Category Archives: Planetary Science

A Slideshow of Voyager 2’s Grand Tour

By | History of Space Science, Planetary Science | No Comments
A colour mosaic of Neptune's moon Triton, as seen by Voyager 2 in 1989. Credit: NASA

A colour mosaic of Neptune’s moon Triton, as seen by Voyager 2 in 1989. Credit: NASA

In 1977, NASA launched the twin Voyager spacecraft on parallel missions to visit Jupiter and Saturn. Lately, Voyager 1 has enjoyed the most press coverage as it’s racing inexorably closer to the edge of our solar system. It’s only a matter of time before it becomes history’s first interstellar spacecraft. But Voyager 2, the one we talk about less, arguable flew the more interesting mission. After leaving the vicinity of Saturn in 1981, it went on to become the only spacecraft to visit both Uranus and Neptune. To commemorate the 36th anniversary of Voyager 2’s launch, I’ve put together a slideshow of some of the mission’s most striking pictures on Discovery News.

Mars One: A Possible Disaster

By | Manned Spaceflight, Planetary Science | 3 Comments
"Cannibals on Mars" is clearly a network hit in the making.

“Cannibals on Mars” will clearly be a network sensation.

Three months ago I wrote this article about Mars One, the Netherlands-based non-profit organization that hopes to fund a one-way mission to build the first colony on Mars by broadcasting it as a reality show. The astronaut selection criteria had just been released, and when I put the article on Twitter and it sparked this conversation with two scientists who actually work on Mars. A discussions about the feasibility of Mars One’s proposed mission plan turned into a discussion about how quickly the whole thing would devolve into a “Survivor: Mars” type of show/mission with the crew resorting to cannibalism after running out of food. Mars One held another press conference last Monday, April 22. Between the handwritten name cards and the evasive answers about funding and hardware, my outlook on the mission unfortunately hasn’t changed. My latest thoughts on Mars One are up on Physics Focus

The Story of Pluto

By | Planetary Science | 7 Comments

It’s been seven years since we’ve had only eight planets in our solar system. In 2006, the International Astronomical Union voted to change the definition of a planet. It now excludes Pluto, but the ex-planet is part of a larger group of dwarf planets. The little ice ball’s demotion as some are wont to call it continues to be a point of contention and confusion. People want to know what happened to Pluto, and why the solar system they grew up with has suddenly changed. I’ve written two articles about Pluto, one recapping its story and another responding to criticism from pluto huggers about its demotion; the latter remains one of my most read articles. And I still get questions about it all the time. So I decided to make a short video explaining, in brief, what exactly happened to Pluto.

NASA’s Plan for Mars Makes the Old New Again

By | Planetary Science, Unmanned Spaceflight | 3 Comments

Curiosity’s photographs its own shadow in Sol 12 of the MSL mission. If NASA’s new plan sticks, we should see the same shot from Curiosity 2.0 in 2020 or 2021. Credit: NASA/JPL

Yesterday, NASA announced a bold new plan of exploration for the coming decade on Mars. It’s exciting. I love plans that include a methodical exploration of other worlds that will help answer the bigger questions out there, like why Mars developed into such a different world than the other inner bodies. But looking a little closer at what few details the agency’s released, it looks less like a concrete plan with a goal and more of a bid to capitalize on Curiosity’s unexpected fame. Which isn’t a bad thing. It’s just sort of an odd thing. Read More

Felix Baumgartner: Unwitting Role Model

By | Manned Spaceflight, Planetary Science | 4 Comments

Felix Baumgartner. Not the role model I’d hoped he’d be. Oh well. Credit: REX

Two weeks ago, Austrian daredevil and skydiver Felix Baumgartner jumped 120,000 feet from a balloon. It was neat, but that’s about it. It was a stunt funded by RedBull. My opinion on the jump as a whole can be found in full here.

Yesterday, I woke up to Baumgartner’s first interview since the jump. In the last two weeks, he’s become something of a celebrity. Across social media sites, he’s been lauded as the Neil Armstrong for a new generation (a view I strongly disagree with but will save for another rant). With a worldwide audience hanging on his words, I’d hoped Baumgartner would emerge as a spokesman for the value of the technology coming out of our space program and the need to study space to learn about the Earth. Instead, he accused NASA of wasting money exploring Mars. I finished reading the interview, got really irritated before 7 o’clock in the morning (far too early), then calmed down. My measured response to Baumgartner’s interview is over at AmericaSpace.

