Tag Archives: NASA

Picture Perfect Pluto

2 Jul

Mysteries of the solar system’s misfit planet may finally be solved this month as NASA’s New Horizons space probe approaches Pluto to shed light on the ex-planet we’ve left well within the darkness.

On July 14th 2015 Pluto’s eerie appearance will come into view and it is sure to astound us all.

Hurtling at over 9000 kilometres per hour, the New Horizons probe is near the end of its epic journey to view Pluto and it’s moon system like never before. The probe will soon finish its near decade long trip and finally fall within the orbit of this strange body to help us understand far flung dwarf planets and their neighbours.

What do we know?

At over 4.6 billion kilometres away and smaller than our moon, it is no wonder so little is known about this ex-planet that was eradicated from the big boys league in 2006.

What we do know is that it is extremely cold this far from the sun. Temperatures on Pluto can plummet to lower than -400 degrees Fahrenheit that’s -240 degrees Celsius.

This dwarf planet is thought to have up to 5 orbiting satellites close by but scientists believe this number could be significantly higher due to Pluto hanging over the edge of the extremely vast Kuiper Belt.

Currently we know Pluto’s atmosphere is comprised of the solar system’s usual elemental suspects, Nitrogen, Methane and Carbon Monoxide.

From previous distant observations we see Pluto as a dark yellow, almost sand coloured world, with white highlights across its surface which raises a number of questions regarding its exact composition.

Much like many of our other celestial friends Pluto is likely to be covered with craters caused by large scale impacts since its creation. Early observations have suggested that this world should be somewhat more scarred by heavy bombardments however, there is already a solution to this theory.

Large rifts on the surface of Pluto suggest dynamic geological processes including geysers, that could possibly be spewing liquid methane into the atmosphere, which could point to a warm planetary core.

What we don’t know

Possibly the most exciting thing about Pluto that scientists across the globe are speculating is, what will it look like? Many people have drastically different ideas about how the landscape of Pluto will look. Now, finally, with the help of New Horizons we can start to see the real face of this aptly named plutoid.

Clues to Pluto’s landscape may be shaped by possible past impacts and events. Pluto’s closets moon Charon is likely to have been created when the dwarf planet and another massive body collided in an almost cataclysmic event. Much like our own moons formation, this huge impact would have thrown out dust and debris away from these objects only to be captured by the gravity of the mostly still intact Pluto.

This event may have paved the way for an equatorial mountain range being formed much like we see in moons and planets throughout our local neighbourhood. Perhaps Pluto may harbour lakes of liquid neon or even giant ice fractures on its surface much like Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

Pluto’s Polar Regions may end up looking very similar to our own in aesthetics and could even consist of mountain high ice caps during seasonal frosts.

The possibilities are endless

As the New Horizons probe edges closer and closer to this distant world we will begin to see her a little clearer with every mile.

Working with one of NASAs most advanced telescopes and image capture systems it is highly likely New Horizons will be treating us to some spectacular views of the far reaches of our celestial neighbourhood.

We may finally now gain insight into one of the solar systems most bizarre bodies as well as improve our knowledge of all dwarf planets and the other thousands of Kuiper Belt objects.

Asteroid 2012 DA14’s Flirt with Earth

12 Feb

The extremely close fly-by of an asteroid this week reminds us of just how vulnerable this world is. In a week where we all hold and cherish the ones we adore, we must also remember that we have come to love and depend on this planet and that we must also do our all to defend her.

Asteroid 2012 DA14 will pass our world this week, reaching its closest point on Friday 15th at around 19:30(GMT), coming in closer proximity than some of the satellites that orbit above us. This is the nearest any NEO (Near Earth Object) has come in history or at least recorded human history, zooming by at a height of 17,200 miles. That may sound like a large amount but that distance is 10 times closer than the circulation of the moon.

Covering half a football field Asteroid 2012 DA14 is relatively small in comparison to some wondering rocks out there but if it were to collide with another dense body, chaos and destruction would ensue. It is thought if this particular asteroid were to end up on a collision course with Earth that its fate would be similar to the asteroid that exploded in the ‘Tunguska‘ event over Siberia in 1908. Luckily 2012 DA14 is NOT on an impact trajectory with Earth nor is it likely to in the future. Of course this is not certain but scientists have been able to plot the rocky body’s course for the next few decades and note that we are safe for now.

NASA and other Space organizations are planning to assess and document all of 1,300 known potentially dangerous NEO’s. Modern technology allows us to calculate future courses of huge wondering rocks, it almost seems as though we have a Saint watching over us and letting us know when we are in danger.

In a week where people the world over celebrate St Valentines day by handing each other gifts depicting effigies such as Cupid, maybe the Pagan festival of Lupercalia rings more truthful.

