August 22, 2019
[space] NASA’s Voyagers Grow Weaker Each Year
… How the Voyager probes are still running after 40 years in space. ‘Engineers also shut off a heating component that keeps one of Voyager 2’s instruments warm enough to function in the frigid cold of space. Turning off a heater buys the mission four watts, the same amount it loses in a year. After months of deliberation, scientists decided that sacrificing this instrument, which last year helped confirm that the spacecraft had left the solar system, was worth it. Unlike the others, this instrument can point only in certain directions. Some other instruments have, incredibly, tolerated the loss of their heaters, sometimes for years.’
August 5, 2019
[space] Greetings, E.T. (Please Don’t Murder Us)
… Steven Johnson on the Pros and Cons of attempting to contact Extraterrestrial Civilizations. ‘Drake leaned forward, nodding. “It raises a very interesting, nonscientific question, which is: Are extraterrestrial civilizations altruistic? Do they recognize this problem and establish a beacon for the benefit of the other folks out there? My answer is: I think it’s actually Darwinian; I think evolution favors altruistic societies. So my guess is yes. And that means there might be one powerful signal for each civilization.” Given the transit time across the universe, that signal might well outlast us as a species, in which case it might ultimately serve as a memorial as much as a message, like an interstellar version of the Great Pyramids: proof that a technologically advanced organism evolved on this planet, whatever that organism’s ultimate fate.’
July 21, 2019
[apollo] Classified Apollo 11 anomaly threatened to crash first moon astronauts
… How a problem with the Service Module
almost killed all the Apollo 11 Astronauts close to home. ‘About 15 minutes before the astronauts splashed into the Pacific Ocean, the CSM fully separated into its two parts. This was necessary because only the command module (which held the crew) had a heat shield. The heat shield protected the astronauts by deflecting and absorbing the scorching energies created by plowing through Earth’s atmosphere at about 25,000 mph — more than a dozen times as fast as a speeding bullet. The service module became useless and posed a collision risk after the two parts separated, so it was supposed to skip off Earth’s atmosphere like a stone thrown across a pond. But it did not.’
July 19, 2019
[apollo] The Underappreciated Power of the Apollo Computer
… Alexis Madrigal on the Apollo Guidance Computer
. ‘To maximize the built-in architecture, Hamilton and her colleagues came up with what they named “The Interpreter”—we’d now call it a virtualization scheme. It allowed them to run five to seven virtual machines simultaneously in two kilobytes of memory. It was terribly slow, but “now you have all the capabilities you ever dreamed of, in software,” O’Brien said.’
April 30, 2019
[tech] Death by PowerPoint: the slide that killed seven people
… How Microsoft PowerPoint contributed to the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster
. ‘Typing text on a screen and reading it out loud does not count as teaching. An audience reading text off the screen does not count as learning. Imagine if the engineers had put up a slide with just: “foam strike more than 600 times bigger than test data.” Maybe NASA would have listened. Maybe they wouldn’t have attempted re-entry. ‘
April 4, 2019
[space] Apollo astronauts left their poop on the moon. NASA ought to go back for that shit.
… Is there life on the Moon feft behind in astronaut’s excrement that was jettisoned from Moon Landers? … ‘After Neil Armstrong descended from the Eagle lander, becoming the first human to set foot on the moon, the very first picture he took on the surface shows, yes, the moon’s cratered surface, but also a white jettisoned trash bag (or jett bag). I can’t confirm there are feces in this particular bag (Buzz Aldrin declined to comment for this story), but there’s definitely one like it on the moon that contained or still contains human waste, according to the NASA History Office.’
July 23, 2018
[moon] How the Earliest Images of the Moon Were so Much Better than we Realised
… The story of how images taken by a Moon Orbiter in 1966 were saved from obsolete analog media. ‘Since 2007 the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project has brought back 2000 images from 1500 analog tapes. The first ever picture of an earthrise. As Keith Cowing said “an image taken a quarter of a fucking million miles away in 1966. The Beatles were warming up to play Shea Stadium at the moment it was being taken.”’
