I’ve been interested in astronomy and human spaceflight for as long as I can remember. The end of 2014 is shaping up to be an monumental time in the history of astronomy and spaceflight for at least three reasons:

1. We landed on a comet..and we’re continuing to explore that comet

Like millions of people all over the world, I was blown away by the fact that Philae successfully landed on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Although the landing did not occur exactly as planned, it was still a remarkable feat and we will likely learn a lot from the data that were collected. Landing on a comet is certainly an exciting event, bringing to mind scenes from a number of science fiction books, television shows, and movies, but I think it is also important to remember that the Rosetta mission is far from over. Rosetta will continue to gather important data as the comet moves closer to the Sun, giving us a first hand look at how a comet changes as it heats up.  On December 2, 2014, Rosetta used its NavCam to take a series of pictures of the comet from about 30km away. The composite image is below:

(Image credits: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0)

2. The launch of the Orion Spacecraft

I loved every minute of each of my visits to the Kennedy Space Center. I marveled at the beautiful flying machines that have done everything from send Alan Shepard up on a 15-minute sub-orbital flight (Freedom 7, Project Mercury, to successfully rendezvous in Earth Orbit (Gemini 6A and 7, Project Gemini) to, of course, take astronauts to the moon. I enjoyed seeing the tour of the launch facilities and, although I’ve never seen the launch of a spacecraft, I did get to see a Shuttle on the launchpad. As impressive as the machines are, though, it is the commitment and creativity of the women and men involved with the space program that has made the deepest impression on me.

Yet I also recall feeling tinges of sadness after each visit due to the fact that I had no idea what was “next” for human spaceflight. The shuttle program was quite old by the time I made it to the Kennedy Space Center and I wondered what the next grand vision would be.  Today (December 5, 2014), we were treated to one part of the vision:

From NASA:

NASA’s Orion spacecraft is built to take humans farther than they’ve ever gone before. Orion will serve as the exploration vehicle that will carry the crew to space, provide emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during the space travel, and provide safe re-entry from deep space return velocities.

On December 5, 2014, Orion launched atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex Flight Test on the Orion Flight Test: a two-orbit, four-hour flight that tested many of the systems most critical to safety.

The Orion Flight Test evaluated launch and high speed re-entry systems such as avionics, attitude control, parachutes and the heat shield.

In the future, Orion will launch on NASA’s new heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System. More powerful than any rocket ever built, SLS will be capable of sending humans to deep space destinations such as an asteroid and eventually Mars. Exploration Mission-1 will be the first mission to integrate Orion and the Space Launch System.

It is relatively common for people to ask about the benefits of putting this amount of money and effort into the space program. I think it’s important to remember that technologies developed for the space program are used daily, often in unanticipated ways. For example, space program has produced  many technologies that are used in medicine. A surgeon who took one of my classes once remarked to me that most things in the modern OR are a direct spinoff of the space program. NASA has a very interesting “spinoffs” site, which I highly recommend taking a look at. There is already a 2-page PDF file available for Orion, which lists the following six spinoffs:

  1. “Hypersizer” software, which enables us to design strong structures that do not have much mass. Applications: Commercial aircraft, wind tunnels.
  2. Single-walled carbon nanotubes, which further enabled engineers to reduce the mass of the spacecraft. Applications: Protective body armor (e.g., sports, policing), energy efficient lighting.
  3. A “procedure-authoring” programming tool that is particularly suited to extreme environments. Applications: The oil and gas industry.
  4. Thermoplastic Composite Structures. A new procedure that enables new manufacturing processes.
  5. Algorithms that charge batteries faster. Applications: Batteries that charge faster(!).
  6. Smart sensors that are particularly suited for assessing structural integrity. Applications: Any number of industries -construction, transportation, etc.

3. Pluto news!

For many years I have devoted  time in my astronomy and physics courses to a discussion of why Pluto was “demoted” to dwarf planet. It’s an interesting tale that reveals some of the social structures of science. The complications of defining a “planet” is  an old story: 19th-century scientists counted many objects we now call asteroids as planets. As far as I can tell, part of the problem with Pluto was that the concept of “planet” was sort of a loose consensus rather a clear definition.

Pluto and its moons are in a region of space that we call the Kuiper Belt. We believe that most short-period comets (that is, comets that orbit the Sun in under 200 years) come from this region of space and that Pluto is a very large, and relatively close, member of the Kuiper Belt. One can think of the objects in this region of space as “Kuiper Belt Objects” (KBOs), and it is quite likely that understanding the composition of KBOs (and of Pluto and its moons) will shed considerable light on the early conditions of our Solar System.

The New Horizons spacecraft “wakes up” from hibernation tomorrow, December 6, 2014. According to NASA:

Since launching in January 2006, New Horizons has spent 1,873 days in hibernation – about two-thirds of its flight time – spread over 18 separate hibernation periods from mid-2007 to late 2014 that ranged from 36 days to 202 days long.

In hibernation mode much of the spacecraft is unpowered; the onboard flight computer monitors system health and broadcasts a weekly beacon-status tone back to Earth. On average, operators woke New Horizons just over twice each year to check out critical systems, calibrate instruments, gather science data, rehearse Pluto-encounter activities and perform course corrections when necessary.

New Horizons pioneered routine cruise-flight hibernation for NASA. Not only has hibernation reduced wear and tear on the spacecraft’s electronics, it lowered operations costs and freed up NASA Deep Space Network tracking and communication resources for other missions.

New Horizons will arrive at its closest distance to Pluto on July 14, 2015 – after 10 years and nearly 5 billion kilometres.

(Image Credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute (JHUAPL/SwRI))