Outlawed by the church centuries ago for being un-Christian, Lupercalia, is a festival marking purification and as a warning to evil spirits coming to plunder riches. It seems rather fitting then that such a heavenly event such as Asteroid 2012 DA14’s passing should coincide with Lupercalia. As a species we rely heavily on what our planet offers because well, we have nothing else, nowhere else.

Unfortunately asteroid 2012 DA14 will not be visible to the naked eye from Central Europe but perhaps that makes it that much more romantic, an object of such devastation can roam by freely, barely missing us and many are none the wiser. NASA have this base covered as they intend to research future fly-bys by asteroids of similar threat. One way they plan on doing this is by launching a satellite in 2016 called ‘Osiris-Rex’ that will monitor Asteroid 1999 RQ36. A vastly bigger rock than DA14 but one that isnt scheduled to pass us again until 2182, posing a threat to future generations.

If you are a keen amateur astronomer the best places to see Asteroid 2012 DA14 will be in the Eastern Hemisphere but if you live elsewhere and you are equipped with a small telescope you maybe lucky enough to find it in the northern sky passing through to the south on Friday February 15th, although it will appear very faint and only for a short while.

Happy Hunting.

Related articles

The Shuttle Fleet: Where Are They Now?

23 Jul Getty Images

It was a mere one year ago that NASA’s Atlantis orbiter landed and docked to see the end of the inspirational Space Shuttle Program. After 30 years transiting from Earth to the International Space Station (ISS) the last three shuttles with space flight time have finally all taken refuge on terra firma. Gaze upon these magnificent machines as they once gazed upon you in orbit above our planet. The shuttles will be housed from coast to coast across America surely to inspire the span of the nation. So where will these craft end up?

Space Shuttle Discovery, the first of the three to hang up its boosters, will be on show at the National Air and Space Museum annex at Washington Dulles International Airport, Virginia. There it will be housed with some of the most famous and innovative aeronautic machines ever created and conceived by human kind. Discovery was the first to fly after the disaster of the Challenger shuttle in 1986. Now the ship can rest safely in the appreciation and awe of those that choose to visit.

Endeavour has taken shelter on the other side of the USA at the California Science Center in Los Angeles ever since its last mission in May 2011. Separate to its siblings, Endeavour will enlighten thousands of visitors on the West Coast as they flock to catch a glimpse of history. It will sit proudly as the museums centre piece and crowd pleaser.

When Atlantis landed after the final STS mission on the 21st July 2011 many were surprised to have even seen it leave the Earth. Unfortunately this ship was scheduled to be scrapped and used for parts for the remaining craft on the program. Luckily and somewhat under economic strain, NASA decided to extend its tenure and Atlantis ended up delivering some very important loads to the ISS.

Atlantis will remain were her journey began at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, under the observation of those that constructed and flew within all these grand and glorious machines.

Voyager: Humanity’s First Interstellar Explorer

21 Jun

Interstellar space travel has only ever existed in the science fiction works of the past. Films, television and books appear to make emigrating to a new sun seem effortless and trouble free. The reality is that in order to cover these distances you need enormous amounts of energy or a copious amount of time. It is the latter that seems more realistic to us humans and the instruments of exploration we develop.

One such craft appears to be nearing this feat and is to become the first known object to traverse the stars. NASA’s Voyager twin spacecraft have been travelling through our solar system for decades now and they are approaching the final frontier and near conclusion to their epic mission. Launched in 1977 Voyager 1 and its twin Voyager 2 took advantage of the intricate clockwork of our solar system by aiming to capture Jupiter and Saturn as they aligned in what was dubbed ‘The Grand Tour’.

Gravitational Slingshot Effect

Voyager 2 seized the opportunity of planetary configuration by flying onwards to Uranus and Neptune as it followed its twin sister out into the Universe. NASA scientists used a ‘gravitational slingshot’ effect allowing both spacecraft to fly in between the planets and hurl them outwards saving energy. Voyager 1 passed Jupiter just two years after launch in 1979 and Saturn, along with her moons, the following year. Voyager 1 is now some 10.8 Billion miles away from home, with Voyager 2 some 2 Billion miles behind, both hurtling towards the edge of our solar system and into the scary yonder of interstellar space.

The craft is approaching the edge of what is known as the Heliosphere, this is a ‘bubble’ around our star where charged particles are flung out into space by the Sun and its solar winds. Any day now Voyager 1 will start to detect a rapid increase in the amount of charged particles it has already encountered as it detects stars that have exploded in the past.

 More recently, we have seen very rapid escalation in that part of the energy spectrum. Beginning on May 7, the cosmic ray hits have increased five per cent in a week and nine percent in a month. Says Project Manager, JPL – Ed Stone.

Charged particles fill the Universe between the stars streaming radiation far and wide. Voyager will negotiate this wilderness en route to Proxima Centauri, our local neighbouring star. Unfortunately it would take Voyager 76,000 years to get there but we can still  be proud a human built craft is travelling between the stars.

