Monday, April 22, 2013

A New Space Race


A roar of Antares rocket engines ushered in a new era yesterday, but I wonder how many people realize it? A massive milestone is upon us: not just a non-government agency building a successful heavy-launch vehicle, but the introduction of competition in the industry.

The success of SpaceX wasn't a fluke, friends. We now live in the Age of Commercial Rockets.  The year 2013 begins the new Space Race!

Final 30 seconds of Antares Countdown - April 21, 2013
(Through MECO, stage separations and orbit)

Orbital Sciences Corporation (Dulles, VA) test-launched their Antares rocket yesterday,  from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport's Pad 0A at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility on the Virginia coast. And it was a smooth, perfect, by-the-book liftoff! Or should I say... NOMINAL.  Wow, that guy in Mission Control really, really likes the word nominal. But,we'll take it.

The smashing success of the Antares A-One maiden flight now opens the doors for a NASA-approved test flight to the ISS!

On this voyage, the rocket delivered a Cygnus mass simulator to orbit; in other words, a mock payload designed to be the same weight and properties of a Cygnus capsule. The next mission, scheduled for later this year, will be a demonstration flight of a genuine Cygnus resupply ship to our orbiting space station.

Antares Rocket Launch

Twitter turned into a veritable tornado of rocket chatter, with many folks along the east coast watching the skies -- and still more around the world, glued to NASA Television. Antares broke the sound barrier around the 1-minute mark (in contrast, the Space Shuttle used to break the sound barrier in about 30 seconds), and achieved the necessary speed of 17,000mph to reach standard orbit.

Hours after launch and monitoring, Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, said the preliminary results suggest the Antares test launch met 100% of the objectives defined in the Space Act Agreement between NASA and Orbital Sciences.

Antares Flight Plan

This was not just first launch of an Antares A-One, but also the very first orbital launch of a liquid-fueled rocket from Wallops. Congratulations to both!

Friday, April 19, 2013

Name That Kepler Planet


Such an exciting media briefing from NASA Ames!  Live from the Bay Area of California, Mission Manager Roger Hunter offered the Reader's Digest recap of how the Kepler Space Telescope determines orbital periods via transits, then Principal Investigator William Borucki wasted no time in tantalizing us with newly-found planets in the habitable zone of a red star!

They turned the stage over to Research Lead Lisa Kaltenegger, and BAER Institute scientist Thomas Barclay, who emphasized the amazing diversity of solar systems we are finding in our universe, a beautiful example being the newly detected Kepler-62 system.

Kepler Mission
Starlight on Kepler 62E and F

Two of the system's five planets, 62E and 62F, are the smallest exoplanets yet found, almost certainly rocky, with possible land masses and water. In fact 62E may be a "waterworld" of sorts, and 62F has polar caps. Surely with such alluring possibilities, we could come up with better names for these beauties?

 (Lively tangential conversations on Twitter during the media briefing were afire with naming possibilities instead of simply catalogue numbers. While I don't believe in "dumbing down" the science, that doesn't mean we can't make the discoveries more colloquially accessible.)

Nerds will be excited about possible "life signatures" on a faraway sphere, no matter what it's called. But will the general public embrace Kepler finds without nicknames? Of course, interest and coverage would explode a hundred-fold if we started naming them after Star Wars characters. Sad but true, so hopefully there can be a happy medium, when we see planets capable of sustaining life.

Kepler Telescope
Awesome Animated Infographic from the New York Times.
Click to embiggen and mouse over each Orrery for details!

Barclay said it best: "This is no longer an academic or theoretical exercise."

True. We have actually FOUND habitable planets. That alone is mind-blowing! Add to that the idea that either world may not just be habitable, but absolutely HABITED! With every new possibility, we see less and less reason to consider ourselves a rarity.

Kepler consistently examines over 150,000 stars in the Cygnus / Lyra field of the Milky Way –- merely one small area of one small galaxy. In a few short years, thousands of candidates and hundreds of confirmed habitable planets have been detected. Imagine then, the implications of the overall numbers in the greater multiverse!

Another amazing implication of these observations and bodies of research is that we could potentially surmise the future of our own Earth, once we understand the lifespans of stars, and their effect on planets within their habitable zones.


