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Coming home: incredible Soyuz landing photo

12 Mar


On the evening of March 11 (Eastern Time; it was the morning of March 12 in Kazakhstan) three astronauts returned home from the International Space Station in their Russian-built Soyuz TMA-14M spacecraft.

The astronauts were Elena Serova (RUS), Alexander Samokutyaev (RUS), and Barry “Butch” Wilmore (NASA). The landing went smoothly (as smoothly as a Soyuz landing can go, at least). They touched down vertically, and on schedule, on a cold and foggy morning in Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan. It was about 30 minutes after sunrise.

And in the process of all that, NASA photographer Bill Ingalls took one of the most amazing Soyuz landing photos I’ve seen.

The Soyuz TMA-14M spacecraft is seen as it lands with Expedition 42 commander Barry Wilmore of NASA, Alexander Samokutyaev of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) and Elena Serova of Roscosmos near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan on Thursday, March 12, 2015 (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

The Soyuz TMA-14M spacecraft is seen as it lands with Expedition 42 commander Barry Wilmore of NASA, Alexander Samokutyaev of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) and Elena Serova of Roscosmos near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan on Thursday, March 12, 2015 (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

…and “amazing” doesn’t really do this photo justice. It’s majestic. It’s almost surreal (I actually looked twice when I first saw it to make sure it was indeed a real photograph, and not CGI).

The photo was taken from an aircraft just before the Soyuz disappeared into a layer of cloud on its journey to terra firma.

The astronauts had spent about six months on board the ISS as a part of the Expedition 41 and 42 crews.

To see some more photos from the landing (and download hi-res versions), check out this NASA Photoset on Flickr.

Water, water everywhere!

12 Mar

Over the past week or so we’ve seen a few stories regarding wet bodies in our solar system.

First, there was news about water on Mars. Now the news wasn’t so much that there was water on Mars, since that’s been pretty well understood for a while now (thanks in large part to the rovers Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity), rather how much water there was – and it’s plentiful to say the least.

Mars with a vast Northern Ocean (NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center)

Mars with a vast Northern Ocean (NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center)

Using land-based infrared telescopes (the ESO’s VLT and NASA’s Keck), NASA was able to measure the hydrogen isotopes in Mars’ atmosphere. The results indicate that Mars one had 20 million cubic kilometers of water – more water than is in the Arctic Ocean here on Earth today. Astronomers are also currently suggesting that the Martian water was contained, mainly, in one large ocean surrounding the Red Planet’s north pole. It would have covered proportionally more of the planet’s surface than the Atlantic Ocean does here.

Nowadays on Mars it’s bone-dry, quite a bit different from ~4 billion years ago. Current estimates suggest that Mars’ ancient ocean contained about 6.5 times more water than what is currently observed in Mars’ polar ice caps, meaning that a great deal was likely lost into space as the Martian atmosphere thinned 2-4 billion years ago (though some water could still possibly be trapped in a permafrost layer).

The next news item this week is regarding Enceladus, an icy moon of Saturn. Now again, we’ve understood for a while that this moon had a sub-surface ocean of liquid water, trapped beneath an icy crust, but the news this week is tantalizing: the possibility of active hydrothermal vents in the moon’s southern ocean.

Hydrothermal activity on Enceladus (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Hydrothermal activity on Enceladus (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Announced just a couple days ago thanks to data from the Cassini spacecraft, astrophysicists have been able to pinpoint the origin of tiny particles of silica that the spacecraft had been detecting in space as it orbits in the area. And the origin appears to be the southern ocean of Enceladus, a 10km deep body of water. How the silica particles form is a chemical process that takes places when ocean water interacts with volcanic activity on the ocean floor.

Precisely the same process has been observed in only one other place so far: right here on Earth. And on our world, hydrothermal vents are teeming with life.

Jump ahead to today, and NASA announces, using Hubble data, that the largest moon in our solar system has a sub-surface ocean of liquid water of its own.

Ganymede, a moon of Jupiter, has been theorized to have a sub-surface ocean since the Galileo probe visited the area in 2002. Shifting magnetic fields were a major clue indicating the presence of water, though the data at the time was inconclusive. But now a novel idea has allowed a team of astronomers to make use of the Hubble Space Telescope to study Ganymede’s shifting magnetic fields from afar: patterns in the moon’s auroras.

An illustration of Ganymede's auroras (NASA/ESA)

An illustration of Ganymede’s auroras (NASA/ESA)

By understanding how different materials impact magnetic fields, and how auroras present themselves through those magnetic fields, the astronomers were able to understand Ganymede’s make-up by studying the auroras using Hubble. What they found is an ocean of water. (Edit: not only an ocean of water, but a large ocean. Ganymede could have more water in its salty subsurface ocean than Earth does in all our oceans combined.)

With all this in mind – and not to mention other wet worlds, like Europa – the solar system is starting to look a little more damp than it was once thought to be. And here on Earth at least, it is well understood that anywhere you can find water – in any form – you are virtually guaranteed to find life as well.

So how do these discoveries impact the prospects for finding life in our solar system beyond Earth?

On Mars, I’m not sure it changes much. It’s been understood that the planet was once wet, that it was wet for hundreds of millions of years (if not a billion or more), and that the environment was once life-friendly. This week’s discovery drives home the idea that there was plenty of water, but I don’t know that it’s a game-changer.

For Enceladus, this is a significant discovery. Adding in the fact that geysers have been previously detected with organic chemicals, this icy world now has to be considered one of (if not the most) likely places to harbour life in our solar system. As we understand life, it needs water and an energy source; Enceladus now seems to have both. Contemplating what might be swimming around in that alien ocean right now is an intriguing thought. (Maybe Enceladus leap-frogs Europa as the target for a robotic submarine mission?)

Ganymede? Add it to the list of worlds with liquid water that require more study. (I would similarly categorize Europa.) Questions abound as to the nature of their oceans, if there is any volcanic activity, do they cover the entire world, and could there be life?

Clearly we have some exploring to do.

Astronauts on board the International Space Station capture an image of the Space Shuttle Endeavour prior to docking during the mission STS-130 in February 2010 (NASA).

Astronauts on board the International Space Station capture an image of the Space Shuttle Endeavour prior to docking during the mission STS-130 in February 2010 (NASA).

Video of SpaceX Falcon 9 crashing and burning in the ocean is what progress looks like

18 Jan

I realize this might not be your first thought when watching the video clip, but it really is.

Those seven seconds of carnage were a great sign of success. That Falcon 9, about 10 minutes earlier on January 10th, was sitting on a launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The pad is 320km to the west of the barge. The barge is 100×300 feet, floating in the ocean.

The Falcon 9 launched, released the upper stage on it’s way to the International Space Station (which arrived flawlessly), and then the first stage managed to navigate itself to that barge.

That feat alone is pretty amazing.

The barge – all 30,000 sq feet of it – is TINY. Getting the Falcon 9 anywhere near it is impressive.

(Consider for comparison something with a landing envelope of say, 5 square kilometers (aka about 43,000,000 sq feet). In spaceflight terms, 5 sq km is an incredibly precise landing. 30,000 feet is 0.07% of 43,000,000 – or about 1500 times more precise.)

And then they almost landed it. If it hadn’t run out of that pesky hydraulic fluid used to control the aerodynamic fins – causing them to lock up – it probably would have made it, or at least come closer.

SpaceX will try again, and that’s what all this is about.

(Update: They’ll try again on the CRS6 launch, currently scheduled for Monday, April 13, 2015 @ 4:33 p.m. ET.)

Progress to make launching rockets more cost effective. Progress to find new ways to control rockets in flight. Progress to make them more efficient.

And one day, progress towards being able to fly a rocket to another world, land it, and then come back home with it — because remember, that is Elon Musk’s goal.

Video of that hard barge landing is exactly what progress looks like.

Read more here / watch a video clip of Jesse, Jerry, and yours truly chatting about it (and more!) on Sun News Network on Friday afternoon:

Daydreaming about exploration wearing Mars-coloured glasses

29 Dec

The frontiers of exploration have had many faces throughout history. In ages past, what is today London, England would have been a striking, though desolate, find. Today it’s a central hub of the Western world.

Ditto my hometown of Toronto, Ontario. Just 300 years ago it was wilderness. And you don’t have to venture very far from the city limits to return to that untamed world.

