Apollo 11 Artifact Caught In Legal Dispute

The massive Saturn V rocket launches the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon on July 16, 1969. Image: NASA

A bag that travelled to the Moon and back is at the heart of a legal dispute involving NASA and a woman named Nancy Carlson. Carlson currently owns the bag and obtained it legally. But NASA is in possession of the bag, and the US Attorney’s Office wants the courts to quash Carlson’s purchase of the bag, so they can retain ownership of this important piece of space memorabilia.

The lawsuit over the lunar sample bags was first reported by Roxana Hegeman of the Associated Press, and covered by Robert Pearlman at collectspace.com.

The story of the Apollo 11 bag is bit of a tangled web. To understand it, we have to look at a third figure, Max Ary. Ary was the founder and long-time director of the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center. In 2005, Ary was convicted for stealing and selling museum artifacts.

Hundreds of space artifacts and memorabilia, some on loan from NASA, had gone missing. In 2003, the Apollo 11 bag was found in a box in Ary’s garage during the execution of a search warrant as part of the case against him. However, the bag was misidentified due to a spreadsheet error, and sold to Carlson at a government auction for $995.

Sample collection on the surface of the Moon. Apollo 16 astronaut Charles M. Duke Jr. is shown collecting samples with the Lunar Roving Vehicle in the left background. Image: NASA
Sample collection on the surface of the Moon. Apollo 16 astronaut Charles M. Duke Jr. is shown collecting samples with the Lunar Roving Vehicle in the left background. Image: NASA

NASA only found out about the Apollo 11 bag after Carlson purchased it. Carlson sent it to the Johnson Space Center in Houston to be authenticated. Once NASA realized what the bag was, they set the legal process in motion to set aside the forfeiture and sale. The US Attorney’s office argued that NASA was not properly notified of the bag’s forfeiture because it was not labelled properly.

NASA’s attorney’s wrote “NASA was denied the opportunity to assert its interest in the lunar bag. Had NASA been given notice of the forfeiture action and/or had all the facts about the lunar bag been known, the lunar [sample return] bag would never have gone to a government auction.”

The attorneys added that “The true identity and ownership of the lunar bag are now known. The failure to give proper notice to NASA can be corrected by setting aside the forfeiture and rescinding its sale,” they stated. “These are unusual circumstances that warrant the particular relief sought.”

If this seems like quite a bit of fuss over a bag, remember that this bag travelled to the Moon and back, making it very rare. Apollo 11 astronauts used it to collect the first samples from the Moon, and dust fragments from the Moon are embedded in its fabric. It’s a very valuable historic and scientific artifact. The government said in a statement that the bag is “a rare artifact, if not a national treasure.”

Carlson, who obtained the bag legally at an auction, is an attorney and is now suing NASA for “unwarranted seizure of my personal property… without any legal provocation.” This after she voluntarily submitted the bag to NASA for authentication, and after NASA offered to reimburse her purchase price and an additional $1,000 dollars “in appreciation for your assistance in returning the bag” and “to offset any inconvenience you may have suffered.”

There’s no question that artifacts like these belong in NASA’s public collection, and on display in a museum. But Carlson obtained the bag through a legal auction. Maybe, as the bag’s purchaser, Carlson is hoping that NASA will tender a larger offer for return of the bag, and she can make some profit. That’s pure speculation of course. Perhaps she’s just very keen on owning this piece of history.

As for Max Ary, the man who set all this in motion years ago, he is now out of prison and maintains his innocence. Ary collected other space artifacts and memorabilia and sold them from his home, and he claims that it was just a mix up. He was convicted though, and he served just over 2 years of his 3 year prison sentence. He was also ordered to pay $132,000 in restitution.

Sources: Collectspace.com, Roxana Hegeman (AP)

Apollo 11 Landing 47 Years Ago; See it Through New Eyes

Looking for a way to commemorate the 47th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission landing on the Moon? Here are a few different ways look back on this historic event and take advantage of advances in technology or new data.

