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How Astronauts Cope When Things Go Wrong in Space

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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
Earth's First-Recorded Interstellar Visitor Gets Its Closeup—And a Name
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NASA/JPL-Caltech

In October, scientists using the University of Hawaii's Pan-STARRS 1 telescope sighted something extraordinary: Earth's first confirmed interstellar visitor. Originally called A/2017 U1, the once-mysterious object has a new name—'Oumuamua, according to Scientific American—and researchers continue to learn more about its physical properties.

Fittingly, "'Oumuamua" is Hawaiian for "a messenger from afar arriving first." 'Oumuamua's astronomical designation is 1I/2017 U1. The "I" in 1I/2017 stands for "interstellar." Until now, objects similar to 'Oumuamua were always given "C" and "A" names, which stand for either comet or asteroid.

'Oumuamua moved too quickly through space to orbit the Sun, which led researchers to believe that it might be the remains of a former exoplanet. Long ago, it might have hurtled from an unknown star system into our solar system. Far-flung origins aside, new observations have led some researchers to conclude that 'Oumuamua is, well, pretty ordinary—at least in appearance.

'Oumuamua's size (591 feet by 98 feet) and oblong shape have drawn comparisons to a chunky cigar that's half a city block long. It's also reddish in color, and looks and acts like asteroids in our own solar system, the BBC reports. Its average looks aside, 'Oumuamua remains important because it may provide astronomers with new insights into how stars and planets form.

University of Wisconsin–Madison astronomer Ralf Kotulla and scientists from UCLA and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) used the WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Arizona, to take some of the first pictures of 'Oumuamua. You can check them out below.

Images of an interloper from beyond the solar system — an asteroid or a comet — were captured on Oct. 27 by the 3.5-meter WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Ariz.
Images of 'Oumuamua—an asteroid or a comet—were captured on October 27.
WIYN OBSERVATORY/RALF KOTULLA

U1 spotted whizzing through the Solar System in images taken with the WIYN telescope. The faint streaks are background stars. The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image. In these images U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faint
The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image against faint streaks of background stars. In these images, U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faintest visible stars.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Color image of U1, compiled from observations taken through filters centered at 4750A, 6250A, and 7500A.
Color image of U1.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF
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8 Useful Facts About Uranus
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Uranus as seen by the human eye (left) and with colored filters (right).
NASA/JPL

The first planet to be discovered by telescope, Uranus is the nearest of the two "ice giants" in the solar system. Because we've not visited in over 30 years, much of the planet and its inner workings remain unknown. What scientists do know, however, suggests a mind-blowing world of diamond rain and mysterious moons. Here is what you need to know about Uranus.

1. ITS MOONS ARE NAMED AFTER CHARACTERS FROM LITERATURE.

Uranus is the seventh planet from the Sun, the fourth largest by size, and ranks seventh by density. (Saturn wins as least-dense.) It has 27 known moons, each named for characters from the works of William Shakespeare and Alexander Pope. It is about 1784 million miles from the Sun (we're 93 million miles away from the Sun, or 1 astronomical unit), and is four times wider than Earth. Planning a trip? Bring a jacket, as the effective temperature of its upper atmosphere is -357°F. One Uranian year last 84 Earth years, which seems pretty long, until you consider one Uranian day, which lasts 42 Earth years. Why?

2. IT ROTATES UNIQUELY.

Most planets, as they orbit the Sun, rotate upright, spinning like tops—some faster, some slower, but top-spinning all the same. Not Uranus! As it circles the Sun, its motion is more like a ball rolling along its orbit. This means that for each hemisphere of the planet to go from day to night, you need to complete half an orbit: 42 Earth years. (Note that this is not the length of a complete rotation, which takes about 17.25 hours.) While nobody knows for sure what caused this 98-degree tilt, the prevailing hypothesis involves a major planetary collision early in its history. And unlike Earth (but like Venus!), it rotates east to west.

3. SO ABOUT THAT NAME …

You might have noticed that every non-Earth planet in the solar system is named for a Roman deity. (Earth didn't make the cut because when it was named, nobody knew it was a planet. It was just … everything.) There is an exception to the Roman-god rule: Uranus. Moving outward from Earth, Mars is (sometimes) the son of Jupiter, and Jupiter is the son of Saturn. So who is Saturn's father? Good question! In Greek mythology, it is Ouranos, who has no precise equivalent in Roman mythology (Caelus is close), though his name was on occasion Latinized by poets as—you guessed it!—Uranus. So to keep things nice and tidy, Uranus it was when finally naming this newly discovered world. Little did astronomers realize how greatly they would disrupt science classrooms evermore.

