A dramatic accident just minutes after launch could mean problems for the International Space Station+ READ ARTICLE
There are uncountable laws of physics and engineering that govern the launch of a rocket. But there’s one that supersedes them all: Ultimately, stuff will blow up. Always has, always will.
Elon Musk had never come face to face with that rule before — at least not in space travel — but Sunday morning he did in a very big way, when his Falcon 9 rocket and unmanned Dragon cargo vehicle exploded just two and a half minutes after launch. The rocket came undone before its first stage had even shut down and separated, blowing itself to pieces and auguring into the Atlantic just off the Cape Canaveral coast.
NASA, as NASA does, initially framed the failure as clinically as possible, describing it as a “non-nominal” liftoff. But NASA administrator Charles Bolden later described the agency as “disappointed” by the loss of the mission. “We will work closely with SpaceX to understand what happened, fix the problem and return to flight,” he said. “This is a reminder that spaceflight is an incredible challenge, but we learn from each success and each setback.”
Musk himself was more candid, if a little oblique:
But the most poignant and most apt response came from astronaut Scott Kelly, currently completing the third month of his marathon year aboard the International Space Station:
And so space is—very, very hard, and it’s the International Space Station (ISS) that has recently been paying the price. In April, a Russian Progress cargo vehicle carrying thousands of pounds of equipment and supplies reached orbit but spun out of control and eventually plunged back through the atmosphere, incinerating itself and its cargo. In October 2014, an Antares rocket—built by Musk’s cargo competitor Orbital Sciences—exploded just six seconds off the pad.
But it’s the SpaceX explosion that will prove the most costly. The key piece of cargo the now-destroyed Dragon was carrying was the first of a pair of International Docking Adapters (IDA) that was supposed to connect to the station’s Harmony module and serve as the attachment node for private crew vehicles that are scheduled to begin flying in 2017. Two companies won the contracts to build the new craft—SpaceX, which is modifying its Dragon craft to make it habitable; and Boeing, which is building a new vehicle dubbed the CST-100. Boeing built the lost IDA as well, but both companies are designing their craft to be compatible with it.
How big a setback this will be to the future of station operations is not clear. The current three-person crew—which will increase to six when the next expedition launches from Kazakhstan in July—is in no danger of running out of essential supplies like food, water and breathable oxygen. But luxuries like personal packages from family members and perishables like fresh fruit can make it aboard only as often as the cargo runs succeed.
The docking adapter is another matter, however. One of the biggest action items on the astronauts’ to-do-list for the next few months is reconfiguring ISS’s various modules to ready the station for the new crew vehicles. Kelly and soon-to-arrive crewmate Kjell Lindgren will be embarking on their first spacewalks to help get that job done. Without the IDA, however, the work can only proceed so far.
Worse, the Obama White House and NASA itself have bet their space reps on NASA’s ability to make a smooth transition to private suppliers for trips to low Earth orbit, freeing the space agency to focus on unmanned missions to the planets and, eventually, manned trips to deep space. Serial failures by Orbital Sciences and SpaceX do not do much to boost confidence in that plan.
Geopolitics play a role too. American leverage in the increasingly strained relationship between Washington and Moscow has not been helped by the fact that, since the grounding of the shuttles, the U.S. has been entirely dependent on the Russian Soyuz rocket to carry astronauts to space.
In response to the U.S. and European measures to clamp down on Russian banking and overseas assets in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin snarkily Tweeted, “After analyzing the sanctions against our space industry, I suggest to the USA to bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline.”
Rogozin was bluffing. Russia charges the U.S. more than $70 million per seat for trips on the Soyuz and a cash-poor Kremlin is not inclined to say no to the ready pocket money. But it was galling at least for the U.S., and nobody in Washington or at NASA wants America’s dependency on the Russians to go on any longer than it absolutely has to go.
