AidSpace Blog

Keeping Watch on Venus

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Venus has almost the same diameter as the Earth and is the next closest planet to the Sun. The similarity ends with the weather report, however. The surface temperature is more than 465 o C (870o F) and atmospheric pressure is 90 times that of Earth. The surface is hidden from view by a dense blanket of clouds, so we must use radar systems to “see” the landscape below. Using a data processing technique called synthetic aperture radar, these systems create images that reveal information of great interest to geologists: how much rocky material is scattered across the surface, how thick is any dust layer, and what kinds of mountains, volcanoes, folds, or ridges exist?

In the early 1990s, the Magellan spacecraft mapped nearly the entire planet with a resolution that could pick out features about the size of a football field. Even with this global view, there is much we do not understand about Venus, especially about what goes on at the surface. With such a large planet there is plenty of internal heat, so we expect that volcanoes might erupt, but Magellan could not linger in orbit long enough to watch for such changes. Since that time, Venus has kept its secrets, visited by the European Venus Express Mission but not mapped again by an orbiting radar sensor. Instruments on Venus Express can get a blurry view of the ground by imaging narrow bands in the electromagnetic spectrum where the atmosphere lets heat escape from the surface. From these maps, some volcanic areas seem to be less weathered than others, perhaps indicating more recent eruptions. The exact nature of what is happening cannot be understood without a long-term comparison between images that reveal the landscape in much finer detail.

Maps of Venus collected using Earth-based radar systems in 1988 and 2012. Smithsonian Institution

Earth-based radar astronomy may fill that gap in our monitoring of Venus. In 1988, a team led by Donald Campbell of Cornell University used the radar system at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico to map the side of Venus that faces Earth when the two planets are closest together in the sky (called an inferior conjunction). This map can distinguish features about a mile across—less detailed than Magellan but still adequate to see large lava flows from volcanoes. In 2012, a team led by Smithsonian scientists carried out a similar type of mapping, transmitting the radar signal from Arecibo Observatory but receiving the echoes from Venus at the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia.

Contrasting view of the mountainous Alpha Regio on Venus. The top radar map is from the Magellan spacecraft, and the bottom map was produced by Earth-based systems. The area covered is about 3600 km (2237 miles) across. The impact craters Stuart, Peggy, and Nadia are labeled. Fine-grained material from Stuart crater darkens both radar images within the white outline, but in the Earth-based view can be seen extending well into the highlands (orange outline). Smithsonian Institution/NASA

It is painstaking to compare these images and search for evidence of change, but the work is ongoing. In the meantime, combining images from the two observing periods is yielding a wealth of insight about other processes that alter the surface of Venus. One source of change is through the formation of impact craters, which hurl dusty material above the atmosphere, from where it settles back to the surface up to hundreds of miles away. Over time, the gentle surface winds move this material around, piling it up against ridges or hills. The Earth-based data show that such blankets of fine material can cover large regions of the fractured, mountainous uplands called tesserae. These rugged highlands are likely places to find rocks that record the early history of Venus, and some evidence suggests that the tesserae share similarities with continents on Earth. Mapping the extent of crater deposits and other types of surface change will be crucial to finding the best landing sites for future spacecraft that venture into this very “unearthly” environment.

Bruce Campbell is a Senior Scientist with the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies (CEPS) at the National Air and Space Museum. Gareth Morgan is a Planetary Geologist in CEPS. The work described here will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Icarus.

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Orion Test Flight: Back to the Future

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If weather permits and no last-minute technical issues arise, NASA’s next-generation crew exploration vehicle launches into space for the first time on December 4*, 2014. The engineering test flight with no one aboard the craft is planned to last four hours, make two orbits at a distance of 3,600 miles, and splash down off the coast of Baja California. The flight will test basic spacecraft systems and new safety measures.


Orion crew vehicle in launch fairing with crew escape system rocket atop a Delta V Heavy launch vehicle. Rendering courtesy of NASA.

Some have called Orion “Apollo on steroids” because the large conical capsule is reminiscent of the Apollo command modules that took men to the Moon and back. Scaled up to seat four crewmembers, Orion has a crew escape system for use in a launch mishap. The craft descends from orbit protected by a blunt ablative heat shield and slowed by three huge parachutes like those used before the shuttle era.

