The Right Tools for the Job

pistol_grip_shuttle_toolThe space shuttle mission launching today (around 2:00pm ET) has a very special task. It is going to take some astronauts up to do some crucial repairs (see story here) on the Hubble Space Telescope. It is the last such mission (Hubble will be retired into the Pacific eventually) and has been long awaited. Please keep your fingers crossed for a successful mission to keep such an important scientific instrument working for another five (or so) years to teach us more about the universe. (Go to the Hubble site here.)

NPR had a rather good piece about the special tools that were designed to allow these repairs to be carried out. The point is that the astronauts are not just swapping out parts or modules that were designed to be swapped out (like you do a light bulb, a shower head, or a shaving foil), but they have to go in and take out things deeper […] Click to continue reading this post

Yesterday at JPL

jpl_open_house_2009_1I had a lot of fun at this year’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) open house. I’m happy to report that there were, once again, lots of people wandering around looking at the displays and demonstrations, asking questions, hanging out, and so forth, and an impressive turnout of JPL staff answering questions and being very enthusiastic about the science (something which is easy to do because it’s such an excellent topic!). I’ve made a video for you that is coming up at the end of this post. (Click on stills for larger views.)

jpl_open_house_2009_5 jpl_open_house_2009_6

There was the usual huge emphasis on planetary exploration with rovers and robots and so forth – this seems to capture the imagination of everyone, so why not? – but I was more than a little surprised to find virtually no showing for the Planck mission. There was one poster somewhere, but no booth, no model, no description of the truly amazing science that it will do in unlocking more about the origins of the entire […] Click to continue reading this post

Kepler Ready!

kepler planet seekerI learned* that the Kepler craft (NASA artist sketch on right – this is the device that will look for “other earths” – see below) is all go to try for launch later today! Extract from an announcement that went around:

On 6 March (EST, 7 March in UTC) there are two opportunities for a launch into the Earth trailing orbit. The first window is at 6 March, 10:49:57 p.m. EST (UTC: 7 March, 03:49:57) and the second window is at 11:17:44 p.m. EST (UTC: 7 March, 04:17:44). If Kepler is not launched tonight there is a another possibility at approximately the same time tomorrow night.

Countdown will begin 3 hours before launch and Kepler separation into Earth trailing solar orbit will take place 3709 sec into flight. First contact after separation is expected 4640 sec into flight.

For more information, and to follow the launch live, here are some links: NASA TV, Launch Blog, Spaceflight.

I noticed that Amy Mainzer is over at the Kennedy Space Center to see the launch. She begins to talk about it here on her (excellent) blog. You might want to check back there in case she does a nice report on it. Check out Phil’s Bad Astronomy blog for more on this too. He says he’ll be tweeting and all. (Yes. Tweeting. There, I have used that word in its recent new context/meaning in a sentence for the first time. I feel a bit silly.)

What is this all about? It is very exciting. Here are some sources of information for […] Click to continue reading this post

From the Earth to the Moon?

bill stone at TED 2007Bill Stone is quite an engaging speaker, it has to be said. I heard him on the BBC World Service, being interviewed about his hopes and plans to change the way we do things in space. It is a spirited case that he makes, where he deliberately invokes the spirit and the words of Sir Ernest Shackleton and other great explorers going off into the unknown. The audio is here. (If you come to this late, search their archive here.)

Then I checked and sure enough there was a TED talk from him last year. See here. You can see him in action as well, although the BBC interview is complementary […] Click to continue reading this post

Science and the New President

Last week the Guardian did a special podcast about Barack Obama’s science policies, and the challenges that lie ahead for the new administration. It’s actually rather good (at least the parts I’ve heard so far – I’m listening to it in pieces while travelling) and I recommend it. They have lots of guests, many of whom you’ve maybe heard of (Lesley Stone, Martin Rees, Diana Liverman, Chris Mason, P Z Myers, Lawrence Krauss, Martin Barstow), and the issue is explored from several angles, from climate change, through stem cells, to the space program. […] Click to continue reading this post

Phoenix Goes Dark

phoenix mars landerAs you may have heard, the Phoenix craft on Mars (remember? seven minutes of terror?) which had already been running beyond its design lifetime, has probably sent its final message from Mars. There is not enough daily solar energy (now that it is Winter) coming in to support its energy needs.