Naturally, our excitement must be tempered with reasonable doubt. It's worth noting that if some faraway world is watching our solar system through a telescope, they would find both Earth and Mars in the "Galactic Habitable Zone" –- however, Mars gravity is unable to keep an atmosphere that would heat the planet surface. Just like us, they could only deduce possibilities, but at these distances, not know for sure.

However, each new project brings new data, each technological leap opens new possibilities, and as we add to our store of knowledge, our deductive powers of life signatures will only grow richer. The NASA TV session ended with press Q&A, and a novel opportunity to submit questions through social media, which I'm happy to see NASA centers embrace.

Many popular outlets such as New Scientist and Universe Today immediately covered the announcement with ample technical detail, and the original abstract for the Kepler-62 system can be found at the ScienceMag publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  

Now, let's think of some names!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Venus on Mars


Another year, another orbit around the sun! And one of my favorite annual events is honoring Yuri's first orbit around the Earth. I had the pleasure of spending Yuri's Night at the Chabot Space and Science Center in the Joaquin Park hills, and was further treated to an all-female panel of professionals who each drew upon their particular life expertise to discuss human fascination with planet Mars.

The draw of the evening was MBA Sharon Wright, mother of Bobak "Mohawk Guy" Ferdowsi. Yeah, remember that dude from NASA JPL? The one who became an internet sensation, but was too busy landing a rover on Mars to notice.

Sharon Wright
Very pleased to meet Mohawk Guy's Mom

Overall, the theme was kinda... MARS NEEDS WOMEN! Excuse the devolution into meme, but of course, listening to each speaker, it was difficult not to feel the reality of how "under-represented" women are in STEM fields. We are quite nearly non-existent in Mars analog experiments, efforts to explore Mars, and even in science fiction about Mars over the past few centuries.

Happily, SF State professor Jan Millsapps, who hosted the proceedings, opened with a history of Mars in literature (both observational and creative), and seeks to rectify the lack of XX-Chromosomes with her new novel. "Venus on Mars" follows the Martian discoveries of Wrexie Louise Leonard, real-life secretary to astronomer Percival Lowell in the Victorian era, at a time when women weren't even allowed to look through telescopes.

Chabot Space and Science Center
Venus on Mars

NASA Ames Planetary Scientist Carol Stoker covered the technical challenges to reaching Mars, detailing her long-term work with red planet landers and rovers, and the parameters of our hopes and dreams in extra-terrestrial astrobiology.  In terms of seek life as we know it, or more probably "life as we don't know it", she uttered perhaps my favorite quotable quip of the evening -- that she is "convinced robots or rovers won't find life. We need the hardware between brains and eyes for that."

Filmmaker-Producer Susan Bell and I tweeted Carol's quips, and many other gems from the event (with hashtag #ChabotMars) as part of Susan's Prezi presentation and promotion of NASA Socials, popular space agency events that have covered MSL Curiosity's construction, launch and landing.

Chabot Mars Event

Nadia Drake, WIRED Magazine science reporter, then ran a slideshow about modern Mars exploration, including the fundraising efforts of MarsOne, and the philanthropic Inspiration Mars. Female volunteers for the one-way trip? Send in your audition tape! Married couple for Mars flyby?  Well, commercial companies are determined to reach these milestones with the help of both genders, even if government space agencies are not.

Sharon Wright was last to discuss our fascination with Mars, both as a scientific curiosity and a destination.  Per her arrangements, her son, Bobak Ferdowsi (one of the flight directors of the Curiosity Mars Rover) surprised us briefly via video feed, and provided the finale to the presentations before Q&A.

Venus on Mars Event
Q&A with Sharon Wright & Carol Stoker (NASA Ames)

All in all, a rare and wonderful night for female Mars enthusiasts, and I was gratified to see parents with daughters in tow.  We wrapped the evening by visiting the rooftop telescopes to view three of the four Galilean Moons of the Jovian system, and a beautiful nebula! The perfect ending to Yuri's Night!

To see group photos and slide show highlights of the evening, as well as various space exhibits at Chabot, click on any picture above to visit the Pillownaut Picasa Gallery on Google!

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Lost Cosmonauts


Hope everyone had fun on Yuri's Night! A worthy celebration, to be sure, and one that I hope continues to grow. Over the years, a scattered few have asked me if I "believe" or "know for sure" that Yuri Gagarin was the first cosmonaut to orbit the Earth? Because there are whisperings that he was merely the first to survive.