That, however, is for tomorrow. Today, Musk, who is experiencing his first major launch failure, must dig into his telemetry and the remains of his rocket and see what in the world went wrong. He’s not the first to have to conduct such a post-flight autopsy and he won’t be the last. Space is always hard—and on some days it’s too hard.
Everything's different in zero-g
You may or may not want to go to space, but here’s something certain: you definitely don’t want to get sick there. Ask the crew of Apollo 7, the 1960s mission in which the commander contracted a cold, spread it to the other two astronauts and all three of them spent the entire mission trapped inside a cramped spacecraft, sneezing, hacking and griping at the ground.
And that was just 11 days in Earth orbit. What about a year aboard the International Space Station (ISS)? What about a two-and-a-half-year mission to Mars. And what about something a wee bit more serious than a cold—like appendicitis or a heart attack or a severe injury? Zero-gravity plays all manner of nasty games with the bones, muscles, organs, eyeballs, the brain itself—never mind the infectious risks that come from sealing half a dozen people inside a self-contained vessel, where a virus or bacterium could simply circulate ’round and ’round, from person to person indefinitely.
These are some of the things that will be on the mind of rookie astronaut Kjell Lindgren, who will spend nearly six months aboard the ISS when he lifts off in late July as part of the station’s next three-person crew. Lindgren is not just a well-trained astronaut, but a specialist in aerospace and emergency medicine—just the kind of expert who will increasingly be needed as the human presence in space becomes permanent.
“If we want to go to Mars some day,” Lindgren said in a recent conversation with TIME, “if we want to get further and deeper into the solar system, we need to start thinking about these things, thinking about the capabilities we need to do an appendectomy or take out a gall bladder.”
There will be no gall bladder or appendix takings while Lindgren is aloft. For now, he and the ISS flight doctors back on Earth are taking only space-medicine baby steps, learning the basics about the radical differences between medical care on the Earth and medical care off it. Here are a few of the most vexing problems they have to learn to solve:
1. Where is that kidney again? On Earth, your organs settle into predictable positions. A doctor palpating your liver or thumping your chest knows exactly where things ought to be. In zero-g, not so much. “The organs may be displaced a little bit,” says Lindgren. “They tend to shift up a little more. The heart may have a little bit of a different orientation, which may be reflected on an EKG.” Other kinds of shifting or compression—of the lungs, stomach, bladder and more—can cause problems of their own.
2. Your bones hate space: Without the constant tug of gravity, your skeleton doesn’t work nearly as hard, which causes it to weaken and decalcify. Astronauts spend many hours a week exercising to counteract some of that, but nothing can reverse it completely. When Russia’s Mir space station was still flying, newly arriving cosmonauts were warned not to exchange traditional bear hugs with crew members who had been there for a while. The risk: broken ribs.
3. Your eyes do too: Astronauts who have been in space for long-term stays often find that their vision grows worse, and it doesn’t always bounce completely back when they return to Earth. The problem is caused by fluid shifting upward from the lower body into the head, compressing the optic nerve and distorting the shape of the eyeball. Eye infections and irritation are more common too—for decidedly ick-inducing reasons. “Dust doesn’t settle in the vehicle like it does on Earth,” says Lindgren. “So things that are liberated, little pieces of metal from equipment or maybe dead skin just float around and cause eye irritation.”
4. But your feet will thank you: You know all of those callouses that you’ve built up on your heel and the ball of your foot after a lifetime of walking around? Say goodbye too them. They serve a purpose, which is to cushion your foot against the shock of walking, but since you’re not walking in space, you don’t need them. Just beware when you remove your socks. The callouses don’t tell you when they’re going to slough off, so the wrong move at the wrong time could leave unsightly chunks of you floating around the cabin. (See, e.g., “ick-inducing,” above.)
5. Try not to need stitches: Suturing wounds is one of the most basic things doctors and other medical caregivers learn how to do, but it will take a little extra work in space. On Earth, sutures are simply laid on a tray along with the other equipment. In space, that’s not possible. “Instead of your sterile suture thread laying in a sterile field, now it’s floating around and running into everything,” says Lindgren. While aloft, Lindgren plans to experiment with different techniques to address this problem; no word on which of his five crewmates will volunteer to be the patient.