Below is a video that uses data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and its amazing suite of cameras, offering a side-by-side view of Apollo 11’s descent, comparing footage originally shot from the Eagle lunar module’s window with views created from reconstructed LRO imagery. This is a fun way to re-live the landing — 1202 alarms and all — while seeing high definition views of the lunar surface.

The National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC has a special way to mark the Apollo 11 anniversary. They have posted online high-resolution 3-D scans of the command module Columbia, the spacecraft that carried astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the Moon. This very detailed model allows you to explore the entire spacecraft’s interior, which, if you’ve ever visited the Air & Space museum and seen Columbia in person, you probably know is a tremendous ‘upgrade,’ since you can only see a portion of the interior through couple of small hatches and windows. The Smithsonian is also making the data files of the model available for download so it can be 3-D printed or viewed with virtual-reality goggles. Find all the details here.

While 3D scanning the Apollo 11 Command Module, museum staff uncovered writing on the interior walls of the module.The main control panel of the spacecraft contains essential switches and indicators that had to be referred to and operated during the most crucial aspects of the flight. Numbers and references written by hand onto the panel can be checked against the audio and written transcripts from the mission to provide a more vivid picture of just what transpired. Credit: Smithsonian Institution.
While 3D scanning the Apollo 11 Command Module, museum staff uncovered writing on the interior walls of the module.The main control panel of the spacecraft contains essential switches and indicators that had to be referred to and operated during the most crucial aspects of the flight. Numbers and references written by hand onto the panel can be checked against the audio and written transcripts from the mission to provide a more vivid picture of just what transpired. Credit: Smithsonian Institution.

Here’s a remastered version of the original mission video as aired in July 1969 depicting the Apollo 11 astronauts conducting several tasks during the moonwalk (EVA) operations on the surface of the moon, which lasted approximately 2.5 hours.

If you’re pressed for time, here’s a quick look at the entire Apollo 11 mission, all in just 100 seconds from Spacecraft Films:

Here’s a very cool detailed look at the Apollo 11 launch in ultra-slow motion, with narration:

Enjoy, and happy anniversary!

Saturn V’s New Mission Is To…Mississippi?

Looking at the business end of the Saturn V as it gets moved towards the barge that will transport it to Mississippi. Image: Infinity Science Center.

Tourist attractions can be pretty hokey. In the part of Canada where I’m from, one town boasts the “largest hockey stick in the world.” I’m not kidding. You can see it when you drive by. But Mississippi is getting what may be one of the world’s greatest tourist attractions: a Saturn V rocket, or the first stage of one, anyways.

Obviously, this is more than just a tourist attraction. This is an historic science exhibit of epic proportions. This Saturn V is the rocket that was supposed to launch Apollo 19 to the Moon in 1973, until that trip was cancelled.

For 38 years, this Saturn V has been at its home at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where it was built more than 40 years ago. But now, it’s found a new home at the Stennis Space Center, about 77 km. (48 miles) away. And getting there is quite a journey.

The heart of this journey is a 64 km. (40 mile) trip through the Intercoastal Waterway, and up the Pearl River. Not only that, but it had to be loaded onto a barge to start the trip, and unloaded once it arrived.

The Saturn V on its way to its new home at the Infinity Science Center in Mississippi. Image: Infinity Science Center.
The Saturn V on its way to its new home at the Infinity Science Center in Mississippi. Image: Infinity Science Center.

The actual home of the Saturn V will be the Infinity Science Center, which is a non-profit science outreach organization that has partnered with NASA, and is located next to the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. And people there are proud and excited to be a part of this.

“There’s a saying that if you wanted to get to the moon, you had to go through south Mississippi first,” said John Wilson, executive director for INFINITY Science Center. “Our goal with this Saturn V first stage exhibit is to educate our guests on our region’s critical role in space exploration and bring to life the ingenuity of the men and women who built, transported, tested and flew the machines that took us to worlds beyond our own.”

