Unedited images from the Cassini spacecraft put together in an inspiring video. Check it out!

James is no stranger to outrageous challenges on Top Gear, but this time he is put to the test by three days of intense training with the U.S. Air Force as he prepares to go for a ride on the famed U-2 spy plane.

He will have to train like an Apollo astronaut and learn how to emergency eject from the cockpit, survive the thirteen mile fall back to Earth and wear a spacesuit to stay alive in air so thin it can instantly kill. All for a once-in-a-lifetime journey that will take him 70,000 feet into the stratosphere to a place the U.S. Air Force calls the “space equivalent zone” —giving him a close-up of space and an astronaut’s view of Earth.

In this unique time-lapse video created from thousands of individual frames, photographers Scott Andrews, Stan Jirman and Philip Scott Andrews condense six weeks of painstaking work into three minutes, 52 seconds (read here how they did it). The action starts in the hangar-like Orbiter Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where Discovery has been outfitted for its STS-131 mission. The vehicle is then towed to the 525-foot-high Vehicle Assembly Building, hoisted into a vertical position and lowered onto its external fuel tank and twin solid rocket boosters. Then it’s off to the pad on the giant Mobile Launcher Platform, where the shuttle is encased in its protective Rotating Service Structure until just before launch on April 5, 2010. The film ends with a glimpse of Discoveryand the STS-131 astronauts coming in for a landing 15 days later, back in Florida where it all started.

(Source: airspacemag.com)

As we find ourselves in December once more, I’d like to present the third annual Hubble Space Telescope imagery Advent Calendar for 2010. Keep checking this page - every day, for the next 25 days, a new photo will be revealed here from the Hubble Space Telescope, some old and some new. This year there is also a temporary RSS feed for the calendar. I continue to feel very fortunate to have been able to share photographs and stories with you all this year, and I wish for a Happy Holiday season to all those who will celebrate, and for Peace on Earth to everyone. - Alan

I Never Imagined by Bill Nye

Like any other space explorer, I like to think I have a pretty good imagination. I easily imagine other suns, other worlds, and yet-to-be-discovered physics.

But I never imagined, not for a moment, that I would so strongly disagree with two of the world’s heroes, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong. As of this writing, these astronauts are opposed to key aspects of NASA’s new plan for space exploration. They, along with a few others, believe that the U.S. is ending its human (manned) space exploration. I cannot help but ask, have these opponents read the same documents that I have? Are we all talking about the same NASA?

The new plan strikes me as just that — new and inherently exciting. It’s focused on doing new things in space, developing new technology, making discoveries, and going where no one has gone before.

If you ask a group of adults why we continue to explore space from the international space station, a large fraction often can’t provide an especially good or compelling answer. If you ask a group of kids why we explore space, every hand will shoot up, and they’ll give you an earful. Each kid wants to be a discoverer, an explorer. We venture into space to make discoveries beyond the horizon. I imagine every reader of this publication feels, or certainly once felt, the same way.

Near as I can tell, some opponents of the new plan feel that the space shuttle program is a good one and should be continued now and for as long as needed. Some harbor the belief that using well-tested rockets made in Russia somehow gives the Russian space program an advantage over NASA. This will not be the first time U.S. rockets have not been able to take astronauts to the space station. After the Columbia shuttle crash, the U.S. relied on these same Russian rockets for more than two years. Meanwhile, it is clear that the shuttle is very expensive. Funding it is a drag on NASA’s budget, and NASA just cannot produce a new vehicle, if that’s what’s needed, while the shuttle is being funded.

Ask a group of people, kids or adults, to name the people orbiting the Earth right now on the space station, and few, if any, can name a single one of them. All told, over 500 people have flown in space. That’s not good or bad so much as just the way it is. The shuttle program sought to make space travel to low Earth orbit routine, and except for the two shuttle wrecks, it has. We need to send humans to exciting new destinations in space to rediscover the passion, beauty and joy of exploration.

As a charter member of the Planetary Society, steeped in the lore of Viking, Voyager, Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity, I deeply believe that robots do great things. Exploring space with these extensions of our senses has broadened our understanding of other worlds as well as our own. Imbuing these spacecraft with human characteristics and names helps us all appreciate them. But without humans along for the ride, the adventure isn’t quite the same. There are plenty of people seeking to work on robotic spacecraft. But that number would pale compared with the number who would apply to be the first human to Mars.

If we’re willing to take risks, shouldn’t we be risking our treasure and genius on discovering something new?

As I try to understand what motivates these extraordinary statements from these extraordinary men, I consider what we do agree on. I am pretty sure we agree that the shuttle program was canceled six years ago, during the previous president’s term. I believe we would agree that the Constellation program, which included the Ares 1 and 5 rockets along with an Orion space capsule, would not take anyone back to the Moon before 2020, or even 2025, some 50 years after the Apollo astronauts made the same voyage.

Would we agree that the Constellation program somehow got away from its managers? Would we agree that it was not going to accomplish much, while spending a lot of money? Would we agree we need a plan that will work?

While the current NASA administrator fights the good fight with some of the agency’s retired explorers, other nations’ space agencies are doing new things. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has deployed a solar sail as a part of a mission to Venus. The European Space Agency (ESA) is exploring a comet, the sort of object that could impact Earth. Saving the shuttle from retirement will hold us back. Let’s imagine new adventures instead.

Imagine NASA taking us on a new path. Imagine new journeys. Imagine NASA leading our world in space exploration, so that we all can appreciate and know our place in space.

