North Korea is Burning

Or, at least, large portions of it were burning when this satellite image was taken.


(AQUA satellite image of smoke plumes from fires in North Korea, 25 April 2014. NASA image.)

As this ABC News story noted,

The extent of deforestation stands out in the satellite image — in stark contrast to the greenery south of the DMZ in South Korea.

I primarily posted this because one of the fellows I worked with at the Defense Technology Security Administration had worked on the AQUA satellite, which took the image, when he was with NASA. Here’s the original NASA story with details on the image and the instrument used to produce it.

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Cruising to Venus, and a Space History Update

First, a little space history that I didn’t catch the first time around: 35 years ago this week, the Soviet Union sent two missions to Venus from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.


(Venera lander, or “descent craft.” Image from the National Space Science Data Center.)

The first of the two, Venera 11, consisted of a flyby platform and a lander (“descent craft”), and launched on September 9, 1978. The second, Venera 12, also consisted of a flyby platform and a lander, and launched on September 14th. Venera 12’s course got it to Venus four days ahead of Venera 11: the Venera 12 lander reached the surface of Venus on December 21, 1978, and the Venera 11 lander followed on Christmas day.

And to follow up on one of my earliest space history posts which noted the launch, 20 years ago today, of the Space Shuttle Discovery on mission STS-51: 5 years ago when I wrote that entry, I had no idea that a little over a year later I would meet one of the STS-51 astronauts, Frank L. Culbertson, Jr., at a NASA Industry-Education Forum. He was a very pleasant fellow, and well met.

Life can be weird and wonderful.

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Exploring Earth’s Atmosphere, a Lunar Flyby, and a Space Odyssey

Fifty years ago today — April 2, 1963 — two quite different launches happened in the U.S. and the Soviet Union.


(Explorer 17. NASA image.)

The U.S. launched Explorer 17, also known as Atmospheric Explorer A, the first in a series of satellites to study the upper atmosphere. The satellite launched in the late evening — already April 3rd, UTC — on a Thor-Delta rocket out of Cape Canaveral, and operated until its batteries failed in July 1963.

Earlier in the day, the Soviet Union had launched Luna 4, the “first successful spacecraft of their ‘second generation’ lunar program.” It launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on a Molniya rocket — a Modified SS-6 (Sapwood) ICBM. Interestingly, the USSR did not reveal Luna 4’s intended mission, but “was announced it would travel to ‘the vicinity of the Moon.'”

Rather than being sent on a straight trajectory toward the Moon, the spacecraft was placed first in a 167 x 182 km Earth orbit and then was rocketed in a curving path towards the Moon. Luna 4 achieved the desired initial trajectory but during trans-lunar coast the Yupiter astronavigation system failed (most likely due to thermal control problems) and the spacecraft could not be oriented properly for the planned midcourse correction burn. Communications were maintained, but Luna 4 missed the Moon by about 8400 km (sources give reports of 8336.2, 8451, and 8500 km) at 13:25 UT on 5 April 1963 and entered a 89 250 x 694 000 km equatorial Earth orbit. The spacecraft transmitted at 183.6 MHz at least until 7 April. The orbit is believed to have been later perturbed into a heliocentric orbit.

… It was speculated the probe was designed to perform a soft landing on the Moon based on the trajectory and on the later attempted landings of the Luna 5 and 6 spacecraft, as well as the advances made over the 3 years since the successful Luna 3 flyby. (And the fact that a lecture program entitled “Hitting the Moon”, scheduled to be broadcast on Radio Moscow at 7:45 p.m. the evening of April 5, was cancelled.)

Before all of this happened, on this date 55 years ago President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent “draft legislation to Congress establishing the ‘National Aeronautics and Space Agency.'” The name was soon changed to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. You can read more about NASA’s beginnings here.

Finally, 45 years ago today — April 2, 1968 — 2001: A Space Odyssey premiered at the Uptown Theatre in Washington, DC. This page includes a retrospective on its early run.

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X-38 ‘Crew Return Vehicle’ Test Flight

Fifteen years ago yesterday — March 12, 1998 — NASA conducted the first “drop test” of the X-38 at the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards AFB.


(The X-38 drops away from NASA’s B-52. NASA image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The X-38 program developed a series of prototype “lifeboats” for the International Space Station. The Crew Return Vehicle (CRV) would have been

an emergency vehicle to return up to seven International Space Station (ISS) crewmembers to Earth. It [would] be carried to the space station in the cargo bay of a space shuttle and attached to a docking port. If an emergency arose that forced the ISS crew to leave the space station, the CRV would be undocked and – after a deorbit engine burn – the vehicle would return to Earth much like a space shuttle.

The X-38 program was cancelled in 2002.

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Double Dose of Space History: Lunar Photos Station Shuttle

Forty-five years ago today — August 10, 1966 — Lunar Orbiter 1 was launched atop an Atlas Agena rocket out of Cape Canaveral.


(Lunar Orbiter spacecraft. NASA image.)

Lunar Orbiter 1 was the first of five spacecraft that took photographs of predominantly smooth areas of the Moon so landing sites for Surveyor and Apollo missions could be selected. Mission controllers got the opportunity to deal with some real-time problems during the spacecraft’s flight to the Moon:

The spacecraft experienced a temporary failure of the Canopus star tracker (probably due to stray sunlight) and overheating during its cruise to the Moon. The star tracker problem was resolved by navigating using the Moon as a reference and the overheating was abated by orienting the spacecraft 36 degrees off-Sun to lower the temperature.

Although some of the first orbiter’s photographs were smeared, the mission was an overall success, including taking the first two images of the Earth from the vicinity of the moon.

