Throughout recorded history, humans have looked up at the night sky and witnessed the major astronomical events known as a “supernova.” The name, still used by astronomers, referred to the belief that these bursts of light in the “firmament” signaled the birth of a “new star.” With the birth of telescopes and modern astronomy, we have since learned that supernovae are what occur at the end of a star’s lifecycle. At this point, when a star has exhausted its hydrogen and helium fuel, it experiences gravitational collapse at its center.
This leads to a tremendous explosion that can be seen billions of light-years distant, releasing tremendous amounts of energy and blowing the star’s outer layers off. Thanks to an international team of astronomers led by the University of Southhampton, the most powerful cosmic explosion has been confirmed! The stellar explosion, AT2021lwx, took place about 8 billion light-years away in the constellation Vulpecula and was over ten times brighter than any supernova ever observed and 100 times brighter than all the stars in the Milky Way combined!
As evidenced by a recent Netflix movie, dangerous asteroids can come from anywhere. So there was an obvious weakness in our asteroid defense system when only one of the hemispheres was covered by telescopes that constantly scan the sky. That was the case until recently, with the expansion of the Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) system into the southern hemisphere.
A new study out this month suggests that Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids may be more peculiar than previously thought. The Trojan asteroids are rocky objects which orbit the Sun just ahead of and just behind the gas giant, in gravitational sweet spots known as Lagrange points. The swarm ahead of Jupiter, known as the L4 (Greek) group, is slightly larger than the L5 (Trojan) swarm behind, but until now, astronomers believed that there was otherwise little differentiation between the two swarms. The paper released this month appears to change that.
Cape Canaveral Air Force Station military forces partially reopened certain critical runways hours after Irma swept by the space coast to assist in emergency recovery operations.
“Kennedy Space Center will resume normal operations Saturday, Sept. 16,” NASA announced. “The “All Clear” has been given to reopen.”
NASA’s world famous Vehicle Assembly Building and the Space Coast launch pads are still standing – as seen in photos from myself and more from NASA.
“As you’ve all seen by now, the Center will be open for normal operations at midnight tonight, and we’ll be ready to get back into the full swing of things Monday morning,” KSC Center Director Bob Cabana said in a message to employees.
Hurricane Irma knocked out water and power to KSC, the Cape, the visitor complex and the barrier islands including Merritt Island which is home to America’s premier Spaceport.
Wind speeds at KSC “varied from 67-94 mph (59-82 knots) at the 54-foot level to 90-116 mph (79-101 knots) at the 458-foot level during the storm.”
“The storm did delay the next launches,” said Brig. Gen. Wayne R. Monteith, Commander, 45th Space Wing, at a media briefing.
“We think the next launch will be approximately the first week of October.”
However although there was damage to a numerous buildings, both the spacecraft and rockets are safe and sound.
“The spacecraft we have on station right now are healthy and are being monitored.”
“The seven rocket boosters [Atlas, Falcon, Delta IV Heavy] we have on the Cape rode out the storm just fine,” Montieth elaborated.
The base and the visitor complex both lacked potable water service used for drinking, food preparation and cleaning.
Multiple water pipes in the nearby community of Cocoa were severed. KSC, the Cape and the Visitor Center as well as the surrounding community were under a boil water restriction for several days.
“Full water service is now available and the center has received an all clear following several days of closure related to Hurricane Irma,” noted KSC officials.
Indeed over 87% of customers lost power in Brevard County – home to the Florida Space Coast. Over 2/3 of customers lost power throughout Florida- impacting over 16 million people.
A number of popular public launch viewing locations were also severely damaged or destroyed as I witnessed personally driving in Titusville around just hours after Irma fled north.
See my photos from Rotary River Front Park, Space View Park and others along Rt. 1 in Titusville – which had offered unimpeded, spectacular and beautiful views across the Indian Rover lagoon to the KSC and Cape Canaveral launch pads.
Piers, docks, walkways, parking areas, piping and more were ripped up, smashed, sunken and devastated with piles of metal, bricks, wood, trees, bushes, trash and more scattered about in sad and unrecognizable heaps.
From a distance of several miles, the iconic VAB and the launch pads themselves did not seem to suffer obvious destruction – see my photos herein.
As of today over 500,000 customers across Florida remain without power, including tens of thousands in central Florida.
