240 miles above your head a 420 tonne satellite orbits the Earth at 17000mph. It has been there, albeit in various states of construction, for 14 years, and for the last 11 of those it has been continuously occupied.
The International Space Station is a feat of engineering like no other. Not only does it demonstrate our technical ability to construct, launch, and maintain a permanent presence in space, but also our ability to coordinate the work of five different space agencies and their operations all over the planet.
But the journey from its conception has not been an easy one, the ISS was born out of three separate national programmes: NASA’s Freedom station, proposed in the early ‘80s as a response to the Soviet space stations Mir and Salyut, the Russian (formerly Soviet) Mir-2 project designed as a replacement for the aging Mir station, and the European Columbus space station project.
Budgetary constraints brought on by post-Cold War political changes made it increasingly clear that no single national programme was going to create a fully functioning scientific outpost. Instead the suggestion to combine the three programmes into a single international one was put forward and agreed in 1993 by US Vice-President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.
The first component, the Russian Zarya cargo block originally intended for the Mir-2 station was launched in 1998, and since then the station has expanded, first with the addition of connecting and services modules such as NASA’s Unity and RKA’s Zvezda, and later with more specialist modules such as ESA’s Columbus laboratory and the Cupola observation module, the largest window in space. In total the ISS consists of fifteen pressurised modules, with one more, Russian research laboratory Nauka still to be added. They comprise laboratories, docks and airlocks, and living areas, and their combined volume is just less than 1,000 cubic metres.
That all of these modules fitted together perfectly is a success story in itself. Many had not been built when the first pieces were launched, and for most their mating in orbit was the first time they were put together. Though there have been a few minor problems, they have always been resolved quickly, and at no point has the station ever had to be evacuated.
The station’s unique conditions have allowed a large variety of experiments to be performed, many of which would be impossible on Earth. Research is being done into how structures such as crystals and organic cells form and develop outside the influence of the Earth’s gravity. NASA is also taking the opportunity to do closer studies on the effects of prolonged exposure to microgravity on astronauts and the possible implications on future manned missions to the Moon, asteroids, or Mars.
Until the end of the shuttle program in August of last year, crew and supplies were transported by a variety of means including the space shuttles, and the Soyuz and Progress spacecraft. The 6-man Soyuz craft operated by Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency, is now the only method of sending new crews to the station.
Each contributory nation retains ownership of and responsibility for the components that it added. This responsibility extends to the disposal of the station when it reaches the end of its operational life, which the current time frame places somewhere in the 2020s, depending on whether and for how long its decommissioning is postponed after the initial 2020 date. Given the huge amount of money that has been invested in the station as well as the later than expected completion date, it is very likely that the ISS’s operational life will be extended some way beyond that deadline. By that point it is also expected that commercial space ventures will play a much larger role in the life and upkeep of the station, so they too may play some role in its end-of-life decisions.
This post has been produced by VanessaG for the Young Astronomers
Discovery, with her maiden flight on 30 August 1984, with STS-41D. On the ascent she carried more than 41,000 lbs of cargo which was a record at the time. This cargo was mainly science experiments to study the effects of microgravity. Discovery was also the first shuttle to retrieve a satellite and bring it back to Earth. In 1985 Discovery was the first shuttle to fly four missions in one year.
On STS-51D the first sitting member of the US congress blasted off into orbit, Jake Garn, the republican senator of Utah. During the landing she suffered a blown front tire and subsequent brake damage. This then meant that all further flights for five years were directed to land at Edwards Air Force Base, California until nose wheel steering was introduced and brakes improved.
After the Challenger and Columbia disasters it was Discovery who was called upon to return the US to space again and regain their independence. The return after Columbia, STS-114 under the leadership of Eileen Collins; who earlier on STS-63 was the first female pilot. This mission was also the first to do a back flip on approach to the ISS so that the station crew could photograph the underside of the shuttle which then could be studied to check for damage. This was also the first time a repair had been made to a spacecraft while in orbit, the EVA crew removing two protruding spacers in the thermal shielding.
In April 1990, on STS-31, Discovery released the Hubble Space Telescope. This was also the highest ever flown by a shuttle at 380miles. And the ‘scope is still in use twenty years later and continues to provide valuable insights into the beginnings of the universe.
