July 20, 2011 at 15:54 pm | Leave a Comment
Pluto Has Moons
That distant world called Pluto has surprised astronomers again, yielding up yet another moon. Pluto’s largest moon is Charon and was discovered in 1978. Two more — Nix and Hydra — were found in 2005. The new one, called P4 (for now), is quite small, somewhere between 13 to 34 kilometers across, and small enough that it was probably missed in earlier images of the system taken by Hubble Space Telescope. This latest HST image was taken as part of a search for ring material around the distant dwarf planet, in support of the New Horizons mission, which is en route to Pluto.
So, how would Pluto, itself a small world like many others in the outer solar system, get moons? The current thinking is that a collision between Pluto and another world early in the history of the solar system would have flung material out into orbit. Eventually, the pieces and parts would have coalesced back together, forming the family of moons we see today.
When I read this story, the first things I wondered were “Why search for rings around Pluto?” and “Where would the material for Plutonian ringlets come from?” A long-ago collision would have provided material for rings, but by now, that material would have been cleared away or coalesced into moons, such as Nix, Hydra, P4 (and maybe even Charon?). To maintain a ring system, you need a constant source of material being tossed out to space. At Pluto, that source may well be material “chipped away” from the icy surface by the impacts of tiny micrometeoroids. That would provide chips of ice to form a faint, thin ring. If it exists, it hasn’t yet been detected. But, HST would be the best instrument we have at this time to find the ring. Once New Horizons gets there, it may well “see” the ring, if it exists.
I like it when HST finds things like this. It’s a continuing reminder that the venerable telescope has a lot of life in it yet; and will keep surprising astronomers with new finds.
July 19, 2011 at 10:43 am | Leave a Comment
ARTEMIS P2 Enters Lunar Orbit
Well, this is kinda cool. NASA has taken two satellites that would have been shut down in 2010 and put them in orbit around the Moon to give us a continual up-close-and-personal view of the lunar surface from about 60 miles away. The spacecraft, called the Aceleration, Reconnection, Turbulence, and Electrodynamics of the Moon’s Interaction with the Sun (ARTEMIS) probes, arrived at their lunar orbits on June 27th and July 17th, respectively. These twins were once in different areas of near-Earth space, part of a five-spacecraft system called THEMIS (Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms). Along with three other probes, these two spacecraft studied the solar wind, Earth’s outer magnetic field, and how the two interacted with each other.
Over a period of time, scientists maneuvered this pair of satellites from their original Lagrangian point orbits into places closer to the Moon. It’s a very neat re-use of space hardware that otherwise would have been shut down. The THEMIS mission itself is continuing — the other three THEMIS probes continue their original science mission, studying the substorms that are part of its names. These are atmospheric events visible near Earth’s poles as sudden increases in the brightness of the aurorae. The findings from the mission may help protect commercial satellites and humans in space from the adverse effects of particle radiation.
So, what kind of science will the two diverted ARTEMIS babies do at the Moon? Given that these spacecraft bear instruments that are sensitive to magnetic fields, they should be able to collect data about the very weak lunar magnetic fields that DO exist, provide information about the lunar core (which does not appear to be generating a magnetic field), and information about any pockets of magnetism that might exist in the Moon’s crust (outer layer). Essentially, ARTEMIS will probe the Moon’s magnetic environment. The data it gets will help scientists understand more about the interior structure of the Moon. This is a very cost-effective way to do further lunar science, and it will be interesting to see what the next five to seven years of ARTEMIS efforts uncover.
July 15, 2011 at 22:19 pm | 1 Comment
The Future of a Technological Society Hangs in the Balance
In my last entry, I talked about my own first and last shuttle experiences. In this entry, I want to share some thoughts that have been with me since the last launch – tough thoughts, political thoughts. So yeah, I’m going a little political here. I get to do that once in a while.
I’ve read a lot of ruminating on various blogs about whether the end of the space shuttle missions signals the end of NASA. If the promises being made by our President and various politicians are to be believed, then there is a new era of human spaceflight in our future. And so no, it’s probably not the end of NASA. It may be, however, that the NASA of tomorrow will look different from what we know today. Is that good or bad? Hard to tell. Need more data.
