Comet Harpoons and Cosmic Sunsets: This Summer in Outer Space

The trees and flowers of Exobiotanica were launched from Black Rock Desert, Nevada.Click to return to Cosmic Sunsets Close

The trees and flowers of Exobiotanica were launched from Black Rock Desert,... Read More

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The trees and flowers of Exobiotanica were launched from Black Rock Desert, Nevada.Click to return to Cosmic Sunsets

We live in an era of constant distraction. The missions of our space explorers -- often in the works for a decade or more -- remind us that the great legs of humanity march at a different pace.

The explorers have been busy: A robot is preparing to harpoon a comet, a private company is making regular deliveries into space, and the International Space Station has its own 24-hour reality show. Space is even getting some pretty fancy landscaping.

Fifty years ago at the New York World’s Fair, more than 50 million people reveled in the advances of the day and imagined a better tomorrow. While the Space Age of the 1960s gave way to the more terrestrial Information Age of the 21st century, the stargazers never stopped dreaming. Here are some of the new places they’ve taken us this summer.

1. ‘The Sexiest Space Mission’

Rosetta's rendezvous with a comet. Photographer: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Rosetta's rendezvous with a comet. Photographer: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

(Click the image above for more views from Rosetta.)

As you read this, there is a spacecraft sharing orbit around the sun with a comet that moves as fast as 84,000 miles per hour. That spacecraft will soon release a baby spacecraft, which will harpoon the speeding rock’s nucleus, drill into it and tell us just what comets are made of.

The project is called Rosetta and, in the words of project scientist Matt Taylor, it’s “the sexiest space mission there ever has been.” The trip to catch up with the comet took a decade in space and 4 billion miles traveled. To get up to speed, Rosetta made fly-bys of Mars (2007) and Earth (2005, 2007 and 2009), using gravitational pulls to slingshot forward. After years in power-hibernation mode, the European Space Agency woke up Rosetta in time to rendezvous with the comet earlier this month.

Click here for images Rosetta has already sent back. Expect more to come in the months ahead. If all goes to plan, Rosetta’s lander will touch down on the comet’s surface in November. The frozen comet isn’t throwing off much tail now, but that will change as its wide orbit brings it closer to the sun. Have your popcorn ready next summer as the comet heats up and casts trails of dust and gas into the solar wind.

2. Watching the Cosmic Sunset in HD

The sunset on the Indian Ocean, taken by astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) on  May 25, 2010. Source: Expedition 23 Crew/NASA/JSC/International Space Station

The sunset on the Indian Ocean, taken by astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) on May 25, 2010. Source: Expedition 23 Crew/NASA/JSC/International Space Station

(Click the image above for video of a space sunset.)

Why should astronauts get all the best views from space? In April, NASA switched on one of its most popular experiments -- a live high-def video feed from the International Space Station (ISS). Next time you find yourself searching for a better TV show, keep this NASA channel in mind.

For the first time in the history of planet Earth, anyone with an Internet connection can share the heavenly views of astronauts. They are magnificent. In the moments before the celestial sunset, the only remaining light is the thin blue stripe of atmosphere that sustains all life on Earth. Then, darkness.

The ISS orbits Earth every 90 minutes, providing 15 more sunsets a day than Earthbound organisms are accustomed to. The space station also provides remarkable nighttime views of lightning storms, aurora borealis, city lights and even the flashes of war.

3. Flowers in Space

Flowers in space. Source: Exobiotanica Special Team

Flowers in space. Source: Exobiotanica Special Team

(Click the image above for images from Exobiotanica.)

They call it “Exobiotanica -- Botanical Space Flight.” Japanese artist Azuma Makoto teamed up with JP Aerospace, “a volunteer-based DIY Space Program” that sends Earthly stuff to the edge of space using giant balloons. The trees and flowers in the images above were launched from Black Rock Desert, Nevada.

Everything humans put into space is an experiment. This one tests our imaginations.

From the Exobiotanica website:
Plants on the earth rooted in the soil, under the command of gravity.
Roots, soil and gravity – by giving up the links to life, what kind of “beauty” shall be born?
Within the harsh “nature,” at an altitude of 30,000 meters and minus 50 degrees Celsius,
the plants evolve into EXBIOTA (extraterrestrial life).
A pine tree confronting the ridge line of the Earth.
A bouquet of flowers marching towards the sun hit by the intense wind.

