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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Water Found On The Moon!

All of the data gathered from the October 9th impact of the LCROSS (Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite) probe has now been analyzed, and NASA has found HUGE amounts of water on the Moon!

The site of the impact was carefully chosen and has been shaded from direct sunlight for billions of years. The team at NASA concentrated their analysis of spectrometer data from the satellite, which provided the most definitive information about the presence of water. They were surprised by the abundance of water that they found, and now believe that it could be a lot more widespread than they had initially predicted. There are many craters at the polar extremes of the Moon that have areas unexposed to sunlight, and given that the impact history of the Moon includes countless comets that are composed entirely of water ice, it has now been shown that these sunless areas can hold on to that water for a very long time.

Enhanced view of the LCROSS impact plume

So, is this really that big a deal then?
Well, yes it is is a very big deal. The presence of water on the Moon means that it is less of a logistical headache for us to go there, and stay longer than to just plant flags and leave footprints. We can extract the water there and use it for human consumption and fuel. Without it we would have to haul all the water and fuel that we need up with us, and that's not a cheap or easy thing to do. Launch cost per pound is still around the $100,000 mark, which believe it or not makes a bottle of water on the Moon more expensive than some of those high-end waters - or scams, as I like to call them - here on Earth.

The LCROSS impact data

It is now possible to think realistically about a permanent base on the Moon, and a resource of water means that base can be self-sustaining. Not only can fuel and drinking water be produced, but hydroponics becomes a viable way to produce raw materials and foods. Launching from the Moon with its one sixth gravity of Earth is a lot less expensive and requires significantly less fuel - most of the fuel in a launch from Earth is used to launch the extra fuel required to get away from the gravitational influence of Earth.

With this announcement alone, expect very ambitious plans to be drawn up now that not only include a permanently manned moonbase, but also a spaceport that will be a jumping off point to Mars and beyond. The news is THAT big!

Happy Mooning Spacers!

Images credit: NASA
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Rosetta Snaps Crescent Earth

As it hurtles toward its Friday close pass of Earth, the European Rosetta spacecraft took this remarkable snap of our home planet, looking like a blue crescent moon hanging in space. Go ahead and click it to en-massive-ify.


According to the ESA team: The illuminated crescent is centered roughly around the South Pole (South at the bottom of the image). The outline of Antarctica is visible under the clouds that form the striking south-polar vortex. Pack ice in front of the coastline with its strong spectacular reflection is the cause for the very bright spots on the image.

[update]Rosetta has been taking regular pictures during the course of its Earth pass, and ESA will be releasing them as a video shortly. Too cool!

Rosetta will make its closest approach on Friday at 08:45 CET.

Everybody wave!

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Rosetta To Buzz Home

The ESA probe Rosetta is in the midst of several gravity assist moves as it fine-tunes its orbit to eventually land on comet 67/P Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014. This Friday, November 13th it makes a close approach to Earth at 08:45 CET, buzzing past its home planet to pick up speed at a whopping 29,000mph.

Artist view of Rosetta

Rosetta is an ambitious spacecraft that has been designed to operate both close in to the Sun and farther out past Mars, where it will use layers of insulation to keep itself warm. As it passes Earth and the Moon this time it will add its sensor data to the search for water on the Moon, calibrating its science instruments as it goes. Then it's off into the loneliness of interplanetary space until it gets to Mars, where it will make one final gravity assist move to eventually match the speed of the comet. En route to the comet, the probe will flyby the asteroids 2867 Steins (September 2008) and 21 Lutetia (July 2010).

Equipped with a lander probe, Rosetta will be the first spacecraft ever to attempt landing on a comet, and will provide clues to the physical and chemical processes at work during the formation of planets, beginning 4.6 billion years ago.

Rosetta took this eerie picture of the Moon on November 8th as it approached.

The Moon from Rosetta

Wish her luck, Spacers!

Images courtesy of ESA
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New Docking Port Heads To ISS

A new Russian docking port is on its way to the International Space Station (ISS) today, launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome atop a Soyuz rocket. The Mini-Research Module 2, or MRM-2, is better known as 'Poisk', Russian for 'Explore', and will provide additional storage, an airlock, and a docking port for Progress and Soyuz craft.

Poisk is prepared for launch

Due to dock at the space station Thursday at about 10:43am EST, Poisk is the first new Russian addition to the station since the Pirs docking compartment in 2001. The module's 380 cubic feet of living space was loaded up before launch with Russian Orlan spacesuits and life support equipment, so it will be a mini-delivery for the station too.

The addition of a fourth docking port is essential for the continued presence of a six-person crew at the station, as the current three ports are occupied with two Soyuz crew spacecraft and a Progress craft which will be loaded with trash and released to burn up in reentry. Traffic control will be made a lot easier with the additional port.

Keep an eye on NASA TV on Thursday for live coverage of the docking.

Happy Spacing Spacers!

Image courtesy of RSC Energia
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Space Elevator Contest Partially Won

The Space Elevator Games is a very interesting contest, essentially proving concepts that may one day lead to a fully operational space elevator. A Seattle company, LaserMotive, snagged $900,000 of the $2 million prize money available by climbing a 3,000 foot cable suspended from a helicopter. They completed the task 4 times with a best time of 3:48. The goal of the prize was to achieve a best time under 3 minutes, so the remaining $1.1 million is still up for grabs.

LaserMotive's climber in action

The concept of a space elevator has been around since Arthur C Clarke first postulated the idea in his 1970's novels. A cable is tethered between the ground and a satellite in geostationary orbit, which is then traversed by a climber that can deliver and return payloads over the 22,000 mile distance. No small task, especially given the problem of getting power to the climber. The emerging technology of power beaming is used in the competition, where a laser is aimed at the climber to supply it with power.

So, isn't this a bit of a far out concept then?
Well, it is certainly ambitious! A space elevator is actually a very viable concept that would open up an entirely new method of access to space. It isn't without its problems though. One major hurdle is that a permanent cable stretching from the equator out to a geostationary satellite is a serious collision hazard, both for aircraft and for existing orbiting infrastructure. The ISS is in Low Earth Orbit and passes over the equator twice every 90 minutes. At some point it will inevitably cross the equator at the location of the elevator cable. An adjustment will have to be made to the ISS orbit to avoid a 17,500mph collision that will destroy both the ISS and the cable. This is of course possible with satellites that are able to adjust their orbits, but with those that cannot, the Hubble Space Telescope for example, it will be only a matter of time before a collision occurs. The problem of space junk becomes more pertinent too, as any one of the thousands of junk objects poses a threat to the cable.

NASA space elevator artists concept

Looking on the bright side however, if the concept were to become viable it would enable the construction of major orbital components at a fraction of the cost, removing entirely the need for expensive and hazardous rocket launches. Attach a small asteroid to the top of the cable as an anchor, and you have a solid location to build an off-world factory. Satellites could be constructed and then released, and a small tug-boat satellite could escort it to its desired orbit.

The technology is of course still not even in its infancy, with the Space Elevator Games producing concepts more than actual working technology, but it is certainly worthy of our attention. It may be a few centuries before we see a cable to the sky in action, so don't hold your breath just yet.

Happy Climbing Spacers!


Images courtesy of NASA/Tom Tschida and NASA
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Space Junk Buzzes ISS

Spacers Quickie
A small 2cm piece of space junk passed uncomfortably close to the International Space Station (ISS) late Friday night, whizzing by within 1,600 feet of the orbiting outpost. As a precaution the crew of six were awakened, but as monitoring continued it was clear the object would miss the station and the crew returned to their nights sleep.

Panic over, but they really need to start doing something about the amount of junk in orbit. It's so littered up there that it makes photos of my bedroom as a teenager look tidy!

Happy Trash Duty Spacers!

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Moon Bombs: Top 5 Reasons The Moon Is Safe From Us

So, did LCROSS really bomb the Moon like all those people say?

Well, I wouldn't really say the use of the word 'bomb' is accurate here. Put into perspective, it would be a stretch to say we barely even tickled the Moon. Just like Earth, the Moon is struck by several tons of material every day, only without an atmosphere to protect it the Moon receives all of the impacts on its surface. We see shooting stars all the time, and all of these are objects that literally burn up before they get a chance to hit the ground. The object is vaporized, and that vapor is added to the Earth becoming part of our atmosphere, which grows a little bigger each day. The Moon grows a little bigger too. And what was the percentage LCROSS (Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite) added to the Moon? Well, let's just say the number is so small that it begins with a lot of zeros.

The Phases and Libration of the Moon

So, what are the top 5 reasons the Moon is safe from us?

1) - We're tiny. Even though the Moon is smaller than the Earth, we are so tiny as to be almost insignificant in comparison. Even with our most powerful telescopes in orbit pointing at the surface we still have to squint really really hard (metaphorically squint, of course) to even see the stuff we left there over the years. We can build huge rockets, but the payloads we send there are on a magnitude that makes the word tiny too big to describe us. Seriously, we're tiny!

2) - We're not actually bombing it. It might make good headlines to say that we are bombing the Moon, but we just plainly and simply are not. There are no explosives involved, and the intent is for science gathering rather than malicious attack. And even if we were to mount a Space 1999-like nuclear attack on the Moon, it would shrug off everything we threw at it, just like it has done many times before with huge impacts from the cosmos.

