kottke.org posts about NASA

On the 30th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disasterJan 28 2016

Today is the 30th anniversary of the final launch and subsequent catastrophic loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Popular Mechanics has an oral history of the launch and aftermath.

Capano: We got the kids quiet, and then I remember that the line that came across the TV was "The vehicle has exploded." One of the girls in my classroom said, "Ms. Olson [Capano's maiden name], what do they mean by 'the vehicle'?" And I looked at her and I said, "I think they mean the shuttle." And she got very upset with me. She said, "No! No! No! They don't mean the shuttle! They don't mean the shuttle!"

Raymond: The principal came over the PA system and said something like, "We respectfully request that the media leave the building now. Now." Some of the press left, but some of them took off into the school. They started running into the halls to get pictures, to get sound-people were crying, people were running. It was chaos. Some students started chasing after journalists to physically get them out of the school.

I have certainly read about Feynman's O-ring demonstration during the investigation of the disaster, but I hadn't heard this bit:

Kutyna: On STS-51C, which flew a year before, it was 53 degrees [at launch, then the coldest temperature recorded during a shuttle launch] and they completely burned through the first O-ring and charred the second one. One day [early in the investigation] Sally Ride and I were walking together. She was on my right side and was looking straight ahead. She opened up her notebook and with her left hand, still looking straight ahead, gave me a piece of paper. Didn't say a single word. I look at the piece of paper. It's a NASA document. It's got two columns on it. The first column is temperature, the second column is resiliency of O-rings as a function of temperature. It shows that they get stiff when it gets cold. Sally and I were really good buddies. She figured she could trust me to give me that piece of paper and not implicate her or the people at NASA who gave it to her, because they could all get fired.

I wondered how I could introduce this information Sally had given me. So I had Feynman at my house for dinner. I have a 1973 Opel GT, a really cute car. We went out to the garage, and I'm bragging about the car, but he could care less about cars. I had taken the carburetor out. And Feynman said, "What's this?" And I said, "Oh, just a carburetor. I'm cleaning it." Then I said, "Professor, these carburetors have O-rings in them. And when it gets cold, they leak. Do you suppose that has anything to do with our situation?" He did not say a word. We finished the night, and the next Tuesday, at the first public meeting, is when he did his O-ring demonstration.

We were sitting in three rows, and there was a section of the shuttle joint, about an inch across, that showed the tang and clevis [the two parts of the joint meant to be sealed by the O-ring]. We passed this section around from person to person. It hit our row and I gave it to Feynman, expecting him to pass it on. But he put it down. He pulled out pliers and a screwdriver and pulled out the section of O-ring from this joint. He put a C-clamp on it and put it in his glass of ice water. So now I know what he's going to do. It sat there for a while, and now the discussion had moved on from technical stuff into financial things. I saw Feynman's arm going out to press the button on his microphone. I grabbed his arm and said, "Not now." Pretty soon his arm started going out again, and I said, "Not now!" We got to a point where it was starting to get technical again, and I said, "Now." He pushed the button and started the demonstration. He took the C-clamp off and showed the thing does not bounce back when it's cold. And he said the now-famous words, "I believe that has some significance for our problem." That night it was all over television and the next morning in the Washington Post and New York Times. The experiment was fantastic-the American public had short attention spans and they didn't understand technology, but they could understand a simple thing like rubber getting hard.

I never talked with Sally about it later. We both knew what had happened and why it had happened, but we never discussed it. I kept it a secret that she had given me that piece of paper until she died [in 2012].

Whoa, dang. Also not well known is that the astronauts survived the initial explosion and were possibly alive and conscious when they hit the water two and a half minutes later.

Over the December holiday, I read 10:04 by Ben Lerner (quickly, recommended). The novel includes a section on the Challenger disaster and how very few people saw it live:

The thing is, almost nobody saw it live: 1986 was early in the history of cable news, and although CNN carried the launch live, not that many of us just happened to be watching CNN in the middle of a workday, a school day. All other major broadcast stations had cut away before the disaster. They all came back quickly with taped replays, of course. Because of the Teacher in Space Project, NASA had arranged a satellite broadcast of the mission into television sets in many schools -- and that's how I remember seeing it, as does my older brother. I remember tears in Mrs. Greiner's eyes and the students' initial incomprehension, some awkward laughter. But neither of us did see it: Randolph Elementary School in Topeka wasn't part of that broadcast. So unless you were watching CNN or were in one of the special classrooms, you didn't witness it in the present tense.

Oh, the malleability of memory. I remember seeing it live too, at school. My 7th grade English teacher permanently had a TV in her room and because of the schoolteacher angle of the mission, she had arranged for us to watch the launch, right at the end of class. I remember going to my next class and, as I was the first student to arrive, telling the teacher about the accident. She looked at me in disbelief and then with horror as she realized I was not the sort of kid who made terrible stuff like that up. I don't remember the rest of the day and now I'm doubting if it happened that way at all. Only our classroom and a couple others watched it live -- there wasn't a specially arranged whole-school event -- and I doubt my small school had a satellite dish to receive the special broadcast anyway. Nor would we have had cable to get CNN...I'm not even sure cable TV was available in our rural WI town at that point. So...?

But, I do remember the jokes. The really super offensive jokes. The jokes actually happened. Again, from 10:04:

I want to mention another way information circulated through the country in 1986 around the Challenger disaster, and I think those of you who are more or less my age will know what I'm talking about: jokes. My brother, who is three and a half years older than I, would tell me one after another as we walked to and from Randolph Elementary that winter: Did you know that Christa McAuliffe was blue-eyed? One blew left and one blew right; What were Christa McAuliffe's last words to her husband? You feed the kids -- I'll feed the fish; What does NASA stand for? Need Another Seven Astronauts; How do they know what shampoo Christa McAuliffe used? They found her head and shoulders. And so on: the jokes seemed to come out of nowhere, or to come from everywhere at once; like cicadas emerging from underground, they were ubiquitous for a couple of months, then disappeared. Folklorists who study what they call 'joke cycles' track how -- particularly in times of collective anxiety -- certain humorous templates get recycled, often among children.

At the time, I remember these jokes being hilarious1 but also a little horrifying. Lerner continues:

The anonymous jokes we were told and retold were our way of dealing with the remainder of the trauma that the elegy cycle initiated by Reagan-Noonan-Magee-Hicks-Dunn-C.A.F.B. (and who knows who else) couldn't fully integrate into our lives.

Reminds me of how children in Nazi ghettos and concentration camps dealt with their situation by playing inappropriate games.

Even in the extermination camps, the children who were still healthy enough to move around played. In one camp they played a game called "tickling the corpse." At Auschwitz-Birkenau they dared one another to touch the electric fence. They played "gas chamber," a game in which they threw rocks into a pit and screamed the sounds of people dying.

  1. Also, does anyone remember the dead baby jokes? They were all the rage when I was a kid. There were books of them. "Q: What do you call a dead baby with no arms and no legs laying on a beach? A: Sandy." And we thought they were funny as hell.

Two Saturnian moons, lined upJan 06 2016

Saturn Two Moons

The Cassini spacecraft took a photo of two moons of Saturn, Tethys and Enceladus, beautifully aligned with each other. The cosmic ballet goes on. (via slate)

Best views yet of PlutoDec 07 2015

Pluto New Horizons Closest

NASA's New Horizons probe has sent back the first of the sharpest images of Pluto it took during its July flyby of the planet.1

These latest images form a strip 50 miles (80 kilometers) wide on a world 3 billion miles away. The pictures trend from Pluto's jagged horizon about 500 miles (800 kilometers) northwest of the informally named Sputnik Planum, across the al-Idrisi mountains, over the shoreline of Sputnik, and across its icy plains.

View the new image at high resolution here or watch a video scroll of the imagery:

  1. Oh yes, I went there. Bring it, NDT.

11 years of Saturn photos from the Cassini probeNov 20 2015

The Cassini probe, launched from Earth in 1997 (six months before I started publishing kottke.org), has been taking photos of Saturn and its moons for 11 years now. The Wall Street Journal has a great feature that shows exactly what the probe has been looking at all that time. (Note: the video above features flashing images, so beware if that sort of thing is harmful to you.)

The Breathing EarthNov 18 2015

From NASA, an animation of the yearly cycle of the Earth's plant life. The data is taken from satellite measurements (plant density for land and chlorophyll concentration for the ocean) and averaged over several years.

From December to February, during the northern hemisphere winter, plant life in the higher latitudes is minimal and receives little sunlight. However, even in the mid latitudes plants are dormant, shown here with browns and yellows on the land and dark blues in the ocean. By contrast the southern ocean and land masses are at the height of the summer season and plant life is revealed with dark green colors on the land and in the ocean. As the year progresses, the situations reverses, with plant life following the increased sunlight northward, while the southern hemisphere experiences decreased plant activity during its winter.

If you're anything like me, about 2-3 times into the video's cycle, you'll be breathing in tune to the Earth. Oxygen in, carbon dioxide out. Carbon dioxide in, oxygen out. Oxygen in, carbon dioxide out... (via @EricHolthaus)

Thermonuclear ArtNov 03 2015

In a nod to our nation's recreational drug users, NASA has created this 30-minute ultra high-resolution look at our Sun, assembled from thousands of photographs taken by the Solar Dynamics Observatory, which snaps a 16-megapixel image of the Sun every few seconds. Duuuuuuuude...

Cassini sippin' on EnceladusOct 28 2015

Whoa, how have I not heard about this before today: the Cassini spacecraft is going to dive through a jet of water erupting from Enceladus, a Saturnian moon.

Discovering life was not on the agenda when Cassini was designed and launched two decades ago. Its instruments can't capture microbes or detect life, but in a couple of dozen passes through the plumes of Enceladus, it has detected various molecules associated with life: water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, molecular nitrogen, propane, acetylene, formaldehyde and traces of ammonia.

Wednesday's dive will be the deepest Cassini will make through the plumes, only 30 miles above the icy surface. Scientists are especially interested in measuring the amount of hydrogen gas in the plume, which would tell them how much energy and heat are being generated by chemical reactions in hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the moon's ocean.

That's pretty crazy...it sounds like science fiction. NASA is doing a wonderful job producing great science with the lean budgets they are given.

NASA: there's liquid water on the surface of MarsSep 28 2015


NASA's press conference doesn't start for a few minutes yet, but the NY Times has the scoop: NASA has found "definitive signs" of liquid water on the surface of Mars. Like, right now on Mars, not millions of years ago.

In a paper published in the journal Nature Geoscience, Dr. McEwen and other scientists identified waterlogged molecules -- salts of a type known as perchlorates - in readings from orbit.

"That's a direct detection of water in the form of hydration of salts," Dr. McEwen said. "There pretty much has to have been liquid water recently present to produce the hydrated salt."

By "recently," Dr. McEwen said he meant "days, something of that order."

This is fantastic timing for the release of The Martian movie, which comes out this weekend.

Update: And here's the official press release from NASA.

"Our quest on Mars has been to 'follow the water,' in our search for life in the universe, and now we have convincing science that validates what we've long suspected," said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "This is a significant development, as it appears to confirm that water -- albeit briny -- is flowing today on the surface of Mars."

