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NASA is Back in the Game – A New Era in Space Exploration

Today was a historic day for American spaceflight.  After more than forty years America finally has a launch vehicle to take humans beyond low-Earth orbit.  It’s not as if we’ve wasted our time hanging out in LEO since 1972, we’ve learned some truly amazing things about space as an environment since then.  After the Apollo program ended we built Skylab where humans had their first extended stays in space and began the study of the effect of micro gravity on the human body, animals, and plants.  Skylab led to Mir, the Russian space station, we sent up the venerable Hubble Space Telescope, performed many incredible experiments with the space shuttle, built the International Space Station and much more up until now.  Now we have turned the page on all that we’ve accomplished since Gene Cernan climbed back into the LEM a final time in 1972.  We’re not leaving all those accomplishments behind, we’re simply moving forward, and upward.

Space Launch System (SLS) test flight of the unmanned Orion capsule (Credit:  CNN)

Space Launch System (SLS) test flight of the unmanned Orion capsule (Credit: CNN)

Today was the first test flight of the Orion Crew Module (OCM) on board a Delta IV Heavy Rocket.  The whole unit together comprises the Space Launch System (SLS).  Today’s test flight was unmanned so instead of astronauts the OCM was packed with sensors to monitor the performance of the capsule’s performance during every second of the 4 hour flight.  The SLS looks very similar to the Apollo-era Saturn V rockets.  While not quite as tall it is certainly more powerful than the rockets that carried Neil Armstrong to the moon in 1969.  SLS features three separate booster engines compared to the Saturn V’s three engines in one block.  The goal is more usable fuel to go deeper into space.

No human has left low-Earth orbit in over forty years but today’s test flight took us one step closer to that achievement.  The OCM was blasted 3,600 miles above Earth’s surface.  For reference the Hubble telescope which was at the upper limit of the space shuttle’s range orbits at 347 miles.  At an altitude of 3,600 miles you could see most of the Earth out the window.  The photo below was taken from the OCM and is probably very familiar if you’re old enough to remember the days of the Apollo missions when we first left the Earth behind.  Now four decades removed from those heady days an entire generation has grown up without seeing these kind of images shown on the news.  It’s my hope that as the SLS-Orion program moves forward the American public will rediscover a love for space exploration that its parents and grandparents had which made our country great.

An image we haven't seen live for over 40 years.  (Credit NASA)

An image we haven’t seen live for over 40 years. (Credit NASA)

The seeds of success have been sown by hard work, determination, and talent from all the people who have thus far worked on the SLS-Orion program.  Jim Lovell, commander of Apollo 13 wrote in his book Lost Moon, “I look up at the moon and wonder when we’ll be going back and who that will be?”  We’ve yet to answer that question but right now we can at least say, “Soon.”

New Horizons for Solar System Exploration: To Pluto and Beyond

To quote the late sci-fi author Douglas Adams, “Space is big, really big.  You just wouldn’t believe how hugely, vastly, mindbogglingly big space is.  You might think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist but that’s just peanuts to space.”  It takes a really long time to traverse the vast distance of even interplanetary space from Earth to Mars.  The recently deceased comet ISON spent the better part of a year travelling between Jupiter to the Sun before its demise in the Sun’s inferno.  Jupiter is roughly 778,000 kilometers from the Sun and Saturn is nearly twice that far away at 1.4 billion kilometers away.  Twice the distance from the Sun to Saturn is Uranus sitting a whopping 2.8 billion kilometers from the Sun.  Even further still is icy Neptune, so far away it’s existence was predicted before it was directly observed sits an incredible 4.8 billion kilometers from the Sun.  At this point in the solar system the Sun is nothing more than a small point of light almost appearing as just another background star in the Milky Way.  But the orbit of Neptune is just the seashore of the cosmic ocean that is our solar system.  Far beyond the orbit of Neptune lies a huge area known as the Kuiper Belt which is home to an unknown number of tiny icy worlds.  The most well-known of the Kuiper Belt objects (KBO) is the dwarf planet Pluto.  Until 2006 Pluto was recognized as the ninth planet in the solar system but was downgraded to dwarf planet when astronomers began discovering objects in its neighborhood that were both larger and smaller.  Pluto lies a mindbogglingly 5.8 billion kilometers from the Sun.  Together with its large moon Charon, Pluto marks the beginning of unexplored territory in our solar system.  No human spacecraft has ever visited Pluto.  Much of Pluto’s characteristics are unknown to us.  The same goes for all of the KBO’s in Pluto’s neighborhood.

