Merry Christmas From Space

During this season we are reminded of how we are one world. Whether you celebrate Brumalia, Hanukkah, Mithras, The Saturnalia, Kwanzaa, Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, Christmas, Festivus, The Winter Solstice, or even sing the Boars Head Carol, just remember that the myths that shaped us will continue to be our inspiration, as long as reality is our savior.

Merry Christmas to all during this holiday season.

Greetings come from far and wide, even from three humans privileged to see our planet as one from space, Commander Scott Kelly of NASA and Flight Engineers Cady Coleman of NASA and Paolo Nespoli of the European Space Agency.

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Sorry Or LaLaLaLaLa

If you are one of the vocal few who deny the reality of anthropogenic global warming then you should be very familiar with these two options - for they are your only two options. The science has been settled on the subject for well over a decade now, but the noise coming from deniers of simple reality has been artificially inflating counter arguments insisting that... well, actually the arguments are so disjointed and amorphous as to be lost under a fog of contradictions and moving goalposts. Try this simple experiment: Ask a climate change denier to present the evidence to support their argument. Seriously, that's it. Nothing more. Just ask that one simple question. If you get anything else other than a bluster of noise and waffle, then please report it to NASA's climate department immediately! It has been waiting for evidence to the contrary since...

So, there's no evidence for anthropogenic global warming either, right?
Well actually, it is the single most evidentially supported phenomena that we know of. There is actually less supporting evidence for the existence of gravity! Historically, the problem has not been a need for evidence, but a need for the evidence to be available to the general public. The sheer volume of data alone is overwhelming even for climate scientists, and the publicly available evidence has suffered from presentation deficiency disorder. This fact alone has been exploited to the maximum by those bereft of any counter evidence, claiming everything from a complete absence of evidence to stringing out a non-controversy over a leaked email conversation. Well, it's time to bury the dead and fill in the grave. Anthropogenic Global Warming is real. And here is everything that you need to know about it: http://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/.

Not a Hockey Stick

The above image is a sample graphic from the site illustrates historical CO2 levels. It may not mean much on its own, other than a clear indication of an anthropogenic influence (Of course, if you disagree please present your alternative explanation), but coupled with actual temperature data it shows a distinct, and undeniable correlation. If there is a better conclusion to draw from this than the Earth is warming and it is because of the influence of Man, then please... please... please present it.

Otherwise here are your two response choices:

1) I'm sorry.

2) Lalalalalalala, I can't hear you!

Image credit: NOAA
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Full Extent Of Gulf Oil Slick Revealed

The full extent of damage from the gulf oil spill is very poignantly revealed in this newly released image from NASA's Terra satellite.

Oil dominates the gulf coast

Click the above image for a larger size and take a moment to think about what you are looking at. This is an environmental catastrophe, no, an environmental tragedy on an unprecedented scale. The human impact is secondary to the horrific impact on the wildlife of the entire area, the species count alone going far beyond any of our worst fears. It looks terrible from space, and it looks even worse close up.

Waves breaking and churning oil

Ours is mostly an economic loss that is already being felt by livelihoods dependent on the coastal ecosystem, but that will very soon start to ripple through the USA and the world. The loss to wildlife is almost incalculable. Particularly galling are the many images of birds covered entirely by a disgusting thick gloop that is painful, debilitating and poisonous.

A pelican is completely covered in oil

The Big Picture has a very graphic pictorial of the effects of the oil on birdlife. I will warn though that it is very difficult viewing. I was only able to view the first few images before feeling too ill to continue.


And all this to save a buck so a fatter paycheck could be delivered to those who created the mess.

So, are you going to get angry about this?
Anger doesn't even begin to describe the emotions about this. A deep sadness and guilt is the starting point, followed by despondence about the stupidity my species is capable of. What truly makes me angry isn't the tragedy itself, but the self-righteous attitude adopted by those who put their own interests above all else. We are facing a crisis like no crisis we have ever faced before, and there are still those who try to spin to their own political gain. From talking heads on "news" programs asking where the oil is, to politicians shifting blame from their own policy, to the corporate restriction of information. If the gravity of the situation wasn't such an overwhelming sadness, it would almost be laughable to hear some of the utter nonsense gushing from those idiotic enough to try and deny their own hand in causing the horror.

It is difficult to find anything positive to report on this. We can only hope that our ability to do things as great as taking majestic images from space, is somehow a match for our ability to be stupid.

Images credit: MODIS Rapid Response Team, Dave Martin/AP, AP Photo/Charlie Riedel
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ISS Gets New Crew

The Soyuz TMA-19 spacecraft with two American astronauts and a Russian cosmonaut aboard docked with the space station yesterday at 6:21pm EDT, doubling the size of the crew. Cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin on arrival said, "We had a great launch and a great docking".

 The new crew poses shortly after arrival

The arrival of the new crew marks the first time that two female astronauts have served together on a long duration mission, an event that coincided with two other milestones for women, launching on June 16th, the 47th anniversary of the launch of the first woman in space, cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, and today the 27th anniversary of the first launch of an American woman into space, astronaut Sally Ride in 1983. 2010 has been a landmark year for women in space, with the most number in space at one time being set in April, when Space Shuttle Discovery brought Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger, Stephanie Wilson and Naoko Yamazaki, to the station to join Tracy Caldwell Dyson during the STS-131 mission. NASA also has ISS veteran Peggy Whitson serving as chief astronaut this year.

