How Far Can You Travel?

In a previous article, I talked about how you can generate artificial gravity by accelerating at 9.8 meters per second squared. Do that and you pretty much hit the speed of light, then you decelerate at 1G and you’ve completed an epic journey while enjoying comfortable gravity on board at the same time. It’s a total win win.

What I didn’t mention how this acceleration messes up time for you and people who aren’t traveling with you. Here’s the good news. If you accelerate at that pace for years, you can travel across billions of light years within a human lifetime.

Here’s the bad news, while you might experience a few decades of travel, the rest of the Universe will experience billions of years. The Sun you left will have died out billions of years ago when you arrive at your destination.

Welcome to the mind bending implications of constantly accelerating relativistic spaceflight.

With many things in physics, we owe our understanding of relativistic travel to Einstein. Say it with me, “thanks Einstein.”

The effect of time dilation is negligible for common speeds, such as that of a car or even a jet plane, but it increases dramatically when one gets close to the speed of light.
The effect of time dilation is negligible for common speeds, such as that of a car or even a jet plane, but it increases dramatically when one gets close to the speed of light.

It works like this. The speed of light is always constant, no matter how fast you’re going. If I’m standing still and shine a flashlight, I see light speed away from me at 300,000 km/s. And if you’re traveling at 99% the speed of light and shine a flashlight, you’ll see light moving away at 300,000 km/s.

But from my perspective, standing still, you look as if you’re moving incredibly slowly. And from your nearly light-speed perspective, I also appear to be moving incredibly slowly – it’s all relative. Whatever it takes to make sure that light is always moving at, well, the speed of light.

This is time dilation, and you’re actually experiencing it all the time, when you drive in cars or fly in an airplane. The amount of time that elapses for you is different for other people depending on your velocity. That amount is so minute that you’ll never notice it, but if you’re traveling at close to the speed of light, the differences add up pretty quickly.

But it gets even more interesting than this. If you could somehow build a rocket capable of accelerating at 9.8 meters/second squared, and just went faster and faster, you’d hit the speed of light in about a year or so, but from your perspective, you could just keep on accelerating. And the longer you accelerate, the further you get, and the more time that the rest of the Universe experiences.

The really strange consequence, though, is that from your perspective, thanks to relativity, flight times are compressed.

I’m using the relativistic star ship calculator at convertalot.com. You should give it a try too.

Proxima Centauri. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA
Proxima Centauri. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA

For starters, let’s fly to the nearest star, 4.3 light-years away. I accelerate halfway at a nice comfortable 1G, then turn around and decelerate at 1G. It only felt like 3.5 years for me, but back on Earth, everyone experienced almost 6 years. At the fastest point, I was going about 95% the speed of light.

Let’s scale this up and travel to the center of the Milky Way, located about 28,000 light-years away. From my perspective, only 20 years have passed by. But back on Earth, 28,000 years have gone by. At the fastest point, I was going 99.9999998 the speed of light.

Let’s go further, how about to the Andromeda Galaxy, located 2.5 million light-years away. The trip only takes me 33 years to accelerate and decelerate, while Earth experienced 2.5 million years. See how this works?

The Andromeda Galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team
The Andromeda Galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team

I promised I’d blow your mind, and here it is. If you wanted to travel at a constant 1G acceleration and then deceleration to the very edge of the observable Universe. That’s a distance of 13.8 billion light-years away; you would only experience a total of 45 years. Of course, once you got there, you’d have a very different observable Universe, and billions of years of expansion and dark energy would have pushed the galaxies much further away from you.

Some galaxies will have fallen over the cosmic horizon, where no amount of time would ever let you reach them.

If you wanted to travel 100 trillion light years away, you could make the journey in 62 years. By the time you arrived, the Universe would be vastly different. Most of the stars would have died a long time ago, the Universe would be out of usable hydrogen. You would have have left a living thriving Universe trillions of years in the past. And you could never get back.

Our good friends over at Kurzgesagt  covered a very similar topic, discussing the limits of humanity’s exploration of the Universe. It’s wonderful and you should watch it right now.

Of course, creating a spacecraft capable of constant 1G acceleration requires energies we can’t even imagine, and will probably never acquire. And even if you did it, the Universe you enjoy would be a distant memory. So don’t get too excited about fast forwarding yourself trillions of years into the future.

What Is Air Resistance?

Space Travel

Here on Earth, we tend to take air resistance (aka. “drag”) for granted. We just assume that when we throw a ball, launch an aircraft, deorbit a spacecraft, or fire a bullet from a gun, that the act of it traveling through our atmosphere will naturally slow it down. But what is the reason for this? Just how is air able to slow an object down, whether it is in free-fall or in flight?

Because of our reliance on air travel, our enthusiasm for space exploration, and our love of sports and making things airborne (including ourselves), understanding air resistance is key to understanding physics, and an integral part of many scientific disciplines. As part of the subdiscipline known as fluid dynamics, it applies to fields of aerodynamics, hydrodynamics, astrophysics, and nuclear physics (to name a few).

Definition:

By definition, air resistance describes the forces that are in opposition to the relative motion of an object as it passes through the air. These drag forces act opposite to the oncoming flow velocity, thus slowing the object down. Unlike other resistance forces, drag depends directly on velocity, since it is the component of the net aerodynamic force acting opposite to the direction of the movement.

Another way to put it would be to say that air resistance is the result of collisions of the object’s leading surface with air molecules. It can therefore be said that the two most common factors that have a direct effect upon the amount of air resistance are the speed of the object and the cross-sectional area of the object. Ergo, both increased speeds and cross-sectional areas will result in an increased amount of air resistance.

