Tag Archives: space

The Transit of Dione


This gorgeous image of Saturn’s moon Dione as it transits the gas giant was snapped by the Cassini spacecraft on May 27, 2015. For more beautiful views of the stunning ringed planet and its curious moons visit NASA’s Cassini mission site.

Image: Saturn’s moon Dione transits the giant ringed planet. Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.



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Juno on the 4th of July

Jupiter and Ganymede

Perhaps not coincidentally, NASA’s latest foray into the great beyond reached a key milestone today. The Juno spacecraft entered orbit around the gas giant Jupiter on the 4th of July, 2016.

NASA is still awaiting all the cool science (and image-capture) to begin. So, in the meantime I’m posting an gorgeous picture taken of Jupiter by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Image: Jupiter and Ganymede, Taken April 9, 2007. Courtesy: Credit: NASA, ESA, and E. Karkoschka (University of Arizona).

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What Keeps NASA Going?

Apollo 17 Commander Gene Cernan on lunar rover

Apollo astronaut Eugene Cernan is the last human to have set foot on a world other than Earth. It’s been 44 years since he last stepped off the moon. In fact, in 1972 he drove around using the lunar rover and found time to scribble his daughter’s initials on the dusty lunar surface. So, other than forays to the International Space Station (ISS) and trips to service the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) NASA has kept humans firmly rooted to the homeland.

Of course, in the intervening decades the space agency has not rested on its laurels. NASA has sent probes and robots all over the Solar System and beyond: Voyager to the gas giants and on to interstellar space,  Dawn to visit asteroids; Rosetta (in concert with the European Space Agency) to visit a comet; SOHO and its countless cousins to keep an eye on our home star; Galileo and Pioneer to Jupiter; countless spacecraft including Curiosity Rover to Mars; Messenger to map Mercury; Magellan to probe the clouds of Venus; Cassini to survey Saturn and its fascinating moons; and of course, New Horizons to Pluto and beyond.

Spiral galaxies together with irregular galaxies make up approximately 60% of the galaxies in the local Universe. However, despite their prevalence, each spiral galaxy is unique — like snowflakes, no two are alike. This is demonstrated by the striking face-on spiral galaxy NGC 6814, whose luminous nucleus and spectacular sweeping arms, rippled with an intricate pattern of dark dust, are captured in this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image. NGC 6814 has an extremely bright nucleus, a telltale sign that the galaxy is a Seyfert galaxy. These galaxies have very active centres that can emit strong bursts of radiation. The luminous heart of NGC 6814 is a highly variable source of X-ray radiation, causing scientists to suspect that it hosts a supermassive black hole with a mass about 18 million times that of the Sun. As NGC 6814 is a very active galaxy, many regions of ionised gas are studded along  its spiral arms. In these large clouds of gas, a burst of star formation has recently taken place, forging the brilliant blue stars that are visible scattered throughout the galaxy.

Our mechanical human proxies reach out a little farther each day to learn more about our universe and our place in it. Exploration and discovery is part of our human DNA; it’s what we do. NASA is our vehicle. So, it’s good to see what NASA is planning. The agency just funded eight advanced-technology programs that officials believe may help transform space exploration. The grants are part of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. The most interesting, perhaps, are a program to evaluate inducing hibernation in Mars-bound astronauts, and an assessment of directed energy propulsion for interstellar travel.

Our science and technology becomes more and more like science fiction each day.

Read more about NIAC programs here.

Image 1: Apollo 17 mission commander Eugene A. Cernan makes a short checkout of the Lunar Roving Vehicle during the early part of the first Apollo 17 extravehicular activity at the Taurus-Littrow landing site. Courtesy: NASA.

Image 2: Hubble Spies a Spiral Snowflake, galaxy NGC 6814. Courtesy: NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

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A Trip to Titan

titanNASA is advertising its upcoming space tourism trip to Saturn’s largest moon Titan with this gorgeous retro poster.

Just imagine rowing across Titan’s lakes and oceans, and watching Saturn set below the horizon. So, dump that planned cruise down the Danube and hike to your local travel agent before all the seats are gone. But, before you purchase a return ticket keep in mind the following:

Frigid and alien, yet similar to our own planet billions of years ago, Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, has a thick atmosphere, organic-rich chemistry and a surface shaped by rivers and lakes of liquid ethane and methane. Cold winds sculpt vast regions of hydrocarbon-rich dunes. There may even be cryovolcanoes of cold liquid water. NASA’s Cassini orbiter was designed to peer through Titan’s perpetual haze and unravel the mysteries of this planet-like moon.
Image: Titan poster. Courtesy of NASA/JPL.
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Colonizing the Milky Way 101


The human race is likely to spend many future generations grappling with the aftermaths of its colonial sojourns across the globe. Almost every race and creed over our documented history has actively pursued encroaching upon and displacing others. By our very nature we are territorial animals, and very good ones at that.

Yet despite the untold volumes of suffering, pain and death wrought on those we colonize our small blue planet is not enough for our fantasies and follies. We send our space probes throughout the solar system to test for habitability. We dream of human outposts on the Moon and on Mars. But even our solar system is too minuscule for our expansive, acquisitive ambitions. Why not colonize our entire galaxy? Now we’re talking!

Kim Stanley Robinson, author extraordinaire of numerous speculative and science fiction novels, gives us an idea of what it may take to spread our wings across the Milky Way in a recent article for Scientific American, excerpted here.

It will be many centuries before humans move beyond our solar system. But, before we do so I’d propose that we get our own house in order first. That will be our biggest challenge, not the invention of yet to be imagined technologies.

From Scientific American:

The idea that humans will eventually travel to and inhabit other parts of our galaxy was well expressed by the early Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who wrote, “Earth is humanity’s cradle, but you’re not meant to stay in your cradle forever.” Since then the idea has been a staple of science fiction, and thus become part of a consensus image of humanity’s future. Going to the stars is often regarded as humanity’s destiny, even a measure of its success as a species. But in the century since this vision was proposed, things we have learned about the universe and ourselves combine to suggest that moving out into the galaxy may not be humanity’s destiny after all.

The problem that tends to underlie all the other problems with the idea is the sheer size of the universe, which was not known when people first imagined we would go to the stars. Tau Ceti, one of the closest stars to us at around 12 light-years away, is 100 billion times farther from Earth than our moon. A quantitative difference that large turns into a qualitative difference; we can’t simply send people over such immense distances in a spaceship, because a spaceship is too impoverished an environment to support humans for the time it would take, which is on the order of centuries. Instead of a spaceship, we would have to create some kind of space-traveling ark, big enough to support a community of humans and other plants and animals in a fully recycling ecological system.

On the other hand it would have to be small enough to accelerate to a fairly high speed, to shorten the voyagers’ time of exposure to cosmic radiation, and to breakdowns in the ark. Regarded from some angles bigger is better, but the bigger the ark is, the proportionally more fuel it would have to carry along to slow itself down on reaching its destination; this is a vicious circle that can’t be squared. For that reason and others, smaller is better, but smallness creates problems for resource metabolic flow and ecologic balance. Island biogeography suggests the kinds of problems that would result from this miniaturization, but a space ark’s isolation would be far more complete than that of any island on Earth. The design imperatives for bigness and smallness may cross each other, leaving any viable craft in a non-existent middle.

The biological problems that could result from the radical miniaturization, simplification and isolation of an ark, no matter what size it is, now must include possible impacts on our microbiomes. We are not autonomous units; about eighty percent of the DNA in our bodies is not human DNA, but the DNA of a vast array of smaller creatures. That array of living beings has to function in a dynamic balance for us to be healthy, and the entire complex system co-evolved on this planet’s surface in a particular set of physical influences, including Earth’s gravity, magnetic field, chemical make-up, atmosphere, insolation, and bacterial load. Traveling to the stars means leaving all these influences, and trying to replace them artificially. What the viable parameters are on the replacements would be impossible to be sure of in advance, as the situation is too complex to model. Any starfaring ark would therefore be an experiment, its inhabitants lab animals. The first generation of the humans aboard might have volunteered to be experimental subjects, but their descendants would not have. These generations of descendants would be born into a set of rooms a trillion times smaller than Earth, with no chance of escape.

In this radically diminished enviroment, rules would have to be enforced to keep all aspects of the experiment functioning. Reproduction would not be a matter of free choice, as the population in the ark would have to maintain minimum and maximum numbers. Many jobs would be mandatory to keep the ark functioning, so work too would not be a matter of choices freely made. In the end, sharp constraints would force the social structure in the ark to enforce various norms and behaviors. The situation itself would require the establishment of something like a totalitarian state.

Read the entire article here.

Image: The Milky Way panorama. Courtesy: ESO/S. Brunier – Licensed under Creative Commons.

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A Positive Female Role Model


Our society does a better, but still poor, job of promoting positive female role models. Most of our — let’s face it — male designed images of women fall into rather narrowly defined stereotypical categories: nurturing care-giver, stay-at-home soccer mom, matriarchal office admin, overly bossy middle-manager, vacuous reality-TV spouse or scantily clad vixen.

But every now and then the media seems to discover another unsung, female who made significant contributions in a male-dominated and male-overshadowed world. Take the case of computer scientist Margaret Hamilton — she developed on-board flight software for the Apollo space program while director of the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory. Aside from developing technology that put people on the Moon, she helped NASA understand the true power of software and the consequences of software-driven technology.

From Wired:

Margaret Hamilton wasn’t supposed to invent the modern concept of software and land men on the moon. It was 1960, not a time when women were encouraged to seek out high-powered technical work. Hamilton, a 24-year-old with an undergrad degree in mathematics, had gotten a job as a programmer at MIT, and the plan was for her to support her husband through his three-year stint at Harvard Law. After that, it would be her turn—she wanted a graduate degree in math.

But the Apollo space program came along. And Hamilton stayed in the lab to lead an epic feat of engineering that would help change the future of what was humanly—and digitally—possible.

As a working mother in the 1960s, Hamilton was unusual; but as a spaceship programmer, Hamilton was positively radical. Hamilton would bring her daughter Lauren by the lab on weekends and evenings. While 4-year-old Lauren slept on the floor of the office overlooking the Charles River, her mother programmed away, creating routines that would ultimately be added to the Apollo’s command module computer.

“People used to say to me, ‘How can you leave your daughter? How can you do this?’” Hamilton remembers. But she loved the arcane novelty of her job. She liked the camaraderie—the after-work drinks at the MIT faculty club; the geek jokes, like saying she was “going to branch left minus” around the hallway. Outsiders didn’t have a clue. But at the lab, she says, “I was one of the guys.”

Then, as now, “the guys” dominated tech and engineering. Like female coders in today’s diversity-challenged tech industry, Hamilton was an outlier. It might surprise today’s software makers that one of the founding fathers of their boys’ club was, in fact, a mother—and that should give them pause as they consider why the gender inequality of the Mad Men era persists to this day.

As Hamilton’s career got under way, the software world was on the verge of a giant leap, thanks to the Apollo program launched by John F. Kennedy in 1961. At the MIT Instrumentation Lab where Hamilton worked, she and her colleagues were inventing core ideas in computer programming as they wrote the code for the world’s first portable computer. She became an expert in systems programming and won important technical arguments. “When I first got into it, nobody knew what it was that we were doing. It was like the Wild West. There was no course in it. They didn’t teach it,” Hamilton says.

This was a decade before Microsoft and nearly 50 years before Marc Andreessen would observe that software is, in fact, “eating the world.” The world didn’t think much at all about software back in the early Apollo days. The original document laying out the engineering requirements of the Apollo mission didn’t even mention the word software, MIT aeronautics professor David Mindell writes in his book Digital Apollo. “Software was not included in the schedule, and it was not included in the budget.” Not at first, anyhow.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Margaret Hamilton during her time as lead Apollo flight software designer. Courtesy NASA. Public Domain.

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Pale Blue 2Dot0


Thanks to the prodding of Carl Sagan, just over 25 years ago, on February 14, 1990 to be exact, the Voyager 1 spacecraft turned its camera towards Earth and snapped what has since become an iconic image. It showed our home planet as a very small, very pale blue dot — much as you’d expect from a distance of around 3.7 billion miles.

Though much closer to Earth, the Cassini spacecraft snapped a similar shot of our planet in 2013. Cassini is in its seemingly never-ending orbits of discovery around the Saturnian system, which it began over 10 years ago. It took the image in 2013: Earth in the distance at the center right is dwarfed by Saturn’s rings in the foreground. A rare, beautiful and remarkable image!

Image: Saturn’s rings and Earth in the same frame. Taken on July 19, 2013, via the wide-angle camera on NASA’s Cassini spacecraft Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

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Tormented… For Things Remote

Would that our troubled species could put aside its pettiness and look to the stars. We are meant to seek, to explore, to discover, to learn…

If you do nothing else today, watch this video and envision our future. It’s compelling, gorgeous and achievable.

Visit the filmmaker’s website here.

Video: Wanderers, a short film. Courtesy of Erik Wernquist. Words by the Carl Sagan.

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The (Space) Explorers Club


Thirteen private companies recently met in New York city to present their plans and ideas for their commercial space operations. Ranging from space tourism to private exploration of the Moon and asteroid mining the companies gathered at the Explorers Club to herald a new phase of human exploration.

From Technology Review:

It was a rare meeting of minds. Representatives from 13 commercial space companies gathered on May 1 at a place dedicated to going where few have gone before: the Explorers Club in New York.

Amid the mansions and high-end apartment buildings just off Central Park, executives from space-tourism companies, rocket-making startups, and even a business that hopes to make money by mining asteroids for useful materials showed off displays and gave presentations.

The Explorers Club event provided a snapshot of what may be a new industry in the making. In an era when NASA no longer operates manned space missions and government funding for unmanned missions is tight, a host of startups—most funded by space enthusiasts with very deep pockets—have stepped up in hope of filling the gap. In the past few years, several have proved themselves. Elon Musk’s SpaceX, for example, delivers cargo to the International Space Station for NASA. Both Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and rocket-plane builder XCOR Aerospace plan to perform demonstrations this year that will help catapult commercial spaceflight from the fringe into the mainstream.

The advancements being made by space companies could matter to more than the few who can afford tickets to space. SpaceX has already shaken incumbents in the $190 billion satellite launch industry by offering cheaper rides into space for communications, mapping, and research satellites.

However, space tourism also looks set to become significantly cheaper. “People don’t have to actually go up for it to impact them,” says David Mindell, an MIT professor of aeronautics and astronautics and a specialist in the history of engineering. “At $200,000 you’ll have a lot more ‘space people’ running around, and over time that could have a big impact.” One direct result, says Mindell, may be increased public support for human spaceflight, especially “when everyone knows someone who’s been into space.”

Along with reporters, Explorer Club members, and members of the public who had paid the $75 to $150 entry fee, several former NASA astronauts were in attendance to lend their endorsements—including the MC for the evening, Michael López-Alegría, veteran of the space shuttle and the ISS. Also on hand, highlighting the changing times with his very presence, was the world’s first second-generation astronaut, Richard Garriott. Garriott’s father flew missions on Skylab and the space shuttle in the 1970s and 1980s, respectively. However, Garriott paid his own way to the International Space Station in 2008 as a private citizen.

The evening was a whirlwind of activity, with customer testimonials and rapid-fire displays of rocket launches, spacecraft in orbit, and space ships under construction and being tested. It all painted a picture of an industry on the move, with multiple companies offering services from suborbital experiences and research opportunities to flights to Earth orbit and beyond.

The event also offered a glimpse at the plans of several key players.

Lauren De Niro Pipher, head of astronaut relations at Virgin Galactic, revealed that the company’s founder plans to fly with his family aboard the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo rocket plane in November or December of this year. The flight will launch the company’s suborbital spaceflight business, for which De Niro Pipher said more than 700 customers have so far put down deposits on tickets costing $200,000 to $250,000.

The director of business development for Blue Origin, Bretton Alexander, announced his company’s intention to begin test flights of its first full-scale vehicle within the next year. “We have not publicly started selling rides in space as others have,” said Alexander during his question-and-answer session. “But that is our plan to do that, and we look forward to doing that, hopefully soon.”

Blue Origin is perhaps the most secretive of the commercial spaceflight companies, typically revealing little of its progress toward the services it plans to offer: suborbital manned spaceflight and, later, orbital flight. Like Virgin, it was founded by a wealthy entrepreneur, in this case Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. The company, which is headquartered in Kent, Washington, has so far conducted at least one supersonic test flight and a test of its escape rocket system, both at its West Texas test center.

Also on hand was the head of Planetary Resources, Chris Lewicki, a former spacecraft engineer and manager for Mars programs at NASA. He showed off a prototype of his company’s Arkyd 100, an asteroid-hunting space telescope the size of a toaster oven. If all goes according to plan, a fleet of Arkyd 100s will first scan the skies from Earth orbit in search of nearby asteroids that might be rich in mineral wealth and water, to be visited by the next generation of Arkyd probes. Water is potentially valuable for future space-based enterprises as rocket fuel (split into its constituent elements of hydrogen and oxygen) and for use in life support systems. Planetary Resources plans to “launch early, launch often,” Lewicki told me after his presentation. To that end, the company is building a series of CubeSat-size spacecraft dubbed Arkyd 3s, to be launched from the International Space Station by the end of this year.

Andrew Antonio, experience manager at a relatively new company, World View Enterprises, showed a computer-generated video of his company’s planned balloon flights to the edge of space. A manned capsule will ascend to 100,000 feet, or about 20 miles up, from which the curvature of Earth and the black sky of space are visible. At $75,000 per ticket (reduced to $65,000 for Explorers Club members), the flight will be more affordable than competing rocket-powered suborbital experiences but won’t go as high. Antonio said his company plans to launch a small test vehicle “in about a month.”

XCOR’s director of payload sales and operations, Khaki Rodway, showed video clips of the company’s Lynx suborbital rocket plane coming together in Mojave, California, as well as a profile of an XCOR spaceflight customer. Hangared just down the flight line at the same air and space port where Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is undergoing flight testing, the Lynx offers seating for one paying customer per flight at $95,000. XCOR hopes the Lynx will begin flying by the end of this year.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Still from the Clangers TV show. Courtesy of BBC / Smallfilms.

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How to Rendezvous With a Comet

First, you will need a significant piece of space hardware. Second, you will need to launch it having meticulously planned its convoluted trajectory through the solar system. Third, wait 12 years for the craft to reach the comet. Fourth, and with fingers crossed, launch a landing probe from the craft on to the 2.5 mile wide comet 67 P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, while all are hurtling through space at around 25,000 miles per hour.

So far so good. The Rosetta spacecraft woke up from its self-induced 30-month hibernation on January 20, having slumbered to conserve energy. Now it continues on its final leg of the journey — a year-long trek to catch the comet.

Visit the European Space Agency (ESA) Rosetta mission home page here.

From ars technica:

The Rosetta spacecraft is due to wake up on the morning of January 20 after an 30-month hibernation in deep space. For the past ten years, the three-ton spacecraft has been on a one-way trip to a 4 km-wide comet. When it arrives, it will set about performing a maneuver that has never been done before: landing on a comet’s surface.

The spacecraft has already achieved some success on its long journey through the solar system. It has passed by two asteroids—Steins in 2008 and Lutetia in 2010—and it tried out some of its instruments on them. Because Rosetta’s journey is so protracted, however, preserving energy has been of the utmost importance, which is why it was put into hibernation in June 2011. The journey has taken so long because the spacecraft needed to be “gravity-assisted” by many planets in order to reach the necessary velocity to match the comet’s orbit.

When it wakes up, Rosetta is expected to take a few hours to establish contact with Earth, 673 million km (396 million mi) away. The scientists involved will wait with bated breath. Dan Andrews, part of a team at the Open University who built one of Rosetta’s on-board instruments, said, “If there isn’t sufficient power, Rosetta will go back to sleep and try again later. The wake-up process is driven by software commands already on the spacecraft. It will wake itself up autonomously and spend some time warming up and orienting its antenna toward Earth to ‘phone home.’”

If multiple attempts fail to wake Rosetta, it could mean the end of the mission.

Rosetta should reach comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in May 2014, at which point it will decelerate to match the speed of the comet. In August 2014, Rosetta will enter orbit around the comet to scout 67P’s surface in search of a landing spot. Then, in November 2014, Rosetta’s on-board lander, Philae, will be ejected from the orbiting spacecraft onto the surface of the comet. There are a lot of things that need to come together perfectly for this to go smoothly, but space endeavors are designed to charter unknown territories, and Rosetta will be doing just that.