Image credit: NASA TV
Almost Heaven: Women On The Frontiers Of Space.
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Soyuz TMA-19 Launch Today

Three new crewmembers are set to launch aboard a Soyuz rocket to the ISS today at 5:35pm EST. Launching from the Russian Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the crew are set to complete the lineup of Expedition 24. The two American NASA astronauts, Douglas Wheelock and Shannon Walker are joined by Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhinand are scheduled to remain on the station for the next 6 months where they will complete several spacewalks and play host to the final two Space Shuttle missions of the program before the fleet retires at the end of the year.

Douglas Wheelock, Fyodor Yurchikhin and Shannon Walker
set to launch aboard Soyuz TMA-19 today

Image credit: RSC Energia.
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Naked Eye Comet Coming Closer

A new comet, McNaught (C/2009 R1), is getting ever closer in the early morning Northern skies and will brighten over the next few days to become visible to the naked eye. McNaught is due to reach its closest point to the Sun on July 2nd, so it will be steadily harder to observe as that date approaches. It is already sporting a green core and spectacular long tail.

 Comet McNaught approaches the Sun

It is always uncertain whether a comet will stay bright or fade as its mass is increasingly being blown away the closer it gets to the Sun, so it is always a good idea to catch a sighting whenever possible. After McNaught swings around the Sun it should become visible in the evening sky, but there is no guarantee so don't be waiting around if you are not a morning person - like me.

Find out more about the history of McNaught at http://cometography.com/lcomets/2009r1.html

Enter your location at http://heavens-above.com for sky charts of the comet position.

Image credit: Jose Francisco Hernandez (Altamira Observartory).
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SpaceX Falcon 9 Strange Reactions

I was alerted by Phil Plait's post at BadAstronomy.com to some very strange reactions by politicians to the successful Falcon 9 launch last week by private rocket company SpaceX. Now, I'm no political analyst but when a politician reveals that they can be an air-head in their elected capacity, I get very concerned. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R) of Texas made this bizarre statement after the launch:

This first successful test flight of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is a belated sign that efforts to develop modest commercial space cargo capabilities are showing some promising signs. While this test flight was important, the program to demonstrate commercial cargo and crew transport capabilities, which I support, was intended to enhance not replace NASA’s own proven abilities to deliver critical cargo and humans to low Earth orbit. Make no mistake, even this modest success is more than a year behind schedule, and the project deadlines of other private space companies continue to slip as well. This test does not change the fact that commercial space programs are not ready to close the gap in human spaceflight if the space shuttle is retired this year with no proven replacement capability and the Constellation program is simultaneously cancelled as the President proposes.

So, why does that make her an air-head then?
Try the following exercise - summarize the statement. I do this all the time to get at the actual content of a statement so I can report it from a SpaceHead perspective. Here's my initial summary:

1. Launch was a success, so commercial space efforts look promising.
2. She supports efforts to enhance, but not replace NASA's capability.
3. The launch was delayed over a year, so commercial space efforts do not look promising.
4. Despite the success there will still be a gap in US space access after the Shuttles retire, which is all President Obama's fault.

Most of the time I get a useful summary that gives me enough information to give a feel for what a politician said, but in this case all I can report is:- Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R) of Texas said of the launch: Commercial space efforts look both promising and not promising. Obama sucks.

Not very helpful, and most definitely a sign of air in the head.

So, enough of the complaining then!
Alright. All that being said, perhaps I should correct rather than critique. She is indeed correct that this successful launch is a promising sign. However, space flight is a very difficult thing, and every single project in its entire history has been delayed. A one year delay is actually shorter than the average, so that in itself is even more promising.

The gap in US access to space is absolutely without question outside the control of the Obama administration. Whilst I understand the need for Republican politicians to gather as much political ammunition as they can to garnish their current denial-based opposition to the Obama presidency, making stuff up just plainly and simply doesn't count. President George W. Bush initiated the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet and set the deadline of 2010 to complete it. Considering that a viable replacement access to space would take upwards of 10 years to develop and implement, it would have been more prudent for President Bush to begin that process long before retiring the Shuttle Fleet if he wanted to avoid a gap in access. President Obama has been in office for less than two years, and to try to pin any semblance of blame on his administration is to be air-headed - oops, I mean it is politically dishonest.

So, haven't you got anything positive to say about this?
Yes, the Falcon 9 launch by SpaceX was a terrific effort and a milestone achievement in commercial space travel. This really does change everything, and from now on we have a viable alternative to government based space exploration - something I have been advocating for a very long time. Political point scoring and attempts to revise history are meaningless bumps in the road to our becoming a space-faring species. SpaceX truly made a giant leap with this launch. It would be helpful for politics to do the same.

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SpaceX Launch Attempt Today

Private launch company SpaceX is attempting to launch its Falcon 9 rocket today. With a primary goal of getting its Dragon capsule payload into orbit, SpaceX is also aiming for certification of the flight termination system (FTS). The FTS ensures that Air Force Range safety officials can command the destruction of the vehicle should it stray from its designated flight path.

Falcon 9 first stage test firing in March

After a successful test firing of its first stage rocket in March earlier this year, SpaceX had targeted a May launch date, and has made great progress through technical issues to make the June 4th attempt. The window opened at 11:00am EDT and will last until 3:00pm EDT today. Weather looks good with a 60% chance of favorable conditions. A telemetry issue has prevented an on-time lift off, but a stronger antennae is currently being deployed with hopes of a 1:00pm EDT lift off.

