CLOSE
Original image
NASA // Public Domain

Remembering the Final Space Shuttle Mission

Original image
NASA // Public Domain

On July 8, 2011, the Space Shuttle Atlantis launched on the final mission of the Space Shuttle (STS) program. The mission was designated STS-135.

That final mission carried the smallest shuttle crew since STS-6 in 1983—just four astronauts. They were Chris Ferguson, Doug Hurley, Sandra Magnus, and Rex Walheim.

They were sent up to deliver over 11,600 pounds of equipment and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). This trip was vital to the ISS, because the end of the Shuttle program meant the end of NASA's ability to deliver heavy payloads to orbit. After the Shuttle, NASA had to rely on commercial launches (not yet in full swing in 2011) and international partners. (Shown at the top of this post is Mission Specialist in the "cupola" of the ISS, observing Earth, while Atlantis was docked with the space station.)

President Obama and the First Family stand beneath the Space Shuttle Atlantis prior to its final flight.
President Obama and the First Family stand beneath the Space Shuttle Atlantis prior to its final flight.
NASA // Public Domain

STS-135 was a minor media sensation, with the Obama family visiting Kennedy Space Center prior to the launch, President Obama meeting the crew at the White House, and the crew appearing on The Colbert Report. The Empire State Building was lit in red, white, and blue on July 20 in tribute to the Shuttle program.

Stephen Colbert salutes the crew of STS-135 on The Colbert Report.
Stephen Colbert salutes the crew of STS-135 on The Colbert Report.
NASA // Public Domain

In line with NASA tradition, STS-135 received some notable wakeup calls during the mission. Some of the biggies included messages recorded by Beyoncé, Paul McCartney, Michael Stipe, and Elton John, preceding their songs (including a brief a capella version of REM's "Man On the Moon" by Stipe). On the Shuttle's last wakeup call, CAPCOM played "God Bless America" as performed by Kate Smith. It was introduced by astronaut Shannon Lucid. It really was the end of an era.

Space Shuttle Atlantis docked with the International Space Station for the last time.
Space Shuttle Atlantis docked with the International Space Station for the last time.
NASA // Public Domain

STS-135 ended when Atlantis landed at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 21, 2011. Today, Atlantis remains on display at Kennedy. Of the original five Space Shuttles, it is one of three that remain intact. Discovery is on display in Virginia, and Endeavour is in Los Angeles.

Original image
NASA
arrow
Space
Thanks to NASA, the Search for Habitable Worlds Just Got Easier
Original image
NASA

New NASA research will make it easier to find the planets out there that can support life. Detailed in the The Astrophysical Journal, the new model can simulate atmospheric conditions in a more comprehensive way, taking circulation of the atmosphere and other factors into account.

The search for habitable planets requires detailed modeling. The scope of the universe is simply too vast for scientists to spend time searching planet-by-planet. Instead, they calculate factors that would allow a planet to support liquid water—a requirement to support life as we know it—using simulations. For instance, it has to be just far enough from its parent star that the atmosphere isn't so cold that bodies of water freeze, but not so hot that they evaporate.

When planets are losing their oceans due to evaporation, they enter what's called a "moist greenhouse" state as the water vapor rises into the stratosphere and the hydrogen atoms break apart from the oxygen atoms to escape into space, eventually resulting in the loss of the planet's oceans. The new research details how a star's radiation influences how the atmosphere of an exoplanet circulates and plays a role in creating that moist greenhouse state. 

Planets that orbit a low-mass star—the most common kind of star in our galaxy—would have to be closer to that star than the Earth is to the Sun in order to support life, since a low-mass star is cooler and dimmer. The gravity from such a close star would slow down the rotation of the planet, and it might even become locked, with one side perpetually facing the star and one side perpetually facing away. (It would be as if the Eastern Hemisphere were always light and the Western Hemisphere were always dark.)

In turn, the planet would form a thick layer of clouds on the perpetually sunny side. The near-infrared radiation from the star—and cooler stars emit more of this radiation than hotter ones do—interacts with the water vapor in the air and the droplets and ice crystals in the clouds to warm up the air, creating the moist greenhouse state.

The moist greenhouse state could happen even at temperatures as low as those found in the tropical regions of Earth because of that near-infrared radiation interaction, according to the new model, but the study found that in exoplanets close to their stars, the process happens gradually enough that they could remain habitable. This more nuanced model will help guide scientists in their search for habitable planets near low-mass stars.

"As long as we know the temperature of the star, we can estimate whether planets close to their stars have the potential to be in the moist greenhouse state," study co-author Anthony Del Genio explained in a NASA press release. "Current technology will be pushed to the limit to detect small amounts of water vapor in an exoplanet's atmosphere. If there is enough water to be detected, it probably means that planet is in the moist greenhouse state."

Original image
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
arrow
Space
Look Up! The Orionid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend
Original image
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

October is always a great month for skywatching. If you missed the Draconids, the first meteor shower of the month, don't despair: the Orionids peak this weekend. It should be an especially stunning show this year, as the Moon will offer virtually no interference. If you've ever wanted to get into skywatching, this is your chance.

The Orionids is the second of two meteor showers caused by the debris field left by the comet Halley. (The other is the Eta Aquarids, which appear in May.) The showers are named for the constellation Orion, from which they seem to originate.

All the stars are lining up (so to speak) for this show. First, it's on the weekend, which means you can stay up late without feeling the burn at work the next day. Tonight, October 20, you'll be able to spot many meteors, and the shower peaks just after midnight tomorrow, October 21, leading into Sunday morning. Make a late-night picnic of the occasion, because it takes about an hour for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Bring a blanket and a bottle of wine, lay out and take in the open skies, and let nature do the rest.

Second, the Moon, which was new only yesterday, is but a sliver in the evening sky, lacking the wattage to wash out the sky or conceal the faintest of meteors. If your skies are clear and light pollution low, this year you should be able to catch about 20 meteors an hour, which isn't a bad way to spend a date night.

If clouds interfere with your Orionids experience, don't fret. There will be two more meteor showers in November and the greatest of them all in December: the Geminids.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios