Posts Tagged‘apollo’

Moon Sand (Contains No Actual Moon).

I’m sure I’m not alone in being someone who loves playing around in the sand at a beach even though I’m pushing 30. My friends and I always seem to end up building some kind of sand castle whenever we all make our way down there even though we usually have no intention of doing so. There’s probably some nostalgia at work there, I mean almost everyone has great memories of playing the sand as a child, but I’ve also been told it’s actually quite therapeutic something a cursory stroll through Wikipedia appears to verify. However bringing the beach with you is usually frowned upon (What do you mean I can’t make sand castles on the carpet??) but it seems like there’s a pretty awesome substitute in the form of Moon Sand.

It’s a pretty awesome substance, one that’s been around for some time from what I can gather, as it emulates the properties of wet sand pretty well without requiring water. I haven’t been able to track down the exact polymer that they use (confusingly the hydrophobic sand I blogged about also carries the name moon sand) but it seems a workable substitute can be made with good old fashioned corn starch. That does require water however which leads me to believe that the polymer they use has some non-Newtonian properties to it as that’s exactly what you get when you mix corn starch and water. If I could find the exact polymer they’re using (searching for non-toxic non-Newtonian polymers didn’t give me any viable leads) so if you happen to know what it is I’d be keen to hear from you.

One of the interesting points that came up in my research to this is people wondering whether or not this would be anything like real moon sand. Strangely enough the surface of the moon is coated in a layer of what you could classify as sand but it’s formed quite differently and it’s called regolith. Sand on earth is made by rock being slowly eroded away, typically by some form of moving water. Regolith on the other hand has rather violent origins with its primary mode of creation being through impacts on the surface by meteors. That’s why you don’t have regolith on earth as the amount of impacts required to generate it simply don’t happen (thankfully) due to our atmosphere. The moon on the other hand isn’t so lucky and gets bombarded constantly with generates the layer of dust upon it.

However that regolith isn’t composed of worn particles like sand is, instead the base structures are typically jagged and this actually became an issue with the early sample return missions to the moon. Those jagged particles stick to everything they and actually punctured the vacuum membrane on the sample return jars, contaminating them. More interesting still is that regolith appears to be highly reactive as Armstrong and Aldrin (and many other astronauts) reported smelling gunpowder after completing their moon walks something that wasn’t reported by scientists studying the samples back home. Moon Sand by comparison is quite inert and not at all abrasive.

Now I just need an excuse to buy some of this. I mean it’d be completely normal for a near 30 year old to do this, right?

Blue Marble 2012.

There’s a couple iconic photographs from space that everyone is familiar with. The most recognizable is probably this one I used a couple years ago during the 40th anniversary celebration of the Apollo missions showing Buzz Aldrin standing on the dusty surface of the moon. A few other notables are ones like Earthrise, The Pale Blue Dot and the STS-1 mission liftoff  (note the white external fuel tank, one of only 2 to have it) but above them all stands the Blue Marble, an incredibly breath taking view of our earth as seen by the Apollo 17 crew on their mission to the moon.

It’s a beautiful photo and one that changed my, and certainly many others, view of the world. I don’t know why I used to think this but before seeing this picture I imagined the world being mostly cloudless, not covered in the swaths of thick cloud that you see in the picture above. It also puts your entire life in perspective, much like the Pale Blue Dot does, knowing that in the end we’re all clinging to this giant water covered rock shooting through space.

Over the years NASA has set about recreating the Blue Marble as technology progressed, mostly just as an aside to one of their many Earth sensing programs. The big difference between the original and these subsequent releases is that the newer ones are composite images, I.E. they’re not a single photograph. You can see this quite clearly in the 2005 version which shows how the Earth would look like if there was no cloud cover, something that’s simply impossible to photograph. The most recent addition to this lineage of whole Earth pictures is the Blue Marble 2012 and it’s quite spectacular:

The original picture is some 8000 x 8000 pixels large (64 megapixels) and gives you an incredible amount of detail. The resolution is high enough for you to be able to pick out topographical details with relative ease and you can even see the shadows that some of the clouds are casting on the ground below them. The original article that was linked to me had a lot of interesting comments (a lot on how the Americas appear to be somewhat distorted) but one that caught my attention was a question about one of the differences between the two pictures.

Why, they asked, is there no thin blue halo in the original picture?

The halo they were referring to is clearly visible if you view the larger version of the new Blue Marble picture and seems distinctly absent in the original. The planet hasn’t radically changed (geologically, at least) in the time between the pictures so the question is a curious one. To figure this out we have to understand the differences in how both these images came to be and in there is where our answer lies.

The original Blue Marble was taken by a single 70mm Hasselblad camera with a 80mm lens at a distance of approximately 45,000KM away from the Earth. The newer version is a composite reconstruction from several images taken by the Suomi NPP satellite which orbits at around 500KM above the Earth’s surface. Disregarding the imaging technology used and the reconstruction techniques on the modern version it becomes apparent that there’s a massive difference in the distance that these pictures were taken. Looking at the halo you’ll notice that it’s quite small in comparison to the size of the Earth so as your distance from Earth increases the smaller that halo will appear. So for the original Blue Marble the halo is pretty much invisible because the resolution of the camera is insufficient to capture it. The newer picture, being much closer and having a higher effective resolution, is able to capture it.

These kinds of images are always fascinating to me, not just for their beauty but also for the story behind what went into creating them. The number of man hours that went into creating something like this that appears so simple is staggering and demonstrates that we, as a species, are capable of great things if we put our minds to it. The Blue Marble 2012 might not become the icon that its predecessor was but its still an awe inspiring image to look at and even more interesting one to contemplate.

Missions to the Moon: A Brief History.

Pop quiz: how many times has man landed on the moon? Whilst most people know the answer is “more than once” few know of more than 2 missions to the moon, namely Apollo 11 and 13. The first is firmly cemented in our history as one of the ultimate achievements of mankind. The second has stuck with us because of the near tragedy that befell those astronauts who, thanks to the brilliance of the NASA personnel, returned to Earth unharmed. Today I’m going to give you a brief history of the 5 other missions that touched down on our celestial sister and why they mean just as much to us as the two that burn so brightly in our minds.

The second mission to land on the moon was Apollo 12, crewed by astronauts Charles Conrad Jr, Richard F Gordon Jr and Alan L Bean. The launch was a dramatic one being launched in the middle of a thunderstorm. Moments after take off the Saturn V rocket was struck by lightening causing the main power source for the command module to go offline. It was at this time that flivght engineer John Aaron made the call that’s widely attributed to saving the entire Apollo 12 mission from abort, telling the astronauts to “Try SCE to AUX” which would switch them onto a backup power supply. No one, apart from Alan Bean, knew what the hell the command meant but Bean made the switch and brought all systems back online. The rest of the mission was quite tame in comparison.

Apollo 12 delivered many scientific instruments to the moon’s surface including a nuclear powered ALSEPthat functioned for almost 8 years after it was deployed. There were also many light hearted moments such as when Bean, the savior of the mission, inadvertenly pointed a new colour camera directly at the sun frying the tube inside. The backup crew for this mission also managed to slip miniature centerfold pictures onto the astronauts mission checkbooks that were on their spacesuits, much to their delight. Bean also attempted to smuggle a camera self timer so that he and Conrad could take a picture together, confusing the image analysts when the film was developed. Bean never got to see this plan through as he misplaced the camera timer during the mission however.

Apollo 14 was crewed by astronauts Alan B Shepard, Stuart A Roosa and Edgar D Mitchell. Unlike its predecessors the launch was smooth and there were little troubles getting into orbit. However there were some problems docking the command module with the lunar lander and the crew, in essence, rammed the lander to get the latches to engage. Upon separating in lunar orbit the lander encountered two major problems, the first being a faulty switch causing the ABORT signal to be sent. Should this happen on approach the lander would automatically abort and return to lunar orbit. The fix required Mitchell to enter in a software patch requiring over 80 keystrokes in the lander’s console. This had the unintended consequence of causing the radar altimeter to not work until they were within 15KM of the moon’s surface, leading to some very tense moments just before touch down.

