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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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Solar Photographer Spots Mercury On Its Trip Across the Sun

The May 9, 2016 transit of Mercury captured on camera by Alan Friedman.

The May 9, 2016 transit of Mercury captured on camera by Alan Friedman.

On May 9, 2016, over the course of seven and a half hours beginning at 7:12 a.m. EDT (11:12 UTC) Mercury passed across the disk of the Sun, appearing to observers on Earth as a small dark dot in front of the massive brilliance of our home star. While the event wasn’t visible to the naked eye (the Sun is just too bright and Mercury just too small) those with filtered telescopes and solar projection devices (like what I had set up) were able to see Mercury silhouetted against the Sun, and that most certainly included solar photography master Alan Friedman who captured the amazing image above from his home in Buffalo, NY.

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Take a Ride with Alan Shepard Aboard Freedom 7

55 years ago today, at 9:35 a.m. EST on May 5, 1961, 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 splashdown 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 of in 1971.)

The video above by Matthew Travis shows Shepard’s historic flight from liftoff to splashdown with annotated views from the pad as well as from inside the Freedom 7 capsule, showing Shepard and his instrument panel.

The date of this important event is not coincidentally shared with the newly-dedicated National Astronaut Day, which celebrates America’s brave spacefaring heroes. (Do you have a favorite astronaut story? Share it in the comments below.)

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

Pencil This In: Mercury’s Surface is Darkened by Graphite

Expanded-color image of Mercury's 52-km-wide Degas crater, surrounded by an abundance of curious dark stains. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

Expanded-color image of Mercury’s 52-km-wide Degas crater, surrounded by an abundance of curious dark stains. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

Monochromatic and covered in craters, Mercury may outwardly resemble our Moon but the similarities abruptly end there. Ever since the MESSENGER spacecraft entered orbit around Mercury in 2011, and indeed even since Mariner 10‘s flyby in 1974, peculiar “dark spots” observed on the planet’s surface have intrigued scientists as to their composition and origin. Now, thanks to high-resolution spectral data acquired by MESSENGER during the last few months of its mission, researchers have confirmed that Mercury’s dark spots contain a form of carbon called graphite, excavated by impacts from its ancient crust.

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This is Where MESSENGER Impacted Mercury

MESSENGER's final path before impact on April 30, 2015 (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

MESSENGER’s final path before impact on April 30, 2015 (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

On April 30, 2015, after more than ten years in space – four of those in orbit –  MESSENGER‘s mission and operational life came to its conclusive (and expected) end when it impacted the surface of Mercury. While the spacecraft’s approximate impact location was predicted by mission engineers (it was out of sight of Earth at the time) it wasn’t until nearly a month later that the exact site was determined.

The image above shows the spacecraft’s final path and the point of impact. See a closer view of the region below:

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