Cassini: The Grand Finale

“1:55 a.m. PDT

Cassini engineers have received the signal that Cassini has started a five-minute roll to point the instrument that will sample Saturn’s atmosphere (INMS) into the optimal direction, facing the direction of the oncoming gases. Along with this roll, the spacecraft is reconfiguring its systems for real-time data transmission at a rate of 27 kilobits per second (3.4 kilobytes per second). Final, real-time relay of data starts immediately after. That relay marks the beginning of Cassini’s final plunge.”

Not long now before Cassini plunges into Saturn. It’s sending data back as fast as it can, at a speed comparable to a modem used by many in the late nineties!

Absolutely amazing.

Check out the NASA live stream for commentary.

How New Horizons flew to Pluto

Pluto

The last week has been quite an amazing one in human history. We have photographed up close all the planets (and ex-planets) of our solar system. What our ancestors saw as mere points of light in the sky are now full colour images that anyone can see. It’s really amazing.

Pluto the Death Star

Still, there were surprises in the form of a death star. George Lucas must have been there already!

Pluto the dog

And of course there is that heart shaped landmark on the surface of the dwarf planet that looks suspiciously like Pluto the dog, but I think Snoopy would have loved to go there ..

snoopy astronaut

Clyde Tombaugh was the man who discovered Pluto in 1930. He died in 1997 before this mission launched and a portion of his ashes were carried by the New Horizons craft. His are the first ashes to be carried to Pluto, and the first to eventually leave the solar system as New Horizons is on an escape trajectory!

In typical Scott Manley style, he has produced a video using Kerbal Space Program explaining how New Horizons was launched by NASA. He has lots of background information on the rockets used and he’s as interesting as always.

Here’s another, more cinematic, depiction of the launch by Youtube user “winged”. This one is shorter and visually more interesting but lacks the narration of Scott’s video so you should definitely watch both!

If you’re interested in the cameras on board, you should read Photographing Pluto: This Is How New Horizons Works and The Camera Behind The New Pluto Photos.

There’s two cameras that more or less operate in visible light: a color camera which is a medium resolution camera (Ralph), and then there’s a grayscale or black and white telephoto camera (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager, or LORRI).

Our long range pictures of things that are going to give us our highest resolution images will be taken LORRI. And the color pictures will be taken with Ralph. We can actually combine the colors from Ralph to colorize LORRI’s pictures.

And then there is an imaging infrared spectrometer that will also makes pictures of a sort. But they’re mostly compositional information, like what Pluto and its moons are made out of.

Another constraint on the mission was that Ralph had to take photos using only the sun’s dim light that reaches Pluto. During its flyby, New Horizons will photograph the side of Pluto that’s turned away from the sun. This side is lit solely by the sun’s light reflecting off Charon. This is like taking a photo using just the light from a “quarter moon” on Earth, a lead optical engineer for the mission told me in an email.

So Hardaway and her team designed Ralph for the exact light conditions that New Horizons would have to operate in. “This camera isn’t adjustable. It’s designed very specifically for conditions at Pluto,” she says.

The craft has successfully passed through the Pluto system according to signals received earlier today. It’s going to take months for all the scientific data collected to be transmitted back to Earth but hopefully we’ll see more detailed photos of Pluto and it’s moons over the next week. I’ll update this post with more when I get it!

Finally for now, New Horizons took many photos on it’s way to Pluto including this stunning montage of Jupiter and one of it’s moons, Io. Check out the mission homepage for more!

Jupiter and Io montage

Update at 2015-07-15 21:00 UTC+1: NASA have release two new images. One of Charon, one of Pluto. The close up of Pluto shows mountains 3,500m high. Both images show a lack of craters meaning the landscape is relatively young in solar system terms. Certainly less than 100m years old which is young compared to the Earth at 4.5b years old!

New close-up images of a region near Pluto’s equator reveal a giant surprise: a range of youthful mountains rising as high as 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) above the surface of the icy body. The mountains likely formed no more than 100 million years ago -- mere youngsters relative to the 4.56-billion-year age of the solar system -- and may still be in the process of building, says Jeff Moore of New Horizons’ Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team (GGI). That suggests the close-up region, which covers less than one percent of Pluto’s surface, may still be geologically active today.
New close-up images of a region near Pluto’s equator reveal a giant surprise: a range of youthful mountains rising as high as 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) above the surface of the icy body.
The mountains likely formed no more than 100 million years ago — mere youngsters relative to the 4.56-billion-year age of the solar system — and may still be in the process of building, says Jeff Moore of New Horizons’ Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team (GGI). That suggests the close-up region, which covers less than one percent of Pluto’s surface, may still be geologically active today.

