Posts Tagged ‘nasa’

Fomalhaut B

Posted: 13 November 2008 in Uncategorized
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Hubble has captured a visible-spectrum image of a planet revolving around Fomalhaut.  Previously planets had only been observed indirectly, such as when the planet passes between Earth and the star.  Fomalhaut is close enough that Hubble was able to catch a glimpse of the highly reflective giant planet, which is about three times the size of Jupiter and tens times as far from Fomalhaut as Saturn is from the sun.

Check out the video for more info.

Hubble captures first visible image of an extra solar planet

Hubble captures first visible image of an extra solar planet

Update:  I originally misspelled this is as “Formalhaut,” a mistake I’ve been making ever since I was a kid and always forget.

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Mars Phoenix gets a lame-ass epitaph

Posted: 5 November 2008 in Uncategorized
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Well the Wired contest to come up with an epitaph for the Mars Phoenix lander has ended and the final choice blows, in my opinion.

Veni, vidi, fodi. (I came, I saw, I dug) 

The number three choice wasn’t so bad:

It is enough for me. But for you, I plead: go farther, still. 

My choice, as I mentioned before, was ranked at #4, so not too bad.  I scrolled down to the very end of the list and looked for the most hated epitaphs.  There were some real stinkers, to be sure, but also some funny ones.  Here are several of the turdiest:

  • this weather gives new meaning to the old saying, ‘blue balls in a nor’easter’
  • May he rest in peace ~~~Lance was here ’69~~~
  • Go to the light. Like great men and myths, (Elvis, Tupac, BigFoot, Nessie) your legend will live on after your tweetstream goes flatline.
  • Better Dead on Red. The First of what will be many efforts to raise us from the mire of our own making.

@MarsPhoenix is a twitter success story.  It’s also a NASA success story.  Oh and also a scientific success for all it has done on Mars.  As six months of night approach, the Phoenix probe was slowly shutting down systems to finish analyses.  A couple of days ago, a dust storm diminished the day time charging cycle enough that it caused the lander to go into hibernation.  NASA is going to try to revive the it this weekend, but the prospects are grim.  Even more grim are the chances that the probe will awake come spring.  Temperatures at the Martian poles go so low in the winter, they exceed the minimum tolerance for electrical circuits.

But back to the Twitter success story.  As of right now, @MarsPhoenix has 37,284 followers.  That makes it one of the most followed users on Twitter.  For the past few months, NASA has been posting updates posing as the probe.  The updates take the form of first-person snippets of information and answers to questions from users.  Overall, it has been great PR, keeping people up-to-date on space exploration in a completely new way.  We can’t exactly have a live feed from Mars, but by personifying the probe and getting people involved, NASA has really done a lot for improving public involvement in the mission.

NASA has expanded their twittering to a whole host of other missions.  Most notable (to me) amongst them are the Cassini probe (which is orbiting Saturn),  the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the Spirit and Opportunity rovers.  So if you twitter, they might be worth some of your time.

@MarsPhoenix posted the following earlier today:

I should stay well-preserved in this cold. I’ll be humankind’s monument here for centuries, eons, until future explorers come for me ;-)

In honor of its imminent passing, Wired is running a contest to find the best epitaph for Phoenix.  My current favorite is:  “Every robotic lander dies. Not every robotic lander truly lives.”  I’m getting a little choked up..

Something about this photo speaks to me:

Some actors from Star Trek standing near the Shuttle Enterprise

Some actors from Star Trek standing near the Shuttle Enterprise. Credit: NASA

Now, I wonder if DeForest Kelley (Dr. McCoy) is really that interested in talking to the NASA engineer-looking dude on the left.  It just brings to mind hundreds of conversations between scientists and laymen where the laymen appears interested and the scientist rambles on about stuff way too esoteric to be meaningful.  Of course, maybe he’s talking about his daughter:  “She’s about yay tall…”

On a mildly interesting side note, I was trying to figure out the correct spelling of “yay” in the phrase “yay tall.”  Is it “yay” or “yea”?  The Googles shows about 325 results for “about yea tall” and 821 for “about yay tall.”  So I went with “yay”.  Yay for me!  Anyone know which one the Queen uses?