STS-60, February 1994, was the first co operative mission between the then enemies of Russia and the US. This laid the foundations for international cooperation which is one of the fundamental aspects of the International Space Station. With a Russian cosmonaut flying about the American shuttle Discovery. Discovery’s next flight, STS-63 was the first mission to be piloted by a woman, Eileen Collins, who laid further foundations into international cooperation as she piloted Discovery to within 40ft of MIR. Correcting the final approach for the first shuttle docking with the Russian space station.
Discovery has seen many other significant events in international development, the first spacewalk by an African-American, the last shuttle to visit MIR. The oldest astronaut, John Glen on board STS-95 who at the time of the flight was seventy seven, and still is the oldest person to ever fly in space. Discovery also celebrated the 100th shuttle fight on board mission STS-92. And on STS-120 lead by commander Pamela Melroy met Peggy Whitson, commander of Expedition 16 on board the ISS in 2007. This not only was not only the first time the ISS has been commanded by a woman but the first time two female commanders met in space.
In her 26 year lifetime Discovery has achieved many great things in the world. Not only advancing science but also cooperation and technology that you will use everyday. In total 180 people have travelled on board Discovery and a total of 150 million miles have been travelled in orbit.
Its that time of year again when we have a look back at all the wondrous astronomical images that have been released over the past twelve months and pick our favourites.
Obviously there are going to be some differences in opinions with some of our readers feeling like their favourite image of the year has been robbed of the top spot. Whilst we would love to feature every image, clearly that is neither practical and somewhat defeats the purpose of having a competition to pick the best. Though if you have a differing opinion we would love to hear about it, either in the comments section of the post, on our Facebook page or via our forum, but without further ado lets begin!
Best Image From Within the Solar System
This year’s winner is: - Ulyxis Rupes as observed by the ESA’s Mars Express
Ulyxis Rupes is a region near the Martian south pole (though the south pole itself is a little over 1000km further south). The poles of Mars are dynamic areas of the Red Planet constantly changing along with the Martian seasons. The image shows an ice field along with delicate sand dunes and numerous other interesting features.
This image was taken during the Southern Hemisphere’s Spring with the region slowly warming and the ice thinning. This warming, along with its distance from the south pole itself means the ice is rather thin, at just 500m deep compared to some other polar regions where it can reach 3.5km.
The image was taken by the ESA Mars Express’ High Resolution Stereo Camera. The Mars Express has been in orbit of Mars for 8 and a half years and continues its work of studying the Planet and mapping it in extraordinary detail.
You can read more about this image here
Best Image From Within Our Galaxy – Runner Up
Our runner up in this category is IC 2944 – The Running Chicken Nebula
IC 2944 is an emission nebula glowing from the harsh bombardment of the ultraviolet light produced by the hot young stars that have been birthed by the nebula’s dusty clouds.
It is located around 6500 light years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Centaurus - The Centaur.
The red glow indicates the familiar presence of excited hydrogen, a feature common in and around such star forming emission nebulae. Star formation is evidenced further by the presence of Bok Globules – the dark black objects in the image particularly concentrated in the top right corner around the cluster of bright blue stars. These are small dense regions of gas and dust that are collapsing to form the next generation of stars.
Unfortunately, such beautiful emission nebulae are short lived in astronomical terms, lasting just a few million years before their gas has either been used to forge stars or blown out from the area by fierce stellar winds. The most massive of stars will burn out in flashes as they rapidly chew through their supply of hydrogen briefly lighting up the area again as a supernova and glowing remnant.
The image was produced using data from the Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory.
You can read more here.
Best Image From Within Our Galaxy
Our winner in this category is the glorious star forming region S106
The nebula is located within the constellation Cygnus – The Swan – at a distance of about 2000 light years from Earth.
The fantastic bubbles of material, with the intricate ripples of gas and dust within the surrounding nebula are caused by the young star S106 IR.
This stellar youngster is undergoing the final stages of its formation process – sucking up material from the surrounding area. Despite still undergoing its formation, S106 IR is already 15 times the mass of our of Sun.
Rather like someone whose eyes are too big for their belly, this young star is firing some of this material back off into space accompanied by large amounts of radiation that is shocking and exciting the nebula making it glow brightly.
