What’s the Internet Really Like in Space?

With the internet now part of daily life on the International Space Station, inquiring minds want to know! Can astronauts visit any websites they want, and what kinds of download speeds do they have in space? And what about that chicken, seen above, that has been gracing the STS-130 execute packages? And what’s the view from the new cupola really like? Astronauts answered those questions and more, at the joint crew news conference last night, where I had the chance to talk the crew members of Endeavour and the ISS.

“Thanks for asking about the internet!” replied ISS astronaut T.J. Creamer with a laugh. “This is a project that many people have worked on to make this possible for us, and some have pulled their hair out to make it successful, so many thanks to those folks. We have access to any website we are allowed to go to as government employees – that’s my best answer! And in terms of download speeds – you know, back in the old days, it kind of compares to 9.6 and the 14.4 kilobyte modems, so it’s not really fast enough to do large file exchange or videos, but it certainly lets us to do browsing and the fun reading we want to do, or get caught up on current events on that day. It’s a nice outreach for us, and of course you’ve heard about the Twittering which is a nice feature that we can partake in also.”

Later, Soichi Noguchi said he could keep up with results of the Olympics just like those of on the ground. Noguchi has been taking advantage of Twitter by sending several Twitpics from space.

The personal web access on the ISS takes advantage of existing communication links to and from the station provides astronauts with email, texting, Twittering and other direct private communications, which NASA says will “enhance their quality of life during long-duration missions by helping to ease the isolation associated with life in a closed environment.”

As for the chicken on the STS-130 execute packages, the STS-130 crew was perplexed. “That is possibly an inside joke that we are not on the inside of,” answered Commander George Zamka. “We don’t see the front pages, so it’s probably on the front pages of the execute package that we don’t get.”

You can see the STS-130 execute packages (and chickens) at this link.

Asked about the views from the new cupola, the astronauts waxed poetic. “It’s so hard to put into words the view that we see out those beautiful seven windows,” Kay Hire said. “It’s like comparing a black-and-white analog picture to a super high-def color picture. It’s just phenomenal what we can see out there. The most stunning thing I’ve seen so far is just some beautiful thunderstorms from above. It’s really interesting to watch the way the lightning jumps from cloud to cloud far below us.”

A view from the new Cupola, with all the window shutters open. Credit: NASA

“Getting to look out the shuttle windows and the station windows has been awesome,” added pilot Terry Virts. “But when we looked out the cupola, it’s impossible to put into words, but it took my breath away. We’ve only had a few opportunities to go down there because we have been busy inside doing work, but I think the favorite view that I’ve had has been watching a sunrise.

“At night, you can see cities if you’re over land and then when you pass into the sunlight you get the blue limb (of Earth) and then it turns into pink and different colors like that and then when the sun pops up, it’s like an instantaneous floodlight in your eyes, it kind of overwhelms you. But the view is amazing. You can sit there and perceive the entire Earth limb and you can really see the Earth has that round shape. It’s just amazing.”

ISS Commander Jeff Williams agreed. “To be able to see the entire Earth in one glance and see the entire limb of the Earth all the way around and see the spherical shape of the Earth is going to be new to us. Obviously, we’ve seen a lot of those segments of that view before, but only one segment at a time through a narrower field of view,” he said. “We have taken a lot of photography up here, we will continue to do so. The cupola will offer us a very unique and new opportunity for photography in a new way, particularly with wide angle lenses, which we’re already playing with a little bit to try to be able to share that experience with folks on Earth.”

Spacewalker Bob Behnken said the view from the cupola was as good as or maybe better than the view from a being out on an EVA.

“The reason being you actually have time to look around through all the windows,” he said. “Usually during a spacewalk, there’s a fair amount of work to get done. There wasn’t a lot of time for the sightseeing you might like to do out of a window like cupola.

“The other thing the cupola affords you is the opportunity to share some of those views with other people. We’re really limited on the photography we can do during a spacewalk, but taking one of the HD cameras or some still photos inside the cupola is really going to allow us to share those beautiful sunrises and sunsets and Earth views in general with everyone on the ground.”

You can watch the entire ISS/STS-130 news conference below.

