TIME space

The Story of Hubble’s First Photo — 25 Years Later

On the right is part of the first image taken with NASA's Hubble Space Telescope's (HST) Wide Field/Planetary Camera. It is shown with a ground-based picture from Las Campanas, Chile, Observatory of the same region of the sky.
Ground Image: E. Persson (Las Campanas Observatory, Chile)/Observatories of the Carnegie Institution of Washington; Hubble Image: NASA, ESA, and STScI On the right is part of the first image taken with NASA's Hubble Space Telescope's (HST) Wide Field/Planetary Camera. It is shown with a ground-based picture from Las Campanas, Chile, Observatory of the same region of the sky.

There were a lot of reasons that first picture was so unremarkable

It ain’t much, is it? For all of the jaw-dropping, eye-popping, gobsmacking images the Hubble Space Telescope has sent home over the years, the smudgy, black and white picture above right is in some ways the most important. That’s because it’s the first picture the telescope took, on May 20, 1990—a quarter century ago.

The subject of this first-ever cosmic screen grab was the binary star HD96755 in the open cluster NGC 3532, about 1,300 light years away. HD96755 is the vaguely snowman-shaped object at the top of the image; the smaller one, below it and to the right, was a stellar bystander that simply photo-bombed the image. NASA released the picture along with a second one, top left, taken of the same objects by a ground-based telescope in Chile’s Atacama Desert, to show that the $2.5 billion Hubble could do a better job. Which it did. A little.

There were a lot of reasons that first picture was so unremarkable—and they had little to do with Hubble’s famously warped mirror, a flaw that engineers would discover only slowly and that NASA would not confirm and announce until nearly a month later. Rather, the initial shot of HD96755 was intended simply what’s known as a first light test.

“First light implies that the light goes all the way through the optics and makes its way to the detectors,” says Dave Leckrone, who was a Hubble deputy project scientist at the time and was the senior project scientist from later in 1990 to 2009. “It’s only when that happens that you can say first light has been achieved.”

That flushing of the pipes typically happens away from the eyes of the press, since first light images are notoriously lousy. In the case of Hubble, the disappointment would be even keener, because the telescope had been so highly touted for so long that anything less than a full-color glimpse into the very heart of the universe was bound to disappoint.

But an overzealous public affairs officer invited the media to be present at the Goddard Space Center when Hubble first opened its eyes, and the press obliged, filling the visitors’ center where a viewing screen was in place. “The astronomers groaned when the media was invited,” recalls Leckrone. “And everyone was a little perplexed and uncomfortable when the image came in because it was so out of focus. Someone said ‘Is that the way it’s supposed to look?'”

NASA didn’t help matters by releasing the picture with the boast that it was 50% sharper than what the Chilean telescope could do. That was a decidedly minor accomplishment that seemed all the worse since it required an exposure 10 times as long—30 seconds for the telescope in space compared to just three seconds for the one on the ground.

Hubble engineers promised the pictures would get better as they calibrated the telescope’s instruments, and they had a lot of tricks to try—including adjusting 24 pressure pads that lined the back of the primary mirror to compensate for any change in shape caused by going from the 1 g of Earth to the zero g of space. But nothing the space agency tried worked and it would not be until December of 1993 that the space shuttle Columbia would ride to the rescue, bringing Hubble a set of corrective optics that would restore its vision to what it was supposed to be.

Those three and a half years seemed like a long time to wait back then. But they turned out to be nothing compared to 25 years worth of images that have resulted—and the dazzling look they’ve given us billions of years into the universe’s past.

TIME A Year In Space

Exclusive: Space Station Astronauts Talk Loneliness, Missing the Weather and Their Crazy Work Schedule

Astronauts Scott Kelly and Terry Virts speak live from the space station

The first six weeks of Scott Kelly’s marathon year aboard the International Space Station (ISS) haven’t been easy. There was the reacclimation to zero-gravity, the failure of a Russian cargo ship carrying needed supplies, the cancellation of singer Sarah Brightman’s planned visit—to say nothing of the constant, minute-by-minute work schedule that is the stuff of any day aboard the station.

Kelly and astronaut Terry Virts discussed those things and more in one of at least four video chats TIME will conduct with the ISS during our exclusive Year in Space coverage. Phoning the station is not easy. It takes days of planning and at least an hour of sound checks before the uplink is made, and then long delays as questions and answers are relayed back and forth. It makes ordinary conversation a challenge.

