Was that the International Space Station orbiting above us?

Thursday, 20 August, 2015

Many the time have I looked up at the night sky and seen a point of light arc gracefully overhead. It may have been an aircraft at high enough altitude to catch the Sun’s rays, or it could have been an orbiting satellite.

Possibly, it might have been the International Space Station (ISS). I’ll never know now, but thanks to NASA’s Spot The Station website, I’ll be able to find in the future when the ISS is going to be in skies in my part of the world, and where I can find it.

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A flight over Atlantis Chaos, Mars

Monday, 17 August, 2015

Atlantis Chaos is a region in the southern hemisphere of Mars, that may have once contained huge amounts of water. Sadly there’s no trace of any today, but this fly-over animation of the area, prepared by the European Space Agency, is no less spectacular.

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On the Moon you can’t sleep much, that’s ok, you don’t need much

Tuesday, 28 July, 2015

It sounds as if a good night’s sleep was a forlorn hope for Apollo astronauts when it came time for some shut-eye, especially in what would probably have been the middle of the Lunar day.

Hammocks slung across the confines of the cramped Lunar Module don’t sound all that comfortable, to say nothing of the constant noise that the craft’s various mechanical, and life support systems, would have been making.

On the flip side though, it seems like the Apollo crews on the Moon’s surface didn’t need a full “night” of sleep anyway, on account of the reduced gravity environment, this according to Jack Schmitt of Apollo 17:

“One-sixth gravity is a very pleasant sleeping environment with just enough pressure on your back in those hammocks to feel like you’re on something but not enough to ever get uncomfortable,” Schmitt told the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal. “I slept but my impression was that I only needed about five hours sleep to feel rested whereas ordinarily on Earth at that time I usually felt that I could use seven. But I think that’s related mainly to the lower gravity environment. You just don’t get physically as fatigued as you would on Earth.”

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Had to happen eventually… the Pluto conspiracy theories

Thursday, 23 July, 2015

There’s always someone trying to spoil everyone else’s fun, and only days after the New Horizons flyby of Pluto. Yes, the conspiracy theorists have started crawling out of the woodwork already.

One line of their… thinking on the matter says that the images returned to Earth last week were (somehow) faked, while another claims that an alien spaceship base was spotted on the distant member of the solar system, but was hushed up, and presumably, Photoshoped off, the images that NASA released.

A variant of the conspiracy theory exists that suggests that the NASA New Horizon mission happened and that it reached Pluto. However, the theory posits, the space agency is covering up the discovery of an alien, UFO base on the former ninth planet. Clearly a bone chilling orb at the edge of the Solar System would be prime real estate for such a facility, the better for the UFOs to make the occasional foray to Earth to abduct humans and perform disgusting experiments on them.

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All those great photos of Pluto, thanks to an aluminum camera

Thursday, 23 July, 2015

To date, the photos of Pluto, its moons, and their surroundings, taken by the New Horizons space probe, have been breathtaking. But the story of the camera, named Ralph, responsible for all these images, is also incredible.

Obviously no ordinary camera could be used for the job, and the team constructing Ralph had to, among many other factors, consider the freezing conditions in which it would be operating.

And because the various materials that make up a normal camera would respond, or shrink, at different rates, due to the ultra low temperatures – we’re talking well below minus two hundred degrees Celsius here – it was decided to build Ralph almost entirely from aluminum.

With the exception of the lens, being glass, the aluminum construction meant that the camera’s components would all shrink at the same rate.

“Going out that far, there are some fluctuations,” Hardaway says. “It can get quite cold, and materials will shrink as they get colder. But different materials shrink at different rates.” The answer, then, was to build almost the entire camera out of just one type of material. “We actually built the mirrors and the chassis out of aluminum so that as they shrink, they would shrink together, to maintain the same focal length. We could do a reasonable test on Earth and still expect the same quality image,” she says.