The launch vehicle for this test flight is the Delta IV Heavy from United Launch Alliance, routinely used to place satellites into orbit. A new Space Launch System (SLS) under development will eventually come into service for Orion; it also draws elements from the past—derivatives of the Saturn V and space shuttle liquid propellant engines and scaled-up shuttle solid rocket boosters.

Orion in orbit: Crew Module on right, attached to service module, and second stage/orbital maneuvering engine at left. Rendering Courtesy of NASA

Orion in orbit: Crew Module on right, attached to service module, and second stage/orbital maneuvering engine at left. Rendering Courtesy of NASA

NASA is billing this flight as the first step in the journey to Mars, and Orion as the spacecraft built to take humans farther than they have ever gone before. It may be a decade or longer before a Mars mission happens, as there is not yet an official program with funding in place. However, sending the vehicle far beyond the International Space Station’s 250-mile orbit to check out its performance in the harsher radiation environment and the higher speed reentry is a prelude to long-distance exploration.

Apollo Program

The last U.S. spacecraft to return this way came home in 1975. Image courtesy of NASA

The Museum has three distinctive links to Orion. One is Chief Engineer Julie Kramer White, who was our liaison to NASA for shuttle test vehicle Enterprise. Based in the orbiter engineering office in Houston during the 1990s, she arranged for various inspections on the original orbiter to evaluate the condition of its aging materials. To our knowledge, she is the first female chief engineer for the development of a crew spacecraft.

Another connection to Orion is that a few mementos from the Museum are on this flight. We sent three small silk flags with our vintage logo, previously flown on Discovery’s first mission in 1984; two small “Web of Space” sculptures by local artist John Safer that we award as the Museum’s annual trophy for current and lifetime achievement in aerospace; and an unflown oxygen hose from our inventory of spare Apollo spacesuit parts.

National Air and Space Museum flag: The Museum’s logo in the white field depicts flight in the atmosphere, in orbit, and out to deep space. Earth as seen from space appears against the Smithsonian sunburst logo.

Our strongest connection to Orion is our relationship with Lockheed Martin, developer of the new spacecraft and one of the Museum’s most generous supporters. The Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater and our partnership in producing the first three IMAX® films made in space are just two of the most visible emblems of this long and valued relationship.

The Museum plans a launch and return watch program in the Moving Beyond Earth exhibition gallery, using the wall-size screens to give viewers a close look at these events. There we tell the shuttle and space station stories and set the scene for the future of human spaceflight. That future, whatever it may hold, begins with Orion. The Museum’s staff sends all best wishes to NASA, Lockheed Martin, United Launch Alliance, and the entire Orion team for a successful first test flight.

*The first launch attempt on December 4 was briefly postponed by high winds and then scrubbed when technical issues arose that could not be resolved within the four hour launch window. Launch was rescheduled to December 5.

Valerie Neal is space history curator for the Space Shuttle and International Space Station era.

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Making Moves in Milestones

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If you visit the Museum in Washington, DC, you may notice a few key objects have been removed from display. The last several weeks have been especially busy for our Collections Processing Unit. More than 15 objects have already been moved as part of the major renovation of the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall—scheduled to open on the Museum’s 40th Anniversary in 2016. Recently, Sputnik 1, Explorer I, Pioneer 10, Mariner 2, and the Goddard Rockets have all been delicately removed from display and transported offsite to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center for conservation.

Sputnik 1

Anthony Wallace and Lance Brown prepare Sputnik 1 for transport. Image by Eric Long, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

Anthony Wallace, a supervisory museum specialist with the Collections Processing Unit, shared some of the logistics involved with moving the Museum’s treasured artifacts. “Moving anything from downtown [Washington, DC] is always complex,” he said.

Hours (upon hours) of work will go into preparing for a single artifact move. From constructing crates and specialized handling gear that accommodate each artifact’s unique measurements to making sure the right equipment will be available. And there’s also coordinating with the Museum’s many departments and staff: curators, conservation, exhibition specialists, security, and photographers among many.