This mission is also famous for the attempted golf session that astronaut Shepard attempted whilst on the moon’s surface. Shepard said his shot went for “miles and miles” however more realistic estimates show it only went for a few hundred meters, still interesting considering the conditions. Mitchell then decided to start the first lunar olympics by using one of the lunar scoops as a javelin. The backup crew for Apollo 14 stashed their mission patches in every single locker and compartment of the lander and command module, drawing the ire of Shepard every time one would come flying out.

Apollo 15 was something of a technical and scientific marvel and was crewed by David R Scott, Alfred M Woden and James B Irwin. This mission was significant in that the astronauts underwent extensive training in geology prior to flight, all receiving honorary degrees or masters. This mission was also the first to carry one of the famous lunar rovers, even though it was originally slated to be a mission identical to that of its predecessors. It was also the first to carry the SIM bay, a collection of instruments that could perform a multitude of experiments during the time that the astronauts were on the lunar surface. This also necessitated an EVA on the way back to Earth so that the film could be retrieved before reentry.

This mission was important scientifically not only for the wealth of information that was gathered but also for one, distinct object that was brought back: the genesis rock. During the astronaut’s training they were told that if they should find something like this it would not only be a major geological find (as the rock would be almost 4.5 billion years old) it would also provide evidence for the giant impact hypothesis for the moon’s formation. Scott also performed Galileo’s experiment of a feather and a hammer, proving that two objects of differing masses would accelerate at the same rate in a vacuum.

Apollo 16 was crewed by John W Young, T Kenneth Mattingly Jr and Charles M Duke Jr. This mission shared a lot of the same qualities as the Apollo 15 mission, bringing along the SIM and lunar rover as part of their equipment. The launch and journey to the moon could not have gone smoother, with only a malfunction in a backup unit gimbal unit (responsible for aiming the engines) causing brief concern. Many of the issues that plagued Apollo 15 were rectified in this mission, such as allowing the astronauts additional sleep and a change in diet to ensure they wouldn’t suffer electrolyte loss.

This mission brought back the largest single piece of the lunar surface, nick named Big Muley and weighing in at 11kg. Young and Mattingly also took the opportunity to test out the limits of the lunar rover, achieving the highest speed ever set by a vehicle on another planet’s surface at 18KM/h. The rest of the mission was as routine as it could be and the astronauts returned to earth just on a week later with almost 100kg worth of lunar surface material.

Although never scheduled to be Apollo 17 was the last of the Apollo missions and the final time that a human would walk on the surface of the moon. Crewed by astronauts Eugene A Cernan, Ronald E Evans and Harrison H Schmidt Apollo 17 was the first ever night launch of a US human spaceflight. During the trip to the moon the crew took one of the most famous photographs in space history, the one known as the Blue Marble depicting Earth as a beautiful gem hovering in the cold blackness of space. It was also the first mission to carry a scientist astronaut (Schmidtt) as all other astronauts had been selected directly from the military. This was also the longest lunar mission to date, setting no less than 3 time records and boasting the largest lunar surface haul at 110kg.

The landing site for Apollo 17 was actually selected based on observations from the Apollo 15 mission called Taurus-Littrow. This site was chosen as the formations there looked to be lunar bedrock, something that hadn’t yet been acquired. They also investigated some strange orange soil (technically regolith) which turned out to be the result of long gone volcanism that formed glass beads. Overall the mission spanned a phenomenal 12 days and still stands as humanity’s longest ever mission past low Earth orbit.

For a youngster like who despite being too young to experience the stories of the Apollo missions unfolded they still mean a great deal to me. These brave souls took an extreme risk in pushing the human frontier further that it had ever gone before and I rightly salute them for it. I hope one day soon in the future that humanity will return to our celestial sister and hopefully will make our presence there permanent. I know its a hopelessly romantic idea to colonize the harsh, barren environment of the Moon but I know that one day we’ll do it and humanity will be all the better off for doing so.

Solar Flares, Northern Lights and the Luck of Apollo.

Solar flares are one of those well understood phenomena that still manage to inspire all sorts of crazy ideas in people. Whilst many of them never make it past most people’s bullshit detectors there are still those out there that believe that at the end of 2012 a massive solar flare will cause all sorts of trouble on Earth. Of course we know that’s not the case as Earth has been bombarded by these flares for millennia with no such effect being observed. Still whilst solar flares might not be the death of us all they’re still quite interesting and can have quite an impact with our life here on earth.