Bill Nye is executive director (designate) of the Planetary Society.

(Source: spacenews.com)

Astrophysicist and TV personality Neil deGrasse Tyson charmed a crowd of thousands last night in Alumni Arena with wicked humor and a talk on the wonders of the universe that ended with this thought, founded on centuries of scientific discovery: “We are stardust.”

Tyson, host of the PBS series NOVA scienceNOW and director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, opened his Distinguished Speakers Series lecture by telling the audience, to waves of laughter, that he would not be discussing such topics as the end of the universe in 2012 or Pluto’s demotion from planet to “dirty iceball.” Instead, over the course of an hour, Tyson shared a list of 10 “out-of-this-world” tidbits of information on space and humanity that left many listeners silent with awe.

He began with item No. 10 on his list: “The universe has many stars.”

“The universe has a boatload of stars,” Tyson said. “How many? Let’s find out. Let’s work our way there, shall we? Let’s count our way there.”

The population of New York City has a population measured by multiples of 1 million—a one followed by six zeroes. The wealth of Bill Gates, the “patron saint of geeks,” is measured by the billion—a one with nine zeroes trailing, Tyson said. People say McDonald’s has sold 100 billion burgers, and if you laid those sandwiches side by side, they would form a ribbon of food that could wrap around the earth 52 times—with enough left over to build a stack that could “reach the moon and back,” Tyson said. That, Tyson said, is about the number of stars in the Milky Way, our galaxy.

He kept going. It would take 32,000 years to count to 1 trillion at the rate of one number per second. One trillion seconds ago, Tyson told the audience, “cavemen were drawing on cave walls.” A quadrillion—a one followed by 15 zeroes—is the number of sounds and words uttered by all humans who have ever lived, he said. The number of stars in the observable universe is measured by the sextillion—a one followed by 21 zeroes.

“So when you have people out there saying the sun is special, and we’re the only one, it’s like, excuse me, have you looked up lately? Can I buy you a telescope? Here’s some Hubble pictures,” Tyson said, displaying images from the Hubble Space Telescope on enormous screens set up next to the stage. “Check out our universe.”

Tyson continued with his list of things to know:

• No. 9: “The universe is bad for your ego.” Long ago, men imagined that Earth was the center of the universe, Tyson said. That was before scientists discovered that our planet was just one of several in a solar system, and that the sun that the planets orbited was just one star in a vast galaxy in a universe with billions of galaxies. Now, Tyson said, “We’ve got top people considering the possibility that we are just one of many universes, and we have got a word ready to invoke: the multiverse.” After viewing a planetarium show, one University of Pennsylvania researcher in social and cultural psychology wrote to Tyson, saying, “It was the most dramatic elicitor of feelings of smallness and insignificance that I have yet encountered.”

• No. 8: “The universe is like a time machine.” Because it takes time for light to travel, looking at faraway objects is like looking back into time. “We can look out to the signature of the big bang itself,” Tyson said. “That’s how we know about the history of the universe. We don’t just make this stuff up. We see it happen.”

• No. 7: “The universe is big, and molecules are small.” A cup of water holds more molecules than the number of cups of water in all the world’s oceans, Tyson told listeners. Every cup of water a person drinks contains molecules that have passed through the kidneys of Genghis Khan, Joan of Arc, Abraham Lincoln, Beethoven and Socrates. “We have a connectivity to each other that we don’t often reflect upon, and it happens because of how small molecules are,” Tyson said.

• No. 6: “The universe wants to kill you.” A butt-naked human being would be dead in seconds almost anywhere in the universe and on earth, Tyson said. If weather, predators or natural disasters do not take your life, something like a killer asteroid could. Not long ago, scientists raised concerns that one asteroid in particular—“Apophis,” named after the Egyptian god of darkness—could strike Earth this century, as many hurtling through space have in the past. “There’s Apophis,” Tyson said, showing the audience a picture of the asteroid. “We do have plans, unfunded, to deflect it. Did I say unfunded? Unfunded plans to deflect it.”

• No. 5: “Earth might not be the origin of life.” Mars had running water on its surface before Earth, Tyson said, “so it’s tantalizing to think maybe Mars had life before Earth…That life, if it got stuck in the nooks and crannies of rocks that got flung into space, you would have microbial stowaways moving through space.” It is possible, Tyson said, that life on Mars spawned life on Earth, making us all Martian descendants.

• No. 4: “Carbon is the foundation for life.” Carbon is the most “chemically fertile” element on the periodic table, capable of making the most kinds of molecules, Tyson said. And because “biology is the most complex chemistry we know,” it makes sense that carbon is the basis of life.

• No. 3: “Life is of the universe.” The most abundant elements in the human body are, in order, hydrogen, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen. That list matches precisely with the list, in order of abundance, of chemically active elements in the universe.

• No. 2: “The universe is of life.” High-mass stars that “explode their guts across the galaxy” scatter, across the universe, the elements from which people and planets are made, Tyson said. These bursting stellar bodies are called “supernovae,” and “they are so bright that we can see them halfway across the galaxy,” he said.

Which brings us back to the beginning of this story, to Tyson’s last and No. 1 thought: “We are stardust.”

“The ingredients of the universe are traceable to us,” he told the audience. “The ingredients are traceable to the universe. And I’m left, then, with the most profound thought…the most profound gift to civilization that modern astrophysics has to offer. And that is the notion that, not only are we in this universe, the universe is in us.”

(By CHARLOTTE HSU)

(Source: buffalo.edu)