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    Tested at the NASA InSight Rocket Launch to Mars!

    We go to our very first NASA rocket launch! This past weekend, the InSight mission sent a robot lander to Mars, launching from the central coast of California. Norm and Ariel trek to Vandenberg Air Force base to get up close to the rocket and experience this historic west-coast interplanetary launch!

    How Could Alien Communication Work? Offworld episode 6: Arrival

    This week on Offworld, we look at the science fiction film Arrival and its depiction of communication with alien life! Ariel is joined by cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Teon Brooks and Dr. Douglas Vakoch, President of METI (Messaging Extraterrestial Intelligence) to discuss how we might try to decipher verbal and visual language or alien origin.

    Offworld Episode 5: Europa Report (2013)

    We're joined by spacecraft engineer Bobak Ferdowsi and marine scientist Vicky Vásquez to talk about the 2013 film Europa Report! There's a lot to like about the film, including how it portrays the challenges of a crewed mission to Jupiter's moon. Is Europa our best bet for finding alien life in our solar system? Let's discuss!

    Offworld episode 4: Moonraker (1979)

    Space billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are in the news today, but one of the first space billionaires appeared in the 1979 James Bond film Moonraker. Ariel is joined by author Bonnie Burton and science correspondent Emily Calandrelli to talk about pop culture's stylized take on space travel in the late 70s, in the wake of Star Wars and the dawn of NASA's Shuttle program.

    Offworld, Episode 3: Sunshine (2007)

    On this episode of Offworld, we revisit the Danny Boyle science fiction film Sunshine, in which a crew is sent to reignite the Sun. We're joined by astrophysicist and Professor of Astronomy Gibor Basri to discuss the science of the film and which parts hold up (and the parts that don't). What would the bomb the size of Manhattan do to the Sun?

    Show and Tell: Augmented Reality Model of the Moon

    We check out Astroreality's Lunar Pro, a detailed model of the moon that works with a companion app to show some extra details through augmented reality. While the model itself is nicely made and finished, the software experience leaves much to be desired. It's a neat concept that disappoints with its execution.

    Offworld, Episode 2: Space Camp (1986)

    On this episode of Offworld, Ariel is joined by Tested's own Simone Giertz and guest Trace Dominguez to discuss and dissect the 1986 film Space Camp! Trace relates the film to his own experience attending the real space camp, and we ponder NASA's influence on the making of the movie.

    First Time Lucky: The Space Shuttle’s Dicey Inaugural Mission

    I was well into writing this piece when I learned of John Young's death on 1/5/18. I never had the opportunity to meet him during my time at NASA, but he was indeed a legendary figure at the Johnson Space Center. I encourage anyone with an interest in space history to research his incredible career. Ad Astra Mr. Young.

    When Columbia fired its engines in April of 1981, crowds cheered NASA's first manned rocket launch in nearly six years. This was STS-1, the maiden mission of the space shuttle program. The system's reusable components promised to revolutionize spaceflight. No one watching the launch that morning had any way of predicting the highs and lows of the shuttle's three-decade career ahead. They weren't even sure that this crazy spaceship-glider was going to work at all. The columns of fire and noise lifting Columbia must have been reassuring, but not everything was unfolding according to plan.

    STS-1 was the maiden spaceflight of the space shuttle program. The success of the mission was a near thing.

    Neither the astronauts racing skyward, nor flight controllers on the ground realized that Columbia had sustained significant damage in several locations during the first seconds of the launch. Any of these injuries could have led to a catastrophic failure. In fact, mission commander, John Young, later noted that he would have aborted the launch and ejected if he had known the extent of Columbia's maladies.

    Exactly how the shuttle absorbed the hard knocks of its first launch and completed the mission safely is still not completely understood. The orbiter's robust design certainly contributed, as did the expertise within Mission Control and the astronaut corps. At the same time, it is difficult to analyze the specifics of STS-1 and completely discount the role of pure, dumb luck.

    Offworld, Episode 1: Contact with Dr. Jill Tarter

    Welcome to Offworld, a new show we're making that explores the fun places where space and pop culture intersect! In each episode, we'll examine a science fiction story and discuss how it holds up under some scientific scrutiny. For our inaugural episode, we talk about the 1997 film Contact with special guest Dr. Jill Tarter, whose work at SETI was the inspiration for the main character of the book and film.

    Tested at the BALLS 2017 Rocket Launch Event!

    Simone heads to Black Rock Desert to take part in the annual BALLS experimental rocket launch event! We meet with amateur rocketeers who've come around the country to test their homebrewed rockets. This is going to be fun! Thanks to Clay Reynolds for inviting us out! Find his rocket launch videos here.

    From Russia with Glove: How eBay Reunited an Astronaut with His Spacesuit

    "For 10,000 American dollars, this suit can show up on your front porch after the mission."

    Astronaut Clayton Anderson thought it was an absurd proposal. He never expected that a spacesuit technician would offer to sell him the custom-fitted, government-funded suit that he would soon carry to the International Space Station (ISS). Anderson laughed it off. Surely this guy was joking, right? Nothing like this had ever happened during one of Clay's suit fittings in the US. But this strange proposal was presented in Star City, Russia. And well, things are different there…very different.

    Several years passed before Anderson realized that he should have taken the deal.

    About the Suit

    The suit up for grabs was a Sokol (Falcon). This Russian-designed pressure suit is worn during launch and landing in the Soyuz spacecraft. There was no plan for Anderson to ride a Soyuz up or down (he commuted to and from the ISS on space shuttle missions STS-117 and STS-120 respectively). Yet, he still needed a Sokol. During the bulk of his 152-day stay aboard the ISS, a Soyuz was his only way home in an emergency. Anderson's Sokol stored on the ISS ensured that he would be properly attired if the lifeboat became necessary.

    As things turned out, Clay did don his Sokol and catch a ride on a Soyuz. One could argue that this happened under the best imaginable circumstances. There was no emergency. Rather than abandoning the ISS, the crew had to "simply" move the Soyuz to a different docking port to make room for other incoming ships. In these scenarios, the entire 3-person crew (the ISS now hosts a crew of 6) would board the Soyuz. This ensured that no one would be left behind if the ship was unable to re-dock with the ISS. If that were to happen, they would turn around and head for a landing in Russia.

    Anderson's Soyuz had no trouble reconnecting with the ISS. The entire flight lasted only about 20 minutes. That's a good thing since he says the Sokol is rather uncomfortable to wear…especially within the cramped confines of a Soyuz. Clay recalled mandatory training sessions in a pressurized Sokol at Star City, which he said had elements of "excruciating pain". "It's a rite of passage," he says.

    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!