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Take a Ride with Alan Shepard Aboard Freedom 7

On this day in 1961, May the 5th at 9:34 a.m. Eastern time, NASA astronaut Alan B. Shepard, Jr. became the first American to travel into space with the launch of his Freedom 7 vehicle atop a Mercury-Redstone rocket. Shepard reached an altitude of 116.5 miles during his 15-minute suborbital flight before splashing down in the Atlantic, setting the stage for the first orbital spaceflight by John Glenn on Feb. 20 of the next year and all future Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo lunar missions (the 14th of which Shepard was commander in 1971.)

Liftoff of the 82-foot-tall Mercury-Redstone with Freedom 7 from Cape Canaveral on May 5, 1961. (NASA)

The video above from YouTube user lunarmodule5 shows Shepard’s historic flight from liftoff to splashdown with views from the pad as well as from inside the Freedom 7 capsule, showing film footage of Shepard and renderings of the capsule in position followed by photographs from splashdown and recovery.

The date of this important event is not coincidentally shared with the newly-dedicated National Astronaut Day, which celebrates America’s brave spacefaring heroes.

Want to learn more about the inimitable Al Shepard? Check out Neal Thompson’s excellent biography Light This Candle — read my review here.

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Opportunity Spots Phobos Skimming the Sun

Animation of raw panorama camera images from NASA’s Opportunity rover on May 3, 2017. NASA/JPL-Caltech; animation by Jason Major

It may be in its 14th year on Mars but Opportunity still has some surprises to show us—like this, a series of images captured on May 3, 2017 showing the Sun as seen from Mars. But that’s not the special part: see the change in brightness along the Sun’s edge near the end? That was a brief transit of Phobos, the largest (and nearest) of Mars’ two moons!

Can’t see it very well? It’s quick, I know—so check out a cropped and enlarged version below:

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A Departing View From Cassini After Clearing the Gap

Animation of raw uncalibrated images acquired by Cassini on May 3, 2017 (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI. Animation by Jason Major.)

Cassini did it again! On May 2-3, 2017 the spacecraft made its second “ring dive” pass of Saturn, passing through the clear space between the innermost edge of the ring system and the planet itself. The animation above shows a view from Cassini looking back toward Saturn on its outbound flight on May 3, just a few hours after the ringplane crossing. Saturn’s limb is visible at upper left.

What’s more, NASA has released a detailed video from the first ring dive on April 26, showing all of the images that were captured and where on Saturn Cassini’s cameras were pointed. Check it out below.

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The Color Out Of Space: What’s False and What’s Real (and Why It’s a Big Deal)

Color-composite of Saturn made from raw, uncalibrated images acquired on May 1, 2004. Warning: NOT SCIENTIFICALLY ACCURATE COLOR.

As you must certainly know by now, I love pictures of the many worlds of our Solar System. That is what I built this blog around and it’s what I’ve been mainly sharing here for the past eight years and counting. I particularly love the pictures of Saturn from NASA’s Cassini mission…really nothing exemplifies the beauty of the Solar System for me like majestic sweeping views of Saturn’s rings. And thanks to the modern marvel of The Internet these images have been made available to everyone, nearly as the same time as they are to the scientists on the mission team. This is true for many of NASA’s recent and current missions, not just Cassini, and there is a constantly-growing group of enthusiasts out there who take these raw images and create beautiful, full-color pictures from them, helping to bring the wonders of the Solar System to life.

There is a downside to doing this. The color images that are being produced by amateurs (including myself) are not usually calibrated to any specific standards. They are composed from preliminary, uncatalogued raw images. These usually—but not always—have been acquired in visible-light wavelengths, but even then the result isn’t necessarily an accurate representation of the colors you’d see if you were looking at the same scene from the viewpoint of the spacecraft.

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Cassini Survived Its Historic First Pass Between Saturn and Rings; First Pics In!

An image of Saturn’s north polar vortex captured by Cassini on April 26, 2017. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

Cassini made it! On April 26, 2017, NASA’s Saturn-exploring spacecraft made its closest pass by the planet since its arrival in 2004, beginning the final phase of its mission with its first “Grand Finale” orbital pass that took it between the top of the planet’s atmosphere and the innermost edge of the ring system. It’s literally a journey that no other spacecraft has ever made—and now the pictures are coming in!

It’s also the closest Cassini has come to Saturn itself; at closest point Cassini was only about 1,900 miles (3,000 km) above the tops of Saturn’s swirling clouds. It’s amazing to think that the images we’re seeing were captured with Cassini’s wide angle camera—typically views like this have had to use its “zoom” narrow-angle camera!

Check out an animation below of some of Cassini’s views captured during the pass over Saturn’s north pole.

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