6. Eat your roughage: Easily the least glamorous part of space travel is the simple business of, well, doing your business. The space toilets aboard the ISS and the shuttle have come a long way from the bags and tubes of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo era. But the human body hasn’t changed much in that time, and when it comes to keeping the intestines operating, a little gravity can help. One lunar astronaut who, for the sake of legacy and dignity will not be identified here, claimed that one of the best parts about landing on the moon was that things that hadn’t been working at all when he was in zero-g, got moving right away in the one-sixth gravity of the moon. History is made by mortals, and no matter where they are, mortals gotta’ do what mortals gotta’ do.
HoloLens is now literally out of this world+ READ ARTICLE
NASA will launch two Microsoft HoloLens augmented reality headsets into space, the agency revealed on Thursday. They’re headed to the final frontier in order to bolster communications between astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) and technicians back on earth.
The devices are slated to launch on a June 28 SpaceX resupply mission to the ISS.
NASA is touting the HoloLens’ interactive 3D interface as an effective way to replace verbal instructions with holographic illustrations that can overlay directly onto an astronaut’s surroundings.
“HoloLens and other virtual and mixed reality devices are cutting edge technologies that could help drive future exploration and provide new capabilities to the men and women conducting critical science on the International Space Station,” said ISS Program Director Sam Scimemi in a statement.
NASA released footage of Microsoft’s HoloLens team, including lead designer Alex Kipman, giving the HoloLens a spin (literally) aboard NASA’s Weightless Wonder C9 jet. The space agency estimates that after an extended round of testing, astronauts will be able to use the HoloLens by the end of the year.
The partnership between NASA and Microsoft’s HoloLens team, dubbed Project Sidekick, will be extended to a second test under the water on July 21, when NASA astronauts and engineers will bring the HoloLens down to the world’s only undersea research station, Aquarius. The two week trial is meant to simulate an extended mission into deep space.
“Sidekick is a prime example of an application for which we envisioned HoloLens being used – unlocking new potential for astronauts and giving us all a new perspective on what is possible with holographic computing,” said HoloLens designer Kipman in a statement.
The Deep Space Network beams back images from space+ READ ARTICLE
It’s one of the most mysterious aspects of the universe—what, exactly, is out there? NASA’s Deep Space Network has for decades been helping us get closer to understanding, sending back images from across our solar system. It’s a glimpse into just how vastly different, and how strangely lovely, our neighboring yet still far-off planets are.
A pair of pictures tell a powerful tale
A trip to the International Space Station starts and ends with fire, but in between, there is only a sweet, shimmery drift. That’s a fact of your work life if you’re one of the tiny handful of people who fly those missions, but for the rest of us, it’s nice to have a little photographic evidence now and again. For that reason, this is a good week to offer a hat tip to astronaut Scott Kelly who can be found 251 mi. (404 km) above the Earth, where he’ll be until his year in space mission ends next March; and to NASA photographer Bill Ingalls, who can be found, well, pretty much anywhere on the planet his history-capturing services are needed. As the pictures above and below prove, both men have been doing their jobs exceptionally well.
Kelly’s picture was part of his “Good night from the International Space Station” series, a regular image he posts on his Twitter, Facebook and Instagram feeds before bunking down for the night—which easily qualifies him as having a much, much more interesting Twitter, Instagram and Facebook feed than you do.
In the foreground of the image is one of the station’s many projecting limbs of hardware. In the background is the rainbow-hued onion skin of Earth’s atmosphere and the spine of the Milky Way, ranging in all directions.
