Europe Gets An Eclipse

This New Years Eve, Thursday 31st December 2009, most of Europe will experience a partial eclipse of the Moon. Beginning at 17:17:08 UT, the Moon will enter the Penumbral shadow of the Earth and very subtly start to darken. At 18:52:43 UT the Moon will begin to enter the Umbral shadow of the Earth, the point at which the Moon will glow in the classic orange and red colors. Since this is a partial eclipse, the Moon will not completely enter the Umbral shadow. The greatest depth of shadow will occur at 19:22:39 UT.

Graphic depicting the shadow of the Earth

So, doesn't it glow all orange, and stuff?
Yes, it does! One of the most fascinating aspects of a lunar eclipse is the deep orange and red colors that are seen as it enters deeper and deeper into the shadow. The colors are actually caused by the ring of permanent sunrises and sunsets that constantly encircle the Earth, as it is always sunrise or sunset somewhere. The Moon is far enough away to be able to see this ring as a bright orange and red circle once it is inside the full umbral shadow, bright enough in fact to illuminate the surface of the Moon. Imagine for a moment actually standing on the surface of the Moon when this happens, looking up to see planet Earth as a ring of fire in the sky, and looking down to see the once bright white surface flooded with deep reds and oranges. With the discovery of water on the Moon, and the subsequent increase in interest that event caused, it won't be long until we are back there on a permanent basis. The day when we witness such a spectacular event in person may not be that far away.

The Blood Red Moon during the August 16th 2008 eclipse

As can be seen in the image above, sunlight is refracted through the edge of the Earth's atmosphere giving rise to a spectacular lunar light show. If you are in Europe, and happen to be graced with clear skies, it is a sight well worth catching. Even though it is a partial eclipse, there will still be a long period of deep orange colors, making it possible to view even in partially cloudy conditions.

Happy Mooning, Spacers!

Images credit: Sagredo, Tomruen
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A Year In Highlights

The events of 2009 at NASA have been summed up in a video just released by the agency.

Let's look forward to a 2010 that is just as full of Space!

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Watch For A Fireball Tonight

So, isn't there some kind of cosmic event tonight, then?
Well, yes there is. Tonight marks the beginning of a traditional holiday known as Christmas, where a white bearded overweight benevolent man named Santa Claus will be travelling through the atmosphere so blindingly fast that he will vaporize the air he flies through. Why would he do this? Well, to deliver gifts to every child on the planet, of course!

Santa Claus burning up the atmosphere on Christmas Eve

Old Saint Nick, or Father Christmas, or just plain old Santa, as he's known, will use a little studied propulsion technology known as Nuclear Reindeer, with a bizarre red nose based guidance system called Rudolph. The number of children actually covered under the service agreement varies dependant on several criteria, not least of all an index of goodness which is applied to each child and administered by a vision system Santa wears throughout the year that automatically logs naughty behaviour. Global Climate Change is often adversely affected by a high instance of naughty children, who are rewarded for their transgressions with lumps of coal. The bakery and dairy industries across the planet are taxed to their structural limits as Saint Nick uses a Mr. Fusion unit to convert cookies and milk collected from the houses he visits along the way into reindeer fuel.

NASA has yet to detect the fireball created by Santa's travels, although this is likely the result of a high instance of excited children throughout the homesteads of NASA personnel. This doesn't mean you shouldn't at least try to catch a glimpse of the flaming Santa Claus in the sky though, as apparently the wake he leaves behind is felt for months after - or at least until the decorations fairy comes along to switch off all those annoying twinkly lights!

Merry Christmas, Spacers!

Image credit: NASA
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Spirits High For Rover Rescue

The Spirit rover on Mars has been stuck in soft ground since April and has endured two failed attempts to free it, but now hopes are high after data from a third attempt showed the stuck wheel turning once again and giving significantly more traction than before. The soft area has been dubbed "Troy", after the ancient city that mired the Greeks for 10 years.

Spirit uncovers a wealth of information at Troy

Spirit has not been just sitting around during its stuck time, it has been performing scientific test of the area and recently discovered the soil had a crust, indicating variations in climate over millions of years. This discovery alone points to Mars having a more active past, and with so much data gathered from one spot, Troy will be analyzed for some time even after the rover leaves - if the next rescue attempt is successful of course.

Watch out for updates as the rescue continues.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
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Soyuz Docks To Station

Spacers Update

NASA astronaut Timothy (T.J.) Creamer, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi docked their Soyuz capsule to the International Space Station at 5:48pm EDT. Hatches are scheduled to be opened at 7:35pm EDT, after comprehensive leak checks are performed to ensure a solid seal between the Soyuz and the ISS.

Their arrival marks the return to a five person crew aboard the station, which has been manned by a crew of two since the departure of the previous Soyuz at the start of December.

[update: 7:30pm EST] Hatches are open.

[update: 7:35pm EST] T. J. Creamer enters the station wearing an elf hat ears. Cosmonaut Oleg Kotov enters the station wearing a Santa hat carrying a wreath. Soichi Noguchi enters wearing a Santa hat and is carrying a bag of presents over his shoulder.

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E=MC² A Hoax - Einstein Hid The Decline!

Folks, did you ever think to yourself that something didn't smell right about E=MC²? Well you were right, it's all a big hoax! And I didn't even have to crack private emails to find this one, it was blatantly obvious, right there in Einstein's theory of general relativity... a fudge factor, an admission that it didn't all add up, an in your face attempt to "hide the decline". One would expect such a so called "great scientist" to cover up such blatant dishonesty, right? No, wrong. He laughed in our faces and even gave it an outright sciencey sounding name - the Cosmological Constant. Who do you think you're kidding, Albert!

This charlatan of a man makes stuff up

So, you've got evidence for this, right?
Well, not as such, no. Aside from a few off the cuff mentions and quotations, there's no actual record of Einstein admitting it's all a big fraud in any correspondence, so I've had to make some stuff up that you betcha will be right if we were to travel back in time and be a fly on the wall. And anyway, just like you don't need evidence to prove Anthropogenic Global Warming is false because that's a negative and you can't prove a negative, you can't prove Einstein didn't say this because that's a negative too!