These downhill flows, known as recurring slope lineae (RSL), often have been described as possibly related to liquid water. The new findings of hydrated salts on the slopes point to what that relationship may be to these dark features. The hydrated salts would lower the freezing point of a liquid brine, just as salt on roads here on Earth causes ice and snow to melt more rapidly. Scientists say it's likely a shallow subsurface flow, with enough water wicking to the surface to explain the darkening.

Sunset on PlutoSep 17 2015

The backlit photos of Pluto just posted by NASA are breathtaking. Look at this:

Pluto backlit

Just 15 minutes after its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft looked back toward the sun and captured this near-sunset view of the rugged, icy mountains and flat ice plains extending to Pluto's horizon. The smooth expanse of the informally named Sputnik Planum (right) is flanked to the west (left) by rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high, including the informally named Norgay Montes in the foreground and Hillary Montes on the skyline. The backlighting highlights more than a dozen layers of haze in Pluto's tenuous but distended atmosphere. The image was taken from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 kilometers) to Pluto; the scene is 230 miles (380 kilometers) across.

As they say, best viewed large. Some of those features don't look like mountains at all, but like reptile scales or huge shards of ice pushed up into the sky. Fantastic.

The end of the NASA windowSep 14 2015

In retrospect, it was an unlikely set of conditions that came together to produce the Space Age. Not just the postwar blend of prosperity and paranoia, but a series of scientific breakthroughs, both pure and applied, that happened in such close succession that we nearly had a surplus, one that had to be invested in something.

We had to know our world well enough to be able to escape it, but not so well that we couldn't ignore the price we were paying. And now that window may be closing.

Here are two stories that have me in an elegiac mood. "This Used To Be the Future" is a photoessay by Rachel Sussman that looks at NASA's Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. Most stories about Ames focus on the cutting edge stuff, the public/private partnerships; Sussman focuses on the old stuff, the military leftovers, the junk.

Next is a piece in Scientific American on plutonium-238. NASA uses the slow-burning plutonium to power its long-range probes and interplanetary craft.

Over the past half-century, NASA has used a total of 140 kilograms of Pu-238 to push the frontiers of exploration. Coupled to one of the agency's "thermoelectric" generators that convert heat into electricity, four kilograms of the stuff can power a spacecraft for decades. Pu-238 was used in Apollo-era science experiments on the Moon, in the Galileo mission to Jupiter and in the Pioneer and Voyager space probes now exiting our solar system. Hefty hunks of Pu-238 power the Mars Curiosity rover, the Cassini orbiter at Saturn and the New Horizons spacecraft now roaming beyond Pluto. In the future, Pu-238 could power robotic probes to burrow beneath the ice of ocean-bearing moons, planes to fly in the alien atmospheres of other worlds, ships to sail the liquid ethane seas of Saturn's moon Titan and much, much more.

Those future missions can only occur if there's enough plutonium to go around. Practically all of NASA's Pu-238 stockpile was made as a byproduct of building nuclear weapons during the Cold War. As the Cold War wound down, so too did the Department of Energy's Pu-238 production; it made its last batch in 1988, shutting off NASA's supply save for occasional deliveries of small, lower-quality batches from Russia that ceased in 2010. At present, only about 35 kilograms of Pu-238 are left for the space agency, and radioactive decay has rendered all but 17 kilograms too weak to be readily used in NASA's thermoelectric generators. NASA and DOE officials estimate there is only enough for four more generators, one of which is already committed to NASA's upcoming Mars 2020 rover.

The plutonium shortfall makes it impossible for NASA to plan future missions that would require it, but in the absence of specific mission needs, nobody wants to make any more. Solar-powered craft could eventually fill in the gap, but the technology's not there yet.

So the stars get further and further away.

Jonathan Hickman is currently writing Secret Wars for Marvel, but the roots of that story go back to his earlier run on Fantastic Four. There's a great scene where Reed Richards, Mister Fantastic, resigns from the Singularity Conference (think TED/O'Reilly/Davos on steroids), a group of scientists he founded, as they argue for increasingly limited approaches to exploration.

The other scientists are basically correct. It is irresponsible to fund manned space missions in a global recession. Our global population may be impossible to sustain on our planet going forward. But Mister Fantastic, being a superhero, rejects the premise. "The future of man is not one billion of us fighting over limited resources on a soon-to-be-dead planet, but one trillion human beings spanning an entire galaxy," he says. "The future of man is not here. It is out there. Because it's our new horizon. Because it's what's next."

It's a corny, Sorkin-esque speech.... but I love it. It thrills me. And it makes me afraid.

Reed- discovery.jpg

I would like to think that that time isn't over yet, that there is a way to reconcile what we know now with what we were willing to risk for the sake of knowledge then -- that if not in outer space, then in medicine or genetics or some other field. But part of me wonders if the time for us to come together to do big things -- that space age, that Marvel Age, that time of the Fantastic Four -- is over. And all that's left is how we manage our decline.

Reissue of the NASA Graphics Standards ManualSep 01 2015

NASA Standards Manual

When I posted about NASA's logo battle, I included a link to some photographs of the NASA Graphics Standards Manual. At the time, I mused to myself that someone should reprint the manual...hey, maybe the guys who did the standards manual for the NYC subway. Well, lo and behold, that is exactly what's happening. Jesse Reed & Hamish Smyth just launched a Kickstarter campaign to reissue the 1975 NASA Graphics Standards Manual.

Our Kickstarter will support the printing of a reissue of the manual. It will be printed and bound as a hardcover book, using high quality scans of [the original designer's] personal copy, who is in full support of the campaign.

Instant order.

Update: It's not a printed copy, but possibly (?) in response to the Kickstarter, or other renewed attention, NASA has released the standards manual as a free downloadable PDF.

Flyby video from latest photos shows Pluto in all its gloryAug 26 2015

Bjorn Jonsson used the photos taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft to make an animation of the probe's flyby of Pluto.

The time covered is 09:35 to 13:35 (closest approach occurred near 11:50). Pluto's atmosphere is included and should be fairly realistic from about 10 seconds into the animation and to the end. Earlier it is largely just guesswork that can be improved in the future once all data has been downlinked from the spacecraft. Light from Pluto's satellite Charon illuminates Pluto's night side but is exaggerated here, in reality it would be only barely visible or not visible at all.

Fantastic...and Pluto's moons flying about in the background is the cherry on the top. (via @BadAstronomer)

Europa or frying pan?Aug 25 2015

This image was tweeted out by the NASA Europa Mission account the other day:

Europa or Frying Pan

One of these images is of Europa, Jupiter's icy moon, and the other eight are frying pans. Can you pick Europa out? Hint: frying pans tend not to have impact craters.

Update: The photos of the frying pans were taken by Christopher Jonassen, whose work I featured back in 2011 (which I had totally forgotten about). At the time, I even joked about the pans looking like a Jovian moon. kottke.org is a flat circle. (thx, tony)

NASA's logo: the worm vs. the meatballAug 20 2015

NASA's original logo looked something like this:

Nasa Meatball Logo

It was referred to, colloquially, as the meatball. In the 1970s, the meatball was switched out for the worm, a more Modernist take:

NASA Worm Logo

This logo was done by Richard Danne and Bruce Blackburn, and Danne wrote an essay about the experience.

And here is one of the most interesting exchanges I've ever witnessed in a design presentation:

Fletcher: "I'm simply not comfortable with those letters, something is missing."

Low: "Well yes, the cross stroke is gone from the letter A."

Fletcher: "Yes, and that bothers me."

Low: "Why?"

Fletcher: (long pause) "I just don't feel we are getting our money's worth!"

Others, not just the designers were stunned by this last comment. Then the discussion moved back to the strong red/rust color we were proposing. We had tried many other colors of course, including the more predictable blue range, but settled on red because it suggested action and animation. It seemed in spirit with the Can Do nature of the Space Agency.

Fletcher: And this color, red, it doesn't make much sense to me."

Low: "What would be better?"

Fletcher: "Blue makes more sense... Space is blue."

Low: "No Dr. Fletcher, Space is black!"

NASA's Graphics Standards Menu utilizing the worm logo can be seen here.

Nasa Design Manual

The space agency switched back to the original logo in 1992. Michael Bierut compared the two:

The worm is a great-looking word mark and looked fantastic on the spacecraft. By any objective measure, the worm was and is absolutely appropriate, and the meatball was and is an amateurish mess.

(thx, jarrett)

Explore Mars from the comfort of your officeAug 12 2015

Mars Sat PhotoWhat are you doing today Jason? Oh not much just exploring Mars. The hell you say. Like fun I am! NASA has released a pair of web apps: one lets you drive Curiosity around the surface of Mars and the other is a 3D visualization of the planet. Oh cool that's what I'm doing today now too. And when you're done with that, follow NASA's new Tumblr. Far out man.

Solar system exploration updateAug 11 2015

Emily Lakdawalla provides an update on all of the exploration that's going on in our solar system this month. Here's a quick map view of the 20+ spacecraft exploring our solar system beyond Earth:

Solar System Spacecraft Map

Mars remains the most active spot beyond Earth in the solar system. This week, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter reaches its 10th anniversary of service in space, but it's far from the oldest spacecraft in orbit at Mars; Mars Express and Mars Odyssey are still at work up there. Mars Orbiter Mission has ventured into an extended mission and is still returning photos, though apparently none of the full-disk images in a variety of phases that I had hoped for from its 4-Megapixel color camera. Even Mars' newest resident, MAVEN, is three-quarters of the way through its one-year primary science mission, which began on November 16, 2014. MAVEN's mission will undoubtedly be extended long beyond that, as it will be needed to support surface missions if and when Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter eventually fail.

Both Opportunity and Curiosity have been very active lately. Opportunity has finally reached Marathon Valley, a site identified from orbit to have signs of clay chemistry. The team is excited about the science prospects even though the rover's memory problems persist.

The Moon crossing the sunlit face of the EarthAug 05 2015

This is just flat-out incredible... NASA's Deep Space Climate Observatory satellite captured a series of photos of the Moon as it moved between it and the Earth.

Earth Moon Anim

The image shows the "dark side" of the Moon, which we can't see from Earth because it's always pointed away from us.

The lunar far side lacks the large, dark, basaltic plains, or maria, that are so prominent on the Earth-facing side. The largest far side features are Mare Moscoviense in the upper left and Tsiolkovskiy crater in the lower left. A thin sliver of shadowed area of moon is visible on its right side.

"It is surprising how much brighter Earth is than the moon," said Adam Szabo, DSCOVR project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "Our planet is a truly brilliant object in dark space compared to the lunar surface."

I don't know why, but this image gives me chills up my spine! Is anyone else freaking out about this?

The sounds of Voyager's Golden RecordJul 29 2015

When they were launched in 1977, the two Voyager spacecraft each carried with them a 12-inch gold-plated copper record containing images and sounds of Earth for the viewing pleasure of whichever aliens happened across them. NASA has put the sounds of the Golden Record up on Soundcloud. Here are the greetings in 55 different languages (from English1 to Hittite to Polish to Thai):

And the sounds of Earth (wild dogs, Morse code, trains):

What's missing from the two playlists is UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim's greeting:

...as well as several other UN greetings overlaid with whale sounds:

Due to copyright issues, also missing are the 90 minutes of music included on the record. Among the songs are Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry, The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky, and Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground by Blind Willie Johnson. Here Comes the Sun by The Beatles was originally supposed to be included, but their record company wouldn't allow it, which is pretty much the most small-minded thing I have ever heard.

