The Half-Astrophysicist Blog

Apollo 17 Anniversary

Apollo 17 launched on December 7th, 1972. It was the last of the six missions to successfully land on the Moon and the first to have a scientists, Harrison Schmidt (geologist), walk on the Moon. They spent more time on the lunar surface (over three days) and walking on the Moon (over 22 hours spread over three Moon walks) than any other mission.

Watching this launch is one of my earliest childhood memories. I have vague memories of other Moon missions, but this one is the most clear. It’s easy to pin down since it was the only night launch.  I was only four years old. I remember watching it and there was a launch delay that I remember taking a long time and that I got to stay up way past my usual bedtime to watch the launch. Boy, was I right! Now I can look stuff up and see that it was a 2 hour and 40 minute delay and Apollo 17 finally launched at 12:33am EST. I was in the central time zone so I saw the launch at 11:33pm, pretty late for a four year old to stay up glued to the television!

Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmidt landed on the Moon while Ronald Evans stayed in orbit with the command module. Next year will mark forty years since we last set foot on the Moon. We are long overdue to get back.


December 7, 2011 Posted by | Apollo, exploration, Moon, NASA | Leave a comment

NASA MSL Tweetup: Launch Day

Okay, now to Saturday, November 26th: Launch Day! Launch was scheduled for 10:02 am. We had to get to the Cape by 6:45 for the morning festivities. Plenty of activity and excitement in the air.

My group went to the media center where we got a demonstration of NASA’s Eyes on the Solar System website. This site has really interesting visualization tools you can use to look at data from NASA missions. One of my favorite is recreating the flybys of various planets and moons by different missions. Definitely something I am going to spend a lot more time playing with.

We went back to the the twent where our special guests started showing up including astronaut Doug Wheelock (first astronaut to check in on foursquare from space and frequent space tweeter), Bill Nye and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden. I joked it was getting hard to keep track of all the celebrities in the room.


And one more to come… of the Black Eyed Peas who is an advocate for science education. It looks like he may be tweeting!

Okay, only a few minutes from launch…

We all had out our cell phones listening to the final launch poll during the last hold at t-4 minutes. Heard nothing but “go, go, go, go, go!” during the poll. Promptly at 10:02am, liftoff!




The sound of the launch takes a while to reach us. It is not as loud as I would expect, but it is very deep and you can feel those low frequencies! It is very bright at that distance., that is just as surprising as the sound. It should be noted that we were several hundred yards closer than the VIPS who were watching from the media center!

I drove aross the state to visit my father. Stopped to see some manatees (in the wild) on the way there and finished the trip with a sunset and dinner on the beach with Venus and the crescent Moon hanging low in the western sky.


Can’t really say enough about the trip. NASA does a super job with these tweetups and I can’t thank them enough for the experience. They are planning more so I encourage you to apply if you can. Follow their twitter account or keep an eye on the tweetup web page.

December 1, 2011 Posted by | Atlas V, exploration, Launch, Mars, NASA, Space Flight | 2 Comments

Simulating a Curious Landing

The next generation Mars rover, named Curiosity, is scheduled to launch later this year.  Construction is nearing the final phases and lots of tests are being conducted on Curiosity.  The latest test is a test of the landing system.  JPL released a short video of the test.

Curiosity can’t use the airbag system of previous rovers as it is too big and heavy, hence the sky crane concept.  Curiosity will be the first spacecraft to use this system so the testing has to be rigorous.  You can see from the video, a platform has small rockets on it that hovers while the rover is lowered to the surface.  The rockets won’t be able to make this craft hover for long since they carry very limited fuel so they only get one shot at it.  Everything has to work perfectly the first time without intervention from us on Earth (Mars is much too far away…round trip light travel time varies from about 8 minutes to over 20 minutes depending on their positions in their respective orbits).

If you want to watch curiosity under construction, JPL has a “Curiosity Cam“.

January 20, 2011 Posted by | exploration, NASA, Solar Eclipse | Leave a comment

Project Calliope and the Age of Personal Satellites

Yep, for the low price of only $8,000 you too can launch your own satellite.  Interorbital Systems will launch a TubeSat for you for $8k, although you have to design and build the satellite to do what you want.  The TubeSat is small satellite that is shaped like, well, a small tube.  They are launched into very low Earth orbit, so low the satellite will reenter the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up in a few months at the longest (this is intentional to avoid adding to space debris). It has a maximum mass of .75kg (or about 1.65 lbs) for everything you want to put in it…sorry, not big enough for a space based death ray!

