The little lander that could

Rosetta's view of Philae as she descends to Comet 67P. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Rosetta’s view of Philae as it descended to the surface of Comet 67P on November 12, 2014. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Philae now lies somewhere in the dark on Comet 67P. Its batteries drained, it has gone into hibernation, probably for the last time. Its story was nothing short of dramatic, exciting, and seemingly tragic for so many of us here on Earth unable to do anything but watch the little lander die from 300 million kilometers away.

And yet, it was one of humanity’s finest hours.

If you were to stop reading this post right now and head on over to phoenixpic’s post about Philae’s brief, but highly successful race-against-the-clock mission, I’d be totally cool with that. It’s a well-told tale that puts a lot of the events into its proper context.

But I remain in awe of just what an amazing success the Philae lander was. Despite its failed downward thruster, bouncing not once but twice away from its planned landing site, its harpoon system not being fired, a lens cap not coming off its spectrometer, ending up in the shadow of a cliff, deprived of the sunlight it badly needed to recharge its batteries,  despite all of those things….Philae still managed to fulfill its mission.

Think about that for a second. Against all odds, all of the available science instruments on board Philae were able to sample a 5 billion year-old relic from the formation of the solar system. Ok sure we’re not going to be able to go into an extended mission with Philae. We’ll never be able to see a beautiful panorama of the surface and watch it gently erupt as it draws nearer to the Sun.

But there is a ton of data already gathered and much, much more to come from the Rosetta orbiter itself. We’ve come a long way, and there is much to be learned. This is what Ambition looks like.


This computer-generated art shows the launch abort system still attached and the jettison of the service module fairing panels.
Image Credit: 

Going to the NASA Social for Orion’s First Launch!

Woo-hoo!!! I’ve been accepted to cover the first launch of NASA’s Orion spacecraft on December 3rd! The event is a NASA Social - much like the one I attended last year to cover the LADEE launch from Wallops Island, VA. This time the spacecraft is Orion and it will be launching from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, but the good folks at NASA have arranged meetups at NASA centers around the country to get an inside preview.

Lucky for me, I’ve been selected to cover the event at my old stomping grounds at  NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, MD. It will be cool to get back there and see what’s new, tour the facilities, and hopefully get a good look at the James Webb Space Telescope under assembly.

But the main event is the maiden flight of the Orion spacecraft itself, which actually won’t be until early the following morning.  As you probably know, the United States has been hitching rides to the International Space Station aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft ever since the retirement of the Space Shuttles in 2011. NASA has been developing a new manned spacecraft – Orion, which looks an awful lot like the Apollo spacecraft last flown nearly 40 years ago.

But whereas Apollo was designed to take astronauts to the Moon, Orion is designed to take astronauts to the Moon, an asteroid, Mars, or anywhere Congress decides to pony up the dough for. But like any new vehicle, it eventually has to be tested in actual spaceflight, and that’s where the Exploration Flight Test 1, or EFT-1, mission comes in.

EFT-1 will launch Orion atop a Delta-IV Heavy launch vehicle, boost it an altitude 15 times higher than the International Space Station, return to Earth in a high-speed re-entry, and parachute to a splashdown landing in the Pacific ocean. To give you a better idea of the mission, check out this video:

Orion: Trial By Fire. Credit: NASA

The mission is pretty ambitious for a first outing. Not only will the spacecraft’s re-entry and thermal protection systems be tested, but it will do so from a much higher altitude and at a far steeper angle than current spacecraft. The Space Shuttle and Soyuz return from the International Space Station from low-Earth orbit at the relatively “low” speed of 17,500 miles per hour. Orion will eventually be returning from the Moon (or beyond) at much higher speeds. To simulate that, EFT-1 will send Orion much higher up to re-enter at a considerably higher speed.

I’m sure I’ll be getting more into the weeds on this later, but for now I’m jazzed about visiting Goddard again and attending the NASA Social. Hopefully we’ll wake up the next morning and see Orion liftoff for the first time. Go Orion!