Sputnik 1

Before removing an artifact, staffers need to determine how it was originally installed. Eric Long,National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

According to Anthony, moving Sputnik 1 and Explorer I were fairly straight forward. For both, the most difficult task was determining how each was installed so that they could be efficiently uninstalled. In total, Anthony estimates it took about four staff hours to remove Sputnik 1 and Explorer I, once they were in the Museum, with another two hours of work to secure the objects for transport. Everything took place before the Museum opened to the public.

Mariner 2

Staffers use a crane to reach Mariner 2. Image by Mark Avino, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

Several days later, Pioneer 10 and Mariner 2 were removed. As larger objects, extra steps were required. Pioneer 10, for example, had to be transported in pieces thanks in large part to its 2.7-meter (9-foot) dish. Small parts were removed while the object was still hanging in the gallery. Chain hoists were used to lower the main bus to the ground where it was mounted to a specially built transport pallet.

Finally, the Goddard rockets were removed from display. Two of the rockets were removed in the morning prior to the Museum opening. The largest rocket needed more time and logistics to remove so this work was done in the evening after closing. Due to its vertical position directly beneath the North American X-15, the rocket needed to move out to the center of the gallery so staff could successfully rotate it from the vertical to the horizontal position for transport. The rocket was driven on a forklift and in combination with a chain hoist, the 8-meter (26-foot) tall assembly was rotated into its transport orientation. Visitors familiar with the exhibition space will notice that the Viking Lander now occupies the spot where the Goddard rockets were displayed.

 Goddard 1941 P-series Rocket

The 6.7 m (22 ft) Goddard 1941 P-series rocket is prepped for lowering. Mark Avino, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

Goddard 1941 P-series Rocket

Staffers use a combination of a fork lift and a chain hoist to lower the rocket for transport. Mark Avino, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

In the next several months, more objects will be on the move—Anthony noted the Lunar Module (LM-2) would pose a particularly interesting challenge. The LM-2 will be moved from the east end of the building, where it has been displayed since 1976, and become a focal point of the newly renovated Hall. Due to the size of the lander, its ascent and descent stages will be separated for the move. Moving the Lunar Module, as with all of our artifacts, will give us the opportunity to get up close to examine, clean, and photograph portions of the object that are not typically accessible.

Curious about what it takes to coordinate a project like this? Ask Anthony and other Milestones team members on the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall renovation website. You can also follow our progress on Twitter using #MilestonesofFlight.

Jenny Wiley Arena  is the digital content manager in the Web & New Media Department of the National Air and Space Museum

Anthony Wallace is a supervisory museum specialist with the Collections Processing Unit at the National Air and Space Museum

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Thanksgiving Day in Space

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“Pass the turkey, please.”

“Do you have room for dessert?”

The elements of a traditional Thanksgiving meal are passed around in plastic pouches instead of platters and bowls, but the spirit of this holiday in space is the same as at home. Gathered around (or over!) a makeshift table, crewmates have celebrated Thanksgiving on Skylab, the Space Shuttle, the Russian Mir space station, and the International Space Station (ISS). It may be harder to resist the tug of tradition than the tug of gravity; Thanksgiving is a holiday, wherever you are.

This turkey (maybe the first in space?) flew on the ISS in 2001. (NASA)

No one in space spends hours preparing the feast. The food is ready in minutes, simply by adding hot water or placing it in a small warming oven. Food scientists in Houston prepared everything months in advance, then dehydrated or radiated or thermostabilized (“canned”) it to prevent spoilage, and put individual servings in vacuum-sealed packages to be carried into orbit and kept in a stowage locker until the big day. The space station has no refrigerator or freezer to keep food fresh, and serving sizes are calculated to provide a balanced nutritional diet.

Mmmm, mmmm good! Traditional Thanksgiving favorites packaged for the 2013 holiday in space. (NASA)

Crewmembers take turns preparing meals, which are bundled together by day. There are no tantalizing aromas to whet the appetite while foods are warming, no plates heaped with servings of this and that, and little clean-up to do after the meal. Imagine a small tray Velcroed to your thigh and six little packages of food Velcroed to the tray. You snip each one open with scissors, dip your spoon or fork in, and finally savor the tastes. Maybe you are dangling from the ceiling or anchored to foot loops on the floor; your posture really doesn’t matter.

