Tag Archives: NASA

A Glimpse of our Space Future

Sputnik 1, the little Russian satellite that launched the space race in 1957

The American Museum of Natural History‘s new exhibit, Beyond Planet Earth, which opened last Saturday through August 12, 2012, provides a window through the past and an optimistic glimpse at the future of space exploration. As I moved through the historical portion at a press preview last Tuesday, Russian spacecraft pinged, and news reports captured the excitement and enthusiasm of historical moments, press conferences that opened up the world beyond our atmosphere.

I grew up in Florida in the Space Shuttle era, but I never saw a shuttle launch. My family tried to go once, and we thought we’d miss it because of traffic, only to arrive just in time to have the launch scrubbed seconds before scheduled liftoff. Years earlier I’d watched the TV enraptured in my elementary school library as the first Space Shuttle launched. I remember slipping on ice between two of my middle school classes  on a frigid morning in January 1986 — within a couple of hours word spread through the hallways of the Challenger explosion. So my personal piece of space nostalgia came when I walked by the case with the frangible nuts– the piece of the space shuttle that released the engine and rocket boosters and allowed the spacecraft to be reusable.

In many ways, the Space Shuttle was my window on exploration, on space, on science. The  future of understanding worlds beyond Earth seems far less focused, and though exciting and innovative, far less certain.

Sarah with rover
Sarah with the AMNH's Mars Exploration Rover

I paused at the Mars Exploration Rover long enough for a photo. Spirit and Opportunity launched the same year that I started my science writing career, and that mission marks a very personal milestone: a new career, a new adventure, a personal exploration.

But the real meat in this exhibit comes through the journey into the future, a world of Kevlar-sided Moon-homes the size of camping trailers, liquid mirror telescopes, the technology to provide enough water to drink on the Moon or beyond.

The Virgin Galactic Spaceplane: the future for astronauts and space tourists?

I had never thought about mining asteroids, but space mining for rare elements for cell phones and electronics seems plausible, maybe. After our recent near-Earth asteroid experience within the last two weeks, one interactive game that allowed me to use various strategies, bombs and mirrors to divert such disasters.

My asteroid diversions probably line up with Dennis Overbye’s inner 6-year-old boy delight at bombing Mars (see his New York Times review). The exhibit includes a touch table that allows you to terraform Mars, by building factories, setting off bombs. It took me a while to get to a point where such effects might make Mars warm enough to be comfortably habitable. And I couldn’t help but wonder, is this a good idea?

I spent the most time looking at the new Curiosity rover that’s heading to Mars next weekend and learning about the prototype for a Mars spacesuit. Dava Newman of MIT talked about the suit that uses mechanical pressure against the skin instead of a pressurized dough-boy look. The resulting suit works like high-tech athletic gear, sleek and far more streamlined for moving and climbing.

BioSuit by MIT Aeronautics

At the press conference before the  preview last Tuesday, astronaut Mike Massimino talked about his early interest in space exploration that came out of his childhood visits to the American Museum of Natural History: “There were no astronauts living on my block in Long Island.” This exhibit is a lovely tribute to explorations past and a look at the best possible future. I hope that future generations have the same chance to explore worlds beyond Earth.

Photo credits:

Sputnik: © AMNH\R. Mickens

Sarah and Rover: Carol Milano

Spaceplane and BioSuit: © AMNH\D. Finnin


No more driving for Spirit

Artist's rendering of Spirit; Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech
It’s the end of an era. The rover team has decided to leave Spirit where she is. Other than getting the solar panels in better position to catch sunlight, the rover will become a stationary science center.

This morning, the NY Times had a story that didn’t sound particularly optimistic. But this afternoon, the rover team made the official announcement.

Spirit might still have interesting science to report. And, oh, yeah, Opportunity is still driving.


Planning Spirit's escape

Spirit rover's wheels move a little; Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Back to my favorite space topic– the Spirit rover. I’m fascinated by the meticulous science and engineering effort going into an obvious obstacle: a robot stuck in the sand. The only problem? The robot and the sand are millions of miles away.

So far, even though it’s been 8 months, Spirit’s still stuck. But scientists have built animations of how the robot got stuck. They’re working with a model and similar conditions on Earth to figure out how to get Spirit rolling again. [Check out NASA’s video.] At the same time, they note, the nearby soil is rich with minerals that could indicate a watery early Martian history. So in some ways, being stuck is “like your car breaking down at Disneyland.”

But as a science communicator, I’m also glad to highlight the process of science and engineering before we know the outcome. When we tell these problem-solving stories, it’s often in hindsight. New discoveries typically involve years of hard work and months– sometimes years– to finish various steps along the way.

