Quantcast
Latest StoriesSpace
    False Starts: Astronauts Recall Stories of Shuttle Launch Aborts
    Every manned US spacecraft had its share of white-knuckle moments, but the space shuttle holds a monopoly on launch aborts. (NASA photo)

    Many astronaut autobiographies attempt to convey the exceptionally rare and coveted experience of riding a fire-belching rocket into space. It must surely be a situation where all adjectives and analogies fall short. While the trip to orbit seems to affect each person in different ways, the stories all share happy endings. You have to look much harder to find memoirs of launches that didn’t go so well.

    The primary reason for the dearth of launch abort stories is that so few missions in the history of the US manned space program provided astronauts with unsavory launch experiences. Historically-speaking, once the engines were fired up, an astronaut had a very high probability of making it safely to their planned orbit.

    Every manned US spacecraft had its share of white-knuckle moments, but the space shuttle holds a monopoly on launch aborts. It’s worth noting that the Challenger disaster is considered a launch failure rather than an abort because events unfolded too quickly for any corrective measures to be taken. There were a handful of other missions where, after the smoke cleared and the echoes faded, the shuttle was still firmly shackled to the launch pad. I spoke with five astronauts who endured these launch aborts to get a glimpse of what it was like.

    In Brief: Examining the Woodward Effect

    Have you heard of the Woodward Effect? It's a decades-old theory for a method of generating thrust without expending mass--basically limitless propulsion without the need to refuel. It's no wonder that this concept has been used to fuel theoretical engine designs for spacecraft. Steady acceleration without the need for propellants sounds too good to be true, so BoingBoing visited the office and laboratory of Dr. James Woodward to learn about his theory and see an application of it in an experimental thruster. Real-world science is sometimes stranger and more awesome than fiction.

    Norman 1
    In Brief: Rosetta's Philae Has Landed

    At about 8AM Pacific time this morning, the Philae lander made contact with the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.The first pictures have come back from the lander, including a gorgeous shot of the comet taken during the descent and this image of the landing site, Rosetta's ten-year journey wound through the solar system so the probe could match orbits with the comet. It will stay with the comet for the next 12 months, following its orbit around the Sun. Be sure to keep an eye on Phil Plait's excellent blog for more updates on Rosetta and Philae. Today's XKCD is also lovely, in both live updated form and GIF form.

    Will 1
    10 Biological Challenges Of Traveling To Mars

    Let’s face it: we’ve done just about everything we can do on the Moon. That hunk of gray rock doesn’t hold much romance anymore. The next big thing is going to be to get human boots on Mars. But it’s not as easy as you might think. Today, we’ll examine the obstacles that make it difficult for Earth lifeforms to endure the long trip to Mars and land on the planet’s surface.

    ISS Astronauts Put a GoPro in a Floating Water Bubble

    We haven't posted a video shot by Astronauts on the International Space Station in a while, but that doesn't mean they're not shooting awesome stuff up there! Here's a recent one that is especially cool: "During Expedition 40 in the summer of 2014, NASA astronauts Steve Swanson and Reid Wiseman - along with European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst - explored the phenomenon of water surface tension in microgravity on the International Space Station." And because tours of the ISS are always fun to watch, here's the most recent one shot by Astronaut Reid Wiseman, travelling from the very back of the station to the very front!

    What a Blaster Bolt Would Look Like in Real Life

    Physicists at the Laser Centre of the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences and Faulty of Physics, University of Warsaw (phiew!) used a photography trick to composite a video of a ultrashort laser pulse traveling down a hallway. They're calling it an approximation of what a science-fiction blaster bolt would look like in real life. While each bolt takes a few femtoseconds to traverse the hallway, the researchers were able to photograph multiple bolts at a framerate of 10fps, syncing the recording with the pulses to give the illusion that you're just seeing one pulse. There's more detail in the YouTube video's description as well. (h/t Cnet)

    In Brief: NASA Releases Library of Space Sounds for Public Use

    Earlier this month, NASA posted to SoundCloud a large library of audio clips from its history of space endeavors. These aren't just vocal bytes from ground control or astronauts--they include the sounds of rocket launches, landings, and spacecraft exploring our solar system. The beeping of Sputnik and the chorus of radio waves in the Earth's atmosphere can now be downloaded and mixed into your own productions. Archive.org has 222 NASA public domain audio clips as well!