Help Wish Buzz Aldrin a Happy 80th Birthday

Aldrin turns 80 years old on January 20th, 2010. Happy birthday, Buzz! Image Credit:NASA” src=”http://www.universetoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/260985main_01_BuzzAldrinMoon_800-600-580×435.jpg” alt=”” width=”580″ height=”435″ />On January 20th, former astronaut Buzz Aldrin – who was the second man to walk on the Moon and has been a longtime advocate of space exploration – will turn 80 years old. Wouldn’t you like to send him some birthday wishes? Well, you can! The Planetary Society is collecting birthday wishes to be put on a “ginormous card” honoring his 80th trip around the Sun. Originally, the card was to be presented at a ceremony where Stephen Hawking would also receive the Planetary Society’s Cosmos Award, but Hawking has been advised by his doctors to refrain from flying to California for the event.

The birthday card, which already has birthday wishes from people around the world, will still be presented to Buzz Aldrin, so be sure to go wish him a happy birthday using this link.

Source: The Planetary Society blog

Hubble Repairman to Lead Space Telescope Science Institute

Self proclaimed “Hubble Hugger” and telescope repairman Dr. John Grunsfeld has been appointed Deputy Director of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, the organization that coordinates all the science done with HST. Grunsfeld’s new job starts today, January 4, 2010. “This is an incredibly exciting opportunity for me to work at a focal point of top astronomers at the leading edge of scientific inquiry. The team at STScI has a demonstrated record of meeting the high performance challenges of operating the Hubble Space Telescope, and preparing for the James Webb Space Telescope. I look forward to working with this excellent team as we continue to explore the mysteries of the universe.”

Grunsfeld is a veteran of five space flights, including three missions to service HST: STS-103 in Dec. 1999, STS-109 in March 2002, and STS-125 in May 2009. He has logged over 835 hours in space, including nearly 60 hours of Extravehicular Activity during eight space walks.

He succeeds Dr. Michael Hauser, who stepped down in October. STScI is the science operations center for NASA’s orbiting Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope planned to be launched in 2014.

Grunsfeld’s research has covered X-ray and gamma-ray astronomy, high-energy cosmic ray studies, and development of new detectors and instrumentation. Grunsfeld has conducted observations of the far-ultraviolet spectra of faint astronomical objects and the polarization of ultraviolet light coming from stars and distant galaxies.

“We are absolutely delighted that he has accepted the position,” said STScI Director, Dr. Matt Mountain. “John brings to us a wealth of expertise in the areas of space exploration concepts and technologies for use beyond low-earth orbit. He will be invaluable in our continued efforts to conduct world-class science with state-of-the-art observatories and instrumentation.

Source: HubbleSite, STSci


Astronauts, which are also known as cosmonauts, are trained to serve in space on spacecraft. The term is also often used for scientists and others who travel in space, but are not professional astronauts. NASA prefers to use the term spaceflight participant to distinguish astronauts from space tourists.

Traditionally, Russian astronauts have been referred to as cosmonauts. The terms astronaut and cosmonaut are considered synonymous. China, which has become a major space power in recent decades, uses the term taikonaut. And India, when it becomes the fourth nation to send astronauts to space (scheduled for 2022), they will be known as “vyomanauts“.

The first group of astronauts for NASA was selected in 1959. These first astronauts were selected from the military and most of them were test pilots. Throughout the years, both NASA and other governments’ space organizations have developed prerequisites for selecting astronauts. These requirements include height restrictions, education, and experience.

There are different requirements for different positions, which include commander, pilot, payload specialist, and mission specialist. The commander and pilot both must have pilot training and they must have 20/20 vision. They also undergo extensive astronaut training. The training involves experiencing weightlessness as well as time in planes and simulators for flying an actual Space Shuttle.

As of September 2009, there are 505 astronauts from 38 different countries who have reached space. The definition of reaching space is attaining at least 100 km or more in the atmosphere, although the U.S. only requires astronauts to reach 80 km. Only 24 people have actually traveled beyond a low Earth orbit, which is defined as extending to 2,000 km in altitude.

All of the Space Shuttle and space station missions were within a low Earth orbit. The missions to the moon and the suborbital Mercury Program flights were beyond low Earth orbits.

