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Tag archives: space travel

Homework help from NASA, rescue missions, top technologies and more

By Tushna Commissariat

Who doesn’t like a bit of help with their homework – not 4-year-old Lucas Whiteley from West Yorkshire in the UK.  When faced with some tough and rather complex scientific questions, the enterprising child filmed a video of himself asking the US space agency NASA for some help. And much to his delight, he got a video response courtesy of NASA engineer Ted Garbeff of the Ames Research Center in California. In the 10-minute video, Garbeff answers Whiteley’s questions including “How many stars are there?” and “Did any animals go to the Moon?” Of course, the story garnered nation-wide interest and was covered by the Huffington Post, the Telegraph and others. Take a look at Garbeff’s response video above.

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Sun-skimming comets, the future of the Space Race, scientists on record and more

By Tushna Commissariat

This week, professional astronomers and enthusiasts all over the world pointed their telescopes (and satellites) at the comet ISON as it raced towards the Sun and had its closest encounter with our star yesterday. Of course, the big question was whether the “Sungrazing comet” would survive its close call. Now, it seems that no-one is quite sure – early on, it looked as if the comet faded rather dramatically, suggesting that its nucleus disintegrated, and then it disappeared completely as it made its way through the solar atmosphere, making scientists mourn its fiery death. But lo, today a very faint smudge of dust was seen again, and seems to be brightening up once more. For now, researchers are referring to ISON as “Schrödinger’s Comet” and we may have to wait a while to know for sure. Right now, it seems that some of the comet has survived, but just how much of it made it through and if it will be visible in the sky in December is unknown. In case you missed all the action yesterday, take a look at Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog, where he was posting live updates on the comet and Karl Battams’s blog on NASA’s Comet ISON Observing Campaign site, where he explains what happens next.

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Grumpy astronauts, LEGO overpopulation, videogame quantum mechanics and more

The xkcd webcomic about LEGO titled

The “Minifigs” comic from xkcd (Credit: Randall Munroe/Creative Commons)

By Tushna Commissariat

This week, the Red Folder seemed filled to bursting with amusing and captivating news stories from around the web about physics. To start off, this rather hilarious and candid account of the Apollo 7 mission on the Discovery News website. I will not give too much away and let you read the story yourself, but suffice to say that having a rather bad cold while in space sounds dreadful and is bound to make the best of us quite grumpy – and I am sure the Apollo 7 crew would agree with me!

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Voyager 1, where art thou?

Voyager 1 xkcd webcomic

The “Voyager 1” xkcd.com webcomic (Credit: Randall Munroe/Creative Commons)

By Tushna Commissariat

It’s a running joke at the Physics World news desk – the exact location of the Voyager 1 probe and how often we end up writing about how it really has nearly left the solar system this time. So we decided to wait and watch when the news broke on Wednesday evening this week that the probe had left the solar system for sure (again).

Unsurprisingly, the next morning our inboxes included a slightly sheepish “status update” message from NASA. “The Voyager team is aware of reports today that NASA’s Voyager 1 has left the solar system,” says Edward Stone, Voyager project scientist based at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. “It is the consensus of the Voyager science team that Voyager 1 has not yet left the solar system or reached interstellar space. In December 2012 the Voyager science team reported that Voyager 1 is within a new region called ‘the magnetic highway’ where energetic particles changed dramatically. A change in the direction of the magnetic field is the last critical indicator of reaching interstellar space, and that change of direction has not yet been observed.”

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Atlantis lifts off into history

Last launch of Atlantis- Space Shuttle Program NASA-Bill Ingalls.jpg

By Tushna Commissariat

Despite gloomy weather conditions that threatened to cancel the launch altogether, NASA’s shuttle Atlantis has launched from the Kennedy Space Center. Marking the last and final flight of the Space Shuttle Programme – STS-135 – Atlantis and a four-person crew are on a 12-day mission to deliver more than 3.5 tonnes of supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). This final stock should keep the station running for a year. Although the countdown stopped briefly at 31 s before the launch, the shuttle had a “flawless” lift-off, according to NASA. It has now settled down into its preliminary orbit ahead of its rendezvous with the ISS this Sunday morning.

The image above is of the shuttle, taken shortly after the rotating service structure was rolled back yesterday at Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls). Below is an image of the mission patch for this final iconic flight (Credit: NASA).

STS-135 Mission Patch.jpg

“The shuttle’s always going to be a reflection of what a great nation can do when it commits to be bold and follow through,” said astronaut Chris Ferguson, commander of the mission, from the cockpit of Atlantis minutes before the launch. “We’re completing a chapter of a journey that will never end. Let’s light this fire one more time, and witness this great nation at its best.”

Atlantis was the fourth orbiter built and had its maiden voyage on 3 October 1985. Atlantis had a number of firsts to its name – it was the first shuttle to deploy a probe to another planet, to dock to the ISS and the first with a glass cockpit! It conducted a final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope in May 2009.

NASA has decided to retire its shuttle programme with this last flight because the vehicles are too costly to maintain. It now intends to contract out space transport to private companies. The hope is that this will free NASA resources to invest in a other programmes that will potentially send humans beyond the space station to the Moon, Mars and maybe even asteroids.

Atlantis is also carrying some rather unusual passengers – some simple yeast cells. The aim is to study the yeast cells as their genetic make up is remarkably similar to that of a human cell. This makes it an ideal system for studying genetic defects and understanding how these defects may manifest in human disease. In two separate experiments – conducted at the ISS – researchers will study the effect of microgravity on cell growth.

The video below has the crew of Atlantis talking about the “vibrancy of the ISS as a stepping stone for NASA’s plans for future human exploration beyond low Earth orbit”.

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