In what has truly turned out to be a momentous occasion in astrophysics, today scientists announced the first-ever direct observation of gravitational waves by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) experiment, which consists of two enormous detector facilities located in Louisiana and Washington state and an international consortium of thousands of researchers.
First predicted by Albert Einstein in 1915, gravitational waves are the “ripples” in the fabric of space-time created by exceptionally turbulent and powerful cosmic events. Physicists have accepted their existence for decades and in recent years have even observed their effects, but only with the incredible sensitivity of the NSF-funded advanced LIGO instrument has their direct detection been made possible.
“This was truly a scientific moon shot, and we did it. We landed on the moon.”
– David Reitze, Executive Director of LIGO
Whether you want to call it a planet, dwarf planet, Kuiper Belt Object, or some or none of the above, there’s no denying that Pluto and its family of moons are true curiosities in the Solar System. Not only does little Pluto have one moon — Charon — that’s so massive in comparison that they both actually orbit each other around a central point outside the radius of either (if you feel like adding “binary” to whatever term you prefer to use, go right ahead) but it also has four other smaller moons in orbit that kinda sorta break the rules of how moons are “supposed to” behave.
The world has lost one of its special treasures: retired Navy captain and former NASA astronaut Edgar D. Mitchell, LM pilot for Apollo 14 and one of the 12 men who walked on the Moon, died on the evening of Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016 at the age of 85.
What a difference half a century makes! This week marks 50 years since the Soviet Luna 9 spacecraft made humanity’s first-ever soft landing on the surface of the Moon. Launched from Baikonur on Jan. 31, 1966, the Luna 9 lander touched down within Oceanus Procellarum at 18:44:52 UTC on Feb. 3. Over the following three days Luna 9 sent us our first views of the Moon’s surface from the surface and, perhaps even more importantly, confirmed to scientists that a landing by spacecraft was indeed possible (which, by the way, was achieved on this day in 1971 by Al Shepard and Ed Mitchell with Apollo 14.)
When New Horizons made its close pass pf Pluto on July 14, 2015, it did much more than just take pretty pictures; it was also scanning the planet with a suite of science instruments designed to determine the nature of its surface, atmosphere, composition, and other key characteristics. One of these instruments was the Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA), an infrared scanner that can detect the unique molecular “fingerprints” of particular elements and compounds like methane, nitrogen, carbon monoxide… and water (one of our favorites!)
At first the data returned from LEISA showed only a surprisingly small amount of water ice across Pluto’s surface. But that was water ice in its pure form; when researchers took into consideration ice containing a mixture of water and other materials they found a much more widespread distribution across the surface area visible to New Horizons.
This is a reprint of a post from 2013, updated for the 2016 date.
Today marks the 49th anniversary of one of the worst tragedies to befall NASA and human spaceflight: the fire that broke out in the Apollo 204 (later renamed Apollo 1) command module during a test exercise at Kennedy Space Center in 1967, claiming the lives of primary crew astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee.
While it’s certainly not a pleasant thing to think upon, the Apollo 1 catastrophe had an undeniable impact on NASA’s Moon mission. Although it resulted in the death of three talented young men in the prime of their careers it forced NASA’s engineers to redesign the Apollo spacecraft with more safety in mind which, ultimately, contributed to the success of the entire program. Without these redesigns the Moon landings might not have occurred just a couple of years later. Despite the horror of what happened on Jan. 27, 1967, Grissom, White, and Chaffee’s tragic deaths were not in vain.
The following is a full account of the Apollo 1 fire, as told on the NASA history site.