The first astronaut into space was the Russian Yuri Gagarin who went up on April 12, 1961 and orbited Earth. The youngest astronaut, or cosmonaut, to ever go up was Gherman Titov who flew in the Vostok 2. He was also a Russian and went up in space when he was only 25. The oldest astronaut to fly in space was John Glenn, a distinguished astronaut who had gone on many missions. His last flight was at 77.

Throughout the history of spaceflight, 18 astronauts have died on missions as of 2008. They were from various countries although America lost the most astronauts. Some of the most famous astronauts are Neil Armstrong, Alan Shepard, and James Lovell. Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the Moon while Alan Shepard was the first American in space. James Lovell was the commander on the Apollo 13 mission that almost ended in tragedy.

Universe Today has many articles on astronauts. Take a look:

You should also take a look at NASA’s Human Spaceflight page.

Astronomy Cast has several good episodes on the subject. Here’s Episode 127: The US Space Shuttle, Episode 349: Mercury 7 and How the US Picked the First Astronauts, Episode 450: Inflatable Habitabts, Episode 514: Planetary Protection Protocols, and Episode 515: Space Radiation.

Artificial Gravity

Have you ever noticed that astronauts float around in the space shuttle and in the International Space Station, while space travelers on television and in the movies keep their feet firmly on the ground. That’s because it would be very difficult (and expensive) to have your actors floating around in every scene. So science fiction writers invent some kind of artificial gravity technology, to keep everyone standing on the ground.

Of course, there’s no technology that will actually generate gravity in a spaceship. Gravity only comes from massive object, and there’s no way to cancel the acceleration of gravity. And so if you wanted to have a spacecraft that could generate enough artificial gravity to keep someone’s feet on the ground, the spaceship would need to have the mass of the Earth.

Floating in space is actually very hard on astronauts’ bodies. The lack of gravity softens their bones and causes their muscles to weaken. After any long trip into space, astronauts need several days and even weeks to recover from traveling in microgravity.

But there a couple of ways you could create artificial gravity in a spaceship. The force we feel from gravity is actually our acceleration towards a massive body. We’d keep falling, but the ground is pushing against us, so we stand on the ground. If you can provide an alternative form of acceleration, it would feel like gravity, and provide the same benefits of standing on the surface of a planet.

The first way would be through accelerating your spaceship. Imagine you wanted to fly your spaceship from Earth to Alpha Centauri. You could fire your rockets behind the spacecraft, accelerating at a smooth rate of 9.8 meters/second2. As long as the rocket continued accelerating, it would feel like you were standing on Earth. Once the rocket reached the halfway point of its journey, it would turn around and decelerate at the same rate, and once again, you would feel the force of gravity. Of course, it takes an enormous amount of fuel to accelerate and decelerate like this, so we can consider that pretty much impossible.

A second way to create acceleration is to fake it through with some kind of rotation. Imagine if your spaceship was built like a big donut, and you set it spinning. People standing on the inside hull would feel the force of gravity. That’s because the spinning causes a centrifugal force that wants to throw the astronauts out into space. But the spaceship’s hull is keeping them from flying away. This is another way to create artificial gravity.

There are no spacecraft that use any form of artificial gravity today, but if humans do more space exploration, we will likely see the rotational method used in the future.

We have written several articles about artificial gravity for Universe Today. Here’s an article about how mice might be used to test out artificial gravity, and here’s more information about future technologies that might use artificial gravity.

Here’s a podcast from Scientific American that talks about the effect of artificial gravity.

We have recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast that talks about science fiction technologies. Listen to it here: Episode 104 – Science Fiction at Dragon*Con

NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
Wise Geek

Have Humans Visited Mercury?

Have astronauts from Earth ever stepped foot on Mercury? No, Mercury has been visited by spacecraft from Earth, but no human has ever gone into orbit around Mercury, let alone stepped on the surface. Just what would it take to visit Mercury?

Humans attempting to visit Mercury would find a similar environment to the Moon. Mercury is airless, so they would need a spacesuit to protect themselves from the vacuum of space. However, the temperatures on Mercury are much greater. During the daytime, the surface of Mercury at the equator rises to 700 Kelvin (427 degrees C). Just for comparison, the surface of the Moon only rises to 390 Kelvin (117 degrees C) during the daytime. So you would need some kind of protection from the intense heat.

