Space News

Voyager Lives!

With all the disheartening news coming from Washington, DC, and elsewhere, here’s one piece of happy reporting:

Voyager I spacecraft, launched in 1977 and traveling outside our solar system now, 13 billion miles from the Sun, is still sputtering along.

Last week, scientists sent out commands to fire its thrusters, idle since 1980. The signal took 20 hours to reach the spacecraft, 20 hours to return–and it worked. The thrusters fired, the thing moved. The staff cheered.

And all this using technology that’s probably less advanced than your watch, and with a team of nine ancient engineers working out of a small rental suite in Altadena, CA.

Which proves, I like to think, that the US was once capable of amazing feats of scientific endeavor and, perhaps, still is.

This is the same Voyager spacecraft, by the way, that carries the famous “Golden Record”–a gold-plated copper disc engraved with Earth images, sounds, spoken messages, and music, including Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Blind Willie Johnson, and Chuck Berry playing “Johnny B. Goode.”

(You can buy your own copy of the Golden Record, available for the first time this year in a special 3-album set, from Ozma Records.)

Below’s the full article from ArsTechnica on the firing of Voyager I’s thrusters. See also my August 4 post about the skeleton staff still operating the Voyagers, The Loyal Engineers Steering NASA’s Voyager Probes Across the Universe.


After 37 Years, Voyager I Has Fired Up Its Trajectory Thrusters
This week, the scientists and engineers on the Voyager team did something very special.

12/1/2017, 2:45 PM

At present, the Voyager 1 spacecraft is 21 billion kilometers from Earth, or about 141 times the distance between the Earth and Sun. It has, in fact, moved beyond our Solar System into interstellar space. However, we can still communicate with Voyager across that distance.

This week, the scientists and engineers on the Voyager team did something very special. They commanded the spacecraft to fire a set of four trajectory thrusters for the first time in 37 years to determine their ability to orient the spacecraft using 10-millisecond pulses.

After sending the commands on Tuesday, it took 19 hours and 35 minutes for the signal to reach Voyager. Then, the Earth-bound spacecraft team had to wait another 19 hours and 35 minutes to see if the spacecraft responded. It did. After nearly four decades of dormancy, the Aerojet Rocketdyne manufactured thrusters fired perfectly.

“The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test. The mood was one of relief, joy, and incredulity after witnessing these well-rested thrusters pick up the baton as if no time had passed at all,” said Todd Barber, a propulsion engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

In recent decades, Voyager had been relying on its primary thrusters to keep the spacecraft properly oriented so that it can maintain a communications link with Earth. But these attitude control thrusters have been degrading over time, requiring more and more energy each time they’ve been used.

By switching to the spacecraft’s “trajectory correction maneuver” thrusters, last used during the spacecraft’s encounter with Saturn in 1980, engineers say they will be able to extend the lifetime of Voyager by two or three more years before its waning power reserves expire.

Asteroid Freddie Mercury

Asteroid 17473 was renamed Asteroid Freddie Mercury yesterday by the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. Freddie Mercury is 2.2 miles across and sails between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter at a speed of 12.5 miles per second. With a good telescope, it’s visible as a faint dot of light.

Asteroid Freddie Mercury

Asteroid Freddie Mercury

And if you listen very, very closely, you might hear this as it passes:

More here from the Guardian newspaper.

Cosmonaut Christmas Greetings

Old USSR Christmas cards with cosmonauts. The greeting in Russian, с новым годом, means “Happy New Year.” You can see more cosmonaut Christmas cards here.




Christmas in Space

Boys watch the Christmas Eve broadcast from Apollo 8 astronauts in space, December 24, 1968. (Photo: Bruce Dale/National Geographic, via Will Amato.)

Apollo 8 Xmas Eve

In THE NIGHT OF THE COMET, Alan Broussard and son watch a TV broadcast of the Skylab astronauts decorating a Christmas tree made out of empty space-food tubes in 1973:


The Golden Record

The “Golden Record” is a two-sided, gold-plated, copper LP attached to the Voyager I and II spacecrafts, one on each. Launched in 1977, the Voyager probes are now 10 billion miles away, the farthest human-made objects from Earth.

Astronomer Carl Sagan oversaw the committee that assembled the music, sounds, and images that were inscribed on the disks.

(A cartridge with stylus were also attached to the spacecraft, so that aliens, when they find it, will be able to play the record.)