Still, even in the 14 minutes the connection lasted—during which the station passed over Canada, the Great Lakes, Minneapolis, Denver, and Southern California—Kelly and Virts were surprisingly open, sharing their feelings about both the camaraderie and the sublime loneliness of being where they are. Kelly especially must be mindful of those feelings as he faces 10 more months of circling the Earth, while his family and friends and everything he knows lie 250 miles below him.

“It’s one thing I think about every single day,” he said.

And then, like any other astronaut, he put that aside and went back to his work.

Follow TIME’s coverage of the yearlong mission at time.com/space

TIME A Year In Space

What Sarah Brightman’s ‘Postponed’ Mission Says About Space Tourism

Not so fast: Brightman at a March press event announcing her now-postponed mission
Dave J Hogan; Getty Images Not so fast: Brightman at a March press event announcing her now-postponed mission

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

You need more than international fame and a very fat wallet to fly

Here’s betting you’d like to fly in space—almost everybody does. Here’s betting you’ll never actually do it—almost no one does. Those two facts are more than casually connected. The news today that Sarah Brightman—the internationally celebrated soprano who paid $52 million to spend 10 days aboard the International Space Station (ISS)—has backed out of the mission helps illustrate why.

Space flight has never been a safe or easy or, most of the time, even terribly fun thing to do. The training is brutal, the rockets are dangerous, the spacecraft are cramped, the living conditions are spartan, and as for the one thing you think you’d enjoy the most—the weightlessness? Odds are you’d spend a fair bit of your time aloft doing little but throwing up—which you could jolly well do back home.

MORE: See The Trailer For TIME’s Unprecedented New Series: A Year In Space

Astronauts and cosmonauts know this, and so do the people who train them to fly. There’s a reason the Americans and Soviets chose test pilots in the early days of their space programs. There’s a reason too that, during the shuttle era, even astronauts who were going to fly as mission specialists—meaning they would not be piloting the spacecraft—did themselves a favor if they were licensed pilots too. If you’ve got the ice-water blood necessary to take a plane aloft and not lose your marbles when an engine quits, or the weather turns surly, or the ground’s rushing up at you fast and you’ve got exactly three seconds to get things under control before you come to a very messy end, you’re likelier to have the cool to handle yourself when a stack of engines generating 7.3 million lbs. (3.4 million kg) of thrust ignite underneath your back and hurl you to space at an eventual speed of 17,500 mph (28,200 k/h).

The late Jack Swigert, command module pilot for Apollo 13—a man who clearly knew what it felt like when everything falls to pieces around you—once reflected on why lunar astronauts never spoke terribly lyrically about their journeys, often describing what they saw with off-the-shelf adjectives like “awe-inspiring” or “incredible.” The explanation, he said, is that you can either go to the moon, or you can appreciate the going, but not both. The very thing that qualifies you to make the trip—a coolness, a detachment in the face of the deadly and improbable place you find yourself—disqualifies you to describe it in terribly resonant terms. So fighter jocks fly and poets stay home and they both do what they do best.

But that has all changed in the last decade—or at least there has been an attempt to change it. We live in the era of space tourism, of the citizen astronaut, of the multi-millionaire buying a seat on a Russian Soyuz rocket for mid-eight figures, or plunking down a quarter of a million dollars for a quarter of an hour popgun flight on Richard Branson’s SpaceShipTwo. We chatter about the one-way trip to Mars and the inflatable hotel in Earth orbit and Jeff Bezos doing who knows what with his secretive Blue Origins aerospace company, which promises that it’s “opening the promise of space to all,” though to date it’s gotten nowhere close.

Brightman, in parlaying great wealth and existing fame to a chance to fly to the ISS, was attempting one of the most hair-raising space feats of all. With the shuttle grounded, the only way to get to the space station is Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, a three-person pod so tiny that passengers fly in a semi-fetal position, lying on their backs with their knees drawn up to their chests. At best they stay that way for six hours after liftoff, assuming they launch at the right moment to chase down the station in just four orbits. But, launch at a different moment and it can take as long as two days to execute the same rendezvous.

On both the way up and the way down, the crew can pull more than 4 g’s, and that’s only if everything goes well. In 2008, cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and astronaut Peggy Whitson were coming home aboard a Soyuz when the rear part of the spacecraft—the service module—failed to separate as it was supposed to. That sent them on what’s called a ballistic reentry of 30 degrees, causing them to pull a tortuous 8 g’s. The near-fatal plunge took 23 minutes to unfold. Even the best Soyuz reentry has been described by astronaut Scott Kelly, who is aboard the ISS for a marathon one-year stay and had been looking forward to Brightman’s visit, “like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel—that’s on fire.”

