May 2009 Archives

Forty years ago today...

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On 18 May 1969, Apollo 10 was launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the last mission in preparation for the Moon landing mission that was to come three months later.

Apollo 10 was a full "dress rehearsal", the only one in the Apollo program. The ship was identical to the one used for Apollo 11, and everything progressed — on board and on land — just as if a landing was going to happen. The Lunar Module was deployed on 23 May with Thomas P. Stafford and Eugene A. Cernan on board, leaving John W. Young alone in the command module, and it descended towards the Moon, spending six hours away from the Command Module and getting as close as 15.7km from the surface before going back up and docking.

The mission landed safely on 26 May on the Pacific Ocean, some 500km east of the American Samoa islands, and after that NASA was ready for the "real deal" with Apollo 11.

Commander Thomas Stafford left NASA soon after (ostensibly due to not having been selected to fly Apollo 13) and never returned to space; Young landed on the Moon with Apollo 16 in 1972 and flew the Space Shuttle's inaugural mission in 1981, among other missions; and Cernan has the distinction of being so far the last person to have been on the surface of the Moon, as a crew member on Apollo 17.

Launches

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This week will see, finally, the launch of space shuttle Atlantis carrying the astronauts for STS-125, the final Hubble servicing mission. This mission was delayed after Hubble developed some new faults late last year, but it looks like this time everything is going to happen as expected. As I write this, the countdown stands at 1 day, 8 hours, putting the launch in the early hours of this Tuesday, Melbourne time. At the same time, space shuttle Endeavour also sits on the launch pad, ready to act as Atlantis' rescue ship should anything go seriously wrong while in orbit.

But this week will also see two other important launches, neither of which is getting as much attention as it deserves. On 14 May at 23:12 Melbourne time (13:12 UTC), an Ariane 5 rocket will be launched from the Guiana Space Centre carrying two European observatories into orbit:

  • the Herschel Space Observatory is a 3.5 metre telescope, the largest space telescope ever launched; it will look at the universe in the low energy range of the far infrared, looking at what its creators call "the cool universe" — objects that are either not hot enough to emit visible light or far enough that their light is shifted into the far infrared by the time it gets to use
  • the Planck observatory is a microwave telescope that will look into the light emitted by the Big Bang, investigating variations in the temperature of the background radiation that permeates the universe; it intends to look at the Cosmig Microwave Background with a level of detail never before achieved and to bring us new insights into the properties of our universe during its early years

Both Herschel and Planck will be far away from the Earth, orbiting around L2 (the second Lagrangian point); this puts them around 1.5 million kilometres away and permanently in our night side. This allows both to operate without any interference from Earth's radiation belts and reduces the area of sky that is "off limits" to their instruments (since both the Earth and the Sun will be in the same general area of sky from the point of view of the observatories).

Hubble has certainly given us and our scientist an amazing amount of information about the universe over the years, and I do hope this servicing mission goes according to plan. But let's also hope that Herschel and Planck lift off without problems and bring us much more information over the next few years.

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This page is an archive of entries from May 2009 listed from newest to oldest.

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