’s atmosphere, which blocks ultraviolet light.
Moment of impact
A projectile launched from NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft blasts into the nucleus of Comet Tempel 1 on July 4, 2005. The resulting cloud of dust and ice expands in space. The aim of the Deep Impact mission was to analyze the composition of the 3.7-mile-wide comet.
Jupiter and Io
A mosaic composite photograph taken by the Cassini spacecraft shows Jupiter with one of its moons, Io, crossing the planet’s right edge on Jan. 1, 2001. South is up in this view. At the time, Cassini was just passing by Jupiter, heading for its primary mission at Saturn.
Saturn and Enceladus
Enceladus, the sixth-largest moon of Saturn, shoots geysers of water into space in this view from Saturn’s nightside, captured by the Cassini spacecraft on Dec. 25, 2009. The water immediately freezes, becoming ice crystals.
Titan and Saturn
Titan upstages Saturn’s rings and limb in this image, made by the Cassini spacecraft on May 21, 2011. Titan’s surface features are barely visible through the moon’s dense atmosphere in this picture. Those features can’t be seen by the naked eye; this sharper view is partly due to camera filters capable of cutting through Titan’s murk.
The cover image for Michael Benson’s “Planetfall: New Solar System Visions” shows Saturn’s moon Mimas against the backdrop of shadows cast by the planet’s rings on its northern hemisphere. In the lower third of the picture, we see the lit side of the rings from an oblique angle. North is up. The image was made by the Cassini spacecraft on Nov. 7, 2004.
Do you have a burning scientific question that can be answered only by putting a satellite into orbit? You’re in luck. It’s now feasible to do just that, using only off-the-shelf technology, in a design called a CubeSat. It’ll run you around $50,000. For university, commercial or government projects, this new price point is a game changer.
A CubeSat is a 10 centimeter cube, or exactly one liter of volume, that weighs about one kilogram. Anything you can fit into that shape is good to go. You can even bolt two or three cubes together. In the parlance, a standard CubeSat is a “1U,” two cubes is “2U,” and three is “3U.” There are detailed design specs freely available online.
If you’ve got a science mission that qualifies, NASA will launch your CubeSat for free as part of its CubeSat Launch Initiative. If you don’t qualify for NASA’s program, it could cost $100,000 or more to hitch a ride aboard a launch vehicle, but that’s still vastly cheaper than a commercial satellite launch.
The cubes are loaded into a Poly-PicoSatellite Orbital Deployer (or P-POD) and dropped into orbit. A P-POD can hold up to three cubes. Over 100 CubeSats have been launched since 1999. They can remain in orbit for a month or so before falling back to Earth.
What would you do with a CubeSat? You can take photos from orbit, collect atmospheric data, perform biology experiments, send radio transmissions or just test your equipment. We live in a golden age for do-it-yourself technology.
The space shuttle Endeavour is transported to The Forum arena for a stopover and celebration on its way to the California Science Center from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on October 12, 2012 in Inglewood, California. The space shuttle Endeavour is on 12-mile journey from Los Angeles International Airport to the California Science Center to go on permanent public display.
The space shuttle Endeavour is on its last mission today, a 12-mile creep through Los Angeles city streets on a 160-wheeled carrier. It is passing through neighborhoods and strip malls, headed toward its final destination, the California Science Center in South Los Angeles. At times, the shuttle has barely
cleared trees, houses and and street signs along a course heavily prepared for the trip. The move will cost an estimated $10 million, according to the Exposition Park museum.
Spectators take pictures as the Endeavour is towed through Inglewood, California, on October 12, 2012.
Endeavour stops in front of Randy’s Donuts on Manchester Avenue while being moved from Los Angeles International Airport to its retirement home at the California Science Center in Exposition Park, on October 12, 2012.
Endeavour is transported to the California Science Center on October 12, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.
Endeavour’s wing barely clears a tree as it slowly moves along city streets in Inglewood, California, on October 13, 2012.
An aerial view of Endeavour making its way down Manchester Blvd. in Los Angeles, on October 12, 2012.
