NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter

An artist’s impression of the Juno spacecraft at Jupiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Thanks to a tweet from the Guardian’s science correspondent Ian Sample I’ve been exploring this superb, Flash based, website covering NASA’s Juno mission.

After clicking on the ‘begin journey’ tab the site takes you through a series of narrated full screen videos that set the scene for the mission and explain some of key scientific objectives; between each video there’s an excellent interactive page, with further images and videos, allowing you to find out more about each topic. For example, here’s a page that covers the rocket that will launch Juno, while this one focuses on Jupiter’s atmosphere.

As well as the great graphics & engaging narration I particularly liked the ‘cluster’ of stars at the end of the presentation, each one representing an astronomical question.

As for the probe itself, it’s scheduled to be launched on an Atlas V rocket tomorrow (5 August). You’ll be able to watch the lift-off live, and in HD, on the NASA TV page here.

New EPOXI images of Comet Hartley 2

This afternoon, 21 million kilometres from the Earth, NASA’s EPOXI mission flew by Comet Hartley 2. In the process, it captured some of the most stunning close-up pictures of an active comet ever seen.

Hartley 2 as seen by the EPOXI mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMD

Hartley 2 has been visible in the night sky for many weeks now, and there have been some stunning images, taken by amateur astronomers, of its visit into the inner Solar System. While they have their own beauty, none can compare to the remarkable pictures sent back today by EPOXI. They show the 2.2km wide nucleus of the comet, from a distance of around 700km, covered in what look like boulders and effervescing with great jets of material erupting from its surface.

Jets erupting from Comet Hartley 2’s surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMD

Some might think of the Solar System we live in as a rather quiet unchanging place, where nothing happens for eons. Well, these stunning images help refute that idea very easily. This is partly why I particularly like the image below, showing the jets bursting into sunlight. It really shows how dynamic these fascinating objects can be.

Comet Hartley 2: an active comet up close. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMD

Tomorrow night we’ll be celebrating Bonfire Night here in the UK, where tradition dictates that we let off fireworks and light bonfires. For me though, that manmade spectacle won’t be anywhere near as impressive as the truly awesome natural one we witnessed today.

New S@N Magazine article: ‘Return to the Moon’

I have the cover feature of July’s Sky At Night Magazine with an article entitled ‘Return to the Moon’, about NASA’s Constellation programme and the plans to send astronauts back to the Moon. In the feature I look at the how the programme is progressing, the various stages in a Constellation lunar mission, as well as how some of the key bits of new/proposed hardware and rocket technology compare to their counterparts of the Apollo era. Meanwhile if you want to look back on Apollo’s great achievements, what better place to start than the BBC’s own archive of footage about the first manned Moon missions.

Image courtesy: NASA & Sky At Night Magazine

SM4: peering over the shoulders of giants


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.


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.

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.


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 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.

From Mariner to Mars Express

On the 14th July 1965 NASA’s Mariner 4 flew past Mars and kicked off humankind’s exploration of the red planet with robotic spacecraft*. In the 43 years since that event, our knowledge of Mars has grown at an incredible rate. Not only do we now know a great deal about Mars’ fascinating past but we can get daily (sol-ly?) updates from a small flotilla of spacecraft, on the surface and orbiting the planet. From those early grainy monochrome images of the martian surface we have come all the way to snapping images of our own craft parachuting to the surface; to explore in situ and see much more too. Our missions have captured images from Mars that have shown us: landslides falling down cliffs, dust devils whipping across the martian plains and have generally opened our eyes to the desolate (but stunning) world with which we have become fascinated over the centuries.

For me though one of the best things about our exploration of Mars, aside from the science, is how the images have been able to convey the beauty of the red planet. Not only from a purely aesthetic viewpoint either. The images we see put the complex scientific information we receive into a human context. A high silica content in a region of soil may mean little to anyone but a specialist. But if we can look at an image and say: “that white patch there shows that this region might once have been home to a warm pool of standing water, perhaps even with a bubbling hydrothermal vent” then the whole scene jumps to life.

So it’s with this in mind that I’m posting this image above, one of the Mars Express spacecraft’s latest images. You can view the big version here, to get the full effect. It’s part of a region called Echus Chasma on Mars and has been shaped by all sorts of processes from volcanic events to water erosion. However my favourite quote about the image below, from the ESA news article about these new images, has to be this: “Gigantic water falls may have once plunged over these cliffs on to the valley floor. The original shoreline is still partially visible. The remarkably smooth valley floor was later flooded by basaltic lava.” The fact that we can make such an incredible comment about Mars, to me, shows just how far we’ve come from those early Mariner days.

*There is of course a grand history of observing Mars, with telescopes from Earth, that dates back many decades prior to this.

Image credits: Credits: ESA/ DLR/ FU Berlin (G. Neukum)