News from Space: Chang’e-3’s Landing and 1st Panorama

Change-3-landing-site_1_ken-kremer-580x344China accomplished a rather major technological and scientific feat recently with the recent soft landing of its Chang’e-3 robotic spacecraft on Dec.14th. This was the nation’s first attempt at landing a spacecraft on an extra-terrestrial body, and firmly established them as a competitor in the ongoing space race. What’s more, the event has been followed by a slew of fascinating and intriguing pictures.

The first were taken by the descent imaging camera aboard the Chang’e-3 lander, which began furiously snapping photos during the last minutes of the computer guided landing. The Chinese space agency then combined the photos to create a lovely compilation video, with the point of view rotated 180 degrees, to recreate what the descent looked like.

Change-3_lunar_landing_site-580x470The dramatic soft landing took place at 8:11 am EST (9:11 p.m Beijing local time) with the lander arriving at Mare Imbrium (Latin for “Sea of Rains”) – one of the larger craters in the Solar System that is between 3 and 4.5 billion years old. The precise landing coordinates were 44.1260°N and 19.5014°W – located below the Montes Recti mountain ridge.

The video begins by showing the Chang’e-3 lander approaching the Montes Recti mountain ridge. At an altitude of 15 km (9 miles), the Chang’e-3 carried out the rocket powered descent to the Moon’s surface by firing the landing thrusters starting at the altitude of 15 km (9 mi) for a soft landing targeted to a preselected area in Mare Imbrium.

chang'e3_landingThe vehicles thrusters then fired to pivot the lander towards the surface at about the 2:40 minute mark when it was at an altitude of roughly 3 km (1.8 miles). The powered descent was autonomous, preprogrammed and controlled by the probe itself, not by mission controllers on Earth stationed at the Beijing. Altogether, it took about 12 minutes to bring the lander onto the surface.

Roughly 7 hours later, on Sunday, Dec. 15 at 4:35 a.m. Beijing local time, China’s first ever lunar rover ‘Yutu’ (or Jade Rabbit) rolled down a pair of ramps and onto the Moon’s soil. The six wheeled ‘Yutu’ rover drove straight off the ramps and sped right into the history books as it left a noticeably deep pair of tire tracks behind in the loose lunar dirt. This too was captured by the lander’s camera and broadcast on China’s state run CCTV.

chang'e3_egressThe next bundle of footage came from the rover itself, as the Jade Rabbit took in its inaugural photographs of the landing site in Mare Imbrium. The photos were released by Chinese state TV on Dec. 15th, not long after the rover disembarked from the lander, and were then pieced together to form the lander’s first panoramic view of the lunar surface.

Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer – an amateur photo-astronomer and a science journalist who have composed panoramas from the Curiosity mission in the past – also composed the images together to create a series of mosaics. A sample of the 1st panorama is pictured below, with the Yutu rover in the center and tire tracks off to the left.. Click here to the see the full-size image.

Change-3-1st-Pano_1b_Ken-Kremer--580x203The individual images were taken by three cameras positioned around the robotic lander and captured the stark lunar terrain surrounding the spacecraft. The panoramic view shows ‘Yutu’ and its wheel tracks cutting a semi circular path at least several centimeters deep into the loose lunar regolith at the landing site at Mare Imbrium, located near the Bay of Rainbows.

Liu Enhai, Designer in Chief, Chang’E-3 Probe System, has this say about the images in a recent CCTV interview:

This picture is made of 60 pictures taken 3 times by the rover. The rover used three angles: vertical, 15 degrees tilted up, and 15 degrees down…so that we get an even farther view

chang'e3_portraitThe 140 kilogram Yutu rover then turned around so that the lander and rover could obtain their first portraits of one another. The first is visible above, showing the Jade Rabbit rover (in better resolution), with the image of the Chang’e 3 lander below. Liu Jianjun, Deputy Chief Designer of the Chang’E-3 Ground System, was also interviewed by CCTV, and had this to about that part of the mission:

The rover reached the point of X after it went down from the lander, then it established contact with the ground. Then it went to point A, where the rover and lander took pictures of each other. Then it reached point B, where it’s standing now.