Venutian Rover Bomb

Posted: 12 November 2007 in Uncategorized
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There is a cool article today in New Scientist that describes an old cooling method with a bleeding edge application: a rover to Venus. Venus is a picture of the greenhouse effect gone wild. Average temperatures are about +260 degrees Celsius (500 degrees Fahrenheit). This is hot enough to melt lead and destroys most modern electronics. Previous rover attempts to Venus by the US and Russia lasted less than 2 hours. So if we are to put a rover on Venus for the kind of time we have spent on Mars, we’ll need to find a way to cool the onboard electronics long enough that they can operate well.

Enter two NASA boffins, Geofferey Landis and Kenneth Mellott. By applying a refrigeration technique invented by a clergyman nearly two centuries ago, they have found a way to keep a rover cool for about fifty Earth days (a Venutian day is 243 Earth days, about 19 days longer than its year!). The Stirling cooler (invented by Reverend Robert Stirling) works by compressing a gas with a piston. As it compresses, it gets hotter. The temperature is dissipated with a radiator (which would be placed on the back of the probe). As the gas expands, it gets cooler (causing the refrigeration effect). In order for this to work, the radiator must be hotter than the outside air.

Interestingly, the Stirling cooler is energy efficient and is being incorporated into some of the newer energy efficient refrigerator models. To power the cooler on the rover, they propose using a plutonium battery. This type of device is known as a radioisotope thermoelectric generator. As the radioactive material decays, it release heat, and this heat is converted into electricity. These batteries are common on satellites and in unmanned situations where a long duration power source is necessary and solar cells are not viable (the massive cloud cover on Venus prevents solar cells from being very effective, plus the atmosphere is very caustic and I think it would probably damage them).

Well, if there is somehow intelligent life on Venus, let’s hope they don’t confuse this rover for the first case of interplanetary terrorism.

Mars, Phobos, or Deimos?

Posted: 8 November 2007 in Uncategorized
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Which will be the newest extraterrestrial body humans will set foot on? (Aside from the moon, of course.) According to Pascal Lee of the Mars Institute, “[Phobos and Deimos] are the most accessible planetary bodies in our solar system.” New Scientist has a report on the conference at Ames Research Center on Wednesday where ideas were thrown around for the human exploration of Mars. Astronauts could set foot on one of them within a decade. So cool.

Phobos and Deimos are similar in nature to C-type asteroids. Phobos is porous and has an extremely low orbit, subjecting it to tidal forces. These forces will eventually cause it to either break up or crash into Mars (in about 30-80 million years). In the meantime, it would make an excellent base of operations for a manned mission to Mars. Escaping the gravity of Phobos or Deimos would be much less difficult than escaping that of Mars.

One of the biggest problems with such a venture according to the New Scientist article is dust. With such a weak gravitational field, Phobos could have as much as 5 meters of dust accumulated on its surface. Also, a long journey like this would expose astronauts to too much radiation, giving them a 5% chance of dying of radiation poisoning (above the 3% NASA allows). But wouldn’t it be cool, to stand there on that dusty rock, a mere 6000 miles above Mars, looking at that giant red orb in the sky?

There is a somewhat rare opportunity for people in the US and southern Canada over the next two days. The space shuttle Discovery just undocked from the International Space Station and is currently drifting just in front of it. It will be passing nearly overhead just before dawn, the best time for viewing. As the space station comes into the sunlight while the Earth below is still in darkness, the solar panels reflect the light and it stands out brighter than most stars in the sky. Both the ISS and Discovery will be visible to the naked eye. In fact, the ISS is four times brighter than the brightest star in the sky and about equal in brightness to the planet Jupiter.

To see when the space station will pass overhead, check out the NASA Skywatch website. You can also use the most excellent real-time satellite tracking website, n2yo.com. I mentioned this website before, and it continues to impress me. You can create prediction maps for up to 5 days in advance, showing exactly where it will pass near you. Tomorrow morning at 6:12am, Pittsburgh will have a very nice, nearly overhead view of the ISS and Discovery.

Discovery lands Wednesday around midday, so your chances for viewing are limited to Tuesday and Wednesday (Nov 6th & 7th).