First Female Cosmonaut Arrives on Station as Part of Expedition 41/42

The ISS saw the arrival of three new crew members this week. Russian cosmonauts Elena Serova and Alexander Samojutyaev, along with NASA astronaut Bruce Wilmore joined NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman, ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst, and Russian cosmonaut Maxim Suraev on station. 

Serova is only the fourth female cosmonaut to fly inspace and one of only 18 females to be selected as cosmonauts since 1961. These numbers are in stark contrast to the United States, who has had over 40 women selected as astronauts, and even had two female commanders of the space station – Peggy Whitson (2007-2008) and Sunny Williams (2012). 

Elena tried to make light of her historic mission, by saying she thought of this as just work, her job is space. However, she did recognize its significance and what it means for Russian women. 

Elena is an accomplished engineer and even worked in Russian Mission Control prior to being selected for the cosmonaut corps in 2006. She is a graduate of the esteemed Moscow Aviation Institute and was selected as part of the Expedition 41/42 crew back in 2011.

Serova is described as being the first female cosmonaut selected based on her skills and merits, and boy is she qualified. Hopefully, she will have a long history with the space program. 

Despite being highly qualified, Elena had to suffer through countless questions at pre-launch briefings about what her hair and make-up regime would be on station. She was quick to fire back at reporters, asking them why don’t ask her male comrades what they were going to do with their hair. 

Serova joins a small club of high-flying Russian women. This groups includes the first woman in space Valentina Tereshkova (1963); the first woman to perform a space walk, Sveltlana Savitskaya (1992, 1994); and the first woman to fly a long-duration mission and the only female cosmonaut to fly on shuttle, Yelena Kondakova (1994-1995).

In November, Serova will be joined by another female astronaut, Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoferetti. Samantha is Europe’s third female astronaut behind Helen Sharman in 1991, and Claudie Haignere in 2001.

Image & Source Credit: NASA/ESA/Roscosmos

Galactic Debris Field

Spiral galaxy ESO 137-001 is leaving something behind as it goes. This composite image from the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-ray Observatory shows the trail left behind as the galaxy moves through space. It’s not a sight one sees when they look at most galaxies, but then, most galaxies aren’t doing what ESO 137-001 is.

This spiral, about 100,000 light years across, is hurtling through space, heading towards the upper left of this image field. It is racing through intergalactic gas at over 2,000 kilometers/1,250 miles per second as it moves through the Norma cluster (Abell 3627). The Norma cluster is the closest massive galaxy cluster to the Milky Way, located some 200 million light years away near the center of the Great Attractor. This huge mass concentration creates a strong gravitational attraction that dominates our region of the Universe. 

The gas in the Norma cluster is relatively sparse, but it is very hot. As ESO 137-001 plows through the 82 million°C (180 million°F) cauldron, much of its gas and dust is being stripped away. This is an example of ram pressure stripping - the drag force felt by an object as it moves through a fluid. Left behind in the seething wake of the fleeing galaxy, some of the gas and dust undergoes inter-galactic recycling, forming massive new stars.

The spiral galaxy itself will stay largely intact, held together by the massive force of its own gravity. But with very little of its own cold gas remaining, ESO 137-001 will be unable to form new stars. Studying this runaway spiral helps astronomers gain more perspective on how galaxies and stars form and evolve over time in our amazing universe.


Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/UAH/M.Sun et al; Optical: NASA, ESA, & the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) 


Gemini 3: The launch of Molly Brown

50 years ago, on March 23, 1965, the first crewed mission of the Gemini program launched from LC-19 in Cape Canaveral, just five short days after the Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov completed the first space walk.

The Gemini program was intended to be a bridge between the completed Mercury and future Apollo programs. The ten Gemini missions (1965-1966) wouldflight test equipment and mission procedures (EVA, rendezvous, docking and long duration) in Earth orbit for the upcoming Apollo lunar missions.

The Gemini spacecraft launched on a two-stage Titan II rocket, originally designed as an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The Titan II would place the Gemini spacecraft into Earth-orbit in five minutes and 54 seconds, very quickly compared to the eight and a half minutes it took for the Space Shuttle. Gemini was the first spacecraft to have an onboard computer.