Watch the launch at: http://www.livestream.com/newchannel/popoutplayer?channel=spaceflightnow

[update: 2:35pm EDT] Final launch attempt at 2:45pm EDT

[update: 2:45pm EDT] Falcon 9 launches!

Image credit: SpaceX/Chris Thompson.
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SOFIA Takes To The Skies

NASA's latest Earthbound telescope is not on the ground, it is in the sky. The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, better known as SOFIA, is a unique telescope that is housed in a 747 - yes, a Jumbo telescope inside a Jumbo jet!

SOFIA opens its eye in the sky

Concentrating on observing in the mid to far infrared spectrum, SOFIA wouldn't be able to operate on the ground, and rather than outlay the expense of operating a space-based telescope NASA decided to try out a flight platform. So far the results are a success, with around 80% of the infrared light that a space telescope would receive reaching the 8 foot mirror. At a fraction of the cost of space operation, a single flight of SOFIA observation will provide a much needed service in an observation spectrum that is already oversubscribed.

Find out more information and images from SOFIA at: http://www.sofia.usra.edu/

Image credit: NASA
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STS-132: Mission Highlights

Catch the best of the STS-132 mission and the final flight of Space Shuttle Atlantis:

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STS-132: Catchup Highlights

Atlantis is home safe, so catch up on some highlights

Flight Day 10 Highlights

Flight Day 11 Highlights

Flight Day 12 Highlights

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STS-132: Raiders Of The Lost Highlights

Spacers apologizes for the current loss of service, but there's still highlights to watch!

Flight Day 7 Highlights

Flight Day 8 Highlights

Flight Day 9 Highlights

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STS-132: Highlights Galore

Spacers is still experiencing internet problems - and in the middle of a Shuttle mission too!

Grab some highlights while we iron out the problems.

Flight Day 4 Highlights

Flight Day 5 Highlights

Flight Day 6 Highlights

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STS-132: The Highlights Begin

An internet outage has kept Spacers offline since the launch, but we're back in business now. Let's get some highlights on the table first.

Flight Day 1 Highlights

Flight Day 2 Highlights

Flight Day 3 Highlights

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STS-132: Atlantis Launch Video

Quick off the mark, NASA TV has the launch ready to view.

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Atlantis Looks Good For Launch Today

Space Shuttle Atlantis is looking good for an on-time launch today at 2:20pm EDT on its final scheduled mission carrying a Russian research module and replacement parts to the International Space Station. There are no issues currently being worked and weather looks good with a 70% chance of favorable conditions. With astronauts Ken Ham in command and Tony Antonelli as pilot, Atlantis hauls its final crew consisting of mission specialists Michael Good, Garrett Reisman, Piers Sellers and Steve Bowen.

The crew is strapped in

Follow the NASA launch tweetup on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/search?q=#nasatweetup

[update: 1:05pm EDT] 10 minute hold underway with 20 minutes remaining on the countdown.

[update: 1:15pm EDT] 10 minute hold complete. No issues in work.

[update: 1:26pm EDT] 20 minute hold underway with 9 minutes remaining on the countdown.

[update: 1:35pm EDT] Errant ball bearing found from a camera mount is causing a possible launch constraint. Mission managers are discussing, but this may mean they can't come out of the T-9 hold.

[update: 1:48pm EDT] Weather looks great and no technical issues. Waiting for a call on the ball bearing problem.

[update: 1:51pm EDT] Weather up to 90% favorable. No call on ball bearing. It was found in Atlantis' payload bay before closing the doors.

[update: 1:55pm EDT] NASA TV reporting that they expect the ball bearing issue to be cleared, engineers are just discussing to make sure it won't be a problem during the mission.

[update: 2:01pm EDT] Ball bearing issue cleared! Go for launch!!!

[update: 2:06pm EDT] On-board flight recorders activated.

[update: 2:08pm EDT] Launch director gets all go on poll, no constraints.

[update: 2:12pm EDT] 32nd flight of Atlantis is go! 20 minute planned hold complete. T-9 on the countdown clock.

[update: 2:14pm EDT] Orbiter access arm retracting.

[update: 2:17pm EDT] Aero surface check.

[update: 2:19pm EDT] Beanie cap being retracted.

[update: 2:20pm EDT] Atlantis launches! What a beautiful sight.

Atlantis soars on her final planned launch

[update: 2:22pm EDT] SRB Separation.

[update: 2:26pm EDT] Roll to upright, gorgeously smooth.

[update: 2:28pm EDT] Plasma time, my favorite view!

[update: 2:29pm EDT] MECO. Atlantis is in orbit for its final mission. Good luck Atlantis!

I always get excited at launches, but this time I felt more emotional than I thought as I realized I was watching Atlantis soar into the sky for for the final time. This will be a great mission to watch and no doubt the world will be watching too. Keep it tuned to Spacers for updates as the mission progresses.

Thank you for loving spaceflight.

Images credit: NASA TV
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Ice Free Eyjafjalajökull Picture

Check out the latest picture from orbit of Icelandic volcano Eyjafjalajökull from NASA's Aqua satellite. (click to make huge!)

