Archive for NASA

Article of the Day!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on July 31, 2013 by telescoper

Back in the office today, the heatwave having given way to grey drizzle and cool breezes (at least for the time being). I’ve got stacks of paperwork to catch up on, but fortunately I’ve got time to post a quick congratulatory message to Ian Harrison, who is author of today’s NASA ADS Article of the Day! Ian is a PhD student in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University and was supervised by me until I abandoned ship to come here to Sussex earlier this year; he’s got a postdoctoral research position lined up in the Midlands (Manchester) when he finishes his thesis. The other author, Shaun Hotchkiss, is coming to Sussex as a postdoctoral researcher in October.

Anyway, the paper is a nice one, called A consistent approach to falsifying ΛCDM with rare galaxy clusters. Here’s the abstract:

We consider methods with which to answer the question “is any observed galaxy cluster too unusual for ΛCDM?” After emphasising that many previous attempts to answer this question will overestimate the confidence level at which ΛCDM can be ruled out, we outline a consistent approach to these rare clusters, which allows the question to be answered. We define three statistical measures, each of which are sensitive to changes in cluster populations arising from different modifications to the cosmological model. We also use these properties to define the “equivalent mass at redshift zero” for a cluster — the mass of an equally unusual cluster today. This quantity is independent of the observational survey in which the cluster was found, which makes it an ideal proxy for ranking the relative unusualness of clusters detected by different surveys. These methods are then used on a comprehensive sample of observed galaxy clusters and we confirm that all are less than 2σ deviations from the ΛCDM expectation. Whereas we have only applied our method to galaxy clusters, it is applicable to any isolated, collapsed, halo. As motivation for future surveys, we also calculate where in the mass redshift plane the rarest halo is most likely to be found, giving information as to which objects might be the most fruitful in the search for new physics.

In case you’re wondering, the rather Popperian nature of the title is not the reason why I’m not among the authors. I’m just not the sort of supervisor who feels he should always be an author of papers done by his research students even when they had the idea and did all the work themselves. From what I’ve heard talking to others, we’re a dying breed!

Cosmic Swirly Straws Feed Galaxy

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on June 5, 2013 by telescoper

I came across this video on youtube and was intrigued because the title seemed like a crossword clue (to which I couldn’t figure out the answer). It turns out that it goes with a piece in the Guardian which describes a computer simulation showing the formation of a galaxy during the first 2bn years of the Universe’s evolution. Those of us interested in cosmic structures on a larger scale than galaxies usually show such simulations in co-moving coordinates (i.e. in a box that expands at the same rate as the Universe), but this one is in physical coordinates showing the actual size of the objects therein; the galaxy is seen first to condense out of the expanding distribution of matter, but then grows by accreting matter in a complicated and rather beautiful way.

This calculation includes gravitational and hydrodynamical effects, allowing it to trace the separate behaviour of dark matter and gas (predominantly hydrogen).  You can see that this particular object forms very early on; the current age of the Universe is estimated to be about 13 – 14 billion years. When we look far into space using very big telescopes we see objects from which light has taken billion of years to reach us. We can therefore actually see galaxies as they were forming and can therefore test observationally whether they form as theory (and simulation) suggest.

Sic Transit Gloria Monday

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on June 11, 2012 by telescoper

I can never resist a terrible pun, so thought this would be an especially  good day to post this video from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory,  showing views of last week’s Transit of Venus taken at several different wavelengths..

 

Tinker Tailor Soldier…Astronomer?

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on June 4, 2012 by telescoper

telescoper:

Tinker Tailor Soldier…Astronomer?

Originally posted on The e-Astronomer:

Not often I write two posts in one day, but here is an unexpected piece of news. It seems that the US National Reconnaisance Office have given two free telescopes to NASA. Its all explained at this NY Times article. They are as big as HST but have a wider field of view. They were designed for looking down of course.  Apparently there has been a secret study team and their conclusion is that one of these beasts would be perfect WFIRST, which had seemed to be kicked into the long grass.

