The Science from Columbia

Ten years ago today, my younger self sat down on a bean bag in front of the telly. I tuned into BBC News 24. A Space Shuttle was about to land, and I was going to watch it live.

I was only 12, and had recently been captivated by the Space Shuttle Program. I’d get up in the middle of the night, watch, and record on VHS, shuttle launches. They were enthralling. Now I sat down to watch, what I think should have been, my first shuttle landing. The date: Saturday 1st February 2003.

Credit: NASA

Credit: NASA

Everything seemed to be going smoothly, but as it progressed there were no pictures of the shuttle passing through 200,000ft. Still, I didn’t know any better. A few minutes later the time remaining to landing hit zero. Then the horrific pictures started to come in. The Space Shuttle Columbia had been lost.

Unlike the majority of Space Shuttle missions at the time, to develop the International Space Station, this mission was purely scientific. It carried the SPACEHAB module, where all of the experiments would be conducted. There were biological sciences, life sciences, combustion sciences, atmospheric sciences, physical sciences experiments and more to be conducted on this mission.

A lot of data was lost when Columbia disintegrated, but some data was downlinked during the mission, some of which is helping us down here today. Some include:

  • Combustion chemistry experiments have helped to develop cleaner burning engines
  • Experiments involving soot and how it can be used as a useful industrial product
  • An atmospheric experiment discovered a new atmospheric phenomena called Transient Ionospheric Glow Emission in Red
  • An experiment looking into the use of fine water mists to aid firefighting techniques
  • An experiment into the development of prostate cancers

The results of these experiments have benefited us down here on Earth, and so I’d like to thank the crew of STS-107 for their efforts to further the human race.

Per Ardua ad Astra

Sources: NASA Space Research, Freestar ReportScience Gained from STS-107

Curiosity’s Mission So Far – In Timelapse

One of the best things about the Curiosity mission is that the folks at JPL make all (and I mean every single last one) of the raw images available to the public to download and play around with. Indeed, this is what a lot of space bloggers have been doing like Emily Lakdawalla and @mars-stu‘s Gale Gazette (both are essential reading). I noticed however that a timelapse had yet to be done.

So, on my day off the other day with nothing much to do, thanks to the rain, I spent a few hours downloading every single (or the majority of) images from Curiosity’s left navigation camera. Slap em together at 6 frames per second, add some music and this is what you get…enjoy.

I am also working on a front hazard camera timelapse, but you will need to wait for more photos to be taken as there haven’t been as many yet. Stay tuned.

Thoughts on Neil Armstrong

These days a lot of people seem to be inspired by musicians and actors, perhaps an athlete from the recent olympics. I find myself in a different boat, inspired by people who achieved their great moments long before I was even born. I find myself inspired by people like Newton, Kepler, Feynman, Sagan and Armstrong.

I recall, many years ago when I was younger, having a CD-ROM of, I think, the encyclopaedia Britannica. It contained a wealth of interesting information. I remember one such aspect of it where you could play around with the Moon’s orbit. A great, unbeknown to me, celestial mechanics lesson. There was also a small section on the Moon landings. I could watch Neil Armstrong’s first steps over and over. And I did. I was enthralled.

Years later my interest and passion for space had developed. I began to truly understand what the Moon landing’s were about, the great energy and determination behind them, the huge risks involved and the human need to explore.

For me, the Moon landings have shown me more about what it is to be human more than anything, and it all began with Neil’s first small step.

Even today when I watch footage of the Moon landings, I feel shivers creeping up my spine, sometimes even a tear develops in the corner of my eye. It’s almost a non-religious numinous experience. I just fill with awe over the grandeur of it all. We really did this, I have to say to myself.

Neil Armstrong

So I was incredibly shocked and saddened to hear about the loss of Neil Armstrong on the 25th August. He had inspired me and many millions of people across the planet. He was a reluctant hero but he embodies the true human spirit of adventure and exploration, and for that, thank you, Neil.

