Into the belly of NASA…

Last week I was lucky enough to get to go on a tour of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center with a group of other interns. Let me tell you, this place is amazing. I could try to do this all in words, but I think a lot of these pictures just need to be seen to be believed. So please enjoy the gallery below!

Here are links for more information about the NASA missions mentioned above:


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A lifetime goal accomplished: astroian, the NASA intern…

Hello all, first off I cannot even tell you how many questions, comments, and conversations I had with people in the past few weeks about Planetary Resources. Ever since I put my “A not so minor mining endeavor…” post, I’ve talked to dozens of people with a myriad reactions about the prospect of mining asteroids. Many people think it’s crazy and extraneous and will probably never happen, many think that it’s exciting and inspirational and awe-inspiring, and still others had no idea what I was talking about. But in any case, I did email Planetary Resources to get on their mailing list and let them know that I might be interested in a job down the line; I didn’t get a personal response, but in one of their recent mailings thanking their supporters, they mentioned that that since their press release on April 24th, they’re received nearly 2,000 resumes from interested potential employees! Talk about room for growth.

Moving on from that, I need to let you all know about something very exciting going on with me. As you devout followers may remember, last year I posted about getting a fellowship from NASA to help fund my graduate research. Well now as part of that fellowship I’m spending two months down at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Greenbelt, MD! Yes that’s right I am currently sitting at my very own desk, in my very own office (for now), with my very own NASA ID badge AT NASA! If only 10-year-old Space Camp astroian could see me now!

It’s official! I work for NASA and I’ve got the ID badge to prove it!

I got down here to Goddard last Tuesday and immediately I was impressed by the incredible size of the center’s “campus”. With nearly 13,000 employees at this single center (one of NASA’s eleven around the country), the complex has a more the feel of a college campus than a government agency. Even more mind-boggling than that is that the of the over 30 buildings that make up this campus, only TWO house all of the scientists. Yes, that’s right, of the over 13,000 employees, all of the scientists are housed in only two mere buildings. It really makes me wonder what they could possibly be doing in all those other buildings, but it’s not hard to imagine: there’s at least one building dedicated to new technology development and countless others to spacecraft construction and such. Still in any case, it’s crazy to wrap your head around.

As far as the research I’m doing is concerned, it’s a lot of writing computer code and waiting. This seems to be a large portion of most scientific investigation…oh and writing proposals so you can get money to actually pay for the research you want to do. Luckily I’ve been able to avoid doing a whole lot of that…for now. In any case, what I’m working on now analyzing and sorting calibration and test data from the Fast Plasma Investigation (FPI) instruments that will be on the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission, built here at Goddard and slated to launch in 2014.

A part of the FPI, the Dual Electron Spectrometer (DES) being built at GSFC. Credit: NASA/Karen C. Fox

The very basic idea of the Fast Plasma Investigation is that scientists want to look at “fast”, or highly energetic, particles that exist in the space around Earth. So everyone remembers from elementary school that there are 3 states of matter: gas, liquid, and solid. Well technically there’s a fourth: plasma. A plasma is a gas that’s so hot or energetic that the  atoms or molecules in it have been ionized (either completely or partially), meaning that negatively charged electrons have been separated from the positively charged ions. Most of the matter in the universe is actually in the form of plasma, so its abundance warrants some special consideration as a state of matter as well as the intricacies of how it’s different from a normal gas (aside from being electrically charged, plasmas can also generally be treated by as a fluid– using hydrodynamics).  So the FPI instruments are made up of two kinds of spectrometers–instruments that use electric fields to bend the path of a charged particle and determine its energy– one set for ions and one for electrons.

The Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission will fly a constellation of four of these octagonal spacecraft for better temporal and spatial resolution. The FPI instruments, the DES and DIS, are seen in purple and yellow on the X and Y axes. Credit: NASA

The MMS mission (which actually has a large team at UNH, headed by Physics professor Roy Torbert) will fly a constellation of four identical octagonal spacecraft (depicted above) in orbit. Having four spacecraft working in unison helps scientists to get a better understanding of how a region in space behaves. Think about it like this: let’s say you’re sitting in a boat on the ocean and a wave passes under you. You take a measurement of how much your boat moved (i.e. the energy of the wave) and at what time it occurred. Well that might be all well and good, but that doesn’t really help you say anything scientifically profound about the ocean, just that a wave with this strength happened at this location at this time. However, if you had four boats 500 feet from each other and each recorded the same data, then you could correlate whether all the events happened at the same time with the same energy or if the wave was travelling, increasing or decreasing in energy, or if it was just a abnormality that only occurred in one location and wasn’t indicative of a larger-scale event. Any time you can get more data points, the better off and more sound your science will be. So the FPI instrument– which is made of of 32 different instruments (4 ion and 4 electron on each of the four spacecraft)– will collect a full sky map of data at the rate of 30 times per second, 100 times faster than any previous similar instrument), as it helps MMS to investigate a strange natural phenomenon known as magnetic reconnection.