There’s a lot of history behind the Saturn V. It was developed to support NASA’s Apollo program to land men on the Moon. The Saturn V was launched 13 times between 1966 and 1973. It still retains its status as the world’s most powerful rocket, though its end will reign soon, thanks to NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy.

This Saturn V was supposed to carry Apollo 19 on its way to the Moon until that missions was cancelled. One of the would-be crew members of Apollo 19, Fred Haise, was also a crew member on the ill-fated Apollo 13. Fred Haise is now on the Board of Directors at the Saturn’s new home, the Infinity Science Center. I can’t imagine how pleased he is to have his Saturn V coming home.

The Saturn V is a three stage rocket. The section being moved and exhibited is the first stage, known as the S-IC. It’s 42 meters (138 ft.) long and 10 meters (33 ft.) in diameter. This first stage had five massive F-1 engines which produced more than 7.5 million pounds of thrust.

The engines combined and burned liquid oxygen and kerosene for about 2.5 minutes. At that point, the rocket would be 61 km (38 miles) above Earth. Then, empty of fuel and with its job done, it would fall back towards Earth and burn up. But this one was built before its mission was cancelled, which is why its available for display.

The Infinity Science Center has 72,000 square feet of space, and has over 50 years of NASA history on display. Over 65,000 guests visit each year. That number is sure to rise, once the Saturn V comes home.

Virtual Reality and Space: From NASA to Smartphones

With the ever-increasing affordability of technology, Virtual Reality is making its way into people’s homes. Systems like the Oculus Rift, and Sony’s PlayStation VR when it’s released next Fall, are becoming increasingly common. These systems, and others to come, will allow people to not only watch VR movies and play VR games, but also to explore space from the comfort of their own homes. This won’t be the only intersection of Virtual Reality and space, though.

NASA, as is often the case, has already blazed a trail when it comes to VR and space. They’ve been using VR to train astronauts for quite a while now. They have a whole lab dedicated to it, called the Virtual Reality Lab, located at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. At this facility, astronauts use VR to prepare them for working aboard the ISS.

NASA has flirted with other VR solutions as well. They used an Oculus Rift and a VR Treadmill combined with Mars footage from the Curiosity rover to create a virtual walk on the surface of Mars.

NASA’s use of VR is the most advanced around, naturally, but it’s not something most of us will ever encounter. For the rest of us, VR is making it’s way into our space-loving lives in other ways.

A company called Immersive Education has created a VR simulation of the Apollo 11 mission. It allows users to re-live the mission. You can look around the inside of the spacecraft, look out the window toward Earth, even watch and listen as astronauts walk on the surface of the Moon. The company promises “Historically accurate spacecraft interiors and exteriors.”

Here, Apollo astronaut Charlie Duke checks out the Apollo 11 VR on Oculus Rift.

Companies DEEP Inc. and Freedom 360 collaborated with the Canadian Space Agency to create a VR film called “The Edge of Space.” They used 360 degree cameras to record the view from a balloon that reached an altitude of 40km above Earth. Check out their video here. To get the real interactive effect, visit their page to download their app and view it.

Then there’s what I call virtual VR. Or you could call it “headsetless” VR, I guess. Though it lacks the immersion of full VR, it’s still cool. It’s a virtual planetarium from Escapist Games Limited, called Star Chart. Star Chart allows users to cruise through the Solar System and the Universe, checking out stars, nebulae, planets and other objects along the way.

This is just the beginning of VR’s entertainment and educational capabilities. With the growing affordability of VR, and the technological advancements to come, there’s going to some great implementations of VR technology for we space enthusiasts. I expect that in the next few years, we wannabe space explorers will be able to explore the surface of other worlds with VR, right in our own living rooms.

