Great Way to Celebrate the Fourth of July

juno-jupiter-artist-conceptWhat better way to crown the Fourth of July, a celebration of the birth of the U.S.A., than to plunk a billion-dollar spacecraft—Juno, the fastest-moving probe ever launched by humanity—into a perfect orbit around Jupiter? This isn’t just any orbit. NASA had to thread Juno into a precise path taking the craft between the planet’s upper atmosphere and its hellish radiation belt. Too close to that belt, and the instruments would have been instant toast. Fortunately, NASA eats challenges like that for lunch. Juno will be flying a highly elliptical path over the huge planet’s poles, zooming repeatedly to within a few thousand miles of the atmosphere and then whipping way out for a long-distance view.

Jupiter's magnetic field-artist's conceptLike so many space stories, there’s a lot in this that echoes my current work in progress. Readers of The Chaos Chronicles might remember that Li-Jared comes from Karellia, a planet with a fiery radiation belt surrounding it. In The Reefs of Time, Li-Jared (and we) get a chance to visit that world, which features things even weirder than the “beautiful, perilous sky” that its inhabitants know so well.

Take a moment to enjoy this view of Jupiter’s moons circling the great planet, shot by Juno on its flight inbound.

Far Out Views from Space

posted in: astronomy, space 0

Astronaut Scott Kelly is coming home from the International Space Station after 340 days in orbit. Click here at the Boston Globe for a gallery of some amazing images he shared during his time at the edge of the great Up-and-Out.*

Aurora from ISS_SKelly
Aurora seen from the ISS

 

Moon Venus Jupiter from ISS_SKelly
The Moon, Venus, and Jupiter peering back at Astronaut Kelly

 

Milky Way from ISS_SKelly
The Milky Way, our home galaxy

*If the “Up-and-Out” is unfamiliar to you, you may not have had the pleasure of reading any of the stories of the late Cordwainer Smith. Here’s one of my favorites, The Game of Rat and Dragon. It starts this way:

“Pinlighting is a hell of a way to earn a living….” [more]

 

 

SpaceX Lands a Rocket the Way God Intended!

SpaceX_launch-landing

Straight down, on a tail of fire, that’s how. Anyone who’s read science fiction of the 1950s (Tom Corbett: Space Cadet being a particularly fine example), or seen Destination Moon—or, come to think of it, watched any Apollo landing on the Moon, knows that.

After several attempts, and several failures, SpaceX succeeded with a nighttime launch on December 21, hurling a satellite into orbit, and sending the first stage back to make a soft landing at Starbase Canaveral. It’s not just for show, though the sight was a beautiful one. The purpose is to bring down the cost of space travel by making it possible to reuse these rockets, instead of letting them burn up in the atmosphere or slam down in the ocean.

This is a remarkable achievement for SpaceX, and another step toward more affordable space travel.

Great photos at theverge.com

SpaceX_landing2

and a comparison of this achievement with the recent landing of the New Shepherd rocket from Blue Origin. (Hint: New Shepherd was an outstanding achievement, but this one went higher, faster, harder—and launched an actual satellite in the bargain.)

 

Braided Clouds, from Space

posted in: nature, science, space, weather 0

This NASA image caught my eye on The Atlantic’s website. (Click the link if this embed code doesn’t work. Ah, nope, it doesn’t. Click the link.) Cloud vortices off Heard Island, south Indian Ocean, from NASA’s Aqua satellite.

Cloud vortices off Heard Island, south Indian Ocean. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this true-color image of sea ice off Heard Island on Nov 2, 2015 at 5:02 AM EST (09:20 UTC). A cloud vortex- the circular pattern seen here- is produced by the flow of air in the atmosphere. Heard Island (visible in the lower right portion of the image) is located in the Indian Ocean, about two-thirds of the way from Madagascar to Antarctica. The island is uninhabited by humans, although it is home to many birds and seals. Heard Island is rugged and mountainous, and is mostly covered with ice. It is also home to an active volcano, Mawson Peak. The island has been a territory of Australia since 1947. Credit: NASA/Goddard/Jeff Schmaltz/MODIS Land Rapid Response Team #nasagoddard
A photo posted by NASA Goddard (@nasagoddard) on

Loving This View of Pluto

posted in: astronomy, Pluto, space 0

NASA has put together a short animation from some of the images taken by New Horizons, showing amazing detail of the mountain range and one of the smoother sections. This is only the beginning. Think of it! We are all part of the generation of Humanity that got to see Pluto up close for the first time! (Actually, come to think of it, I have lived to see, with the rest of the world, every planet in the solar system up close for the first time. That’s pretty amazing.)

You can see it bigger at APOD.

How can you not heart Pluto? I’m sure the aliens who painted this feature on the surface of the planet were much nicer than the ones I wrote about last time.

