Tag Archives: ESA

Comet ISON lives!

29 Nov

UPDATE: While it appears that some small portion of ISON’ nucleus has survived, there is significant discussion if the surviving ‘piece’ is little more than dust. When concrete information is available as to the fate of ISON, I’ll provide an updated story.

This article, written by Harrison Ruess, was originally posted on Sun News Network.

Initial observations of Comet ISON’s close encounter with the Sun on Thursday suggested that it was vaporized during its solar fly-by. However new observations on Friday morning suggest that at least a portion of the comet’s nucleus – its rocky core – may have survived.

A hint that ISON may have survived appeared in an image from the joint NASA/European Space Agency observatory SOHO, which showed ISON appearing to brighten again.

If ISON had been destroyed as originally suspected, it’s unlikely that it would be seen getting brighter today.

Comet ISON passing the Sun, courtesy SOHO/ESA/NASA
Image sequence from SOHO, courtesy NASA/ESA

“After perihelion, a very faint smudge of dust appeared in the (SOHO) images along ISON’s orbit. This surprised us a little…We watched and waited for that dust trail to fade away. Except it didn’t,” wrote Karl Battams, astrophysicist and computational scientist based at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC.

“Now, in the latest (SOHO) images, we are seeing something beginning to gradually brighten up again,” he continues.

Battams’ working theory is that large chunks of ISON broke off in its journey past the sun, but part of its core remains intact.

As this is a very dynamic situation though, Battams cautions: “just be patient on this and the truth will unfold in time!”

If a large portion of ISON survives intact, it would be visible to the naked eye in Earth’s night sky in the coming weeks.

For the latest, you can check out NASA’s ISON page.

Happy 15th birthday Space Station!

19 Nov

Sing it with me: Happy birthday, ISS!

On November 20, 1998 the International Space Station (ISS) was born with the launch of the Zarya module from Baikonur Cosmodrome Site 81 in Kazakhstan. Zarya is Russian for ‘dawn’ and it was given this name to signify the dawn of new international cooperation on the ISS project.

A couple short days later on December 4, 1998 the Space Shuttle Endeavour launched from Florida on mission STS-88 with the primary goal of connecting its cargo – the Unity module (Node 1) – to Zarya. On December 5 Unity and Zarya were connected, using the Shuttle’s Canadarm. On December 10, 1998 the hatch between Unity and Zarya was opened, and for the first time astronauts floated aboard the ISS. STS-88 also included three spacewalks to connect power systems between the two modules.

This first piece of construction was historically significant, though it was only the beginning of ISS construction. And it would be nearly two years before anyone could live up there.

In all, ISS construction required more than 25 Space Shuttle flights, some 150 spacewalks – adding up to more than 1000 hours of spacewalking!

In July 2000 the third component of the ISS launched from Russia, the Zvezda (Russian for ‘star’) Service Module. It was controlled remotely and docked with the ISS without any human presence aboard. On September 11, 2000 during Space Shuttle flight STS-106 astronauts on a spacewalk made the final connections to activate the module.

ISS construction during STS-116 in December 2006

ISS construction during STS-116 in December 2006

With Zvezda in place, the first crew on Expedition 1 arrived on November 2, 2000 and humans have been living aboard ever since – a record 13+ years. The previous record, held by Russian cosmonauts aboard Mir, was just less than 10 years (3,634 days).

STS-100 in April 2001 saw the installation of the ISS Robotic Arm – Canadarm2 – by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. This marked the major contribution to the ISS by the Canadian Space Agency, and I have since heard Hadfield brag that ‘Canadians built the ISS’, as Canadarm2 was vital to ISS construction as modules arrived from Earth.

Major construction of the ISS continued until STS-133 in March 2011, when NASA installed their last “room” – the Permanent Multipurpose Module, which is generally used for storage. Though additional components are continually being added or upgraded on the ISS, and this is expected to continue for years to come, the ISS is generally considered to have been ‘completed’ in 2011.

The ISS is currently funded up until 2020, though there are discussions it could remain functional and useful (and funded) up until 2028. Considering some of the historical hurdles that the ISS had to overcome (least of which was the Columbia disaster in 2003) just to make it this far, I am optimistic it still has a bright future.

Besides the unique research being done aboard the ISS everyday – it is after all the only laboratory that enjoys the perk of microgravity – there is speculation that the ISS could be used as a launching point for future missions to the Moon, asteroids, or even Mars.

It’s a remarkable example of human ingenuity and cooperation, as the ISS is generally considered the largest and most complicated piece of equipment humanity has ever built. Weighing in at 450,000 kg (just less than one million pounds), travelling 27,600 km/h, 400 km straight up, and the size of a football field, it is an amazing accomplishment.

Join in the worldwide celebration of the ISS 15th birthday by “waving” to the ISS and using the Twitter hashtag #ISS15.

I look forward to writing about the ISS, and its story of cooperation, achievement, and success for many years to come.

A brief photo history of the ISS:

Zarya Module (1998)

Zarya Module (1998)

Zarya (left) and Unity (1998)

Zarya (left) and Unity (1998)

Top to bottom: Unity, Zarya, Zvezda (2000)

Top to bottom: Unity, Zarya, Zvezda (2000)

US Solar Panels installed in 2000

US Solar Panels installed in 2000

Canadarm2 (2001)

Canadarm2 (2001)

The ISS in August 2005

The ISS in August 2005

The ISS in February 2008

The ISS in February 2008

The 'complete' ISS in 2011

The ‘complete’ ISS in 2011

Exploring Earth’s other worlds

17 Nov

The CAVES 2013 (Cooperative Adventure for Valuing and Exercising human behavior and performance Skills) course took place, incidentally, in a cave system.

The course was designed by the European Space Agency as a training opportunity for astronauts to learn about the challenges of isolation, communication, exploration and discovery that would face them when in space aboard the International Space Station – or, quite literally, exploring other worlds.

Using Earth as a training ground for exploring space is nothing new: astronauts routinely train underwater to prepare for spacewalks and other missions; this past summer Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen went on a geology expedition in Canada’s high arctic to learn how to conduct field geology. He also served as mission commander on the CAVES 2013 course for several days.

The CAVES course equally provides an opportunity for the astronauts to learn how to become better explorers and for mission controllers to figure out how to conduct these remote operations in challenging environments with limited communication.

Missions like CAVES is precisely what will enable future voyages away from Earth to be successful, and it’s great that the Canadian Space Agency participates.

Caves 2013 Astronauts

Caves 2013 Astronauts

During their six-day stay underground in September for CAVES 2013, the astronauts were busy creating 3D cave maps of the areas around their base-camp, photographic surveys, and taking samples of rarely-seen cave organisms. This year’s mission objectives also included monitoring airflow, temperature and humidity and taking geological, biological and microbiological samples. All which are tasks that would be standard on future missions in space.

They also happen to teach us more about Earth, which is interestingly often the underwritten goal of space exploration. In order to learn more about what’s happening right here, we have to look outwards in order to build a dataset that includes examples from places other than Earth. After all, Earth is but one example of how things work. Maybe what’s happening here is typical; maybe it’s not. To find out, we have to build a basis of comparison.

It also strikes me how amazing, and numerous, “other worlds” exist right here on Earth. Whether thinking about the ocean floor, tops of mountains, or deep inside a cave – Earth has environments so numerous and unique that it could be compared to visiting another planet. In fact on the CAVES mission in 2012, the astronauts participating even found a new form of life!