Voyager 1 is a true pioneer in space travel, its time in the cosmos has lasted 35 years and is sure to continue until 2025 when the spacecrafts’s plutonium core propulsion system expires. On board the machine is a gold disc containing images and sounds of Earth along with drawings of human beings in the hope a distant civilization will discover them and learn about our fascinating species.

Venus in Transit

4 Jun

Astronomy runs just like clockwork and the intricate workings are there for all to see, if you know where to look. This year and specifically this week you will have the opportunity to see it first hand. The planet Venus will pass between Earth and in front of our Sun giving us humans a rare glimpse at the motion of poetry the solar system offers.

Galileo, Joseph Kepler and James Cook have all observed this transit in the past and all have made their own calculations and written their own findings but much is still to be learned. The next and last transit visible for this generation will take place tomorrow night and continue into the morning of June 6th (GMT).

Now obviously it is difficult to view the sun during the night time so viewing it on the meridian line will be near on impossible. Opportunity comes very early in the morning just after the sun rises around 4.30 (GMT). The transit will begin the night before and carry on for 7 hours before climaxing at around 4.47(GMT).

Here is a map showing all the best locations to view any point of the transit courtesy of F.Espenak, NASA.

The fact is it will be extremely difficult to view the phenomena this time around and unfortunately the same event wont take place until 2117. The only way for us in the UK to view this sensation will be once it is over and images are released for us to marvel.

As upsetting as it is not to be able to view this first hand we are lucky enough to live in a world where these events are accessible to everyone in one form or another. So once the Goddess of Beauty has finished her journey across our star take a moment to think about the intricate workings of the Solar System and the beauty it offers us for our viewing pleasure.

Apophis: Doomsday April 13th 2036

12 Apr

For centuries a dark shadow has been cast over this world, as man has forever strived to predict… ‘When is the end’? Nostradamus had a go, Jesus did not have a clue and 21st Century Man has had a pop at bringing it on as soon as possible. Now with light being cast upon REAL cosmic events that are happening above our heads, is the world totally oblivious to what may one day bring the apocalypse? The globe will have to pull together to defeat whatever this way comes, but why? And how?

We are here to explore Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs). These are huge masses of celestial debris that pass by our fragile planet at colossal speed one day surely to end in disaster. We all know that these sort of cataclysmic events go on because they have happened before on this Earth and visibly to others. It is inevitably going to happen again and soon, what are we looking at and are we ready?

Planetoid 99942 Apophis (2004 MN4) (animation)...

Apophis is one such asteroid in orbit around our sun, that poses a threat to our continual inhabitancy of this planet we call home. Its pretty big, not the biggest or smallest but just right for wiping out a quarter of life on Earth. This huge unstable ball of rock and ice is about the size the Titanic was before her own disaster. Apophis weighs significantly more than the doomed ship and is hurtling this way at 67,000 mph with no reverse gear.

Apophis’ trajectory at the moment is not on a collision course with us but it is this fact and that it is due to pass by us in 2029 that is causing such a problem.  This transit via our world gives scientists opportunity to study the rock and decide whether or not to act on its future path.

The problem is that when Apophis does come close it may well enter a ‘gravitational keyhole’, half a mile wide above the Earth. This could well affect the future of the asteroids route that may one day cause a collision with either the moon or us. The chance of this is slim but by no means impossible. In 2009 it was predicted that the chance of a collision was 1 in 250,000, scary when you think that there is a 1 in 576,000 chance of being struck by lightning. So if in the next decade the chance is increased, who will help?

Astronaut Russell L. "Rusty" Schweic...

Russell ‘Rusty’ Schweickart is one man trying to detect and stop these death bringers before they come to close. Rusty was part of the team testing the NASA module for the missions to the moon in the 1960’s so he is more than capable of such responsibility. Rusty’s busy resume speaks for itself when you observe the administrations and institutions he has set up and chaired, not to mention the B612 Foundation. Established by Rusty and his former colleagues in 2001, this foundation aims to highlight and eradicate the danger NEA’s threaten to Earth.

Rusty has spoken on countless occasions about ways to stop or deflect these doomsday devices almost inspired by science fiction works of the past. One idea that he and others have put forward is what is called a ‘gravity tractor’. This is a spacecraft that would follow the asteroid’s orbit passed Earth and its own gravity would act slowly against the rock pushing it out and away from the keyhole. Other suggestions such as detonating a thermo-nuclear device on Apophis haven’t been received well for obvious reasons. One being that if you were to set an atomic bomb off would that not just make smaller, harder to deflect asteroids?

Apophis may well live up to its name by being christened after the Egyptian god Apep, veneration of darkness and chaos, sworn enemy of Ra the Sun god.

So scientific research will have to continue and be innovated long into this decade to determine whether Apophis is to be the bringer of doom and gloom to the billions that call this planet home.

Related articles