NASA Releases Spellbinding Images Of Earth At Night

NASA strives to explore space and to expand our understanding of our Solar System and beyond. But they also turn their keen eyes on Earth in an effort to understand how our planet is doing. Now, they’re releasing a new composite image of Earth at night, the first one since 2012.

We’ve grown accustomed to seeing these types of images in our social media feeds, especially night-time views of Earth from the International Space Station. But this new image is much more than that. It’s part of a whole project that will allow scientists—and the rest of us—to study Earth at night in unprecedented detail.

Night-time views of Earth have been around for 25 years or so, usually produced several years apart. Comparing those images shows clearly how humans are changing the face of the planet. Scientists have been refining the imaging over the years, producing better and more detailed images.

The team behind this is led by Miguel Román of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. They’ve been analyzing data and working on new software and algorithms to improve the quality, clarity, and availability of the images.

This new work stems from a collaboration between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA. In 2011, NASA and NOAA launched a satellite called the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) satellite. The key instrument on that satellite is the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS), a 275 kg piece of equipment that is a big step forward in Earth observation.

VIIRS detects photons of light in 22 different wavelengths. It’s the first satellite instrument to make quantitative measurements of light emissions and reflections, which allows researchers to distinguish the intensity, types and the sources of night lights over several years.

Composite image of Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern U.S. at night, 2016. Credits: NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Suomi NPP VIIRS data from Miguel Román, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
Composite image of Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern U.S. at night, 2016.
Credits: NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Suomi NPP VIIRS data from Miguel Román, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Producing these types of maps is challenging. The raw data from SUOMI NPP and its VIIRS instrument has to be skillfully manipulated to get these images. The main challenge is the Moon itself.

As the Moon goes through its different phases, the amount of light hitting Earth is constantly changing. Those changes are predictable, but they still have to be accounted for. Other factors have to be managed as well, like seasonal vegetation, clouds, aerosols, and snow and ice cover. Other changes in the atmosphere, though faint, also affect the outcome. Phenomenon like auroras change the way that light is observed in different parts of the world.

The newly released maps were made from data throughout the year, and the team developed algorithms and code that picked the clearest night views each month, ultimately combining moonlight-free and moonlight-corrected data.

A glittering night-time map of Europe. Looks like there's a Kraftwerk concert happening in Dusseldorf! NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Suomi NPP VIIRS data from Miguel Román, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
A glittering night-time map of Europe. Looks like there’s a Kraftwerk concert happening in Dusseldorf! NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Suomi NPP VIIRS data from Miguel Román, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

The SUOMI NPP satellite is in a polar orbit, and it observes the planet in vertical swaths that are about 3,000 km wide. With its VIIRS instrument, it images almost every location on the surface of the Earth, every day. VIIRS low-light sensor has six times better spatial resolution for distinguishing night lights, and 250 times better resolution overall than previous satellites.

What do all those numbers mean? The team hopes that their new techniques, combined with the power of VIIRS, will create images with extraordinary resolution: the ability to distinguish a single highway lamp, or fishing boat, anywhere on the surface of Earth.

Composite image of Nile River and surrounding region at night, 2016. Credits: NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Suomi NPP VIIRS data from Miguel Román, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
Composite image of Nile River and surrounding region at night, 2016.
Credits: NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Suomi NPP VIIRS data from Miguel Román, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Beyond thought-provoking eye-candy for the rest of us, these images of night-time Earth have practical benefits to researchers and planners.

“Thanks to VIIRS, we can now monitor short-term changes caused by disturbances in power delivery, such as conflict, storms, earthquakes and brownouts,” said Román. “We can monitor cyclical changes driven by reoccurring human activities such as holiday lighting and seasonal migrations. We can also monitor gradual changes driven by urbanization, out-migration, economic changes, and electrification. The fact that we can track all these different aspects at the heart of what defines a city is simply mind-boggling.”

These three composite images provide full-hemisphere views of Earth at night. The clouds and sun glint — added here for aesthetic effect — are derived from MODIS instrument land surface and cloud cover products. Credits: NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Suomi NPP VIIRS data from Miguel Román, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
These three composite images provide full-hemisphere views of Earth at night. The clouds and sun glint — added here for aesthetic effect — are derived from MODIS instrument land surface and cloud cover products.
Credits: NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Suomi NPP VIIRS data from Miguel Román, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

These maps of night-time Earth are a powerful tool. But the newest development will be a game-changer: Román and his team aim to provide daily, high-definition views of Earth at night. Daily updates will allow real-time tracking of changes on Earth’s surface in a way never before possible.

