Category Archives: Technology

Far Out, Dude! (Really, We Mean It…)

This artist's concept shows NASA's Voyager spacecraft against a field of stars in the darkness of space. (NASA/JPL-Caltech).
This artist’s concept shows NASA’s Voyager spacecraft against a field of stars in the darkness of space. (NASA/JPL-Caltech).
When I was 11 years old, my family went on a 1,500 mile, two-week, car trip from New England to Florida. I got to see New York City and Washington, D.C., from the car window. Highlights of the trip included Disney World and the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. However, I was trapped in a station wagon with my older brother and sister for two weeks. To me, it was a very long voyage.

What did I know?

In 1977, three months after I returned to Connecticut, NASA launched two spaceships from Cape Canaveral. They were named Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. Their mission was to go as far from the sun as possible, to take the longest voyage ever.

The thing is: space is really big. It takes a really long time to get around.

The two Voyagers spent more than three years flying through the middle of our solar system, giving us Earthlings our very first up-close views of Jupiter and Saturn. The images they sent back were incredible — rings were found around Jupiter, volcanoes were seen on Jupiter’s moon, Io…

However, the Voyagers only gave these worlds a passing look, like driving past New York City going 100 miles per hour. It would be up to future missions to return to the outer planets for more in-depth research.

The Voyagers didn’t even slow down as they flew by the planets. While Voyager 2 took the long road, spending another ten years checking out Uranus and Neptune, Voyager 1 left Saturn in 1980 and headed out of town.

At this point, it is important to remind you that space is really big. It takes a long time to get anywhere! And the solar system is much bigger that orbit of Pluto (See: What Happened to Pluto?).

In August 2013, scientists determined that Voyager 1 had left the solar system. It is the first machine built by humans ever to leave the solar system — truly a triumph for all mankind! It is about 11.8 billion miles away in interstellar space, the space between stars! Voyager 2 is about four years behind. Their journey will continue for another 40,000 years before they reach another star.

The Golden Record sent with the Voyager Spacecraft. (NASA)
The Golden Record sent with the Voyager Spacecraft. (NASA)
In case space aliens ever find the Voyagers, NASA put some amazing items inside to explain Earth and humanity to them. There is a golden phonograph record album (before there were CDs or compact discs, there were phonograph records … ask your parents). Recorded on the album are samples of 55 Earth languages, and various music selections, everything from Mozart to rock-n-roll legend Chuck Berry. Steve Martin, (the comedian, author, actor, & musician) noted that it is quite possible, thanks to Voyager, that the first message we ever receive from an alien space civilization may very well be them asking us to “send more Chuck Berry”. Far out, in every sense.

Fun Phineas Facts

We are still in contact with both Voyagers. They have a radioactive power source onboard with lots of power and still send data regularly. Due to the vast distances, it takes over 35 hours to get a response after sending a message to them. By timing how long these communications take, we can calculate exactly how far away they are at all times. The messages travel at 186,000 miles per second – the speed of light.

Can you make the calculation yourself to solve how far away Voyager 1 is? Grab a calculator and be sure to ask you math teacher for help if you need it!

— Time to send message and get reply back from spacecraft: 35 hours
— How fast the messages travel: 186,000 miles per second
— Question: How far away is the spacecraft, in miles?

Process:
1. Determine the number of seconds in an hour (60 minutes times 60 seconds)
2. Multiply the number of seconds per hour times 35 hours (the total time it takes to send and get a reply)
3. Multiply your total by the speed of light — 186,000 miles per second. This gives you the total number of miles the message traveled.
4. Divide your answer by 2, since the message made two trips — one to the spacecraft and one back home.


References:

NASA Voyager Site

Voyager Program

More Info on Voyager’s Golden Record

Spotting the International Space Station

Astronaut Chris Cassidy works outside the space station on May 11, 2013.  Credit: NASA
Astronaut Chris Cassidy works outside the space station on May 11, 2013. Credit: NASA
Almost everyone has heard of the International Space Station (ISS). It is one of the most spectacular technological achievements ever, but it is easy to take it for granted. After all, it has been in orbit for more than 13 years. Astronauts have lived on board all that time, conducting science experiments and learning the kinds of things that will help humans extend their reach into space. Since ISS may be the coolest laboratory ever built, we recommend making a New Year’s commitment to keeping track of what’s going on there.