If Rosetta manages this mission successfully, it will make history as the first spacecraft to land on the surface of a comet. Success is by no means assured, as scientists have no idea what to expect when Rosetta arrives at the comet. Will the comet’s surface be icy, soft, hard, or rocky? This information will affect what kind of landing the spacecraft can expect and whether it will sink into the comet or bounce off. Another problem is that comet 67P is small and has a weak gravitational field, which will make holding the spacecraft on its surface challenging, even after a successful landing.

At a cost of €1 billion ($1.36 billion) it’s important that we get some value for our money with this mission. To ensure we do, Rosetta was designed to help answer some of the most basic questions about Earth and our solar system, such as where water and life originated, even if the landing doesn’t work out as well as we hope it will.

Comets are thought to have delivered some of the chemicals needed for life, including water to Earth and possibly other planets. This is why comet ISON, which sadly did not survive its close encounter with the Sun, had created excitement among scientists. If it had survived, it would have been the closest scientists could get to a comet with modern instruments.

Comet ISON’s demise means Rosetta is more important than ever. Without measuring the composition of comets, we won’t fully understand the origin of our planet. Comet 67P is thought to have preserved the very earliest ingredients of the solar system, acting as a small, deep-freeze time capsule. The hope is that it will now reveal its long-held secrets to Rosetta.

Andrews said, “It will be the first time a spacecraft will approach a comet and actually stay with it for a prolonged period of time, studying the processes whereby a comet ‘switches on’ as it approaches the Sun.”

Once on the comet’s surface, the Philae lander will deploy instruments to measure different forms of the elements hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen in the comet ice. This will allow scientists to understand the composition of the water and organic components that were collected by the comet 4.6 billion years ago, at the very start of the Solar System.

Read the entire article here.

Video: Rosetta’s Twelve-Year Journey to Land on a Comet. Courtesy of European Space Agency (ESA) Space Science.


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100-Year Starship Project

As Voyager 1 embarks on its interstellar voyage, having recently left the confines of our solar system, NASA and the Pentagon are collaborating with the 100-Year Starship Project. This effort aims to make human interstellar travel a reality within the next 100 years. While this is an admirable goal, let’s not forget that the current record holder for fastest man made object — Voyager 1 — would still take around 50,000 years to reach the nearest star to Earth. So NASA had better get its creative juices flowing.

From the Guardian:

It would be hard enough these days to find a human capable of playing a 12-inch LP, let alone an alien. So perhaps it is time for Nasa to update its welcome pack for extraterrestrials.

The agency announced earlier this month that its Voyager 1 probe has left the solar system, becoming the first object to enter interstellar space. On board is a gold-plated record from 1977.

It contains greetings in dozens of languages, sounds such as morse code, a tractor, a kiss, music – from Bach to Chuck Berry – and pictures of life on Earth, including a sperm fertilising an egg, athletes, and the Sydney Opera House.

Now, Jon Lomberg, the original Golden Record design director, has launched a project aiming to persuade Nasa to upload a current snapshot of Earth to one of its future interstellar craft as a sort of space-age message in a bottle.

The New Horizons spacecraft will reach Pluto in 2015, then is expected to leave the solar system in about three decades. The New Horizons Message Initiative wants to create a crowd-sourced “human fingerprint” for extra-terrestrial consumption that can be digitally uploaded to the probe as its journey continues. The message could be modified to reflect changes on Earth as years go by.

With the backing of numerous space experts, Lomberg is orchestrating a petition and fundraising campaign. The first stage will firm up what can be sent in a format that would be easy for aliens to decode; the second will be the online crowd-sourcing of material.

Especially given the remote possibility that the message will ever be read, Lomberg emphasises the benefits to earthlings of starting a debate about how we should introduce ourselves to interplanetary strangers.

“The Voyager record was our best foot forward. We just talked about what we were like on a good day … no wars or famine. It was a sanitised portrait. Should we go warts and all? That is a legitimate discussion that needs to be had,” he said.

“The previous messages were decided by elite groups … Everybody is equally entitled and qualified to do it. If you’re a human on Earth you have a right to decide how you’re presented.”

“Astronauts have said that you step off the Earth and look back and you see things differently. Looking at yourself with a different perspective is always useful. The Golden Record has had a tremendous effect in terms of making people think about the culture in ways they wouldn’t normally do.”

Buoyed by the Voyager news, scientists gathered in Houston last weekend for the annual symposium of the Nasa- and Pentagon-backed 100-Year Starship project, which aims to make human interstellar travel a reality within a century.

“I think it’s an incredible boost. I think it makes it much more plausible,” said Dr Mae Jemison, the group’s principal and the first African-American woman in space. “What it says is that we know we can get to interstellar space. We got to interstellar space with technologies that were developed 40 years ago. There is every reason to suspect that we can create and build vehicles that can go that far, faster.”

Jeff Nosanov, of Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, near Los Angeles, hopes to persuade the agency to launch about ten interstellar probes to gather data from a variety of directions. They would be powered by giant sails that harness the sun’s energy, much like a boat on the ocean is propelled by wind. Solar sails are gaining credibility as a realistic way of producing faster spacecraft, given the limitations of existing rocket technology. Nasa is planning to launch a spacecraft with a 13,000 square-foot sail in November next year.

“We have a starship and it’s 36 years old, so that’s really good. This is not as impossible as it sounds. Where the challenge becomes ludicrous and really astounding is the distances from one star to another,” Nosanov said.

Read the entire article here.

Image: USS Enterprise (NCC-1701). Courtesy of Star Trek franchise.

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Above and Beyond

According to NASA, Voyager 1 officially left the protection of the solar system on or about August 25, 2013, and is now heading into interstellar space. It is now the first and only human-made object to leave the solar system.

Perhaps, one day in the distant future real human voyagers — or their android cousins — will come across the little probe as it continues on its lonely journey.

From Space:

A spacecraft from Earth has left its cosmic backyard and taken its first steps in interstellar space.

After streaking through space for nearly 35 years, NASA’s robotic Voyager 1 probe finally left the solar system in August 2012, a study published today (Sept. 12) in the journal Science reports.

“Voyager has boldly gone where no probe has gone before, marking one of the most significant technological achievements in the annals of the history of science, and as it enters interstellar space, it adds a new chapter in human scientific dreams and endeavors,” NASA science chief John Grunsfeld said in a statement. “Perhaps some future deep-space explorers will catch up with Voyager, our first interstellar envoy, and reflect on how this intrepid spacecraft helped enable their future.”

A long and historic journey

Voyager 1 launched on Sept. 5, 1977, about two weeks after its twin, Voyager 2. Together, the two probes conducted a historic “grand tour” of the outer planets, giving scientists some of their first up-close looks at Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and the moons of these faraway worlds.

