Sally Ride, America’s First Female Astronaut in Space, Dies

Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut in space passed away today after a 17 month battle with pancreatic cancer. According to her website, Sally Ride Science:

Sally Ride died peacefully on July 23rd, 2012 after a courageous 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. Sally lived her life to the fullest, with boundless energy, curiosity, intelligence, passion, joy, and love. Her integrity was absolute; her spirit was immeasurable; her approach to life was fearless. 

Sally Ride
Sally Ride (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Ride was a “trailblazer” in so many ways. In 1983 she joined the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger at the age of 32. At that time she was not only the first woman in space, but also the youngest person to do so. The influence she had on her colleagues is so evident in the many quotes posted on NASA’s website.

Sally Ride broke barriers with grace and professionalism – and literally changed the face of America’s space program,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “The nation has lost one of its finest leaders, teachers and explorers. Our thoughts and prayers are with Sally’s family and the many she inspired. She will be missed, but her star will always shine brightly.

Sally was a personal and professional role model to me and thousands of women around the world,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver. “Her spirit and determination will continue to be an inspiration for women everywhere.

The selection of the 1978 Astronaut Class that included Sally and several other women, had a huge impact on my dream to become an astronaut. The success of those woman, with Sally paving the way, made my dream seem one step closer to becoming a reality,” said Peggy Whitson, Chief of the NASA Astronaut Office.

Ride’s influence on the world did not end with NASA. She went on to join the faculty at the University of California, San Diego, as a professor of physics and director of the University of California’s California Space Institute. She later founded her own company Sally Ride Science, which encouraged girls and young women to pursue careers in science and math. She lived a very private life, but what she gave of herself was for the good of people and our world. Her dedication to education and teaching is truly exemplary.

As most of us know, pancreatic cancer is a particularly difficult cancer and so much more work needs to be done to beat this horrible disease. Sally Ride Science has set up a fund in honor of Sally Ride, which can be found at

NASA Reveals Stunning Photos of Sun’s Corona

NASA captured stunning images of the sun’s corona, the million degree atmosphere surrounding the sun, from a 16 megapixel telescope called the HI-C. The telescope was launched on a sub-orbital rocket from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The mission only lasted 620 seconds, but the results were pretty impressive. NASA was able to capture the highest ever resolution images of the sun’s corona using the extreme ultraviolet wavelength. This wavelength of light is optimal for viewing the hot solar corona.

NASA captured the highest resolution images of the sun’s corona ever captured. (Courtesy NASA.GOV)

The mission’s purpose was to capture the images of the sun’s corona to determine how coronal activity affects the earth’s atmosphere. According to a NASA press release, Jonathan Cirtain, senior heliophysicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala said,”we have an exceptional instrument and launched at the right time…because of the intense solar activity we’re seeing right now, we were able to clearly focus on a sizeable, active sunspot and achieve our imaging goals.”

The High Resolution Coronal Imager (HI-C) was able to capture images that were 5 times more detailed than any previously taken. The mirrors used in the telescope’s optics array are being credited for the incredible footage. Initially developed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, the final mirror configuration was a joint effort between Smithsonian’s Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) in Cambridge, Mass, Marshall Space Flight Center, and the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Below, you can see a very short video released by NASA showing the detailed images of the solar corona.

NASA’s suborbital sounding rockets are proving to be a lower cost, yet effective means for exploring space. It will be interesting to see what other new information can be gathered using the HI-C telescope. For more information on NASA’s solar missions, visit

NASA May Be Blind When The Mars Rover Curiosity Lands On Mars

NASA’s craft might be in for a crash landing, but NASA won’t know about it till quite later! Yes, the landing of the new Mars Rover, Curiosity, on the Gale crater might be blind. NASA will lose real-time system coverage owing to a maneuvering glitch last month, which has put the craft onto a different orbit.

The face of Curiosity

Those seven minutes

The entry into Mars’ atmosphere, descent onto the surface and the final landing procedure will all take place in seven minutes. The duration that NASA has dubbed ‘seven minutes of terror’.

What about the other eyes on Mars? Well, the two spacecraft orbiting Mars, as part of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter or MRO, won’t be able to send in real time data. One will just be able to record the descent but not transmit in real time, and the other won’t be able to align itself till the last minute.

