In a Picture: Snoopy’s Apollo 10

Apollo 10 commander Tom Stafford pats the nose of a stuffed Snoopy held by Jamye Flowers (Coplin), Gemini astronaut Gordon Cooper's secretary (NASA)
Apollo 10 commander Tom Stafford pats the nose of a stuffed Snoopy held by Jamye Flowers (Coplin), Gemini astronaut Gordon Cooper's secretary (NASA)

On May 1969, Apollo 10 astronauts Gene Cernan, John Young and Thomas Stafford orbited the Moon on a reconnaissance mission that would lead to the first lunar landing by Apollo 11 later that year. During the mission, the lunar module came within 50,000 feet of the surface, to “snoop around”. It is therefore fitting that the module should be called Snoopy and the Apollo command module be named Charlie Brown.

In the scene above, Jamye Flowers Coplin (Gemini astronaut Gordon Cooper’s secretary) hugging a stuffed Snoopy, sees off the Apollo 10 crew as they make their way to the launch pad. Mission commander Tom Stafford gives Snoopy a rub on the nose.

Later this month, Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, will be celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 10 mission with an exhibition of the connection between the three pioneering astronauts and the tenacious cartoon beagle.

Snoopy’s connection with NASA actually began before Apollo 10. In 1968, NASA chose the beagle as an icon who would “emphasize mission success and act as a ‘watchdog’ for flight safety.”

Established that same year, the agency’s “Silver Snoopy Award” is considered the astronauts personal award, given for outstanding efforts that contribute to the success of human space flight missions. Award winners receive a sterling silver Snoopy lapel pin flown in space, along with a certificate and letter of appreciation from NASA astronauts. Fewer than 1% of the workforce is recognized with a Silver Snoopy annually, making it one of the most prized awards in the industry.

NASA press release, Jan. 5th 2009

For me, the scene captures a very special moment in space flight history, one that I find strangely moving. The pride, excitement and bravery of the time are communicated wonderfully.


Merge NASA with the Military? Scrap Constellation? Really?

A Delta IV Medium rocket launch (USAF)
A Delta IV Medium rocket launch (USAF)

Actually, I’m not overly surprised by this news, but it could be a kick in the teeth for the future of the US civilian space program. According to Bloomberg News late Thursday night, the Obama transition team will probably (note “probably”, not “possibly”) advise a collaboration between NASA and the Pentagon to fast-track development of the next launch vehicle.

But there’s a catch, Constellation doesn’t appear to be a part of the plan.

Apparently feeling the pressure from diplomatic issues with Russia, and China signalling a renewed vigour in their intent to land on the Moon before NASA’s planned 2020 landing, the Obama administration is looking for a cost-effective solution to the Shuttle decommissioning in 2010. Unfortunately the Constellation program has never been considered “cost effective”, it’s always been considered the best course of action. With the economic noose tightening around all government departments, the US space agency has been finding it very hard to explain the ballooning costs and technical challenges associated with Constellation.

Last year, the Pentagon’s space program received $22 billion, one third more than NASA’s entire budget, so it seems reasonable that funds could be shared. But it sounds like NASA could be merging certain aspects of the civilian space program with the US military space program, probably scrapping Constellation and making military Delta IV and Atlas V rockets “human rated”…
Continue reading “Merge NASA with the Military? Scrap Constellation? Really?”

SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Awarded NASA Contracts: $3.5 Billion Total

SpaceX Dragon approaches the ISS (SpaceX)
SpaceX Dragon approaches the ISS (SpaceX)

NASA has just signed two very large cheques for two private spaceflight companies, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Orbital Sciences Corporation. The contracts will allow private launches to re-supply the International Space Station beyond Shuttle decommissioning in 2010, and SpaceX claims they could be doing it by next year.

These contracts represent some of the largest ever given to private enterprise, and demonstrates the trust the US space agency is placing in these space start-ups. The contracts are worth $3.5 billion combined; $1.9 billion for Orbital Sciences and $1.6 billion for SpaceX, equating to 8 flights from Orbital and 12 flights from SpaceX. For now, these contracts are for cargo deliveries only, replacing the Shuttle and providing a viable alternative to the Russian Progress flights. Critically, the US now has a very real prospect to bridge the “5-year gap” from Shuttle retirement (2010) and Constellation launch (2015).

All we need now is for SpaceX’s Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket system to become “human rated” and we could see the first routine commercial launches of US astronauts before the Constellation Program is even rolled out onto the launchpad. Very exciting times

Source: Universe Today, SpaceX

The Cancer Spreads: Mars Science Laboratory Delayed Until 2011

The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) project is failing. But it is not suffering from technical failure en-route to the Red Planet, it hasn’t gotten itself stuck in a Martian sand-trap, it hasn’t even fallen foul of the “Galactic Ghoul”; the MSL is suffering from an overlooked space exploration hazard: bad management. According to today’s (not unexpected) NASA announcement, the MSL will not be launched until 2011.

