Remembering the Challenger Crew

This photo of the Challenger crew was taken on Jan. 9, 1986, just 19 days before the Challenger disaster. Left to right: 1st Teacher-in-Space payload specialist Sharon Christa McAuliffe; payload specialist Gregory Jarvis; and astronaut Judith A. Resnik, mission specialist, Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, mission commander; Ronald E. McNair, mission specialist; Michael J. Smith, pilot; and Ellison S. Onizuka, mission specialist.

Image credit: NASA

On January 28, 1986, seven astronauts tragically died when Challenger exploded just after liftoff. It was NASA’s first in-flight disaster and it occurred not only as thousands of spectators watched from Kennedy Space Center but millions of teachers and students were also watching on live T.V. from their classrooms to see Christa McAuliffe, a civilian high school teacher from New Hampshire become NASA’s 1st teacher in space. Christa was scheduled to broadcast two live lessons from space to the nation’s school children just a few days later.
The loss of Challenger was later attributed to a failed seal on one of the space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters. It was determined that cold weather prevented a rubber O-ring from working properly. This allowed hot gas to leak and damage the shuttle’s external fuel tank and the hardware attaching the booster to the shuttle. The right solid rocket booster then separated. The fuel tank broke apart causing the orbiter to be torn apart also. The launch had been postponed two days preceding the disaster due to expected storms preceding the cold front which brought unusually cold temperatures to central Florida.

The following words were left on a handwritten note in the briefcase of Space Shuttle Commander, Dick Scobee. It is from a passage from Vision of the Future by Ben Bova.
We have whole planets to explore. We have new worlds to build. We have a solar system to roam in. And if only a tiny fraction of the human race reaches out toward space, the work they do there will totally change the lives of all the billions of humans who remain on earth, just as the strivings of a handful of colonists in the new world totally changed the lives of everyone in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

That moment 28 years ago today when the seven Challenger astronauts reached out toward space is still ingrained in our memories.




An artist’s conception of the dwarf planet Ceres in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.
Image Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

With the crazy winter weather warnings today in south Louisiana and even school cancellations for tomorrow, I thought it was an interesting time to find out that the dwarf planet Ceres has an icy surface also. With the help of the Herschel space observatory, scientists have detected an icy surface on the only dwarf planet that resides in the asteroid belt. It was previously suspected that ice existed on Ceres but it had not been conclusively detected until now. Plumes of water vapor are thought to shoot up from Ceres when portions of its icy surface warm slightly. This happens in the portion of the dwarf planet’s orbit that takes it closest to the sun. This is a surprise because, while comets are known to have water jets and plumes, objects in the asteroid belt are not. They also believe that if the ice in the interior of Ceres melted, there would be more fresh water than exists on all of Earth!

Ceres is smaller than a planet but, considering it’s the largest object in the asteroid belt, is obviously larger than an asteroid. When first discovered, Ceres was thought to be a comet, then a planet and of course at some point an asteroid. In 2006, The International Astronomical Union reclassified Ceres as a dwarf planet.



It’s Time to Look for Orion, the Mighty Hunter

ImageOrion, the hunter, is one of the most popular constellations in the night sky; so you may have already seen him this winter or in late fall. Throughout the year, no matter the season, when I am in schools with our Discovery Dome portable planetarium someone often asks me to point out Orion. The mighty hunter is also one of the largest and easiest constellations to find. Most people find it by locating the three stars that make up Orion’s “belt” which is an asterism or recognizable group of stars that are part of a constellation. The names of the three stars that make up Orion’s belt are Alnitak, Alnilam and Minatka. One of the brightest stars in the sky is on Orion’s right shoulder. It’s called Betelgeuse.

Orion’s belt is the only group of three stars that are spaced so evenly making them very easy to recognize. Once you have found the belt, the hunter easily pops into view especially when it is right overhead during the cold evenings of winter.

Besides being easy to spot, the constellation Orion is also where you will find one of the most beautiful objects in the night sky, the Orion Nebula. Count down to the third bright object in Orion’s sword and you will find not a star but the Orion Nebula. With binoculars focused on this object, you will find many stars rather than one.

So the next time you look for Orion in the night sky be sure to also take a look at the third object in his sword for the giant cloud of gas and dust that makes up this birthplace or stars and solar systems.