  1. The English greeting was spoken by Nick Sagan when he was six years old. Nick is the son of Carl Sagan, who chaired the committee that selected the contents of the record.

This is the best-ever photo of Pluto. Tomorrow's will be MUCH better.Jul 14 2015

This morning, the New Horizons probe zinged safely1 past Pluto. Before it did, it transmitted the best photo we've seen of Pluto so far...the last one we'll get before we get the really good stuff. Look at this:


The probe's "I'm OK!" message will reach Earth around 9pm ET tonight and we'll start seeing photos from the flyby Wednesday afternoon...there's a NASA press conference scheduled for 3pm ET on July 15. So exciting!

Update: The photo above is also the best full-disk image of Pluto that we will get...the rest will be close-ups and such. So that's the official Pluto portrait from now on, folks.

  1. Well, hopefully. The probe is due to transmit a "I'm OK!" message back to Earth later today (at around 9pm ET). *fingers crossed*

What we'll see from New Horizons' flyby of PlutoJul 10 2015

As the New Horizons probe nears Pluto, I've been reading a bit more about how it's going to work and what sort of photos we're going to get. Emily Lakdawalla has a comprehensive post about what to expect when you're expecting a flyby of Pluto. The post contains an image of approximations of the photos New Horizon will take, using Voyager images of Jovian and Saturnian moons as stand-ins. The highest resolution photo of Pluto will be 0.4 km/pixel...it'll have this approximate level of detail:


Which is pretty amazing and exciting considering that before the mission started this was our best view of Pluto:

Pluto HubbleNASA's Eyes app lets you see a simulation of the probe as it approaches Pluto, but if you don't want to download anything, you can watch this video of the flyby instead:

I had no idea the probe spun around so much as it grabs photos & scans and then beams them back to Earth. And the flyby is so fast! New Horizons is currently moving at 32,500 mph relative to the Sun...it's travelling just over 9 miles every second. (via @Tim_Meyer_ & @badastronomer)

This is the best-ever photo of Pluto. Tomorrow's will be better.Jul 08 2015

Pluto is so far away that we haven't even been able to get a good look at it, not even with the crazy-powerful Hubble telescope. But with NASA's New Horizons mission closing in on our solar system' ninth planet,1 we are getting a better and better view of Pluto every day.1Here's the latest, from just a few hours ago:

Pluto Closeup

New Horizons will reach its closest approach to Pluto in just under 6 days, on July 14. The probe will pass within 7,800 miles of the surface...I can't wait to find out what that day's photos look like.

Update: You don't even need to wait until tomorrow for that better image...here's one that NASA released just a short while ago. Tune in tomorrow for an even better view.

Pluto closeup

  1. Oh yeah, I'm not letting this one go.

  2. New Horizons' imaging capability of Pluto surpassed Hubble's on May 15, 2015. So every picture since then has been better than what we've had previously.

The Apollo lunar rover user's manualApr 30 2015

NASA Lunar Rover ManualNASA Lunar Rover ManualNASA Lunar Rover ManualNASA Lunar Rover Manual

From NASA, the operations manual for the lunar rover. Rovers were used on the final three Apollo missions: 15, 16, and 17. (thx, daniel)

A Year in SpaceMar 26 2015

On Friday, astronauts Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko will be launched into space, where they will spend an entire year on the International Space Station. Time is doing a documentary series on Kelly's stay in space.

On March 27, the veteran of three previous space flights will take off for the International Space Station (ISS) and, along with cosmonaut Misha Kornienko, remain aloft for a full year. Meantime, Scott's twin brother Mark, a veteran of four space flights, will remain on the ground. The two men with their matching backgrounds, similar health and identical genomes, will serve as the perfect controlled experiment to learn more about how the human body handles weightlessness-and what can be done to minimize the damage during long-term trips to Mars and elsewhere.

The trailer is available here. Kelly and Kornienko will be the fifth and sixth people to spend at least a year in space...cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov spent 437 straight days in space in 1994-5.

High definition Pluto needs namesMar 23 2015

HD Pluto

Ok, Pluto fans. They evicted Pluto from our solar system's planetary pantheon, but a NASA mission launched in 2006 is nearing the dwarf planet with its cameras. We'll soon have photos of Pluto that are much more high resolution than we currently have, which means scientists will need names for all the new geographic features. The Our Pluto site has been set up to help suggest and vote on names for these features. Naming themes include historic explorers, travelers to the underworld, and scientists and engineers. Go vote! (via slate)

Hydrothermal hints of the potential for life on EnceladusMar 12 2015


Two teams of NASA scientists have discovered evidence that hydrothermal vents on the Saturnian moon of Enceladus show signs of "active hot-water chemistry". Why is that exciting? Because similar chemistry occurs deep in the Earth's oceans *and* can support life. Phil Plait explains.

We see these vents in the ocean bottom on Earth, too. The water there is very hot, heated by tectonic processes inside Earth's crust. It brings up minerals and nutrients, and life thrives there. A lot of the processes are the same as what's imagined is happening on Enceladus; minerals are dissolved in hot water that spews up into the cold ocean, precipitating out. A lot of it is sulfur based, but amazingly life exists there anyway. The environment is highly toxic to humans-huge pressure, boiling water near the vents, freezing a bit farther away, and loaded with icky chemicals-but as a scientist once said, "Life finds a way."

Between the evidence of past flowing water on Mars, Titan's hydrocarbon lakes, Europa's underground ocean, and Enceladus, it seems increasingly probable we'll find life somewhere else in the solar system. That's a pretty exciting prospect! (via @ericholthaus)

Update: It was also announced today that the Hubble has detected signs of a salty underground ocean on Jupiter's moon Ganymede.

New observations of the moon using Hubble support this. Ganymede has a weak magnetic field, and, like on Earth, this generates an aurora-the glow created when high-speed subatomic particles slam into the extremely thin atmosphere. This glow is brightest in ultraviolet, and so astronomers used the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (my old camera!) on Hubble to observe Ganymede. STIS is quite sensitive to UV and detected the aurora.

Now this part is a bit tricky: Jupiter has a powerful magnetic field as well, which interacts with Ganymede's. As they do, the aurora changes position over time, moving up and down in latitude. However, the observations show that the aurorae do not change nearly as much as expected if Ganymede were solid. The best way to explain this is if the moon has a salty ocean under its surface. The ocean would have its own magnetic field and would resist the influence of Jupiter's magnetic field, which in turn keeps the aurora steadier.

Turns out there's water all over the place in the solar system. How about that?

Neil Armstrong's bag of Moon junkFeb 10 2015

For whatever reason, when Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong left the surface of the Moon after their historic space walk, they collected "a bunch of trash that we want to take back" in a small white bag. Upon their return to Earth, Armstrong put the bag in a closet and there it sat for more than 40 years, until Armstrong's widow discovered it shortly after his death. Among other items, the bag contained the camera that recorded The Eagle's landing on the Moon and Armstrong's first step, which was presumed to have been lost or left on the Moon.

Apollo 11 Camera

As far as we know, Neil has never discussed the existence of these items and no one else has seen them in the 45 years since he returned from the Moon. (I asked James Hansen, Neil's authorized biographer if he had mentioned the items, and he had not.) Each and every item has its own story and significance, and they are described with photographs in extraordinary detail in an addendum to the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal. But two of the items are especially timely. Both have been placed on display as part of the recently opened temporary exhibition Outside the Spacecraft: 50 Years of Extra-Vehicular Activity.

The first is the 16mm Data Acquisition Camera that was mounted in the window of the lunar module Eagle to record the historic landing and "one small step" made by Armstrong as humankind first set foot on another world.

Mapping Greenland's ice layers in 3DJan 26 2015

Greenland Ice Layers

Using ice-penetrating radar and ice cores, NASA has been able to map the layers in the Greenland ice sheet.

This new map allows scientists to determine the age of large swaths of Greenland's ice, extending ice core data for a better picture of the ice sheet's history. "This new, huge data volume records how the ice sheet evolved and how it's flowing today," said Joe MacGregor, a glaciologist at The University of Texas at Austin's Institute for Geophysics and the study's lead author.

Greenland's ice sheet is the second largest mass of ice on Earth, containing enough water to raise ocean levels by about 20 feet. The ice sheet has been losing mass over the past two decades and warming temperatures will mean more losses for Greenland. Scientists are studying ice from different climate periods in the past to better understand how the ice sheet might respond in the future.

One way of studying this distant past is with ice cores. These cylinders of ice drilled from the ice sheet hold evidence of past snow accumulation and temperature and contain impurities like dust and volcanic ash that were carried by snow that accumulated and compacted over hundreds of thousands of years. These layers are visible in ice cores and can be detected with ice-penetrating radar.

Ice-penetrating radar works by sending radar signals into the ice and recording the strength and return time of reflected signals. From those signals, scientists can detect the ice surface, sub-ice bedrock and layers within the ice.

New techniques used in this study allowed scientists to efficiently pick out these layers in radar data. Prior studies had mapped internal layers, but not at the scale made possible by these newer, faster methods. Another major factor in this study was the amount of Greenland IceBridge has measured.

It's amazing that the detectors and data analysis are sensitive enough to pick out different layers in the ice just from radar. (via @ptak)

Galileo still right about gravityNov 03 2014

If you believe in gravity, then you know that if you remove air resistance, a bowling ball and a feather will fall at the same rate. But seeing it actually happen, in the world's largest vacuum chamber (122 feet high, 100 feet in diameter), is still a bit shocking.

In the late 1500s, Galileo was the first to show that the acceleration due to the Earth's gravity was independent of mass with his experiment at the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but that pesky air resistance caused some problems. At the end of the Apollo 15 mission, astronaut David Scott dropped a hammer and a feather in the vacuum on the surface of the Moon:


The sounds of NASAOct 27 2014

NASA has a new Soundcloud account with playlists like Rocket Engine Sounds, Solar System & Beyond Sounds, and Space Shuttle Mission Sounds. Here is the infamous Sputnik beep:

"Ok Houston, we've had a problem here":

And "one small step":

(via @brillhart)

A Spacecraft For AllAug 11 2014

Spacecraft For All

Oh man, this is great. A Spacecraft For All is an interactive video about the ISEE-3 Reboot Project, in which a group of scientists working out of an old McDonald's crowdfunded an effort to communicate with a nearly forgotten satellite launched by NASA in 1978 to observe the Sun and chase a comet. After the intro, click on "See the Journey"...it's well worth your time if you're at all interested in space or science.

For instance, did you know there exists several points between the Earth and the Sun at which a satellite can orbit around, enabling spacecraft to stay more or less in the same spot for observation purposes? So cool!

More than 700 new planets discovered todayFeb 26 2014

NASA announced the discovery of 719 new planets today. That brings the tally of known planets in our universe to almost 1800. 20 years ago, that number was not more than 15 (including the nine planets orbiting the Sun). Here's a rough timeline of the dramatically increasing pace of planetary discovery:

4.54 billion BCE-1700: 6
1700-1799: 1
1800-1899: 1
1900-1950: 1
1951-1990: 1
1991-2000: 49
2001-2005: 131
2006-2010: 355
2006: -1 [for Pluto :( ]
2011-2014: 1243

Last year, Jonathan Corum made an infographic of the sizes and orbits of the 190 confirmed planets discovered at that point by the Kepler mission. I hope the Times updates it with this recent batch.