Remarkable new details of Pluto’s largest moon Charon are revealed in this image from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), taken late on July 13, 2015 from a distance of 289,000 miles  (466,000 kilometers).
Remarkable new details of Pluto’s largest moon Charon are revealed in this image from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), taken late on July 13, 2015 from a distance of 289,000 miles (466,000 kilometers).

How did Apollo get to the Moon?

It’s extraordinary that people haven’t been back to the Moon in my lifetime. I can only imagine the excitement of the first Moon landing, although from what I’ve read the later missions the general public wasn’t that interested in it. Still, the Apollo missions were an amazing feat of engineering, science and bravery.

Apollo 11's Lunar Module, Eagle with Buzz Aldrin in foreground.
Apollo 11’s Lunar Module, Eagle with Buzz Aldrin in foreground.

Over the last few days I’ve been listening to two episodes of the Omega Tau Podcast:

Both episodes are interviews with David Woods, author of the book How Apollo Flew to the Moon and full of fascinating detail. They’re well worth a listen.

If you thought flying to the Mun in Kerbal Space Program was hard just wait ’til you hear about everything they accomplished using 1960’s technology. While they did have computer assisted landing procedures when they got to their destination I bet it was no Mechjeb! There is the FASA mod for the game, adding 300 new parts, including a Lunar lander! Here’s a video (and Reddit thread) of it in action, although I’m upset that he left someone on the Mun..

As luck would have it, last night I saw that Ars Technica published 45 years after Apollo 13: Ars looks at what went wrong and why a few days ago. Another interesting read, contrasting what the film “Apollo 13” showed to reality. Useful and insightful comments too, including more book recommendations. I have plenty of reading ahead of me.

(Thanks to Adam Heckler’s post I found out about Omega Tau, it’s quickly turning out to be one of my favourite podcasts!)

Neil Armstrong on Being a Nerd

orbital_mechanics

Yonatan Zunger posted this video featuring Neil Armstrong’s voice on Google Plus almost 2 weeks ago and I’ve been meaning to post it here for a while. The latest xkcd cartoon finally gave me the opportunity to combine this inspirational video and Kerbal Space Program in one post.

So far the 21st century has been pretty amazing. I’m looking forward to more science!

Carl Sagan: ‘Science Is a Way of Thinking’

In a few hours time Neil deGrasse Tyson will present the new series of Cosmos. We won’t see it in this part of the world for another week unfortunately. I never saw the original series and only know Carl Sagan by reputation as the only time I’ve heard him speak at length was in this 1996 Science Friday interview they rebroadcast in December. I still have it on my phone despite the fact I listened to it several weeks ago. It’s a great interview, you should listen to it too.

Thanks to Reddit here’s a short interview with a younger Neil deGrasse Tyson where he explains the influence Carl Sagan had on him and tells of first meeting him. It’s a lovely and charming story.

You should listen to the Ig Nobel 2013 Ceremony

The opera/heart transplant/mice team sings their acceptance speech. Photo by Mike Benveniste/ Improbable Research
The opera/heart transplant/mice team sings their acceptance speech. Photo by Mike Benveniste/ Improbable Research

The Ig Nobel Prizes are given out every year to “honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then makes them think”. You may have heard of them already for rewarding prizes to, let’s say, unusual achievements. This year is no different. There was research into dung beetles, confirmation that people think they’re more attractive when they’re drunk and many other things.

Science Friday devoted almost an hour to the 2013 awards and it’s well worth listening to. The lecture and 24/7 talks at the start were excellent and I love how they enforce the time limit on speakers. Miss Sweetie Poo does a great job!

Futureproof on Newstalk

This morning there was a compilation of interviews from the science radio show Futureproof on Newstalk. It’s a show that broadcasts at 6pm on a Sunday evening and so I’ve hardly ever listened to it. No more, I subscribed to the show podcasts. Hard enough finding the xml feed. You have to listen to a show and in the Flash interface click on the XML link!

Good interview with Richard Dawkins during the year too.