NASA

SM4: peering over the shoulders of giants

hubble2

With the Space Shuttle Atlantis (STS-125) and her crew now waiting for the right conditions to come home and land after repairing and upgrading Hubble, I thought now would be a good time to look back at what has happened over the past ten days or so. Servicing Mission 4, to Hubble, has been nothing short of spectacular – with risky spacewalks, dramatic repairs and a real sense of cutting edge space exploration. Spaceflight author Andrew Chaikin has recently blogged on why he felt “amazed, inspired–and grateful” watching the Hubble Servicing Mission unfold, and it’s really worth reading his thoughts here. This mission has been especially exciting and indeed has been different – both in terms of the added public interest and in how the community of space and astronomy enthusiasts has followed along.

hubble4

To me this has been largely, if not wholly, because of the constant stream of images, tweets, blogs and live video streams that NASA has been sending out on a frequent basis. With video cameras in the astronauts’ helmets we’ve been able to literally peer over their shoulders and watch live what they were doing up there on Hubble. This really hit home to me, a couple of days ago, when I saw a video that was filmed in the cockpit of the Shuttle Atlantis, as the astronauts parted ways with Hubble. The video gives a real sense of what it’s like to be working on the deck of the Shuttle and, as Phil says, there’s something about the clear audio which greatly adds to this. It’s a must see. Stuart has the story of the video here.

hubble1a
For my part I’ll be remembering and reliving the exploits of this incredible mission through the many pictures taken by the astronauts. I’ve put a few of my favourites in this post, but there are hundreds out there. Click on the images, in the post, to get the NASA high res. versions. And why not let me know what your favourites are in the comments below, or on my Twitter feed.

hubble3

All images courtesy NASA.

“Landing a lab on Mars”

methanemslWill MSL now land close to a methane rich area (in red)? Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The recent story about methane being detected in Mars’ atmosphere has lead to huge interest around the world, simultaneously renewing fervent media speculation of the “is there/isn’t there life on Mars?” question. There is, as there often is in these things, a lot of excellent analysis of the news out there in the blogosphere. So I’ll point you to Emily at The Planetary Society and Discovery Space’s “Wide Angle” for the run-down, as well as Chris and Dave who tackle aspects of the political and journalistic back-story of the result.

One thing that has already been noticed by some, including Nature’s Eric Hand, is that one of the places that the methane appears to be originating from was also on the potential landing site list for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory. It’ll be exciting now to see if the MSL, due for a 2011 launch, will be sent there or another of the methane rich areas. Wherever MSL is sent it will have to be able to touchdown right where the scientists want it to; which brings me nicely onto my plug. In the February issue of Sky At Night Magazine I have a new feature entitled “Landing a lab on Mars”, all about how the MSL will use an ingenious landing system to get down safely and precisely onto the red planet’s surface.

As for if there are gassy microbes on Mars? Well, MSL’s drill probably won’t be large enough to get deep enough beneath the Martian surface to sample what’s there. Maybe the planned ExoMars rover will just reach, with its 2 metre long drilling capability. But who knows exactly how far below the surface these processes (geological or biological) are actually occuring? It may be some time before a direct sample is made.

Tool infinity and beyond

I’m getting a few emails asking about the toolkit that an astronaut dropped from the International Space Station last week, and whether it is visible from the Earth. Well the answer, apparently, is yes it is. According to the Spaceweather.com website the bag has been spotted by amateur astronomers and should be visible from the UK this week through a good pair of binoculars, if you know where to look.

shuttlests-126A stunning view from the Space Shuttle Endeavour (STS-126). Credit: NASA

If you haven’t been following the story then here’s a quick refresher: last week whilst on a spacewalk to repair part of the, now 10 year old, space station an astronaut let go one of the station’s toolbags and it gently floated away and out of reach. It’s now moving away from the space station all on its own, appearing around five minutes before the ISS as it crosses the sky. You can watch a video of the errant toolbag here on the Daily Telegraph website.

If you want to find out when the ISS (and the toolbag) will be flying over your site then have a look at the Spaceweather alerts page here. This story has been getting a lot of attention in the national media and press; but let’s not lose sight of the fact that the ISS has just passed an important milestone this month (10 years in space) and that this extended shuttle mission has already accomplished a great deal during its 12 days in orbit, including the repair of a urine-recycling unit (and other crucial upgrades) which will mean that the ISS crew can be doubled in 2009.