I had a very bad feeling about today’s press conference, and it looks like my fears were justified. Due to technical difficulties, the launch of the MSL is being delayed by two years, as the overrun will ensure the mission misses the next Mars launch window. So I have to ask: why is an over-budget, behind schedule, poorly managed mission being allowed to sap the budgets of other NASA programs when the solution is so obvious?
Continue reading “The Cancer Spreads: Mars Science Laboratory Delayed Until 2011”

Alien Worlds: Extrasolar Planets Imaged for First Time

Two of the three confirmed planets orbiting HR 8799 indicated as
Two of the three confirmed planets orbiting HR 8799 indicated as “b” and “c” on the image above. “b” is the ~7 Jupiter-mass planet orbiting at about 70 AU, “c” is the ~10 Jupiter-mass planet orbiting the star at about 40 AU. Due to the brightness of the central star, it has been blocked and appears blank in this image to increase visibility of the planets (Gemini Observatory)

The day has finally come. We now have direct, infrared and optical observations of planets orbiting other stars. Yesterday, reports from two independent sources surfaced, one from the Gemini and Keck II observatories and the second from the Hubble Space Telescope. Brace yourself for an awe-inspiring display of planets orbiting two stars…

The Gemini/Keck observations were carried out using adaptive optics technology to correct in real-time for atmospheric turbulence. The stunning images of a multiple planetary star system were then constructed from infrared emissions (the image, top, was constructed by Keck II as a follow-up to to the Gemini observations). The system in question is centred around a star called HR 8799, approximately 130 light years from Earth and in the constellation of Pegasus. The entire press release can be found at the Gemini observatory site, where they give the discovery a full run-down.

On the same day, the Hubble Space Telescope team also released images of one extrasolar planet, only this time in optical wavelengths. Although the exoplanet in Hubble’s images is less obvious than the infrared Gemini/Keck II images, incredible detail has been attained, showing a ring of dust around the star Fomalhaut (located in the constellation of Piscis Austrinus). Fomalhaut is 25 light years away and the star’s daughter planet (Fomalhaut b) is only a little under 3 Jupiter masses.

Estimated to be no more than three times Jupiter's mass, the planet, called Fomalhaut b, orbits the bright southern star Fomalhaut, located 25 light-years away in the constellation Piscis Austrinus (NASA/ESA)
Estimated to be no more than three times Jupiter’s mass, the planet, called Fomalhaut b, orbits the bright southern star Fomalhaut, located 25 light-years away in the constellation Piscis Austrinus (NASA/ESA)

For more news on these discoveries, check out the Gemini/Keck II press release and the Hubble announcement. I’ll leave the ground-breaking announcement to the guys who have spent many years working to achieve this monumental goal.


Sources: Gemini, ESA

EAS Space Junk is Toast, Re-Entry Over Pacific Ocean Likely

The EAS burning up during re-entry as I'd imagine it. Credit: NASA (Earth cloud backdrop). Rendering of EAS re-entry: Ian O'Neill

It looks like the Early Ammonia Servicer (EAS) that has been orbiting Earth for the past 15 months had a fight with the Earth’s atmosphere… and lost. Due to re-enter at some time today (Sunday), an eagle-eyed amateur astronomer noted when the EAS was due to make an orbital pass… but the ammonia-filled space station cast-off missed its November 2nd appointment.

Thomas Dorman of Horizon City, Texas, observed the object fly overhead on November 1st. Dorman was using a low-light camera to attempt to spot the speeding debris earlier today, “but the EAS did not appear,” he said. “I think it is safe to assume EAS has reentered.”

It is most likely that the EAS disintegrated and any surviving bits either fell into an ocean (somewhere) or dropped harmlessly in a sparsely populated region. No reports of a fireball or half a refrigerator randomly dropping into someone’s back yard have surfaced, so my money is on NASA’s reckoning that the EAS would fall harmlessly into water.

Update (Nov. 3rd):
News from as to the location of re-entry:

US Space Command reports that the Early Ammonia Servicer (EAS) probably reentered Earth’s atmosphere on Nov. 3rd at 04:51:00 GMT +/- 1 minute over the following coordinates: 48° S, 151° E. That would place the fireball over the Indian Ocean [Pacific Ocean] south of Tasmania where sightings are unlikely.

Update (Nov. 4th):
Refer to Target Australia: The EAS Splashdown Location

Aside: As it’s Sunday and I’ve not been writing much, I decided to have a dabble with Photoshop and create a quick visualization of what the EAS may look like as it’s falling through the atmosphere (above). I used NASA images for the Earth atmosphere backdrop and the original 2007 space station image of the EAS tumbling in space


Watch Your Heads! Space Station Junk to Hit Earth Today

Somewhere, sometime today, the Early Ammonia Servicer (EAS) will drop to Earth at 100 mph.