It’s tough to expect a bright future for NASA, and science in general in our country, when we see the bickering going on in Washington, D.C. over the budget. It’s hard to believe anybody in the Tea Party or the GOP when we see them seeking to actively force cutbacks in research in this country – not just at NASA, but in other agencies as well — in order to preserve tax cuts for people who can personally buy their own biz jets.
So, color me a bit skeptical of official political promises about our future in space. As the saying goes, “Show me the money.” I’d expand on that, “Show me the money and the political and cultural will to forge ahead in space and science research in this country.”
What we spend just on NASA (its 2012 proposed budget is $18.7 billion dollars) doesn’t come close to what Americans put out on pizza (around $27 billion dollars) or on tobacco and alcohol ($88 billion and $97 billion per year respectively). Someone once pointed out that Bernie Madoff scammed $50 billion dollars from his investors. An interesting perspective, no?
Think about that $18.7 billion figure. It’s a fraction of what people spend on gambling each year — and, not much of that money gets to NASA (proving all too well that what gets spent in Vegas apparently stays in Vegas). Think about that the next time you buy a lotto ticket. (Want to see a cool depiction of our Federal budget and NASA’s part in it? Go here. Find NASA’s budget. You will be surprised. That little box of spending is dwarfed by other things…)
I hope that Americans don’t lose pride in NASA and its accomplishments. The agency still has a lot of science to do, a lot of work ongoing in many areas. It still has space probes sending back information from Mars, Venus, Mercury, Saturn, and eventually through New Horizons at the outer worlds of the solar system. Hubble Space Telescope and Chandra and many other orbiting observatories are still showing us the cosmos, teaching us more each day. The agency is still studying Earth and teaching more and more about our planet’s atmosphere (this area of study really seems to scare climate change denialists into threatening to cut those parts out of NASA (and from NOAA as well)). And, all those projects that cost us some very small fraction of the national budget, go to pay good salaries; those who get those salaries go on to buy houses, clothes, food, cars, pay taxes, and so on — thus participating in a huge multiplying effect of the money spent on NASA and science research.
NASA is working with private industry to get people back to space sometime “soon”. I’m glad to see it — as I do think that there is a role for private industry to play here. It may be an evolving role, so we should all watch to see where and to what it evolves.
But, as others have wondered, I also query whether or not private industry will seek to do the same kinds of wide-ranging science that NASA has traditionally done. It very likely won’t, since private industry must answer to stockholders and long-term science gains are not always as compatible with the bottom line as people might wish. (Just take a look at Big Pharma and Big Agra to see how bottom line concerns frequently trump science.)
NASA is something we, as citizens collectively own through our tax dollars. It is not a private company, with profits being funneled to investors who were lucky (or connected) enough to get in on the ground floor. It’s ours. And, as such, we REALLY ought to be demanding that our employees in Congress and the White House (and YES, these people are supposed to be working FOR us, not against us), preserve and enhance that which we own. We have that right and they have the duty to listen to us.
When I think of the shutting down of the shuttle program (by President Bush), the issues that led to the cancellation of the Constellation program by President Obama (complex issues which seemed to be insurmountable both financially and politically, and which seemed to force the President and NASA into a sort of Hobson’s choice)and the current rush in Congress by ideologically driven partisan hacks to gut NASA’s scientific and technical programs, I have to wonder what the hell happened to our pride and joy? Are the folks who want to quash science research thinking of what WE as citizens jointly own? Do they even care about what we’ve paid for? Or for the hard-line budget-cutters, is it just politics as usual in the hunt for votes and re-election campaign funding and pandering to whackoes at both extremes of the political spectrum? If so, why is our country’s technological future being held hostage by science-ignorant ideologues?
Gutting NASA rips jobs out of an economy that needs them. It’s not just government employees who are losing them. These are people who work for NASA’s technology contractors – companies and corporations – that private sector the GOP loves to crow about.