Brightman didn’t even begin her training until Jan. 19, according to sources at Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, which would have given her less than eight months to get ready for her early September launch—a fraction of the years of preparation a professional astronaut may put in before flying. And she had skipped out on the training altogether after April 22, according to the same sources. A request for comment from Brightman’s team has not been returned.

Space Adventures, the Virginia-based space tourism company that serves as travel agent for trips to the ISS, did put out a statement announcing that Brightman was “postponing her plans to launch” due to “personal family reasons.” But the odds are good that that postponement will become—or already is—a cancellation. There may well be family problems responsible for the scrub. Or maybe Brightman just got a clear-eyed look at what she was doing and gave a thought to the lost crew of Challenger in 1986, the lost crew of Columbia in 2003, the lost crew of Soyuz 11 (three cosmonauts who died during reentry in 1971 when their spacecraft sprang a pressure leak), the lost crew of Apollo 1 (three astronauts who died in a launch pad fire in 1967) and reckoned that maybe, just maybe, space isn’t for dilettantes.

There’s no shame in not being fit to fly in space; that describes the overwhelming majority of us. And there’s no harm in working toward the day when space really is something for everybody, when tourists can go and settlers can go and adventurers can go—all traveling with the right machines and the right training and the right sense of humility and respect. “Space tourism,” for now, is a deadly oxymoron. If Brightman chose not to go because she recognized that, she showed a particular kind of candor and courage that deserves its own applause.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME space

Life in Space? The Odds Just Went Up

A different kind of Europeans: The discolored cracks of the Jovian moon Europa could suggest life
NASA/JPL A different kind of Europeans: The discolored cracks of the Jovian moon Europa could suggest life

A new study reveals new promise on Jupiter's most intriguing moon

If ever there was a time to disobey HAL, the coolly sociopathic computer that stole the show in both 2001: A Space Odyssey and the 2010 sequel, it’s now. At the end of that second movie, the universe unfolds before a group of astronauts exploring the Jupiter system, and as they marvel at it, HAL gives them a simple warning: All these worlds are yours—except Europa. Attempt no landing there.

That’s a rule that’s getting harder not to break. Europa is one of the four large moons of Jupiter, and easily its most compelling. Its entire surface is covered in a thick rind of water ice, with what is almost certainly a deep, globe-girdling ocean of liquid water underneath. Now, a study published in Geophysical Research Letters offers new evidence that the ocean could be home to—or at least hospitable to—extraterrestrial life.

MORE: See The Trailer For TIME’s Unprecedented New Series: A Year In Space

It’s not easy to keep water in a liquid state out in the cosmic provinces where Europa lives. The little world’s surface temperature averages -280º F (-173º C), with the sun little more than a very bright match head 483 million mi. (779 million km) away. But you don’t need sunlight to generate warmth when you’ve got what’s known as tidal flexing.

As Europa circles Jupiter, its large sister moons, Io, Ganymede and Callisto, do the same in their own orbital lanes. The moons periodically pass one another like cars on a race track, and as they do, they tug—and slightly stretch—one another gravitationally. All that flexing generates internal heat, and in Europa’s case, that keeps its ocean liquid and relatively warm.

Multiple space probes and Earthly telescopes have photographed a webwork of cracks all over Europa’s surface, the result of fracturing and refracturing caused by the constant pulsing. When the cracks appear, subsurface water percolates—or even bursts—to the surface. A lot of those cracks turn a dark yellow-brown over time, and that raises intriguing possibilities.

The discoloration is likely caused by the particular chemistry of the water as it is exposed to the harsh radiation of space. But just what that chemistry is was unknown. It could be sulfur, it could be magnesium or it could, tantalizingly, be salt, giving the Europan oceans the same warm, amniotic conditions as Earth’s own.

To test this idea, planetary scientist Kevin Hand and co-author Robert Carlson, both of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., built what they called “Europa in a can.” Starting with both straight sodium chloride—or table salt—and a combination of water and salt, they chilled both test samples down to the same temperature as Europa’s surface and bombarded them with radiation similar to the environment of Jovian space. The radiation bath continued for varying lengths of time—all on the order of tens of hours. Direct radiation for that long, Hand and Carlson calculated, was the equivalent of about a century’s worth of the more diffuse radiation of space.

