TIME space

How the Challenger Disaster Happened

Challenger Cover
The Feb. 10, 1986, cover of TIME Cover Credit: BRUCE WEAVER

Read TIME's original cover story about the NASA tragedy

When the Space Shuttle Challenger lifted off on Jan. 28, 1986, space flight was supposed to be safe. As TIME noted in a cover story that ran in the Feb. 10 issue of that year, NASA had spent 25 years sending Americans into space, at an average pace of about twice a year. That aura of safety was part of the reason why Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from New Hampshire, was on board, the first non-astronaut to have that privilege.

It was also part of the reason why what happened to the Challenger on that day was so shocking. As the nation watched live, “McAuliffe and six astronauts had disappeared in an orange- and-white fireball nine miles above the Atlantic Ocean,” TIME reported. “So too had the space shuttle Challenger, the trusted $1.2 billion workhorse on which they had been riding.”

What went wrong?

It was not immediately clear why things had turned sour, even as the launch procedure seemed to be going perfectly. But, as TIME explained in the diagram below, which ran with a story in that issue about how NASA was investigating the disaster, the what was a fire that started in an external fuel tank:

Challenger Diagram
From the Feb. 10, 1986, issue of TIME TIME Diagram

Read the full cover story, as well as obituaries of each of the seven crew members, here in the TIME Vault:
Space Shuttle Challenger

TIME space

Best-Ever Photo of Dwarf Planet Ceres

Ready for its close-up: Ceres as you never saw it
Ready for its close-up: Ceres as you never saw it JPL/NASA

An unusual spacecraft closes in on a mysterious world

NASA’s Dawn space probe, which dazzled scientists with its astonishing views of the asteroid Vesta back in 2012, is about to do it again. A little over five weeks from now, the 2.7 ton probe will go into orbit around Ceres—another asteroid-belt object that is so huge, at 590 miles (940 km) across, it was promoted from asteroid to “dwarf planet” at the same time Pluto was being demoted into the same category.

Ceres is also among the strangest objects in the Solar System: unlike most asteroids, which are largely made of rock, this one contains at least 20 percent water, and may even feature geysers, like Saturn’s moon Enceladus. It is, says, Michael Küppers, of the European Space Agency “a very peculiar beast of an asteroid.”

What that beast looks like in detail will have to wait, but with Dawn just 147,000 miles (274,000 km) away from its target—closer than the Moon is to the Earth—NASA has just released the best image of Ceres ever seen. It’s 30 percent sharper than what Hubble can do, even though the Dawn cameras aren’t designed to do their best imaging from this far away.

“We’re seeing things that look like they could be craters,” says Mark Sykes, a Dawn co-investigator from the nonprofit Planetary Science Institute, “We’re also seeing these extended, kind of ribbonlike structures, which could be evidence of the kinds of internal processes you see on larger planets.”

The new images also confirm the existence of a mysterious white spot in the north that was seen in earlier images. (It’s actually very dark—nearly as black as coal, says Sykes, although not as dark as the rest of Ceres; the images are deliberately optically stretched to enhance contrast so surface features will show up). It’s almost certainly not ice, Sykes says: even dirty ice would have vaporized over the ten years since the spot first showed up in Hubble images.

But it could in theory be mineral deposits from under the surface. “If water is gushing out at times, it should leave a signature behind,” Sykes says. Light-colored deposits would darken over time, though, so if that’s what it is, it has to be relatively recent. The answer to this and other questions about Ceres’ structure, surface features and composition won’t come until after Dawn goes into orbit to begin its mission in earnest on March 6.

Astute space cadets might wonder how it could possibly take Dawn five more weeks to travel less than 150,000 miles to its rendezvous with Ceres; after all, the Apollo astronauts rocketed all the way to the Moon, 239,000 miles (384,000 km) from Earth in just three days. The answer is that Dawn was designed from the start to be a super slow spacecraft. Rather than relying on traditional chemical rockets once in space, it uses ion propulsion. The technology is well known to sci-fi fans. In fact, says Marc Rayman, Dawn’s mission director and chief engineer, “I first heard of it on Star Trek, when Captain Kirk says ‘advanced ion propulsion is even beyond our capabilities.'”

Evidently not, though. The idea, first tested on the Deep Space 1 mission back in the 1990’s, is to use electromagnetic fields to shoot charged particles out the back of a spacecraft (in this case, ionized xenon atoms), thrusting the craft itself forward. The acceleration, is much more modest than with a rocket engine. “It’s very gentle,” says Rayman. “It pushes on the spacecraft as hard as a sheet of paper you’re holding pushes down on your hand.” But because ion engines are so efficient, it can maintain that acceleration for far longer.

Once Dawn arrives at Ceres, it will orbit the dwarf planet at an altitude of about 8,000 miles (12,900 km) to start with, then descend to under 3,000 (4,800 km). Ultimately, the probe will image Ceres from less than 250 miles (402 km) up, taking not only photos but also scientific measurements that should finally lay bare the secrets of this most un-asteroidlike body.

Unlike other orbiting probes, however, including Deep Impact, LCROSS and MESSENGER, which visited a comet, the Moon and Mercury, respectively, Dawn won’t be sent in for a crash landing when the mission is over in 2016. “We know Ceres has water,” says Christopher Russell of UCLA, Dawn’s chief scientist. “We don’t know if it has life, but if it does, and if we contaminate the surface, we might mess it up.”

Even as Dawn inches toward Ceres, meanwhile, NASA’s New Horizons probe is speeding at thousands of miles per hour toward its own close encounter with Pluto next July. By mid-May, New Horizons, too, will have taken images of its target that surpass the Hubble. And by early next summer, scientists will be happily drowning in images and data from not one but two dwarf planets—both of which will be revealing their secrets at last.

TIME Morning Must Reads

Morning Must Reads: January 24

Capitol
The early morning sun rises behind the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson—Getty Images

Fuel’s Paradise

A majority of Americans are paying less than $2 per gallon for gas for the first time since 2009, and the ever-cheapening fuel is helping put more money in consumers’ pockets and bolster the economy

NASA Finds ‘Super Earths’

NASA’s Kepler Mission has found many planets in the “Goldilocks zone,” where it isn’t too hot or cold for water to exist

McDonald’s CEO Asks for Time

McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson cited a litany of actions the company is taking to reverse steep declines in sales

Federal Judge Strikes Down Gay-Marriage Ban in Alabama

A U.S. district judge ruled Friday in favor of two Mobile women who sued to challenge Alabama’s refusal to recognize their marriage performed in California. The judge said a state statute and 2006 amendment to the Alabama Constitution violated the U.S. Constitution

Big Storm Headed for the East Coast

A nor’easter could wreak havoc all along the East Coast this weekend, with a mix of rain and snow that will likely cause airline and traffic delays along the I-81 and I-95 corridors. Up to a foot of snow could accumulate in some locations

Obama to Cut Short India Trip to Visit Saudi Arabia

The schedule change, announced shortly before Obama left for India, means the president will skip plans to see the Taj Mahal, and instead pay a call on an influential U.S. ally in the volatile Mideast. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah died Friday at age 90

An Asteroid Will Fly Close to Earth on Monday

It doesn’t sound like a close shave, but in astronomical terms, it is. An asteroid will fly within 745,000 miles of Earth on Monday, NASA said, the closest a space rock will fly to Earth until 2027

Chicago Cubs Hall of Famer Ernie Banks Dies at 83

Ernie Banks, the Hall of Fame slugger and two-time MVP who always maintained his boundless enthusiasm for baseball despite decades of playing on miserable teams, died Friday night. He was 83

Emma Watson Launches New Anti-Sexism Initiative

Harry Potter star and U.N. Women Global Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson unveiled the the HeForShe IMPACT initiative, a one-year pilot project geared toward advancing women by working with governments, companies and universities

Ebola Vaccines Get Tested in Liberia

The long-awaited vaccine for Ebola is heading to clinical trials in Liberia. Two vaccines, with the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) support, will start efficacy testing in Liberia in the beginning of February

SkyMall Files for Bankruptcy

The parent company of in-flight shopping catalog SkyMall has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, citing an increased prevalence of mobile devices on planes as the primary reason for the company’s flagging sales

Apple Store Chief Gets the Big Bucks

How much does Apple care about its retail stores? Enough to pay more than $70 million to the woman heading them up, making her the highest-paid exec at the company. Angela Ahrendts earned $73.4 million in 2014, almost all of it in stock awards

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TIME Science

How NASA Finds ‘Super Earths’ Where Alien Life Might Flourish

NASA's Kepler mission recently announced the discovery of three earth-like planets existing in a star's "Goldilocks zone."