3) - The Moon is on its own path to destruction. It may take some time, like a few million years, but the Moon will one day leave the comfort of orbiting the Earth and join the rest of the planets orbiting the Sun. The Moon gets farther away from us by about 2.16cm per year, and it has been doing so since the Earth/Moon system began. The Earth will be completely different by the time we notice the Moon has left though, as continental drift and plate tectonics will have likely consumed the current land masses and created new lands for us to roam - if we are still even here. Given our current level of technology, we don't have the capability to prevent the Moon from leaving us - it's just too big!

4) - It's a lump of rock! Sorry to sound so cold, but it really is just a big lump of rock. We humans - and maybe wolves - may have some sentimental attachment to its glowing fullness, but that's just because we like shiny things. When all is said and done, the Moon is just a big lump of rock that shines because it is lit by the Sun and we are close enough to see it.

5) - The Moon has survived much worse. The largest impact crater on the Moon is the Aitken basin on the far side of the Moon, at 2250 km in diameter and 12 km deep, which also makes it the the largest known impact crater in the solar system. Even this impact didn't hurt the Moon. Our pathetic tickling is minuscule in comparison to everything that the poor old Moon has had to put up with over the last few billion years. So minuscule in fact that we would have more cause to worry about the speed of our car being changed by a bug hitting the windshield, which by the way is on the order of thousands of times more powerful in relative terms.

Lets face it, this is nothing more than a delusion of grandeur. A failure to comprehend scale on a phenomenal level. A very common and prevalent misconception that we are so much bigger than we really are. The Earth and Moon are spherical because their own mass is sufficiently large to allow gravity alone to pull it into the least resistant shape. The probe that struck the Moon was the size of a bus. Think about that in terms of mass, and then think of how much bigger that bus would have to be for its own gravity to pull it into a sphere.

The LROC - Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter took the above picture which shows the remnants of the Apollo 17 mission, including the lander base and American flag. Even a craft in orbit around the Moon with the highest resolution equipment available can just about see our handiwork. Aside from further proof that we actually went to the Moon, this picture shows just how small and insignificant we are. The universe cares not a jot what we do to it, not because it doesn't have intelligence, but because everything we have ever done on our pale blue dot of a world is barely noticeable against the solar system, against the galaxy, and against the vastness of universe itself.

Happy Infinitesimalness Spacers!

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Happy Carl Sagan Day Everyone!

Yes Carl Sagan, Mr. Cosmos himself, has been given a day. Only fitting I think to honor the man who gave us plebs such an amazing insight to the universe with his Cosmos series, many books on the subject, and the incredible movie Contact.

Bet you didn't know he was a singer too...

Happy Carl Sagan Day Spacers!

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Space Hotel On Target For 2012

A snip at only $4.4 million for a 3 night stay, the Galactic Suite Resort has already taken over 43 reservations despite still being in the planning phase. Slated to have its grand opening in 2012, the resort will utilize a pod concept with each pod attached to a central hub able to accommodate four guests plus the two pilots taking them on the trip.

Galactic Suite Resort concept illustration

Critics have questioned the ability of the company to get the project off the ground - literally, but CEO of Galactic Suite Ltd. Xavier Claramunt is confident after an anonymous billionaire stumped up a whopping $3 billion to finance the project. Clearly someone either saw the movie Contact, or has ambitions to be the first orbital bartender.

Plans for the project include a private spaceport in the Carribean where guests will also train before their flight, and Russian supplied rockets to build and supply the resort.

So, isn't it a bit on the exclusive side?
Well, yes. It is a very ambitious project indeed, but with over 40 reservations and an apparent queue of guests that numbers over 200, there seems to be enough people with some spare change in the bank who want to vacation in a space hotel. Whether the number are sustainable is questionable though. Unless the clientele is going to fill the roster with repeat business, it may turn out to be a short lived venture. Or, unless of course there are far more people on the planet than we know about who are holy crap rich!

Either way it will be very interesting to watch the project unfold, and I'll make a bold Spacers prediction here that if it does get off the ground, there will be a reality TV show deal not far behind it.

Happy Space Vacationing Spacers!


Image courtesy of Space.com and Galactic Suite
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Ares From The Air

Cool new video released of the Ares I-X test launch taken from a reconnaissance aircraft placed near the splash-down zone.

The video runs from launch through to splash-down and shows booster separation, parachute deployment and then the failure that dented the booster stage. While the dummy second stage heads farther downrange to a doomed splash-down, the booster takes a tighter arc to the recovery zone and can be seen spinning almost gracefully before the drogue parachute stabilizes its descent. At one point the booster drops to subsonic speed and a flare of vapor splays out as the pressure wave condenses the moisture around it. Moments before impact the three parachute array deploys with one parachute failing immediately.

