NASA Plans to Grow Veggies on the Moon

Written by The Night Sky Guy on December 6, 2013 – 6:10 am -

Imagine turnips and carrots sprouting on Earth’s closest neighboring world.

May sound a bit far-fetched but if humans ever want to live and work on the the moon for not just days but months and years- growing plants will be a big part of of the adventure. Now NASA is working on a project to send a tiny, automated greenhouse to the moon that will eventually lay the foundation for setting up permanent lunar gardens.

Read the rest of my Moon garden story at National Geographic News

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Saturn’s Giant Hex At Its Best

Written by The Night Sky Guy on December 5, 2013 – 6:02 pm -

A mysterious hexagon-shaped weather pattern on the planet Saturn had its most detailed portrait taken this autumn, courtesy of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.

Monstrous jet streams on the ringed gas giant has given birth to a six-sided formation that has stumped researchers for many year but thanks to new, crystal clear imagery it looks like we are getting to understand better what makes weird weather on other worlds tick. Amazingly current theories hold that this bizarre wind generated pattern may have been around for decades, if not longer.

Read my full story on the Hex -shaped pattern on Saturn at National Geographic News

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Soviet Mars Lander Found Thanks to Crowdsourcing

Written by The Night Sky Guy on April 11, 2013 – 7:31 pm -

Another amazing example of the power of the internet and citizen science came to light this week when NASA announced that an online community of space geeks from Russia may have found the Soviet Mars 3 probe – which has been sitting silent on the surface of the Red Planet since 1971. Thanks to the super high resolution imagery from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, tantalizing new evidence of the old spacecraft’s hardware is clearly visible.

Read the rest of my story on this amazing discovery  at National Geographic News

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Preview of Upcoming Mars Rover Landing

Written by The Night Sky Guy on July 16, 2012 – 3:53 pm -

With only 20 days to go until NASA’s car-sized rover touches down on the surface of Mars, scientists and engineers working on the mission held a news conference today laying out some of the details on why this is the most challenging and exciting mission to the Red Planet yet!   Here is the official NASA story on what all the buzz was about…

“NASA’s most advanced planetary rover is on a precise course for an early August landing beside a Martian mountain to begin two years of unprecedented scientific detective work. However, getting the Curiosity rover to the surface of Mars will not be easy.

“The Curiosity landing is the hardest NASA mission ever attempted in the history of robotic planetary exploration,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “While the challenge is great, the team’s skill and determination give me high confidence in a successful landing.”

The Mars Science Laboratory mission is a precursor for future human missions to Mars. President Obama has set a challenge to reach the Red Planet in the 2030s. To achieve the precision needed for landing safely inside Gale Crater, the spacecraft will fly like a wing in the upper atmosphere instead of dropping like a rock. To land the 1-ton rover, an airbag method used on previous Mars rovers will not work. Mission engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., designed a “sky crane” method for the final several seconds of the flight. A backpack with retro-rockets controlling descent speed will lower the rover on three nylon cords just before touchdown.

During a critical period lasting only about seven minutes, the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft carrying Curiosity must decelerate from about 13,200 mph (about 5,900 meters per second) to allow the rover to land on the surface at about 1.7 mph (three-fourths of a meter per second). Curiosity is scheduled to land at approximately 10:31 p.m. PDT on Aug. 5 (1:31 a.m. EDT on Aug. 6).

“Those seven minutes are the most challenging part of this entire mission,” said Pete Theisinger, the mission’s project manager at JPL. “For the landing to succeed, hundreds of events will need to go right, many with split-second timing and all controlled autonomously by the spacecraft. We’ve done all we can think of to succeed. We expect to get Curiosity safely onto the ground, but there is no guarantee. The risks are real.”

During the initial weeks after the actual landing, JPL mission controllers will put the rover through a series of checkouts and activities to characterize its performance on Mars, while gradually ramping up scientific investigations. Curiosity then will begin investigating whether an area with a wet history inside Mars’ Gale Crater ever has offered an environment favorable for microbial life.

“Earlier missions have found that ancient Mars had wet environments,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Program at NASA Headquarters. “Curiosity takes us the next logical step in understanding the potential for life on Mars.”

Curiosity will use tools on a robotic arm to deliver samples from Martian rocks and soils into laboratory instruments inside the rover that can reveal chemical and mineral composition. A laser instrument will use its beam to induce a spark on a target and read the spark’s spectrum of light to identify chemical elements in the target. Other instruments on the car-sized rover will examine the surrounding environment from a distance or by direct touch with the arm. The rover will check for the basic chemical ingredients for life and for evidence about energy available for life. It also will assess factors that could be hazardous for life, such as the radiation environment.

“For its ambitious goals, this mission needs a great landing site and a big payload,” said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters. “During the descent through the atmosphere, the mission will rely on bold techniques enabling use of a smaller target area and a heavier robot on the ground than were possible for any previous Mars mission. Those techniques also advance us toward human-crew Mars missions, which will need even more precise targeting and heavier landers.”

View of Mt.Sharp rising 5 km above rover landing site

View of Mt.Sharp rising 5 km above rover landing site

The chosen landing site is beside a mountain informally called Mount Sharp. The mission’s prime destination lies on the slope of the mountain. Driving there from the landing site may take many months.

“Be patient about the drive. It will be well worth the wait and we are apt to find some targets of interest on the way,” said John Grotzinger, MSL project scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

“When we get to the lower layers in Mount Sharp, we’ll read them like chapters in a book about changing environmental conditions when Mars was wetter than it is today.”

