(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘NASA

“To declare that Earth must be the only planet with life in the universe would be inexcusably bigheaded of us”*…


email readers click here to view

If any intelligent life in our galaxy intercepts the Voyager spacecraft, if they evolved the sense of vision, and if they can decode the instructions provided, these 116 images are all they will know about our species and our planet, which by then could be long gone…

When Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 launched into space in 1977, their mission was to explore the outer solar system, and over the following decade, they did so admirably.

With an 8-track tape memory system and onboard computers that are thousands of times weaker than the phone in your pocket, the two spacecraft sent back an immense amount of imagery and information about the four gas giants, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

But NASA knew that after the planetary tour was complete, the Voyagers would remain on a trajectory toward interstellar space, having gained enough velocity from Jupiter’s gravity to eventually escape the grasp of the sun. Since they will orbit the Milky Way for the foreseeable future, the Voyagers should carry a message from their maker, NASA scientists decided.

The Voyager team tapped famous astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan to compose that message. Sagan’s committee chose a copper phonograph LP as their medium, and over the course of six weeks they produced the “Golden Record”: a collection of sounds and images that will probably outlast all human artifacts on Earth…

More (including an interactive decoding of the symbols on the disc) at “The 116 photos NASA picked to explain our world to aliens.”

And for an update on NASA”s attempts at interstellar communication, check here.

* Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Death By Black Hole


As we contemplate co-habitation of the universe, we might send out-of-this-world birthday greetings to Alan B. Shepard; he was born on this date in 1923.  A naval aviator and test pilot, he was selected in the first class of American astronauts, the “Mercury Seven”; in 1961, he piloted the first American manned mission, “Freedom 7,” becoming the first American (and second man, after Yuri Gagarin) into space.  Ten years later, he was part of the Apollo 14 crew, piloting the lunar module for Nasa’s third successful moon landing.

Shepard during the “Freedom 7” flight



Written by LW

November 18, 2015 at 1:01 am

“This is a credulous age, and the burden of knowledge which we now have to carry is partly responsible”*…


 click here, and again,  for larger version

This map, published by South Dakotan Orlando Ferguson in 1893, offers a unique vision of the Earth as a concave field, with a round convex area in the middle. Surrounded by Bible passages arguing against the idea of a spherical Earth and embellished with a small illustration of men grasping desperately onto a spinning globe, the map begs its viewers to order Ferguson’s book on “this Square and Stationary Earth,” which “knocks the globe theory clean out.”

Historian Christine Garwood writes that the idea that people in the medieval period believed in a flat Earth before Columbus roundly disabused the world of that notion is reductive. Some medieval thinkers realized the truth, and people have persisted in believing in a flat Earth far past the time of Columbus. “Flat-earth belief has a chronology far stranger than all the inventions,” she writes. The idea’s resurgence in the 19th century is part of that strangeness.

In the 19th-century United States, pamphleteers and authors of varying levels of credibility debated the flat-Earth theory vigorously. In an issue of the journal Miscellaneous Notes and Queries, published in 1896, the editors included Ferguson’s book in a list of other recent titles questioning the dominant scientific perspective on the nature of the globe. Some of these: Eclectic or Cosmo-Enspheric Astronomy: The firmament a hollow sphere, and we live inside of it (Ulysses G. Morrow, 1894); One Hundred Proofs that the Earth is Not a Globe (William Carpenter, 1885); and Terra Firma. The Earth Does Not Move. Is not a Globe (W.M. Herd, 1890)…

Explore further at “A Bizarrely Complicated Late-19th-Century Flat-Earth Map.”

[Comics, courtesy of Dilbert.com]

* George Orwell, inspired to take up this topic by playwright George Bernard Shaw’s 1924 introduction to Saint Joan


As we contemplate circumnavigation, we might send supersonic birthday greetings to Robert Rowe Gilruth; He was born on this date in 1913.  An aerospace scientist and engineer, Gilruth developed the X-1, the first plane to break the sound barrier, then directed NASA’s Project Mercury– via which he enabled John Glenn to become the first American to orbit the Earth–  and later, the Apollo and Gemini Programs.



Written by LW

October 8, 2015 at 1:01 am

“The solar system is off center and consequently man is too”*…


email readers click here for video

On a dry lake bed in Nevada, a group of friends build the first scale model of the solar system with complete planetary orbits: a true illustration of our place in the universe…

* Harlow Shapley, Through Rugged Ways to the Stars


As we reach for the stars, we might recall that it was on this date in 1988 that NASA launched the space shuttle Discovery, marking America’s resumption of manned space flight following the 1986 Challenger disaster.  It was the first of Discovery‘s two “Return To Flight” assignments; it flew the “twin” missions in 2005 and 2006 that followed the Columbia disaster in 2003.