The first video of the Moon orbiting the EarthDec 11 2013

In a fly-by of Earth on its way to Jupiter, NASA's Juno probe took a short movie of the Moon orbiting the Earth. It's the first time the Moon's orbit has been captured on film.

(via @DavidGrann)

NASA spin-off technologiesNov 18 2013

From Wikipedia, a list of products and technologies that have been developed with the help of NASA, including memory foam, Dustbusters, and powdered lubricants.

For more than 50 years, the NASA Innovative Partnerships Program has connected NASA resources to private industry, referring to the commercial products as spin-offs. Well-known products that NASA claims as spin-offs include memory foam (originally named temper foam), freeze-dried food, firefighting equipment, emergency "space blankets", Dustbusters, cochlear implants, and now Speedo's LZR Racer swimsuits. NASA claims that there are over 1650 other spin-offs in the fields of computer technology, environment and agriculture, health and medicine, public safety, transportation, recreation, and industrial productivity.

NASA did not, however, invent Teflon or Velcro. (via @tangentialism)

Is Google's quantum computer even quantum?Nov 12 2013

Google and NASA recently bought a D-Wave quantum computer. But according to a piece by Sophie Bushwick published on the Physics Buzz Blog, there isn't scientific consensus on whether the computer is actually using quantum effects to calculate.

In theory, quantum computers can perform calculations far faster than their classical counterparts to solve incredibly complex problems. They do this by storing information in quantum bits, or qubits.

At any given moment, each of a classical computer's bits can only be in an "on" or an "off" state. They exist inside conventional electronic circuits, which follow the 19th-century rules of classical physics. A qubit, on the other hand, can be created with an electron, or inside a superconducting loop. Obeying the counterintuitive logic of quantum mechanics, a qubit can act as if it's "on" and "off" simultaneously. It can also become tightly linked to the state of its fellow qubits, a situation called entanglement. These are two of the unusual properties that enable quantum computers to test multiple solutions at the same time.

But in practice, a physical quantum computer is incredibly difficult to run. Entanglement is delicate, and very easily disrupted by outside influences. Add more qubits to increase the device's calculating power, and it becomes more difficult to maintain entanglement.

(via fine structure)

A canyon of fire on the SunOct 25 2013

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory is getting some really amazing shots of the Sun, including this 200,000 mile-long solar eruption that left a huge canyon on the surface of the Sun:

Different wavelengths help capture different aspect of events in the corona. The red images shown in the movie help highlight plasma at temperatures of 90,000° F and are good for observing filaments as they form and erupt. The yellow images, showing temperatures at 1,000,000° F, are useful for observing material coursing along the sun's magnetic field lines, seen in the movie as an arcade of loops across the area of the eruption. The browner images at the beginning of the movie show material at temperatures of 1,800,000° F, and it is here where the canyon of fire imagery is most obvious.

The level of detail shown is incredible. (via @DavidGrann)

Debugging a live Saturn V rocketOct 17 2013

Great story from the memoirs of William Moore, an Electrical Systems expert for the Apollo program in the 1960s. Moore writes about the time that he and his team had to take a trip out to the launchpad to fix something on the first unmanned launch of the Saturn V rocket.

Our goal was to enter this two level hermetically sealed, all welded steel coffin called the Mobil Launcher Base topped by a fully loaded 363 ft. high Saturn V, weighing 6.2 million pounds, and the permanently attached 380 ft. high Umbilical Tower, weighing 500k pounds. We finally stopped and left our van to walk up and into the second level of the Mobile Launcher Base. About this time, it came to my mind that during one of our training sessions we were told that one of the fully fueled prototype S11 rocket stages had been exploded out in the desert. The results showed that all buildings better be at least three miles from the launch lads -- which they are. We were now within 25 feet of this 363ft tall bomb that sounded like it's giant fuse had been lit, and we were soon going to get much closer.

(via hacker news)

Google's new quantum computerOct 16 2013

Google's got themselves a quantum computer (they're sharing it with NASA) and they made a little video about it:

I'm sure that Hartmut is a smart guy and all, but he's got a promising career as an Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonator hanging out there if the whole Google thing doesn't work out.

The myth of NASA's expensive space pensOct 10 2013

Space Pen

There's a story about NASA's incredibly expensive space pen and Russia's simpler solution that gets trotted out every time some large organization introduces some complex, bloated, over-engineered product or process. The story goes like this:

During the space race back in the 1960's, NASA was faced with a major problem. The astronaut needed a pen that would write in the vacuum of space. NASA went to work. At a cost of $1.5 million they developed the "Astronaut Pen". Some of you may remember. It enjoyed minor success on the commercial market.

The Russians were faced with the same dilemma.

They used a pencil.

Fantastic story, right? Except that's not what happened. NASA originally used pencils in space but pencils tend to give off things that float in zero-g (broken leads, graphite dust, shavings) and are flammable. So they looked for another solution. Independent of NASA, the Fisher Pen Company began development of a pen that could be used under extreme conditions:

Paul C. Fisher and his company, the Fisher Pen Company, reportedly invested $1 million to create what is now commonly known as the space pen. None of this investment money came from NASA's coffers -- the agency only became involved after the pen was dreamed into existence. In 1965 Fisher patented a pen that could write upside-down, in frigid or roasting conditions (down to minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit or up to 400 degrees F), and even underwater or in other liquids. If too hot, though, the ink turned green instead of its normal blue.

After testing, NASA ordered 400 Fisher pens for use on space missions at a cost of under $1000. Russia switched to using the pens a year later. Fisher still sells the original Space Pen and you can get it on Amazon for about $32.

The Apollo Guidance ComputerAug 23 2013

A 30-minute documentary from the 60s on the Apollo Guidance Computer.

The Pioneer DetectivesAug 13 2013

If you're at all interested in the Pioneer Anomaly (and you really should be, it's fascinating), The Pioneer Detectives ebook by Konstantin Kakaes looks interesting.

Explore one of the greatest scientific mysteries of our time, the Pioneer Anomaly: in the 1980s, NASA scientists detected an unknown force acting on the spacecraft Pioneer 10, the first man-made object to journey through the asteroid belt and study Jupiter, eventually leaving the solar system. No one seemed able to agree on a cause. (Dark matter? Tensor-vector-scalar gravity? Collisions with gravitons?) What did seem clear to those who became obsessed with it was that the Pioneer Anomaly had the potential to upend Einstein and Newton -- to change everything we know about the universe.

Kakaes was a science writer for The Economist and studied physics at Harvard, so this topic seems right up his alley. Available for $2.99 for the Kindle and for iBooks on iOS.

The Saturn V rocket, simplifiedJul 31 2013

Randall Munroe of XKCD drew the Saturn V rocket (aka Up Goer Five) annotated using only the 1000 most common English words.

Up Goer Five

See also Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity In Words of Four Letters or Less.

The Long SwathMay 20 2013

Back in April, the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (aka a NASA satellite with a bitchin' camera) took photos of the Earth along a swath of land 120 miles wide by 6,000 miles long, from Russia to South Africa. Then they stitched it into a mesmerising 15-minute video:

Feel free to put on some Sigur Ros while you watch. (via the atlantic)

David Chang cooks space food for Chris HadfieldMay 17 2013

Momofuku's David Chang cooks up some gourmet space food for celeb astronaut Chris Hadfield.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work out so well. Who knew that gravity was so useful? But stay for the best part of the whole thing...right at the end, Hadfield feeds himself asparagus like a fish.

The Soviets cloned the Space ShuttleMay 14 2013

How appropriate that at the height of the Cold War, in which the United States was attempting to spend the Soviet Union into collapse (a task at which they eventually succeeded), the Soviets cloned the buggiest, most inconsistant part of the US space program.

Russian Space Shuttle

Called Buran (Russian for blizzard or snowstorm), the program was launched by the Kremlin as a reaction to NASA's space shuttle and an attempt to gain an edge in space against the backdrop of Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" Strategic Defense Initiative. It was also an attempt to fulfill the Soviet Union's dream of reusable spacecraft and payloads, ideas that predated the American space program.

A massive effort began. Over a million and a half people worked on the multi-billion dollar project, while researchers developed new, elaborate schemes for Russian space exploration. Among other tasks, Russian scientists hoped that the Buran would be able to carry the space station back to Earth, and -- the reported reason for its inception -- to allow the USSR to carry out military attacks from space.

And from Maciej Ceglowski's epic takedown of the Shuttle program, this little tidbit:

The Soviet Shuttle, the Buran (snowstorm) was an aerodynamic clone of the American orbiter, but incorporated many original features that had been considered and rejected for the American program, such as all-liquid rocket boosters, jet engines, ejection seats and an unmanned flight capability. You know you're in trouble when the Russians are adding safety features to your design.

(via @Mike_FTW)

Video portrait of the SunApr 26 2013

In complete defiance of its parents, NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory has stared directly at the Sun for the past three years. Here's a video of those three years made from still images taken by the SDO.

During the course of the video, the sun subtly increases and decreases in apparent size. This is because the distance between the SDO spacecraft and the sun varies over time. The image is, however, remarkably consistent and stable despite the fact that SDO orbits the Earth at 6,876 miles per hour and the Earth orbits the sun at 67,062 miles per hour.

The video notes say the animation uses two images per day...it would be nice to see the same animation with a higher frame rate. (via ★interesting)

Trippin' to MarsApr 16 2013

Great article by Burkhard Bilger about NASA's Curiosity mission to Mars.

The search for life on Mars is now in its sixth decade. Forty spacecraft have been sent there, and not one has found a single fossil or living thing. The closer we look, the more hostile the planet seems: parched and frozen in every season, its atmosphere inert and murderously thin, its surface scoured by solar winds. By the time Earth took its first breath three billion years ago, geologists now believe, Mars had been suffocating for a billion years. The air had thinned and rivers evaporated; dust storms swept up and ice caps seized what was left of the water. The Great Desiccation Event, as it's sometimes called, is even more of a mystery than the Great Oxygenation on Earth. We know only this: one planet lived and the other died. One turned green, the other red.

Perfect read if you've been curious about what Curiosity is up to on Mars but needed something a bit more narrative than the mission home page or Wikipedia page to guide you. Also features the phrase "a self-eating watermelon of despair", so there's that. Oh, and here's the Seven Minutes of Terror video referred to in the story.

Photograph from the surface of TitanFeb 05 2013

So far, humans have taken photos from the surfaces of Earth, the Moon, Venus, and Mars. But I had no idea that a photo from the surface of Titan existed:

Titan Surface

The photo of the Saturnian moon was taken in 2005 by the Huygens probe, which was designed to land safely on the moon's surface. From Wikipedia:

After landing, Huygens photographed a dark plain covered in small rocks and pebbles, which are composed of water ice. The two rocks just below the middle of the image on the right are smaller than they may appear: the left-hand one is 15 centimeters across, and the one in the center is 4 centimeters across, at a distance of about 85 centimeters from Huygens. There is evidence of erosion at the base of the rocks, indicating possible fluvial activity. The surface is darker than originally expected, consisting of a mixture of water and hydrocarbon ice. The assumption is that the "soil" visible in the images is precipitation from the hydrocarbon haze above.