However, there are many interesting things you can do.  Project Calliope is one of the first TubeSats.  Headed by Alex Antunes, it will make measurements of Earth’s ionosphere and translate its measurements into a midi file which will be sent back down to Earth. You can keep up with progress on Project Calliope blog or see the presentation given at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington DC.

I think this is a great project and hope it succeeds (I am speaking both of Interborbital Systems and Project Calliope).  I was at the Satellite Educator’s Association meeting last fall and they had a booth promoting TubeSats.  I had dinner with a the woman at the booth (I can’t remember her name) and she was very enthusiastic and had big plans.  I was a little skeptical, but hoping they can succeed where others have failed.  I will say she did a great job of answering all my skeptical questions giving me hope they could make it.  They are expecting their first launch in the first quarter of 2011, so we will find out soon.

Good luck Project Calliope.  I look forward to hearing some music from space!

July 21, 2010 Posted by | citizen science, exploration, Fun Stuff, Technology | Leave a comment

Send a Message To Venus

NASA has frequently had campaigns where you could send your name to various planets on their spacecraft.  This time it is JAXA, the Japanese Space Agency getting in on the act.  You can send a message to Venus on Akatsuki.

The do put limits on it, of course.  Your message can only be 40 characters (assuming you are using our alphabet…you only get 20 characters if you use Japanese characters) so this is even a bigger challenge than twitter.  So let’s make it a game.  Post a comment with your best 40 character message to Venus.

A little backgroun, Akatsuki is an orbiter that will study Venus’s climate.  Venus has an very thick carbon dioxide atmosphere with sulfuric acid thrown in for good measure.  Thick clouds keep us from seeing the ground, where it is so hot lead would melt.  Not exactly a good environment for life or even landing a spacecraft!

I have sent my name all over the solar system with NASA and am happy to say this will be my first mission with JAXA.

December 10, 2009 Posted by | exploration, Solar System | 1 Comment

Twittering Apollo 11

I have been busy and on travel but will be trying to write up some ideas this week.  I wanted to post a short one to get ball rolling here.

Nature is twittering Apollo 11. Well, 40 years after the fact.  They are doing kind of a media mashup where they are twittering 40 years after the Apollo 11 mission.  They have already started with tweets on the astronauts training and other launch preps.  On July 16th, they will twitter the launch.  Everything is being done 40 years later so we can experience the mission in a way you just couldn’t in 1969.

You don’t have to subscribe to twitter, just check out the Apollo 40 plus feed and you can see what they are doin.

I remember in 1989, I think it was A&E, aired the original news coverage with David Brinkley.  I wasn’t home for some of it and was setting the VCR to tape it.  Now, on the 40th anniversary, videotapes are already fading into history…if the do television broadcasts, I will Tivo it this time.  Wonder what I will be doing on the 50th anniversary?

June 29, 2009 Posted by | exploration, NASA | 2 Comments

Going to Mars With a Science Lab

NASA’s next mission to Mars is called the Mars Science Laboratory (which earlier this year go the name Curiosity in one of those name that rover contests for students).  This rover will be much larger than the previous ones, nuclear powered so it is not subject to the limitations of solar power, carry a larger suite of instruments to determine if Mars does or ever did support life, and be able to drive a lot farther and faster.

And you can send you name to Mars with Curiosity.  NASA has been adding people’s names to CDs and such put on spacecraft for years.  My cat and I have been happily traversing the near and far reaches of the solar system for years with NASA (we are going to the Moon, hopefully Thursday if the Shuttle goes off tomorrow as scheduled…more on a blog tomorrow) and we are making another trip to Mars.  Hope you will join us!

June 17, 2009 Posted by | exploration, Fun Stuff, NASA | Leave a comment

Name That Rover

Fresh off the closing of the contest to name the new ISS module (in which the name Colbert got the most votes) voting is now open in the contest to Name the Rover.