Ultimately, patience and problem-solving often go hand-in-hand.

Keep tabs on Spirit’s progress through NASA’s Free Spirit page.


Hubble: still amazing after all these years

NGC 6302 (Butterfly Nebula, Bug Nebula) Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team
NGC 6302 (Butterfly Nebula, Bug Nebula) Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team

I love big, beautiful Hubble pictures, and these most recent ones are no exception. When I was working on the new astronomy exhibits at Griffith Observatory a few years ago, I marveled that I got paid to dig up spectacular images like this one. In a time where basic science rarely makes the local evening news, even these photos got a mention on the 11 pm news last night.

But though I’m awed by the pretty pictures, I’m also amazed that a nearly 20-year-old telescope continues to churn out amazing science and that NASA had the wisdom to continue to service such an incredible eyepiece into the universe. Somehow it generally seems easier to build something new without seeing potential in  a tune-up for an older instrument. (And– just to be clear– I’m not saying that we shouldn’t build the Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope— no relation to Webb of Science, BTW, though no quarrels with sharing a very good name).

I guess the Hubble is also reminding me how valuable refurbishing something old, but made with quality– like a well-made piece of furniture or the Birkenstock sandals I’ve worn to death over the past 4 summers– can be in the long run.


Molecule of the Week: Hydrogen

Though hydrogen is the smallest atom and is perched at the top left of the periodic table, hydrogen in nature exists as two atoms hooked together.

Hydrogen hit the news this weekend as a leak led NASA to scrub the Space Shuttle Endeavor launch:

Hydrogen is as clean as chemical fuels get: burning it produces water, a useful waste product. But just like a possible leak of other fuels including gasoline, hydrogen is a potential safety concern.

Hydrogen and helium (its sister element on the right side of the periodic table) form the basis of new stars. These chemicals rotate and condense, ultimately integrating their nuclei to form larger elements through nuclear fusion and releasing energy.


More Mars Rovers

The rovers are still my favorite NASA mission, for reasons I’ve already written about. Even if the rovers quit tomorrow, the rover science team of Steve Squyres of Cornell and company would still have decades of data to comb through and analyze. Last Friday, they published more of the Opportunity data in the journal Science (requires subscription) that documents the role that salty, acidic water and wind have played in sculpting the magnificent rock formations in the craters of Meridiani Planum.

Cape St Vincent explored by Opportunity in Victoria Crater, Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell
Cape St Vincent explored by Opportunity in Victoria Crater, Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell
Spirit stuck in the sand, Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech
Spirit stuck in the sand, Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

But I still have my soft spot for Spirit, even though that robot is stuck in the sand with another gimpy wheel. The pictures from rover missions are amazing, the science is spectacular, but I’m still floored by the engineering and troubleshooting involved in maneuvering a robot in a harsh environment on a planet 100 million miles away. The mission engineers have managed these problems remotely for more than 5 years– I know my car would need a hand-on tune-up long before that.

That’s not to say that there isn’t hands-on testing involved, and apparently, those steps are underway on the ground at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to find a way out of the sand.

Work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to find a way out for Spirit, Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech
Work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to find a way out for Spirit, Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

I’m not a gambling woman, but my (Monopoly) money is on the rover and the engineers.

Check out these news reports for more details:

The New York Times article from May 25

And an article by the San Francisco Chronicle‘s veteran science reporter, David Perlman


Hubble mania

The repair of the Hubble telescope has been big NASA news, but I’m impressed with the way it’s been covered in the Twitterverse through spacewalk updates, astronaut tweets in orbit, and general chatter.

Hubble telescope, credit: NASA, STScI
Hubble telescope, credit: NASA, STScI

NASA has always had a great website and tends to go the extra mile to communicate what’s going on with the public. As a science journalist, I’ve found that they’re one of the easiest government agencies to work with: they tend to be really good about putting you in touch with scientists who are excited to talk about their work.

But in scanning the NASA twitter feeds today, I was particularly impressed by what twitter brings to the table in terms of public engagement and understanding of science. Here’s an exchange between @NASA and @sweetgreatmom:

@NASA What is the purpose for the thermal blanket?

@sweetgreatmom The blankets protect Hubble against solar degradation and space debris.

Curiosity and public engagement are essential to keeping science important in society. Though I don’t always know exactly what to do with Twitter myself, I’m delighted that it mediates this kind of communication between everyday people (taxpayers who fund this exploration) and the people who carry it out.

@NASA also quotes John Grunsfeld today, one of the astronauts who completed the final spacewalk to repair Hubble today: “Hubble isn’t just a satellite- it’s about humanity’s quest for knowledge.” It’s great that we all get to participate.

Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration
Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration