Celebrating Apollo 11 in Second Life and Sansar

Recalling Apollo 11 in Sansar and Second Life – the Apollo Museum in Sansar

July 16th 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11 on its historic voyage to the Moon which saw Neil Alden Armstrong and Edwin Eugene “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. set foot on the lunar surface on July 20th, while Michael Collins orbited some 11 km (69 mi) overhead.

I’m re-tracing the flight of Apollo 11 in my Space Sunday articles – part 1, published to coincide with the launch of Apollo 11 is available now, and part 2, covering the Moon landing and the return to Earth will follow on the weekend of the landing. But you can also celebrate the audacious achievement of Apollo 11 in-world in both Second Life and Sansar (and, I’m sure, in other virtual worlds as well – but I am focusing on SL and Sansar here, as it is in these worlds that I spend my time nowadays).

Second Life

Note: there are likely to be more Apollo 11 celebrations than recorded here. These are simply two I’ve enjoyed visiting.

International Spaceflight Museum

Where better to immerse yourself in all things space than the International Spaceflight Museum? Covering two regions, and with the likes of NASA’s (slightly ageing) Jet Propulsion Laboratory region adjoining or close by, the ISM allows you to take a walk through the history of international space-faring achievements, see the massive launch vehicles, re-visit missions both crewed and automated, travel the solar system, and take a glimpse of things to come.

ISM features several elements related to the Project Apollo and its precursor Project Gemini programme; for example, in the shadow of the Rocket Ring sit models of an Apollo Lunar Module (also known as the Lunar Excursion Module or LEM) and the combined Command and Service Modules (the former the capsule in which most of the Apollo crews flew to the Moon and in which all returned to Earth, the latter the power and propulsion system for the Command Module). These include cutaway schematics and other information.

Commemorating Apollo 11 at the ISM

However, located on the ISM’s Spaceport Bravo region, and in the lee of the mighty Saturn V lunch vehicle that carried every crewed Apollo lunar mission on its way to the Moon, is a display dedicated to Apollo 11 (as also seen at the SL16B celebrations in June 2019). It features a combined model of the Command and Service Module and a model of the Command Module itself that allows visitors a peek inside.

Close the this display is a model of the LRV – the Lunar Roving Vehicle, or “Moon buggy”. While this did not fly to the Moon until the Apollo J-class missions (15 through 17), it still stands as a reminder of the technical abilities of the Apollo programme.

While it didn’t fly to the Moon until Apollo 15, the Lunar Roving Vehicle played an important role in humanity’s first foray to the Moon

And if you want to get a feel for how truly massive the Saturn V rocket really was, then hop up onto the Mobile Launcher behind the Apollo 11 display.

Sitting atop a crawler / transporter the Mobile Launcher comprises the massive slate-grey launch platform base and the massive Launch Umbilical Tower (LUT) that included all of the service arms required to support the rocket (nine in all) with fuel, power, and direct access. The most famous of these arms lay close to the top of the tower as it stood in attendance beside a Saturn V. This arm held the White Room – the room where the astronauts, assisted by pad technicians, boarded their Apollo Command Module. Sadly, the White Room doesn’t form a part of the ISM’s Saturn V Launcher model – but you can climb the stairs all the way up to the swing arm on which it sat, and in doing so gain an appreciation for the size of the rocket next to it.

Headline Apollo Exhibit

Headline Apollo  is a pop-up exhibition by Diamond Marchant taking place at the Beckridge Gallery curated by Emerald Marchant in Bellisseria. It takes as its theme a look at Apollo 11 from the perspective of a north Texas newspaper, the Fort Worth Star Telegram. In doing so, it offers a unique perspective on the mission – which was as we know, managed out of the Manned Spacecraft Centre (later renamed the Johnson Space Centre), located further south, near the Texas state capital, Houston.

Beckridge Gallery: Headline Apollo

Given the size of the Bellisseria Homes, they make for a cosy gallery space, but this actually makes Headline Apollo more of an intimate visit. A guide note card is available both at the entrance to the galley and in the foyer (and which includes copies of some of the images seen in the exhibition). The exhibition itself is broadly split in two: to the left of the entrance foyer the launch and the flight to the Moon, to the right, the surface mission and return to Earth.

What makes this exhibition engaging is that Apollo 11 and the Apollo lunar missions as a whole, tend to be remembered in a way that frame them on their own. There might be some ruminations on major events of the time – such as the Vietnam War -, but by-and-large they are presented in something of a bubble. Headline Apollo, however, with its reproductions of front pages and columns from the Fort Worth Star Telegram frames the story of the mission alongside that of daily life in Forth Worth and America as a whole.

For example, sitting alongside the reports of Apollo 11 are those of a more infamous event that took place in 1969, one that would become known as the Chappaquiddick incident, which involved the death of a young woman in a car driven by Edward Kennedy, the youngest brother of John F. Kennedy, who had started America on its journey to the Moon in 1961.

Beckridge Gallery: Headline Apollo

This story, and the more local ones appearing on the reproduced pages of the newspaper put the Apollo 11 mission is something of a different perspective. We’re reminded that for all its faults and weaknesses, humankind can raise itself up, seek to achieve something better, and the bravery of just three men in a tin can can unite us all in a hope for a better tomorrow.

Complete with archival NASA photos an cover pieces from the likes of Time and Life magazines, Headline Apollo offers a departure from the more usual Apollo retrospectives and will be open to visitors through until July 28th, 2019.


Sansar may be anathema to some Second Life users, but if you have the hardware to enjoy it – and remember you can with a suitable PC and without the need for a VR headset – then frankly, there is no better way within a publicly accessible virtual world to celebrate Apollo 11 and the entire Apollo lunar endeavour than by visiting the Apollo Museum ant Tranquillity Base.

The Apollo Museum

The Apollo Museum remains one of the highlights of Sansar (if first wrote about it back in 2017). Developed by Sansar Studios, Loot Interactive and NASA, it reproduces the main hall of the Apollo/Saturn V Centre at the Kennedy Space Centre, Florida, to offer visitors a fully interactive guide to the Apollo programme.

The Apollo Museum: Apollo Lunar Module (r) and Saturn V

Here you can walk the length of a Apollo Saturn V launch vehicle, from the exhaust bells of its five mighty F-1 engines to the tip of the Launch Abort System tower. Along the way, and set out on  time-line, you can re-trace the journey of Aldrin, Armstrong and Collins from the launch of Apollo 11 through to its splashdown 8 days later.

This is done by walking up the left side of the Saturn V, where exquisite models (the Earth and Moon not being to scale admittedly) and photos mark the significant stages of the the mission as they unfolded, culminating in Apollo 11’s arrival at the Moon and Armstrong and Aldrin’s descent to the Moon’s surface. The story then resumes on the other side of the Saturn V’s nose, with the two men ascending back to orbit to link-up with Collins in the Command and Service Module, before charting the trio’s return to Earth and splashdown.

The Apollo Museum: the little models re-creating the flight of Apollo 11, these showing the TDE phase of the mission, when Michael Collins manually flew the Command and Service Module to dock with and extract the Lunar Module from the S-IVB upper stage of the Saturn V

With interactive disks available that play audio relevant audio recordings from the mission, it’s a marvellous way to understand the mission, even if I do have a small quibble with the Lunar Module’s legs being shown unfolded during the flight to the Moon (this was actually only the case with Apollo 13, when the LM was being used as a lifeboat).

Beyond this, on the upper sections of the gallery, are sections devoted to all of the Apollo crewed flights, from the tragedy of Apollo 1 through the triumph of Apollo 11 to the near-disaster of Apollo 13, and thence to the the sounding bell of Apollo 17. These also include interactive panels that will play audio when an avatar stands on them, and are bracketed by a complete model of an Apollo Lunar Module (also referred to as the Lunar Excursion Module, or LEM) and a model of the Apollo 13 Command and Service Module showing the damaged and exposed part of the latter after it had been crippled by an explosion within a liquid oxygen tank.

The Apollo Museum

From a large disk under the Saturn V’s Launch Abort System tower, visitors can jump to Tranquillity Base, the landing area for Apollo 11.

Tranquillity Base

Also by Sansar Studios / Loot Interactive and NASA, Tranquillity Base reproduces the Apollo 11 Lunar Module as it sat on the Moon whilst Armstrong and Aldrin were on the lunar surface. This is a more static display when compared to the Apollo Museum, dominated by the Lunar Module and an overhead display which, when correctly aligned, provides insight into the surface equipment placed out on the lunar surface around the LM.

Visiting the individual elements will trigger playback of audio elements relevant to the science packages, whilst closer to the LM Armstrong’s famous statement on setting foot on the Moon’s surface can be heard.

Tranquillity Base: showing the Apollo 11 lunar Module Eagle in the background. In the middle of the picture is the Laser Ranging Retroreflector (LRRR), designed to gain accurate measurements of the Earth-Moon distance by reflecting lasers shot at it from Earth, and on the right, Passive Seismic Experiment Package designed to record “moonquakes”

And if you want to know how small the Earth looks from the surface of the Moon, be sure to tilt your camera up and around.

In Conclusion

As noted above, there are doubtless numerous other Apollo 11 celebrations – be they exhibits, parties or something else – across SL and other virtual worlds. But these are the ones I wanted to start here during this historic week. I hope you’ll take the time to drop-in and visits them.

SLurl Details


Space Sunday: Apollo 11 at 50

NASA’s official Apollo 11 50th anniversary logo. Credit: NASA

This week sees the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing. To mark the event, this Space Sunday article and the next will look at that mission, and the three men who flew it. 

On Wednesday, July 16th, 1969, at 13:31:51 UTC (9:31:51 EDT) five Rocketdyne F-1 at the base of Saturn V SA-506 came to life. Starting with the centre motor, then the opposing outboard pairs, the entire ignition sequence took 600 milliseconds. Held on the pad by four massive clamps, called hold-down arms, the five engines gradually built up thrust to 35,100 kN (7,891,000 lbf).

At precisely 13:32:00 UTC) (9:32:00 EDT) the huge hold-down-arms rocked back in a “soft release”, allowing the rocket, weighing almost 3,274 tons, to start its ascent, its acceleration slowed for the first half-second by a series of 8 pins connecting it to the pad to “reduce transient stresses resulting from abrupt disengagement of a vehicle from its launch stand”. When these pins dropped free from the base of the rocket, Apollo 11 was on its in a historic mission that would seen humans land on the Moon for the first time.

