Tranquility Hails Final Night Fire

Space Shuttle Endeavour will launch the Tranquility node aboard STS-130 to the ISS on February 7th in what will be the final night launch of the Shuttle program. At launch pad 39A, engineers are going through final preparations, closing out the aft of the orbiter and loading software into the on-board computers as we enter the final week before launch.

For those of us here in the USA the launch will take place in the early hours of Sunday morning, 4:39am EST on the East coast placing it out of reach for all but the hardiest of space geeks, and lingering partygoers of course. 1:39am PST on the West coast opens it up a bit more to the Saturday night party crowd. The UK and Europe get to watch a nice launch over breakfast, and everyone else will be watching it as part of their regular Sunday.

Endeavour is processed at launch pad 39A

So, is this really the final night launch, then?
Almost certainly, yes. After this mission there will be only four Shuttle launches remaining before the orbiters retire, and each one of those launches is scheduled for daylight hours. Of course there is a very small chance that a succession of launch delays will push one of the launches around the clock and into a night scenario, but this is a very small chance. Because the remaining shuttle launches are targeting the ISS, which orbits the Earth once every 90 minutes, a 1 day delay effectively makes the next launch a half hour earlier the next day assuming the station's orbital track takes it overhead the launch site.

So, what are they doing this time, then?
This is a much anticipated mission, the delivery and installation of the Tranquility node, a six port connecting node that will be attached to the station complete with a Cupola, a 7 window observation platform that will not only give stunning views of the Earth, but also provide a visual platform for robotic work and to watch visiting spacecraft as they dock and undock.

The STS-130 crew poses with their mission patch

Three spacewalks are planned for the 13 day mission, which will be manned by six astronauts: Commander George Zamka, Pilot Terry Virts, and mission specialists, Kay Hire, Steve Robinson, Nicholas Patrick, and Bob Benhken.

Spacers will be reporting on the mission as it progresses.

Image credit: NASA/JSC, NASA/KSC
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Spirit Is Stuck

Since November Spacers has kept an eye on the progress of the ongoing rescue attempts aimed at freeing the Mars rover, Spirit. Sadly today, NASA and JPL announced that the rover is officially stuck. All of their attempts to rescue the plucky rover from a patch of soft sand in a crater named Troy have failed, and the data gathered from each of the attempts is now sufficient for them to abandon any further rescue efforts. Six years after beginning its 90 day operational mission, Spirit will roam no more. I know it is only a robot - a lump of metal and circuits, but this is truly a sad day. Spirit, along with its twin rover Opportunity, have been a runaway success story of exploration and have far surpassed any expectations of them. If both rovers had been disabled after their 90 days of expected life they would have been considered a success, but to roam the red planet for six years a piece is just an outstanding technical achievement for NASA's JPL team, who have kept them alive throughout.

Spirit. Its days of roaming Mars are officially over

The good news is that despite this setback, Spirit is far from dead. The mobility portion of its mission has ended, but Spirit is still a fully functioning science platform, and even though it hasn't been moving for the last year it has been returning data, albeit from the same location. This isn't a bad thing though, as Spirit can now watch a single area of Mars as it changes over the course of a year, and of course as the years go by.

As NASA said in its announcement today, "Spirit no longer will be a fully mobile robot. NASA has designated the once-roving scientific explorer a stationary science platform..."

Good and bad news, yes, but I have mixed feelings about this. I can't help but think this was a decision taken at a business level - why waste any more resources on freeing the thing when it can function fine where it is. Still, they are the ones calling the shots and it is their budget after all. I have a feeling though, that if the engineers had been left to their own devices, maybe not tomorrow, or next month, but at some point in the not too distant future they would have had us all popping champagne corks as the first images came back from a freed rover of the place it had been stuck for so long.

We'll have to wait until we go to Mars ourselves before we can pick Spirit up and drop her down on hard ground again to continue her roving mission. Yes, of course she'll still be working!

Wait... did I just refer to her... as a her?!

