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Jul 202014

by Nur Hussein, staff writer

“First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space.”– John F. Kennedy, May 25th 1961, speaking to a joint session of Congress.

“That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” — Neil Armstrong, July 20th, 1969, making his first step onto the moon from the Eagle lunar module.

One of the first human footprints on the moon.

One of the first human footprints on the moon.

45 years ago today, human beings first set foot on the moon. It was the first time a person had landed and walked on a planetary body that wasn’t Earth. It was a momentous occasion in human history, and at the time it filled us with the hope that we were stepping out of our little planetary sphere into the great unknown void of space.

The Apollo program was created after the success of the manned spaceflight program, Project Mercury, and was dedicated to the goal of putting a man on the moon with a fixed deadline: by the end of the 1960′s. It was one of the most ambitious human endeavors ever undertaken, and it was born in an age of space pioneering where we really did vow to boldly go where no one had gone before.

The moon landing effort was fueled by the space race between America and the Soviets, and many technological leaps were made during this era. We built rockets and space vehicles, suits that could withstand the extremes of the airless void of space, and we had to innovate, create, and improvise (Neil Armstrong’s suit was actually made by a bra manufacturer) to be fully prepared as we could be for what lay ahead.

In the space of just eight years after Kennedy’s announcement of the plan for sending a man to the moon, NASA managed to pull it off. Apollo 11, which sent astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins on the first manned moon mission, was launched by massive Saturn V rockets from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The spacecraft had three main components: the Command Module which housed the astronauts (and would bring them back to Earth), the Service Module which provided the Command Module with electricity, oxygen, water and propulsion, and the Lunar Module for the eventual moon landing.

Apollo 11 Landing

Apollo 11 Landing

Armstrong and Aldrin took the Lunar Module down onto the moon’s surface and carried out their mission to do experiments, collect samples and take photos. One can only imagine the rush the astronaut felt being on another world, with different gravity and atmosphere, and looking back down at our beautiful blue sphere.

Meanwhile, Collins was in orbit in the Command Module, waiting for the rendezvous when the two other astronauts returned from their surface mission. Collins wrote in his autobiography that his secret fear was that something might happen to the landing party, or worse, have them be unable to take off again, which meant he had to leave them to die on the moon as he returned home. The fortitude required for that kind of responsibility is amazing, and despite sometimes being forgotten when talking of the Apollo 11 mission (since he never landed), it was Michael Collins who brought everyone home again.

After around 21 and a half hours on the surface, Armstrong and Aldrin successfully took off again from the upper section of the lander  (probably much to Collins’ relief) and rejoined the Command Module where they returned to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.

The success of the Apollo 11 missions led to further landings on the moon. However, after the last manned moon missions by the end of 1972, we humans have sadly not returned there. After 1976, there were no moon missions at all until 1990 after the Japanese launched a probe to the moon. There have been however, many unmanned missions since then, with efforts by countries like China and India. However to this date, only the United States has successfully put people on the moon and back.

For the 45th anniversary of the moon landing, Buzz Aldrin and NASA have compiled videos of user-submitted videos of people describing their memories of the moon landing. Included in the set of videos are submissions from famous celebrities such as Tim Allen, Stephen Colbert, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking and Bill Nye. You can watch the videos on the dedicated Youtube channel. Nye could vividly describe his memory of being glued to the TV set, on his knees, watching the moon landing. On the other hand Hawking never got to see any of the landings because he didn’t own a TV set, and he was attending a lecture on physics at the time of the Apollo 11 landing (that’s a bit sad). Colbert says his mom swears he saw the landing, but remembers nothing of it since he was five at the time. The #Apollo45 hashtag is being used on social media to tag the moon landing nostalgia.

Will we ever have another manned mission to the moon (and beyond?). We hope so. Currently the planned NASA Orion project will launch the Exploration Mission 2 or EM-2 no later than 2021 into lunar orbit to a captured asteroid around the moon’s orbit. If the mission goes ahead as planned, we hope we will return to explore space beyond our home planet and perhaps we will get the glorious sci-fi future we’ve always dreamed of: humans spreading out into space.


