The biggest news of the week has to be the incredibly successful first test-flight of NASA’s newest vehicle, the Orion spacecraft. After a series of delays Thursday morning (including high winds, an errant boat, and frozen-open gas valves) led to the launch window closing without event, the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket lifted off Friday morning, sending Orion on its maiden voyage. At its greatest distance, it was 3600 miles above the Earth, making it the first human-capable craft to go so far since 1975 (the highest the shuttle ever went was around 380 miles, to launch the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990). It passed through the Van Allen radiation belts twice to use the RAMs (Radiation Area Mmonitors) and BIRD (Battery-operated Independent Radiation Detector) to test the radiation shielding that will eventually protect astronauts, then slammed into Earth’s atmosphere at 20,000 miles per hour, generating roughly 9.5G and reaching temperatures of 4000°f (2200°C) as it slowed to 20 miles per hour over the course of about 11 minutes. Fun fact: 20,000 miles per hour is only about 84% of the speed it would reach coming back from a moon mission, so it was imperative to test it to those extremes. After successfully deploying a series of parachutes, Orion splashed down gently in the Pacific about 650 miles southwest of San Diego, only a mile and a half from the target — a feat remarkable enough without all the other successes of the day — and it was all caught on film by a NASA drone called Ikhana. The only minor glitch was that one of Orion’s anti-roll flotation devices failed to inflate, but given the level of redundancy in the system it posed no problems whatsoever, and the craft was picked up by a nearby boat, ending the first launch of the Orion spacecraft.
If you missed the action, the Verge has the story in photos, and you can see the launch and the landing in the two videos below (they’re worth the watch):
Friday’s success was capped off by an announcement earlier in the week that the Orion missions are being seen by NASA as the first step in a dedicated progression that ends with humans on Mars. We can only hope.
In other NASA news, yesterday the New Horizons probe to Pluto and parts beyond, woke up on schedule after nearly nine years in space. Launched in January, 2006 atop an Atlas V from Cape Canaveral, the probe used a Jupiter flyby in 2007 to gain some more speed and test out a few of its instruments before going to sleep to wait for the long journey’s end. We’re now about six months out from the probe’s expected July 14, 2105 flyby of Pluto — but because of its great speed (and Pluto’s tiny mass) it won’t be stopping to orbit, but with long-range instruments, its resolution should exceed that of the Hubble Space Telescope’s from May 5 until the end of July. After that, it’s on to find a Kuyper Belt Object to study, before drifting out into space. Though its mission ends in 2026, it should reach the heliopause in 2047, becoming the third human craft to leave the solar system after Voyagers I and II. For more on the story, check out NASA’s New Horizons page.
67P in Colour?
This photo has been going around the internet this week, ever since a reddit thread announced it as the first true-colour photograph of the comet from the orbiting Rosetta spacecraft. But don’t freak out about a red comet just yet. The photograph in question was supposed to be a composite made by a three-filter camera on the probe known as OSIRIS, but as Vice’s Motherboard blog explains, the real story isn’t quite that simple. Apparently the image has been taken from a poster for a yet-to-be presented paper, and is intended to emphasize colour variation on the surface of the comet:
“Stubbe Hviid, a co-investigator on Rosetta’s OSIRIS camera at the German Aerospace Center, and one of the researchers listed on the poster. He explained… ‘the image is intended as an illustration to a presentation about color variation on the comet nucleus surface and it should not be seen as a true color image… If you looked at the comet with human eyes it would basically be black.”
So much for that, I suppose.
The skeptic in me always gets a little too much free run whenever the phrase “room-temperature superconductor” comes up. One of the holy grails of future technology, the ability to create superconductors without all the hypercooling currently necessary would make for a lot of very cool technology. As one Gizmodo blogger puts it: “So much levitation is possible with room temperature superconductors.” So when the announcement was made this week that someone had made one, I had to know the catch. It’s a pretty big one: using lasers they managed to make ceramic temporarily superconductive at room temperatures. How temporary, you ask? A few picoseconds. As Wikipedia so helpfully point out for us, a picosecond is a trillionth of a second. A picosecond is to a second what a second is to thirty-one thousand, seven hundred years (roughly). So we’ve still got a ways to go. Check out phys.org for the story, and the paper in the journal Nature for (much) more detail.
Everyone’s favourite (former) mythbuster and feminist role-model Kari Byron seems to have found a new gig, following the largely explanation-free departure of herself and the other two members of the Build Team, Tory Belleci and Grant Imahara, earlier this year. This week rumours surfaced that she’s been working with apple co-founder Steve Wozniak to create a new technology show. From the reports (which are few at this point) it looks like they’ll be trying to explore places and technologies that really look like science fiction, but are the real deal in the here-and-now. Gizmodo has what little information’s available right now, but I’m pretty sure it’s safe to say we’re all looking forward to more.
Best of the Rest
A lot more happened this week. Check it out: David Schneider at IEEE Spectrum made a home-brew exoplanet detector (and you can too!); NASA’s tracking an iceberg more than ten times the size of Manhattan (from space, of course); a badass video game reviewer from Australia fought back against online rape threats — by calling the perpetrators’ mothers; Apple’s trying to figure out how to make your iPhone fall better; ESA announced billions in funding for the Ariane 6 rocket; AT&T wondered aloud why anyone would ever want municipal gigabit fiber when they’re offering 6 whole Mbps; and German chancellor Angela Merkel has apparently been bought by the German telcos, because she’s advocating for a two-tier internet.
Last but not least, check out this short film by Erik Wernquist that imagines the future of humanity among the stars.
That’s all for today. Have a great week.