NASA Releases Strange ‘Music’ Heard By 1969 Astronauts

Lunar module pilot Eugene Cernan en route to the Moon during the Apollo 10 mission in the spring of 1969. Credit: NASA
Lunar module pilot Gene Cernan en route to the Moon during the Apollo 10 mission in the spring of 1969. Credit: NASA

Calling it music is a stretch, but that’s exactly how the Apollo 10 astronauts described the creepy sounds they heard while swinging around the farside of the moon in May 1969. During the hour they spent alone cut off from communications with Earth, all three commented about a persistent “whistling” sound that lunar module pilot (LMP) likened to “outer-space-type-music”. Once the craft returned to the nearside, the mysterious sounds disappeared.


Apollo 10 Farside-of-the-Moon Music.

Hands down it was aliens! I wish. Several online stories fan the coals of innuendo and mystery with talk of hidden files and NASA cover-ups narrated to disturbing music. NASA agrees that the files were listed as ‘confidential’ in 1969 at the height of the Space Race, but the Apollo 10 mission transcripts and audio have been publicly available at the National Archives since 1973. Remember, there was no Internet back then. The audio files were only digitized and uploaded for easy access in 2012. Outside of the secretive ’60s, the files have been around a long time.

Part of the Apollo 10 transcript of the conversation among the three Apollo 10 astronauts while they orbited the farside of the Moon. Credit: NASA
Part of the Apollo 10 transcript of the conversation among the three Apollo 10 astronauts while they orbited the farside of the Moon. Click the image for a pdf copy of the full mission transcript. Credit: NASA

The story originally broke Sunday night in a show on the cable channel Discovery as part of the “NASA’s Unexplained Files” series; you’ll find their youtube video below. As I listen to the sound file, I hear two different tones. One is a loud, low buzz, the other a whooshing sound. My first thought was interference of some sort for the buzzing sound, but the whoosh reminded me of a whistler, a low frequency radio wave generated by lightning produced when energy from lightning travels out into Earth’s magnetic field from one hemisphere to another. Using an appropriate receiver, we can hear whistlers as descending, whistle-like tones lasting up to several seconds.

Earthrise as photographed by the Apollo 10 crew in May 1969. Credit: NASA
Earthrise as photographed by the Apollo 10 crew in May 1969. Credit: NASA

Lightning’s hardly likely on the Moon, and whistlers require a magnetic field, which the Moon also lacks. The cause turns out to be, well, man-made. Cernan’s take was that two separate VHF radios, one in the lunar module and the other in command module, were interfering with one another to produce the noise. This was later confirmed by Apollo 11 astronaut Mike Collins who flew around the lunar farside alone when Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon’s surface.

The Apollo 10 command/service module nicknamed "Charlie Brown" orbiting the Moon as seen from the lunar module. Credit: NASA
The Apollo 10 command service module nicknamed “Charlie Brown” orbiting the Moon as seen from the lunar module. Apollo 10 was a full dress rehearsal for the Apollo 11 mission to place a man on the Moon. Click the image to visit the Apollo 10 photo archive. Credit: NASA

In his book Carrying the Fire, Collins writes: “There is a strange noise in my headset now, an eerie woo-woo sound.” He said it might have scared him had NASA’s radio technicians not forewarned him. The “music” played when the two craft were near one another with their radios turned on. Unlike Apollo 10, which never descended to the Moon’s surface but remained near the command module, the Apollo 11 lunar module touched down on the Moon on July 20, 1969. Once it did, Collins writes that the ‘woo-woo’ music stopped.

The astronauts never talked publicly or even with the agency about hearing weird sounds in space for good reason. Higher-ups at NASA might think them unfit for future missions for entertaining weird ideas, so they kept their thoughts private. This was the era of the “right stuff” and no astronaut wanted to jeopardize a chance to fly to the Moon let alone their career.


Outer Space Music Part 1 of NASA’s Unexplained Files —  to be taken with a boulder of salt

In the end, this “music of the the spheres” makes for a fascinating  tidbit of outer space history. There’s no question the astronauts were spooked, especially considering how eerie it must have felt to be out of touch with Earth on the far side of the Moon. But once the sounds stopped, they soldiered on — part of the grand human effort to touch another world.