Jul 192014

by Cat Ellen, contributing writer

Lasers and Sparks

On Mars this week, NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover used lasers to examine the makeup of an interesting rock. Sparks flew and the flashes in the photos were combined into a video of the experience. Scientists have named the iron meteroite “Lebanon,” which is similar to meteorites found by the earlier rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. Iron meteorites outnumber the stony meteorites so far on Mars, possibly because of resistance to erosion on Mars.

“This is so exciting! The ChemCam laser has fired more than 150,000 times on Mars, but this is the first time we see the plasma plume that is created,” said ChemCam Deputy Principal Investigator Sylvestre Maurice, at the Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology, of France’s National Center for Scientific Research and the University of Toulouse, France. “Each time the laser hits a target, the plasma light is caught and analyzed by ChemCam’s spectrometers. What the new images add is confirmation that the size and shape of the spark are what we anticipated under Martian conditions.”


#NextGiantLeap and Morgan Freeman

Maybe Morgan Freeman wasn’t on Mars, but he was definitely at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) talking about when we will be going to Mars. It was standing room only at JPL for the #Apollo45 event as Morgan Freeman discussed the #NextGiantLeap — taking mankind on the #PathToMars, even if it’s a one-way trip. In light of all the reflections of #Apollo45, for many people it’s not enough to remember landing on the moon forty-five years ago, but it’s time to think about taking people to Mars.

See Science on Demand: with #NextGiantLeap with Morgan Freeman and Astronaut Reid Wiseman @astro_reid Video recorded (about 50 minutes):


Marking 45 Years Since Apollo 11

Speaking of Apollo, there’s still time to check out the “live tweeting” of #Apollo11@LizSuckow works with NASA Archives and has been posting the entire Apollo 11 event as if she were tweeting forty-five years ago, complete with photos and tv broadcasts from the mission.

For more events still coming up to honor the First Human Moon Landing, check out NASA’s schedule of events on NASA TV Sunday, July 20 through Thursday, July 24, including a panel at San Diego Comic-Con.

Mapping Mars

The U.S. Geological Survey has teamed up with ASU and they have created the most detailed global map yet of the surface of Mars. The various maps have combine data from thermal imaging plus visual and infrared cameras on NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter.


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Jul 122014
HIRISE photo courtesy of NASA

HIRISE photo courtesy of NASA Click to enlarge. Blue line in 3-Sigma Ellipse boundary.

by Laura Davis, managing editor

It’s been another exciting week on Mars! On June 27, the Curiosity rover crossed the boundary of its four-mile by 12-mile “3-Sigma ellipse” (the relative safety zone in which it landed) in the Gale Crater, and has been in undiscovered country since. On Tuesday of this week, NASA received the HIRISE images of the momentous crossing. This means that Curiosity will now be traveling past geologic formations and through terrain which might have posed a threat on landing, but should make for much more interesting viewing in the year to come!

The following day, NASA received transmission of the results of a test done in late June with the Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument built into Curiosity. Curiosity’s social media explains that it “laser-zapped this rock to see what was inside. (Hint: not nougat).”

Photo and graphic courtesy of NASA

Photo and graphic courtesy of NASA

The rock “shell” is about an inch across, and was found embedded in fine-grained bedrock and with a dust-filled hollow interior. The rock, called “Winnipesaukee,” has a weird hollowed-out space in the middle, so they separately analyzed the rock itself, the dust material found in the hollow (likely deposited from the air), and the surrounding bedrock. The colors of the lines on the graph below the image correspond to the colors of the circles marking the laser-shot locations.

“Analysis of spectra from the bedrock (black circles) identified high abundances of oxides of silicon, aluminum and sodium, typical of a feldspathic composition. The material forming the ‘shell’ (red circles) has a more basaltic or mafic composition, with higher iron and magnesium content. The dust (green circles) is almost certainly airborne material that accumulated in the void space. This dust contains a relatively high hydrogen (water) signature compared to other Martian materials, which is generally characteristic of the ubiquitous dust that forms a thin mantle on much of the surface.”

As Curiosity trundles through its new territory, its guidance teams are trying to choose the easiest routes available for it to accommodate its frozen front wheel. Here, we see Curiosity making its way across the Martian surface, with the comment, “Rolling over dunes. The science must flow.”

Martian dunes. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Martian dunes. Photo courtesy of NASA.