Workers place a sign to stop traffic as Space Shuttle Endeavour arrives at the Forum in Inglewood, California, on October 13, 2012.
Amir Morris, 3, waves an American flag as Endeavour passes by, in Los Angeles, on October 13, 2012.
This image shows where NASA’s Curiosity rover aimed two different instruments to study a rock known as “Jake Matijevic” in late September 2012. The red dots indicate where Curiosity fired its laser at the rock. The circular black and white images are ChemCam images to examine the laser burns. Purple circles show spots where Curiosity used its Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer to study the rock. The colors in the image have been “stretched” to accentuate compositional differences.
A rock on Mars being studied by NASA’s Curiosity rover is unlike any Martian stone ever seen, and is surprisingly similar to an unusual, but well-known, kind of rock on Earth.
This type of rock is the first of its kind encountered on Mars and is helping broaden scientists’ understanding of how igneous rocks form, scientists said Thursday. The rock, named “Jake Matijevic” in honor of a Curiosity mission team member who died in August, is a 16-inch-tall (40-centimeter-tall) pyramid-shape specimen that Curiosity encountered at its landing spot in Mars’ Gale Crater.
Curiosity, the centerpiece of the $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory Mission, touched down on the Red Planet Aug. 5 to learn whether Mars ever had the conditions necessary to support life.
The Jake rock is being used as a calibration target for Curiosity to try out its suite of 10 science instruments on. “It was the first good-sized rock that we found along the way,” Roger Wiens, principal investigator for Curiosity’s ChemCam instrument at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, said Thursday during a press conference.
Not like other rocks
In late September Curiosity used ChemCam and its Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) to probe Jake’s chemical composition. What they found was surprising.
“The spectrum that we’re seeing was not what I expected,” said APXS principal investigator Ralf Gellert of Canada’s University of Guelph. “It seems to be a new type of rock that we’ve discovered on Mars” that wasn’t seen by NASA’s previous Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity.
Jake appears to have higher concentrations of elements such as sodium, aluminum and potassium, and lower concentrations of magnesium, iron and nickel, than other igneous rocks studied on Mars.
While previously unknown on Mars, this type of chemical composition is seen in a rare but well-studied class of rocks on Earth. On Earth, such specimens are found on oceanic islands such as Hawaii and in other places. They are thought to form when interior rocks melt to form magma, which then rises toward the surface. As it rises, it cools, and parts of the material crystalize, preferentially selecting some elements while leaving a remainder of liquid magma that is enriched with the left-behind chemicals.
However, the researchers said it’s too soon to know whether the Jake rock formed this same way.
“This is based on one rock and one has to be careful not to extrapolate,” said Edward Stolper, provost of Caltech and co-investigator on Curiosity’s science team. “You have to wait and see if we find others and if relationships among them give us clues into the processes.”
Ultimately, this rock is deepening scientists’ understanding of the types of geology present on Mars, and could reveal new formation processes for known types of rocks.
“There is a richness in the igneous story that’s not surprising,” Stolper told Space.com. “The more you look, the more you find different things happened.”
Mysterious shiny object
Curiosity is about 65 days into its mission, and still testing out all of its equipment.
The rover used its scoop tool to dig up Martian dirt for the first time earlier this week, and scientists saw a strange shiny object in photos of the scooped material. The find put a temporary halt on scooping activities while mission managers investigated the object.
Scientists have since concluded that it is most likely a bit of plastic from the rover itself or its descent stage that came loose and eventually fell onto the ground.
“The main thing here is, we scoured the rover and it’s completely inconsequential to the rover’s function,” said Chris Roumeliotis, lead turret rover planner for Curiosity at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif., where Curiosity’s mission control is based. “It’s likely from EDL [entry, descent and landing], and there is absolutely no issue.”
Mission team members will continue investigating the debris, but they think it might be a piece of resistive heating material from the rover’s exterior that was attached with adhesive, which might have come unstuck.