Maybe the best thing about these upcoming daily night-time light maps is that they will be publicly available. The SUOMI NPP satellite is not military and its data is not classified in any way. They hope to have these daily images available later this year. Once the new daily light-maps of Earth are available, it’ll be another powerful tool in the hands of researchers and planners, and the rest of us.

These maps will join other endeavours like NASA-EOSDIS Worldview. Worldview is a fascinating, easy-to-use data tool that anyone can access. It allows users to look at satellite images of the Earth with user-selected layers for things like dust, smoke, draught, fires, and storms. It’s a powerful tool that can change how you understand the world.

Astronauts Capture Great Views of Mount Etna Eruption

Mount Etna is Europe’s most active volcano, and it’s been spouting off since late February 2017. It spewed lava and gas with a rather big eruption last week, where 10 people were actually injured. The Expedition 50 crew on board the International Space Station have been able to capture both day and nighttime views of the activity from orbit.

The stunning view, above, was taken on March 17, 2017. The original photo, which you can see on NASA’s Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth website is actually a bit hard to make out. But space enthusiast Riccardo Rossi from Modena, Italy enhanced the original with color correction and increased the contrast with Photoshop. You can see the full version of Rossi’s enhancements on Flickr. .

ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet took the image below on March 19, and shared it on Twitter, writing, “Mount Etna, in Sicily. The volcano is currently erupting and the molten lava is visible from space, at night! (the red lines on the left).”

A nighttime view from orbit of Mount Etna, erupting on March 19, 2017, taken by ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet. The red streaks on the lower left are molten lava. See detail below. Credit: NASA/ESA.

This crop shows the glowing lava:

A crop of the above image, showing detail of the glowing lava at night from Mount Etna’s recent activity. Credit: NASA/ESA.

Mount Etna towers above the city of Catania on the island of Sicily. Scientists estimate it has been active for about 500,000 years. The first recorded eruption dates back to 1500 B.C., and it has erupted over 200 times since then.

NASA’s Suomi NPP satellite also spotted nighttime activity from orbit. The image was acquired by the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS), using its “day-night band,” which detects light in a range of wavelengths and uses filtering techniques to observe signals such as gas flares, city lights, and reflected moonlight. In this image, it detected the nighttime glow of molten lava.

A view of Sicily and Mount Etna during the dark morning hours of March 16, 2017, taken by the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite. Credit: NASA.

Further reading:
NASA Image of the Day
NASA Earth Observatory

CYGNSS Constellation of Hurricane Monitoring MicroSats Set for Dec. 12 Launch – Watch Live

Artist's concept of the deployment of the eight Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) microsatellite observatories in space.  Credits: NASA
Artist’s concept of the deployment of the eight Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) microsatellite observatories in space. Credits: NASA

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – An exciting new chapter in hurricane monitoring and forecasting intensity prediction is due to open Monday morning at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center when a new constellation of microsatellites dubbed CYGNSS are slated to be deployed from an air-launched Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket.

The fleet of eight identical spacecraft comprising the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) system will be delivered to Earth orbit by an Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket.

The Pegasus/CYGNSS vehicle is attached to the bottom of the Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer carrier aircraft.

“The CYGNSS constellation consists of eight microsatellite observatories that will measure surface winds in and near a hurricane’s inner core, including regions beneath the eyewall and intense inner rainbands that previously could not be measured from space,” according to a NASA factsheet.

The data obtained by studying the inner core of tropical cyclones “will help scientists and meteorologists better understand and predict the path of a hurricane.”

Improved hurricane forecasts can help protect lives and mitigate property damage in coastal areas under threat from hurricanes and cyclones.

The Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Attached beneath the Stargazer is the Orbital ATK Pegasus XL with NASA's CYGNSS payload on board, being processed for launch on Dec. 12, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Attached beneath the Stargazer is the Orbital ATK Pegasus XL with NASA’s CYGNSS payload on board, being processed for launch on Dec. 12, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CYGNSS is an experimental mission to demonstrate proof-of-concept that could eventually turn operational in a future follow-up mission if the resulting data returns turn out as well as the researchers hope.