Artists conception of New Horizons probe at Pluto

Artists conception of New Horizons probe at Pluto

NASA is on the verge of changing that.  The New Horizons spacecraft which was launched in January 2006 is just a year away from the beginning of its mission at Pluto.  New Horizons is travelling at about 1 million miles per day as it speeds into uncharted waters so to speak.  Currently approaching the orbit of Neptune, New Horizons is approximately 4 billion kilometers from the Sun.  The probe will arrive at its closest approach of Pluto on July 14, 2015 but the science will begin well before that in January 2015.  New Horizons is equipped with many instruments to help scientists analyze Pluto.  One such instrument is the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) which is essentially a long focal length telescope with a CCD imager to take high resolution images of the Plutonian surface beginning in January 2015.

An Historic Mission

Pluto is part of a vast unexplored trans-Neptune region of the solar system called the Kuiper Belt.  The inhabitants of the Kuiper Belt are thought to be the leftovers of planetary formation when rocky and icy bodies were being flung around the solar system.  These icy worlds didn’t quite form into full-fledged planets but they are worlds nonetheless.  Only five human spacecraft have ever traveled in this cold void before.  New Horizons is the first spacecraft to be sent to directly study a new body since the Voyager probes thirty years ago.  For my generation (milllennials) this is akin to the Apollo 11 moon landing in its scientific value.  I can’t think of any mission that is more important to the understanding of our solar system than New Horizons.

The unknown face of Pluto taken by Hubble.

The unknown face of Pluto taken by Hubble.

The Science

New Horizons will provide scientists with a smorgasbord of priceless data about Pluto and the KBO’s nearby.  Besides LORRI New Horizons is equipped with an ultraviolet spectrometer (ALICE) which will be used to analyze Pluto’s atmosphere, an optical/infrared instrument (RALPH) that will be used to create maps of the surfaces of Pluto and Charon, a particle detection instrument (PEPSSI) used to detect molecules escaping from the atmosphere, a particle instrument (SWAP) to measure the solar wind at Pluto, a radio instrument (REX) to observe the atmosphere and a student created instrument to collect dust particles that have traveled from the inner solar system.  The only thing we know about the surface of Pluto is from Hubble which provide a low resolution map that can only resolve surface features that are hundreds of kilometers in size.

One of the more interesting observations New Horizons will make is the study of Pluto’s atmosphere.  Pluto’s orbit is highly inclined to the ecliptic, the plane all the planets orbit in, and is highly eccentric (oval shaped).  This means that Pluto’s distance from the Sun varies greatly depending on where it is in its orbit.  The vast distance change is thought to cause molecules in Pluto’s atmosphere to condensate and sublimate and be lost to space.  The ALICE, PEPSSI, and REX instruments on New Horizons will measure the constitution of Pluto’s atmosphere and the rate at which it is being lost to space.