Jun 282014
Anniversary wishes from "JPL Mohawk Guy," NASA engineer Bobak Ferdowsi, part of the team behind the Mars Curiosity landing

Anniversary wishes from “JPL Mohawk Guy,” NASA engineer Bobak Ferdowsi, part of the team behind the Mars Curiosity landing

by Cat Ellen, contributing writer

Time to roll out the birthday cake and noisemakers: NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover marked a full Martian year in service (with 687 Earth days) on June 24, 2014. How many “one-year-olds” do you know that have accomplished their mission goals while taking so many adorable selfies?

The main goal of the Mars Science Laboratory was to examine and determine whether the history of Mars included favorable conditions for life, regardless of how long ago that might have been. After landing in August 2012, Curiosity found evidence for an ancient lakebed, mudstone slabs, and essential elements that would have provided a good home for microbes or other living organisms in the ancient days of the Red Planet.

Since those early findings at Yellowknife Bay and then Martian Gale Crater, the rover has been busy examining radiation levels, measuring elements in the atmosphere, calculating the age of rocks, and assessing evidence for water flows and organic compounds.

Back on Earth, teams of scientists and engineers plan the commands to be sent to Curiosity, driving routes, and tasks for the science instruments. Each new plan depends on the previous discoveries communicated back from the rover. Driving routes must be safe and designed to keep the rover in excellent working order. Having endured some wheel damage in late 2013, Curiosity’s routes since mid-May have measured just under a mile, a slower pace than before, totaling just under 5 miles for the whole mission to date.

Curiosity sends data at the end of each work day, relaying photos or discoveries to an orbiter which sends the signals to Earth. The radio signals can take between 4-24 minutes between planets, so the commands are bundled into to-do lists for each new set of plans. Various operations are sorted into tasks for the next one to three Martian days, a five-day plan, and long-range strategies for the next month.

From all of us at Krypton Radio and from fans around the world, happy anniversary, Mars Curiosity!

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Jun 192014

by Ralph Carr, U.K. correspondent 

Dark Matter: A primer

Starboard truss of the ISS, with Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2 (AMS) visible at center left.

Starboard truss of the ISS, with Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2 (AMS) visible at center left.

During their observations on the Universe at large, scientists have constructed a visualisation, a mathematical model, which attempts to describe the way things work. Using all of the available marketing skills, the model has been called The Standard Model.

Very generally speaking, The Standard Model describes how all the matter in the universe came into being from condensing energy, shortly after the Big Bang, or “Event 1.”

After the first expansion, the universe has been steadily spreading out and cooling down, for about the last sixteen billion years. This sounds very idyllic, and for a long time, the steadily expanding universe has been thought of as the way the universe behaves.

Some scientists however, were bothered that our universe may be a one-off, never to happen again.

They speculated that if there was enough overall gravitational field in the universe, then the expansion, caused by the Big Bang, would eventually succumb to the gravitational field, and, after reaching its limit, would eventually collapse back in on itself, forming a super, hyper-black hole, which would then become an unimaginable singularity, spontaneously exploding and causing the next Big Bang, and the next universe. This idea is called the Oscillating Universe Hypothesis.

Scientists tended to favour this idea, because it gave the possibility of continuation, rather than eventual decay.

Can you imagine the horror on leading scientist’s faces, when they fed their numbers into their equations, and the numbers came up short of what they expect? Not just a little short, but it appeared that 95% of the universe was missing. What you see and can detect in the universe, is only 1/20th of what is needed to make the Standard Model work.

By a stroke of genius, the scientists involved, said that the missing matter must be there, we just can’t see it, and because you can’t see or detect it, they gave it a name, and thus it came to pass, that the idea of dark matter was born, and great was the rejoicing in the scientific community.

Dark matter is the theoretical, missing mass that is thought to pervade our universe, and is needed to make the mathematics work. You cannot observe dark matter, detect it, taste it, smell it, or perform any other known form of analysis on it. It exists solely to make the equations of The Standard Model of the Universe work.

It is supposed to have a gravitational field 19 times greater than the rest of the universe put together, and yet, there have only been speculative glimpses as to its existence. It seems that dark matter is as elusive as a clear picture of a UFO.

Dark Matter: What’s new?