Since 2009 NASA’s Kepler Mission has been exploring the Milky Way using an extraordinary powerful space telescope. Their mission is to discover “exoplanets” or Earth-like planets that could, in theory, be habitable for human life.

But what makes a planet habitable?

Scientists say habitable planets should be in an area round the star known as the “Goldilocks zone,” where it isn’t too hot or cold for water to exist on the surface in liquid form. Thus far, the mission has confirmed many such candidates, including a significant discovery of three planets announced in January 2015.

Jeffrey Kluger explains the significance of this newest discovery and the importance for humanity to continue space exploration.

TIME astronomy

The Microsoft HoloLens Is Going to Let Scientists Walk Around Mars

Joe Belfiore, Alex Kipman, Terry Myerson
Microsoft's Joe Belfiore, from left, Alex Kipman, and Terry Myerson playfully pose for a photo while wearing "Hololens" devices following an event demonstrating new features of Windows 10 at the company's headquarters on Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015 Elaine Thompson—AP

Strap on your headset for a tour of the red planet

Microsoft and NASA have jointly developed software that will allow scientists to remotely walk around Mars using the wearable Microsoft HoloLens, a hologram tool designed to view and interact with 3D images.

Created in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, the technology, called OnSight, helps researchers prepare for future Mars-based operations by entering its richly-detailed environment, NASA announced in a news release.

Before this, scientists examined 2D digital representations of Mars, which geospatial depth.

“OnSight gives our rover scientists the ability to walk around and explore Mars right from their offices,” said Dave Lavery, program executive of of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory.

“Previously, our Mars explorers have been stuck on one side of a computer screen. This tool gives them the ability to explore the rover’s surroundings much as an Earth geologist would do field work here on our planet,” said Jeff Norris, the OnSight project manager.

NASA intends to use OnSight in future rover operations and on a Curiosity mission this year.

[NASA]

TIME space

Ever Seen a Green Comet? Then Get Outside Soon

Comet Lovejoy David Lane

Comet Lovejoy is passing by for the first time in more than 8,000 years

If you were looking up at the sky the past couple of weeks you may have noticed a greenish glow. That was Comet Lovejoy, also known as C/2014 Q2, passing through the solar system more than 50 million miles away from our own planet. Amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy from Queensland, Australia is the man who discovered the comet and four others like it in previous years.

Various amateur and professional astrophotographers such as David Lane have been quick to point their cameras towards the sky to catch a glimpse of the passing comet this month.

Lane’s photograph of Lovejoy was created using a series of three long-exposure shots from rural Kansas that were later combined into the composite image above.

“Comet Lovejoy is an excellent comet as it’s fairly close, quite bright and best of all very high in the sky,” Lane tells TIME.

Here is a closer look at the comet from the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter in Arizona by astrophotographer Adam Block.

Comet Lovejoy Adam Block—Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona

The comet has been visible throughout the Northern Hemisphere since the end of December and was expected to reach its peak visibility sometime in mid-January. Get outside and try to spot Lovejoy yourself, you better hurry as it will be another 8,000 years until the comet will again be visible from earth.

[National Geographic]

Read next: Buzz Aldrin Turns 85: A Look Back at a Remarkable Life

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TIME climate change

2014 Was the Hottest Year on Record

'Climate change is perhaps the major challenge of our generation'

2014 was the hottest year since temperature record keeping began in 1880, scientists from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced on Friday. The average global surface temperature hit 58.24 F (14.58 C), easily surpassing the previous record, set in 2005 and 2010, by 0.07 degrees.

“Climate change is perhaps the major challenge of our generation,” NASA scientist Michael Freilich warned in on a conference call. “Our changing climate presents us with vast opportunities as well as the potential for profound societal impacts.”