Luckily, NASA makes it easy to keep up with ISS. On the web site http://spacestationlive.nasa.gov/ you will find animations and education resources about “humankind’s permanent outpost in space.” You can find details of the daily activities for each astronaut, along with timelines and live video feeds. You can view the same data being viewed by ground control officers at NASA, so if you’ve ever wanted to try your hand at being a flight director, start here.

For an overview of what is going on with ISS, NASA provides a great option. The YouTube channel ReelNASA provides a weekly newscast about what’s happening aboard the International Space Station. You’ll find links to in-depth information about the experiments and projects that are discussed. You can even send in your own questions. It is pretty cool.

The space station, including its large solar arrays, spans the area of a U.S. football field, including the end zones, and weighs 924,739 pounds. The complex now has more livable room than a conventional six-bedroom house, and has two bathrooms, a gymnasium and a 360-degree bay window.
The space station, including its large solar arrays, spans the area of a U.S. football field, including the end zones, and weighs 924,739 pounds. The complex now has more livable room than a conventional six-bedroom house, and has two bathrooms, a gymnasium and a 360-degree bay window.
Spotting the International Space Station
For the ultimate in “keeping up with the ISS,” nothing beats taking a look with your own eyes. The ISS is the size of a football field and orbits Earth at an average altitude of 220 miles. Just before sunrise or when night has fallen where you live, the ISS is sometimes overhead and high enough to still be in the sunlight. It is highly reflective and very bright, so it is easy to spot if you know when to look. It moves quickly across the sky, which isn’t a surprise considering that the ISS orbits the Earth every 90 minutes and travels at a speed of 17,500 miles per hour. Between moving fast and being wildly bright, it is easy to spot.

To know when to look, go the the NASA site http://spotthestation.nasa.gov/ and click on Location Lookup. Simply enter your location information (Country, State, City, etc.). The site will display information about when the ISS will be visible to you. The main thing, of course, is to find a day and time when you can go outside and look, and then to hope it is not too cloudy during your viewing window.

The results for your local area provide all the information you need to pick a good viewing time. Then you just have to hope it is not cloudy.
The results for your local area provide all the information you need to pick a good viewing time. Then you just have to hope it is not cloudy.
The next important thing is to make sure the ISS will be high enough for you to see. For the “Max Height” column, know that 90 degrees equals directly overhead, so any number above, say, 45 degrees will put the ISS high in the sky. Lower numbers mean the ISS will appear closer to the horizon, so trees or buildings might be in the way and block your line of sight.

Use this graphic to visualize what path the ISS might take in the sky. Credit: NASA.
Use this graphic to visualize what path the ISS might take in the sky. Credit: NASA.
And remember, sight lines work both ways. Since NASA streams live views of the Earth from the ISS, you can very easily go outside to wait for the ISS to appear overhead while watching the live view of Earth from the ISS on a smartphone or tablet computer (if you have a web connection). This allows you to see what astronauts aboard the ISS see if they look down. If it is just past sunset where you live, for instance, look for the line on Earth between night and day to figure out about where you are in terms of east and west.

When the ISS blazes its way across the sky hundreds of miles overhead, you will have achieved a dual, realtime perspective that would have been almost impossible to dream of just a few decades ago. Give it a try!

This picture shows a five-second exposure of the ISS passing just above the Pleiades star cluster on Dec. 27, 2013. The length of the path over five seconds gives you an idea of how fast the ISS moves across the sky.
This picture shows a five-second exposure of the ISS passing just above the Pleiades star cluster on Dec. 27, 2013. The length of the path over five seconds gives you an idea of how fast the ISS moves across the sky. Credit: Clifton Dowell

Falling Felix

fallingfelix

Imagine a roller coaster plunge that lasts over four minutes…

So there was this guy, Felix, who fell from outer space to the earth, without a spaceship. For real! He fell faster than a .22 caliber bullet fired from a rifle. He fell faster than his own screaming voice, faster than the speed of sound itself. And he lived to tell about it. You can watch him do it.

