THIS SITE IS UPDATED OFTEN TO HELP YOU FIND YOUR WAY AROUND THE COSMOS.
A camera mounted ahead caught this image of Starman, in Elon Musk’s red Tesla Roadster, as car and mannequin left Earth behind. Calculations by astronomers in the days after the launch suggest the payload reached a speed of 20.8 miles per second (33.5 km/sec) after the last burn, a faster speed than expected. Image via SpaceX. Last Tuesday (February 6, 2018), SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy successfully lifted off from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Falcon Heavy is now the world’s most powerful operational rocket by a factor of two, providing a heavy-lift capability not seen since the Apollo era in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when mighty Saturn V rockets lifted astronauts to the moon. Falcon Heavy’s launch last Tuesday was a test flight, its maiden voyage, meant to prove the concept of the rocket itself (which is in essence three of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets joined together). It definitely did! But SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk, as always, went further. He and his team placed Musk’s 2008 Tesla Roadster at the top of the rocket, with the goal of blasting it into an elliptical orbit between Earth and Mars. The orbit would, at times, bring the car – with its passenger, a mannequin nicknamed Starman, dressed for space – near Mars. The Falcon Heavy rocket test was a major success and a thrill for space fans. After livestreaming views from StarMan’s vantage point in Earth orbit SpaceX reignited the upper stage’s engine one last time, giving the Tesla a push beyond Earth’s orbit.
Tomorrow – February 2, 2018 – is Groundhog Day, the day on which the legendary groundhog seeks his shadow as a forecast of whether spring will come early or late. Whatever the groundhog says … you can look east before dawn now for another sign of spring. It’s the two stars that represent the Stinger in the constellation Scorpius the Scorpion. We call them Shaula and Lesath. From mid-northern latitudes, in the cold dawn of February, the sighting of these stars announces that the winter landscape is about to awaken from its long dormant slumber: that spring is on its way. For the Pawnee, who roamed the prairie lands of Kansas and Nebraska, the sky was a calendar, and the stars foretold the change of seasons. The Pawnee saw a snake in the stars forming the front part of Scorpius. But the stars of the stinger were, for the Pawnee, a pair of ducks. It’s thought that the Pawnee called the stars on the Scorpion’s stinger the Swimming Duck stars. When the Swimming Ducks came into view in the southeast – prior to daybreak in the month of February – the Pawnee recognized that it was time to begin planting ceremonies. In other words, they were a sign of hope, and a sign that spring was on its way.
Humanity’s farthest and longest-lived spacecraft, Voyager 1 and 2, achieve 40 years of operation and exploration this August and September. Despite their vast distance, they continue to communicate with NASA daily, still probing the final frontier. Their story has not only impacted generations of current and future scientists and engineers, but also Earth’s culture, including film, art and music. Each spacecraft carries a Golden Record of Earth sounds, pictures and messages. Since the spacecraft could last billions of years, these circular time capsules could one day be the only traces of human civilization.
Mars seen by the Viking oriter. Image via NASA/JPL/USGS By Andrew Coates, UCL Europe has been trying to land on Mars since 2003, but none of the attempts have gone exactly according to plan. A couple of months ago, the ExoMars Schiaparelli landing demonstrator crashed onto the planet’s surface, losing contact with its mothership. However, the mission was partially successful, providing information that will enable Europe and Russia to land its ExoMars rover on the Red Planet in 2021. Now European research ministers have finally agreed to give the mission the outstanding €400m it needs to go ahead. A lot is at stake as the rover is poised to uniquely drill under the harsh Martian surface to search for signs of past, or even present, life. With the best of human endeavor, we must learn, try again and not give up. As leader of the international Panoramic Camera team on the rover, which will among other things provide surface geological and atmospheric context for the mission, I am one of many scientists working very hard to make it work. PanCam is one of nine state-of-the-art instruments which will help us analyze subsurface samples. The reason it is so hard to land on Mars is that the atmospheric pressure is low, less than 1% of Earth’s surface pressure. This means that any probe will descend very rapidly to the surface, and must be slowed. What’s more, the landing has to be done autonomously as the light travel time from Earth is three to 22 minutes. This delay transmission means we can’t steer the rapid process from Earth. NASA and Russia have had their own problems with landings in the past, before the spectacular successes with the US missions Viking, Pathfinder, Spirit,Opportunity, Phoenix and Curiosity
Our sun is located about two-thirds of the way out from the center of the Milky Way. Illustration via Caltech. The planets in our solar system orbit around the sun. One orbit of the Earth takes one year. Meanwhile, our entire solar system – our sun with its family of planets, moon, asteroid and comets – orbits the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Our sun and solar system move at about about 500,000 miles an hour (800,000 km/hr) in this huge orbit. So in 90 seconds, for example, we all move some 12,500 miles (20,000 km) in orbit around the galaxy’s center. Our Milky Way galaxy is a big place. Even at this blazing speed, it takes the sun approximately 225-250 million years to complete one journey around the galaxy’s center. This amount of time – the time it takes us to orbit the center of the galaxy – is sometimes called a cosmic year.
This artist’s concept puts solar system distances in perspective, but you have to think about it a bit to understand it. The scale bar is in astronomical units (AU), with each set distance beyond 1 AU representing 10 times the previous distance. One AU is the distance from the sun to the Earth, by the way, which is about 93 million miles or 150 million kilometers. Neptune, the most distant planet from the sun, is about 30 AU. Informally, the term solar system is often used to mean the space surrounding our sun, out to the last planet. Astronomers, however, might speak of the solar system as the heliosphere, or sphere of the sun’s influence. Our dominates its own region of space and creates a sort of bubble of charged particles in the space surrounding it. These particles are “blown” out from the sun by the solar wind. It’s this heliosphere that Voyager 1 has now left. NASA says Voyager 1 actually crossed the heliopause, the boundary around the region of the sun’s influence, over a year ago, on August 25, 2012. It’s also possible, though, to picture the solar system as going out to the Oort Cloud, the source of the comets that swing by our sun on long time scales. Beyond the outer edge of the Oort Cloud, the sun’s gravitational influence begins to wane. The inner edge of the main part of the Oort Cloud could be as close as 1,000 AU from our sun. The outer edge is estimated to be around 100,000 AU. So that’s 100,000 times the Earth-sun distance.