Latest StoriesSpace
    Awesome Jobs: Meet Mary Beth Wilhelm, Planetary Scientist

    Mary Beth Wilhelm is a planetary scientist and astrobiologist at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View California. She specializes in studying areas on Earth that have climates and landscapes similar to those found on Mars -- and that means some of the driest and most remote parts of the planet. She talked to us about what it's like to travel to the coldest and hottest places in the world where, in some cases, rain only falls once every decade.

    What exactly does a planetary scientist do?

    My work is a combination of fieldwork and lab work and a lot of writing. Way more writing than I ever expected going into the sciences. In my research, I'm mostly interested in searching for the signs of life on Mars. You could describe me as an astrobiologist -- understanding the origin of life on Earth and looking for it outside of Earth.

    How can you find life on other planets by looking at Earth?

    Basically I use these really Mars-like places on Earth as a testbed to understand how all of the components that make up life are preserved in those types of environments. One of the most Mars-like places is the Atacama Desert. You can look at dryness as a function of precipitation or you can look at it as the availability of water for life. In Yungay, a region in northern Chile, it only rains there once a decade, about 2 - 5 mm. Barely enough to even form a puddle. There's no plants, no lichens or mosses. I'm doing a study right now and don't even see evidence for activity of soil bacteria. Even the coastal city of Antofagasta in northern Chile, which is on the Pacific Ocean, is about 30 times dryer than the Mojave Desert.

    How did it get so dry there?

    It has to do with the Andes. They're tall and block the trade winds that go from the Atlantic towards the Pacific. Hot dry air descends on the desert. Offshore on the Pacific Ocean the currents come up from Antarctica they're cold and therefore the air doesn't pick up any moisture. It's' been like this for millions of years. It has been Mojave Desert-level dry for a hundred million years, a couple rain storms per year. And then it's been even drier, 100 times dryer than the Mojave, for 10 to 15 million years.

    Logistics of Viewing the Upcoming Solar Eclipse

    Are you planning to view the solar eclipse next Monday (8/21/17)? No, I mean are you really planning how you'll watch this rare celestial event? Finding the appropriate solar-filter glasses is just one piece of the puzzle, and certainly a very important one. You should also prepare yourself to be part of an astronomically huge migration of people as millions of sky watchers gravitate to the best viewing spots across the US.

    What's Happening

    A solar eclipse occurs when the Moon's path takes it between the Earth and the Sun. Monday's eclipse is unique because it is a total solar eclipse. Those in the right spot will experience "totality", where the Moon completely obscures the Sun, leaving only its corona fringe visible. The Moon's shadow will cast an eerie temporary twilight in the middle of the day. It's a sort of otherworldly phenomenon that eclipse experts say is worth whatever effort it takes to experience.

    True totality will only happen for people who are at the correct latitude to be aligned with the Sun and Moon…i.e. folks inside the Moon's shadow. Viewers at off-axis latitudes will have to settle for a less-spectacular partial eclipse, as some part of the Sun will always remain visible for them.

    Over a period of about 1.5 hours, the Moon's shadow will trace a diagonal path approximately 70 miles wide from Oregon to South Carolina. This "Path of Totality" through the US heartland is why many are calling Monday's event "The Great American Eclipse". This presents an opportunity for viewing a total eclipse to the 12 million+ Americans who live within the path of totality as well as the additional millions who plan to travel there.

    Adam Savage's New Moon Model Globe

    Adam and Norm check out this beautiful model of the moon, which just arrived at the cave! We take a close look at its detailed topography, and Adam brings its craters into sharp relief with his new high-powered flashlight!

    How NASA Breaks in New Spacesuits

    Most of us would not go on a long hike in a brand-new pair of boots. You first want to put a few casual miles on them to soften the material and make sure they perform well. This preliminary effort can help you avoid a lot of misery out on the trail. If you think of a spacewalk as the ultimate hike (who doesn't?), then it's easy to understand why spacesuits undergo the same type of break-in process before they're ever sent into space.

    Long before a spacesuit is used on a spacewalk, its components have gone through an arduous break-in process. (NASA photo)

    About the Suit

    Before getting into the specifics of how spacesuits are broken-in, a little background on the suit is warranted. The NASA suit that astronauts have used for spacewalks since the dawn of the space shuttle era is the Extra-Vehicular Mobility Unit (EMU). The EMU is a modular design comprised of a handful of interchangeable subcomponents (helmet, upper torso, lower arms, gloves, etc.). Many of the various subcomponents that make up the suit are available in multiple sizes.

    When an astronaut gets sized for an EMU, they do not get a dedicated suit to call their own. Rather, the product of the arduous sizing process is a chart illustrating the specific subcomponent sizes which provide the best fit for that astronaut. Whenever the astronaut needs a suit for a training event or mission, technicians reference the chart to pull the appropriate hardware off the shelf and assemble a correctly-sized EMU. The suit is torn down after the event and the individual subcomponents are placed back into inventory.