Cutting science research and development in programs across the board also cuts job in education, related research, real estate, retail — you name it. It hands people unemployment checks that Republicans really don’t want to be handing out (if you judge them by their attempts to cut off unemployment assistance). It decimates communities, reduces educational opportunities, and makes this country look – on the world scientific stage – as if it is retreating from modernity and progress. I don’t know about you, but I find that damned embarrassing. I didn’t vote for these jerks, but they’re acting like ostriches in my name, and I don’t like it.
Republicans recently gloated over a bad jobs report, but they seemed not realize that they had a huge hand in creating those losses of jobs through a variety of programs they’ve eviscerated in the name of “sticking it to the President (and the Democrats)” in an ideological struggle. (Don’t even get me started on the massively punitive cuts that some in Congress wish to deal to health care and other needed programs.)
Why do these scientifically illiterate politicians feel it necessary to cut the pride of the nation? Are tax cuts to wealthy donors really worth putting thousands and thousands of people out of work and eviscerating one of the greatest economic engines this country has ever built? I guess it must be, because these idiots are in Washington scrabbling like vultures over the scraps of NASA that are still left. They won’t be happy until it’s all gone, I suspect.
I posted a video in a previous entry showing shuttle workers sharing their pride in their work and their agency and their country. I dare any extremist politician (Teabagger, GOPper, whatever) to look them in the eye and tell them that their jobs and pride aren’t needed any more. I’m sure there’s no one in among the extremists in Washington with the guts to do that, because they would be admitting out loud that they don’t get it, they don’t care about their country, and they don’t care about the pride of a nation. They only care about votes and tax cuts for a small, wealthy subset of citizens. It’s really a situation out of balance and out of logic.
Thirty years ago, when I woke up on that April 12th to watch the first shuttle launch, it probably never occurred to me that today ideologues would be forcing America to leave science on the table, that their ignorance about science would force our country to welsh on deals with other countries for science projects (that provide jobs). I didn’t see that we’d have strutting demogogues going after the things that make this country a technological powerhouse; gutting NASA, cutting technological achievement, seeking to break up the highly successful National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) over a fear of climate change, attempting to shut down JWST (thereby wasting the money that has already been spent on it), and, in general, shredding the dignity of U.S. technology workers.
Is this any way of saying “thanks” to the shuttle crews? To NASA? To those of us who “own” NASA? They and we deserve more than that. Apparently that “ownership society” that we used to hear all about doesn’t include respecting our collective ownership of an agency that has consistently multiplied the money it gets to boost the economy, to produce fantastic technological and scientific achievements. And, yes, to educate a generation of us who grew up thinking of astronomy and space science achievements as our collective birthright.
The political groups who want to strip our country of its technological edge don’t seem to respect the great leaps of knowledge Americans have made in many areas of science, leaps that contribute in so many ways to our society. And that’s just damned sad. More than that, it’s a studied insult of American values, an insult given by people who think it’s just dandy to shut down governments over ideological issues that have nothing to do with good government and everything to do with fomenting fear and dissension and whoring for votes. I’m just sorry that NASA has to pay the price for such ignorant behavior.
I hope that sometime soon, we’ll wake up and demand that our country continue to progress, scientifically, technologically, medically, socially — in every way that points to modern huma nity doing its best. I want to see renewed NASA launch programs taking wing again – taking humans to space and continuing to expand our knowledge with additional robotic probes that can go where humans cant. I look forward to reveling in the idea that we ALL “own” that progress, that ideology has no place in science, and that together we can step forward into the future, leading the way for our political servants to follow.
July 11, 2011 at 13:29 pm | 3 Comments
My First and Last Shuttle Launches
It was 4 a.m. on April 12, 1981. Sunday was normally a day we’d typically sleep in, but this one was special. We got up extra early to watch the first-ever launch of a space shuttle. Her name? Columbia, and she was flying mission STS-1, carrying two test pilots Bob Crippen and John Young, plus a load of flight instruments to test her performance during launch, ascent to space, on orbit, and during descent and landing.
