When NASA launches its brand-new Orion spacecraft later this year, it is also launching what it hopes will be a new era of human spaceflight. It will be a test flight, but the ultimate goal of the Orion project is to send humans further into space than the moon for the first time ever.
The test flight is scheduled for December. NASA will launch Orion from Florida. From there, it will orbit the Earth twice before landing in the Pacific Ocean. Although the point of Orion is to carry astronauts into space, this test will be unmanned. Scientists and engineers want to see how the spacecraft performs, especially Orion’s life support systems and the systems that connect Orion to the rocket.
Think of future space launches as having two main parts. Orion is the module that will carry astronauts. Once the astronauts have completed their mission, Orion also has the capacity to safely reenter the atmosphere. The Space Launch System, or SLS, is the system of rockets that will lift it into space. The SLS is still being developed. For the December test, Orion will be launched using a type of rocket that already exists.
The goal of the Orion program is to first capture an asteroid that has been towed into lunar orbit, and eventually take humans to Mars, which NASA projects may happen by 2025.
Orion is a revival of the United States’ largely dormant space program that should see humanity go further than it ever has. So you can bet that when Orion takes off in December, all eyes will be on it.
What’s in a Name?
Orion is one of the most famous constellations in the night sky. In the epic Greek adventure by Homer, The Odyssey, Orion was a hunter who, upon his death, was made into a constellation.
Orion’s first test flight will take it 3600 miles above the Earth, 15 times the distance of the International Space Station.
Orion’s test flight will use the Delta IV Heavy, but when Orion is actually used to transport humans, it will change to the more powerful Space Launch System.
When Orion reenters the atmosphere, it will be moving at over 20,000 miles per hour, which will cause the exterior of the spacecraft to heat up to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Do we know if there are planets orbiting other stars? Until about 20 years ago, the answer would have been “NO!” Most astronomers believed that there were probably planets going around other stars, but that it was not possible to find them. Planets are just so small compared to stars and the stars are so far away.
Then, in the 1990s, some really smart scientists thought up some crazy ideas to detect planets orbiting distant stars.
The simplest one became known as the Transit Method. When Mercury or Venus travel across the disc of the Sun (known as transiting the Sun), the amount of sunlight hitting the Earth goes down.
Think about a light bulb burning and a fly buzzing around it. While you look at the bulb as the fly buzzes by, the amount of light you see from the bulb is slightly less than when the fly is gone. It’s a very small amount, but the bulb does in fact become dimmer.
Now what if we could measure the brightness of a distant star incredibly accurately, and see if it dims? And what the star dims and brightens on a regular basis (like once a year)?
If that’s the case, it might be caused by a planet orbiting the star.
Let me pause and be the science grammar policeman. Technically, as poor Pluto learned, there are only 8 planets; a planet is now defined as a celestial body that, among other things, orbits our Sun. So if we’re talking about worlds orbiting some other star, they cannot be called planets. Astronomers call them exoplanets. “Exo” means “outside,” so exoplanet means a planet orbiting a star outside our solar system.
Using the Transit Method and other ingenious methods, astronomers started finding exoplanets, lots of them. It takes a long time to be sure. It takes multiple observations by multiple teams using multiple methods before an exoplanet is confirmed.
Now, hundreds of exoplanets have been confirmed. Thousands more listed as probable but haven’t been confirmed yet. The number keeps growing.
In 2009, NASA launched the Kepler Space telescope to find stars with exoplanets. It tracked the brightness of over 100,000 stars for over 4 years. It has discovered at least 900 confirmed exoplanets, and has provided scientists with so much data that will take years to completely review.
The Kepler scientist have found lots of weird planets. Huge planets bigger than Jupiter yet closer to their star than Mercury, orbiting every few days! They found planets twice the size of Earth, dubbed “Super Earths” really far away from their stars. They found planets orbiting two stars!
