Space Junk: It’s Not As Bad As It Looks (what?)


According to NASA, these new images of space junk orbiting Earth make the situation look more dire than it really is.

I suppose that would be like a store manager looking at the shop floor of Toys ‘R’ Us on the day after Thanksgiving rubbing his chin and saying, “You see, I told you it would be quiet.” In actuality, the shop would be rammed full of bargain hunters, and by the looks of things, Earth orbit (from LEO to geostationary altitudes) is rammed full of junk.

But space is big, so although it might look a little grim up there, it’s very unlikely a spaceship will collide with anything. A statement from NASA agrees:

The dots are not to scale, and space is a very big place. Collisions between large objects are fairly rare. The orbit of each piece is well known. If any debris comes into the path of an operating NASA satellite, flight controllers will maneuver the satellite out of harm’s way.

This may be the case, but I would argue that as a space-faring race, us humans have barely dipped our toes in the cosmos yet. It’s going to take a lot more rocket launches and space littering before we can have routine access to space. If it looks like this now, in the first decade of the 21st century, how much junk is going to be up there in 20, 50 or 100 years time when manned space flight is commonplace?

We’re already manoeuvring satellites, shuttles and space stations out of harms way, and occasionally satellites do collide. Unfortunately, I think space junk will be an additional man made hazard for space travel; we’ll just have to deal with it.

But for now, be sure to pack your double-glazed Whipple Shield if you intend to take a trip into low-Earth orbit



BOOM!! BOOM!! Beep Beep Beep Woof Woof Woof

Identified Flying Object: Anthony Cook caught a gipse of the shuttle over Griffin Observatory, LA (©Anthony Cook)
Identified Flying Object: Anthony Cook caught a gipse of the shuttle over Griffin Observatory, LA (©Anthony Cook)

Yesterday, at 5.48pm PDT, I witnessed a shuttle event for the first time. Following the 13-day long STS-128 mission to the International Space Station, shuttle Discovery had to be redirected to land at Edwards Air Force Base, about an hour north of Los Angeles.

Excited, I kept track of the shuttle’s progress as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and made a fast decent toward the Californian coastline. I quickly realized that the shuttle’s flightpath would not only take it over LA, it would be flying straight over my house! (Give or take a few pixels on my laptop screen, that would probably translate to several miles, but hell, it was close enough.)

I knew there might be a good chance that I’d hear the shuttle’s sonic boom as it passed over LA County, but I wanted to see the approaching shuttle too.

Unfortunately, it was one of the few days that there was low cloud patching the sky, so the chances were slim. Either way, I had a good chance of hearing the sonic boom if I got outside and listened very hard. I was told on good authority (by ace Discovery Space correspondent Irene Klotz) I should be able to hear the shock wave about 4 minutes before touchdown.

There was 6 minutes to go, so I ran outside to listen out for the distant thud of Discovery slamming though the atmosphere 14× the speed of sound.

Distant thud? Are you sure about that, Ian?

Although I was prepared to hear a mediocre bang, I wasn’t prepared for what really happened–


Stupidly, I was balancing on a chair, shading my eyes in the hope of seeing a little dart-shaped shuttle through the clouds… with my laptop under my other arm so I could hear the NASA TV commentary a bit better. Not smart. I nearly jumped out of my skin when I heard that! I’m amazed I didn’t drop the laptop and fall off the chair, it really was that loud. Almost like a bomb going off.

Once I put the computer down on a more suitable surface, I shouted “Holy crap!” (on Twitter too). I was shaking a little. I heard the neighbours chatting about the noise; a car alarm was sounding and dogs were barking (hence the reference to the funny title, as said by @08HD_DynaSGC). I’d just heard the space shuttle, pass overhead, after spending 13 days orbiting the Earth, docked with the space station.

The enormity of the Shuttle Program struck me really hard, and I felt a little emotional. I hadn’t even seen a shuttle with my own eyes, all I’d heard was its sonic boom. I can only imagine how I’d react if I actually saw a shuttle launch, or a landing. I hope I do, soon, before the remaining six shuttle missions are out…

Image source:

Chandrayaan-1 Didn’t Fail. It Fried


As we all know by now, India’s first mission to the Moon (Chandrayaan-1) lost contact with mission control over a week ago. Very quickly, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) declared that the mission was unrecoverable, and after a 10-month stint, it was curtains for India’s début lunar jaunt.

