Aborting the launch of the Space Shuttle, easy… in theory anyway

Monday, 20 October, 2014

There was a procedure in place to abort a Space Shuttle flight if a problem became apparent on, or immediately, after launch, but it certainly wasn’t a simple matter of switching off the engines, and heading towards a nearby landing strip…

About two minutes into the flight, the SRBs [Solid Rocket Boosters] would burn out and then be jettisoned. The SSMEs [Space Shuttle Main Engines] would continue to burn fuel from the ET [External Tank] until about eight and a half minutes after liftoff. For missions with a particularly heavy payload, the two Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) engines could be fired during ascent to help the shuttle aloft. The OMS engines were also used later to adjust the shuttle’s orbit, including the deorbit burn that brought it home at the end of the mission. After Main Engine Cutoff (MECO), the shuttle would jettison the empty ET, which would disintegrate as it tumbled back to Earth. That’s all there was to it. What could possibly go wrong?

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Establishing a human colony on Mars, not so straightforward?

Friday, 17 October, 2014

I was quite excited about the Mars One idea, when I first heard of it a couple of years ago. Both pioneering and audacious, the project founders proposed sending four people at a time to Mars in 2024, followed by another group every two years thereafter, gradually establishing a human colony on the red planet in the process.

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT, analysis of the concept, based on what is currently known publicly, however finds the plan, to be unsustainable. In short they conclude that Mars One is trying to achieve too much, too soon:

The lead author, Sydney Do, a Ph.D. candidate in aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, said via email that in his view “the Mars One Concept is unsustainable” because of the current state of technology and its “aggressive expansion approach” of quickly adding more and more people rather than keeping the settlement at a fixed size for a period of time.

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The Cosmonaut’s survival kit, but for survival where exactly?

Thursday, 9 October, 2014

Cosmonauts on Soviet Soyuz spacecraft flights were issued with survival kits that included among other things, pistols and ammunition, fishing gear, compasses, knives, medical kits, and fire starters. And not for use on some inhabited alien planet they may have chanced upon mind you, but planet Earth…

The pistol was intended to scare off “wolves, bears, tigers, etc.” on the event of a crash landing. Later Soviet survival kits expanded to include fishing tackle, improved cold suits, royal blue knit caps with the Cyrillic initials of each cosmonaut (shades of The Life Aquatic) and “ugh boots” lined with fur.

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Fidelity and interstellar travel, do they mix at the speed of light?

Thursday, 18 September, 2014

There are a million or more scientific, engineering, financial, and who knows what else, hurdles to be jumped before we go taking off to other parts of the cosmos at the speed of light, but I guess now is a good time to address the topic of… fidelity.

Specifically fidelity on the part of the space voyager’s partner, who remains on Earth, while their other half is absent for decades, at the very least, zapping about interstellar space. US author Mary Roach, writer of Packing for Mars, takes the view that such loyalty may not be the best idea, and for good reason really:

And more important, Roach points out, the astronaut who comes back from voyaging to another galaxy will still be relatively young and fit and good-looking (because they were traveling at near the speed of light, so from their perspective the trip didn’t take that long), while the spouse back home will have aged and withered, having waited around on a planet that just kept spinning indifferently. It’s a recipe for disaster, basically. And betrayal. And pain.

It was always my understanding that the crew of interstellar, speed of light craft, would actually be absent for centuries, if not longer, as far as those on Earth were concerned, something that puts another slant on the question all together…

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It may be better if we do not encounter extraterrestrials

Friday, 12 September, 2014

It’s quite possible we on Earth are the first born in terms of intelligent life in the cosmos, given the relatively young age of the universe. It’s something that makes the chances of our ever encountering extraterrestrial life pretty remote, and that may not, surprisingly, be a bad thing:

A message with a more straightforward intent could have equally ruinous effects. It could be a new scientific insight or technological blueprint sent as an item of interstellar trade or détente, but have a destabilizing effect on Earth’s economy. Or a message could contain a philosophical statement interpreted to have religious meaning, triggering conflict and disorder. Even “Is Anyone Out There?” would be problematic – the decision to answer or not could provoke more than just verbal conflict within our species.

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And here’s a shout out to all the residents of Laniakea

Thursday, 11 September, 2014

It’s nice, in a way, to know that the universe is divided into suburbs of sorts, and our galaxy, the Milky Way, is, along with some one hundred thousand of its closest galactic neighbours, part of a region that has been named Laniakea… doesn’t that make the cosmos feel all more homely then?

Astronomers were able to identify the boundaries of Laniakea by charting the flow of more than 8,000 galaxies surrounding the Milky Way. By that yardstick, they discovered that the Milky Way, along 100,000 other galaxies, is sailing toward a region named the Shapley super-cluster.

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A flyby of Triton, the ice moon of Neptune

Friday, 5 September, 2014

Photos taken by deep space probe Voyager 2, in August 1989, have been stitched together to form a flyby like animation of Triton, the largest satellite of Neptune. Triton is unique among the large moons of the solar system’s planets in that it has a retrograde orbit, meaning it circles Neptune in the opposite direction of the planet’s rotation.

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Sea plankton on the International Space Station’s starboard bow?

Wednesday, 27 August, 2014

There’s bound to be a logical explanation, bound to… a study of external surfaces of the International Space Station (ISS) has revealed, among other things, the presence of sea plankton.

So how does plankton even reach the ISS? Via evaporation in over-drive? And once it… arrives there, what are the chances of survival? Pretty good actually, it would seem:

Some organisms can live on the surface of the International Space Station (ISS) for years amid factors of a space flight, such as zero gravity, temperature conditions and hard cosmic radiation. Several surveys proved that these organisms can even develop.

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The greatest space flight hacks to date

Thursday, 14 August, 2014

Photo by NASA

We all know that the Apollo 13 Moon mission was essentially one long space flight hack that returned the crew safely home, but there have been other instances of space missions going awry for one reason or another, even if the problems have not been of quite the same severity.

In April 1985, nine months before the Challenger disaster, the crew of Space Shuttle Discovery deployed the satellite Leasat-3. With the shuttle doors open, it drifted away. But within minutes it was clear that something was wrong: the satellite’s antennae had failed to deploy. Rather than abandon the $85m satellite, the crew set to work putting together a less-than-sophisticated device that could be used to poke the satellite to activate a lever on its side. Dubbed the “fly swatter”, this improvised space stick was constructed using clear plastic covers from spacecraft manuals, sticky tape and a metal pole.

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A totally partial eclipse of the Sun as seen on Mars

Thursday, 31 July, 2014

Phobos eclipses the Sun, image via NASA/JPL-Caltech

Even though Phobos and Deimos, the two moons – or captured objects as I think of them – of Mars, aren’t especially sizable, solar eclipses, all be they partial, seemingly, still take place. Above is a photo, taken by NASA’s Mars rover, Curiosity, about a year ago, of a Phobos/Sun occultation.

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