July 22, 2018
[space] First contact: what if we find not organic life but ET’s AI?
… More interesing hypotheticals on alien hunting. ‘The most challenging task for a nursery-room AI would be how to expose its collective of savants to the complexity of the real-world environment. Nature isn’t just about meeting fixed goals; it’s full of noise, randomness and trillions upon trillions of interacting pieces. For example, from the very instant an embryo forms, it is exposed to constant variation. First just a few cells, it senses the world purely from a molecular point of view. As the embryo develops organs to register light, sound, touch and smell, the portals to experience – and their complexity – expand. In short, the way for a species to make a better AI is to let that AI and its components explore the messy Universe. As complex and nourishing as a single planet can be, a cosmos filled with worlds offers millions, billions, even trillions of natural test tubes, each with its own tale of natural selection and chance. Spreading savant AI pieces across the stars offers a way to exploit these endless natural experiments and sensory inputs.’
July 21, 2018
[space] NASA astronaut Ellison Onizuka’s soccer ball that survived the Challenger explosion
… the moving story of a long forgotten football from the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster
and the family that sent it back into space.
Clear Lake High School principal, Karen Engle, got an email from a parent. He was leaving a booster club meeting and stopped to look at the ball, remembering it from so long ago. He figured it should have its own display case, and he offered to build it.
Karen didn’t believe him at first. She’d seen the Challenger explode. There was no way a soccer ball survived that — and if it had, there was no way it had been sitting in a display case just outside her office. She walked out into the hallway and looked at it closely through the glass. There was no plaque or dedication, nothing explaining what it was or all that it had survived. Just a bunch of faded signatures. Maybe the parent was mistaken; maybe it was just an old championship ball.
But as she looked closer, there in faded ink were the words that made her realize what she’d unknowingly walked by since her first day as principal: “Good Luck, Shuttle Crew!”
July 20, 2018
[spaceships] On the Taxonomy of Spaceships
… An attempt to classify types of fictional spacecraft. ‘There are lots of different ship classes in science fiction, and I’m not talking about the designated name for a particular frame (like Victory-class or Firefly-class). I’m talking about classification of ship roles; or ship types. You have your cruisers, your destroyers, your frigates and corvettes, your dreadnoughts, and all sorts of other roles. But something that always confused me is exactly what the differences are between them. If you had shown me two ships and claimed one was a destroyer and one was a cruiser I wouldn’t have really understood what that actually means and what roles they employ in a battle. How is a battleship different from a battlecruiser? Is there any difference between a star cruiser and an assault cruiser, and if so what is it?’
July 19, 2018
[space] For all we know, aliens could be as careless with space junk as us
… Interesting approach to discovering aliens by looking for evidence their garbage in space. ‘However, while it is looking like humankind may soon be able to spot the biomarkers of exolife, spotting a technologically advanced civilisation continues to present a challenge. Astroboffin Hector Socas-Navarro proposes that rather than looking at the exoplanet itself, researchers turn their attention to the “Clarke Exobelt” (CEB). This is an area around the planet touchingly named after Arthur C Clarke, who proposed using a geostationary orbit around the Earth for satellite communications in a 1945 paper.’
July 18, 2018
[aliens] Fermi paradox: why haven’t we found aliens yet?
… An attempt to answer a (currently) unanswerable question.
…the idea that intelligent life is extremely rare in the universe feels completely counterintuitive. We exist, along with other intelligent life like dolphins and octopi, so we assume what we see must be extrapolatable beyond Earth.
But this alone is not proof that intelligent civilizations are therefore ubiquitous. Whether the true likelihood is as high as one in two, or as inconceivable as one in a trillion trillion trillion, the mere ability to consciously ask ourselves that question depends on the fact that life has already successfully originated.
This phenomenon is known as an observer selection effect — a bias that can occur when thinking about the likelihood of an event because an observer has to be there to observe the event in the first place. As we only have one data point (us), we have no reliable way to predict the true likelihood of intelligent life. The only conclusion we can confidently draw is that it can exist.