Over time, the samples did what the researchers suspected they’d do, which was turn precisely the yellow-brown color of the Europan fractures—with longer radiation exposure producing darker shades. But since human eyeballs are not the most precise ways to measure such things, the researchers also compared the electromagnetic spectra of their lab samples to the spectra of the Europa cracks, taken from images captured by NASA’s Galileo Jupiter probe. The two lined up perfectly.

“This work tells us the chemical signature of radiaton-baked sodium chloride is a compelling match to spacecraft data for Europa’s mystery material,” said Hand in a statement that accompanied the release of the study.

None of this means Europa is home to life, but it goes a long way to making the case that its environment is right for it—a critical first step. Before too long, the mystery may be probed from close up. Last year, the White House included a request for $30 million to study a mission to Europa, as part of NASA’s fiscal 2016 budget.

The plan would involve sending an unmanned probe to orbit Jupiter and make perhaps 45 flybys of Europa, during which it would remotely study the moon’s anatomy and chemistry, and perhaps fly through some of the plumes of water vapor that erupt from its fractures, analyzing their composition. Last February, JPL held a workshop to conduct preliminary planning for the mission and polled planetary scientists around the world to ask what instruments they think should be included on the spacecraft.

The Jupiter trip, if it’s green-lit at all, won’t happen soon. The earliest a Europa probe would probably launch would be 2022, arriving at the Jovian system sometime around 2030. But Europa has time. It’s been there, like Earth, for more than four billion years. If, like Earth too, the moon has incubated life over those long epochs, it’ll still be waiting for us when we arrive.

TIME A Year In Space

Space Station Astronauts Stuck in the Departure Lounge

Before the fall: An unpiloted Progress spacecraft prepares to plunge into the atmosphere
NASA Before the fall: An unpiloted Progress spacecraft prepares to plunge into the atmosphere

A six-month tour of duty turns into seven, as a failed cargo ship scrambles schedules

Think you hate it when you miss a flight? Tell that to Terry Virts, Samantha Cristoforetti and Anton Shkaplerov. Since November, all three have had confirmed return seats booked aboard the same Soyuz spacecraft that carried them to the International Space Station (ISS) and has remained docked there ever since. They were set to come home this month, after a long half-year in orbit.

But scheduling is a tricky thing in the space flight business, especially when it comes to the ISS which, like any busy travel hub, must juggle a lot of incoming and outgoing vehicles. Some carry crew, some carry cargo—and all carry a high risk that something can go wrong. Something did go wrong in late April, when an unmanned Russian supply ship, the Progress 59, carrying 2.6 tons of goods—including oxygen, water, propellant, clothing, spare parts and spacewalk hardware—spun out of control after reaching orbit. That made it impossible for the ship to dock with the ISS, and a few days later, the Russian and American space agencies agreed the cause was lost. On May 7, all 24 ft. (7 m) and 21,000 lbs. (9,500 kg) of spacecraft and cargo tumbled back into the atmosphere and incinerated.

That had knock-on effects. Virts, Cristoforetti and Shkaplerov, the crew for what’s known as Expedition 42, were to leave behind the newly arrived Expedition 43—Gennady Padalka and year-in-space marathoners Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko—and be replaced by the three person Expedition 44 crew before the end of the month. But a new crew requires a freshly provisioned station, and sending Expedition 42 home on schedule would have left ISS short-handed for too long before a new Progress ship could be readied for launch.

MORE: Watch The Trailer For TIME’s Unprecedented New Series: A Year In Space

“The ISS partners prefer to keep crew handovers, or the time when only three crew are onboard, short so we can maximize the important science and research we’re conducting on the orbiting laboratory,” NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz said in an e-mail to TIME.

The plan now is for Virts, Cristoforetti and Shkaplerov to wait at least until early June to come home. A new Progress will follow in early July and the Expedition 44 crew will launch in late July.

That, however, depends on the Progress line of spacecraft being declared fit to fly, and the language of NASA’s press release raised some red flags, hinting, perhaps inadvertently, that there might be something more troubling going on than just a one-off malfunction in a single ship. “The partner agencies agreed to adjust the schedule after hearing the Russian Federal Space Agency’s (Roscosmos) preliminary findings on the recent loss of the Progress,” the release said, without saying just what Roscosmos had revealed. More information, NASA said, would not be forthcoming until May 22. Neither NASA nor Roscosmos have responded to an e-mail from TIME requesting clarification.

