AidSpace Blog

Inside Look: Celebrating New Horizons With the Mission Team

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On July 13 and 14, I was invited to visit the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, for the New Horizons Pluto Flyby Events. These included various panels and speakers including Tom Krimigis, the only person to have been a part of a mission to visit all nine major bodies in our solar system; Ann Druyan; Dava Sobel; and Amy Teitel whose Pluto in a Minute series is a great way to get caught up on the New Horizons mission. Also in attendance were Annette and Alden Tombaugh, children of Clyde Tombaugh. Clyde Tombaugh originally discovered Pluto in 1930, and his ashes were attached to the New Horizons spacecraft. Annette and Alden were thrilled to watch as their father got to finally explore Pluto up-close. (The instrument Tombaugh used to discover Pluto is currently on display at the Museum in Washington, DC in Exploring the Planets. Learn more about Tombaugh’s discovery with the blink comparator.)

The party really began on Tuesday, July 14, the day of closest approach. As we arrived at 7:00 am, the New Horizons team and guests (me and hundreds of team, friends, and family) were all handed tiny American flags and crammed into a ballroom in the Kossiakoff Center, at John Hopkins, to count down to the closest approach. At 7:49 am, the whole crowd and New Horizons team erupted into cheers, shouts, and applause, all furiously waving our flags celebrating the moment New Horizons passed 10,000 km (6,200 mi.) from Pluto’s surface!

My badge, celebratory flag, and the latest sticker inspired by the closest approach. Photo: Emily Martin. Smithsonian Institution

Then we waited! Pluto is a 4.8-billion kilometer (3-billion mile) journey away. It takes at least 4.5 hours for New Horizons to receive a message from Earth. We had to wait nine long hours to receive the “phone home” signal from New Horizons to know whether the closest approach (that we all had just celebrated) was successful. Was the spacecraft still healthy? Did it collect all the data?

The Kossiakoff Center Auditorium, congratulating the Mission Operations team after the successful flyby and subsequent “phone home” signal. Photo: Emily Martin, Smithsonian Institution

After more panels and lectures, it was time for another countdown. We watched live as Alice Bowman, the Applied Physics Laboratory’s first female mission operations manager, began receiving data on the health of New Horizons and the success of the mission. New Horizons was healthy and had recorded all the expected data! This was the moment for Mission Operations, who are to be credited with the successful nine-year cruise to Pluto and encounter. The parade of Mission Operations from their workstations into the Kossiakoff Center Auditorium was the NASA version of a New York City ticker-tape parade. They really are rockstars. The image above captures it all! An even more emotional moment than the flyby if you can imagine!

Pluto and its five moons continue to surprise, shock, inspire, and excite us. Over the next 16 months, the data will be steadily beamed back to Earth by New Horizons. Keep your eyes on New Horizons, there is much, much more to come!


The author celebrating New Horizon’s successful mission. Photo: Emily Martin, Smithsonian Institution

Emily Martin is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies.

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New Horizons: The Gift That Keeps Giving

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On July 14, the New Horizons spacecraft completed a 9.5-year-long, 4.8-billion kilometer (3-billion mile) journey to the object furthest from the Sun to be visited by a spacecraft. It is somehow fitting that the Pluto fly-by occurred 50 years, to the day, after Mariner 4 took the first images of Mars, obtained during a spacecraft encounter. New Horizons provided the first close-up views of the dwarf planet Pluto, and also the first “Kuiper Belt Object” to be visited by a robotic emissary from Earth. When New Horizons launched in 2006, it was headed toward the ninth planet, discovered by American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. Later that same year, the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the organization representing astronomers from around the world, reached a historic but contentious decision to define what it means to be a ”planet.“ Pluto was considered to be small enough that its gravitational pull was insufficient to ”clear out” the zone of space through which it orbited the Sun, leading the IAU to state that Pluto was now the type example of a ”dwarf planet” and representative of the numerous large, icy bodies then known to orbit the Sun beyond Neptune in a doughnut-shaped zone first hypothesized by astronomer Gerard Kuiper. There remains a vocal group of planetary scientists (including Alan Stern, the principle investigator of New Horizons), along with a large portion of the American public, who disagree with the IAU decision about the status of Pluto. In spite of this ”nomenclature” debate, New Horizons is revealing what the denizens of the Kuiper Belt actually look like, with startling revelations presented at each New Horizons press conference.