The blue regions of emission in this image are the result of superheated hydrogen glowing at about 10,000 degrees. The cloud is only two light years across at its widest point making it a small stellar nursery (the much more famous Orion nebula is 24 light years across).
S106 is located in the direction of the constellation Cygnus and is around 1900 light years away from where you are sitting.
The image was produced from data collected by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3.
You can see a wider view of the entire nebula below -
You can read more about the images here
Best Extragalactic Image – Runner Up
Our runner up in this category is this ESO image of the Leo Triplet
At around 35 million light years from Earth, in the direction of, you guessed it, Leo – The Lion. Such a distance my seem large though it is a stone’s throw on terms of the universe.
All three members of the Triplet (sometimes called the M66 group) are in fact spiral galaxies not dissimilar to our own Milky Way. They each appear so different as they are visible to us from different angles. NGC 3628 is seen edge on at the left of the image whereas M 65 (in the top right hand corner) and M66 (in the bottom right) are closer to being face on and so allow us to peer at their spiral structures unhindered.
The image also contains many other galaxies that lie much further away from us. Along with many stars that lie within our own Milky Way as well as a few asteroid streaks produced by small objects in our Solar System.
The image was produced by the ESO using the Very Large Telescope’s Telescope for Surveys (try say that ten times quickly), mercifully abbreviated to VST.
It was snapped as part of a survey designed to find illusive small objects, such as Brown Dwarfs and Black Holes within the Milky Way’s halo, objects normally to small and dim to be picked out but can be identified through gravitational microlensing. It will also peer deep into the universe to help expand our knowledge of the illusive dark matter.
You can read more here
We will be seeing the winner of the extragalactic section later, but now we move on to our amateur section,
Milly took this image of an ISS pass during the STS-131 shuttle mission with her dad’s Canon EOS10D on the 26th of February 2011.
A lovely shot once again illustrating that you don’t need thousands of pounds worth of equipment to take beautiful astrophotographs.
The ISS is the largest inhabited space station ever produced by humanity. It has been occupied continuously for over 11 years.
It zips around the planet every 91 minutes at an altitude of about 380 km.
Best Amateur Astrophotograph
The best amateur astrophotograph of this year is this fantastic image of the Andromeda Galaxy by Nick Howes.
The Andromeda galaxy or M31, is the largest galaxy in our Local Group. Andromeda is a spiral galaxy similar to the Milky Way, it is located about 2.5 million light years from Earth in the direction of the constellation that shares its name.
Andromeda and the Milky Way are on a collision course and will collide in a few billion years producing a larger elliptical after many million years of gravitational distortions.
The Andromeda galaxy is the furtherest object that can be reliably observed with the naked eye. In dark skies, away from city lights it appears as a milky patch against the black of the sky.
Best Extragalactic Image and Overall 2011 Winner
This year’s best extragalactic image, and the overall winner of this year’s competition is this magnificent Hubble image of Arp 273 -
Arp 273 is a pair of interacting spiral galaxies, the larger upper one on its own is UGC 1810 with the smaller lower member of the pair called UGC 1813. The pair lie 340 million light years away from us in the direction of the constellation Andromeda – The Princess.
The smaller UGC 1813 is believed to have passed through the larger galaxy, off to one side twisting the larger galaxy into a shape resembling the head of a flowering rose – as evidenced by the off centre ring structure in UGC 1810.
The smaller galaxy has only 20% the mass of the larger, though the interaction has caused the larger’s spiral arms to unfurl and for a stellar bridge of material to be thrown out thousands of light years into the void between the two.
Interactions like these generally cause starbursts to occur in both galaxies with the smaller experiencing a burst first and after a short delay a starburst is also set up in the larger galaxy. This is thought to be due to the different quantities of interstellar gas within high and low mass galaxies. In general, low mass galaxies have more gas and dust not bound into stars than high mass galaxies so it is easier for a low mass galaxy to form stars than a high mass galaxy.
A smaller third spiral can also be seen within the arms of UGC 1810. Astronomers have noted that the spiral arm changes from being ordered and reddish - indicating lots of middle age and old stars – on one side of the small spiral to being blue and clumpy on the other – indicating large numbers or recently formed high mass stars.
