"An astonishingly fragile film"

Dr. Piers Sellers knows the Earth’s atmosphere. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in ecological science and a doctorate in biometeorology in England, Dr. Sellers studied the interaction between the Earth’s biosphere and atmosphere at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. 

Dr. Sellers then became an astronaut and flew in three shuttle missions to the International Space Station stationed in the rarefied atmospheric layers 180 – 190 miles above Earth. 

With 80% of the atmosphere located within 10 miles of the Earth’s surface, travelling at mere 60 miles an hour, we would drive through this rich layer in 10 minutes. As Dr. Sellers observed in Leonardo DiCaprio’s recent film Before the Flood, “an astonishingly thin layer” nourishes us.

John Oró MD

LANIAKEA: Immeasurable Universe

Scientists studying the motion of the galaxies in our region of the universe have found some are being pulled towards us while others are being pulled away. Our local cluster of galaxies is part of a supercluster believed to be 100 million light years across. Through these gravitational studies, scientists have radically altered the map of our supercluster (show above) and found it to be more than 100 times larger than previously thought.  Our home, the Milky Way (red dot), is nestled in our supercluster, recently christened Liniakae, Hawaiian for Immeasurable Universe. 

Space weather: Know your solar flares

M-class solar flare.   NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory

M-class solar flare.  NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory

“Scientists classify solar flares according to their x-ray brightness in the wavelength range 1 to 8 Angstroms. There are 3 categories: X-class flares are big; they are major events that can trigger planet-wide radio blackouts and long-lasting radiation storms. M-class flares are medium-sized; they can cause brief radio blackouts that affect Earth’s polar regions. Minor radiation storms sometimes follow an M-class flare. Compared to X- and M-class events, C-class flares are small with few noticeable consequences here on Earth.”


Related post:  Coronal Mass Ejection of 1859

Coronal Mass Ejection of 1859

NASA illustration. 

NASA illustration. 

"This massive CME released about 1022 kJ of energy - the equivalent to 10 billion Hiroshima bombs exploding at the same time - and hurled around a trillion kilos of charged particles towards the Earth at speeds of up to 3000 km/s. However, its impact on the human population was relatively benign as our electronic infrastructure at the time amounted to no more than about 124,000 miles (200,000 km) of telegraph lines. 
Mr Dale makes it clear in the latest issue of Physics World that these types of events are not just a threat, but inevitable. 
Nasa scientists have predicted that the Earth is in the path of a Carrington-level event every 150 years on average."

Read more: From blackouts to transport chaos: Solar superstorms pose a ‘catastrophic’ threat to life on Earth, warns scientist

SpaceX rocket booster soft-lands in Atlantic

Image: SpaceX

Image: SpaceX

SpaceX reports a breakthrough in spaceflight - the soft-landing in the Atlantic of the Falcon 9 rocket booster that recently launched a Dragon supply capsule to the International Space Station. According to Mashable, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk commented on the event:

"I'm happy to confirm that we were able to do a soft landing in the Atlantic and all the data received back is that it made a soft landing and was in a healthy condition after that.”

However, a large storm was raging at the landing site and "the boost stage was subsequently destroyed by wave action."

Learn more:  SpaceX Successfully Soft-Landed Booster Rocket in the Atlantic

Jets of water vapor & ice on Saturn's moon Enceladus

Water & ice spewing from Saturn's moon   Enceladus in this   2005 Cassini spacecraft image. Credit:     NASA  /  JPL  /  SSI  ;   Mosaic:   Emily Lakdawalla

Water & ice spewing from Saturn's moon Enceladus in this 2005 Cassini spacecraft image. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSIMosaic: Emily Lakdawalla

"Ever since the Cassini spacecraft first spied water vapor and ice spewing from fractures in Enceladus’ frozen surface in 2005, scientists have hypothesized that a large reservoir of water lies beneath that icy surface, possibly fueling the plumes. Now, gravity measurements gathered by Cassini have confirmed that this enticing moon of Saturn does in fact harbor a large subsurface ocean near its south pole."

Learn more: Cassini Spacecraft Confirms Subsurface Ocean on Enceladus

"Might just be the most extraordinary image you have ever seen."

"Although it might not seem like much, the photo above might just be the most extraordinary image you have ever seen. Not because of crazy high megapixel count or amazing composition or even subject matter — we’ve seen images of planets orbiting stars before — but because it is the first ever image of a planet and its star over 63 light years away."

Behold the First Ever Image of a Planet and Its Star Over 63 Light Years Away

"Acquired by the world's most powerful planet-hunting instrument, the Gemini Planet Imager, it shows a 10-million-year-old planet called Beta Pictorus orbiting its giant parent star. It's the first such image to come from Gemini, which has been under development for over a decade but is only now producing data like this."

