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Tag archives: space

Yeah but no but yeah but no but…

The various regions at the edge of thes olar system.

The various regions at the edge of the solar system. (Courtesy: Southwest Research Institute)

By Matin Durrani

Has the Voyager spacecraft left the solar system and entered interstellar space? I don’t know about you, but I’m getting a teensy weensy bit bored by this question, which has been going on for years now.

Last September, we blogged about a paper in Science that, yep, it had definitely left the solar system a year before – on 25 August 2012 in fact.

Previous to that, though, there had been other reports that no it hadn’t (June 2013), it really, definitely is getting near the edge, but hang on actually not yet (March 2013), we’re not quite sure (June 2011), of course it’s definitely heading for interstellar space (November 2009), it’s already right near the edge (or possibly not) (November 2003).

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Meeting the last man to walk on the Moon

Photo of Eugene Cernan

Eugene Cernan speaking at Sheffield Doc/Fest.

By James Dacey, reporting from Sheffield

“I wanted to make a film about an old space cowboy” is how British director Mark Craig introduced his new film on Sunday afternoon here at Sheffield Doc/Fest. The Last Man on the Moon takes a fresh look at the the Apollo era through the story of Eugene Cernan, who was the last person to set foot on the lunar surface when he did so in 1972 as commander of Apollo 17.

The documentary interleaves a profile of “Gene” Cernan with NASA archive footage and special effects, focusing on the personal stories of the astronauts and their families. To give you a flavour, the film opens in the present day with close-ups of Cernan’s facial reactions at a rodeo event as he admires the spectacle and the bravery of the men being thrown around on the back of bulls. Later in the film, Cernan recounts his experiences of being rotated rapidly in space during the Gemini 9A and Apollo 10 missions.

Immediately after the showing, Cernan and Craig stayed for a Q&A session and the audience gave an extended standing ovation as the 80-year-old astronaut walked to the front of the auditorium. I was fortunate to catch up with the pair this morning to get some insights into the inspiration for the film and how it was adapted from the book Cernan co-authored in 1999.

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Spacecraft duets, suprise supernovae, the dark side of physics and more

By Tushna Commissariat

While you would not actually be able to hear the uplifting notes of the music in the vast emptiness of space, a newly composed string and piano orchestral piece has unexpected ties to the cosmos. That’s because it is based on 36 years’ worth of data from NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft. Domenico Vicinanza, a trained musician with a PhD in physics who works at GÉANT, a European data-network company, says that he “wanted to compose a musical piece celebrating Voyager 1 and 2 together, so I used the same measurements (proton counts from the cosmic-ray detector over the last 37 years) from both spacecrafts, at the exactly same point in time, but at several billions of kilometres of distance [of] one from the other”. The result of this “data sonification” is a rather beautiful piece of music – one of the best examples of physics and the arts coming together that we have heard. Of course, the story garnered considerable interest…you can read more about on the Wired and Guardian websites.

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Cress on the Moon, more physics books, a radioactive ‘foot’ and more

A small green sprout of cinnamon basil, grown on board the International Space Station in 2007

A small green sprout of cinnamon basil, growing on board the International Space Station in 2007. (Courtesy: NASA)

By Tushna Commissariat

Early this week, a story in the Telegraph caught our eye – NASA is planning on sending turnip, cress and basil seeds to the Moon to germinate them! This is most definitely not the first time that plants have been grown beyond the realms of Earth. Indeed, potatoes were grown on board during a 1995 Space Shuttle mission and many experiments involving germinating seeds were done on the International Space Station. The goal of these studies was to understand the effects of microgravity on plant growth. But now, NASA plans to take this one step further in 2015 with their Moon Express mission, which will include the Lunar Plant Growth Chamber that will carry seeds and enough air and nutrients to allow the seeds to sprout and grow. Will fresh salad be on an astronaut’s menu soon?

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Herschel in a minute

By Michael Banks

Here is an example of how to condense four years’ worth of space observations into just a minute.

The animation above, which was created by Pedro Gómez-Alvarez of the European Space Agency (ESA), shows a timeline of more than 37,000 scientific observations made by ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory.