The Orion Nebula from the Hubble Space Telescope.
Credit: NASA


ISS Celebrates 15 Years in Space- See if you can locate it while looking for Comet ISON


The connected Zarya and Unity modules after Unity was released from the Space Shuttle Endeavor’s cargo bay.

Fifteen years ago on  Nov. 20, 1998, the Roscosmos (the former Russian Space Agency) launched a Proton rocket that sent the Zarya module into space.  This was the first section of the International Space Station.  Two weeks later on Dec. 4, the United States launched the Unity module making the 2 modules a real international space station.

The ISS is now the third brightest object in the sky after the sun and moon.  If you know where and when to look you can easily see it without a telescope, and NASA’s Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston can tell you when and where.  Log onto to receive e-mail or text alerts a few hours before the ISS will be passing over your area.  If you sign up soon you might even be able to spot it while “comet hunting” during the Thanksgiving holiday.

MAVEN: Countdown Has Begun


  MAVEN is scheduled to launch in approximately 1 hour.  If you are in Florida or South Georgia  today you may be able to catch a glimpse of the liftoff. There are some thick clouds over Cape      Canaveral Air Force base but the forecast is 60% favorable for launch during a two hour window.                                                                                                .

MAVEN, NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution spacecraft, will study the upper Martian atmosphere to find out how the air on the red planet has changed over time. This discovery may help us understand when and how long Mars might have had an environment that could have supported microbial life in its ancient past.


Maven(2)An exception from the federal government shutdown has been granted to NASA’s MAVEN mission “in order to protect U.S. property”. The property or properties we are talking about are on the planet Mars; the rovers Curiosity and Opportunity. If MAVEN’s launch window, which is only from November 18th through December 19th or 20th, is missed the next opportunity won’t come along until 2016. This delay would cause major problems since MAVEN’s communication equipment will take over the jobs that Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Odyssey have been doing and will allow us to continue to communicate with both rovers. Both MRO and Odyssey have passed their planned lifetimes. Preparation for the launch of NASA’s MAVEN mission has resumed and will continue on an emergency basis.
Besides being equipped to communicate, MAVEN will also probe the Martin upper atmosphere for clues to how the atmosphere has thinned and where its water has gone. MAVEN stands for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission.

Curiosity Travel Log: 9/23/2013; Odometer reading 2852m


The view today from Curiosity’s Nav Cam

Since its one year anniversary on August 6th., Curiosity has traveled 1,079.52m (3,541′) or about the length of 12 football fields.  That’s an average of 22m per day which is short of NASA’s goal of at least 110m per day.  But during this period, Curiosity did have its longest drive of the mission when on 9/5 it advanced 138.62m. On that day the drive was extended well beyond what the Curiosity team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena could see by enabling the rover’s on-board hazard avoidance system or Autonav.

LADEE – Back On Track On Its Way To The Moon


LADEE as seen Friday night from the east coast


LADEE – pronounced like Laddie – is NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer.  It is a robotic mission that will orbit the moon gathering information about the atmosphere and lunar dust.
LADEE was launched late last Friday night from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility at Wallops Island, Virginia.  Saturday, NASA officials reported that the spacecraft’s reaction wheels which spin to position LADEE in space were suddenly not working.  Engineers have now disabled the safety limits that caused the problem enabling LADEE to continue on course. 

LADEE will orbit Earth several times before heading to the moon, arriving in about 30 days.  It will then orbit the moon for about 100 days or until it runs out of fuel.  LADEE will then crash into the lunar surface continuing to collect data along the way.

Mars Rover Curiosity Charts its Own Course for the First Time


This image from Curiosity‘s navigation cam shows the scene from the rover’s position on Mars right after Curiosity completed its first solo drive last Tuesday.

On Tuesday Curiosity decided its path for the first time on its way to Mt. Sharp. Using autonomous navigation or autonav, Curiosity drove onto ground that had not been confirmed safe by NASA’s Curiosity science team. To determine its path, the rover takes several pictures and its computer processes the information to map any dangerous or rough terrain. This allows Curiosity to safely travel even beyond the area that its team of drivers on Earth can evaluate ahead of time. Similar technology is used on “driverless” cars such as those that can park themselves or stop before hitting an object.