SpaceX Static Fires Its Falcon Rocket; Dragon Sleeps Till 7th May

The next step in space will be taken on the 7th of May, but that was preceded on 30th April ’12 by the static fire of the launch vehicle. SpaceX, the company determined to take the mantle of NASA’s Space Shuttle program, will be launching their Dragon Space capsule on the 7th of May. Today they successfully static fired Falcon, the rockets that are meant to carry the Dragon into outer space.

The Falcon Static Launch (Courtesy: SpaceX)

Static fire means that the rocket doesn’t really launch and remains useable for a second time – or for the actual launch. The test wasn’t free of glitches, however. The scheduled test was at 1500 EST (or 1900 GMT), but while 47 seconds were remaining on the clock, the rocket’s engines showed a glitch, which was later traced down to a computer error.

The static launch was rescheduled for 1615 EST. There was no problem this time and the nine Merlin engines that will power the mammoth to space fired for two seconds, while the booster remained attached to the pads.

No fingers crossed

A static launch is a bit weird, but SpaceX doesn’t want to take any chances. NASA has been feeding this organization money and technology, so that they can be a proper replacement to the Space Shuttle. Here’s the time of reckoning. NASA is weighing the options of going on to build a new fleet of vehicles – Space Shuttle 2.0, if you wish – and of relying totally on SpaceX and SpaceX-like private companies to give them a lift to the heavens.

Photo from a test launch of the Falcon rockets (Courtesy: SpaceX)

SpaceX is not the only one with the prestigious (and lucrative) NASA contract. Virginia based Orbital Technological Corp. have also gained NASA’s trust. They are contracted for eight cargo delivery missions using its own Cygnus and Antares rockets to the International Space Station. The first of the launches will happen later this year.

The actual launch will happen on May 7th. The launch will be telecast live on SpaceX’s website. Be sure to keep an eye out for us – we will keep you informed with the latest.

Watch the video of the static launch here:

Own a Piece of the Space Shuttle

If you’re a space nut like me, then you are going to love what I am about to tell you. You can now own a piece of history buy purchasing a thermal tile from the Space Shuttle Columbia.

Space Shuttle Tile
Image Courtesy of

Several retailers carry these cool collectibles. You can see an example pictured above. This particular tile was found at in their store section. It is a 1.65 inch square section cut from thermal tile material used in the Space Shuttle Columbia program. It comes with a nifty display case and certificate of authenticity.

Space shuttle tiles were an amazing invention. Lockheed Missiles and Space company were the first company to introduce the material. Because of the extreme heat generated by atmospheric reentry, something had to be done to insulate the aluminum construction of the shuttle or else it would fail. These thermal tiles were a great solution. They were very lightweight composed mostly of air, believe it or not. As a matter of fact, only 10% of the tile is composed of the insulating material which is silica fiber. Pictured below, you can see a breakdown of the tile with its components labeled.

Tile Diagram
Courtesy WikiPedia

Of course, for many of us, these tiles cause us to remember the Columbia disaster in which the thermal protection system failed on reentry due to damage done at launch. makes a point on their site that none of these tiles were a part of the destroyed shuttle. There is no doubt that the invention of these tiles were a significant reason the Space Shuttle program could achieve all it did. Lockheed has since developed material that can withstand more than 2 times the heat of the originals.

Was Life On Mars Discovered 30 Years Ago?

Simply put, there is life on Mars – or at least that’s the most plausible explanation that NASA scientists can put forward in order to explain certain observations in the lab. A robotic mission launched thirty years ago, the Viking 1 and Viking 2, brought soil samples back to Earth and these have been thoroughly tested for the presence of Martian life, and the tests have been encouraging.

Life Hiding Somewhere?: Photo returned by the Viking Spacecraft (Photo Courtesy: GSFC, NASA)

One of the packages brought back by the Viking spacecraft was collected by the Labeled Release (LR) apparatus. This sample is particularly interesting.

The ticks of life

Soil microbes metabolize and release carbon dioxide, using up minerals in the soil. The carbon in the carbon dioxide contains one radioactive atom in a million million atoms, but since there are lots of carbon atoms around, there is a lot of radioactive carbon as well. And this shows up in any instrument that measures radioactivity, like a Geiger Counter. So the idea is that if a soil sample emits more than its share of radioactive rays, the chances are very high indeed that there are microbes inside, that are churning out carbon dioxide gas, which can escape and be detected. The detector will produce more counts than normal.

They found exactly that! A control sample was put in to confirm that this is indeed due to some source of microbe inside the soil sample. This sample was baked at a high temperature to kill any microbe that might be present. When the two samples were checked for radiation, the unbaked LR sample clocked around 10,000 counts per minute, while the background was only about 100.

