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Success! Astronaut Don Pettit successfully captured SpaceX’s Dragon capsule today at 9:56am EDT with the space station’s robotic arm. They will now bring the Dragon capsule in and dock it with the ISS. This is an historic moment- the first time a commercial spacecraft has ever docked with the ISS. Hopefully within a few years, these amazing private spaceflight companies such as SpaceX can fully take over the duties of ferrying cargo and people to and from the ISS. More at NASA.gov.


(Fast forward to about 2:30 to get to the actual launch.)

SpaceX successfully launched their Falcon 9 rocket, carrying a Dragon capsule filled with supplies and experiments bound for the International Space Station this morning at 3:44am EDT. This mission is far from complete, however, and with the capsule now in orbit the company must also prove their capsule can be docked with space station, unloaded, reloaded with used experiments, and splash back down safely in the pacific ocean. This flight is historic because it will be the first private, non-NASA rocket to complete a full mission to the ISS.

SpaceX has thus far been the leader among the various private companies vying for the top NASA contract to ferry cargo and astronauts to the ISS. The Dragon capsule will catch up to the ISS and perform a few maneuvers before slowly and incrementally approaching until the crew of the ISS can latch onto the capsule with the station’s robotic arm. They will then bring it in for docking using that arm this Friday May 25th. I really hope this mission is successful because as I’ve said all along, I’m a big fan of private companies taking over the low earth orbit duties for NASA. Keep your eye on the NASA website for updates. (Video via Universe Today)

Credit: Planetary Habitability Laboratory at UPR Arecibo, NASA, EUMETSAT, NERC Satellite Receiving Station, University of Dundee.

As you probably already know, there was an annular solar eclipse that was visible to parts of the Pacific rim last night/this morning. Because of the international dateline, I had the days mixed up and thought it was happening today (Monday May 21st) for the western U.S., when in fact for us it was at sunset last night. But it was Monday May 21st when it began for areas like Japan, because for them it happened early in the morning. Confusing right? It’s like the eclipse time-traveled. Anyway, the above photograph gives you a different perspective on it. The dark dot over the northern Pacific Ocean is the shadow of the moon! (Photo via Universe Today)

In other space-related news: SpaceX scrubbed the launch of their Falcon 9 rocket early Saturday morning due to a faulty check valve in one of the nine Merlin main engines. Their system has a computer that runs a full diagnostic check on everything right as the engines fire, and if even the slightest problem is detected the system shuts off everything immediately. Engineers are working diligently to get the valve replaced and run diagnostics with the rocket still on the launch pad. The new target launch date is May 22nd at 3:44am Eastern Daylight Time. I hope this all works out- I’m a fan of commercial spaceflight and feel that it is essential that NASA be able to rely on private companies to handle all their low-Earth orbit operations so that it can focus its main efforts on exploring asteroids and Mars. For more info see SpaceX’s website, and NASA.

Playing guitar in space

February 23, 2012

I’m always happy when the worlds of music and science collide in cool ways, as should be quite evident by the name of this blog. In reality science IS music, just like science is everything, but this is one instance where it’s especially cool. Astronaut Chris Hadfield is scheduled to be commander of the International Space Station, and he also happens to be a musician. It turns out music is actually an integral part of maintaining the psychological health of the astronauts, and so NASA decided to put an acoustic guitar on the station. This video from Space.com shows Hadfield explaining the guitar design itself, as well as the challenges and adaptations one has to make when playing in zero gravity. Very cool.

On a side note, I’m well aware of collective facepalm the science community is doing right now since the story broke yesterday that the apparent faster-than-light neutrinos discovered last fall may actually be due to a simple bad GPS cable connection. This is still, as far as I can tell, unconfirmed, so I’m holding off on posting anything in-depth. But I will say that I almost expected it to be something so trivial… We’ll see how it pans out.