What is magnetic reconnection and why should we care about it? Well magnetic reconnection is the leading theory for how energetic particles escape from the Sun in solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and how those energetic particles get into the Earth’s magnetic field and cause aurora. So it has big implications for us Earth-dwellers, but although the theory is highly debated among scientists, it’s never been observed. MMS is hoping to do just that.

So what’s my part in all this? Like I said, it’s a lot of computer work. So about half of the actual instruments have been built and they are now being tested 24/7. As you can imagine running hundreds of tests on each instrument can generate a lot of data; data that needs to be sorted, analyzed, explained, and then communicated to the “consumer” (i.e. the team of scientists and engineers who designed it– who oddly enough aren’t always the same people who actually build the instrument). That’s where I come in, I’ve been writing computer code to help sort, analyze, and plot this test data so that it can be delivered as part of the team’s update on its progress and the instruments’ performance so far. So that’s what I’ve been doing: writing a lot of computer code and working at NASA. But hey, I’m still working at NASA–even if it’s just for a few months– and that is a huge life goal accomplished. Who knows where I might go next…

Next time I need to remember the spacesuit…


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SpaceX making things happen…

As this blog has been chronicling since its inception, President Obama’s redirection of America’s manned space program has opened up a gap in the country’s ability to get into space since the end of the shuttle program this summer. Fortunately for us, PayPal founder Elon Musk‘s private company Space Explorations Technologies (SpaceX) looks like it might be the first company to make President Obama’s dream of the commercialization of space flight a reality. After SpaceX’s historic test launch of the Falcon 9 craft back at the end of 2010, that made it the first ever private company to launch into space, the company looks to be poised to make history yet again, namely becoming the first private company ever to launch a spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS).


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They just keep going and going…

Hello all, the much anticipated final flight of the space shuttle Endeavour has now officially been delayed a third time and is slated to happen no earlier than May 16. In the meantime, here is something very exciting for NASA to be proud of:

Two of NASA’s earliest deep-space faring spacecraft are continuing their amazing journey to the very edge of our solar system. Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, both launched towards to the outer planets in 1977, are about to leave the sphere of influence of our Sun and become the first ever manmade objects to enter interstellar space. The thirty-plus year old missions have gone above and beyond what any scientists or NASA officials could ever have dreamed of and are now the farthest manmade objects from Earth. Voyager 1‘s primary mission ended back in November 1980, after visiting Jupiter [1979] and Saturn [1980]. It’s twin sister, Voyager 2, saw the completion of its primary mission, to visit Jupiter [1979], Saturn [1980], Uranus [1986], and Neptune [1989] nearly a decade later in December 1989. The Voyagerspacecraft were the first to get detailed images of the gas giants and their moons. Voyager 1 was able to look back at the solar system and piece together the “Family Portrait” shown below.

This composition of images from Voyager 1 showed all the planets in the solar system for the first time. Credit: NASA/GSFC

This image shows one of the earliest glimpses of Saturn, taken by Voyager 1 on its approach of the ringed giant. Credit: NASA/JPL

 Although both spacecraft finished their original missions well over two decades ago, the contribution and relevance of the Voyager mission did not stop there. For over twenty years the two spacecraft have been hurtling away from the Sun under the propulsion of radioactive sources and just a few years ago crossed into the never-before seen heliosheath. This heliosheath is the boundary layer between our Sun’s magnetic field and the fields of the rest of the stars in our galaxy and has proven to be much different than anything scientists could have ever expected. Scientists project that some time between 2012 and 2015 the spacecraft will pass through the outermost boundary of our solar system (the heliopause) and become the first artificial objects ever to leave the solar system. Beyond the influence of our Sun, they will represent mankind’s first firsthand interaction with other stars and once their fuel supplies run out they’ll silently coast among the stars as Earth’s silent ambassadors. Energizer Bunny, eat your heart out.


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Friday’s final launch of the space shuttle Endeavour (imaged sitting alone on the launch pad below) was postponed due to a wiring issue that involved a heater for the shuttle’s hydraulic system.

President Obama, his wife and daughters, and the awe-inspiring Representative Gabrielle Giffords (wife of Endeavour Commander Mark Kelly and survivor of an assassination attempt back in January) were among the thousands in attendance on Friday to watch Endeavour’s final launch and the beginning of the next-to-last space shuttle mission before the fleet is retired by NASA.