This picture gives a clear view of the ash cloud as it streams hundreds of miles from the volcano toward Europe. The disruption to air traffic is made all the more understandable by pictures like this. Eyjafjalajökull shows no signs of letting up in the near future, and a lack of pressure from glacial ice on the surrounding land is making the eruption more severe. Although it is difficult to say if the eruption would have been suppressed by the presence of ice, glacial retreat is being increasingly factored in to the prediction models for volcanic eruptions in sub-tundra regions.

A warming planet has many implications beyond simple weather and ocean changes, and we are just now beginning to get a look into the future of a man-altered climate. The controversy over anthropogenic global warming was over decades ago, but yet forces of denial still persist despite exponentially increasing evidence that is far in excess of what is required to be beyond reasonable doubt. The question now isn't why the denial exists - it simply suits a particular political and economic agenda - but rather what will reach tipping point first, the Earth's climate, or the untenability of denial. We can only hope it is the latter.

For more information on climate observation visit: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/

Image credit: Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team
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Atlantis' Almost Final Flight

Space Shuttle Atlantis is looking good for its almost final flight on Friday at 2:20pm EDT. Almost final? Yes, this is the final 'planned' flight of Atlantis, but the orbiter will not be officially retired until after the final Shuttle mission in November because it will remain on standby as an emergency rescue shuttle in case of a failure that prevents Endeavour from landing. Essentially it will be a launch-on-need vehicle and won't have an official STS mission number.

STS-132 is Atlantis' 32nd flight and will carry a Russian research module MRM1, and an integrated cargo carrier to the ISS. MRM1 will be attached to the Zarya module and will not only provide research capability, but also a refueling module that enables visiting Soyuz and Progress spacecraft to transfer propellant to the station.

 STS-132 Mission Patch

Three spacewalks are planned for the 12 day mission, which began its official countdown today. Spacers will be covering the launch on Friday, so keep it tuned to your favorite space blog.

Image credit: NASA/Crew of STS-132

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Eyjafjallajökull Throws A Curveball

Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull is causing disruption across Europe again after another eruption, only this time the ash cloud has been grabbed by twisting air currents and aimed directly at the UK. In this dramatic picture from the Terra satellite, the path of the cloud can be clearly seen curving southward from the eruption site.

Eyjafjallajökull meets weather

As the UK headed to the polls for a general election, mother nature wanted to take a closer look and disrupted air traffic again in the process. This eruption was said to reach as high as 7 kilometers and was made worse by the lava flow stopping, which creates a more explosive venting of ash.

Iceland itself is an island that was created by volcanic eruptions over a geological rift where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. Essentially situated above a hotspot in the Earth's crust, the Icelandic plume, the central rift of the island is highly active with volcanism and geothermal phenomena such as geysers. The activity is ongoing and is actually causing the growth of Iceland itself. In the 1960's a volcanic eruption off the south western coast caused the formation of an entirely new island, subsequently named Surtsey. Given this rate of expansion we can reasonably expect Iceland to take over the entire Northern hemisphere in the next few million years. Now that's what I call disruption!

Image credit: Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team
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Final Shuttle Moved To November

Endeavour's mission STS-134 has become the final Space Shuttle mission, its launch date moving past the previous final mission set for September, Discovery's STS-133 due to the replacement of the primary magnet in its payload, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, to take advantage of the recent announcement of the extension of ISS through 2020. As the Shuttle program winds down it was expected that there would be several delays and shifts, and even speculation that NASA would miss its target of flying all the remaining missions before the end of 2010, the deadline set by the Bush administration for retiring the ageing fleet. This may of course still happen, but for now it looks like Shuttle watchers will get their final chance a little closer to Christmas.

Atlantis is ready at the pad

Meanwhile, the STS-132 mission with Space Shuttle Atlantis is on target for a May 14th launch, with a successful rollout of the orbiter to the launch pad last week. Propellants are now loaded on board the orbiter making it ready for maneuvering in space.

Keep it tuned to Spacers for updates on the mission and live blogging of the launch.

Image credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann
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Stunning Solar Dynamics Observatory Images

The Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO, is the latest NASA satellite to go into action observing our closest star, The Sun. The few images that it has produced so far can only be summed up in one word - Wow!

The first of SDO's amazing solar prominence images

With the ability to show even more resolution and detail than SOHO, SDO is set to provide images and movies of our Sun that will more than surpass the expectations of scientists and public alike. This solar prominence image shows an eruption of plasma that burst from the surface and then rained down again closely following the twisted and tortured magnetic flow lines. What's more, SDO has taken movies of other events like this, which are just as stunning.

SDO shows off its multi-temperature capability

Check Spacers for more SDO images and movies in the near future.


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Hubble Reaches 20

The Hubble Space Telescope reached a milestone last week, celebrating 20 years in orbit providing stunning images of the universe. To mark the occasion NASA released this cool video summarizing its achievements.


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Lookout - Boobquake!

Monday, April 26th 2010. Today is Boobquake day! Participating women around the world will be wearing something revealing of the, erm, 'upper' private regions of the female form.

So, now Spacers is a smut site?
No such luck! It's just a bit of fun aimed at making a very valid scientific point - women wearing revealing clothing does not cause earthquakes. Spacers is a blog about space, so I'm not going to go into too much of the religious details, but essentially an Iranian cleric attributed what was mistakenly seen as an increase in recent earthquake activity to a deity being angry about the amount of cleavage shown by women in public. Renowned internet blogger and skeptic, Blag Hag, picked up on the story and declared today as Boobquake day - a day in which women would attempt to either prove or disprove the angry deity theory by increasing the amount of exposed female flesh and see what happens.

