Go, Orion! NASA set to launch spacecraft on first step toward manned flights to Mars [Update: Delayed! Launched!]

Final preparations are under way for NASA’s Dec. 4 launch of the Orion spacecraft. Not since the final Space Shuttle mission in 2011 has there been so much excitement around American space flight. Sawyer Rosenstein reports from Cape Canaveral.

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Atlantis returns to Kennedy: a review of the space shuttle's new permanent exhibit

Space educator Sawyer “@thenasaman” Rosenstein, 19, is a hardcore space fan. His enthusiasm for space flight was captured in a 2011 Boing Boing special feature, and shines weekly in his “Talking Space” podcast. He traveled to Florida for the opening of the new permanent exhibit of Shuttle Atlantis at Kennedy Space Center, and shared photos with us. All images in this review are Sawyer’s. —Xeni Jardin.

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Vintage futures: Next Stop Mars, 1952

In the Boing Boing Flickr Pool, reader JMV shares this wonderful scan of a 1952 feature from the Vancouver Sun's "Weekend Picture Magazine" on the coming age of travel to Mars.

Illustration by Edgar Ainsworth.

"It will probably be some 50 years before any safe space flight from Earth to another planet and back is made, but there seems now to be very little doubt that the dreams of Roger Bacon in AD 1249 and Albertus Magnus in 1280 have left the realm of Wellsian imaginings and become a practical proposition."

Here's a larger size. Guess they didn't think of Rovers!

Cats free-falling from space

Created by combatcameraman on b3ta. Felix the cat! (Via: crackajack.de. Thanks, Tara McGinley)

The Stratos jump, in LEGO

Video: Lego reenactment of the Stratos jump from this morning. Scale 1:350. That was fast!

An airship boom in Southern California

Photo: the Aeroscraft in a hangar in CA. Image: Worldwide Aeros, Inc.

In the Los Angeles Times, an article about an aerospace industry boom of sorts in Southern California, involving new twists on an old technology: airships. Who's buying? The military, and other government agencies, primarily for defense and surveillance purposes.

[I]n recent years, the affordability of airships as well as developments in high-definition cameras, high-powered sensors and other unmanned technologies have turned these oddball aircraft from curiosities of a bygone era to must-have items for today's military. And airships increasingly are being used for civilian purposes.

The federal government is buying blimps, zeppelins and spy balloons, and many of these new-generation hybrid "lighter than air" aircraft are taking shape across California.

"So much is going on with airships in California now," Pasternak said. "It wasn't this way 10 years ago."

Of note, the difference between airships, blimps, and zeppelins:

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New Cassini eye candy: the changing seasons of Saturn

Carolyn Porco, Cassini Imaging Team Leader and director of CICLOPS in Boulder, CO, writes:

For no other reason than that they are gorgeous, the Cassini imaging team is releasing today a set of fabulous images of Saturn and Titan...in living color...for your day-dreaming enjoyment. Note that our presence at Saturn for the last 8 years has made possible the sighting of subtle changes with time, and one such change is obvious here. As the seasons have advanced, and spring has come to the north and autumn to the south throughout the Saturn system, the azure blue in the northern winter Saturnian hemisphere that greeted Cassini upon its arrival in 2004 is now fading; and it is now the southern hemisphere, in its approach to winter, that is taking on a bluish hue.

[B]ack here on Earth, the Cassini mission was recently given rave reviews by a panel of planetary scientists and NASA program managers for its contributions to our understanding of the solar system, a circumstance that bodes well for a well-funded continuing mission over the next 5 years. Despite the fact that we can't know exactly what the next five years will bring us, we can be certain that whatever it is will be wondrous.

Photo above: "A giant of a moon appears before a giant of a planet undergoing seasonal changes in this natural color view of Titan and Saturn from NASA's Cassini spacecraft."

More beautiful images from Cassini here.

Hellooooo, new desktop.

Steve Jurvetson, on the recurring nightmare Neil Armstrong had for two years leading up to Apollo 11

Venture capitalist, photographer, and master-level space fanatic Steve Jurvetson has been digging in to his archives for snapshots and relics related to the life and legacy of the late astronaut Neil Armstrong. For instance: above, a vintage 11”x 14” X-ray of Armstrong's lunar EVA spacesuit boots dated 7-7-69, only 9 days before the launch.

You can scroll through more photos here, on Steve's Facebook page.

Steve shared some amazing conversations with the "First Man," from what I can tell. Here's one:

Tang is a farce. That was the first thing Neil Armstrong told me last night. “We did not use it on the Apollo missions.”

I asked him, of all of the systems and stages of the mission, which did he worry about the most? (the frequently failing autopilot? the reliance on a global network of astronomers to spot solar flares in time to get the warning out? the onboard computers being less powerful than a Furby?....)

He gave a detailed answer about the hypergolic fuel mixing system for the lunar module. Rather than an ignition system, they had two substances that would ignite upon contact. Instead of an electric pump, he wished he had a big simple lever to mechanically initiate mixing.

That seemed a bit odd to me at first. So, I asked if he gave that answer because it really was the most likely point of failure, or because it symbolizes a vivid nightmare – having completed the moon mission, pushing the button... and the engines just wont start.

He responded that he had dreams about that for two years prior to the launch.

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Mars Curiosity rover: NASA's John Grunsfeld and Miles O'Brien on PBS NewsHour

[Video Link] It took just minutes for Curiosity to complete her landing sequence on Mars. But the journey to that point took years of work back here on earth. The celebration of the rover's successful landing continues, and the mission itself will continue for 2 years. On this PBS NewsHour segment, Judy Woodruff talks to science correspondent Miles O'Brien and John Grunsfeld of NASA about Curiosity and the years NASA scientists spent planning the journey to Mars.