Numerous traffic lights in Titusville, Cape Canaveral, Cocoa Beach and Melbourne and other Brevard County and central Florida cities and communities are still not functioning today – creating all sorts of road traffic hazards!
Damage assessment teams from NASA, ULA, SpaceX, the USAF and contractors are now carefully scrutinizing every aspect of the Space Coast launch pads and facilities to ensure successful liftoffs whenever they resume in a few weeks.
Virtually all traffic lights were not operating and businesses and gas stations were closed in the hours before and after Irma pummeled communities across the space coast and central Florida. There were very long lines at the first gas stations that did reopen on Monday and Tuesday.
KSC was closed and evacuated of all personnel during the storm, except for only a small ‘Ride-out’ team of roughly 130 or so KSC personnel based inside the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) inside the Launch Control Center. They remained on site to monitor spaceport facilities.
“I want to take this opportunity to thank—and commend—the Ride-out and Damage Assessment and Recovery Teams for the outstanding job they did watching over the Center in our absence and getting it ready for our return in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma,” Cabana added. “I also want to thank all of you for the outstanding job that you did in getting the Center ready for the hurricane. As a result of your efforts, the Center was well prepared for the storm.”
The Damage Assessment and Recovery Teams explained that “the industrial and Launch Complex 39 areas have been inspected and are safe for personnel to return to work. This includes the KSC Child Development Center and all administrative work areas.”
“All facility systems including communication, power, and air conditioning are functional.”
Montieth confirmed damage to many buildings.
“In an initial assessment of the Cape facilities, about 40 % of buildings we inspected so far have received some damage. So 107 of 216 buildings at the Cape inspected have already been identified with damage.
“Lots of roof and siding damage, Montieth explained on Sept. 13. “We haven’t inspected the beaches yet.
“We have water issues at the Cape. We need water for the chillers to cool the operational buildings.”
Luckily the damage from Irma was less than feared.
“Under Hurricane Matthew there was about $50 million worth of damage between us and our launch partners. We think it will be less this time for Irma but we have a lot more work to do,” noted Montieth.
“The storm wasn’t as bad as expected. You hope for the best and prepare for the worst and that’s what we did. We had a ride-out team on base in a secure facility. Irma traveling over land helped us out. But we still got hit here by over 90 MPH winds gusts and over 58 mph winds – which are hurricane category 1 winds.”
“We also got hit by what we believe are 3 probable small tornadoes that hit the base. That claim is up to the NWS.”
He noted that the X-37B was launched successfully last Friday by SpaceX and that ongoing hurricane preparations and evacuations went to full swing right afterward the morning blastoff.
Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite X-37B OTV-5 and NASA mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.
Besides Earth, Saturn may be the only other planet where you can order rings with a side of ravioli. Closeup photos taken by the Cassini probe of the the planet’s second-innermost moon, Pan, on March 7 reveal remarkable new details that have us grasping at food analogies in a feeble attempt to describe its unique appearance.
The two-part structure of the moon is immediately obvious: a core body with a thin, wavy ridge encircling its equator. How does such a bizarre object form in the first place? There’s good reason to believe that Pan was once part of a larger satellite that broke up near Saturn long ago. Much of the material flattened out to form Saturn’s rings while large shards like Pan and another ravioli lookalike, Atlas, orbited within or near the rings, sweeping up ring particles about their middles. Tellingly, the ridges are about as thick as the vertical distances each satellite travels in its orbit about the planet.
Today, Pan orbits within and clears the narrow Encke Gap in Saturn’s outer A-ring of debris. It also helps create and shape the narrow ringlets that appear in the gap It’s lookalike cousin Atlas orbits just outside the A-ring.
Moons embedded in rings can have profound effects on that material from clearing gaps to creating new temporary ringlets and raising vertical waves of material that rise above and below the ring plane. All these effects are produced by gravity, which gives even small objects like Pan dominion over surprisingly vast regions.
See that small pixel? That’s an entire moon you’re looking at! Peeking between the rings of Saturn is the tiny saucer-shaped moon Atlas, as viewed from the Cassini spacecraft. The image is pretty, but there’s also a scientific reason to watch the planet’s many moons while moving around the rings.
“Although the sunlight at Saturn’s distance is feeble compared to that at the Earth, objects cut off from the Sun within Saturn’s shadow cool off considerably,” NASA stated.
