Archive for the ‘The Moon’ category

Crescent Earth, Water on the Moon, and Free Spirit!

November 15, 2009

Just a quick post to update you on the latest space news and remind you to keep voting for my article about how MSL is like James Bond.

First of all, the Rosetta spacecraft, on its way to a rendezvous with a comet in 2014, swung by Earth the other day, and took some beautiful pictures:


Crescent earth as seen by the Rosetta probe.

Second, NASA held a press conference on friday announcing that the LCROSS mission to “bomb the moon” was successful and that they found evidence for hundreds of kilograms of water in the impact plume. This means that the south pole of the moon just got a lot more appealing, both because of the potential as a resource and because the water trapped in permanently shadowed craters could be billions of years old, preserving the history of the solar system much like the ice cores of Antarctica do for the Earth’s past. Check out the Planetary Society article on the discovery for more information.

Third, the rover drivers are finally preparing to extract Spirit from the sand trap where she has spent most of the summer! Once again, the Planetary Society blog has a good summary of the recent NASA press conference.

That’s all for now. I’m off to frantically write bad sci-fi so I can keep up with NaNoWriMo!



LCROSS preliminary results

November 5, 2009

Hey remember when we bombed the moon? Here’s an interesting article about some preliminary results from LCROSS. I was especially surprised when they said that there may be mercury at the impact site. They say they’re seeing spectral lines that could be produced by iron, magnesium or mercury, but then the article goes on as if mercury is the likeliest candidate! I’m skeptical. Fe and Mg are common in lunar rocks. Mercury: not so much. Oh well, it’s an interesting update anyway, and it sounds like the real juicy results are still in the works.

PS – Have you voted today for my MSL: Mars Action Hero article over at the science writing competition? Remember, you can vote daily!

New Photos of Stuff on Other Worlds

October 29, 2009

I always make the mistake when on vacation of taking too many pictures of scenery and not enough pictures of people. Years down the road, the most interesting photos are not landscapes, but the ones that we can look at and say “I remember when we did that!”. And that’s why I think it’s great that we now have cameras around the Moon and Mars that can do the same. LROC at the moon has been able to take some spectacular photos of the Apollo landing sites, including a new one shown below. HiRISE at Mars has been able to take photos of the Mars rovers, Viking landers, and more recently the Phoenix lander.

Phoenix went silent as northern Martian winter crept in, covering it with CO2 frost, but the latest HiRISE image, taken in the spring, shows an ice-free Phoenix! It probably won’t wake up again, but it’s good to see our lander again. The spring images are somewhat grainy because the sun had just peeked above the horizon and light levels were very low. Emily Lakdawalla has a post with more information about this and other HiRISE images of Phoenix.


Credit: NASA / JPL / UA / animation by Emily Lakdawalla

If it’s fun to see our robots again, it’s even cooler to see evidence of humans landing on the moon. Now that LRO is in its final orbit around the moon, it is returning some really excellent photos of the Apollo landing sites, including this new one of the Apollo 17 site. You can even see the flag! For more information and closer views, check out the LROC site.


This high-resolution view of the Apollo 17 landing site shows details as small as the flag! Click to go to the LROC site for higher-resolution versions.

To the Moon! Zoom, Bang!

October 7, 2009


As I write this, there is a NASA spacecraft on an unstoppable collision course with the moon.

Early on Friday morning it will impact a crater near the moon’s south pole at 9000 km/hr, causing an explosion that will excavate 350 tons of lunar rocks, blasting them up into space and leaving a 66 foot-wide crater.

Of course, this is all intentional. The LCROSS mission will use the upper stage of the rocket that launched the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to the moon as a missile to blast the possibly ice-bearing crater Cabeus in much the same way that the Deep Impact mission blasted a hole in comet 9P/Temple. The hope is that the ejecta from the LCROSS impact will reveal that the crater does indeed contain ice.

In addition to the “shepherd” spacecraft that will follow the big Centaur stage to its explosive death, snapping pictures all the while, scientists all over the world will be watching the moon with their own telescopes. In fact, even large (12 in or 30 cm) amateur telescopes may be able to see the impact!

Even if you don’t have a big telescope to peer through, NASA TV will be covering the impact. The impact is planned to occur on Oct 9, 2009 at 11:31:30 UTC (04:31:30 am PDT), and NASA TV coverage will begin at 10:15 UTC (03:15 am PDT).

Stay tuned! It promises to be a blast! (Sorry, the pun had to be made.)