This picture shows a bullet and the air flowing around it, giving visual representation to air resistance. Credits: Andrew Davidhazy/Rochester Institute of Technology
Picture showing a bullet and the air flowing around it, giving visual representation to air resistance. Credits: Andrew Davidhazy/Rochester Institute of Technology

In terms of aerodynamics and flight, drag refers to both the forces acting opposite of thrust, as well as the forces working perpendicular to it (i.e. lift). In astrodynamics, atmospheric drag is both a positive and a negative force depending on the situation. It is both a drain on fuel and efficiency during lift-off and a fuel savings when a spacecraft is returning to Earth from orbit.

Calculating Air Resistance:

Air resistance is usually calculated using the “drag equation”, which determines the force experienced by an object moving through a fluid or gas at relatively large velocity. This can be expressed mathematically as:

F_D\, =\, \tfrac12\, \rho\, v^2\, C_D\, A

In this equation, FD represents the drag force, p is the density of the fluid, v is the speed of the object relative to sound, A is the cross-section area, and CD is the the drag coefficient. The result is what is called “quadratic drag”. Once this is determined, calculating the amount of power needed to overcome the drag involves a similar process, which can be expressed mathematically as:

 P_d = \mathbf{F}_d \cdot \mathbf{v} = \tfrac12 \rho v^3 A C_d

Here, Pd is the power needed to overcome the force of drag, Fd is the drag force, v is the velocity, p is the density of the fluid, v is the speed of the object relative to sound, A is the cross-section area, and Cd is the the drag coefficient. As it shows, power needs are the cube of the velocity, so if it takes 10 horsepower to go 80 kph, it will take 80 horsepower to go 160 kph. In short, a doubling of speed requires an application of eight times the amount of power.

An F-22 Raptor reaching a velocity high enough to achieve a sonic boom. Credit: strangesounds.org
An F-22 Raptor reaching a velocity high enough to achieve a sonic boom. Credit: strangesounds.org

Types of Air Resistance:

There are three main types of drag in aerodynamics – Lift Induced, Parasitic, and Wave. Each affects an objects ability to stay aloft as well as the power and fuel needed to keep it there. Lift induced (or just induced) drag occurs as the result of the creation of lift on a three-dimensional lifting body (wing or fuselage). It has two primary components: vortex drag and lift-induced viscous drag.

The vortices derive from the turbulent mixing of air of varying pressure on the upper and lower surfaces of the body. These are needed to create lift. As the lift increases, so does the lift-induced drag. For an aircraft this means that as the angle of attack and the lift coefficient increase to the point of stall, so does the lift-induced drag.

By contrast, parasitic drag is caused by moving a solid object through a fluid. This type of drag is made up of multiple components, which includes “form drag” and “skin friction drag”. In aviation, induced drag tends to be greater at lower speeds because a high angle of attack is required to maintain lift, so as speed increases this drag becomes much less, but parasitic drag increases because the fluid is flowing faster around protruding objects increasing friction. The combined overall drag curve is minimal at some airspeeds and will be at or close to its optimal efficiency.

Space Shuttle Columbia launching on its maiden voyage on April 12th, 1981. Credit: NASA
Space Shuttle Columbia launching on its maiden voyage on April 12th, 1981. Credit: NASA

Wave drag (compressibility drag) is created by the presence of a body moving at high speed through a compressible fluid. In aerodynamics, wave drag consists of multiple components depending on the speed regime of the flight. In transonic flight – at speeds of Mach 0.5 or greater, but still less than Mach 1.0 (aka. speed of sound) – wave drag is the result of local supersonic flow.

Supersonic flow occurs on bodies traveling well below the speed of sound, as the local speed of air on a body increases when it accelerates over the body. In short, aircraft flying at transonic speeds often incur wave drag as a result. This increases as the speed of the aircraft nears the sound barrier of Mach 1.0, before becoming a supersonic object.

In supersonic flight, wave drag is the result of oblique shockwaves formed at the leading and trailing edges of the body. In highly supersonic flows bow waves will form instead. At supersonic speeds, wave drag is commonly separated into two components, supersonic lift-dependent wave drag and supersonic volume-dependent wave drag.

Understanding the role air frictions plays with flight, knowing its mechanics, and knowing the kinds of power needed to overcome it, are all crucial when it comes to aerospace and space exploration. Knowing all this will also be critical when it comes time to explore other planets in our Solar System, and in other star systems altogether!

We have written many articles about air resistance and flight here at Universe Today. Here’s an article on What Is Terminal Velocity?, How Do Planes Fly?, What is the Coefficient of Friction?, and What is the Force of Gravity?

If you’d like more information on NASA’s aircraft programs, check out the Beginner’s Guide to Aerodynamics, and here’s a link to the Drag Equation.

We’ve also recorded many related episodes of Astronomy Cast. Listen here, Episode 102: Gravity.

When Can I Die on Mars?


I don’t know about you, but I’d like to live forever. In a few decades, the Singularity will happen, and I’ll merge with the artificial super intelligence, transcend this meat-based existence and then explore the Hubble Sphere with the disembodied voice of Scarlett Johansson as my guide. See you on the other side, suckers.

Not Elon Musk, though. He thinks we should fear our benevolent computer overlords, and make our way to Mars, where we can live out the rest of our days growing potatoes, huddling in lava tubes, and fighting a guerilla war against a spiritually enlightened and lovable artificial lifeform that really only has our best interests at heart.