But then, nighttime on Mercury dips down to only 100 Kelvin (-173 degrees C) – that’s the same low temperatures you get on the Moon at night. So an astronaut’s spacesuit would need to be able to keep an astronaut warm when they’re in the shade.

The travel time to the Moon is only about 3 days. But the travel time to Mercury is much longer. That’s partly because Mercury is much further away – 10s of millions km. But spacecraft also need to take special trajectories so they can get into orbit around Mercury. All of the spacecraft that have visited Mercury have taken longer than a year to reach the planet. That would be a long, hot journey for astronauts.

Maybe some day in the future humans will visit Mercury, but it hasn’t happened yet.

We have written many stories about Mercury here on Universe Today. Here’s an article about a the discovery that Mercury’s core is liquid. And how Mercury is actually less like the Moon than previously believed.

Want more information on Mercury? Here’s a link to NASA’s MESSENGER Misson Page, and here’s NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide to Mercury.

We have also recorded a whole episode of Astronomy Cast that’s just about planet Mercury. Listen to it here, Episode 49: Mercury.

NASA Star Child: Mercury

NASA Astronaut Survey: No Launch Day Drinking


A NASA survey of astronauts and flight surgeons released on January 23, 2008 turned up no evidence of launch day drinking by flight crews, contradicting an earlier report by a health care panel that disclosed two instances of drunken astronauts. NASA surveyed 87 of all 98 astronauts as well as all 31 flight surgeons. None reported seeing a crew member heavily drinking alcohol on launch day, or within 12 hours of liftoff.

However, the anonymous survey did find one report of “perceived impairment” in an astronaut during the days preceding launch, which was later was traced to an interaction between prescription medication and alcohol. That astronaut was ultimately cleared for flight and launched into space.

“We really never understood from the beginning exactly what might have led to the comment in the health care report,” said Ellen Ochoa, deputy director of Johnson Space Center and a former shuttle astronaut. “We’ve tried to run it to ground. We haven’t uncovered anything. I don’t know of any issues associated with alcohol before flight.”

The healthcare report was conducted in mid-2007 in the wake of astronaut Lisa Nowak’s arrest. Nowak, who traveled from Houston to Florida to confront another woman about a romantic rivalry involving another astronaut, was arrested for attempted kidnapping and burglary with assault. She has yet to stand trial.

NASA established a panel of aerospace medicine experts, led by U.S. Air Force Col. Richard Bachmann, Jr., to look into astronaut mental health. The panel, citing unidentified sources, reported heavy drinking by two astronauts right before launches; one before a shuttle launch and another prior to the launch of a Russian Soyuz rocket. The panel reported that the flight surgeon’s concerns about the astronauts’ impairment were supposedly overruled by management, which created an atmosphere where both astronauts and flight surgeons were reluctant to report improper conduct.

In the new survey, however, conducted in August-December 2007, astronauts and flight surgeons indicated they were not afraid to raise concerns of flight safety, and they felt there is a healthy relationship between astronauts and doctors. But a small number of respondents acknowledged that some astronauts still feel they could lose out on a space assignment if they expressed concerns.

The astronaut survey was conducted and analyzed using both NASA specialists and external academic experts to ensure the study’s validity. “The response rate of the survey was 91 percent, a rate well above what you would normally expect in a survey,” Ochoa said. “That indicates the seriousness with which astronauts and flight surgeons approached this survey.”

The survey focused four areas: the relationship between astronauts and flight surgeons regarding openness of communication, level of trust, and understanding of safety responsibilities; concerns with raising and responding to issues of flight safety and/or crew suitability for flight; knowledge and implementation of policies and procedures detailing astronaut performance and crew assignment; and determining if there was personal knowledge of a US astronaut presenting a risk to flight safety due to alcohol use on launch day.

The 12-hour ban on drinking, which originally an “unwritten rule” is now standard policy. A new astronaut code of conduct is being written, as well.

Dr. Richard Williams, NASA’s chief health and medical officer said that NASA is in a better position today than it was a year ago to detect serious behavioral health problems facing astronauts, and to intervene before it’s too late.

Original News Source: NASA News Release