These are just the first of what is expected to be a torrent of pictures produced by the rover, which according to Chinese officials, will spend the next year conducting in-situ exploration at the landing site. Beyond that, the rover will use its instruments to survey the moon’s geological structure and composition on a minimum three month mission to locate the moon’s natural resources for use by future missions.

chang'e3_lander_portIn addition to accomplishing a great scientific feat, China has now joined a very exclusive club, being only one of three nations that has successfully conducted a soft landing on the Moon. The United States was the first, reaching the Moon with its Apollo 11 mission on July 20th, 1969. The Soviet Union followed less than a decade later, having reached the Moon with its unmanned Lunik 24 spacecraft in 1976.

And now, almost forty years later, the space race is joined by one of the world’s emerging super powers. Soon, we can expect the European Space Agency, India, Pakistan, and possibly Iran to be reaching the Moon as well. And by that time, its likely the spaceships will be carrying colonists. Hopefully we’ll have some infrastructure set up to receive them!

In the meantime, be sure to check out the Chang’e 3 descent video, and stay tuned for more updates from the Jade Rabbit and it begins its exploration of the Lunar surface.


Source:
universetoday.com, (2)

A Tribute to Valentina Tereshkova

valentina_tereshkovaOn June 16th, 1963, in what was to become a first amongst firsts, Russian Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova made history by being the first woman to go into space. Today, exactly fifty years later, Tereshkova’s achievements continue to serve as a reminder that all people – regardless of their gender – are capable of doing just about anything. And at the age of 76, Tereshkova lives on as a national and historic icon, inspiring younger generations of women to follow their dreams.

On Friday, President Vladimir Putin praised Tereshkova during a meeting at his residence. Tereshkova was on hand for the event, which was covered by several major networks and global news agencies, during which time Putin awarded her accomplishments in space by giving her the Order of Alexander Nevsky for meritorious public service, one of the highest Russian honors.

tereshkova_putin_50thannHer historic flight came a little more than two years after the Soviet Union put the first man – Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin – into orbit. Shortly thereafter, Soviet space officials started considering a space mission by a woman, seeing it as another chance to advertise the nation’s prowess. Much like Gagarin, Tereshkova was part of the Vostok program, the earliest Soviet space missions, and her flight (Vostok-6) was the final mission of the program.

Vostok-6 rocket
Vostok-6 rocket

Of over four hundred candidates, Tereshkova was selected for a number of reasons. In addition to conforming to the height and weight specifications needed to fit within the Vostok capsule, she was also a qualified parachutist – which given the nature of the Vostok space craft (the re-entry craft was incapable of landing) was absolutely essential. But perhaps most important reason was her background, since she was the daughter of war hero Vladimir Tereshkova who died in Finland during the Second World War.

To make the mission even more spectacular for propaganda purposes, Moscow decided to score another first by making it the first simultaneous flight of two spaceships. Valery Bykovsky blasted off aboard the Vostok-5 ship on June 14, 1963, and Tereshkova followed him on June 16. During her flight, Tereshkova orbited the Earth forty-eight times and spent almost three whole days in space.

Vostok-6 craft
Vostok-6 craft

Aside from some nausea, which she would later claim was the result of tainted food, she maintained herself for the full duration and successfully parachuted down upon re-entry. Her landing was a little rough, however, and she experienced some serious bruising of her face. Tereshkova also claimed that during the flight, she noticed a fault in the ship’s controls, which she corrected to prevent from being stranded in space.

With this single flight, Tereshkova logged more flight time than the combined times of all American astronauts who had flown before that date. Tereshkova also maintained a flight log and took photographs of the horizon, which were later used to identify aerosol layers within the atmosphere. Many of the details of her flight, including her nausea, the technical problems, and the hard landing she made, were kept a secret until the collapse of the Soviet Union, since government officials feared they would expose flaws in their program.

tereshkova_historicTereshkova received a hero’s welcome after the flight and was showered with awards. A few months later she married cosmonaut Andrian Nikolayev with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev presiding over the wedding party. She now holds a Parliament seat on the ticket of the main Kremlin party, serving as deputy chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the lower house.

Tereshkova’s story is all the more poignant due to the fact that none of the other planned missions involving female cosmonauts took place and the Soviet’s cancelled the pioneering woman cosmonaut program in 1969. It would be many years before another woman would go into space, once again with the Soviet space program when Svetlana Savitskaya participated in the Soyuz-T7/T5 space mission on August 19th, 1982. Less than a year later, Sally Ride would become the first American woman to go into space as part of the STS-7  mission that went up on Jun. 18, 1983.