In case you have no idea who I’m talking about, Elon Musk is the CEO of the revolutionary rocket company SpaceX, as well as the Tesla electric car company.

Elon Musk. Credit: SpaceX
Elon Musk. Credit: SpaceX

It might sound crazy, but the whole reason Elon Musk started SpaceX was that he wanted to help humanity explore the Solar System. But in order to do that, he’d need inexpensive rocket launches. And since those didn’t exist yet, he started a rocket company to provide launches at a fraction of the cost of the existing launch providers.

At the time I’m recording this video, SpaceX has already had many successful launches. They’ve successfully landed rockets back at their landing pad, and on a floating barge  in the Atlantic Ocean. It really looks like Elon Musk’s plans are going to work, and we’re going to become a true spacefaring civilization.

Elon Musk recently revealed  the design for what he calls the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) – an upgraded version of his Mars Colonial Transporter (MCT). This ship, according to Musk, will ferry 100 passengers to Mars every 26 months (when the planets are closest), and says that tickets will cost $500,000 per person (at least initially).

Wow, 2024, huh? That’s pretty soon! I’m not sure if you realize how complicated and dangerous this mission will be. This guy is really serious.

An artist's illustration of the Falcon Heavy rocket. Image: SpaceX
An artist’s illustration of the Falcon Heavy rocket. Image: SpaceX

The plan involves using a scaled up version of SpaceX’s Falcon rocket, known as the Falcon Heavy, to test techniques for orbiting, descent, and landing on Mars. By bolting 3 Falcon boosters together, this new launch vehicle will be capable of blasting 54,000 kilograms into orbit, or 22,000 kilograms to geostationary orbit, or 13,900 kilograms to Mars.

It’ll even send 2,600 kilograms to Pluto, if that’s what you’re looking for. So far a Falcon Heavy hasn’t been tested yet, but they’re due to start flying by early 2017.

The spacecraft payload is known as the Red Dragon, an uncrewed version of the Dragon 2 which Musk plans to send to Mars in 2018. This is a specially modified version of the SpaceX Dragon capsule which has already successfully delivered cargo to the International Space Station.

Red Dragon will weigh 10 times more than NASA’s Curiosity Rover, and this is a big problem. Landing this much spacecraft on the surface on Mars is incredibly challenging. The atmosphere is just 1% the thickness of Earth’s, so it doesn’t provide any way to slow a spacecraft down from its interplanetary flight.

In the past, rocket engineers have had to develop these complicated landing systems with parachutes, airbags, and retrorockets. But there’s limit to how heavy a mass you can land this way. Curiosity pretty much tested that limit.

Artists concept for sending SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to land propulsively on Mars as early as 2018. Credit: SpaceX
Artists concept for sending SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to land propulsively on Mars as early as 2018. Credit: SpaceX

Red Dragon makes it simple. It’ll be equipped with 8 SuperDraco engines built into the capsule which will fire once it enters the atmosphere, and allow it to touch down gently on the surface of Mars. If this works, there’ll be no limit to the size of payloads SpaceX can deploy to the surface of Mars. In fact, once it gets Mars right, Red Dragon should be able to land softly on pretty much any object in the Solar System.

Elon Musk does seem serious about setting up a colony on Mars. Once this first Red Dragon land on the surface, they’ll send capsule after capsule during the perfect Mars launch window that opens up every 2 years or so.

Over time, a real colony’s worth of supplies will be gathered on the surface of Mars. SpaceX will have worked out all the tricks to safely sending spacecraft to the Red Planet, and it’ll be time to send actual colonists willing to live out the rest of their lives on Mars.

We’re still not entirely sure humans can survive long term on Mars. The lack of atmosphere will suffocate you, the unfiltered radiation will fill you with cancer, and the low gravity may melt your bones. Seriously, humanity has never tried living in such an extreme environment.

Musk is so serious about this plan to send humans to Mars, that he’s stated that he’ll never take SpaceX public. The company will remain private so that it’ll prioritize the goal of colonizing Mars over any kind of short sighted shareholder cash grab.

If everything goes well, the first Red Dragon will launch for Mars in 2018. And then more will go every 2 years after that. And at some point, humans will climb into a Red Dragon capsule and blast off to begin the first human colony on Mars.

So when can we die on Mars? Musk hasn’t given us a firm date yet, but if that first Red Dragon does launch in 2018, we won’t have to wait too much longer.

Can We Really Get to Alpha Centauri?

In a previous episode, I said that traveling within the Solar System is hard enough, traveling to another star system in our lifetime is downright impossible. Many of you said it was the most depressing episode I’ve ever done .

The distance to Pluto is, on average, about 40 astronomical units. That’s 40 times the distance from the Sun to the Earth. And New Horizons, the fastest spacecraft traveling in the Solar System took about 10 years to make the journey.

The distance to Alpha Centauri is about 277,000 astronomical units away (or 4.4 light-years). That’s about 7,000 times further than Pluto. New Horizons could make the journey, if you were willing to wait about 70,000 years. That’s about twice as long as you’d be willing to wait for Half Life 3.

But my video clearly made an impact on a plucky team of rocket scientists, entrepreneurs and physicists, who have no room in their personal dictionary for the word “impossible”. Challenge accepted, they said to themselves.

In early April, 2016, just 8 months after I said it was probably never going to happen, the billionaire Yuri Milner and famed physicist Stephen Hawking announced a strategy to send a spacecraft to another star within our lifetime. In your face Fraser, they said… in your face.