Incidentally, it is not pronounced "your anus," but rather, "urine us" … which is hardly an improvement.

4. IT IS ONE OF ONLY TWO ICE GIANTS.

Uranus and Neptune comprise the solar system's ice giants. (Other classes of planets include the terrestrial planets, the gas giants, and the dwarf planets.) Ice giants are not giant chunks of ice in space. Rather, the name refers to their formation in the interstellar medium. Hydrogen and helium, which only exist as gases in interstellar space, formed planets like Jupiter and Saturn. Silicates and irons, meanwhile, formed places like Earth. In the interstellar medium, molecules like water, methane, and ammonia comprise an in-between state, able to exist as gases or ices depending on the local conditions. When those molecules were found by Voyager to have an extensive presence in Uranus and Neptune, scientists called them "ice giants."

5. IT'S A HOT MYSTERY.

Planets form hot. A small planet can cool off and radiate away heat over the age of the solar system. A large planet cannot. It hasn't cooled enough entirely on the inside after formation, and thus radiates heat. Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune all give off significantly more heat than they receive from the Sun. Puzzlingly, Uranus is different.

"Uranus is the only giant planet that is not giving off significantly more heat than it is receiving from the Sun, and we don't know why that is," says Mark Hofstadter, a planetary scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He tells Mental Floss that Uranus and Neptune are thought to be similar in terms of where and how they formed.

So why is Uranus the only planet not giving off heat? "The big question is whether that heat is trapped on the inside, and so the interior is much hotter than we expect, right now," Hofstadter says. "Or did something happen in its history that let all the internal heat get released much more quickly than expected?"

The planet's extreme tilt might be related. If it were caused by an impact event, it is possible that the collision overturned the innards of the planet and helped it cool more rapidly. "The bottom line," says Hofstadter, "is that we don't know."

6. IT RAINS DIAMONDS BIGGER THAN GRIZZLY BEARS.

Although it's really cold in the Uranian upper atmosphere, it gets really hot, really fast as you reach deeper. Couple that with the tremendous pressure in the Uranian interior, and you get the conditions for literal diamond rain. And not just little rain diamondlets, either, but diamonds that are millions of carats each—bigger than your average grizzly bear. Note also that this heat means the ice giants contain relatively little ice. Surrounding a rocky core is what is thought to be a massive ocean—though one unlike you might find on Earth. Down there, the heat and pressure keep the ocean in an "in between" state that is highly reactive and ionic.

7. IT HAS A BAKER'S DOZEN OF BABY RINGS.

Unlike Saturn's preening hoops, the 13 rings of Uranus are dark and foreboding, likely comprised of ice and radiation-processed organic material. The rings are made more of chunks than of dust, and are probably very young indeed: something on the order of 600 million years old. (For comparison, the oldest known dinosaurs roamed the Earth 240 million years ago.)

8. WE'VE BEEN THERE BEFORE AND WILL BE BACK.

The only spacecraft to ever visit Uranus was NASA's Voyager 2 in 1986, which discovered 10 new moons and two new rings during its single pass from 50,000 miles up. Because of the sheer weirdness and wonder of the planet, scientists have been itching to return ever since. Some questions can only be answered with a new spacecraft mission. Key among them: What is the composition of the planet? What are the interactions of the solar wind with the magnetic field? (That's important for understanding various processes such as the heating of the upper atmosphere and the planet's energy deposition.) What are the geological details of its satellites, and the structure of the rings?

The Voyager spacecraft gave scientists a peek at the two ice giants, and now it's time to study them up close and in depth. Hofstadter compares the need for an ice-giants mission to what happened after the Voyagers visited Jupiter and Saturn. NASA launched Galileo to Jupiter in 1989 and Cassini to Saturn in 1997. (Cassini was recently sent on a suicide mission into Saturn.) Those missions arrived at their respective systems and proved transformative to the field of planetary science.

"Just as we had to get a closer look at Europa and Enceladus to realize that there are potentially habitable oceans there, the Uranus and Neptune systems can have similar things," says Hofstadter. "We'd like to go there and see them up close. We need to go into the system." 

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