Kepler 452b

So this is sort of a recycled post, in the sense that I talked about it back in April of 2013. But it’s worth revisiting in light of last month’s announcement of Kepler 452b. For those unaware, the planet is a little bit larger than Earth, but is believed to be a potentially rocky planet like Earth that orbits a star very similar to our Sun in a very similar orbit.

Kepler 452b
Kepler 452b

Credit for the piece still goes to Jonathan Corum.

How We’re Talking to New Horizons

So New Horizons is long since gone from Pluto. But it will still take 16 months to send back all the photographs and science. Why so long? Because so far away. 3 billion miles away. Put another way, light from the sun takes eight minutes to reach Earth as it travels at, well, the speed of light. Radio signals that travel at the speed of light take 4.5 hours to reach Earth from Pluto. So imagine trying to send large data files that far away at a download speed less than that of a 56k modem, for those of you old enough to remember such a thing.

But what receives these radio signals? NASA’s Deep Space Network of antennae that allow NASA to communicate with spacecraft and such things that are in, wait for it, deep space. These antennae are scattered throughout the world, but in this screenshot taken Monday, you can see just what the antennae at the various complexes are doing. Here, we see New Horizons (NHPC) just prior to its flypast communicating with the large antenna at the Madrid complex. The lack of signal lines indicates that it is preparing to setup, takedown, or is tracking the spacecraft.

From early Monday night
From early Monday night

As a fun aside, I left the tab open in the browser and a few hours later came back to find the Deep Space Network sending signals to the Mars rover Opportunity (MER1), the Chandra X-Ray Observatory (CHDR), and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) amongst others.

Opportunity is still chugging along on Mars
Opportunity is still chugging along on Mars

Credit for the piece goes to the NASA graphics department.

Your Guide to the Solar System

As New Horizons will soon begin sending back photographs of Pluto, Charon, and the other moons, I figured it would be a good to share a Wall Street Journal piece that looks at the other photographed bodies of the system.

Field Guide to the Solar System
Field Guide to the Solar System

Credit for the piece goes to Jon Keegan, Chris Canipe, and Alberto Cervantes.

New Horizon’s Flypast

A little after 07.30 EDT, New Horizons began its race past Pluto, what your author grew up learning as the ninth planet in the Solar System—the last planet to be explored. I recall thinking that when it launched back in 2006 I had no idea what I would be doing nine years later. Or at least I think I thought that. It launched nine years ago, almost a third of my life. Regardless, I was definitely one of those upset with the decision to downgrade Pluto from planet to dwarf planet. Anyway, a decade on, there New Horizons is. By the time this post goes live, she will be barreling away towards the Kuiper Belt while transmitting her photographs and science data.

This piece from the New York Times looks at what happened earlier today in, for Americans, the wee hours of the morning.

What New Horizons is doing
What New Horizons is doing

Credit for the piece goes to Jonathan Corum.

Putting Tatooine to Shame

While the title sounds science-fiction-y, it is true. Star Wars has a famous scenece where a landscape is shown with a binary star system in the sky. But we now know of a quintuple-star system that has two separate sets of binary stars. This BBC article takes a look at how the system is structured.

Two binary star systems
Two binary star systems

Credit for the piece goes to the BBC graphics department.

New Horizons

So this is generally a more serious post than usual for a Friday. Because, it is about New Horizons, the probe we launched almost a decade ago to explore Pluto, which at that point was still technically a planet. Anyway, the Washington Post has a nice illustration detailing the various sensors and orbits and trajectories. But what gets it a Friday post? Its sense of scale.

You always need a sense of scale
You always need a sense of scale

Credit for the piece goes to Richard Johnson.

Moon Bases

Today’s post falls somewhere between just for fun and science reality. Remember moon bases? Newt Gingrich’s ridiculed comment about a habitable moon base by 2020? Well, one problem with colonies on other planets—or even interstellar transport for that matter—is radiation. The moon has no magnetosphere and no atmosphere. So it can be bombarded by both radiation and meteorites.

But, now we have lava tubes. Well, in theory at least. Scientists have run the numbers and found that if lava tubes exist on Mars, they would be structurally sound to support colonies within lava tubes. And that brings us to the raison d’etre of today’s post: the diagram used to explain that science.

I present you all with your hypothetical moon base: New Philadelphia.

New Philadelphia looks just like today's Philadelphia
New Philadelphia looks just like today’s Philadelphia

Credit for the piece goes to David Blair.

A Year on Pluto

Last week, NASA’s Dawn probe entered orbit above Ceres, a dwarf planet in the asteroid belt. But later this summer, the New Horizons spacecraft is set to race past Pluto, formerly a planet but now a dwarf planet. New Horizons launched in 2006 and will have taken nine years to reach Pluto. But how long is a year on Pluto? Thanks to the New Horizons team, we can see how one year on Pluto is 248 Earth years, or longer than the history of the independent United States.

A year on Pluto
A year on Pluto

Credit for the piece goes to the NASA/New Horizon team graphics department.

Masses and Payloads

While last week ended with an xkcd post, I want to start this week with an older one I missed about spacecraft. Because spacecraft are awesome every day of the week. In particular it looks at mass and payload capacity of spacecraft and rockets over time.

The space shuttle was big
The space shuttle was big

Credit for the piece goes to Randall Munroe.

Orion Test Flight

At the time of writing, Orion has yet to launch. But by the time this is published, Orion—NASA’s successor to the space shuttle—will hopefully be at or near the greatest distance from Earth achieved by a spacecraft since the Apollo programme. The Houston Chronicle illustrated the different stages of the unmanned test flight. Hopefully in several years when the programme has its manned flight this blog will still be here and somebody out there will similarly illustrate that mission.

Stage 4
Stage 4

Credit for the piece goes to Ken Ellis.