And a special close-but-no-cigar award goes to the NEAR Shoemaker probe, which snapped this photo from about 400 feet above the surface of the near-Earth asteroid Eros:

Eros surface

The probe landed on the surface of Eros in February 2001 and transmitted usable data for about two weeks afterwards, none of which was photographic in nature.

Richard Feynman and the Space Shuttle Challenger investigationJan 28 2013

The Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated shortly after liftoff 27 years ago today. Physicist Richard Feynman had a hand in determining the reason for the disaster.

I'm an explorer, ok? I get curious about everything and I want to investigate all kinds of stuff.

Here's Feynman's appendix to The Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident in which he dissents with the majority opinion of the commission. His conclusion:

If a reasonable launch schedule is to be maintained, engineering often cannot be done fast enough to keep up with the expectations of originally conservative certification criteria designed to guarantee a very safe vehicle. In these situations, subtly, and often with apparently logical arguments, the criteria are altered so that flights may still be certified in time. They therefore fly in a relatively unsafe condition, with a chance of failure of the order of a percent (it is difficult to be more accurate).

Official management, on the other hand, claims to believe the probability of failure is a thousand times less. One reason for this may be an attempt to assure the government of NASA perfection and success in order to ensure the supply of funds. The other may be that they sincerely believed it to be true, demonstrating an almost incredible lack of communication between themselves and their working engineers.

In any event this has had very unfortunate consequences, the most serious of which is to encourage ordinary citizens to fly in such a dangerous machine, as if it had attained the safety of an ordinary airliner. The astronauts, like test pilots, should know their risks, and we honor them for their courage. Who can doubt that McAuliffe was equally a person of great courage, who was closer to an awareness of the true risk than NASA management would have us believe?

Let us make recommendations to ensure that NASA officials deal in a world of reality in understanding technological weaknesses and imperfections well enough to be actively trying to eliminate them. They must live in reality in comparing the costs and utility of the Shuttle to other methods of entering space. And they must be realistic in making contracts, in estimating costs, and the difficulty of the projects. Only realistic flight schedules should be proposed, schedules that have a reasonable chance of being met. If in this way the government would not support them, then so be it. NASA owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources.

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

Clear thought, clear writing. Feynman was perhaps the most efficient mechanism ever conceived for consuming complexity and pumping out simplicity. (via @ptak)

A tour of NASA's fake lunar surface in ArizonaJan 23 2013

Cinder Lake NASA

At a training site in Arizona called Cinder Lake, NASA created a "simulated lunar environment" for the purpose of testing lunar rovers and other pieces of equipment.

At the end of a four-day period of controlled explosions, USGS scientists had succeeded in creating a 500 square foot "simulated lunar environment" in Northern Arizona -- forty-seven craters of between five and forty feet in diameter designed to duplicate at a 1:1 scale a specific location (and future Apollo 11 landing site) on the moon, in a region called the Mare Tranquillitatis.

If they faked the Moon landing, this is probably where they did it.

Apollo 16 lunar rover dash camJan 23 2013

I had no idea there was footage shot on the Moon from the perspective of a lunar rover passenger...basically a lunar rover dash cam. It's the second half of this short video:

Amazing. The first part shows the rover speeding off (at about 6 miles/hr), being put through its paces. From the transcript of the "Grand Prix":

124:58:52 Duke: The suspension system on that thing is fantastic!

124:58:54 England: That sounds good. We sound like we probably got enough of the Grand Prix. We're willing to let you go on from here. Call that a (complete) Grand Prix.

124:59:03 Duke: Okay. (Pause) Man, that was all four wheels off the ground, there. Okay. Max stop.

124:59:12 Young: Okay. I don't want to do that.

124:59:13 Duke: Okay. Excuse me.

124:59:16 Young: They say that's a no-no.

124:59:22 Duke: Okay, DAC off; Mark. Okay, John. DAC's off.

124:59:27 Young: Okay. I have a lot of confidence in the stability of this contraption.

124:59:30 Duke: Me, too.

124:59:32 England: Sounds great.

Also, we took a fucking car to the Moon! Three times!

Why the Moon landing wasn't fakedJan 22 2013

Filmmaker S.G. Collins argues that in 1969, it was easier to send people to the Moon than to fake the landing in a studio. Technologically speaking, it was impossible to shoot that video anywhere other than the surface of the Moon. Which sounds crazy.

(via devour)

NASA's Smart SPHERES, floating robot drones on the ISSJan 14 2013

NASA is testing something they call SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites) on the International Space Station...they are spherical robots that can fly around the station and perform simple tasks. They were inspired by the floating droid remote that Luke trains with in Star Wars. The most recent test was in December.

The Smart SPHERES, located in the Kibo laboratory module, were remotely operated from the International Space Station's Mission Control Center at Johnson to demonstrate how a free-flying robot can perform surveys for environmental monitoring, inspection and other routine housekeeping tasks.

In the future, small robots could regularly perform routine maintenance tasks allowing astronauts to spend more time working on science experiments. In the long run, free-flying robots like Smart SPHERES also could be used to inspect the exterior of the space station or future deep-space vehicles.

They are outfitting the Smart SPHERES with Android phones for data collection:

Each SPHERE Satellite is self-contained with power, propulsion, computing and navigation equipment. When Miller's team first designed the SPHERES, all of their potential uses couldn't be imagined up front. So, the team built an "expansion port" into each satellite where additional sensors and appendages, such as cameras and wireless power transfer systems, could be added. This is how the Nexus S handset -- the SPHERES' first smartphone upgrade -- is going to be attached.

"Because the SPHERES were originally designed for a different purpose, they need some upgrades to become remotely operated robots," said DW Wheeler, lead engineer in the Intelligent Robotics Group at Ames. "By connecting a smartphone, we can immediately make SPHERES more intelligent. With the smartphone, the SPHERES will have a built-in camera to take pictures and video, sensors to help conduct inspections, a powerful computing unit to make calculations, and a Wi-Fi connection that we will use to transfer data in real-time to the space station and mission control."

Here's some video from a past test:

A tour of the International Space StationJan 02 2013

NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, who has spent almost a year in space, gives us a 25-minute tour of the International Space Station. AKA the nerdiest episode of MTV Cribs.

(via @durietz)

Neil Armstrong, RIPAug 25 2012

Neil Armstrong RIP

Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon, died today at the age of 82.

Although he had been a Navy fighter pilot, a test pilot for NASA's forerunner and an astronaut, Mr. Armstrong never allowed himself to be caught up in the celebrity and glamour of the space program.

"I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer," he said in February 2000 in one a rare public appearance. "And I take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession."

A sad day; Armstrong was one of my few heroes. In my eyes, Armstrong safely guiding the LEM to the surface of the Moon, at times by the seat of his pants, is among the most impressive and important things ever done by a human being.

Landing on Mars next week: the Curiosity roverJul 31 2012

The rest of you can have your Olympics, but the early August event I'm most looking forward to is the arrival on Mars of the Curiosity rover. But NASA has had some problems in the past delivering payloads to Mars, so this is going to be somewhat of a nail-biter. If you haven't seen it, Curiosity's Seven Minutes of Terror is well worth watching to see the logistical challenge of getting the rover down to the surface.

Curiosity will hopefully land on the surface on Aug 6 at about 1:30 am ET.

All 135 Space Shuttle launches at onceJul 06 2012

This is a video showing all 135 launches of the various Space Shuttle at once.

Turn up your sound. I've seen this done with episodes of the Simpsons and Star Trek, but this is way better. The fade out on the tiny Challenger square is surprisingly affecting. Created by McLean Fahnestock.

Contents of the Voyager Golden RecordJun 14 2012

When they were launched in 1977, the two Voyager spacecraft each carried with them a 12-inch gold-plated copper record containing multimedia pertaining to life on Earth, the idea being that if an extraterrestrial ran across one of these records millions of years from now, they could play it an learn something about our planet. This site has a listing of some of the music, images, and sounds contained on the records. Here are two of the images included...the first is a rudimentary mathematics primer and the second is a family portrait:

Voyager Record 01Voyager Record 02

I wonder when we'll see these records again. I mean, it seems more plausible that Elon Musk's grandson will mount an expedition to retrieve a Voyager probe in 2077 than some alien running across the thing.

Time lapse video of the transit of VenusJun 06 2012

Venus passed in front of the Sun yesterday for the last time until 2117. The transit took almost seven hours but this NASA video shows it in under a minute.

The Pioneer Anomaly has been solvedMay 29 2012

I missed this last July when the news came out, but since I've been following the Pioneer Anomaly for the past eight years, I wanted to mention it here for closure purposes. First, what the hell is the Pioneer Anomaly?

The Pioneer anomaly or Pioneer effect is the observed deviation from predicted accelerations of the Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 spacecraft after they passed about 20 astronomical units (3×10^9 km; 2×10^9 mi) on their trajectories out of the Solar System. Both Pioneer spacecraft are escaping the Solar System, but are slowing under the influence of the Sun's gravity. Upon very close examination of navigational data, the spacecraft were found to be slowing slightly more than expected. The effect is an extremely small but unexplained acceleration towards the Sun, of 8.74±1.33x10^-10 m/s^2.

A team at JPL has tracked the problem to uneven heat emissions from the probes' fuel source.

For their new analysis, Turyshev et. al. compiled a lot more data than had ever been analyzed before, spanning a much longer period of the Pioneers' flight times. They studied 23 years of data from Pioneer 10 instead of just 11, and 11 years of data from Pioneer 11 instead of 3. As explained in their new paper, the more complete data sets reveal that the spacecraft's anomalous acceleration did indeed seem to decrease with time. In short, the undying force had been dying after all, just like the decaying plutonium.

A more recent paper by the same researchers offers even more support for their theory. Case closed, I say.

Source code for Apollo and Gemini programsApr 25 2012

An extensive collection gathered from all over the internet of the source code and documentation for NASA's Apollo and Gemini programs. Here's part of the source code for Apollo 11's guidance computer.

And here's an interesting tidbit about the core rope memory used for the Apollo's guidance computer:

Fun fact: the actual programs in the spacecraft were stored in core rope memory, an ancient memory technology made by (literally) weaving a fabric/rope, where the bits were physical rings of ferrite material.

"Core" memory is resistant to cosmic rays. The state of a core bit will not change when bombarded by radiation in Outer Space. Can't say the same of solid state memory.

Woven memory! Also called LOL memory:

Software written by MIT programmers was woven into core rope memory by female workers in factories. Some programmers nicknamed the finished product LOL memory, for Little Old Lady memory.

What the Space Shuttle booster sawMar 15 2012

You've likely seen other videos taken from cameras attached to the Space Shuttle and its boosters, but this is one is exceptional in two regards: it's in HD and the sound has been remastered by Skywalker Sound.

Watch, and more importantly, listen to the whole thing...at the very end, you can see the second booster land a few hundred yards away from the first one. Who knew that being in space sounds like being trapped with a whale underwater in a tin pail? (via ★mouser)

Martian twisterMar 08 2012

On a recent pass, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter caught this dust devil dancing its way across the surface of Mars.