Things that GIFs are good for, in no particular order:
1. Cats. This one, specifically.
3. Absolutely jaw-dropping 3D renderings of astronomical bodies. Like this one, created by astrophotographer J-P Metsävainio, of a star cluster named IC 1396.
Since astronomical objects are too far away, no real parallax can be imaged. Doe to that, I have developed a method to turn my images to various 3D-formats. My work flow is based on scientific data from the object, distance and the source of ionization are usually known. The different types of the nebulae has typical structures, pillar like formations must point to the source of ionization, the radiation pressure forms kind of hollow area, inside of the nebula, around newly born stars, dark nebulae must be at front of the emission ones to show, etc… rest of the missing information is then replaced with an artistic vision.
The whole process is pretty much like sculpting!
Pretty remarkable — though, according to Bad Astronomy’s Phil Plait, Metsävainio’s rendering is more art than science. Most of the stills that comprise this gif are actually artificially generated, “based on various assumptions on how nebulae are shaped.”
In this incredible photo by Ben Cooper, we see the highly sophisticated flight deck (cockpit) of the NASA space shuttle,Endeavour. This is just one of the amazing photos from Ben’s photo tour of the now decommissioned shuttle. Be sure to check out the rest of the series at Launch Photography where you can also see the thousands of signatures in the white room entrance of the Orbiter Processing Facility.
Endeavour was the fifth and final spaceworthy NASA space shuttle to be built, constructed as a replacement for Challenger, which was destroyed 73 seconds after its launch on January 28, 1986. Endeavour first flew in May 1992 on mission STS-49 and its last mission STS-134 was in May 2011.
Endeavour completed 25 total missions by 154 different crew members. It spent 296 days in space and made 4,671 orbits. It deployed 3 satellites and docked on Mir stations once and the ISS 12 times. It travelled a total distance of 122,883,141 miles (197,761,262 km). [Source: Wikipedia]
The orbiter is named after the British HMS Endeavour, the ship which took Captain James Cook on his first voyage of discovery (1768–1771).
When SpaceX launches a Dragon capsule full of supplies toward the International Space Station Sunday night, it will be the beginning of a new era for space exploration. It will be the first privately funded commercial spacecraft to deliver cargo shipments to space.
After SpaceX successfully tested its Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon capsule in May (see its historic docking in the gallery below), now it’s ready to actually deliver the goods, consisting of a half a ton of equipment and supplies. If all goes well with the launch attempt, set for 8:35 p.m. ET Sunday night, the Dragon spacecraft is scheduled to arrive at the space station on Wednesday, October 10.
This initial mission carrying a half-ton of cargo will be the first of 12 resupply flights NASA has contracted with SpaceX. The space agency and SpaceX have made a $1.6 billion deal to deliver 20 metric tons of supplies into space for NASA.
Tonight’s launch puts the United States back into the space launching business again, a welcome capability for NASA, whose space shuttle fleet has been retired since Space Shuttle Atlantis landed on on July 21, 2011 after its last flight.
If the weather is clear, people on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States will be able to see the launch. According to Space.com, the Falcon 9 launch vehicle will be especially visible from the southeast U.S. coastline, with a less dramatic view in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast coastal regions:
- Southeast U.S. coastline: Anywhere north of Cape Canaveral, viewers should initially concentrate on the south-southwest horizon. If you are south of the Cape, look low toward the north-northeast. If you’re west of the Cape, look low toward the east-northeast.
- Mid-Atlantic region: Look toward the south about 3 to 6 minutes after launch.
- Northeast: Concentrate your gaze low toward the south-southeast about 6 to 8 minutes after launch.
Get out your binoculars, and look close to the horizon for the spacecraft.
SpaceX Dragon Capsule flying in formation with the ISS
Dragon Flying over the World
ISS Arm Moving toward Dragon in a Graphic View
Dragon Graphic of the Approach Plan
NASA Mission Control 2
Dragon and ISS Coming Together Sideview
Dragon and the ISS Grapple
NASA and SpaceX Move the Dragon Back Away from the ISS