Apollo 11, May 20, 1969, on Flickr
Saturn V SA-506, the Apollo 11 launch vehicle, is rolled out to Pad A at Launch Complex 39 at Kennedy Space Centre, May 20th, 1969

The two men destined to be the first to set foot on Earth’s natural satellite were Neil Alden Armstrong, just shy of his 39th birthday, and  Edwin Eugene “Buzz” Aldrin Jr., who had turned 39 in January 1969, sat atop of the massive Saturn V rocket along with Command Module Pilot, Michael Collins, the youngest of the three (if only by a couple of months). Together, they formed only the second Apollo flight crew where all three men had previously flown in space (the first having been Apollo 10, the “dress rehearsal” mission for the Moon landing).

Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins were also perhaps the most technically competent trio on NASA’s astronaut roster at the time. All had served in the military – Armstrong in the US Navy, Aldrin and Collins in the US Air Force. Both Armstrong and Collins had also built up impressive résumés as test pilots, Armstrong as a civilian and Collins in the US Air Force.

In particular, Armstrong flew with the National Advisory Council for Aeronautics (NACA), NASA’s forebear, prior to being selected for the USAF/ NASA high-altitude X-15 research programme, (he flew the X-15 seven times between late 1960 and mid-1962) whilst simultaneously engaged by the USAF in their X-20 Dyna-Soar space plane project. Collins, meanwhile, took part in high-altitude flights, taking F-104 Starfighter jets to 27.7 km (90,000 ft) in order to experience the “weightless” environment of free-fall at the top of their parabolic flight arcs, helping him to achieve 3,000 hours in the cockpit.

Collins, Aldrin and Armstrong, on Flickr
An unusual portrait in black and white of Michael Collins, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. Credit: NASA (this image was later colourised on numerous occasions by various artists)

As well as being aviators, Armstrong and Aldrin were also academics. Armstrong held a BSc in aeronautical engineering and an MSc in aerospace engineering, and Aldrin has a doctorate in astronautics. Aldrin particularly specialised in on-orbit rendezvous, which allowed him to work on Project Gemini as an engineer (and also earned him the nickname “Dr. Rendezvous” , not always meant kindly, by other astronauts).

Despite their qualifications, both Armstrong and Aldrin almost didn’t get selected for NASA’s astronaut programme: neither had the requisite military test pilot qualifications that were initially required. However, in 1962, NASA dropped the “military” element from the test pilot requirement, enabling Armstrong to apply for the Group 2 intake – although he almost missed the cut. his application arrived after the closing date, but fortunately Dick Day, a simulations engineer at NASA who have previously worked with Armstrong saw the application and made sure it was included.

Aldrin’s break came in 1963, when NASA further revised the requirements to test pilot OR 1,000 hours flying jets. This allowed he to re-apply (his first application having been turned-down due to his lack of test pilot experience), and he was invited to join the Group 3 intake alongside Michael Collins.

At 2 minutes 41 seconds into its flight, the S-IC first stage of Apollo 11 separates, four small separation motors pushing the upper stages way from it, prior to the S-II second stage main engines to ignite

A Saturn V launch is perhaps one of the most stunning sights to witness – and Apollo 11 was witnessed by around 1 million people in and around the Kennedy Space Centre. However, for the first part of their flight, the three men were pretty much passengers as the Saturn V rose into the sky.

For all their power, the five F-1 engines took 12 seconds to overcome the 100.6 m tall rocket’s mass and inertia and push it clear of the 120m tall Launch Umbilical Tower (LUT), angling it very slightly away from the tower in the process so to avoid the risk of any wind-driven contact between the two.

Immediately after clearing the tower, the rocket commenced its “roll”, a necessary manoeuvre in which the vehicle rolls around its vertical axis, allowing it to point itself along the line of flight it needs to achieve the required orbit. After that, things started to move quickly.

A minute after launch, the Saturn V was around 6.5 km (3.5 nautical miles) altitude and passing through the sound barrier. Twenty seconds later, it entered “Max Q”, the period of maximum dynamic pressure, placed on this frame as a result of it literally punching its way through the atmosphere.

At this point, the F-1 engines throttled back a little to prevent the vehicle shaking itself apart, but once through “Max Q” – a period of only a handful of seconds, they returned to full thrust, pushing the vehicle up to 62 km (42 mi) above the Earth, and taking only 2 minutes 41 second from launch to do so. At this point, and travelling at 9,960 km/h (6,164 mph), the huge first stage separated, the upper stages of the Saturn 5 pushed clear by a set of four separation motors.

From here, the four motors of the second stage took over. While the massive first stage coasted upwards behind it and then fell back to crash into the Atlantic ocean, the Second stage ran for 6 minutes, accelerating the rocket to 25,000 km/h (15,647 mph) and lifting it to an altitude of 175 km (109 mi).