4. Still Truckin' on Mars

A look back at a Curiosity's Mars tracks. Source: NASA/JPL-CALTECH

A look back at a Curiosity's Mars tracks. Source: NASA/JPL-CALTECH

(Click the image above for more postcards from Mars.)

NASA has not one but three robotic probes operating on the surface of Mars. Opportunity launched in 2003, Phoenix in 2007 and Curiosity in 2011. Each of them have surpassed mission expectations and continue to send back clues about possible past and future life on Mars.

Opportunity was originally intended to drive about a kilometer but has instead broken the universe record for miles traveled on an extraterrestrial body, clocking more than 25 miles (40 kilometers) and still going strong. But few missions have done so much to spark curiosity in the red planet as the aptly named Curiosity rover, a car-sized lab on wheels.

From the “seven minutes of terror” landing in 2012 to the vivid postcards-from-another-planet the rover continues to send back, Curiosity is science fiction realized. The primary Mars mission: to figure out if life might ever have developed there. If it did, says Michael Meyer of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, it would mean that “life is easy” and the universe is probably teeming with it.

The next NASA Mars mission, Maven, will take atmospheric measurements that offer clues about the planet’s turbulent past. The timing couldn’t be better. The satellite is set to arrive next month just as a comet passes by close enough to light up the atmosphere with Martian auroras.

5. Storms That Could Swallow Earth

Saturn's mysterious hexagonal storm. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Saturn's mysterious hexagonal storm. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

(Click the image above for a trip to the solar system's weirdest storm.)

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has been circling Saturn and its moons for a decade, but the images it sends back never get old. Clouds over the moon Titan, water geysers on Enceladus and a hexagonal storm big enough to swallow Earth are just a few of its recent observations.

It takes Saturn almost 30 Earth years to make a single orbit around the sun. The planet’s north pole has emerged from a long winter, allowing Cassini to send back sunlit photos of one of the solar system’s most bizarre weather formations: a perfectly hexagonal storm big enough to swallow four Earths.

Actually, “storm” isn’t quite accurate. The hexagon is an extremely stable weather pattern defined by a powerful jet stream. It has retained the unusual shape for more than 30 Earth years after its discovery by the Voyager mission.

6. Deciphering Climate Change

Artist's rendering of NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO-2). Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Artist's rendering of NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO-2). Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

An important milestone for NASA this summer was the launch of the OCO-2 satellite, for precise monitoring of carbon dioxide here on Earth. For the first time, scientists will be able to track the planet’s carbon cycle on a regional scale -- both the sources of carbon dioxide and the “carbon sinks” such as rain forests, which trap carbon back in the Earth.

The goal of OCO-2 is to improve NASA’s forecasting for carbon dioxide levels and their effect on climate. Advancing our understanding of global warming is a major focus for NASA. The agency has dozens of active missions focused on climate, making it one of the world’s most important resources for anticipating the future conditions for life on Earth.

7. Next Up: Space Hotels?

At liftoff, Falcon 9 put out 1.3 million pounds of thrust, rising to 1.5 million pounds as the rocket climbed out of Earth’s atmosphere on August 7, 2014. Photographer: SpaceX

At liftoff, Falcon 9 put out 1.3 million pounds of thrust, rising to 1.5 million pounds as the rocket climbed out of Earth’s atmosphere on August 7, 2014. Photographer: SpaceX

What’s next for the space explorers? Ask Justin Bieber. Or Ashton Kutcher. They’re among some 700 people who have purchased tickets for flights from Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space tourism company.

Flights were approved by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and could begin as early as this year. A seat on the experimental craft costs $250,000 (the Winklevoss twins paid in bitcoins). Virgin Galactic’s plans are ambitious. Within the first two years of operation, the company expects to send more people into space than all previous missions combined. Target for the next decade: 30,000 new space travelers.

Virgin Galactic, which has delayed its first commercial flight for years, isn’t alone in the private space race. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has already completed at least 16 unmanned missions, including paid deliveries of critical supplies to the International Space Station; it has 36 additional missions scheduled on its launch manifest.

This summer SpaceX unveiled its Dragon Version 2 spacecraft to carry astronauts into and beyond Earth orbit. The v2’s propulsive landing equipment will allow it to return to Earth “with the precision of a helicopter,” according to SpaceX. The company also celebrated a successful test of its Falcon 9 booster, the first reusable first-stage rocket.

If successful, reusable rockets could dramatically cut the cost of space travel -- and move more and more people to the front row of galactically cool things to come.

More from Tom Randall:

Follow @tsrandall on Twitter for more stargazing.

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