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.


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.

Wayne Hale’s Space Exploration Blog

Wayne Hale is retired from NASA after 32 years. In his career he was the Space Shuttle Program Manager or Deputy for 5 years and a Space Shuttle Flight Director for 40 missions. On his blog, he writes that he will start posting more about his time at NASA:

Look for installments at irregular intervals over the next several months.  Comment, critique, and question all you want.  The facts should not be new, they were widely disseminated.  My conclusions are my own.

In a previous must-read entry, “How We Nearly Lost Discovery,” Wayne writes about how NASA dodged a huge bullet. He describes the worst call of his life:

John Muratore, my good friend, fellow flight director, and then the head of the shuttle program Systems Engineering and Integration office informed me in very flat terms that he was in the JSC video lab with head photo interpreter Cindy Evans who had uncovered evidence of a large foam liberation during the critical mach number regime which appeared to have impacted the left wing of Discovery.  Just like Columbia.

I was numb.

I made an illegal U-turn in the middle of NASA Road 1 and definitely exceeded the posted speed limit heading back to JSC and the photo lab.  Here is one still frame from the video they showed me:  A very large piece of foam coming off the tank heading for the wing.

It’s always interesting to get a unique perspective of historical events (i.e., rather than reading Wikipedia entries, for example). So I’ve put Wayne’s blog on my to-read list.

Riding the Plasma Wave

A cloud forms as an F/A-18 Hornet aircraft speeds up to supersonic speed. Aircraft flying this fast push air up to the very limits of its speed, forming what’s called a bow shock in front of them.

Lynn Wilson who is a space plasma physicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, writes the following:

Throughout the universe more than 99 percent of matter looks nothing like what’s on Earth. Instead of materials we can touch and see, instead of motions we intuitively expect like a ball rolling down a hill, or a cup that sits still on a table, most of the universe is governed by rules that react more obviously to such things as magnetic force or electrical charge. It would be as if your cup was magnetized, perhaps attracted to a metal ceiling above, and instead of resting, it floats up, hovering somewhere in the air, balanced between the upward force and the pull of gravity below.

This material that pervades the universe, making up the stars and our sun, and also – far less densely, of course – the vast interstellar spaces in between, is called plasma. Plasmas are similar to gases, and indeed are made of familiar stuff such as hydrogen, helium, and even heavier elements like iron, but each particle carries electrical charge and the particles tend to move together as they do in a fluid. Understanding the way the plasma moves under the combined laws of motion we know on Earth and the less intuitive (to most Earthlings, at least) electromagnetic forces, lies at the heart of understanding the events that spur giant explosions on the sun as well as changes in Earth’s own magnetic environment – the magnetosphere.

Understanding this mysterious world of plasma, however, is not easy. With its complex rules of motion, the study of plasmas is rife with minute details to be teased out.

Which particles are moving, what is the source of energy for the motion, how does a moving wave interact with the particles themselves, do the wave fields rotate to the right or to the left – all of these get classified.

Wilson is the first author of a paper in Geophysical Research Letters that was published on April 25, 2012. Using data from the WAVES instrument on NASA’s Wind mission, he and his colleagues have discovered evidence for a type of plasma wave moving faster than theory predicted it could move. The research suggests that a different process than expected, electrical instabilities in the plasma, may be driving the waves. This offers scientists another tool to understand how heat and energy can be transported through plasma.

For the study, Wilson examined coronal mass ejections (CMEs) – clouds of solar material that burst off the sun and travel through space — that move so much faster than the background solar wind that they create shock waves. These shock waves are similar to those produced by a supersonic jet when it moves faster than the speed of sound in our atmosphere.

Read more here. Photo credit: NASA/Goddard.

Blue Marble: The Most Amazing High Definition Image of Earth

The most amazing high definition image of Earth.

Earlier this week, NASA unveiled an image titled “Blue Marble” and dubbed it the most amazing high definition image of Earth. The image was captured with the Visible/Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) instrument aboard NASA’s most recently launched Earth-observing satellite, Suomi NPP. This composite image uses a number of swaths of the Earth’s surface taken on January 4, 2012.

The full resolution image is a stunning 8,000×8,000 pixels! I have taken NASA’s image and made some minor edits: a global curves adjustment, a saturation boost, and sharpened the image. Click on the image above to download the full resolution image. Makes for a great wallpaper!

My Favorite Photo of 2011

I spent some time this weekend looking over the photos I captured in 2011. While I didn’t travel as much as I have in previous years, one experience stood out: witnessing a space shuttle launch for the first time in my life. I saw the last launch of Space Shuttle Endeavour, mission STS-134. I actually ended up going to Florida on two separate occasions, as the first scheduled launch of Space Shuttle Endeavour was scrubbed.

But on the morning of May 16, 2011 everything was going according to plan. I woke up early, set up my tripod to get a coveted viewing spot, and waited. You can read my lengthy post of how the day unfolded on my photoblog, but the incredible moment we were all waiting for occurred shortly before 9AM that morning. And so, I captured this glorious scene as Endeavour lifted off:

Space Shuttle Endeavour Lifting off from Kennedy Space Center

Here is what I wrote about the experience the day of launch:

People were cheering so loudly. Now, for the first few seconds of lift-off, we relied on our visual senses to stimulate us: sound had not yet arrived. We were located three miles away from the launch site, and the first boom of the engines and the solid rocket boosters cracked about five seconds into the launch sequence. And what a phenomenal sound it was! There were these crackles, going off and on, like fireworks were exploding about five feet away from you. The sound literally made the hair on your arm and legs stand up. It was absolutely incredible!

Truly, a day I’ll never forget.

Here is my entire NASA-themed gallery for those of you curious to see what other photos I captured while at Kennedy Space Center. What’s your favorite photo memory from 2011?

Readings: Counterfeiters, The Virtual University, NASA

Here are some interesting articles I’ve read over the weekend…

(1) “Outfoxing the Counterfeiters” [Wall Street Journal] – a really interesting piece on the redesign of the $100 bill, as well as a brief history of the evolution of currency in the United States. The article is written by Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia and the author of A Nation of Counterfeiters (I haven’t read this book, but after reading this thoughtful article, I have put the book on my to-read list). The two most interesting tidbits below.

On private currency that circulated in the United States during the Civil War era:

Santa Claus, sea serpents and rampaging polar bears, to name a few—showed up on these private currencies.

What’s the new redesign of the $100 bill?

The centerpiece of the redesign is a purple strip that runs from top to bottom of the bill. The strip is coated with hundreds of thousands of microscopic lenses in the shape of the number “100” and what seems to be the Liberty Bell. Thanks to some complex optics, these thousands of lenses combine to create a single, larger image. When the bill is angled one way or another, the strip comes alive, making it seem as if the images can move.

(2) “The Virtual University” [The American Prospect] – a thought-provoking piece by Anya Kamenetz on why cash-strapped colleges should embrace the online classroom. What are your thoughts on this topic?

(3) “Reinventing NASA” [The Washington Times] – an excellent op-ed piece, written by the president of Georgia Institute of Technology, Dr. George “Bud” Peterson, about the current state of NASA, and its future potential. [via]

The key takeaway, I think:

A commitment to working with start-up companies to develop the technologies and hardware necessary for success will inspire and create a new generation of businesses and technology-focused jobs and will nurture and strengthen our top research institutions. With this new emphasis, NASA will return to its roots as an important catalyst for innovation and economic expansion for the U.S. economy.