With its fuel spent, the second stage separated, also to fall back to the Atlantic, while the single, re-usable engines of the all-important S-IVB stage took over. This stage initially ran for about 2.5 minutes, during which time it pushed Apollo 11 to a velocity of 27,900 km/h (17,432 mph), allowing it to assuming a near-circular orbit around the Earth averaging 184 km 98.9 na mi) before shutting down for the first time.

It was at this point that the three crew took a more pro-active role in the flight. For the next  couple of hours, as they completed 1.5 orbits of the Earth, and in tandem with mission control, they confirmed their vehicles were ready to be committed for the flight to the Moon.

Apollo 11, May 20, 1969, on Flickr
A diagram of the Saturn V Apollo launch vehicle.Credit: NASA

Interestingly, while mission commander, Armstrong had actually clocked less time in space than either Collins or Aldrin. However, he had the greatest experience in handling in-flight emergencies, having dealt with the first in-flight failure of a critical system during a US space mission.

Neil Armstrong photographed by Buzz Aldrin as the crew prepare for TLI – trans-lunar injection. Credit: NASA / E.E. Aldrin

This occurred during his flight flight into space on the Gemini 8 mission, alongside David R. Scott. This mission was intended to be the first test of an orbital docking between two vehicles – Gemini 8 and an automated Agena target vehicle. In all, Armstrong and Scott were expected to complete four such docking as a part of the mission objectives.

However, shortly after docking, the Gemini’s Orbit Attitude and Manoeuvring System (OAMS) has suffered a serious failure, and Armstrong ordered Scott to release the docking mechanism before before vehicle broke up. Once free of the Agena (which was later stabilised by ground control allowing it to be used by Gemini 10 with Michael Collins), Armstrong took the took the unorthodox step of shutting down the OAMS and using the Re-entry Control System (RCS) to regain control. While this worked, undoubtedly saving his and Scott’s lives, under mission regulations, they no option but to immediately perform and emergency return to Earth, curtailing the mission.

Back aboard Apollo 11, their checks complete, the crew received the all clear for the critical trans-lunar injection (TLI) burn. This started mid-way through the second orbit of Earth, as the S-IVB motor was restarted and fired for 5 minutes and 47 seconds, accelerating the vehicle to around 40,085 km/h (25,053 mph), and pushing it away from Earth and into an energy-efficient trajectory towards the Moon.

The Apollo 11 LEM, call sign Eagle, on FlickrAs Michael Collins carried out the transposition, docking and extraction manoeuvre, either Aldrin or Armstrong took this image of the Lunar Module (LM) sitting in the top of the Saturn V S-IVB stage, awaiting the Command and Service Module (CSM) to dock with it and gently pull it free of the upper stage. Credit: NASA

Continue reading “Space Sunday: Apollo 11 at 50”

Space Sunday: rockets, exoplanets and alien oceans

rion AA2, July 2nd 2019The Orion test article lifts-off from Space Launch Complex 46 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at the start of Ascent Abort-2, July 2nd 2019. Credit: NASA

NASA’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle passed a significant test on its way to its first crewed launch (due in 2022) on July 2nd, 2019, as it completed a flight test of the capsule’s launch abort system (LAS).

The LAS is a system designed to pull a crewed capsule clear of a malfunctioning rocket during an ascent to orbit, hopefully saving their lives in the process. As such, it is a significant system that must be tested and cleared for use before crewed flights can commence with a new launch vehicle.

For the Space Launch System (SLS), NASA is following its traditional approach, with the LAS designed to “pull” a crew capsule clear of launch vehicle. It does this by placing a special fairing over the capsule that has a tower extending from its top, fitted with three motors. This has always been the traditional approach to US LAS systems – by contrast, Russian LAS systems generally sit below the capsule and are design to “push” it away from a malfunctioning rocket.

The Orion / SLS launch abort system (LAS). Credit: NASA

The July 2nd test – called the Ascent Abort-2 (AA-2) mission – was a critical test flight, designed to test the LAS at the point in an ascent to orbit when the Orion / SLS combination will be subjected to the highest aerodynamic stresses – the so-called period of “Max-Q” – that occurs during a rapid ascent into space.

To achieve this, NASA mounted an Orion structural test article – basically an Orion capsule sans its flight systems – contained within a LAS fairing onto the motor stage of an MX Peacekeeper ICBM, and launched it into the Florida skies in a early morning ascent designed to last some 55 seconds.

In that time, the rocket was expected to reach an altitude of 9.5 kilometres (31,000 ft) and a speed of Mach 1.3, at which point the abort sequence would trigger.

As it turned out, the MX rocket motor ran “hot”, accelerating a little faster than anticipated, so reaching its assigned separation altitude 5 seconds early. Nevertheless, the abort sequence initiated correctly, and the powerful abort motors on the LAS fired, generating 181,400 kg of thrust, hauling the Orion free of the ascent motor unit.

Once a clear separation from the still ascending motor stage had been achieved, the attitude control motors at the very top of the LAS fired, flipping it and Orion over. The middle jettison motor then fired, separating the LAS from the Orion.