Beyond Pluto

Once New Horizons has completed its mission objectives for Pluto and Charon it will move on to studying some nearby KBO’s if any are in the vicinity.  So little is known about the Kuiper Belt and its citizens so any information on these icy worlds is practically invaluable.  The mission is slated to end in 2026 but if the spacecraft is still operational NASA has targeted the edge of the solar system just like with the Voyagers 1 and 2 missions.  Hopefully New Horizons will be able to reach the heliopause (the region where the solar wind from the Sun begins to interact with interstellar particles) and map this boundary point.  With the data from Voyager still inconclusive it is necessary to continue to explore this strange region of space.  The spacecraft is predicted to be inoperable by 2038 signally the end of its lifetime.  By then New Horizons will have contributed a massive volume of science and radically changed the way we view our solar system’s outer reaches.  Who knows what we’ll see when it finally reached Pluto next July?  Besides the data New Horizons provides, the probe is fulfilling our human curiosity and our desire to explore.  Space is the last frontier and there sure is a lot out there!

Geyser Erupts on Europa: Jovian Moon May Have Ice Geysers

Big news came from the Hubble Space Telescope today.  Observations from the famous telescope made in ultraviolet light show a large plume of hydrogen and oxygen spewing from, Jupiter’s moon, Europa’s south polar region.  Europa is one of Jupiter’s four largest moons, known as the Galilean Moons, after their discoverer Galileo Galilei in the 17th century.  The plume is guessed to be water gushing from cracks in the ice that covers the entire surface of Europa.  This is the first observation of geysers on Europa although it has been suspected for some time now.  


Image of Europa with actual Hubble data superimposed on top to show where the plume was observed. Photo by NASA, ESA, and L. Roth (Southwest Research Institute and University of Cologne, Germany)

Europa is roughly the same size our our moon and is covered with ice.  This has been known for centuries since Galileo discovered the moon in 1610.  Europa is easily visible in binoculars and small telescopes and is extremely bright.  It was correctly guessed that Europa was covered in a layer of ice because it reflects a very high amount of sunlight.  Ice is one of the most reflective materials, about 70% of sunlight is reflected back off the surface.  The spacecraft we have sent to Jupiter such as Voyagers 1 and 2 and the Galileo probe confirmed the existence of an icy surface.  

The surface of Europa is interesting because it doesn’t contain any craters or any marks of impacts like the vast majority of moons in the solar system.  That means that Europa is constantly re-making its surface.  The same way glaciers and tectonic plates reform the surface of Earth, giant cracks along the surface of Europa indicate that the surface is geologically active.  Where there is surface tectonics there should be geological events such as volcanoes or geysers.  That’s what Hubble confirmed today.

The observations from Hubble showed a massive plume of water gushing from the moon’s south polar region.  The plume extends approximately 200 km (125 miles) into space.  Europa has no atmosphere and much less gravity than Earth so the vapor is able to spew well beyond the surface of Europa.  The water from the geyser was blasted from beneath the icy surface at a whopping 700 kilometers per hour (1,500 mph).  That’s three times faster than a commercial jet!  Two questions remain to be answered:  How do we know the geyser is shooting out water and where does that water come from?

A Veritable Waterworld

The existence of water on Europa has actually been known for a long time.  To know how this works we have to know a little bit about Europa’s orbital properties.  Europa orbits Jupiter, the solar system’s largest planet.  Jupiter’s gravity is so intense that it actually effects the insides of its closest moons.  Europa’s orbit is slightly elliptical, meaning that it isn’t a perfect circle, an ellipse or oval-shaped orbit.  Most celestial bodies have slightly elliptical orbits but Europa’s is more pronounced.  When Europa is closer to Jupiter the massive gravity of the planet literally squeezes the moon and stretches the rocky core.  This pressure and friction creates heat under the icy surface and has created a subsurface ocean on Europa.  It is guessed that Europa actually contains more water than Earth as Europa’s ocean is global, there are no landmasses.  NASA and the European Space Agency hope to eventually send a probe to Europa to explore this massive subsurface ocean because where water exists the possibility of life also exists.


