NASA is going to Europa

NASA announced today that the agency is moving ahead with a planned mission to Jupiter's moon Europa. In this next phase, engineers will complete the final design, construction, and testing of the Europa Clipper spacecraft for a launch as soon as 2023. Why the icy moon Europa? From NASA:

NASA's Europa Clipper mission will conduct detailed reconnaissance of Jupiter's moon Europa to see whether the icy moon could harbor conditions suitable for life. The mission will carry a highly capable, radiation-tolerant spacecraft that will perform repeated close flybys of the icy moon from a long, looping orbit around Jupiter.

The payload of selected science instruments includes cameras and spectrometers to produce high-resolution images of Europa's surface and determine its composition. An ice penetrating radar will determine the thickness of the moon's icy shell and search for subsurface lakes similar to those beneath Antarctica. The mission also will carry a magnetometer to measure strength and direction of the moon's magnetic field, which will allow scientists to determine the depth and salinity of its ocean.

"This is a giant step in our search for oases that could support life in our own celestial backyard," says Europa program scientist Curt Niebur.

That's all well and good, assuming we attempt no landing there.

image: NASA/JPL-Caltech Read the rest

See the Perseids meteor shower through August 24

The Perseid meteor shower peaked last night (8/13) but you'll still be able to spot them streaking across the sky through August 24. The meteors are particles left behind by the comet Swift-Tuttle. From NASA's Perseids page:

How to Observe Perseids

If it’s not cloudy, pick an observing spot away from bright lights, lay on your back, and look up! You don’t need any special equipment to view the Perseids – just your eyes. (Note that telescopes or binoculars are not recommended.) Meteors can generally be seen all over the sky so don’t worry about looking in any particular direction.

While observing this month, not all of the meteors you’ll see belong to the Perseid meteor shower. Some are sporadic background meteors. And some are from other weaker showers also active right now, including the Alpha Capricornids, the Southern Delta Aquariids, and the Kappa Cygnids. How can you tell if you’ve seen a Perseid? If you see a meteor try to trace it backwards. If you end up in the constellation Perseus, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a Perseid. If finding constellations isn’t your forte, then note that Perseids are some of the fastest meteors you’ll see!

Pro tip: Remember to let your eyes become adjusted to the dark (it takes about 30 minutes) – you’ll see more meteors that way. Try to stay off of your phone too, as looking at devices with bright screens will negatively affect your night vision and hence reduce the number of meteors you see!

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In space, no one can hear you dream

Some folks can sleep anywhere. Others, while traveling, need the comfort of a pillow brought with them from home in order get a bit of shut eye. For the privileged handful that have journeyed into space, taking a snooze is, well, like nothing else on earth.

In this video, former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino provides some insider insight on what it takes to catch a few Z's in zero-gravity. Read the rest

Astonishing new portrait and video of Jupiter

NASA has just released this incredible image of Jupiter taken by the Hubble Space Telescope on June 27, 2019. From NASA:

This new Hubble Space Telescope view of Jupiter, taken on June 27, 2019, reveals the giant planet's trademark Great Red Spot, and a more intense color palette in the clouds swirling in Jupiter's turbulent atmosphere than seen in previous years. The colors, and their changes, provide important clues to ongoing processes in Jupiter's atmosphere. The new image was taken in visible light as part of the Outer Planets Atmospheres Legacy program, or OPAL. The program provides yearly Hubble global views of the outer planets to look for changes in their storms, winds and clouds. Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 observed Jupiter when the planet was 400 million miles from Earth, when Jupiter was near "opposition" or almost directly opposite the Sun in the sky....

This animation (below) of a rotating Jupiter was assembled from a Hubble Space Telescope photographic mosaic of almost the entire planet. The resulting flat map was computer-projected onto a sphere to create a rotating globe (excluding the polar regions above 80 degrees latitude). Jupiter completes one rotation every 9.8 hours. The giant planet's trademark Great Red Spot is the orange-colored oval that is as big as Earth. Distinct parallel bands of roiling clouds dominate our view above Jupiter's deep hydrogen/helium atmosphere. The colorful cloud bands are confined by jet streams blowing in opposite directions at different latitudes. A characteristic string of white oval-shaped anticyclones appears along one latitude band in the planet’s southern hemisphere.