They don’t exactly have the rest of the money yet or an actual approval … but the WFIRST fans are talking about shooting for 2020 … a year behind Euclid.

Ooooo what fun. Spot of healthy competition.

View original

JWST: Over and Out?

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on August 23, 2011 by telescoper

News filtered through recently that the cost of the James Webb Space Telescope, which is already  threatened with cancellation owing to cuts in NASA’s budget, is now estimated to be around $8.7 billion dollars, about $2.2 billion higher than previous figures. In fact about a decade ago, when I was a lad, and chair of the old PPARC Astronomy Advisory Panel, the price tag of  the NGST (Next Generation Space Telescope), as it was then called, was put at significantly less than one billion dollars.

The implications of cancelling JWST are profound on both sides of the Atlantic. As Mark McCaughrean explains in detail over on the e-astronomer, the European Space Agency has already made a substantial investment in JWST and planned future contributions include the launch and substantial operating costs. The instrument development is nearly finished, but whether there will actually be a telescope to put instruments on remains to be seen. It’s clear that this, together with previous unilateral decisions by NASA, is putting some strain on the relationship with ESA.

There were many who reacted to the initial suggestion that JWST should be cancelled by arguing that it was mere political posturing by Republicans in the House of Representatives and that it could and would be reversed if appropriate campaigning took place. To this end there has been, e.g.,  a letter to the White House Science Advisor (here for non-US astronomers and there for US ones). There’s also been a letter of support from the President of the Royal Astronomical Society. NASA’s administrators have also apparently come up with a plan to divert funds from other projects to support it. These efforts notwithstanding I get the distinct feeling that cancellation of JWST is a very real prospect and it goes without saying that the chances of avoiding it are not helped by  the increased estimated expense.

I’ve talked about this to a number of astronomers and cosmologists over the summer and found very mixed views not only about  (a) whether JWST will be cancelled or not but also about (b) whether it should be cancelled or not. Even astronomers have expressed exasperation with the spiralling cost of JWST and pointed out that if we had known a decade ago that it would take so long and involve such an outlay then it would never have gone ahead in the first place.

So let me try a straw poll:

Not Now, Voyager

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on July 10, 2011 by telescoper

Last week I found myself a bit perplexed by the frenzy of twitter angst surrounding the last ever launch of the Space Shuttle. It’s not the first time something like this has happened. I’ve often felt like there must be something wrong with me for not getting agitated over such things. After Altantis returns to Earth in a couple of weeks’ time she will be taken out of service and, for the foreseeable future, America will no longer have the ability to put humans into orbit. This does mark the end of an era, of course, but is it really something to get all upset about?

I find myself agreeing with the Guardian editorial, which I’ve taken the liberty of copying here:

Fewer than 600 people have been admitted an exclusive club: space travel. Now, with the last flight of the space shuttle under way, the membership list is harder to join than ever. When Yuri Gagarin orbited the earth, half a century ago, and when astronauts landed on the moon eight years later, it would have been inconceivable to think of a time when manned space flight began to slip from the present to the past. But America, at least for the moment, no longer has the capacity to send people into space. In terms of national pride, this may be a failure. In terms of scientific advancement, it may not matter that much at all. Deep space exploration – using robot probes – is a very different and more useful thing than the expensive and unreliable effort to send human beings into low earth orbit, no further from Cape Canaveral than New York. The shuttle has been an icon of its age, but its human passengers – however brave and skilled – have made their flights as much to show the world what America could do as for any particular and necessary purpose. Even the International Space Station, extraordinary though it is, could operate without a human presence, its experiments automated. The only good argument for sending people into space is the simple daring of it – the need, as Star Trek used to claim, “to boldly go where no man has gone before”. Visit Mars, by all means – but there is little to be gained by sending astronauts to orbit this planet, not all that far above our heads.

