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    How to Steal a Soviet Lunar Probe

    In the mid-60s, the Soviet Union staged an international exhibition to showcase the achievements of Communism to westerners. Included in the exhibition was a never-flown, production version of one of the USSR's Luna moon probes. This io9 article details the caper, but The National Security Archive has a declassified version of the original report as well as several other fascinating declassified documents, including details about the Navy's attempts to use the Moon for untraceable communication.

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    Solutions To the Fermi Paradox

    The Fermi Paradox is endlessly fascinating to me. The paradox is simple--there are somewhere between 100 billion and 400 billion stars in our galaxy, cosmologically speaking our Sun is relatively young, and our species is brand new. If life is abundant in the universe, why haven't we heard from anyone else yet?

    This article does a good job breaking down the possible reasons we haven't made contact yet. The explanations range from the macabre to the comical. Personally, I'm optimistic that the first species that developed interstellar travel hasn't been wiping out any other species that can potentially compete with them. I also would hope that we don't just live "far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral Arm of the galaxy." Getting any resolution to the Fermi Paradox would frankly be terrifying, but it's a good excuse to spend a few minutes this weekend laying with your back on the ground and contemplating the infinite.

    Tested Explains: Why We Have No Good Images of Pluto

    When was the last time you saw an image of Pluto? Think about it. You've probably seen renders and simulated images – but what about an actual, high-quality picture of the minor planet's surface? Don't feel bad if you're drawing a blank. Real pictures of Pluto just don't exist – none more than a few pixels in size, at least. Even with the best and most modern technology at our disposal today, we still can't produce a decent picture of the dwarf planet from here on Earth.

    Artist's rendition of the surface of Pluto. Credit: ESO

    But around this time next year, thanks to the New Horizons spacecraft launched in 2006, we'll finally catch our first high-quality glimpses of how the solar system's most distant celestial object actually looks.

    The best pictures we currently have of Pluto date from 1994.

    If you can believe it, the best pictures we currently have of Pluto date from 1994. And, really, they're only pictures in the most liberal sense: blurry, blown-up surface maps made from source images mere pixels across. Taken with the Hubble Space Telescope, the orbiting camera is only just powerful enough to resolve the planet's surface colour – "a complex-looking and variegated world with white, dark-orange and charcoal-black terrain" – making geological observations out of the question.

    "To a close approximation, Pluto and the moon are the same size." explains Dr. Marc Buie, a staff scientist at the Southwest Research Institute, and part of the team that captured the planet's first Hubble images. "[But] Pluto is an awful lot farther away."

    Image credit: NASA

    In fact, from our planet's surface, Pluto is about 180,000 times smaller on the sky at that distance than the Earth's moon.

    That hasn't given researchers much to go on – not in the visual wavelength, anyhow. But as you read this article, the New Horizons spacecraft is nearly 30 astronomical units from the sun – or, about the distance from the sun to earth multiplied by 30. Travelling at a rate of about 1 million miles each day, it is the fastest spacecraft ever built. Its primary mission is to image the surface of Pluto, its moons, and beyond, and it is now about 90% of the way to its long-awaited flyby in July 2015.

    We Are Made of Dead Stars

    From The Atlantic: "Every atom in our bodies was fused in an ancient star. NASA astronomer Dr. Michelle Thaller explains how the iron in our blood connects us to one of the most violent acts in the universe-a supernova explosion-and what the universe might look like when all the stars die out."

    In Brief: SpaceX Introduces Its Dragon V2 Manned Capsule

    Elon Musk's dreams of privatized space exploration are one step closer to reality. At a highly-publicized event in Southern California last night, Musk's SpaceX unveiled its Dragon V2 space capsule, which the company plans to use to send US astronauts to the International Space Station. The commercial space shuttle--the first of its kind--is a retrofit of SpaceX's Dragon capsule, which has already completed three successful cargo deliveries to the ISS. The development of the crewed version was conducted in partnership with NASA, which currently spends over $70 a head to send a US astronaut to the ISS via Russia's Soyuz program. Musk hopes that amortized over the space of 10 flights per craft, Dragon V2 flights will cost less than $10 million per seat. ArsTechnica was on site for the debut, and runs through Dragon V2's interesting features, including its use of the same 17-inch touchscreens that Musk's Tesla uses in its Model S car. (Cars that share technology with commercial space shuttles is a huge marketing tie-in opportunity.) The first manned test flight may take place in two years, with launch taking place from a recently-leased launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center. Watch the full video from the unveiling event below.