Artists conception of a cutaway of Europa showing the icy surface, subsurface ocean, and metallic core. Photo by NASA / JPL

The Giant Plume

We’ve answered where the water comes from, but how are scientists sure it is indeed water that was spewed from the surface and how does such a tiny moon have geysers that powerful?  Hubble doesn’t just do visible light observations.  The telescope is also equipped with a camera that can image in ultraviolet light.  The actual images taken by Hubble don’t show what we think of as a geyser like Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park.  What Hubble observed was actually individual hydrogen and oxygen atoms in the plume.  Since Europa has no atmosphere the hydrogen and oxygen atoms were in space.  Jupiter, like Earth, generates an magnetic field in its solid metal core.  When the water from the geyser interacts with the electrons from Jupiter the water separates into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen atoms which glow in ultraviolet light.  That’s the best possible explanation for why Hubble observed these two individual atoms.

But where did the geyser come from?  Well as we saw earlier about Europa’s elliptical orbit, the moon is closer at some points and further away at others.  As Europa moves closer to Jupiter it is squeezed and crunched by Jupiter’s immense gravity.  Then as Europa moves further away from Jupiter cracks in the ice open up and allow the subsurface water to rise up and spew out.  As it so happens, Hubble recorded these observations while Europa was moving away from Jupiter so it makes sense that the cracks in the icy surface were opened up.

Teeming With Life?

The prospect of life swimming in Europa’s ocean has long been intriguing.  The discovery of geysers on Europa make the question even more worth exploring.  As we see from geysers on Earth, a lot of power in needed to blast material out from under the surface.  On Earth this comes from heat and pressure that builds up beneath cracks in the Earth’s crust.  When the heat and pressure becomes too great water and gases burst forth in a steaming awesome display of geological activity.  

One of the theories of how life began involves water and heat in the prehistoric oceans of Earth.  Hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor mix heat and amino acids to create the first organic materials.  To this day life thrives around hydrothermal vents despite the extremely alien conditions.  We know there is heat in Europa’s oceans due to the gravitational heating of the core from Jupiter and there’s water which is a universal solvent.  Could the mixing of amino acids, water, and heat have occurred on Europa as well?  The prospect is certainly intriguing and worthy of further exploration.  Curiosity is one of humanity’s definite traits so hopefully in a decade or two we will have a spacecraft on its way to Europa to explore the subsurface ocean and attempt to find evidence of life.  Imagine fish (or something totally alien) swimming around on the moon of a distant planet!  How that would change our views of life and its frequency throughout our galaxy! 

10th Annual Dark Sky Festival – Harmony, FL

Last year I had the privilege of writing a short piece about the Dark Sky Festival in Harmony, Florida.  I really enjoyed learning about the town of Harmony and the Festival they host every year so when I was asked again this year I jumped at the opportunity.  This year’s Dark Sky Festival promises to be the most successful yet.

Once again the town of Harmony, Florida is pleased to present to you the 10th annual Dark Sky Festival!  For the last ten years Harmony, a small town southeast of Orlando, has hosted a festival to celebrate the wonder of the Earth’s most beautiful natural resource, the night sky.  On the night of February 2nd, 2013 the public is invited to attend a night of celebration and education focused on learning about the night sky and the benefits of living under a night sky free from the effects of excessive artificial lighting.  The effects of excessive artificial lighting are scientifically proven to have negative effects on human and wildlife health, to damage the nighttime ecosystem, and of course mask the beauty of the starry night sky.

Harmony, Florida was founded in 2003 by Orlando’s former Humane Society/SPCA director Martha Lentz with the goal of creating a community where humans can live in harmony with nature and the environment.  The town was master planned into one of the most unique communities in Florida.  One of the goals of the community is to limit its impact on light pollution to preserve a natural view of the night sky.  Light pollution is the sum of all the wasted artificial light that is shined into the sky as a result of poorly designed lighting fixtures.  This wasted light produces the all too familiar sky glow effect that turns the sky pink near the horizon and washed out overhead.  The effects of light pollution can be limited, and even reversed as residents of Harmony know.  By taking simple and inexpensive steps to ensure all outdoor lighting fixtures are fully-shielded (meaning no light escapes upward from its source) Harmony has created a very aesthetically pleasing and environmentally friendly lightscape.  Furthermore, the lighting regulations created for Harmony are so impressive that the surrounding county which includes parts of Walt Disney World has adopted them as a lighting ordinance.