Philae’s view from Comet 67P

The good folks on the Rosetta mission have been working hard to figure out exactly where the Philae lander ended up after yesterday’s landing, and this morning released the first images taken from the surface of a comet. Most of the images don’t reveal much, but this one shows a fair amount of detail:

Surface of Comet 67P, taken from one of Philae's landing leg cameras. Credit: ESA
Surface of Comet 67P, taken from one of Philae’s landing leg cameras. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA

How amazing is that??? When combined with the other images on cameras mounted on the lander, we have the first panorama of Philae’s landing site:

The first panoramic image of Philae's landing site. Credit: ESA Rosetta / Philae / CIVA
The first panoramic image of Philae’s landing site. Credit: ESA Rosetta / Philae / CIVA

As you can see, most of the image is pretty dark, and that’s a problem. Philae was supposed to land in a well-illuminated landing site. Not only would that have given better imagery, but crucially, it would have provided power to Philae’s solar panels.

Instead it bounced, sending the lander about a kilometer back into space. For about an hour, it slowly drifted back down in the comet’s low gravity, eventually landing a considerable distance from its planned location. At this point, it seemed to have bounced again, though not quite as much.

Philae's planned landing site (red) and the area where it most likely bounced to (blue). Credit: ESA
Philae’s planned landing site (red) and the area where it most likely bounced to (blue). Credit: ESA

Space blogger Jason Major was able to visualize this a little better by mapping the planned and actual landing regions onto an image:

To make matters worse, only two of Philae’s three landing feet are in contact with the comet’s surface – in other words, Philae seems to be knocked to one side.

All of this means that Philae won’t be able to get the power it needs to do all of the planned science. But the good news is that it’s still talking to the Osiris Rosetta orbiter and is otherwise in great shape. That means that some science can and will be done, but right now it’s a matter of prioritizing what science can be done with the power they have left.

None of this is to take away from an incredible accomplishment – we landed on a comet, and there is much to be learned. Way to go, Rosetta!

Descending to a comet

As the Philae lander was making its descent (approach?) to the comet, its ROLIS imager snapped this image:

Phiae's landing site from 3km away! Photo byESA Rosetta / Philae / Rolis
Phiae’s landing site from 3km away! Photo byESA Rosetta / Philae / Rolis

I mean, holy fricken WOW! Philae’s landing site is in the middle of the frame, on top of one of the lobes of comet 67P. Philae is down there on the surface and from what I can tell, it’s relatively stable. The hope was that harpoons would fire to firmly attach the lander, but the firing did not occur as planned.

It does seem that screws on the feet of the lander managed to successfully drive into the surface, however, so for now, the decision is to leave the lander as-is and not fire the harpoons.

And this just came in as I was writing this post – a new image of the comet’s surface just seconds before landing!

Phiae's landing site seconds from landing. Photo byESA Rosetta / Philae / Rolis
Phiae’s landing site seconds from landing. Photo byESA Rosetta / Philae / Rolis

Rosetta and Philae comet landing liveblog

Since I’m not going to be able to get much actual work done for the next hour or so, I thought I’d start up a little live blog. Because we’re landing on a fricken comet!!!
Here’s the live webcast:

Rosetta comet landing live stream

10:22 am EDT: Philae undocks and waves goodbye to Rosetta!

ESA Rosetta / Philae / ÇIVA
ESA Rosetta / Philae / ÇIVA

And here’s a view of the Philae lander from the Osiris orbiter!

All three landing legs deployed!
All three landing legs deployed!

10:41 am EST: Philae should have landed a few minutes ago. The whole world is waiting for its signal to arrive at the speed of light. It can’t get here fast enough.

10:55 am EST: Hearing reports that the folks on the livestream don’t look happy. The signal is coming. We’ll soon know for real.

11:04 am EST: WE DOD IT!!!!!!!!


