NASA’s Glorious Recreation of the “Earthrise” Photograph from December 24, 1968

On the morning of December 24, 1968, the onboard cameras on NASA’s Apollo 8 spacecraft were focused on the lunar surface. However, that morning unfolded with a tiny bit of the unexpected. On board the spacecraft were astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders. They all later recalled that perhaps the most important thing they discovered on their mission was Earth:

The famous image now known simply as Earthrise.

The famous image from Apollo 8 now known simply as Earthrise.

In a newly released video by NASA, seen below, NASA scientists use a number of photo mosaics and elevation data from their Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) to reconstruct for the very first time, 45 years later, exactly what these Apollo 8 astronauts saw on that December morning. As you listen to the talk, narrated by Andrew Chaikin (author of A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts), you’ll understand how this famous image (now known simply, elegantly as Earthrise) almost did not come to exist. Earthrise was captured on colour film with a modified Hasselblad 500 EL at 1/250 seconds at f/11, as you’ll hear in the film. The video, which can be viewed in 1080p HD, is well worth the seven minutes of your time:

Per the caption of the video:

The visualization draws on numerous historical sources, including the actual cloud pattern on Earth from the ESSA-7 satellite and dozens of photographs taken by Apollo 8, and it reveals new, historically significant information about the Earthrise photographs. It has not been widely known, for example, that the spacecraft was rolling when the photos were taken, and that it was this roll that brought the Earth into view. The visualization establishes the precise timing of the roll and, for the first time ever, identifies which window each photograph was taken from.

The key to the new work is a set of vertical stereo photographs taken by a camera mounted in the Command Module’s rendezvous window and pointing straight down onto the lunar surface. It automatically photographed the surface every 20 seconds. By registering each photograph to a model of the terrain based on LRO data, the orientation of the spacecraft can be precisely determined.

A still from NASA's new visualization of how Earthrise came to be.

A still from NASA’s new visualization of how Earthrise came to be.

NASA's visualization of Earthrise.

NASA’s visualization of Earthrise.

A New Species: The Clean Room Bacteria

A fascinating piece in Scientific American, summarizing how scientists discovered a new species of bacterium in two separate clean room facilities (one at the European Space Agency and the other at Kennedy Space Center):

The researchers named the bacterium Tersicoccus phoenicis. “Tersi” is Latin for clean, as in clean room, and “coccus” comes from Greek and describes the bacterium in this genus’s berrylike shape. “Phoenicis” as the species name pays homage to thePhoenix lander. The scientists determined that T. phoenicis shares less than 95 percent of its genetic sequence with its closest bacterial relative. That fact, combined with the unique molecular composition of its cell wall and other properties, was enough to classify Tersicoccus phoenicis as part of a new genus—the next taxonomic level up from species in the system used to classify biological organisms. The researchers are not sure yet if the bug lives only in clean rooms or survives elsewhere but has simply escaped detection so far, says Christine Moissl-Eichinger of the University of Regensburg in Germany, who identified the species at the ESA’s Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana. Some experts doubt thatTersicoccus phoenicis would fare well anywhere other than a clean room. “I think these bugs are less competitive, and they just don’t do so well in normal conditions,” says Cornell University astrobiologist Alberto Fairén, who was not involved in the analysis of the new genus. “But when you systematically eliminate almost all competition in the clean rooms, then this genus starts to be prevalent.”

Only the hardiest of microbes can survive inside a spacecraft clean room, where the air is stringently filtered, the floors are cleansed with certified cleaning agents, and surfaces are wiped with alcohol and hydrogen peroxide, then heated to temperatures high enough to kill almost any living thing. Any human who enters the room must be clad head to foot in a “bunny suit” with gloves, booties, a hat and a mask, so that the only exposed surface is the area around a person’s eyes. Even then, the technician can enter only after stomping on sticky tape on the floor to remove debris from the soles of her booties, and passing through an “air shower” to blow dust away from the rest of her. 

As always: life finds a way. Not only was this a discovery of a new species, it was a discovery of a new genus.

The full paper, for those of you interested, is here.

 

What Does the Film Gravity Get Wrong?