The EAS as photographed by the ISS crew in 2007 (NASA)
The EAS as photographed by the ISS crew in 2007 (NASA)

A huge piece of space junk discarded from the space station in 2007 will drop through the atmosphere some time today (Sunday). The Early Ammonia Servicer, otherwise known as the EAS, was detached from the orbiting outpost as its services were no longer required. The double-refrigerator-sized piece of equipment weighs 635 kg (1400 lb) and is filled with toxic ammonia. Although NASA believes most of its mass will disintegrate during re-entry, there’s a real chance of up to 15 pieces of the EAS reaching the ground, the largest piece could weigh up to 17.5 kg (40 lb).

But here’s the funny thing, as the EAS is currently skirting along the outermost reaches of the atmosphere, we are uncertain as to when, or where, the re-entry will take place. NASA and U.S. Space Surveillance Network scientists have done well to narrow the re-entry window down to one day. Fortunately, 70% of the planet is covered in water, so we should be fine. But should any parts of the EAS find solid ground, NASA has warned that we shouldn’t approach any suspicious-looking (and probably steaming) bits of meteorite in case the EAS still has some ammonia on board…
Continue reading “Watch Your Heads! Space Station Junk to Hit Earth Today”

“Under My Watch, NASA Will Inspire the World Again” – Barack Obama

And you know what? I believe him.

Obama vows to make NASA a priority (NASA/AP)
Obama vows to make NASA a priority (NASA/AP)

In only three days, the USA will take to the polls and vote in their next president. Presently, Sen. Barack Obama (Democrat) is holding the lead in the opinion polls, in front of Sen. John McCain (Republican). Opinion polls, although indicative of the current mood of voters, are by no means fool-proof, this election could go either way.

This is the first US election I have been in the country for, and from what I’ve seen and heard from both leading candidates have been worrying yet significant. It is no secret that the US is suffering every “crisis” in the book (housing crisis, credit crisis, economic crisis, health care crisis…), but the one election issue that is key in my mind is the growing space exploration crisis. Whilst this may be low on the list of national priorities at the moment, the next few years will be critical to the international balance of space exploration dominance for decades to come. The next few years, if unchecked, could be the most challenging period NASA has ever faced.

The US space agency needs to be nurtured and led by a strong president and vice-president who understands the position of building a powerful position in space exploration. In my view, there’s only two men up to the task
Continue reading ““Under My Watch, NASA Will Inspire the World Again” – Barack Obama”

Phoenix is Alive! Just in Time for Halloween

Steve the Cat celebrates Halloween on the Phoenix Mars Lander (NASA/
Steve the Cat celebrates Halloween on the Phoenix Mars Lander (NASA/

After an uncertain couple of days, NASA has regained contact with the ailing Mars lander. Yesterday, scientists announced they were having difficulty communicating with Phoenix after the on board electronics were switched into “safe mode” on Tuesday. It seems likely that the robot was switched into this low-energy state due to the increasingly cold weather — plus a Sun-blocking dust storm — triggering a low-power fault.

Although scientists were concerned they may not regain communications with the lander, they were able get in touch with Phoenix late on Thursday during a two hour period when the lander’s electronics were powered up. Now scientists know that Phoenix will automatically reboot itself every 19 hours, and then power up again for two hours to carry out very limited science duties.

NASA was able to transmit commands via NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter which passed overhead during this two-hour period of opportunity. This goes to show how little solar energy is being collected from the meagre sunlight as Mars enters winter (the Sun is very low on the Martian horizon, and it will soon drop out of sight, sealing the fate of Phoenix).

However, before Phoenix succumbs to a low energy coma, NASA is trying to get as many science activities out of it before it is frozen solid.

It also seems fitting that the highly successful NASA mission should come back from the brink of death on Halloween. So, “Happy Halloween Phoenix!” We all hope you last a few more weeks…

Source: AP

Has Phoenix… Died?

Could this be the end of Phoenix? (NASA/JPL)
The end of the line? (NASA/JPL)

Late on Tuesday, NASA’s Phoenix Mars lander entered “safe mode.”

Before this, NASA scientists were working to conserve power by shutting down non-critical systems. By powering down instrumentation such as the heaters that warm Phoenix’s robotic arm, valuable energy was hoped to be saved, perhaps giving the lander some extra time to carry out its final experiments before complete loss of sunlight as Mars’ northern hemisphere enters winter. But it seems that a possible dust storm and the falling temperatures (down to -96°C) may have caused a low-power fault, triggering the precautionary safe-mode.

Although scientists were optimistic about communicating with its on board systems, to send commands to bring Phoenix back online, it seems time (and energy) has run out…
Continue reading “Has Phoenix… Died?”