Here's a snippet from a letter he might have written about it: "I've just completed Edwin's telescope trick of adding in the real movement of the galaxies to hide the decline." - Albert Einstein (made up, but probably real).

Wow! I mean, WOW! He is obviously talking about the galaxies declining away from us as observed by Edwin Hubble, which totally exposes his fraudulent cosmological constant for the fakery and trickery that it is. Shame on you, Albert!

This mumbo-jumbo was the biggest hoax of the 20th century

So, isn't gravity just a pile of crock too, then?
Yes, absolutely! I have always had my suspicions about this whole theory of gravity as being all warped space and twisty graphs with bowling balls falling in to bottomless pits. I mean it all sounds make up and fake and fraudulent and stuff, right! Gravity is the result of Magical Pressing®, a force that I have spent years researching and now that I have dispatched the one last obstacle to my theory, Mr. Einstein, I can now sell my special Grav-Oil® - an anti-gravity elixir that is actually able to make you fly, just so long as you really, really, really believe that it will. Available now at the special introductory price of $49.99 for a liter bottle, and it comes it three great flavors, Apple, Cinnamon, and Anthropogenilicious® - a blend of freshly picked cherries and modern banana.

There are no refunds offered for Grav-Oil®, but the more you drink it, the more likely you are to believe it actually works. Tests have shown that it can take up to ten bottles to truly believe, although skeptics may need to get colonic irrigation if prolonged failure persists. Spacers is not responsible for any injuries acquired in the unlikely event flying should occur.

Happy Flying, Spacers!

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ISS Replacement Crew Launches

Three new crewmembers for the International Space Station launched today on board a Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Timothy J. Creamer, Oleg Kotov and Soichi Noguchi will join Jeff Williams and Maxim Suraev, the two crew already on board the station, who watched an uploaded video of the launch.

Soyuz launch carrying the ISS crew

The three new crew will remain on the station until May and will play host to two Space Shuttle missions, one of them bringing a brand new module, Node 3, or Tranquility, a large connecting node which will come complete with a 7 window Cupola promising to give the crew on board incredible new panoramic views of the Earth and space.

When the new crew arrives on Tuesday they will complete the Expedition 22 roster, one of several interim 5 person crews that will occupy the station until the Soyuz launches sync up after the end of Shuttle crew transportation, which historically rotated a sixth crew member. When Williams and Suraev depart the station in March, Kotov will take over as commander and the crew will officially become Expedition 23.

Watch out for the docking on Tuesday, scheduled for 5:58pm EDT.

Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
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Fly Through The Known Universe

A stunning video has been released by the American Museum of Natural History that very graphically illustrates our known universe in the form of a fly-out from Earth to the edge of the universe - and back again.

If you ever have a need to feel small, watch this in HD.

Happy Traveling, Spacers!

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Ice Twice!

Thanks to Phil Plait over at Bad Astronomy for pointing out something very interesting and cool - the iceberg floating near Australia is actually bigger than a lump of ice recently discovered in old Hubble data.

First of all, lets look at what Hubble saw. All data from the space based telescope is logged and recorded, including data from its on-board star tracking system, which is essentially software that keeps it oriented by looking at known stars and locking the position of the telescope using orientation software. When astronomers recently went back through data from the the last 4.5 years from the tracker, they found a blip that looked very much like an object had passed in front of the star it was looking at. After further analysis, they found it was a Kuiper Belt object. The Kuiper belt - as Phil puts it, is the torus of icy comet nuclei orbiting the Sun out past Neptune.

Visualization of Hubble seeing the object

Wow! The cool thing is that the object turns out to be a little over a kilometer in size, making it by far the smallest Kuiper Belt object ever observed.

Second, let's take a look at the iceberg, which is currently breaking up and melting in the Indian ocean.

The drifting iceberg from space

Note the scale at the bottom left of the image - that thing is 25 kilometers in size!

So, the cool thing is that the object recently discovered by Hubble is much smaller than the iceberg, and since the object is about 4.6 billion miles away, I think that is one achievement that Hubble can be very proud of.

Happy Freezing, Spacers!

Images credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI) and NASA Earth Observatory
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Our closest star, the Sun, has been without sunspots for some time now, but after a false start earlier this year it has sunspots again. In the latest image taken today by the SOHO (SOlar and Heliospheric Observatory) satellite, a group of several sunspots can be clearly seen.

Sunspots appear again on the Sun

Over the last few years the Sun has been in the low ebb of its 11 year magnetic cycle, which means the absence of sunspots was entirely normal. The actual cycle is 22 years long with a flip of the magnetic poles at the lowest point every 11 years. The cycle time does vary, but this time it has been over a year since the excpected return to sunspot activity. The Sun is a complex cauldron of stormy gasseous fusion that we are still learning about, so variation in expected behaviour adds a lot to our knowledge of its workings.

Sunspots are caused by a very simple phenemenon called magnetic turbulence. As the magnetic strength of the Sun increases, so does turbulence in its magnetic flow lines. Just like the flow lines seen using a regular magnet and iron filings, the Sun radiates giant magnetic loops from pole to pole. When turbulence increases to a point where it can disrupt the flows, a tortured and wrenched flow line breaks from its regular positon and crashes into the surface, ripping holes in the hot outer layer and creating cooler patches. It is these cool patches that we see as sunspots.

You can keep an eye on the daily activities of the Sun at the SOHO website: http://sohowww.nascom.nasa.gov/home.html

Happy Sunspotting, Spacers!

Image credit: STEREO, SOHO, NASA/ESA
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Hubble Spies Planets Forming In Orion

A series of images just released from the Hubble Space Telescope of the Orion Nebula reveal a remarkable array of Proto-Planets, or Proplyds, which are planetary systems caught in the act of forming. A total of 30 close-up views in all providing the best insight yet to how the process works. It is thought that our Earth formed in similar circumstances as gas from a massive nebula collapsed to give birth to our Sun.