A Detailed Look at Water on the Moon

September 27, 2009

It looks like Emily Lakdawalla at the Planetary Society blog has beat me to the punch! After the big announcement that three separate groups have found evidence of water on the moon, she dove in, read the papers and has a series of posts with all of the details of their findings. Well worth a read!

Part 1: There’s Water on the Moon!

Part 2: The Murkier Part of the Story

Part 3 isn’t posted yet, but will be soon. And if you’re interested in space exploration news, you should probably just follow the Planetary Society blog.

Water on the Moon

September 24, 2009


In case you haven’t heard yet, there is quite the buzz building about three separate results that indicate that there is water on the lunar surface. There isn’t much: moon rocks returned by Apollo are pretty darn dry, but it’s still an exciting result, and it means that future missions might be able to extract water for drinking and rocket fuel. I was especially surprised to hear that the water is not just in the frigid craters at the moon’s poles that never see the light of day. Instead, it is found over large portions of the surface! The other surprise is that one of the data sets used to make this discovery is about 10 years old!

Reach more about it in this AP article or this one at

NASA Then and Now

July 20, 2009

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Forty years ago today, the world watched as Apollo 11 landed on the surface of the moon. All day today, I have been reading accounts from people who witnessed the landing. They have almost unanimously expressed the awe and wonder of seeing human being set foot upon the surface of another world. But another common thread is that of disappointment. The Apollo program achieved great things in its time, but then after only six landings, the program was over. The world lost interest and NASA lost its direction.

Granted, in the 40 years since Apollo 11, NASA has achieved great things, but never again did it top the headlines in every country. It is estimated that one fifth of the world’s population watched the Apollo 11 landing. That grip on the world’s hearts and minds is gone.

The NASA that I grew up with and now work with is very different from the one that got us to the moon in less than ten years. To my generation, the Space Shuttle is the symbol of human spaceflight, and while it is a beautiful and complex engineering marvel, it is also dangerous, expensive, and incapable of leaving low Earth orbit. Even its name, “Shuttle” suggests that what it does is routine and uninteresting. Right now there are thirteen astronauts and cosmonauts orbiting the planet in the shuttle and the space station. That’s more than all of the Apollo astronauts who set foot upon the moon, all at once! And yet most people (myself included) would have trouble naming one of them.


NASA has aged. The average age of its workforce is almost 50. It has become a world-class bureaucracy with crippling fear of risk. You can’t walk down the hall of a NASA building without being accosted by signs warning about slippery floors and on-the-job accidents. Now, I’m all for minimizing injuries, but those signs also reflect a change in the fundamental culture of NASA.

Remember, the first thing that happened in the Apollo program was the tragic Apollo 1 fire that killed Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. The modern NASA would have shut the program down for years and possibly for good, convened investigation boards, and written long reports recommending all the new requirements that must be satisfied to fly again. The Apollo-era NASA just redesigned the spacecraft, pressed forward, and two years later Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were walking on the moon.


The modern NASA is also lacking direction. At an event celebrating the Apollo 11 anniversary at Cornell this weekend, Peter Thomas, a research scientist in the astronomy department suggested that Apollo’s success was because President Kennedy gave a concrete goal with a concrete deadline: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” Michael Collins had similar comments in the documentary ‘In The Shadow of the Moon’. In comparison, the modern goals are nebulous and vague and frankly not very inspiring even for space enthusiasts. From the Vision for Space Exploration put forward in 2004, “The fundamental goal of this vision is to advance U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program.”

Right now, the future of human space exploration by NASA is uncertain. The shuttle will only fly seven more times. It will complete the International Space Station, and then it will be retired. Without the shuttle, the United States will be forced to hitch a ride on Russian rockets to get to the space station. In recent years, the Constellation program, aimed at a return to the moon with Apollo-like rockets, has been the focus of post-shuttle human spaceflight at NASA, but the program has had some political and engineering problems.


Comparison of past, present and future NASA launch vehicles. Saturn V (left), Space Shuttle (left center), Ares I (Right center), Ares V (Right).

The Obama administration has ordered a comprehensive review of NASA’s human spaceflight efforts by a panel of astronauts and experts from aerospace and academia. This committee is busy studying the Constellation program as well as all of the alternatives on the table. Their report is expected by the end of next month, and although technically only advisory in nature, will likely determine the future of human spaceflight at NASA.

This review may be just the opportunity that NASA needs. It is a chance to put NASA back on track with a concrete set of goals that will excite the world again. The committee is seeking input from citizens, so I encourage you to leave a comment or question at their site and play a role in determining the future of NASA. Where do I think NASA should be setting its sights? Well, I’ve written enough tonight. That’s a topic for another post later this week!