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    Meet Terry Pappas, Ex-NASA and SR-71 Blackbird Pilot

    Aerospace technology is typically an incremental game of inches. Most new aircraft or spacecraft designs consist primarily of proven technologies sprinkled with a few new ideas to nudge the limits a little at a time. It is rare to unveil a design that leaps ahead by using numerous unproven concepts. The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird was one very notable exception. First flown in 1964, the Blackbird was an aircraft so advanced that it still had no peers when it was retired 34 years later.

    Photo credit: Lockheed Martin

    What made the Blackbird so unique was its ability to fly very fast (Mach 3.3) and very high (85,000 feet). This performance allowed it to overfly nearly any area of the world and take surveillance photos with relative impunity. Intercepting fighter pilots could only shake their fists as the SR-71 flew high above their reach. To escape surface-to-air missiles, Blackbird pilots would just ease the throttles forward and outrun them.

    Throughout its service life, the SR-71 was a very closely-guarded and coveted asset. Not only was it stuffed full of proprietary technology, it was also extremely expensive to purchase, maintain, and operate. The US Air Force wouldn’t let just anyone fly their prized machine. It implemented a very rigorous selection and training process for the pilots and Reconnaissance Systems Officers (RSO) that would fill the Blackbird’s seats.

    Terry Pappas was part of an elite group of pilots chosen to fly the SR-71 Blackbird. (Photo courtesy Terry Pappas)

    Terry Pappas was one of those pilots who earned the title “Habu” – the unofficial name given to the SR-71 and its flight crew in a nod to the venomous snake that the airplane is said to resemble. Pappas spent more than 5 years in the SR-71 program and flew numerous operational missions over hostile airspace. His book, SR-71, The Blackbird, Q&A, explains the full gamut of his time in the Blackbird.

    Here are some of the most interesting bits I learned from his book, as well as a few follow-up questions I was able to ask Pappas directly.

    The Moons of Mars Explained

    Kurzgesagt is a wonderful YouTube channel that explains basic and controversial scientific concepts in concise animated videos. It was created by a team of designers from Munich, and the show's narration gives it a more than just a little bit of a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy vibe. Their videos this month explain facts about the moons in the solar system, and this video explaining the Stock Exchange is one of my favorites.

    Simulating and Modeling the Hidden Cosmos

    "The team behind Hayden Planetarium's latest space show, Dark Universe, including Neil deGrasse Tyson, detail the developments in research and technology that have enabled the show's unprecedented views of our galaxy." I really enjoyed this brief behind-the-scenes look at the process behind modeling and animating the visualizations that go into a modern digital planetarium show, in this case the Dark Universe show currently playing at the Hayden Planetarium in NYC and the Morrison Planetarium in San Francisco.

    SpaceX's Falcon 9 Reusable Rocket Rises to 1000m

    My brain is still struggling to reconcile this footage of SpaceX's latest Falcon 9 Reusable rocket test. The cinematography for these test launch videos is amazing, especially the aerial footage tracking the rocket as it crosses the horizon (filmed by a multi-rotor copter). There's a hyper-realistic look to the video--partially because of how stable the aerial camera is, and also because of how slow the rocket is moving as it achieves 1000 meters. A reusable rocket is the central piece of SpaceX's next-gen spacecraft plans, which include a Dragon capsule that will eventually shuttle astronauts to the International Space Station. "No trampoline needed."