Proto-planetary discs in close-up in the Orion Nebula

By itself the Orion Nebula is a stunning sight, as can be seen in the above image. Adding the detail of planet formation brings it to life as a fully functional stellar nursery. The incredible colors are the result of the gas and dust being lit up by the star Theta 1 Orionis C, but look closer as Hubble has done and you can clearly see holes punched out by young stars, which are themselves surrounded by gaseous discs. Over time the dust in these discs condenses to form clumps, which then collide to form heavier and larger clumps, and eventually rocky masses. The process is called accretion, and as the collisions continue larger and larger rocks form and become small planetoids. It is a violent time around the star, and as the material forms into ever larger objects, planets and moons arise. The gas is attracted to the rocks as they gain size and gravity. Some form simple atmospheres, while others become gas giants.

With such a rich environment to study there are other incredible sights, like bow shocks ahead of stars as they travel through the nebula. Our Sun is thought to have been ejected from an environment like this a few billion years ago, but even in its relatively open setting we do still have a bow shock, an area where the pressure of the material from the Sun is equal to the pressure of the interstellar gas. This area is known as the Heliopause, and is compressed in the direction we are traveling to form a teardrop shaped bubble called the Heliosphere. Within the much higher pressure of the Orion Nebula, bow shocks are seen far more prominently.

The video below is a fantastic 3D journey into the core of Orion and shows many of the bow shocks. The animation is based on actual Hubble data and the positions of the stars are as accurate as possible.


Check out the Hubble site for more images and videos


Image credit: NASA, ESA, M. Robberto (Space Telescope Science Institute/ESA), the Hubble Space Telescope Orion Treasury Project Team and L. Ricci (ESO)
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Moonsteps Spotted From Orbit

Yes, we went to the Moon. Yes, we left footsteps. Yes, we've got some kickass hardware up there now taking pictures that prove it. The LRO (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter) has been patiently mapping the surface of the Moon since June at a resolution previously unprecedented. Earlier in the year the NASA LRO team release pictures of several of the Apollo landing sites, and now they have just released a picture of the Apollo 12 landing site that clearly shows the tracks of the astronauts' footsteps.

LRO image of Apollo 12 landing site

Wow, now that's some serious resolution! Click it to get the bigger picture. It even shows the Surveyor 3 probe that was launched 2 years before. The Apollo 12 landing site was chosen to test the level of landing accuracy that could be achieved, and since they landed right beside the target it was considered a complete success.

In the image above the footprints left by astronauts Pete Corad and Alan Bean can be clearly seen, which is pretty damning evidence that we actually walked there. There will of course still be those who will deny and call into question the validity of the image, but as can be seen with this and the likes of global warming, denial is a very popular passtime. I'll bet that even once we return to the Moon and have ground level handheld HD images of the actual original footprints being beamed back by the new astronauts, there will still be a chorus of denial. A cursory knowledge of science is all that it takes to find conclusively that a significant amount of the knowledge we have about the Moon today is simply not possible to know without having a man set foot on the actual surface.

We really did go there, and we really are going back. It's just not soon enough for me, but that's because I'm a die-hard space geek. Maybe the recent discovery of water on the Moon will kick the required butts into action. Or maybe the new found interest of many other nations in the Moon, like China for example, will spark another space race. I'm no fan of the flags and footprints strategy, but maybe this time we'll take the longer term exploration goal to heart and set up a permanent presence there. We need to start getting out there and exploring, and the Moon is a perfect place to start.

Image credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Arizona State University
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Spacers Quickie
NASA launches the WISE telescope tomorrow at 9:09am EST. WISE (Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer) is set to launch atop a Delta II rocket and will be an incredible addition to our collection of space-based observatories. The resolution of WISE is so fine that it is expected to detect hundreds of millions of objects from galaxies down to asteroids in our solar system.

Catch the launch on NASA TV.

Happy Launching, Spacers!

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Ascent Highlights

This is just made of awesome - the STS-129 ascent footage and imagery has been edited and set to music in a stunning 12 minute video. Curl up with a beverage of your choice, full screen it and crank up the subwoofer for that chest thumping launch sound.

I hope all future Shuttle launches are given this treatment.


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Swirly Thing Alert!

So, those photographs of a huge swirly thing in the sky over Norway are fake, right?
Actually no. They are real! Yeah, I know, my first reaction was you've got to be kidding me. I tried my best to not read the text explaining it because I just knew I could figure it out... it was a... no, maybe it's a... oh, could it be a... no, it couldn't be that. I knew it was real, but what the heck was it?

Want to have a guess yourself? Take a look at the image below (click for big-ness) and don't read any further until you have guessed. Good luck!

Yes, this is a real photograph!

I couldn't resist any longer, I just had to know. As it turns out this is a missile test that failed as the second stage ignited. The blue cone poking out of the center is the exhaust plume, and the spiral is material being ejected as it spins out of control - lit up by the rocket burning out. Yesterday morning Moscow papers reported on the Norway photos and videos and about the speculation that it's a failed Bulava launch, but the state controlled TV channels have been remarkably quiet on the issue. Silence is golden where military failures are concerned, I suppose.

This clip from CBS sums it up nicely.

Happy Swirling, Spacers!

Image credit: Odd Magne Haugen
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Virgin Unveils Suborbital Spaceliner

When SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X-Prize back in 2004 it was anticipated that commercial suborbital spaceflight would be a reality within a few years. This reality has now been solidified with the unveiling of SpaceShipTwo, the first Virgin Galactic suborbital vehicle under the wings of its carrier WhiteKnightTwo. The event took place at a very stormy Mojave Air and Space Port on Monday.

SpaceShipTwo attached to WhiteKnightTwo

So, can I actually go in to space then?
You can go in to suborbital space, yes - if you have got a cool $200,000 sitting around in pocket change. Beginning as early as 2011 Virgin Galactic will be doing just that - sending paying customers to the edge of space and giving them the thrill of being weightless for several minutes and seeing the curvature of the Earth from above the atmosphere. With over 300 passengers already stumping up the 200k for a flight, the line is getting longer and production of the vehicles is projected to reach 40 within a few years, but Virgin Galactic has sealed its place in the historic first flights with exclusivity on launches for the first 18 months, so don't be expecting the lines to get smaller anytime soon.

SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo comparison

By the time the flights are ready to go, New Mexico will have completed construction of Spaceport America, a state of the art facility designed to be a model for future spaceports across the US. The cost will of course come down as the number of flights increases, but it will be a long time before spaceflight becomes anything like air travel, with low cost carriers saturating the marketplace.

I have put a huge empty vodka bottle in the corner, so come on Spacers, turn out your pockets and send your change to me so I can send a Spacers report - from actual space!

Happy Spacing Spacers!

Images credit: Virgin Galactic
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Climate-Gate: Conspiracy, Or Just Poor Argument

I don't often get off the subject of space or wax political about anything, but the recent so-called "climate-gate" affair involving hacked emails from climate scientists has piqued my curiosity - although since climate science involves the use of satellites it's technically still about space...

So, what's all this about then?
Recently, thousands of emails between a group of climate scientists going back over the last 13 or so years were hacked. Climate change "deniers" picked up on two seemingly suspicious phrases within the emails and claimed they alone invalidate decades of climate science that overwhelmingly points to a warming planet caused by the activity of man. Yep, that's right, from thousands of private emails, two phrases were removed from context and presented as the death blow to climate change theory. Now color me skeptical (chortle chortle), but you have to be pretty desperate about the chances of your argument to wield such a tiny piece of fluff as the ultimate weapon of Armageddon.

These are the two phrases in question:

"I've just completed Mike's nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith's to hide the decline." - Phil Jones, Director Climate Research.

"The fact is we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can't." - Kevin Trenberth, Climate scientist.

This is the best evidence they could find of widespread fraud about climate change from thousands of emails over 13 years. This is the evidence of a conspiracy. The word "trick" is widely used in science to denote an innovative or clever method of analyzing data. Tricks that work go on to become regularly used methods in successful theories. The word is in no way indicative of fraudulent activity. Not being able to account for something is not unusual in science, and it quickly becomes an invalid statement once something is found to be accountable. As evidence of fraud, this is an EPIC FAIL!

So aside from the inanity, let's give it a little bit of context. Imagine a collection of letters was discovered by Sir Isaac Newton, and in those letters he revealed he had to play about with some numbers to make his equations about gravity work properly. Proof that gravity is a hoax, right? Well, no it isn't. All it proves is that it took some work to come up with a valid theoretical construct to accurately describe the facts of gravity. Now of course Newton's theory has been mostly superseded, but any invalidation was the result of new evidence and research, not by isolating his tribulations as a scientist. The same applies to climate theory; any invalidation will have to come from evidence and research, not from sensationalizing a few errant quotes mined from a mountain of private chatter between people in the midst of a scientific process.

So, is global warming all a big fraud then?
Of course not. Just as the theory of gravity is an ever-evolving logical construct that we use to describe and act upon the facts of gravity, so is climate theory an ever-evolving logical construct that we use to describe and act upon the facts of climate change. I do of course grant that climate theory and the theory of gravity are not as well supported by facts as the theory of evolution, but that in no way makes them any less viable. If I drop an apple, it falls to Earth - fact. Opposable thumbs have traceable evolutionary lineages - fact. Burn a fossil fuel and I contribute to trapping heat in the Earth's atmosphere - fact. These facts remain, whether I like them or not, and more importantly whether I agree with them or not - for all I gain by disagreeing with them is the right to call myself a denier.

Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy said it perfectly on his blog: "You may not like it, but in modern climatology, global warming is accepted as the standard. It’s not up to me or anyone to prove it right at this point, it’s up to scientists to show it’s wrong. To do that you’ll need a lot of really good evidence, and from what I have seen and read that evidence is not there [in the emails]." And I agree with him completely when he says: "I don’t cling to AGW because of political bent or any ideology. I think global warming is real because of the overwhelming evidence pointing that way."

Phil's post is a very informative read on the subject. http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2009/12/04/global-warming-emails-followup/

I rarely get opinionated, but this kind of nonsense snaps something in my happy place and I just have to do something to fix it. Much as I would love to, I can no more deny that Anthropogenic Global Warming is a reality, than I can deny that there are people who think money spent on space exploration is actually spent - in space. It would please me no end to find that Global Warming was a massive hoax, because despite the fact that it is littered with whackaloons and nutjobs, I actually have something of an affinity with my species. I think we have incredible potential - if we can just weed out the whackaloons and nutjobs.

Try not to stay too globally warm, Spacers!

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Mars Rover Still Stuck After Wheel Stall

Beleaguered Mars rover Spirit is still stuck in a patch of soft sand after another attempt by NASA to free it ended with a wheel stalling. This time though, the stall is suspected to be because of a technical problem with the wheel actuator itself. A previous attempt where the wheel stalled gave engineers the impression that the wheel was actually spinning in the soft sand, which caused them to abort the attempt.

Spirit stuck in sand

Rover project engineers are developing diagnostic tests to explore the health of the wheel actuator and to isolate any interactions that could have potentially been caused by terrain. NASA is taking its time to analyze and plan the next move, which will hinge on the results of the diagnostic tests.

According to the NASA JPL website, the rover has moved as a result of the rescue attempts. The details of the movement are: the rover has performed 9.5 meters (31 feet) of wheel spin and the rover's center, in total, has moved 16 millimeters (0.63 inch) forward, 10 millimeters (0.39 inch) to the left and 5 millimeters (0.20 inch) downward.

All very well, but to me the "downward" movement is a little on the ominous side - sounds more like digging in deeper. Spacers wishes the JPL team and Spirit good luck in the next attempt.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
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ISS Buzzed As Crew Lands

A small 10cm piece of Russian rocket debris buzzed within a kilometer of the ISS today, but mission managers were unconcerned. Orbit projections showed that the debris would not pose a threat to the station and stood down plans to have the crew on board take refuge in their Soyuz escape capsule in case they had to make an emergency evacuation.

Orbital debris is a constant problem for the International Space Station, with so much junk polluting Low Earth Orbit that NASA must track each one and keep a vigilant eye on possible collisions. Despite three recent close calls, the outlook for the ISS is fairly stable for the immediate future.

Soyuz capsule landed in Kazakhstan

Before the drama, three of the five crew departed the station on their planned return to Earth after six-months in space, leaving just two occupants aboard the multi-billion dollar outpost. American commander Jeffrey Williams and Russian flight engineer Maxim Suraev will be joined by three more crew in late December when a Russian Soyuz launches a replacement crew.