The rover in question is the next Mars rover known by the somewhat uninpiring name of the Mars Science Laboratory.  Now schedule to launch in 2011, it will be much larger than the current rovers.  The MSL will be powered by a radioisotope power supply which will allow it to travel farther, faster, and use more instruments that the solar powerd rovers (and won’t be subject to dusty solar panels which produce less power). It suite of instruments will be able to perform much more advanced analysis of soil chemistry and determine whether Mars was or is capable of supporting life.

There are some nice videos on the site to check out as well…vote only runs from March 23rd to the 29th!

March 23, 2009 Posted by | exploration, Fun Stuff, NASA | Leave a comment

Searching For Other Earths

We have been finding planets orbiting other stars for a while now and have found well over 300.  The first ones were all what are called “hot Jupiters”.  Hot Jupiters are large gaseous planets that orbit close to the Sun.  They were not observed directly, but rather by measuring the movement of the star as the planet orbtited.  We measured the Doppler shift and could see the star move toward us and away from us as the planet orbited.  This technique works well for large planets close to a star.

We have gotten better at measruing Doppler shifts and have observed for longer periods of time.  We have found smaller planets orbiting farther from their stars.  We have developed other techniques for finding planets as well.

The transit method measures the brightness of a star continuously.  When a planet passes in front of the star, it blocks a little bit of light and the star gets dimmer.  This only works for a tiny fraction of the planets since you have to be lined up just right to see a planet cross the face of the star.  The advantage is you can find planets that are small much easier and you can even get a measurement of their sizes.

The Kepler mission, scheduled to launch this Friday from Cape Canaveral on a Delta II, will search for Earth like planets through the transit method.  Kepler is a .95 meter telescope attached to a sensitive 95 megapixel CCD camera.  It will stare at one part of the sky (in the constellation Cygnus) for 3.5 years.  It will continually monitor the brightness of about 100,000 stars, looking for the telltale drops in brightness.  Kepler will undoubtedly find variable stars and lots of larger planets.  The goal is to find planets that are the size of Earth and in similar orbits…orbits where liquid water could exist on the surface.  For a planet orbiting a star similar to our Sun at about the same distance, the star will decrease in brightness by about .01%, not an easy measurement.

Yet we can do it.  Kepler will not orbit the Earth, but rather orbit the Sun (in an Earth trailing orbit) to eliminate light from the Earth.  The part of sky was carefully choosen to have a lot of stars, but not too many that they run together.  It was also chosen so Kepler could observe the patch of sky continuously without the Sun getting in the way (and don’t forget about maintaining contact with Earth so we can get the data!)

This mission will tell us a lot about our place in the universe.  How many Earth-like planets are out there?  How many could support life as we know it?  Even if we find none, that is still a very important result.  It would tell us that we are rare indeed.  No one knows for sure how many we will find, but from everything I have read, a few dozen would be a reasonable estimate.

Kepler won’t tell us if any of these planets have life.  That will have to wait for future missions.  We are already testing techniques that we can use to measure characteristics of planetary atmospheres and have had some success with larger planets.  Kepler is the an important step on the road to answering the question of how common life is in the universe.

March 5, 2009 Posted by | Astronomy, exploration, NASA | Leave a comment

40 Years Since Apollo 8

40 years ago, Apollo 8 embarked on its famous mission and returned what has to be on anyone’s short list of the greatest photos of all time.
Known as Earthrise, William Anders captured this photo of Earth slowly rising above the Moon’s surface. The astronauts later said they went to study the Moon but discovered Earth.

Apollo 8 was originally supposed to be a test of the lunar module and command module in Earth orbit. The lunar module was behind schedule (surprise!) and there were rumors that the Soviets were planning a Moon mission, so NASA decided to go for a lunar orbit mission in August leaving a much shorter training period than usual. It was also the first manned launch on a Saturn V.

I believe it was the series “When We Left Earth” where they interviewed Lovell’s wife. She someone (I forget who) from NASA what he thought the odds were of her husband coming back alive and he told her 50%. She was relieved…”I thought it would be much lower” she said. It was not seen as a sure thing to say the least.

The mission went well. They got the famous Earthrise photo. And, in a live Christmas Eve broadcast, the crew gave a truly moving reading of the first 10 verses of Genesis. I have heard it dozens of times but still sometimes tear up hearing the emotion in those voices coming over that crackly radio broadcast. Thanks to the magic of Youtube, we can all watch it again on today’s 40th anniversary of that historic broadcast.

December 24, 2008 Posted by | exploration | 2 Comments