Project Starshot, an initiative sponsored by the Breakthrough Foundation, is intended to be humanity's first interstellar voyage. Credit: breakthroughinitiatives.org
Project Starshot, an initiative sponsored by the Breakthrough Foundation, is intended to be humanity’s first interstellar voyage. Credit: breakthroughinitiatives.org

The project will be called Breakthrough Starshot, and it’s led by Pete Worden, the former director of NASA’s AMES Research Center – the people working on a warp drive.

The team announced that they’re spending $100 million to investigate the technology it’ll take to send a spacecraft to Alpha Centauri, making the trip in just 20 years. And by doing so, they might just revolutionize the way spacecraft travel around our own Solar System.

So, what’s the plan? According to their announcement, the team is planning to create teeny tiny lightsail spacecraft, and accelerate them to 20% the speed of light using lasers. Yes, everything’s made better with lasers .

We’ve talked about solar sails in the past, but the gist is that photons of light can impart momentum when they bounce off something. It’s not very much, but if you add a tremendous amount of photons, the impact can be significant. And because those photons are going the speed of light, the maximum speed for the spacecraft, in theory, is just shy of the speed of light (thanks relativity).

You can get those photons from the Sun, but you can also get them from a directed laser beam, designed to fill the sails with photons, without actually melting the spacecraft.

In the past, engineers have talked about solar sails that might be thousands of kilometers across, made of gossamer sheets of reflective fabric. Got that massive, complicated sail in your mind?

Now think smaller. The Starshot spacecraft will measure just a few meters across, with a thickness of just a few atoms. The sail would then pull a microscopic payload of instruments. A tiny chip, capable of gathering data and transmitting information – these are called Starchips. Not even enough room for water bear crew quarters.

A phased laser array, perhaps in the high desert of Chile, propels sails on their journey. Credit: Breakthrough Initiatives.
A phased laser array, perhaps in the high desert of Chile, propels sails on their journey. Credit: Breakthrough Initiatives.

With such a low mass, a powerful laser should be able to accelerate them to 20% the speed of light, almost instantly, making a trip to Alpha Centauri only take about 20 years.

Since each Starshot might only cost a few dollars to make, the company could manufacture thousands and thousands, place them into orbit, and then start bugzapping them off to different stars.

There are, of course, some massive engineering hurdles to overcome.

The first is the density of the interstellar medium. Although it’s almost completely empty in between the stars, there are the occasional dust particles. Normally harmless, the Starshots would be smashing into them at 20% the speed of light, which would be catastrophic.

The second problem is that this is a one-way trip. Once it’s going 20% the speed of light, there’s no way to slow the spacecraft down again (unless the Alpha Centaurans have a braking system in place). Just imagine the motion blur and targeting problems when you’re trying to take photos at relativistic speeds.

The third problem, and this is a big one, is that the miniaturization of the spacecraft means that you can’t have a big transmitter. Communicating across the light years takes a LOT of power. Maybe they’ll connect up into some kind of array and share the power requirement, or use lasers to communicate back. Maybe they’ll relay the data back like a Voltron daisy chain.

Even though the idea of traveling to another star might seem overly ambitious today, this technology actually makes a lot of sense for exploration in our own Solar System. We could bugzap little spacecraft to Venus, Mars, the outer planets and their moons – even deep into the Kuiper Belt and the totally unexplored Oort cloud. We could have this whole Solar System on exploration lockdown in just a few decades.

Even if a mission to Alpha Centauri is currently science fiction, this miniaturization is going to be the way we learn more about the Solar System we live in. Let’s get going!

SpaceX Provides a Peek Inside Their New Crew Vehicle

SpaceX released new images today of the sleek interior of “Crew Dragon,” SpaceX’s spacecraft designed to carry humans to the International Space Station, and possibly other future destinations. If things go as hoped, the first commercial crew flights under the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program contract could take place in 2017.

UPDATE: SpaceX added a new video of the Crew Dragon in orbit, which you can see below, in addition to a video that provides views of the interior.

The futuristic interior is “designed to be an enjoyable ride,” says SpaceX. Four windows provide passengers with views of Earth, the Moon, and the wider Solar System right from their seats. The seats — which don’t look especially plush — are made from high-grade carbon fiber and Alcantara cloth.

SpaceX provided just snapshots of parts of the interior, and so its hard to get a feel for what the entire crew cabin will be like and how roomy it might be.

But with the white and black interior and the clean lines, the imagery is reminiscent of the interior of the spacecraft in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” See below for the non-HAL 9000 computer screen, and well as more images and a video scanning the interior:


Exterior of the Crew Dragon capsule. Credit: SpaceX.
Exterior of the Crew Dragon capsule. Credit: SpaceX.

NASA named four astronauts earlier this year who will fly on the first U.S. commercial spaceflights on either SpaceX or Boeing crew transportation vehicles. The agreement between NASA and the commercial companies is that at least one member of the two person crews for the initial flights will be a NASA astronaut – who will be “on board to verify the fully-integrated rocket and spacecraft system can launch, maneuver in orbit, and dock to the space station, as well as validate all systems perform as expected, and land safely,” according to a NASA statement.

The second crew member would likely be a company test pilot, but the details remain to be worked out.

There’s not been indication as of yet if the explosion of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo ship loaded with supplies for the International Space Station (ISS) on June 28, 2015 will have an impact on when the first crewed Dragon flights will take place. The explosion happened about 148 seconds after an initially successful launch. It was later determined an in-flight failure of a critical support strut inside the second stage liquid oxygen tank holding a high pressure helium tank in the Falcon 9 rocket was the likely cause of the accident.

