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Astronaut Anne McClain on designing and piloting the next generation of spacecraft

NASA recently announced the astronauts who will be taking part in the Artemis missions, and among them is Anne McClain, who has spent 203 days in orbit and conducted two spacewalks on the ISS. With the space industry looking nothing like it did 10 years ago and new spacecraft and technologies on the rise, McClain share her thoughts about how she and other astronauts would be embracing the future.

Lt. Col. McClain’s time aboard the ISS spanned from December 2018 to June of 2019, meaning her ascent and descent were both aboard Russia’s Soyuz capsules, as astronauts have gotten to and from space since the Shuttle days. The Artemis missions, however, will use a variety of new launch vehicles and spacecraft. And while she didn’t get to fly a Dragon capsule, she did get to check one out while it was docked at the station.

“I was so happy to have flown the Soyuz, because it is such a reliable, basic spacecraft — it’s almost like flying a piece of history — knowing I was going to be able to compare that to other vehicles to in the future,” she said. “I had the opportunity when I was on Space Station when DM-1 flew. And so, being able to float into that and look at their screens, their monitors, you notice right away that the technology has advanced to where it looks like the inside of a commercial airliner.”

Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken were the first to pilot a Dragon in orbit, and said afterwards that it was “certainly different,” partly due to the reliance on touchscreens as primary interfaces for many spacecraft functions. McClain emphasized the difficulty of getting software to the point where it can be trusted with someone’s life.

“Most of the vehicles that we’re using now are very heavy on software — lots of touchscreens, not so much valves that were physically moving, it’s more like a software relay. But that adds a huge amount of complexity, because as your readers are probably well aware, approving software and the reliability of software is difficult,” she explained.

We want to understand our systems well enough to be able to interact with them in ways that maybe they’re not directly designed to do.

“We’re always looking at the question of, when should a human be in the loop, and when should it be automated? And if it’s automated, how can we prove the software has reliability sufficient for human spaceflight? At some point you have to say, ‘You know what, if this happens, we’re going to put a human in the loop,’ just so you’re not paralyzed by 10 years of software testing.”

As a pilot herself, McClain naturally has opinions on this, and like Hurley and Behnken, worked with SpaceX early on.

“I was fortunate to work with Bob and Doug, advising SpaceX early on in their cockpit controls, and I think where they got, it’s a really incredible machine,” she said, while noting that the Orion and Starliner craft received similar attentions from experts like her.

Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley bump fists to celebrate their history-making launch on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

Yes, that company name has not built a spacecraft — but there are people in those halls that have built spacecraft. The talent that built the Space Shuttle and Space Station is spread out all over the commercial industry now.

Flexibility was chief among the desired aspects; If things go even a little off script, they need the tools to be flexible and not self-limiting.

“I think, pilots, we always want options, right? Whatever happens, we want options. As much as we try to predict scenarios on the ground, we’re always keenly aware that something could happen that wasn’t predicted, and at that point… we want options,” she said. “We want to understand our systems well enough to be able to interact with them in ways that maybe they’re not directly designed to do. So it’s really important for me that the software doesn’t take options off the table. That’s one of the reasons why, at NASA, they look at the Apollo 13 case, when we had to use hardware and software and the vehicle in ways that we’d never predicted.”

When I asked whether it was different or strange to work with newer companies like Blue Origin, McClain pointed out that really, the only new thing there is the name.

CG Render of what Blue Origin and Lockheed's lunar lander is expected to look like.“I’ve worked with these companies enough to know something, and that’s that yes, that company name has not built a spacecraft — but there are people in those halls that have built spacecraft. The talent that built the Space Shuttle and Space Station is spread out all over the commercial industry now, which is exactly what NASA wants to do. That is our human capital,” she explained. “The other thing I’m confident about is the way NASA partners with these companies, for test programs and design reviews, it’s extremely thorough. So by the time that rocket has me on top of it on a pad, I’m confident in in the checks and balances we have in place.”

That technology, it helps bring Earth up into the spaceship with us.

Lastly I asked about whether any conveniences of modern consumer tech had made it more bearable to spend long periods of time in space, for instance the fairly recent capability to do video calls. McClain was quick to answer in the positive.

“What you said is exactly it. Imagine if we were in this pandemic and weren’t able to video chat — we’re already feeling disconnected from our loved ones. And you know, feeling disconnected is the same whether you’re on the other side of the country or you’re in space. So the ability for us to be able to see our parents’ faces on the screen and talk to them, it really does wonders,” she said. “And it’s not just morale. You know, you start looking at six month, twelve month missions, it’s really maintaining the psyche, maintaining human mental health. So that technology, it helps bring Earth up into the spaceship with us.”

McClain is one of 18 astronauts who will take part in the missions leading up to the planned Moon landing. You can meet the rest here.

NASA and ESA have released the closest ever images of the Sun, and they’re mesmerizing

NASA and ESA have released the closest ever images of the Sun, and they're mesmerizing

NASA and the European Space Agency have released the amazing first images taken by the Solar Orbiter — including the closest pictures ever taken of our nearest star.

Launched on February 9, the Solar Orbiter is a joint project by NASA and the European Space Agency. Carrying six telescopes and four other instruments to monitor the surrounding environment, the spacecraft’s mission is to study the Sun, taking measurements to help scientists understand it. The Solar Orbiter completed its first close pass of the star in June, orbiting 77 million kilometers away — about halfway between us and the Sun.  Read more…

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Take a detailed video tour of the International Space Station with your new space dads

Take a detailed video tour of the International Space Station with your new space dads

2020 marks 20 years of continuous human presence on the International Space Station, and it has evolved significantly over the decades. On Sunday, the European Space Agency released an ISS tour video hosted by ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano and NASA astronaut Drew Morgan, who point out every detail like a pair of house proud dads FaceTiming their kids.

Filmed around New Year’s Day, this is the first time a tour of the ISS has been shot with two astronauts presenting, as well as the first time it’s been done in one take. The hour-long video isn’t one continuous shot though, switching between the two cameras Parmitano and Morgan used to film. Read more…

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17-year-old discovers a planet on third day of NASA internship

17-year-old discovers a planet on third day of NASA internship

Gen Z’s intergalactic takeover has begun. 

On Monday, NASA announced that its Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which captures images to be uploaded to the Planet Hunters TESS citizen science project, had evidence of a new planet. The first circumbinary planet captured by TESS, “TOI 1338 b” as it is now known orbits two stars in the constellation Pictor — approximately 1,300 light-year away from Earth.  

The person responsible for the new discovery? 17-year-old intern Wolf Cukier. 

In summer 2019, Cukier was tasked with examining “variations in star brightness” in images captured by TESS. In a NASA press release, Goddard researcher Veselin Kostov explained that the human eye is better equipped than an algorithm when it comes to detecting subtle changes and patterns — so, a perfect job for a first-week intern.  Read more…

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Boeing’s Starliner crew spacecraft will attempt a landing on Sunday

Boeing launched its Starliner CST-100 commercial crew spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) for the first time on Friday morning in an uncrewed test, and while an error with the onboard mission clock meant that the Starliner didn’t reach its target orbit as intended and subsequently didn’t have enough fuel on board to actually meet up and dock with the ISS, it’s still doing as much testing as it can to complete other mission objectives. One of those objectives is landing the Starliner spacecraft, and Boeing and NASA have scheduled that landing for Sunday at 7:57 AM EST (4:57 AM PST).

The landing will take place at White Sands, New Mexico, and will involve a controlled de-orbit and descent of the Starliner capsule. The spacecraft will begin its de-orbit burn at 7:23 AM EST if all goes to plan, and NASA will begin a live broadcast of the entire landing attempt starting at 6:45 AM EST (3:45 AM PST) on Sunday morning if you want to tune in to the stream embedded below.

