After Russia’s botched up Mars Moon mission, the Americans are all geared up to launch their new Mars rover, Curiosity, to the Red Planet. Curiosity is a car-sized rover, which will hope to improve upon the observations from Spirit and Opportunity, the previous Mars rovers. The launch is duetoday, i.e. on 26th of November, 2011, postponed from an earlier announced Friday launch. The launch will happen at 10:02 AM EST from Cape Canaveral, aboard the powerful ATLAS V rocket.
Curiosity, or more formally, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), will touchdown on Mars in August 2012 in the Gale Crater. One of the main aims of the Curiosity mission is to investigate the composition of the Martian surface, as well as search for the signs of existence of life. It is also expected to return stunning photos of the surface, the likeness of which we’ve not seen as yet. NASA even claims that it will be able to figure out a bit about Mars’ history. This is because the Gale crater is a deep crater revealing several hundred layers of sedimentary rock that can be studied.
One of the primary aims of MSL is to study the presence of life. MSL will devote quite a bit of effort in that direction, carrying instruments that will analyze the composition of the Martian surface (via the ChemCam) and also detect the presence of underground water, even if it is present in the form of clay.
The rover will be powered by nuclear energy on the frigid Martian surface. The power generation is actually quite a sophisticated process. Plutonium (Pu-238, non-weapon grade) will glow a dull red in the dark and produce enough heat to generate 110 W of electricity, enough to keep one of the modules operational at a time. The heat warms a a bar of Lead Tellurite, which produces electricity via thermoelectric effects, i.e. it produces electricity when there is a temperature gradient. The battery will last 23 months.
Stay tuned for the latest news on the Curiosity launch. We hope to put up some photos of the actual launch.
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, JWST for short, has received critical Congressional funding according to a report from Scientfic American. Back in July the U.S. House of Representatives nearly terminated the program when a subcommittee responsible for NASA’s funding claimed the program was “plagued by poor management”. The Senate wrote money into it’s budget, however. Fortunately for NASA, the Senate and the House were able to reach a compromise on November 17th and JWST funding was appropriated.
The James Webb Space Telescope is a NASA project designed to replace the well known Hubble Space Telescope. It is an infrared optimized space telescope designed to look into the deepest regions of space. It will serve as the premier observatory for scientists all over the world. Equipped with some innovative and extremely sensitive equipment which will enable it to be sensitive to light from 0.6 to 27 micrometers in wavelength. The telescope was formerly known as the “Next Generation Space Telescope” (NGST). In 2002 it was renamed after former NASA Administrator, James Webb. He was also the father of the Apollo program.
Deep Space Equals Deep Pockets
One of the big problems with this project has been the amount of funding and missed deadlines. It is estimated that the cost of this project will exceed $8.8 billion dollars. With the funding also came cuts. NASA will have to deal with a total budget of $17.8 billion, which is about half a billion dollars shy of last year’s budget totals. The launch date has also been a moving target. At one point, it had a launch date as recently as 2010. Now it appears that NASA has a goal to launch in 2018. Despite the cutbacks, NASA seemed optimistic in its response to Congress’ continued funding:
It’s certainly a major improvement in our position,says NASA’s John Mather, senior project scientist for JWST and winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics. Especially considering that not too many months ago one of the subcommittees voted to give us zero dollars.
The good news is that this project continues to make progress in spite of political wrangling. Yesterday, NASA announced that the assembly stand was completed for the telescope’s flight optics. “This milestone is important as it marks the transition to the integration and testing phase for the Webb telescope’s optical telescope element,” said Lee Feinberg, Optical Telescope Element Manager for the Webb telescope at Goddard. Our own Debjyoti Bardhan also reported about significant progress on the telescope’s mirrors in his article, “Hubble Successor: U.S. Senate Decision Pulls The James Webb Telescope Out of Deep Trouble” back in September.
Hopefully this project can stay on track and make it to completion. There are deep mysteries in our Universe just waiting to be discovered. The JWST will bring us so much closer to the origins of our Universe and unraveling the great mysteries before us.
NASA posted the time lapse view of the Earth from space, which was shot using a special low-light 4k camera that shows up the Aurora Borealis around the globe. This piece of footage is incredibly awesome, providing with some unbelievable scenes from the International Space Station that raced the earth at nearly 17,227 mile per hour at an altitude of around 350 km. The images were captured with a high ISO HD Camera developed by NHK Japan, nicknamed the SS-HDTV camera.