For me, the most remarkable thing about the Space Shuttle is how matter-of-fact it has become. It’s rather like Concorde, which was an engineering marvel that people would drop everything and gawp at when it  first appeared, but which soon became a part of everyday life. Technology is inevitably like that – what seemed remarkable twenty years ago is now pretty commonplace.

I had similar feelings a couple of  years ago, when Planck and Herschel were launched. Of course I was extremely nervous then , because many of my colleagues had invested so much time and effort in these missions. However, watching the behaviour of the mission control staff at ESA during the launch it struck me how routine it all was for them. It’s a great achievement, I think, to take something so complex and turn it into an everyday operation.

Incidentally, it always strikes me as curious that people use the phrase “rocket science” to define something incredibly difficult. In fact rocket science is extremely simple: the energy source is one of the simplest chemical reactions possible, and the path of the rocket is a straightforward consequence of Newton’s laws of motion. It’s turning this simple science into working technology where the difficulties lie, and it’s a powerful testament to the brilliance of the engineers working in the space programme that workable solutions have been found and implemented in working systems.

So now the era of the Shuttle has passed, what next? Should America (and Europe, for that matter) be aiming to send people to Mars? Should manned spaceflight resume at all?

Different people will answer these questions in different ways. Speaking purely from a scientific point of view I would say that manned space exploration just isn’t cost effective. But going to Mars isn’t really about science; going to the Moon wasn’t either. It’s partly an issue of national pride – note how loss of the Shuttle programme has effectively ended America’s dominance in space, and how keenly that has been felt by many US commentators.

Others argue that manned space flight inspires people to become scientists, and should be done for that reason. I can’t speak for anyone but myself, and I’m sure there will be many who disagree with me, but it wasn’t the Apollo missions that inspired me to become a scientist. When I was a kid I found the footage of people jumping around on the Moon rather boring, to be honest. What inspired me was the excellent science education I received at School. And just think how many physics teachers you could train for the cost of, e.g. the ESA Aurora program

Another argument is “because it’s there” or, as Walt Whitman put it,

THE untold want, by life and land ne’er granted,
Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.

As a species we have an urge to set challenges for ourselves, whether by asking difficult questions, by designing and building difficult devices, or by attempting difficult journeys – sometimes all three! This is our nature and we shouldn’t shy away from it. But we should also recognize that “going there” is just one of the ways in which we can explore the cosmos. Modern telescopes can see almost to the visible edge of the Universe, the Large Hadron Collider can probe scales much smaller than the nucleus of an atom. I worry sometimes that the political lobbying for manned space flight often seems to be arguing that it should be funded by taking money from other, more fundamental, scientific investigations. Astronomers and particle physcisists are explorers too, and they also inspire. Don’t they?

Gravity waves goodbye to LISA?

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on April 8, 2011 by telescoper

It seems that we’re not allowed to have any good news these days without a bit of bad to go with it. This week it has emerged here and there that the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (better known as NASA) is pulling the plug on one of the most exciting space missions on its drawing board. Feeling the pressure of budget constraints and a ballooning overspend on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), NASA has decided not to participate further in the Laser Interferometric Space Antenna, a.k.a. LISA. The project teams working on LISA have been disbanded, and the shutters have been pulled down on a project which would have revolutionised astrophysics by opening up new possibilities of observing astronomical objects using gravitational waves, rather than electromagnetic radiation.

This does not mean that LISA is necessarily completely dead. For one thing, it was always planned to be a partnership between NASA and its European counterpart ESA (the European Space Agency); you can find ESA’s LISA page here. In fact a technological demonstrating mission LISA-Pathfinder, operated by ESA, is scheduled for launch in 2013.
It remains possible that ESA will proceed on its own with some version of LISA, although given its own financial constraints it is unlikely that it will be able to fund the full original mission concept. The best we can hope for, therefore, is probably some slimmed-down low-budget version and perhaps an even later launch date.