Included on the record are:

  • A greeting, in English, from then-Secretary General of the UN
  • “Hello” in 55 languages
  • Sounds of the Earth, including sounds from nature, people at work, and a mother kissing a child
  • 27 tracks of music, including a wide range of songs and music from around the world
  • 116 images
  • and a one-hour recording of brainwaves and heartbeats from Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan’s fiancee

Ms. Druyan explains the last:

“Earlier I had asked Carl if those putative extraterrestrials of a billion years from now could conceivably interpret the brain waves of a meditator. Who knows? A billion years is a long, long time, was his reply. On the chance that it might be possible why don’t we give it a try?

“Two days after our life-changing phone call, I entered a laboratory at Bellevue Hospital in New York City and was hooked up to a computer that turned all the data from my brain and heart into sound. I had a one-hour mental itinerary of the information I wished to convey. I began by thinking about the history of Earth and the life it sustains. To the best of my abilities I tried to think something of the history of ideas and human social organization. I thought about the predicament that our civilization finds itself in and about the violence and poverty that make this planet a hell for so many of its inhabitants. Toward the end I permitted myself a personal statement of what it was like to fall in love.”

Here’s track 31 of 31: The Cavatina Movement from String Quartet No. 13 In B Flat, Opus 130, by Ludwig van Beethoven.

The Comet Chaser Readies for Touchdown

A few weeks ago I posted about how the European Space Agency’s “Rosetta” aircraft has intercepted Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko after chasing it for ten years through the planets.

The latest news, for all you space geeks, is that the touchdown site on the comet has been identified, and on November 11 a probe will leave Rosetta and land on the comet.

X marks the spot:


The Comet Chaser Catches Its Comet

The big news in space today is that the European Space Agency’s “Rosetta” spacecraft has, after a ten-year journey, finally rendezvoused with its target, Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenk.

Here’s a picture of Comet C-G up close:


I mentioned the comet chaser in a post back in January. The New York Times has a front-page article about the Rosetta mission in the paper today.

The Times writes:

“From a distance, the blurry blob initially looked somewhat like a rubber duck. As the details came into focus, it began to bear a closer resemblance to a knob of ginger flying through space.”

The comet’s far enough from the sun (330 million miles) that it’s still just a hunk of ice and rock. As it gets closer, the sun will heat the comet and it will begin to acquire the familiar coma and tail of a comet.

The Rosetta spacecraft will accompany Comet C-G for a year, flying right alongside it as it circles the sun.

The Comet Chaser Awakes!

You may have seen this in the news. The European Space Agency’s “Rosetta” spacecraft was launched ten years ago with the plan for it to intercept Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko and drop a probe onto its surface this year.

Rosetta has been in hibernation for 2 1/2 years and was just stirred back to life yesterday by the ESA center in Germany.

The comet interception is set to happen this fall. There have been other spacecraft-to-comet missions before, but this will be the first time that a craft goes into orbit around a comet and anchors a probe to its surface. Here’s what it’s supposed to look like:


A little impressive, no?

Christmas in Space: “God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”

This Christmas, NASA is celebrating the 45th anniversary of Apollo 8 and the first manned spacecraft to orbit the Moon. The astronauts of Apollo 8 took this iconic photo of the first-seen Earthrise on Christmas Eve in 1968.


NPR has nice coverage of it here.

Astronaut Bill Anders: “Oh, my God, look at that picture over there. There’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty!” To astronaut James Lovell: “You got a color film, Jim? Hand me a roll of color, quick, would you?”

Lovell: “Oh, man, that’s great! Where is it?”

Anders: “Hurry. Quick.”

Lovell: “Down here?”

Anders: “Just grab me a color. A color exterior. Hurry up. Got one?”

Lovell: “Yeah, I’m lookin’ for one. C368.”

Anders: “Anything quick.”

Anders: “I think we missed it.”

Anders: “Wait a minute, just let me get the right setting here now, just calm down. Calm down, Lovell!”


A few years later, astronauts in the Skylab (the fellows who tracked Comet Kohoutek) would celebrate their 1973 Christmas with this tree made from used space-food tubes:

Skylab Christmas Tree


And this Christmas, lest we forget, there are still men in space. Yesterday in the International Space Station, astronauts Mike Hopkins and Rick Mastracchio were busy making repairs to their craft during a seven-hour space walk.

ISS Repairs 2013


Retired Apollo 8 astronaut James Lovell–the one who couldn’t find the camera–commemorated the first Christmas in space by repeating the words he beamed back to Earth in 1968:

“We close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas — and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”

Neil Armstrong, 1930-2012

Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon, died a year ago. He’s being remembered in the news again this week for his “giant leap” in 1969.

Here he is again. I like to imagine him always like this, standing astride the Moon, waving down at us.