July 17, 2018
[books] 55 Essential Space Operas from the Last 70 Years
… Great list of Sci-fi books… ‘Use of Weapons, by Iain M. Banks – Though it technically kicked off in the late ’80s, Iain M. Banks Culture novels could be said to be the genesis of what came to be known as the New British Space Opera in the ’90s and 2000s. An twist on utopian space operas, The Culture presents a future where benevolent AIs govern everything, genetic engineering has resulted in immortality and perfected human design, and the most powerful faction in the universe (next to the energy beings) is the Culture, a group of cheerful collectivists with massive, heavily armed sentient starships. Banks’ imaginative world design and massive scope is paired with an iconoclastic and anarchic sense of humor for a modern classic.’
May 7, 2018
[space] Akin’s Laws of Spacecraft Design
… ’34. (Roosevelt’s Law of Task Planning) Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.’
April 9, 2018
[space] Exploring the Secrets of Soothing Spaceship Sound
… a look at the soothing white noise of fictional spaceships … ‘In the intervening years, Snell has taken it upon himself to sample and loop the ambient hums of dozens of science fiction ships, building an unlikely but sizeable YouTube presence of over nine million views and over a hundred videos. Whether it’s the calming tone created by the USS Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation, or the throbbing pulse of Dr. Who’s Tardis, Snell aims to shine a light on an important element of science fiction that most people don’t often think about—what the spaceships sound like.’
December 28, 2017
[comics] Comics Legend Jack Kirby Worried That Our Attempts to Contact Aliens Might Attract a ‘Tiger’
… Unsurprisingly, the creator of Galactus
was concerned about SETI
. ‘I would have included no further information than a rough image of the Earth and its one moon. I see no wisdom in the eagerness to be found and approached by any intelligence with the ability to accomplish it from any sector of space. In the meetings between ‘discoverers’ and ‘discoverees,’ history has always given the advantage to the finders. In the case of the Jupiter (Pioneer) plaque, I feel that a tremendous issue was thoughtlessly taken out of the world forum by a few individuals who have marked a clear trail to our door. My point is, who will come a-knocking – the trader or the tiger?’
September 5, 2017
[apollo] How Verbs and Nouns Got Apollo to the Moon
… a look at how the Apollo Guidance Computer
worked … ‘An entire mission to the Moon was run by the Apollo guidance computer, from checking the guidance platform alignment and firing the engines. All told, it took about 10,500 keystrokes to get to the Moon and back, and every one of them was entered into the guidance computer’s “display and keyboard” interface, affectionately referred to as the DKSY (pronounced like “diss-key”). There were three on board — two in the command module and one in the lunar module — and all three offered information simply and concisely in numeric coded messages or by a series of warning lights.’
August 30, 2017
[moon] The Moon’s Origin Story Is in Crisis
… new science is causing the story of the moon’s creation to be reevaluated … ‘The astronauts chiseled bits of the moon from the boulder. Then, using a rake, Schmitt scraped the powdery surface, lifting a rock later named troctolite 76536 off the regolith and into history. That rock, and its boulder brethren, would go on to tell a story of how the entire moon came to be. In this creation tale, inscribed in countless textbooks and science-museum exhibits over the past four decades, the moon was forged in a calamitous collision between an embryonic Earth and a rocky world the size of Mars. This other world was named Theia, for the Greek goddess who gave birth to Selene, the moon. Theia clobbered Earth so hard and so fast that the worlds both melted. Eventually, leftover debris from Theia cooled and solidified into the silvery companion we have today. But modern measurements of troctolite 76536, and other rocks from the moon and Mars, have cast doubt on this story. In the past five years, a bombardment of studies has exposed a problem: The canonical giant-impact hypothesis rests on assumptions that do not match the evidence. If Theia hit Earth and later formed the moon, the moon should be made of Theia-type material. But the moon does not look like Theia—or like Mars, for that matter. Down to its atoms, it looks almost exactly like Earth.’