The duo completed its primary mission in 1989, and then kept on flying toward the edge of the heliosphere, the huge bubble of charged particles and magnetic fields that the sun puffs out around itself. Voyager 1 has now popped free of this bubble into the exotic and unexplored realm of interstellar space, scientists say.

They reached this historic conclusion with a little help from the sun. A powerful solar eruption caused electrons in Voyager 1’s location to vibrate signficantly between April 9 and May 22 of this year. The probe’s plasma wave instrument detected these oscillations, and researchers used the measurements to figure out that Voyager 1’s surroundings contained about 1.3 electrons per cubic inch (0.08 electrons per cubic centimeter).

That’s far higher than the density observed in the outer regions of the heliosphere (roughly 0.03 electrons per cubic inch, or 0.002 electrons per cubic cm) and very much in line with the 1.6 electrons per cubic inch (0.10 electrons per cubic cm) or so expected in interstellar space. [Photos from NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 Probes]

“We literally jumped out of our seats when we saw these oscillations in our data — they showed us that the spacecraft was in an entirely new region, comparable to what was expected in interstellar space, and totally different than in the solar bubble,” study lead author Don Gurnett of the University of Iowa, the principal investigator of Voyager 1’s plasma wave instrument, said in a statement.

It may seem surprising that electron density is higher beyond the solar system than in its extreme outer reaches. Interstellar space is, indeed, emptier than the regions in Earth’s neighborhood, but the density inside the solar bubble drops off dramatically at great distances from the sun, researchers said.

Calculating a departure date

The study team wanted to know if Voyager 1 left the solar system sometime before April 2013, so they combed through some of the probe’s older data. They found a monthlong period of electron oscillations in October-November 2012 that translated to a density of 0.004 electrons per cubic inch (0.006 electrons per cubic cm).

Using these numbers and the amount of ground that Voyager 1 covers — about 325 million miles (520 million kilometers) per year — the researchers calculated that the spacecraft likely left the solar system in August 2012.

That time frame matches up well with several other important changes Voyager 1 observed. On Aug. 25, 2012, the probe recorded a 1,000-fold drop in the number of charged solar particles while also measuring a 9 percent increase in fast-moving galactic cosmic rays, which originate beyond the solar system.

“These results, and comparison with previous heliospheric radio measurements, strongly support the view that Voyager 1 crossed the heliopause into the interstellar plasma on or about Aug. 25, 2012,” Gurnett and his colleagues write in the new study.

At that point, Voyager 1 was about 11.25 billion miles (18.11 billion km) from the sun, or roughly 121 times the distance between Earth and the sun. The probe is now 11.66 billion miles (18.76 billion km) from the sun. (Voyager 2, which took a different route through the solar system, is currently 9.54 billion miles, or 15.35 billion km, from the sun.)

Read the entire article here.

Image: Voyager Gold Disk. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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One Way Ticket to Mars

You would be rightfully mistaken for thinking this might be a lonesome bus trip to Mars, Pennsylvania or to the North American headquarters of Mars, purveyors of many things chocolaty including M&Ms, Mars Bars and Snickers, in New Jersey. This one way ticket is further afield, to the Red Planet, and comes from a company known as Mars One — estimated time of departure, 2023.

From the Guardian:

A few months before he died, Carl Sagan recorded a message of hope to would-be Mars explorers, telling them: “Whatever the reason you’re on Mars is, I’m glad you’re there. And I wish I was with you.”

On Monday, 17 years after the pioneering astronomer set out his hopeful vision of the future in 1996, a company from the Netherlands is proposing to turn Sagan’s dreams of reaching Mars into reality. The company, Mars One, plans to send four astronauts on a trip to the Red Planet to set up a human colony in 2023. But there are a couple of serious snags.

Firstly, when on Mars their bodies will have to adapt to surface gravity that is 38% of that on Earth. It is thought that this would cause such a total physiological change in their bone density, muscle strength and circulation that voyagers would no longer be able to survive in Earth’s conditions. Secondly, and directly related to the first, they will have to say goodbye to all their family and friends, as the deal doesn’t include a return ticket.

The Mars One website states that a return “cannot be anticipated nor expected”. To return, they would need a fully assembled and fuelled rocket capable of escaping the gravitational field of Mars, on-board life support systems capable of up to a seven-month voyage and the capacity either to dock with a space station orbiting Earth or perform a safe re-entry and landing.

“Not one of these is a small endeavour” the site notes, requiring “substantial technical capacity, weight and cost”.

Nevertheless, the project has already had 10,000 applicants, according to the company’s medical director, Norbert Kraft. When the official search is launched on Monday at the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York, they expect tens of thousands more hopefuls to put their names forward.

Kraft told the Guardian that the applicants so far ranged in age from 18 to at least 62 and, though they include women, they tended to be men.

The reasons they gave for wanting to go were varied, he said. One of three examples Kraft forwarded by email to the Guardian cited Sagan.

An American woman called Cynthia, who gave her age as 32, told the company that it was a “childhood imagining” of hers to go to Mars. She described a trip her mother had taken her on in the early 1990s to a lecture at the University of Wisconsin.

In a communication to Mars One, she said the lecturer had been Sagan and she had asked him if he thought humans would land on Mars in her lifetime. Cynthia said: “He in turn asked me if I wanted to be trapped in a ‘tin can spacecraft’ for the two years it would take to get there. I told him yes, he smiled, and told me in all seriousness, that yes, he absolutely believed that humans would reach Mars in my lifetime.”

She told the project: “When I first heard about the Mars One project I thought, this is my chance – that childhood dream could become a reality. I could be one of the pioneers, building the first settlement on Mars and teaching people back home that there are still uncharted territories that humans can reach for.”

The prime attributes Mars One is looking for in astronaut-settlers is resilience, adaptability, curiosity, ability to trust and resourcefulness, according to Kraft. They must also be over 18.

Professor Gerard ‘t Hooft, winner of the Nobel prize for theoretical physics in 1999 and lecturer of theoretical physics at the University of Utrecht, Holland, is an ambassador for the project. ‘T Hooft admits there are unknown health risks. The radiation is “of quite a different nature” than anything that has been tested on Earth, he told the BBC.

Founded in 2010 by Bas Lansdorp, an engineer, Mars One says it has developed a realistic road map and financing plan for the project based on existing technologies and that the mission is perfectly feasible. The website states that the basic elements required for life are already present on the planet. For instance, water can be extracted from ice in the soil and Mars has sources of nitrogen, the primary element in the air we breathe. The colony will be powered by specially adapted solar panels, it says.

In March, Mars One said it had signed a contract with the American firm Paragon Space Development Corporation to take the first steps in developing the life support system and spacesuits fit for the mission.

The project will cost a reported $6bn (£4bn), a sum Lansdorp has said he hopes will be met partly by selling broadcasting rights. “The revenue garnered by the London Olympics was almost enough to finance a mission to Mars,” Lansdorp said, in an interview with ABC News in March.

