April 13, 2013

First Shuttle Launch


A new era in space flight began on April 12, 1981, when Space Shuttle Columbia, or STS-1, soared into orbit from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. 

Astronaut John Young, a veteran of four previous spaceflights including a walk on the moon in 1972, commanded the mission. Navy test pilot Bob Crippen piloted the mission and would go on to command three future shuttle missions. The shuttle was humankind's first re-usable spacecraft. The orbiter would launch like a rocket and land like a plane. The two solid rocket boosters that helped push them into space would also be re-used, after being recovered in the ocean. Only the massive external fuel tank would burn up as it fell back to Earth. It was all known as the Space Transportation System.

Twenty years prior to the historic launch, on April 12, 1961, the era of human spaceflight began when Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth in his Vostock I spacecraft. The flight lasted 108 minutes. 

Pictured here: a timed exposure of STS-1, at Launch Pad A, Complex 39, turns the space vehicle and support facilities into a night- time fantasy of light. Structures to the left of the shuttle are the fixed and the rotating service structure. 

Image Credit: NASA
Explanation from: http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/image_feature_2488.html

April 12, 2013

Spring Fling: Sun Emits a Mid-Level Flare

The M6.5 flare on the morning of April 11, 2013, was also associated with an Earth-directed coronal mass ejection (CME), another solar phenomenon that can send billions of tons of solar particles into space and can reach Earth one to three days later. CMEs can affect electronic systems in satellites and on the ground. Experimental NASA research models show that the CME began at 3:36 a.m. EDT on April 11, leaving the sun at over 600 miles per second.

Earth-directed CMEs can cause a space weather phenomenon called a geomagnetic storm, which occurs when they connect with the outside of the Earth's magnetic envelope, the magnetosphere, for an extended period of time.

The recent space weather also resulted in a weak solar energetic particle (SEP) event near Earth. These events occur when very fast protons and charged particles from the sun travel toward Earth, sometimes in the wake of a solar flare. These events are also referred to as solar radiation storms. Any harmful radiation from the event is blocked by the magnetosphere and atmosphere, so cannot reach humans on Earth. Solar radiation storms can, however, disturb the regions through which high frequency radio communications travel.

NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center is the United States Government official source for space weather forecasts, alerts, watches and warnings. NASA and NOAA – as well as the US Air Force Weather Agency (AFWA) and others -- keep a constant watch on the sun to monitor for space weather effects such as geomagnetic storms. With advance notification many satellites, spacecraft and technologies can be protected from the worst effects.

The sun emitted a mid-level flare, peaking at 3:16 a.m. EDT on April 11, 2013.

Solar flares are powerful bursts of radiation. Harmful radiation from a flare cannot pass through Earth's atmosphere to physically affect humans on the ground, however -- when intense enough -- they can disturb the atmosphere in the layer where GPS and communications signals travel. This disrupts the radio signals for as long as the flare is ongoing, anywhere from minutes to hours.

This flare is classified as an M6.5 flare, some ten times less powerful than the strongest flares, which are labeled X-class flares. M-class flares are the weakest flares that can still cause some space weather effects near Earth. This flare produced a radio blackout that has since subsided. The blackout was categorized as an R2 on a scale between R1 and R5 on NOAA’s space weather scales.

This is the strongest flare seen so far in 2013. Increased numbers of flares are quite common at the moment, since the sun's normal 11-year activity cycle is ramping up toward solar maximum, which is expected in late 2013. Humans have tracked this solar cycle continuously since it was discovered, and it is normal for there to be many flares a day during the sun's peak activity.

Explanation from: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/sunearth/news/News031513-m6flare.html

April 10, 2013

Starburst Galaxy M82

Cigar Galaxy

This mosaic image is the sharpest wide-angle view ever obtained of M82. The galaxy is remarkable for its bright blue disk, webs of shredded clouds, and fiery-looking plumes of glowing hydrogen blasting out of its central regions.

Throughout the galaxy's center, young stars are being born 10 times faster than they are inside our entire Milky Way Galaxy. The resulting huge concentration of young stars carved into the gas and dust at the galaxy's center. The fierce galactic superwind generated from these stars compresses enough gas to make millions of more stars.

In M82, young stars are crammed into tiny but massive star clusters. These, in turn, congregate by the dozens to make the bright patches, or "starburst clumps," in the central parts of M82. The clusters in the clumps can only be distinguished in the sharp Hubble images. Most of the pale, white objects sprinkled around the body of M82 that look like fuzzy stars are actually individual star clusters about 20 light-years across and contain up to a million stars.

The rapid rate of star formation in this galaxy eventually will be self-limiting. When star formation becomes too vigorous, it will consume or destroy the material needed to make more stars. The starburst then will subside, probably in a few tens of millions of years.

Located 12 million light-years away, M82 appears high in the northern spring sky in the direction of the constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear. It is also called the "Cigar Galaxy" because of the elliptical shape produced by the oblique tilt of its starry disk relative to our line of sight.

The observation was made in March 2006, with the Advanced Camera for Surveys' Wide Field Channel. Astronomers assembled this six-image composite mosaic by combining exposures taken with four colored filters that capture starlight from visible and infrared wavelengths as well as the light from the glowing hydrogen filaments.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
Explanation from: http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2006/14/image/a/

April 9, 2013

A Sun Pillar over Sweden

Have you ever seen a sun pillar? When the air is cold and the Sun is rising or setting, falling ice crystals can reflect sunlight and create an unusual column of light. Ice sometimes forms flat, six-sided shaped crystals as it falls from high-level clouds. Air resistance causes these crystals to lie nearly flat much of the time as they flutter to the ground. Sunlight reflects off crystals that are properly aligned, creating the sun-pillar effect. In this picture taken in December 2012, a sun-pillar reflects light from a Sun setting over Östersund, Sweden.

Image Credit & Copyright: Göran Strand
Explanation from: http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap121218.html