During an actual abort sequence, the Orion would then re-orient itself so it would be falling heat shield first, allowing its parachutes to be deployed in preparation for a splashdown. However, for the AA-2 flight, the test article did not carry a parachute system. Instead, and like the LAS, the capsule was allowed to fall back into the Atlantic, hitting it at an estimated 480 km/h (300 mph) and breaking up. Just before it did so, however, it ejected 12 bright orange data recorders not unlike those so-called “black boxes” used by aircraft. These contained critical data recorded during the 3 minute 11 second flight, and which will be assessed post-mission to confirm everything did go an planned.

That was a spectacular test we all witnessed this morning. It was really special for the programme; a really big step forward to us. It was a really great day all around – weather and the vehicle. One of the most important parts of the test was to see how the attitude control motor performed. The internal motor pressure was rock solid, straight line and it had excellent control characteristics. Everything we’ve seen so far looks great.

– Mark Kirasich, NASA’s Orion Programme Manager

Orion AA2, July 2nd 2019The Orion test article climbs into the early morning sky over Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at the start of Ascent Abort-2, July 2nd 2019. Credit: NASA

The US has never has to use the LAS on an actual mission. However, there is no guarantee this will always be the case, and circumstances where a LAS must be used are not unkown – as the Soyuz M-10 mission in October 2018 demonstrated (see Space Sunday: of Soyuz aborts and telescopes). Therefore, passing this test was critical if  Orion and SLS are to achieve the flight goals required for NASA’s programme – Project Artemis – to return humans to the surface of the Moon.

Half-Planet, Half-Star

Discovered in 2012, GJ3470b is a “mini-Neptune” planet orbiting a red dwarf star called Gliese 3470, 100 light years from our Sun. Occupying an orbit some 6 million km (3.7 million mi – roughly one-tenth of the distance between the Sun and Mercury) from its parent, the planet has a mass of around 12.6 Earths.

None of this is particularly unusual; as I’ve noted in past Space Sunday articles, M-type stars are the most common type of star in the galaxy, and mini-Neptune type planets account for around 80% of the exoplanets discovered to date. Nevertheless, recent studies have revealed GJ3470b to be a very unique world.

GJ3470b, its atmospheric composition, and its relative location to its parent star. Credit: NASA, ESA, and L. Hustak (STScI)

The presence of an atmosphere around the planet was detected fairly soon after its discovery and prompted astronomers to take a prolonged look at it. To do this, they combined the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes to examine the planet’s atmosphere for a total of 20 transits in front of its parent star.

These observations, using the light of the star passing through the planet’s atmosphere during the transits, allowed the astronomers to gather data on the composition of GJ3470b’s atmosphere. What was discovered came as a huge surprise.

It has been expected that the observations would reveal an atmosphere somewhat similar to Neptune’s, but such was the depth to which they could measure, it quickly became clear that GJ3470b has an almost pristine atmosphere of hydrogen and helium surrounding a large solid core.

The presence of hydrogen and helium may not sound too unusual – after all, the four gas giants of our solar system have atmospheres largely made up of those two gases. However, they also have amounts of other, heavier elements – methane, nitrogen, oxygen, ammonia, acetylene, ethane, propane, phosphine, etc., – none of which showed up in any of the spectral analyses performed by Hubble and Spitzer. This makes GJ3470b’s  atmosphere closer in nature to that of the Sun or a star than it does to a planet, leading to it being dubbed “half-planet / half-star” in some quarters, and making it the most unique exoplanet yet discovered.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: rockets, exoplanets and alien oceans”

Space Sunday: super rockets, moon drones and emergency aborts

STP-2, June 2019, on FlickrA stunning timelapse view from the beaches of Florida as the Falcon Heavy STP-2 rocket arcs across the sky. Credit: Alex Brock

On Tuesday, June 25th, SpaceX launched their third Falcon Heavy Booster. Called STP-2, the primary aim of the mission was to help qualify the Falcon Heavy for US Department of Defence launches – but that didn’t stop it being the most ambitious mission for any SpaceX launch vehicle to date.

Carrying a total of 24 separate satellites into orbit, the vehicle had to deliver its payload to three distinct orbits around Earth, which in turn required the core stage of the rocket to fly fast enough to make its planned recovery at sea potentially problematic, while the upper stage had to make four individual engine burns – the most ever by a SpaceX launch vehicle.

Lift-off came at 02:30 ET, the rocket powering away from Kennedy Space Centre’s Pad 39-A. As a night-time launch, the flight provided a stunning view of what is called the “Falcon nebula”. This where, after the two Falcon 9 booster stages have separated from the core of the rocket, they flip themselves over while still increasing their altitude, and re-fire their engines to slow their forward momentum in order to start their descent back for a landing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Together with the core booster’s motors still operating at full thrust, their exhausts can create a majestic pattern in the sky. In this case, given all of the three Falcon 9 boosters had been pushed to the limit, the vehicle was much higher in Earth’s rarefied atmosphere and this resulted in the boosters creating a remarkable pattern of colours against the night sky.

STP-2, June 2019, on FlickrThe “Falcon nebula”: the colourful plumes from the two Falcon 9 booster stages as they fire their motors in a “burn back” manoeuvre, with the core stage going at full throttle towards the bottom right. Credit: Alex Brock

Both of the Falcon 9 booster stages successfully completed their burn-back manoeuvres and made perfect landings at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, just south of NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre. It had been hoped that the core stage would make it three-for-three by landing on one of the company’s two Autonomous Drone Landing Ships, parked some 1,200 km off the Florida coast. Unfortunately, such was the speed of the stage, it overshot the landing ship and crashed into the sea, smashing itself to pieces.