Alan Shepard was slated to fly as part of the first two-person crew, but was sidelined due to an inner ear disorder. Instead, Gus Grissom was selected to fly along with John Young. As such Grissom became the first person to fly in space twice.

Gemini 3 was the only Gemini mission to be named, Grissom called it Molly Brown in a playful reference to his Mercury Liberty Bell 7 capsule, which sank in the Atlantic Ocean when the hatch inadvertently blew open after splashdown. Molly Brown was the title character of a popular Broadway musical – The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

Gemini 3 was the first crewed US launch since the completion of Project Mercury on May 16, 1963. The mission’s primary objective was to test the maneuverability of the new spacecraft. Grissom and Young fired thrusters to change the shape of their orbit, shift the orbital plane, and drop to a lower altitude; all of these maneuvers were critical firsts in the race to the Moon with the Soviets. The mission successfully ended after 3 Earth orbits and lasted 4 hour and 52 minutes.

About two hours into the flight, Young surprised Grissom by pulling a corned beef sandwich out of the pocket of his spacesuit. Although it was meant as a joke, not every one at NASA found it amusing. Grissom soon discovered that the sandwich crumbled in the zero gravity environment and understood the reason why gelatin was added to the astronaut food they were testing during the mission. The gelatin prevented food from crumbling and interfering with instrument panels while in space.

Gemini 3 was the last manned flight controlled from Cape Canaveral, Florida. All subsequent missions would be controlled from the new Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas. The following year, NASA announced that Grissom had been assigned as commander for the first Apollo Earth-orbit mission, with Ed White as Senior Pilot and Roger Chaffee as Pilot. Ten months later the trio would tragically perish when a fire broke out in the Apollo 1 command module during a pre-launch pad test.

Today the Molly Brown is on display at the Grissom Memorial of Spring Mill State Park, two miles east of Grissom’s hometown of Mitchell, Indiana.

Pluto in False Color

Pluto is shown in false colors to help scientists differentiate between regions of different surface compositions and textures. The heart-shaped region on Pluto’s surface (seen in the photo) is unofficially named “Tombaugh Regio” in honor of the man who discovered the dwarf planet, Clyde Tombaugh. The heart of Tombaugh Regio is called “Sputnik Planum” as an homage to the first satellite to orbit the Earth – Sputnik. Within this heart of the heart, scientists have detected signs that the region contains different ices and may have even been geologically active in recent history.

In order to create this false-color global view of Pluto, four images from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) were combined with color data from the Ralph instrument. The images, taken when the spacecraft was 280,000 miles (450,000 kilometers) away, show features as small as 1.4 miles (2.2 kilometers).

Pluto continues to amaze. This is just the tip of the iceberg; we have 16 months of data still to come.

Image & Source Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Why comets are like deep-fried ice cream…

Yes, you read that correctly. Comets are like deep fried ice cream - although you wouldn’t want to eat them. They resemble the delectable dessert in that they have a hard, outer crust covering a soft interior. Right now the ESA-led Rosetta mission is busy analyzing features on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in order to better understand the perplexing nature of a comet.

While the Rosetta spacecraft is busy orbiting comet 67P and beaming back precious data, scientists here on Earth are busy tinkering with ice and organics in the lab in an effort to better understand the nature of comets. Astronomers experimented with with an icebox-like instrument, called Himalaya, and believe they know why comets have a hard, outer crust.

“A comet is like deep fried ice cream,” said Murthy Gudipati of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, corresponding author of a recent study appearing in The Journal of Physical Chemistry. “The crust is made of crystalline ice, while the interior is colder and more porous. The organics are like a final layer of chocolate on top.”

Thanks to Himalaya, the researchers discovered that fluffy surface ice would crystallize and harden as the comet heated on its approach to the Sun. Crystals of water-ice would form, becoming denser and more structured as other organic molecules would be pushed to the surface, resulting in a crunchy crust littered with organic dust.