This post needs very few words. Just sit back and enjoy these gorgeous timelapse videos shot from the International Space Station. They’re of the Aurora Borealis and/or Aurora Australis. Be sure to click on the resolution and choose the HD version, and make that shit fullscreen! (All via Universe Today)

If all goes as planned, tomorrow’s scheduled launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis will be the beginning of the end for the shuttle program. And when it touches down, the shuttle era will officially be over. With the program literally being almost exactly as old as I am (the first shuttle flight was on April 12, 1981, and I was born on Nov. 20th, 1981), it just seems surreal to know that the shuttles will no longer be operating. They were the face of NASA as I was growing up- they were “it.” But it is time for NASA to move on, let the private spaceflight industry take over the now routine task of ferrying astronauts to the ISS, and focus on exploring beyond low earth orbit.

The last I read, weather is going to be a big concern for the launch tomorrow, so there’s a decent chance it’ll get pushed back days or even weeks. But when it does happen, you should watch it. Especially if you’ve never seen one before. It’ll be all over the media so it’ll be hard to miss.

I decided to gather a few of the more interesting shuttle-related links I’ve come across over the past few days in my various science and space-related RSS feeds:

I’ve been waiting since the end of May for this:

(Click to enlarge) Credit: NASA/Paolo Nespoli

THAT is something that has never been captured on film before. It may not seem like a big deal, but the opportunity to to photograph a space shuttle docked to the ISS from space has never happened before, and never will again. The schedules happened to line up so that a Russian Soyuz capsule undocked from the ISS carrying three astronauts home while Endeavour was still docked. This gave astronaut Paolo Nespoli the opportunity to take photos of the shuttle/ISS combo from the window of the Soyuz capsule as they floated away. They paused the Soyuz some distance away and the space station actually performed a “flip” maneuver to allow for more angles. Please click through to the NASA image gallery and see the rest of these amazing images.

Think the idea of humans boarding a massive spaceship headed into the cosmos for 100’s or even 1,000’s of years (a.k.a. real-life Star Trek) is completely in the realm of science fiction? Think again. Last fall DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the highly secretive experimental arm of the Department of Defense who happened to invent the internet, released an official Request for Information regarding a “100-year starship plan.” Basically, they want people to come up with a fully thought-out plan for forming a team of researchers/engineers/scientists to investigate the technology necessary to build such a spaceship. Needless to say, this is one tiny baby step in a project that could cost many billions of dollars and require decades of advances in propulsion technology, but it’s still rather amazing that there is real, serious effort being put into something that has always seemed so far out of reach for humankind. As pointed out in their RFI, there will no doubt be unanticipated discoveries and technological advances as a “side-effect” of this research. So the actual spaceship itself is not the only purpose of this initiative. It really makes me happy to see something like this happening because I think manned space exploration has been quite stagnant for the last couple of decades. We need this kind of spark to really push forward the technology needed to extend our presence beyond low-Earth orbit. (Via Universe Today)

Ok, that’s really it for this week. Probably. I can’t fathom any more posts because tomorrow morning I will be heading to Manchester with the rest of the Scene/Cream team to photograph Bonnaroo. Keep your eyes on the Nashville Cream for updates on our shenanigans, and to see some of my photos.

Endeavour launched through a low deck of clouds Monday morning. Credit: NASA

As I’m sure you know, Space Shuttle Endeavour launched Monday morning, and is now docked with the International Space Station. I want to point out one very special part of this mission that could change mankind’s understanding of the universe forever- the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. This device is the brainchild of Nobel Prize winner Professor Samuel Ting. It cost about $2 billion to build, but the knowledge gained from it will be well worth the money. The device will be mounted on the exterior of the ISS and will run its experiments for the rest of the duration of the ISS (currently the ISS is to be funded and run through 2025). Basically, this amazing piece of equipment has a ring of immensely powerful magnets that will bend the path of any nearby cosmic rays so that they pass through a very sensitive detector. The velocity of these cosmic rays out in space is many orders of magnitude greater than anything we can create in a collider here on Earth (the Large Hadron Collider, for example). These rays do hit the Earth’s atmosphere, but most of them are scattered, deflected, or broken up by the ozone layer. That’s why this space-based experiment is so important. The main things Ting will be looking for are evidence of antimatter, dark matter/dark energy, strangelets, and other aspects of cosmic radiation that could affect future missions involving manned spaceflight. For a good breakdown of each of these scientific objectives, visit the AMS’s official website. The wikipedia page and this space.com article are also pretty good.