Fitting ten floating astronauts around a small table, as shown at this 2008 Thanksgiving meal on ISS, can be a challenge. (NASA)

Twice, groups of ten shared Thanksgiving dinner in space: the combined crews of ISS Expedition 18 and shuttle mission STS-126 in 2008, and the next year’s Expedition 21 and STS-129 crews. This year, six people—two Americans, three Russians, and one Italian—are dining together about 250 miles above the planet.

The menu for their Thanksgiving meal is similar to most Americans’. They will enjoy smoked turkey, cornbread dressing, green bean casserole, candied yams, and fruit cobbler, along with powdered beverages (no alcohol or sodas allowed in orbit). They won’t be watching football after dinner but will have time off duty to relax after their portion-controlled feast. There are no seconds or left-overs to snack on.

Many people like to take a long walk or play touch football on Thanksgiving Day to work up an appetite while waiting for the turkey to roast. One space station crew, Expedition 5 in 2002, took a novel approach to pre-dinner exercise: a spacewalk! It wasn’t for recreation; they had a job to do outside first.

To learn more about celebrating holidays in space, you will find quite a few accounts by doing a Google search, as well as this collection of photos: Holidays in Space, An Astronauts Photo Album, and information on the history of food in space. Meanwhile, enjoy your own feast with friends and family, and be sure to appreciate having leftovers.

Expedition 42 commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore delivers a special Thanksgiving message from the International Space Station.

Valerie Neal is Space History curator for the Space Shuttle and International Space Station era.

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The Art of the Wooden Scrapbook

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Although many photos and memories are going digital, scrapbooking is still a big pastime in America.  You can go to any craft store and find an aisle devoted to paper, stickers, and pre-made scrapbooks.  Although many of the scrapbooks in the National Air and Space Museum Archives’ collections are of the premade store-bought variety, we have a few personalized wooden scrapbook covers that are works of art.

Operation Crossroads was the name for the series of atmospheric nuclear weapon tests conducted in the summer of 1946 at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands.  To commemorate these events, Col. Donald Putt was given a large scrapbook with the photo and documentary history of the Task Group T-2, the group responsible for the overall supervision of the AAF Airborne installation and a large part of the photography.  The wooden cover features a painting of an atomic mushroom cloud originating from the task group insignia.  And it was made from airplane veneer!

Wooden cover of Operation Crossroads scrapbook. NASM 9A08395

Mary Charles participated in the 1931 National Air Races in Cleveland, Ohio, where she came in last due to engine problems.  She owned three scrapbooks commemorating the 1931 race.  The most memorable of these scrapbooks features a wooden cover painted to reproduce artist Charles Hubbell’s cover design for the Official Program.  Charles added her name and pilots’ license number 17050 at bottom and altered the number on the plane on the left.

Wooden cover of Mary Charles scrapbook for the 1931 National Air Races, Cleveland, Ohio. NASM 9A06412 

My favorite wooden works of art are the John E. Parker scrapbooks.  Parker was the president of Northwestern Aeronautical Corporation (NAC), which made wooden gliders for the war effort. Allied forces used the unpowered gliders at the Normandy D-Day invasion and at other battles to silently carry troops into enemy territory.  Parker designed four scrapbooks to include newspaper clippings and photographs of company activities.  The covers feature incredible woodworking.

Wood carved cover on John E. Parker scrapbook. NASM 2013-00434

Wood carved cover on John E. Parker scrapbook. NASM 2013-00435 

Wood carved cover on John E. Parker scrapbook. NASM 2013-00436

Wood carved cover on John E. Parker scrapbook. NASM 2013-00437

Wood can be a tricky medium to preserve.  We keep our scrapbooks in custom-sized boxes in our temperature and humidity controlled storage room and, as in all archives, keep an eye out for pests.  The other thing we have to look out for is potential off-gassing from the wood.  Museums and archives are wary of wooden storage furniture and need to be cautious with wood in our collections.  For now, the scrapbooks have been taken apart, if possible, though the wooden covers are stored with the corresponding scrapbook material.  We’ll keep an eye on them.

Elizabeth C. Borja is an archivist in the Museum’s Archives Department.


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