The time lapse view of the earth from space starts over the USA and travels through Madagascar to South West Australia, and also covers the Eastern Europe to South-eastern Asia at Night. This time-lapse features stunning shots of the Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis, lighting storms, and amazing images of Earth’s cities at night!
At 4:39 we can notice parts of the Indian state, starting from Gujarat and goes through Karnataka (Bangalore), Tamil Nadu (Chennai), and lastly Sri Lanka.
Shooting locations in order of appearance:
Aurora Borealis Pass over the United States at Night
Aurora Borealis and Eastern United States at Night
Aurora Australis from Madagascar to southwest of Australia
Aurora Australis south of Australia
Northwest coast of United States to Central South America at Night
Aurora Australis from the Southern to the Northern Pacific Ocean
Halfway around the World
Night Pass over Central Africa and the Middle East
Evening Pass over the Sahara Desert and the Middle East
Pass over Canada and Central United States at Night
Forget cheese, the moon is really made put of Titanium. In a joint meeting of the European Planetary Science Congress and the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences, the result of the study by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) was published. This is not a huge surprise since Russian Luna missions had already informed us that there are many titanium ore rich areas on the Moon.
The presence of ilmenite (Ferrous Titanium Oxide FeTiO3 ) can be detected by considering the reflection of light from the surface. Ilmenite has a shiny metallic look along with a brown-pinkish tinge. It also exhibits pleochroism, which means that it has a different color when looked at from different angles.
Many wavelengths all to see the Moon better with
The LRO photographed the moon in seven different wavelengths, including ultraviolet (UV). The effects of weathering on craters show up in much more pronounced detail when viewed in UV. By comparing the reflectance of the Moon’s surface to different wavelengths of light, the LRO can pick out the regions rich in ilmenite.
Anything in it for us? You bet!
This huge abundance of titanium amongst metals (about 10%) on the moon is extremely puzzling, since less than 1% of Earth’s metals is titanium or its compound. This finding will go a long way in understanding the evolution of the moon.
Ilmenite is mined on Earth for titanium. If there is a Lunar Base in the near future, titanium would prove invaluable for building it.
We’re indeed just beginning to understand out nearest celestial neighbor.
The Sun’s roaring again and it’s usually bad news when that happens. An active sunspot, Sunspot 1302, has suddenly grown vigorous and is releasing vast amounts of highly energetic charged particles hurtling out of the Sun. It released a huge solar flare on the 24th of September and its hyperactivity continues unabated over the last few days. The activity was caught by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory or SDO.
Coronal Mass Ejection and a brilliant lightshow
NASA warned that a huge Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) or a Solar Flare is in progress. The CME occurred at about 8:15 AM EST, today i.e. on the 26th of September. Upon reaching Earth this will cause a huge geomagnetic storm, interfering with radio communications everywhere. This will also produce scintillating auroras near the poles of the Earth. If you stay in the higher altitudes, remember to look up in the sky the light show is due to the Sun.
This is Big!
Scientists use a Kp-index to indicate the enormity of the Solar flare. It is a scale from 0 to 9, 0 indicating no activity and 9 indicating hyperactivity. It tells us whether there will be a significant geomagnetic storm caused due to Solar activity, with any reading above Kp=4 denoting a geomagnetic storm. The 26th September solar flare was marked Kp=8! The solar flare was so huge that it could be heard on all radios across the world. Here’s a video from NASA.
The solar flare was marked as a X1.9 category flare, indicating that it had some X-ray components to it. However, this is much lower than the X6.9 solar flare on 9th August or even the X2.2 flare on 15th February this year.
The increased activity of the Sun is related to the peak in the Solar Cycle. The Peak is expected in Early or mid-2013 and this is all leading up to that.
If you’re dead scared of the falling NASA satellite, you can now use your Android phone to keep track of the rogue beast. A free Android app lets you track the falling UARS satellite.
We’ve already told you about the defunct satellite crashing to the Earth (here). We’ve assured you that it won’t hit you (here)! You can safely go about your routine job without worrying about anything. Still Android provides further assurance.