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
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The WISEr Spotted Asteroid

Some of you may remember that I made a quick post late last year about the launch of WISE (Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer), the latest and greatest telescope in our array of orbital observatories. In that post I mentioned that WISE would be able to see objects from galaxies to asteroids - well, the telescope is now online and the first picture published is of - an asteroid!

Asteroid 2010 AB78 - yes, it's the red dot

So, why is it red, then?
Well, WISE is an infrared telescope, which means it is designed primarily to see heat - and what you are seeing is a hot little asteroid just over half a mile in diameter. Say hello to the first ever WISEr spotted asteroid - 2010 AB78. The image shows three infrared wavelengths, with red representing the longest wavelength of 12 microns, and green and blue showing 4.6- and 3.4-micron light, respectively.

What has some astronomers worried is that this we should have already spotted this one. WISE had no trouble finding it, which is good news, but if there are a lot more like this out there, then that means our existing asteroid hunting hardware has been sorely lacking. Not to put too fine a point on it, but we really should have a lot more hardware like this out there looking out for us. 2010 AB78 is harmess and has a zero chance of hitting Earth, but if we didn't see it before, then the chances are that there are a lot more out there, and that one of those previously unseen objects is on its way to visit us as a very unwelcome guest.

I have said before and I'm quite happy to say it again - it's a big bad universe out there and it is looking for the next great way to make life difficult for us. Stop wasting time fighting amongst ourselves and start looking out for our future. It's all very well to think that being hit by an asteroid is too remote a possibility to worry about, but the only way to be sure is to invest in better eyes so that we can see and be sure.

If anyone ever asks what space exploration has ever done for us, just point them to this little blog post and the lovely picture of our latest asteroid friend - 2010 AB78. A friend that we now know for sure will not harm us - thanks to space exploration.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA
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Deep Space Network Ditches Dialup

So, are they really using dialup to talk to the Mars rovers?
Not literally a dialup modem, no, but let's face it, the current Deep Space Network is painfully slow - even slower than those old 14.4k dialup modems we used to use in the early 90's. Hands up who misses the days of quick touch tone dialing and high-pitched fax connecting sounds? Yeah me too, but only from an aesthetic perspective - the convenience of an always on blazing fast cable connection is worth losing the nostalgia. That stark comparison does serve to illustrate the point that we are currently using something akin to those old modems to talk to all of our probes, landers and spacecraft that are at work all around the solar system. The latest incredible image from the HiRISE camera in orbit around Mars has to be transmitted at painfully slow speeds - the scientists liken it to trying to watch an HD clip on YouTube using a dialup connection. The buffering of the first minute alone would take hours.

A stunning image of Mars from HiRISE

The good news is that NASA is giving the whole system an overhaul in preparation for the upcoming Moon,  Mars and Beyond missions. Coming out of savings in the annual $400 million Deep Space Network budget, the upgrade will boost current performance by over 50 times. What this means is that when we do eventually set foot on the Moon and Mars, we won't be limited to those grainy old analogue TV pictures that were so washed out Neil Armstrong almost blended into the scenery, we'll be able to watch proper HD video of the events in real time.

Of course there is a far more wide ranging use than human exploration, the current cadre of probes and landers will have a much shorter wait for an available slot in communications time before sending their data back to Earth. The future will no doubt bring even greater improvements, like laser based communication that is less susceptible to disruption from space weather and solar activity, but for now this upgrade will serve as a good next step in our drive into the cosmos.

Personally, I think it is very sad that this kind of upgrade has to come from a budget savings drive, rather than a direct funding injection, but such is the state of space exploration today - we are at the whim of more important issues on the ground. My view is that we need to be exploring space yesterday! It's all very well to think that our little Earth is a nice cozy safe and warm place to live, but it's a big bad universe out there and it is looking for the next great way to make life difficult for us. Stop wasting time fighting amongst ourselves over the piffling resources of our home planet and start looking where it is in abundance - out there!

Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
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Dentist Extracts Meteorite

Reports are all over the web of a meteorite hitting a Dentist's office in Lorton, Virginia. Cheesy puns aside, the meteorite apparently crashed through the roof of the office at around 5:45pm on Monday, narrowly missing patients and staff. Reportedly no bigger than a mango, the shattered space rock was taken to the Smithsonian Institute for analysis, where it was confirmed as a Chondrite - a stony leftover from the formation of the solar system.