August 7, 2017
[space] The Loyal Engineers Steering NASA’s Voyager Probes Across the Universe
… a wonderful profile of the team managing the Voyager Probes on their long journey into interstellar space … ‘Even though they simulate every patch with software, there is plenty of room for human error. Far more often, hardware fails for no evident reason. In 1998, Voyager 2 reacted to a command by going silent. For 64 hours straight, the flight team studied the specific instruction — consisting of 18 bits, or 1s and 0s — that preceded the blackout. Bits have been known to ‘‘flip’’ to the opposite value, changing the instruction the same way that swapping a single letter turns ‘‘cat’’ into ‘‘cut.’’ The question was: What instruction had they accidentally given and how could they undo it? At last, modeling the outcome of each possible bit, they discovered one that turned off the exciter, which generates the spacecraft’s radio signal; when they turned it back on, the transmissions resumed.’
March 9, 2017
[space] Io over Jupiter from Voyager 1
… Looking at this stunning picture of Io over Jupiter is about as close as I get to religious awe …
March 8, 2017
[space] Heat and Ashes: The Untold Story of the Apollo 1 Fire
… Remembering Apollo 1 – 50 years later … ‘The legacy of the Apollo fire of 1967 is preserved in history books and lengthy documentaries. But the sheer horror and emotional intensity of having three colleagues—for many in the program, three close friends—suffocate in a burning capsule while scrambling to save them, hasn’t been as well preserved. The severity of that moment has become a footnote in the public consciousness, faded by the decades that have passed and overshadowed by the incredible achievements of the Apollo program that followed. But for those like Henry Rogers who experienced the tragedy firsthand, the trauma of January 27, 1967 left scars, and a deep sense of regret that’s difficult to capture all these years later…’
January 25, 2017
[space] Martians Might Be Real. That Makes Mars Exploration Way More Complicated
… A look at the job of the woman whose job at NASA is to make sure we don’t kill Martians before we find them … ‘If alien life exists, researchers will of course want to study how it originated and evolved—to glimpse what planetary scientist Chris McKay calls a “second Genesis.” And to prevent false leads, humans have to be careful not to muddy space with our own trail of bacteria. Another less official rationale for today’s planetary protection policy is ecological—you might even call it anticolonial. Essentially, Conley’s office serves to prevent NASA from doing to Martians what European explorers did to Native Americans with smallpox. Because Mars lacks Earth’s history of abundant life, it has that much more raw material for Earth’s bacterial stowaways to devour—should any of them, say, come into contact with water, find a niche they can survive in, and start to reproduce. “The whole planet is a dinner plate for these organisms,” she says. “They will eat Mars.” Conley wants to make sure we at least know whether Martian life exists before we introduce an invasive species that will wipe it out.’
January 4, 2017
[moon] The Dark Side of the Moon
… go read this powerful profile of Buzz Aldrin …
You smile at him, your face opening the way every single face in the entire world opens when it encounters him. Because he is: Buzz Aldrin. And we are: mankind.
He takes note of your smile, and just as quickly looks past you. It’s the same way with everybody. It’s your pregnant anticipation: I can’t wait to hear the amazing synthesis of moon wisdom you are about to bestow upon me.
He has no idea what to do with that. None. He’s turning 85 this month. He went to the moon when he was 39. Mankind has been coming at him with your same smile ever since. What do you expect him to do with that?
