Friday, November 13, 2009

Mariner Mission Anniversary


On November 13, 1971, the Mariner 9 Orbiter became the first artificial satellite of the planet Mars; it was thus the first space craft to successfully orbit another planet, only narrowly arriving before the Soviet Mars 2 and Mars 3, which both arrived within the month.

Mariner 9 exceeded all primary photographic goals by photo-mapping 100% of the red planet's surface, and also took the first close-range pictures of Mars’ irregular moons, Deimos and Phobos. Mariner 9

Olympus Mons
My favorite Mariner 9 photo is this stunning view of Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the solar system at nearly 80,000 feet. That’s 15-miles high… contrasted here to the largest volcano on Earth: Mauna Loa on Hawai'i Big Island. The Martian Mount Olympus is also considerably wider... if it rested in America, for example, it would fill the entire state of Arizona.

Launched in May 1971 by the Atlas-Centaur, Mariner 9 spent 349 days in orbit, and transmitted 7,329 images back to NASA, revealing polar caps, massive dust storms, wind and water erosion, ancient riverbeds, and a “grand canyon” stretching nearly 3,000 miles. This enormous "Valles Marineris" system is named after Mariner 9 in honor of its achievements.

Mariner 9
After nearly a year, the spacecraft turned off when its fuel depleted, but Mariner 9 will likely remain in stable orbit until at least 2022, after which the spacecraft will enter the Martian atmosphere.

For my fellow computer geeks (hold your breath and remember this was 1971): Control of Mariner 9 was through a central computer with an onboard memory of 512 words, capable of 95 commands. Data was stored on a reel-to-reel tape recorder, which could store 180 million bits (slightly over 21MB).

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Astronaut Cookbook


Hockey pal & faithful reader (maybe you noticed the pattern this month) Mrs. Rene L. over at Pages, Pucks & Pantry tipped me off to a wonderful new paperback by Charles Bourland and Gregory Vogt called The Astronaut's Cookbook!

I’m tremendously pleased to see such a tome on the market, since I still run into people who think both astronauts and flight analogs use Tang to wash down only freeze-dried fare or paste tubes. However, this little kitchen funhouse emphasizes that fresh fruits and vegetables are MUST HAVES for every mission, and also covers the various Space Food Types: Rehydratable Food, Thermostabilized Food, Intermediate Moisture Food, Irradiated Meat, and so on.

Astronaut CookbookExcerpt:
"Satellites, lunar landings, space stations, robot rovers on Mars, solar and deep space observatories, and probes to the edges of interstellar space have sent back a flood of scientific information. Space exploration has fundamentally changed our lives, from the classroom to the marketplace to cyberspace.

Space food is a unique branch of nutrition science. [Creating it] is all about packaging, preparation, consumption and disposal. The primary driving force behind space food menu development is weight and volume. The less the payload carried by a rocket, the less thrust the rocket must generate to reach space."

Space Foods
True that! Everything placed on board for liftoff is measured to the last cubic inch and fraction of an ounce -- including the astronauts and their food. The book also covers the challenges of eating in micro-gravity and advises what to look for in your local market in terms of making your own space-worthy drinks, entrees, snacks, soups, salads and breads (hint: crumbly foods are a bad idea... stick with tortillas!)

Also, stories are not limited to the NASA food lab. The Russians insist up on their borscht, but look askance at American peanut butter. JAXA uses rice as a staple. Some foods, like onions and garlic, cross national lines but can still be divisive among crew members.

During the first long-term missions, Johnson psychologists included Hostess Twinkies in a care package to one astronaut, justifying it as comfort food. However upon receipt of the package for a re-supply mission to MIR, the Russians refused to deliver them because... wait for it... the package didn’t have an expiration date! The lab joked that Twinkies never expire, but the Russians weren’t going for it. The American aboard MIR had to make do with M&Ms.

Space Twinkies

True to any modern cookbook, it also feature some specialized recipes from famous chefs (including Emeril and Rachael Ray) and some of the more flamboyant astronauts. My personal favorites so far are Paula Hall's Chipotle Lime-Marinated Grilled Pork Chops and Joe Kewin's Sour Cream Chicken Enchiladas.

Just in time for Thanksgiving! It's my turn to cook this year, won't my family be surprised...