The Pegasus XL rocket with the eight observatories are tucked inside the nose cone will be air-launched by dropping them from the belly of Orbital’s modified L-1011 carrier aircraft, nicknamed Stargazer, after taking off from the “Skid Strip” runway at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

If all goes well, the rocket will be dropped from Stargazer’s belly for the launch currently planned for Monday, Dec. 12 at 8:24 a.m. EST.

Five seconds after the rocket is deployed at 39,000 feet, the solid fueled Pegasus XL first stage engine with ignite for the trip to low earth orbit.

They will be deployed from a dispenser at an altitude of about 510 km and an inclination of 35 degrees above the equator.

Technician works on Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket with NASA's CYGNSS payload on board on Dec. 10, 2016 in this rear side view showing the first stage engine. They are mated to the bottom of the Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.  Launch is slated for Dec. 12, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Technician works on Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket with NASA’s CYGNSS payload on board on Dec. 10, 2016 in this rear side view showing the first stage engine. They are mated to the bottom of the Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Launch is slated for Dec. 12, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The launch window lasts 1 hour with the actual deployment timed to occur 5 minutes into the window.

NASA’s Pegasus/CYGNUS launch coverage and commentary will be carried live on NASA TV – beginning at 6:45 a.m. EDT

You can watch the launch live on NASA TV at – http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv

Live countdown coverage on NASA’s Launch Blog begins at 6:30 a.m. Dec. 12.

The weather forecast from the Air Force’s 45th Weather Squadron at Cape Canaveral is currently predicting a 40% chance of favorable conditions on Monday Dec 12.

The primary weather concerns are for flight through precipitation and cumulus clouds.

The Pegasus rocket cannot fly through rain or clouds due to a negative impact on the thermal protection system.

In the event of a delay, the range is also reserved for Tuesday, Dec. 13 where the daily outlook increases significantly to an 80% chance of favorable weather conditions.

After Stargazer takes off from the Skid Strip early Monday morning around 6:30 a.m. EST, it will fly north to a designated point about 126 miles east of Daytona Beach, Florida over the Atlantic Ocean. The crew can search for a favorable launch point if needed.

The rocket will be dropped for a short freefall of about 5 seconds. It launches horizontally in midair with ignition of the first stage engine burn, and then tilts up to space to begin the trek to LEO.

The $157 million CYGNSS constellation works in coordination with the Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite constellation.

The eight satellite CYGNSS fleet “will team up with the Global Positioning System (GPS) constellation to measure wind speeds over Earth’s oceans and air-sea interactions, information expected to help scientists better understand tropical cyclones, ultimately leading to improved hurricane intensity forecasts.”

They will receive direct and reflected signals from GPS satellites.

“The direct signals pinpoint CYGNSS observatory positions, while the reflected signals respond to ocean surface roughness, from which wind speed is retrieved.”

“Forecasting capabilities are going to be greatly increased,” NASA Launch Manager Tim Dunn said at the prelaunch media briefing at the Kennedy Space Center on Dec. 10. “As a Floridian, I will really appreciate that, certainly based on what we had to do this fall with Hurricane Matthew.”

Indeed the CYGNSS launch was delayed by Hurricane Matthew, just like the NASA/NOAA GOES-R launch was also delayed from early to mid-November by the deadly Cat 4 storm.

The nominal mission lifetime for CYGNSS is two years but the team says they could potentially last as long as five years or more if the spacecraft continue functioning.

Pegasus launches from the Florida Space Coast are infrequent. The last once took place over 13 years ago.

Typically they take place from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California or the Reagan Test Range on the Kwajalein Atoll.

CYGNSS counts as the 20th Pegasus mission for NASA.

Flight deck of the Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft that will launch the Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket carrying NASA's CYGNSS payload to low Earth orbit.  Credit: Julian Leek
Flight deck of the Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft that will launch the Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket carrying NASA’s CYGNSS payload to low Earth orbit. Credit: Julian Leek

The CYGNSS spacecraft were built by Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas. Each one weighs approx 29 kg. The deployed solar panels measure 1.65 meters in length.

The Space Physics Research Laboratory at the University of Michigan College of Engineering in Ann Arbor leads overall mission execution in partnership with the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.

The Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering Department at the University of Michigan leads the science investigation, and the Earth Science Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate oversees the mission.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

An Orbital ATK technician checks the installation of two of the eight the CYGNSS microsatellites on their deployment module at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.  Credits: Photo credit: USAF
An Orbital ATK technician checks the installation of two of the eight the CYGNSS microsatellites on their deployment module at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Credits: Photo credit: USAF
Flight crew for the Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida who will drop and deploy Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket delivering NASA’s CYGUS micro satellites to LEO. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Flight crew for the Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida who will drop and deploy Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket delivering NASA’s CYGUS micro satellites to LEO. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Sentinel-1 Satellites Confirm San Francisco’s Millenium Tower Is Sinking

The Millennium Tower is a luxury skyscraper in San Francisco. It has been sinking and tilting since it’s construction 8 years ago. In fact, the 58 story building has sunk 8 inches, and tilted at least 2 inches. San Francisco is experiencing a building boom, and planners and politicians want to know why the Millennium Tower is having these problems.

Now they’re getting a little help from space.

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Copernicus Sentinel-1 satellites have trained their radar on San Francisco. They’ve found that the Millennium Tower is sinking, or subsiding, at the alarming rate of almost 50 mm per year. Although the exact cause is not yet known for sure, it’s suspected that the building’s supporting piles are not resting on solid bedrock.

An artist's illustration of the Sentinel-1. Image: ESA/ATG Medialab
An artist’s illustration of the Sentinel-1. Image: ESA/ATG Medialab

The Sentinel-1 satellites are part of the ESA’s Copernicus Program. There are two of the satellites in operation, and two more are on the way. They employ Synthetic Aperture Radar to provide continuous imagery during the day, during the night, and through any kind of weather.

The satellites have several applications:

  • Monitoring sea ice in the arctic
  • Monitoring the arctic environment and other marine environments
  • Monitoring land surface motion
  • Mapping land surfaces, including forest, water, and soil
  • Mapping in support of humanitarian aid in crisis situations

Though the Sentinels were not specifically designed to monitor buildings, they’re actually pretty good at it. Buildings like the Millennium Tower are especially good at reflecting radar. When multiple passes are made with the satellites, they provide a very accurate measurement of ground subsidence.

Radar data from Sentinel-1 shows the displacement in San Francisco's Bay Area. Yellow-red areas are sinking, while blue areas are rising. Green areas are not moving. Image: ESA SEOM INSARAP study / PPO.labs / Norut / NGU
Radar data from Sentinel-1 shows the displacement in San Francisco’s Bay Area. Yellow-red areas are sinking, while blue areas are rising. Green areas are not moving. Image: ESA SEOM INSARAP study / PPO.labs / Norut / NGU

The Millennium Tower is not the only thing in San Francisco Bay Area that Sentinel-1 can see moving. It’s also spotted movement in buildings along the Hayward Fault, an area prone to earthquakes, and the sinking of reclaimed land in San Rafael Bay. It’s also spotted some rising land near the city of Pleasanton. The recent replenishing of groundwater is thought to be the cause of the rising land.

Now other parts of the world, especially in Europe, are poised to benefit from Sentinel-1’s newfound prowess at reading the ground. In Oslo, Norway, the train station is built on reclaimed land. Newer buildings have proper foundations right on solid bedrock, but the older parts of the station are experiencing severe subsidence.

Sentinel-1 data shows that the Oslo train station, the red/yellow area in the center of the image, is sinking at the rate of 12-18mm per year. Image:  Copernicus Sentinel data (2014–16) / ESA SEOM INSARAP study / InSAR Norway project / NGU / Norut / PPO.labs
Sentinel-1 data shows that the Oslo train station, the red/yellow area in the center of the image, is sinking at the rate of 12-18mm per year. Image: Copernicus Sentinel data (2014–16) / ESA SEOM INSARAP study / InSAR Norway project / NGU / Norut / PPO.labs

John Dehls is from the Geological Survey of Norway. He had this to say about Sentinel: “Experience and knowledge gained within the ESA’s Scientific Exploitation of Operational Missions programme give us strong confidence that Sentinel-1 will be a highly versatile and reliable platform for operational deformation monitoring in Norway, and worldwide.”

As for the Millennium Tower in San Francisco, the problems continue. The developer of the building is blaming the problems on the construction of a new transit center for the city. But the agency in charge of that, the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, denies that they are at fault. They blame the developer’s poor structural design, saying that it’s not properly built on bedrock.

Now, the whole thing is before the courts. A $500 million class-action lawsuit has been filed on behalf of the residents, against the developer, the transit authority, and other parties.

It’s a good bet that data from the Sentinel satellites will be part of the evidence in that lawsuit.

‘Global Warming Hiatus’ Not Good News For Planet Earth

A reprieve from Global Warming? A hiatus? That would be nice, wouldn’t it? But in this case, a hiatus is not quite what it seems.

Everybody knows that global warming is partly caused by human activities, largely our use of fossil fuels. We understand how it works and we fear for the future. But there’s been a slowdown in the global mean surface temperature increase between 1998 to 2013. We haven’t lowered our emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) significantly during that time, so what happened?

Fossil fuels: we just can't get enough of them. Image: a petrochemical refinery in Scotland. Credit: User:John from wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2459867
Fossil fuels: we just can’t get enough of them. Image: a petrochemical refinery in Scotland. Credit: User:John from wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2459867

A new multi-institutional study involving NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Institute, and others, concludes that Earth’s oceans have absorbed the heat. So instead of the global mean surface temperature rising at a steady rate, the oceans have taken on the job as global heat sink. But what’s the significance of this?

“The hiatus period gives scientists an opportunity to understand uncertainties in how climate systems are measured, as well as to fill in the gap in what scientists know.” -Xiao-Hai Yan, University of Delaware, Newark

In terms of the on-going rise in the temperature of the globe, the hiatus is not that significant. But in terms of the science of global warming, and how well we understand it, the hiatus gives scientists an opportunity.

The new paper, titled “The Global Warming Hiatus: Slowdown or Redistribution?” grew out of the U.S. Climate Variability and Predictability Program (CLIVAR) panel session at the 2015 American Geophysical Union fall meeting. From those discussions, scientists reached consensus on three key points:

  • From 1998 to 2013, the rate of global mean surface warming slowed, which some call the “global warming hiatus.”
  • Natural variability plays a large role in the rate of global mean surface warming on decadal time scales.
  • Improved understanding of how the ocean distributes and redistributes heat will help the scientific community better monitor Earth’s energy budget. Earth’s energy budget is a complex calculation of how much energy enters our climate system from the sun and what happens to it: how much is stored by the land, ocean or atmosphere.
This graph shows the yearly global ocean heat content. The dashed line shows the 1958-65 average. Image: Balmaseda et al., 2013
This graph shows the yearly global ocean heat content. The dashed line shows the 1958-65 average. Image: Balmaseda et al., 2013

The paper is a reminder that climate science is complex, and that the oceans play a big part in global warming. As Yan says, “To better monitor Earth’s energy budget and its consequences, the ocean is most important to consider because the amount of heat it can store is extremely large when compared to the land or atmospheric capacity.”

“…”arguably, ocean heat content — from the surface to the seafloor — might be a more appropriate measure of how much our planet is warming.” – from the paper “The Global Warming Hiatus: Slowdown or Redistribution?”

The team behind this new research suggests that saying there’s been a hiatus in global warming is confusing. They suggest “global warming hiatus” be replaced with “global surface warming slowdown.”

There’s a danger in calling it a “global warming hiatus.” Those opposed to climate change and who think it’s a hoax can use that term to discredit climate science. They’ll claim that the “hiatus” shows we don’t understand climate change and the Earth may have stopped warming. But in any case, it’s the long-term trend—change over the course of a century or more—that defines “global warming,” not the change from year to year or even decade to decade.

There’s much more to learn about the oceans’ role in global warming. Research shows that some ocean areas absorb heat much faster than others. But whatever the fine detail of it is, there is broad agreement in the scientific community that the global surface warming slowdown was caused by an increased uptake of heat energy by the world’s oceans.

A screenshot from the "NASA's Eyes" app. The app allows anyone to check Earth's vital signs. Image: NASA/JPL
A screenshot from the “NASA’s Eyes” app. The app allows anyone to check Earth’s vital signs. Image: NASA/JPL

NASA uses a lot of tools to monitor the Earth’s temperature. For an interesting look at the Earth’s vital signs, check out Nasa’s Eyes. This easy to use visualization tool lets you take a closer look at the Earth’s temperature, CO2 levels, soil moisture levels, sea levels, and other things.

