Check out Tvashtar volcano on Io seen spewing molten material into space, as seen from New Horizons probe in 2007. Io experiences massive tidal forces from Jupiter’s gravity and this kind of volcanic eruption is not uncommon for Jovian moons. For a sense of scale, the volcanic plume is about 330 Km in altitude. New Horizon was built by John Hopkins Applied Phyisics Lab for a mission to Pluto. This photo was taken when it flew past Jupiter for a slingshot course correction towards Pluto.
Looking South 2131 IST
Summer is here and one cannot miss Saturn and Mars in the night sky. Looking south-east, Saturn is a stunning magnitude 0 star right now, appearing towards the west limb of Scorpius ( more in Ophiuchus ). Saturn hits opposition tonight so its really bright. Also its rings are tilted 26 degrees to us earthlings, which means that small telescopes can get a really good viewing including the famous gap in the rings called the Cassini division. Mars also hit opposition a few days back so both planets should make backyard astronomers and enthusiasts extremely happy
Now don’t just sit there and read this. Grab your gear and get out and have fun under the sky.
Human beings have been launching spacecraft since World War 2. Rocketry, in principle has not changed much from the early days of rocketry in ancient China to Von Braun who invented the worlds first rockets like the V-2 capable of sub-orbital flight and atmospheric reentry. Chemical rockets are rather simple in concept. A generally explosive fuel + oxidizer mixture forms the propellant, which is burnt in a controlled fashion in a reaction chamber. The hot gases exit a nozzle providing a large amount of thrust to the rocket.
Since then we’ve done several fancy things to a rocket. We’ve put a space capsule on the top, making it possible for man to travel out of earth’s orbit. We’ve attached airplanes to the rocket body which we lovingly knew as a space shuttle. Space shuttles were not a NASA creation alone. The Soviet Union created its own version of the space shuttle called ‘Buran’. Buran completed one unmanned spaceflight in 1988 which was an unmanned test flight. The program ended shortly due to budget cuts arising from the collapse of the Soviet Union. NASA’s space shuttle programme was however the successful and ambitious effort in human spaceflight till date.
NASA’s Space Shuttle Atlantis
The space shuttle was a a marvelous piece of engineering. Not only it put humans in orbit. It also had a massive payload capacity. Powered by two giant solid booster rockets and cyogenic engines, the shuttle could lift a total payload mass of 27 tonnes to low earth orbit. The shuttle programme also pushed the frontiers of spacecraft reentry technology. The shuttle on atmospheric reentry slams into the atmosphere at a speed in excess of Mach 25. For the new reader thats 25 times the speed of sound or 8.7 Km/s. Normally for small objects, the reentry shield is a carbon-ablative material. Ablative materials were used by early spacecraft like Apollo and Gemini programmes. They are also used in ballistic missile payloads. In simple talk these are shields made out of carbon. As the material heats up, it slowly burns off, keeping the payload relatively cool. However these things are difficult to fabricate for larger objects. Another problem with the ablation system was that once the temperature fell in a zone where shielding was needed but low enough to prevent the ablation, they would cease to function making them somewhat unreliable.
The space shuttle introduced a different type of heat shielding. This strategy is called “thermal soak”, where the shield has an enormous capacity to trap heat. You could heat the substance to over a 1000 degrees in one end, and still hold it with your fingers at the other
Super Insulators like this ceramic cube is red hot inside, but cool enough to be lifted by bare hands
This strategy is wildly popular and used by all space programs. However there have been issues with tiles in how they are integrated onto the spacecraft. The ceramics are usually brittle and many times have caused serious problems. The Columbia space shuttle disaster in 2003 is a typical example where a piece of insulating foam from the main external tank hit the leading edge of the shuttle’s wing, destroying some of the tiles. This was enough to cause the orbiter to burn up during atmospheric reentry and instantly kill the crew. Losing a few tiles had been a common occurrence on previous shuttle missions too, the risk associated with losing this critical thermal protection was well known too. However since then NASA has taken a lot of measures to ensure that such accidents would not happen on future missions.
In recent years, space programs have had to face major budgetary cuts all over the world. NASA’s budget fell from 1% of US GDP to approximately 0.5% of the GDP. For comparison this number was about 4.4% at the peak of the Cold War. The Russian space program has also seen similar cuts for a variety of reasons, both political and economical. In times of financial crisis governments usually trim funding for space programs. For mankind’s space ambition to survive, it could no longer afford to be a drain on large amounts of cash. So a concept of reusable launch vehicles was conceived. Bulk of the spaceflight industry comprises of launch systems that put satellites in orbit. It made sense, if we could find a way to do it cheaper and faster.
RLV technology is not that novel. The US operates unmanned spacecraft routinely. The X-37 is a reusable unmanned spacecraft that is boosted into orbit by chemical rockets, but lands back on the ground like a conventional plane.