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Apollo 13 Artifact


Longtime reader and blog supporter Joe Neigut brought my attention to this noble artifact in Building 2 on the JSC campus, which served as the public visitor’s center before the larger "Space Center Houston" tourist facility was built.

Some of you other long-timers may remember Joe (the bedrest studies’ project manager) from a spot on FOX news during my Lunar Study, where we both spoke briefly. He’s the respectable looking one in the necktie; I would be the slacker in the reclined position ;)

I never would have spotted this on my own amid all the other artifacts, so it pays to keep your eyes open around every corner. Thanks Joe!

Inside the glass bubble is the Caution and Warning indicator panel from Apollo 13’s Command Service Module. These were the little buttons that lit up during the explosion that crippled the spacecraft, setting off a chain of events that would require all of NASA’s ingenuity to solve.

Apollo 13 Alarms
Clicket to Embiggen...

Excerpts from the official chronology of events on Apollo 13:

55:54:53 - Master caution and warning triggered by DC main bus B undervoltage. All indications are that the cryogenic oxygen tank No. 2 lost pressure in this time period and the panel separated.

55:56:10 - Haise: "Okay. Right now, Houston, the voltage is -- looking good. And we had a pretty large bang associated with the caution and warning there. And as I recall, main B was the one that had an amp spike on it once before.

55:56:30 - Duke: "Roger, Fred."

Gives me chills. Little did they know what that would mean in terms of their life-threatening situation, and what would occur over the next few days to get them back to Earth!

The inscription reads: With thanks from the crew of Apollo 13 to the men and women of the mission evaluation team and the mission support rooms for the assistance provided in effecting our safe return.

Signed by Mission Commander James A. Lovell, Command Module Pilot John L. Swigert and Lunar Module Pilot Fred W. Haise.

The rest of the Apollo 13 Command Module, Odyssey is on display at the Cosmosphere and Space Center of Hutchinson, Kansas.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Hail Sagan!


By all reported reviews and YouTube vids, the first annual Carl Sagan Day on November 7th appears to have been a pleasant success. Broward College in Florida hosted lectures, planetarium shows, children’s games, educator workshops, COSMOS episodes, telescope instruction, and star-gazing!

The celebration was to honor what would have been Sagan’s 75th birthday, which is actually today, November 9th. Most people recognize him from COSMOS in the 1980s (the most widely watched program in PBS history) and I’ve blogged about my idolization of his highly-quotable material before.

Carl Sagan with globe of Mars
While Carl conducted complex experiments and tasks, he never lost the ability to make space "knowable" to audiences of all ages. He was known for popularizing and revering science in a way that inspired people to understand both our insignificance in the larger universe, but also, paradoxically, the absolutely precious nature of our enormously unlikely existence.

An astronomer, philosopher, professor and NASA consultant, Carl Sagan won 30 public awards, published over 600 scientific articles and authored or co-authored 20 books. I’ll never weary of recommending Pale Blue Dot to anyone who will listen!

He taught at Cornell and Harvard universities, and worked at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. Other titles included technology officer of the Icarus planetary research journal, Planetary Science Chair at the Astronomical Society, Astronomy Chairman at the Advancement of Science Association, and Co-Founder of the Planetary Society, the Earth’s largest space-interest group.

(Starting to feel like a slacker yet? Yeah, me too.)

Carl Sagan and Viking Lander
Sagan was instrumental in the early Mariner missions to Venus, determined landing sites on Mars for the Viking Lander probes, and also assembled the first physical messages sent into space – the famous "golden records" that hitched rides on Pioneer 10, Pioneer 11 and Voyager probes in the 1970s.

He was instrumental in establishing the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence(SETI), urging the use of radio telescopes to detect signals from other intelligent life. Along with Frank Drake, he also composed the Arecibo message, beamed once into space in 1974.

Carl Sagan
Carl Sagan passed away in December 1996 at the age of 62, and was buried in Lakeview Cemetery, Ithaca, New York. After landing, the unmanned Mars Pathfinder spacecraft was renamed the Carl Sagan Memorial Station in 1997. Asteroid 2709 Sagan is also named in his honor.

Speaking for space geeks everywhere... thanks a billion, Carl.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Two On The Pad


Special thanks to veteran reader Craig Young From NASA Marshall for bringing to my attention this very powerful image of the old and the new, side by side!

