Tag Archives: NASA

To Touch the Sun: NASA’s Unique Mission

NASA has had its fair share of “impossible” missions before, sending a man to the Moon, a probe to Mars, and heck, the two Voyagers are out of our solar system. However, this mission may be the impossible one.

The Parker Solar Probe before its launch; photo from socialunderground.com
The Parker Solar Probe at the APL in Maryland; photo from socialunderground.com

The Parker Solar Probe is set to launch next year as the first probe to make a visit to our nearest star and source of life as we know.  “The probe will face very brutal heat and radiation conditions as it will provide us with a close observation of our sun and ultimately a star,” NASA said in a statement. The probe recently was on display at John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Maryland but before long, the spacecraft will be making its trip back to Florida where it will be launched towards its final destination: the sun.

An artist's rendering of the Parker Solar Probe near the sun; photo from www.iradehaber.com
An artist’s rendering of the Parker Solar Probe near the sun; photo from www.iradehaber.com

The $1.6 billion mission will also aim to improve space weather forecasts that can impact life on Earth and astronauts in space. Nicola Fox, a project scientist for APL stated, “Parker Solar Probe is going to answer questions about solar physics that we have puzzled over for more than six decades.”

This mission was first considered back in 1958, before the Apollo missions and Mars Rovers, making it one of NASA’s oldest projects on the books. The main reason why it took so long before the mission was because of the sun’s intense heat.  The probe will be 3.9 million miles away from the sun’s surface but will be well within the orbit of Mercury. Even though, the probe won’t “touch the sun,” it will face temperatures on the upwards of 2,500 degrees F.  The probe will launch between the dates of July 31, 2018 and Aug. 19, 2018. The spacecraft will orbit around the sun a total of 24 times in a seven-year period with speeds of 500,000 miles. With speeds like that, you could travel up to California and back in one minute.

 

 

Flowers in space?

Astronauts on the International Space Station have been trying to cultivate edible plants in microgravity for around two years.

After various unsuccessful attempts at growth, you’d think these astronauts would be weary after these failed growth cycles. However, their perseverance has proven to be worthwhile, because they now have their first ever zinnia flowers blooming in space.

Zinnia is a genus of plants of the sunflower tribe within the daisy family. They are cultivated for their vibrant flowers, but they are also edible.

 

Scott Kelly, U.S. astronaut, posted a picture of one of the zinnia flowers on Twitter.

 

According to a recent NASA blog, after mold started growing on some of the leaves because of high humidity, Kelly was able to bring the flowers back to life.

This isn’t the first time plants have sprouted in space, however. The International Space Station team brought their Veggie plant system to life halfway through the year 2014. The team have also grown red romaine lettuce.

The “Outredgeous” lettuce was grown aeroponically — in an air or mist environment without soil. Plants grown in these environments require much less water and fertilizer without a need for pesticide. These plants also are less prone to disease, and grow up to three times faster than plants grown in soil, NASA has stated.

NASA, in a blog post, wrote that this was the “first time a flowering crop experiment will be grown on the orbiting laboratory”.

Some have argued that a sunflower was actually the first flower to grow in space, although NASA has not yet commented.

Don Pettit, astronaut, grew a zucchini, sunflower and broccoli out of zip-lock bags on the International Space Station as a personal science experiment, documented in a NASA blog called “Diary of Space Zucchini”, in 2012.

Alexandra Whitmire from NASA’s Human Research Program said that NASA’s Veggie project could also provide crucial information for various other missions. For example, understanding watering schedules in microgravity, and knowing what to do if there is mold growth or other challenges in these extreme conditions on Mars.

“In future missions, the importance of plants will likely increase, given the crews’ limited connection to Earth,” Whitmire wrote in a NASA blog.

NASA hopes the veggie project will become a regular facility for International Space Station astronauts to grow fresh food in space.

 

Alien space ship? Probably not.

The internet exploded this week when scientists from NASA announced that they had spotted a strange star that appeared, without a better comparison, like the Death Star from Star Wars.

Scientists had been observing KIC 8462852 (or the WTF star) when they noticed some unusual behavior around the star. The internet, naturally, has been quick to shout, “ALIENS!” This is because the star was observed with strange dips in brightness. One paper theorized that these dips in brightness may be caused by comets being forced towards the sun by the heavy gravity of a large passing planet or star.

Are there real alien spaceships? Graphic from Gallery Hip
Are there real alien spaceships? Graphic from Gallery Hip

Of course, there’s also the less likely theory that the WTF star is encased in a giant alien structure which absorbs energy from it.. Some believe that the giant structure is lined with solar panels, and that aliens are harnessing the power of this star to power their own super-alien technology.

Scientists have stressed that the public shouldn’t get their hopes up. Just as earlier this year, when there was thought to be an alien spaceship near our own sun, this is likely to be just as disappointing. If you don’t recall, there was a strange spotting in a sun flare which was thought (by the internet, of course) to be a giant alien mothership stopping by the sun to absorb energy from it.

