Posts Tagged 'NASA'

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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So the reviews are coming in and fears that Simon Pegg might have made Star Trek Beyond the fourth film in his Cornetto trilogy are dissipating. It looks like we’re in for another gripping ride into the final frontier. From a wider perspective though, it feels like a franchise reemerging from a difficult time.

The aftershocks within the nerdcore regarding Leonard Nimoy’s death are still being felt. Thankfully, the tributes are finally coming to fruition, with the documentary For The Love of Spock about to be released. There’s no way such a dedication, even one made by his son Adam, can fill the void left by such a Sci-Fi icon, but there’ll no doubt be solace found for the fans in its screening. The death, however, of our new Pavel Chekov is a totally different and freakishly sad affair ensuring Anton Yelchin’s swan song will leave a bitter/sweet taste with all who watch.

Moving from the tragically sublime to the ephemeral, but sticking with tribute as a theme, a group of artists have celebrated 50 years of Star Trek by creating 50 works of art. It’s a mixed bag of interpretations, but there are some gems hidden away in there.

The more positive news continues with the announcement back in May of an all new TV series coming at the start of 2017. Meanwhile the cross-over between science and fiction keeps up its momentum in this anniversary year, with the International Space Station releasing their own promotional video.

Love it or hate it, any 50 year creative franchise deserves acknowledgement, and the examples above prove that its ethics, of being better and going further, still have the power to motivate audiences around the world.

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Sometimes it’s best to set your sights further afield. When your Sci-Fi news feed is chock-a-block with super heroes, ersatz TV series – possibly containing super heroes – and totally unnecessary film remakes (Jacob’s Ladder), it’s time to pack your imaginations and head to the space port. Not that you’ll find a warm welcome when you finally go orbital.

Beyond the ionosphere there are two notable pieces of research that NASA are currently engaged with in the hope of creating more efficient and expandable space habitats. The first is their testing of a new adhesive based upon the analysis of gecko feet. The ‘grippers’ should mimic the switch on/switch off climbing abilities of said lizard, and are hoped to be included on microbots that could service the exterior of the International Space Station, or be sent out to glue technical additions onto existing satellites.

While we’re aboard the ISS, there’s also research being conducted into inflatable habitats. If all goes well with its scheduled launch in April, the Space X Dragon capsule will deliver a 6ft by 8ft module that will bloom into a 12ft by 10ft operational area. The Bugelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, is mostly made up of aluminium and fabric. This may sound decidedly insubstantial when considering the inhospitable environment, but is actually a recognisable model for construction – albeit one employed in a totally novel manner. That said, space debris remains an ongoing concern for the space station, which has to routinely change orbit to dodge potential collisions.

Such orbital manoeuvring leads us nicely onto Japan’s errant Hitomi satellite, which stopped communicating with Earth soon after establishing itself in orbit on the 17th February. A team of investigators believe that something hit the black hole research vehicle, but remain unsure as to what. Meanwhile the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), have established fleeting contact with the damaged craft, raising hopes that it can be resurrected. At least the impact wasn’t on the same magnitude as our final update.

Two amateur astronomers have observed something colliding with Jupiter. Not as spectacular as the famous Shoemaker-Levy impact of 1994, the images – captured by Gerrit Kerbauer in Australia and John McKeon in Ireland – still demonstrate how important our most massive neighbouring planet actually is. (It’s postulated that without its gravitational shield life, as we know it on Earth, would never have had the necessary time to evolve.)

Ultimately, space remains an incredibly unforgiving and engaging environment that calls upon our best levels of ingenuity on all fronts. As least, for the time being, it’s also proving to be a much more interesting backdrop than the current slew of average Earth-bound genre stories. Here’s hoping all things Sci-Fi pick up in April.

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Orphu Meets Zeus

Anyone who has spent a month of Sundays digging away at Eve Online just so that they can shoot pirates at the weekend, might like this one.

Seems the US government want to open up the rights to mine asteroids. While those outside of North America may call for an international agreement – much in the same way that Antarctica is protected by a treaty of nation states – the idea of sending probes to seek mineral wealth away from the Earth is intriguing.

Numerous companies have been speculating about the logistics of what such a mining operation would entail. Back in 2013, Astronaut published an article about how the solar systemic race for resources was shaping up. Among the possible solutions Deep Space Industries’ concept of a self-replicating fleet of prospectors caused the biggest stir among Sci-Fi fans. Partially because it offers a neat solution to the expense of repeated rocket launches from Earth, but also for the similarity to Dan Simmons’ Moravecs from Ilium and Olympos (Francois Baranger’s interpretation of Orphu of Io above). Add to the evocative mix the recent hi-res imagery from NASA’s Dawn probe as it flew past Ceres – the largest of the solar system’s planetoids – and suddenly there seems to be more science to the proposals than fiction.

Personally, it’s been over a decade since I wrote my own take on what the future might hold for mining among the stars. In Dusted, the approach was to employ genetically altered humans on long tours of duty in the asteroid belt. Throwing in some extraterrestrial interest – which was inspired by this scene from Empire Strikes Back – the story also called into question whether life could evolve on a smaller landmass within a hard vacuum. A flight of fancy possibly, but the mystery behind the bright spots recorded on Ceres’ surface proves that humanity always has more to learn the further it gets from home.

As well as discovery, there’s the added bonus that this new ‘gold rush’ to the final frontier might also ensure the survival of our species. Not just by protecting our home planet from environmental depletion, but also by reducing our dinosaur-like vulnerability while we remain confined to Earth.

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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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