11:12 am EST:

11:17 am EST: It’s hard to describe exactly what I’m feeling right now. So much time and effort went into this mission and yet it’s really just beginning. Now that Philae is down, the science from the surface of the comet can begin. The significance of landing on a comet cannot be understated. Not only is it a remarkable engineering achievement in and of itself, but we now have an opportunity to study a relic of the formation of our own solar system up close.

We do great things when we want to.

11:44 am EST: It looks like there is something to be concerned about. After soft landing a thruster was supposed to fire and harpoon anchors were supposed to fire into the comet. This did not happen so they cannot confirm that they are attached to the comet. Ugh.

The problem is that comets have very low gravitational fields. Therefore, Philae isn’t designed to land on, but rather attach itself to the comet. To do this, Philae is designed to fire harpoons into the surface upon landing. It seems that this did not happen and they’re trying to figure out a) if this is in fact the case, and b) what options they might have to attempt a refiring.

12:19 pm EST: It looks like Philae, while not (yet?) stable, isn’t in any danger and may be able to still get good science done. It’s going to be a while before they decide what to do next and I’m sure they’re not going to do anything that puts the science mission into further jeopardy. I’m gonna wrap up this live blog here and just say how amazing it is that we landed on a comet for the first time ever. Well done, ESA!


Interstellar Review

Interstellar set a high bar – a blockbuster science fiction film that is based on real science. With physicist Kip Thorne providing accurate, no-kidding-this-is-how-it-would-really-be physics and Christopher Nolan as writer & director, what could go wrong?

Well, um… plenty. But I liked it anyway.

My issues with Interstellar were less science-oriented so much as plot, characterization, and dialog. To be fair, Gravity suffered from many of the same problems, and yet I loved it anyway. Why? Because it made a solid effort to get most of the science right and create a stunning visual experience that, for lack of a better word, educates the viewer about the challenges of spaceflight.

I felt that Interstellar does the same with general relativity but, like Gravity, does so at the cost of a contrived plot, cringe-worthy dialog, and a love theme that felt shoehorned in because movie. Oh, and it left some really bad science errors in its wake.

NOTE: From here on, it’s going to get spoiler-ific so be warned…

I could spend days writing up a detailed synopsis and critique of this film, but to be honest I really don’t have the time to plumb the depths. Besides, like many of Nolan’s films, the plot for Interstellar is rather involved and difficult to sum up in a short form. There’s a pretty good synopsis already up on Wikipedia, so I’ll just make some observations about the film here.

Launch me

Staging – that’s the way you do it

Having our heroes launch from Earth to Endurance atop a Saturn V-style launch vehicle made perfect sense – to get into Earth orbit without staging, your rocket would have to be 95% fuel, your ship would have to be 95% gas can, and that’s a lot of extra weight you now have to launch. Staging is the only way to get around this problem today.

But later in the film, we see our heroes making multiple planet-to space trips in completely reusable Single Stage to Orbit (SSTO) vehicles, at least one of which is from a planet with a surface gravity 30% greater than Earth’s. Somehow, these smaller ships have energy to spare?

But even later in the film, the staging requirement suddenly comes back in order for our heroes to escape their slingshot trajectory around a black hole.

Now, I get that it’s all in service to the story, but it bothers me to introduce a crucial bit of physics at the beginning, ignore it for most of the rest of the film, and then suddenly require it again to move the story along.

The wormhole


This was one of my favorite bits of the film and was unquestionably gorgeous in its execution. A three-dimensional mouth of a wormhole would certainly look like a sphere full of the stars on the other side.

But why would “They” place a wormhole at Saturn, of all places? I can appreciate having it some distance away so that tidal forces from the wormhole don’t cause even bigger problems for Earth, but shouldn’t you at least place it elsewhere in Saturn’s orbit so as not to tidally disrupt Saturn’s outer moons and create a possible debris field for travelers?

My guess is that the wormhole is at Saturn because it looks cool on film and serves as a visual foreshadowing of the scene around the black hole. Oh well, at least it took the crew two years to get there.