The most known solar flare related phenomena would be the Aurora Borealis(and the less known but identical Aurora Australis). These are those ghostly lights than can be seen within a certain range in the Arctic and Antarctic regions of our world and come in a wide variety of colours. The lights are caused by charged particles from the sun slamming into the various components of our upper atmosphere causing them to become highly energetic. In order to release this energy they emit photons of light and depending on what the charged particles hit the colors produced will change.

Solar flares are also responsible for wrecking havok with satellites and sometimes even directly with devices here on earth. The events are quite rare however and designing systems with protection against them is usually not cost effective. Most satellites are built with enough shielding and redundancy that they’re only temporarily blinded and similarly earth based systems are usually only affected whilst the flare passes.

Earth is actually quite well protected from these energetic particles by our large magnetic field. However the field is distorted by the constant bombardment of solar particles, stretching it out into an elongated tear drop shape around the earth. Solar flares stretch the magnetic field even further and eventually the magnetic loop breaks, snapping back and draging the energetic solar particles with it. This protective barrier doesn’t extend very far past earth however and that poses risks not only to our satellites out in space, but also to our brave space explorers.

Space is a dangerous place at the best of times but there some areas that are safer than others. For nearly all of space history all our astronauts have been sent into Low Earth Orbit (LEO). There are two distinct advantages to this, the first being that it requires quite a lot less energy to achieve LEO than any other orbit. The second is that this orbit sits them comfortably within earth’s magnetosphere significantly reducing the amount of shielding required on the spacecraft, although most modern craft are quite well shielded despite this. Back in the heydays of the Apollo program however the vehicles that took our astronauts to the moon and back weren’t so quite well guarded and this could have led to disaster.

You see beyond the protection of Earth’s magnetosphere any craft and it’s occupying astronauts would be laid bare to the full fury of the sun’s wrath. This poses a significant risk as the sun is quite capable of delivering a fatal dose of radiation in some of its more extreme moments. Luckily for the the only astronauts to ever leave earth’s protective sphere no events ever occurred during their missions to and from our celestial sister. Had any of them been on a moonwalk or EVA during such an event the consequences would have been quite dire as whilst the spacesuits might protect astronauts from the hard vacuum of space they do little to stop the radiation. Fortunately the space craft that brought them there would’ve been sufficient shields to reduce the lethal dose to something more manageable, but it wouldn’t be a pleasant experience.

Solar flares are one of those things that are both beautiful in sight yet terrifying in their magnitude. They are something that we will have to consider if we want to make any long journeys into our solar system or establish a permanent presence outside our earth’s protective shell. Realistically they’re just another engineering challenge that I’m sure we’ll overcome but until then I’m sure we can all enjoy a few pictures of what a flare looks in space when it strikes our atmosphere:

Constellation Program: Apollo Nostalgia or Something More?

The last few decades haven’t been very kind to NASA. Ever since their heyday back in the 60’s and 70’s they have been the target of budget cuts, over-budget under delivering programs and constant congress involvement that has made innovation on their part extremely hard. Whilst I believe that their budget of 0.5% of GDP (as it was back in the Apollo program) is a small price to pay for phenomenally inspirational activities it has become apparent that it is easy to write off the benefits of space travel when there are many other things requiring attention back here on earth. You can then imagine my surprise when NASA announced, in essence, they were going to attempt to do Apollo again, albeit with modern technology and decades of experience in low earth orbit. They called this teh Constellation Program and you’d be forgiven for thinking that they were taking their inspiration from the past.

Constellation was born out of the former president’s vision for space exploration which at the time seemed like a boon for NASA and its cohorts. Realistically it was a political ploy for him to try and win votes from the scientific community as if he was not to be reelected how could we guarantee that the next president would share his vision? I can’t comment on how much of the vote swung his way because of this but he did manage to get reelected. However additional funding that would be required to ensure NASA’s continued presence in space as well as developing a completely new set of space vehicles never materialized. This then lead to the current situation whereby NASA has a large gap in its ability to keep a manned presence in space, currently relying on private industry and Russia to support them.

