WISE Shows Its Stunning Images

The newest space based eye in the sky, the WISE telescope (Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer) is now producing some incredible images of some very familiar faces, but in a very different light - infrared light. The images we usually see are mostly in visible light augmented with existing ground-based infrared or ultra-violet images which tend to be of lower resolution. Hubble has infrared capability, but in lower resolution and due to the need to keep the telescope extremely cold, only a handful of targets are chosen. WISE gives us the infrared wavelengths in stunning detail, like this image of the familiar Andromeda galaxy.

Andromeda in its Infrared glory

Because WISE is seeing heat rather than light, the hotter dust lanes of the galaxy pop out of the image showing the spiral arms in all their glory. Clicking the image above will take you to a high resolution image for an even better view.

Comet Sliding Spring

Comet Sliding spring in the above image was discovered in 2007 by astronomers in Australia. The incredible thing here is that the comet appears very red in contrast to the blue stars around it, meaning that the comet is very cold. This demonstrates the sensitivity of WISE, which is able to capture the pin-point heat of stars that are hundreds, even thousands of light years away and still capture the low glow from a snowball on its way back to the Oort cloud.

The Fornax Cluster

I just love this image of the Fornax Cluster. The beautiful spiral galaxy in the bottom right corner is NGC 1365, but what may not be immediately obvious is that the blue dots in the center are not stars, but galaxies too.

There are plenty more images from WISE available on its website: http://wise.ssl.berkeley.edu/index.html

Happy Observing, Spacers!

Images credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA
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A Spacers Poll

I think it's time we had a bit of a poll at Spacers. I get a lot of emails about the Shuttle program ending, mostly questions and requests for more information, but not a lot of personal thoughts about it. I want to know how you feel about losing such a space icon that has been with us for nearly three decades. So, let's have a poll.

How do you feel about the Space Shuttle program ending?

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SpaceX Falcon 9 Heads To The Pad

Private spaceflight took a step closer to becoming a reality on Saturday when Space Exploration Technologies, known as SpaceX, hoisted its Falcon 9 rocket on to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Founded by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, SpaceX is set to begin delivering cargo to the International Space Station as early as this summer, and depending on how successful tests are of the attached cargo carrier, the Dragon Module, SpaceX could be sending humans to the ISS as early as 2012.

Falcon 9 sits ready for tests at the pad

No date has been fixed yet for the launch, but May has been mentioned as a realistic target. Over the next few months SpaceX will perform extensive integration and fueling tests to ensure the rocket is ready to fly, and the results of these tests will be the deciding factor in the timing of the actual launch.

I think this is the right approach as this isn't a business that should be rushed or driven by the need for success visibility. The goal is to create a new launch platform and that in itself is no mean feat. We have been sadly lacking in our approach to space over the last few decades, mainly because of the pitiful spending on space programs by governments, so the establishment of a private space enterprise will give it a much needed boost. Government will always have to cut back on such things due to poorly framed and underexposed arguments for the benefits and need for space exploration, but the private sector can drive the market far beyond the limits of public spending. My only concern is that corporations have a horrible knack of bowing to the almighty profit motive at the expense of the core principles that brought them into existence, so I will watch how SpaceX develops very closely over the coming years. The excitement of a new launch platform will likely overcome any trepidation though.

Look forward to Spacers covering the progress of Falcon 9.

Image credit: Chris Thompson/SpaceX
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STS-130: Endeavour Lands

Not exactly flight day highlights, but here's the video of Endeavour's landing.

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STS-130: Endeavour Is Coming Home!

Spacers Quickie
Space Shuttle Endeavour has fired its thrusters to reduce speed and drop out of orbit into the atmpsphere. The burn lasted just over two minutes and puts Endeavour on target for a landing at Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 10:20pm EST.

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STS-130: The Final Highlights

The last batch of Flight Day Highlights, apart from today of course.

Flight Day 12 Highlights

Flight Day 13 Highlights

Flight Day 14 Highlights

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STS-130: Endeavour Undocks

After almost 10 full days docked to the International Space Station, Space Shuttle Endeavour has now undocked and is on its way home. During the stay the six astronaut crew took part in the installation of a brand new module, Tranquility, which included the much anticipated Cupola, a 7 window outlook module that is now giving stunning panoramic views of the Earth and of the station itself.