Ingalls’ picture was taken on June 11, from the open hatch of helicopter 28, as it hovered over the Kazakhstan steppes when the Soyuz spacecraft carrying NASA astronaut Terri Virts, Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov and Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti returned to Earth. As a Soyuz makes its final approach, it is moving at a parachute-controlled 24 ft. per sec (8.5 m/sec), which is a whole lot slower than the speed it was traveling during its blistering plunge through the atmosphere, but still way too fast for a safe landing. So one second before impact, two small clusters of engines ignite, braking the spacecraft to just 5 ft. per sec (1.5 m/sec). That’s a speed that you’ll easily survive but you won’t remotely enjoy, as any crewmember who has ever experienced the teeth-rattling impact of hitting the Kazakh deck will tell you.
But never mind. Virts, Shkaplerov and Cristoforetti returned home safely, Kelly logged another busy day aboard the station, and the rest of us rode along in our own small way, thanks to the people who capture the images of the otherworldly places humanity goes.
"The time has come to seek answers"+ READ ARTICLE
A new mission to see if water or life exists beneath the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa has moved from concept to development, NASA announced this week.
“Observations of Europa have provided us with tantalizing clues over the last two decades, and the time has come to seek answers to one of humanity’s most profound questions,” John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a public statement.
An observational spacecraft is slated to launch by the late 2020’s. After several years, the craft will enter Jupiter’s orbit, offering upwards of 45 opportunities to fly within shutter range of Europa, collecting images of the planet’s surface and possibly “tasting” spumes from massive geysers erupting into space. However, the craft won’t actually land on the Europa’s surface.
The spacecraft will have to take only a glancing look, given the intense levels of radiation. “Any mission that goes in the vicinity of Europa gets cooked pretty quickly,” says Europa mission project scientist Robert Pappalardo.
Europa first captivated NASA scientists in the late 1990’s, when the Hubble telescope returned images of the planet’s icy crust. Scientists theorized that an ocean might lay beneath the crust, holding twice as much water as large as all of Earth’s oceans combined. NASA hopes to gain a deep enough understanding of the water’s composition to see if it contains signs of life or life-sustaining nutrients.
“That would mean the origin of life must be pretty easy throughout the galaxy and beyond,” Pappalardo says.
How a whole lot of little storms converge to produce one of the largest tempests in the solar system
Correction appended, 6/17/15
There’s one big difference between Earth and Saturn—OK, there are a lot of big differences between Earth and Saturn, including size, chemistry, temperature, distance from the sun and number of moons (one for Earth, up to 62 for Saturn). But the difference that may be most important concerns their atmospheres: Earth has one, Saturn essentially is one, part of the solar system’s quartet of gas giants that also includes Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune.
With a vastly larger atmosphere than Earth’s, Saturn also has vastly larger storms—and none is as impressive as the huge cyclones that spin at its north pole, each as big around as the entire Earth, with winds that whip at 300 mph (483 k/h). The storms, first photographed by the Cassini spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn since 2004, have always been a mystery. But now, a paper published in Nature Geoscience by a team of researchers headed by planetary scientist Morgan O’Neill of MIT may explain things.
One thing O’Neill and her colleagues knew was that understanding cyclones on Earth would provide only limited help in understanding them on Saturn. The Earthly storms can’t form without a fixed surface beneath them—especially a wet, fixed surface, which provides the friction that allows winds to drag and converge and the warm water that serves as the storms’ rocket fuel.
To understand how things work on Saturn, the researchers had to develop a computer model that recreated the planet’s gassier, drier, deeper and more turbulent atmosphere. They then ran hundreds of simulations over the course of days to try to see how cyclones could form at all and why they would converge into one super storm at the top of the planet. The computer delivered the goods.
Around the planet, the models showed, small vortices develop as a result of temperature differences in the atmosphere interacting with condensed water and ammonium hydrosulphide. The storms spin in two directions at once, with the bottom half moving one way—either clockwise or counterclockwise—and the top half moving the other. The rotation of the planet drags the storms toward the poles, in a process called beta drift. A second process, called beta gyre, surrounds each mini-cyclone, tearing it in two, with the upper half of each moving toward the equator, where they have room to disperse, and the top half continuing toward the poles, where they converge. The result: lots of mini-storms producing one massive, long-lived one at the top of the planet.