The vehicles themselves are a pretty big step up in terms of delivery payloads into space. The Ares I is a straight up replacement for the shuttle, with a slightly larger payload capability with the added bonus of having better safety features like a launch abort system. The Ares V is where the real changes are occurring, as it can deliver a phenomenal 188 tons into low earth orbit. Compared with the Saturn V it can deliver almost double the payload into lunar orbit at 71 tons. The lander vehicles and crew capsules follow the same route, basically being bigger brothers of their Apollo counterparts. Whilst they are a significant step up in NASA’s payload capability (and really nothing comes close to the Ares V) they are still many years away from being flight ready.

And here is where we get to the crux of the matter: should NASA really be creating a new space fleet? With companies like SpaceX and Bigelow Aerospace stepping up their presence and showing that they are capable of providing many of these technologies at a small percentage of the costs that NASA is incurring it doesn’t seem beneficial to have NASA be in the business of building new space craft. Realistically they could get so much more done by utilizing the services these new private space companies are providing as they are footing the research and development costs. This would then allow them to shift their focus away from the routine activities like maintaining the International Space Station and focus on the revolutionary things like lunar bases and a Mars shot.

It’s also entirely possible that because these private companies are doing so well that eventually they will overtake NASA in their ability to deliver those kinds of awe inspiring moments. Once some mega-billionaire gets a taste for the idea of being the first man to land on another planet you can be assured that the private space companies would be more than happy to step up and provide a means for them to achieve that dream. Whilst it would be a significant blow to NASA it would allow them to refocus back onto pure science based missions, something which is not politically palatable right now.

Constellation is one of those projects that I’m sure will bring many positive benefits to humanity. It’s just unfortunate that I can’t see what they are right now. With the barrier to space dropping at an increasing rate I’m sure that the industry will hit a critical point where a combination of private and government activities will lead NASA and its cohorts to inspire humanity once again.

Apollo, 40 Years On.


We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

It is for these reasons that I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.

– John Fitzgerald Kennedy 35th President of the United States of America

40 years ago, on this very day, this very hour, this very minute Neil Armstrong stepped out of the Lunar Lander “Eagle” and began his decent onto the surface of our closest neighbour in space, the Moon. Today the world remembers what an amazing achievement that this was, and how the whole world watched in awe as we saw for the very first time the human race had landed on another celestial body. Truly it was something that no one who saw it would ever forget.

For me the greatness of the achievements of Apollo are embodied in the two things that prefaced this post. The first is a picture of Buzz Aldrin taken by Neil Armstrong. A simple picture showing an astronaut against the magnificent desolation that is the surface of the moon. It’s always the first picture I think of when I’m talking about the Apollo missions, summing up their essence with such simplicity. The second is a quote that I’m sure everyone around the world is familiar with. John F. Kennedy was an exceptional man and his speech served to inspire his nation and drive them towards a goal that no nation has matched to this day.

As a man who was not even a twinkle in my parents’ eyes at the time of this event I can only imagine what the event must have been like. I’ve watched hours upon hours of footage of the moon landings with a tearful eye but I know nothing can compare to what everyone must have experienced on that day. My only hope is that this blog and my endeavours outside it will lead humanity to achieve such greatness again.

Today I pay tribute to all of those who made Apollo possible. From the ground crew to the politicians to great people such as Walter Cronkite who helped bring the missions home to everyone around the world. I would also like to leave you with an assortment of other tributes to the achievements of the Apollo program, something to keep you busy during this day of celebration.

Happy 40th Apollo. In 10 years time I hope we’ll be celebrating your 50th in true style, back on Luna.

A Busy Week in Space.

This week has been quite busy for those of us with a keen interest in space. NASA is currently putting on quite a show for the 40th anniversary of the Apollo launches (which I will dedicate a post to later) but also we’ve been privy to see not one but to launches. The first is the launch of shuttle mission STS-127:

The main focus of this mission is installing the last part of the Japanese section of the ISS (Kibo). It will allow the astronauts to perform experiments that are directly exposed to space which up until now they have had a limited capacity to do. There’s also a few housekeeping things like spare parts and extra batteries as well as a couple satellites. Whilst this isn’t as exciting as the last couple missions it does signify a big step forward in the capabilities of the station, which makes crazy talk like this a little disturbing:

After more than a decade of construction, it is nearing completion and finally has a full crew of six astronauts. The last components should be installed by the end of next year.