“I don’t remember that incident exciting me enough to take it seriously,” Gene Cernan told NASA on Monday. “It was probably just radio interference. Had we thought it was something other than that we would have briefed everyone after the flight. We never gave it another thought.”


Messages from the Ringed Planet

Want to hear some real outer space music? Click the Saturn video and listen to the eerie sound of electrons streaming along Saturn’s magnetic field to create the aurora.

6th Man on Moon Edgar Mitchell, Dies at 85 on Eve of 45th Lunar Landing Anniversary

Apollo 14 astronaut crew, including Moonwalkers Alan B. Shepard Jr., mission commander (first) and Edgar D. Mitchell, lunar module pilot (last), and Stuart A. Roosa, command module pilot (middle) walk out to the astrovan bringing them to the launch pad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.    Credit: Julian Leek
Apollo 14 astronaut crew, including Moonwalkers Alan B. Shepard Jr., mission commander (first) and Edgar D. Mitchell, lunar module pilot (last), and Stuart A. Roosa, command module pilot (middle) walk out to the astrovan bringing them to the launch pad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Julian Leek

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – NASA astronaut Edgar Mitchell, the 6th man to walk on the Moon, passed away on Thursday, Feb. 4, on the eve of the 45th anniversary of his Apollo 14 mission lunar landing.

Mitchell passed away in West Palm Beach, Fla., just 1 day prior to the 45th anniversary of the Feb. 5, 1971 landing of Apollo 14’s Lunar Module “Antares.” Continue reading “6th Man on Moon Edgar Mitchell, Dies at 85 on Eve of 45th Lunar Landing Anniversary”

Space Station Back At Dusk / See Orion’s Curlicue and Five Dawn Planets

I hadn’t been paying attention, so I was pleasantly surprised two nights ago to see the International Space Station (ISS) made a bright pass in the southwestern sky. A quick check revealed that another round of evening passes had begun for locations across the central and northern U.S., Canada and Europe.  I like the evening ones because they’re so much convenient to view than those that occur at dawn. You can find out when the space station passes over your house at NASA’s Spot the Station site or Heavens Above.

The six-member Expedition 46 crew are wrapping up their work week on different types of research including botany, bone loss and pilot testing. Plants are being grown on the International Space Station so future crews can learn to become self-sustainable as they go farther out in space. While they work their jobs speeding at more than 17,000 mph overhead, we carry on here on the surface of the blue planet.

Edgar Mitchell stands by the U.S. flag he and fellow astronaut Alan Shepard planted on the Fra Mauro region of the moon back in February 1971. Credit: NASA
Edgar Mitchell stands by the U.S. flag he and fellow astronaut Alan Shepard planted on the Fra Mauro region of the moon back in February 1971. Credit: NASA

U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly regularly tweets photos from the station and recently noted the passing of Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who died Thursday at age 85 on the eve of the 45th anniversary of his lunar landing on February 5, 1971. Mitchell was one of only 12 people to walk on the moon and described the experience to the UK Telegraph in 2014:


Relive the Mitchell’s Apollo 14 mission to the moon in 9 minutes and 57 seconds

“Looking at Earth from space and seeing it was a planet in isolation … that was an experience of ecstasy, realizing that every molecule in our bodies is a system of matter created from a star hanging in space. The experience I had was called Samadhi in the ancient Sanskrit, a feeling of overwhelming joy at seeing the Earth from that perspective.”

A pair of binoculars will make the "Curlicue" pop in Orion's Belt. Although the stars aren't related, they form a delightfully curvy line-of-sight pattern. Credit: Bob King
A pair of binoculars will make the “Curlicue” pop in Orion’s Belt. Although the stars aren’t related, they form a delightfully curvy line-of-sight pattern. Credit: Bob King

Only a human could stand in so barren and forbidding a place and experience such profound joy. You don’t have to go to the moon to be moved by sights in the night. Just step outside and watch the ISS glide by or grab a pair of binoculars and aim them at Orion’s Belt. Orion stands due south around 8 o’clock in in mid-February practically shouting to be looked at.