Dark Sky #3

The Harmony night sky

This year’s Dark Sky Festival promises to be the most successful one yet.  Over 5,000 people attended the 2012 Festival and again the town expects to see growth in attendance.  Attractions of this year’s Festival include the following:

  • Public stargazing with over 50 telescopes
  • Speakers from NASA, Seminole State College Planetarium, the International Dark Sky Association, and more
  • Two mobile planetariums with presentations and NASA Exhibits
  • Variety of kids activities including Mad Science, demos from high school robotics clubs, glow-in-the-dark mini-golf and the Kids Zone
  • Music, food, specialty booths, and presentations from scientists

This year’s speakers include International Dark Sky Association’s Executive Director Bob Parks and Jon Cowart, Deputy Partner Manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.  If you stick around long enough you might even run into some Star Wars characters from the famous 501st Legion!Dark Sky #4



Don’t miss this wonderful opportunity to learn more about astronomy and the dark sky movement as well as a chance to explore the universe first-hand through some incredible telescopes!  Astronomers from around the state have their telescopes set up for free, public viewing.  If you’re completely new to the field of astronomy or a seasoned pro the Dark Sky Festival at Harmony surely has something for everyone.  Make sure you stop by the beautiful town of Harmony on Saturday February 2, 2013 to enjoy this rapidly growing annual celebration of the night sky.  Festivities begin at dusk at 5 pm and continue until 10 pm.

To learn more about the town of Harmony please visit the town’s website

Dark Sky Festival Flyer


2012 In Review

Twenty-twelve was a fascinating year for myself, astronomy, and science.  There were many scientific milestones reached and important events during the last twelve months, most notably, the we survived the bedlam that was the Mayan apocalypse.  I thought I’d take some time to compile the best moments from 2012 in astronomy and space science and look ahead to 2013 hi-lighting the known astronomical events coming up.

First on the list is the impressive conjunction of Venus and Jupiter from March 15th.  On the date famous for the murder of Julius Caesar we were treated to two Roman gods forming a conspiracy of their own in the sky.  Venus and Jupiter, the two brightest planets in the solar system respectively, passed extremely close to each other (from Earth’s perspective), just 3 degrees apart.

Venus and Jupiter conjunction on 3/15/12 seen from France.  Credit:  Laurent Lavender TWAN

Venus and Jupiter conjunction on 3/15/12 seen from France. Credit: Laurent Lavender TWAN

Venus-Jupiter conjunctions are fairly common, occurring roughly every two years.  The next conjunction will be on May 28, 2013 and will be even more eye-catching when the two planets pass just one degree from one another.  Even more spectacular will be the conjunction in 2014 when the two pass only one-fourth of a degree from each other!  To put that in perspective, the width of the full moon is about one-half a degree in apparent size, so the 2014 conjunction will place the planets half a moon width apart!  I hate to build you up for these two conjunctions though, because neither will be visible from the Northern hemisphere.  If you can wait 53 years, until 2065, you’ll get to see the best of all planetary conjunctions:  a transit, when Venus passes in front of Jupiter in its orbit.  I may be alive but I’ll be quite an old man by then.

The next highlight from 2012 is something, if you saw it, you’ll likely never forget…the transit of Venus.  While my own luck observing the transit was less than optimal, I did get to view it briefly and it was amazing.  On June 5th, 2012 Venus transited, or passed in front of the sun appearing as a small black disk silhouetted against the fiery inferno of the sun.  There were some truly remarkable pictures of the transit taken by professionals and amateurs alike.  What made this event so special was the rarity of it and its historical and scientific significance in past centuries.  A transit of Venus takes place in pairs every 121 years then 105 years to form a cycle of 243 years.  Venus crosses in front of the sun once a year in its orbit but it’s only during these cycle years that it can actually be seen from Earth due to the two planets orbits being slightly inclined.