And on this date 10 years ago, the Space Shuttle Discovery launched from the Kennedy Space Center on mission STS-105. Astronauts Scott J. Horowitz, Frederick “Rick” W. Sturckow, Daniel T. Barry, and Patrick G. Forrester transported 7,000 pounds of supplies and equipment to the International Space Station. They also ferried the ISS Expedition 3 crew — Frank L. Culbertson, Jr. (see below), Vladimir N. Dezhurov, and Mikhail Tyurin — to the station and returned the Expedition 2 crew — Yury V. Usachev, James S. Voss, and Susan J. Helms — to Earth.

Eight years after his return to earth, I sat next to Captain (USN, Retired) Culbertson at the NASA Industry-Education Forum in Washington, DC. He was a very nice fellow, despite having graduated from a rival high school down in Charleston.

Many years ago I gave up my dream of being an astronaut (I’d already worked Shuttle landings at Edwards AFB, but failed to be accepted as a Flight Test Engineer candidate), but it’s cool to have met and worked for some. Thankfully, I can still take imaginary voyages through my own and others’ fiction.

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A New Target for Asteroid Exploration?

NASA reported yesterday that Canadian astronomer Martin Connors of Athabasca University identified a 1000-foot-wide asteroid orbiting in a very convoluted path around the Earth’s leading LaGrange point.

Connors made the discovery using data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) spacecraft.


(Image from the WISE spacecraft, with the newly discovered asteroid 2010 TK7 circled in green. NASA image.)

Surprisingly, the New Scientist article in which I first learned about the find pitches it inaccurately as an asteroid stalking the Earth. It is more accurate to say the asteroid is leading the Earth in its orbit around the sun.

The asteroid is roughly 1,000 feet (300 meters) in diameter. It has an unusual orbit that traces a complex motion near a stable point in the plane of Earth’s orbit, although the asteroid also moves above and below the plane. The object is about 50 million miles (80 million kilometers) from Earth. The asteroid’s orbit is well-defined and for at least the next 100 years, it will not come closer to Earth than 15 million miles (24 million kilometers).

NASA has an interesting video of the asteroid’s orbit: Earth’s First Trojan Asteroid (NASA video)

Alas, 2010 TK7’s odd orbital path probably excludes it from being explored and exploited any time soon. But there are plenty of other possibilities still waiting to be found for future explorers … and even for fictional ones like the “Asteroid Consortium” in my novel.

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The Beginning of Space-Based X-Ray Astronomy

Forty years ago today — December 12, 1970 — NASA launched Explorer-42, the first of a series of small observatories, from the San Marco launch platform off the coast of Kenya.


(The Uhuru satellite in pre-flight checkout, with Dr. Marjorie Townsend [who named the spacecraft] and Dr. Bruno Rossi. NASA image.)

Also called Uhuru, the spacecraft was built to scan the celestial sphere for X-ray sources. In fact, the catalog of sources developed from its data is still in use. Other spacecraft in the series were built to survey the sky in other energy regimes, e.g., in the gamma-ray and ultraviolet parts of the spectrum.

According to this page of Goddard Space Flight Center “Facts and Firsts,” Uhuru “catalogued more than 200 X-ray sources and found the first evidence for a black hole” at Cygnus X-1.

This NASA “Imagine the Universe!” page points out that Uhuru means “freedom” in Swahili, and the spacecraft was so named in honor of its Kenyan hosts. It was also launched on the seventh anniversary of Kenya’s independence.

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Lifting Body Powered Flight: M2-F3

Forty years ago today — November 25, 1970 — test pilot Bill Dana flew the M2-F3 lifting body on its first powered flight.


(M2-F3 on the lakebed at Edwards AFB. NASA image.)

The M2-F3 was an upgraded model of the M2-F2 lifting body, which had control problems resulting in a crash. The F3 version added a central vertical fin, and the result improved the control so much that only three few unpowered glide flights were needed before Dana’s powered flight.

Dana later flew the M2-F3 on its fastest-ever flight, reaching Mach 1.6 (1064 mph) on December 13, 1972.

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Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

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First New Millennium Program Earth Observer

Ten years ago today — November 21, 2000 — the EO-1 (Earth Observing mission 1), was launched from Vandenberg AFB on a Delta-II rocket.


(EO-1 image of the island of Oahu. NASA image.)

EO-1 was the first earth-observing spacecraft in the New Millennium Program, a NASA program to use low-cost spacecraft to test new technologies.

The same Delta-II rocket also launched the Swedish Munin nanosatellite designed to research the formation of aurarae, and the SAC-C remote sensing satellite built by a coalition of the U.S., Argentina France, Italy, Denmark, and Brazil.

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Update: Edited to note that EO-1’s status not as the first spacecraft in the NMP, but as the first earth-observing spacecraft in the NMP.

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Radar Mapping the Earth

Fifteen years ago today — November 4, 1995 — Canada’s RADARSAT-1 launched from Vandenberg AFB atop a Delta-II rocket.


(Artist’s conception of RADARSAT in orbit. National Snow and Ice Data Center image.)

RADARSAT employed a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) to map the earth, with particular attention to “sea ice and terrestrial ice sheets.” The radar satellite program was directed by the Canadian Space Agency (you can visit their page devoted to RADARSAT-1), and was launched by NASA under a joint agreement which allowed NASA access to the spacecraft’s data.

Take a look at this fantastic radar mosaic of Antarctica, as well as this radar image of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, both from the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

And finally, on the same Delta-II NASA also launched SURFSAT, an experiment supporting its Deep Space Network.

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