It’s been a while since I’ve talked much about exoplanets- one of my favorite areas of science and astronomy. I’m happy to report that our old friend Gliese 581 has yet another surprise: one of its well-confirmed planets may actually have liquid water on its surface, which means the temperature range would generally be suitable for human life. For a few years now we’ve known about several planets orbiting this red dwarf star that sits about 20 light-years away from us. The latest exoplanet discovery associated with this system (Gliese 581g) is being hotly contested, so it may not even exist at all, but the one we’re now talking about is certain to exist. It could be a while before we can definitively say whether or not this exoplanet (Gliese 581d) actually has liquid water on its surface, but a new set of computer models/simulations has shown that if the atmosphere of this rocky super-earth is dense enough, it would be stable and keep the temperature range suitable for liquid water, and possibly even life. This all hinges on an assumption that this world has a thick atmosphere full of CO2, so scientists aren’t really certain about the climate. But, based on what is known about planet formation and the makeup of Gliese 581d, a thick CO2 atmosphere is very likely to exist. This is certainly not the “holy grail of planet-hunting” a.k.a. an earth-twin because the planet is about twice the size of Earth/has about 7 times the mass, is tidally locked (meaning the same side always faces its star), and has an atmosphere of mostly CO2. Indeed, if life exists at all on this world, it would be vastly different from what’s found on Earth, but this news is very exciting nonetheless.

Credit: NASA

Space Shuttle Discovery is ready for launch later today (4:50pm Eastern/3:50 Central) on its final trip to space. This mission has been delayed extensively- it was originally scheduled to launch in November of last year, but fuel leaks and then tiny cracks discovered on the external fuel tank caused major delays. The shuttle had to be returned to the massive vehicle assembly building (VAB) for repairs that took several months. But so far all is good for the launch today. The shuttle is carrying an additional storage module (essentially a storage closet in space) to the ISS, along with an external logistics platform and a humanoid robot called Robonaut 2. Robonaut 2, known as R2 (ha!) is basically an experiment to allow engineers to determine how the robot will work in space, and how to best control it from inside the ISS. The end goal is to have a humanoid robot that can venture outside the space station and assist spacewalking astronauts with repairs and upgrades. The robot will be controlled by an astronaut inside the space station via some sort of virtual reality-like interface.

As I said, this is the last flight of Discovery. The only confirmed remaining flight is that of Endeavour, scheduled for launch in April. This mission will carry a very important piece of scientific equipment called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the ISS. The AMS will help physicists answer some of the most daunting questions in cosmology. An additional flight of Atlantis is likely, though not 100% confirmed. It would launch in June and be the absolute final flight of the Space Shuttle program.

This morning Space X launched the first full version of their Dragon capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket. The company’s rocket underwent a successful test launch back in July, and this launch successfully put their Dragon capsule into orbit. The capsule orbited earth for about 3 1/2 hours, then re-entered the atmosphere and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, where it will be recovered later this afternoon. This was the first successful commercial spaceflight involving re-entry and recovery. The Dragon capsule is under contract to NASA to carry cargo to the International Space Station. Space X is in a battle to also win a contract from NASA to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS once the Space Shuttle is retired next year. A slightly different version of the Dragon capsule would be used for this, atop the same Falcon 9 rocket. This test’s success puts Elon Musk’s Space X much closer to that goal.

I am quite confident that Space X, or whatever other commercial spaceflight company that wins the NASA contract, will be able to cheaply and safely get our astronauts to and from the ISS. There is absolutely no reason NASA should devote more than basic oversight and money to this task. What NASA needs to focus its efforts on now is going beyond the ISS- to asteroids, to Mars, and even farther than that.

In other news, Mozilla has adopted two Red Pandas (aka firefoxes) and is streaming their activities live at http://firefoxlive.mozilla.org. What’s most awesome about this is that they’re being kept at the Knoxville Zoo, right here in Tennessee. I DARE you to watch the videos of them and not smile. (Via Candice Burnside)