Awesome.

The Moon, Space Shuttle Atlantis, an aurora plus Kibo, all in one breathtaking scene (Soichi Noguchi)

The instant I saw this photograph I realized I was seeing something so beautiful, I’d have a hard job writing something to accompany it.

Coming straight from the Twitter feed of Soichi Noguchi, Japanese astronaut and social-media-in-space-photography-guru, this single photograph has captured the moon, an aurora hanging above the Earth’s limb, a docked space shuttle Atlantis and the International Space Station’s Kibo module (plus a bonus robotic arm and solar panel).

This picture is awesome on so many levels. And to be honest, this should be the photograph of Atlantis’ final mission. It encapsulates so much; a testament to what mankind is capable of and a tribute to the men and women who are currently in space, risking their lives for the advancement of our race.

There’s not much else to say, except: wow.

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–

BOOM! BOOM!!!

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: Spaceweather.com

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

The Sadness of Hubble’s Repair Job

The cargo bay of the shuttle, a valuable in-orbit repair station (NASA)
The cargo bay of the shuttle, a valuable in-orbit repair station (NASA)

On the flight back from Washington D.C. last night, United Airlines had the wonderful sense to play the fourth episode of the documentary When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions. It couldn’t have come at a better time, having just watched Mall Cop, The Office, Big Bang Theory and then How I Met Your Mother, I was in dire need for a good documentary.

I was actually returning from a visit to the Discovery Channel HQ after meeting my amazing Discovery.com team for the first time, so I was in the mood to watch something about space. The best thing about When We Left Earth is that when watching it you can’t help but feel inspired and moved (coincidentally, it was produced by the Discovery Channel). In part 4, the Apollo missions (from 12-17) and Skylab are documented, and I must admit, I was a little vague on a lot of the facts that were presented.

Probably the best bit for me was watching the converted Saturn V, resembling a high caliber bullet, blast into the sky in May 1973, taking Skylab into orbit. However, the story that ensued came as a surprise to me, I’d forgotten just how revolutionary Skylab really was. During launch, the space station sustained serious damage, causing loss of the sunshield and damage to the solar panels. If astronauts weren’t launched to repair Skylab, the mission would be lost, cooked from the inside-out, and losing energy fast.

The first crew of Skylab became a space station rescue mission. A small Saturn IB rocket carried Charles Conrad, Jr, Paul J. Weitz and Joseph P. Kerwin to rendezvous with Skylab. In space, the trio overcame all the odds and carried out a risky in-orbit repair on the crippled station, ultimately saving it and allowing two more Skylab missions to be carried out (SL-3 and SL-4) until February 1974.

Skylab launches atop a converted Saturn V in May 1973 (NASA)
Skylab launches atop a converted Saturn V in May 1973 (NASA)

It was a story of space adventure and discovery to the highest degree; Skylab changed our understanding of the Sun and gave us an incredible opportunity to study the human physiology for long periods in space.

Then I started to think about what we are capable of today. We can routinely send a team of seven astronauts, to a 19 year old space telescope, to carry out a servicing mission to prolong the observatory’s life for another five years. If I think about that too hard, I start to feel a little dizzy. From sending three heroic individuals on one of the first emergency in-orbit repairs to save a space station in 1973 to sending a sophisticated space shuttle (with a space workshop in its cargo bay) to carry out a carefully choreographed engineering task in microgravity, our technology has come a long way, but one thing has remained the same. The heroism of our men and women in space has not changed; space travel may seem to be routine, but being an astronaut is still a highly dangerous profession.

So when I read Irene Klotz’s Discovery News article Need Satellite Repairs? Don’t Call NASA, I feel sad. Although the Space Shuttle has its faults and its endless supply of critics, it has enabled us to do unprecedented science and engineering tasks in space. When the shuttle is retired, NASA will no longer have the capability of capturing or docking with a satellite to carry out complex repairs and then send it on its way. Even when the Constellation Program launches, we wont have this facility. For me, that feels like one huge step backwards for our ability as a space-faring race; NASA will be prevented from carrying out complicated repairs in orbit.

That’s just a shame to abandon one of the most impressive, refined, sophisticated capabilities that this agency as a whole, human side and robotics side, has achieved. I’m not talking about re-servicing Hubble, I’m talking about the hard-won loss of capability — and costly capability.” —David Leckrone, Hubble senior scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

This wasn’t only the final Hubble servicing mission, it was also the final NASA satellite repair mission. That is a huge shame.

