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How Astronauts Cope When Things Go Wrong in Space

NASA
NASA

When things go wrong in space, they go very, very wrong. A loose bolt, a jammed button, or a tiny piece of flying debris can easily spell the end for human beings in orbit. NASA and its international counterparts train their astronauts as best they can to handle every possible scenario, but space doesn’t always cooperate. If the thought of near-death encounters in the black appeals to you, you might want to check out the Science Channel show Secret Space Escapes, which invites astronauts and their colleagues to recount their most harrowing space disasters. 

Scott Parazynski is no stranger to dangerous situations and extreme environments. The astronaut/doctor/inventor/pilot has summited Mount Everest and gone SCUBA diving in a volcano. But it’s his last spacewalk that sticks in his mind. Parazynski was up on the International Space Station in 2007 when a hole appeared in one of the station’s electrified solar panels. “As this thing was being unfurled, it began to rip apart,” he tells mental_floss. “So we had to go and physically repair a live, fully energized solar panel.” It was a dangerous mission, but the crew didn’t really have a choice.

“If we weren’t able to repair the solar panel,” Parazynski says, “we would have had to [throw] away a billion-dollar national asset. It would have limited the work that could have been done aboard the International Space Station. It certainly was a huge amount of pressure on my shoulders and on the rest of the team.”

Scott Parazynski in space. Image Credit: NASA 

So Parazynski donned a suit and stepped out into space to try to fix something he couldn’t touch. “The threat to my life was very real,” he says. “It was farther away from the safety of the airlock that we had [ever worked] before.”

Was he worried? Not especially. “There are lots of things that could happen out there," he says. "You could have a suit malfunction. On a recent spacewalk, Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano basically came close to drowning in his suit. The water separator failed and his helmet bubble started to fill up with water. There are all sorts of things that could reach out and grab you and make it a very bad day for you. But the things you tend to focus on are the threats you are able to control.”

“It’s a profound life experience just to go into space,” Parazynski says, “but when you throw on top of that a life-or-death situation or a seemingly insurmountable challenge … it brings out the very best in people.”  

Soyeon Yi, Yuri Malenchenko, and Peggy Whitson aboard the International Space Station in 2008. Image Credit: NASA

Soyeon Yi has the distinction of being South Korea’s first—and, to date, only—astronaut. The engineer participated in a 10-day flight in 2008, during which she conducted experiments aboard the International Space Station. Yi was set to return to earth with seasoned space travelers Yuri Malenchenko and Peggy Whitson. Just before re-entry into the atmosphere, their vessel malfunctioned and sent them hurtling toward the planet’s surface. Yi and her colleagues had only moments to figure out what to do, even as gravity compressed their bodies like grapes in a wine press.

There was no time to panic, Yi tells mental_floss: “I could feel the high pressure on my chest because of the G force, and I could feel the shock and vibration, but there was nothing I could do except [focus] on my own job and protocol.”

Needless to say, Yi made it out alive. She remains thankful for the opportunity to go into space, and tells mental_floss that the journey taught her a lot. “The most important thing I want to share is that whatever happens, we can handle it,” she says. Leaving the planet also inspired Yi to feel grateful for her life on Earth. “It’s easy to complain about a low signal on your phone or weak Internet on your computer, or power outages, or traffic, or bad air, or crowds, or noise. But all those things [exist] because you live on the most comfortable planet in space,” she says. “Be glad you have a phone.”

To find out how Parazynski, Yi, and their colleagues faced these challenges, watch the season finale of Secret Space Escapes tomorrow at 10 p.m. on the Science Channel. 

Want to talk to Scott Parazynski? He'll be answering space questions in a special Facebook chat at 2:30 ET today (January 12).

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Space
NASA's Hubble Telescope Captures the Lagoon Nebula's Explosive Core

Born in 1990, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope could be classified as a millennial. And like many millennials, its mission is to snap envy-inducing photos of its stunning surroundings. (Plus, with 6 million Twitter followers, it doesn't shy away from social media.)

The latest images Hubble captured, released by NASA in celebration of the telescope's 28th anniversary, do not disappoint. In a flyover video, the Lagoon Nebula's phantasmagoric splendor is revealed for all to see. This stellar nursery—an area where gas and dust contract inside a dense nebula, allowing new stars to be formed—is located 4000 light years away from Earth.

The vivid colors captured on camera can be explained by the gases present in those areas. Blue denotes glowing oxygen, yellow is starlight, red is glowing nitrogen, and dark purple is a mixture of hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen.

About 30 seconds into the video, a close-up view of one particularly bright star can be seen. That's Herschel 36, a monster star at the "roiling heart" of the Lagoon Nebula. It's only 1 million years old, making it a whippersnapper by celestial standards. NASA estimates it could live for another 5 million years, based on its mass.

What it lacks in age, it makes up for in size and power. It's 200,000 times brighter than our Sun and nearly nine times its diameter. It also generates "powerful ultraviolet radiation and hurricane-like stellar winds, carving out a fantasy landscape of ridges, cavities, and mountains of gas and dust," according to NASA.

Those "curtain-like sheets" you see in the video are the result of massive amounts of radiation and strong winds pushing the dust away.

See below for another view of the Lagoon Nebula. The image on the left was taken in visible light, and the one on the right was taken in infrared light.

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NASA, JPL-Caltech
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Space
It's Official: Uranus Smells Like Farts
NASA, JPL-Caltech
NASA, JPL-Caltech

Poor Uranus: After years of being the butt of many schoolyard jokes, the planet's odor lives up to the unfortunate name. According to a new study by researchers at the University of Oxford and other institutions, published in the journal Nature Astronomy, the upper layer of Uranus's atmosphere consists largely of hydrogen sulfide—the same compound that gives farts their putrid stench.

Scientists have long suspected that the clouds floating over Uranus contained hydrogen sulfide, but the compound's presence wasn't confirmed until recently. Certain gases absorb infrared light from the Sun. By analyzing the infrared light patterns in the images they captured using the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii, astronomers were able to get a clearer picture of Uranus's atmospheric composition.

On top of making farts smelly, hydrogen sulfide is also responsible for giving sewers and rotten eggs their signature stink. But the gas's presence on Uranus has value beyond making scientists giggle: It could unlock secrets about the formation of the solar system. Unlike Uranus (and most likely its fellow ice giant Neptune), the gas giants Saturn and Jupiter show no evidence of hydrogen sulfide in their upper atmospheres. Instead they contain ammonia, the same toxic compound used in some heavy-duty cleaners.

"During our solar system's formation, the balance between nitrogen and sulfur (and hence ammonia and Uranus’s newly detected hydrogen sulfide) was determined by the temperature and location of planet’s formation," research team member Leigh Fletcher, of the University of Leicester, said in a press statement. In other words, the gases in Uranus's atmosphere may be able to tell us where in the solar system the planet formed before it migrated to its current spot.

From far away, Uranus's hydrogen sulfide content marks an exciting discovery, but up close it's a silent but deadly killer. In large enough concentrations, the compound is lethal to humans. But if someone were to walk on Uranus without a spacesuit, that would be the least of their problems: The -300°F temperatures and hydrogen, helium, and methane gases at ground level would be instantly fatal.

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