None of this represents anything like an emergency. The station is fully supplied with essentials that can last at least until the fall, and there is no shortage of work to keep all six crewmembers busy while Virts, Cristoforetti and Shkaplerov await their lift home.

This past week, Virts and Kelly completed upgrades on the station’s carbon dioxide scrubbers—the system that removes waste gas from the cabin atmosphere and keeps it breathable. They have also been working with Cristoforetti to stow scientific samples and other equipment aboard SpaceX’s Dragon cargo craft, which arrived at the station on April 17 with 4,300 lbs (1,950 kg) of food and supplies and will undock and come home on May 21. Unlike Progress vehicles, which are designed to burn up on reentry, Dragons splash down intact, making them suitable for two-way cargo (and eventually crew) runs.

If Virts, Cristoforetti and Shkaplerov are disappointed at the postponed homecoming—and how could they not be when it’s been six months since they’ve eaten a steak, tasted a beer or felt anything other than a fan-driven, climate-controlled breeze on their faces—they wouldn’t let on publicly. That’s not in the nature of ISS crews who sign on for long hauls with always-conditional return dates.

They might also spare a thought for crewmates Kelly and Kornienko. When the two of them—who have been on board since March 29—reach the six-month mark in their mission, they’ll still have another whole six to go. It’s not just on Earth that no matter how sorry you feel for yourself, there’s always someone who’s got things a little harder.

TIME A Year In Space

The Sweetest Little Space Flight You Ever Saw But Probably Missed

The SpaceX Dragon took a big step toward proving its fitness to carry crews

NASA flew a teeny-tiny, 90-second, unmanned mission this morning—and you should care about it a lot. Here’s why.

The flying object that lifted off from Cape Canaveral at 9 a.m. EDT and splashed down about a mile away in the Atlantic at 9:01:30 after climbing just 5,000 ft. (1,500 m) was a test version of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft. Dragon has been making unmanned cargo trips to the International Space Station since 2015 and will start carrying crews in 2017. But carrying crews is an order of magnitude more dangerous than carrying equipment and supplies, and that means a great many additional safety drills. One of the most important of those is what’s known as the pad abort test.

MORE: See the Trailer for TIME’s Unprecedented New Series: A Year in Space

Liftoff is easily among the most dangerous parts of any space mission, when the controlled bomb that is the rocket roars to life with a pod full of astronauts sitting atop it. Ever since the days of the Mercury program—when there was just a single crewman aboard—NASA knew it needed a way to get that pod out of harm’s way if the booster seemed set to blow. And so spacecraft were equipped with escape towers, little scaffolds at the very tip of the rocket stack outfitted with mini-rockets that would ignite at the first sign of trouble and pull the capsule up and away.

That was the system that was tested today, with no booster involved and nothing but the 20-ft. (6 m) capsule and trunk on the launch pad. While that didn’t make for terribly dramatic TV, it was, in its own way, a very dramatic mission—if only because of the sleek engineering at work. SpaceX’s escape system does away with the tower part of the escape tower, embedding its mini-rockets into the base of the capsule itself. When they ignite, they thus push the capsule from below as opposed to pulling it from above, which provides greater stability.

It takes eight engines to lift the 8-ton vehicle, each producing 15,000 lbs. (6,800 kg) of thrust. The collective 120,000 lbs. (54,000 kg) is about twice the oomph of the Redstone rocket that carried America’s first astronaut, Alan Shepard, on his popgun suborbital flight in 1961.

The Dragon that flew today was stuffed with sensors to measure thrust, temperature, structural stresses and more, as well as a microphone to record internal acoustics and a camera to beam back on-board visuals. It also carried a human dummy, nicknamed Buster, to determine the g-loads on a passenger.

The eyeblink mission ended with the Dragon descending under three red and white parachutes into the ocean, just as a real Dragon mission will—and just as the old Apollo spacecraft did. Indeed, NASA TV made something of a point of comparing this splashdown to the triumphant returns long-ago crews made from the moon. That analogy may have been overwrought, but only a little. Ever since the last shuttle flew, the U.S. has had no spacecraft capable of getting astronauts to space. Today’s tiny flight was a big step back.

TIME A Year In Space

Star Wars, Tacos and Mice: Life Aboard the Space Station

A quiet evening at home: NASA Tweeted this picture of movie night aboard the space station with the caption "Just watching @starwars. In space. No big deal."
NASA A quiet evening at home: NASA Tweeted this picture of movie night aboard the space station with the caption "Just watching @starwars. In space. No big deal."