Mars Tornado

The active dust devil displays a delicate arc produced by a westerly breeze partway up its height. The dust plume is about 30 yards or meters in diameter.

The image was taken during the time of Martian year when that planet is farthest from the sun. Just as on Earth, winds on Mars are powered by solar heating. Exposure to the sun's rays declines during this season, yet even now, dust devils act relentlessly to clean the surface of freshly deposited dust, a little at a time.

Dust devils occur on Earth as well as on Mars. They are spinning columns of air, made visible by the dust they pull off the ground. Unlike a tornado, a dust devil typically forms on a clear day when the ground is heated by the sun, warming the air just above the ground. As heated air near the surface rises quickly through a small pocket of cooler air above it, the air may begin to rotate, if conditions are just right.

On the occasion of your going into spaceJan 19 2012

Scott Carpenter was one of the original seven Mercury astronauts and the second American to orbit the Earth. Just before he went into space, his father wrote this wonderful letter.

And I venture to predict that after all the huzzas have been uttered and the public acclaim is but a memory, you will derive the greatest satisfaction from the serene knowledge that you have discovered new truths. You can say to yourself: this I saw, this I experienced, this I know to be the truth. This experience is a precious thing; it is known to all researchers, in whatever field of endeavour, who have ventured into the unknown and have discovered new truths.

Earth orbit time lapseSep 19 2011

Time lapse movie composed of photographs taken from the International Space Station as it orbits the Earth at night.

This movie begins over the Pacific Ocean and continues over North and South America before entering daylight near Antarctica. Visible cities, countries and landmarks include (in order) Vancouver Island, Victoria, Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, San Fransisco, Los Angeles. Phoenix. Multiple cities in Texas, New Mexico and Mexico. Mexico City, the Gulf of Mexico, the Yucatan Peninsula, Lightning in the Pacific Ocean, Guatemala, Panama, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and the Amazon. Also visible is the earths ionosphere (thin yellow line) and the stars of our galaxy.

(via stellar)

Solar eclipse...by SaturnSep 12 2011

The Cassini spacecraft caught this remarkable photo of Saturn eclipsing the Sun in 2006.

Saturn eclipse

Click through for the big image and the massive image. If you look close can see the Earth in the image, for reals!

Flowing water on Mars?Aug 08 2011

From late last week, news that NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has found possible evidence that there's flowing water on Mars.

Dark, finger-like features appear and extend down some Martian slopes during late spring through summer, fade in winter, and return during the next spring. Repeated observations have tracked the seasonal changes in these recurring features on several steep slopes in the middle latitudes of Mars' southern hemisphere.

"The best explanation for these observations so far is the flow of briny water," said Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona, Tucson. McEwen is the principal investigator for the orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) and lead author of a report about the recurring flows published in Thursday's edition of the journal Science.

NASA graphic standards manual from 1976Jul 20 2011

There are only a few images, but even this brief look at a mid-70s NASA graphic standards manual is tantalizing.

NASA Cars 1976

(via stellar)

A history of the Space Shuttle in picturesJul 08 2011

From earlier this month at In Focus, a photographic look at the "dizzying inspiration and crushing disappointment" of NASA's Space Shuttle program. (via @robinsloan)

Sex in outer spaceDec 15 2010

From a paper published in the Journal of Cosmology entitled Sex On Mars: Pregnancy, Fetal Development, and Sex In Outer Space:

Humans are sexual beings and it can be predicted that male and female astronauts will engage in sexual relations during a mission to Mars, leading to conflicts and pregnancies and the first baby born on the Red Planet. Non-human primate and astronaut sexual behavior is reviewed including romantic conflicts involving astronauts who flew aboard the Space Shuttle and in simulated missions to Mars, and men and women team members in the Antarctic. The possibilities of pregnancy and the effects of gravity and radiation on the testes, ovaries, menstruation, and developing fetus, including a child born on Mars, are discussed. What may lead to and how to prevent sexual conflicts, sexual violence, sexual competition, and pregnancy are detailed. Recommendations include the possibility that male and female astronauts on a mission to Mars, should fly in separate space craft.

NASA study of arsenic-based life flawed?Dec 07 2010

Carl Zimmer in Slate:

Redfield blogged a scathing attack on Saturday. Over the weekend, a few other scientists took to the Internet as well. Was this merely a case of a few isolated cranks? To find out, I reached out to a dozen experts on Monday. Almost unanimously, they think the NASA scientists have failed to make their case. "It would be really cool if such a bug existed," said San Diego State University's Forest Rohwer, a microbiologist who looks for new species of bacteria and viruses in coral reefs. But, he added, "none of the arguments are very convincing on their own." That was about as positive as the critics could get. "This paper should not have been published," said Shelley Copley of the University of Colorado.

(thx, anil)

Discovered: a new form of lifeDec 02 2010

NASA's astrobiology announcement is that they've found a new kind of life that incorporates the normally toxic arsenic into its DNA.

Life like us uses a handful of basic elements in the majority of its biochemistry: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen for the most part. But phosphorus is also a critical element in two major ways: it's used as the backbone of the long, spiral-shaped DNA and RNA molecules (think of it as the winding support structure for a spiral staircase and you'll get the picture), and it's part of the energy transport mechanism for cells in the form of ATP (adenosine triphosphate). Without it, our cells would literally not be able to reproduce, and we'd be dead anyway if it were gone. There are many other ways phosphorus is used as well, including in cell membranes, bones, and so on. It's a key element for all forms of life.


Amazingly, using radioisotope-tagged molecules containing arsenic, they were able to find that the microbes incorporated the arsenic into their very DNA! It's hard to stress how shocking this is; as I understand it, saying something like that to a microbiologist without evidence would've had them slowly backing away from you and looking for weapons or an escape route.

I guessed wrong about what NASA was set to announce today, but the actual announcement is much more interesting than the mere discovery of extraterrestrial life. Aliens are inevitable -- we're going to find them sooner or later -- but a new kind of DNA, that's not something that happens every day. Exciting! (thx, jon)

SpacelogDec 01 2010

Spacelog is taking the original NASA transcripts from early space missions and snazzing them up with a more compelling presentation. Here's the famous moment in the Apollo 13 mission:

Houston, we've had a problem. We've had a MAIN B BUS UNDERVOLT.

Wonderful stuff. The site is looking for help with getting more missions transcripts up...go here and scroll down to "Getting involved without technical knowledge". Although I think they'd get more people involved if they didn't just dump people into GitHub. (thx, the 50 people who sent this to me this morning)

Has NASA discovered extraterrestrial life?Nov 29 2010

Here's a curious press release from NASA:

NASA will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life. Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.

I did a little research on the news conference participants and found:

1. Pamela Conrad (a geobiologist) was the primary author of a 2009 paper on geology and life on Mars

2. Felisa Wolfe-Simon (an oceanographer) has written extensively on photosynthesis using arsenic recently (she worked on the team mentioned in this article)

3. Steven Benner (a biologist) is on the "Titan Team" at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory; they're looking at Titan (Saturn's largest moon) as an early-Earth-like chemical environment. This is likely related to the Cassini mission.

4. James Elser (an ecologist) is involved with a NASA-funded astrobiology program called Follow the Elements, which emphasizes looking at the chemistry of environments where life evolves (and not just looking at water or carbon or oxygen).

So, if I had to guess at what NASA is going to reveal on Thursday, I'd say that they've discovered arsenic on Titan and maybe even detected chemical evidence of bacteria utilizing it for photosynthesis (by following the elements). Or something like that. (thx, sippey)

Update: According to Alexis Madrigal, the answer to the hyperbolic question in the headline is "no".

I'm sad to quell some of the @kottke-induced excitement about possible extraterrestrial life. I've seen the Science paper. It's not that.

What's it like on the International Space Station?Nov 02 2010

For one thing, sleeping is more troublesome than you'd think, considering the remote location:

The onslaught of apparent days and nights would play havoc with astronauts' body clocks, so a shutters-down and bedtime schedule is imposed by mission controllers. Each of the crew has a closet-like cabin where they can hook a sleeping bag to the wall and settle down for the night. Some strap pillows to their heads to make it feel more like lying down. The lights don't go out completely, though. People dozing in orbit see streaks and bursts of bright colour caused by high-energy cosmic rays painlessly slamming into their retinas. Fans and air filters add to the distractions, so some astronauts wear ear plugs to block out the constant hum.

Unsurprisingly, falling asleep can take some getting used to. Just as you are nodding off, you can feel as though you've fallen off a 10-storey building. People who look half asleep will suddenly throw their heads back with a start and fling out their arms. It gets easier with time. One Russian crew member is renowned for doing without a sleeping bag and falling asleep wherever he ends the day. Anyone still awake after bedtime would see his snoozing form drift by, slowly bouncing off the walls, his course set by the air currents that gently pushed and pulled him.

Whoa! The whole thing is worth a read.

Video of a man exposed to total vacuumJun 03 2010

Remember the boiling tongue water story from yesterday's post about how long a human can last in the vacuum of space? Here's the video of that depressurization event, with the participants taking about it:

(thx, brad)

Music for spaceflightsJun 02 2010

From NASA, an extensive listing of the "wake-up" music heard by astronauts on their missions in space. For Apollo 17's first wake-up call on the Moon, they played Wagner's The Ride of the Valkyries while the second Space Shuttle mission crew got stuck with "Pigs in Space comedy routine #1 by The Muppets". (via girlhacker)

How long can a human live unprotected in space?Jun 02 2010

The answer, straight from NASA.

At NASA's Manned Spacecraft Center (now renamed Johnson Space Center) we had a test subject accidentally exposed to a near vacuum (less than 1 psi) in an incident involving a leaking space suit in a vacuum chamber back in '65. He remained conscious for about 14 seconds, which is about the time it takes for O2 deprived blood to go from the lungs to the brain. The suit probably did not reach a hard vacuum, and we began repressurizing the chamber within 15 seconds. The subject regained consciousness at around 15,000 feet equivalent altitude. The subject later reported that he could feel and hear the air leaking out, and his last conscious memory was of the water on his tongue beginning to boil.

Boiling tongue water! (via acts of volition)

Apollo 11 slow-motion launchApr 26 2010

The view is from one of the cameras close to the engines. The narration is great; you really get a sense of how many things had to be considered to make it to the Moon (like the launch pad paint that burned and charred in order to protect the underlying materials). (via df)

NASA movie postersMar 23 2010

For a number of their recent missions, NASA has designed movie-like posters. This one was pretty clearly influenced by Star Trek:

NASA Movie Poster

NASA is a middle-aged baby boomer dadDec 18 2009

Born in the 1950s, raised on comic book dreams of exploring deep space in a rocket ship, NASA showed a lot of promise as youngster. As NASA grew up, everyone told it to be realistic, focus on practical things closer to home: Velcro, Tang, pens that work upside down. Sure, it was taking care of its responsibilities, but its dreams faded away. Where did the last three decades go?

That's from Modcult.

Update: See also Ron Planet. (thx, craig)

Photo of Apollo 11's landing siteNov 13 2009

Speaking of the Moon, the LRO snapped a new picture of Apollo 11 landing site from its orbital perch 50km above the surface.

Apollo 11 LROPreviously.

Water on the MoonNov 13 2009

NASA announced that it has found pretty hard evidence of significant amounts of water on the Moon.