Crew Dragon features an advanced emergency escape system to swiftly carry astronauts to safety if something were to go wrong. Credit: SpaceX.
Crew Dragon features an advanced emergency escape system to swiftly carry astronauts to safety if something were to go wrong. Credit: SpaceX.

SpaceX said the escape system provides a safe way to carry astronauts to safety if there is a problem and the crew would experience about the same G-forces as a ride at Disneyland.

Crew Dragon’s displays will provide real-time information on the state of the spacecraft’s capabilities – anything from Dragon’s position in space, to possible destinations, to the environment on board. Credit: SpaceX.
Crew Dragon’s displays will provide real-time information on the state of the spacecraft’s capabilities – anything from Dragon’s position in space, to possible destinations, to the environment on board. Credit: SpaceX.
Crew Dragon has an Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS) that provides a comfortable and safe environment for crew members. During their trip, astronauts on board can set the spacecraft’s interior temperature to between 65 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Credit: SpaceX.
Crew Dragon has an Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS) that provides a comfortable and safe environment for crew members. During their trip, astronauts on board can set the spacecraft’s interior temperature to between 65 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Credit: SpaceX.
Crew Dragon will be a fully autonomous spacecraft that can also be monitored & controlled by on board astronauts and SpaceX mission control in Hawthorne, California. Credit: SpaceX.
Crew Dragon will be a fully autonomous spacecraft that can also be monitored & controlled by on board astronauts and SpaceX mission control in Hawthorne, California. Credit: SpaceX.

Source: SpaceX

Who Was The First Man To Go Into Space?

Picture if you will two titanic powers struggling to see who will be the first to conquer space. Between them, they have the best scientists in the world, many of whom they “borrowed” from Germany after the Second World War. They are sparing no expense, and that includes the cost in lives, in order to be the first to get a human being into space.

Sound scary? Well, if you were an American astronaut or a Soviet cosmonaut in the 1960’s, it sure would be! But for men like Yuri Gagarin, the first man to go into man in space (and also the first man to orbit the Earth) the rewards would last a lifetime.

Early Life:

Like most heroes of the space age, Gagarin’s story began in his infancy. Born to Alexey Ivanovich Gagarin and Anna Timofeyevna Gagarina in the village of Klushino, Russia (Smolensky Oblast) on March 9th, 1934, Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin began his life on a collective farm and witnessed some terrible things in his early years.

In 1941, the village was occupied by the Nazis, and the Gagarin family was forced to relocate to a mud hut on their property as a German officer took possession of their house. His two older siblings were deported to Poland for slave labor in 1943, and did not return until after the war in 1945.

Gagarin pictured in a Yak-18 trainer plane. Credit: rian.ru
Gagarin pictured in a Yak-18 plane, while training to become a pilot with the Soviet Air Force. Credit: rian.ru

Another version of Gagarin’s biography suggests that the family relocated east of the Urals ahead of the Nazi advance, and returned to the region after the war. In either case, by 1946, the family moved to the nearby town of Gzhatsk, where Gagarin continued his secondary education.

At the age of 16, Gagarin entered into an apprenticeship as a foundryman at the Lyubertsy Steel Plant near Moscow, and also enrolled at a local “young workers” school for seventh grade evening classes. After graduating in 1951, he was selected for further training at the Saratov Industrial Technical School.

While there, Gagarin volunteered for weekend training as a Soviet air cadet at a local flying club, where he learned to fly biplanes and the Yak-18 trainer. He graduated from technical school in 1955, and was drafted into the Soviet Army.

Pilot:

In 1957, he was sent to the First Chkalov Air Force Pilot’s School in Orenburg, where he trained on Mig-15 jet fighters. While there, he met Valentina Ivanovna Goryacheva, a medical technician graduate of the Orenburg Medical School. The two were married on 7 November 1957, the same day Gagarin graduated from Orenburg.

launched into orbit on the Vostok 3KA-3 spacecraft (Vostok 1). Credit: space.com
Gagarin pictured inside the cockpit of the Vostok 3KA-3 spacecraft (Vostok 1) before being launched into orbit. Credit: Getty Images

By 1960, Gagarin had earned the rank of Senior Lieutenant and had come to the attention of the Soviet space program. After a rigorous selection process, he became one of 20 pilots selected to become a cosmonaut, and was further selected to be part of an elite training group known as the Sochi Six – from which the first cosmonauts of the Vostok program would be chosen.

Vostok Program:

Out of the twenty selected, Gagarin and fellow cosmonaut Gherman Titov were selected to be the first cosmonauts to go into space. This was due to a combination of factors, including their performance during training sessions, their height (since space was limited in the small Vostok cockpit), and by an anonymous vote by the members of the program.

Gagarin’s historic flight took place on April 12th, 1961, roughly one month before NASA was able to put a manned spacecraft of their own into space. His spaceship, the Vostok 1, weighing approximately 4700 kg (over 10,000 pounds), was quite primitive by modern standards. For starters, the craft wasn’t even piloted by Gagarin himself, mainly because the Russians had not yet tested the effects of weightlessness on any humans (only dogs!).

The actual flying was done by crews on the ground. It also had no maneuvering capabilities and consisted of a re-entry craft and service module. The cosmonaut was not even allowed to land in the re-entry craft because it was deemed too dangerous, and had to instead leave the craft and parachute to the ground.

