Sidepodcast - All for F1 and F1 for all

Sidepodspace - More scientific than looking at a see-through fish - The latest space news, including new moons for Pluto and a pet on the ISS

Published by Steven Roy

It's a while since I last wrote a Sidepodspace post. The shuttle program meant that there were regular reminders that it was about time I wrote one and despite the fact that there are loads of interesting things happening in relation to space there is not the regular or irregular shuttle launch to give me a nudge.

Sally Ride

Unfortunately I have to start with sad news. America's first woman in space, Sally Ride, has died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 61. She was not some token woman who did one quick flight and then became an ambassador for NASA. She was a proper astronaut who just happened to be a woman. She flew two shuttle mission STS-7 and STS41-G both on the doomed Challenger shuttle.

She also has the distinction of being the only person to sit on the presidential commissions investigating both the Challenger and Columbia disasters. As with everything else she did she did not blend into the background there either. The Challenger shuttle was lost owing to a failure in an 'O' ring in one of the solid rocket boosters (SRBs). This was as a result of the shuttle being left on the launch pad in weather that was colder than it had been designed for. The SRBs were built by Morton Thiokol and one of their engineers Roger Boisjoly had warned that this would cause problems. NASA management and Morton Thiokol senior management bullied the engineers into giving the OK to launch. There was a TV program made focussing on Boisjoly and he said he left work and drove home rather than watch the launch because he knew people would die.

When Sally Ride found out that NASA management knew of the problem she ripped into them publically and had a real go at NASA engineers when she found there was a history of 'O' ring problems. She made a point of hugging Boisjoly to show support for his position. He has said she was the only public figure who ever showed him any support while the entire Morton Thiokol workforce shunned him. At the time she was scheduled for his third space flight but left the astronaut core presumably deciding that she could not trust NASA with her life.

Mars Curiosity lander

I have written before about the Mars Curiosity rover and its unlikely landing procedure. If you have no idea what I am talking about it this brief video will let you see what the plan is and I am sure you can spot one or two things that could go wrong. Given that 50% of all missions to Mars have buried themselves into the planet even when they had very simple landing procedures I still find it stunning that nothing more simple could have been tried to land this vehicle. Of course because we cannot create the Martian atmosphere and gravity on Earth the sky crane as it is now known is completely untried. There's a preview of the mission here, and for continuing updates keep an eye on NASA's mission page.

The landing should be confirmed on Earth at 1:31 am EDT or 6:31am on August 6th UK British Summer Time. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter(MRO) which has been orbiting the red planet since 2001 has been put into an orbit where it can relay signals back to Earth as the landing zone is not in line of site with us. At least with the MRO we should get a definite message of what happened during the landing rather than the usual 'we are not quite sure if it landed, buried itself or bounced off the atmosphere in the general direction of Alpha Centauri'. Unfortunately there is no-one on Mars with a video camera to show us the landing. Hopefully an onboard camera will send video although I imagine this will be delayed.


Not the most inspiring name ever but a great example of our technological progress. It is only a few years since the first planet outside our solar system was discovered and now there are hundreds known. The Spitzer Space Telescope which views space in the infra-red spectrum spotted UCF-1.01 a mere 33 light years away. Considering that it is two-thirds the size of the Earth and orbits its star every 1.4 days that is an incredible achievement.

UCF-1.01 is the closest planet to Earth that has been discovered so far so even if it was habitable it would take quite a while for ET to get here. As it is, it has no atmosphere and the surface temperature is 1000°F. The distance from its star is equivalent to 7 times the distance the Earth is to the Moon. Imagine being that close to the sun. That distance equates to about 1.7 million miles where we are 93 million miles from the Sun.

Space weather

Cassini has been one of my favourite space missions over recent years. Its travels round Saturn and its moons as shown us everything from close ups of the ring elements to battered moon surfaces to slush volcanoes. Now it has spotted hundred mile wide lightning flashes which produce about 3 billion Watts of visible energy and landslides that go on way longer than they should.


Work is still progressing on the shuttle replacement project Orion. The latest test that was passed with flying colours was the test of the parachutes that will slow it down after re-entry to the Earth's atmosphere so that the vehicle and its crew can survive the splash down.

While I loved the tension and skill of a shuttle landing the thought of a capsule splashing down in the Pacific brings back memories of the Apollo lunar missions. I don't for a second think there will be anything like the worldwide interest there was in those missions but somehow splashing down seems like a suitably special way to end a mission rather than landing on a runway and taxiing to a mark on the ground like every plane on the planet.

When the shuttle program was cancelled Orion seemed like a long way off but we are only 2 years from the first orbital test mission. That mission will only complete 2 orbits before it is slowed from 17,000mph to re-enter the atmosphere. Then the drogue chutes will be deployed to manage the initial deceleration until the vehicle is slow enough to deploy the main chutes. As with manned missions the capsule will splash down on the sea. I am looking forward to live commenting that already.


Pluto may have been downgraded from being a planet a couple of years ago but it is still a body that a lot of people study. You would think that something we have been pointing telescopes of increasing capability at for 82 years would have no major secrets left even if its out of the way location makes it difficult to get all the information we would like. The one thing we know about space is that there is lots we don't know and one thing we didn't know till recently is that Pluto has another moon. We knew about Charon, Nix and Hydra. Not forgetting the forgetably named P4 and P5. The latest moon for now has been given the designation S/2012 but I am sure at some point it will be given a better name.

Dream Chaser

We can't forget about the private space sector because that is the future. Projects like Virgin Galactic or Elon Musk's Spacex Dragon which recently docked with the ISS get most of the publicity but there are plenty of others out there trying to make their own spacecraft. Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) are working on shuttle like vehicle called Dream Chaser which it hopes will carry astronauts to the ISS and possibly other low Earth orbit targets. Like NASA's shuttle it will carry 7 passengers and land on a runway. It could be the ideal vehicle the next time Hubble is due a service.

The latest test it passed was on its landing gear. This along with the upcoming flight test are part of SNC's Commercial Crew Development agreement with NASA. There are 6 other companies working with NASA on this same program so we can expect to see a raft of interesting vehicles as these companies try to establish themselves in this new sphere of business and try to show that their vehicle can do something the others cannot.

Goodbye and thanks for all the fish

Everyone knows that an aquarium is relaxing and I am sure life on the ISS can be a bit stressful so their new Aquatic Habitat or AQH should help. Of course no-one flies all that water and fish to space just to help the inhabitants relax. JAXA (Japanese NASA) have installed the AQH in their Kibo module to study a few generations of fish and to see what effect micro-gravity and having no up or down affects them. It must be hard to manage an aquarium in space because the lack of gravity means the water does not settle to a level. If the tank is not 100% full of water the water will just break up which has to be a bit disconcerting to any fish let alone one that can't figure up from down or where the sun is or why it has lost weight.

The fish chosen for this mission are made of the right stuff. Mainly because they are transparent so the astronauts can literally see bone degradation and muscle atrophy. I am sure they have a more scientific way of measuring it than thinking Nemo's biceps seem to be shrinking. Medaka fish are quite happy to breed in micro-gravity and the produce a new generation every few weeks so that any change that takes generations to show up will be apparent quickly. Finally scientist already have the Medaka genome identified so they will be able to spot any genetic change quickly. I knew it had to be more scientific than just looking through the skin.