And there are many places around the world that are still, in the truest sense of the word, frontiers of exploration.

Antarctica, the Amazon rainforest, the ocean floor (a massive ‘new world’ right here on Earth), Madagascar, the high Arctic – all places that most human will never venture and no doubt hold secrets that could both amaze and bewilder our understanding of the world and perhaps life itself.

Overlooking the frozen shores of Lake Nipissing in North Bay, Ontario

Overlooking the frozen shores of Lake Nipissing in North Bay, Ontario

Consider for example the extremophiles (life that exists in extreme environments) that live inside rocks many kilometers beneath the surface – far from any sunlight – that use the rock itself as an energy source.

Or the life that persists on volcanos.

Or the life that flourishes in Lake Vostok – an underground Antarctic lake that has been cut-off from the outside world for perhaps 15 million years beneath 4km of snow and ice.

These discoveries have changed how we think about life, and rightly so. We have learned that life can persist – and proliferate – in places that only a few years ago were considered too harsh.

The goldilocks zone right here on Earth has ballooned.

Places that were once thought of as too extreme in some way – too hot, too cold, too dry, too little sun – are now all environments where there is life.

And significantly, they’re not just places where life is theorized. It’s not just that someone says there ‘could be’ life there.

There really is life there. We have seen it. Measured it. Tested it. Compared it.

Our exploration has taught us an important lesson for Planet Earth: life finds a way.

And as I sit in my chair explore the ice world I see out the window of the house Ashley grew up in, those four words stick with me.

Life finds a way.

I know gazing out the window that my view is teeming with life.

In the sky, under the ice, in the snow.

Everywhere there is life, and it’s abundant. Our exploration of Earth has proven this to be true.

Then I put on my Mars-coloured glasses, and start to think…

When the first people arrive on Mars in the next decades, the view they’ll be faced with may be remarkably similar to what I see here, sitting in North Bay on the shore of Lake Nipissing.

A landscape shaped by the cold, by wind, by water – by weather.

It’s a landscape that is utterly beautiful, but also incredibly harsh.

Lake Nipissing or Mars?

Lake Nipissing or Mars?

The one I see is a present day lake and the one on Mars will be an ancient lake – one that has long since dried up. But I’d be willing to bet that the first people to visit Mars will touchdown at a place where we’re confident there used to be water (and maybe still is, just trapped under the surface in permafrost).

Our Martian explorers will lift the veil on some of the secrets of the Red Planet. They will walk and rove. They’ll set up camps and hunker down when dust storms approach. They will keep warm on the cold Martian nights.

And as I think about the incredibleness of discovery that awaits our pioneers, it occurs to me that we’ve been here before. This has already happened.

Dawrin.

Amundsen.

Shackleton.

Magellan.

Earth used to be the undiscovered country (and in a meaningful way, we’ve only scratched the surface of it).

We are born to explore, and now there is a new frontier that tugs at our souls – and our emissaries are already there. But they are only wetting our appetite.

Missions to Mars have been flying for five decades. They have answered some fundamental questions – about water, about canals (or lack thereof), about volcanos, about the atmosphere and ancient environment.

They have also raised poignant questions, the latest of which – the origin of methane spikes detected by MSL – often circle around the question of life.

Was it ever there? What was its nature? When did it emerge? How long did it survive? Is it still there today? Are we related?

The answers to these questions – significant in their own right as they help us to understand the history of Mars – are also fundamental in determining our place in the cosmos.

Are we alone? Does life jump from planet to planet on asteroids? Is the chemistry of life common?

Answering these questions – in either the affirmative or the negative – will have profound impacts.

Exploration in the 21st century will take us to new frontiers, but it will similarly be true to our history. Humans yearn to explore, and this is as true today as it was hundreds of years ago.

The names of the explorers may be different, the frontier’s further afield, and our ships different in appearance, but these are only superficial transformations.

The essence is the same.

We want to explore new challenges, new destinations, new landscapes, new people – new worlds.

What do those places feel like? How do they smell? Is there life? Are there resources that will help people survive and travel on further?

Mars, like Earth, is a place that offers endless possibilities of exploration.

I wonder what we’ll find.

North Bay, Ontario or Nipissing Landing, Mars?

North Bay, Ontario or Nipissing Landing, Mars?