A pair of binoculars will make the "Curlicue" pop in Orion's Belt. Although the stars aren't related, they form a delightfully curvy line-of-sight pattern. Credit: Bob King
This wider view shows the Belt, Curlicue and the Orion Nebula just to the south — all excellent objects for binocular study. Stellarium

The Belt is lovely enough, but its surroundings glitter with stars just below the naked eye limit, in particular a little curlicue or “S” between Alnilam and Mintaka composed of 6th and 7th magnitude stars. Look for it in any pair of binoculars and don’t stop there. Take a few minutes to sweep the area and enjoy the starry goodness about then drop a field of view south for a look at the Orion Nebula. Inside this fuzzy spot 10 light years across and 1,350 light years away, hundreds of new stars are incubating, waiting for the day they can blaze forth like their compadres that make up the rest of Orion.

A thin crescent moon visited Venus and fainter Mercury this morning Feb. 6th at dawn over Rome, Italy. Credit: Gianluca Masi
A thin crescent moon visited Venus and fainter Mercury this morning Feb. 6th at dawn over Rome, Italy. Credit: Gianluca Masi

After touting the advantages of evening sky watching, forgive me if I also direct you to the morning sky and potential sleep loss. Although the waning crescent moon has now departed the scene, the wonderful alignment of Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter remains visible in the coming week even as Mercury slowly sinks back toward the eastern horizon. If you haven’t seen this “gang of 5”, set your alarm for a look starting about an hour before sunrise.

This map shows the entire southern sky around 45 minutes to an hour before sunrise Sunday morning Feb. 7. The ecliptic is the plane of Earth's orbit projected into space and the "highway" taken by the sun, Moon and planets as they orbit the sun. Although Mercury is lowest, it's only about 4.5 degrees from Venus and easy to find. Stellarium
This map shows the entire southern sky around 45 minutes to an hour before sunrise Sunday morning Feb. 7. The ecliptic is the plane of Earth’s orbit projected into space and the “highway” taken by the sun, Moon and planets as they orbit the sun. Although Mercury is lowest, it’s only about 4.5 degrees from Venus and easy to find. Stellarium

Find a location with as wide open a view as possible of the southeastern horizon. Jupiter, Mars and Saturn are plenty high up at that time and easy to spot, but Venus and Mercury hover only 5°-10° high. Both will pose no problem if you can get the trees and buildings out of the way! By the end of the coming week, Mercury will become challenging and then slip away.

Clear skies!

NASA Says “No Chance” Small Asteroid Will Hit Earth On March 5th

On October 6th, 2013, the Catalina Sky Survey discovered a small asteroid which was later designated as 2013 TX68. As part Apollo group this 30 meter (100 ft) rock is one of many Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) that periodically crosses Earth’s orbit and passes close to our planet. A few years ago, it did just that, flying by our planet at a safe distance of about 2 million km (1.3 million miles).

And according to NASA’s Center for NEO Studies (CNEOS) at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, it will be passing us again in a few weeks time, specifically between March 2nd and 6th. Of course, asteroids pass Earth by on a regular basis, and there is very rarely any cause for alarm. However, there is some anxiety about 2013 TX68’s latest flyby, mainly because its distance could be subject to some serious variation.

Continue reading “NASA Says “No Chance” Small Asteroid Will Hit Earth On March 5th”

NASA vs. Cigarettes: A Numbers Game

A photo of the full moon, taken from Apollo 11 on its way home to Earth, from about 18,520 km (10,000 nm) away. Credit: NASA

People often criticize the amount of money spent on space exploration. Sometimes it’s well-meaning friends and family who say that that money is wasted, and would be better spent on solving problems here on Earth. In fact, that’s a whole cultural meme. You see it played out over and over in the comments section whenever mainstream media covers a space story.

While solving problems here on Earth is noble, and the right thing to do, it’s worth pointing out that the premier space exploration body on Earth, NASA, actually has a tiny budget. When you compare NASA’s budget to what people spend on cigarettes, NASA looks pretty good.