Oh well, these things happen in space.

But not everyone sees it that way. Almost immediately, the media started calling Chandrayaan-1 a “failure.” The ISRO issued press releases saying that 95% of the mission objectives had been completed, so it couldn’t be considered a “failure.”

During the Al Jazeera Inside Story show I was invited to appear on shortly after contact was lost with the satellite, I mentioned that it isn’t easy to put stuff into space. Although the ISRO has been operational for the best part of 40 years, getting a probe to the moon, dropping an impactor onto the surface and surviving for 10 months wasn’t an easy thing to do by any means. How could the mission possibly be a failure? More of a partial success.

Some questions will obviously hover over the reasons for the mishap, but it doesn’t seem to be holding India back as they prepare Chandrayaan-2.

So what did happen? It would appear that some more details are surfacing about the satellite’s demise. The Indian press are pointing to a decision by the ISRO to increase the orbit of Chandrayaan-1 from 100km to 200km in May this year for scientific reasons. In actuality, the radiation shielding installed on the craft was insufficient, forcing mission control to increase the orbit away from the Moon.

And now it looks like the same problem — lack of decent radiation shielding — fried the communication computers on board the satellite, probably the root cause of the blackout. In any case, international specialists will meet in Bangalore today to shed some light on why Chandrayaan-1 disappeared and to evaluate its performance.

Chandrayaan-1 is Lost, Astroengine Appears on Al Jazeera

As far as blogging about space news goes, this is most definitely the pinnacle of my writing career. After hearing the frustrating news that the Indian Space and Research Organization (ISRO) had lost touch with their Chandrayaan-1 lunar mission, I, of course, felt compelled to blog about it.

Not 24 hours later, I receive an email from the producer of an Al Jazeera news show called Inside Story asking me if I’d be interested in sharing my views about Chandrayaan-1 on the show early Monday morning. Hell yes!

So I spent the rest of Sunday cramming the (very interesting) history of the Indian space program, along with some of the specifics of Chandrayaan-1. By Monday, I was ready to go.

The filming for the show started at 7:05am in a studio in Culver City and lasted about 25 minutes. And it was a lot of fun! Check out the video above, I think the Inside Story production is highly professional, with a very BBC feel to it. I’m very happy to have been asked for my opinion live on air, on the international stage.

Although my brain wasn’t functioning particularly fast at such an early hour, I think it went well, and I eventually got my points across…

Lost In Space: India’s Chandrayaan-1 Moon Mission Goes Silent

A miniature replica of the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft (V. Ganesan/The Hindu)

Just as one mission begins (Discovery’s STS-128), another ends. Unfortunately, only 10 months after launch, the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) lunar satellite Chandrayaan-1 has mysteriously ceased communication with mission control. ISRO officials have declared that the mission has ended, 14 months earlier than planned.

On Saturday, at 1:30am local time, the ISRO lost communications, and according to a spokesman, the agency is no longer in control of the spacecraft. Chandrayaan-1 data was being received by a monitoring unit in the southern city of Bangalore. There is currently no explanation for the failure.

The mission had completed 3,400 orbits of the Moon and everything seemed to be operational for the next few thousand orbits. The ambitious mission was launched by the fledgling space agency to allow India to stake a claim over lunar exploration with the future hope of exploiting the Moon’s natural resources (such as the abundance of uranium). This mission put India into a very exclusive club of only five international space agencies that had sent missions to the Moon before (NASA, JAXA, ESA, ROSCOSMOS and the CNSA).

This isn’t the first problem the satellite had suffered, however. In May, the probe lost a critical instrument called a star sensor, and then in July, the craft overheated. Fortunately, further damage to the rest of the satellite was averted by ground controllers.

Despite the obviously upsetting news about the loss of the $80 million piece of ISRO hardware, officials are surprisingly upbeat about the whole thing.