It was exciting and scary, but there was NO way I would have slept through such a momentous occasion. Why? Because I am a child of the Gemini and Apollo age and I grew up watching launches. When Columbia made her maiden trip to orbit, it had been a LONG time since the last U.S.-crewed launch. The last human crew to fly to the Moon, for example was on Apollo 17, on December 7, 1972. The three lunar missions planned to follow up (Apollo 18, 19, and 20) were cancelled to free up money for the space shuttle program. The last official Apollo mission was Apollo-Soyuz, which flew in 1975, and of course, humans went to space to live and work on Skylab in the 1970s. By the time those were done, I couldn’t imagine a time when we wouldn’t have space travel through NASA. Yet, we had to wait six years from the last Apollo mission until the shuttles began flying.
So, there I was, bleary-eyed in front of our TV that morning, excited, worried and nervous about the success of this next step in U.S. human spaceflight. In typical NASA style, the announcer explained every step, every part of the spacecraft we were seeing. It looked so strange – a moth-shaped plane with wings, attached to a white-painted main tank and two solid rocket boosters. I was used to seeing Saturn Vs lift off, with little modules on top of their stacks. The shuttle was unlike anything I’d seen from NASA. It reminded me of the space planes from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and that morning, it seemed that futuristic realms were one step closer to reality.
Suddenly, the calm, professional NASA-style countdown was down to its final stages. “T-minus ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, we’ve gone for main engine start, we have main engine start… and liftoff… liftoff of America’s first space shuttle… and the shuttle has cleared the tower…”
In less than five seconds, the shuttle had left the launch pad and was on her way. I remember being absolutely stunned at how quickly Columbia leapt away from Earth. By contrast, the old Saturn V rockets used to take forever to get away. So, seeing a nimble shuttle and her rockets fairly soar to the sky was a new experience. It was absolutely beautiful, and a sight I have never forgotten.
A few days ago, the world witnessed the final launch in the space shuttle program. Those of us who were able to be at the Kennedy Space Center counted down the final launch with the announcer. It felt like being at Times Square on New Year’s Eve (but with less people) and chanting the numbers.
For many folks, the sight invoked a steady stream of memories from 30 years of spectacular launches, triumphant returns, and two unbearable tragedies. Throughout that time, I’ve covered a few launches as a member of the press, watched several missions to Hubble Space Telescope as a graduate student working on an HST instrument team, and like so many others in our country, occasionally took the shuttle program for granted – as if it would always be there. But, as with all technology and technological programs, the space shuttles about to become things of the past. They are only part of the path that will keep humans going to space, and I feel fairly certain that the future for space flight in the U.S. will “take off” again.
In the meantime, the part of Florida that has rumbled to the sound of high-powered launches and the double-booms of landings for 30 years, is saying farewell to a bit of space exploration history. It’s a sad time. For folks in Cocoa, Cocoa Beach, Merritt Island, Titusville, Palm Bay, Orlando, and Melbourne, the loss goes beyond running out to the causeway to watch a launch. Saying goodbye to the shuttles also means bidding farewell to thousands of high-tech jobs as companies such as United Space Alliance (the company responsible for shuttle maintenance and launch operations) lays off waves of workers.
Right now the region’s unemployment rate is hovering around 10.8 percent, but that will worsen once the last wave of shuttle-related layoffs happens. Shuttle workers are crowding into job fairs and going back to school to learn new tricks for new jobs. Many are leaving for employment elsewhere, leaving behind towns that once depended on the property taxes they paid for schools, roads and other infrastructures. Clothing stores, restaurants, recreation shops, and many other businesses fear the worst. Some have shut their doors. It’s unquestionably a tough time, but this is a tough region. The people survived the shutdown of Apollo, and hopefully they will get through the lean times following this last shuttle launch.
Still, the shuttle program and its workers leave behind a solid record of accomplishments. When I think back to that first launch, there’s no way I could even have imagined just how much science was enabled by the shuttle missions. It’s been a great ride for the past 30 years, and I hope that the future brings something like it to inspire new generations of space enthusiasts.