Scientists from SETI have begun using one of their own telescopes to try to detect any artificial radio waves emanating from the star. NASA’s Kepler telescope discovered the strange star, along with over a thousand exoplanets, and thousands of other objects waiting to be identified.

According to the website I Fucking Love Science, “This study is only the first of on a potentially long series of observations by SETI based on Kepler’s data. The planet hunter’s data implies the possibility of billions of habitable rocky planets in the Milky Way – billions of possible leads for SETI astronomers to chase.”

So are there aliens out there? Scientists think so. As vast as our universe is, there has to be other life out there, right? In April, Ellen Stofan, one of NASA’s high-ranking scientists claimed that “we’re on the right road” to finding alien life. She suspects within the next 20-30 years, we will have definitive evidence of alien life.

Don’t get your hopes up too high for this unlikely alien theory, because you’ll likely be disappointed. However, if we can find water on mars, what can’t we do?

Close call, Earth

Just four days after doomsdayers claimed the end of the world was approaching, NASA revealed a giant asteroid was heading towards Earth.

On Saturday, a “monster” asteroid flew by our planet at a speed of 40,000 mph. A strike by the 1.5 mile wide heavenly body with the name 86666 (2000 FL 10) would have been catastrophic, according to NASA scientists.

On Friday, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab’s Near Earth Object Office, which tracks asteroids, said it would not come closer than 15 million miles, called a ‘near miss’. NASA issued the all-clear, confirming that the giant asteroid 86666 passed by safely.

In response to Qs, asteroid 86666 (2000 FL 10) will safely pass Earth Oct 10 by over 15 million mi/25 million km. It poses zero threat.

— Asteroid Watch (@AsteroidWatch) October 8, 2015

An asteroid almost hit Earth. Graphic from The Guardian
An asteroid almost hit Earth. Graphic from The Guardian

Asteroid 86666 was first seen 16.2 years ago on the 30th of March, 2000 by the Catalina Sky Survey at the University of Arizona. The asteroid came closest to Earth on Saturday, and by mid-November they will be far away from each other.

NASA tracks asteroids and comets passing within 30 million miles of Earth using telescopes. The JPL program keeps track of the orbits of comets and asteroids and publishes warnings if one is due to crash into Earth, or if it will come close. People can also monitor the comets and asteroids themselves by typing the name of the rock into JPL’s Small-Body Database Browser.

In August NASA was forced to issue a statement dispelling countless rumors, reports and speculations of a deadly asteroid threatening earth.

Conspiracy theorists claimed one would hit Puerto Rico in September, causing widespread destruction to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the US, Mexico and Southern America. Paul Chodas, manager of NASA’s Near-Earth Object office said there was ‘no scientific basis or shred of evidence’ to confirm those rumors.

In 2011 there were rumors about the so-called ‘doomsday’ comet Elenin. Then there were assertions surrounding the end of the Mayan calendar on the 21st of December 2012, insisting the world would end with a large asteroid impact.

Earlier this year, asteroids 2004 BL86 and 2014 YB35 were also said to be on dangerous near-Earth paths, but both went without incident.

All known Potentially Hazardous Asteroids, have less than a 0.01 percent chance of hitting Earth in the next 100 years. Chance of collisions with earth is highly unlikely so there’s seemingly nothing to worry about in our lifetime.

How NASA inconvenienced the plot of The Martian with their new discovery

For a long time, Mars was thought to be a big, red, dusty wasteland floating through outer space. Our previous explorations of the planet have revealed pictures that depicted it as just that, a wasteland. Mars has only been known to have two poles, much like ours, which are covered in ice. However, there seemed to be no sign of liquid water– until now.

NASA announced  in a press conference on Monday that they have discovered what appears to be flowing, liquid water on the planet. It’s been thought that mars could have had oceans and lakes ions ago, but scientists thought that the planet may be too cold to have liquid water on it now.

An Illustrated History of Water on Mars. Graphic from Wikipedia
Proof of water on Mars throws a wrench in the plot of “The Martian”. Graphic from Wikipedia

Five years ago, NASA scientists noticed some dark streaks that appeared during the warmer months, and disappeared in colder months. Scientists have been observing these streaks since, but assumed the streaks could be dust or small landslides. Studying the different kinds of minerals and elements on the planet, scientists realized something had to have been moistening these minerals in order for them to flow the way they have been.

“The amount of water could be huge: the scientists estimated that one dark line contains, at a minimum, enough water to fill 40 of the enormous swimming pools used for international competitions,” according to USA Today.

The issue with this liquid is that the dust on mars absorbs it so quickly, it’s more of a sludgy landslide than a flowing river as many people are misunderstanding. The water is also thought to be many times more salty than our own oceans water.

Scientists remain optimistic about the discovery, however.  “Water is the elixir of life,”  Mars expert Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis told USA Today. In other words, this discovery is a huge step towards discovering some kind of life on Mars. This also means that there’s a great possibility that humans could populate Mars, in the very distant future. Although it may be decades or even centuries before we colonize Mars, the possibility is much greater than it was before this discovery.