    Norman
    10 Places on Earth NASA Used to Mimic Space Travel

    Astronauts go through years of training before they take off, but there’s not very many good ways to simulate the airless vacuum outside Earth’s atmosphere. Here’s a quick tour of the spots around the world that our rocketmen visit to get ready for the final frontier.

    Turning Tiny Satellites into Cheap, Deep Space Drones

    There are lots of tiny little satellites orbiting the earth above your head right now. But that’s all they do: orbit, around and around. There is a plan, however, to give these cheap, so-called CubeSats the ability to strike out on their own. With the aid of some relatively simple propulsion technology, the goal is to push these tiny satellites beyond earths’s gravitational pull and into the outer reaches of space.

    The idea is that, in the not so distant future, unmanned space exploration will be accessible to everyone, and not just the NASAs of the world – like tiny little drones in space.

    Image credit: University of Michigan

    Key to all this is little more than water. Using an electrolysis propulsion system, researchers from Cornell University have been working since 2009 on a system that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen gas that can then be ignited to create thrust. The plan is to launch two of these water-propelled CubeSats into space, and send them orbiting around the moon. Another CubeSat propulsion project is being conducted at the University of Michigan, and raised money through a successful crowdfunding campaign.

    “It kind of levels the playing field for a lot of science inquiry. Not everybody is capable of running a billion dollar spacecraft mission for NASA,” explained Mason Peck, former chief technology officer for NASA, who is now working with fellow researcher Rodrigo A. Zeledon at Cornell on the electrolysis propulsion system. “This actually democratizes access to space.”

    Unlike, say, a communications or military satellite, CubeSats are practically microscopic by comparison – mere 10cm cubes, according to the specification first defined in 1999, that have a volume of just 1 liter and can weigh no more than 1.33 kilograms. But, surprisingly, it’s not size that’s held CubeSat propulsion efforts back.

    It's not the CubeSat's small size--10cm--that has held propulsion efforts back.

    “It’s primarily the fact that CuebSats are secondary payload,” Peck explained. “They’re hitching a ride on some other space craft, and that other space craft does not want the little CubeSat to destroy its expensive payload. So for that reason, the CubeSat specification that allows you to launch these as secondary payloads, prohibits you from using material under pressure, or material that’s explosive, or material that’s volatile, in the sense that if it leaks out it would evaporate and poke the surfaces of the spacecraft.”

    But water, explains Peck, is not only non-volatile, it’s “pretty much the ultimate green propellant.” It sits in a tank, gets zapped by an electrolyzer, which separates the hydrogen and oxygen, and is then sent to a combustion chamber until enough pressure builds up to ignite the whole thing. Safe and simple! In theory.

    What Will Power the Long-Distance Spacecraft of the Future?

    In May, when researchers contacted the International Sun-Earth Explorer 3 (ISEE-3) for the first time in 16 years, that a decade’s old spacecraft still had enough juice to phone home might have come as a surprise. Launched in 1978, here was an object some 36 years old that had better battery life than some of the most advanced technology in existence today.

    But that’s precisely it: ISEE-3, and other spacecraft, like it, don’t run on batteries. And they likely won’t in the future, either. Sure, battery technology has certainly improved since ISEE-3’s heyday, and solar technology is certainly more efficient than it once was, too. But the truth is, the long-distance space craft of the future tasked with exploring the outer planets and beyond will likely be powered with the same thing we’ve been using for decades: plutonium-238. That's right, we're talking about nuclear power.

    NASA's ISEE-3, still running strong.

    When sending unmanned vehicles into space, you really only have two options for power: light from the sun, or heat from a nuclear source. Obviously, the former is preferred where possible. It’s relatively cheap to harness, and there’s practically an unlimited supply. But the sun has other limits. Light can only travel so far, which means the farther you travel, the less electricity you can produce. In some places, such as parts of the moon, there are permanently shadowed regions which never receive the sun’s light. Even on planets such as Mars, which are still close enough to harness the sun’s rays, dust dramatically reduces the efficacy of solar panels over time.

    For deep-space missions, and missions to hostile environments where light from the sun won’t do, NASA’s only other option is to harness the heat generated by a slowly decaying hunk of radioactive material – in this case, plutonium-238 – with a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, or RTG. This process turns heat into electricity, and in some cases there is even excess heat that can be used to warm the components of a spacecraft or rover too. Make no mistake, though, this is old technology.

    How To Spot the International Space Station

    Many people have a difficult time comprehending the massive proportions of the International Space Station (ISS). Weighing almost one million pounds, and filling the footprint of a football field, it is by far the largest man-made object in space. The ship has an acre of reflective solar arrays that provide power for the crew and also help make the ISS the third brightest object in the night sky (behind the Moon and Venus). It is easily viewed with the naked eye. You just need to know where to look and what to look for.

    The ISS is as large as a football field. Those huge solar arrays reflect a lot of light and make the ISS clearly visible under certain conditions. (NASA photo)

    Where It’s Going

    Before we talk about how to find the ISS in the sky, let’s take minute to review some basic orbital mechanics. The ISS has a roughly circular orbit (as opposed to elliptical) at an altitude of about 260 miles. The plane of orbit is tilted 51.6 degrees from the plane of the equator. If you flatten the Earth onto a map, one orbital path takes on the shape of a single sine wave. That is often the image seen on the large wall displays in photos of the Mission Control Center.

    This diagram illustrates the relative path that the ISS might take through your viewing area. (NASA image)

    Each orbit takes roughly 90 minutes to complete. During that time, the Earth is rotating as well. Due to this relative movement, every orbit of the ISS overflies a path that is a little west of its previous orbit. When the paths of multiple orbits are displayed on a flattened Earth, the image is a series of identical sine waves with a slight and equal offset. The real advantage to this constant path shifting is that the ISS overflies pretty much all of the Earth between 51.6 degrees latitude north and south. This is great for science experiments aboard the ISS that require Earth observation. It is also a boon for those of us stuck on the ground who want to catch a glimpse of this enormous machine.

    NASA Announces Commercial Crew Program, Targets 2017 Goal

    "NASA and its aerospace industry partners have worked together for more than four years to develop subsystems,spacecraft, and launch vehicles that will lead to safe and reliable transportation to and from low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station from the United States on American systems." After teasing the return of human spaceflight in the US, NASA today announced its Commercial Crew Program, tapping both Boeing and SpaceX to develop and test vehicles to transport astronauts to the ISS. Contracts of $4.2 billion and $2.6 billion were awarded to the two companies, respectively, with the target of flight certification by 2017, which includes one manned test flight. SpaceX will be using the Dragon 2 capsule unveiled earlier this year, while Boeing will use its CST-100 spacecraft. That capsule will even feature wireless internet for communications, according to Boeing.

    Making a B.F. Goodrich Mercury Mark IV Helmet, Part 1

    When Adam commissioned us to make a hybrid NASA Mercury space program suit, we didn’t give much thought to the helmet or really any of the “hard parts” with the exception of the neck and wrist rings. We just figured that if anyone was interested in buying another suit, they would have to find a helmet on their own, and that we’d probably have to re-cast or find standalone MIG neck rings. Adam advised us they would be hard to find.

    But initial feedback from prospective customers indicated that we might not be able to sell many suits without including helmets and accessories. Pictured below are Adam’s suits. One with rings on the left and one without rings on right:

    Since Adam supplied the neck ring for the first build and we returned it to him, we had to find another for our third suit. We weren’t really in a hurry to find one but weeks passed and we saw nothing except MIG helmets with rings, so we bought one hoping maybe we could sell the MIG helmet later. The upside of buying the helmet and ring was understanding how the ring locked onto the helmet as Adam never sent us his helmet at this point for scrutiny. Now that we’ve had a closer look at his helmet during the Comic-Con Incognito walk, we can see he manufactured a similar locking system we have based on the MIG helmet and neck ring design.

    I remember Adam saying he needed another neck ring so I kept looking and eventually found one and bought it. Because it was expensive we considered recasting it in four-part molds for future projects. It wouldn’t be functional but may look good enough for some buyers.