Check out the Maryland weather blog for a picture of the interplanetary visitor.

Hundreds of eyewitness reports of a fireball from North of the impact site around the same time, and scorchmarks on the rock itself point to the object searing through the sky in a Southward direction before hitting. Meteorite hunters have descended on the area trying to pick up an overlooked piece that may have fallen near the site. Finds like this can be very lucrative indeed as they are of enormous scientific value. If you live in that area and come across anything that you may suspect is from the meteorite, it could be well worth reporting.

Don't forget, Spacers, you can only see things like this if you look up at the sky!

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Moon: Tycho Is New Kid On The Block

NASA's Goddard Space Center has just released stunning new images from the LRO, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, of the crater Tycho - one of, if not the most prominent craters on the Moon. Clearly visible with the naked eye, Tycho has an incredible array of unbroken white streaks that stream from its center, indicating not only a massive impact, but that it was a fairly recent event. Tycho has now been imaged up close and personal, allowing scientists to give a more accurate estimate of its age. Tycho, as it turns out, is a new kid on the block - a rebellious youngster at a mere 108 million years old.

Boulders on Tycho tell of a relatively young event

Yes, those are actual boulders that you see on the surface, boulders of melt glass that were created at the time of impact. Tycho's bright streaks are thought to be mainly made of glass, which makes them stand out prominently, even against the bright Moon surface. Of course, most craters begin life with spectacular ray like streaks like Tycho, but over time they slowly fad into the background and get covered up by the ejecta from smaller impacts. What we see with Tycho is the freshly preened mane of a new arrival strutting its stuff to impress all the other craters.

Thycho in glorious closeup

When NASA returns to the Moon with its new Constellation rocket series, Tycho will be one of the sites chosen for a landing - just North of the central peak in the above image. Getting an accurate age for Tycho will help in dating the surrounding craters, and an actual landing in Tycho to analyse rocks first hand will give a very accurate age.

We are still around ten years away from such a landing under current timelines, but with the recent discovery of water on the Moon, you never know, perhaps the interest level will increase and the years to our return will decrease.

Keep watching the Moon, Spacers!

Image credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University
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Satellite Images Aid Haiti Relief Effort

It can't be said enough that the devastation in Haiti from the recent earthquake is a disaster of epic proportions. Estimates begin at 50,000 dead, and the number is rising day by day. Numbers of that magnitude can be difficult for a human to process, and at times like these we do very well at pulling together as a species and donating around the world without regard for political borders. The focus of an international aid effort now is to try and prevent the number from rising any more, but as has been seen in the immediate days after the quake, getting aid to the worst affected areas in Haiti has not been an easy task. Satellite imagery of the area is being used to great effect, coordinated by space agencies across the globe. ESA, the European Space Agency, has combined this imagery to create what is called a 'Damage Elevation Map', essentially a map that illustrates the areas where there is most damage similar to a standard topographic relief map.

ESA's Damage Relief Map

Satellite imagery such as this is being donated from around the world as the ongoing relief effort continues. Updated throughout the day, the areas in red show where aid is needed most. We can only hope that the effort can stem the rise of the death toll in the coming days.

Spacers would like to urge its readers to donate through any of the following organizations:

International Red Cross

Doctors Without Borders (Médecins sans Frontières)

The Reason Project

Non-Believers Giving Aid

Atheist Alliance International

Atheists United

The British Humanist Association

The Skeptics Society

Clinton Bush Haiti Fund


Or through any organization of your choice.

Thank you.

Image credit: ESA
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Hubble In IMAX 3D

Okay Spacers, hands up who is space geeky enough to get all shaky when IMAX announces it will be releasing a 3D Hubble movie with imagery from the final Shuttle mission to service the telescope?

Yeah... me too!

You can download a trailer at this site: http://www.apple.com/trailers/imax/hubble3d/

Can't wait? Here's a couple of Hubble's recent images to keep you busy. Don't forget to click the images to make 'em BIG.

