There’s a very good chance you’re familiar with the nearly tragic events surrounding NASA’s famed Apollo 13 mission, and a slightly lesser chance you’ve watched Ron Howard’s solid (if dramatically overbearing) feature film of the same name, in which an AIDS-ridden Tom Hanks stoically saves the day with a volleyball named Wilson. (It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, so I may have fudged the details.) In any case, there’s no possible way Hollywood could have properly conveyed the severity of the events, regardless of their sound intentions. So now we have the video above, called “As It Happened,” which is the latest in a line of videos on the fabulous lunarmodule5 YouTube page, where the entire Apollo 13 mission, from launch to splashdown, is being archived for easy public consumption. Well, easy assuming you don’t easily freak out listening to would-be disasters as they’re happening.
Jupiter is set to give Mars and Saturn a run for their money when it comes to being the most talked-about planet in the coming years. The news that Jupiter’s moon Europa contains water vapor plumes helped solidify the Solar System’s biggest planet as a particularly important exploration target, especially when it comes to the search for life. A number of missions, including Juno, which is scheduled to arrive in 2016, have Jupiter in their sights, including the ESA’s JUICE (JUpiter ICy moon Explorer) probe, which is due to launch in 2022. Now it seems that Russia will join the fun, presumably by linking up with the JUICE mission by sending a probe to explore Jupiter’s moon Ganymede.
Robots in space — two great tastes that taste great together. They might go to Mars ahead of the humans to set up facilities, 3-D printed robotic spiders might build spacecraft, and robots might make isolated astronauts less lonely. Yet another robotics advancement at NASA pairs humans and robots, allowing humans to control the actions of robotic counterparts using a good ol’ Microsoft Kinect and something called the Oculus Rift.
The Kinect sensor provides the position tracking, while the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset allows for rotational tracking and the first-person experience one gets when playing a game in virtual reality. When the user has the view he needs, he can perform tasks which control the real-time movements of robotic arm. NASA has been using a JACO robotic arm developed by Kinova, a Canadian company that specializes in rehabilitation and research. The arm has three fingers, six degrees of freedom, and is designed to represent a “new generation of lightweight portable robotic manipulators.”
Given my fascination with the universe, my love for Carl Sagan, and my hopes that the reboot of Cosmos will take viewers by storm, it’s only appropriate that my last post of the year would be about space — and more specifically, about a planetary scientist who arranged a pretty awesome photo op of Earth from the Cassini spacecraft.
Carolyn Porco, leader of the Cassini Imaging Science team and professor of astrophysics and planetary scientists, is following in Carl Sagan’s footsteps, especially when it comes to appreciating the significance of Earth as the “pale blue dot.” The phrase refers to a photograph taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 probe on its way out of the Solar System, nearly four billion miles from Earth. At Sagan’s request, NASA had the probe turn around and take a photo of Earth, which Sagan then elegantly wrote about. While the photo provides some perspective on the enormity of the universe and the relative smallness of Earth, the original image wasn’t actually that good, and Porco has been wanting to update that image for a long time.
DARPA’s Robotics Challenge, where teams compete to design and develop disaster response robots,
kicked off in June, with the software-based Virtual Robotics Challenge. For this first phase, teams create software and ran it on a robotic simulation. The challenge has now moved from virtual to physical, and the trials have just wrapped up, leaving a field of eight finalists that will compete in the Grand Challenge next year. In case you were wondering, the winner walks away with $2 million in prize money.
Unless his flying reindeer are truly amazing, like Falcor, Santa probably doesn’t make it to space. Or maybe he does, and that’s actually where he is the other 364 days of the Earth year. A galactic sleigh would have come in pretty handy at the ISS this Christmas, as astronauts had to attend to an emergency situation that led to a holiday spacewalk. You know, to take in all the lights.
I mean, they’re not decorating the tree, making a holiday dinner, or getting drunk on eggnog, so why not?
American astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Michael Hopkins have gotten to walk in space twice in the past four days. Today’s was the second Christmas Eve spacewalk ever. Is there a best day for a spacewalk? I think I’d like to do it on New Year’s Day, maybe. I probably wouldn’t enjoy an emergency spacewalk at any time, though, and that’s what these were. NASA helpfully tweeted along the way and provided a video feed.