Written by LW

September 29, 2015 at 1:01 am

“If we all worked on the assumption that what is accepted as true really is true, then there would be little hope for advance”*…


Some guys spend their spare time restoring automobiles, devoting garage space to chocked-up Corvettes and Camaros.  Dave Pares, an adjunct professor at the University of Nebraska- Omaha,  is making his own warp drive.

In theory, a warp drive contracts space in front of a space vessel and expands it at the back. The ship itself speeds along inside what is called a “warp bubble.”  As theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre explained in 1994, if such an artificial warping of space — essentially picking up a piece of fabric of space=time at two points and bringing them together — could be accomplished, it would allow a space ship to travel incredible distances incredibly quickly, while avoiding the speed-of-light problem.

NASA has explored the prospect, but been put off by the technical and financial challenges of developing the power source that it believes would be necessary.  But Pares believes he can accomplish warping with low power– indeed, with the voltage available in his garage.

So far, Pares seems primarily to have attracted the attention of UFO enthusiasts; NASA and academic journals have (more and less politely) turned him away.  But retired UN-O physics professor Jack Kasher is cautiously optimistic:

It is so far out there, he’s not going to get funding to do it. If it’s going to be done, it’s going to be done in his garage…  A lot of people are going to flat-out dismiss it off the top, but I think he’s crossed some kind of bridge here, just showing this is possible with reasonable energy.  It wouldn’t surprise me if NASA latches on to this.

In any case, as Kasher notes, at a time when the scientific and technical mainstream had written off manned flight, the Wright Brothers took their first critical steps in their Ohio bike shop.

Read more at “Working toward a warp drive: In his garage lab, Omahan aims to bend fabric of space.”  See also: “No, NASA Did Not Accidentally Invent Warp Drive.”

C.F. also the warp drive’s bizarro twin: the EM Drive (which seems to work in practice… though it doesn’t work in theory).

* Orville Wright


As we put on our helmets, we might recall that it was on this date in 1949 that Britain’s first “launderette”– self-service, coin-operated laundry– opened on Queensway in London.  The very first coin-op laundry had opened in 1936 in Ft. Worth, Texas (where it was known for a time as a “washateria”).

While these self-service laundries are still known as launderettes in the U.K., they are now widely called “laundromats” in the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand (a genericization of the trademark of the coin-op washers and dryers developed and sold by Westinghouse).



Written by LW

May 9, 2015 at 1:01 am

“Outer space is so empty”*…


At the furthest-most reaches of the observable universe lies one of the most enigmatic mysteries of modern cosmology: the cosmic microwave background (CMB) Cold Spot.

Discovered in 2004, this strange feature etched into the primordial echo of the Big Bang has been the focus of many hypotheses — could it be the presence of another universe? Or is it just instrumental error? Now, astronomers may have acquired strong evidence as to the Cold Spot’s origin and, perhaps unsurprisingly, no multiverse hypothesis is required. But it’s not instrumental error either…

The Cold Spot area resides in the constellation Eridanus in the southern galactic hemisphere. The insets show the environment of this anomalous patch of the sky as mapped using PS1 and WISE data and as observed in the cosmic microwave background temperature data taken by the Planck satellite. The angular diameter of the vast supervoid aligned with the Cold Spot, which exceeds 30 degrees, is marked by the white circles.


More at “Mysterious ‘Cold Spot’: Fingerprint of Largest Structure in the Universe?

* Theodore Sturgeon


As we boldly go, we might recall that it was on this date in 1962 that NASA launched the Ranger 4, the first U.S. spacecraft to reach another celestial body.  Ranger 4 was designed to transmit pictures to Earth and to test the radar-reflectivity of the lunar surface during a period of 10 minutes of flight prior to crashing upon the Moon, “rough-landing” a seismometer capsule as it did.  In the event, an onboard computer glitch caused failure of the solar panels and navigation systems; as a result the spacecraft crashed on the far side of the Moon three days after it’s launch without returning any scientific data.  Still, the “landing” was a first.


 Happy Shakespeare’s Birthday!


Written by LW

April 23, 2015 at 1:01 am

“I believe alien life is quite common in the universe, although intelligent life is less so. Some say it has yet to appear on planet Earth”*…



If the range of habitable radii is sufficiently broad, most inhabited planets are likely to be closer in size to Mars than the Earth. Furthermore, since population density is widely observed to decline with increasing body mass, we conclude that most intelligent species are expected to exceed 300kg…

From the summary of University of Barcelona cosmologist Fergus Simpson‘s paper, “The Nature of Inhabited Planets and their Inhabitants” (which can be downloaded as a PDF here).

* Stephen Hawking


As we phone home, we might recall that it was on this date in 1960 that the first weather satellite, TIROS I, was launched from Cape Kennedy (or Canaveral, as then it was) and sent back the first television pictures from space. The first in a long series of launches in the TIROS program (Television Infrared Observation Satellite), it was NASA’s initial step, at a time when the effectiveness of satellite observations was still unproven, in determining if satellites could be useful in the study of the Earth.  In the event, TIROS I and it successors proved extremely useful in weather forecasting.