The source of earthquakes is revealed

So, there's some serious stuff too, right?
Of course there is. Spacers has reported before on how the frequency of earthquakes around the world is under-reported. Understandably the earthquakes that make the news are the big ones, the death and destruction causing monster quakes that devastate entire cities and communities. These are very serious incidents that are worthy of the reporting they get, and indeed of the attention and disaster relief that those communities receive afterward. The science of earthquakes is very well understood and the instances are readily available - just add the earthquake layer to Google Earth - under the "Places of Interest" layer folder there is a folder called "Geographic Features" and under that layer is an "Earthquake" layer.

There are sometimes hundreds of earthquakes every day, most of them are minor, but on occasion there is a major devastating quake. There is nothing to be gained from claiming that a deity is in some way responsible for an increase in earthquakes, it's simply untrue. The tectonic plates are constantly shifting, very slowly around the globe, driven by the heated molten core of the planet. As the plates slowly collide pressure is built up, and when that pressure is inevitably released we get an earthquake at the point where it happened. It's as simple as that.

The earth reveals its cleavage

Around the world we see patterns of earthquakes. The Pacific rim itself is an area of activity that has been coined the "Ring Of Fire" due to the clearly visible circular pattern of volcanic and seismic activity. There are also areas of land that are virtually isolated from such activity and almost never see an earthquake. We can't predict the exact moment or location of a quake, but we can monitor the buildup of pressure at known active areas and warn of potential occurrences.

What we can't do is use the amount of exposed female breast flesh as a guide to how angry a deity is and guess where that deity will send the next earthquake. Even if there is a deity it would be a futile exercise to express your anger in such a way. How would we know for sure that boobs are the reason? Well, Boobquake, of course!

Support Boobquake today by revealing as much cleavage as you dare - and there is no reason the men can't participate too.

Image credit: Dune911, US Geological Survey
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STS-131: Discovery Lands!

Space Shuttle Discovery has made its penultimate landing early this morning in a picture perfect scene. Turn the volume up for the twin sonic booms at 2:59. Enjoy!


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STS-131: Flight Day 14 Highlights

Monday weather was just too severe, so it looks like Tuesday morning landing for Discovery on her final mission. Catch up with the highlights here.

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STS-131: Flight Day 12 and 13 Highlights

With a small chance of rain and no threat posed by the dust plume from Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano, Discovery's crew is planning for a Monday morning return to Earth. Catch up with a couple of Flight Day highlights.

Flight Day 12

Flight Day 13

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Obama Gives NASA Bold New Policy

President Obama paid a visit to the Kennedy Space Center on Thursday to outline his bold new vision for the future of NASA. Still reeling from the cancellation of the Constellation program and the loss of some sense of direction that resulted, NASA has been hoping for some good news as it grows painfully close to losing its primary human spaceflight option, the Space Shuttle. I reported back in February that I had mixed feelings about the cancellation, but my feelings now are alleviated somewhat as it is clear that the Obama administration is serious about the exploration of space.

At the forefront of the new policy is an increase in funding - a very, very much welcome $6 Billion increase above and beyond any increase to date. Although still a very small national expense compared to the likes of military spending, NASA has suffered through the curse of underfunding pretty much throughout its post Apollo years. This increase goes a long way to addressing that discrepancy. It paves the way for a new heavy lifting platform to be developed, for an increase in Earth observation and climate sciences, and to develop manned missions to destinations such as asteroids and Mars. Human spaceflight may take a little longer now, but it was given a shot in the arm for sure.

President Bush's Moon, Mars and Beyond incentive was a bold move at the time, but it couldn't have anticipated the recent rise in the involvement of private enterprise in space. Companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic were not even thought of and with government still the sole off-world accessor, it was a best guess effort that I applauded the president for. Times have changed and it is now time for NASA to go above and beyond the technologies that have tethered us to Low Earth Orbit for so long. This new initiative from the Obama administration puts exploration on the agenda again.

Critics are arguing about minutia, which I don't find surprising, especially given that there seems to be a penchant to just criticize Obama no matter what. To those critics I say, find the positives first before diving into the negative. That way you expose yourself to both sides of the argument and strengthen any criticism you may have by giving it a viable platform. Criticism for criticism sake is just moaning, and is so easily forgettable. Criticism for the right reasons is genuine and helpful. Just my 2 cents.

So, now that I have found the positives, its time for me to criticize. Losing the Moon is a bad idea. The Obama administration is certainly looking ahead, and this is in part fueled by private enterprise taking away a lot of the burden, but, and it's a big but - private enterprise is NOT going to the Moon. A presence on the Moon will be a huge boost to any plans to explore space, especially with the recent discovery of water there. Reaching an asteroid from the Moon will be a lot easier than from Earth, and the human sciences that we can achieve there will make the journey to Mars that much easier. Add to that the fact that other countries are looking at the Moon with renewed interest, and I think we have a bad decision.

All in all though, I am more pleased with this initiative than anything previous. Obama is a strong advocate of space exploration, and it shows.

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STS-131: Flight Day 11 Highlights

As the mission enters its last full day, catch up with highlights.