I was so awestruck by this photograph. On the left is a familiar sight… the Space Shuttle Atlantis, preparing for its November 16th liftoff from Launch Pad 39A for mission STS-129. At right is an Ares rocket, which will hopefully prove to be the next step forward in NASA exploration, using a new generation of vehicles that could again take humans beyond low Earth orbit!

Ares I-X
And perhaps what gave me a little spine tingle was the idea that this was the first launch from Kennedy's pads of a vehicle other than a Space Shuttle since Apollo's Saturn rockets were retired!

Most of you who keep up with launch events know that NASA's Ares I-X test rocket lifted off on October 28th for a successful six-minute test flight. I avoided gushing over it, because it was on a thousand other sites, but I loved this photo enough to share the milestone. It's been a quarter of a century since this type of event!

The 327-foot-tall rocket produces 2.96 million pounds of thrust at liftoff. It reached 100mph in 8 seconds, and went supersonic at around the 40-second mark. The flight test provided NASA teams with an opportunity to prove flight characteristics, hardware, facilities and ground operations associated with the Ares I program.

NASA Ares rocket
There’s an amazing photo gallery in the Constellation Archives, showing the journey of the Ares I-X from the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) to Hangar AF at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, to Launch Complex 39B, and finally to splash down of the rocket's booster stage nearly 150 miles away.

For those interested in the complexities of assembly, separation sequencing, flight control systems, integrated vehicle roll torque, booster deceleration motors and all the other procedural test flight objectives, the Wiki entry on the Ares is actually not half bad. As Wiki entries go.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Art From Oz


Liane Foord, seasoned veteran of Drysdale Australia’s Department of Education, has taught for over 30 years at 4 different primary schools, and sent me perhaps one of the most gratifying emails I have ever received since beginning my blog!

Mrs. Foord wrote to tell me that she and her entire class were following my posts while learning about space science, and her class was also kind enough to swap postcards with me. I picked out a Houstonian card to mail to them from NASA’s Johnson Space Center, and in return, received a beautiful collage of sights from their largest nearby city: Geelong, just southwest of Melbourne in the territory of Victoria, Australia.

And I’m so happy they also just shared some of their school artwork with me! It’s not often one can say they grabbed the attention of a whole classroom full of brainy kids, so I’m loving this:

Solar System Projects

The pictured Solar System projects were proudly made by Year 4 students at Drysdale Primary School as part of their studies on a Unit on Space. Some of my more passionate readers will be pleased to know that most of the students still included Pluto in their creations – and some even included Eris & Ceres! Impressive!

Click here for full size pictures on a separate web page so you can see the details, and I've also added their photos to my Arts & Crafts Picasa Gallery.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Now Hiring: AstroNOT


Special thanks to longtime reader Rick Vaughn for today's find! The original post, Astronaut Needed, is still on the Best of Craigslist for Calgary (Alberta, Canada). I also swiped a screenshot, since I'm sure even the greatest hits eventually expire, and here's one worth keeping.

Astronaut Needed
Clickit to embiggen...

The hilarity just sprays all over the room as you read it. Because if there's one way to keep your "secret space craft" under wraps, it's to advertise on Craigslist! (Which, incidentally, is the 27th most popular site on the internet.)

Trek to Titan? Count me in -- I don't even mind the "one way trip" part! I have to say, I'm impressed with their choice. This largest moon of Saturn (and second-largest satellite in the solar system) is considered by many to be an example of an "early Earth," though you'll want to bring a parka and some earmuffs, given its distance from the sun.

The atmosphere of Titan is mostly nitrogen, and its climate is ruled by seasonal weather patterns (including wind and rain); further, it’s the only celestial body besides Earth where evidence of surface liquid has been detected, so it’s a strong possibility microbial life may already exist there.

Nevermind that it's nine astronomical units away from Earth. I'm quite sure there are fuel stations along the way, constructed by other "advanced aeronautics scientists." Ironically, our mystery jedi asks for candidates to be "mentally sound." Classic.

LOLCat Saturn
So, was there an interview process? Did the lucky choice get his $25 grand up front so he can party before the big trip?

If this isn't just a moment of creative scribe whimsey between a couple of Bob & Doug McKenzie fans up in the Great White North, I get the idea that this "shot at romantic history" will end in a psychiatric hospital sometime soon.

On Venus, of course. Or Banff. Banff is nice.