Exploring Space to Find Our Pale Blue Dot

The Earth is the tiny dot in the red ray of sunlight as seen from 4 billion miles away by Voyager 1. Credit: NASA

The Earth is the tiny dot in the red ray of sunlight as seen from 4 billion miles away by Voyager 1. Credit: NASA

It might be at once the most common question anyone who works in the broad field of space is asked, and it’s also one of the hardest questions to answer: why keep exploring space? There really is no shortage of reasons. Exploring space lets us answer those burning questions about the cosmos around us while simultaneously developing the technologies that make our lives better on Earth. But perhaps the most compelling reason is the most selfish one. Everything we do in space, every mission we launch, gives us more insight into our humanity and our place in the universe.

After Cassini turned around and photographed the Earth from Saturn last month, I started thinking about the power of Pale Blue Dot images and how we so often find ourselves and our own planet when we go out exploring space. The full article is on Al Jazeera English.

A Photographic History of Our Pale Blue Dot

Earth from Cassini Rings NASA

The Earth as seen by NASA’s Cassini Spacecraft on July 19, 2013. Were the small dot, halfway down the image and slightly to the right. Saturn and its rings are in the foreground. The blue haze is sunlight refracting from Saturn E ring, which is made of material shot into space from the moon Enceladus. Credit: NASA

A couple of weeks ago, the Cassini spacecraft, currently in orbit around Saturn, turned to look back at the Earth. It took a picture, and the result is stunning. Images of the Earth as seen by distant spacecraft have become a staple of planetary missions; hardly any leave the Earth without turning around to take a picture on their way to some far flung planet or moon. I made a slideshow for Discovery News showing, chronologically, how the “pale blue dot” images have evolved since we first saw the Earth from space in 1946. Taken together, they offer breathtaking perspective of our planet, what Carl Sagan called the pale blue dot. Because really, if you’re far enough, that’s all we are.

The View from Apollo 4

The Earth as seen by the unmanned Apollo 4 mission in 1967. Credit: NASA

The Earth as seen by the unmanned Apollo 4 mission in 1967. Credit: NASA

Apollo 4 is one of the unsung heros of the Apollo program. Launched on November 9, 1967, it was the first flight of a Saturn V rocket, the first orbital test of a Command and Service Module, and an overall vital step on the way to the Moon. What we don’t often mention when we talk about Apollo 4 is that the Command Module had a camera on board that was programmed to take a series of picture beginning one hour before and ending one hour after the spacecraft reached it’s apogee, it’s furthest point from the Earth.  [Read more…]

Yvonne Brill: Rocket Scientist (and Great Cook)

President Obama presents Yvonne Brill with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation during a White House ceremony in 2011. Photo: Ryan K Morris/National Science & Technology Medals Foundation.

President Obama presents Yvonne Brill with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation during a White House ceremony in 2011. Photo: Ryan K Morris/National Science & Technology Medals Foundation.

Since 88-year-old rocket scientist Yvonne Brill died on Wednesday, the Internet has been in a rage over the obituary the New York Times published. The online version has since been changed, but the print version still has the original lede, which puts Brill’s beef stroganoff before her contributions to rocketry. Her work was varied – a consequence of her changing jobs as her husband moved through his own professional career – and fascinating, far more so than the post-New York Times kerfluffle. So, rather than adding more noise to the fray, how about we talk about the rocket work Brill actually did?

I looked into Brill’s most famous patent and synthesized it over at Motherboard.

It Happened in Space – Mars PropM Rovers

A model Mars Prop-M rover. Credit: NASA

Long before the Sky Crane lowered Curiosity into Gale Crater, before the twin MER rovers Spirit and Opportunity bounced across the Martian surface, even before Sojourner was a glimmer in its designers’ eyes the Soviet Union launched the twin Prop-M rovers. Though neither rover made it to the surface, the technology stands as a brilliant example of the Soviet ingenuity that gave the nation an early lead in space. I tell the Prop-Ms’ story, in brief, in my first video for Scientific American.

Incidentally, I’m very excited to announce that I’m doing a monthly video series – “It Happened in Space” – for Scientific American!

NASA’s Plan for Mars Makes the Old New Again

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…]

Obama’s Second Term and the National Future in Space

President Barack Obama discusses his plans and ambitions for NASA during an address at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo credit: NASA/Jim Grossman

The relationship between space exploration and politics is a complicated one. The President is the only person who can pick a major goal like going to the Moon, but proposals that big have to go through congress for funding. To make sticking to big goals more complicated, each incoming president has the power to change major decisions made by his predecessor in space. With a president having two terms in office, it’s more likely his vision for space will be realized but it’s far from a sure bet. It’s possible that Obama’s second term will get us closer to seeing NASA’s mammoth SLS rocket flying the Orion spacecraft to the Moon, but history tells us that the constant rotation in the White House has a way of stopping big ideas before they get started.

Apollo’s Rotor Reentry Revisited

The artist’s concept of a rotor reentry landing for Apollo I found in a box in NASA’s basement history office. The new version looks about the same. Credit: NASA

Regular readers of Vintage Space undoubtedly know that I love landing systems, particularly the creative ideas that were too complicated to gain traction in the 1960s. Among unrealized systems, my favourite has to be the Rogallo wing, the inflatable glider NASA tried to use as the runway landing system for Gemini. But there’s another that’s intrigued me for a while that I found while researching the Rogallo wing in NASA’s Washington archives and that’s the rotor reentry concept proposed for Apollo. It’s mysteriously absent from most program histories, but it seems to be making a comeback. NASA is once again looking at the rotor reentry as a way to land capsule-inspired spacecraft from the ISS. Read the full article over at Discovery News. 

Engine Failures Don’t Mean Mission Failures

Apollo 11 launches towards the Moon on July 16, 1969. This Saturn V isn’t one that experiences a premature engine shutdown. Credit: NASA

Last Sunday (October 7), SpaceX launched another Falcon 9 rocket. This one carried a cargo-laden Dragon capsule to the International Space Station on the first formal mission under the Commercial Resupply Service contract with NASA. It was the fourth launch of a Falcon 9, the ninth overall launch for SpaceX, and was a partial failure. One of the nine Merlin engines shut down prematurely, just 79 seconds after launch. The rocket managed to get the Dragon into orbit but missed its secondary objective of putting a commercial satellite into the correct orbit. The whole story, and why the Falcon was able to fly with one engine out, is over at Motherboard. In the press release addressing the failed engine, SpaceX singled out the Saturn V as another rocket that had engine failure problems. The Saturn V had more than just engines fail – one was struck twice by lightning – but two launches did have engine failures in the second stage. The story of both these missions is over at Discovery News.

The Psychological Impact of Sputnik

A technician with Sputnik in 1957. Credit: NASA

Today marks 55 years since the Soviet Union launched history first artificial satellite, Sputnik. It was, by all accounts, an innocuous satellite; it weighed about 184-pounds and it beeped. It wasn’t broadcasting secret messages or pinpointing the locations of major U.S. cities. But it was big, which meant the Soviets had a big rocket to launch it. No one could deny the implications of the Soviets’ having big rockets.

Sputnik came on the heels of a successful Soviet ICBM test in August of 1957 and was followed into orbit by the 1,120 pound Sputnik 2. Also in November, the presidential-ordered “Gaither Report” was released and warned that the Soviets might have substantial ICBM capabilities. All of these individual events, compounded with the Cold War mentality, created panic among Americans. Read more about the psychological impact of Sputnik on Discovery News, and how the story of Sputnik broke in the Soviet Union and America on Motherboard.