Another ambassador to the project is Paul Römer, the co-creator of Big Brother, one of the first reality TV shows and one of the most successful.

On the website, Römer gave an indication of how the broadcasting of the project might proceed: “This mission to Mars can be the biggest media event in the world,” said Römer. “Reality meets talent show with no ending and the whole world watching. Now there’s a good pitch!”

The aim is to establish a permanent human colony, according to the company’s website. The first team would land on the surface of Mars in 2023 to begin constructing the colony, with a team of four astronauts every two years after that.

The project is not without its sceptics, however, and concerns have been raised about how astronauts might get to the surface and establish a colony with all the life support and other requirements needed. There were also concerns over the health implications for the applicants.

Dr Veronica Bray, from the University of Arizona’s lunar and planetary laboratory, told BBC News that Earth was protected from solar winds by a strong magnetic field, without which it would be difficult to survive. The Martian surface is very hostile to life. There is no liquid water, the atmospheric pressure is “practically a vacuum”, radiation levels are higher and temperatures vary wildly. High radiation levels can lead to increased cancer risk, a lowered immune system and possibly infertility, she said.

To minimise radiation, the project team will cover the domes they plan to build with several metres of soil, which the colonists will have to dig up.

The mission hopes to inspire generations to “believe that all things are possible, that anything can be achieved” much like the Apollo moon landings.

“Mars One believes it is not only possible, but imperative that we establish a permanent settlement on Mars in order to accelerate our understanding of the formation of the solar system, the origins of life, and of equal importance, our place in the universe” it says.

Read the entire article following the jump.

Image: Panoramic View From ‘Rocknest’ Position of Curiosity Mars Rover. Courtesy of JPL / NASA.

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Off World Living

Will humanity ever transcend gravity to become a space-faring race? A simple napkin-based calculation will give you the answer.

From Scientific American:

Optimistic visions of a human future in space seem to have given way to a confusing mix of possibilities, maybes, ifs, and buts. It’s not just the fault of governments and space agencies, basic physics is in part the culprit. Hoisting mass away from Earth is tremendously difficult, and thus far in fifty years we’ve barely managed a total the equivalent of a large oil-tanker. But there’s hope.

Back in the 1970?s the physicist Gerard O’Neill and his students investigated concepts of vast orbital structures capable of sustaining entire human populations. It was the tail end of the Apollo era, and despite the looming specter of budget restrictions and terrestrial pessimism there was still a sense of what might be, what could be, and what was truly within reach.

The result was a series of blueprints for habitats that solved all manner of problems for space life, from artificial gravity (spin up giant cylinders), to atmospheres, and radiation (let the atmosphere shield you). They’re pretty amazing, and they’ve remained perhaps one of the most optimistic visions of a future where we expand beyond the Earth.

But there’s a lurking problem, and it comes down to basic physics. It is awfully hard to move stuff from the surface of our planet into orbit or beyond. O’Neill knew this, as does anyone else who’s thought of grand space schemes. The solution is to ‘live of the land’, extracting raw materials from either the Moon with its shallower gravity well, or by processing asteroids. To get to that point though we’d still have to loft an awful lot of stuff into space – the basic tools and infrastructure have to start somewhere.

And there’s the rub. To put it into perspective I took a look at the amount of ‘stuff’ we’ve managed to get off Earth in the past 50-60 years. It’s actually pretty hard to evaluate, lots of the mass we send up comes back down in short order – either as spent rocket stages or as short-lived low-altitude satellites. But we can still get a feel for it.

To start with, a lower limit on the mass hoisted to space is the present day artificial satellite population. Altogether there are in excess of about 3,000 satellites up there, plus vast amounts of small debris. Current estimates suggest this amounts to a total of around 6,000 metric tons. The biggest single structure is the International Space Station, currently coming in at about 450 metric tons (about 992,000 lb for reference).

These numbers don’t reflect launch mass – the total of a rocket + payload + fuel. To put that into context, a fully loaded Saturn V was about 2,000 metric tons, but most of that was fuel.

When the Space Shuttle flew it amounted to about 115 metric tons (Shuttle + payload) making it into low-Earth orbit. Since there were 135 launches of the Shuttle that amounts to a total hoisted mass of about 15,000 metric tons over a 30 year period.

Read the entire article after the jump.

Image: A pair of O’Neill cylinders. NASA ID number AC75-1085. Courtesy of NASA / Wikipedia.

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Mars: 2030

Dennis Tito, the world’s first space tourist, would like to send a private space mission to Mars in 2018. He has pots of money and has founded a non-profit to gather partners and donors to get the mission off the ground. NASA has other plans. The U.S. space agency is tasked by the current administration to plan a human mission to Mars for the mid-2030s. However, due to budgetary issues, fiscal cliffs, and possible debt and deficit reduction, nobody believes it will actually happen. Though, many in NASA and lay-explorers at heart continue to hope.

From Technology Review:

In August, NASA used a series of precise and daring maneuvers to put a one-ton robotic rover named Curiosity on Mars. A capsule containing the rover parachuted through the Martian atmosphere and then unfurled a “sky crane” that lowered Curiosity safely into place. It was a thrilling moment: here were people communicating with a large and sophisticated piece of equipment 150 million miles away as it began to carry out experiments that should enhance our understanding of whether the planet has or has ever had life. So when I visited NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston a few days later, I expected to find people still basking in the afterglow. To be sure, the Houston center, where astronauts get directions from Mission Control, didn’t play the leading role in Curiosity. That project was centered at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which Caltech manages for NASA in Pasadena. Nonetheless, the landing had been a remarkable event for the entire U.S. space program. And yet I found that Mars wasn’t an entirely happy subject in Houston—especially among people who believe that humans, not only robots, should be exploring there.

In his long but narrow office in the main building of the sprawling Houston center, Bret Drake has compiled an outline explaining how six astronauts could be sent on six-month flights to Mars and what they would do there for a year and a half before their six-month flights home. Drake, 51, has been thinking about this since 1988, when he began working on what he calls the “exploration beyond low Earth orbit dream.” Back then, he expected that people would return to the moon in 2004 and be on the brink of traveling to Mars by now. That prospect soon got ruled out, but Drake pressed on: in the late 1990s he was crafting plans for human Mars missions that could take place around 2018. Today the official goal is for it to happen in the 2030s, but funding cuts have inhibited NASA’s ability to develop many of the technologies that would be required. In fact, progress was halted entirely in 2008 when Congress, in an effort to impose frugality on NASA, prohibited it from using any money to further the human exploration of Mars. “Mars was a four-letter dirty word,” laments Drake, who is deputy chief architect for NASA’s human spaceflight architecture team. Even though that rule was rescinded after a year, Drake knows NASA could perpetually remain 20 years away from a manned Mars mission.