December 28, 2016
[space] The Wold Newton Meteorite
… the history behind a meteorite that crashed into Yorkshire in 1759 and later fell into fiction … ‘In addition to almost killing a farm labourer and kickstarting the modern scientific study of meteorites, the “EXTRAORDINARY STONE” which fell to Earth two centuries ago was also the catalyst for some of the most inventive and influential crossover fiction of the twentieth century. If you’re are a fan of Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula novels, Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, or even Bryan Talbot’s Grandville, or Showtime’s Penny Dreadful then you have the Wold Newton Meteorite to thank. All these worlds filled with characters from different novels, films, and TV series owe a huge debt (acknowledged by both Newman and Moore, I might add) to the writing of Philip Jose Farmer…’
October 31, 2016
[space] How NASA Fights to Keep Dying Spacecraft Alive
… a look at how the working lives of space probes end … ‘Maybe there’s another way of looking at the “deaths” of NASA’s deep space probes. After all, even after we lose contact with all five, they will still be speeding away from the solar system toward distant stars. In the vacuum of space, there’s nothing to corrode or degrade the spacecraft other than the occasional stray particle, meaning there’s every possibility that these probes will still be out there somewhere millions of years from now. By then, it’s entirely possible that the last humans in existence will be the couple carved onto the Pioneer plaque, those photographed for Voyager’s Golden Record, and Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh, an ounce of whose ashes are aboard New Horizons.’
June 24, 2016
[space] The sounds of starships
… Metafilter on using the ambient engine sounds of fictional spaceships as white noise … ‘The background engine noises of iconic science fiction spaceships can be remarkably soothing. That is why Spike Snell created 12-hour sound loops…’
December 14, 2015
[space] American satellite started transmitting 46 years after being abandoned in 1967
… the remarkable story of a derelict satellite that’s starting operating again … ‘Phil Williams G3YPQ from near Bude noticed its peculiar signal drift caused by its tumbling end over end every 4 seconds as the solar panels become shadowed by the engine. ‘This gives the signal a particularly ghostly sound as the voltage from the solar panels fluctuates’ Phil says. It is likely that the on board batteries have now disintegrated and some other component failure has caused the transmitter on 237Mhz, to start up when its in sunlight.’
October 19, 2015
[movies] At Last, the Great Martian Movie
… a look at Martian Movies… ‘Maybe the best reason to anticipate more excellent Mars movies is the planet’s pull on something deep within us. Having emerged from our myths, it still feeds our fantasies. It’s the most interesting motif left in archetypal dreams of escape and adventure in strange, vast realms, of human rejuvenation and transcendence through exodus and hardship.’
August 11, 2015
[space] The Sculpture on the Moon
… fascinating story of the only work of art on the Moon…
‘At 12:18 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time on Aug. 2, 1971, Commander David Scott of Apollo 15 placed a 3 1/2-inch-tall aluminum sculpture onto the dusty surface of a small crater near his parked lunar rover. At that moment the moon transformed from an airless ball of rock into the largest exhibition space in the known universe. Scott regarded the moment as tribute to the heroic astronauts and cosmonauts who had given their lives in the space race. Van Hoeydonck was thrilled that his art was pointing the way to a human destiny beyond Earth and expected that he would soon be “bigger than Picasso.”
In reality, van Hoeydonck’s lunar sculpture, called Fallen Astronaut, inspired not celebration but scandal. Within three years, Waddell’s gallery had gone bankrupt. Scott was hounded by a congressional investigation and left NASA on shaky terms. Van Hoeydonck, accused of profiteering from the public space program, retreated to a modest career in his native Belgium. Now both in their 80s, Scott and van Hoeydonck still see themselves unfairly maligned in blogs and Wikipedia pages—to the extent that Fallen Astronaut is remembered at all.’
July 30, 2015
[space] Space missions to look out for
… a list of upcoming space exploration missions … ‘Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM): The world was gripped when the Rosetta mission carried out the incredible feat of landing a spacecraft on a comet. Nasa has hatched an, arguably, even bolder plan to send a robotic spacecraft to grab a four-metre chunk of asteroid, tow it along and place it in orbit about the moon.’
July 20, 2015
[pluto] The Long, Strange Trip to Pluto, and How NASA Nearly Missed It
… the story of how New Horizons got to Pluto … ‘Just after the Jupiter flyby, New Horizons suffered its first computer glitch. For spacecraft outside Earth’s protective atmosphere, high-energy cosmic rays occasionally zip through computer memory, causing a crash and restart. Calculations indicated that there would be one such crash during the nine-and-a-half-year trip to Pluto. Instead, they occurred almost once a year. But none caused lasting damage, and they proved good learning experiences.’
