September 12, 2013
The Moment actually came a year ago — on or about August 25, 2012, to be more precise. That’s when Voyager project scientists now agree that the Voyager 1 spacecraft crossed into the region where interstellar space begins, and where particles from our sun no longer dominate.
It’s been a long, strange trip — even to get to this announcement. Over the past year, several scientific papers have been published claiming that Voyager had crossed the historic boundary, only to have other researchers, including, notably, Voyager project scientist Ed Stone of Caltech, say not so fast. Today, though, they all seemed to agree: Voyager is now among the stars.
You can find the details on NASA’s Voyager site, or read the technical report in Science magazine by Don Gurnett of the University of Iowa and other Voyager investigators that appears to have closed the argument for good.
At a NASA press conference today, Gurnett played these historic first sounds from interstellar space:
Suzy Dodd, NASA’s project manager for Voyager, also showed two photos of the Voyager science team — one from the 1970s and one taken recently — that showed, in dramatically human terms, just how very long it took to escape our solar system.
August 27, 2013
It was fascinating watching space station astronauts re-create the recent water leak inside ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano’s helmet that cut short a planned spacewalk and led to some very tense moments for the crew.
Engineers are still trying to figure out what caused the leak. As today’s video shows, the suit still has a problem:
If you haven’t yet read Parmitano’s harrowing account of the incident, you should. Here’s an excerpt:
The water has…almost completely covered the front of my visor, sticking to it and obscuring my vision….At that moment, as I turn ‘upside-down’, two things happen: the Sun sets, and my ability to see – already compromised by the water – completely vanishes, making my eyes useless; but worse than that, the water covers my nose – a really awful sensation that I make worse by my vain attempts to move the water by shaking my head. By now, the upper part of the helmet is full of water and I can’t even be sure that the next time I breathe I will fill my lungs with air and not liquid. To make matters worse, I realise that I can’t even understand which direction I should head in to get back to the airlock. I can’t see more than a few centimetres in front of me, not even enough to make out the handles we use to move around the Station.
Parmitano’s ordeal reminded me of another incident, far less serious, that astronaut Carlos Noriega described in our 2002 book Space Shuttle: The First 20 Years. Even a single drop of water can be a hassle in a spacesuit.
Toward the end of my EVA on STS-97, about two-thirds of the way through deploying the space station’s new solar power array, I went to take a sip of water from a tube inside my helmet. It went down the wrong way, and I coughed. Well, the little droplet of water took a perfect trajectory from my mouth to the inside of the helmet, where it bounced off and went into my eye. We coat the inside of our helmets with a thin coat of soap so they don’t fog up. And the droplet picked up just enough soap that it severely irritated my eye, to the point where I couldn’t see out of it anymore.
I suspected what had happened, but I wasn’t sure. At the time, Mission Control was concerned that maybe it could be a break in the lithium hydroxide system that cleans the carbon dioxide from the air we breathe, or maybe something else floating around in my suit.
I felt fairly comfortable, other than the fact that my eye hurt like you wouldn’t believe. The bad thing about zero-g is that the tearing mechanism doesn’t do everything it’s supposed to. The droplet just stays there in your eye, and doesn’t run down your cheek. I thought about shaking my head, but then there’s the potential that you’re going to get it in the other eye. It took a long time to dilute, and by that point the EVA was over. I’m one of those people who’s very sensitive to irritants, and my wife just laughed later, “You and your eyes.”
August 12, 2013
You can almost hear Robonaut grumbling from here.
While NASA’s robotic astronaut has spent the last two years undergoing very sober, methodical engineering tests inside the International Space Station (that is, when it’s even powered on), Japan’s Kirobo robot arrived on Friday with a much fluffier mission — to promote Japan’s goal of fostering human-robot interaction throughout society.
toy robot is scheduled to remain on the station for 18 months, during which time it will “converse” with astronaut Koichi Wakata, who arrives in November.
Here’s a promotional video — listen for strains of the “Astroboy” theme at the end.
August 9, 2013
Our inside view of Bockscar, the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the second atomic weapon used in wartime, got me reading about the Nagasaki bombing of August 9, 1945, which helped put an end to World War II after six long years of bloodshed.
The story of the Hiroshima bombing, just three days earlier, is better known. The Enola Gay and its pilot, Paul Tibbets (who commanded the 509th Composite Group responsible for nuclear missions), have become familiar names to the public over the years. Fewer people, though, can identify Charles “Chuck” Sweeney as the pilot of the bomber that left Tinian for Japan early on the morning of August 9, accompanied by five other B-29s, including Enola Gay. There was no fighter escort, so as not to draw attention.