I still hold out some hope that LISA might come out of mothballs when gravitational waves are actually detected. This may well be accomplished by Advanced LIGO, a ground-based interferometric system based in the states, although it has to be said that gravitational waves have been “on the brink of detection” for at least 30 years and still haven’t actually been found. When detection does become a reality it might galvanise NASA into finding room in its budget again.

This news will be a particularly concern for the sizeable Gravitational Physics group here in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University. However, LISA was very much in the planning and development stages so it won’t impact their current work. I haven’t had the chance to discuss the news about LISA with members of this group, so I’d be interested to receive comments from them, or indeed anyone else who knows more about what NASA’s decision may or not mean for the future of gravitational wave physics.


Share/Bookmark

The Sun’s not Behaving…

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on December 6, 2010 by telescoper

Check out this dramatic and slightly alarming picture of a huge filament emanating from the surface of the Sun, courtesy of NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. The filament is about 700,000km long, apparently – that’s an entire Solar Radius. It’s expected to collapse back into the Sun at some point, an event which should be rather exciting! For more details see here.

Even better, here’s a close-up animation.


It reminds me a bit of that Balrog thing in The Lord of the Rings that gave Gandalf such a good run for his money.


Share/Bookmark

The Next Decade of Astronomy?

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on August 14, 2010 by telescoper

I feel obliged to pass on the news that the results of the Decadal Review of US Astronomy were announced yesterday. There has already been a considerable amount of reaction to what the Review Panel (chaired by the esteemed Roger Blandford) came up with from people much more knowledgeable about observational astronomy and indeed US Science Politics, so I won’t try to do a comprehensive analysis here. I draw your attention instead to the report itself  (which you can download in PDF form for free)  and Julianne Dalcanton’s review of, and comments on, the Panel’s conclusions about the priorities for  space-based and ground-based astronomy for the next decade or so over on Cosmic Variance.  There’s also a piece by Andy Lawrence over on The e-Astronomer’s blog. I’ll just mention that Top of the Pops for space-based astronomy is the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) which you can read a bit more about here, and King of the Castle for the ground-based programme is the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST). Both of these hold great promise for the area I work in – cosmology and extragalactic astrophysics – so I’m pleased to see our American cousins placing such a high priority on them. The Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), which is designed to detect gravitational waves, also did very well, which is great news for Cardiff’s Gravitational Physics group.

It will be interesting to see what effect – if any – these priorities have on the ranking of corresponding projects this side of the Atlantic. Some of the space missions involved in the Decadal Review in fact depend on both NASA and ESA so there clearly will be a big effect on such cases. For example, the proposed International X-ray Observatory (IXO) did less well than many might have anticipated, with clear implications for  Europe (including the UK).  The current landscape  of X-ray astronomy is dominated by Chandra and XMM, both of which were launched in 1999 and which are both nearing the end of their operational lives. Since X-ray astronomy can only be done from space, abandoning IXO would basically mean the end of the subject  as we know it, but the question is how to bridge the  the gap between the end of these two missions and the start of IXO even if it does go ahead but not until long after 2020? Should we keep X-ray astronomers on the payroll twiddling their thumbs for the next decade when other fields are desperately short of manpower for science exploitation?

On a more general level, it’s not obvious how we should react when the US gives a high priority to a given mission anyway. Of course, it gives us confidence that we’re not being silly when very smart people across the Pond endorse missions and facilities similar to ones we are considering over here. However, generally speaking the Americans tend to be able to bring missions from the drawing board to completion much faster than we can in Europe. Just compare WMAP with Planck, for instance. Trying to compete with the US, rather than collaborate, seems likely to ensure only that we remain second best. There’s an argument, therefore, for Europe having a programme that is, in some respects at least, orthogonal to the United States; in matters where we don’t collaborate, we should go for facilities that complement rather than compete with those the Americans are building.