Every continent experienced record high temperatures in some area. Alaska, the west coast of the United States, Europe, Australia and Siberia were among the areas that saw particularly intense temperature rises. Other regions, like the U.S. Northeast, saw relatively low temperatures. Overall, the average global land temperature was nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit higher in 2014 than the average temperature in the 20th century.

Though a temperature rise of a few degrees may seem insignificant, University of Georgia meteorologist Marshall Shepherd likens the disparity to “the difference between a low-grade fever and one just a few degrees higher that can have an impact on the body.”

“If you are younger than 29-years old, you haven’t lived in a month that was cooler than the 20th century average,” he said in a statement. February 1985 was the last time where average global temperatures for the month were colder than they were for the 20th century on average.

Environmental activists and scientists used the announcement as an opportunity to counter claims that climate change has slowed or stopped in recent years. These claims cite data showing that temperatures have risen at a slower rate since the turn of the century than in past decades.

“Why do we keep getting so many record-warm years?” NASA scientist Dr. Gavin Schmidt asked in an interview with the New York Times. “It’s because the planet is warming. The basic issue is the long-term trend, and it is not going away.”

“Today’s news is a clear and undeniable warning for all of us—nations, businesses, cities, and individuals—that we need to cut climate pollution and prepare for what’s coming,” said Lou Leonard, vice president for climate change at the World Wildlife Fund, in a statement.

Gavin Schmidt described determining the cause of any temperature rise as a “complicated finger printing,” but said that it’s clear that greenhouse gases added to the climate by humans are a major contributor to the warming.

While last year’s record may be alarming in itself, scientists pointed out that long-term trends are equally alarming. Nine out of the ten warmest years on record occurred in the 21st century. “The key thing we’re talking about here is not just 2014, but the long-term trends,” said Schmidt on a conference call. “We may anticipate further record highs into the years to come.”

TIME space

Senator Ted Cruz to Head Senate Subcommittee on Space

Conservatives Speak At Values Voters Summit In Washington
Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), speaks at the 2013 Values Voter Summit, held by the Family Research Council, on October 11, 2013 in Washington, DC. Andrew Burton—Getty Images

The appointment is part of a broader reshuffle

Texas Senator Ted Cruz was appointed the chair of the Senate subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness last week — which means he will be in charge of overseeing space agency NASA in Congress.

The Republican lawmaker’s appointment is part of a larger reshuffle following the GOP’s win in the 2014 Congressional election.

The Verge reports that Cruz has previously denied climate change exists and also unsuccessfully attempted to reduce NASA’s funding in July 2013.

But Cruz, whose role at the subcommittee’s helm will be confirmed later this month, has also previously said that it was “critical that the United States ensure its continued leadership in space.”

TIME space travel

Your Ride on Another Planet Will Be Self-Driven

Latest Electronics Products Are Displayed At Ceatec Japan
Nissan Motor Co.'s Autonomous Drive Leaf electric vehicle is driven for a demonstration ride at the CEATEC Japan 2013 exhibition in Chiba, Japan, on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

NASA and Nissan team up to create autonomous vehicles for other worlds

Nissan has begun developing a self-driving car in partnership with NASA, in the hopes that some of the technology will one day be used to ferry passengers around on other planets.

The Japanese car manufacturer and the U.S. space agency announced a five-year partnership on Thursday to jointly engineer vehicles capable of self-operation, Wired magazine reports.

The cars will be developed at NASA’s Ames Research Center, close to Nissan’s Silicon Valley facility in California. They will also be zero emission, modeled on the electric Nissan Leaf.

“This is a perfect blend of the capability of what the robotics folks at NASA Ames have and the autonomy that we bring,” said Martin Sierhuis, the director of Nissan’s Silicon Valley research center. Sierhuis, incidentally, is a former NASA scientist.

NASA said that it was looking forward to using some of the automation technology pioneered by Nissan in its space programs. “We have a rover on Mars. It is not very autonomous. As we go deeper into space, into more and more dangerous locations, we need to add that autonomy,” Pete Worden, director of the Ames Research Center, told Wired.

[Wired]

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