I wasn't born until 8 1/2 years after Yuri's journey, so, of course I don't "believe" or "know for sure." I wasn't there. My parents hadn't MET. But, two Italian brothers, Achille and Giovanni Judica-Cordiglia, have for many years insisted that Yuri's was the third orbital trip. Two others perished (or were severely injured -- stories vary) before him, but were covered up by the U.S.S.R. at a time when only success was acceptable to print in Pravda. How do the brothers know? They listened.

Cordiglia brothers
Achille and Giovanni Judica-Cordiglia... listening

Then, they allegedly traveled to NASA to negotiate for information. Unsurprisingly, like most conspiracy theories, the story of the brothers and their equipment is carefully crafted to sound more technical than it probably was, only vaguely glosses over how they knew when and where to listen to Soviet objects in the sky, links to many corroborative sources who share their beliefs, and plays more upon the psychology of assumptions than proven information.

Did the Soviets sometimes go to bizarre lengths to be secretive, even painting people out of photos when they proved not to be "PERFECT" cadets? Absolutely. Did they admit many years after-the-fact that deaths had occurred? Yes. In fact, when David Scott took the "Fallen Astronauts" memorial to the moon on the Apollo 15 mission, the commemorative plaque was missing two Soviets, who had perished in the 1960s. Their deaths were not confirmed until 1986.

Cordiglia Brothers
Achille and Giovanni Judica-Cordiglia in 2011

These are compelling reasons for believing there are still secrets to be had. Much like moon-hoaxers, believers in the "phantom cosmonauts" theory aver, with elaborate explanations, that as many as 20 early cosmonauts, including a mysterious woman known only as "Ludmilla" were casualties, and only privately honored through small memorials in a secret room in Moscow.

We skeptics often fall back on how "extraordinary claims rely on extraordinary evidence"  -- but short of the Russian Federation released the records on the two proposed cosmonauts in question, there is no evidence  to be had. Were the Soviets capable of such a cover-up? Undoubtedly. The J-C brothers continue to insist their recordings constitute proof.

Is it feasible another 27 years would pass with no whistle-blowers, no records, and no proof? Did they kill Yuri Gagarin in a mysterious jet crash to quiet him because his conscience had begun to bother him about not truly being first? Unlikely.

Lost Soviet Cosmonauts

Vladimir Ilyushin had a fairly well-documented life, and survives to this day. Short of a deathbed confessions that he was the first or second cosmonaut into orbit, but Yuri took the acclaim because his landing was more worthy of the proud Soviet state in 1961, we are -- as in most cases of conspiratorial thinking -- better off with the official record.

Even with a regime whose lies have been proven?  Even with a regime whos lies have been proven. If anything, the many documented hoaxes over the years, and the massive crash of the Soviet propaganda machine in 1991 proved that even well-orchestrated falsehoods and cover-ups never last very long.

Aaaahhh, but maybe that's what THEY WANT you to think... 

Friday, April 12, 2013

12 Things To Remember About Yuri Gagarin


Yuri Gagarin made a single orbit of the Earth on April 12, 1961. It was a Wednesday. His flight lasted 1 hour and 46 minutes at an orbital speed of approximately 17,000 miles per hour.

Yuri's parents were collective farm residents in the [formerly] small village of Gzhatsk, where his father was a carpenter and his mother was a dairy-maiden. During the Nazi occupation of his home region, officers took over their home and the family lived in a mud hut. Yuri's two elder siblings were deported to Poland for slave labor, but returned home after the war.  Today, Gzhatsk has grown by more than 30,000 inhabitants, is called "Gagarin City". 

Юрий Гагарин
Юрий Гагарин 1934 - 1968

In the Soviet Test Pilots program, he was well-known for having top grades, withstanding 13Gs in a centrifuge and, as a part of the psychological training for space flight, lasted longer in a bare, dark and soundless room than any other trainee (over 24 hours).

One of the last things Gagarin said before his famous sign off, was: "The main thing is that there is sausage -- to go with the moonshine." The scientist who had been describing his foodstuffs to him dashed off an expletive, realizing that their flight relay recorder was running, and would forever remember Yuri's remark!

Yuri was singing and whistling to himself inside Vostok 1 while Soviet Mission Control conducted their various last-minute checks.