Stephen Robinson poses in the newly installed Cupola

Once undocking was complete, Endeavour performed the customary flyaround of the ISS, an opportunity for the crew to not only see the results of their handiwork, but to get video and pictures of the ISS in its newly expanded state. Pilot Terry Virts took the controls of Endeavour for the flyaround, first moving out to a safe distance of 400 feet, then slowly performing an up and over circle around the station. Once complete, Virts fired the main thrusters to separate from the station. Endeavour is set to land as early as Sunday morning.

Endeavour performs a flyaround of the ISS

This is a perfect opportunity to catch a sighting of the two spacecraft as they orbit the Earth together in a relatively close formation. Visit Heavens Above for sighting opportunities in your area.

Images credit: NASA, NASA TV
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STS-130: The Highlights Continue

Some more Flight Day Highlights to keep those Spacer eyes occupied.

Flight Day 8 Highlights

Flight Day 9 Highlights

Flight Day 10 HD Highlights

Flight Day 11 HD Highlights

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Shooting The Sky

This video is in the process of going viral, and rightly so as it is quite incredible. It shows an amateur video of the Feb 11th launch of an Atlas rocket literally shooting the sky - a sundog to be precise.

So, what in the name of Spacers is happening there?
Cool, isn't it! A sundog is a visual illusion caused when ice crystals in the sky reflect the Sun and make it appear as a ghost, or a rainbow either side. The Atlas basically flew straight through the cloud and the sonic shock waves from the rocket dispersed the ice crystals. In effect, the rocket shot the sundog and blew it away. The reaction of the crowd is just great, as it must have been an incredible sight.

Video from NASA of the launch doesn't show this as well because a sundog is only visible when the the ice crystals in the cloud are positioned just right to the observer. On this occasion the crowd got a better view than NASA.

Happy Wonderment, Spacers!

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STS-130: Taking In The View

Two Kansas song titles in a row - and relevant too. After the third spacewalk of the STS-130 mission, astronauts aboard the ISS have opened the 7 windows of the brand new Cupola and are taking in the spectacular view in between the numerous activation tasks.

The Cupola with Earth as a backdrop

As the spacewalk ended and the astronauts made their way back in to the Quest airlock, Astronaut Jeff Williams prepared the covers of the Cupola for opening. Inside the new Tranquility node outfitting and activation continued, and one by one the protective debris shield covers were peeled back.

The windows are opened one at a time

Cameras mounted on the station's truss were all pointed at the Cupola, watching each and every move inside. Busy with their tasks, the astronauts could be seen inside moving around.

And the view is spectacular

Even after all the windows had been opened the work continued.

Busy at work, but the room has a view now

Not unlike a Millennium Falcon scene from Star Wars, the Cupola bathed the interior with light from all 7 windows. The astronauts became silhouettes as they finished out their tasks and preparations. Astronaut Soichi Noguchi was the first to get the view online by posting an a snapshot with the Sahara desert in the windows on his Twitter page.

Other than providing incredible views of the Earth below, the new Cupola has several operational purposes, not least as a viewing portal for robotics operations. The current robotics workstation is in the Destiny laboratory and consists of an array of monitors that provide camera views and computer displays to astronauts using the Canadarm robotic arm and Dexter, the dexterous manipulator that can attach to the end of the arm. This workstation will now be moved into the Cupola, where robotics operators can get first hand views of the arm as they operate it.

Views of arriving and departing spacecraft will also take on a new meaning, especially the Shuttle as it must perform a back-flip upon arrival so station astronauts can take detailed photography of the heat shield.

Images credit: NASA TV
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STS-130: Silhouettes In Disguise

Blatant Kansas song titles aside, this is one of several amazing images of Space Shuttle Endeavour taken by an astronaut on the ISS as it closed in to dock.

Endeavour in Silhouette

The NASA website has a nice description of what we are seeing too: Docking occurred at 11:06 p.m. (CST) on Feb. 9, 2010. The orbital outpost was at 46.9 south latitude and 80.5 west longitude, over the South Pacific Ocean off the coast of southern Chile with an altitude of 183 nautical miles when the image was recorded. The orange layer is the troposphere, where all of the weather and clouds which we typically watch and experience are generated and contained. This orange layer gives way to the whitish Stratosphere and then into the Mesosphere.

Sometimes amidst the glare of the technology involved in human spaceflight it is nice to see some straightforward natural beauty.

The NASA website has a complete library of imagery from the STS-130 mission so far, and it is updated daily as new images are downlinked from the station: http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/gallery/images/shuttle/sts-130/ndxpage1.html

Happy Spacing, Spacers!

Image credit: NASA
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STS-130: Catching Up On Highlights

Valentines Day weekend takes its toll on Spacers... so catch up with some Flight Day Highlights until normal service is resumed.

Flight Day 5 Highlights

Flight Day 6 Highlights

Flight Day 7 Highlights

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STS-130: Fireworks And Interviews

One of the coolest images of Endeavour's STS-130 launch was taken from Ponte Verde in Florida, about 115 miles north of the launch site. Photographer James Vernacotola took this dramatic picture from the Intercoastal Waterway in the the town. Click to enlarge.

On board the ISS the crew is waking up to another day of spacewalking after having a busy day yesterday outfitting the new Tranquility node and talking to the media in a series of interviews.

Image credit: James Vernacotola
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STS-130: Tranquility Has Landed

On day 5 of Mission STS-130, the crew of Space Shuttle Endeavour along with the ISS crew have successfully installed the new Tranquility Node to the side of the ISS - a temporary installation point where its systems can be checked and the node prepared for its final position on the underside of the station. The first spacewalk is underway to support the installation as the two crews work to activate the new module.

NASA TV is disguising its flight day highlights videos under more descriptive titles, which scuppered those of us looking for a chronological record. The first few days are in order below, and Spacers will try to keep a diligent eye on this disturbing new trend - hah ha!

Flight Day 1 Highlights

Flight Day 3 Highlights

Flight Day 4 Highlights

Flight Day 2 Highlights seem very elusive at the moment, NASA TV must be hiding it. Spacers will keep a look out for it, but if any Spacers out there manage to find it, please let us know and we'll post it here.

Happy Highlights, Spacers!

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STS-130: Repairs And Preparation

The twelve humans currently aboard the ISS spent their first full day of docked operations carrying out repairs and preparing for a spacewalk tomorrow. The urine recycling unit, which greatly reduces the station crew consumption of water by extensively filtering urine, sweat and condensation, failed for a third time late last year. A refurbished distillation assembly was flown aboard Endeavour for the mission, and will be replaced once again. Tomorrow's spacewalk will be to support the installation of the new Tranquility node on the ISS, and astronauts Robert Behnken and Nicholas Patrick spent the day preparing for what is anticipated to be a challenging installation. NASA flight controllers decided to rest the crew well by thinning the end of day schedule.

No flight day highlights have been released as yet, so in the meantime enjoy a couple of videos of the Shuttle backflip and crew arrival.

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STS-130: Endeavour Closes In For Docking

Space Shuttle Endeavour is closing in on the ISS for a docking that is predicted for 12:06am EST Wednesday morning. With yesterday's heat shield inspections complete and an orbiter in good shape, the crew will perform a now customary 'backflip' beneath the station to enable the ISS crew to get high resolution photography of the heatshield for further analysis on the ground.

Tranquility sits in the cargo bay ready for delivery

Spacers will update this post as the docking approaches.

[update: 11:54pm EST] Spacers internet issues solved. Endeavour at 75 feet from docking. Closing a 1/10th of a foot per second.

The ISS from Endeavour's docking ring

[update: 12:02pm EST] Endeavour 35 feet from docking.

Endeavour crew busy preparing to dock

[update: 12:06am EST] Endeavour capture confirmed. The Shuttle and ISS are now one spacecraft.

Endeavour moments from docking

[update: 12:16am EST] All motion has been dampened. Crews preparing to hard dock. Latches will be retracted to draw the two craft together creating an air tight seal.

[update: 12:54am EST] Final hooks are confirmed as closed. Hard dock.

[update: 1:14am EST] Pressurization and leak checks underway.

[update: 2:14am EST] Leak checks complete. Hatch opening imminent.

[update: 2:16am EST] Hatches open!

[update: 2:37am EST] Endeavour crew is entering station.

Endeavour and ISS crews meet for the first time

It's straight to work for the two crews now. Preparations will begin after a short safety briefing for the docked portion of the mission. Keep an eye on Spacers for mission updates.

Image credit: NASA TV
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STS-130: HD Launch Video

NASA TV is quick off the mark this time.

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STS-130: Launch Attempt Two Underway

1 day after the aborted launch attempt due to unpredictable weather, Space Shuttle Endeavour is once again ready for another attempt to get STS-130 underway. Due to the orbital track of the ISS, a 1 day turnaround ends up at around 23.5 hours later instead of a full day. Launch is scheduled for 4:14am EST Monday morning. Weather is said to look better for this launch attempt and forecasters are a lot more optimistic that weather will not delay again today. No technical issues are being worked either, and tonight looks like a good night to fly.