However, the loss of the core stage wasn’t the end of the good news for SpaceX. The upper stage continued on into orbit, successfully deploying its entire payload safely. And while it is said that re-naming a vessel can bring bad luck, that didn’t prove the case here, as the company’s high-speed chase vessel Go Ms Tree, which had previously been called Mr. Steven, finally and successfully caught one of the flight’s two payload fairings as they made a return to Earth.

Sea trials: the 62 m (205 ft) long Go Ms. Tree (formerly Mr. Steven), leased by SpaceX and converted to “catch” payload fairings in the huge net suspended over the stern deck, made its first successful catch with the STP-2 mission. Credit: Teslarati / SpaceX / Sea Tran

These where the two large “clamshells” that encase the payload during the flight through the denser part of Earth’s atmosphere. When the rocket’s upper stage is high enough, these are jettisoned and – in traditional flights – allowed to burn-up in the Earth’s atmosphere. However, at US $6 million a throw (a cost that has to be passed on to customers), SpaceX prefers to try to recover their payload fairings when they can. This means the fairing use their shape to ease their way into the denser atmosphere before deploying parachutes,  to land – and float – on the sea, but the company would prefer to keep them away from the corrosive influence of salt water.

Enter Go Ms Tree. Equipped with a large net over its stern deck, the ship is designed to move at speed under the flight path of returning fairings and snag them in the net. Six prior attempts to achieve this either failed or were abandoned, but on June 25th, the ship did successfully capture one of the returning fairings, although the second still had to make a splash down.

A Dragonfly for Titan

In December 2017, I wrote about a proposal to fly a nuclear-powered dual-quadcopter drone on Saturn’s moon, Titan. One June 27th, 2019, NASA confirmed the mission  – called Dragonfly – has now been officially selected for flight in what will be a tremendously ambitious long-duration mission, due to commence in 2026.

Titan is the only celestial body besides our planet known to have liquid rivers, lakes and seas on its surface, although they contain hydrocarbons like methane and ethane, not water. Nevertheless, they sit beneath a dense atmosphere which has commonalities with primordial atmosphere of Earth and which is rich in complex organic chemicals there such as tholins and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, so these lakes and rivers could contain all the building blocks of life.

NASA Dragonfly: flying on Titan

Measuring 3 metres (10 ft) in length, Dragonfly is not s small vehicle. Designed by Johns Hopkins’ Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), it is intended to be a be a highly capable vehicle capable of carrying a full suite of science experiments while completing multiple flights on Titan. While the focus of the mission will be to try to determine how far prebiotic chemistry may have progressed there, the vehicle will carry a range of instruments as well, some of which will include:

  • DraMS (Dragonfly Mass Spectrometer), to identify chemical components, especially those relevant to biological processes.
  • DraGNS (Dragonfly Gamma-Ray and Neutron Spectrometer), to identify the composition of surface and air samples.
  • DraGMet (Dragonfly Geophysics and Meteorology Package), suite of meteorological sensors and a seismometer.
  • DragonCam (Dragonfly Camera Suite), a set of microscopic and panoramic cameras to image Titan’s terrain and landing sites that are scientifically interesting.

While the mission will launch in 2026, it will take almost eight years to get to Titan, arriving in 2034, when it will become the second vehicle to visit the moon’s surface after Europe’s Huygens lander, which travelled to Saturn and Titan as a part of the Cassini mission.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: super rockets, moon drones and emergency aborts”

Space Sunday: alien worlds, telescopes and lightsails

An artist’s impression of the Teegarden’s Star planetary system might look like when observing it from the “far side” relative to our own Sun (shown in the background and inset). Credit: University of Göttingen

Two Earth-sized planets have been found orbiting a star 12.5 light-years from our own, adding to the catalogue of exoplanets located in our own cosmic back yard.

The star in question is Teegarden’s Star, a M-type red dwarf, the most common type of star in our galaxy, and therefore the most frequent type found to have planets and planetary systems. However, Teegarden’s Star is a little different to other red dwarfs we’ve observed with or without planets. For a start, despite being only a short cosmic stone’s throw from Earth, it is incredibly dim – so dim that we didn’t even notice it until 2003. Not that that in itself is usual, it’s believed that the space around us for a distance of about 20 light years could have many dim red dwarf stars hiding within it, simply because this region of our galaxy seems to have a much lower density of such stars than we see elsewhere.

What makes Teegarden’s Star odd in this respect is that it wasn’t found as a result of a search for such nearby dim red dwarfs, but because astronomers tripped over it whilst reviewing data originally gathered in the 1990s by the Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking (NEAT) project. In fact, the star is actually named for the head of the review team, Bonnard J. Teegarden, an astrophysicist at NASA‘s Goddard Space Flight Centre. The star is also somewhat unusual in that it has a large proper motion (approximately 5 arcseconds per year), marking it as one of seven stars with such large proper motions currently known.