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Wonderful new Snoopy astronaut watches from Timex

Snoopy has been a NASA mascot for more than 50 years going back to the Apollo missions. Now, Timex has released a wonderful "Snoopy In Space" collection of wristwatches. The watches in the line start at $89. Here's NASA on the space agency's history with the Peanuts gang:

NASA has shared a proud association with Charles M. Schulz and his American icon Snoopy since Apollo missions began in the 1960s. Schulz created comic strips depicting Snoopy on the Moon, capturing public excitement about America’s achievements in space. In May 1969, Apollo 10 astronauts traveled to the Moon for a final checkout before lunar landings on later missions. Because the mission required the lunar module to skim the Moon’s surface to within 50,000 feet and “snoop around” scouting the Apollo 11 landing site, the crew named the lunar module Snoopy. The command module was named Charlie Brown, Snoopy’s loyal owner.

'All Systems Are Go!' with Timex 'Snoopy In Space' watch collection (collectSPACE)

NASA image below: "Headed for the launch pad, Apollo 10 Commander Tom Stafford pats the nose of a stuffed Snoopy held by Jamye Flowers (Coplin), astronaut Gordon Cooper’s secretary."

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How the Apollo 11 rocket was projected onto the Washington Monument

Earlier this month, I was in Washington DC during the Smithsonian's festivities around the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 and the first human moon landing. As you likely saw, UK-based creative studio 59 Productions and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum collaborated on an astonishing audiovisual experience centered around a lifesize Saturn V rocket projected onto the Washington Monument. Read the rest

NASA fed moonrocks to cockroaches and injected moon dust into mice

When the Apollo 11 crew brought home a big stash of moon rocks in 1969, NASA scientists immediately kicked off a series of carefully-planned tests to ensure that even tiny amounts of lunar dust wouldn't be bad news for Earth's biosphere. "We had to prove that we weren't going to contaminate not only human beings, but we weren't going to contaminate fish and birds and animals and plants and you name it," said Charles Berry, who was in charge of medical operations for the Apollo missions. From Space.com:

First, NASA chose the species it would use. In addition to the mice, the agency and its partners also selected other representative species: Japanese quail to represent birds, a couple of nondescript fish, brown shrimp and oysters for shellfish, German cockroaches and houseflies for creepy-crawlies, and more....

Then, the agency tapped into its precious cache of 49 lbs. (22 kilograms) of newly delivered lunar material. Scientists ground everything to dust, half of which they baked to sterilize and half of which they left as it was. The prescription varied a little with animal type: mice and quail got the lunar sample as an injection, insects had the sample mixed into their food and aquatic animals had the moon dust added to the water they lived in.

NASA watched the menagerie for a month in case anything seemed to suffer from the lunar exposure. The German cockroaches that were fed moon dust — true to the insects' reputation — thrived despite the exotic diet.

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Watch the CBS broadcast of the moon landing, old school commercials and all

50 years ago this month, our species placed its first footprint on the moon... and we've been leaving space junk there ever since. I mostly kid: the limits of our technology at the time forced us to leave bits and pieces of what NASA's astronauts brought to the moon with them—I like to think of what's up there more as monuments to audacity than litter.

If you're so inclined, CBS is streaming their coverage of Apollo 11's 1969 mission to the moon right now, from soup to nuts. They've even left in the OG commercials that those keeping up with the mission's progress would have watched. It's a great way to grasp a better understanding of the risk, tension and wonder that our venturing beyond our home brought to the world.