Left: The sky during a three-hour interval prior to the detection of gamma ray event GRB 130427A. Right: A three-hour interval starting 2.5 hours before the burst and ending 30 minutes into the event, illustrating its brightness relative to the rest of the gamma-ray sky. GRB 130427A was located in the constellation Leo near its border with Ursa Major, whose brightest stars form the familiar Big Dipper. Image courtesy of NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration.

Left: The sky during a three-hour interval prior to the detection of gamma ray event GRB 130427A. Right: A three-hour interval starting 2.5 hours before the burst and ending 30 minutes into the event, illustrating its brightness relative to the rest of the gamma-ray sky. GRB 130427A was located in the constellation Leo near its border with Ursa Major, whose brightest stars form the familiar Big Dipper. Image courtesy of NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration.

Earlier this year, a study was made using publicly available data from NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. Independent scientists at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab), the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Chicago have developed new maps showing that the galactic center produces more high-energy gamma rays than can be explained by known sources and that this excess emission is consistent with some forms of dark matter.

“The new maps allow us to analyze the excess and test whether more conventional explanations, such as the presence of undiscovered pulsars or cosmic-ray collisions on gas clouds, can account for it,” said Dan Hooper, an astrophysicist at Fermilab in Batavia, Ill., and a lead author of the study. “The signal we find cannot be explained by currently proposed alternatives and is in close agreement with the predictions of very simple dark matter models.”

Renewed speculation over the existence of dark matter has arisen this week because a cosmic ray detector on the International Space Station has detected some immensely powerful cosmic rays, which, scientists think, could only be created by two bodies of dark matter colliding, or a spinning magnetic supernova remnant called a pulsar. Would anybody care to place bets as to the origins?

Dark matter may or may not exist. One thing is very clear. In the history of science, there have been several times when the Standard Model has been under pressure, and an undetectable substance has been ‘created’ to fill the gaps in the abilities of current observers; Phlogiston, Caloric, and The Ether are but three examples. Could it be that dark matter is the 21st Century’s Phlogiston? Invented by capable minds to fill the gap, until we can really learn what is actually going on?

So, dark matter or not, the Standard Model is flawed, and this isn’t a problem because the model is always evolving and becoming more refined. What was a simple mystery today gets thoroughly explained by the next generation of scientists.

Whatever the point of view, dark matter sceptic or dark matter acceptor, dark matter is here to stay (for now), but what it actually is, is anybody’s guess. Careful observation and painstaking research will find it out and show its true nature.

What I will guarantee though, is that once truly discovered, its true nature will be weirder, more fascinating, and more wonderful than we ever thought possible. Because the Universe has a habit of doing stuff like that…


May 302014

Dragon V2SpaceX unveiled its next generation spacecraft, Dragon V2, in a press conference overnight, and it’s full of promise! The re-usable capsule is designed to carry up to seven passengers, and can be configured to re-task passenger space as cargo space when needed. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk stated that Dragon V2 will make its first manned voyage by the end of 2016. In regular flight service, the craft is expected to go 10 launches without needing a major tune-up, and even then, only the heat shield is expected to need service and repair.

One of the reasons that Dragon V2 will endure so long is that it can land on solid ground, without parachutes, and, SpaceX says, with the accuracy of a helicopter. The capsule uses eight SuperDraco thrusters (each of which offers 16,000 lbf of force) to slow itself down and make a controlled landing. The SuperDraco engines are 3D printed from a superalloy, and they use hypergolic liquid rocket fuel, which can be stored at room temperature, and ignites spontaneously when the two component liquids come into contact: no ignitor needed. Though the component liquids are both quite toxic, the waste products of their combination will be water, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide. The SuperDraco engines are about 200 times more powerful than the Draco engines currently in use on the Dragon spacecraft.

These engines also represent a huge improvement in safe response to emergencies. For example if the Dragon V2 encounters a problem during launch, it can use its thrusters to abort a take-off at any time during ascent and land safely. It can land safely, even with two of its thrusters out of commission, and it also has a backup parachute in case it needs to make an emergency splashdown.

Musk says NASA and other customers can hire a launch of the Dragon V2 for as little as $20 million. He adds that their goal is to make spaceflight so affordable that hundreds, if not thousands of spacecraft are hurtling into space daily.