Observations of the star made in 2010 by the Red Optical Planet Survey (ROPS) suggested the star might have at least one planet orbiting it, but the data was insufficient to draw a definitive conclusion. However, in June 2019, and after three years of verifying their data, scientists conducting the CARMENES survey at the Calar Alto Observatory announced evidence of two Earth-mass exoplanets orbiting the star within its habitable zone.

A star and its planet moving around a common centre of mass. Credit: wikipedia / “Zhatt”

The planets were detected using the radial velocity method (aka Doppler spectroscopy), also informally referred to as the “wobble method”. Putting it simply, a star with planets doesn’t simply spin on its axis with the planets whizzing around it. Rather, the mass of the planet(s) works against the mass of the star, creating a common centre of mass which, although still inside the star, is sufficiently removed from its own centre to cause the star to effectively rolls around it (see the image on the right).

This means that when seen from Earth, there are times when the star can seem as if it is moving “away” from our telescopes, signified by its light shifting to the red end of the spectrum. Equally, there are other times when it appears to be moving “towards” us, signified by its light shifting to the blue end of the spectrum. It is by observing and measuring this visible Doppler shift that tells us there are planets present. In all, this method of stellar observation has accounted for almost one-third of all exoplanets found to date.

The key point with this method of observation is not only does it allow astronomers to locate planets orbiting other stars, it actually allows maths to be applied, allowing the number of potential planets to be discerned, their distance from their parent star and important factors such as their probable mass, which in turn allows their likely size and composition to be estimated.

In the case of Teegarden’s Star, the data indicates the two planets orbiting the star – called Teegarden’s b and Teegarden’s c respectively – have a mass of around 1.05 and 1.1 that of Earth each, suggesting they are probably around the same size as one another and comparable to Earth in size. Teegarden’s b, the innermost planet, orbits its parent every 4.9 terrestrial days, and Teegarden’s c every 11.4 terrestrial days.

An artist’s impression of the Teegarden’s Star system, as seen from “above”. Credit: University of Göttingen

The combined mass of these planets, coupled with the amount of Doppler shift exhibited by Teegarden’s Star has led to some speculation there may be other, larger planets orbiting much further out from the star. Such planets would be hard to locate because Teegarden’s Star is so dim when observed from Earth, astronomers cannot rely on the transit method  – where large planets passing in front of their parent star can cause regular dips in its apparent brightness – to identify their existence.

However, what is particularly interesting about Teegarden’s b and c is their location relative to their parent, and the nature of Teegarden’s Star itself. The latter is a particularly cool and low-mass red dwarf, with just one-tenth of the Sun’s mass and a surface temperature of 2,700°C (4890°F). This means that at their respective distances, both planets are within the star’s habitable zone – and may well have atmospheres.

The two planets resemble the inner planets of our solar system. They are only slightly heavier than Earth and are located in the so-called habitable zone, where water can be present in liquid form.

– Mathias Zechmeister, University of Göttingen, Teegarden planetary team lead

This latter point  – the existence of atmospheres around both planets – has yet to be proven. As noted previously in these articles, M-type stars are actually not nice places; when active (and Teegarden does seem to be well past its active stage) in their youth, they can be prone to violent irradiative outbursts which could both strip away the atmospheres of any planets orbiting them over time and irradiate the planets’ surfaces. And even if  the planets do have atmospheres, their close proximity to their parent likely means they are both tidally locked with their same face towards it. This is liable to make them pretty inhospitable places and potentially prone to extremes of weather.

But there is one other interesting point to note here. While Teegarden’s Star may well be dim to the point of being practically invisible when viewed from Earth, the same isn’t true the other way around: our Sun would be a bright star in the skies over Teegarden’s b and c. What’s more, the angle of our solar system to those worlds (practically edge-on) means that if we were to imagine one of them having an intelligent, scientific race, they could easily detect the planets orbiting our Sun using the transit method of observation, and could probably deduce up to three of the innermost planets might be capable of supporting life.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: alien worlds, telescopes and lightsails”

Space Sunday: of tweets, space stations and helicopters

NASA has linked the Moon with Mars for decades, but only really emphasised the former whilst only talking vaguely about the latter. This lunar “bias” might have been the reason for a confusing tweet by President Trump on June 7th, 2019. Credit: NASA

In December 2017, President Trump signed Space Policy Directive (SPD)-1, directing NASA to focus on returning human to the Moon. More recently this has seen the White House to direct NASA to achieve this return by 2024, and not 2028, the US space agency’s target year. We’ve also seen the programme gain a name – Project Artemis (Artemis being the sister of Apollo in Greek mythology) and the White House and Congress getting into something of a tussle over NASA’s 2020 budget: the former wants to add US $1.6 billion to NASA’s budget specifically for the lunar effort, the latter wants to give NASA an extra US $1.3 billion for programmes other than a return to the Moon.

However, tussles over budget increases aside (and even if it were granted, US $1.6 billion is merely a splash of the level of financing NASA realistically needs to reach the Moon by 2024), the US space agency has at least had a goal to aim for, until President Trump appeared to rock the boat on June 7th, when he issued a tweet that appeared to suggest NASA shouldn’t be aiming for a return to the Moon, but should be focused on Mars.