As New Horizons made its closest approach to Pluto, the dwarf planet and its large moon Charon (half the size of Pluto) were transformed from fuzzy spots visible to the largest telescopes on Earth into objects with unique geologic histories. The best New Horizons image of Pluto sent to Earth prior to the closest approach revealed a surface with many circular features thought to be large craters produced by impacts (something that had been expected), but the enormous variation in how much sunlight was reflected from the surface, along with the complex patterns of the brightness differences, were a hint that Pluto had much to tell us about its history. Hubble Space Telescope images indicated that the brightness of Pluto was spatially variable, but there was no indication of how those variations were produced. The pre-encounter image showed Pluto has both very dark and very bright regions close together, with the brightest equatorial area found in a heart-shaped region. High resolution images released after the encounter have revealed that Pluto has mountains that rise >3.5 km (>11,000 feet) above the surrounding plains. The bright plains of the ”heart” lack obvious craters (suggesting a young age) but are broken into polygonal patterns >15 km (>10 mi.) wide, the bright plains are made up of ices of methane, nitrogen, and carbon monoxide, and flows of nitrogen ice extend from the bright plains into and around the surrounding mountains and rough terrain. It will take 16 months to send to Earth all of the uncompressed (full-resolution) data collected during the 22-hour-long close encounter phase, due to the great distance over which the data must be transmitted. However, during this time New Horizons will be the ”gift that keeps on giving” as these precious data arrive on Earth, are assessed by the science team, and released to the public. Stay tuned!

See for updates and regular data releases from New Horizons.

Pluto in True Color

Mosaic of four images of Pluto, released July 24, 2015. Photo: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI


Jim Zimbelman is a geologist in the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies at the National Air and Space Museum.

Check back tomorrow for a first-hand account of what it was like to be at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory for the Pluto flyby.


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Zvezda Service Module Celebrates 15 Years in Orbit

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Through the commotion of a very successful July which included the New Horizons mission to Pluto, the 40th anniversary of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, the 46th anniversary of Apollo 11, and the Museum’s very first Kickstarter project, there is one anniversary that we may have inadvertently overlooked. In July, the Zvezda (Russian for “star”) module of the International Space Station (ISS) celebrated 15years in orbit. It is now the longest-serving piece of hardware in orbit that has supported human spaceflight. The Russian Zvezda component was the third module launched to the ISS, but first module that was inhabitable. Today it orbits the Earth while providing life support for up to six crewmembers. Its next milestone will be this November as it celebrates 15 years of continuous occupation.

The Russian Rocket and Space Corporation Energia, launched Zvezda on July 12, 2000. At the time, the press noted the launch as the first use of advertisement on a launch vehicle. The Proton rocket that launched Zvezda displayed a Pizza Hut logo on the outside. The module permanently docked with the Russian powerhouse, Zarya (“Dawn,” launched November 1998). NASA astronauts had previously docked the American-built passive module, Unity, to Zarya. With the addition of Zvezda, the space station became habitable with the long-term life support needed to host international crews. Today, Zvezda still forms the basis of the habitable portion of the ISS. Zvezda consists of two cylindrical compartments: a work compartment where the crews work and live, and a cylindrical transfer chamber which has one docking port—an unpressurized assembly compartment surrounding the transfer chamber and a spherical transfer compartment with three docking ports. Zvezda weighs about 18,051 kilograms (39,796 pounds) and is 13.1 meters (43 feet) long. Its solar panels extend its width to 29.7 meters (97 feet) wide.

View of the bottom of the Zvezda module. Photo: NASA STS097-702-061

The module provides station living quarters, life support systems, electrical power distribution, data processing systems, flight control systems, and propulsion systems. It also provides a communications system that includes remote command capabilities from ground flight controllers. Zvezda also serves as the main docking port for Russian Soyuz and Progress spacecraft as well as the European Automated Transfer Vehicle.

Zvezda has a history that predates its orbital history by almost as long as it has been in orbit. The basic structural frame of Zvezda is known as “DOS-8.” This means that it is the eighth design in a series of Soviet and Russian long-term orbiting space stations. The air frame (internal structure) was initially built in the mid-1980s to be the core of the Mir-2 space station that was proposed to replace the Soviet-launched Mir space station in the late 1980s. This origin means that Zvezda has a similar layout to the core module (DOS-7) of the Mir space station. It was in fact, labeled as “Mir-2” for quite some time in the factory. This also links its design lineage to the original Salyut stations (1971-1987). Engineers at the Khrunichev Design Bureau completed the space frame in February 1985 and installed major internal equipment by October 1986. From then, the structure remained in storage for 14 years amid repeated program cancellations and the prolonged negotiations among the member states of the International Space Station program.

An overall interior view of the Zvezda Service Module photographed by an Expedition 17 crewmember on the International Space Station August 2008. Photo: NASA ISS017-E-015059

The space station that the Zvezda module was to replace was the space station Mir. Mir was the world’s first modular space station. The USSR launched its base module in 1986, Mir became the first continually-inhabited modular space station. When it approached its 15th anniversary, the space station found itself in competition with NASA and other countries for Russian human spaceflight funding. Unable to inhabit and maintain two stations at once, the Russian government de-orbited Mir into the Pacific Ocean in 2001.

If you happen to look up in the night sky at a time when the ISS is visible in your area, wish it a happy birthday and many more to come.