July 19, 2015
[space] The inside story of New Horizons’ ‘Apollo 13’ moment on its way to Pluto
… the story of the shutdown and restart of the New Horizons
spacecraft ten days before it’s Pluto flyby … ‘They ran through the most likely causes of the anomaly. They had two fairly simple scenarios. The first was that, for some reason, the main computer had rebooted itself. That had happened a few times in the past. The second scenario was that the spacecraft sensed something amiss and, as it is programmed to do, powered down the main computer and switched operations to the backup computer. That had never happened before. If the backup computer had, in fact, taken over communications with Earth, it would use a slightly different radio frequency and transmission rate…’
July 18, 2015
[space] Pluto at Last
… On the discoverery of Pluto… ‘Late one February afternoon, 24-year-old Clyde Tombaugh was parked in his spot at Lowell Observatory. A transplant from the farm fields of Kansas, Tombaugh had been assigned the task of searching for Lowell’s elusive planet. He had no formal training in astronomy but had developed a skill for building telescopes, sometimes from old car parts and other improbable items. He was also something of a perfectionist. “When I planted the kafir corn and milo maize,” he wrote in his 1980 memoir, “the rows across the field had to be straight as an arrow or I was unhappy. Later, every planet-suspect, no matter how faint, had to be checked out … It was the most tedious work I’d ever done.” Tombaugh spent about a year searching for the missing world, using an instrument called a blink comparator…’
July 17, 2015
[space] Well-Aimed and Powerful
… more thoughts on the meaning of the Apollo space programme …
Buzz Aldrin once told me that he envies writers their ability to put things into words. Yet one of his first utterances after stepping out of the lunar module, in an attempt to describe the landscape to Mission Control, was the phrase “magnificent desolation.” This is surprisingly poetic for an astronaut, and it has stayed with me ever since I noticed it in a NASA transcript years ago. Every minute of the astronauts’ time on the moon was planned, and they wore printed copies of their schedules on their wrists to keep them on track. But I have to imagine that, once in a while, Neil and Buzz looked up at the far-off mountains at the edge of the Sea of Tranquility and thought to themselves, I am on the moon. This is all happening, right now, on the surface of the moon. Buzz Aldrin said many years later, “Every step on the moon was a virginal experience. Exploring this place that had never before been seen by human eyes, upon which no foot had stepped, or hand touched—was awe-inspiring.”
Neil, Buzz, and Mike traveled farther than anyone ever had and were gone only eight days. The images they brought back are among the most beautiful ever produced—all the more so, perhaps, because none of it was particularly intended to be beautiful. The jettisoned interstage adapter of the Saturn V tumbling, on fire, in a slow-motion ballet toward the gorgeous blue of faraway Earth. Buzz Aldrin smirking in a shaft of pure sunlight streaking through the command module window. Neil Armstrong overbundled in his space suit like a child dressed for cold, standing on the ladder and cautiously dangling one boot above the dusty surface of the Sea of Tranquility. The three astronauts confined to an Airstream trailer for quarantine after their return, smiling out at the president through a picture window. The perfect blue earth, thumb-sized, hanging in a deep black sky.
July 12, 2015
[space] Did You Know There are 9 Secret Items Hidden on Pluto Mission New Horizons?
… ‘A portion of Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes were put in a container and attached to the underside of the spacecraft. Here’s the inscription on the container: “Interned herein are remains of American Clyde W. Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto and the solar system’s ‘third zone’ Adelle and Muron’s boy, Patricia’s husband, Annette and Alden’s father, astronomer, teacher, punster, and friend: Clyde W. Tombaugh (1906-1997).”’
July 4, 2015
[ceres] Ceres: Dawn images reveal a 5 km tall mountain.