Image via The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force Read the rest

Watch CBS News coverage of the Apollo 11 moon launch from 50 years ago today

Fifty years ago today, a Saturn V rocket launched with Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins on board. On July 19, Armstrong became the first human to step onto the moon. Above is almost five hours of CBS News's coverage of the historic Apollo 11 mission to the moon. And that's the way it was.

More: "Apollo 11 launch: Watch the most memorable moments from CBS News' coverage" Read the rest

Star Trek's Nichelle "Uhura" Nichols checks out the Space Shuttle Enterprise (1977)

After Star Trek was cancelled, Nichelle Nichols, aka Lieutenant Uhura, volunteered her time to help NASA recruit women and minorities to join the space agency. The 1977 reel above is from that era. In the clip, astronaut Alan Bean and Nichols check out NASA's shiny new Space Shuttle Enterprise. From The Space Archive:

In 1975 Nichols established Women in Motion, Inc., an astronaut recruitment project that helped to find over 1000 minority and 1600 women applicants, and this video reflects her significant efforts in that field. The Space Shuttle program did indeed expand the ranks of astronauts, including Sally Ride, the first woman in space, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, and Mae Carol Jemison, the first African American in space, who flew over 190 hours in space and attributed her interest in the field to seeing Nichols on television as a child. The Space Shuttles were the first spacecraft designed for reuse, and the Enterprise (originally named the Constitution until president Gerald Ford was inundated with a letter-writing campaign to change the name), was the first shuttle, performing tests to ensure the spacecraft would be able to function as gliders and land on conventional runways after missions in space.

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NASA successfully tests crew ejection system for use in aborted launches

From Kennedy Space Center:

A fully functional Launch Abort System (LAS) with a test version of the Orion spacecraft attached, launches on NASA’s Ascent Abort-2 (AA-2) atop a Northrop Grumman provided booster on July 2, 2019, at 7 a.m. EDT, from Launch Pad 46 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. During AA-2, the booster will send the LAS and Orion to an altitude of 31,000 feet at Mach 1.15 (more than 1,000 mph). The flight test will prove that the abort system can pull crew to safety in the unlikely event of an emergency during ascent.

Note that there will be a parachute, they just didn't test it this time around. Read the rest

Mars rover has detected methane that could mean life on the Red Planet

In the New York Times, Kenneth Chang reports that NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars has detected high amounts of methane, a gas that is commonly a signature of life. From the NYT:

“Given this surprising result, we’ve reorganized the weekend to run a follow-up experiment,” Ashwin R. Vasavada, the project scientist for the mission, wrote to the science team in an email that was obtained by The Times.

The mission’s controllers on Earth sent new instructions to the rover on Friday to follow up on the readings, bumping previously planned science work. The results of these observations are expected back on the ground on Monday...

On Earth, microbes known as methanogens thrive in places lacking oxygen, such as rocks deep underground and the digestive tracts of animals, and they release methane as a waste product. However, geothermal reactions devoid of biology can also generate methane.

"NASA Rover on Mars Detects Puff of Gas That Hints at Possibility of Life" (NYT)

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Star Trek Starfleet insignia found on Mars

The high resolution imaging science experiment (HiRISE) on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured this image in the Red Planet's Hellas Planitia region. According to the University of Arizona researchers who operate the HiRISE camera for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, shapes like this "are the result of a complex story of dunes, lava, and wind." But they also note that "enterprising viewers will make the discovery that these features look conspicuously like a famous logo."

They add that it's a coincidence, but we know better.

"Dune Footprints in Hellas" (University of Arizona)

Full image below depicts area 5 km across:

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At-a-glance map of current planetary exploration spacecraft

Emily Lakdawalla and her colleagues at one of my favorite science nonprofits The Planetary Society prepared this fascinating map titled "Where We Are: An At-A-Glance Spacecraft Locator." As William S. Burroughs once said, "This is the space age and we are here to go." Read the rest

NASA opening International Space Station to tourists

NASA announced today that the International Space Station is now open to private astronauts for commercial business and, yes, tourism. It ain't budget travel, that's for sure. Kenneth Chang writes in the New York Times:

NASA is not selling space vacations directly, but allowing commercial companies to arrange such trips. The agency plans to charge the companies about $35,000 a night for use of the station’s facilities, including air and water.