The descent is due on the 6th of August at 0131 EST or 0531 GMT. The place of descent will be a deep crater called the Gale Crater.

The Gale Crater is one of the lowest spots on Mars. If there is water underneath the surface, this is where the water will be closest to the surface.

Mission Aim

One of the most important aims of this mission is the search for water. There have been tell-tale signs of the existence of water, even if it was in prehistoric times. One of the best clues is the existence of clay and gypsum.

Now, the big question: Is there or was there life? Curiosity hopes to find out. Remember, water first, life later. And the search in the mission will also be conducted in the same way.

Why is NASA so worried about the landing?

NASA has reasons to be concerned about the landing. Curiosity tips the scales for spacecraft sent to foreign worlds at a massive one ton. It cannot be descended using landing bags which can cushion the fall. The plan is to deploy a parachute and also fire rockets in the opposite direction. This ‘descent platform’ will ensure smooth landing.

Best of luck NASA!

Curious about Curiosity? Keep following this blog.

Massive Vortex Discovered on Saturn’s Moon Titan

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is capturing stunning images of a high altitude vortex on the south pole of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.

Titan Storm
True color image captured by NASA’S Cassini spacecraft before a distant flyby of Saturn’s moon Titan on June 27, 2012 Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

When Cassini first arrived in the Saturn system in 2004, it observed a “hood” of high altitude haze and a swirling  gaseous vortex on Saturn’s north pole. In what appears to be a changing of the seasons, the vortex has shifted toward the southern pole of Titan.  According to a NASA press release “the structure inside the vortex is reminiscent of the open cellular convection that is often seen over Earth’s oceans,” said Tony Del Genio, a Cassini team member at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, N.Y. “But unlike on Earth, where such layers are just above the surface, this one is at very high altitude, maybe a response of Titan’s stratosphere to seasonal cooling as southern winter approaches. But so soon in the game, we’re not sure.”

Cassini’s visible light cameras saw the haze forming near the southern pole back in March. Using specialized infrared instruments abbreviated VIMs, it was able to capture false color images on  May 22 and June 7.

“VIMS has seen a concentration of aerosols forming about 200 miles [300 kilometers] above the surface of Titan’s south pole,” said Christophe Sotin, a VIMS team member at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “We’ve never seen aerosols here at this level before, so we know this is something new.”

Below you can see an embedded video showing the rotation of the vortex.


Future observations will shed light on the composition of Titan’s atmosphere and the effects of seasonal change.  Titan is the only known satellite to have a dense atmosphere and is important for study as many feel it has all the makings to host life. For more information about Cassini’s mission to Saturn, visit

Researchers Create “MRI” of the Sun’s Interior Motions

A team of researchers from NYU’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences and its Department of Physics, Princeton University, the Max Planck Institute, and NASA have created an “MRI” of the sun’s interior motions.

MRI of Sun
Image of the sun’s surface taken by the Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager (HMI) onboard NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (courtesy NASA)

Looking for Some Hot Stuff

The sun’s inner core creates heat through a process called nuclear fusion. The heat moves to the outer surface of the sun through convection. Since the sun is opaque, not much has been learned about how the process works. Scientists have had to rely on studies of fluid models and then try to apply those observations to the sun.

The sun is primarily composed of hydrogen, helium, and plasma. Plasma according to Princeton’s website is “a fourth state of matter distinct from solid or liquid or gas and present in stars and fusion reactors; a gas becomes a plasma when it is heated until the atoms lose all their electrons, leaving a highly electrified collection of nuclei and free electrons”. It is also the primary contributor to the sun’s magnetic fields. This study sought to grasp a better understanding of phenomenon such as sun spots and magnetic fields. A fantastic NASA video showing activity on the surface of the sun is embedded below.

Smile! Say Cheese

To get their “MRI” the researchers relied on NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory to get a high definition picture of the sun’s surface. The Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager measures the effects of convection on the sun’s surface using a 16 million pixel camera. No hiding any sun spots or blemishes with a camera like that!