Some might consider this test as a failure, but it is actually a perfect example of why tests are conducted. Better to happen now than when the eyes of the world are on the astronauts hanging from the Orion module during the first human splash-down in over three decades.

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Masten Beats Armadillo To Moon Prize

So, who beat the what now?

Terrible pun headlines are made of this - a company called Armadillo Aerospace was considered the front runner to snag a $1 million NASA prize for successfully completing a simulated Moon landing mission, but a California based group of engineers called Masten Space Systems beat them to it with the superior landing accuracy of their Xoie rocket (Pronounced Zoey).

Xoie soars in Mohave Desert

The prize has been funded by the X-Prize Foundation, who handed out a $10 million prize for a launching a private suborbital rocket back in 2004, supported by Nortrop Grumman, the builders of the original Moon landers used during the Apollo Moon missions. For the level 2 challenge, the competitors had to make a 3 minute flight taking off and landing in a simulated Moon environment, and repeat the task within an alloted timeframe. Armadillo Aerospace snagged the level 1 prize back in 2008 by making a shorter, 90 second flight from solid landing pads.

Scorpius in flight

A decision by the judges to allow an extra day of competition after Masten's first attempt was plagued by fires and glitches caused some controversy. Armadillo would have picked up the top spot had the competition not been extended after their Scorpius vehicle completed the task landing within 35 inches of the target. Once Xoie made its flight and improved the accuracy to within 8 inches, the judges gave the nod to Masten. John Carmack of Armadillo was understandably upset. "The rules have given the judges the discretion to do just about anything up to and including awarding prize money for best effort if they felt it necessary, so there may not be any grounds to challenge this, but I do feel that we have been robbed," he said by email.

The X Prize Foundation is looking toward another potential contest that bridges the gap between the Lunar Lander Challenge and its own Google Lunar X Prize, which is offering up to $30 million in prizes to build and land real moon landers or rovers on the lunar surface.


Images courtesy of Will Pomerantz/X Prize Foundation
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Japan H-2 Reenters Atmosphere

The recent contribution from JAXA, the Japanese Space Agency, the H-2 HTV has plunged into the atmosphere loaded up with garbage marking the end of its successful mission. Mission managers fired the 33-foot long cargo carrier's engines one final time, sending the vehicle hurtling toward the Pacific.

Artists conception of H-2 reentry

Beginning with a spectacular launch from the Tanegashima Island off the southern coast of Japan, the H-2 was lofted atop an H-2B rocket which Japan has built for the cargo carrier. Like the European ATV, the HTV spent a week in immediate vacinity of the ISS performing automation and manoeuvering trials, but unlike the ATV, the HTV is docked to the station manually using the Canararm 2 robotic arm.

Carrying 7,500 pounds of supplies and experiments to the station, the HTV is another piece of vital infrastructure required to keep the orbiting outpost functioning after the loss of the Space Shuttle fleet in 2010. Three partner nations will keep the station resupplied during the US hiatus from spaceflight, Russia, Europe, and Japan, with Russia the sole carrier of humans to the ISS. The HTV will be the only craft able to carry unpressurized payloads and will be solely responsible for delivering large Orbital Replacement Units, or ORU's, which the remaining Shuttle missions are concentrating on lofting to the station alongside the much larger station components and modules.

H-2 is grappled and released before reentry

Once the supplies have been unloaded, the empty space can be filled with waste and garbage that the 6 person crew accumulates during their daily activities. After being de-orbited, most of the craft burns up in the fiery heat of reentry, but some of the mass still makes it to the ocean - hence targetting a remote area. It is expected that the fuel tanks and some of the engine hardware, which are the most sturdy by design, will survive.

H-2 backdropped against Earth

JAXA is planning to launch at least one HTV per year to resupply the ISS.


Images courtesy of JAXA, NASA and NASA TV
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Atlantis Go For November 16th

Space Shuttle Atlantis has been confirmed to launch on November 16th for the STS-129 mission to the International Space Station. The theme for this mission is Spare Parts. With the retirement of the Shuttle fleet next year there will be no active launch vehicle capable of hoisting spare parts to the orbital station, so NASA is devoting the remaining half dozen missions to making sure as much spare parts as possible are flown. Two external stowage platforms make up the major payload of the mission. Already loaded up with parts, the platforms will be attached to the giant truss section of the station so that spacewalking astronauts will have parts readily available.

Atlantis rolls to the pad

Spacers will be reporting on the launch preparations as the mission approaches.

Happy Spacing Spacers!


Image courtesy of NASA/KSC
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