Monthly Archives: May 2012

Grab a Dragon by the Tail

This morning marks an historic achievement for private spaceflight.  At 9:56 am EDT SpaceX’s unmanned Dragon capsule docked with the International Space Station marking the first time a private spacecraft has rendezvoused with the orbital lab.  The time of nation-state dominance in space has come to an end with this historic link-up.  SpaceX has shown the world that space is open for all of humanity, not just governments.  What was once done by clandestine government agencies motivated by one-upmanship  is  now achievable for citizens for the advancement of space exploration and colonization.

Image Credit: NASA/SpaceX

During the docking, astronaut Don Petit on-board the space station used the giant 58-foot grapple arm called Canadarm2 to reel Dragon in for berthing.  After grabbing a hold of the capsule, Petit said to Mission Control in Houston, “Houston, station, it looks like we’ve got us a dragon by the tail” followed by applause in Houston and SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, CA.  The operation was done in almost total darkness during orbital night using only the ISS’s exterior lights to illuminate the capsule and the grappling arm.  However, the rendezvous was not without a hiccup.  On Dragon’s approach to the space station, its navigation system experienced a glitch.  Dragon uses a system called LIDAR (light detection and ranging) to measure distances.  The LIDAR uses laser beams to measure the distance to objects by observing how long it takes the beams of light to reflect back off an object.  The LIDAR experienced a glitch when stray light reflections from another module on the space station were being gathered by device.  Dragon’s mission control was quick on its feet and resolved the problem by narrowing LIDAR’s field of view to eliminate the stray light.  All went smoothly from there.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk is one step closer to realizing the dream of his company, to make humanity a multi-planet species.  Although that goal is a very long way off, this historic accomplishment’s importance cannot be overlooked.  Whether a SpaceX craft is the vehicle that takes humans to Mars or not, SpaceX has helped NASA by freeing up precious budget room that can now be devoted to planning for a Mars mission.  Now NASA doesn’t have to build and fund another transport vehicle to low-Earth orbit.  Now we can look forward to a future when governments and private companies cooperate in space to achieve massive goals once possible only in dreams.  Now, we can, to use the common phrase, boldly go where no man has gone before!

An “Opportunity” to See

Sometimes the Martian surface can look pretty bleak and uninspiring.  But then, there are those images that come from NASA’s Opportunity rover that just wow you!  This image released by NASA came from Opportunity’s Pancam does just that!  This image is a composite of about a dozen images  from the basin of the Endeavour crater taken in multiple wavelengths during the Martian sunset.  The different wavelengths allow for increased contrast between different regions in the crater such as the rocky terrain at the base of the rover to the dunes, and the eastern rim in the background.  The Endeavor crater is 14 miles (22 kilometers) across which is big enough to cover the entire area of Seattle!  The  resilient Opportunity rover has been roaming the Red Planet’s surface for an amazing eight years and still produces amazing images and useful science!  It’s successor, the Curiosity rover, will touch down on Mars on August 5th, 2012 via live video stream from an on-board camera so you won’t want to miss that!

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ

The Endless Waltz

If there was a time signature for this waltz it would be written in 3,000,000,000/4 or something along those lines.  That’s 3 billion beats per measure and a quarter note is one beat for my musically un-inclined friends.  Ninety million light years away in the pair of galaxies called Arp 271 a long, slow dance has begun between two similar spiral galaxies, NGC 5426 and NGC 5427.  Both are spiral galaxies located in the constellation Virgo.  The two galaxies began interacting likely a several million years ago and the evidence of their intertwining is now readily visible in this beautiful image from the Mt. Lemon Sky Center in Arizona.  The gravity between the interacting galaxies has begun to pull some of the outer stars towards the center creating a bridge of stars.  The bright pink colored gas inside the galaxies are massive molecular clouds which have been energized by the extra gravitation pull and have begun igniting new stars and will cause others to explode in supernovae.

Little is currently known about the fate of these two waltzing galaxies yet.  It all depends on how fast they’re travelling through the cosmos.  At a higher speed they’ll smash right into each other and rip themselves apart.  Once scattered about, gravity will eventually pull the remains back together again.  Or, if they’re not travelling all that fast they’ll kind of do-si-do around each other, until they ultimately merge into one massive new galaxy.  Either way the dance will take millions and millions of years to complete.  The study of colliding galaxies is an intriguing topic because it gives us insight as to what will happen in a couple billion years when our own galaxy will collide with our nearest neighbor, the Andromeda galaxy.

Image credit: Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona

A Hybrid Galaxy

What happens when a massive elliptical galaxy and a spiral galaxy meet?  In the case of the galaxy Centaurus A, the spiral galaxy gets ripped apart!  The stunning new image of Centaurus A, also known as NGC 5128, reveals more about the nature of interacting galaxies and how supermassive black holes affect the surrounding galactic neighborhood.  Centaurus A, at 12 million light years away in the southern constellation Centaurus, is known as being the most prominent radio galaxy in the sky.  The bright core of the galaxy emits extremely large and strong amounts of radio energy which is believed to be evidence of a supermassive black hole roughly 100 million times more massive than the Sun.  Black holes often have eyes bigger than their stomachs and swallow more matter from the galaxy than they can handle and the excess matter gets blasted out millions of miles into space in massive jets of radiation, in this case, radio energy.  Evidence of the jets can be seen in the upper left portion of the image where there is a thin redish filament.  When imaged through red, blue, and green filters we can see the optical portion of the radio jets where there are high levels of oxygen and hydrogen and young star formation.