The heart-shaped feature has been provisionally named Tombaugh Regio for farmer-astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930. (And whom I got to hear speak at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, back in the late 1980s.)

 

Pluto! And Charon!

Charon and Pluto, seen from New Horizons

Today’s the day! NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will whiz past Pluto at a distance of only 7800 miles today—in fact, by the time you read this, will already have made the flyby! This little spacecraft has sent us some amazing pictures of Pluto and Charon, and if everything goes right, they will only get better. The spacecraft will be out of contact with Earth during the flyby, the better to frantically shoot pictures and hoover up as much data as it can during the brief encounter. That data will be sent back at a very slow bit-rate, because of the distance, and will take over a year to be transmitted in its entirety!

I’ve always felt that Pluto, way out in the dark of farthest interplanetary space, was one of our most fascinating planets. And yes, the astronomers have agreed now that it’s a dwarf planet—but to me, it will always be our ninth planet.

In fact, when I was a kid, a favorite science fiction novel was called Secret of the Ninth Planet, by Donald A. Wollheim (who later went on to found DAW Books). It involved a kid traveling on an emergency expedition to visit all the planets of the solar system, to learn why the sun was getting dimmer. They found out, all right—it was a bunch of crummy, scum-sucking aliens, who had planted special antennae on each planet, to somehow draw off power from the sun for the aliens’ nefarious purposes. It took cleverness, grit, and maybe a few nukes, but we took care of that. I read that story at least a dozen or two dozen times when I was at a certain age.

You can download this science fiction classic from Project Gutenberg.

Oh, and you can follow the real-life Pluto mission here on space.com or here at NASA. Don’t miss it!

Space-X Explosion: Even the Students Feel the Pain

posted in: science, space 0

Julia Powell, age 15, is in high school. Her group’s science experiment was on its way to the International Space Station aboard the Space-X rocket when it was blown to smithereens by the failure of the Falcon 9 booster last Sunday.

That’s got to hurt.

What’s got to hurt even more is that it was the second time her experiment was blown up in a launch failure. Yes, she and fellow students had their first space-bound experiment aboard the Antares rocket that exploded on launch last October.

Those students are learning just how hard spaceflight can be. But God bless them, they’re not giving up. You go, girls and guys.

Happy Asteroid Day!

Yes, today is Asteroid Day, intended to heighten our awareness of our planet’s vulnerability to assault by Nature, in the form of asteroids that could smack us and reduce cities—or even civilization itself—to rubble. The threat is not imminent, perhaps, but it’s certainly real. And some of our agencies are starting to get serious about planning ways to protect ourselves.

Proposed methods of diverting asteroids range from painting one side of a threatening asteroid white (to change the balance of sunlight pressure and outgassing), to using ion traction motors, to repurposing something else that threatens our world: nuclear weapons.

I like to think of this day as also celebrating the opportunity to do cool and constructive things with asteroids, like mining them for water and metals, and hollowing them out to live in them. We’re working on that, too. 

Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with a picture of the biggest asteroid in the inner solar system, Ceres, currently being orbited by the Dawn spacecraft—and its mysterious white spots. Alien winter Olympics? Alien ice cream stands? I guess we’ll find out together.

Wanderers (of a Strange and Distant Time)

Want to be mesmerized for three and a half minutes? Open this on a good monitor, click the “full screen” icon in the lower right of this video, turn up the sound, and sit back and journey the solar system. See if you recognize the voice.



Thanks to Astronomy Picture of the Day for showing it to me. For more information about the film and scenes depicted, visit the website of Erik Wernquist, who assembled the film. A remarkable piece of inspiration.

And yes, my title line is a near-quote from the Moody Blues. Extra point if you can name the album, without looking it up.

Launch of Orion

posted in: public affairs, space 0

Yesterday’s unmanned test flight of NASA’s Orion deep-space craft is a great boost for those of us who want to see us back in the game of venturing beyond the Earth. We’ve had sensational successes in robotic missions; but not since the 1970s, with the end of the Apollo Moon program, has a human being flown beyond low-Earth orbit. It’s high time we got back out there, and got on with the challenge of making us a spacefaring, multi-world species. Here’s what the launch looked like:

Also of note is that the launch rode the fires of a Delta IV Heavy rocket, which actually uses advanced, American-made rocket engines. (Many of our crucial space launches nowadays ride on Russian-made engines—including military launches, which is really weird and unsettling, when you think about it. Nothing against the very smart Russian rocket designers, but given the political direction of Russia these days, I’m not happy being so dependent on them for access to space.)

I only wish we were giving this program the proper funding, so that the development of deep-space capability weren’t being stretched out over decades. The next launch of Orion isn’t scheduled until 2017.

Anyway, Go NASA!
 

1 2 3 4 5 11