TIROS I prototype at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum



Written by LW

April 1, 2015 at 1:01 am

“We have sacrificed space exploration for space exploitation, which is interesting but scarcely visionary”*…


What costs more than space exploration? Money that has ‘gone missing’ from the US State Department. 

Three weeks ago, the office of the Inspector General of the US State Department sent a memo to the Under Secretary of State for Management and the Assistant Secretary for Administration noting that it had identified “contracts with a total value of more than $6 billion in which contract files were incomplete or could not be located at all.” As an example of how that $6 billion figure was reached, the memo notes that “a recent OIG audit of the closeout process for contracts supporting the U.S. Mission in Iraq revealed that contracting officials were unable to provide 33 of 115 contract files requested in accordance with the audit sampling plan. The value of the contracts in the 33 missing files totaled $2.1 billion. Forty-eight of the 82 contract files received did not contain all of the documentation required by [federal accounting regulations].” Now, when I read that and the other examples in this memo, it is unclear to me if this means that the projects meant to be covered by those 33 files were paid for and not done, if they were paid for and done but not cataloged, or something else. The media, though, has widely interpreted this $6 billion as money down the drain, rather than money wisely spent but poorly tracked. Importantly, this $6 billion was lost / mis-catalogued over the course of about 6 years; the missing funds therefore total about 2% of the agency’s spending over those years.

What else could we have done with that money? Well, if that money were to somehow show up under the doormat at the US Capitol building in an unmarked envelope with a note of apology, and if Congress were decided to spend it all on space exploration, it would go along way. In fact, the entire President’s Budget Request for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate—the part of NASA that covers all of its active and developing science missions—for fiscal year 2015 is less than $5.2 billion.

As a reference for people who think that space exploration costs too much, there’s a Tumblr that lists things that cost even more…

What costs more than space exploration? Unused gift cards.

According to financial consulting firm CEB TowerGroup, Americans let an estimated total of $1.8 billion in giftcards go to waste in 2012. Lots of Americans give and receive gift cards (also according to TowerGroup, the American gift card economy is larger than the GDP of 136 different nations), and some of those gift cards get lost, are thrown out, or expire. If this total sounds high, it’s worth noting that it’s actually much lower than the waste levels observed in previous years, thanks to the CARD Act: between 2005 and 2011, a total of $41 billion in giftcards was wasted, for a rough average of $5.85 billion per year.

In October 2012, SpaceX launched the first of twelve commercially-operated cargo resupply flights to the International Space Station. A Dragon capsule, built by SpaceX, launched onboard a Falcon 9 rocket, also built by SpaceX, and rendezvoused with the Station before being grappled by ISS’s robotic arm and berthed. In total, the Dragon capsule delivered about 900 pounds of useful supplies to the crew of the station (nearly 2,000 pounds, if you count all of the packaging); two and a half weeks later, Dragon returned to Earth carrying a different 800 or so pounds of returning payloads and equipment. It total, SpaceX’s contract for those twelve flights will cost NASA and the US tax payer $1.6 billion.

More at Things That Cost More Than Space Exploration.

* Eugene Cernan


As we raise our eyes to the stars, we might recall that it was on this date in 1945 that five U.S. Navy Avenger torpedo-bombers– Flight 19– took off from the Ft. Lauderdale Naval Air Station in Florida on a routine three-hour training mission.  Their course was plotted to take them due east for 120 miles, north for 73 miles, and then back over a final 120-mile leg that would return them to the naval base. They never returned.

Two hours after the flight began, the leader of the squadron, who had been flying in the area for more than six months, reported that his compass and back-up compass had both failed– as had those on all of the other planes in his flight, and that their position was unknown.  After two more hours of confused messages from the fliers, a distorted radio transmission from the squadron leader was heard, apparently calling for his men to prepare to ditch their aircraft simultaneously due to lack of fuel.

By this time, several land radar stations finally determined that Flight 19 was somewhere north of the Bahamas and east of the Florida coast, and a search and rescue Mariner aircraft took off with a 13-man crew. Three minutes later, the Mariner aircraft radioed to its home base that its mission was underway. The Mariner was never heard from again.

The disappearance of the 14 men of Flight 19 and the 13 men of the Mariner led to one of the largest air and seas searches to that date, and hundreds of ships and aircraft combed thousands of square miles of the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and remote locations within the interior of Florida.  No trace of the bodies or aircraft was ever found.

Although naval officials maintained that the remains of the six aircraft and 27 men were not found because stormy weather destroyed the evidence, the story of the “Lost Squadron” helped cement the legend of the Bermuda Triangle…

Artist’s depiction of the five TBM Avengers that disappeared.




Written by LW

December 5, 2014 at 1:01 am


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,159 other followers

%d bloggers like this: