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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