You can do a lot of hard science in space—but you need your Earthly luxuries too

Think you’re cool because you hosted a Star Wars-watching party on May 4, a date that is recognized as Star Wars Day? Well, you’re not as cool as you think. Watching Star Wars on May 4 when you’re 250 miles above Earth, orbiting the planet aboard the International Space Station (ISS), now that’s cool. That’s how year-long space travelers Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko, along with the other member of the ISS crew, spent a few hours of downtime on Monday.

The ISS is not without these Earthly grace notes. There were tacos—or the closest approximation of them when you’re using rehydrated food—the next day, in honor of Cinco de Mayo. And there was espresso, thanks to a just-delivered machine—dubbed the ISSpresso—which Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti set up and tried.

“Coffee: the finest organic suspension ever devised,” she tweeted. “Fresh espresso in the new Zero-G cup! To boldly brew…”

But there’s a lot more than good food and good films happening on the station this week—and, as with every week, much of it involves good science. Take the mouse studies, which are routinely conducted in orbit but take on special importance in the context of the extensive biomedical research that is at the heart of Kelly’s and Kornienko’s marathon stay.

Mice don’t care for being in space—at least it stands to reason they wouldn’t since zero-g can be as hard to manage for them as it is for human beings and they spend a lot of time in their enclosures just trying to gain purchase on something that’s standing still. Conducting experiments on them is harder too, since the last thing you want to do is open a habitat just anywhere and have an escapee drift free and get lost. So mouse enclosures must be anchored on an experimental rack, lights, fans and power connectors have to be engaged, and food bars have to be provided to keep the mice distracted as the work gets underway.

The research focuses on the animals’ skeletal, muscular, immune and cardiovascular systems—all of which can go awry in humans exposed to extended periods in zero-g. But unlike human subjects, mice can be, well, sacrificed and dissected to provide more detailed looks at what’s going on inside them. Other, less lethal sampling like blood draws can also be conducted. Sample extraction is a big part of what the ISS crew-members working on the mouse studies are doing this week, preparing the tissue to be brought home aboard the SpaceX cargo vehicle when it returns to Earth later this month.

Cristoforetti is spending part of her week working on the straightforwardly if unartfully named Skin-B study, which involves analyzing cells and tissue samples to determine why human skin ages so much faster in zero-g than it does on Earth. That should not happen, since much of what causes the ordinary stretching and breakdown of skin is gravity, which is not a factor in space. But what should happen and what does happen are often two different things in science, and Cristoforetti is working to learn why.

The purpose of the work has nothing to do with human appearance. Skin is the body’s largest organ and it pays to know why it suffers so much in zero-g before sending astronauts on missions to Mars that could last more than two years. Both in space and on the ground, what’s learned from Skin-B could also provide insight into the functioning—and malfunctioning—of the body’s other organs, especially the ones lined with epithelial cells, the type of cell that makes up the skin.

American astronaut Terry Virts, the current commander of the ISS, is busying himself in the Japan-built Kibo module, getting ready for the next round of Robot Refueling Mission-2 (RRM-2) exercises. RRM-2 explores ways to repair, upgrade, and refuel satellites in orbit, using robots instead of astronauts to do the dangerous work. Satellite servicing was one of the big selling points of the space shuttle, and while the program as a whole never made that kind of on-call repair visit routine, some of the most impressive of the shuttles’ missions were the maintenance trips astronauts made to the Hubble Space Telescope. This week, Virts will be configuring the Kibo airlock so that the RRM-2 slide table and task boards can be positioned outside by the ISS’s Canada-built robot arm.

Least important to the station’s science objectives perhaps, but most important to its crew, are preparations Kelly and Virts are making to replace the filters that scrub carbon dioxide from the ISS atmosphere. Remember the scene in Apollo 13 in which the astronauts had to figure out how to make a replacement filter from cardboard, plastic bags and duct tape or they would suffocate on their own exhalations? The station crew doesn’t want to have to do that—so Kelly and Virts kind of have to get things right.

That’s the rub about any given week on the space station: the maintenance jobs can be routine—but only until they’re critical. The science can seem arcane—but only until it revolutionizes our knowledge of human biology. Kelly and Kornienko have 52 such weeks to do their otherworldly work, and the other crewmembers have up to six months each. The rest of us have forever to use the knowledge they bring home.