Boeing and NASA held a press conference today to provide updates about the mission status after the unplanned mission timer incident on Friday. Boeing SVP of Space and Launch Jim Chilton said during the conference that the team has managed to successfully run a number of its test objective with the mission despite the setback, including extending the docking system to see that it performs as expected, and testing the abort system on board the crew capsule.

The landing is another key test, and could even be more crucial to crew safety in terms of its execution. Both NASA and Boeing have said that were astronauts on board the Starliner during this mission, the mission clock timer incident that occurred would not have put them in any actual danger at any time. Problems with the automated landing sequence would be a different story, potentially – though astronauts are trained to do everything manually in case of any issues encountered while they’re actually in the spacecraft.

Should anything warrant skipping the first attempt at landing tomorrow, NASA and Boeing have a back-up landing opportunity about eight hours after the first. Tune in tomorrow to see how this spacecraft, which will still hopefully carry its first human passengers next year, does with its landing maneuvers.

NASA’s newest planet-hunting satellite takes a stellar first test image

TESS, the satellite launched by NASA last month that will search thousands of stars for Earth-like exoplanets, has just sent back its first test image. It’s just a quick one, not “science-quality,” but it does give you an idea of the scale of the mission: the area TESS will eventually document is 400 times the area covered by this shot.

What you see above is the star field around the constellation Centaurus; this 2-second exposure captured more than 200,000 stars. That’s just in one image from one of the four cameras on board; the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite will employ all four during its mission, watching individual regions of space for 27 days straight over the course of two orbits.

Here’s a crop from the center:

Repeated high-resolution imagery of these star fields will let the team on the ground watch for any that dim briefly, indicating that a planet may be passing in between the star and our solar system. This will let it watch far, far more stars than the otherwise similar Kepler mission, which even by looking at only dim stars with a relatively narrow field of view, found evidence of thousands of exoplanets for scientists to pore over.

TESS just yesterday received a gravity assist from the moon, putting it near its final orbit. A last engine burn on May 30 will complete that maneuver and the satellite will enter into the highly eccentric, as yet untried orbit designed by its creators.

Once that orbit is attained and all systems are go, new imagery will come in about every two weeks when TESS is at its closest point to Earth. “First light,” or the first actual fully calibrated, usable image from the satellite, is expected some time in June.

Trump's nominee for NASA administrator is really into the moon

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James Bridenstine is ready to take America back to the moon. 

With Donald Trump’s Friday announcement that he intends to nominate the Oklahoma representative as administrator of NASA, Bridenstine is one step closer to his moon dreams.

Rep. Bridenstine is already on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and has been gunning for the head boss role at NASA. The position has been open since Trump’s inauguration with acting administrator Robert Lightfoot Jr. serving in the role. 

The long wait on a nomination for NASA administrator could end as soon as Tuesdayhttps://t.co/jhnYEA7ccP

— Jeff Foust (@jeff_foust) September 1, 2017 Read more…

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How the Voyager Golden Record happened (and no, The Beatles actually weren't on the wishlist)

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the launch of Voyager 2, the first of the two spacecraft that carried the Golden Record on a grand tour of the solar system and into the mysteries of interstellar space. Science journalist Timothy Ferris produced this enchanting phonograph record that tells a story of our planet expressed in sounds, images, and science for any extraterrestrial intelligence that may encounter it. Tim wrote a beautiful essay telling the story behind the Voyager record for the Voyager Golden Record vinyl box set that I co-produced. And today you can read an adaptation of it over at The New Yorker. Happy anniversary to Voyager 2 and the Golden Record! From the New Yorker:

I’m often asked whether we quarreled over the selections. We didn’t, really; it was all quite civil. With a world full of music to choose from, there was little reason to protest if one wonderful track was replaced by another wonderful track. I recall championing Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night,” which, if memory serves, everyone liked from the outset. Ann stumped for Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” a somewhat harder sell, in that Carl, at first listening, called it “awful.” But Carl soon came around on that one, going so far as to politely remind Lomax, who derided Berry’s music as “adolescent,” that Earth is home to many adolescents. Rumors to the contrary, we did not strive to include the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” only to be disappointed when we couldn’t clear the rights. It’s not the Beatles’ strongest work, and the witticism of the title, if charming in the short run, seemed unlikely to remain funny for a billion years.