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Iceland Volcano Ash Disrupts Traffic

Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull has erupted for the second time this month, and this time its plume of volcanic ash is heading South East and is large enough to disrupt air traffic in and around the northern UK.

The Eyjafjallajökull plume seen by Terra

NASA's Terra satellite snapped the above image which clearly shows the extent of the plume. It is a large enough eruption to cause concern on the ground and evacuate surrounding areas, and disruption of the heavily used northern Atlantic air traffic lanes is beginning to cause congestion.

Still, from an orbital perspective it makes for quite a beautiful photo-op, don't you think.

Image credit: NASA/MODIS Rapid Response Team
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STS-131: Flight Day 10 Highlights

As the mission draws to a close, catch up on the flight day highlights.


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STS-131: Highlights Catch-up

Two days worth of highlights to keep you occupied.

Flight Day 8 Highlights

Flight Day 9 Highlights


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STS-131: Flight Day 7 Highlights

Half way through the mission and the the second spacewalk gets underway.

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STS-131: Flight Day 6 Highlights


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ISS To Become Orbital Gas Station

Well, only for demonstration purposes at first. The International Space Station is better known as a flagship space science platform and a destination for visiting Space Shuttle crews and International space tourists, but a recent campaign at NASA to utilize the platform as a place to service satellites has gained enough ground for a demonstration to go ahead. The robotic device known as Dextre, the Dexterous Manipulator on the station will be used in the experiment which is scheduled to take place within the next year.

Dextre looking almost human

Essentially an in-orbit repair, Dextre will use its array of tools to rip into the side of a demonstration satellite, install a valve, and pump fresh hydrazine fuel into the empty tank. A demonstration that not only can satellites be serviced at the station, but also that the existing fleet can be modified on-orbit to accept refueling even though they were not designed as such.

Due for completion in October, the mock satellite is being constructed at NASA'a Goddard Spaceflight Center and will be installed on an external Express Logistics Carrier on the station's truss. Ground engineers will perform the demonstration without any intervention from the space station crew, demonstrating that the technology need not impact current station operations.

Although the ultimate goal is to provide a commercial service to satellite owners as part of a for-profit industry, this is a major step forward in the thinking of orbital utilization. So far the focus has been very heavily on the exploration and learning side, but it is good to see that now we are at a stage where commercial ventures are able to be considered. The logistics of getting a satellite to the ISS for the operation are an entirely different matter, and one that will need to be addressed for any commercial venture to be a success. The first step though is proving that this can be done, and by this time next year it looks very much like we will have that concept proven.

Image credit: NASA
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STS-131: Flight Day 5 Highlights


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STS-131: Revenge Of The Highlights

Flight Day 3 and 4 Highlights appeared today, and the universe is fun to watch again, yay!


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Avalanche Number 3

I never tire of the images coming from the HiRISE satellite in orbit around Mars, and I especially never tire of its penchant for taking snaps of Martian Avalanches in progress. This latest clearly image shows a plume of dust billowing at the foot of the cliff after the debris fall. The falling item is most likely a chunk of carbon dioxide frost that formed on the scarp over the winter months, just now being warmed enough by the longer daylight to disrupt the coherence and initiate a collapse.

Our Mars spacecraft, landers and rovers are slowly forming a catalog of geological events such as this as they occur on Mars, which is to all intents and purposes a dead world that has lost the bulk of its internal heat and is now at a stage in its lifespan where its atmosphere is in danger of being completely stripped away too. Mars is still our closest 'habitable' neighbor, and if we are to someday live there we will need to understand what we are letting ourselves in for.

We now have so much information flowing from Mars that it is almost as if we are actually there taking these pictures ourselves, but of course we're not there yet. We have a long way to go before we are able to send people to the red planet and even further away from being able to stay there permanently. Images like this do serve to maintain the 'cool' factor of space exploration but they are sadly under exposed in the mainstream media. A mention here and there at least keeps it current in the public mind, and competing with the latest star to get booted from a dancing show is no mean feat.

If you think things like this are cool, link to Spacers on your social favorite media or say something cool about it on your status. The things that happen in space are invariably good news, so every little bit of exposure helps to keep it as the current shiny thing. And hey, you just might be saving someone from having to watch the latest reality show about famous bowel movements. You know that's next!

Here are the previous Spacers Avalanche posts.

Avalanche #1: http://spacers.blogspot.com/2008/03/spacers-is-alive.html

Avalanche #2: http://spacers.blogspot.com/2010/03/another-mars-avalanche.html

And check out the HiRISE website: http://hirise.lpl.arizona.edu/

Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
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STS-131: Video Clips

A couple of cool video clips to keep the flow going while we wait for the highlights.

The backflip:

The docking:


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STS-131: Discovery Docks To ISS

Space Shuttle Discovery has docked to the International Space Station just two days after its glorious pre-dawn launch on Easter Monday. With Commander Alan Poindexter at the controls, the docking took place at at 3:44am EDT over the Caribbean Sea.

Time-lapse of Discovery's Monday launch

As soon as the crews perform leak checks on both sides vehicles the hatches well be opened and docked operations will begin pretty much straight away. The standard procedure is for the station commander to give this visiting crew a safety briefing and a brief tour of the orbiting platform, although the crews are so familiar with the station having trained in simulators and mockups for years that it is more of a courtesy than a necessary procedure.

