Posts Tagged 'ESA'

Looking back, 1997 had a few standout moments as far as science was concerned. Dolly the sheep was cloned and born, the Pathfinder probe landed on Mars and the ThrustSSC set the first super sonic land speed record. It was also the year that the Cassini probe launched from Cape Canaveral on a 20 year expedition to explore Saturn and its 53 moons.

During the mission, the European Space Agency deployed the Huygens probe to Titan. This secondary unit provided the first on-site data about the moon’s nitrogen rich atmosphere, its weather conditions and potential for surface floods of liquid methane and ethane as well as a sub-surface ocean.

This was all back in 2005. Since then Cassini has extended its primary mission, waiting for Saturn’s equinox and solstice in relation to the Sun. Over this period, it has sent back a wealth of information about the dynamics of the planet’s moons, the nature of its signature rings and a stack of jaw dropping imagery.

Now the long enduring spaceship is set for its swan song (see video above). However, to avoid contaminating the neighbouring celestial bodies, NASA have planned a daring sequence of manoeuvres. Sweeping in an elliptical orbit, Cassini has already made its first pass between the body of Saturn and its innermost ring, bringing back fresh images of the polar vortex – a hurricane of gargantuan proportions. From this point it will then perform a number of further passes until it ultimately plunges into the gaseous depths of the planet sometime in September. The spacecraft will continue to collect and transmit scientific data, but NASA are expecting connection with the vessel to be severed as soon as it starts to tumble. Regardless, it’s an audacious finale to the mission, and one cleverly orchestrated to appeal to a much wider audience than just die-hard NASA fan-base.

So then, it seems apt on a Saturn Day such as today, to consider Cassini’s final months orbiting around our gaseous neighbour, and to even listen to the voice of its rings as we prepare to bid it a temporary farewell.

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The Right Stuff

Space exploration is cool. It always has been. Take the tale of Neil Armstrong ejecting from the Apollo 11 lander trainer seconds before it crashed. Minutes after the incident, he was found in his office, casually chatting to other base staff with no reference to his near death experience. The man had a hangar load of right stuff cool.

Previously on Drozbot, we’ve reported on some of the coolest elements of space travel – the solution to the Mars rover landing being just one exceptional case. But in all of these robots, rather than people, have taken precedence.

Let’s redress that now with Chris Hadfield’s rendition of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, played from the International Space Station. Through this the commander was instantly propelled to the top of the charts as far as the nerdcore were concerned. Despite his entertaining performance, the cupola on the ISS remains the intellectual property of Tracey Caldwell Dyson and her evocative contemplation of our planet.

Another slice of extra-terrestrial hipness from 2013 was Alfonso Cuarón’s film Gravity. As well as putting women in space front and centre, the movie brilliantly highlighted the fragility of human existence when framed against the vast hostility of space. And it’s precisely this hostility that Richard Branson is now wrestling with. Whatever your thoughts about the entrepreneur, the endeavour to get commercial space flight up and running is inherently stylish, and it’s a shame that Virgin Galactic now faces a major set back after the death of test pilot Michael Alsbury. Respect due to the deceased, though, for paying the ultimate price and for playing his part in humanity’s prospects of survival.

Today, with the audacious Rosetta comet mission, we have Dr Matt Taylor who has brought some much needed knockabout humour to space flight. Yes, his recent wardrobe malfunction was openly offensive, and his achievements came at no physical risk to himself, but he remains about as far from the traditional ‘slide rule’ stereotype of a space scientist as you can get.

So is this all the result of a generational tipping point, a sudden influx of people to positions of influence who were originally motivated by the space race and the stars of the Apollo program? Possibly. What it does collectively represent, is a much more robust, less stuffy approach to exploration beyond Earth which I, for one, am more than willing to advocate.

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