… some analysis on an odd mountain recently found on Ceres by the orbiting Dawn spacecraft
… ‘Mountains on airless bodies like asteroids (or our Moon) can be made in several ways as well. Giant impacts have mountain ranges around their rim, created by rocks lifted up at the edge of the crater. But this mountain on Ceres is alone. Smaller craters can get central peaks, where the rock rebounds upward after the initial impact (similar to the drop that splashes up in the center of a glass when you pour milk). But there’s no obvious crater around this mountain. Maybe other forces filled it in, or subsequent impacts eroded it away. There’s evidence of landslides on the surface as well, which could eventually erase the features of a crater. This seems most likely to me. We’ve seen other craters on Ceres with central peaks, but I don’t think any yet this size.’
June 25, 2015
[web] 20 years of space photos: an oral history of Astronomy Picture of the Day
… the inside story of APOD
– the remarkably long running daily website … ‘Before we posted our first image we debated this, Jerry and I, as to whether we were going to run out of images in a few days and then say, “Well that was stupid.” But actually there were many images around even back then. And NASA’s Ranger series took tens of thousands of images of the lunar surface, so if we had to we could just start putting up other pictures of the lunar surface. “Here’s another crater that’s a little bit different than yesterday’s crater.” But we never ran out of images. We always had interesting images, and as time went on we were sent more and more images. And now we reject 10 to 1, so for every image you see we’ve rejected 10.’
June 12, 2015
[space] Ceres: Weird white spots are still weird.
… What are the White Spots
on Ceres? … ‘You can bet every penny you have planetary scientists are poring over these images and examining every detail. These bright spots are unique; no other such high-contrast feature is seen on airless, rocky bodies. We know Ceres has a lot of water ice under the surface, so it’s not too far out to think that may be what we’re seeing. A recent impact could’ve dredged up ice (we’ve seen that on Mars, in far smaller craters), splashing it around the crater, and also caused that darker spray. But right in the exact center of that big crater (which is clearly much older)? That seems like a big coincidence. Could it be from some sort of vent?’
May 11, 2015
[space] How Spaceships Die
… a look at how satellites and space probes end their working lives … ‘Every craft that we’ve ever sent to another planet is still there, to a greater or lesser extent. Twenty-one objects on Venus, 13 on Mars (including nine landers/rovers) and a startling 76 different lunar craft are all slowly decaying in their new homeworlds, not to mention the Huygens probe on Titan, Shoemaker on the asteroid Eros, Hayabusa on the asteroid 25143 Itkowa and the Philae lander on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimnko. In total, there are over 476,000 pounds of Earth objects in alien worlds.’
April 24, 2015
[space] That Time the US Accidentally Nuked Britain’s First Satellite
… a fascinating, forgotten fragment of space history … ‘On July 9, 1962, mere weeks after Ariel-1 was put into orbit and had successfully begun transmitting data about the ionosphere back to Earth, British scientists were shocked when the sensors aboard Ariel-1 designed to measure radiation levels suddenly began to give wildly high readings. Initially, they assumed that the satellite’s instruments had failed or were otherwise just malfunctioning. As it turned out, as Ariel-1 was happily free-falling around the Earth, the US military had decided to detonate an experimental 1.4 megaton nuclear weapon named Starfish-Prime in the upper atmosphere…’
April 21, 2015
[apollo] 45 years after Apollo 13: Ars looks at what went wrong and why
… Ars Technica on what caused the explosion on Apollo 13?
… ‘For Apollo 13, keeping calm and working the problems as they appeared allowed three astronauts to escape unharmed from a complex failure. The NASA mindset of simulate, simulate, simulate meant that when things did go wrong, even something of the magnitude of the Apollo 13 explosion, there was always some kind of contingency plan worked out in advance. Controllers had a good gut-level feel for the limits of the spacecraft’s systems when trying to work through emergency problems.’
April 13, 2015
[space] Death in space: The ethics of dealing with astronauts’ bodies.