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????However, as time progressed, more and more women have come to join the space profession, and Tereshkova has been on hand to honor some of them. One such person was South Korea’s first astronaut, biosystems engineering student Yi So-Yeon (picture above). Tereshkova is seen accompanying her while she boards the spacecraft that would take her to the ISS on April 8th, 2008 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in modern-day Kazakhstan.

Since her time, a total of 56 women have gone into space, and that doesn’t even count the female astronauts who have taken part in mission that didn’t go up or offered technical assistance to crewed missions from the ground. In all cases, these women owe an undeniable debt to Tereshkova, the first woman to enter what was (and still is) considered a man’s profession and who helped pave the way for all those that followed.yuri_gagarin1And in what is an interesting twist, the anniversary of her spaceflight comes just days after the release of a series of declassified documents which reveal the truth of Yuri Gagarin’s death. This seems appropriate since Tereshkova and Gagarin’s stories are connected in so many ways. In truth, it’s virtually impossible to speak of one without mentioning the other, as their careers and destinies were so very intertwined.

In addition to both individuals being pioneering space cosmonauts with the Soviet space program, Gagarin’s death also led to some serious changes in Tereshkova’s career in space. Though she remained an important figure within the program, she was barred from taking part in any more space missions, and for obvious reasons. Having lost one historic figure to tragic circumstances, the Soviet government did not want to lose her as well.

valentina_tereshkova_1However, Tereshkova expressed nothing but relief to hear the truth about Gagarin’s death, which was apparently caused by a mid-air collision when another pilot accidentally steered his jet plane into the path of Gagarin’s training plane. After 45 years of official silence on the matter, she claimed that “The only regret here is that it took so long for the truth to be revealed. But we can finally rest easy.”

At 76, she is still a model of dignity and class, and in pretty good health too for someone her age! I think I speak for all of us in wishing her many more years of health, happiness and accomplishments. One of the most tragic realities of our time is the loss of people who not only witnessed major turning points in history, but made them happen. As such, I hope the world can continue to hang on to Valentina a little while longer…

Source: cbc.ca

The Truth of Yuri Gagarin’s Tragic Death Revealed

yuri_gagarin1On the morning of April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin lifted off aboard Vostok 1 to become the first human in space, becoming an instant hero to many and an historic figure. Tragically, his life was cut short when just seven years later (on March 27th, 1968) the MiG-15 UTI he was piloting crashed. Ever since, his death has been shrouded in confusion and controversy, with many theories being posited as to what actually cause.

And now, some 45 years after the fact, the details about what really happened to cause the death of the first man in space have come out — from the first man to go out on a spacewalk, no less. In an article published online on Russia Today, former cosmonaut Aleksey Leonov — who performed the first EVA on March 18, 1965 — has revealed details about the accident that killed both Yuri Gagarin and his flight instructor Vladimir Seryogin in March 1968.

yuri_gagarinA soft-spoken and well-mannered man, Gagarin began his journey into space in 1960 when he and 19 other pilots were selected to take part in the Soviet space program. Just three years after making history with the launch of the first artificial satellite into space (Sputnik-1), the Russians were eager to follow this up with a mission that would put a man into low-Earth orbit.

After a grueling selection process involving physical and psychological tests, Gagarin was selected to take the pioneering flight inside the Vostok-1 space capsule. The launch, which was eagerly monitored by people all over Russia and around the world, took place at exactly 9:07 am local time (06:07 UT) on 12 April 1961. After spending just under two hours in orbit, the capsule made reentry, Gagarin exited it and parachuted to the ground, landing at around 11:05 am (08:05 UT) in a farmer’s field outside of Engels.

vostok-1_landingObserving the landing of Vostok-1 were two school girls, who recalled the site of the capsule hitting the ground with a combination of fascination and fear:

It was a huge ball, about two or three metres high. It fell, then it bounced and then it fell again. There was a huge hole where it hit the first time.

Elsewhere, a farmer and her daughter observed the strange scene of a figure in a bright orange suit with a large white helmet landing near them by parachute. Gagarin later recalled:

When they saw me in my spacesuit and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked, they started to back away in fear. I told them, ‘Don’t be afraid, I am a Soviet like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!’