Hubble and Atlantis Transit the Sun (Photo)

The Hubble Space Telescope and Shuttle Atlantis pass in front of the blank Sun. Can't see their silhouettes? Click on the image for the large version and look in the bottom-left-hand corner. That's no sunspot pair... (©Thierry Legault)
The Hubble Space Telescope and Shuttle Atlantis pass in front of the blank Sun. Can't see their silhouettes? Click on the image for the large version and look in the bottom-left-hand corner. That's no sunspot pair... (©Thierry Legault)

Thierry Legault is one highly skilled astrophotographer. The transit of the Hubble Space Telescope and Space Shuttle Atlantis took only 0.8 seconds to clear the disk of the Sun, so Legault rapidly took four pictures per second, starting his series of pictures two seconds before the pair were predicted to pass in front of the Sun.

STS-125 Atlantis and Hubble Solar Transit. The image was captured from Florida at 12:17pm EST on May 13th as the Shuttle approached the orbiting telescope at 600km from Earth (©Thierry Legault)
STS-125 Atlantis and Hubble Solar Transit. The image was captured from Florida at 12:17pm EST on May 13th as the Shuttle approached the orbiting telescope at 600km from Earth (©Thierry Legault)

In the image above, the 35 meter-long Atlantis is easily identifiable, but the tiny speck of the 13 meter-long Hubble isn’t so easy to define, but the result is superb. According to Legault’s website, this is the only picture of the STS-125 and the observatory, orbiting at an altitude of 600 km.

Back in July 2008, Astroengine reported on the transit of the International Space Station across the disk of the Sun. Fortunately, in both cases, the Sun’s face was blank, and no sunspots are prominent enough to ruin the view.

Stunning!

Sources: NASA on Flickr, Astrosurf

Atlantis Launch… Infrared-ed

The STS-125 Atlantis launch today, as seen through the lens of an infrared digital camera (Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images)
The STS-125 Atlantis launch today, as seen through the lens of an infrared digital camera (Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images)

I thought I wouldn’t see anything as impressive as the Space Shuttle Atlantis launch in high-definition, but it appears I was wrong. This is probably one of the most unique views of a shuttle launch I’ve seen to date; a high resolution, infrared photograph of the beginning of the STS-125 mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.

This would make a nice wallpaper… yes, it does 🙂

Source: Gawker

Watch Space Shuttle Atlantis Launch in HD

sts-125

Today’s launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis went according to plan and the crew of seven astronauts are now chasing the Hubble Space Telescope for its final servicing mission.

As I’m a little behind the curve on reporting this story, I thought I’d assemble some links to other sites who covered the launch far more expertly that I can at this late stage. However, not to be outdone, I wanted to share this incredible high definition video of the launch. If you want to watch the embedded HD version, look below, but if you want the full, i’m-on-the-edge-of-the-launchpad-oh-my-god-i-can-feel-the-heat wide-screen version, check out the awesome, fully-loaded YouTube HD video.

Links:

Discovery Undocks From ISS, Descends Through Sunset

A sequence of images from the space station as Discovery departs (NASA TV, edited by Ian O'Neill)
A sequence of images from the space station as Discovery departs. Images slightly corrected for camera rotation (NASA TV, edited by Ian O'Neill)
The ISS now has its full set of solar arrays after the STS-119 mission (NASA)
The ISS now has its full set of solar arrays after the STS-119 mission (NASA)

After looping once around the space station, space shuttle Discovery slowly dropped away as it started its journey back to Earth on Wednesday, March 25th.

I was watching the live video feed coming from the station, captivated by the scene. Having successfully completed the STS-119 mission, the seven crew members said their farewells after the 10-day stay in low-Earth orbit to install the remaining solar arrays (left). This will enable the station to collect more energy to sustain an expanded crew from three to six later this year, and allow the station to carry out more science.