Ignoring for the moment the fact that we don’t know how to solve all the problems here on Earth, let’s look at NASA’s budget over the years, and compare it to something that is truly a waste of money: cigarettes and tobacco.

NASA is over 50 years old. In its first year, its budget was $89 million. (That’s about $732 million in today’s dollars.) In that same year, Americans spent about $6 billion on cigarettes and tobacco.

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon. Image Credit: NASA
Buzz Aldrin on the Moon. Image Credit: NASA

From 1969 to 1972, NASA’s Apollo Program landed 12 men on the Moon. They won the Space Race and established a moment that will echo through the ages, no matter what else humanity does: the first human footsteps anywhere other than Earth. In those four years, NASA’s combined budget was $14.8 billion. In that same time period, Americans spent over twice as much—$32 billion—on smoking.

STS-1 Columbia on the launch pad. Image Credit: NASA
STS-1 Columbia on the launch pad. Image Credit: NASA

In 1981, NASA launched its first space shuttle, the Columbia (STS-1). NASA’s budget that year was $5.5 billion. That same year, the American population spent about $17.4 billion on tobacco. That’s three times NASA’s budget. How many more shuttle flights could there have been? How much more science?

The Hubble Space Telescope in 1997, after its first servicing mission. It's about 552 km (343m) above Earth. Image: NASA
The Hubble Space Telescope in 1997, after its first servicing mission. It’s about 552 km (343m) above Earth. Image: NASA

In 1990, NASA launched the Hubble Space Telescope into Low Earth Orbit (LEO.) The Hubble has been called the most successful science project in history, and Universe Today readers probably don’t need to be told why. The Hubble is responsible for a laundry list of discoveries and observations, and has engaged millions of people around the world in space science and discovery. In that year, NASA had a budget of $12.4 billion. And smoking? In 1990, Americans smoked their way through $26.5 billion of tobacco.

MSL Curiosity selfie on the surface of Mars. Image: NASA/JPL/Cal-Tech
MSL Curiosity selfie on the surface of Mars. Image: NASA/JPL/Cal-Tech.

In 2012, NASA had a budget of $16.8 billion. In that year, NASA successfully landed the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity on Mars, at a cost of $2.5 billion. Also that year, American lungs processed $44 billion worth of tobacco. That’s the equivalent of 17 Curiosity rovers!

There was an enormous scientific debate around where Curiosity should land, in order to maximize the science. Scientific teams competed to have their site chosen, and eventually the Gale Crater was selected as the most promising site. Gale is a meteor crater, and was chosen because it shows signs of running water, as well as evidence of layered geology including clays and minerals.

Sunrise at Gale Crater on Mars. Gale is at center top with the mound in the middle, called Mt. Sharp (Aeolis Mons.)
Sunrise at Gale Crater on Mars. Gale is at center top with the mound in the middle, called Mt. Sharp (Aeolis Mons.)

But other equally tantalizing sites were in contention, including Holden Crater, where a massive and catastrophic flood took place, and where ancient sediments lie exposed on the floor of the crater, ready for study. Or Mawrth Vallis, another site that suffered a massive flood, which exposed layers of clay minerals formed in the presence of water. With the money spent on tobacco in 2012 ($44 billion!) we could have had a top ten list of landing sites on Mars, and put a rover at each one.

Think of all that science.

One of the JWST's gold-coated mirrors. Not even launched yet, and the golden mirrors are already iconic. Image Credit: NASA/Drew Noel
One of the JWST’s gold-coated mirrors. Not even launched yet, and the golden mirrors are already iconic. Image Credit: NASA/Drew Noel

NASA’s budget is always a source of controversy, and that’s certainly true of another of NASA’s big projects: The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST.) Space enthusiasts are eagerly awaiting the launch of the JWST, planned for October 2018. The JWST will take up residence at the second Lagrange Point (L2,) where it will spend 5-10 years studying the formation of galaxies, stars, and planetary systems from the Big Bang until now. It will also investigate the potential for life in other solar systems.