The countdown has just resumed out of the 3 hour hold, and the astronauts are suiting up and will be heading out to the orbiter shortly.

Endeavour sits ready for its 2nd launch attempt

Keep it tuned to Spacers for updates.

[update: 12:27am EST] Crew departs in the Astrovan for the launch pad.

[update: 12:41am EST] The crew has arrived at the pad and is inspecting the orbiter from underneath.

The crew inspects the Shuttle

[update: 1:20am EST] Crew is entering the orbiter and the close-out crew is strapping them in.

Waiting in the middeck

[update: 1:58am EST] Crew all aboard, comm checks

[update: 2:50am EST] Close-out crew is leaving the launch pad.

[update: 2:51am EST] 20 minute hold underway.

[update: 3:11am EST] 20 minute hold complete, countdown resumed. No issues in work. Weather a slight concern.

[update: 3:22am EST] Final 9 minute hold underway.

Endeavour looking good for launch

[update: 4:07am EST] 9 minute hold complete, all systems are go and Endeavour is on final countdown.

[update: 4:11am EST] Engine gimbal checks underway.

[update: 4:12am EST] Beanie cap retracting

[update: 4:14am EST] Lift-off!

Lighting up the sky

Endeavour launches!

[update: 4:16am EST] Booster separation.

[update: 4:23am EST] MECO. Endeavour is in orbit.

Keep tuned to Spacers for updates throughout the STS-120 mission.

Images credit: NASA TV
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The Countdown Begins - And Is Scrubbed

The countdown to mission STS-130 has begun. Scheduled for launch early Sunday morning, Space Shuttle Endeavour will haul the Tranquility node to the International Space Station (ISS) on a mission that will last 13 days and include three spacewalks.

So far in the countdown there have been a few minor issues, but nothing that will have an impact on the launch. A glitch in a cabin pressure regulator aboard Endeavour was quickly dealt with by a repair team that was dispatched to the launch pad. The repair delayed the start of fueling operations by about 45 minutes, which were then further delayed by a glitch on the ground equipment. Everything is back on track now, and Endeavour is loaded up with around 526,000 gallons of propellant for its 8 nine minute ride into orbit.

Endeavour sits ready to go on Pad 39A

NASA TV has begun broadcasting launch coverage, and Spacers will be drinking coffee and updating this very post as the countdown to the launch gets closer to the big moment.

Happy Launching, Spacers!

[update: 3:15am EST] The hatch has been closed on Endeavour and the countdown is proceeding as normal. There is a slight concern about some clouds moving toward the launch site from the north.

The hatch is sealed

[update: 3:30am EST] Close-out crew departs the pad. 20 minute hold in progress.

[update: 3:35am EST] 20 minute hold has ended, we are go for launch!

Endeavour is ready to launch

[update: 3:45am EST] Final 9 minute hold is in progress. No issues are being worked.

[update: 4:28am EST] Mission managers all good to go - apart from weather.

Weather could postpone Endeavour's launch

[update: 4:30am EST] STS-130 launch has been scrubbed! Weather is too unpredictable and mission managers are not comfortable.

Two possible options are available, 24 or 48 hour turnaround. Keep it tuned to Spacers for updates.

Image credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett, NASA TV
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And Now, Live From Space...

Today is a big day, Spacers, for now we can forget about all those terrestrial live video streams, like the noctournal activities of the latest famehog cast of Big Brother, for now we have a live video stream - from Space!! NASA has begun streaming a live webcam from the ISS, so now you can watch all that zero-g action 24/7. Well, it might be a little quiet during the astronaut sleep time, but hey maybe we can talk them into running shifts!


Happy Viewing, Spacers!

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Hubble Sees Smashing Asteroids

Okay, let me just say... WOW! I mean, WOW!

What?? This is a space blog by a space geek, what do you expect?

Wow. Just, Wow!

So, what in the name of Spacers is that?
That, my dear Spacers, is an object called P/2010 A2. It is the aftermath of two asteroids that smashed into each other at over 5km a second - an impact with as much energy as several of our current nuclear bombs, but without the whole radioactivity thing of course. This incredible new image from the newly refurbished Hubble Space Telescope shows that there is not much left of the two objects involved. I'm no image expert, but from reading the analysis it appears that the front is a collection of debris, whilst the tail is being caused by dust blown away from the site by the solar wind.