… fascinating look at how to deal with death in space … ‘The more frequent suggestion for the disposal of bodies is to simply open the airlock and send them off into the cosmos, à la Dr. Poole in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The problem here is that, as Body Back designers Karin Tjerrild Lund and Mikael Ploustrup found out, a U.N. charter forbids littering in space. This includes corpses, even if the astronaut’s expressed wish is to have his or her body launched into open space. This is probably for the better, Wiigh-Mäsak told me, given that these bodies could potentially become hazardous impactors for other spacecraft or end up contaminating pristine extraterrestrial environments—also like Dr. Poole who, following his death in Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, “became the first of all men to reach Saturn.”’
April 8, 2015
[apollo] The Armstrong Purse: Flown Apollo 11 Lunar Artifacts
… fascinating look at a bag of miscellaneous “trash” Neil Armstrong brought back from the moon and kept in a closet till he died. ‘…they would describe to mission control the container with the “odds and ends” as, “10 pounds of LM miscellaneous equipment.” It was important they account for the amount and distribution of any added weight so that the return trajectory and entry parameters could be calculated with precision. As far as we know, Neil has never discussed the existence of these items and no one else has seen them in the 45 years since he returned from the Moon. (I asked James Hansen, Neil’s authorized biographer if he had mentioned the items, and he had not.) Each and every item has its own story and significance, and they are described with photographs in extraordinary detail in an addendum to the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal. But two of the items are especially timely. Both have been placed on display as part of the recently opened temporary exhibition Outside the Spacecraft: 50 Years of Extra-Vehicular Activity. The first is the 16mm Data Acquisition Camera that was mounted in the window of the lunar module Eagle to record the historic landing and “one small step” made by Armstrong as humankind first set foot on another world…’
March 28, 2015
[space] Why Does The International Space Station Have Such A Weird Shape?
… ‘ It had to be assembled from pieces that would fit in the Orbiter payload bay or the payload fairing of a Proton rocket. This dictates a maximum length and diameter for each component. We can therefore expect ISS to be composed largely of cylinders, linked together like sausages. Those two delivery vehicles dictate other characteristics. The Space Shuttle Orbiter could deliver a completely unpowered cylinder, remove it from the payload bay and attach it using the robotic arm and attach it to the ISS. But, the Russian Proton rocket deposits its payload in low Earth orbit and that payload then has to fly itself to the ISS. That means each of the Russian modules are self-contained spacecraft. They have to have thrusters and fuel tanks and navigation and communication sensors and antennae.’
March 22, 2015
[space] A Brief History of the Ballpoint Pen and Whether NASA Really Spent Millions Developing a Pressurized Version Instead of Just Using Pencils
… ‘This brings us to these space pens. As the story goes, when the space race was heating up, NASA invested millions (sometimes stated as billions) into developing a pen that would work in orbit. However, when the Russians went into space they just took pencils. It’s a famous story that is mostly false. Although Soviet cosmonauts did use pencils in space for a time, so did the Americans. However, it quickly became clear that pencils were a very bad idea since they had a habit of breaking and sending tiny eye-seeking fragments of pencil lead and wood bits into the air. There were also some concerns over these fragments potentially damaging equipment, even perhaps causing a fire. So there was a need for pens that could work in space…’
March 10, 2015
[space] A Dust Devil on Mars
… go take a look at this amazing picture taken from a satellite orbiting Mars.
February 1, 2015
[space] What Does Space Sound Like?
… It turns out that Space is very noisy … ‘I met NASA astronaut Ron Garan in early 2012, when he had just returned from a six-month mission on board the International Space Station. He explained to me that the sonic environment in a real spacecraft is a long way from being serene. Even outside on a spacewalk (his previous mission had included a walk that lasted six and a half hours), there is no silence. Indeed, it would have been worrying if there had been, because it would have meant that the pumps circulating air for him to breathe had stopped working. Spacecraft are full of noisy mechanical devices, such as refrigerators, air-conditioning units, and fans. Theoretically, the noise could be reduced, but quieter, heavier machines would be expensive to lift into orbit.’