The video runs from Herschel’s launch on 14 May 2009 until the infrared observatory made its last observation on 29 April 2013 as the craft’s detectors ran out of coolant.

Herschel – a far-infrared and submillimetre telescope – had two main goals: to study star formation in our galaxy; and galaxy formation across the universe.

Named after the German-born astronomer who in 1781 discovered Uranus, the probe carried a 3.5 m-diameter mirror – the largest to be deployed in space – and investigated light with wavelengths of 55–670 µm.

The craft was placed in an area of space some 1.5 million kilometres further out from the Sun beyond the Earth. Known as Lagrange point L2, it is where a space probe can usefully hover, little disturbed by stray signals from home and without having to use much fuel to keep it in position.

You can find some of the incredible images taken by Herschel at ESA’s multimedia gallery.

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Voyager 1: a peer-reviewed day to remember

Voyager 1 has left the solar system (Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Voyager 1 has left the solar system. (Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

By Hamish Johnston

Yesterday a paper appeared in Science that makes the case that the Voyager 1 spacecraft has left the solar system. The response from the press and commenters has been to declare this a day to remember. Indeed, some have likened it to 20 July 1969 when Neil Armstrong first stepped on the Moon.

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Vintage snaps from space history

By James Dacey

1966 Lunar Orbiter picture of the Earth and Moon

1966 Lunar Orbiter picture of the Earth and Moon. (Courtesy: UCL)

If you look incredibly closely you may just be able to make out John Lennon’s flares or the England football team lifting the World Cup. This portrait of our planet from 1966 is part of the first collection of photos of the Earth taken from beyond the Moon. It was taken by a camera on board Lunar Orbiter I, the first US spacecraft to orbit the Moon, which helped pave the way for the Moon landings at the end of the decade.

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Kepler telescope goes into retirement…for now

Artist’s concept of the Kepler spacecraft

Retirement among the stars: Artist’s concept of the Kepler spacecraft. (Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ball)

By Tushna Commissariat

A few months ago, I wrote a blog about NASA’s Kepler space telescope being in a spot of trouble, as the spacecraft shut down and went into “safe mode”. The problem was that two of the four gyroscope-like “reaction wheels” that help the telescope remain steady and pointed in a particular direction had broken. Since May, researchers have been looking at ways and means to fix the problem or work around it.

Unfortunately, after analysing and testing the systems, the Kepler Space Telescope team has decided to end its attempts to restore the spacecraft to full working order, and is now “considering what new science research it can carry out in its current condition”.

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Launch your own personalized lunar mission

By James Dacey

Photo of thin spacecraft

Photograph of a prototype Pocket Spacecraft: Thin-Film Scout

If you’re looking for a gift idea for a budding Buzz Aldrin then you might want to read on. A new crowd-funding initiative is offering the general public the chance to launch and control our own miniature missions to the Moon. Apparently, we are being given the chance to personalize our own “pocket spacecraft” that will hitch a ride on a commercial rocket before breaking free and spiralling down onto the lunar surface.

The project is the brainchild of some of the people behind the first space mission funded on KickStarter – a website that allows creative ventures to raise funds from the public. That initial project, called KickSat, offered people the chance to launch miniature satellites into the Earth’s atmosphere. It was a success and the mini satellites will be launched via a NASA mission later this year. This latest project is also being run through KickStarter and this time round we can send our space machines to the Moon.

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Winds are picking up on Venus

Faster and faster: average wind speeds at low latitudes on Venus. The white line shows the data derived from manual cloud tracking, and the black line is from digital tracking methods.

Faster and faster: average wind speeds at low latitudes on Venus. The white line shows data derived from manual cloud tracking; the black line is from digital tracking methods. (Courtesy: ESA)

By Hamish Johnston

Venus is a breezy planet. Planetary scientists have known for some time that its clouds zip along at hundreds of kilometres per hour – speeds on par with Earth’s high-velocity jet stream.

But now a team of researchers looking at data from the European Space Agency (ESA) Venus Express mission have noticed that the winds appear to have accelerated by about 33% over the past six years.

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