Scientists already knew that comets have soft interiors and seemingly hard crusts. NASA’s Deep Impact and the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft both inspected comets up close, finding evidence of soft, porous interiors. Last Nov., Rosetta’s Philae probe attempted to make the first ever landing on a comet’s surface. Due to the extremely hard surface, the lander bounced several times and is hibernating in the shadows somewhere on the comet’s surface.The Deep Impact mission had also observed black, soot-like coats of comets, made up of organic molecules and dust.

Despite everything we know know about comets, the exact composition of the crust and how it forms still remains a mystery. In the latest study, researchers used amorphous, or porous ice, which is what comets are thought to be composed of, to make a crystallized comet crust model.

“In this state, water vapor molecules are flash-frozen at extremely cold temperatures of around 30 Kelvin (minus 243 degrees Celsius, or minus 405 degrees Fahrenheit), sort of like Han Solo in the Star Wars movie “The Empire Strikes Back.” Disorderly states are preserved: Water molecules are haphazardly mixed with other molecules, such as the organics, and remain frozen in that state. Amorphous ice is like cotton candy,” explains Gudipati: “light and fluffy and filled with pockets of space.”

On Earth, all ice is in the crystalline form, as our planet is not cold enough to form amorphous ice. Even a handful of loose snow is in the crystalline form, but contains much smaller ice crystals than those in snowflakes.

Gudipati and Lignell used the Himalaya instrument to slowly warm their amorphous ice mixtures from 30 Kelvin to 150 Kelvin (minus 123 degrees Celsius, or minus 190 degrees Fahrenheit), simulating conditions a comet would experience as it approaches the Sun. The ice had been infused with a type of organics, called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are prevalent in deep space. The results of their experiment were quite surprising.

“The PAHs stuck together and were expelled from the ice host as it crystallized. This may be the first observation of molecules clustering together due to a phase transition of ice, and this certainly has many important consequences for the chemistry and physics of ice,” said Lignell.

With PAHs ejected from the ice mixtures, the water molecules had room to link up and form the more tightly packed structures of crystalline ice.

“What we saw in the lab — a crystalline comet crust with organics on top — matches what has been suggested from observations in space,” said Gudipati. Deep fried ice cream is really the perfect analogy, because the interior of the comets should still be very cold and contain the more porous, amorphous ice.”

Understanding how comets are formed is key to understanding the role they played in delivering water and other organics to the early Earth. Data from the Rosetta mission indicates asteroids, not comets, may have been the primary carriers of life; however, the debate is still ongoing and comets could play a part. If scientists can unlock the secrets of these icy bodies, they can unlock the secrets of the early solar system.

Gudipati said, “It’s beautiful to think about how far we have come in our understanding of comets. Future missions designed to bring cold samples of comets back to Earth could allow us to fully unravel their secrets.”


Image & Source Credit: NASA/ESA

Perigee Moon

Perigee is the term for the point on an orbit closest to the central point. For the Moon, perigee is therefore the point at which the Moon is closest to the Earth. 

This image shows the August 10 (2014) “Supermoon” (a full moon at perigee) over the Old Post Office and Clock Tower, Washington, USA.

The next event will occur (unsurprisingly about a month later, i.e. the length of the Moon’s orbit), on September 9.


Image: NASA/Bill Ingalls under CC2.0, Nikon D4 70.0-200.0 mm f/2.8 1/15s ISO=3200 

Space Station Moonset

We’ve shared plenty of sunrise and sunset images taken by astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Today, we have something a little different, as we see a series of images showing the Moon sinking behind the Earth’s atmosphere.

These images come to us from astronaut Terry Virts, who caught the scene last week and shared them via Twitter on 22 December. NASA astronauts have used hand-held cameras to take photos from space for over four decades, beginning with the Mercury missions. All told, they have captured more than 700,000 images of Earth from above, and ISS crews continue to add to that total.

In his autobiography, Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins commented on the differences of looking down at the Earth and Moon: “The Earth from orbit is a delight—offering visual variety and an emotional feeling of belonging ‘down there.’ Not so with this withered, sun-seared peach pit out of my window. There is no comfort to it; it is too stark and barren.”


Image and source: NASA