It’s all very well talking of priorities in the UK but we all know that the Grim Reaper is shortly going to be paying a visit to the budget of the  agency that administers funding for our astronomy, STFC. This organization went through a financial crisis all of its very own in 2007 from which it is still reeling. Now it has to face the prospect of further savage cuts. The level of “savings” being discussed  – at least 25%  -means that the STFC management must be pondering some pretty drastic measures, even pulling out of the European Southern Observatory (which we only joined in 2002). The trouble is that most of the other ground-based astronomical facilities used by UK astronomers have been earmarked for closure, or STFC has withdrawn from them. Britain’s long history of excellence in ground-based astronomy now hangs in the balance. It’s scary.

I hope the government can be persuaded that STFC should be spared another big cut and I’m sure that there’s extensive lobbying going on.  Indeed, STFC has already requested input to its plans for the ongoing Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR). With this in mind, the Royal Astronomical Society has produced a new booklet designed to point out the  relevance of astronomy to wider society. However I can’t rid from my mind the memory a certain meeting in London in 2007 at which the STFC Chief Executive revealed the true scale of STFC’s problems. He predicted that things would be much worse at the next CSR, i.e. this one. And that was before the Credit Crunch, and the consequent arrival of a new government swinging a very large axe. I wish I could be optimistic but, frankly, I’m not.

When the CSR is completed then STFC will have yet again to do another hasty re-prioritisation. Their Science Board has clearly been preparing:

… Science Board discussed a number of thought provoking scenarios designed to explore the sort of issues that the Executive may be confronted with if there were to be a significant funding reduction as a result of the 2010 comprehensive spending review settlement. As a result of these deliberations Science Board provided the Executive with guidance on how to take forward this strategic planning.

This illustrates a big difference in the way such prioritisation exercises are carried out in the UK versus the USA. The Decadal Review described above is a high-profile study, carried out by a panel of distinguished experts, which takes detailed input from a large number of scientists, and which delivers a coherent long-term vision for the future of the subject. I’m sure not everyone agrees with their conclusions, but the vast majority respect its impartiality and level-headedness and have confidence in the overall process. Here in the UK we have “consultation exercises” involving “advisory panels” who draw up detailed advice which then gets fed into STFC’s internal panels. That bit is much like the Decadal Review. However, at least in the case of the last prioritisation exercise, the community input doesn’t seem to bear any obvious relationship to what comes out the other end. I appreciate that there are probably more constraints on STFC’s Science Board than it has degrees of freedom, but there’s no getting away from the sense of alienation and cynicism this has generated across large sections of the UK astronomy community.

The problem with our is that we always seem to be reacting to financial pressure rather than taking the truly long-term “blue-skies” view that is clearly needed for big science projects of the type under discussion. The Decadal Review, for example, places great importance on striking a balance between large- and small-scale experiments. Here we tend slash the latter because they’re easier to kill than the former. If this policy goes on much longer, in the long run we’ll end up a with few enormous expensive facilities but none of the truly excellent science that can be done from using smaller kit.  A crucial aspect of this that that science seems to have been steadily relegated in importance in favour of technology ever since the creation of STFC.  This must be reversed. We need a proper strategic advisory panel with strong scientific credentials that stands outside the existing STFC structure but which has real influence on STFC planning, i.e. one which plays the same role in the UK as the Decadal Review does in the States.

Assuming, of course, that there’s any UK astronomy left in the next decade…

Space: The Final Frontier?

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on July 9, 2010 by telescoper

I found this on my laptop just now. Apparently I wrote it in 2003, but I can’t remember what it was for. Still, when you’ve got a hungry blog to feed, who cares about a little recycling?

It seems to be part of our nature for we humans to feel the urge  to understand our relationship to the Universe. In ancient times, attempts to cope with the vastness and complexity of the world were usually in terms of myth or legend, but even the most primitive civilizations knew the value of careful observation. Astronomy, the science of the heavens, began with attempts to understand the regular motions of the Sun, planets and stars across the sky. Astronomy also aided the first human explorations of own Earth, providing accurate clocks and navigation aids. But during this age the heavens remained remote and inaccessible, their nature far from understood, and the idea that they themselves could some day be explored was unthinkable. Difficult frontiers may have been crossed on Earth, but that of space seemed impassable.

The invention of the telescope ushered in a new era of cosmic discovery, during which we learned for the first time precisely how distant the heavenly bodies were and what they were made of.  Galileo saw that Jupiter had moons going around it, just like the Earth. Why, then, should the Earth be thought of as the centre of the Universe? The later discovery, made in the 19th Century using spectroscopy, that the Sun and planets were even made of the same type of material as commonly found on Earth made it entirely reasonable to speculate that there could be other worlds just like our own. Was there any theoretical reason why we might not be able to visit them?

No theoretical reason, perhaps, but certainly practical ones. For a start, there’s the small matter of getting “up there”. Powered flying machines came on the scene about one hundred years ago, but conventional aircraft simply can’t travel fast enough to escape the pull of Earth’s gravity. This problem was eventually solved by adapting technology developed during World War II to produce rockets of increasingly large size and thrusting power. Cold-war rivalry between the USA and the USSR led to the space race of the 1960s culminating in the Apollo missions to the Moon in the late 60s and early 70s. These missions were enormously expensive and have never been repeated, although both NASA and the European Space Agency are currently attempting to gather sufficient funds to (eventually) send manned missions to Mars.

But manned spaceflights have been responsible for only a small fraction of the scientific exploration of space. Robotic probes have been dispatched all over the Solar System. Some have failed, but at tiny fraction of the cost of manned missions. Landings have been made on the solid surfaces of Venus, Mars and Titan and probes have flown past the beautiful gas giants Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune taking beautiful images of these bizarre frozen worlds.

Space is also a superb vantage point for astronomical observation. Above the Earth’s atmosphere there is no twinkling of star images, so even a relatively small telescope like the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) can resolve details that are blurred when seen from the ground. Telescopes in space can also view the entire sky, which is not possible from a point on the Earth’s surface. From space we can see different kinds of light that do not reach the ground: from gamma rays and X-rays produced by very energetic objects such as black holes, down to the microwave background which bathes the Universe in a faint afterglow of its creation in the Big Bang. Recently the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) charted the properties of this cosmic radiation across the entire sky, yielding precise measurements of the size and age of the Universe. Planck and Herschel are pushing back the cosmic frontier as I write, and many more missions are planned for the future.

Over the last decade, the use of dedicated space observatories, such as HST and WMAP, in tandem with conventional terrestrial facilities, has led to a revolution in our understanding of how the Universe works. We are now convinced that the Universe began with a Big Bang, about 14 billion years ago. We know that our galaxy, the Milky Way, is just one of billions of similar objects that condensed out of the cosmic fireball as it expanded and cooled. We know that most galaxies have a black hole in their centre which gobbles up everything falling into it, even light. We know that the Universe contains a great deal of mysterious dark matter and that empty space is filled with a form of dark energy, known in the trade as the cosmological constant. We know that our own star the Sun is a few billion years old and that the planets formed from a disk of dusty debris that accompanied the infant star during its birth. We also know that planets are by no means rare: nearly two hundred exoplanets (that is, planets outside our Solar System) have so far been discovered. Most of these are giants, some even larger than Jupiter which is itself about 300 times more massive than Earth, but this may simply because big objects are easier to find than small ones.

But there is still a lot we still don’t know, especially about the details. The formation of stars and planets is a process so complicated that it makes weather forecasting look simple. We simply have no way of knowing what determines how many stars have solid planets, how many have gas giants, how many have both and how many have neither. In order to support life, a planet must be in an orbit which is neither too close to its parent star (where it would be too hot for life to exist) nor too far aware (where it would be too cold). We also know very little about how life evolves from simple molecules or how robust it is to the extreme environments that might be found elsewhere in our Universe. It is safe to say that we have no absolutely idea how common life is within our own Galaxy or the Universe at large.