Oooh... Ahhhhh....

Wow... I mean, Wow!

Happy Awe, Spacers!

Image credit: NASA, ESA, SSC, CXC, STScI, and F. Paresce (INAF-IASF, Bologna, Italy), R. O'Connell (University of Virginia, Charlottesville), and the Wide Field Camera 3 Science Oversight Committee,
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Videos Of Asteroid Flyby

A couple of cool videos have been released of the flyby yesterday by asteroid 2010 AL30, which passed within 80,000 miles of Earth at its closest point.

This first one is pretty faint, but it was very small. What you are seeing is an object no bigger than 36 feet across! There is a lot of speculation around at the moment that the object is man-made, possibly a rocket body. One astronomer claims that it is the booster stage of Venus Express, launched back in 2005. Without any decent up close and personal imagery, it will be almost impossible to tell.

The second video is a GIF image composite of 30 still images taken by astronomer Patrick Wiggins who used a C-14 telescope to track the oject. Longer exposure time blurred the stars but made the asteroid brighter.

Patrick Wiggins incredible image sequence

And finally this is a cool video animation showing the view of Earth that the object would have had as it buzzed us.

Happy Viewing, Spacers!

Image credit: Patrick Wiggins
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Asteroid To Buzz Earth Wednesday

Spacers Quickie
A small asteroid is set to buzz the Earth on Wednesday. 2010 AL30 is just 36 feet wide and will make its closest approach about 7:45am EST, passing within 80,000 miles of Earth. There is no chance of an impact and the object will not be visible with the naked eye, but may be picked up with a reasonable powered telescope - but you have to know where to look.

The weird orbit of 2010 AL30, an ellipse almost exactly 1 year long, has some astronomers suggesting that it may in fact be man-made - possibly an old rocket body launched in the early days of space exploration.

The asteroid will pass through the constellations of Orion, Taurus, and Pisces as it makes its pass, so there will be some familiar markers to make observing it a little easier.

Happy Buzzing, Spacers!

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Shuttle Launch Date May Be Hosed

An errant cooling system hose on the Tranquility node which failed during a test may delay the planned February 7th launch of Space Shuttle Endeavour to the ISS on the STS-130 mission. The hose ruptured during the test, causing no damage to the payload but necessetating a repair and further tests. There is already a week of built-in buffer time to cater for just such an event, but NASA isn't sure if this is enough time to complete the repair and remain on track for the scheduled launch time. Analysis of the failure will continue over the next few days before an announcement is made on its impact on the launch date.

Artists conception of Tranquility installed on ISS

Engineers at Kennedy continue to prepare Endeavour for launch as Florida is still enduring unusually cold temperatures. Pre-launch propellant testing will continue until Thursday. Meanwhile, the six astronaut crew continues final training and preparations at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. At the moment they are reviewing equipment that will be used during the mission and practicing rendezvous procedures with the ISS in simulators.

Icicles form on a handrail at launch pad 39A

Keep an eye on Spacers for STS-130 udates.

Images credit: NASA
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January Video Roundup

A bit of a different roundup this January, I've collected a few short videos that sum up the space events nicely. There is a lot of buzz about the new Cupola that will fly to the ISS in early Febraury, so the first video takes a short look at what all the fuss is about.

A video about the rollout of Endeavour.

And finally an interesting video about a recent NASA effort to save Sea Turtles from the freezing temperatures in the wetlands around the Kennedy Space Center.

Happy Viewing, Spacers!

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It Be Cold In Olde England

Thanks to Phil Plait over at BadAstronomy for spotting this absolutely gorgeous picture of the British Isles from space amidst a not-so-liberal dousing of snow.

The UK under just a little snow

I notice that my old stomping ground in Northern Ireland isn't quite as badly covered as the inland areas, but wow that is one incredible picture. From my warm and cozy desert here in Arizona it is hard to picture what it was like to endure cold like that, but I do remember that the snow was fun - for about the first five minutes, then you had to deal with removing it manually because the DOE (Department Of the Environment) was 'taken by surprise' and didn't grit the roads the night before, causing widespread chaos because of un-passable roads. Still, it had its upsides, the ritual of the making of the snowman and watching my old dog Chewie - a very furry collie - run around the back garden rolling up snowballs in her fur then depositing them around the house. Priceless.