North Korea Aims To Place Its Flag On The Moon

Space exploration was once considered the province of two superpowers, with only tertiary participation from other nations. But since the turn of the century, more and more nations are joining in. China and India, for example, have placed landers on the Moon, satellites around Mars, and are even working on a space station. And as if that weren’t enough, private industry is also making its presence felt, largely through SpaceX and Blue Origins‘ development of reusable rockets.

But in the latest announcement to come out of the world’s last Stalinist regime, it seems that North Korea also hopes to join the 100 mile-high club (the space race, not the other thing!) In a recent interview with the Associated Press, a North Korean official indicated that the country is busy working on a five year plan that will put more satellites into orbit by 2020, and mount a mission to the moon within 10 years time.

According to the official – Hyon Kwang Il, the director of the scientific research department of North Korea’s National Aerospace Development Administration – the 5-year plan is focused on the deployment of more Earth observations satellites, as well as what will be the country’s first geostationary communications satellite.

Visitors takes photos of an illuminated model of a globe at the Sci-Tech Complex in Pyongyang, North Korea. Credit: Kim Kwang Hyon/AP
Visitors takes photos of an illuminated model of a globe at the Sci-Tech Complex in Pyongyang, North Korea. Credit: Kim Kwang Hyon/AP

He further indicated that universities in North Korea are expanding their programs to train rocket scientists, with the ultimate purpose of mounting an unmanned Moon mission sometime in the 2020s. If this statement is to be believed, then this plan would constitute significant steps being taken by the isolated regime to establish a foothold in space.

As Hyon indicated in an interview with AP on July 28th, this will all be taking place despite the ongoing embargo and attempts to stifle North Korea’s technological ambitions:

“Even though the U.S. and its allies try to block our space development, our aerospace scientists will conquer space and definitely plant the flag of the DPRK on the moon… We are planning to develop the Earth observation satellites and to solve communications problems by developing geostationary satellites. All of this work will be the basis for the flight to the moon.”

Considering the announcements to come out of this isolated, totalitarian state in the past – i.e. having a cure for HIV, Ebola and cancer, finding a unicorn lair, and having invisible phones – you might be asking yourself, “how seriously should I take this?” The answer: with cautious skepticism. Granted, North Korea’s state-controlled media frequently releases propaganda statements that are so outlandish that they make us laugh out loud.

Still, this latest claim does not seem so farfetched. Already, North Korea has deployed two Earth observation satellites as part of its Kwangmyongsong program, which began in earnest in 1998. Back in February, the fifth satellite in this program (Kwangmyongsong-5) was successfully launched into orbit. And while this was only the second successful launch, it does show that country is developing a certain degree of competency when it comes to space technology.

Image released by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) of the rocket said to be carrying North Korea's Kwangmyongsong-4 satellite, Feb.7, 2016. Credit: AP
Image released by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) of the rocket said to be carrying North Korea’s Kwangmyongsong-4 satellite, Feb. 7, 2016. Credit: AP

The Unha rockets that were used to deliver the satellites into orbit are also considered to be capable. An expandable carrier rocket, the Unha relies on a delivery system that is similar to the Taepodong-2 long-range ballistic missile (which is a modified version of the Russian Scud). What’s more, recent satellite images of the Sohae Satellite Launching Station (located in the northeastern North Pyongan Province) has revealed that an enlarged launch tower is under construction.

This could be an indication that an enlarged version (Unha-X) might be under development, which is consistent with propaganda posters that are also advertising the new rocket. And this past Wednesday, the country test-fired what was believed to be a medium-range ballistic missile into the seas off Japan, which is the fourth reported weapons launch to take place in the past two weeks. Clearly, the regime is working to develop its rocket capabilities, which is essential to any space program.

Beyond that, the success other nations have had in recent years conducting unmanned mission to the Moon – like China’s Chang’e program –  could serve as an indication that the North Korean regime is entirely serious about planting a flag there as well. “Our country has started to accomplish our plan and we have started to gain a lot of successes,” said Hyon. “No matter what anyone thinks, our country will launch more satellites.”

Seriousness or not, whether or not North Korea can actually achieve their more ambitious goal of reaching the Moon in a decade remains to be seen. And it will only come with a whole lot of time, effort, and the country burning through another significant chunk of its GDP (as with its nuclear tests). In the meantime, we better get used to the idea of Low-Earth Orbit getting a bit more crowded!

And in the meantime, be sure to enjoy this video from the Onion, which presents what is only a semi-satirical take on the regime’s space plans:

Further Reading: Associated Press

The Moon Is A Real Attention Junkie

NASA's Deep Space Climate Observatory captured a series of images of the Moon passing in front of the Earth on July 5th. Image: NASA/NOAA

We’re accustomed to seeing stunning images of both the Moon and Earth floating in space. It’s the age we live in. But seeing them together is rare. Now, NASA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) has captured images of the Moon passing between itself and the Earth, in effect photo-bombing Earth.

The image was captured with the Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) camera on DISCOVR, and is the second time this has been captured. EPIC is a 4 megapixel camera on board DSCOVR, and DSCOVR is in orbit about 1.6 million km (1 million miles) from Earth, between the Earth and the Sun.

“For the second time in the life of DSCOVR, the moon moved between the spacecraft and Earth,” said Adam Szabo, DSCOVR project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Cool pictures of the Moon are a bonus, though, as DSCOVR’s primary mission is to monitor the solar wind in real time for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It does so while inhabiting the first LaGrange point between the Earth and the Sun, where the gravitational pull of the Sun and the Earth balance each other. To do so requires a complex orbit called a Lissajous orbit, a non-recurring orbit which takes DSCOVR from an ellipse to a circle and back.

DSCOVR occupies the LaGrange point 1 between the Earth and the Sun. Image: NOAA
DSCOVR occupies the LaGrange point 1 between the Earth and the Sun. Image: NOAA

DSCOVR has other important work to do. From its vantage point, DSCOVR keeps a constantly illuminated view of the surface of the Earth as it rotates. DSCOVR provides observations of cloud height, vegetation, ozone, and aerosols in the atmosphere. This is important scientific data in monitoring and understanding Earth’s climate.

DSCOVR is a partnership between NASA, NOAA and the U.S. Air Force. As mentioned above, its primary objective is maintaining the nation’s real-time solar wind monitoring capabilities, which are critical to the accuracy and lead time of space weather alerts and forecasts from NOAA. The DSCOVR website also has daily color pictures of the Earth, for all your eye-candy needs.

Check it out:

http://epic.gsfc.nasa.gov/

NASA Jason-3 Sea Level Rise Reconnaissance Satellite Successfully Blasts off on SpaceX Falcon 9; Hard Landing on Barge

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is seen as it launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base Space Launch Complex 4 East with the Jason-3 spacecraft onboard, , Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Jason-3, an international mission led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), will help continue U.S.-European satellite measurements of global ocean height changes. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is seen as it launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base Space Launch Complex 4 East with the Jason-3 spacecraft onboard, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Jason-3, an international mission led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), will help continue U.S.-European satellite measurements of global ocean height changes. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket successfully launched the NASA/NOAA/European Jason-3 sea level rise reconnaissance satellite a short while ago today, Sunday, Jan. 17, from Vandenberg Air Force Base into a polar orbit around the Earth.

The launch was a complete success with all first and second stage rocket firings and the Jason-3 deployment occurring precisely as planned and on time. Continue reading “NASA Jason-3 Sea Level Rise Reconnaissance Satellite Successfully Blasts off on SpaceX Falcon 9; Hard Landing on Barge”

SpaceX Trying Ambitious 2nd Rocket Recovery Landing in 4 Weeks

SpaceX is on course to move ahead with an ambitious spaceflight agenda, trying a 2nd rocket recovery landing of their Falcon 9 booster in barely 4 weeks time and upcoming this Sunday, Jan. 17, says Elon Musk, the billionaire founder and CEO of SpaceX.

Musk confirmed that SpaceX plans to launch and subsequently land the first stage of its next Falcon 9 rocket on a “droneship” at sea in the Pacific Ocean this weekend. Continue reading “SpaceX Trying Ambitious 2nd Rocket Recovery Landing in 4 Weeks”

Gorgeous Views of Earth from Space Ring in New Year 2016 From the Space Station and Beyond

Earth from GOES East

Happy New Year 2016 from the International Space Station (ISS) and Beyond!

Behold Earth ! Courtesy of our Human and Robotic emissaries to the High Frontier we can ring in the New Year by reveling in gorgeous new views of our beautiful Home Planet taken from the space station and beyond. Continue reading “Gorgeous Views of Earth from Space Ring in New Year 2016 From the Space Station and Beyond”