Ann’s sequence of natural sounds was organized chronologically, as an audio history of our planet, and compressed logarithmically so that the human story wouldn’t be limited to a little beep at the end. We mixed it on a thirty-two-track analog tape recorder the size of a steamer trunk, a process so involved that Jimmy (Iovine) jokingly accused me of being “one of those guys who has to use every piece of equipment in the studio.” With computerized boards still in the offing, the sequence’s dozens of tracks had to be mixed manually. Four of us huddled over the board like battlefield surgeons, struggling to keep our arms from getting tangled as we rode the faders by hand and got it done on the fly.

How the Voyager Golden Record Was Made” by Timothy Ferris (The New Yorker)

Pre-order the Voyager Golden Record on vinyl or CD (Ozma Records)

Listen to excerpts from the Voyager Golden Record sourced from the original master tapes:

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Jeff Bezos wants Blue Origin to be the Amazon of the Moon

Fourth successful launch of the same New Shepard vehicle during test flights / Image courtesy of Blue Origin Not one to be left out, Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos is also making plans to go to the Moon, just like fellow space magnate Elon Musk. Bezos’ plan, uncovered by The Washington Post via a draft proposal presented to NASA and Trump’s administration, outlines Blue Origin’s plan to create a cargo spacecraft destined for the Moon that would help it ferry supplies… Read More

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NASA released a ton of software for free and here’s some you should try

software-2017-slider NASA has just published its 2017-2018 software catalog, which lists the many apps, code libraries, and tools that pretty much anyone can download and use. Of course, most of it is pretty closely tied to… you know, launching spacecraft and stuff, which most people don’t do. But here are a few items that might prove useful to tinkers and curious lay people alike. Read More

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NASA released a ton of software for free and here’s some you should try

software-2017-slider NASA has just published its 2017-2018 software catalog, which lists the many apps, code libraries, and tools that pretty much anyone can download and use. Of course, most of it is pretty closely tied to… you know, launching spacecraft and stuff, which most people don’t do. But here are a few items that might prove useful to tinkers and curious lay people alike. Read More

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NASA’s concept Europa lander belongs on the cover of a sci-fi pulp

pia21048_figb Long before any mission to another planet is undertaken, NASA and other space agencies commission reports on why and how we might want to go about it. The latest such report was issued this week regarding Jupiter’s moon Europa, one of the most interesting and mysterious bodies in the solar system — and among the most likely to show traces of life. Read More

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Boeing's new spacesuit is far out

Boeing revealed its new sleek and chic spacesuit designed for astronauts aboard the Boeing/Bigelow CST-100 Starliner spacecraft. Launched on Atlas V rockets the Starliner capsule will shuttle commercial crew members to and from the International Space Station and other low-Earth orbit locales. From Boeing:

The Starliner spacesuit provides greater pressurized mobility and is about 40 percent lighter than previous suits. Its innovative layers will keep astronauts cooler as well. The touchscreen-friendly gloves allow astronauts to interact with the capsule’s tablets while the boots are breathable and slip resistant. Zippers in the torso area will make it easier for astronauts to comfortably transition from sitting to standing. In addition to protecting astronauts during launch and the return to Earth, the suit also helps connect astronauts to ground and space crews through the communications headset within the helmet. The suit’s hood-like soft helmet sports a wide polycarbonate visor to give Starliner passengers better peripheral vision throughout their ride to and from space.