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Travelling light years to hear the music of decades past

Tuesday, 21 July, 2015

Lightyear.fm interface

The crew, if there were actually a human crew, aboard NASA’s New Horizons space probe will need something to help keep them entertained until they reach their next port of call, a KBO, or Kuiper Belt Object, some one billion kilometres beyond Pluto, that it is expected to encounter in early 2019.

From there, the deep space probe will probably hurtle through the galaxy until some random red dwarf star – since they’re all through interstellar space – drags New Horizons into its solar system. Still, what for this… crew to do until that happens?

They could tune into radio broadcasts from Earth, and since radio signals move at the speed of light, the would-be crew crew could listen, or should that be re-listen, to old radio shows. The further away from Earth you get, the older the music you hear will be (well, maybe). Assuming you travel far enough away that is.

Lightyear.fm then will give you an idea of what to expect this in is regard. Select a timeframe, say twenty years, and you’ll be transported, by way of your web browser, to a point twenty light years from Earth, where you’ll be able to hear the songs that were being broadcast in 1995.

I thought the journey was more interesting than the music, but try it out, and see what I mean.

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Pluto, the solar system’s other red “planet”?

Tuesday, 14 July, 2015

Pluto and Charon, image by NASA

NASA’s New Horizons space probe will probably be skimming, mere thousands of kilometres, over the top of Pluto around about now, so the images it returns in the next few days will doubtless be far sharper than the above photo of Pluto and Charon, taken from a distance of twenty million, give or take, kilometres.

While it’s been known for a while that Pluto is reddish-brown in colour, I didn’t realise it was referred to as the solar system’s “other red planet”, with Mars being, I guess, “the” red planet. While both have reddish hues, their colouring comes about in quite different ways however:

What color is Pluto? The answer, revealed in the first maps made from New Horizons data, turns out to be shades of reddish brown. Although this is reminiscent of Mars, the cause is almost certainly very different. On Mars the coloring agent is iron oxide, commonly known as rust. On the dwarf planet Pluto, the reddish color is likely caused by hydrocarbon molecules that are formed when cosmic rays and solar ultraviolet light interact with methane in Pluto’s atmosphere and on its surface.

Also, isn’t referring to Pluto as “other red planet”, key word being planet, likely to start all sorts of arguments?

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Humans on Mars will one day be quite unlike humans on Earth

Thursday, 9 July, 2015

When humans finally establish a permanent colony on Mars – whichever way that may happen – or some other body in the solar system, they will eventually evolve into another species of human beings, on account of the quite different environment they’ll be part of:

And if we have a fully functioning colony where people don’t spend all their time on basic survival tasks, change could happen fast. “They’ll evolve physiologically quite quickly, because if the gravity is less – as it would be on Mars or the moon – then they will change,” Impey said. “Their physical bodies will change even while they’re alive. And then if they have children and grandchildren – then they’ll change even more.”

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If asteroids were stars, the Milky Way would be too close for comfort

Tuesday, 7 July, 2015

I must have been too preoccupied with tax matters and the like last Tuesday, 30 June, being the end of the financial year hereabouts, to notice that it was also Asteroid Day.

There are who knows how many of these objects hurtling around the solar system, and one of the aims of the day named in their honour, is to raise awareness of the risks they pose to Earth, while also seeking global cooperation in devising strategies to detect and deflect any that may pose a threat.

To mark the occasion, Scott Manley created this 360 degree video rendering of the night sky, that presents asteroids that are in the vicinity of Earth, as star like objects. It’s a relatively busy space out there, isn’t it? And what you see there are only the one percent of such objects that we so far know about…

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Sights we’ve seen in the solar system between here and Pluto

Friday, 3 July, 2015

It’s just a little over a week until NASA’s New Horizons space probe makes its closet approach to dwarf planet Pluto. The fun begins in earnest in the weeks following the flyby, when the data collected by the probe reaches Earth.

While we wait for that to happen, here’s a collection of images taken by other probes, of some of the planets and moons in the solar system, in the past.

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