TIME A Year In Space

Here’s How Coffee Cups in Space Could Help Save Lives on Earth

Six Space Cups as delivered to NASA January, 2015 for the Capillary Effects of Drinking in the Microgravity Environment (Capillary Beverage) investigation.
Image courtesy of Andrew Wollman/NASA Six Space Cups as delivered to NASA January, 2015 for the Capillary Effects of Drinking in the Microgravity Environment (Capillary Beverage) investigation.

The so-called Space Cups can reveal much about fluid physics

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station can now enjoy a much-needed hot cup of joe with their very own espresso machine and six specially designed microgravity coffee cups.

But NASA says these Space Cups will do a lot more than lift espresso to an astronaut’s lips. They will also provide scientists with data on how complex fluids (such as coffee or tea with sugar) move in zero gravity, writes Mark Weislogel, professor at Portland State University and former senior aerospace engineer for NASA working on microgravity fluid physics.

MORE: See the Trailer for TIME’s Unprecedented New Series: A Year in Space

Before the invention of the Space Cup, astronauts would have a drink by sucking liquid out of a bag. The new coffee cups (which are transparent 3-D-printed jugs) have a sharp inner corner that allows the liquid to be pushed along the inside of the cup — a process called capillary flow — towards the drinker’s lips.

By experimenting with capillary fluid physics in small containers like cups, scientists believe it will help them build better and safer advanced fluid systems that are relied on in space, including oxygen supply, water coolants, air conditioners, toilets and fuel and recycling systems.

But NASA says the data collected in the study can also be applied to fluid systems on earth, like improving portable medical diagnostic devices used to quickly test blood for infectious diseases in remote areas of the world.

TIME A Year In Space

The Great Space Twins Study Begins

Astronaut twins Mark and Scott Kelly
Marco Grob for TIME Astronaut twins Mark and Scott Kelly

Scott and Mark Kelly—one in space, one on Earth—go under the microscope for science

When serendipity hands scientists the perfect experiment, they don’t hesitate to jump on it. That’s surely the case with NASA’s improbable study of Scott Kelly, who has just completed the first month of a one-year stay aboard the International Space Station, and his identical twin brother Mark, who will spend the same year on Earth.

Zero-gravity messes with the human body in all manner of ways but it’s not always easy to determine which problems are actually caused by the weightlessness and which would have happened anyway. The puzzle gets a lot easier if you just happen to have a second subject with exactly the same genes, the same lifestyle and the same level of fitness. Observe any differences in their health over the year, subtract the matching genetics and what’s left over on the other side of the equal sign is likely the work of weightlessness. Much of the research that will investigate these differences in the Kellys is already underway, both in space and on the ground.

One of the most important studies involves what are known as telomeres, the cuffs that protect the tips of chromosomes in much the way a plastic aglet protects the tips of shoelaces. The longer we live, the shorter our telomeres get, and the unraveling of the chromosomes that results drives the infirmities that come with age.

“One of the things that comes up almost all the time in the interviews with Mark and Scott is this idea of the twin paradox,” says Susan Bailey, of Colorado State University, who is coordinating the telomere research. “Is the space twin going to come back younger than the Earth twin?” That kind of time dilation happens in movies like Interstellar, but only when someone is moving at close to light speed. The year Scott will spend orbiting Earth at 17,500 mph (28,000 k/h), may indeed slow his body clock, but by barely a few milliseconds. His telomeres, however, will more than make up for that, and he’ll likely come home physically older than Mark.

“A whole variety of life stresses have been associated with accelerated telomere loss as we age,” says Bailey. “You can imagine strapping yourself to a rocket and living in space for a year is a very stressful event.”

Chromosomal samples from both Kelly twins were taken and banked before Scott left to provide a telomere baseline, and more samples will be collected over the year. Mark’s are easy enough to get ahold of, but Scott will have to draw his own blood in space, spin it down and freeze it, then send it home aboard returning ships carrying cargo or astronauts. Both twins will also be followed for two years after Scott comes back to determine if any space-related telomere loss slows and if the brothers move closer to synchrony again.

The twins’ blood samples will also be used to look for the state of their epigenomes, the chemical on-off switches that sit atop the genome and regulate which genes are expressed and which are silenced. Environment is a huge driver in epigenetic changes, especially in space, as cells adjust to the unfamiliar state of weightlessness. “We can kind of build these molecular maps of what’s happening in the different cells…as they’re challenged by this low gravity condition,” says geneticist Chris Mason of Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City, who is leading this part of the work.