Image credit: Roscosmos/NASA TV
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Astronomy: Fall Treats - The Pleiades

Spacers Astronomy

With the end of the calendar year comes autumn and winter in the Northern hemisphere. The nights close in to give us longer star gazing time, but this also means the Sun isn't in the sky long enough to heat the land and air. It's cold and it's dark, and you can see your own breath - it's perfect for looking at the stars!

One of the best and easiest objects for winter viewing is the Pleiades open star cluster in Taurus. With the naked eye, the Pleiades will appear as a small "smudge" of light that beckons you to look closer, and you don't even need a telescope to do so - this is a cluster that looks good even with a modest pair of binoculars. Some astronomers even say that they prefer to view the Pleiades through binoculars as the cluster covers a wide field of view, and its beauty as a whole is more striking than resolving the individual stars it contains.

The Pleiades is easy to locate in the winter sky

Known as M45 - Messier's 45th catalog entry, the cluster is often referred to as the Seven Sisters, coined from the names given to the 9 prominent objects in the cluster. Looking at the brightest stars in the image below (Click to enlarge), to the left we can see the parents, Plione atop Atlas. As we scan right we see their children, the sisters. Alcyone, Maia, Electra, and Merope form the roughly square shape in the middle. To their right we see Caleano, moving up to Taygeta, and then finally up and left to the twin stars known as Asterope. A steady hand and well focused binoculars will make resolving, or "splitting" Asterope worth the cold hands.

The Pleiades Open Star Cluster

There are over a thousand other stars in the cluster, but the bright central group is by far the most stunning feature, made all the more bright by the starlight reflecting off the gas from a nebula the stars are passing through, Beginning life as the babies of a stellar nursery, the stars have all since blown away the gas from the nebula they formed from, and at less than 100 million years old they are so bright because they are burning through their fuel supply very fast. They will shine brightly for now, but their beauty will fade in a few million years as they start to burn out.

Spitzer Space Telescope view of the Pleiades

A mere 440 light years away, the Pleiades is one of the closest open clusters to our solar system, but with modern levels of light pollution it has become a challenge to resolve its finer details in built up areas and cities. The beauty of a clear sky has faded with the unfettered growth of poorly designed street lighting. The once awe inspiring sights like the Pleiades and the Milky Way are all but lost on modern societies, but it really doesn't take that much to help with efforts to return to skies that once truly made us humble.

So, what can I do to help make my skies dark again?
All it takes is a voice of support, and every new voice will add to the volume so it can be heard. Spacers supports efforts to reduce light pollution. Please visit the International Dark-Sky Association at http://www.darksky.org/

Happy Viewing Spacers!

Images credit: Dumbbell, Bob Star, and NASA
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STS-129: Atlantis Lands Safely

Mission STS-129 is over. This morning, right on time at 9:44:23 EST, with Charles Hobaugh and Barry Willmore at the controls Atlantis touched down gracefully at the Shuttle Landing Facility after a 4.3 million mile mission.

Atlantis touches down at Kennedy

After inspecting the Shuttle that had carried them into space and back, the crew made their way to conduct debriefings and press interviews. At the post-mission press conference one noticeable crew member missing was Randy Bresnik, who was whisked away to Houston to see his new born baby daughter for the first time.

Next year marks the final year of the Shuttle program, with 5 flights beginning with STS-130, Space Shuttle Endeavour will haul the Node 3 to the station. Named Tranquility after the first Apollo landing site, the new node includes a Cupola which will provide stunning panoramic views of the Earth with its seven windows.

Catch up with the last of the flight day highlights too.

Image credit: NASA TV
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STS 129: Atlantis Prepares For Landing

It's all been too quick, mission STS-129 is nearly over. Atlantis and her crew have completed all of the necessary tasks and prepared the orbiter to re-enter the atmosphere and glide home as an aircraft. Astronauts Charles Hobaugh, Barry Wilmore and Leland Melvin tested Atlantis’ flight control surfaces, the flaps and rudders, and test fired the thruster jets that control its orientation.

Orbit 171 landing track

Orbit 172 landing track

There are two landing opportunities at Kennedy tomorrow, when the rotation of the Earth below the Shuttle's orbital track is optimal for de-orbit and re-entry. The process is pretty cool and involves lowering the perigee of the Shuttle's elliptical orbit on the other side of the world from Kennedy, then guiding the vehicle through the atmosphere to a precise landing. All that energy that was put into Atlantis at launch to accelerate her up to 17,500mph has to be taken out again, but this time there isn't a huge rocket stack and fuel tank attached, so it has to be done by a carefully choreographed series of events.

First contact with the Earth's atmosphere at such high speed creates incredible friction and temperatures that would melt the spacecraft if it weren't covered in protective thermal tiles. Thrusters are used at this stage to maintain the orientation of the vehicle. After slowing down enough to permit aerodynamic interaction, the wings and rudder take over and Atlantis performs a series of side to side rolls to lose even more speed. As it approaches the cape it is still traveling supersonic, and as it drops to subsonic speeds the classic dual sonic booms are heard. With the runway looming, one final 270 degree turn bleeds off the final excess speed and Atlantis flares up her nose to touch down at regular aircraft speed.

If all goes well, the first landing is scheduled for 9:44am EST. The second 90 minutes later.


Images credit: NASA
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Happy Thanksgiving!

A small section of the planet Earth known as the USA celebrates this day as Thanksgiving, a day when DNA records show a sudden drop in the population of turkeys, and measuring tapes show a pandemic increase in belly size. The entire nation is put on high cranberry alert, and late afternoon sleep studies produce an alarming snoring sound that can be heard from coast to coast.

Happy Turkey Day, Spacers!

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STS-129: Atlantis Undocks

After almost a week docked to the ISS, Space Shuttle Atlantis has separated from the station marking the end of its supply and delivery mission. Two days short of being able to spend the Thanksgiving holiday together in space, the two crews enjoyed a final meal together before saying their goodbyes and sealing the hatches. The crews spent a final night attached before waking up to undock, perform the now traditional flyaround, and separate from the station.