    An EMU stand holds the suit upright and allows the occupant to focus on the necessary cycling motions. (James Lemon photo)

    Over time, worn-out subcomponents get retired and replacements are manufactured. This new hardware undergoes rigorous inspection and testing before it can be added to the inventory. Yet, even more must be done before these EMU bits are used on an astronaut's suit.

    New EMU subcomponents are required to undergo a break-in process called "cycling". Whereas factory testing is typically performed using only the individual subcomponent, cycling introduces the piece into a complete EMU. The intent of this effort is to begin softening the stiff layers of new fabric and to verify that the part performs properly in all respects. This is done by exercising the hardware with repetitive, spacewalk-inspired motions. For those who participate in cycling events, the term "exercising" is particularly appropriate.

    Examining Boeing’s New Starliner Spacesuit

    Boeing recently unveiled the suit that astronauts will be wearing when they ride their upcoming Starliner capsule to the International Space Station (ISS). Officially called the Starliner Ascent and Entry Suit, it also answers to "Starliner spacesuit". Aside from its bold "Boeing blue" color, the Starliner spacesuit has numerous features worth noting. It is quite different in several ways from any suit that astronauts have ever worn before. These differences reflect an emphasis on mobility and comfort, efforts to blend the suit with its host spacecraft, and the specific emergency scenarios that the suit is designed for.

    The Basics

    The most important thing to understand about the Starliner spacesuit is its role an "ascent and entry" suit. As such, it is only designed to be worn during launch and landing of the spacecraft. You won't see astronauts spacewalking in this suit (at least not for long!). The primary function of an ascent and entry suit is to keep the occupant alive if there is a problem inside the crew compartment during launch or landing. The scenarios with the highest probability (though still relatively unlikely) are loss of cabin pressurization or an internal fire.

    Before getting to the specifics of the Starliner spacesuit, let's discuss the attributes of ascent/entry suits in generic terms. Previous generations of these suits have been derived from the pressure garments worn by pilots of high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft like the U-2 and SR-71. In some cases, the differences were negligible. Whether worn in an airplane or a spacecraft, the job such a suit is to provide its occupant with a tolerable atmospheric pressure, even when the outside pressure conditions are lethal.

    Adam Savage's Apollo A7L Spacesuit Replica!

    Adam gives a tour of his Apollo A7L spacesuit replica, made by industrious suit builder Ryan Nagata. The attention to detail and fabrication techniques make this suit one of Adam's favorites in his collection. You may have seen Adam wear this spacesuit in the final season of Mythbusters!

    Photo Gallery: Tom Sachs' Space Program Europa

    After taking part in Tom Sachs' Space Program: Europa mission (in charge of Special Effects, natch), Adam takes us through the exhibit currently on display at San Francisco's YBCA. Here are photos of some of the pieces in the exhibit, featuring Tom's signature build style and obsession with NASA's missions and operating procedures.

    Tested Mailbag: Simone's Space Camp Jumpsuit!

    Simone returns to the Tested office after a few weeks of travel to find this awesome mailbag package from a fan. Its contents combine some of Simone's favorite things. Plus, her first tasting of Astronaut ice cream! Thanks so much to Carley Hansen-Prince for sending this mailbag!

    Adam Savage's One Day Builds: NASA Spacesuit Parts!

    Adam dons his replica Apollo-era spacesuit, made by replica spacesuit builder Ryan Nagata. As part of their ongoing collaboration, today's One Day Build entails milling parts for the spacesuit, including a radiation dosimeter and aluminum knobs. But all doesn't go right as Adam has to overcome a maker's slump.

    An Interview with Astronaut Clayton Anderson

    One of the biggest perks of my time working at NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Lab (NBL) in Houston was the opportunity to mingle with a large portion of the astronaut corps. There was always a steady stream of folks in blue jumpsuits who came to the NBL to train for spacewalks. Other space flyers were poolside in supporting roles. It didn't take much time working with the astronauts to figure out that they do not fit a rigid mold. Sure, all of them that I met were extremely smart people and habitual overachievers. Beyond that, they were subject to the same variables that you would find in any other group of humans.

    Clayton Anderson was an astronaut for 15 years. He spent 167 days in space and logged nearly 40 hours of spacewalking time.

    They Are Only People

    Some astronauts were laser-focused on the tasks ahead, while others seemed to take a more relaxed approach. Many were silly jokesters, but a few were more solemn. The vast majority of astronauts were gracious and easy to work with.

    I think I speak for most of my NBL colleagues when I say that Clayton Anderson was one of our favorite astronauts to have around. He was always quick to shatter any illusions of rank with a self-effacing joke. The next minute, you might find yourself the target of a publicly-delivered, yet good-natured verbal jab from Clay that made you feel like part of his inner circle. Even in such a lighthearted atmosphere, the work never suffered. That was critical, since underwater training at the NBL is full of deadly hazards. Working with Clay convinced me that you don't have to be stuffy to be a perfectionist.