Gemini's First Image Shows a Planet Orbiting a Star 63 Light Years Away

Update: Dragon returns to Earth


Image: SpaceX/Michael Altenhofen

Congratulations to SpaceX & NASA. As noted in an earlier post, on Tuesday, May 22, 2012, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) launched a cargo-carrying Dragon capsule on a Falcon 9 rocket to the International Space Station. Today, Dragon returned to Earth marking the successful completion of an historic mission. 

Dragon docks with ISS: A new era dawns


Space X Falcon 9 rocket launch from Cape Canaveral. NASA.

On Tuesday, May 22, 2012, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) successfully launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying an un-manned Dragon capsule on a mission to International Space Station; an ambitious and groundbreaking event for a private company. Today, at 12:02 PM Eastern time, the Dragon capsule docked with the International Space Station (ISS) and a new era dawned.

On October 4, 1957, the world was startled by news that the U.S.S.R., “the Russian’s,” had sent an object, called a satellite, orbiting around the globe. Anxious Americans could see the blinking Sputnik circling overhead at night. On April 12, 1961, the U.S.S.R. put a man, cosmonaut Yuri A. Gargarin, inside a capsule at the top of a Vostok rocket and launched him into space, breaking the space barrier for humankind.

The U.S. quickly rallied and launched Alan B. Shepard, Jr. into space on May 5, 1961, and, on February 20, 1962, John H. Glenn, Jr. became the first American to orbit the Earth and the first man to complete three orbits.

Pushing forward, president John Kennedy launched an ambitious program to reach the moon by the end of the 1960’s. With Michael Collins piloting the Apollo Command Module in moon orbit, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, Jr. descended to the moon in the Lunar Module. On July 20, 1969, they became the first humans to step on a celestial body beyond Earth.

The massive Apollo program transformed our world, but overtime became financially challenging and space exploration was refocused on robotic planetary missions.

The first component on the International Space Station was launched in 1998, and spacefarers began to arrive on the U.S. Space Shuttle and U.S.S.R. Soyuz. With the end of the shuttle program in July 2011, the Soyuz spacecraft became the only means of transport to ISS.

Into the breach entered a number of U.S entrepreneurs, among them Elon Musk. With a fortune made as co-founder of PayPal, Musk developed two ambitious projects: to travel to the planets and, in the available spare time, build an all-electric car that could travel 200-300 miles per charge. The Tesla Model S, the second electric car by Musk’s Tesla Motor Works, goes sale on next month.


ISS robotic arm attaches to SpaceX Dragon capsule. NASA.

Today, with the successful docking of the Dragon capsule, a more significant and fundamental step has been taken. One, that over time will be seen as the dawn of a new era - not just of space exploration, but for the extension of humankind into the heavens. Those pioneering U.S.S.R. cosmonauts and U.S. astronauts led the way. Astronomic and space agencies from many countries are surveying space and space telescopes, such as the marvelous Hubble, peer to edge of the visible universe. Modern entrepreneurs now have an opening to carry humankind into space, maybe even to the planets.

The new journey to the heavens begins today.

Space: Saturn's brightly reflective moon Enceladus


A brightly reflective Enceladus appears before Saturn's rings, while the planet's larger moon Titan looms in the distance. 
Jets of water ice and vapor emanating from the south pole of Enceladus, which hint at subsurface sea rich in organics, and liquid hydrocarbons ponding on the surface on the surface of Titan make these two of the most fascinating moons in the Saturnian system.

NASA Image Gallery. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Solar Dynamics Observatory's revealing false color image of the sun


A full-disk multiwavelength extreme ultraviolet image of the sun taken by SDO on March 30, 2010. False colors trace different gas temperatures. Reds are relatively cool (about 60,000 Kelvin, or 107,540 F); blues and greens are hotter (greater than 1 million Kelvin, or 1,799,540 F). Credit: NASA/Goddard/SDO AIA Team

In February 2010, NASA launched the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), “the most advanced spacecraft ever designed to study the sun.” NASA’s mission for SDO:

During its five-year mission, it will examine the sun's magnetic field and also provide a better understanding of the role the sun plays in Earth's atmospheric chemistry and climate. Since launch, engineers have been conducting testing and verification of the spacecraft’s components. Now fully operational, SDO will provide images with clarity 10 times better than high-definition television and will return more comprehensive science data faster than any other solar observing spacecraft.

SDO will provide critical data that will improve the ability to predict these space weather events. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., built, operates and manages the SDO spacecraft for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.