The crews enjoy a final meal together

Once clear of the station the Atlantis crew had a busy day of preparations which included a final inspection of the heat shield. They will get a much welcomed day of rest tomorrow for Thanksgiving, before it is back to business getting the orbiter back safely on to the ground on Friday at the earliest. A minor issue with a waste water tank is not seen as a problem unless the mission is extended by a day due to bad weather at the landing sites. So far though, everything looks good.

Catch up with the latest flight day highlights below.

Image credit: NASA
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STS-129: Hatches Are Closed

All hatches connecting Atlantis and the ISS are now closed and sealed, marking the official end of the docked portion of the STS-129 mission. Atlantis is set to undock for the station at 4:53am EST Wednesday morning, back away to a safe distance and perform a flyaround to inspect their handiwork and video document the growth of the station.

With hugs and congratulations the two crews said their goodbyes and handed over the final piece of "cargo", Item 914, Astronaut Nicole Stott, who endured the final moments of the mission with a piece of paper with the number 914 on her back - just in case the crew forgot her.

The crews say their farewells

After undocking the Shuttle Atlantis will slowly separate from the vicinity of the station as it prepares to reenter the atmosphere and return to Earth. Unlike the Soyuz capsules that plunge into the atmosphere just a few hours after undocking, a Space Shuttle must be prepared for reentry by the crew. As an orbiting vehicle there are only two seats available for the commander and pilot as all of the other seats are stowed to provide more space for the astronauts to float around. This mission, one extra seat will be unpacked and installed for the returning Nicole Stott. The process of conversion from a space vehicle to an aircraft takes a couple of days and involves stowing all of the items transferred from the ISS during the mission, and along with the seats, unpacking and activating the landing suits that the crew all wears for the trip down. The payload bay doors are also closed and if needed, the robot arm and sensor boom are used one last time to inspect the heat shield tiles.

Strict weather requirements at the landing sites also play into the decision about when precisely to land. Storms, high winds, heavy clouds and rain are all considered no-go for landing, so often extra days are added to a mission as the weather on Earth is allowed to play out. The absolute final landing opportunity is determined by the consumables on board, and if the weather is unfavorable at all three landing sites, Kennedy, Edwards, and White Sands, the Shuttle will be forced to land at the site deemed safest.

Shuttle Atlantis approach as seen from ISS

So, can we see them both in orbit together then?
The few days after undocking is the best time to catch the two craft flying in formation across the sky. Just after undocking they will appear as two steady bright lights, one following the other in an unwavering path. As they separate they still follow, but because their orbits are diverging the plane is sometimes too different to catch them together. Now is the best time to click the Heavens-Above link to the right and enter your location to see if there is a visible pass where you are!

Happy Viewing Spacers!

Images credit: NASA TV, NASA

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More Highlights

Keep up to date with some more Flight Day Highlights.


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It's A Space Girl!

Congratulations to Space Shuttle Astronaut Randy Bresnik, currently on the STS-129 mission docked to the ISS - his wife Rebecca gave birth to their daughter Abigail in Houston while he orbited the Earth. Weighing in a six pounds and thirteen ounces, Abigail Mae Bresnik entered the world on Sadturday night at 11:04pm local time. Smoking is prohibited on-orbit for safety reasons, so the crew helped celebrate the event with bubblegum cigars.

Bresnik with his daughter's pink onesie.

On the very same day he was due to venture into space on his first ever spacewalk, Bresnik chatted with his wife while she was in labor before heading out to complete the second spacewalk of the STS-129 mission. Adamant that he did not want any updates while he was out in space, Randy learned of the birth early Sunday morning when his wife called to give him the news.

Whilst not the first birth with a parent in space, Bresnik is disappointed nonetheless that he missed being present at the event. Atlantis is due to land in Florida on Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, so he won't need to wait too long before getting to meet his new family member. Astronaut Michael Fincke and his wife Renita hold the honor of the first birth with a parent in space, but since Michael was on a long duration mission to the ISS at the time, he had to wait four agonizing months before returning to Earth to meet his daughter.

STS-129 is set to undock from the ISS early Wednesday morning.

Image credit: NASA TV
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Some Light Viewing

Flu meets pneumonia and Spacers must go on. I'll take refuge in a warm bed, but in the meantime catch up with some flight day highlights.


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STS-129 Second Spacewalk Underway

Sorry Spacers, but it looks like the flu has finally caught up to me. A very short and sweet post today.

Spacewalkers Mike Foreman and Randy Bresnik made their way outside this morning to help install the 2nd ELC unit on the station's truss.

You can watch it live on NASA TV.

I'm off to collapse in a heap, but Happy Spacing Spacers!

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STS-129 Begins Day Of Moving

After waking up to the sounds of Sister Sledge singing We Are Family, the crew of Atlantis are preparing for a day of moving supplies between the visiting Shuttle orbiter and the ISS. Also on the cards for today is the grappling of the ECL2 - Express Logistics Carrier, the second carrier platform to be installed this mission on the station's truss, pre-loaded with spare parts. The Station's robotic arm will grab the ELC from the Shuttle's arm to install tomorrow.

This is a relatively light workload day for the crew after the intensity of the last few days since launch, closing in on the station for docking and going straight to work preparing for and executing the all important first spacewalk. Each Shuttle mission is packed with as many tasks as the crew is able to fit in as their time on station is limited. Having the extra manpower on board means that maintenance and upkeep of the station is given a welcome boost, and even with a six person permanent crew the day to day running of the ISS is a necessary chore.

Last night the sleep period of both crews was disrupted by an alarm that suggested a depressuization had occured. It turned out to be a false reading and, but the ventilation fans were shut off as a result causing dust to be kicked up, which in turn set off a fire alarm in the European Columbus module. The crew of Atlantis were able to return to sleep shorlty after, but the ISS crew had to do some minor troubleshooting before being allowed back to sleep. The issue is being examined from the ground and will have no further impact of the crews.

Barry Wilmore and Charles Hobaugh during a press event

Public relations keeps the crews busy too, with plenty of television and radio scheduled events throughout the mission. Today hails a sporting linkup with ESPN Sports Center, an unusual departure from the regular science and educational linkups and a welcome change of focus no doubt.

Finally, preparations for tomorrows spacewalk get underway this evening with Mike Foreman and Randy Bresnik camping out in the Quest airlock overnight.