We can hope now that this sad news spurs on our next great adventure, that it enthuses another generation of people to learn STEM subjects and that it urges politicians to develop the worldwide space effort.

I would love to hear your thoughts and feelings on Neil Armstrong, and if you’d like to share them, please leave a comment below.

There’s a great many literature on the Apollo missions and they’re a great read. There’s a lot I never knew about Apollo that is fascinating. I’ve recently finished Failure Is Not An Option and Apollo 13. I’ve also recently ordered A Man on the Moon, that I understand is the best Apollo book around. You should also check out the great TV series’ From the Earth to the Moon and NASA’s Greatest Missions: When We Left Earth and the film documentaries Moonwalk One and In the Shadow of the Moon.

Thanks again Neil

12 men walked on the surface of the Moon.
No one has returned or ventured farther.



Welcome to the new Mars

A nuclear powered rover, the size of a mini, has landed on the surface of Mars. It pulled off one of the most complicated landings ever attempted. I still can’t quite believe they did it. For me this event topped off anything and everything that has happened at this years’ Olympics.

Landing the Mars Science Laboratory rover was, by any measure, the most challenging mission ever attempted in the history of robotic planetary exploration.

We’ve got at least 2 years of amazing discoveries ahead of us (it could last for a decade or more though). Every time we’ve landed on Mars we’ve seen Mars anew. And here she is:

Welcome to the new Mars

There will be better, full panoramic images to come in the coming days, so be sure to check out the MSL homepage.

And to those of you who think this is a waste of money, that we won’t benefit from this at all, and that the money should have been spent on more ‘worthwhile’ things, please read this.

It is far better to dare mighty things even though we might fail than to stay in the twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.



The Challenges of Getting to Mars: Curiosity’s Seven Minutes of Terror

It’s a little over a month until NASA’s new Mars rover, Curiosity (Mars Science Laboratory), lands on the surface of Mars (Anticipated landing time is 0531 GMT, 0631BST on the 6th August – subject to refinement).

The hardest part of this mission? Entry, Descent and Landing. Curiosity will hit the Martian atmosphere at a little over 13,000mph and it’s got to get to 0mph…in 7 minutes. This fantastic video shows you the difficulties that will be faced and the technology designed to overcome it. Trust me, you’ll be impressed!

I’m thankfully on a day off on the said date, and will be getting up early to follow the EDL’s progress and the first pictures that come through. I think the hashtag #MarsCuriosity will be used on Twitter. So join in!

Venus Transit: Some Impressive Pictures

So we’ve seen (well I haven’t as it was cloudy) the last Venus Transit until 2117. Here are some of the pretty incredible photos taken by astronomers across the globe.
They give a grand sense of scale on the enormity of the solar system. (Oh, there’s a fantastic video at the bottom too!)

Venus Transit. Credit Chris Hetlage

Path of the Venus Transit. Credit: NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory

Venus Close Up! Credit: JAXA/NASA/Hinode

Dragon Breathes Fire

The new era of spaceflight has officially begun. SpaceX have launched its Falcon 9 rocket with the Dragon capsule to drop supplies off at the International Space Station. It launched, got berthed (note not docked…yet) to the space station and has returned. Remember, this is a private company. This is the future.

One of the unique things with Dragon is that it’s the only vehicle capable of bringing things back from the space station, such as science experiments. Scientists are now able to launch tests, leave them to work on the ISS for a few months and then have them come back for detailed analysis. Brilliant!

It’s all at a significantly cheaper cost too, plus they’re going to be shipping astronauts to and fro as well. Double brilliant! And then there’s the Falcon 9 Heavy, capable of lofting gargantuan satellites into space, again at significantly cheaper prices.

And the best thing of all? This is only the beginning!

Here are some great photos from launch, berthing and landing.

