I remember January 28, 1986. I was seven years old. I, like so many other excited students, gathered in the cafeteria of my school just before lunch to watch the Challenger take off. I didn’t know a whole lot about space back then, except that it was far away, huge, and mysterious, and that those qualities also made it pretty cool. I had absorbed by then, though, that going into space was Important. It was one of those adventures that has and hopefully will continue to define humankind. I also knew that on board that ship was a teacher who also happened to be a woman. This brought the mission much closer to home for me, as it did for so many people. I remember watching the liftoff and clapping along with everyone else, even the folks in NASA’s control room.
If the weather cooperates, tomorrow will mark another step in our long journey toward the Red Planet, with the launch of MAVEN. Mars has been an object of fascination for thousands of years. Our good friend Copernicus was the first person to postulate that Mars was a planet like Earth, which was one of the details in the heliocentric Solar System theory he published in 1543. From then on, astronomers have been studying the planet, and in 1965, spacecraft and probes joined the party. Mars has raised a multitude of questions, such as whether water exists there; whether little green aliens or some other life form exists or existed there; whether its moons are captured asteroids; and whether the planet could support human life. Key to that last question is Mars’s atmosphere, which is exactly what MAVEN will study.
Mars has changed drastically over time. It used to be warm and wet, likely supporting microbes that may have begun life on Earth, but now it’s a cold and barren desert. How did that happen? Mars used to have a thick, cloud-producing atmosphere, but over time, the atmosphere has all but vanished. Where did it go? Carl Sagan believes it’s trapped in the soil of Mars and that it might even be possible to release the atmosphere back into the sky, which would be one aspect of terraforming. But we don’t know, which is why we’re sending MAVEN to find out.
Back on July 19, NASA turned the Cassini orbiter around so that the craft faced its home world, and took a snapshot of Saturn. Actually, it took a lot of snapshots. The space agency compiled the photos into a single image, the so-called “big pic,” which has now been released, and the back-lit photograph certainly is breathtaking to behold.
Composed of 141 wide-angled photos selected from the hundreds Cassini took, the final image shows the entire width of Saturn’s ring system, a distance of more than 405,000 miles, or 650,000 kilometers. It doesn’t look real, it looks like something painted digitally.
It’s well past the witching hour here as I write this, and I should really be going to bed. But I can’t. Because I’ve found something awesome. Sure, finding awesome things is pretty much the name of the game when it comes to this gig, but this is the sort of thing that demands I tell the world about it right now, as quickly as possible, so I can go back to fiddling around with it instead of sleeping.
From the time it was launched in 2009 until its untimely demise due to two failed retraction wheels this past summer, NASA’s Kepler space telescope was a badass exoplanet-discovering machine. You could read the reams of NASA data about those planets, but if you’re looking for a more easily digestible survey of Kepler’s accomplishments you can do no better than the gorgeous animated infographic put together by the New York Times. I’m sorry, I can’t help myself: My god, it’s full of stars…
For now, it seems like Flight of the Conchords, the musical/comedy duo Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement are taking a hiatus. Clement appeared as the villain in Men in Black 3 and voiced the character Nigel in the Rio animated films. McKenzie, on the other hand, won an Academy Award for Best Original Song for “Man or Muppet” from 2011’s The Muppets, and he’s returning to handle the music duties for the Muppet sequel, Muppets Most Wanted. While McKenzie is busy with songwriting for films, he’s also set to produce a new animated series for Fox.
According to TV Guide, McKenzie’s new animated TV series is a workplace comedy that will follow “the exploits of a group of employees toiling away at an almost-obsolete NASA space center in Boulder, Colorado.” Although McKenzie will produce the new series with King of the Hill writer/producers Tony Gama-Lobo and Rebecca May, he has not yet committed to voicing any of its characters, but according to the entertainment outlet, it remains a possibility.
Back in 2009, NASA began the Commercial Crew Program (CCP), designed to promote private sector development of human spaceflight. The eventual goal is to jumpstart a spaceflight industry capable of taking tourists and government astronauts into space. The program’s focus is on crew transportation system designs, an important first step in the development of a commercial industry which is predicted to deliver cheap, reliable, and more efficient transportation of space-going folks into Low-Earth Orbit. In 2012, NASA received proposals from companies committed to working on fully developed and integrated crew transportation systems. SpaceX, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada Corporation were among those that received funding after a NASA evaluation, and are now expected to meet 15 milestones on the way to realizing their privatized human spaceflight plans. SpaceX just reached, and passed, the eighth milestone—a review of its in-flight abort procedures.
SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft made its first manned test flight in December 2010, and a few years later became the first commercial vessel to dock with the ISS. Dragon is partially reusable, and will be sent into space by the Falcon 9 launch vehicle. The recent review focused on the craft’s SuperDraco engines, the software that controls the abort procedure, and the communication between the Dragon and the Falcon 9.