After the flight, Gagarin became a worldwide celebrity, touring widely abroad to promote the Soviet’s accomplishment in putting a man into space. Upon returning home, he found himself relegated to training and other tasks, due in part to the death of his friend, Vladimir Komarov in the first flight involving a Soyuz spacecraft. Shortly thereafter, he began to re-qualify to become a fighter pilot, and died during one of his training flights.

Su-15_FlagonOfficially, reports about Gagarin and Seryogin’s death claim that the plane crashed when Gagarin manuevered the two-seated training version of the MiG-15 fighter craft to avoid a “foreign object”. The report does not specify what this object was, but the term refers to  anything from balloons and flocks of birds to airborne debris or another airborne craft. And as you can imagine, people have made some very interesting suggestions as to what this object could have been.

Now, a declassified report, which Leonov has been permitted to share, shows what actually happened during the training flight. Apparently, an “unauthorized Su-15 fighter” flew too close to Gagarin’s MiG, disrupting its flight and sending it into a spin. In his article, Leonov went on to explain in further detail:

In this case, the pilot didn’t follow the book, descending to an altitude of 450 meters. While afterburning the aircraft reduced its echelon at a distance of 10-15 meters in the clouds, passing close to Gagarin, turning his plane and thus sending it into a tailspin — a deep spiral, to be precise — at a speed of 750 kilometers per hour.

The pilot of the SU-15 survived the incident, is apparently still alive, and was not named – a condition of Leonov’s permission to share the information.

valentina_tereshkova_1Afterwards, the first woman into space, Valentina Tereshkova (also a Soviet cosmonaut) was officially grounded by the government after Gagarin’s death to avoid a loss of another prominent cosmonaut. After the revelation was made about the true cause of Gagarin’s death, she responded by saying that the details come as a bittersweet relief. “The only regret here is that it took so long for the truth to be revealed,” Tereshkova said. “But we can finally rest easy.

Indeed. Rest in peace, Yuri. Like many who have since come and gone, you’re a part of an extremely select few who went into space at a time when doing so was still considered by many to be an impossible dream. And regardless of the Cold War atmosphere in which this accomplishment occurred, it remains an historic first and one of the greatest accomplishments ever made by a human being.

Source: universetoday.com

New Podcast Series: Space Stations!

star_trek_space_stationMy good buddy, Fraser Cain, a co-inventor and publisher over at Universe Today, has just unveiled a new podcast series which I strongly recommend to anyone who loves space, science, and fiction pertaining to them. Those who follow this site may recognize the name, as Universe Today just happens to be my go-to source for all things space related. From the Curiosity Rover and the Cassini Probe to the mysteries of life on Earth and the universe at large, these guys can be trusted to be in the know!

I even had the honor of writing articles to them for about a year and a half, and I credit this experience with honing my ability to take hard science, gain a basic understanding of it, and then convey it to a general audience in an understandable fashion. Yes, before I worked for these guys, I was truly a geek-in-waiting, someone who didn’t know their quasars from their quarks. Now… well, I’m a little better!

In any case, the podcast series is called Space Stations, and comprises four episodes that take a look at man-made structures in space, beginning with Salyut and Skylab – the earliest Soviet and American attempts to put a manned station into orbit – and then moving onto Russia’s Mir space station, the International Space Station (ISS), and then taking a look at what the future holds for humans living and working in space.

ISSYou can check out the series at their website here, or just head on over to Astronomy Cast, the site for Universe Today‘s podcasts, and start listening willy-nilly. Me, my favorite is the fourth and final episode which takes a look at the future of space stations, and anyone claiming to know the first thing about me will not wonder why! I mean, c’mon, future of space, what’s not to love about that???

And of course, you can check out their voluminous archives, which contain podcasts on subjects ranging from Aliens to Physics, Astronomy to Planetary Science, and the history of space flight to current missions and the future of space exploration. I can promise you that if you’re the kind of person who finds the science jokes in The Big Bang Theory hilarious, you will feel like a kid in a candy store!

Trivia Question: Where does the name Universe Today come from? If you answer this question (no Googling!) you will have my enduring respect forever!

Sources: universetoday.com, astronomycast.com