Related: From Miles' blog, "Why the Curiosity over Mars…"

Mars Curiosity Rover: Boing Boing's $2.5 billion dollar question about image file types, answered by JPL

Photo: Two of the first images transmitted back by Curiosity, as seen on monitors at JPL 20 minutes after the rover landed on Mars. (Xeni Jardin)


NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory was a magical place to be last night, as engineers, flight specialists, NASA administrators, space celebrities, and scientists from many fields gathered to witness the landing of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity rover. Those seven minutes of terror ended in a picture-perfect landing: an amazing machine went through a crazy Rube Goldbergian descent sequence, and plopped down about two meters away from its planned destination on the Red Planet's surface.

We witnessed history. It seemed impossible. It was awesome.

I sat in on the post-landing press conference, and live-tweeted the evening at @boingboing. During the press conference, after the high-fives and screams of joy subsided, I asked MSL engineer Adam Steltzner a question about those first two all-important thumbnail images Curiosity sent back—critical because the data they contained would tell NASA if the rover had touched down in a safe spot.

[Video of that Q&A moment here.]

Given the great distance and technical challenges involved in transmitting timely data back from Mars, what file type and image compression algorithm(s) did they use for those first "rush" thumbnails? There's a 14 minute delay involved for any signals from Mars to Earth.

A dorky question, perhaps, but I was curious, and figured nobody else would ask. Things like, "Hey how do you guys feel right now," and "What will Curiosity do next," I knew others would tackle.

Mr. Steltzner didn't have details handy about the image file types used, and he referred me to Mars mission image specialist Justin Maki. Today I checked in with Mr. Maki and his JPL colleagues whose work focuses on data compression and interplanetary data transmission. Here's what I learned.

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When Curiosity was born: a peek at Mars rover during construction at JPL, one year ago

jpl.jpg

In April, 2011, the engineers at JPL gave Boing Boing permission to visit the clean room where the next Mars rover, Curiosity, had just been completed, for an exclusive first look.

Photographer Joseph Linaschke made the trek (and donned the bunny suit) on our behalf, and brought back breathtaking photos of the magnificent martian machine.

The full Boing Boing photo gallery is here, with caption assist from JPL.

Above, the Mars Science Laboratory's descent stage, which files the rover down to Mars' surface using eight rockets, and lowers it on a tether for landing. The orange spheres are propellant tanks.

Here's a roundup of ways to watch, as Curiosity attempts landing the night of Aug 5 (that's tomorrow).

* There are even more images on Joseph's site (pssst: news orgs, they're available for licensing, ask him.)

Are we all Martians? The curious hunt for life on Mars

NASA's newest rover Curiosity, is zipping through space, slated to enter the Martian atmosphere early morning eastern time on Monday, August 6. (Image: NASA)


At the PBS NewsHour site, space journalist Miles O'Brien recounts the history of human exploration of the red planet, leading up to this Sunday's planned landing by the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity. It's gonna be a nail-biter. Snip:

Ralph Harvey is a professor of planetary minerals at Case University. He spends a lot of time looking for Mars meteors in Antarctica. He has not yet seen anything that says "life" to him:

"When we argue about signs of possible life on Mars it's always the most subtle thing you can imagine," he told me a few years ago. "Something at the very edge of measurability, and life did not proceed that way on earth. Life is in your face. Life is something we have to scrape off the rocks to get to the story of the rocks. And I don't see that on Mars. I don't have that sense about Mars. So life on Mars is going to have to get in my face for me to believe it."

But what if life on Mars is hiding deep beneath the surface -- say in an underground aquifer? Could there be an underground habitable zone on Mars today?

Are We All Martians? The Curious Hunt for Life on Mars (pbs.org)

Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity headed for Mars landing. Are you ready?

NASA JPL's nuclear-powered Curiosity rover will try to land at the foot of a 3-mile-high mountain on Mars this Sunday night (technically, early Monday morning) to learn more about the possible building blocks of life there.

The rover is about the size of a car. The whole project costs about $2.5 billion. As you can see from JPL's now-viral "Seven Minutes of Terror" video, the landing process is something of a Rube Goldberg scheme. It'll be amazing if this works. It'll really suck for JPL, and the immediate future of space exploration funding, if it doesn't.

Here's how to follow the Mars rover's journey.

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OMGCATSINSPACE

A Tumblog of Greatness: OMGCATSINSPACE.

(thanks, @sbethm)

Miles O'Brien: Ride, Sally Ride

At the PBS Newshour website, a post by Miles O'Brien about one of his encounters with the late Dr. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. He writes about the night of January 28, 2003, when Dr. Ride knocked on the door of his house in Atlanta. She was one of the guests of honor at his home that night to celebrate the opening of a new Challenger Learning Center. And at the time, Miles (then a reporter with CNN) had just closed a deal with NASA to become the first journalist in space, on a forthcoming shuttle mission. Snip:

I normally do not ask people for autographs or inscriptions, but on this night I made an exception. I handed her my copy of the book, and she wrote: "Hope you're the first journalist in space!"

Nice words from someone who knows what it means to be first.

While she was signing, and we were celebrating, the STS-107 crew was orbiting a few hundred miles over our head-- unaware of the fatal breach in the reinforced carbon heat shield on the leading edge of Columbia's wing.

In four days, everything would change for the people in my house that night. Columbia, of course, did not make it home. Sally Ride would soon be serving on her second commission investigating the loss of a space shuttle and its crew.

Read the rest: Ride, Sally Ride: My Dinner with the First American Woman in Space (PBS NewsHour)

Update: Here's a video segment from tonight's show, with Miles talking with Judy Woodruff about Dr. Ride's legacy. Alternate [YouTube Link].