The first order of business is to get the robotics operations underway so that the Shuttle's cargo, the  Leonardo Multi-Purpose Logistics Module, or MPLM, can be removed from the cargo bay and installed on the station for the duration of the mission. The MPLM is loaded with science racks and supplies and has flown to the station 5 times before.

After the launch there was a minor debris incident noted on the ascent imagery where a piece of thermal tile was seen to fall off from the Shuttle's tail section, but so far mission managers have not expressed concern for the Shuttle to reenter at the end of the mission.

Keep an eye on Spacers for updates as the mission progresses.

Image credit: NASA/Ben Cooper
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STS-131: Flight Day 2 Highlights

NASA TV is on point with the flight day highlights this mission. Day 2 is ready for your viewing pleasure.

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STS-131: Flight Day 1 Highlights

Flight day 1 Highlights are now up on the NASA TV YouTube channel for your viewing pleasure.

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STS-131: Launch Video HD


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STS-131: Launch Underway

Spacers Launch!

Space Shuttle Discovery looks good for a launch at 6:21am EST. Weather looks perfect and no issues are being worked. The crew is just been strapped into the vehicle, comm checks are underway, and any moment now tanking will begin.

Astronaut Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger prepares to board

This post will be updated as the launch countdown progresses.

Happy Launching Spacers!

[update: 4:10am EST] All crew aboard and strapped in. The White Room Crew is preparing to close the hatch.

[update: 4:22am EST] Hatches closed.

The White Room Crew closing Discovery's hatch

[update: 5:07am EST] 20 minute hold entered.

[update: 5:17am EST] 20 minute hold ended. No technical issues in work, all weather indicators are green. Looking good for an on-time launch.

[update: 5:28am EST] 9 minute hold entered.

Holding at 9 minutes

[update: 5:52am EST] Possible command system technical issue being worked.

[update: 6:11am EST] All systems go and all technical issues cleared. Still looking good for launch.

[update: 6:13am EST] 9 minute hold ended.

[update: 6:21am EST] Liftoff!!

Liftoff for STS-131

[update: 6:30am EST] MECO. Discovery is in orbit.

Keep it tuned to Spacers for mission updates as Discovery closes in on the ISS for a docking early on Wednesday morning.

Images credit: NASA TV
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ISS Crew Arrives - Shuttle Go For Launch

The newest batch of crew arrived at the International Space station today, docking in a Soyuz TMA-18 at 1:25am EDT two days after launching from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Hot on the heels of that event, Space Shuttle Discovery is progressing through the countdown for mission STS-131 and looks good to go for a 6:21am EDT launch just a few hours away.

The ISS crew is back to 6 people

Discovery is inspected for launch

Keep an eye on Spacers for coverage of the launch.

Images credit: NASA TV
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ISS Crew Set To Double

Launching today from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Russia amidst heightened security after recent terrorist activity, three astronauts headed for the skies with a mission to double the occupancy of the International Space Station. Currently there are three astronauts on board as the permanent Expedition 23 crew, a temporarily reduced number as the station gets into sync with its new capacity and sole reliance on Russian launch hardware to ferry crews to and from the outpost. NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson is joined by Russian cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Mikhail Kornienko as they head for a six month tenure alongside Commander Oleg Kotov of Russia, Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi and NASA astronaut Timothy Creamer.

The Soyuz TMA-18 launches

Hot on the heels of the Soyuz launch, Space Shuttle Discovery is set to join the fold on Easter Monday as the STS-131 mission gets underway to continue outfitting the station for science operations now that its construction is virtually complete. This is a rare opportunity to catch sightings of human spaceflight hardware in action in the skies as they fly in syncronicity. It always amazes me how surprised people are to hear that you can actually see our man-made satellites as they follow their orbits around the planet during two time windows that occur every day. About an hour before sunrise and an hour after sunset, any satellite that passes overhead within a roughly 300 mile radius will be high enough to still be lit by the Sun, reflecting enough light to be seen from the surface Since their orbits are very predictable - we can pinpoint their position in the sky for months ahead - it is a simple matter of some well developed math to predict when such sightings will occur given any location on the globe.

Spacecraft that launch to the ISS are often seen together in close formation as they approach the outpost, giving the impression that they are following each other across the sky. It is a truly incredible sight to see, and sadly at its best with the much larger Space Shuttle which is set to retire at the end of this year - so catch a glimpse of the orbital syncronized flying while you can.

Enter your location and find the next visible pass for you at http://www.heavens-above.com

Image credit: NASA/Carla Cioffi
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Penultimate Discovery On Easter Monday

Space Shuttle Discovery has been cleared to launch on its penultimate mission on April 5th - Easter Monday. NASA mission managers announced the date after an intensive flight review that took into account a potentially mission threatening leaky helium pressurization valve on Discovery. The launch date for Discovery on the STS-131 mission is set for 6:21am EDT on Easter Monday, April 5th.

Discovery's payload cannister is prepared for the STS-131 mission

After a system test that showed the valve had stuck, tests were conducted that subsequently showed the reading was a one-off and couldn't be reproduced. The impact of the valve failing during the mission is low, so the decision to proceed was taken after a unanimous vote by mission managers. Another minor issue of a potentially loose ceramic inserts around the heat shield tiles of the flight deck was also deemed low risk.

