Vintage Space Favourites of 2012

The Earth as seen by the crew of Apollo 10, 1969. Credit: NASA

The Earth as seen by the crew of Apollo 10, 1969. Credit: NASA

The past twelve months have been very good ones. I’ve met and worked with some incredible people, ventured into the (often awkward) world of podcasts and webcasts, and have read and written more than I ever did in grad school. Of the hundreds of articles I’ve written, a few stand out as favourites. And so, in no particular order, here are my top picks of 2012. These aren’t the big news items or the articles that got the most traffic. These are the ones that were fun to research and write, and the ones that taught me something new. [Read more...]

The Cost of Curiosity

Taken on Sol 32, this is the frist time Curiosity used its Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera on its arm to take this portrait of the top of its Remote Sensing Mast showing the Mastcam and Chemcam cameras. It’s as close to a headshot as Curiosity can take. Credit: NASA/JPL

The other day I was in a coffee shop, quietly writing and sharing a table with a woman also on a laptop. She caught me staring blankly out the window and asked what I was working on; apparently I looked troubled. I told her I was working on a new angle for my sixth or so Mars article that week. She seemed interested so I told her about Curiosity, the heritage technology that’s helped NASA make multiple successful Mars landings, and how the Sky Crane will open up a new future of exploration.

The idea that reusing technology saves money in spaceflight and that developing new technology now may cut costs on future missions caught her attention. She urged me to play up that angle because the amount of money NASA spends on these missions is stupid.  “Curiosity,” she said, “cost half the nation’s defense budget.” That’s when I noticed her cross necklace and asked what kind of writer she is; turns out she’s a Christian motivational writer. That’s when I wished I had the figures on hand to illustrate just how little we spend on space exploration. But I didn’t so I quietly got back to work. But I did decided that I ought to write a blog post putting Curiosity into perspective so that the next time someone tells me NASA wastes money I can tell them how wrong they are.  [Read more...]

Voyagers Turn 35

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.

How JPL’s Peanut Tradition Started

A bottle of peanuts in JPL’s mission control on August 5, 2012. Credit: NASA

Last Sunday night, everyone watching NASA’s feed of Curiosity’s landing saw engineers in JPL’s mission control eating peanuts before the rover entered Mars’ atmosphere. Eating peanuts at particularly nerve-wracking points during a mission is a long standing tradition at JPL that dates back to the Ranger program. Specifically Ranger 7. The first peanuts eaten in Mission Control were a distraction for engineers during that very tense launch on July 28, 1964. Read the whole story on Discovery News.