One of the biggest pioneers of reusable technology is South African capitalist, Elon Musk’s SpaceX Corporation. SpaceX has been able to make significant strides in space technology in a rather small amount of time. In the man’s own words
“If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred. A fully reusable vehicle has never been done before. That really is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space”
This is no longer science fiction. In April 2016, the first stage of a Falcon-9 spacecraft landed safely on an offshore barge. This was after one year of hard work and four other failed attempts. I put this video below, and I must admit, it is pretty darn cool. According to SpaceX lot of work still needs to be done to make this technology reliable, but there is no doubt that it is a game changer in the space industry.
Recently India has also been working on a RLV program. Earlier it was code named “AVATAR” which was a RLV concept that used scramjet propulsion. AVATAR stood for “Aerobic Vehicle for Transatmospheric Hypersonic Aerospace TrAnspoRtation”. Since then it has evolved into what is now called the RLV-TD project. ISRO has staged its RLV program in small steps. The first of this was the HEX or Hypersonic Flight Experiment was performed earlier this month in 2016. The experiement was designed to validate flight performance of the spaceplane at Mach 6. The plane itself was boosted into Mach 6 speed by a sounding rocket booster and had no propulsion. In the future flights, it will feature a scramjet engine. The hope is that ISRO’s RLV will be used to deploy small satellites into LEO and return back to earth
Mark your calendar
The perseids meteor shower peaks on Aug 13th 2015 this year. The best part is there is no moon this time to spoil the show. But wait we live in Delhi, there is always the rains .. which might get the gold medal for this year’s spoilsport, followed by smog which might manage to get a silver. Pfooey!!. Forget what I said. Good things happen to optimistic people. Get out there and enjoy nature’s finest light show.
For the un-initiated, the Perseid meteor shower originates from the debris field of Comet 109P/Swift Tuttle, which visited us in 1992 and will do so again in 2125 when it may potentially slam into us. Nah I am not losing sleep over it. I leave the worrying to the next generation.
Its expected that you might to get see 80 meteor per hr ( ZHR ), which is pretty good. Perseids are called so because they seem to radiate from the constellation Perseus. Hence the name. The radiant ( the imaginary point where the meteors shoot out from ) of the Perseid meteor shower is at around right ascension 02h20m, declination +58°, All of the meteors will appear to be traveling directly outward from this point. The best place to look to see as many meteors as possible is not at the radiant itself, but at any dark patch of sky which is around 90° away from it, since it is at a distance of around 90° from the radiant that meteors will typically appear at their brightest.
1- Keep warm clothes and waterproofed clothing with you, it does get somewhat cold and damp at night
2- Keep company. Showers can sometimes not be too active as predicted. Its nice to have someone around to chat to till then
3- Contribute. You can time meteors and report them to IMO.
4- Observe from a safe and rural location if possible. City lights almost ruin everything.
Earlier this month the close conjunction of the two brightest planets Venus & Jupiter was observed all over the world. The planets came so close to each other that they were visible in the field of view of a telescope. The two planets will still be close together as they move into the morning sky, where both will meet-up with Mars later this year.
This Sunday Noon, let’s take a look at how the planets are moving in their orbits and what face and size do they present to the observers on the Earth in the remaining 2015. We will also look at other great observations that you can make this year like the Geminids Meteor Shower, Occultation of Aldebaran by Moon.
Sunday Noon at the Planee
Dance of the Planets
Date – 26 July 2015,
Time – 12:30 pm,
Duration 90 minutes,
Venue- AAAD room at the Planetarium.
See you at the Planee!
It finally here. It really is. NASA’s space probe to Pluto, New Horizons has finally arrived at the most mysterious planet of the solar system. Built by the John Hopkin’s Applied Physics Laboratory, this piece of engineering marvel survived the chill of deep space, and woke up in time to return the most detailed pictures of this planet till date from an altitude of mere 2370 Km above the surface of this planet.
New Horizon’s Pluto mission is still bit tricky since its expected to be in vicinity of a large debris field of ice and rocks which is common in the outer solar system. The probe is investigating not only Pluto but also its five moons: Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra.
Greetings Fellow Earthlings
Tonight step outside the house for a change and look West at sundown. You’ll be greeted with a spectacular planetary pair of Jupiter and Venus almost hugging each other in a nice visual conjunction. Kind of ironical considering Jupiter is God of War, and Venus is the God of Loveeee. This treat will continue for a few days so do not worry if you’re sitting under the clouds right now.
Sky and Telescope astronomy magazine suggested that the event closely resembles the Star of Bethlehem which, according to Christian tradition, revealed the birth of Jesus to the Biblical Magi, and later led them to Bethlehem.
One of the very few known asterisms in the night sky is the Polaris engagement ring asterism. When seen from a dark sky site you may be able to observe a ring like pattern with 2nd magnitude Polaris itself forming the ornament on the ring. The stars that are a part of this are either in Ursa Minor or Cepheus. Approximately 10 bright stars and a few fainter ones (of magnitude 7 and 8), form an obvious circle, the ring, with Polaris as a diamond. This really is a beautiful asterism to observe with small telescopes with a low magnification! Because Polaris is part of this asterism, The Engagement isn’t hard to find. Recently this asterism got the attention of Canadian music producer Deadmau5 who named a track called HR8938 Cephei after one of the stars in this asterism.
Image Courtesy: The Polar Project