Unlike the Hiroshima mission, Sweeney’s flight was tense and plagued by problems. Before leaving, the crew discovered a malfunction in a fuel pump that severely limited their range, and put in doubt whether they’d have enough fuel to return to Tinian. They decided to go anyway. The mood of the second A-bomb flight was far different from the first, recalled Jacob Beser, the only man to fly in the strike plane for both missions. Before Bockscar‘s early morning takeoff, he wrote in a 1988 memoir, “There was a decided absence of the ‘Hollywood Premier’ atmosphere and most everyone was quite subdued.”
Their original target was Kokura. When they arrived, the city was obscured by smoke from the firebombing of Yawata, known as the “Pittsburgh of Japan,” by more than 200 B-29s the night before. (“Kokura’s luck” became a Japanese expression for inadvertently escaping disaster). So Bockscar headed for Nagasaki, which, a generation earlier, had been the setting of Puccini’s opera “Madame Butterfly.”
The crew was under orders to drop their bomb only after visually sighting the target, but chose to come in over Nagasaki using radar, as the city was covered with clouds. Finally, a hole broke in the clouds, and bombardier Capt. Kermit Beahan had about half a minute to get a visual sighting before releasing the bomb.
Beser later wrote:
The airplane lurched as the bomb was released, and Sweeney put it into a tight turn to the left to give us some distance from the explosion. In about 45 seconds there was the now familiar bright flash, and the rapidly ascending mushroom cloud. Once again, by the time I got to the window, the city was gone.
John Coster-Mullen, in his 2009 book Atom Bombs: The Top Secret Inside Story of Little Boy and Fat Man, collected other impressions from the crew. Assistant flight engineer Raymond Gallagher was anxious about the rising cloud outside his window, which appeared (although it really wasn’t) to be dangerously close:
I stood up and looked straight down. What I saw was the cloud underneath us. I hollered through my intercom mike to the pilot that if we didn’t get out, we were going to get caught in our own bomb blast.
On the flight back to base, wrote Beser in his memoir, “not much was said on board the airplane. There was none of the euphoria that was evident after the drop at Hiroshima.” In an article published just a few days after the Nagasaki mission, he had written:
As the airplane returned from the target area it was the unanimous opinion of the crew that the end of the war could not be far off, for no nation could possibly stand a rain of destruction such as they had just witnessed.
Whenever asked, as they often were in later years, whether they regretted their mission, some of the Bockscar veterans would get testy. Wrote Beser: “War by its very nature is immoral. Are you any more dead from an Atomic Bomb than from a conventional bomb?”
Sweeney, who died in 2004, also recalled his thoughts on the five-hour flight back to base after dropping the bomb:
As the hours ticked by and we plowed through the moonlit sky, no word of Japanese surrender or even about our mission came over the airwaves. The music of Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller drifted softly through the airplane. I’m not sure what was going through my crew’s minds, but I began to think ahead to the realization that if the Japanese didn’t surrender, we would be flying more of these missions. The thought left me cold. I was the only one aboard who knew that we were several weeks away from having more bombs.
Filmmaker Michael Puttré interviewed Sweeney extensively for his documentary Nagasaki: The Commander’s Voice:
August 8, 2013
We used to have to know things. Now we have smartphones.
Let’s say I’m standing in my backyard on a clear night, and I notice a bright planet about to set in the west, just over the fence. Jupiter or Saturn? With the naked eye it’s hard to tell, at least for me. But point the Google Sky phone app at the mystery dot, and I know in seconds. Jupiter. Thanks.
We should be astonished at such fact-finding power, but we rarely are. Maybe that’s because web- and phone-based tools for identifying what’s in the sky overhead are becoming more common at the same time as they’re getting easier to use. And most of them are free. NASA just released a nifty Interactive Satellite Viewer, for example, that shows you the current positions of its Earth- and space-pointing spacecraft. It’s similar to other online satellite trackers that have been around for a while, but it’s nicely done.
Even cooler are the smartphone apps that use augmented reality to display the positions of satellites wherever and whenever you happen to be looking. These include Sat Tracker for Layar and — even easier — the Satellite AR app created by Analytical Graphics, Inc. (AGI), who maintain a constantly updated database of all the orbiting objects tracked by U.S. Strategic Command. Look up for more than 15 minutes from any dark location at night, and you’ll likely spot the slow, steady track of some satellite crossing the sky overhead. With Satellite AR, you don’t have to guess which satellite it is. A cartoon-like icon will be superimposed on the real thing.
Best of all is the Google Earth version of AGI’s satellite database. Now you see not just the operating satellites, but all the bits of flotsam orbiting with them. Here’s a screen grab from my location in Virginia. Man, is there a lot of junk up there, most of it debris (DEB) from past launches and explosions. Thanks to these handy tools, I can track all of it, and watch the trash float by in real time.
Update: See the first comment below for yet another version that’s even better.
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