However, this is not true of the other two experiments on the Viking spacecraft. This non-confirmation led to the dismissal of the probability of life.

The diurnal cycle of life

Life on any planet, especially if local, adjusts its living patterns – sleeping, hunting etc. – according to the clock on that planet. Lifeforms on Earth have a 24 hour clock schedule, but on Mars the day is 24.7 hours long, and that will be the so-called ‘circadian rhythm’.

The funny thing is that the radiation emitted by the LR apparatus sample also shows this daily cycle. The radiation goes down, indicating a period of inactivity, then goes up again. The oscillation is periodic with the exact period of 24.66 hours.

Joseph Miller, a neurobiologist at University of Southern California, and a member of the study says:

That is basically a circadian rhythm, and we think circadian rhythms are a good signal for life.

No one has yet cultured a Martian microbe. The next spacecraft explorer – Curiosity – which is scheduled to land on Mars in a few days will shed much more light on this very critical issue.

We may not only have company in the Universe, it might even be just next door.
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High-Def Video Captures A Comet As It Plunges Into The Sun

NASA’s SOHO telescope has just captured the last few moments of a comet as it smashed into the Sun. The Comet SWAN, presently officially known as C/2012 E2 (SWAN), can be clearly seen plunging into the Sun. SOHO’s LASCO C2 and C3 camera took the photos, which were then stitched up to form a High-Definition video.

The point to note is that SWAN did not actually crash into the Sun. There was no contact – it vaporized much before that. The nearest distance calculated turns out to be 350,000 km away from the Solar surface, but probably, the comet was gone much before that.

Here is a stunning photo snapped by the LASCO C2 camera, which clearly shows the SWAN comet before its demise.

Comet Swan can be clearly seen on the bottom left quarter (Courtesy: NASA, SOHO)

SWAN was a bright comet. Comet scientists were quite enthusiastic about it. Its doom was predicted by many and so SOHO knew exactly what to look for – and found it. Take a look at this spectacular video, all in 1080p goodness!

Please note that the ensuing solar flare seen in the video occurring diametrically opposite to the SWAN comet’s trajectory is just a coincidence. The two events occur hours apart and the solar flare is completely uncorrelated to the cometary demise. No comet is big enough to cause that big a disturbance on the Sun’s surface.

Enjoy the carnage.

NASA and Samsung Team Up To Promote Angry Birds Space

It is not technically a “teaming up” because it’s mostly Samsung promoting its Galaxy Note device and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration of the USA providing some kid-friendly zero gravity physics demonstrations. However, the end result is a very odd pairing that can only bring more downloads for Rovio’s seminal casual gaming hit Angry Birds.

Announced after a short intro on trajectory physics aboard the International Space Station (ISS), Angry Birds Space will release on the 22nd of March, 2012 and will have the familiar birds hunting down the greedy green pigs once again in a sci-fi space setting with some gravity twists. Think Blast Off! mixed with Catapults and released on pretty much every casual gaming platform around.


Don Pettit, a flight engineer aboard the ISS, explains how trajectories matter for space travel as well as Angry Birds since the birds are nothing more than projectiles. The ISS, might we remind you, is orbiting the Earth about 391 kilometers above it and can sometimes be seen as a slow-moving “star” from our vantage point in the ground.

I do not know how Rovio managed to pull this one, but it is quite a brilliant publicity campaign for a generally average game that was at the right place at the right time. Will you be playing Angry Birds Space?

Mysterious Eruptions on Venus A Result Of Massive Solar Activity

Strange things are afoot on Venus and we’ve got just a hint as to what they are. Gigantic explosions have been seen on the surface of Venus, possibly triggered by the intense Solar winds, which peaked yesterday. The spectacular explosions occur just above the surface of the planet, since Venus lacks a proper magnetosphere.

How the magnetosphere of a planet shields it from a solar wind. Venus doesn't have a strong enough magnetic field.

Scientists call these Hot Flow Anomalies (HFA’s) and these are common on Saturn. They have also been seen on Mars, but this is the first time such gigantic explosions are afoot on Venus.

An Explanation

Here’s a quick explanation as to why these HFA’s actually happen. The Sun sends out millions of charged particles travelling at very high speeds towards the planet. There are often discontinuities in the solar wind, and this is recorded as a sharp change in the magnetic field of the solar winds.