Here the re-entry capsule of the Vostok 3KA-3 (also known as Vostok 1) spacecraft (Vostok 1) is seen with charring and its parachute on the ground after landing south west of Engels, in the Saratov region of southern Russia. Credit: space.com
The re-entry capsule of the Vostok 3KA-3 (Vostok 1) is seen with charring and its parachute on the ground after landing south west of Engels, in southern Russia. Credit: space.com

Gagarin’s flight began with his takeoff at the Baikonur Cosmodrome and ended with him parachuting safely to the ground in Kazakhstan one hour and forty-eight minutes later. During the flight, he was said to have been humming “The Motherland Hears, the Motherland Knows”, a patriotic song composed by Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich.

According to western sources at the time, Gagarin was also rumored to have said “I don’t see any God up here” during his flight. However, the transcripts contradict this story, which appears to have been a reference to a remark Khrushchev had made after the flight and was falsely attributed to Gagarin. What he is known to have said during the flight was: “The Earth is blue… How wonderful. It is amazing.”

Retirement and Death:

Gagarin gained worldwide fame and recognition after the flight, touring Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada and Japan before returning home to Star City to continue his work with the Russian space program. He was no longer allowed into active service given his celebrity status, the government fearing that they might lose their poster boy in an accident.

Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man to fly in space, as seen in 1968 before his death in a jet crash. Credit: RSC Energia
Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man to fly in space, as seen in 1968 before his death in a jet crash. Credit: RSC Energia

This would prove to be an ironic decision, considering that seven years later, he died in an accident during a training flight. This occurred on March 27th, 1968, when Gagarin’s plane crashed and he and his instructor were killed. For many years, the circumstances surrounding the accident remained shrouded in mystery, and were the subject of much speculation and rumor.

In 2013, the truth about his death was finally revealed when the report detailing the incident was declassified. In an article that appeared on Russia Today, former cosmonaut Aleksey Leonov shared the details of the report, which indicated that the crash was the result of an unauthorized Su-15 fighter flying too close to Gagarin’s MiG, thus disrupting its flight and sending it into a spin.

Legacy:

In Russia, and around the world, Gagarin has gone down in history as one of the greatest astronauts/cosmonauts of all time and one of the biggest contributors to human space flight. For his accomplishments, he has been immortalized by numerous countries, and in countless ways.

The statue of Yuri Gagarin, the first human to fly in space, looms over the town square in Karaganda, Kazakhstan March 9 as officials prepared to commemorate him on his 80th birthday. Credit: NASA
The statue of Yuri Gagarin, the first human to fly in space, looms over the town square in Karaganda, Kazakhstan March 9 as officials prepared to commemorate him on his 80th birthday. Credit: NASA

In addition to commemorative coins, a hockey cup named in his honor and several commemorative stamps, he was given the title of “Hero of the Soviet Union” – a privilege reserved only for a select few. Numerous statues have also been erected in his honor, such as the one that towers over the town square in Karaganda, Kazakhstan (shown above).

Since 1962, April 12th has been celebrated in the USSR, and later in Russia and other post-Soviet states, as the Cosmonautics Day, in honor of his historic flight. In 2011, it was declared the International Day of Human Space Flight by the United Nations. Since 2001, Yuri’s Night, an international celebration, is held every April 12th to commemorate milestones in space exploration.

The Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City was renamed the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in 1969, which was visited by Neil Armstrong during his tour of the Soviet Union.

The launch pad at Baikonur Cosmodrome from which Sputnik 1 and Vostok 1 were launched is now known as Gagarin’s Start. The village of Klushino where he was born was also renamed Gagarin in 1968 after his death, and his family’s house was converted into a museum.

Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, during his visit to France in 1963. Credit: Ria Novosti
Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, during his visit to France in 1963. Credit: Ria Novosti

But perhaps the most notable thing about Gagarin, for which he is remembered most fondly, is his smile. As Sergei Korolev – one of the masterminds behind the early Soviet space program – once said, Gagarin possessed a smile “that lit up the darkness of the cold war”.

We have written many articles about Yuri Gagarin for Universe Today. Here’s Yuri Gagarin and Vostok 1, on the 50th Anniversary of Human Spaceflight. And here’s Who was the First Woman to go into Space?, Alan Shepard: Complicated, Conflicted and the Consummate Astronaut, Sally Ride, First American Woman in Space, Passes Away, and Who was the First Dog to go into Space?

If you’d like more info on the Yuri Gagarin, check out the History of Human Spaceflight, and here’s a link to Yuri Gagarin, The First Man in Space.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about Space Capsules. Listen here, Episode 124: Space Capsules, Part 1: Vostok, Mercury and Gemini.

Sources:

New NASA Documentary Chronicles 50 Years of Spacewalks

Spacewalks have been described by astronauts as magical, amazing, and “holy moly!” This new 30-minute NASA documentary called “Suit Up!” celebrates 50 years of extravehicular activity (EVA) or spacewalks. 50 years ago this year, the first spacewalks were conducted by Russian Alexei Leonov in March 1965 and then American astronaut Edward White followed soon after in June 1965. The documentary features interviews with astronauts past and present, as well as other astronauts, engineers, technicians, managers from the history of spacewalks.

They share their personal stories and thoughts that cover the full EVA experience — from the early spacewalking experiences, to spacesuit manufacturing, to modern day spacewalks aboard the International Space Station as well as what the future holds for humans working on a tether in space.

“Suit Up,” is narrated by actor and fan of space exploration Jon Cryer.