    Deciphering Buran, The Soviet Space Shuttle

    There are countless magazine articles and websites that pit the American Space Shuttle against the little-known Soviet version, and declare a winner…usually the Soviets. This is NOT that kind of story. I understand that deep-seated national rivalries make it difficult to refrain from choosing sides in any kind of Soviet/American comparison. However a cage match between these two shuttles makes no sense in the first place, as I’ll explain. Furthermore, such comparisons only serve to fuel the emotions of commenters who substitute objective engineering analysis with overzealous and misplaced patriotism.

    Buran enjoyed a single unmanned flight in 1988. Economic meltdown and the fall of the USSR were death knells for the Buran program. (photo source unknown)

    The American Shuttle was a very mature system with well over 100 flights to its credit. During the program’s four decades of development and operation, the design continually evolved to include both enhancements and concessions. There is no question that the Shuttle failed to achieve several goals set forth in its charter (namely low-cost). At the same time, it accomplished feats that were unimagined at the start of the program, like staying in service for more than 30 years…oh, and that whole International Space Station.

    The Soviet shuttle was a ship that showed tremendous promise, yet it was not even completed when it flew its single (unmanned) test mission in 1988. That the Soviet shuttle program never advanced beyond its first flight is a result of the USSR’s political and economic turmoil of the time…not any shortcoming of their design. If the program had evolved into a long-term operation as planned, there is no doubt that it would have endured an evolutionary cycle much like the US Shuttle. Only then would we know how the Soviet design lived up to its billing. And only then would a “shuttle versus shuttle” comparison of abilities and accomplishments be valid and fruitful. Alternately, I want to illustrate some of the fundamental similarities and differences between these rival spaceships and attempt to understand why the Soviet shuttle appeared as it did.

    Kepler Finds First Earth-Sized Exoplanet in Habitable Zone

    Over the last ten years, astronomers have discovered hundreds of exoplanets using a handful of techniques, but until now, most of those planets are either outside the habitable zone or are much larger than earth--think gas giants. A newly discovered planet, Kepler-186f, is the first planet in the habitable zone, the orbits around a star where formation of liquid water is possbile, of a comparable size to Earth.

    We don't know much about the planet, but Kepler-186f is about 500 light years away, it's about 10% bigger than earth by volume, and it orbits its M-dwarf star every 130 days.

    In Brief: ISS to Test NASA's Hydroponics Pod

    SpaceX's third contracted cargo run was supposed to launch on Monday--a Dragon capsule ferrying 2.5 tons of supplies to the International Space Station. But a helium leak in the first stage of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket has delayed that launch until the end of this week. Among the tools, equipment, and food supplies being sent to the ISS are a new batch of experiments to join the over 100 already being conducted at any time on board the station. One notable new experiment is Veggie, NASA's prototype of an expandable plant chamber to grow lettuce seedlings in space. These plants will be grown on "pillows" in the device, which expands to 12x15-inches, the largest plant growth chamber yet sent to space. Astronauts will test the culinary and health potential of the space lettuce, and NASA also expects the experiment to have psychological benefits. Space gardening could be a legitimate pastime for astronauts.

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    What Astronauts Do When There’s Nothing to Do

    Whether it’s stoplights, your doctor’s office, or a popular restaurant on Saturday night, waiting is an inescapable aspect of modern life. For many of us, the pain of waiting is rarely much worse than being behind some indecisive couple at the Redbox kiosk. But even that trivial torment can be eased with time-killing apps on your phone. Now imagine that you have a few hours to kill before fulfilling your life’s greatest ambition, with practically nothing to do, all while firmly strapped to a fully reclined seat atop a few million pounds of highly explosive fuel…and no smartphone to check Twitter. That was the situation that many Space Shuttle astronauts found themselves in. That stoplight doesn’t seem so bad now, does it?

    Much has been written about the experience of riding a spaceship to orbit…but what about the wait to get started? (photo credit NASA)

    When astronauts arrived at the launch pad via the gleaming Astrovan motor home, there was much more to do than just pile into the shuttle and light the engines. There could have been up to seven astronauts on any given flight, and just strapping them into their seats took nearly an hour. Then the entry hatch had to be closed, sealed, and pressure checked…along with a laundry list of other vital tasks. When all was said and done, an astronaut could find themselves in that seat for as long as five hours before liftoff. I don’t even want to sit in my La-Z-Boy for that long, much less be shackled with a five-point harness to a rigid seat that was designed for lightness above all else.

    While physical comfort (or lack thereof) is one element of sitting on the launch pad, the mental aspect of processing the pending, and rather dramatic events must have been equally unsettling. Whether their primary emotion was excitement, fear, or something else entirely, I don’t see how anyone could dismiss the fact that launching into space is a very big deal. The last few hours of the countdown were likely among the least frenetic periods since the crew had begun training for the flight months--or years--earlier. The ways in which astronauts coped with this forced inactivity while perched at the edge of such a rare and dynamic human experience are surely as varied as the people themselves.

    In Brief: My Love Affair with Modern Planetariums

    I've got cosmology on the mind this week. Not only has Fox's new Cosmos show debuted (it's pretty good!), but there was of course the big announcement on Monday of astrophysicists' confirmation of cosmic inflation theory. Erin did a lovely job explaining the concept in layman's terms, and you should listen to this episode of San Francisco public radio's Forum program with local astronomers and physics professors discussing the details of the report.

    Stories like those do a great job communicating heady science concepts to non-scientists, but I'm not sure how effective they are in inspiring more interest in astronomy and cosmology. That's why I'm such a big fan of modern-day digital planetariums, like the Morrison Planetarium at the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. I wrote about it for Maximum PC (PDF) when it first opened in 2009, and we've followed up with stories about the technologies that turn these domed rooms into universe simulators. You can even run that software at home. The current show at the Morrison Planetarium is Dark Universe, an exploration of the Big Bang and Dark Matter, narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson. It's a collaboration with the Hayden Planetarium at the ANHM, so you can watch it in New York as well. It's a fantastic space show that's also pretty audacious--it visualizes concepts that we not only can't see, but that astronomers are still figuring out for themselves.

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    Tested Explains: What The Heck is Inflation Theory?

    If you were conscious on Monday you probably heard there was big news out of the physics community. So big, in fact, that there’s already talk of Nobel prizes and jokes about Einstein patting himself on the back for being proven right...again. Let’s be honest though, big physics news is always kind of hard to understand. There’s always GeV’s and B-modes and jargon and, well, math. So, in the event that you’d actually like to understand what the heck everybody is talking about right now I called up my favorite theoretical physicist, CalTech’s Sean Carroll, to help explain the theory of inflation for those of us that don’t do physics. Here it is, in the simplest possible terms.

    Image credit: California Academy of Sciences

    The universe is the same everywhere we look. No matter where we point our telescopes out into the 14 billion light years of space in all directions, we see the same density of stuff. Same amount of matter and number of galaxies. Same gravitational field. The universe is even basically the same temperature everywhere.

    The theory is that in the very first fraction of a second after the big bang happened, the universe expanded into existence.

    It’s awfully smooth, flat, and uniform -- and there’s gotta be a reason why. Inflation theory explains. Simply put, the theory is that in the very first fraction of a second after the big bang happened, the universe expanded into existence. In other words, everything, everywhere existed all at once and it happened faster than the speed of light.

    That’s it. Pretty simple, right? Well, it sounds simple. Until you try to prove that it’s true. Since we can’t go back in time to watch the creation of the universe (whomp whomp), the best way to know that theory is right is to look for leftovers of its aftermath. So scientists have been trying to spot evidence that the rapid inflation of the universe messed with gravity.

    NASA's Project Morpheus' Sixth Free Flight

    NASA's Project Morpheus is a prototype autonomous lander designed for vertical takeoff and landing, developed as a testbed for future spacecraft that will help NASA deliver cargo and payloads to support future crewed missions to the Moon and even asteroids. From NASA: "the 6th free flight of the Bravo vehicle flew to 467 feet (142m), altitude and then traversed 637 feet (194m) in 36 seconds, including diverting course mid-flight, before landing in the hazard field 56 feet (17m) from its original target (simulating hazard avoidance). Initial data indicates a nominal flight meeting all test objectives. The vehicle flew its pre-planned trajectory flawlessly." I love the simulated Moon surface that's the target area for the lander.

    The Space Shuttle’s Controversial Launch Abort Plan

    Just about every aspect of spaceflight harbors dangers that are both obvious and concealed. Yet, it is launch and landing that create the most white knuckles and bated breaths. These concerns are well-founded. Getting into orbit requires harnessing unfathomable quantities of volatile energy with laser beam precision. Coming home necessitates somehow dissipating a similar volume of energy within comparably narrow margins of error. As risky as those two endeavors may seem, one NASA plan for the Space Shuttle combined launch and landing into a single 25-minute ride with presumed risks that far exceeded the sum of its parts: the Return To Launch Site (RTLS) abort.

    The first space shuttle mission was briefly considered as an intentional RTLS test flight. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed.

    As the name implies, RTLS was a plan to land a malfunctioning Space Shuttle on the runway at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in the shadow of the launch pad that it recently departed. It sounds easy, right? Surely, it’s just like going back home to make sure you turned off the oven. In actuality, there is much more to it than that. Throughout the Shuttle program’s 30-plus years, there was continuous debate over the validity of the RTLS scenario. Skeptics claimed that the RTLS checklist was nothing more than busywork to distract the astronauts as they rode out an irreversible doom. Even the man who commanded the first Space Shuttle flight (STS-1), astronaut John Young, expressed that “RTLS requires continuous miracles interspersed with acts of God to be successful.”

    The good news is that the shuttle’s retirement has made the RTLS argument merely an academic one. Of the 135 Space Shuttle launches, only one (STS-51F on 7/29/85) experienced an abort-inducing failure during ascent. In the case of 51F, they safely made a lower-than-planned orbit and carried out the mission. All of the other flights cleanly avoided the dubious honor of settling the RTLS bet.

    In Brief: NASA's Super Ball Bot

    NASA has employed wheeled rovers and humanoid robots to assist in space exploration, but it's really neat to see them explore robotic designs that don't conform to what we typically think of when we imagine a robot. The design of rovers like the MSL Curiosity make them good for multi-purpose functions--it's basically a science lab on wheels--but are costly to launch and deploy. A new Super Ball Bot design eschews rigid form for the idea of tensegrity: a structure that can compress and unfold on command. Think of it as a smart set of motorized and interlocking tent poles that can maneuver around uneven environments and reach places deemed too dangerous for wheeled robots. NASA engineers are figuring out how to adapt their traditional robotics know-how to this design concept, but are eyeing Titan as a potential first destination for this new type of robot. The following video from IEEE Spectrum shows a prototype Ball Bot in action.

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    Our Favorite Photos Taken by Astronauts

    Most of us will likely never have the opportunity to go into space. But we can all live vicariously through the experiences of astronauts, made all the more accessible with Skype calls and high-definition video journals. Watching Chris Hadfield show us how he cuts his nails in the micro-gravity environment of the International Space Station is enthralling, and it's easy to forget that these astronauts are scientists carrying out important research on these missions. That makes it even more impressive to consider that they also have to document their journeys in their downtime; they're astronauts first, photographers second. But what photographers they are. NASA makes publicly available thousands of photos taken by astronauts, from the first Mercury flights to the trips to the ISS. Here's my pick for a few of the ones I think are the most impressive.

    Adam Savage's Mercury Spacesuit Replica

    A double dose of space awesomeness! Adam shares with us two prized possessions: a perfect replica of the coveted NASA-issued blue flight jacket worn by Apollo astronauts, and a recreated silver full-body pressure suit used in NASA's Mercury missions. Yep, it's the iconic U.S. Navy Mark IV suit designed by B.F. Goodrich Company and worn by astronauts like John Glenn. Watch the unedited suit test here!