"We are ecstatic," said Anthony Colaprete, LCROSS project scientist and principal investigator at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. "Multiple lines of evidence show water was present in both the high angle vapor plume and the ejecta curtain created by the LCROSS Centaur impact. The concentration and distribution of water and other substances requires further analysis, but it is safe to say Cabeus holds water."

I don't have to tell you about the implications here. Just think of how much you could sell authentic Moon bottled water for.

Cool photos of the Apollo landing sites from low Moon orbitJul 17 2009

I said yesterday that NASA would be taking some new photos of the Apollo landing sites with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Turns out that happened pretty quickly...they just released photos of the Apollo 11, 14, 15, 16, and 17 sites. Here's the Apollo 11 site:

Apollo 11 LRO photo

The lunar module is the small white bit in the middle casting the long shadow. The Apollo 14 site is the coolest...you can see the path the astronauts took out to some scientific instruments. The LRO hasn't reached its final orbit yet so future images "will have two to three times greater resolution". !!! See also my giant Apollo 11 post.

The giant Apollo 11 postJul 17 2009

Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11 and Monday is the same for both the first Moon landing and the first walk on the surface. In this entry, I've collected some of the best resources on the web related to the anniversary...articles, historical documents, audio, video, transcripts, photos, and the like. Enjoy.

We Choose the Moon is tracking the activities of the Apollo 11 mission as it happened 40 years ago. Very nicely done.

Housed on NASA's history site is a ton of resources about the Apollo 11 landing, including an annotated transript of the landing, which makes for really interesting reading. MP3 files are also available as are many, many video clips of the landing at the astronauts' time on the surface. Highlights: this video was shot out of the window of the lunar module from a height of 50,000 feet until one minute after touchdown and I've never seen Armstrong's first step on the Moon from this angle before.

For its July 21, 1969 issue, The NY Times used 96 pt. type to declare that MEN WALK ON MOON.

The landing was made four miles west of the aiming point, but well within the designated area. An apparent error in some data fed into the craft's guidance computer from the earth was said to have accounted for the discrepancy.

Suddenly the astronauts were startled to see that the computer was guiding them toward a possibly disastrous touchdown in a boulder-filled crater about the size of a football field.

Mr. Armstrong grabbed manual control of the vehicle and guided it safely over the crater to a smoother spot, the rocket engine stirring a cloud of moon dust during the final seconds of descent.

Apollo 11

The Onion used larger type and took a more unadulterated and profane approach (love the video version).

John Noble Wilford, the Times journalist who wrote the front page story underneath the 96 pt. type -- "the biggest single story of my career" -- recounts his Apollo 11 experience and ponders the Apollo program's legacy in a great piece for the Times.

It then occurs to me that if Columbus and Capt. James Cook were alive, they might be less astonished by two men landing on the Moon than by the millions of people, worldwide, watching every step of the walk as it happens. Exploring is old, but instantaneous telecommunications is new and marvelous.

In just 1.3 seconds, the time it takes for radio waves to travel the 238,000 miles from Moon to Earth, each step by Armstrong and Aldrin is seen, and their voices heard, throughout the world they have for the time being left behind. In contrast to exploration's previous landfalls, the whole world shares in this moment.

Apollo 11

The Apollo 11 mission in photographs: NASA Images is the comprehensive source for NASA photos of the Apollo 11 mission; the always excellent Big Picture has photos of the mission from a variety of sources; David Burnett shot photos of people watching the launch; Time looks at Apollo astronauts Now and Then; the NY Times collected photos from readers of their Apollo 11 moments; Life has several photo galleries: Buzz Aldrin Looks Back, Scenes From the Moon, Up Close With Apollo 11 (rare and never-published photos), and The World Watches; and Google's archive of Life magazine's Apollo 11 images.

A map of where Armstrong and Aldrin walked during their 2+ hours on the surface. That same map superimposed on a soccer pitch and on a baseball field. They didn't walk that far at all.

Apollo 11Explore the Apollo 11 landing site on Google Moon.

In piece published on the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch, Buzz Aldrin advocates not a return to the Moon but a mission to Mars with the objective of establishing a colony on the red planet.

Let the lunar surface be the ultimate global commons while we focus on more distant and sustainable goals to revitalize our space program. Our next generation must think boldly in terms of a goal for the space program: Mars for America's future. I am not suggesting a few visits to plant flags and do photo ops but a journey to make the first homestead in space: an American colony on a new world.

Robotic exploration of Mars has yielded tantalizing clues about what was once a water-soaked planet. Deep beneath the soils of Mars may lie trapped frozen water, possibly with traces of still-extant primitive life forms. Climate change on a vast scale has reshaped Mars. With Earth in the throes of its own climate evolution, human outposts on Mars could be a virtual laboratory to study these vast planetary changes. And the best way to study Mars is with the two hands, eyes and ears of a geologist, first at a moon orbiting Mars and then on the Red Planet's surface.

Video of John F. Kennedy's "we choose to go to the Moon" speech given at Rice University on September 12, 1962. Fewer than 7 years later, Apollo 11 achieved the goal that Kennedy laid out in that speech.

In a piece for New Scientist, Linda Geddes writes about possible future lunar parks and how they might be preserved.

Around these [landing sites] are scattered smaller artefacts and personal items, such as Neil Armstrong's boots and portable life-support system, scientific instruments and their power generators -- and, of course, the iconic US flag which remains planted in the moon's surface. Then there are the footprints and rover tread paths. Despite the passing of the years, these remain carved into the dust because the moon has no wind or rain to wash them away.

Anthropologist P. J. Capelotti of Penn State University in Abington has mapped out five "lunar parks". These cover the areas where the majority of the artefacts are concentrated and could be used as a basis for future preservation efforts. "Nobody's saying that the whole moon has to be off limits, but as people are starting to make plans for tourism and mineral extraction, or for putting a base there, they just need to be aware of them and work around them."

Since returning from the Moon, Neil Armstrong has been less and less willing to speak in public about his Apollo 11 experience. For the 40th anniversary, Armstrong will not take part in the NASA event to commemorate the landing. His only appearance related to the anniversary will be a 15-minute lecture at a Smithsonian Institution event on Sunday night. I found this event on the National Air and Space Museum site...maybe that's it? If so, then Armstrong's lecture will be webcast live on the NASA TV site that evening.

Popular Science shares a list of ten things you didn't know about the Apollo 11 Moon landing.

7. When Buzz Aldrin joined Armstrong on the surface, he had to make sure not to lock the Eagle's door because there was no outer handle.

Moonwalk One is a documentary film about Apollo released in 1970 to little fanfare, even though it won an award at the Cannes Film Festival. The film was commissioned by NASA but with so much Apollo activity and information happening in the late 60s and early 70s, no one was interested in distributing or seeing the film and it was soon forgotten. Recently, the only remaining 35mm print of the film was located under the director's desk, restored, and offered for sale on DVD in time for the 40th anniversary.

To get a feel of what it was like in the Soviet Union during the Apollo 11 mission, Scientific American interviewed Sergei Khrushchev, son of former Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev. The reaction was somewhat more subdued than in other parts of the world.

Of course, you cannot have people land on the moon and just say nothing. It was published in all the newspapers. But if you remember [back then] when Americans spoke of the first man in space, they were always talking of "the first American in space" [not Yuri Gagarin]. The same feeling was prevalent in Russia. There were small articles when Apollo 11 was launched. Actually, there was a small article on the first page of Pravda and then three columns on page five. I looked it up again.

Eat Me Daily explores the food consumed on the mission.

The Apollo crew even dined on thermo-stabilized cheddar cheese spread and hot dogs during the moon mission, bringing at least a bit of America in July to the sterile flight craft. And yes, there was bacon - foreshadowing the current bacon craze, the first meal eaten by man on the moon was none other than bacon cubes, coated with gelatin to combat crumbs.

Apollo 11The issue of the New Yorker published just after the Moon landing is worth a look: much of the Talk of the Town section is devoted to the landing and there's also a Letter from the Space Center. (Subscribers only.)

The main NASA site has an interactive feature to explore the landing site and Eagle (Eagle was the name of the lunar module).

Finally, there's still some good stuff to be had on the old telly on Monday. The History Channel has As It Happened: Man on the Moon at 8pm ET:

This special takes viewers back to July 1969 to experience the actual CBS News/Walter Cronkite coverage of man's first lunar landing. Using minimal editing and leaving the original footage untouched viewers will feel as if they are watching the CBS coverage in July of 1969. While today we know the outcome of Apollo 11's mission it was not a given then. This will become evident watching Walter Cronkite and his colleagues as they watch the historic lunar mission unfold before them.

and Moonshot, a two-hour documentary about Apollo 11, at 9pm ET. Turner Classic Movies is airing a bunch of Moon-related movies all day, including A Trip to the Moon (a 12-minute film from 1902) at 8pm ET and the excellent For All Mankind (newly out on Criterion Blu-ray) at 8:15pm ET. The Discovery Channel has When We Left the Earth, a one-hour documentary on the mission, at 10pm ET. If none of that tickles your fancy, try episode 6 of the excellent From the Earth to the Moon (available for the insanely low price of $12 on Amazon) or In the Shadow of the Moon on DVD.

[If you enjoyed this post, you should post it to Twitter.]

Update: Tom Wolfe, author of The Right Stuff, writes that landing on the Moon killed NASA.

Everybody, including Congress, was caught up in the adrenal rush of it all. But then, on the morning after, congressmen began to wonder about something that hadn't dawned on them since Kennedy's oration. What was this single combat stuff -- they didn't use the actual term -- really all about? It had been a battle for morale at home and image abroad. Fine, O.K., we won, but it had no tactical military meaning whatsoever. And it had cost a fortune, $150 billion or so. And this business of sending a man to Mars and whatnot? Just more of the same, when you got right down to it. How laudable ... how far-seeing ... but why don't we just do a Scarlett O'Hara and think about it tomorrow?

July Moon is a forthcoming documentary about some lost NASA tapes. Surely not these NASA tapes?

The computer source code that ran Apollo 11's Command Module and Lunar Module has been released.

A recently discovered photo clearly shows Neil Armstrong's face on the Moon through his visor.

He was the first man to walk on the moon, taking that one giant leap for mankind -- yet most of the famous shots are of his fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin, as it was Armstrong who manned the stills camera.

New Scientist overlaid the Apollo lunar excursion maps on top of cities in Google Earth. Neil and Buzz didn't even leave Trafalgar Square on their trip to the Moon.

New photos of the Apollo landing sitesJul 16 2009

Hmm, I was just wondering about this the other day: NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is going to take photos of some of the Apollo landing sites, including where Apollo 11 landed.

Lunar archaeologists, interested in making the Apollo 11 site a National Historic Landmark, hope the planned photos will answer some of these longstanding questions: What is the condition of Tranquility Base after 40 years? Was the American flag blown over on the Eagle's ascent and is it now a bleached skeleton? What are the relatively long term effects of the lunar environment on human artifacts?

This should quiet the people who still think it was all a hoax...although NASA could be faking these photos as well.

NASA releases restored Apollo 11 moon walk videoJul 16 2009

NASA is restoring and improving the video footage of the Apollo 11 mission and this morning they released some of those videos, including Neil Armstrong's first step on the Moon, Aldrin's first step, and the raising of the American flag.