Cathleen Lewis is a curator in the Space History Department

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The Shepard & Armstrong Spacesuits: 8 Fun Facts

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1. Code Names
Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 spacesuit was given the code name Sirius, after the brightest star system in Earth’s night sky. Code names were assigned to each member of the Apollo astronaut candidate pool. This allowed NASA to begin ordering the construction of the Apollo spacesuits before they made the official announcement of who had been chosen to crew each mission.

2. Creating a Seal
How do you create an air-tight seal on a zipper? The zipper enclosures on Armstrong’s spacesuit actually consist of three layers. Two brass zippers sandwich a rubber layer: zipper, rubber, zipper. When pressurized from the inside of the spacesuit, the rubber expands and create a seal between the two zippers.

A close-up of the Apollo zipper construction from Ed Mitchell’s Apollo 14 spacesuit. See this diagram to identify each zipper.

3. A Copper Problem
The zippers and synthetic rubber used on the Apollo spacesuits were only meant to have a shelf life of six months. As it was well-known at the time, the rubber used in creating the pressure layer of the suits reacted quite negatively to copper. The zippers on the suits were made of brass. Brass is a mixture of zinc and, you guessed it, copper.

Avoiding copper was especially important in creating the rubber. By accident, an engineer once dropped his copper-tipped pencil into a vat of rubber during processing. This small incident ruined the entire vat. From that day on, pencils were banned from the facility.

The rubber and zippers of the Armstrong suit are especially challenging to conserve because of this reason. The reaction between the copper and rubber cause both substances to degrade.

4. When Nature Calls
Both Armstrong’s Apollo 11 spacesuit and Alan Shepard’s Mercury spacesuit had ports built in to expel any … ahem … biological waste. Because Shepard’s flight was only meant to last 15 minutes his port was never utilized.

What wasn’t anticipated were launch delays and hours spent waiting on the launchpad. When nature called, Shepard was faced with two options: scrub the launch or urinate in his spacesuit. Take a guess at which option he chose.

5. Silver Spacesuits
We know that the exterior of Armstrong’s spacesuit was largely made of white beta cloth. In comparison, Shepard’s spacesuit looks like a futuristic dream in silver. The Mercury spacesuit, however, is made of aluminum coating adhered with adhesive to a green fabric. Over the years, the adhesive has begun to degrade and turn a dark red color. This can be seen in spots where the aluminum coating is flaking off—many mistake this for rust.

6. No Pin Left Behind
All spacesuits are x-rayed at least twice before adorning an astronaut. This is to make sure the seamstresses in charge of sewing the suits have not left any pins behind. The suits are x-rayed once at ILC Dover, a spacesuit manufacturer, and once by NASA.

Did you know Alan Shepard also flew on Apollo 14? Here’s an x-ray of his spacesuit. X-ray: Roland H. Cunningham and Mark Avino

7. Glue-Pot Ladies
Much attention is paid to the seamstresses of spacesuits, but the real unsung heroes in spacesuit construction were the “glue-pot ladies.” One of the most important pieces of a spacesuit is the pressure layer, which was glued together one rubber piece at a time. The women who did this work, and were aptly nicknamed, were appreciated dearly by the astronauts whose lives were truly in their hands.

8. Conserving Then and Now
It had always been rumored that shortly after the Apollo 11 splashdown that NASA consulted with textile conservators at the Smithsonian about how best to preserve and care for the Apollo spacesuits. Recently discovered documentation confirms this rumor. Even though the Moon landing was a current event at the time, NASA was thinking toward the future and how to preserve the legacy of the Apollo program.

Have any of your own fun facts, stories, or tidbits to share? Leave us a comment.

Cathleen Lewis is a curator in the Space History Department
Lisa Young is an objects conservator for the Museum
Jenny Arena is the digital content manager in the Web and New Media Department



There are only 3 days left to back the Museum’s #RebootTheSuit Kickstarter project. Help us tell the complete story of our journey to the Moon and consider becoming one of our more than 8,500 backers.

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Remembering Claudia Alexander—Space Scientist

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Claudia Alexander—Space Scientist

Claudia Alexander was perhaps not well-known to the general public, but within the space and science community she was a valued colleague and friend whose contribution to the field of space exploration was significant and lasting. Charles Elachi, the director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory where she worked said she, “had a special understanding of how scientific discovery affects us all and how our greatest achievements are the result of teamwork, which came easily to her.” She was the last project manager for the Galileo Mission to Jupiter, project manager for the U.S. involvement in the Rosetta mission to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and a member of the Cassini Science Team.She authored or co-authored 14 scientific papers (and also wrote science fiction and children’s books on the side). Her work spanned the fields of planetary science, plasma physics, comet science, and geophysics.  But beyond these efforts, she also worked to encourage and support STEM education programs and established a scholarship program at the University of Michigan.

Born in Canada, she was raised in California. Early on she was motivated by President Kennedy’s call to accomplish goals, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” She loved her profession and transmitted her enthusiasm and excitement to all her colleagues. It is clear from their many tributes that her legacy lives on, not just in the knowledge gained from her research and mission work, but in the hearts of all those she inspired.

Priscilla Strain is a program manager with the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies

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