Venus transits have been historically significant to the world of science for centuries.  The first transit to be observed with a telescope was in 1639.  British scientist Jeremiah Horrocks used the transit that year to make a much more accurate calculation of the Earth’s distance from the sun using angles of parallax and geometry.  The 1769 transit was led to the discovery of an atmosphere on Venus.  Legendary explorer Captain James Cook observed the transit that same year in Tahiti at the still named “Point of Venus”.

2012 Venus Transit in extreme ultraviolet light  Credit:  NASA SDO

2012 Venus Transit in extreme ultraviolet light Credit: NASA SDO

The next event on the list is the occultation of the moon and Jupiter on July 15th, 2012.  Only observers in Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa were able to view this majestic event but the images produced from it were spectacular.

Series of images from the Jupiter-Moon occultation from Lebanon Credit:  AstroZ1 on Flickr

Series of images from the Jupiter-Moon occultation from Lebanon Credit: AstroZ1 on Flickr

The next event on my list is the one that I was looking forward to the most.  Curiosity.  I had been eagerly anticipating Curiosity’s landing on Mars for over a year and on August 5th it finally happened.  Due mostly to the unprecedented entry, landing, and descent plan Curiosity was intriguing from the word Go!  The sky crane and powered descent was daring and risky but it proved a massive success for NASA.  Not to mention the fact that Curiosity is the most scientifically advanced planetary rover yet.  The rover is practically a fully functioning mobile chemistry laboratory.  Within days of its landing Curiosity sent back some of the most stunning and detailed images of the Martian surface we’ve ever seen.

Panorama of rocky Martian landscape from Curiosity  Credit:  NASA/JPL

Panorama of rocky Martian landscape from Curiosity Credit: NASA/JPL

The final two events on my list of memorable astronomical events of 2012 both happened in the month of December.  First off is the mighty Geminid meteor shower of three weeks ago.  The peak of the shower combined with a new moon allowed for some excellent viewing.  The expected rate was all the way up to 120 per hour!  I went out for about one hour between 10:30 and 11:30 under moderately light polluted skies and was able to count 55 meteors.  I was quite impressed with the shower which included several fireball meteors with long, smokey trails.

Splendid Geminid fireball  Credit:  Patrick Cullis

Splendid Geminid fireball Credit: Patrick Cullis

I suppose the last event can’t really be confined to the month of December 2012.  It actually spans over a length of several years but it came to a conclusion just a couple days ago.  Of course I’m talking about the apocalypse!  You might have called it Judgment Day, the Rapture, or simply the winter solstice, but there was an inordinate amount of hype surrounding the long-dreaded end of the Maya calendar.  This event in particular is in reference to the way people with degrees in physics, astronomy, geology, cosmology, ontology, biology, paleontology, gynecology, urology, you name it, refuted the claims of doomsday made by people who are less intelligent.  Two people/organizations come to mind when I think of leading the fight against stupidity:  NASA and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.  Turns out people were actually believing the convoluted claims of doomsday 2012 and the world was indeed in danger…from stupidity.  So hats off to you NDT and NASA for saving the world!

Earth's next great hero:  Neil deGrasse Tyson

Earth’s next great hero: Neil deGrasse Tyson

So that wraps up my 2012 rewind.  This past year has truly been remarkable for astronomy and science.  2013 promises to be just as exciting.  Stay tuned over the next day or two as I’ll preview the two excellent comets coming up in the next year.