Dennis Overbye, writing in The New York Times, sat down with astronaut Michael Massimino, who flew missions in 2002 and 2009 to service the Hubble Space Telescope — to discuss the upcoming film Gravity, starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock.

The movie gets a lot of detail right:

There is also some inventive and very realistic use of the kickback from a fire extinguisher. The outboard scenery of the sunsets and auroras below comes straight from NASA images taken from the International Space Station.

Mr. Clooney, as a veteran spacewalker, with his resonant voice and folksy yarns, seems to be channeling every imperturbable astronaut you ever heard speaking from on high. And that opening scene, a long shot that begins with a majestic view of Earth and ends with Ms. Bullock’s tumble, has earned the director, Alfonso Cuarón, comparisons to masters like Robert Altman and Michelangelo Antonioni.

But there is a HUGE gaping hole in the plot:

You knew there was a “but” coming, right? Unfortunately, with all this verisimilitude, there is a hole in the plot: a gaping orbital impossibility big enough to drive the Starship Enterprise through.

After they stop tumbling and find the shuttle destroyed and their colleagues all dead, Mr. Clooney tells Ms. Bullock that their only hope for rescue is to use his jetpack to travel to the space station, seen as a glowing light over the horizon. “It’s a long hike, but we can make it,” he says.

At this point, space fans will groan.

As we recall from bitter memory, the Hubble and the space station are in vastly different orbits. Getting from one to the other requires so much energy that not even space shuttles had enough fuel to do it. The telescope is 353 miles high, in an orbit that keeps it near the Equator; the space station is about 100 miles lower, in an orbit that takes it far north, over Russia.

To have the movie astronauts Matt Kowalski (Mr. Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Ms. Bullock) zip over to the space station would be like having a pirate tossed overboard in the Caribbean swim to London.

I still want to see this film, but I won’t be pretentious about what it gets wrong. Just good to know.

Death of Yuri Gagarin Demystified 40 Years Later

For over 20 years Aleksey Leonov, the first man to conduct a spacewalk in 1965, has been struggling to gain permission to disclose details of what happened to the legendary Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in March 1968. He’s finally had a chance to reveal the details, and he shared his testimony with Russian newspaper RT:

According to a declassified report, there is a human factor behind the tragic incident – an unauthorized SU-15 fighter jet was flying dangerously close to Gagarin’s aircraft. 

Leonov had been in charge of parachute jump training on that day. The weather was extremely bad, with rain, wind and snow making it impossible to carry out exercises. He waited for an official confirmation that the exercises would be cancelled, but then heard a super-sonic noise followed by an explosion only a second apart from each other. That is when he knew something was up. 

“We knew that a Su-15 was scheduled to be tested that day, but it was supposed to be flying at the altitude of 10,000 meters or higher, not 450-500 meters. It was a violation of the flight procedure.”

Leonov that day talked to witnesses that pointed at the model of a Su-15 saying that it appeared out of the clouds with its tail smoking and burning.

“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,” Leonov tells. 

According to the report that Seryogin wrote in his own hand, no aerobatic maneuvers or spins were to be performed by the crew of the MiG-15 with RD-45 engine and external fuel tanks, 260 liters each.  Simple turns, pitching and nosedives were conducted after which Yuri reported: “Codename 645, task completed, descending” Leonov explains.

The name of the man responsible for Gagarin’s death is not being disclosed. Keeping him anonymous was a condition under which Leonov was allowed to speak.

Fascinating reveal.

One of the best books I’ve read on this topic is Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin. Currently available on Amazon for less than $7 — a steal. I would surmise the authors of the text will incorporate Leonov’s testimony as an addendum to the book.

Who Owns Copyright in Space?

As a final sign-off for his mission aboard the International Space Station, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield performed David Bowie’s rendition of “Space Oddity.” The video has generated more than 15 million views on YouTube so far, and if you haven’t seen it yet, it’s worth it:

 

The Economist published a great explainer on how copyright works in space, applied to this rendition of “Space Oddity”:

The song “Space Oddity” is under copyright protection in most countries, and the rights to it belong to Mr Bowie. But compulsory-licensing rights in many nations mean that any composition that has been released to the public (free or commercially) as an audio recording may be recorded again and sold by others for a statutorily defined fee, although it must be substantively the same music and lyrics as the original. But with the ISS circling the globe, which jurisdiction was Commander Hadfield in when he recorded the song and video? Moreover, compulsory-licensing rights for covers of existing songs do not include permission for broadcast or video distribution. Commander Hadfield’s song was loaded onto YouTube, which delivers video on demand to users in many countries around the world. The first time the video was streamed in each country constituted publication in that country, and with it the potential for copyright infringement under local laws. Commander Hadfield could have made matters even more complicated by broadcasting live as he sang to an assembled audience of fellow astronauts for an onboard public performance while floating from segment to segment of the ISS.