For more info, NASA has a special page with images and more recollections. Also, here is a list of some of the most memorable spacewalks, and here are some 3-D views of humanity’s first spacewalk by Leonov.

What Are The Benefits Of Space Exploration?

Why explore space? It’s an expensive arena to play in, between the fuel costs and the technological challenge of operating in a hostile environment. For humans, a small mistake can quickly become fatal — something that we have seen several times in space history. And for NASA’s budget, there are projects that come in late and over budget, drawing the ire of Congress and the public.

These are some of the drawbacks. But for the rest of this article, we will focus on some of the benefits of going where few humans have gone before.

Spinoffs

Perhaps the most direct benefit comes from technologies used on Earth that were first pioneered in space exploration. This is something that all agencies talk about, but we’ll focus on the NASA Spinoff program as an example. (NASA will be used as the prime example for most of this article, but many of these cited benefits are also quoted by other space agencies.)

The program arose from NASA’s desire to showcase spinoffs at congressional budget hearings, according to its website. This began with a “Technology Utilization Program Report” in 1973, which began as a black-and-white circular and progressed to color in 1976 following public interest. Since that year, NASA has published more than 1,800 reports on spinoffs.

The agency has several goals in doing this. “Dispelling the myth of wasted taxpayer dollars” is one NASA cites, along with encouraging the public to follow space exploration and showing how American ingenuity can work in space.

There are many commercialized advances the program says it contributed to, including “memory foam” (first used for airline crash protection), magnetic resonance imaging and smoke detection. In many cases, NASA did not invent the technology itself, but just pushed it along, the agency says.

An MRI image of the lower back. Credit: NASA
An MRI image of the lower back. Credit: NASA

But as counterpoint to NASA’s arguments, some critics argue the technology would have been developed anyway without space exploration, or that the money spent on exploration itself does not justify the spinoff.

Job creation

Another popularly cited benefit of space exploration is “job creation”, or the fact that a space agency and its network of contractors, universities and other entities help people stay employed. From time to time, NASA puts out figures concerning how many associated jobs a particular project generates, or the economic impact.

Here’s an example: in 2012, NASA administrator Charles Bolden published a blog post about the Curiosity Mars rover landing, which was picked up by the White House website. “It’s also important to remember that the $2.5 billion investment made in this project was not spent on Mars, but right here on Earth, supporting more than 7,000 jobs in at least 31 states,” he wrote.

Hazcam fisheye camera image shows Curiosity drilling into “Windjana”  rock target  on April 29, 2014 (Sol 615).  Flattened and colorized image shows Mount Remarkable butte backdrop.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Hazcam fisheye camera image shows Curiosity drilling into “Windjana” rock target on April 29, 2014 (Sol 615). Flattened and colorized image shows Mount Remarkable butte backdrop. Credit: NASA/JPL/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

But the benefit can cut in a negative way, too. NASA’s budget is allocated by Congress, which means that the amount of money it has available for employment fluctuates. There are also some programs that are highly dependent on grants, which can make stable jobs challenging in those fields. Finally, as the priorities of Congress/NASA change, jobs can evaporate with it. One example was the space shuttle’s retirement, which prompted a job loss so massive that NASA had a “transition strategy” for its employees and contractors.

It’s also unclear what constitutes a “job” under NASA parlance. Some universities have researchers working on multiple projects — NASA-related or not. Employment can also be full-time, part-time or occasional. So while “job creation” is cited as a benefit, more details about those jobs are needed to make an informed decision about how much good it does.

Education

Teaching has a high priority for NASA, so much so that it has flown astronaut educators in space. (The first one, Christa McAuliffe, died aboard the space shuttle Challenger during launch in 1986. Her backup, Barbara Morgan, was selected as an educator/mission specialist in 1998 and flew aboard STS-118 in 2007.) And to this day, astronauts regularly do in-flight conferences with students from space, ostensibly to inspire them to pursue careers in the field.

Christa McAuliffe and Barbara Morgan practice teaching from space.  Credit: "The Lost Lessons"
Christa McAuliffe and Barbara Morgan practice teaching from space. Credit: “The Lost Lessons”

NASA’s education office has three goals: making the workforce stronger, encouraging students to pursue STEM careers (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and “engaging Americans in NASA’s mission.” Other space agencies also have education components to assist with requirements in their own countries. It’s also fair to say the public affairs office for NASA and other agencies play roles in education, although they also talk about topics such as missions in progress.

But it’s hard to figure out how well the education efforts translate into inspiring students, according to a National Research Council report on NASA’s primary and secondary education program in 2008. Among other criticisms, the program was cited as unstable (as it needs to change with political priorities) and there was little “rigorous evaluation” of its effectiveness. But NASA’s emphasis on science and discovery was also praised.

Anecdotally, however, many astronauts and people within NASA have spoken about being inspired by watching missions such as Apollo take place. And the same is true of people who are peripherally involved in the field, too. (A personal example: this author first became interested in space in the mid-1990s through the movie Apollo 13, which led to her watching the space shuttle program more closely.)

New Rosetta mission findings do not exclude comets as a source of water in and on the Earth's crust but does indicate comets were a minor contribution. A four-image mosaic comprises images taken by Rosetta’s navigation camera on 7 December from a distance of 19.7 km from the centre of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. (Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Navcam Imager)
New Rosetta mission findings do not exclude comets as a source of water in and on the Earth’s crust but does indicate comets were a minor contribution. A four-image mosaic comprises images taken by Rosetta’s navigation camera on 7 December from a distance of 19.7 km from the centre of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. (Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Navcam Imager)

Intangible benefits

Added to this host of business-like benefits, of course, are the intangibles. What sort of value can you place on better understanding the universe? Think of finding methane on Mars, or discovering an exoplanet, or constructing the International Space Station to do long-term exploration studies. Each has a cost associated with it, but with each also comes a smidgeon of knowledge we can add to the encyclopedia of the human race.

