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.
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.
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.
Self-Portrait of Mars Rover Curiosity – NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
No matter how far you go, it’s always nice to keep in touch with the folks back home. That’s especially true for a spacecraft that has traveled millions of miles just to send pictures and other information from the surface of Mars back to scientists on Earth.
On June 19, researchers at NASA released their biggest, most detailed picture ever of the surface of Mars. For space fans following the progress of NASA’s Mars rover — named “Curiosity” — as it explores the surface of the Red Planet, pictures are nothing new. One of the great things about NASA is that mission scientists share lots of the data sent back to Earth. Armchair explorers can browse information on the Web — photos, charts, maps, animations and multimedia — alongside scientists around the world.
But the latest picture is NASA’s hugest ever (in camera terms, more than one billion pixels!), which means you can change your viewing angle, move it around and look at different parts of it. When you see something interesting, you can zoom in for closer inspection. See an interesting rock a mile away? No problem. Click and zoom until you get a better look.
It’s as close as you can get to taking a stroll around the surface of Mars.
The reason such detail is possible is that the image is made by stitching together nearly 900 pictures taken by Curiosity as it moved around the surface. The pictures were taken over several days in the October and November of 2012. The area photographed includes a windblown patch named “Rocknest,” and extends to Mount Sharp on the horizon. “It gives a sense of place and really shows off the cameras’ capabilities,” said Bob Deen of the Multi-Mission Image Processing Laboratory at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
To access the image and start your own “roving” adventure, go click on the link above.
NASA: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, an independent agency of the United States government responsible for aviation and spaceflight.
PIXEL: The basic unit of the composition of an image on a display screen; basically, one single dot that can’t be divided.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS “Updated Curiosity Self-Portrait at ‘John Klein'” This self-portrait of NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity combines dozens of exposures taken by the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) during the 177th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity’s work on Mars (Feb. 3, 2013), plus three exposures taken during Sol 270 (May 10, 2013) to update the appearance of part of the ground beside the rover. The updated area, which is in the lower left quadrant of the image, shows gray-powder and two holes where Curiosity used its drill on the rock target “John Klein.” The portion has been spliced into a self-portrait that was prepared and released in February (http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA16764), before the use of the drill. The result shows what the site where the self-portrait was taken looked like by the time the rover was ready to drive away from that site in May 2013.
The rover’s robotic arm is not visible in the mosaic. MAHLI, which took the component images for this mosaic, is mounted on a turret at the end of the arm. Wrist motions and turret rotations on the arm allowed MAHLI to acquire the mosaic’s component images. The arm was positioned out of the shot in the images, or portions of images, used in the mosaic.
Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, developed, built and operates MAHLI. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project and the mission’s Curiosity rover for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The rover was designed and assembled at JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
For 75 years, kids around the world learned about the nine planets that go around (orbit) the sun: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. And then in 2006, Pluto was gone; there were only eight planets! What happened to Pluto?
Pluto was discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona. And from the beginning we knew that Pluto was weird. It was not like the other eight.
It was usually the farthest planet from the sun, though sometimes it was closer than Neptune. It was tiny, smaller than Earth’s Moon. It wasn’t round either, more like a potato than a ball.
And while the other eight planets orbits are almost circular, Pluto’s orbit was a deep oval (like the shape of an egg). And it has 4 moons, one almost as big as Pluto itself.
None of that bothered space scientists (astronomers) until 2005 when they found a 10th planet, Ceres! Ceres is bigger than Pluto, but just as weird. But just when they were about to update all the textbooks to include #10, they found an 11th, Eris.
Soon astronomers realized that Ceres and Eris were just some of hundreds of objects orbiting way out past Neptune. If Ceres is a planet, then they all are! Imagine having to memorize all of them for a science quiz!
So the scientists changed the definition of “planet.” Definitions are really important in science. They keep everyone in the world talking the same language. So making the change was a big deal.
After much debate, they agreed that to be called a planet, you needed to:
Be nearly round like a ball
Have an orbit close to a circle around the Sun
Have cleared out the neighborhood (orbit) of other floating junk
Pluto, Ceres and all the others did not meet the definition and were officially renamed “Dwarf Planets.”
So, Pluto is still out there, but it is no longer considered a planet. However, it’s still a weird, cool rock. And we are about to learn even more about it In 2015, a NASA rocket arrives at Pluto! The “New Horizons” mission will take the first ever close up look at the most famous dwarf planet.
Fun Phineas Fact: Planet Pluto was named by an 11-year-old girl from England.
PHOTO CREDIT: NASA, ESA, and M. Buie (Southwest Research Institute): This is the most detailed view to date of the entire surface of the dwarf planet Pluto, as constructed from multiple NASA Hubble Space Telescope photographs taken from 2002 to 2003.