Keep and eye on Spacers and NASA TV for updates on the mission and tomorrow's spacewalk.

Image credit: NASA TV
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STS-129 Flight Day Four Roundup

Whilst spacewalkers Mike Foreman and Robert Satcher spent their day outside enjoying the view, the Atlantis and ISS crews were busy inside the station supporting the spacewalk and carrying out preparation work for the Node 3 node, known as Tranquility, that will be delivered in early 2010. Station Commander Frank De Winne and Flight Engineer Jeff Williams began reconfiguring cables and wiring at the port hatch of the Harmony node around the same time as the spacewalk got underway, a task that will last several days over the duration of the docked portion of the STS-129 mission.

Former ISS crew member Nicole Stott, now an official Atlantis crew member, celebrated her 47th birthday today. Nicole has been on board the station since August and wil be the last ever ISS crew member to use a Shuttle for transport off the station, as the Shuttle fleet is scheduled to be retired toward the end of 2010.

So, is it just a space station-ey stuff mission?
Actually no! One unusual experiment being flown on STS-129 will utilize the unique microgravity environment of the International Space Station as part of the regular classroom to allow students to examine the complete life cycle of the Painted Lady and Monarch butterflies. Two containers of the caterpillars, one on Earth and one flown on Atlantis, will be observed to study how the butterflies cope with the different gravity environments as they hatch.

Caterpillars enjoying microgravity

NASA TV is catching up with its YouTube videos, releasing both Flight Day 2 and Flight Day 3 highlights today complete with HD options for that higher bandwidth perusal experience.


Images credit: NASA TV
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First Spacewalk Underway

The first spacewalk of the STS-129 mission is underway. Robert Satcher and Mike Foreman spent the night in the Quest airlock to prepare for the lower pressures required for spacewalking. This morning they suited up, headed outside and went straight to work installing an S-band antenna. This will be the 134th spacewalk in support of the ISS.

Mike Foreman and Robert Satcher begin their spacewalk

The spacewalk began at 9:24am and is expected to last for 6.5 hours.

This page will be updated as the spacewalk progresses.

[update: 12:27pm EST] Robert Satcher is at the JEM robotic arm performing activation tasks and lubricating the end effector mechanism.

[update: 12:35pm EST] Mike Foreman is installing a netork cable betweek the US Unity and Russian Zarya modules.

[update: 12:58pm EST] Spacewalkers are ahead of the timeline. Mission managers are planning get-ahead tasks.

[update: 1:55pm EST] Get-ahead task added to deploy an outboard payload attachment system.

[update: 2:40pm EST] Tough bolt causing problems at payload attachment system. Bolt remains stuck after using a pistol grip tool and a hammer.

[update: 2:55pm EST] Spacewalkers free stuck bolt. During the cooler temperatures of a night pass, Foreman banged the bolt with a hammer while Satcher wiggled it.

Spacewalkers at the truss

[update: 3:40pm EST] Cleanup underway, spacewalk 1 is nearly over.

[update: 3:48pm EST] Robert Satcher returns to airlock.

[update: 3:52pm EST] Mike Foreman returns to airlock.

Mike Foreman at the airlock

[update: 4:01pm EST] Spacewalk 1 over. Total duration 6 hours 37 minutes.

Images credit: NASA TV
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Atlantis Day 3 Round Up

After a successful docking to the ISS, the Atlantis crew set to work familiarizing themselves with the facility after a safety briefing and installing one of the two huge cargo carrier platforms loaded with spare parts on to the station's truss. Nicole Stott, formerly an ISS crewmember, officially joined the Atlantis crew as the seventh member and will ride home to Earth on the Shuttle. Stott will be the last station crewmember to use the Shuttle for station access, with Russia providing crew transport on Soyuz rockets until the new Ares I rocket is ready to fly.

The ISS crew have been having some problems with the new water recycling unit and have packaged up a broken distiller to return for repair on Atlantis. There is plenty of reserve water in the interim though, so the broken unit is of no cause for concern.

Atlantis crew Mike Foreman and Bobby Satcher will sleep overnight in the Quest airlock to prepare for tomorrows spacewalk. They will purge their bodies of nitrogen to eliminate any chance of contracting an illness known as "the bends" after working in the reduced pressure environment of a spacesuit.

NASA are a little slow on this for some reason, but the Flight day 1 highlights are now up on YouTube. Enjoy!

Watch out for the highlights on NASA TV, which will be played on the hour every hour during the crew sleep period, beginning tonight at 9:00pm EST.

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Docking Day!

Atlantis is docked at the International Space Station (ISS). Earlier this morning the crew completed the final Terminal Initiation burn to syncronize orbit, appearing behind the station and then gliding gracefully underneath where it performed the Rendezvous Pitch Maneuver - a backflip under the station to allow the astronauts on board to take detailed photographs of the heat shield tiles.

View of capture from the docking ring

Over the next hour or so both the ISS and Atlantis crews will perform securing and leak checks as the two vehicles become firmly attached as one space vehicle. Hatches will then be open and the docked portion of mission will begin straight away. They waste no time and get straight to work with safety briefings and moving all the equipment into place. First up is the grappling of one of the equipment carriers in the paylaod bay, and the official handover of Nicole Stott to become a member of the Atlantis crew.

Keep an eye on NASA TV for live video of the crew ingress.

[update: 12:40pm EST] Leak checks complete. Hatch opening any minute.

[update: 1:10pm EST] Pressure equalization underway.

[update: 1:14pm EST] Harmony node and PMA hatches open. Only Shuttle hatch remains.

[update: 1:28pm EST] All hatches are open, Shuttle and ISS crews meet in space.

Atlantis crew arrives at the ISS

Images credit: NASA TV
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Spirit Rover Remains Stuck

The Mars rover Spirit has been stuck in sand since April when it was driven on to a patch of terrain that turned out to be softer than anticipated. Plans have been drawn up in the intervening months to attempt a rescue of the plucky rover by literally driving it out of the sand using whichever of its six wheels that have the most traction. The team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) even replicated the conditions on Earth using a twin of the Opportunity rover and a sand pit, and today they got their first chance to free the rover.