This discovery comes at an inconvenient time, as Hollywood is preparing to premiere a Mars-based movie featuring Matt Damon.

The Martian, which is based on a book by Andy Weir, is about an astronaut, Watney, who finds himself stranded on Mars. Watney is left to his own devices to find a way to grow his own food until he can be rescued. NASA’s discovery of water on Mars sort of spoils the plot of the movie, because Mars is supposed to be a dry, arid wasteland.

Weir seemed pretty optimistic about the discovery, telling Wired Magazine that the setting of Watney’s base camp is nowhere near where water has been detected on Mars. Jim Green, NASA’s head of planetary science also told Wired that despite the new discovery, he suggests that his scientific friends, “check the science at the door. Go on in and enjoy the movie.”

India to Mars or bust

Last week, India joined a select few nations in entering the Red Planet’s orbit. After the nail biting year since the launch, India is now forever to be known as the first Asian nation to reach Mars and the first of all nations to successfully reach Mars on their first try. India’s Mars’ orbiter (or, Mangalyaan) has joined the US, Europe, and Soviet’s orbiters as well as the US’s two ground rovers.

The huge success for the Asian nation has been applauded by their fellows in space travel as well as other nations who’re still in the process of attempting to make this great advancement in the scientific community, such as Japan and China.

And while they aren’t the first nation to orbit Mars, 51 similar missions have been attempted yet only 21 have succeeded. That India has managed to do it on their first attempt and with a fraction of any others’ budget is an incredible achievement.

The ISRO (or, India Space Research Organization) succeeded in this mission on a budget of a mere $74 million, compared to the $671 million that NASA used to launch their own MAVEN only a few days earlier.

So how were they able to cut costs without compromising the quality of their spacecraft?

India’s space program chose to concentrate their technology into a smaller craft focused on certain hot-topics, such as an ability to measure methane gas in the Red Planet’s atmosphere, and therefore search for life. This ability will offer assistance to the other orbiters currently measuring these levels in order for all the nations to obtain more reliable data.

Some, particularly within the impoverished nation, have criticized India’s spending on such an enormous mission. However, with this successful mission in advanced technology, India has now created opportunity to greatly enhance their political and economic position. They hope that this achievement will attract more attention from wealthy industrial countries and join as a major player.

Regardless, India and their ISRO have launched themselves into the history books and our headlines.

3D printing for foodies

Over the last couple of years, the excitement over 3D printing has been making headlines. The application for this incredible technology ranges from medical innovations to entertainment novelties. While prosthetic limbs and mini-me figurines are pretty cool, the next big thing is already here: 3D food printing. Continue reading 3D printing for foodies

Coming soon to a planet near you

Space has always been something of a mystery to people. Planets have, until recently, only been able to be seen through an earthbound lens. Developments in science over the last several decades, however, have landed man on the Moon and a rover on Mars. In keeping with this trend, we hope the time isn’t too far from now when people will have first-hand experience with these planets we have only seen through a lens. Continue reading Coming soon to a planet near you

Shut it NASA: Problems after government shutdown

Coincidentally, the day the government shut down on Oct. 1st, NASA celebrated its 55th birthday. They were hit the hardest during this shutdown leaving only two people in their facilities to maintain communication with the astronauts 250 miles above the Earth’s surface on the International Space Station.

Continue reading Shut it NASA: Problems after government shutdown

From Our Perspective: Science leaders don’t know science

politics-vs-science1
Photo from Creative Commons.

The government has many departments that handle all walks of life within its power.  The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology has jurisdiction over the Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, National Science Foundation and the famous NASA. Today we look at Republican Texas Rep. Lamar Smith, the current head of the committee. Smith is also known as creator of the very unpopular Stop Online Piracy Act, and was in the news a few months ago for basically denying global warming. Continue reading From Our Perspective: Science leaders don’t know science

A once-liquid Mars

The search for water on Mars has gone on for almost as long as humanity has been traveling beyond our own planet. While tantalizing hints have been uncovered at various stages in this search, NASA’s latest baby, the Curiosity rover, has finally unearthed conclusive evidence that flowing water once existed on the red planet. Continue reading A once-liquid Mars

Voyager spacecrafts are out of this world

We’re leaving the solar system.

How’s that sound for a vacation? It’s certainly not something you do on the spur of the moment, and it’s a trip the Voyager spacecrafts have been on for 35 years.  Launched in the late 1970s by NASA, these two ambassadors for humanity are laden with objects meant to give extraterrestrial intelligence a taste of life on Earth, and have finally reached the edge of our solar system. Continue reading Voyager spacecrafts are out of this world

Solar storms what you need to know

On March 8 the little blue and green marble known as the Earth was showered in excess solar radiation. The sun has been in a phase of higher than normal activity for the past two months.

Early in the morning on March 8, the Earth was hit with the second strongest solar flare since 2005. The solar flare was launched from the sun at 1,400 miles per second. This jet of highly energized particles was expected to hit the Earth’s magnetic field around 1 a.m. Continue reading Solar storms what you need to know