UPDATE: UARS Satellite is DOWN! The Debris Fell Between 2323 EST on 23rd September to 0109 EST on 24th September. This is official from NASA. Location is not yet known
It’s Coming Crashing Down! Tonight!
NASA’s defunct UARS satellite is crashing tonight, 23rd of September. The location and exact time are not yet known. It will definitely miss North America and Europe and will, thus, plunge into the sea. The debris will be spread over a large range of latitude and longitude, so some may yet fall on land. However, we’ve already assured you, relying on NASA, that you’re safe.
NASA App (And Insurance!!)
You probably know of the Android app Satellite AR. They have added a temporary button allowing you to track the UARS spacecraft as it makes its fiery descent towards Earth.
The app allows you to track all satellites directly above you. For today, it allows you to track the falling satellite in its final moments.
There’s more! There’s insurance against being hit by falling satellite debris. The insurance companies must be smiling ear to ear as they dole out one-time pay insurances for many people insuring their and their family’s lives as well as their cars or houses. Health insurance will cover injuries and life insurance will coverâ€¦ well, you need not bother thinking about that.
There has been only one incident of someone being hit by falling space junk! And she never got hurt. But that doesn’t mean that you should drop your guard in front of a falling bus-sized satellite, right?
If you believe in the old superstition and see the bus-sized NASA satellite falling in a day or two, do remember to make a wish. The UARS falling through the atmosphere will look like a nice shooting star. And as for being hit by falling debris, let me say what Douglas Adams had said so very successfully Don’t Panic. NASA assures that your chances of being hit by a piece of debris from the falling space-craft are extremely small.
The satellite may enter the Earth’s atmosphere at any time between Sept 23 at 1023 EST (1432 GMT) and Sept 24 at 0248 EST (0648 GMT). This 19-hour window is NASA’s best bet. The point of re-entry, as predicted by Harro Zimmer in Berlin, will be over the West Pacific near Northwest Japan. The range of co-ordinates is about 19.10N and 128.50E.
The satellite may be seen over South Florida after sunset.
We intend to do a small qualitative comparative study to quell any fears that you might be having. NASA has come up with a figure of the possibility that anyone any one single person will be hit by a piece of debris from the satellite. The chances are less than 1-in-3200. The chance of you being hit (the more specific case) is 1-in-hundred-trillion. You’ve got to be REALLY unlucky to get hit.
Let’s compare some numbers. One-in-hundred-trillion is really the same chance you have of dying while shaving with your electric razor. The chance of you being struck by lightning is 1-in-60,000. The chance of you meeting a car accident is much higher. If you can live with these possibilities, you shouldn’t be worried about falling space debris. As I said before, you’ve got to be REALLY unlucky.
Still Worried? Enjoy the Light Show
NASA admits that they don’t know the location of the spacecraft and they’ll only know that once the UARS spacecraft re-enters the ionosphere of the atmosphere. They predict that the latitude will be something between 600N and 600S (roughly), but that of no use. It is quite obvious that the satellite will not plunge into the Polar Regions. This leaves a large swath of ocean free for the satellite to plunge into.
If you’re still worried, maybe you can at least get lucky enough to see the satellite re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, breaking up and then burning up. This will create a nice light show mimicking a meteor shower. However, unlike a meteor shower, this will last for a very short time.
If you’re still paranoid, we advise you some bed rest. At least, that way you’ll be indoors.
A huge defunct satellite is soon to come crashing down to the Earth in a few days time, but NASA assures everyone that no one will get hurt! The satellite in question is the Upper Atmospheric Research Satellite (UARS). The date for the crash is 24th September. The crash window, earlier announced to be between late September and early October, has now been curtailed to just three days.
Space junk experts ruled that the chance of a piece of debris from the giant satellite hitting someone on the ground is extremely remote – about 1 in 3200. The logic is simple 75% of the Earth is covered by oceans and, thus, a drop into the ocean is the most likely scenario.
NASA expects the 5-ton UARS to break up into at least 26 fragments that will be big enough to survive the re-entry and reach the surface of the Earth. These fragments are mainly scrap metal and there is no need to worry about toxic materials. The fuel was used up in 2005, when the UARS completed its mission.
UARS was launched in 1991 to measure ozone content in the atmosphere along with other gases. It also measured wind speeds and studied how radiation and charged particles from the sun affect the upper part of the atmosphere. This mission was completed in 2005. Since then, it has been orbiting Earth, being nothing more than just a big piece of space junk.
The satellite is losing altitude, even as you read this. Currently it is at about 140 miles above the Earth’s surface. It is in fact falling faster than expected owing to the increased solar activity, which tends to lower the density of the atmosphere by heating it up.
According to NASA,
Re-entry is expected Sept. 23, plus or minus a day. The re-entry of UARS is advancing because of a sharp increase in solar activity since the beginning of this week.
No one knows where the satellite will fall. That will be known only two hours before the re-entry.
The crash is expected to occur between the latitudes of Northern Canada (about 62 degrees North) and south of South America (about 60 degrees South). This leaves a large region of ocean for the spacecraft to splash into. NASA is monitoring the satellite’s every move.
NASA has warned the public not to touch any debris that they might chance across, either on land or in the water. Anyone chancing upon such a piece should contact their local law enforcement agency.
Some great news is coming in from Washington! The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) may just have got a new lease of life.
Money and relief
We reported that the JWST was cancelled (here) due to fund cuts by the US Senate Appropriations Sub-Committee. Yesterday (14th September), the US Senate Appropriations Committee met to discuss the details of the FY2012 (Financial Year 2012) bill and, surprise and glee, the JWST was sanctioned $530 million in 2012. This is a big improvement over the $374 million it was sanctioned in the last year.
This will be music to many ears, both intimately associated with the JWST project and other space enthusiasts. Hubble has been as much a darling for the public as for professional astronomers, and it would just be a shame if it had no successor. Losing the joy of watching deep space in high resolution, never knowing what one will find is a joy unparalleled! No one wants that to end.
Recently the James Webb Space Telescope completed a crucial phase in the construction of its mirrors. It has 21 mirrors, made up of 18 segments, forming one giant 21 foot mirror. The mirrors are the best in the world. They are made up of beryllium, so that they can withstand the near absolute zero temperature of space. They are also coated with a thin film of gold so that they are good reflectors of infra-red radiation. All of this goes into making JWST at least a 100x better than Hubble ever was.
Please note that JWST is not out of the woods yet! This is merely the money granted for 2012. The project will last till 2018 and there are still many hurdles ahead, especially for a project of this magnitude where the costs tend to swell up abruptly.
Apart from this grant to the JWST, NASA got a grant of $17.9 billion for the coming year. Although this is a $500 million reduction from the promised grant, it is still a hefty amount.
NASA’s new generation rocket will be the biggest and baddest rocket ever built. It is the next generation rocket meant for carrying very heavy loads of cargo into space, thanks to a giant booster. It will eventually carry astronauts into space, but that is still a long way away. It is a first step towards NASA’s endeavor for Deep Space Missions.
This announcement by NASA was made yesterday (14th September, 2011).
The Space Launch System
The new rocket is called the Space Launch System (SLS) and it will use liquid hydrogen in liquid oxygen as fuel to get the thrust that it intends to achieve.
The entire SLS program is worth at $18 billion, with the rocket alone costing $10 billion. This works out to $3 billion per year for NASA. The rocket will take some time coming, though. The first test flights are expected in faraway 2017.
SLS will use the still use the solid rocket boosters on either side of the SLS core main rocket. The carrying capacity is slated to be 70 metric tons initially, which will eventually touch 130 metric tons with upgrades. As for the amount of thrust, the SLS will deliver about 20 percent more thrust than the Saturn V rockets, which powered the Apollo missions. It will also be taller, at 403 feet, a clear 40 feet taller than the Saturn rockets.
Future bright, present controversial
This is the first concrete announcement of the future plan of progress for NASA after its 30 year Space Shuttle Program ended a couple of months back. In this time, NASA will be using private built rockets to journey to and from the International Space Station and, maybe, even have manned flights.
As with any big project, the SLS was recently embroiled in controversy after the Wall Street Journal published the news that NASA’s estimates for the SLS was nearly $63 billion! The source of this news was found to be a leaked memo and based on hypotheses, rather than facts. The actual costs are of the tune of $20 billion.
The rockets get bigger and bigger, trying to keep up with human ambitions in space.