Huygens: Lander of the Decade

If there is one probe in the last decade that was by far the most under-appreciated and most deserving of worldwide acclaim it was the Huygens probe that landed on Saturn’s largest moon Titan back in 2005.  Granted I was only sixteen year old at the time, but I don’t remember much being made about Huygens except by NASA.  Admittedly nowadays, the things that excite NASA rarely, if ever, excite the average U.S. citizen.  What a shame that is.  I know it’s rather daft to compare the 1969 Moon landing with the Huygens mission but the spirit of the first moon landing was surely present within NASA when Huygens touched down on Titan.  The mission was historic for several reasons.  It was the first time a man-made probe had landed on a moon.  It was, and still is, the most distant body a man-made probe has landed on.  Huygens also had great scientific value also from the brief glimpse it got of the surface of the alien moon.  It was the first time we had ever touched down on a world that was truly “alien”, in that we had little to no idea what to expect.

Huygens was part of a mission to Saturn that was 22 years in the making.  The Cassini spacecraft was the main probe that would visit Saturn for the first time since Voyager 1 passed by in 1980.  One moon in particular caught the attention of NASA during its Saturnian encounter, Titan.  Titan is Saturn’s largest moon and bears a striking similarity to Earth.  It has a dense atmosphere.  The first images of Titan showed the famous ‘thin blue line” that shows the presence of an atmosphere.  As the picture below shows, Titan’s atmosphere looks incredibly like our own atmosphere when seen from space.  From that point on NASA resolved that it would eventually send a probe there.

Titan’s atmosphere seen by Voyager 1 in 1980 Credit: NASA

The Cassini probe was launched on October 15, 1997 and arrived at Saturn on July 1, 2004.  The European Space Agency built Huygens probe was carried along with Cassini and during its first approach of Titan jettisoned the tiny probe on December 25, 2004.  It took another 20 days for Huygens to reach Titan but on January 14, 2005 NASA has finally achieved its goal of sending a probe to Titan.  It took two and a half hours for Huygens to descend through Titan’s atmosphere and took hundreds of images from its Descent Imager/Spectral Radiometer.  Once below the haze and clouds Titan revealed a surface that was very Earth-like in many ways.  Large mountains and hills covered with a lacework of what looked like streams and runoff flows of some kind of liquid, and even a shoreline of massive bodies of liquid.  It was later determined that the bodies of liquid were not water since the surface of Titan is a frigid -179°C.  The only element known to exist as a liquid at that extreme temperature is methane.  Methane also exists as a solid and a gas on Titan, the same way water exists as a solid, liquid, and gas on Earth.  The discovery revealed that the same way that Earth has a hydrological cycle, Titan has a methanological cycle.  There are vast lakes and oceans of liquid methane which evaporate and form methane clouds.  There is also even methane rain on Titan that falls in huge, slow moving rain drops due to the low gravity.  Life as we know it couldn’t exist on Titan, but if we were to find even single-cell organisms or bacteria growing there it would cause us to radically re-think our understanding of biology and the possibility of alien life.

Long story short, Huygens was a huge success and tons of extremely valuable scientific data was produced from the tiny little probe that was the caboose of Cassini for six years.  After the success of Huygens there should have been headline news stories about it on the 6 o’clock news across the world and front page news in all the newspapers.  There should have been parades celebrating the historic landing from New York to Hong Kong.  But alas, the world doesn’t get excited about space anymore.  Huygens will go down as one of mankind’s most successful missions as well as one of the most under-rated mission of all time.

For your viewing pleasure here are some of NASA/ESA’s images received from Huygens during its descent and once it touched down.  Enjoy.

Titan’s rocky surface from 10 km Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Panorama of raw images from Huygens Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Color image of smooth liquid-eroded pebbles at landing site Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