Scientists have even been able to determine all sorts of characteristics about these exoplanets including:
How big they are.
How long is their year.
How far away from their star is their orbit.
What chemicals are in their atmosphere
Naturally, astronomers want to locate planets that have the right conditions for life. They are looking for exoplanets that have orbits that means they are not too hot and not too cold, planets that are “just right” for life. They call this the Goldilocks zone. They have many candidates, so who knows what they’ll learn in the future?
In just a few years exoplanets have gone from science fiction to science fact. Earlier this year, scientists in Chile used special techniques and even took a photograph of an exoplanet! See below the image of Beta Pictoris b, a planet orbiting the star Beta Pictoris. In the picture below, the light of the star itself is blocked out by a disk so the planet can be seen. It’s great to see science in action.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 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.
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!
There is a giant robot circling planet Saturn right now. And this robot is finding weird, amazing things: rainstorms of liquid diamonds, hurricanes bigger than the Earth, ice volcanoes…
But before we get to all that, I should back up a bit and give just a little background on Saturn so you will fully appreciate these new discoveries. Saturn is the sixth planet from the Sun, the farthest planet that can be easily seen without a telescope.
We have always known that Saturn was unusual. Actually, all of the planets were a little unusual to ancient star-gazers. They studied the night sky and saw that almost all the bright dots in the sky moved at the same speed and direction. But they also noticed that five bright dots in the sky moved differently than the stars and constellations. They called these five dots planets (which means wanderer): Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn wander among the constellations of the night sky.
More than 500 years ago, in the year 1610, Mr. Galileo found that Saturn was really weird. He was the first person to point a telescope at Saturn and he saw the most incredible sight; Saturn had ears! His drawings looked a bit like Mickey Mouse, with a big circle in the middle and ears poking out on the right and left side.
Another astronomer, Chris Huygens, using a better telescope, found that the “ear” Galileo saw were actually a ring around the planet, just like one you might wear on your finger. Then a guy named Gio Cassini used an even better telescope and could see that the ring was actually multiple rings (at least three) with clear separations between them.
Over the years, we have continued to learn just how weird Saturn is. Saturn has at least 62 moons and dozens of rings. It is the second largest planet, called a “gas giant” which means that it has no rocky surface, it’s all air. Even though it’s huge (760 times bigger than Earth), the gas is really light. If you could put Saturn in a big enough bucket of water, it would float!
Although it is so big, it spins really fast; a day on Saturn is only about 10 hours long. Gas spinning that fast causes tremendously violent storms. Hurricanes larger than whole the Earth rage across Saturn all the time.
Saturn’s super moon, Titan, is bigger than planet Mercury and has clouds, lakes, rivers and oceans.
By 1990 we had learned a whole lot about Saturn using Earth based instruments (and two very brief flyby missions). But there is just so much you can do from about 1 billion miles away. To learn more, we needed to get up close and personal for an extended time.
In 1997 we launched robot spaceship to do just that. It was named in honor of Mr. Cassini, and carried a smaller robot onboard named after Huygens. Cassini/Huygens was the biggest spaceship NASA had ever built, over 6 tons, big as a school bus. After a six year journey Cassini/Huygens arrived at Saturn and started sending back jaw-dropping details about our sixth planet.
In the next post, I will share some of the secrets of Saturn uncovered by Cassini/Huygens. Be prepared to be amazed!
Fun Phineas Facts
Saturn’s rings disappear every few years! It happened in 1612, completely shocking Galileo. Then to his surprise, the next year they reappeared.
To understand why, you can do a simple experiment. Find a round disc in your home (a quarter, CD, frisbee…) and hold it out at arms length so it looks like a circle. Now tilt it so all you can see is the edge.
Saturns rings are like the disc in your hand. Saturns rings are very wide, but only 30 feet thick. As seen from Earth, Saturns rings wobble, and about every 7 years they are edge on, and basically invisible to us. Then they wobble some more and reappear.