July 10, 2011 at 14:30 pm | Leave a Comment
There are a Million “End of Shuttle” Stories
Now that we’re back from witnessing the launch of space shuttle Atlantis for the last time, ending a 30-year-long era of NASA’s space exploration history, I’ve got a bit more time to stooge around the Web and read other people’s thoughts about this experience. There are millions of words written about this time in space exploration history across the blog-o-sphere, and most are heartfelt and profoundly moving. A few entries are sardonic, sarcastic, and tragically hip, as if it’s cool to be disdainful of something that means a lot to many Americans (and, as far as I can tell, impresses the heck out of many people in other countries, too).
One of my jobs at the launch was to cover the event for Sky & Telescope and also for this story for Yahoo News. My story for Yahoo was picked up immediately, while the work I did for S&T has not yet appeared but will likely be published soon. I also have a couple of other things to create (a short video), and another blog entry wherein I muse further about the socio-political aspects of this program’s end.
As I pondered what to write for these venues, I did a lot of sifting through shuttle archives and old stories (and my previous entry talks about some of the cool facts I uncovered). It was an interesting time sitting in the press annex at the Kennedy Space Center, trying to marshal my thoughts after the launch.
The whole experience was more than the launch. For us, it began when Atlantis rolled out from the orbiter processing facility in May and over to the VAB for her final preparations. That was when it really came home to me that this program was not just the hardware and the missions. It was the people. The technical staff who worked on the orbiters, the crew support staff, the PIO folk… they’re all people… with homes and kids and hobbies and lives that are just like most other peoples’ lives. Except that they work here on Earth in the space exploration realm. So, just as I have a sort of emotional connect to the shuttle program (and to space exploration and astronomy in general), so do they. Not just because they have jobs, but because they do their jobs well. And they love their jobs. With that in mind, I was charmed and got something in my eye when I watched the video below.
Watch that video again. Notice the pride, mixed with what has to be sadness, on their faces. These people cared about the jobs they did (I suspect many of them will be part of the layoffs coming in the next few weeks as NASA’s contractors shrink their work forces in response to the shuttle program winding down and the short-sighted and partisan Congressional attempts to gut the space program).
The people in that video are proud of what they did for NASA and their employers. And proud of the country they live in that enabled the shuttle program to fly. (For all the sardonic hipsters who are just too cool to appreciate space, this is for you: don’t look at those faces and tell ME that a space program means nothing.)
For us, the launch experience itself included a day or two of activities before the actual liftoff. For one thing, we (as press) were allowed to go out to the launch pad (within a few hundred feet) and see the orbiter and her fuel tanks and boosters after the Rotating Service Structure had rolled away. It was wet, hot, muggy, and rainy — but there we were out there, setting up our tripods and cameras and taking visuals of this last-of-her-kind NASA mission hardware.
There were press briefings to attend, along with other tours and interviews with astronauts (if we wanted them), and a chance to meet officials from NASA and its contractors. By late in the day before launch, many of us opted to go get some rest, because we had to be back at the site very very early the next morning to beat the traffic of more than a million people who were also headed out to see the launch from various causeways and viewing sites open to the public.
We arrived back at KSC at 3:30 a.m., set up our camera tripods, secured them against rain and wind, and then headed back to our car to catch a little nap. We were up again by 7 a.m. or so, and by then the site was buzzing with activity from press, Tweetup attendees, and other assorted visitors. The whop-whop-whop of the escort chopper that followed the astronauts out to the pad in their little silver van was what woke us up. We grabbed a little breakfast, freshened up, and then waited out the hours til launch.
It was quite an experience and one that we will treasure. It is sad to see the shuttles go. I am of mixed feelings about it, and that’s something I’ll explore in another blog entry. But, I’m glad we went, and I’m glad I was able to share it with others via my articles.
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Image of Horsehead Nebula: T.A.Rector (NOAO/AURA/NSF) and Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA/NASA)
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