HFA's on Venus. The charged particles get swept up by this moving front of weak magnetic field. (Image Courtesy: GSFC/Collinson paper)

If these areas lie parallel to the direction of wind flow, the wind can remain in contact with the contour along which the solar wind slows down and changes direction, called the bow shock (marked). If the propagation of the discontinuity is slow enough, it sweeps up enough charged particles. These charged particles form plasma, which sends shockwaves resulting in these gigantic eruptions.

Huge Energy reservoirs

This process happens on Earth too, but the strong magnetic field of the Earth prevents the process from occurring too close to the surface. These processes release a lot of energy. About the HFAs on Venus, David Sibeck, a planetary climate scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center says:

Hot flow anomalies release so much energy that the solar wind is deflected, and can even move back toward the sun. That’s a lot of energy when you consider that the solar wind is supersonic — traveling faster than the speed of sound — and the HFA is strong enough to make it turn around.

The study regarding this phenomenon made by Glyn Collinson and David Sibeck, both from GSFC, appeared in Journal of Geophysica; Research.

Huge Solar Flare Headed Directly For Earth; To Strike In A Few Hours

A huge Solar Flare is heading towards Earth and is expected to collide in a few hours. On the 4th of March, night time in the Eastern Hemisphere, the Sun released a huge amount of charged particles travelling at large speeds in what was a X1.1 class Solar Flare. These particles are going to collide with the Earth’s atmosphere and generate spectacular auroral shows near the poles, and may even cause problems in communication in certain places.


Direct Aim

The bad news is that this solar flare, or Coronal Mass Ejection (CME’s), ejected from the active sunspot AR1429, is aimed directly at Earth. This falls in a series of very big solar flares from the Sun over the last year or so, leading up to the maximum of the 11-year Solar Cycle in 2013. The only difference between this present one and the previous ones is that the earlier ones were not directly straight at us.

You may expect significant disturbances in satellite communications, may be even partial blackouts for a few hours. Power grids are also expected to be hit. NASA is also tracking the exact trajectory of the CME, fearing for the astronauts on the International Space Station.

The expected arrival time is about 2300 EST on 6th March, but it could be early morning on 7th March.

What To Expect

The bottomline is this: Watch out for Auroras if you are in the higher latitudes, whether in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere. In addition to that, do not be surprised if you are rendered without mobile network or even power for a few hours, especially if you reside in the higher latitudes. Do make light preparations for that.

NASA Captures Europe Reeling In Severe Winter; Spectacular Space Image Reveals Bleak Situation

Entire Europe is reeling under an intense cold spell. This is the worst that Europe has seen since February 1991. NASA’s Terra satellite reveals this with a photograph. Most of the area is blue, indicating a temperature much below the normal. The data stretches from January 25th to February 1st. The “normal temperatures” are estimated from data ranging from January 25th to February 1st over the years 2001 to 2011. And this is just the land temperature. Oceans and lakes appear in gray. This was NASA’s photo of the day today.

The image that NASA's Terra satellite took of the entire landmass of Europe. The scale (below) shows how further below the normal the temperatures across Europe are. (Courtesy: NASA)

This year’s tremendous cold throughout the Northern Hemisphere is a not a sign of global warming, but of erratic climate conditions, which might be indirectly linked to global warming.
Jeff Masters explains it as being due to the Jet streams, or rather their anomalous flow patterns. Jet streams are wide streams of air in the atmosphere and, like ocean currents in the sea, they separate different pockets or regions of air from one another. One of them blows from the west to the east along the middle latitudes, separating cold air from the north from the warmer air packets to the south. This year the Jet stream pattern has been very convoluted and the usual stream is now flowing further south. This means that the cold air front has descended southwards, covering much of Europe and leading to this spell of intense cold.

News from the Himalayas

In related news, a different perspective tab on global weather provides both relief and astonishment. While climatologists have already given their prediction of fast melting of glaciers in the Himalayan regions, it seems that the glaciers have not melted much in the last year or so.
Prof. Jonathan Bamber, glaciologist at Bristol Glaciology Center, University of Bristol, says that this is extremely unusual that the ice mass loss is “not significantly different from zero”. However, the results of the climate scientists fall bang on for the mass loss experienced by Antarctica, Arctic, Greenland and the Alaskan permafrost. The data anomaly for Himalayan regions might indicate some region-specific variation that is difficult to incorporate into models.

Climate denial

This should be music to the ears of climate deniers and provide some much needed ammo in their depleted armory. They have always viewed the conclusions as being falsely alarmist and have called them a fraud. However, outright denial is something to be guarded against. Simon Cook warns:

All too often in the past, media reports have presented a ‘black and white’ view of glacier response to climate change. The reasons for this complex global picture are not clear: some places warm more than others, some places experience more precipitation and, hence, snowfall to maintain glaciers is in positive or neutral balance. What is clear is that more research is required to evaluate the response of glaciers to climate change.