Thumbs up! Gagarin, Tereshkova & Leonov in 1967

An elderly woman, her grand-daughter and a [probably very unimpressed] cow were the first to see Gagarin return to the planet via parachute.

He later had a ship named after him. The Kosmonaut Yuri Gagarin or Космона́вт Ю́рий Гага́рин, built in 1971, was a space control-monitoring ship devoted to detecting and receiving satellite communications. The KYG also later conducted upper atmosphere and outer space research.

Yuri Gagarin was named Hero of the Soviet Union, and because the government wanted to protect their national treasure, he was barred from flying space again. Ironically, after being promoted to Colonel, but relegated back to test pilot status in the Soviet Air Force, he was killed at the age of 34 when his MiG-15 crashed during a training exercise. Cause unknown.

Nice hat.

"Circling the Earth in the orbital spaceship, I marveled at the beauty of our planet. People of the world! Let us safeguard and enhance this beauty, not destroy it!" ~ Yuri Gagarin, 1961

Yuri got so much fan mail, the Soviet postal service of the time created a Zone designation (what we would call a "zip code" in America) just for him.

He lent his name to the Yuri A. Gagarin State Scientific Research-and-Testing Cosmonaut Training Center (GCTC), a formerly secret military base, where men and women of many different North American, European and formerly-Soviet nations all now train for space travel.

There are 12 (yes, twelve!) commemorative statues and sculptures of Yuri in various cities across Russia.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Countdown to Yuri's Night!


On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to enter space. Secured in a small capsule named Vostok 1, he launched from Leninsk, Kazakhstan (now renamed "Baikonur"), the first and still-largest space launch facility in the world. The 27-year-old cosmonaut made a historic 106-minute (not 108!) orbital flight around planet Earth.

Aw shucks, it was nothin'...

In 1962, the Soviet Union established День Космонавтики, or "Cosmonautics Day,” to commemorate Yuri's amazing achievement.

Now, it is celebrated by the entire world!

Yuri Gagarin

In 2001, Trish Garner, Loretta Hidalgo, and George Whitesides  founded "Yuri’s Night," with the support of the Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC) — and each year since, the parties celebrating the first human in space have only grown larger!

This year, festivities all around the world are being held between April 4th – April 12th. The current count for parties, according to the official Yuri’s Night Net, is 255 parties in 42 countries!

So say the founders: The goal of Yuri's Night is to increase public interest in space exploration and to inspire a new generation of explorers. Driven by a worldwide network of celebrations and educational events, Yuri's Night creates a global community of people committed to shaping the future of exploration while developing responsible leaders and innovators.

Юрий Гагарин 1934 - 1968

So, find a party!  Follow me at @pillownaut on Twitter this week, I'll be sharing rare pictures and interesting tidbits about Gagarin's life for my #TriviaThursday series, including his test pilot days, space training, honors and awards, family and career! Oh, and that time he stole a skeleton from a classroom... and played Poseidon in a comedy. Not kidding.

Lastly, though certainly not leastly (I know it's not a word, don't email me en masse!!), April is an exciting month historically for many space firsts, and we have some huge anniversaries this year!

April 1, 1960TIROS-1, the first Imaging weather satellite was launched by NASA.

April 3, 1966 – The Soviets' LUNA 10 craft was the very first to orbit the Moon.

April 12, 1961
– On Vostok 1, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space.

April 23, 1971Salyut 1 became the first human-crewed space station to launch.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

International Space Station FACTS


Sixteen nations are involved in building and supporting the International Space Station: Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.

International Space Station
Click to embiggen, and read labels!

Construction began on the ISS in 1998 with the robotic Proton launch of the Russian module Zarya. Two weeks later, US module UNITY was launched aboard Space Shuttle Endeavour (STS-88) and attached to Zarya via multiple EVAs. All 159 subsequent modules, arrays, truss segments and other various components were delivered by Space Shuttles up through June 2011, and connected by various astronauts and cosmonauts over a whopping 1,020 hours of spacewalks!

The International Space Station is maintained at an orbital altitude of between 330 to 435 kilometers (or, 205-270 miles high)

The ISS has over 8 miles of wiring onboard, 52 computers, and an acre of solar arrays to provide power.

