OK, so most of you who know even the littlest bit about me know that I’m a not-so-small space nerd, which means that the following video clip doesn’t really need a justification for being here on QDN. It’s a series of still frames taken from 31 million miles away from Earth, looking back at our wee little planet, and capturing the moon transiting the frame. It’s breathtaking — and given that whole 31-million-miles-away part, it’s a true feat that the geometry worked out just right to get the shots.

The shots were taken by the Deep Impact spacecraft (which was renamed EPOXI after it finished its primary mission of smashing a little drone into a comet); Phil Plait, over at Discover Magazine’s Bad Astronomy blog, explains the whole thing a lot better than I ever could.

Space Shuttle Atlantis made an unscheduled stopover in Amarillo, Texas this morning on its way back from California to Florida; it was an incredibly rare landing for the 747/shuttle combo on a commercial runway, and from this video, it looks like hundreds of Texans relished the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the orbiter in their town. The Shuttle came through San Antonio once or twice when I was a kid, but it always landed and took off from one of the three Air Force bases in town rather than the airport, so I never got a good view of it on the runway.

Seeing the shuttle actually flying atop that 747 never fails to make me nervous; there’s just no way to convince me that that’s anything but an uninterrupted nightmare for the pilots of that big bird. I’d imagine that that takeoff is particularly frightening — hurtling down a runway with a freaking Space Shuttle bolted to the top of the plane, gathering speed incredibly slowly and hoping that the pavement doesn’t end before the whole contraption launches into the air.

I mean, how damn cool is it that a meteorite which landed in a Canadian lake back in 2000 is now thought to be over four and a half billion years old, dating from before our own galaxy was formed. Sort of gives you a perspective on things…

Space separation against the sun

This is really, really cool: a telescope photo of the Space Shuttle Atlantis taken 50 minutes after it separated from the International Space Station… while crossing in front of the sun. It was taken four days ago from Normandie, France by Thierry Legault, shot at one eight-thousandth of a second using a Canon 5D. He shot three images a second over the span of five seconds, and managed to capture the orbital ballet perfectly.

Oh, this makes me sad — NASA’s Spirit rover definitely has a bum paw. Fortunately, it has five other paws, but its engineers will still have to navigate around any terrain that might put the little guy in danger of getting stuck.

Oh no! Spirit, one of the two Mars Exploration Rovers, has a bum wheel, and now has to use its five other wheels to drag itself to a position where it can gather enough sunshine to continue doing its thing through the coming Martian winter. Of course, today was day number 779 of what was planned to be a 90-day mission — meaning that the folks at NASA are rapidly approaching the point of a 900% return on their investment with the Rovers.

(Yep, I freely admit to anthropomorphizing the two little guys toodling around on the surface of the red planet… which means that right now, I’m envisioning Spirit dragging a bum leg behind it, or at least limping around with a walker. Get well soon, buddy!)

Having recently finished the fabulous book The Victorian Internet (recommended by Rebecca, who clearly has a handle on what I might like!), I’ve spent a little bit of time obsessed with how amazing the telegraph must have been back in the mid-1800s, and imagining how surreal it must have felt to those who watched it happen. One day, communicating with family across the country might take weeks — and then a year or two later, the same messages might only take minutes to travel back and forth. Before the telegraph, businesses which shipped products and materials internationally might not know whether their shipments made it to their destinations for months; after the telegraph, the same businesses might know within hours of arrival. People had the vision to run telegraph cables along nearly every railroad track in the world, through frozen tundras, and even across seas and oceans, all in the name of making the world a little smaller. I really am in awe.

Of course, this all makes me that much sadder to learn that Friday, Western Union discontinued their telegram service, after 155 years in the telegraph business. (Just to clear up some word confusion: telegraphy is the process of sending messages using Morse code, and early on, the term “telegram” came to refer to the messages themselves.) Western Union was pretty much critical in the development of the telegraph network in the United States; it strung the first transcontinental line in 1861, introduced the first stock ticker in 1866, created elaborate schemes which allowed the secure transfer of money beginning half a decade later, and beginning in 1974, was the first company to send aloft its own batch of communications satellites (the Westar system) to handle its messaging needs. Alas, electronic mail and instant messaging dealt the telegraph system a death blow, making Western Union’s move unsurprising.