Also due for a good close look are Scott’s and Mark’s microbiomes. The number of cells that make up your body are actually outnumbered 10 to one by the bacteria, viruses, yeasts and molds that live in your body. It’s only the fact that most of them are also much smaller than human cells that prevents them from outweighing you 10 to one as well. Still, if you could extract them all and hold them in your hand they’d make a hot bolus of alien organisms weighing up to 5 pounds.

This is actually a good thing, since we need this interior ecosystem to keep our bodies—especially our digestive tract—running smoothly. Like so much else for Scott, that will change in space. “A significant part of what’s present normally in the gastrointestinal tract doesn’t actually colonize,” says research professor Martha Vitaterna of Northwestern University, co-investigator on the microbiome work. “These are things that are constantly being reintroduced with fresh fruits and vegetables, and that’s missing from Scott’s diet.”

Genes can also make a difference to the microbiome, since any individual’s genetic make-up may determine which microorganisms thrive in the gut and which don’t. Scott’s and Mark’s microbiomes will be compared throughout the year, principally through stool samples—ensuring some unglamorous if scientifically essential shipments coming down from space.

Other studies will involve the way body fluids shift in zero-g, drifting upwards to the head and elsewhere since there is no gravity pulling them down. This can damage vision as a result of pressure on the eyeballs and optic nerve. It can also lead to damage to the cardiovascular system, with astronauts returning to Earth at increased risk of atherosclerosis.

Some of these changes can be tracked by blood studies, which will look for proteins that regulate water excretion. Ultrasound scans can also look for vascular damage. Before leaving Earth, Scott had a few small dots tattooed on his upper body to indicate the exact points at which he has to position the ultrasound probe—easier than taking precise measurements to find the proper spots every time he’s due for a scan.

Multiple other studies will be conducted on the twins as well, looking at their immune systems, sleep cycles, psychological states and more. For years, space planners have been talking a good game about going to Mars one day, but those trips will last more than two years. We know the hardware can survive the trip; what we don’t know is if the human cargo can. A year from now—thanks to the Kellys—we’ll be a lot smarter.

TIME is covering Kelly’s mission in the new series, A Year In Space. Watch the trailer here.

TIME technology

This Is How Microsoft’s HoloLens Could Boost the Race to Colonize Mars

Microsoft's Lorraine Bardeen demonstrates the new Microsoft HoloLens headset in Redmond, Wash. on Jan. 21, 2015.
Elaine Thompson—AP Microsoft's Lorraine Bardeen demonstrates the new Microsoft HoloLens headset in Redmond, Wash. on Jan. 21, 2015.

The HoloLens display could allow scientists to 'work virtually' on Mars

Ever wonder what it’s like to walk on Mars? You’re not the only one.

Take billionaire futurist Elon Musk, for example. Like so many other earthlings, he wants to die on Mars, “just not on impact.” He thinks colonizing the Red Planet is humanity’s best shot at survival, which is precisely why he founded SpaceX.

Now you, and Musk, can have a better sense of what it’s like to physically walk on Mars’ surface. Enter virtual reality and high-tech holograms. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced that it is teaming up with Microsoft to bring both nascent technologies and Mars exploration together to simulate what it would be like to actually walk on the planet, perhaps our future home.

Together, the two entities are developing software called OnSight that will allow scientists to “work virtually” on Mars using Microsoft’s head-mounted HoloLens display.

The HoloLens virtual reality headset is a goggles-style gizmo that makes 3-D holograms and other digitally simulated stuff appear to float in mid-air in the real-life space around you. Sounds otherworldly enough for a virtually manned mission to Mars, right? Not to mention a marked improvement over eyeballing 3-D stereo views of Martian terrain on a boring, flat computer screen, which is mainly what scientists have had to make do with up to this point.

The big idea is to provide scientists with a better means to plan and conduct Mars Curiosity-aided operations on Mars. Well, virtually. For example, instead of merely inspecting images of Martian rock from a distance via the rover, the HoloLens will enable them to crouch down and take a closer look at land formations, etc.

“OnSight gives our rover scientists the ability to walk around and explore Mars right from their offices,” Dave Lavery, of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, said. “It fundamentally changes our perception of Mars, and how we understand the Mars environment surrounding the rover.”

Will this NASA-Microsoft cutting-edge tech collaboration help Musk and other wanna-be Martians eventually arrive and survive on Mars? While not a giant leap for mankind, it could be a small step in the right direction.

This article originally appeared on Entrepreneur.com.

More from Entrepreneur.com:

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com