That is because the space station consists of multiple modules and other pieces (called “elements”) under the registration of the United States, the European Space Agency (ESA) consortium, Russia and Japan. The agreement governing the ISS makes it clear (in Article 5) that the applicable laws, including those governing IP rights, depend on which part of it an astronaut is in. This is most relevant when astronauts conduct science or write accounts of their work, whether for public or private parties, although equally true during their off hours. The audio and video seem to have been recorded in the Destiny module, owned by America’s space agency, NASA, the Cupola, which previously owned by the ESA (and would thus have been governed by European law) but was transferred to NASA in 2005, and the Japanese Experiment Module, developed by Japan’s aerospace agency, JAXA. The video was transmitted to Canada (probably through ground stations around the globe), where Mr Bowie’s former bandmate Emm Gryner added a piano accompaniment and others edited and produced the final product. But recording a private performance does not violate any laws; a violation only occurs if the material is publicly distributed. Had the song been broadcast from space, Mr Bowie’s lawyers would have been entitled to seek redress in Canadian, American and Japanese courts, in addition to any objections they might have raised based on YouTube views elsewhere.

Turns out the making of this video took months of preparation, as Commander Hadfield had obtained permission to record and distribute the song; production and distribution of the song was entirely terrestrial.

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(via kottke)

Future Plans for Mars Travel

The Economist summarizes current plans for missions to Mars:

Six decades later, on February 27th, Dennis Tito, an American investment manager and space enthusiast who, in 2001, became the world’s first space tourist, unveiled his own plan. Inspiration Mars is a more modest affair. If all goes to plan, in January 2018 a single, small spaceship, carrying two crew members, will blast off for a 501-day trip to Mars and back. If it arrives safely, there are no plans to land. Instead, the idea is merely to fly around the planet and then head back to Earth. Unlike von Braun’s project, little government involvement will be necessary. Mr Tito hopes to pay for Inspiration Mars with a mix of his own money, donations from the public and the sale of media rights.

That is not to say that Mr Tito’s plan is timid. On the contrary: it is eye-wateringly (or, as one colleague puts it, “bowel-looseningly”) bold. Although endless studies have been done on how it might be possible to ferry humans to Mars, no one has ever attempted it. Mr Tito’s launch date is fixed, for it is designed to take advantage of a rare period of orbital proximity between Mars and Earth. If he misses his deadline, another opportunity will not present itself until 2031. That gives the team just under five years to design the mission, specify a spacecraft, find a rocket to launch it on, select a crew and carry out all the necessary checks and double-checks. And, without the financial muscle of a nation-state behind him, all this must be done on a budget.

Also:

And other non-profit foundations are interested, such as Mars One, a Dutch group that has been advertising for volunteers for a one-way trip, whose crew would end up stranded on Mars, although it has nevertheless received plenty of applicants.

All this interest implies that sending people to Mars is merely a matter of political will and a bit of ingenious engineering. It is not. It is extremely difficult and dangerous, a fact that Mr Tito mentioned repeatedly in his press conference.

So dangerous, in fact, that The Economist initially called the Mars One “a suicide mission.” They’ve since issued a correction in the piece.

Space Shuttle Endeavour Crosses Los Angeles

The Atlantic’s In Focus blog has a superb gallery of photos showing how Space Shuttle Endeavour has made its way through Los Angeles on its way to its final destination, California Science Center. This is an urban feast for the eyes:

Stopping by Randy’s Donuts in Los Angeles.

Traversing city streets in L.A.

Shuttle Crossing!

See the full gallery here.

I, of course, have a special connection to Shuttle Endeavour after having witnessed its last launch into space last year. You can read about my experience here.