The mission is definitely over. We have lost contact with the spacecraft,” Project Director M. Annadurai said. “It [Chandrayaan-1] has done its job technically… 100 per cent. Scientifically also, it has done almost 90-95 percent of its job.”

Personally, I think the ISRO did a superb job at developing Chandrayaan-1 mission, and simply getting the thing into lunar orbit is an incredible feat. Another aspect I was impressed with was the ground controllers’ ability to deal with problems in-flight and fix them accordingly. This can only help to strengthen India’s ability when launching future missions to the Moon.

Sources: The Hindu, New York Times

Discovery is Still on the Launch Pad

Discovery on Launch Pad 39A... Friday launch? (NASA)
Discovery on Launch Pad 39A... Friday launch? (NASA)

To be honest, I wasn’t going to post an update on the progress of Discovery’s continuing delay, but when I saw this photo I couldn’t resist. In the shot, you can see the pad floodlights and a flash of lightning. Outstanding.

So, the next launch window is looking like it’s going to be at 11:59pm (EDT) Friday night. This will give launch crews some time to analyse results from tests they are carrying out on the potentially faulty valve that caused the previous launch scrub. However, NASA is hopeful the fault is with the sensors giving false readings rather than an engineering fault with the valve itself.

For more shuttle launch updates, keep an eye on Irene Klotz’s Free Space blog

No Matter How You Spin It, A Hole is Still a Hole

Mars Express to Beagle 2: But you forgot your... ah, never mind.
Mars Express to Beagle 2: "But you forgot your... ah, never mind." (ESA)

Over Christmas in 2003, I was watching the BBC news with my grandfather, hoping to hear that ESA or NASA had picked up a signal from the Martian surface. We waited.

We waited a bit more. However, it wasn’t until some weeks later (if I remember correctly) that the UK’s Beagle 2 Mars lander was officially declared dead (although I suspected as much in the 30 minutes of silence after the time it was supposed to touch down). The little lander’s taxi ride across millions of miles of space, the Mars Express, was working just fine, but Beagle 2? Not so much.

This was incredibly sad on so many levels. From a patriotic viewpoint, I was shattered. The chance to have a British presence on the Red Planet would not only have been inspiring, it may have given funding a small boost for the UK science community. Also, personally, only the week before, I’d been defending the mission to some friends who were convinced that the crazy idea of sending a British probe to Mars was pointless, as it was never going to make it.

What ever came before that December in 2003, it was all academic. Beagle 2, for whatever reason, didn’t phone home. Game over.

Of course, that wouldn’t be it. For months after, Martian satellites hunted for any evidence for a mini Beagle-shaped divot in the red dirt. Eventually, they found it, two years later.

So what happened to the little robot? Why did it turn into a meteorite and not a lander? Well, back in 2008, Madhat Abdel-Jawad and his engineer team at the University of Queensland thought they’d worked it all out. Apparently, Beagle 2’s gyroscopic spin was too fast, causing it to become unstable during re-entry. This may have caused it to tumble as it entered the Mars atmosphere. Obviously, tumbling isn’t good, so it hit the ground like scrap metal.

As it turns out, the Beagle 2 team are far from convinced this happened at all. Arthur Smith of Fluid Gravity Engineering in Emsworth, Hampshire, points out that Abdel-Jawad’s team did not simulate re-entry in a gravity field, and they failed to realize the lander had an offset centre of gravity. This means the simulation wasn’t complete, indicating the “tumbling Beagle” may not be the final explanation.

Now, Smith and his team will be publishing a paper with their findings

All our assumptions were valid over the time of flight we analysed,” Abdel-Jawad said in response to this news. “We would be delighted to accept the findings of the Beagle team’s new study if it were found to be valid after we review their analysis.”

Whether the Australian team is correct or not seems rather academic. Something went terribly wrong during re-entry, this is true, but there are so many variables that I’m not sure if we’ll ever hit on the real reason why Beagle 2 dropped from the sky that 2003 winter. Sure, it might aid future development of future landers, but unless they find a gaping design flaw or construction mistake (like the NASA Genesis “woops, I installed the accelerometer backwards” mission mishap), Beagle 2 made a crater in the Martian surface, and there won’t be a crash recovery team to pick up the bits for a long while yet…

Source: New Scientist

Let The Planet Seeding Begin! Comets Have Amino Acids Too…


Yesterday, NASA announced exciting news about a discovery made by a NASA mission that did a cosmic dance with comet Wild 2 back in 2004. The Stardust mission managed to scoop an amino acid called glycine from the comets dusty tail, thereby proving it’s not just asteroids that contain this critical ingredient for life.

It’s not a particularly unexpected discovery that glycine is in a comet — we’ve found amino acids in meteorites before — but it does show that comets are another way that amino acids could have come to Earth,” lead researcher Jamie Elsila, with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, told Irene Klotz from Discovery News.

Elsila and colleagues are responsible for developing a technique to extract and study the deposits of glycine from the aluminium foil that lined the probe’s collection plates. They confirmed the glycine was in fact of extraterrestrial origin (rather than contamination here on Earth), as the carbon atoms in the glycine molecules had an extra neutron in the nucleus. This means the glycine was formed in space.

We see in this comet that amino acids were forming at the earliest time in our solar system,” Mike Zolensky, a comet dust researcher from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, said.

Zolensky suspects that heat from the radioactive decay of short-lived particles melted a piece of comet ice laced with organic compounds and water. This may have allowed the cosmic amino acid to form.

Now that an amino acid has been scraped off the collection plate of the Stardust mission, it would appear the building blocks for life are widely available throughout the Solar System (assuming comet Wild 2 isn’t a special case). Asteroids contain amino acids, as do meteorites, now it looks as if comets carry the building blocks for life too. This means early-Earth certainly had plenty of opportunities to acquire extra-terrestrial sources of amino acids…

Source: Irene Klotz, Discovery News Space Correspondent

Cassini Discovers a New Moonlet in Saturn’s Rings

The ~400 meter moonlet casts a 25 mile shadow across Saturn's B-ring (NASA)
The ~400 meter moonlet casts a 25 mile shadow across Saturn's B-ring (NASA)

As Saturn approaches its August 11th equinox (during which the Sun will be directly above the gas giant’s equator at noon for 27 months), the Cassini Equinox Mission can do some moonlet spotting. During this time, sunlight will cast long shadows of any object protruding from the 10 metre-thick rings.

In this case, hidden inside Saturn’s B-ring, a moonlet with a diameter of approximately 400 metres becomes obvious when sunlight hits the rings edge-on. The result is a very obvious 25 mile-long shadow. This discovery wouldn’t have been possible during any other time, as Cassini can only see the small rock because of its shadow. If the Sun was above or below the rings, no shadow would be cast, and therefore no moonlet would be visible.

Saturn experiences an equinox twice every Saturnian year (once every 15 terrestrial years), and NASA planned the Cassini mission to coincide with this interesting period to economise on the position of the Sun, spotting small objects like this little satellite…

Source: Wired, thanks to Helen Middleton (@herroyalmaj).

Ares I First Stage Test Set For August 25th (Video)

The completed Ares I first stage five-segment solid rocket booster in Promontory, Utah on July 21st (NASA/ATK/RedOrbit)
The completed Ares I first stage five-segment solid rocket booster in Promontory, Utah on July 21st (NASA/ATK/RedOrbit)

Development of the Constellation Program pushes ahead with the announcement that the first stage motor of the Ares I crew launch vehicle will be fired in the Utah desert on August 25th. The Ares I five-segment first stage booster is based on the design of the shuttle’s four-segment booster, but it will deliver a far meatier 3.6 million pounds of thrust. A single shuttle booster delivers 2.8 million pounds of thrust (but remember, there are two of them attached to the shuttle at lift-off).

Naturally, the ATK/NASA Utah test will be a huge event, a major milestone towards the construction and assembly of the rocket that will carry the Orion spaceship into orbit. This is in addition to the continuing developments of Orion.

So, to promote the event ATK has released this snazzy movie-style trailer ahead of this historic rocket test, and to be honest, I’m impressed:

Although Constellation is hitting wave upon wave of setbacks and criticism, it seems the tests are pushing ahead, and we are beginning to see the physical embodiment of the Ares I/Orion combo take shape.

Source: Fox Business