With the installation of the final solar arrays, the ISS is now about equal to the length of a football field (including both end zones).

International Space Station
Call sign for the ISS is "Space Station Alpha"

Space Station Alpha now weighs 435,592 kilograms (slightly less than one million pounds).

October 30, 2000 was the very last day all humans were on Earth. As of the Soyuz rocket launch the following morning, which put the first crew on the ISS, at least two individuals have always been orbiting the planet in space!

Since that first crew in November of 2000, there have been 35 long-duration Expeditions to the International Space Station, and the next 9 (through 2015) are already planned.

New milestones in the modern era!

In April 2010, a record was set when four women were on the ISS together as STS-131 mission specialists. Left to Right above: Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger, Tracy Caldwell Dyson, Stephanie Wilson (NASA), and Naoko Yamazaki (JAXA).

It takes about 90 minutes for it to make a trip around Earth, and each solar day, the International Space Station travels a distance equal to that of a trip to the Moon and back.

There are 52 computers control systems on the ISS. 44 of those are in the American modules. More than 3.3 million lines of software code on the ground support 1.8 million lines of flight software code.

Monday, April 1, 2013

White House Announces NASA Budget Changes


In a startling announcement from The White House today, space enthusiasts everywhere will be happy to know the "Penny 4 NASA" effort has paid off!

NASA's budget more than doubled to $40 billion dollars, which may actually become their new annual allotment. Unnecessary monies for porky programs from the military budget will be re-routed so that the space agency no longer has to pick and choose between new heavy launch vehicles, space stations, lunar base plans, asteroid-mining, solar system probes to the outer gas giants, or long-duration missions to Mars.

All projects and programs will be fully funded, simultaneously.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

"It was Neil deGrasse Tyson who convinced us," Said US Representative and current Speaker of the House, John Boehner. "He's wicked smart. I love that guy."

Tyson pointed out, in an impassioned speech in the Capitol, that each year, Americans spend $65 billion dollars on illegal drugs, and another $20 billion on the pornography industry. Americans also spend $600 billion per year in casinos, gambling money away for no other result than to lose games of chance. He then produced a large pie chart of the national budget and challenged the legislature to use their magnifying glasses to find NASA's tiny slice. Amid the chorus of gasps and mutterings, all members of Congress voted to take pay cuts.

Will they miss the money? Sure. But it's gratifying to know the legislative branch finally realizes that the space program has benefited the entire planet, and handed most western countries our modern way of life. Citing medical technology, agricultural advances, satellite and communications maintenance, plus new developments in weather and natural disaster warnings, President Barack Obama was reported to have said he couldn't sign the budget proposal fast enough.

Hillary Clinton, the only First Lady in U.S.history who attended a Space Shuttle launch, didn't mince words: "I knew I had to come back when all this kvetching busted out. Look all the nonsense cancellations and disappointments since Nixon axed Apollo. It's preposterous. You want something done right? You get a coupla old broads to do it. I'm running for President in 2016 with Betty White as my VP, and we're going to double NASA's budget again. $80 billion, no joke. Anything less is bullshit, you guys."

Weighing in later in the day about the coveted signature was NASA administrator Charles Bolden, "Space Shuttles put back into operation? I think the museums would be disappointed to lose the old ones, so we just said WTF, let's build three new ones. We're going to need to hire about 5,000 people here pretty soon. It's very exciting! The only thing better would be a blank check."

Could Earth possibly be that lucky? Is it even possible that for the first time in human history, potentially pioneering sciences might benefit all of humanity, without having to take a backseat to military aims or politics?

In another, and completely unrelated, unprecedented move, Johnny Depp announced that he would forgo his entire $60 million salary for "Pirates of the Caribbean 5" and donate the entire amount to NASA. 

Johnny Depp

"Seriously, I have enough dough," Depp was quoted as saying on the red carpet, at the premiere of the "Evil Dead" re-make.

"And why should anyone get that kind of ridiculous cash for a movie anyway? Come on, all I do is dress up like a pirate and play pretend in front of a camera.  It's hardly rocket science. Sixty million could fund the entire Exoplanet exploration program for an entire year!"

Yes. Yes, it could.

Happy April Fool's Day! The White House will release the actual Fiscal Year 2014 Budget on April 14th. Tip: Don't believe everything you read on the internet. Not just today, but kinda always.