On NASA TV, I listened to the chatter between mission control, the station and the shuttle but I was overjoyed to capture some screen shots as the shuttle passed through the sunset and then dropping into the Earth’s shadow (top). The added bonus was the glint of sunlight before Discovery turned orange before slipping into the night. Stunning…

For more, check out the Universe Today’s coverage of the Discovery undocking »

What Have I Done? Worlds Media Adopt “Brian the Bat”!

brian_the_bat_news

The one day I’m on the road and can’t find an Internet connection was bound to be the very same day that the mother of all headline news breaks! “Brian the Bat” has been adopted by the mainstream media. Naturally, many websites and news sources picked up the tragic end of the little broken-winged free-tail bat that attempted to stow away on Space Shuttle Discovery’s STS-119 launch on Sunday. However, after pondering the little guy’s fate on Sunday, I did what I normally do when talking about a cute little furry animal… I named him.

For some reason that even I cannot explain, I tend to call animals “Brian” if I can’t think of another name, so it seemed only natural to call the Discovery bat, Brian. Now it seems the mainstream media has been paying attention to the random Twitterings about Brian.

I first got news from @Barstein that one of Norway’s largest papers (thank you Geir, for writing the article!), Dagbladet, had picked up the news, attributing Astroengine.com with the naming (awesome). I have yet to translate and read the article fully, but I will do in a short while (Starbucks ‘net connection permitting). Dagbladet then followed up with “Her dør flaggermusa Brian” (“Brian the bat dies here”).

I was already overwhelmed that a major Norwegian paper would celebrate Brian’s final hours, but then I find out that the Daily Mail Online (one of the biggest UK newspapers) also reported about Brian the Bat!

Wow, all because I call small furry animals “Brian”. The power of Twitter and blogging appears to be rather strong! Although I would have liked Astroengine’s international media début to be focused on some extreme astrophysics theory, I am honoured that I might have played a small roll in personalizing this unfortunate Florida free-tailed bat, possibly boosting his memory the world over. He paid the ultimate price for our push to the stars, Brian should be remembered for that…

UPDATE (4pm): The largest UK tabloid newspaper, The Sun has just published an article called “It’s a giant leap for batkind” mentioning that the bat’s name was Brian. I was a little disappointed not to have a link to the original article at first, but I’m actually very glad, Astroengine might blow a fuse if I got a link from one of those sites!

Bat News Update: It Gets Worse

Brian the Discovery Bat holds onto the external tank moments before launch (NASA/Damaris B. Sarria)
Brian the Discovery Bat holds onto the external tank moments before launch (NASA/Damaris B. Sarria)

NASA has now given details about the circumstances of Brian’s demise. It turns out that Brian was in fact a free-tailed bat, and not a fruit bat as previously reported.

Also, NASA confirmed today’s news that Brian could be seen holding onto the orange external fuel tank as Space Shuttle Discovery cleared the tower during launch.

NASA was hopeful that Brian would fly away before Discovery even got close to launching, but it turns out that there was a reason for the bat’s stubbornness (and no, he wasn’t sleeping):

Based on images and video, a wildlife expert who provides support to the center said the small creature was a free tail bat that likely had a broken left wing and some problem with its right shoulder or wrist. The animal likely perished quickly during Discovery’s climb into orbit.

Now, that is sad. Brian was seen to be moving from time to time, and despite the deterrents put in place by NASA to frighten wildlife away from pre-launch shuttles (i.e. warning sirens), he refused to budge. This was probably because he was injured.

Naturally, this sad event has caused some anger, but I doubt NASA can be to blame for this unfortunate series of events. Bats have been seen to land on waiting shuttles on launch day in the past, only for them to fly away when the shuttle underwent fuelling, so ground control assumed Brian would simply fly away. However, they had no idea until after the fact that Brian was injured.

During shuttle launches (or any launches for that matter), local wildlife is bound to be impacted from time-to-time, and any creatures in the locale to the rockets perish in silence, with no media coverage. At least Brian went out in style. He will be remembered for a long time…

Ground Control To Brian Bat

To round off this captivating story, Karl Clodfelter (@DrKaz on Twitter) has adapted David Bowie’s “Ground Control To Major Tom”, very fitting. Here’s the original tune, so sing the following, starting about one minute in

This is Ground Control to Brian Bat
You’ve really chosen bad
And the websites want to know just why you’re there
Now it’s time to leave the fuel tank if you dare

This is Brian Bat to Ground Control
I’m getting ready to soar
And I’m flying in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today

For here
Am I gripping insulation
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do…

[guitar solo] clap-clap

Source: NASA via @Barstein