There’s a NASA press release here, with links to the mission pages for a reminder of […] Click to continue reading this post


I’ve been running around so much today I forgot to actually mention the event for which I’ll be acting as host tonight, here at USC. This is how I quickly described it to my colleagues, but bear in mind that it is open to all:

apollo poster
I’d like to remind you one last time about the Apollo Visions and Voices event today. Whether it interests you or not, please encourage your students to go. It is the College Dean’s V+V event for the semester, and was chosen to have a focus that would attract science and engineering students and faculty to sit with our friends and colleagues from the arts and humanities. It is at 7:30 pm in Bovard, with a reception at the end. I think that it will be very interesting and enjoyable.

Information about it is here.

It should be fun!


Click to continue reading this post

Images From Afar

extrasolarplanet orbiting starThis is quite remarkable. There’s actually been an image (see left) taken of a planet orbiting another star. There are hundreds of known extrasolar planets in orbit around other stars (see lots of earlier posts), and evidence for them has been indirect, since they are too tiny and too dim (having no light of their own) to image directly. You can learn of their existence by their effects on their parent star, and/or on the light it casts. (The image left is courtesy of the Gemini Observatory. The University of Toronto scientists used the Gemini North telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii and its adaptive optics technology to make the image.)

But this is different, and a bit of a milestone. These astronomers released an actual […] Click to continue reading this post

GLAST, Fermi, and Early Results

Well, the new orbiting instrument, GLAST (Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope – launched June 11th this year) has passed all its tests with flying colours, apparently, and is working well. NASA has now renamed the craft the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, after Enrico Fermi. There’s a press release here.

The craft is a wonderful combination of the fields of particle physics, astrophysics and cosmology, and will teach us so much about the universe (such as the nature of dark matter), and so it is exciting to hear that it all on track.

Excitingly, they’ve also released images of the early results of the observations, and you can read more about them in the press release too. Here’s a sky map made from the observations.


This all-sky view from GLAST reveals bright emission in the plane of the Milky Way (center), bright pulsars and super-massive black holes. Credit: NASA/DOE/International LAT Team.

Some words from the release: […] Click to continue reading this post

The Reply

Explorer 1 SpacecraftToday is the 50th anniversary of the day the USA replied to the world-changing Sputnik launch by the USSR almost four months earlier (see my post), as well as Sputnik 2 (carrying the dog Laika) a month after. In some sense, the space race began in earnest with this launch of the craft called Explorer.

A great thing about the Explorer 1 craft was that it even did some groundbreaking […] Click to continue reading this post

Near Enough

asteroid 2007 tu24It’s not going to be naked-eye visible, but give a thought tonight to the 250 metre asteroid (2007 tu24) that is going to swing by close to earth tonight! Or, if you have a “modest” telescope, go and look at it. It’s going to scrape by at 1.4 times the distance of the moon. That’s pretty close, by astronomical standards, and gives scientists a chance to see a near earth object rather more closely than usual. From the […] Click to continue reading this post

Messages from Inside

Inside meaning the inner part of the Solar System. Messages meaning the new pictures from MESSENGER spacecraft.

MESSENGER is short for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging. Now you and I know that they spent a bit of time coming up with the unpacking of the name, wanting of course to have the name MESSENGER because that’s what the Mercury of mythology was – the messenger of the Gods, among his other duties. Nice. However I’d have been really impressed if they’d managed to call it QUICKSILVER, and found a way to unpack that – any takers?

Anyway, I digress. In more news showing the triumph of the wisdom of relatively cheap unmanned exploratory craft, MESSENGER sent some wonderful pictures of Mercury this week, along with lots of other scientific data that will help us learn a great deal about the innermost planet. Here’s the one that’s been going around a lot (click for impressive larger version):

mercury by MESSENGER

Image credit to NASA. Caption taken from a article reads: This photo supplied by NASA shows […] Click to continue reading this post