Scene from Xbox Mars landing game

In collaboration with Microsoft Corp., a new outreach game was unveiled Monday to give the public a sense of the challenge and adventure of landing in a precise location on the surface. Called “Mars Rover Landing,” the game is an immersive experience for the Xbox 360 home entertainment console that allows users to take control of their own spacecraft and face the extreme challenges of landing a rover on Mars.

“Technology is making it possible for the public to participate in exploration as it never has before,” said Michelle Viotti, JPL’s Mars public engagement manager. “Because Mars exploration is fundamentally a shared human endeavor, we want everyone around the globe to have the most immersive experience possible.”  –

Adapted from NASA news Statement

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Rocket Chem Trails Light Up Sky

Written by The Night Sky Guy on March 27, 2012 – 4:34 pm -

Credit: Mark A. Brown, Carlisle, PA, USA

Sometimes some of the more interesting sights in the heavens are not natural but artificial. High flying satellites come to mind at first but rocket trails also make for impressive objects too.  That’s exactly what happened this week.

After many delays NASA shot off 5 unmanned rockets off the east coast of North America early Tuesday in the hopes of gaining a better understanding of the dynamics of the upper atmosphere. It appears to not only have been a scientific success but also a great photo op for skywatchers too.

Read the rest of my story at National Geographic News.

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Latest Night Sky Episode

Written by The Night Sky Guy on February 12, 2011 – 12:54 pm -

This week’s episode highlights the awesome new NASA satellite images of our Sun and gives stargazers a heads up on two lunar sky shows involving star clusters.

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NASA Reboot?

Written by The Night Sky Guy on February 2, 2010 – 3:31 pm -

The White House is giving NASA new marching orders, and questions and concerns loom. Seems like NASA is pulling the plug on its ‘back to the Moon by 2020’ vision and instead refocusing on creating new technologies and new alliances with private companies to get them into space. The new NASA 2011 budget request released yesterday actually gives an increase to their coffers to the tune of $19 billion. And the agency is saying that they will have at their disposal $6 billion over the next 5 years just to pump into development of new space technologies. The agency will now be concentrating on creating a brand new system of hardware that will make human space exploration faster and sustainable. Ideas talked about include developing orbital fuel depots where rockets could tank up,  making automated factories that could convert lunar soil into water and rocket fuel, and new rocket propulsion systems using nuclear and ion engines that could get humans to destinations like asteroids and Mars much quicker than with conventional rockets we now use.

“Imagine trips to Mars that take weeks instead of nearly a year; people fanning out across the inner solar system, exploring the moon, asteroids and Mars nearly simultaneously in a steady stream of firsts’; and imagine all this being done collaboratively with nations around the world,” said NASA chief Charles Bolden yesterday at a news conference.

Constellation's rockets, human space capsule, and lunar landers cancelled

Where is this money coming from? Mostly from the retirement of the space shuttle fleet this year and the immediate cancellation of the Constellation program which included a new human vehicle, lunar lander and heavy cargo lifter rocket. NASA is betting on that private companies being able to take over the businessof sending astronauts into low Earth orbit (LEO).  But the big question is when will these companies have a safe, human-rated spacecraft? There are a handful that are in pretty good shape to truck cargo to the space station but many experts are concerned when and if these private rockets will be ready. Some industry insiders say it will be at least 4 to 6 years before the first ride will be ready to take Americans back to LEO. That means until that happens everyone will be hitching a ride with the Russians on their Soyuz at about $30 million a seat.

There is quite a buzz on the blogosphere and online media with ‘space buffs’ pontificating what all this means but maybe we should reserve judgement until there are more details released on NASA’s new direction. When will the first private rockets be ready to take humans to LEO? What destinations beyond LEO are humans going to? What new technologies are we developing? What flagship missions do they have in mind?

All this may take a while as this controversial vision will have to pass the US Congress before anything of substance can begin.  The facts are though that this is indeed a ‘game changer’ for the American human space program and it will take a lot of convincing to get all the stakeholders to buy into it. International partners like Canada may actually benefit and see more projects sent their way as NASA looks for new collaborations and new focus on basic research.

On paper, the vision looks promising but is a risky one. Can they put it into practice? Does NASA have the resilience to see it through?  Will they get the support they need? Only time will tell…

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New: Apollo Landing sites Up-Close

Written by The Night Sky Guy on July 17, 2009 – 3:02 pm -

Arrow at Apollo 11 Lander

Arrow at Apollo 11 Lander

You have to check out the very cool images of the Apollo landing sites released today by NASA and taken by their new lunar probe- Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.  You can clearly see the lunar lander descent stages casting long shadows on the ground. 

NASA states in its announcement, “The image of the Apollo 14 landing site had a particularly desirable lighting condition that allowed visibility of additional details. The Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Package, a set of scientific instruments placed by the astronauts at the landing site, is discernible, as are the faint trails between the module and instrument package left by the astronauts’ footprints.”

But wait, NASA is saying that in the next couple of months the orbiter will get an even closer look – 2 or 3 times better resolution images once it is in a stable orbit of 50 km above the lunar surface.  I wonder what more we’ll see then?

Apollo 14 Landing site with footprints and instruments visible

Apollo 14 Landing site with footprints and instruments visible

Take a peak at the rest of the hi-rez images released today on the official NASA webpage.

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