Why does any of this matter—aside from the fact that it’s an exceedingly elegant solution to an exceedingly stubborn riddle about Saturn’s behavior? For one thing, it provides some rules that help explain atmospheric behavior on other worlds. Exceedingly large planets like Jupiter are unlikely to have suprcyclones at their poles because the size of the individual storms is too small relative to the size of the overall world. Smaller gas giants like Neptune could well have polar cyclones. All that, in turn, could lead to greater understanding of exoplanets—those orbiting other stars.
Oh, and finally there’s this: Saturn’s atmosphere is just hypnotically beautiful, as this gallery of pictures suggests. Understanding how it works doesn’t increase that beauty any, but it does help you appreciate it more.
The original version of this story misidentified the gender of lead researcher Morgan O’Neill. She is a woman.
The ice world Tethys has had a very hard life, as a new image from the Cassini spacecraft shows.
Tethys shouldn’t be alive—but it’s a lovely thing for the solar system that it is, as a recently released picture from the Cassini spacecraft makes evocatively clear. Merely one of 62 confirmed or provisional moons orbiting Saturn, Tethys is easily the one with the most compelling life story.
For one thing, it is a good sister to the other moons in the Saturnian brood. At 660 mi. (1,062 km) across, it’s the fifth largest of all of Saturn’s satellites and orbits at an altitude of 182,689 miles (294,009 km). But it does not fly alone. Its tiny siblings Telesto and Calypso—19 mi. and 16 mi. across (31 km and 26 km) respectively—fly with it, with Telesto in front Calypso in the rear, and Tethys herding them along gravitationally like a mama duck.
Orbiting lower than Tethys, at 147,572 miles (237,494 km) is the fanciful Enceladus. Squeezed by the gravity of both Saturn below and Tethys and other moons above, Enceladus emits sparkling, ice plume volcanos, which leave bright tendrils behind it and continually fall back down to dust the moon’s face. The result is a world that has been eternally battered by incoming meteorites but never shows the scars, since no sooner does one appear than it is covered up.
Tethys enjoys no such cosmetic advantages. Nearly every one of the uncounted hits it has taken in its 4-plus billion years of life is stamped in its face, giving the rocky, icy world an almost sponge-like appearance. On the moon’s eastern limb is the biggest scar of all, the crater Odysseus, which covers 18% of Tethys’s surface. On the far-larger Earth, that would be the equivalent of a crater the size of Africa.
A crack that runs nearly three-quarters of the way around the moon suggests that it almost didn’t survive the collision. Had the projectile that caused the crater been just a little bigger or moved just a little faster, it would have murdered Tethys outright.
There’s no telling how many other moons in Saturn’s litter did suffer that fate. It is a matter of cosmic history that Tethys didn’t. And it’s a matter of cosmic fact that we have reason to be grateful.
Housed under a dome located 8,000 feet above ground in a dormant Hawaii volcano
Six scientists tasked with simulating life on Mars emerged on Saturday after eight months living under a dome located 8,000 feet above sea level in a dormant Hawaii volcano.
The six were part of a human performance study funded by NASA and had not left the dome without a spacesuit on since entering the study almost a year ago. Operating in complete isolation, the scientists were monitored by surveillance cameras, body-movement trackers and electronic surveys to track how they worked as a team.
“Astronauts are very stoic people, very level-headed, and there’s a certain hesitancy to report problems,” University of Hawaii professor Kim Binsted, principal investigator for the study, told the AP. “So this is a way for people on the ground to detect cohesion-related problems before they become a real issue.”
To release stress, the crew members could use a treadmill or stationary bike–only on sunny afternoons, however, because both were solar powered. Their diet consisted mainly of freeze-dried chili.
Mauna Loa was a prime site for the study because of its terrain and silence. When looking out the dome’s porthole windows, the scientists could only see lava fields and mountains.