Chewie helping to soak up the snow

Happy Freezing, UK Spacers!

Image credit: Me, and NASA
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Endeavour Heads To Freezing Pad

Space Shuttle Endeavour rolled out to launch pad 39A this morning, braving freezing cold temperatures as it made its way in preparation for a February 7th launch date. Mission STS-130 is the first of five launches this year, the final year of the Space Shuttle program, and is set to deliver a new node to the International Space Station called Tranquility, which comes equiped with a 7 window Cupola.

Endeavour en-route to pad 39A

The cold temperatures are not unusual at the Florida cape in January, and although the early morning trip began at a sub-zero 4:13am, the hardware was not affected. Launches are not permitted when the weather drops below 2 Celcius (36f), but hauling the Shuttle to the pad is fine as long as the crawlerway - the path to the pad - is not blocked by snow.

STS-130 Mission Patch

Spacers will be keeping a close eye on the launch preparations so stay tuned for updates as STS-130 approaches.

Image credit: NASA TV, NASA
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Five New Worlds

The Kepler Planet Hunting Mission is in full swing now and has just released details of five new extra-solar planets - planets outside our solar system, around other stars. The incredible thing about this find is that unlike previous finds which tended to be on the heavy side due to the limitations of the method of discovery, these planets are all comparatively light. Most are larger than Jupiter in size, with one somewhat smaller than Jupiter but still larger than Earth.

Size comparison of Kepler's recent planet discoveries

The techniques employed to detect planets have historically been limited to transitions in front of a parent star - effectively a dip in brightness, and small shifts in the position of the parent star due to the pull of the planet's gravity as it orbits. The gravity technique is more adept to finding heavier planets and has a limited capability to detect the likes of an Earth-like planet. Kepler refines the transition technique with a much higher resolution and the dark environment of space.

This is a very exciting find coming from the analysis of just 43 days of data. There is over 8 months of data available to date, so expect a lot more announcements from Kepler in the near future.

Happy Planet Hunting, Spacers!

Image credit: NASA
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Earth Passes Go - Collects $200

Happy New Year, Earthlings!

So, the Earth has successfully made it once more around the Sun, just like it has over 4 billion times before. This particular trip is marked by a peculiar form of measurement instigated by a bizarre highly evolved species of that planet called Humans, where a period of 10 trips around the Sun is packaged up into a neat little unit called a Decade. Some people confuse the finer points of this unit of measurement with others like a Century and a Millennium, but this is wholly understandable due to the human's own ambiguity surrounding it.

Somewhere in this picture it is a Happy New Year!

In contrast to the billions of trips around the Sun that the Earth has made itself, the humans have a more humble measuring system in place that on the face of it seems like they have only made 2,010 trips around. The numbering system begins with the birth of a special human over two millennia ago, and causes arguments amongst various human sects due to it being 1 based. The first trip around the Sun was called Year 1, so major milestones like centuries are complete at the end of the year the major digit rolls over - eg the 1st century ended on the last day of year 100, and the 2nd century began on the first day of year 101.

Decades however are not measure in the same way, instead being given a nickname that is based on their major digit. For example, the 80's - a 10 year period spanning from the beginning of the 1980 to the end of the 1989. This is markedly different from the 8th Decade of the 20th Century, which began on the 1st day of 1981 and ended on the last day of 1990.

The 21st century is still in its 1st decade, which ends on the last day of 2010, but with the passing of 2009 we entered the 2nd nicknamed decade. The first decade was, for me at least, called the 'Noughties', which comes from the old English word for nothing, Nought. I haven't decided yet what to nickname the 2nd, but suggestions range from; the 'Teenies', to the boring old 'Tens'. We'll yet see what popular culture ends up calling it, but for now, the Noughties were a very interesting decade for me, how were they for you?

Happy Decade, Spacers!

Image credit: NASA
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