Keep an eye on Spacers as the launch date approaches.

Image credit: NASA/Troy Cryder
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NASA Aims For Warp Drive

The term they use is 'novel engines', but we can dream can't we. NASA announced on Friday that it was awarding $50 million in grants to companies for novel engine research, which focus more on the use of electricity and non-toxic chemicals than the current batch of engines in use today. Worried by the pollution of the space around Earth and the exodus of precious Earth resources into space, NASA has taken the bold step of looking toward a cleaner future of space travel by taking a closer look at some of the more innovative ideas currently being researched.

The grants were not only hailed by the agency as helping to "explore space as much as we can", but also to look into improving aviation technologies as well. Alternative fuels for aircraft and low-noise propulsion are an ongoing effort by NASA as it looks into ways of improving aviation.

This announcement comes hot on the heels of President Obama's new plans for exploration outlined in the 2011 budget, which include call for NASA to move away from 'concrete' plans for space exploration and focus on new technology and bringing private enterprise into the space arena.

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ISS Timeline In A Flash

Check out this cool Flash animation of the ISS assembly sequence from USA Today.


It's easy to forget the sheer volume of work that has went in to the construction of the International Space Station to date, it is quite simply a marvel of human achievement that each of the partner nations should be deservedly proud of. There is often a barrage of criticism aimed at the station, from being over budget to focusing on Low Earth Orbit too much, from diverting funding from more 'needy' projects to its exclusivity to astronauts, but I think it will go down in history as a vital step in our early learning. The Apollo era space race was a rush job that got us to the moon with a big slice of luck on our shoulder. Political pressures got us to another world and what we learned from that experience was a tiny fraction of what we have learned since, and we still have a huge amount to learn. The ISS program has not only provided us with much needed knowledge of how to build large scale structures in the harsh environment of space, but also that to cooperate with each other to do so is by far the best approach. As we stand on the cusp of an era of private and commercial space travel, we should look back with a sense of wonder and pride at what we - mere humans built.

Tip of the space helmet to Spacer Jeff for finding this little gem.

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Virgin Loses Its Virginity...

...in the skies that is. Today saw the inaugural flight of Virgin Galactic's suborbital aircraft SpaceShipTwo from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. Designed to be carried aloft by a mother aircraft WhiteKnightTwo, the future spacecraft rolled down the desert runway and took to the skies gracefully for the first time, staying aloft for over three hours. This was of course a shakedown flight and represented a systems and hardware test, but still the significance of the first flight of the first commercial suborbital carrier is a significant event on the human spaceflight calendar.

After winning the $10 million Ansari X-Prize in 2004, Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne concept was adopted by Sir Richard Branson and developed into a fully viable passenger space vehicle launched from the belly of a mother aircraft. Virgin Galactic is aiming to begin passenger operations in late 2011 or early 2012, but at $200,000 a pop it isn't going to make it into that many Christmas stockings in the first year. Maybe year two... here's hoping.

Things are definitely moving forward in the Human Spaceflight department. Slowly, deliberately, but still forward. Let's just hope it takes off (pun intended) and is a commercial success so the cost can be brought down to a level where us pleb Spacers can have a go!

Happy Dreaming, Spacers!

Image credit: Virgin Galactic
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Soyuz Plunges To Icy Earth

American astronaut Jeff Williams and Russian cosmonaut Maxim Suraev undocked their Soyuz spacecraft from the ISS early on Friday and plunged into a fiery re-entry before making a soft landing on - snow! After six months of observing the snowstorms on Earth from the comfort of orbit, the two space fliers got to experience 20f (-6c) temperatures first had as they cracked open the hatch. The capsule itself was pulled on to its side and dragged by strong winds in the main parachute, but it was not as exciting or dangerous as a bobsled run. The recovery vehicles were delayed by the heavy snow, but helicopters were able to land straight away and assist as the two got used to a steady gravity again.

Expedition 22 Touches Down In Snow

During their mission the Expedition 22 crew played host to two Shuttle missions and saw the installation of the new Tranquility node and Cupola. The departure of Williams and Suraev leaves a three person crew on the ISS for about two weeks until the compliment goes back up to six with the arrival of the Expedition 23 crew set to launch on April 2nd. Three days later on April 5th, Space Shuttle Atlantis is set to make its penultimate jaunt into space on a resupply mission to the station.

It's going to be a busy spring in orbit, so keep an eye on Spacers for a fix of space news.

Images credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
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SpaceX Takes One Step Closer

Private rocketeer company SpaceX took a step closer to becoming a viable space transportation provider last Saturday, with the successful completion of a test engine firing of its Falcon 9 rocket platform. The test was dogged by delays from glitches and weather, but with it now under their belt the next step is a test launch for flight qualification, which could occur as early as April 12th. Sitting on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral's U.S. Airforce facility, the Falcon 9 rocket has been tentatively scheduled for the first available opportunity between March and May.

The Falcon 9 rocket engine test

Nine Merlin engines power the first stage of the Falcon 9, each one delivering 125,000 pounds of thrust, which will send its Dragon payload spacecraft into orbit with a capacity for 20 tons of cargo. The Dragon module is capable of reaching the ISS, and once the cargo phase is thoroughly tested it will be qualified for human spaceflight.

For more information check out the SpaceX website: http://www.spacex.com

Image credit: Chris Thompson/SpaceX
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