The end result of the research showed that many of our assumptions about the sun were incorrect. Current theory about the sun’s magnetic field rely on assumptions about the speed and magnitude of the sun’s inner motions. According to an NYU press release, study author Shravan Hanasoge, an associate research scholar in geosciences at Princeton University and a visiting scholar at NYU’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences said, “our results suggest that convective motions in the Sun are nearly 100 times smaller than these current theoretical expectations” Hanasoge continued saying “If these motions are indeed that slow in the Sun, then the most widely accepted theory concerning the generation of solar magnetic field is broken, leaving us with no compelling theory to explain its generation of magnetic fields and the need to overhaul our understanding of the physics of the Sun’s interior.”

As so often happens in science, further research sometimes opens more questions and challenges the theories of the day. This research has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

China Sends Its First Woman Into Space As It Sets Up Its Space Station

China has joined the space race. The Asian giant with a booming economy launched its Shenzhou spacecraft carrying three astronauts, including the 33 year-old Liu Yang.

Liu Yang, the Chinese astronaut and first Chinese woman in space. (Courtesy: Reuters)

The spacecraft will dock with the spacestation module Tiangong 1. Tiangong means Heavenly Palace in Chinese. This is the second step in China’s long-time plans to put a space station in orbit, rivalling the International Space Station. The target year is 2020.

The Shenzhou spacecraft

While Tiangong 1 is nowhere close to the magnificence of the International Space Station, it has to be remembered that this is just a test module. The docking techniques being used by China have been mastered by only the Soviets and the Americans before. A space lab is on the cards and China is putting heavy stress on manned missions.

This is in complete contrast with the ambitions of the American space program, which is now focussing on unmanned and a future manned mission to Mars. While it has been only the Chinese government which has been funding and operating the space program, NASA has been encouraging private players like SpaceX and Orbital Corps into entering the space race. Of course, the end of the Space Shuttle program has a lot to do with that!

The Chinese are optimistic about their chances. Said Zhou Jianping, the chief designer of China’s manned mission:

I believe that we can achieve this goal, because we already have the basic technological capability

The Sino-US competition is getting hotter and, in a twist of fate, entering a space race just like the one of the Cold War days. History does repeat itself… hopefully in a more positive way.

NASA Launches NuSTAR Mission

NASA launched the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) on Wednesday to observe the secrets of the hidden universe including black holes and other “exotic objects”. The telescopic array was carried by a Pegasus XL rocket which dropped from an Orbital Science Corporation “Stargazer” aircraft and launched successfully into space.

Artist Rendering of the NuStar Telescope (Courtesy NASA.GOV)

NuSTAR is unique in that it uses the high energy X-Ray region of the electromagnetic spectrum to capture images of the Universe. In the artist rendering, pictured above, you will notice that there is a very long mast stretching out from the main craft. This mast separates the optics from the focal plane. The reason for this is to help with focus. The visible light that we use in our everyday cameras doesn’t need much distance between the lens and the focal point. However, these X-rays require greater distance to get the proper focus.

According to NASA.GOV website, the NusSTAR mission will accomplish the following:

  1. Take a census of collapsed stars and black holes of different sizes by surveying regions surrounding the center of own Milky Way Galaxy and performing deep observations of the extragalactic sky;
  2. Map recently-synthesized material in young supernova remnants to understand how stars explode and how elements are created; and
  3. Understand what powers relativistic jets of particles from the most extreme active galaxies hosting supermassive black holes.
According to NASA’s Astrophysics Division Director, Paul Hertz, “NuSTAR will open a new window on the universe and will provide complementary data to NASA’s larger missions, including Fermi, Chandra, Hubble and Spitzer.” Researchers hope to explore regions of the Universe previously impossible to see. They boast that NuSTAR beats previous X-ray type observatories by a factor of 10 to 100. Currently the observatory has released its solar charging panels and is communicating successfully back to earth. It is expected to extend its mast in about  a week. You can view the launch via the video embedded below.

For more information about NuSTAR, visit its mission site at


Historic SpaceX Launch Hits Snag; Cause And Duration Of Delay Unknown

The much anticipated SpaceX launch was stalled suddenly in the closing parts of the countdown sequence. The LIFT-OFF DID NOT OCCUR, on time. Space Flight Control, Houston, reported that there has been a “cutoff in the Launch Sequence” and that the launch was aborted. The exact nature of the problem is still unknown.

