Saturday, June 14, 2008

Kudos for Kibo

The space shuttle Discovery is home after a safe landing in Florida today. Congratulations to all involved. The big accomplishment on this mission (besides fixing the space toilet!) was delivering the main module of the Japanese Kibo laboratory to the International Space Station. This is Japan's big contribution to the station, and we do mean "big". Larger than the other modules, it was delivered empty to save weight. Some of the experiment racks were prepositioned on ISS by previous missions. Others will be delivered later. The combination of being the largest module and being delivered empty produced a unique opportunity for the astronauts:

I just love this video. All the astronauts work really hard when they are in space. I'm glad to see that nobody gave them a hard time about taking five minutes to enjoy the novelty of the new, empty laboratory. Looks like fun, doesn't it?

I also applaud the Japanese for making such a major investment in ISS. They are planning to do lots of research using Kibo. I wish them and the other partners much success and look forward to their future accomplishments.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Mars Rocks!

The resident Geek has too long forsaken the blogosphere. This week I must return to offer a hearty congratulations to NASA on two great missions currently ongoing. This week we're watching the shuttle Discovery and seeing the continued expansion of the International Space Station. Before that we watched the arrival of the Phoenix lander on Mars a couple of weeks ago. It was virtually flawless! The pictures, as always, are totally captivating to me. Most amazing so far:

This view of Phoenix descending on its parachute was captured by the high resolution camera of the Mars Reconnaissence Orbiter that orbits about 200 miles above the Martian surface. Never before have we had an image of any spacecraft landing on another body of the solar system. To give you a sense of exactly what they mean by "high resolution" you need to see the complete image this one was cropped from:

Click on the image to see full resolution. The crater is actually well in the background. A trick of perspective makes it seem like the spacecraft is about to land in the crater.

The pictures that really capture my imagination, though, are the ones from the surface looking out toward the horizon. We've only seen a few of those so far from Phoenix. But here is a dramatic example from Opportunity, one of the Mars Exploration Rovers that have been studying the surface of Mars for the past four years:

Again, click on the image for full resolution (416KB). This panorama shows part of the rim of Victoria Crater. To give you an idea of the dimensions, the steep cliff in the foreground is about 20 feet high. The far rim of the crater is about a quarter mile away.

What I love about these images of Mars is that it seems like a real place! Now, I don't mean to suggest I ever thought Mars is imaginary. What I mean is that it looks like you could just step out into that picture. It might have been taken in a desert here on Earth. It looks like real estate, not a "celestial body". It's not just something to study, it's a place to explore. Alas, I'm not sure humans will ever walk on the surface of Mars in my lifetime. I'm 52 years old, so maybe they will. I hope so. Never did I imagine when the world was watching the Apollo 11 astronauts on the moon that it would be so long before we went exploring again.