“Scientists study how the moons around Saturn cool and warm as they enter and leave Saturn’s shadow to better understand the physical properties of Saturn’s moons.”
And if you look at Atlas close-up, it looks a little like a flying saucer! The moon is only 20 miles (32 km) across, which is a bit shy of the length of a marathon. The Voyager 1 team spotted the moon in 1980 when the spacecraft zoomed through the system. You can learn more about Saturn’s moons here.
Cassini is still in excellent health (it arrived at Saturn in 2004, and has been in space since 1997), and scientists are eagerly getting ready for when Saturn gets to its summer solstice in 2017. Among the things being looked at is a hurricane at Saturn’s north pole.
What you see above is 32 minutes of something going wrong during each launch. While humanity has been launching things into space since the 1950s, you can see just how hard it is — over and over again. And when humans are riding aboard the rockets, the toll becomes more tragic.
According to the YouTube author of the video above, the vehicles shown include “V2, Vanguard TV3, Explorer S-1, Redstone 1, Titan I, Titan II, Titan IV, Atlas, Atlas-Centaur, N1, Delta, Delta III, Foton, Soyuz, Long March, Zenith, Space Shuttle Challenger, and more.”
Naturally, with each failure the engineers examine the systems and work to fix things for next time. A famous example is the Challenger shuttle explosion, which you can see about halfway through the video. There were multiple causes for the failure (human and technical), but one of them was an O-ring that failed in cold weather before the launch. NASA revised the launch rules and with contractors, made some changes to the booster rocket design, as a 2010 Air and Space Smithsonian article points out:
Freezing temperatures weakened an O-ring seal in a joint between two segments of the right booster. The weakness allowed hot gases to burn through the casing, causing the shuttle to break apart on ascent, which killed the seven-member crew. Two joints were redesigned with interlocking walls that had new bolts, pins, sensors, seals, and a third O-ring.
Still, launching is a risky business. That’s why it’s so important that engineers try to catch problems before they happen, and that as soon as a problem is seen, it’s fixed.
While most eyes on Earth have been focused on the Red Planet and the eventful landing of the Curiosity Rover, other missions throughout the Solar System are delivering stunning vistas as well, such as this image from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft of tiny moon Atlas as it shines just above Saturn’s rings.
Can you find it?
Atlas, just 30 kilometers (or 19 miles) across, sits just above the ring plane in this image taken by Cassini’s narrow-angle camera on April 16, 2012 at a distance of 1.4 million kilometers (870,000 miles). At this distance, Atlas appears as a small white dot. Atlas orbits Saturn between the main rings and the thin F ring.
Cassini arrived at Saturn in 2004 and is now in its second extended mission called Cassini Solstice Mission. For the past two years, Cassini cruised in an equatorial orbit flying close over several moons including Titan and studying the planet’s iconic rings. Over the next three years, Cassini will hurtle high above the poles, sending the probe through the ring plane many times.
John Williams is a science writer and owner of TerraZoom, a Colorado-based web development shop specializing in web mapping and online image zooms. He also writes the award-winning blog, StarryCritters, an interactive site devoted to looking at images from NASA’s Great Observatories and other sources in a different way. A former contributing editor for Final Frontier, his work has appeared in the Planetary Society Blog, Air & Space Smithsonian, Astronomy, Earth, MX Developer’s Journal, The Kansas City Star and many other newspapers and magazines.
Oh, wow — what a gorgeous image! Just the latest from our resident artist in space, the Cassini spacecraft. Rhea, saturn’s second largest moon sits in front of the rings, joined by two smaller moons in the background. Rhea (1528 kilometers, 949 miles across) is in the center foreground. Janus (179 kilometers, 111 miles across) can be seen beyond the rings on the right of the image. Prometheus (86 kilometers, 53 miles across) is visible orbiting between the main rings and the thin F ring on the left of the image. Lit terrain seen on Rhea is on the area between that moon’s trailing hemisphere and anti-Saturn side. This view looks toward the northern, sunlit side of the rings from just above the ringplane.
If you like contrast images, there’s a great one below.
This image is a beautiful contrast between dark and light. Atlas can be seen just above the center of this Cassini spacecraft image as the moon orbits in the Roche Division between Saturn’s A ring and thin F ring.