Have you ever ridden a roller coaster? You know the feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you take that first plunge? Scientists call it “free fall”. On a ‘coaster, this feeling lasts a few seconds. People who jump out of airplanes with a parachute (skydivers) experience free fall for about 60 seconds. Felix experienced free fall for over four minutes when he fell from outer space.

In 1947, Air Force pilot Chuck Yeager was the first human to “break the sound barrier” traveling faster than the speed of sound (also called Mach 1). He did this in a special fighter jet airplane. At the time, scientists weren’t even sure if humans could go that fast and live. Nowadays, supersonic (faster than the speed of sound) jet airplanes are commonplace, but back then it was almost science fiction. But, as impressive as that is, imagine going that fast without the jet airplane!

Sixty-five years later to the day, in October 2012, daredevil skydiver Felix Baumgartner jumped out of helium balloon from 24 miles up (over 127,000 feet). This is 4 times higher than most jets fly. There is only 2% of the Earth’s atmosphere at that height, 98% of the air is below.

The mission was named Red Bull Stratos. Felix wore a suit similar to NASA astronaut suit because at that height there is no air to breathe and it is wicked cold. Felix fell for over ten minutes and landed safely with a smooth parachute landing. He reached a maximum supersonic speed of 833 miles per hour (Mach 1.24).

Felix set the world record for the highest skydive ever, and the fastest free fall ever. His accomplishment didn’t just make the record books, it provided scientists with incredible information that will help them build safer space suits and train future astronauts (maybe even you).

Watch the incredible video shot from his helmet-cam and by his Red Bull Stratos crew.


Fun Phineas Falling Felix Fact
One record Felix did not break was the longest free fall ever. Felix fell for 4 minutes, 16 seconds, falling short (pun intended) of the record set by Joe Kittinger of 4 minutes 36 seconds. Even though Felix jumped from a much higher altitude, he was going so fast, Joe fell 20 seconds longer!


References

Web site: Felix Baumgartner – Red Bull Stratos

Web Site: Free Fall on Wikipedia

Photo Credit: Red Bull Stratos in Roswell, New Mexico, USA on October 14, 2012. (Red Bull Stratos / Red Bull Content Pool)

Swarm Alert! Flying Robots Take On Hurricane Research

flow2_fHave you ever heard of “going with the flow?” That’s the idea behind a new generation of small, computer-controlled, airplanes being built to spy on hurricanes. They are only six inches long and weigh less than a iPod Nano, but scientists at the University of Florida believe they are more than a match for the monster storms.

Instead of trying to fight their way through a storm large enough to be seen from space with winds that can reach 200 miles per hour, these aircraft will be positioned near the path of the hurricane so they get pulled in when the storm gets closer. Once they are grabbed by the winds, they power down and go along for the ride. They gather data the whole time, and are smart enough to make small adjustments to stay in place as the storm moves along. They’ll send information about the storm to the laptop computers of scientists stationed hundreds of miles away.

Today, scientists who want to get up close and personal with a hurricane have to build big, expensive airplanes that are strong enough to fly through the storms dropping sensors that send back information as they fall to Earth.

Because the new flying sensors are small and inexpensive, researchers will launch hundreds of them into a single storm, getting data from lots of places all at the same time. This new technology should be ready to test on a real hurricane within two or three years. So in the future, we should understand the storms better than ever.


SOURCES

PRESS RELEASE: Tiny Airplanes and subs could be next hurricane hunters. University of Florida (2013, June 4).

Hurricane Information from Weather for Kids

NASA Hurricanes and Tropical Cyclones Pages

Hurricane Aircraft — Technological Marvels That Fly Through Storms

PHOTO CREDIT
Eric Zamora/University of Florida: “GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Autonomous flying drones like this one are the result of research by Kamran Mohseni and graduate researchers with the Institute for Networked Autonomous Systems in the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Florida. Photo taken May 30, 2013.”