Centaurus A or NGC 5128 Credit: MPG/ESO

Since Centaurus A is an elliptical galaxy it has all the markings a good elliptical should have…a bright core and a almost uniformly distributed cloud of stars which are older and cooler than stars in spiral galaxies.  However, Centaurus A is a strange one in that it has a dark band of cloud obscuring the galaxy’s core.  The cloud is the same kind of cloud you would see in a typical spiral galaxy with spiral arms.  These clouds are rich in the stellar building block element hydrogen which glows red within the cloud.  Here stars are being formed within the clouds and this part of the galaxy is much younger than the rest of the elliptical part.  This seems to be the leftover of a massive collision or interaction between the giant elliptical and a less massive spiral galaxy.  The spiral picked a fight it couldn’t win and is in the process of being ripped apart by the elliptical.

Score another awesome image for the European Southern Observatory!  The joint government institution is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.  Many happy returns and many more awe-inspiring and educational images to come!

The Light of Stars

I love time lapses.  Especially time lapses of the night sky!  Especially time lapses of the night sky with epic music!  That’s why I love this time lapse video!  This was up on NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day website yesterday and it gets an instant share for being so awesome.  Astrovideographer Daniel López assembled this stunning montage over the course of two months filming on the island of Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands.  Using motorized cranes and cameras on sliding tracks López captures some truly awe-inspiring footage of the Milky Way’s waltz across the sky, the moon, Venus and Jupiter setting, the constellation Orion, and beautiful natural landscapes.  But I’ve said enough about it already, just watch it!

Video Credit and Copyright: Daniel López (El Cielo de Canarias); Music:  La Busqueda de Ianna (Epic Soul Factory)

Star Wars Day

May the Force be with you!  Or in today’s case, “May the 4th be with you!”  Yes that’s right, today is Star Wars Day!  Why?  No other reason than because “the 4th” sounds like “the Force” if you have a lisp.  Today we remember the iconic film franchise in all its glory.  I know I’m a bit young to really reminisce about Star Wars being born in 1988, five years after Return of the Jedi was released, but I practically grew up on Star Wars.  I remember when my dad bought the Star Wars trilogy set on VHS when I was probably about five years old.  I watched them ALL THE TIME.  The space adventure captured my attention and is probably part of the reason I am interested in space and astronomy now.  The films were unlike any other action/adventure movie out there, being set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.  I probably didn’t even know what a galaxy was when I was five but I knew I wanted to go there and see Tattooine and Yavin IV.  I wanted to fight against the Empire on a Rebel starship, fire proton torpedoes down the Death Star’s maintenance shaft.  Most of all I wanted a real lightsaber!  Those things are freaking cool!  As a kid I didn’t understand all the thematic elements involved in the film, from the underdog, to the good vs. evil concept, and the faith aspect of the Force and the Jedi.

Copyright Lucasfilm Ltd.

My love for the films grew in elementary school when my friend Bobby and I would sit at the lunch table and peruse through books like Star Wars:  The Essential Guide to Vehicles and Vessels.  There were hours of endless reading to be had from books like these, and read them we did!  My friend Mitch whom I met when I was seven also had a fond love of Star Wars from an early age and that allowed our friendship to blossom.  We both collected action figures and Legos like no one else we knew.  Almost every Saturday we went over Mitch’s house and played with the action figures and spaceship toys.  We even played baseball games with the toys as the players.

I saw my first Star Wars film in the theater in 1999 when Episode I was released.  There was nothing like hearing the THX intro and the 20th Century Fox fanfare played in mind-blowing Dolby Digital!  The opening scroll was just enchanting to see it on the big screen for the first time!  I often imagine what the generation before me must have felt and experienced seeing the original films for the first time.  My love for the franchise was complete when Episode III came out in 2005 bringing the epic saga full circle.  Knowing this was the last Star Wars film ever was a bit sad, but I was thankful for the opportunity to see it and to have been a fan my whole life.

I can’t believe that it’s been 35 years since A New Hope was released!  Not that I was even alive that long ago, but it’s remarkable that the films still have a very devoted and engaged fan base.  The Star Wars franchise has truly taken its place among film legends.  My hope is that the younger generation, and those to come will be able to experience Star Wars like I did and see it for what it truly is:  a legendary and innovative saga.  I’ll close with the words of Obi-Wan Kenobi, “Remember, the Force will be with you, always.”

Copyright Lucasfilm Ltd.

Beauty in Motion

I saw this amazing video on Bad Astronomy today and I loved it so much that I couldn’t resist sharing it.  This video uses raw footage from the Cassini and Voyager missions to Jupiter and Saturn to illustrate the beauty of the two gas giant planets.  The footage was compiled and edited by Vimeo user Sander van den Berg and the effect is stunning!  By looking at images of the planets online or even through a telescope it can become easy to think of them as mere static worlds, like jewels in the sky.  The wonderful reality is that these worlds are vividly alive and active! From massive storms the size of Earth on Jupiter to billions of ice particles racing around Saturn to form its rings, there is an orchestra of motion at the very heart of each planet.  This short movie captures that masterpiece in a way that reminds you of the grandeur of the first time you saw a picture of a planet in grade school and restores that “Wow!” factor that can become less enthralling over time.  The movie is simply called “Outer Space” and I think that simple title captures the essence of what’s happening in the footage.  Enjoy!

Click here to view the video and read more about it on Vimeo.

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