Within the next century it seems likely that we will whether there is life elsewhere in our Solar System. We will probably also be able to figure out how many earth-like exoplanets there are “out there”. But the unimaginable distances between stars in our galaxy make it very unlikely that crude rocket technology will ever enable us to physically explore anything beyond our own backyard for the foreseeable future.

So will space forever remain the final frontier? Will we ever explore our Galaxy in person, rather than through remote observation? The answer to these questions is that we don’t know for sure, but the laws of nature may have legal loopholes (called “wormholes”) that just might allow us to travel faster than light if we ever figure out how to exploit them. If we can do it then we could travel across our Galaxy in hours rather than aeons. This will require a revolution in our understanding not just of space, but also of time. The scientific advances of the past few years would have been unimaginable only a century ago, so who is to say that it will never happen?

Ten Facts about Space Exploration

  1. The human exploration of space began on October 4th 1957 when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik the first man-made satellite. The first man in space was also a Russian, Yuri Gagarin, who completed one orbit of the Earth in the Vostok spacecraft in 1961. Apparently he was violently sick during the entire flight.
  2. The first man to set foot on the Moon was Neil Armstrong, on July 20th 1969. As he descended to the lunar surface, he said “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
  3. In all, six manned missions landed on the Moon (Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17; Apollo 13 aborted its landing and returned to Earth after an explosion seriously damaged the spacecraft). Apollo 17 landed on December 14th 1972, since when no human has set foot on the lunar surface.
  4. The first reusable space vehicle was the Space Shuttle, four of which were originally built. Columbia was the first, launched in 1981, followed by Challenger in 1983, Discovery in 1984 and Atlantis in 1985.  Challenger was destroyed by an explosion shortly after takeoff in 1992, and was replaced by Endeavour. Columbia disintegrated over Texas while attempting to land in 2003.
  5. Viking 1 and Viking 2 missions landed on surface of Mars in 1976; they sent back detailed information about the Martian soil. Tests for the presence of life proved inconclusive, but there is strong evidence that Mars once had running water on its surface.
  6. The outer planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) have been studied by numerous fly-by probes, starting with Pioneer 10 (1973) and Pioneer 11 (1974) . Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 flew past Jupiter in 1979;  Voyager 2 went on to visit Uranus (1986)  and Neptune (1989) after receiving a gravity assist from a close approach to Jupiter. These missions revealed, among other things, that all these planets have spectacular ring systems – not just Saturn. More recently, in 2004, the Cassini spacecraft launched the Huygens probe into the atmosphere of Titan. It survived the descent and sent back amazing images of the surface of Saturn’s largest moon.
  7. Sending a vehicle into deep space requires enough energy to escape the gravitational pull of the Earth. This means exceeding the escape velocity of our planet, which is about 11 kilometres per second (nearly 40,000 kilometres per hour). Even travelling at this speed, a spacecraft will take many months to reach Mars, and years to escape the Solar System.
  8. The nearest star to our Sun is Proxima Centauri, about 4.5 light years away. This means that, even travelling at the speed of light (300,000 kilometres per second) which is as fast as anything can do according to known physics, a spacecraft would take 4.5 years to get there. At the Earth’s escape velocity (11 kilometres per second), it would take over a hundred thousand years.
  9. Our Sun orbits within our own galaxy – the Milky Way – at a distance of about 30,000 light years from the centre at a speed of about 200 kilometres per second, taking about a billion years to go around. The Milky Way contains about a hundred billion stars.
  10. The observable Universe has a radius of about 14 billion light years, and it contains about as many galaxies as there are stars in the Milky Way. If every star in every galaxy has just one planet then there are approximately ten thousand million million million other places where life could exist.
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,269 other followers