Preparing to test the escape at JPL

The tenuous first steps were more about gathering data than actually escaping though. Panoramic photographs of the wheels show that there is possibly a rock impeding one of the wheels, which will greatly complicate the procedure. Essentially the move was a small reversal of the route that got the rover where it is currently stuck. The data is being carefully analyzed and the JPL team are in no hurry, preparing instead to take the time to get it right even if it takes a few weeks of small moves. The next attempt will be no earlier than Wednesday.

Spirit has been roving around Mars for nearly six years, much longer than its planned mission duration of 90 days. Together with its twin rover Opportunity, they have been one of the most successful Mars missions to date.

Wish Spirit good luck, Spacers!

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
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Atlantis Has Busy First Day

Spacers Mission Coverage: STS-129, Flight Day 2
Today is a busy first day in orbit for the Atlantis crew after their spectacular launch yesterday. The primary task is a comprehensive inspection of the Thermal Protection System - the black heat shield tiles covering the belly of the Shuttle. Since returning to flight after the Columbia disaster in 2002, NASA has required each Shuttle mission to inspect the tiles with the addition of a boom sensor that is grappled with the orbiter robotic arm. Packed with sensors, the boom is painstakingly maneuvered over every squared inch of the tiles and wing leading edges. The data is then analyzed on the ground and a decision is taken on whether it is safe for the orbiter to reenter.

Atlantis' wing leading edge during inspection

The cause of the Columbia disaster was deemed to be a chunk of foam that fell from the external tank and impacted the wing during a critical period of the launch where supersonic winds can accelerate debris to dangerous speeds. NASA has since improved design and manufacture of the tank and reduced foam loss to minimize the possibility of repeating the impact.

So, what happens if they can't return home?
The remaining Shuttle flights are much safer now, but should the worst happen and the inspection reveals a breach, there are several options for tile repair that the astronauts could perform whilst in orbit. If the damage is considered too much to repair, the Shuttle crew can take refuge at the ISS and await a second Shuttle rescue mission.

Other tasks for the day include checking out spacesuits and grappling the Express Logistics Carrier 1. The crew also will install the centerline camera, extend the Orbiter Docking System ring and checkout rendezvous tools in preparation for docking.

Catch the mission live on NASA TV - see links to the right.

You can also check out the NASA TV Schedule for event times.

Next up for STS-129: Docking to the ISS, scheduled for Wednesday at 11:53am EST.

Image credit: NASA TV
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STS-129 Launch Video HD

Awesome video of today's launch on YouTube HD. It might take a while to buffer up for a smooth playback but it is well worth the wait.


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STS-129 Atlantis Launch Countdown

Spacers Launch!

Space Shuttle Atlantis looks good for a launch today at 2:28pm EST. Weather looks perfect and no issues are being worked. The crew has just been strapped into the vehicle, comm checks are underway, and any moment now tanking will begin.

The STS-129 crew being strapped in

This post will be updated as the launch countdown progresses.

Happy Launching Spacers!

[update: 12:33pm EST] Hatch is closed. The White Room crew has completed hatch closing procedures and the crew is sealed in to Atlantis.

The White Room crew closes the hatch

[update: 12:42pm EST] Launch team troubleshooting small noise issue on pump power line. No impact expected on launch.

[update: 1:15pm EST] Fuel pump power noise problem is not an issue. Planned 10 minute hold begins.

[update: 1:25pm EST] Countdown resumes out of planned hold. White Room closeout crew prepares to leave.

White Room closout crew prepares to leave

[update: 1:40pm EST] Final planned hold underway. All systems and weather reports look good. No issues being worked.

Atlantis ready to launch

[update: 2:08pm EST] Skies clearing, weather improving. 10 minutes remaining in planned hold.

[update: 2:18pm EST] Flight controllers polled, all go for launch.

[update: 2:22pm EST] Countdown resumes. Orbiter Access Arm retracted.

[update: 2:28pm EST] Atlantis launches!

Liftoff of Atlantis STS-129

[update: 2:31pm EST] Booster separation.

Solid rocket booster separation

[update: 2:37pm EST] Main Engine Cutoff (MECO). Externatl tank separation. Atlantis is in orbit travelling 17,000mph.


A flawless climb to orbit for Atlantis to begin the STS-129 mission. Keep an eye on Spacers throughout the mission for all the updates including the docking on Wednesday morning. NASA TV covers every shuttle mission from launch to landing, so click that link and enjoy!
Images credit: NASA TV
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Getting Ready For Atlantis

Mission managers at NASA have cleared Atlantis to launch the STS-129 mission on Monday at 2:28pm EST (19:28 GMT), after an unmanned Atlas launch scheduled for today was scrubbed due to a power glitch. The six astronauts arrived at the cape on Friday to prepare for the launch and to begin the countdown. The countdown team is not currently working any technical issues, and the weather looks promising with over 90% chance of favorable conditions.

The STS-129 crew arrives at Kennedy

The crew are, Leland Melvin, Barry E. Wilmore, Charlie Hobaugh, Randy Bresnik, Mike Foreman, and Robert Satcher. They will be joined on the return to Earth by Nicole Stott, a crewmember currently on the ISS. Preparations to ready Atlantis for launch ended Friday morning with the closing of the payload bay doors, sealing in the two ExPRESS Logistics Carrier (ELC) units which will be installed on the ISS during the mission. Also making the trip is a device known as the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services Ultra High Frequency Communication Unit, which will facilitate communications with the future SpaceX Dragon spacecraft - the first commercial spacecraft capable of delivering cargo and crew to the ISS, due to begin operations in 2010.

The Rotating Service Structure - the logistical frame surrounding the Shuttle and payload bay at the launch pad - will be rolled away to reveal Atlantis in ready to launch profile. Commander Charlie Hobaugh and pilot Barry Wilmore have begun practice landings in the Shuttle training aircraft - a modified Gulfstream II jet that accurately simulates the performance of the Shuttle.

The Gulfstream II Shuttle training aircraft in action

This will be Atlanis' penultimate flight, and with only six STS missions remaining on the launch manifest we are now entering the final stages of the historic Shuttle programme. Enjoy these launches while you can, there will be one long gap before NASA puts people into space again.

Happy Launching Spacers!

Images credit: NASA TV and NASA/Kim Shiflett
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