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

Enceladus Flyby

The Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn, everyone’s favorite planet (right??), will make it’s closest flyby of Saturn’s tiny, icy moon Enceladus since 2008 at 2:30 EDT today.  The probe will fly over Enceladus’ south polar region at an altitude of 46 miles (74 kilometers) near an area famous for its ice-spewing mega-geysers.  Cassini discovered active cyrovolcanism on Encledadus during its first flyby of the moon in 2005.  It astonished astronomers that a moon so cold and icy could have volcanic activity at all.  Further investigation lead to the discovery of a region in the southern hemisphere known as “the Tiger Stripes” where there are four large rifts in the icy surface.  Below the surface it is believed that there is a local or planetwide ocean of water that is heated far above what is expected of a small icy world so far from the Sun.  Enceladus must must have a hot core just like our own planet that is heated by the friction caused by the gravitational pull of Saturn and orbital resonances from other moons.  Since Enceladus orbits within Saturn’s rings very close to the planet it feels the strong gravitational pull of not only Saturn but of the ring system and the other moons that orbit Saturn.  The south polar region of Enceladus is particularly interesting to astronomers because it shows clear evidence of ongoing geological activity.  The southern terrain is largely free from impact craters which leads us to believe that the surface is being reshaped by the geological forces at work beneath the surface.  Enceladus is one of only three moons where we have seen eruptions; the other two being Jupiter’s moon Io and  Neptune’s moon Triton.

Massive ice geysers around the Tiger Stripes region of Enceladus' south pole suggest the presence of heated liquid H2O Credit: NASA/

The intrigue of the geysers has prompted Cassini’s mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to carry out a flyby of the south pole region to “taste” the icy vapor with a device called an ion and neutral mass spectrometer.  The data collected from the spectrometer will allow scientists to better understand the composition of the jets of ice and its subterranean source.  Cassini’s composite infrared spectrometer will also be taking pictures of the Tiger Stripes looking for hot spots under the surface similar to the ones recently found detailed in the picture below.

The geological activity and presence of water on Enceladus is extremely exciting for NASA because if there’s water and heat there could also be micro-bacterial life.  A discovery of life on Enceladus would be a massive breakthrough in understanding the picture of the universe and the early stages of life on our own planet as well.  So far it’s the moons, not the planets that are leading the race of potential for life, so I vote to study more moons!

Evidence of subterranean heat below the Tiger Stripes region on Enceladus Credit: NASA/J

ATREX Woes at Wallops

Last night NASA decided to delay their Anomalous Transport Rocket Experiment (ATREX) launch yet again.  I’m personally beginning to get sick of hearing this over and over again.  The rocket experiment which is going to eventually launch from NASA’s Wallops Island, VA facility has been delayed due to poor weather three times now.  The plan is for five sounding rockets to launch in rapid succession to just shy of 65 miles which is the recognized edge of space to study the mysterious ultra high altitude winds that can reach 200-300 miles per hour.  Each rocket will release a tracer chemical that can be observed by ground-based observers and cameras.  The chemical, trimethylaluminum, for lack of better word, will glow in the atmosphere and the cameras can observe how the winds swirl it around.  The only trick is that the launch must happen on a clear night.  Not just a clear night in Wallops Island, but a clear night at the observation sites in North Carolina and New Jersey as well.  This has proved complicated as you could expect.  The original launch date was March 14th but bad weather at Wallops delayed the launch by a couple days.  The second launch was also delayed due to poor conditions and NASA set a third window for last night from 12am – 3am EDT.  The skies were clear at Wallops but New Jersey was cloudy.

I was originally excited by the launch because NASA widely publicized the visibility of the tracer chemical from Massachusetts to North Carolina.  But after three unsuccessful launch windows I’ve pretty much given up on this mission and my hopes of seeing it.  I stayed up last night watching Apollo 13 and listening to the webcast stream from the launch pad and after they said they were “red” for at least an hour and a half around 1:30 I shut the computer and went to bed frustrated.  I understand that this method of experimentation is probably the lowest cost option but the launch window only extends until April 3rd, which is only another ten days.  They’re ten days into the window and they’ve had rotten luck so far.  If I’m frustrated with the experiment I’m sure the folks at NASA are too, if not more so.  The next attempt at a launch will be no sooner than Sunday night 3/25, and if that doesn’t work out then they’ve only got a week to launch these birds.  If you still want to follow this mission, visit the NASA/ATREX website.  Happy Friday and clear skies!

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