The image was taken using Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 on December 17th 2010 and had a total exposure time of 5.9 hours.
Hubble is a joint project between NASA and the ESA.
You can read more here.
That’s it for this year’s competition folks I hope you enjoyed the images for this year, and only one thing remains:
from all of us here at Sigma Orionis and the Young Astronomers
This is a post by the Young Astronomers author Joseph Dudley.
On Saturday the space shuttle Atlantis touched-down for the last time at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, marking an end not only to its operational life, but to the entire shuttle program. In its 19-year history, the shuttle fleet has flown 355 astronauts into space, and in total there have been 135 missions, of which Atlantis has flown 33. NASA says the cost of each shuttle launch is around $450 million, and the cost of the entire program has been estimated in the range of $170 billion.
Atlantis Fact File:
First flight: STS-51-J, 3 October 1985
Number of missions: 33
Time spent in space: 306 days
Distance travelled: 125 million miles
Satellites deployed: 14
ISS dockings: 12
Weight: 80 tons
Length: 37.2 meters
Height: 17.2 meters
Wingspan: 23.7 meters
Atlantis is the fourth of the operational orbiters, and was delivered to the Kennedy Space Centre in April 1985, for its maiden voyage on October 3rd that year. In 1989, Atlantis carried and deployed the interplanetary probes, Magellan and Galileo for their missions to Venus and Jupiter respectively, and in 1991 it carried the Gamma Ray Observatory, at the time the heaviest ever payload. Just a few days ago, Atlantis undocked from the International Space Station (ISS) for the last time, but this was not the first space-station it had docked with. In 1995, Atlantis conducted the 100th manned US space flight and made the first ever shuttle docking at the Russian space-station Mir. After Mir was abandoned and de-orbited in 2001, Atlantis delivered both the Destiny Module, an orbital research station, and the Quest Joint Airlock to the ISS. In May 2009, it was Atlantis that flew the vital servicing mission to fix the Hubble Space Telescope, installing new cameras, batteries and a gyroscope during five 7 hour space walks.
Though the shuttle program is at an end, NASA is already looking to the future. However, NASA is facing a lot of pressure to keep operating costs low; President Obama recently proposed that NASA‘s budget be frozen until 2016, whilst others in the US government are suggesting that it be cut. Despite the threats of lower funding, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden says that “The future of human spaceflight is bright,” and that he believes that more efficient and affordable transport to and from the International Space Station can be achieved by the private sector, allowing NASA to focus on longer term plans to visit the Moon, an asteroid or even Mars. In the meantime, it appears America will have to rely upon Russian rockets to launch its astronauts for the foreseeable future.
- The Worlds with Two Suns | The Young Astronomers on Binary Stars Blitzed – Updated
- Ed.A on Image of the Week – A Peculiar Pencil – 18/09/2012
- Saint on SS 433 – A Magnificent Microquasar
- SS 433 – A Magnificent Microquasar » The Young Astronomers on Binary Stars Blitzed – Updated
- John Fairweather on A Star’s Death Giving Life to a Monster – Recovered
- New Post from @Lightbulb500 - The Worlds With Two Suns - bit.ly/RUQKuk 7 months ago
- We will also be posting about our plans for the next while both here, on the blog and our Facebook page - on.fb.me/RUQCuA 7 months ago
- Sorry for the long delay in posts, we have all been very busy. We will hopefully have a more regular post program shortly. 7 months ago
- Our latest Image of the Week highlights the star cluster NGC 1929 and the surrounding nebula N44 - bit.ly/QbkwY6 - by @Lightbulb500 8 months ago
- New post by @Lightbulb500 - How to Understand Spectra – Part 2 - bit.ly/NveYoX 8 months ago
TagsAGN Astronomy Astrophysics Big Bang Black Holes Cassini Chandra Curiosity Emission Nebulae ESA ESO Exoplanets Galaxies Gravity High Mass Stars HST Hubble Hubble Space Telescope Image of the Week Infra-red IOTW ISS Kepler Life LMC Mars NASA Nebula Nebulae Planets Russia Saturn Solar System Spacecraft Spitzer Starbirth Star death Star Formation Stars Star Sailor Podcast Supernova Supernovae VLT WISE Young Astronomers