Update: The tapes containing the original footage were erased to record satellite data. The restorations are being sourced from broadcast TV footage.

Live Space Shuttle LaunchMay 11 2009

Live on NASA TV right now: the launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, tasked to repair the Hubble telescope. Looks like if the weather holds, lift-off is around 2:01pm. (via @noahkalina)

Using NASA imagesApr 29 2009

The Book Cover Archive Blog gets the skinny on using NASA images in creative work.

All of the media produced by NASA is public domain, meaning that anyone can use it any way (as long as they obey restrictions of publicity and privacy).

They also point to NASA Images, which is operated by Internet Archive and contains a copy of almost every image that NASA has ever produced. Just for the heck of it, here's the first photo of the Moon taken by a US spacecraft.

First Moon Photo

Mars rovers still rovingSep 24 2008

Those plucky Mars rovers are still going. Their planned roving time was three months but now more than four years in, NASA is sending Opportunity off on a two-year trek to visit a large crater.

The mission team estimates Opportunity may be able to travel about 100m per day. But even at that pace, the journey could take two years. The rover will stop to study rocks on the way, and in winter months it cannot move because there is not enough sunlight to provide sufficient power for driving.

Martians have waterAug 01 2008

Water on Mars: confirmed.

Laboratory tests aboard NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander have identified water in a soil sample. The lander's robotic arm delivered the sample Wednesday to an instrument that identifies vapors produced by the heating of samples.

The lander itself added, on Twitter, "FTW!"

NASA established fifty years agoJul 29 2008

After the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in late 1957 awoke the US to the possibility of a developing outer space "gap" with the Russkies, President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act into law on July 29, 1958, thereby creating NASA. Only 11 years later, NASA landed men on the moon. Happy birthday, NASA.

Abstract satellite photosJul 11 2008

An amazing collection of abstract satellite photos, demonstrating the "impressionist, cubist and pointillist" side of the earth's landscape.

The images you see below were taken at the turn of the Millennium, when NASA's scientists had a brilliant idea: to scan through 400,000 images taken by the Landsat 7 satellite and display only the most the most beautiful. A handful of the best were painstakingly chosen and then displayed at the Library of Congress in 2000.

You must see these. Bonus: all the images are available in wallpaper size for your computer desktop.

Space photosJun 10 2008

Beautiful photos of the Space Shuttle lifting off and of earth from space. Check out the cloud wake and the thunderheads.

Pioneer anomaly updateMay 16 2008

Here's an update on the effort to solve the Pioneer anomaly, the unexplained deviation in motion of deep space probes from what Newton and Einstein's theories predict.

As it sped through space, a specialist in radio-wave physics named John Anderson at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory noticed an odd thing. The spacecraft was drifting off course. The discrepancy was less than a few hundred-millionths of an inch per second for every second of spaceflight, accumulating year after year across billions of miles. Then Pioneer 11, an identical probe escaping the solar system in the opposite direction, also started to veer off course at the same rate.

Ordinarily, such small deviations might be overlooked, but not by Dr. Anderson. He monitored the trajectories six years before calling attention to the matter. "I'm a little like an accountant," Dr. Anderson said. "We have Newton's theory and Einstein's theory, and when you apply them to something like this -- and it doesn't add up -- it bothers me."

The researchers, using data recovered from recently discovered Pioneer records and funded by sources outside of NASA, have figured out part of the problem but the rest remains a mystery.

A collection of photos taken from spaceApr 29 2008

A collection of photos taken from space of cities at night. Beautiful. (via ben fry)

The Expedition One crew, consisting of oneApr 25 2008

The Expedition One crew, consisting of one American and two Russian astronauts, spent 136 days in space aboard the International Space Station. Their logs include a record of the movies they watched while on their mission.

6 Feb 2001: We ate some dinner and watched the last part of "City of Angels". Shep did his best to explain to Yuri and Sergei what the phrase "chick flick" means.

24 Feb 2001 We put some chow and the DVD player in the Soyuz and close the hatch about 0530. It takes 2 orbits to get the first set of hooks off and the docking tunnel pressure checked. We get the "Austin Powers" sequel in while all this is taking place. (Maybe a Soyuz first here).

Update: The Expedition One crew also documented their many computer problems.

Sergei notices that the Russian PCS laptop has locked up. He tries to reboot, but the Sun application software won't load. Lots of messages on the screen noting data errors. Sergei thinks that it may be the hard drive. He boots up windows to see if the windows partition runs OK--it does. So at least some of the hardware is functional.

Maybe they need Macs?

Great set of photographs showing how theApr 05 2008

Great set of photographs showing how the Space Shuttle gets ready for takeoff, from the Vehicle Assembly Building all the way to the launch pad.

Budget cuts at NASA means that oneMar 26 2008

Budget cuts at NASA means that one of the two Mars rovers will be shut down, even though it's still doing useful science.

Besides resting Spirit, scientists also likely will have to reduce exploration by Opportunity, which is probing a large crater near the equator. Instead of sending up commands to Opportunity every day to drive or explore a rock, its activities may be limited to every other day, said John Callas, the Mars Exploration Rover project manager at JPL.

The rovers were originally deployed for three-month missions but have operated for more than four years.

Update: NASA decided not to go through with Mars rover budget cuts. (thx, jeff)

A fantastic pair of maps, courtesy ofMar 24 2008

A fantastic pair of maps, courtesy of Strange Maps:

- A map of the area covered by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on their Apollo 11 moon walks, superimposed on a soccer pitch for comparison purposes.

- The same map, superimposed on a baseball diamond.

Update: Here's a look at the traverse map overlaid on the moon's surface.

Update: For all you conspiracy theorists out there, LVHRD superimposed the traverse map onto a Universal Studios soundstage.

On an upcoming servicing mission scheduled forJan 08 2008

On an upcoming servicing mission scheduled for August 2008, NASA plans to upgrade the Hubble telescope to be 90 times as powerful as it currently is. 90 times!

Two powerful new instruments will be installed on the mission. The Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) will allow Hubble to see fainter and more distant galaxies than anything it has seen before, shedding light on the early universe. This could allow Hubble to see galaxies so far away that we see them as they were just 400 million years after the big bang.

William Safire, who now does the OnOct 25 2007

William Safire, who now does the On Language column for the NY Times, wrote a speech for President Nixon in 1969 in the event that something happened during the Apollo 11 mission to strand the astronauts on the moon.

Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

(via cyn-c)

NASA and researchers at Carnegie Mellon haveOct 01 2007

NASA and researchers at Carnegie Mellon have developed a robotic camera mount that enables ordinary digital cameras to take gigapixel panoramic images (like these).

Trailer for In the Shadow of theSep 05 2007

Trailer for In the Shadow of the Moon, a documentary that "brings together for the first, and possibly the last, time surviving crew members from every single Apollo mission that flew to the Moon along with visually stunning archival material re-mastered from the original NASA film footage". BOY HOWDY! Here's a review of the film from Ad/Astra, the magazine of the National Space Society.

High silica content of Martian soil isMay 22 2007

High silica content of Martian soil is yet another indicator of past water on Mars. "The fact that we found something this new and different after nearly 1,200 days on Mars makes it even more remarkable."

A nice piece about the tools thatMar 17 2007

A nice piece about the tools that astronauts use in space. "[The space station arm] can delicately move suited astronauts, plucking them up from the airlock and transferring them to designated work areas and back again, like a mother cat relocating kittens."

Using ground penetrating radar, NASA has discoveredMar 16 2007

Using ground penetrating radar, NASA has discovered an ice deposit at Mars' south pole so large that if melted, it would cover the entire planet under 30 feet of water.

One of NASA's spacecraft caught a lunarMar 13 2007

One of NASA's spacecraft caught a lunar transit of the sun. The movie is a must-see.

NASA's plan for dealing with a psychoticFeb 26 2007

NASA's plan for dealing with a psychotic or suicidal astronaut in space: duct tape and tranquilizers.

Quicktime VR panoramas from the Apollo missionsFeb 05 2007

Quicktime VR panoramas from the Apollo missions to the moon (with audio). These are fantastic.

Photographs taken by NASA's Mars Global SurveyorDec 06 2006

Photographs taken by NASA's Mars Global Surveyor suggest that liquid water may still run on Mars. Successive photos of crater gullies show activity in the last 4 years.

NASA has never had a Space ShuttleNov 13 2006

NASA has never had a Space Shuttle in orbit on Dec 31 or Jan 1 because they aren't sure that the onboard computers can handle the year switch over.

Woo, NASA finally decides to fix theOct 31 2006

Woo, NASA finally decides to fix the Hubble, repairs that will keep it working until at least 2013. "Scientists expect an upgraded Hubble to continue to make groundbreaking discoveries."

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter recently snapped a pictureOct 06 2006

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter recently snapped a picture of the Opportunity rover perched on the rim of Victoria Crater. Opportunity drove more than 5 miles from its landing site to get there. High resolution photo here. Here's where Opportunity is located on Mars.

Space tourist Anousheh Ansari is Flickring photosSep 26 2006

Space tourist Anousheh Ansari is Flickring photos from the International Space Station. NASA reportedly spent 250,000 man-hours building a module to upload snapshots from space via the Flickr API.

Update: That NASA man-hours stat is a joke, sorry. NASA is not that absurdly wasteful. I have no idea how she's getting the photos on Flickr. Do they have web access on the ISS?

Update: Ansari called Larry Page today and reported that there's no internet access on the ISS. Email is delivered in batches...so she's either emailing them to Flickr or someone's uploading them for her. BTW, the first kottke.org reader in space...could you give me a call when you get there? (thx, terrell)

Update: According to Ansari's blog (from space!), email is sent from the ISS three times per day.

Yesterday, almost 30 years after it was launched,Aug 18 2006

Yesterday, almost 30 years after it was launched, the Voyager spacecraft crossed the 100 AU boundry, meaning it is 100 times farther from the Sun than the Earth is. The article is worth a read. (via sb)

Stardust Holiday is a blog written byMay 05 2006

Stardust Holiday is a blog written by a woman who's spending three months in bed as part of a NASA study. (via cyn-c)

Evidence of liquid water has been foundMar 09 2006

Evidence of liquid water has been found by Cassini on Enceladus, one of Saturn's moons and "the shiniest object in the solar system".

Google and NASA have announced plans toSep 29 2005

Google and NASA have announced plans to collaborate on projects like "large-scale data management, massively distributed computing, bio-info-nano convergence, and encouragement of the entrepreneurial space industry". In 6 months, Yahoo will announce a collaboration with the Russian Space Agency to launch original content into space. Microsoft will announce in a year that they've had space travel capabilities built into Office for years now but no one uses it...in two years time, they'll completely reorg around manned missions to Mars.

Is PowerPoint responsible for the woes ofSep 07 2005

Is PowerPoint responsible for the woes of the Space Shuttle? Well, no, but it's not helping any. "The deeper problem with the PowerPointing of America -- the PowerPointing of the planet, actually -- is that the program tends to flatten the most complex, subtle, even beautiful, ideas into tedious, bullet-pointed bureaucratese."

Space Shuttle Discovery lands safely, thank goodness.Aug 09 2005

Space Shuttle Discovery lands safely, thank goodness.

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