What an exciting last weekend of the baseball season! Last night’s Red Sox win was frustrating to watch, but today’s Yankees win (and clinch of both a playoff berth and the American League East division title) made up for that. Tomorrow brings the Indians fighting for their playoff lives — the only scenario in which they can beat out the Red Sox for the final American League playoff spot is by them winning tomorrow and the Red Sox losing tomorrow and the Indians then beating the Red Sox in a one-game playoff on Monday. Wildcard excitement!

(And sure, there’s no question that the close races have put a lot of potential scenarios on the table going into the final three games of the season, but I think that Jayson Stark probably overplays the “woe is us, how confusing this all is!” card in his column on ESPN.com today. However, it’s damn funny reading about how few of the players on the field actually had thought through the meaning of today’s games at Fenway Park and Jacobs Field, and as a result, how most of the Red Sox didn’t understand why the Yankees were celebrating after they won the game this afternoon.)

Go Yanks!

shuttle ferried into barksdale, la

Greg Pearson, of the Shreveport Times, captured an incredibly cool image of the Space Shuttle being ferried into Barksdale Air Force Base yesterday; the shot illustrates the Times article about NASA choosing to pit stop in Louisiana to avoid bad weather on the flight back to Cape Canaveral, Florida. Both the picture and a related article about the excitement surrounding the unexpected visit reminded me about the few times that a Shuttle similarly visited San Antonio when I was a kid, and how many people knew exactly when and where the 747 and Shuttle would appear in the sky to try to catch a glimpse. (We even had a decent poor-man’s alternative, too — the 747s used to spend a little time at the Boeing maintenance facility on the edge of the city airport property, and you could drive by to take a look whenever they were in town. Sure, they’re just 747s, but the huge tailfin stabilizers and the NASA logo were pretty cool to see in little ol’ San Antonio!)

I finally got around to reading Maciej’s lament of the Space Shuttle Program tonight, and it pains me to say that there’s a lot of wisdom in his observations. As my three regular readers know, I’m a downright romantic when it comes to space flight, and even more so when it comes to manned space flight. (Hell, if it wasn’t essentially mandatory that you join the Air Force in order to be granted the privilege of strapping yourself to a huge bomb and being ramrodded into low earth orbit, I might be up there myself right now.) All that being said, I can definitely wrap my head around the idea that spending half our annual space budget on getting the Shuttle in and out of orbit safely (or unsafely, as the case may be) isn’t all that logical, and is done at the detriment of being able to spend money on unmanned missions that might have a much higher scientific yield. Unfortunately, we now have an incredibly self-referential system whereby the Shuttle and the International Space Station justify each others’ existences without necessarily having strong independent reasons for hurtling around Earth, so it’s going to be that much harder to back off on pouring time, money, and effort into both programs.

(Note that my feeling is based on taking at face value a lot of what Maciej says about the process by which the Shuttle system was designed; his use of an unenumerated, 51-item del.icio.us link list as his sourcelist makes it reasonably tough to verify every claim. But he seems trustworthy enough!)

Today, the NASA mission managers for STS-114 gave the go-ahead for a spacewalk on Wednesday to repair the filler material that was found to be protruding from between heat shield tiles on the bottom of the Shuttle. The trip outside is a double-first: it will be the first time that astronauts attempt an in-flight repair of the protective shielding of the orbiter, as well as the first time that astronauts venture underneath a Shuttle during a mission. And while that’s cool and all, it’s also worrisome, because nobody knows if the repair is necessary, or if the whole process will expose the Shuttle to the risk of more damage.