If putting men on the moon signified the extraordinary things that technology made possible in the middle of the 20th century, sending humans to Mars would be the 21st-century version. The flight would be much more arduous and isolating for the astronauts: whereas the Apollo crews who went to the moon were never more than three days from home and could still make out its familiar features, a Mars crew would see Earth shrink into just one of billions of twinkles in space. Once they landed, the astronauts would have to survive in a freezing, windswept world with unbreathable air and 38 percent of Earth’s gravity. But if Drake is right, we can make this journey happen. He and other NASA engineers know what will be required, from a landing vehicle that could get humans through the Martian atmosphere to systems for feeding them, sheltering them, and shuttling them around once they’re there.

The problem facing Drake and other advocates for human exploration of Mars is that the benefits are mostly intangible. Some of the justifications that have been floated—including the idea that people should colonize the planet to improve humanity’s odds of survival—don’t stand up to an economic analysis. Until we have actually tried to keep people alive there, permanent human settlements on Mars will remain a figment of science fiction.

A better argument is that exploring Mars might have scientific benefits, because basic questions about the planet remain unanswered. “We know Mars was once wet and warm,” Drake says. “So did life ever arise there? If so, is it any different than life here on Earth? Where did it all go? What happened to Mars? Why did it become so cold and dry? How can we learn from that and what it may mean for Earth?” But right now Curiosity is exploring these very questions, firing lasers at rocks to determine their composition and hunting for signs of microbial life. Because of such robotic missions, our knowledge of Mars has improved so much in the past 15 years that it’s become harder to make the case for sending humans. People are far more adaptable and ingenious than robots and surely would find things drones can’t, but sending them would jack up the cost of a mission exponentially. “There’s just no real way to justify human exploration solely on the basis of science,” says Cynthia Phillips, a senior research scientist at the SETI Institute, which hunts for evidence of life elsewhere in the universe. “For the cost of sending one human to Mars, you could send an entire flotilla of robots.”

And yet human exploration of Mars has a powerful allure. No planet in our solar system is more like Earth. Our neighbor has rhythms we recognize as our own, with days slightly longer than 24 hours and polar ice caps that grow in the winter and shrink in the summer. Human explorers on Mars would profoundly expand the boundaries of human experience—providing, in the minds of many space advocates, an immeasurable benefit beyond science. “There have always been explorers in our society,” says Phillips. “If space exploration is only robots, you lose something, and you lose something really valuable.”

The Apollo Hangover

Mars was proposed as a place to explore even before the space program existed. In the 1950s, scientists such as Wernher von Braun (who had developed Nazi Germany’s combat rockets and later oversaw work on missiles and rockets for the United States) argued in magazines and on TV that as space became mankind’s next frontier, Mars would be an obvious point of interest. “Will man ever go to Mars?” von Braun wrote in Collier’s magazine in 1954. “I am sure he will—but it will be a century or more before he’s ready.”

Read the entire article after the jump.

Image: Artist’s conception of the Mars Excursion Module (MEM) proposed in a NASA Study in 1964. Courtesy of Dixon, Franklin P. Proceeding of the Symposium on Manned Planetary Missions: 1963/1964, Aeronutronic Divison of Philco Corp.

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Fly Me to the Moon: Mere Millionaries Need Not Apply

Golden Spike, a Boulder Colorado based company, has an interesting proposition for the world’s restless billionaires. It is offering a two-seat trip to the Moon, and back, for a tidy sum of $1.5 billion. And, the company is even throwing in a moon-walk. The first trip is planned for 2020.

From the Washington Post:

It had to happen: A start-up company is offering rides to the moon. Book your seat now — though it’s going to set you back $750 million (it’s unclear if that includes baggage fees).

At a news conference scheduled for Thursday afternoon in Washington, former NASA science administrator Alan Stern plans to announce the formation of Golden Spike, which, according to a news release, is “the first company planning to offer routine exploration expeditions to the surface of the Moon.”

“We can do this,” an excited Stern said Thursday morning during a brief phone interview.

The gist of the company’s strategy is that it’ll repurpose existing space hardware for commercial lunar missions and take advantage of NASA-sanctioned commercial rockets that, in a few years, are supposed to put astronauts in low Earth orbit. Stern said a two-person lunar mission, complete with moonwalking and, perhaps best of all, a return to Earth, would cost $1.5 billion.

“Two seats, 750 each,” Stern said. “The trick is 40 years old. We know how to do this. The difference is now we have rockets and space capsules in the inventory. .?.?. They’re already developed. .?.?. We don’t have to invent them from a clean sheet of paper. We don’t have to start over.”

The statement says, “The company’s plan is to maximize use of existing rockets and to market the resulting system to nations, individuals, and corporations with lunar exploration objectives and ambitions.” Golden Spike says its plans have been vetted by a former space shuttle commander, a space shuttle program manager and a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

And Newt Gingrich is involved: The former speaker of the House, who was widely mocked this year when, campaigning for president, he talked at length about ambitious plans for a permanent moon base by 2021, is listed as a member of Golden Spike’s board of advisers.

Also on that list is Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor and secretary of the Department of Energy. The chairman of the board is Gerry Griffin, a former Apollo mission flight director and former director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

The private venture fills a void, as it were, in the wake of President Obama’s decision to cancel NASA’s Constellation program, which was initiated during the George W. Bush years as the next step in space exploration after the retirement of the space shuttle. Constellation aimed to put astronauts back on the moon by 2020 for what would become extended stays at a lunar base.

A sweeping review from a presidential committee led by retired aerospace executive Norman Augustine concluded that NASA didn’t have the money to achieve Constellation’s goals. The administration and Congress have given NASA new marching orders that require the building of a heavy-lift rocket that would give the agency the ability to venture far beyond low Earth orbit.

Routine access to space is being shifted to companies operating under commercial contracts. But as those companies try to develop commercial spaceflight, the United States lacks the ability to launch astronauts directly and must purchase flights to the international space station from the Russians.

Read the entire article after the jump.

Image courtesy of The Golden Spike Company.

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Voyager: A Gift that Keeps on Giving

The little space probe that could — Voyager I — is close to leaving our solar system and entering the relative void of interstellar space. As it does so, from a distance of around 18.4 billion kilometers (today), it continues to send back signals of what it finds. And, surprises continue.

From ars technica:

Several years ago the Voyager spacecraft neared the edge of the Solar System, where the solar wind and magnetic field started to be influenced by the pressure from the interstellar medium that surrounds them. But the expected breakthrough to interstellar space appeared to be indefinitely put on hold; instead, the particles and magnetic field lines in the area seemed to be sending mixed signals about the Voyagers’ escape. At today’s meeting of the American Geophysical Union, scientists offered an explanation: the durable spacecraft ran into a region that nobody predicted.