Falcon 9 launches to the ISS with Dragon. Credit: SpaceX

The ISS robotic arm grapples Dragon for berthing. Credit: NASA

Dragon being unberthed. Credit: NASA

Dragon safely back on Earth. Credit: SpaceX

Rare Interview: An Audience with Neil Armstrong

An Audience with Neil Armstrong

Neil Armstrong very rarely gives interviews, so this is something pretty special. This is a 4 part interview (each 15 minutes long) discussing different aspects of the space race and Neil Armstrong’s involvement in it. There aren’t many of these around so sit back and enjoy. He’s really a joy to listen too.

Click here for the interviews

We’re off the moons of Jupiter…in 2022

I’ve been waiting a long time for this and I’m pretty sure all planetary scientists have been waiting a long time for this too. It’s regarded as the most important destination(s) in the solar system. That’s right, we’re finally off to the moons of Jupiter. Well we will be in 2022 anyway.

After a brief competition with two other space mission proposals JUICE (JUpiter ICy moons Explorer) will head off to Jupiter in 2022 and arrive in 2030 and spent a minimum of 3 years studying Jupiter’s moons. And it’s a European mission too!

JUICE and the Jupiter System

Why the moons of Jupiter? Well, the moons here are exceedingly interesting. Io, first of all, is the most volcanic object in the solar system (although Io won’t be studied much with this mission). The other 3 main moons are the really exciting ones though. Callisto is a fairly large moon and its surface is incredibly old, peppered with craters. It’s holding clues as to the formation of the Jupiter system some 4.5 billion years ago. Europa, the most famous of the moons, has a liquid ocean beneath it’s icy surface, and a very bizarre looking surface. Could there be life in the ocean? It’s a distinct possibility. The mission is mainly focusing on Ganymede though, the largest moon in the solar system, so large it’s bigger than Mercury! It generates it’s own magnetic field. How? Through a salty sub-surface ocean or a molten iron core?


The spacecraft itself looks quite interesting too. It’s going to be operating at the limits of what’s possible. It’ll be using solar power where there isn’t much solar power. Previous missions have used nuclear generators which are far more efficient this far out, but there’s a shortage of the plutonium required for such endeavours at the moment. We’re likely to get an advancement in solar power technology through the efforts of this mission though.

In my opinion NASA have really mucked up. With all their budget cuts they’re not planning a mission to launch to study Jupiter’s moons until well into the 2030′s despite having been told it is the utmost priority of planetary science at the moment. There’s a possibility they’ll add some hardware to the JUICE mission, but we’ll have to really wait and see. What we’d like to see is a Europa lander and ocean explorer (as outlined in NASA’s JIMO mission, now cancelled).

There’s one certainty though, we’re going to find out some truly exciting stuff and we’re going to be surprised with what we find!

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Why is the Universe so Friggin’ Confusing?

Should we really expect the Universe to fit nicely with our perceptions of the world? Should it agree nicely with ‘common sense’? Some people think so, but there’s no reason it should. In fact the Universe doesn’t really fit in with common sense at all, especially in the quantum world. There are some profoundly disturbing and philosophically challenging facts about the Universe that have come to light through modern cosmology. Whilst you may think ‘this doesn’t make any logical sense, how can this be true?’, things such as quantum physics do actually ensure that everything works. Without it protons, neutrons and electrons wouldn’t be able to stick together to make the elements and so on.

Now, I’m no expert, I don’t pretend to be, but I want to discuss the most disturbing theory of modern science: string theory. Or, to be more precise, the Multiverse, where there are many, perhaps and infinite number of, universes.

Here is a recent video from TED presented by Brian Greene, a very well respected theoretical physicist. The video is 20 minutes long but it is very interesting (apart from the annoying sound effects).

Pretty remarkable, huh? And my hunch (I know I shouldn’t have hunches) is that the Multiverse theory is correct. The disturbing thing though, something that Brain Greene forgets to mention is that this can also mean that there are Universes in which I have written all of this backwards, or in another language, or indeed a Universe in which I actually became an astronaut (can I go to that Universe please?) This, I find, is profoundly disturbing though and I end up asking myself some very deep, unanswerable questions.

What do you think of it all?