Category Archives: space

Neil Armstrong: 1930-2012

I won’t try to write a eulogy or a tribute.  I will leave that up to people who know more than me, but I did want to take a moment to post a tribute of some sort to the man who inspired a whole new generation of explorers.  Without Neil Armstrong so many things we take for granted now may never have happened.  He had the courage to take that “first step”, in more ways than just the obvious one.

Stars “Scream” When Devoured by Black Hole

“In space… no one can hear you scream….” Or, maybe they can. Scientists from the University of Michigan have been able to detect an oscillating signal that occurs as a star is devoured by a previously dormant supermassive black hole.

The event was documented with the Suzaku and XMM-Newton orbiting X-ray telescopes. They picked up semi-regular “blips” in the light from a galaxy located 3.9 billion light years away from the constellation known as Draco the dragon. The proper name for the “blips” is “quasiperiodic oscillations”. The scientists noted that the quasiperiodic oscillations were happening every 200 seconds, and occasionally would disappear.

The cause of the “blips” was due to a black hole eating a star that has had its gravity broken apart. In short, the star forms an accretion disk that surrounds the black hole. The scientists looked at x-rays that allowed them to see emissions coming from the disk extremely close to the black hole. This is what produces a quasiperiodic wobble. The researchers compare it to the sound of an ultra-low D-sharp note.

John Miller is an astronomy professor at the University of Michigan, and a co-author of the paper about the quasiperiodic oscillations that was recently published in Science Express. He said:

“You can think of it as hearing the star scream as it gets devoured, if you like”.

Personally, that isn’t something I want to think about. There is something inherently creepy about the concept of a star “screaming” as it is being devoured by a black hole. Imagine the sound of that ultra-low D-sharp as you watch this NASA animation of a black hole devouring a star.

Atlas V Rocket Has 50th Mission

An Atlas V rocket was launched on June 20, 2012, from Cape Canaveral. This makes the 50th mission for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, as well as the 31st Atlas launch. It was carrying classified cargo for the United States National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). The launch was described as flawless by Col. James D. Fisher, who is the director of the NRO’s Office of Space Launch.

The Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, also called EELV, is designed to make space launch vehicles more affordable and reliable. The program is intended to replace older launch systems and reduce launch costs by at least 25%.

An Atlas V rocket can weigh between 734,850 pounds and 2,120,000 pounds. It has a maximum payload weight of 20,000 to 42,000 pounds to Low Earth Orbit. Or, it can carry 6,000 to 14,000 pounds to Geostationary Orbit. It also can carry a total of 8,750 to 28,660 pounds to a Geosynchronous Orbit.

It’s always exciting to watch a rocket launch!

X-375B Lands at Vandenberg Air Force Base

The X-375B is an unmanned spacecraft. It was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in March of 2011. It returned June 16, 2012, making an autonomous landing, and Vandenberg Air Force Base. It has now completed a fifteen month clandestine mission.

It had a classified payload on board, which, of course, has led to some speculation about what that might be. Could it have been carrying an experimental spy satellite sensor? Was it doing a reconnaissance mission? Maybe it was gathering intelligence? The answer is anyone’s guess.

The X-375B is an Orbital Test Vehicle, (also called an OTV). It is part of an experimental test program that is being used to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the United States Air Force. There are two main purposes of this program: to create reusable spacecraft and to conduct experiments that can be returned to Earth to be examined.

Boeing is the prime contractor that made the X-375B. It stands 9 feet and six inches tall, and is 29 feet and 3 inches wide. It has a wingspan of 14 feet and 11 inches. Overall, it is a stocky, solid, looking spacecraft that weighs 11,000 pounds. The power for the X-375B comes from Gallium Arsenide Solar Cells with lithium-Ion batteries.

Astronomers Spot Oldest Galaxy, Has Crazy Fast Star Birth

More than a decade ago the Hubble Space Telescope snapped an image that has since been referred to as “the most important picture ever taken”.  It’s real name is the Hubble Deep Field (you may want to watch this video before reading on).  While the image may seem old in this fast moving world of technology, it’s not even an eye-blink when compared to it’s subject matter – the farthest astronomers have seen in the universe, and into the past.

The folks at the Max Planck Institute have been studying the image almost since it was taken in 1995.  Mostly they have been focusing on the brightest galaxy in the picture, known by the catchy name of HDF850.1.  That galaxy represents the furthest object, and consequently the oldest, ever seen.  The fact is, HDF850.1 is 12.6 billion light years away, meaning that in the Hubble image we see the galaxy as it was 12.6 billion years ago, which is a mere 1.1 billion years after the universe began.

The galaxy, known as a starburst galaxy, is (or was) producing stars at the staggering rate of about a thousand suns per year.  The Register points out that the Planck institute, “had to use IRAM interferometer, and the Jansky Very Large Array, a giant compound radio telescope in New Mexico, USA” to verify their findings.  The official announcement of the discovery will be published in the next issues of Nature.


Photo Credit: M16 Eagle Nebula from Big Stock Photo

Evidence of Massive Cosmic Blast 1,200 Years Ago – Cause Unknown

Mysterious and Massive Radiation Event 1200 1200 Years Ago

Japanese physicists have identified a mysterious blast of high-energy radiation that struck Planet Earth more than 1,200 years ago – some 20 times larger than normal variations. The cosmic origins of this ancient and massive radiation event, however, are still unknown.

Cosmic-ray physicists from Japan’s Nagoya University, led by Fusa Miyake, discovered the radioactive event – said to have occurred between 774 and 773 AD – based on carbon dating performed on ancient trees.

Their investigation of tree rings from that era show a 20% increase in levels of the 14C isotope over the course of a year. Those isotopes, according, are formed “when highly energetic radiation from outer space hits atoms in the upper atmosphere, producing neutrons. These collide with nitrogen-14, which then decays to 14C.”

What happened is clear, but why it happened seems anything but. The usual suspects for this radioactive spike are supernova explosions or solar flares. According to Miyake and his team, both are unlikely culprits considering no other recorded evidence exists of such massive events.

The search for the cause behind this massive cosmic event will likely send scientists to pore through historical data to find any correlative events that might clear things up. Either way – the trees don’t lie (they can’t). Something huge happened 1,200 years ago.

Photo: Solar Flare from Big Stock Photo

SpaceX Launch Saturday Was a No-Go Launch This Morning is a Go!

Just a few days ago, SpaceX attempted to launch their Dragon spacecraft into space. This would have been the very first commercial flight to the International Space Station.

My husband and I were watching this launch as the live video coverage was streamed through LiveStream. It was very surreal to hear the countdown reach zero and realize that the spacecraft had not launched. It is normal to expect that if you hear the countdown reach zero that it means that you will soon be watching liftoff. That isn’t what happened this time. The launch was aborted a half-second before the countdown completed.

What happened? SpaceX released the following statement:

“Today’s launch was aborted when the flight computer detected slightly high pressure in the engine 5 combustion chamber. We have discovered the root cause and repairs or underway. During rigouous inspections of the engine, SpaceX engineers discovered a faulty check valve on the Merlin engine. We are now in the process of replacing the failed valve. Those repairs should be complete tonight, we will continue to review data on Sunday”.

SpaceX is going to try this launch again. The next launch is scheduled for 3:44 a.m. EDT on Tuesday, May 22, 2012. This date and time has been selected because it is when the Earth’s rotation will bring Cape Canaveral’s Complex 40 launch pad in the path of the International Space Station’s orbit. They will be streaming live video of the launch through LiveStream once again. Will you be watching?

There will be something extra special about this launch. The ashes of Jimmy Doohan, Star Trek’s “Scotty”, were originally scheduled to be launched into space in 2008. It didn’t happen then because the rocket that held the ashes failed to reach orbit. There is a company called Celestis that is responsible for making sure that the tribute to Jimmy Doohan does happen. His ashes will be sent up into space when SpaceX makes their next launch on Tuesday.

Image: Falcon 9 and Dragon Ready for Launch by SpaceX

The Next Annular Eclipse is May 20, 2012

On Sunday, May 20, 2012, there will be a solar eclipse. This one is special because it is an annular eclipse. It has been eighteen years since an eclipse of this type was visible from the continental United States.

We know that the moon circles the Earth. However, the moon doesn’t travel in an exact circular path. Instead, it is more like an elliptical orbit. This means that the moon will, at certain times, be a little bit closer or a little bit farther from the Earth than usual. The moon’s orbit can vary from 221,457 miles to 252,712 miles away from the Earth.

When an annular eclipse happens, it looks like the moon is passing in front of the Sun. The moon won’t appear to completely block out the sun, though. This is because on May 20, 2012, the moon will be closer to the Earth than usual, at around 225,000 miles from us. The result is that the moon will look as though it has a bright ring of fire surrounding it.

Not everyone is going to be able to view the upcoming annular eclipse. It will be visible to people who are in southern Oregon and northern California, and it will become visible to people who are in Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas.

Much of the rest of the United States will be able to see at least some of this special eclipse. Those of you who live on the east coast of the United States will not be able to see this eclipse because the Sun will already have set. The eclipse might be visible in parts of China and Japan as well, unless the weather causes too much cloud cover while the eclipse is happening.

Obviously, one should not stare into the Sun. You shouldn’t stare directly at an eclipse, either. I highly recommend that you do a little homework and learn about what you need to do in order to safely view an eclipse. It is a special eclipse, but, your eyesight is even more precious. Be smart, and be careful!

Image: Solar Eclipse by BigStock

The Space Picture of the Day Isn’t from Outer Space

This morning the space shuttle Enterprise made what was likely its final flight, but this time it was on the back of a 747.  After several delays the shuttle finally took off from Washington DC, where it had been housed at the Smithsonian museum, and headed to New York City and it’s new home at Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum.

As the 747 and it’s passenger passed over the Big Apple, NASA photographer Bill Ingalls captured what could be one of the most iconic space shuttle images ever when he snapped a shot of the shuttle, mounted on the top of the 747, as the pair passed the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building.

The Enterprise will officially go on display at it’s new home on July 19th.  Meanwhile, the space shuttle Discovery has replaced Enterprise at the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.