Update 11 November 2014: It was pointed out to me that this was a nod to Arthur C. Clarke’s novelization of 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the novel, the monolith was placed at Saturn. Duh, of course! But why would “They” place the monolith at Saturn? Don’t they know Saturn is hard for humans to get to? Ok, ok, ok…

Speaking of which, it’s also unclear to me how Endurance decelerates once it emerges from the other side. After all, if you’re going fast enough to get to Saturn in just two years, you now have a hell of a lot of kinetic energy you need to get rid of. I’m guessing “They” must have set up the wormhole to act as a gravitational brake or something at the other end, but this is never explained. Oh well.

Water world, extreme tides, and time dilation

The crew returns from a 2-hour excursion on Miller’s planet to discover to their horror that 23 years have elapsed on Earth. It was great seeing time dilation depicted like this, albeit under just the right circumstances.

First, the planet lies close to Gargantua, a black hole with 100 million times our Sun’s mass. By comparison, the black hole at the center of the Milky Way is only 4 million solar masses – now we know why they’re 10 billion light-years away – Gargantua is in a whole other galaxy!

Gargantua is also rotating at 99.8% the speed of light. Under these conditions, tidal forces from the black hole are low enough that a planet can orbit at a “safe” distance without being torn apart (I’m going to trust that Kip Thorne’s calculations are right about this and save myself some work). That’s important because Miller’s planet is in Gargantua’s habitable zone – that is, is at that critical distance where liquid water can exist on the surface.

But if Gargantua is a black hole, how is there any warmth or light? It turns out it’s all coming from around the black hole – some from its accretion disk, which is heated to millions of degrees, and some from the distant starlight that’s being bent and refracted around the black hole. That’s very cool.

However…the accretion disk would be flooding the entire system with x-rays. It isn’t clear to me that any of those planets’ magnetospheres would be able to withstand that much bomboardment. I wonder if this was factored into the calculation? I’m guessing not.

(Incidentally, physicist Kip Thorne has a companion book – which I’ve thoughtfully added to my wish list - that explains the science in the film. He’s forgotten more about black holes in the last five minutes than I’ll ever know in my entire lifetime – that is, not very much.)

A "ranger" spacecraft at Miller's planet
A ranger spacecraft at Miller’s planet

What’s less clear is how Miller’s planet can have shallow oceans and yet have tidal waves kilometers high? Certainly, the waves are due to the extreme tidal pull of Gargantua, but wouldn’t those same tidal forces cause Miller’s planet to be tidally locked? If so, then there wouldn’t be any waves in the first place. Granted, the tidal wave served as a plot device to delay their departure and confront the effects of time dilation, but this had my spider senses tingling.

Love transcends space and time and… give me a break

FL-23327Due to the loss of time and fuel (hey, fuel is now a limited resource again!), the crew must now decide which of the remaining two planets to visit before returning home. It’s at this point that we learn that Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) is in love with Dr. Edmunds, the scientist who went to Edmunds’ planet. In pleading her case, she states that love, like gravity, is capable of transcending dimensions and possibly time. This is the part that bugs me the most and strikes me as being kind of sexist to be honest. Does Brand have to be in love with Edmunds? Was this intended to be a tear-jerker? Ugh.

I know, it’s a reason to create dramatic tension but this felt like the most contrived plot twist in a film that had plenty of contrived twists in it already.

A villain? Really?


The crew goes to Mann’s planet where they find Dr. Mann (Matt Damon) alive in hibernation. The planet is cold and desolate with an ammonia atmosphere. It turns out that Mann has been sending false reports that the planet is suitable for human habitation in the hopes that Earth would send a crew to rescue him. But rather than come clean, Mann leads Cooper away from camp to show him the habitable region he claims is just “over there.”

You can see where this is going.

Mann tries to kill Cooper by cracking his helmet and leaves him to die of exposure to the ammonia atmosphere. He returns to base camp, steals a ship, and flies off to steal Endurance and return home.  The base camp is booby-trapped, killing the last remaining member of Endurance’s crew that isn’t Matthew McConaughey or Anne Hathaway.

To be honest, I’m just going to stop there because this whole segment just didn’t work for me. I think Interstellar missed a major opportunity to distinguish itself from typical science fiction films and instead decided to shoehorn in an action sequence complete with a villain that felt out of place in the story. You’re 10 billion light-years from Earth,  humanity’s very existence is at stake, and you want to muck about with an action sequence? You’re orbiting a frigging black hole for crying out loud!!!!!

Rendezvous at Gargantua


With Endurance crippled, Cooper and Brand decide their only option is to make a slingshot run around Gargantua to gather enough speed to make the trip to Edmunds’ planet. TARS, one of the service robots, will be jettisoned into the black hole inside one of the shuttles, relaying as much data as possible before crossing the event horizon.

This is in the hope that enough information can be transmitted through the wormhole back to Earth to help whomever is left to figure out a means for bringing the rest of humanity along with them. Due to time dilation, their journey around the black hole will take 68 years on Earth.

Let me pause for a moment and say that the whole business of mucking about a black hole is exactly what I loved about the film! The rendering is the result of a year of computational work based on Thorne’s equations. It’s gorgeous and I’m going to leave it at that…

…because Cooper jettisons himself into the black hole as well in order to shed more weight from Endurance so that Brand may live.

Update: 11 November: I basically rewrote the rest of this segment to clarify the whole bit on how you can survive crossing a black hole’s event horizon if the conditions are right. I hope this helps

Now, a lot of early reviews balked at this sequence, and it’s understandable. In “classic” black hole theory, we assume the simplest case where the black hole is about 5-10 solar masses and not rotating. In that case, the black hole’s tidal forces would be so strong as you cross its event horizon that even an astronaut’s body would be stretched and torn down to its individual atoms in a process affectionately known as spaghettification.

However, Gargantua is in fact a 100 million solar-mass black hole that is rotating at 99.8% the speed of light. These two qualities literally change the equation of such a black hole’s tidal forces in such a way that you can fall into the black hole without noticing anything – gentle tidal forces are absent, let alone the extreme spaghettifying ones.

What I don’t understand is how Cooper survives getting gamma-rayed to death from the intense radiation at the accretion disk. I think they entered from above the disk, but I’d think that the radiation environment is still pretty strong, though to be honest, I’m really not sure so I’m going to trust that this part is legit, but I’m not sure.

Anyway, the practical upshot is TARS and Cooper can pass through Gargantua’s event horizon and fall into the black hole in one piece. without being stretched out into a sting of atoms due to what would otherwise be extreme tidal forces.

Bootstrap Paradox

It’s been speculated that black holes of sufficient mass can be used as gateways to higher dimensions, but by definition, we ultimately cannot know for certain what happens beyond a black hole’s event horizon. After all, nothing, not even light, can escape from within this region so we have no way of knowing. But since this is a movie…

…It turns out that “They” were humanity’s descendents all along and that it was Cooper himself who sent TARS’ data on the black hole back through time to his adult daughter, now a physicist trying to find a way to save humanity. In other words, it’s self-consistent time travel made possible by the fact that Cooper was the one sending messages back through time to himself which set Cooper on his journey to the black hole. Meanwhile, Cooper’s daughter uses her father’s messages to save humanity, who are then able to leave Earth, survive, and eventually become pan-dimensional beings. Yay.

His mission complete, “They” send Cooper back through the wormhole (hey, they’re hyper-dimensional beings after all) where he is rescued near Saturn, taken aboard Cooper station – humanity’s new outpost made possible by Cooper’s daughter’s work.

Now 108 years old, Cooper’s daughter tells Cooper to go back through the wormhole to find Brand, now living on Edmunds’ planet, and bring her home. Cooper and a newly-repaired TARS steal a Ranger and the credits roll.