Endeavour’s final flight, mission STS-134, is slated to deliver the multi-national collaborative Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) experimenta particle physics experiment module to be mounted on the International Space Station (ISS).  The AMS (pictured below) will study the universe and try to shed some light on how it formed by searching for exotic cosmological particles like antimatter and dark matter while performing precision measurements of cosmic rays composition and flux. Cosmic rays are extremely energetic particles that are constantly bathing the planet and the solar system. We know that most of the low-energy common cosmic rays come from our very own Sun, but it’s the extremely high-energy, rare cosmic rays that we believe originate elsewhere in our galaxy and others that really interest astronomers. Scientists are hoping that mounting AMS on on of the ISS‘s trusses will allow this “Hubble of cosmic rays” to help us better understand these extremely energetic particles.

NASA engineers work on the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) that Endeavor will attach to the ISS. Credit: 

Unfortunately, it seem’s like the timeline for fixing Endeavour‘s wiring problem and getting the shuttle off the pad is rather long. The most recent news indicates that Endeavour‘s next opportunity to launch will be next Tuesday, May 10. This isn’t a huge problem for NASA, the mission will launch at some point, but it is kind of a bummer considering the considerable amount of PR and promotion that NASA has been drumming up to commemorate the final shuttle missions. NASA launched a full “TweetUp” of the event with such organizations as the U.S. Space Camp Alumni Association (which the author is a member of) and loads of other NASA-friendly organizations.  The space agency selected 150 special tweeters for the Endeavour launch, including actors LeVar Burton (Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Geordi La Forge) and SNL cast member Seth Green. Unfortunately, it seems like a lot of that hype and planning was wasted a bit now that the launch has been moved back over a week. Hopefully though, the hoopla for this penultimate launch won’t fade by next week and definitely won’t fade before the final shuttle launch of Atlantis scheduled for June 28.


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Spring dates and updates…

Sorry for the hiatus folks, but never fear, the science is here. Here’s a run down of some cool things that have going on in the space world recently :

  • Everybody’s favorite exoplanet-searching space telescope, Kepler, has found two planets in the same orbit around a single star. There’s nothing in gravitational theory that says that two planets can’t share a single orbit, in fact Jupiter has clumps of asteroids (the Trojans– as explained in Alas, poor Pluto…) that share its orbit, but this marks the first time we’ve ever actually seen two planets share an orbit anywhere in the universe. But then again, we’ve really only recently begun seeing planets outside our solar system at all, so I guess that’s not so surprising. But in any case, it’s nice to now have observational proof that it can happen. The really cool thing about this discovery is that it helps strengthen one of the leading hypotheses for the formation of the Moon. It’s pretty commonly accepted that the Moon was formed roughly 4.5 billion years ago by an impact with an object about the size of Mars (roughly half the size of Earth). Some scientists now believe that that Mars-sized object might have actually shared an orbit with Earth

An artist’s depiction of the two gas giant planets sharing an orbit. Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

  • NASA’s Sun-staring STEREO mission has successfully imaged the entire Sun for the first time ever. STEREO consists of two satellites launched from Earth in opposite directions, one ahead of Earth in its orbit and one behind, back in 2006. Since then, the two satellites have been racing away from each other to the far side of the Sun. Having two satellites allows scientists to observe the Sun in 3D, an ability all other solar observatories are lacking. Not only does STEREO create some pretty amazing press releases (lots of “oooh ahhh” pictures and videos), but it has really helped the advancement of heliophysics (the study of the Sun). At the end of February they reached opposite sides of the Sun and for the first time allowed scientists to observe the entire Sun at once. You can check out the full movie of the 360 Sun here, but in the mean time check out this awesome image:

The roughly 6000 K degree surface or photosphere of the Sun. Credit: NASA

  • NASA’s MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging (MESSENGER) satellite finally entered orbit around Mercury on March 18 and has already begun sending back some amazing images of the smallest planet’s crater-ridden surface. Mercury is an extremely interesting planet. For starters, because its rotational period (aka the Mercurian day- or how long it takes to rotate on its axis) is comparable to its orbital period (aka the Mercury year, how long it takes to orbit the Sun), basically one side of Mercury is exposed to constant sunlight for months while the other side is left in total darkness. This leads to the largest temperature difference we know of in the solar system: the dayside can reach temperatures over 600˚F while the dark side can drop below -100˚F. (Surprisingly although it’s the closest to the Sun, Mercury is not the hottest place in the solar system. That honor actually goes to Venus, whose dense cloud cover and volcanic activity have led to a runaway greenhouse effect that has driven the planet’s temperature well over 900˚F.) Mercury is also interesting because it has an unusually large core. We’re pretty sure that all of the rocky inner planets- Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars- have sizable metallic cores. Earth’s, for example, is made primarily of iron and nickel and is about a third of Earth’s radius (roughly 16% of the planet’s volume). Mercury’s core on the other hand is huge, taking up roughly half (42%) of the planet’s volume. This oddity has lead some scientists to hypothesize that the tiniest world may have once been much larger, but had its outer layers knocked off by some cataclysmic impact. That idea isn’t as far fetched as one might think; there are several phenomena in the solar system which scientists attribute to large collisions. For example, the Moon’s formation (see the first bullet), the fact that Venus is the only planet in the solar system that rotates around its axis in the opposite direction that it orbits (all the other planets orbit the Sun counterclockwise and rotate counterclockwise, Venus is counterclockwise and clockwise), and the fact that Uranus is basically on its side (its angle with respect to the disk of the rest of the solar system is 97˚!

    Mercury’s suface is similar to that of the Moon– covered in craters– since neither body has an atmosphere to protect it from impacts. Credit: NASA


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Thank you very much, Mr. Robonauto…

Humans aren’t the only Earthlings who have left our rocky home world, although we are probably the only ones who have done it willingly. Five nations besides the U.S. have launched non-human organisms into space: Russia/USSR, France, China, Japan, and Iran. You can find a comprehensive history lesson pertaining to animals in space here on NASA’s website, but I’ll just give you a quick overview.

The U.S. was the first nation to send animals into space when it launched fruit flies aboard a V2 rocket on February 20, 1947. The U.S. continued its animal astronaut program by launching the first monkey (a Rhesus monkey named Albert II) and the first mouse into space in 1949 and 1950, respectively. In January 1951, the Soviet Union launched a flight carrying the dogs Tsygan and Dezik into space, but not into orbit. Both space dogs survived the flight, although one would die on a subsequent flight. On November 3, 1957, the second-ever orbiting spacecraft carried the first animal into orbit, the dog Laika, launched aboard the Soviet Sputnik 2 spacecraft (nicknamed ‘Muttnik’ in the West). Laika died during the flight, as was intended because the technology to return from orbit had not yet been developed. At least 10 other dogs were launched into orbit and numerous others on sub-orbital flights before the historic date of April 12, 1961, when Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. In many cases, animals like dogs or chimps achieved major milestones in space flight before humans did.

To date, the list of animals that have traveled to space includes squirrel monkeys, rhesus monkeys, chimpanzees, guinea pigs, frogs, rats, cats, parasitic wasps, flour beetles, tortoises, wine flies, meal worms, nematodes, fish, spiders, newts, chicken embryos, turtles, brine shrimp, desert beetles, quail eggs, crickets, snails, carp, medaka, oyster toadfish, sea urchins, swordtail fish, gypsy moth eggs, stick insect eggs, silkworms, carpenter bees, harvester ants, Japanes killifish, Madagascar hissing cockroaches, moth larvae, South African flat rock scorpions, seed-harvester ants, tardigrades, and painted lady and monarch butterfly larvae. Oh right, and humans.

Apparently Robonaut 2 does Shakespeare in his spare time… Credit: NASA/JSC

But now, NASA is looking into sending another form of life into space, an android. And before any arguments start up about machines not being living beings, blah blah blah, I direct you to this Sci-Fi/equal rights gem. In any case, NASA’s newest spacefarer actually missed his 2010 flight window. The second-generation dexterous humanoid robot (Robonaut 2) was built and designed at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. As JSC explains on their website, “Our challenge is to build machines that can help humans work and explore in space. Working side by side with humans, or going where the risks are too great for people, the robonauts will expand our ability for construction and discovery.” Although Robonaut 2 or R2, like its predecessor Robonaut 1, is capable of handling a wide range of extravehicular activity (EVA) tools and interfaces, R2 is  up to four times faster, more compact, more dexterous, and includes a deeper and wider range of sensing than R1. Advanced technology allows R2 enough dexterity to use the same tools that astronauts currently use and its humanoid design means that Robonaut 2 can take over simple, repetitive, or especially dangerous tasks on places such as the International Space Station.

While it’s awesome that robotics is making such amazing advancements, I for one, am hoping that robonauts will become companions for astronauts and not replacements. Although apparently the New Jersey State Police might need all the help they can get. This article from concerns ongoing attempts to solve  a 35-year-old mystery.  A supply of rock samples from the Apollo missions to the Moon were supposed to go on public display starting in 1976, when an astronaut presented the Governor’s Office with the goodwill tokens from Apollo 17, the last manned lunar landing. But last year, researchers, curators and former Governor Brendan Byrne admitted to a New Jersey newspaper that they had no idea where the gift went. Now, state police confirm they are looking for leads on the rocks, whose estimated black-market value is $5 million.

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