The L2 (Lagrange 2) point in space. Image Credit: NASA
The L2 (Lagrange 2) point in space. Image Credit: NASA

Initially the JWST’s cost was set at $1.6 billion and it was supposed to launch in 2011. But now it’s set for October 2018, and its cost has grown to $8.8 billion. It sounds outrageous, almost $9 billion for a space telescope, and Congress considered scrapping the entire project. But what’s even more outrageous is that Americans are projected to spend over $50 billion on tobacco in 2018.

When people in the future look back at NASA and what it was able to accomplish in the latter half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, they’ll think two things: First, they’ll think how amazing it was that NASA did what it did. The Moon landings, the Shuttle program, the Hubble, Curiosity, and the James Webb.

Then, they’ll be saddened by how much more could’ve been done collectively, if so much money hadn’t been wasted on something as deadly as smoking.

(Note: All amounts are US Dollars.)

 

Asteroid? Rocket Stage? Whatever it is, WT1190F Plunges to Earth Tonight

No one’s 100% certain what WT1190F is — asteroid or rocket stage — but we are certain it will light up like a Roman candle when it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere around 6:20 Universal Time (12:20 a.m. CST) tomorrow morning Nov. 13. 


Animation by Jost Jahn of WT1190F’s final hours as it races across the sky coming down off the coast of Sri Lanka

As described in an earlier story at Universe Today, an object discovered by the Catalina Sky Survey on Oct 3rd and temporarily designated WT1190F is expected to burn up about 60 miles (100 km) off the southern coast of Sri Lanka overnight. The same team observed it twice in 2013. Based upon the evolution of its orbit, astronomers determined that the object is only about six feet (2-meters) across with a very low density,  making it a good fit for a defunct rocket booster, possibly one used to launch either one of the Apollo spacecraft or the Chinese Chang’e 3 lander to the Moon.

Below a plot of the last three orbits of WT1190F. The small red circle is the earth. The big green circle is the orbit of the moon, just to give some scale to the chart (click on it for a bigger version).
Below a plot of the last three orbits of WT1190F. The small red circle is the Earth. For scale, the large green circle is the orbit of the Moon. Notice that its final orbit takes straight into Earth. Credit: Bill Gray / Project Pluto

Additional observations of WT1190F have been made in the past few days confirming its re-entry later tonight. Checking the latest predictions on Bill Gray of Project Pluto’s page, the object will likely be visible from Europe about an hour before “touchdown”. To say it will be moving quickly across the sky is an understatement. Try about 3 arc minutes per second or 3° a minute! Very tricky to find and track something moving that fast.

Three 90-second exposures showing WT1190F zipping across the Rosette Nebula taken on Nov. 11, 2015 at the Konkoly Observatory in Hungary. Credit: Krisztián Sárneczky
Three 90-second exposures showing WT1190F zipping across the Rosette Nebula taken on Nov. 11, 2015 at the Konkoly Observatory in Hungary. Credit: Krisztián Sárneczky

58 minutes later, in the minute of time from 6:18 to 6:19 UT,  WT1190F will move one full hour of right ascension and plummet 34° in declination while brightening from magnitude +8 to +4.5. If you’d like to attempt to find and follow the object, head over to JPL’s Horizons site  for the latest ephemerides and orbital elements. At the site, make sure that WT1190F is in the Target Body line. If not, click Change and search for WT1190F in the Target Body field at the bottom of the window.

WT1190F Re-Entry Trajectory – Data courtesy of Bill Gray, Project Pluto
WT1190F re-Entry Trajectory. The object is expected to break up and fall harmlessly into the ocean. Credit: Bill Gray, Project Pluto

You’ll find updates at Bill Gray’s site. According to the most recent positions, the object will pass almost exactly in front of the Sun shortly before plunging into the ocean. Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, is expected to get the best views.

Because the mystery object’s arrival has been fairly well publicized, I hope to update you with a full report and photos first thing tomorrow morning. Like many of you, I wish I could see the show.