Space can also inspire art, which is something seen heavily in 2014 following the arrival of the European Space Agency Rosetta mission at Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. It inspired songs, short videos and many other works of art. NASA’s missions, particularly those early space explorers of the 1950s and 1960s, inspired creations from people as famous as Norman Rockwell.

There also are benefits that maybe we cannot anticipate ahead of time. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is a network that advocates looking for life around the universe, likely because communicating with beings outside of Earth could bring us some benefit. And perhaps there is another space-related discovery just around the corner that will change our lives drastically.

For more information, here is a Universe Today article about how we really watched television from the moon. We also collected some spin-offs from the Hubble Space Telescope. You can also listen to Astronomy Cast. Episode 144 Space Elevators.

See What Astronauts See In This Stunning ISS Timelapse


Yes, it’s another time-lapse video made from photos taken by astronauts aboard the ISS. Yes, it’s been digitally remastered, smoothed-over, and set to a dramatic technopop soundtrack. But no, it’s still not boring because our planet is beautiful and spaceflight is and always will be absolutely fascinating.

There. I said it.

The video above “Astronaut – a Journey to Space” is everything that I just mentioned and was compiled and edited by photographer and video artist Guillaume Juin. The original images were gathered from Johnson Space Center’s Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth site, and were captured during ISS missions from 2011 to 2014. Aforementioned dramatic technopop music is by Vincent Tone. Watch it above, or for maximum impact watch it full-screen. (I strongly advise the latter.) Enjoy!

HT to Sploid and fellow EFT-1 NASA Social participant Ailyn Marie for bringing this to my attention.

How Do Gravitational Slingshots Work?

Have you ever heard that spacecraft can speed themselves up by performing gravitational slingshot maneuvers? What’s involved to get yourself going faster across the Solar System.

Let’s say you want to go back in time and prevent Kirk from dying on the Enterprise B.

You could use a slingshot maneuver. You’d want to be careful that you don’t accidentally create an alternate reality future where the Earth has been assimilated by the Borg, because Kirk wasn’t in the Nexus to meet up with Professor Picard and Sir Iandalf Magnetopants, while they having the best time ever gallivanting around New York City.

*sigh* Ah, man. I really love those guys. What was I saying? Oh right. One of the best ways to increase the speed of a spacecraft is with a gravitational slingshot, also known as a gravity assist.

There are times that fantasy has bled out too far into the hive mind, and people confuse a made up thing with an actual thing because of quirky similarities, nomenclature and possibly just a lack of understanding.

So, before we go any further a “gravitational slingshot” is a gravity assist that will speed up an actual spacecraft, “slingshot maneuver” is made up bananas nonsense. For example, when Voyager was sent out into the Solar System, it used gravitational slingshots past Jupiter and Saturn to increase its velocity enough to escape the Sun’s gravity.

So how do gravitational assists work? You probably know this involves flying your spacecraft dangerously close to a massive planet. But how does this help speed you up? Sure, as the spacecraft flies towards the planet, it speeds up. But then, as it flies away, it slows down again. Sort of like a skateboarder in a half pipe.

This process nets out to zero, with no overall increase in velocity as your spacecraft falls into and out of the gravity well. So how do they do it? Here’s the trick. Each planet has an orbital speed travelling around the Sun.

As the spacecraft approaches the planet, its gravity pulls the much lighter spacecraft so that it catches up with the planet in orbit. It’s the orbital momentum from the planet which gives the spacecraft a tremendous speed boost. The closer it can fly, the more momentum it receives, and the faster it flies away from the encounter.

To kick the velocity even higher, the spacecraft can fire its rockets during the closest approach, and the high speed encounter will multiply the effect of the rockets. This speed boost comes with a cost. It’s still a transfer of momentum. The planet loses a tiny bit of orbital velocity.

If you did enough gravitational slingshots, such as several zillion zillion slingshots, you’d eventually cause the planet to crash into the Sun. You can use gravitational slingshots to decelerate by doing the whole thing backwards. You approach the planet in the opposite direction that it’s orbiting the Sun. The transfer of momentum will slow down the spacecraft a significant amount, and speed up the planet an infinitesimal amount.

Messenger's complicated flyby trajectory. Credit: NASA
Messenger’s complicated flyby trajectory. Credit: NASA

NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft made 2 Earth flybys, 2 Venus flybys and 3 Mercury flybys before it was going slowly enough to make an orbital insertion around Mercury. Ulysses, the solar probe launched in 1990, used gravity assists to totally change its trajectory into a polar orbit above and below the Sun. And Cassini used flybys of Venus, Earth and Jupiter to reach Saturn with an efficient flight path.

Nature sure is trying to make it easy for us. Gravitational slingshots are an elegant way to slow down spacecraft, tweak their orbits into directions you could never reach any other way, or accelerate to incredible speeds.

It’s a brilliant dance using orbital mechanics to aid in our exploration of the cosmos. It’s a shining example of the genius and the ingenuity of the minds who are helping to push humanity further out into the stars.

What do you think? What other places is the general comprehension between actual facts and fictional knowledge blurring, just like the “slingshot maneuver” and “gravitational slingshot”?

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