Reducing, Recycling, and Reusing on Mars

By | Planetary Science, Unmanned Spaceflight | One Comment

An artist’s concept of the Phoenix lander landing. Landers with retrorockets, a tried and true technology for landing on Mars. Credit: NASA

Two weeks ago, NASA announced it’s next Discovery class mission, those low cost missions that focus on answering one question. The agency chose the InSight mission to Mars. In the press conference, the agency cited the mission’s low cost and relatively low risk as the rationale behind its selection. But this sparked a weird backlash. NASA didn’t exactly say why the mission was more likely to fly under its $425 million cost cap, and some news outlets in the days following the announcement suggested that there were hidden costs in a mission. Specifically that the technology reused from previous missions was a hidden cost. The fact is NASA has been reusing technology and old test data on Mars since the 1960s, and not starting from scratch each time keeps overall mission costs down. Here’s my full article on Discover’s The Crux blog.

Voyagers Turn 35

By | History of Space Science, Planetary Science, Unmanned Spaceflight | No Comments

Voyager 1 launched on a Titan III-E Centaur on September 5, 1977. Credit: NASA

Voyager 1 launched from Cape Canaveral on a multiplanet flyby mission on September 5, 1977. Like its twin spacecraft Voyager 2 that actually launched two weeks before on August 20, it was designed to investigate the atmospheres, magnetospheres, satellites, and ring systems of the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn. Though the original plan wasn’t to keep in touch with the spacecraft after they left Saturn, both have continued to work, sending back valuable data, and in Voyager 2’s case visiting Uranus and Neptune. Now, still working, Voyager 1 is 11 billion miles away and about to cross through the plasma bubble created by charged particles coming from the sun and into unchartered interstellar space. And the 35 year mission shows no sign of slowing down. Read the whole story on Motherboard.

Carnival of Space #265

By | Apollo, Carnival of Space, Gemini, History of Space Science, Manned Spaceflight, Mercury, Moon, Planetary Science, Unmanned Spaceflight | 2 Comments

The “New Nine.” From upper right, in clockwise order: Frank Borman, John Young, Tom Stafford, Pete Conrad, Jim McDivitt, Jim Lovell, Elliot See, Ed White, Neil Armstrong. Credit: NASA via Retro Space Images

It’s time for another Carnival of Space! The biggest news this past week is of course Neil Armstrong’s death. It’s a loss for the world and the space community in particular. In this week’s carnival we have a number of articles paying tribute to the man synonymous with Apollo, news from the planets, and a reminder about neat technologies on the horizon. For this week’s fun vintage image, it’s one of my new favourites of the “New Nine” surrounding a Gemini capsule, the program they were recruited to fly. Top left is Armstrong, already looking skyward.

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NASA’s Manned Grand Tour of the Inner Planets

By | History of Space Science, Manned Spaceflight, Planetary Science | 9 Comments

The inner planets – Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. Credit: NASA

In the 1960s, planetary flybys were all the rage at NASA. In 1966, graduate student Gary Flandro discovered that the planets were about to align for a planetary grand tour, a discovery that became the Voyager missions. The same year, NASA contractor Bellcomm started researching possible missions that, using flybys and Apollo hardware, could send a crew to Venus and Mars in one shot.   Read More

Venus’ Transits Through History

By | History of Space Science, Planetary Science | 3 Comments

Venus passing into the disk of the Sun during the 2004 transit. Credit: NASA

In a matter of hours, lucky observers with clear skies will be able to watch Venus pass in front of the Sun. Transits of Venus are rare – this is the last one until 2117 – but that’s not the only reason you should find a way to watch it. This astronomical event is historically very significant. Since the 17th century astronomers have used Venus transits to better understand the Universe and our place within in, and the upcoming transit doesn’t break this centuries-old tradition.

Over the course of astronomy’s history, Venus transits have shaped and given size to our Solar System. Now, transits are helping us understand our place in the Universe relative not only to other planets and stars but to other possible worlds and life forms. Read my full article on the historical significance of Venus transits on Scientific American’s Guest Blog. Context, I firmly believe, gives us all a much greater appreciation for a cosmic event on such a huge scale.