    I was completely flummoxed when a few of my colleagues from the Mission Control Center (MCC) told me that Clay's reputation among flight controllers wasn't nearly as rosy as his NBL image. Some of NASA's "console jocks" felt that he was a troublemaker and difficult to work with. I later learned that there were widely differing opinions of Clay even among his comrades in the astronaut corps. I was never able to reconcile the negative things I heard about Clay with my positive personal experiences working with him. Sometimes I wasn't even sure that we were talking about the same person!

    Ryan Nagata's NASA Spacesuit Replicas

    Prop maker Ryan Nagata is obsessed with NASA spacesuits, and has made the best replicas Adam has seen. While at his workshop, Adam and Ryan geek out over the process of fabricating fake spacesuits, including fabric selection, sewing, building hardware, and weathering. Plus, Adam gets a surprise!

    Maker Spaces: Adam Savage Tours Ryan Nagata's Workshop!

    In this new series, Adam Savage visits makers to learn about their work spaces and how they build. We first stop by the new shop of spacesuit replica builder Ryan Nagata. Ryan moved into this space after working out of a garage, and chats with Adam about how he organizes and utilizes his tools for costume and prop fabrication.

    Rocket Footage from 75 Miles High

    This video of a rocket launch from the rocket's perspective was released by Colorado-based UP Aerospace last November, and is highlighted by GoPro in their awards showcase: "On November 6, 2015 UP Aerospace successfully executed a mission for NASA to deploy the Maraia Earth Return Capsule. The mission reached an altitude of 75 miles above Spaceport America and landed 30 miles down range on White Sands Missile Range. The missions was UP Aerospace's 10th SpaceLoft rocket launch and the first deployment mission." Find more videos of UP Aerospace launches here.

    Hands-On with NASA's HoloLens Mars Demo

    NASA has been working with Microsoft's HoloLens technology to allow its Mars Curiosity rover engineers to visualize Mars and plan missions for the robot. We try a version of this OnSight application and chat with NASA's Dave Lavery about the potential of this kind of mobile virtual reality.

    The Joy and Pain of Wearing NASA's Spacesuits

    During my time working as a contractor for NASA, I was presented with several opportunities to wear an Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU), the suit that spacewalking astronauts have used since the beginning of the space shuttle program. While the majority of my experience as a suit-wearing "test subject" was exciting and enjoyable, it wasn't all fun and games. The EMU has a way of showcasing the humility of its occupants and I was no exception.

    When people ask me about my experience in the EMU, I usually tell them, "The only thing better than getting into an EMU is getting back out." It may sound cavalier, but it's the most efficient wording that reflects the love-hate relationship that I slowly developed with the suit. I never turned down a chance to wear the EMU in any capacity. I was often sleepless with excitement the night before. At the same time, I was never sad for those events to come to an end. All I wanted was to slither my body out of its puffy man-made cocoon and pop a few ibuprofen to ward off the aches and pains that often followed.

    The Extravehicular Mobility Unit has been worn by astronauts and lucky test subjects for decades. (NASA photo)

    The fun parts of being in the suit are pretty obvious. Who wouldn't jump at the chance to play junior astronaut? Those good parts always outweighed the bad. It took a while for many of the downsides to emerge, but some unexpected challenges just couldn't wait. This story reflects the beginning of my gradual awakening to the indignities, discomforts, and dangers that are inextricably linked to the fun and exhilaration of wearing an EMU.

    If the Suit Fits…

    Rather than being a custom-tailored suit for each astronaut and test subject, the EMU is a modular system consisting of several components (legs, arms, etc.)…each available in a few different sizes. It is your specific combination of parts that makes the suit fitted to you. Nailing down the sizing for someone is a process that requires a minimum of three separate events. Some astronauts come back again and again during their career to address trouble spots or accommodate changes in their body.

    During the first sizing step, I had to stand partially naked while technicians compiled a long list of my body measurements. This data allowed engineers to take a preliminary stab at what components would fit me.

    The EMU is a modular system with many of the components available in different sizes. The gloves have the widest variety of sizing options. (Bill Brassard photo)

    A week or two after getting measured, I was allowed to try on a few different sets of gloves that had been picked out for me. Of all the different EMU components, the gloves have the largest variety of sizes to choose from. For these types of events, the gloves are attached to arm components within a vacuum box. The pressure difference afforded by the box provides the same feel as gloves attached to a pressurized suit, but with a much smaller overhead.

    Another week or so after choosing my favorite gloves, it was time to go all the way and put on the full EMU. I don't recall having any apprehension about this…just excitement. I had watched people get into and out of EMUs every day as part of my normal job duties. It was always a non-event for them, so why should I be any different?

    "Let's Go to Mars" Panel at Silicon Valley Comic Con

    At Silicon Valley Comic Con, Adam hosts a panel discussing what it would take for a manned mission to Mars. Joining him are author Andy Weir and planetary scientist Chris McKay, who is actively involved in planning for NASA's future Mars missions.