So, should I be worried about this?
No, not at all. There is no danger to Earth at all from this event as it is too far away, far beyond the orbit of Mars. However, it is another example of something we didn't know about - two previously unknown asteroids. There are likely many more objects that we will find in the coming years as our array of instruments increases in both quantity and quality - the newest addition, the WISE infrared telescope for example has had an impressive first month. We need to keep our eyes open for and get as complete a picture as possible of the near Earth space environment. The last thing we want is a repeat of the event that caused Meteor Crater in Arizona, which despite being a nice place to visit just around the corner from me, is certainly not something I would like to witness happening - well, maybe from afar and with everyone evacuated to a safe place.

For now, just click that picture above and enjoy P/2010 A2 in its full sized glory.

Happy Smashing, Spacers!

Image credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (UCLA)
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Did We Just Lose The Moon?

The big news is out of the box today, President Barack Obama has cancelled the Constellation space program, the initiative set into motion by Bush Jr. to return man to the Moon and head on to Mars and beyond. The NASA statement today states:

NASA’s Constellation program – based largely on existing technologies – was based on a vision of returning astronauts back to the Moon by 2020. However, the program was over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation due to a failure to invest in critical new technologies. Using a broad range of criteria an independent review panel determined that even if fully funded, NASA’s program to repeat many of the achievements of the Apollo era, 50 years later, was the least attractive approach to space exploration as compared to potential alternatives. Furthermore, NASA’s attempts to pursue its moon goals, while inadequate to that task, had drawn funding away from other NASA programs, including robotic space exploration, science, and Earth observations. The President’s Budget cancels Constellation and replaces it with a bold new approach that invests in the building blocks of a more capable approach to space exploration...

So, wait... does that mean we just lost the return to the Moon?
The short answer is, no. This will delay our return to the Moon somewhat, but with continued reading the statement does outline how NASA's plans for a return to the Moon and beyond will be restructured to concentrate on investing in newer technologies that will see us return on a more solid footing, moving even farther away from the simple flags and footprints approach that marred the space race fuelled landings of the 20th century.

The Orion capsule, scrapped with Constellation

Just remember that the old phrase "this isn't rocket science" doesn't apply here - this actually IS rocket science! It is extremely difficult stuff we are talking about. Getting to the Moon and beyond is well within our capabilities, but it is not something that can be achieved with the piffling budgets that are almost thrown to NASA like a bone. In contrast to the old school approach of a race to do this big important thing, ventures of this scale need to be undertaken under the same spirit of international co-operation that has resulted in the incredible human achievement, the International Space Station. The best brains of the human race are required to do this, not just the cream of the crop of a single country.

The involvement of private enterprise is also going to play an increased role as new plans emerge. Companies like SpaceX, a private launch system that is set to begin flights to the ISS within two years, will bring a paradigm shift in space exploration that is fuelled not by the need to be the first, but by the potential enterprise of the venture. Unlike healthcare, space exploration is a good fit for a for-profit industry. As long as the business model is structured correctly, with regulation and oversight paramount, then the addition of the private sector to the fold would be a welcome one.

So, won't it compromise safety to have corporate space exploration?
Well, it could just as easily be argued that NASA space exploration has a compromised safety record. The Apollo and Shuttle deaths are not insignificant, so the safety record of a bona fide government run space agency is already losing out to the untested private sector. NASA helped pioneer a lot of the safety innovations, and would likely do very well as a standards enforcer rather than a primary explorer. If it ends up that NASA becomes a space safety police, that isn't such a strange idea as it sounds.

As usual though, I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand I was excited about the prospect of a whole new exploration platform, and despite the negative press surrounding the recent Ares IX test launch I was genuinely enjoying watching the process unfold - something I haven't done since the Shuttle was being developed. On the other hand it was a bit like reinventing the wheel - and a very expensive wheel at that. After 40 years of being post-Moon space faring we have done little other than fly around the Earth in a cool looking spaceship that can land like an aircraft, but it can't go much farther. Constellation promised to break us out of that rut, but surely we can do better. Today there are many more launch options than back when we were pioneers, and it would certainly be sensible, fiscally prudent, and even a wise move to mature something like the very successful Atlas launcher into a full-blown exploration platform.

Love him or hate him (yeah, some people actually 'hate' him), President Obama is an intelligent and smart advocate of science and progress, and I have every confidence that he has the best interests of the future of the manned space program at heart. Spacers will be keeping a close eye on how this story develops in the coming months.

Image credit: Lockheed Martin Corp.
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