Latest Update: The SpaceX Launch Delayed Till Tuesday!

Not quite yet!

One of the computers apparently saw a parameter value that ‘it didn’t like’ and thus the engine had to shut down. The launch vehicle is stable and can be recycled for the next attempt.

Follow the live webcast here:

The launch has been postponed, but at the time of writing this, the exact duration of the delay has not been specified.

The details are coming in. The International Space Station team, waiting eagerly for the first private docking at the ISS, has been informed of the problem.

Below are some of the pre-launch pictures


... And the snag! The 'cutoff'.

The historic launch is still in the future. We wish both NASA and SpaceX the very best of luck

SpaceX: First Private Launch To Space Station Scheduled For Tomorrow!

Though not as big as the one in 1969, this is still a jump big enough to cause NASA to spend sleepless nights. SpaceX, short for Space eXploration Technologies, is due to make its maiden launch tomorrow, i.e. on the 19th of May, 2012. Going sub-orbital will be SpaceX’s baby steps towards actually going for a fully manned space mission.

The launch time on 19th May is  1:15 AM Pacific / 4:15 AM Eastern / 08:15 UTC as taken from the SpaceX site.

The live webcast link is:

Proud: SpaceX CEO Elon Muck with the Falcon-9 rockets.

SpaceX and…

SpaceX will launch their Dragon space capsule atop the powerful Falcon-9 rockets. The capsule will contain important supplies for astronauts at the ISS, like food, other essential supplies and certain science equipment.

This is a part of the NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) Program and is designed to act as a replacement for the Space Shuttle, which carried man, machine and supplies. For now, man is excluded from the scenario and the first few missions will all be unmanned.

The Dragon space capsule doesn’t require much alteration to house a human being. That is definitely on the charts, but it is not clear how soon that’s going to happen.

The historic launch!

…Beyond SpaceX

NASA for the first time is stepping out of its own shell and allowing other companies to participate in space. SpaceX, having a $1.6 billion contract for 12 cargo flights with NASA, is one player. The other player is Orbital Sciences Corps. and they have been contracted to actually carry out manned flights. The contract is a lucrative $1.9 billion for 8 flights.

Orbital Corps also promises private spaceflight experience for those who can shell out the money. The exact amount is not known right now, though.

Go SpaceX Go! That’s the new motto. NASA is keeping its fingers crossed. This is one experiment that they definitely want to get right.

SpaceX Delays Launch To Space Station, Dreams About Going To Mars In Future

The euphoria has to wait for a few more days to set in and the wait just gets longer. SpaceX’s first launch of its unmanned Dragon space capsule was scheduled for 7th May, 2012, but has now been shifted to May 19th at the earliest. There was some news of the launch happening on the 10th of May, but that has also been laid to rest.


SpaceX, short and snazzy for Space eXploration, is a private company which has won a contract from NASA for doing 12 flyby’s to the International Space Station, carrying food supplies and other essentials for the astronauts up there. NASA is closely monitoring SpaceX’s progress, providing logistical support as and where needed, since NASA wants a replacement for the Space Shuttle Program. Right now, only Russia has the capability to ferry astronauts to and from the Space Station. NASA wants its piece of the ISS pie back!

And thus SpaceX! The contracts, worth $1.6 billion, with SpaceX for 12 cargo deliveries and another with Orbital Sciences Corps, worth $1.9 billion, for eight cargo deliveries, will help NASA provide a stop gap arrangement for the maintenance of the International Space Station. NASA might want us to see differently. Says NASA astronaut Don Pettit:

Now government-run agencies like NASA can concentrate on the frontier aspect of being in space. They can define what we’re doing and then we can have the commercial entities supply us the goods and services we need in order to do the mission.

Fine, except that NASA has been watching SpaceX very closely, rather than just giving it a sideways glance.

Saving Humanity

Meanwhile, even before getting its feet wet – or in the air, in this case – SpaceX has been dreaming big. Co- founded, owned and managed by Elon Musk, the co-founder of PayPal, SpaceX wants to go to Mars. Why? Because he believes that the only chance that humans have for survival is becoming a multi-planet species.

There are a lot of positives for SpaceX – a launch in a few days, continued NASA support and a big dream for the future. Join the bandwagon in saying Go SpaceX, Go!