This whole situation is a perfect example of the more-data-isn’t-always-better problem (a problem that pops up in medical studies all the time). After the Columbia disaster, NASA committed to collecting as much data as possible about damage done to the Shuttle during the launch process. New sensors were installed in the leading edges of the Shuttle wings, Discovery took off under the watch of 107 different cameras and then underwent a new optical and laser inspection as soon as it reached orbit (which was able to see defects as small as 0.25 inches), and NASA had the orbiter do a backflip prior to mating with the International Space Station so that even more pictures could be taken of its surface. NASA has now found itself with buckets full of data it’s never had before… and has never had the chance to understand before. NASA has stated that prior rules deemed safe any gap fillers sticking out a quarter of an inch or less, but that information came from inspection of the Shuttles after landing, and after the burning heat of reentry had a chance to work its effect on anything protruding beyond the protective surface of the heat tiles — so nobody knows how to interpret the new findings.

Only NASA can go through the process of deciding the risks and benefits of traveling under the Shuttle to attempt a repair; the rest of us are just armchair astronauts. In the end, though, we all have to hope that putting a microscope to the surface of the Shuttle doesn’t send people on risky missions to fix situations that aren’t problems, but rather are new discoveries of phenomena that have been happening since Columbia roared into the sky back in 1981.

sts114 launches into space
google moon

In honor of the 36th anniversary of the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon, Google has created Google Moon, an extension of the Google Maps interface to allow exploration of the surface of the moon. Unfortunately, it includes only the region in which the manned Apollo missions landed, rather than the entire visible hemisphere of the moon; apparently, NASA only gave them high-resolution images of that region, so they couldn’t provide anything beyond that. (Though according to Larry Schwimmer, the engineer for Google who is behind the moon project, we might just get to see more coverage sometime!) And while the resolution is certainly not good enough to see the flag we left behind at Tranquility Base or Edwin Aldrin’s famous bootprint in the dust, Google engineers appear to have tweaked the detail sufficiently to show what the moon is really made of!

sts-114 on the pad at night

As those of you who know me might have predicted, I’m just a wee bit excited about the return of Space Shuttle flight today; I have the NASA TV feed playing on my computer, the countdown clock ticking away (well, holding right now) at the bottom of my screen, and the Virtual Launch Control Center refreshing in another browser window. It looks like things are currently on schedule for launch at 3:51 PM Eastern time! Good luck to NASA, and specifically, to the seven astronauts who are getting us back into space.

Update: Damn. “1:32 p.m. - Launch Director Mike Leinbach has scrubbed the launch for today. One of four low-level fuel cutoff sensors is not functioning properly.”

I think it’s outright amazing, and a testament to the design and implementation skills of the people at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, that the Martian rovers are still operating 465 and 445 days into their respective missions on the surface of the Red Planet. (Remember, these little guys were only designed to last for 90 days!) Spirit and Opportunity long-ago eclipsed all of their original performance goals; for example, Opportunity has driven over three and a quarter miles, and Spirit has gone over two and a half miles, when the initial expectation was for both to max out around three-eights of a mile. (To be fair, partial credit for the unexpected longevity of the little robots rests with what NASA calls “cleaning events”, or unexpected winds that have periodically blown dust off of the rovers’ solar panels and boosted their ability to recharge their batteries.) No matter the cause, it’s all reassuring enough to NASA that the agency extended support for Spirit and Opportunity for 18 additional months, which (hopefully) means a lot more neat discoveries and cool pictures over the coming year and a half.

Browsing through the images that are new since the last time I hit the mission website, there are a few fascinating movies that are worth watching: the first 343 days through the eyes of Spirit, and the first 323 days through the eyes of Opportunity. Two weeks ago, Spirit also captured a few pictures of dust devils scooting across the surface of Mars (which wasn’t the first time, but certainly was the closest and clearest view of them). And two months ago, Opportunity paused long enough to snap a true-color shot of the impact and debris of its own heat shield. Around the same time, both rovers snapped self-portraits (images that must have caused the JPL engineers to just beam with pride).

I can’t wait to see what the rovers share with us over the next year!