And then?

“In the first quarter of 2016, we’ll prep and de-orbit the spacecraft,” says NASA’s space station program manager, Michael T. Suffredini.

With another 5 more missions planned to complete the station somewhere in 2011 this would mean 5 years of a fully functioning space station before it’s plunged back to earth. With so much invested in the station from so many countries I can’t help but feel that this statement is a little short sited. Sure, NASA has footed most of the bill for most of the station but I’m sure most of the other countries would be looking to keep the station up there for a while longer. I’m sure as the time gets closer we’ll see more interest in keeping it up there, maybe even Bigelow wil take an interest.

The second, and probably most exciting, launch we’ve seen this week was SpaceX’s first successful launch of a private payload into space:

The payload launched was RazakSAT a Malaysian remote sensing satellite. It’s a great success for SpaceX and shows that they are capable of launching payloads with much less overhead then current companies. This bodes very well for their scheduled Falcon 9 test later this year and the private space industry as a whole. With Bigelow providing somewhere to go and SpaceX the means to get there we’ll soon be seeing the first fully privately funded space stations flown to by private companies, something back when Apollo was first conceived was still considered science fiction.

It’s been a great week for me personally as I’ve seen news reports of space peppered through the mainstream news. That says a lot coming from someone in Australia, considering that the Australian populace at large doesn’t have much of an active interest in space. With the culmination of the anniversary events for Apollo coming next week I’m hopeful that we’ll inspire many more people to take up a bigger interest in space, as did I a couple years ago.

Apollo to Shuttle: The Missing Years.

Talk to anyone on the street and mention the either the Apollo moon landings or the Shuttle most of them will know what you’re talking about. Whilst both of these are iconic bits of space history if you do the math on the time between these two programs you’ll come up with about 9 years where most people won’t be able to tell you what NASA and Russian Federal Space Agency (at the time it was the Soviet Space Programme) were doing at the time. Whilst it didn’t capture the imagination of several countries like the lunar landings did even by today’s standards the work carried out in these 9 years was nothing short of revolutionary, and it is a shame that it has gone so unnoticed.

Enter America’s first ever space station, Skylab. During the planning for the Apollo missions NASA had kept a long term view for other goals that they might achieve in space once Kennedy’s vision had been achieved. This lead to the development of ideas for long duration space flight, which would initially begin in Low Earth Orbit. After many different design proposals, some with up a 20 astronaut capacity, a design for a 3 man orbital laboratory and observation station was accepted and Skylab started to become real.

Overall the mission was a success as it showed that NASA was capable of putting people up into space for long periods of time and bringing them back down safely. Comparing it to today’s standards makes the achievement even more remarkable, as the whole Skylab station was shipped on a single modified Saturn V rocket, with a living volume that was about 38% of the International Space Station today. Whilst that might not sound impressive by itself the fact that it was done in one hit is definitely something we would struggle to repeat today. With the return of heavy lift launchers in the form of the Constellation Project we may see NASA attempt something like this again in the future, but not until the ISS has outlived its usefulness.

The project was not without its problems though. The station suffered major damage during liftoff causing one of the solar panels to become inoperable and the sun/micrometeorite shield to be lost. The station also suffered from over-heating issues, which was fixed by replacing the cooling system. For a first attempt at long duration space flight it was bound to have issues, and NASA managed to continue Skylab’s presence in space despite these problems. If it wasn’t for the unexpected deterioration of the orbit the Space Shuttle would have been used to service and expand the station. However due to delays in the shuttle program this could never be done, and Skylab was de-orbited gracefully.

One more mission was flown before the days of the space shuttle, and that was the Apollo-Soyuz (pronounced “Sah-yoouz”) Test Program. The first space program with international collaboration this saw the previous space rivals docking and celebrating the joys of space travel together. The mission was a complete success with many different scientific experiments being completed, and laid the groundwork for the future of international space endeavours.

So when you hear about the Shuttle or the Apollo missions remember those who went to space in between. Whilst they may not be as inspiring or as iconic as the missions that have made the news in past and present without them we wouldn’t be where we are today.