    When I told Adam what we were planning and asked him where he got his helmets he offered to send us his spare helmet blank to re-cast but we would have to return it as it was his only one. I’ve never had quite this experience before. We’ve been lent stuff in the past but nothing that couldn’t be replaced easy enough. It was very generous for Adam to send his helmet so we didn't have to sculpt one from scratch, and really aligns with his philosophy of opening these projects up to makers. Above is a photo of what he sent over. We were absolutely thrilled to have access to it!

    Soviet Moon Colonization Dreams, Circa 1965

    Produced in 1965, this Soviet documentary was produced to educate citizens about Soviet rocket technology and what astronomers knew back then about the Moon. Its second half is a fantastic imagination of how humans might colonize the Moon in the distant future. Just great retrofuturist fodder, even if you can't understand the Russian. "The film consists of two parts: popular scientific and science-fiction. In the first part in the popular form the modern (1965) scientific convergence on the Moon are stated. In the second part the director and the artist create a picture of the future of the Moon." More context about the production of this video on The NewStatesman. (h/t io9)

    Here's The Drill Designed for Space Mining

    Like many good ideas, Dave Boucher’s Moon mining drill started as a sketch on a napkin. That was in 1999 (just one year after the space drilling adventures of Armageddon). But sometime this fall, his company Deltion Innovation’s latest prototype of a real Moon drill will go through one of its final tests. And with any luck, DESTIN — which stands for Drilling Exploration & Sample Technology Integrated — will be chosen to spearhead NASA’s lunar prospecting mission in 2018 or 2019, bringing us one step closer to leaving Earth forever and moving to the Moon.

    “Space mining has now become a must-do activity for every space agency in the world,” Boucher said in an interview earlier this year. “They all recognize that they have to be able to go mine in space just to support the missions that they're planning.”

    In other words, space mining isn’t so much about monetizing the supposed wealth of precious resources contained on the Moon’s surface (though, yes, there is apparently a lot). Not yet, at least. For now, it’s all about figuring out how to make future missions, manned or otherwise, self-sustainable — what’s known as In-Situ Resource Utilization — should we have any hope for the long-term exploration and colonization of world’s beyond our own.

    Of central interest for NASA’s prospecting mission are the pockets of water ice that satellite imagery believe exist in the Moon’s Polar Regions. “Water and oxygen extracted from lunar soil could be used for life support,” suggests a NASA document describing the eventual mission, “and methane produced from the Martian atmosphere could be used to refuel spacecraft for the trip back to Earth.”

    But we don’t know it’s there for sure. And that’s where Boucher’s drill comes in.

    How To Make A Replica Hybrid Mercury IV Pressure Suit

    (Editor's note: One of Adam's favorite costumes is his Mercury program spacesuit, which we've previously featured here on Tested. It's one of the costumes he wore at this year's Comic-Con. Elizabeth Galeria of The Magic Wardrobe, who made the costume in collaboration with Adam, reached out to us to share the process of designing and patterning this suit to meet Adam's specific needs and requests. This is the first in a series of articles in which Elizabeth and her partner explain their fabrication process fort his project. Feel free to ask Elizabeth--Tested user "antylyz"--questions directly in the comments section below.)

    An accurate replica of any costume or prop is only as good as the source images and what budget a “detail enthusiast” is willing to spend to get what’s envisioned. When Adam approached me to make him a Mercury suit, his celebrity factored into my quote. I really wanted to do this project having been a fan of MythBusters for many years.

    Adam had no shortage of images to show me so quoting him was pretty easy. It’s not often you get 100+ high-res images of the actual suits from the Smithsonian so I was able to count stitches-per-inch as is often the case needed for detail enthusiasts.

    Adam was very specific that all he wanted was someone to do the “soft parts” and he would provide all the “hard parts,” which made the project easy. Adam was also very specific about what details he liked about the various iterations of suits used by NASA in the Mercury space program, and he focused on the following image in particular.

    The biggest challenge in almost any replica costume or prop is finding the same or similar fabrics and materials used to make the original. Adam was very specific in describing the fabric he thought the original suit was made of. It's something he has described in his videos about the suit.

    NASA's LDSD Supersonic Test Flight

    "Ian Clark, principal investigator of the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator, takes us through a play-by-play of NASA's recent 'flying saucer' Test in Hawaii, using high-definition video shot from cameras on board the test vehicle." NASA's LDSD technology demonstration mission explores the use of a supersonic parachute for use with landers on future missions to Mars.