Atlantis and Aurora

Atlantis and Aurora, from Space

The last ever space shuttle flight is almost over. After its final visit to the International Space Station, Atlantis is preparing to return to Earth tomorrow, marking the end of a long and eventful era in the human exploration of space. Astronaut Mike Dexter Fossum has been posting some beautiful pictures online – this one is particularly gorgeous, showing Atlantis docked at the ISS with a beautiful aurora display in the background. I love the hashtag #FromSpace – just in case you were, you know, confused about that.

Last launch for Endeavour today

Endeavour, ready for launch. Credit: Ken Kremer


If you’ve never watched the Space Shuttle launch – either live or via NASA’s web feed - you’ve got just two chances left! Endeavour should launch later today, at 08:56 EDT. That’s 14:56 in Western Europe or 13:56 in the UK, just in time for your post-lunch coffee break. It’s the last ever launch for Endeavour, which makes space enthusiasts a little misty eyed. The 6 astronauts will be carrying the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the ISS.  AMS-02 is a cosmic ray detector that will collect and analyse energetic particles as they travel through space. From these data we can gain important new insights into the nature of the unseen stuff – dark matter – in the Universe. The experiment has a neat website with lots of info and video ,  as well as a twitter feed. There’s a nice 365Days podcast today about this cool particle physics experiment.

I’ll be watching!

Remembering remembering Challenger

Last week, the world remembered the loss of the space shuttle Challenger. Challenger exploded shortly after launch on January 28, 1986, and like many, I remember seeing the explosion on television – very vaguely, as I was only 5 – presumably on the evening news. The Challenger disaster brings a double layer of remembrance. Around the 15th anniversary of the accident, I was in my final year of university, and after 3 years of studying physics and astronomy I was exploring some new interests: engineering and science writing. I took a course in science writing in UCL’s Department of Science and Technology Studies, taught by Jon Turney. Incidentally, this was against the advice of the astronomy course tutors, who warned me that these courses would drag down my grades and jeopardise a potential PhD spot – but I think that worked out ok in the end, and it was one of the most fun things I did at UCL.  I wrote this sort piece on the Challenger accident for one of the course assignments, and I thought I’d post it up here – remembering myself a decade ago, remembering Challenger a quarter of a century ago.

“Uh-oh”. Those were the last recorded words of Michael J. Smith, pilot of the space shuttle Challenger, before the craft’s  explosion killed him and the other six astronauts on board. That was fifteen years ago, on January 28, 1986. It was the twenty-fifth shuttle flight ever, and the first of the fifteen that were scheduled that year. 1986 was to be the busiest year in the history of human space flight. After the success of the Apollo, Mercury and Gemini missions and twenty-four clean shuttle flights, NASA’s self-esteem was at an all-time high. And management was determined to maintain the impressive track record they had established, at any cost. The cost, as it turned out, was seven lives.

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The threat of space debris

Space debris, the rubbish from old, defunct, or shattered satellites circling the Earth in an expanding sphere, has been a hot topic these last few weeks. Back in 2007 China came under fire for demonstrating its military muscle by shooting one of its satellites to pieces from the ground. In February two satellites collided in orbit at high velocity, spraying debris throughout space and causing fears of some of the rubble crashing down to Earth. While our growing extraterrestrial rubbish tip may seem like a pretty trivial thing to concern ourselves with, the threat it poses to our scientific and technological endeavours in outer space has become worryingly clear.

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