NASA’s deep solar system probe “New Horizons” made history in 2015 being the first space probe to visit Pluto, providing stunning images of the planet beloved by kids all over the world. After its mission completion on sending over the enormous volumes of data it collected, the probe’s mission was extended to do what no probe had done before. It was repurposed to now visit the Kuiper belt.
What is the Kuiper Belt?
For those of you who do not know what the Kuiper belt is, it is just a big cloud of protoplanetary material or giant space rocks that orbit the sun outside the orbit of Neptune. This bunch of space rocks are essentially the remanants of failed planets. The same stuff the solar system planets are made out of. It is thought that these rocks ( actually solidified ice, methane etc ) failed to become planets because they were too sparsely spaced to form stable planets. Pluto itself is thought to be a Kuiper Belt Object or KBO
In 2016, using the Hubble Space Telescope, a few KBOs were identified that NASA engineers and scientists thought could be suitable for New Horizons to visit and return data, given the amount of fuel left on the craft and the life of its radioisotope generators. Finally a space rock dubbed “Ultima Thule” was identified
New Horizons Reaches asteroid 486958 (2014 MU69) “Ultima Thule”
On Jan 1 2019, New Horizons made its closest flyby to Ultima Thule making it history as its the furthest object any spacecraft has visited. New Horizons came withing 2200 Km of the KBO. Reaching this Kuiper Belt object is truly and outstanding feat of mankind.
As you can see, the asteroid has a snowman like structure. Scientists think the two parts of the ball were distinct objects before, until they collided and coalesced togther. the asteroid is approx 20 miles by 10 miles
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.
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
Soviet Buran Orbitter
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
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.
Pluto seen by New Horizon’s LORRI Instrument
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.
European space agency’s Beagle 2 lander has been spotted by NASA’s orbitter MRO. In a image released by the agency shows the lander to be fully intact with no sign of debris.
The lander was supposed to land on Mars and deploy its solar panels like “petals”. From the image it seems like all the petals did not unfurl. “Without full deployment, there is no way we could have communicated with it as the radio frequency antenna was under the solar panels,” explained Prof Mark Sims, Beagle’s mission manager from Leicester University.
Check out this dramatic time lapse footage of earth seen from the int’l space station at night. Pretty darn cool
You can see all the air glow, auroras and thunderstorms. The city lights are not real but an overlay captured using a special IR camera called Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS)
All in, a pretty spectacular video.. the music is quite dramatic too
Sunspot 2158 eurupted on Wednesday 10/9 at 1746UTC, hurling an X-Class solar flare right towards us. The flare is scheduled to reach on Friday, A radiation flash from the explosion ionized the upper layers of Earth’s atmosphere, disturbing HF radio communications for more than an hour. More importantly, the explosion hurled a CME directly toward Earth. The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory photographed the expanding cloud
What to Expect?
HF Communication issues
Pandemonium and chaos… nope kidding about this one 😛
Using NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, astronomers have discovered the first Earth-size planet orbiting in the “habitable zone” of another star. The planet, named “Kepler-186f” orbits an M dwarf, or red dwarf, a class of stars that makes up 70 percent of the stars in the Milky Way galaxy. The discovery of Kepler-186f confirms the long held theory that planets the size of Earth exist in the habitable zone of stars other than our sun. This means that with similar climate profiles like earth, life similar to earth may exist elsewhere in the universe.
The “habitable zone” is defined as the range of distances from a star where liquid water might pool on the surface of an orbiting planet. While planets have previously been found in the habitable zone, the previous finds are all at least 40 percent larger in size than Earth and understanding their makeup is challenging.