The Voyager probes were sent on a grand tour of the outer planets over 35 years ago. After a series of staggeringly successful visits to the planets, the probes shot out beyond the most distant of them toward the edges of the Solar System. Scientists expected that as they neared the edge, we’d see the charge particles of the solar wind changing direction as the interstellar medium alters the direction of the Sun’s magnetic field. But while some aspects of the Voyager’s environment have changed, we’ve not seen any clear indication that it has left the Solar System. The solar wind actually seems to be grinding to a halt.

Today’s announcement clarifies that the confusion was caused by the fact that nature didn’t think much of physicists’ expectations. Instead, there’s an additional region near our Solar System’s boundary that hadn’t been predicted.

Within the Solar System, the environment is dominated by the solar magnetic field and a flow of charged particles sent out by the Sun (called the solar wind). Interstellar space has its own flow of particles in the form of low-energy cosmic rays, which the Sun’s magnetic field deflects away from us. There’s also an interstellar magnetic field with field lines oriented in different directions to our Sun’s.

Researchers expected the Voyagers would reach a relatively clear boundary between the Solar System and interstellar space. The Sun’s magnetic field would first shift directions, then be left behind and the interstellar one would be detected. At the same time, we’d see the loss of the solar wind and start seeing the first low-energy cosmic rays.

As expected, a few years back, the Voyagers reached a region where the interstellar medium forced the Sun’s magnetic field lines to curve north. But the solar wind refused to follow suit. Instead of flowing north, the solar wind slowed to a halt while the cosmic rays were missing in action.

Over the summer, as Voyager 1 approached 122 astronomical units from the Sun, that started to change. Arik Posner of the Voyager team said that, starting in late July, Voyager 1 detected a sudden drop in the presence of particles from the solar wind, which went down by half. At the same time, the first low-energy cosmic rays filtered in. A few days later things returned to normal. A second drop occurred on August 15 and then, on August 28, things underwent a permanent shift. According to Tom Krimigis, particles originating from the Sun dropped by about 1,000-fold. Low-energy cosmic rays rose and stayed elevated.

Read the entire article following the jump.

Image: Voyager II. Courtesy of NASA / JPL.

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Integrated Space Plan

The Integrated Space Plan is a 100 year vision of space exploration as envisioned over 20 years ago. It is a beautiful and intricate timeline covering the period 1983 to 2100. The timeline was developed in 1989 by Ronald M. Jones at Rockwell International, using long range planning data from NASA, the National Space Policy Directive and other Western space agencies.

While optimistic the plan nonetheless outlined unmanned rover exploration on Mars (done), a comet sample return mission (done), and an orbiter around Mercury (done). Over the longer-term the plan foresaw “human expansion into the inner solar system” by 2018, with “triplanetary, earth-moon-mars infrastructure” in place by 2023, “small martian settlements” followed in 2060, and “Venus terraforming operations” in 2080. The plan concludes with “human interstellar travel” sometime after the year 2100. So, perhaps there is hope for humans beyond this Pale Blue Dot after all.

More below on this fascinating diagram and how it was re-discovered from Sean Ragan over at Make Magazine. A detailed and large download of the plan follows: Integrated Space Plan.

From Make:

I first encountered this amazing infographic hanging on a professor’s office wall when I was visiting law schools back in 1999. I’ve been trying, off and on, to run down my own copy ever since. It’s been one of those back-burner projects that I’ll poke at when it comes to mind, every now and again, but until quite recently all my leads had come up dry. All I really knew about the poster was that it had been created in the 80s by analysts at Rockwell International and that it was called the “Integrated Space Plan.”

About a month ago, all the little threads I’d been pulling on suddenly unraveled, and I was able to connect with a generous donor willing to entrust an original copy of the poster to me long enough to have it scanned at high resolution. It’s a large document, at 28 x 45?, but fortunately it’s monochrome, and reproduces well using 1-bit color at 600dpi, so even uncompressed bitmaps come in at under 5MB.

Read the entire article following the jump.

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The First Interplanetary Travel Reservations

From Wired:

Today, space travel is closer to reality for ordinary people than it has ever been. Though currently only the super rich are actually getting to space, several companies have more affordable commercial space tourism in their sights and at least one group is going the non-profit DIY route into space.

But more than a decade before it was even proven that man could reach space, average people were more positive about their own chances of escaping Earth’s atmosphere. This may have been partly thanks to the Interplanetary Tour Reservation desk at the American Museum of Natural History.

In 1950, to promote its new space exhibit, the AMNH had the brilliant idea to ask museum visitors to sign up to reserve their space on a future trip to the moon, Mars, Jupiter or Saturn. They advertised the opportunity in newspapers and magazines and received letters requesting reservations from around the world. The museum pledged to pass their list on to whichever entity headed to each destination first.

Today, to promote its newest space exhibit, “Beyond Planet Earth: The Future of Space Exploration,” the museum has published some of these requests. The letters manage to be interesting, hopeful, funny and poignant all at once. Some even included sketches of potential space capsules, rockets and spacesuits. The museum shared some of its favorites with Wired for this gallery.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Hayden Planetarium Space Tours Schedule. Courtesy of American Museum of Natural History / Wired.

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One Pale Blue Dot, 55 Languages and 11 Billion Miles

It was Carl Sagan’s birthday last week (November 9, to be precise). He would have been 77 years old — he returned to “star-stuff” in 1996. Thoughts of this charming astronomer and cosmologist reminded us of a project with which he was intimately involved — the Voyager program.

In 1977, NASA launched two spacecraft to explore Jupiter and Saturn. The spacecraft performed so well that their missions were extended several times: first, to journey farther in the outer reaches of our solar system and explore the planets Neptune and Uranus; and second, to fly beyond our solar system into interstellar space. And, by all accounts both craft are now close to this boundary. The farthest, Voyager I, is currently over 11 billion miles away. For a real-time check on its distance, visit  JPL’s Voyager site here. JPL is NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, CA.

Some may recall that Carl Sagan presided over the selection and installation of content from the Earth onto a gold plated disk that each Voyager carries on its continuing mission. The disk contains symbolic explanations of our planet and solar system, as well as images of its inhabitants and greetings spoken in 55 languages. After much wrangling over concerns about damaging Voyager’s imaging instruments by peering back at the Sun, Sagan was instrumental in having NASA reorient Voyager I’s camera back towards the Earth. This enabled the craft to snap one last set of images of our planet from its vantage point in deep space. One poignant image became know as the “Pale Blue Dot”, and Sagan penned some characteristically eloquent and philosophical words about this image in his book, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.

From Carl Sagan:

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Look again at that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

About the image from NASA:

From Voyager’s great distance Earth is a mere point of light, less than the size of a picture element even in the narrow-angle camera. Earth was a crescent only 0.12 pixel in size. Coincidentally, Earth lies right in the center of one of the scattered light rays resulting from taking the image so close to the sun. This blown-up image of the Earth was taken through three color filters – violet, blue and green – and recombined to produce the color image. The background features in the image are artifacts resulting from the magnification.

To ease identification we have drawn a gray circle around the image of the Earth.

Image courtesy of NASA / JPL.

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