The tourist companies would charge much more to cover the rocket flights to and from space, and to make a profit.

Bigelow Aerospace of North Las Vegas, Nev., has already reserved four launches. The company will use SpaceX, the rocket company run by Elon Musk, to take private astronauts. Each flight would have four seats.

Axiom Space of Houston is also arranging flights and hopes to fly tourists next year.

From NASA:

Pricing released Friday is specific to commercial and marketing activities enabled by the new directive, reflects a representative cost to NASA, and is designed to encourage the emergence of new markets. As NASA learns how these new markets respond, the agency will reassess the pricing and amount of available resources approximately every six months and make adjustments as necessary.

To qualify, commercial and marketing activities must either:

• require the unique microgravity environment to enable manufacturing, production or development of a commercial application;

• have a connection to NASA’s mission; or

• support the development of a sustainable low-Earth orbit economy.

NASA’s directive enabling commercial and marketing activities aboard the space station addresses manufacturing, production, transportation, and marketing of commercial resources and goods, including products intended for commercial sale on Earth.

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Astonishing X-ray image of the whole sky

NASA released this incredible image of the sky that depicts 22 months of X-ray data captured from the International Space Station using the Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER). From NASA:

“Even with minimal processing, this image reveals the Cygnus Loop, a supernova remnant about 90 light-years across and thought to be 5,000 to 8,000 years old,” said Keith Gendreau, the mission’s principal investigator at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “We’re gradually building up a new X-ray image of the whole sky, and it’s possible NICER’s nighttime sweeps will uncover previously unknown sources.”

NICER’s primary mission is to determine the size of dense remains of dead stars called neutron stars — some of which we see as pulsars — to a precision of 5%. These measurements will finally allow physicists to solve the mystery of what form of matter exists in their incredibly compressed cores. Pulsars, rapidly spinning neutron stars that appear to “pulse” bright light, are ideally suited to this “mass-radius” research and are some of NICER’s regular targets.

Other frequently visited pulsars are studied as part of NICER's Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology (SEXTANT) experiment, which uses the precise timing of pulsar X-ray pulses to autonomously determine NICER’s position and speed in space. It’s essentially a galactic GPS system. When mature, this technology will enable spacecraft to navigate themselves throughout the solar system — and beyond.

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Beautiful book, augmented reality, and film about stunning rocket launches

In the realm of rocket geeks and space nerds, filmmakers MaryLiz Bender and Ryan Chylinski have dream jobs. The pair have the equivalent of "backstage passes" to SpaceX, NASA and ULA rocket launches where they capture and share breathtaking videos that convey the power, risk, and thrill of space exploration. The work of their studio, called Cosmic Perspective, is visceral, wondrous, and inspiring. Now Bender and Chylinski are creating a fascinating art book enhanced with augmented reality along with a companion short film "documenting humanity's grand adventure to space." Titled "Guidance Internal: Lessons from Astronauts," the book, film, and their touring Cosmic Perspective show lies at the intersection of science and art "to inspire hope, elevate empathy, and bring people together." They've launched a Kickstarter to support the project and it looks, well, stellar.

From Kickstarter:

The art and the pages in this book come to life immediately teleporting you to rocket launch pads, directly to our intimate interviews with astronauts and the people sending missions to space. We fuse art with science blending our love of high-dynamic range photography with compelling video to capture the emotion, excitement, and gravity of these events. We also give you a front-row seat to transformative performances by artists inspired by these experiences.

We place autonomous high-resolution and ultra-high speed video cameras at the launchpads of SpaceX, NASA, and ULA. These are cameras we place well ahead of the liftoff, design to survive the elements and, since no humans can be anywhere near the rockets, trigger without any human interaction.

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