Summing up

Despite its story flaws, I liked Interstellar if for no other reason than we got to see the effects of general relativity portrayed in a major motion picture. Maybe it was because my expectations were lowered, but I enjoyed it and would like to see it again, story tropes and all. The visualizations were amazing and it’s nice to have a demonstrable proof that you can have a major blockbuster film that is grounded in physics. More like this, please.

The International Space Station in 3-D

If you have a pair of red-green 3-d viewing glasses, put them om, go to full screen / HD, and go into space:

NASA’s 3-D Tour of the International Space Station. Credit: NASA’s Marshall Center

Is that amazing or what? Now personally, I could do without the music. I prefer to hear the actual sounds of what it’s like aboard ISS. As it turns out, I stumbled across another video hosted by astronaut Sunita Williams which, though much longer, gives you a full tour of ISS and is just amazing to watch. Check it out:

SpaceShipTwo, one crew member lost

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane is slung beneath the WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane before Friday's takeoff. Credit: Jason DiVenere / Scaled Composites
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane is slung beneath the WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane before Friday’s takeoff. Credit: Jason DiVenere / Scaled Composites

This is turning out to be an awful week for space travel. First, was the loss of an unmanned Antares rocket on Tuesday night, and today, the loss of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and tragically, one of her crew members. NBC News’ Alan Boyle was among the first to report on this. Here’s the key graph:

Photographer Ken Brown, who was covering the test flight, told NBC News that he saw an explosion high in the air and later came upon SpaceShipTwo debris scattered across a small area of the desert. The Mojave airport’s director, Stuart Witt, told NBC News that the craft crashed north of Mojave. He deferred further comment pending a news conference that is scheduled for 2 p.m. PT (5 p.m. ET).


It looks like we won’t know more until the news conference, and even then I expect any information will still be very preliminary. Any accident like this needs time to be investigated. But for now, there’s a brave pilot who won’t be coming home and another who will need some critical care.

I’m not going to be able to cover this story nearly as well as the local news and other outlets, so I’ll leave it to the pros. All I can say is that space travel is a very unforgiving business. The physics of it require a tremendous amount of energy to even just get into space, let alone orbit the Earth or to go beyond. Any time you try to harness that much energy there’s a potentially high price to pay when something goes wrong.

Virgin Galactic is meant to be a purely fun recreational business – an opportunity for the public to spend a few minutes in space for the cost of a $250,000 ticket. There’s no science being done, no “exploration” to speak of., and no national interest at stake  And yet, it’s very much pushing humanity into a new frontier. 10 years or so ago, the idea of a private citizen purchasing a ticket for a ride into space would have been considered pure fantasy. But Virgin Galactic has gotten far closer to realizing that dream than anyone else.

They’ll recover from this and keep carrying that dream forward.

The Moon and Earth

China’s Chang’e 5-T1 is the latest in a series of robotic missions to eventually return a lunar sample to Earth. Its mission is to “simply” travel to the Moon and return to Earth. Just a little run around the neighborhood. But as it was coming around the far side of the Moon, it snapped this image that should make us all stop and marvel:

The Chang'e 5 test vehicle captured this beautiful view of Earth over the far side of the Moon on October 28, 2014. Credit: CNSA
Earth over the far side of the Moon on October 28, 2014. Full size image. Credit: CNSA

You’ve got to click to see the full-sized image. It’s a perspective that’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Yes, similar views were captured during the Apollo program, but nothing quite like this. Our Moon’s far side is so very different from its near side that it almost looks like an alien world. Most of the maria regions are on the near side, and thanks to tidal forces, we can never see the far side of the Moon from Earth. And yet, it’s our Moon. And there we are, on that small blue/white sphere in the distance.

I first spotted this image on the Planetary Society’s blog and it’s cool to see it getting passed around. I think images like these are crucial to our survival. Hopefully, as we continue to “grow up” as a species, we’ll better understand how finite our planet really is, how alone in the dark we really are. And how lucky we are to be alive to see it like this.