In the absence of an alternative to Earth, we ought to do our bit to prevent the ruin of this planet. And we can start off by taking scientists a bit more seriously.

Breakthrough: Wondrous NASA Biocapsule To Protect Astronauts In Space and Lives on Earth!

The health of men being sent to space has always been a huge concern for space organizations, and NASA has come up with a solution that borders on the edge of being a miracle. NASA has made the NASA Biocapsule – a tangle of carbon nanotubes that will be used to contain particular cells and even medicinal substances inside it. It’s tiny, inserted into the skin, non-reactive, fast-acting and virtually indestructible!

The biocapsule. Courtesy:

How it works

This is how this contraption works – A small incision is made on the body of the astronaut, barely skin deep. The nanotube, along with whatever package it is wrapped around, is then inserted subcutaneously. The wound is then either stitched up with a couple of stitches and the astronaut is good to go!

The Biocapsule has been made by Space Biosciences Division at NASA Ames, like all other medical technology made exclusively for NASA. Dr. David Loftus has been awarded a patent for leading the group, which came up with this creation.

The Biocapsule might contain cells, which can dispense hormones should the body require it. For example, if one is diabetic, or if one develops such a condition during a long stay in outer space, the capsule might contain pancreatic islet cells (or some cells which behave like these). Should the body need insulin, the cells will detect the low amounts in the blood and automatically start secretion. Dr. Loftus explains:

The capsule would contain pancreatic islet cells (from animals) or would contain engineered cells designed to behave like pancreatic islet cells, with both glucose-sensing and insulin secretion function. Patients with low-insulin requirement might benefit from implantation of a single capsule (containing perhaps a million to 10 million cells); patients with higher insulin requirement might require implantation of more than one capsule.

The Biocapsules can handle diseases as serious as radiation sickness. The Biocapsules can be used to contain cells that release the hormone G-CSF (Granulocyte colony-stimulating factor), which is a standard treatment for cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy so that they don’t develop any side-effects. Cells capable to detecting high exposure can be planted inside these Biocapsules and these will discharge the G-CSF hormone when triggered by the high radiation dose.

The Best Aspect of it all!

Now here is the coolest aspect of this miracle – it can be easily used on Earth! This is a potential explosive keg of medical revolution having the size of a few microns. It can save millions of lives on Earth, were it to go public! This might even be used to administer very local dosages of substances, which might be harmful to other organs, if it spreads.

With the closest doctor being a few thousand kilometers away, the tiny bundle of security might be the life of an astronaut. Literally!

NASA Releases First Images from Dark Side of the Moon

For many years “The Dark Side of the Moon” was just a really cool album for Pink Floyd fans to enjoy. Now, because of NASA’s twin GRAIL lunar spacecraft, the dark side of the moon can be enjoyed by all. Recently, NASA released the first images and video from the dark side of the moon.

The GRAIL mission consists of two identical spacecraft equipped with a MoonKam (Moon Knowledge Acquired by Middle school students). The mission seeks to involve middle school students and will allow them to pick the areas of the moon they would like to study. Recently, the twin craft were given the names “Ebb” and “Flow” by a group of fourth graders from Emily Dickinson Elementary School in Bozeman, Mont., after they won a nationwide naming contest. On January 19th, NASA tested the MoonKAM on “Ebb” and brought back some spectacular pictures.

In the image below, you can see the south pole of the far side of the moon. You can see that it is riddled with impact craters covering its surface.

Southern Pole

South Pole of the Far Side of the Moon Courtesy: NASA.GOV

Toward the bottom of the image above, you will see an impact crater with a star-like feature in the middle. This is Drygalski’s crater and is about 93 miles wide. This feature is thought to be created billions of years ago by a comet or asteroid impact.

NASA also produced this very short video clip that gives you a quick North to South glance at the dark side of the moon.


This is an exciting opportunity for middle school students to be engaged in a mission first hand. Sally Ride, America’s first woman in space, is leading the MoonKAM project along with undergraduate students at the University of California in San Diego. Middle school students will actually be the ones controlling the cameras on the GRAIL mission. The purpose of this mission is both for education and public outreach. Engaging young ones hopefully will ensure interest in the space program for years to come.

If you are a teacher and would like to engage your classroom in this program visit for more information. You can also find out more about the GRAIL mission by visiting Of course, we at Techie Buzz will do our best to keep you up to date as well. For the best of science, visit