Donald Trump’s June 7th tweet concerning NASA’s human space flight goals

The tweet drew a huge amount of backlash from people trying to claim that Trump regards the Moon as “part of Mars”. However, those doing so are somewhat misguided. Anyone with any understanding of NASA’s plans / desires over the last 30 years with regards to Mars know that the Moon has been indelibly linked to that effort; it’s been pretty much the view that the one (Mars) cannot be achieved without the other (a return to the Moon).

The cornerstone of this claim has always been that the Moon can be used as a testing ground for technologies that might assist us in the exploration / settlement of Mars.

The Moon provides an opportunity to test new tools, instruments and equipment that could be used on Mars, including human habitats, life support systems.

– NASA website

But how accurate is this assertion? “Not very” is a not unfair summation. Mars is a very different destination to the Moon. Just landing there requires substantially different capabilities to those required for landing on the Moon.

For example, Mars has an atmosphere and the Moon does not. This can be both an advantage (it can be used to help slow an incoming vehicle down on its way to the surface) and a disadvantage (lander vehicles must be capable of withstanding entry into that atmosphere and making use of it during descent, which adds significant complexity to them). Similarly, the technology needed to get off of Mars is different: more powerful motors are required to counter the greater gravity (twice that of the Moon), these in turn require more fuel, which makes the ascent vehicle more complex – which could also feed back into the decent vehicle as well, if a paired system, such as proposed for use with the Moon, is to be used.

That Mars has an atmosphere means that very different technical approaches must be taken for landing there compared to landing on the Moon. Credit: The Mars Society

Similarly, how local resources on the Moon and Mars might be used differ substantially. With the Moon, it is proposed water ice in the southern polar regions is leveraged as a means of producing oxygen, water and fuel stocks. This could also be done on Mars – but there is a far more accessible resource on Mars for this: its carbon-dioxide rich atmosphere.

Using a 19th century technique called the Sabatier Reaction, water, oxygen and methane can literally be produced out of the Martian air. The oxygen and methane can be used a fuel stocks, while the air and water have obvious life-support options.

The Sabatier reaction: (1) hydrogen feedstock carried to Mars is combined with the carbon-dioxide atmosphere to produce methane (CH4), used as propellant, and water (H2O). (2) Te water is split into hydrogen, which is fed back to to help support the first reaction, and oxygen, also used as a propellant. (3) A related reaction takes the CO2 atmosphere and splits it into “waste” carbon, returned to the atmosphere and oxygen, which can be used as propellant or to supplement air supplies.

Tests carried out by the Mars Society – and verified in a 2003 joint NASA / ESA study – show that an automated lander vehicle carrying just 6 tonnes of hydrogen to the surface of Mars could produce 112 tonnes of methane / oxygen fuel by the time a human crew arrives 18 months later – enough to power their ascent vehicle back to Mars orbit or – depending on the mission architecture used – even all the way back to Earth orbit.

And when it comes to things like life support systems and radiation shielding – do we actually need the Moon to test these for an eventual Mars mission? Actually no. In terms of life support systems, we already have the infrastructure in place for testing them, just 400km from the surface of Earth; we call it the International Space Station. And when it comes to testing technologies to protect against radiation – even GCRs (galactic cosmic rays) – this can be done through other, and potentially less costly, means.

Which is not to say that we shouldn’t be going to the Moon; the potential science returns are as significant as those in going to Mars. However, it’s not unfair to say that for the last 30 years, the constant linking of the Moon and Mars has resulted in NASA being unable to achieve either.

Thus, Trump’s tweet shouldn’t be seen as any kind of belief on his part that the Moon is anyway “a part” of Mars, but rather a reflection (or possibly parroting) of the frustration some space advocates feel in the way NASA constantly links the two, with the emphasis perhaps too closely focused on the Moon, rather than looking at the potential and inspiration humans face in going to Mars.

However, where Trump’s tweet is potentially harmful is in the confusion it might cause. Trump’s spur-of-the-moment tweets have an unfortunate habit of becoming “policy”. As such, it was hard to know if the June 7th tweet was simply parroting something heard, or whether it was signalling a genuine change in direction for US space policy. As such, some, such as the Planetary Society, more correctly sought not to belittle the Moon “a part” of Mars element of Trump’s tweet, but to request a clarification of anticipated goals.

The Planetary Society’s response to Trump’s Tweet, highlighting the real concerns, not “he doesn’t know the Moon from Mars” nonsense

This clarification appeared to come at the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference in Washington DC on June 8th. At that event, Scott Pace, Executive Secretary of the National Space Council, indirectly referenced Trump’s tweet, stating that while efforts to return humans to the lunar surface by 2024 were ongoing, NASA and the administration should devote more attention to long-term aspirations of human Mars missions.

The president’s comments was a criticism not of going back to the moon but rather not paying more attention to that long-term goal.  We’re head down, working on the immediate execution of this [and] I don’t think we always do a good job speaking to the larger vision that this is part of. What he [Trump] is doing is stepping back and expressing, I think, a very understandable impatience with how long all of that takes, and sometimes we miss the bigger picture.

– Scott Pace, Executive Secretary, the National Space Council

Continue reading “Space Sunday: of tweets, space stations and helicopters”