Video from Boeing:

Photo from Boeing:

Photo from NASA/Cory Huston:

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In honor of Hidden Figures, meet the contemporary black women contributing to NASA’s success

The wonderful new movie Hidden Figures (based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly) tells the story of three black women who were crucial to the success of NASA’s Apollo missions in the 1960s. And now NASA is celebrating the many black women who play a crucial role in the space program today. In a series of videos, women like systems engineer Julie Williams-Byrd, project manager Antja Chambers, and astronaut Jeanette Epps discuss their work with NASA and how the women of Hidden Figures inspired them.

You can learn more on NASA’s “From Hidden Figures To Modern Figures” page and you can see all of the “NASA’s Modern Figures” videos on YouTube.

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2016 is the new hottest year on record – how NASA takes the planet’s temperature

IDL TIFF file NASA announced on Wednesday that in 2016, Earth experienced the hottest surface temperatures in modern history. Separate, independent analysis at NOAA provided the same conclusion. This makes the third year in a row that Earth experienced record high temperatures. These record years are part of a concerning long-term trend of increasing global temperatures. In fact, 16 of the 17 warmest years… Read More

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Gene Cernan, the last astronaut to walk on the moon, has died at 82

s71-51308 On December 7, 1972, NASA’s Apollo 17 mission took off under the command of Gene Cernan. Four days later, the crew touched down on the lunar surface. It was Cernan’s third and final trip to space — and, as it would turn out, the final time to date that NASA would send a team to walk on the moon. For all the seemingly buttoned-down operations of a government organization… Read More

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Astronaut Eugene Cernan, last man to walk on the moon, has died at 82

“We leave as we came, and, God willing, we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.” These were the last words Eugene Cernan said upon leaving the surface of our moon, at the end of Apollo 17.

Cernan (shown below at the beginning of EVA 3) was the last man to walk on the moon. He died Monday, Jan. 16, surrounded by his family.

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Actual footage shows what it's like to land on an alien moon

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In 2005, an alien probe flew through the hazy and cold atmosphere of Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, and landed on the world’s surface.

That spacecraft — named the Huygens probe — was sent from Earth by the European Space Agency along with the Cassini spacecraft to help humanity learn more about Saturn and its 53 known moons. 

Thanks to a new video released by NASA, you can relive the Huygens’ descent to Titan’s surface 12 years after it actually landed. 

The video shows actual footage from the spacecraft’s point of view as it passed through the hazy layers of Titan’s atmosphere, spotted “drainage canals” that suggest rivers of liquid methane run on the moon and gently set down on the surface, NASA said.  Read more…

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That's no moon…

NASA claims this image taken by the Cassini probe depicts Saturn’s moon Mimas with the distinctive Herschel Crater, but we know better. From NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute:

Named after the icy moon’s discoverer, astronomer William Herschel, the crater stretches 86 miles (139 kilometers) wide — almost one-third of the diameter of Mimas (246 miles or 396 kilometers) itself…

This view looks toward the anti-Saturn hemisphere of Mimas. North on Mimas is up and rotated 21 degrees to the left. The image was taken with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Oct. 22, 2016 using a combination of spectral filters which preferentially admits wavelengths of ultraviolet light centered at 338 nanometers.

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Why 'Hidden Figures' —and its unsung heroes — is the ultimate NASA story

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NASA, and its stunning achievements, is much more than just the famous astronauts whose names you know — it was built on the behind-the-scenes work of its unsung heroes. 

From the early days of the United States’ space agency up through today, NASA has been run by  engineers, mathematicians and technicians at the tops of their fields.

But you rarely hear their stories or know their names. 

Behind every John Glenn or Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin there are tens or even hundreds of people working behind the scenes to keep them alive and healthy in space. That’s NASA’s true nature — a nexus of unseen teamwork and ingenuity that allows the exploration of new frontiers. Read more…

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