New 2016 Stamps Feature Breathtaking Images From NASA

Good news, space nerds: now your love of the cosmos can be signed, sealed, and delivered with flair. The U.S. Postal Service recently released a preview of its 2016 series of stamps spotlighting NASA’s Planetary Science Program. The new class includes a set of images featuring Pluto and the New Horizons spacecraft, a Global Forever stamp highlighting Earth’s moon, eight brightly colored Forever stamps with the solar system’s planets, and even a nod to space pop culture with a tribute to 50 years of Star Trek.

The Pluto stamps are particularly timely in light of the historic 2015 New Horizons flyby. In 2006, the team at NASA placed a 29-cent stamp from 1991 that read “Pluto: Not Yet Explored” in the Pluto-bound spacecraft. When the craft (and postage) made its way past the dwarf planet last year, members of the mission team made a large print of the stamp, and crossed out the words “not yet.”

The souvenir sheet of four stamps features an artist's rendering of the New Horizons spacecraft as well as a color enhanced image of Pluto, showcasing the now-famous heart-shaped feature on the dwarf planet’s surface. These “Pluto Explored!” stamps will be dedicated in late May of 2016 at the World Stamp Show in New York.

The brilliant colors of the planets in the eight new Forever stamps reflect different things. Some depict the planets’ “true colors,” which is what one might see if traveling through space, while others use colors to represent particular features based on imaging data, and still others use the near-infrared spectrum to visualize things that cannot be seen by the human eye.

The $1.20 Global Forever stamp features an image of the moon as it rises.

The new Star Trek Forever stamps celebrate the 50th anniversary of the television premiere with four digital illustrations inspired by the television program. There’s the Starship Enterprise inside the outline of a Starfleet insignia, the silhouette of a crewman in a transporter, the silhouette of the Enterprise from above, and the Enterprise inside the outline of the Vulcan salute.

All images via NASA

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NASA, Getty Images
Watch Apollo 11 Launch
Vice President Spiro Agnew and former President Lyndon Johnson view the liftoff of Apollo 11
Vice President Spiro Agnew and former President Lyndon Johnson view the liftoff of Apollo 11
NASA, Getty Images

Apollo 11 launched on July 16, 1969, on its way to the moon. In the video below, Mark Gray shows slow-motion footage of the launch (a Saturn V rocket) and explains in glorious detail what's going on from a technical perspective—the launch is very complex, and lots of stuff has to happen just right in order to get a safe launch. The video is mesmerizing, the narration is informative. Prepare to geek out about rockets! (Did you know the hold-down arms actually catch on fire after the rocket lifts off?)

Apollo 11 Saturn V Launch (HD) Camera E-8 from Spacecraft Films on Vimeo.

Why Do Astronauts Use Space Pens Instead of Pencils?

by Alex Carter

It's often said that NASA spent millions of dollars developing a pen that could write in zero gravity, while the Russians just used pencils. It was a warning about looking for a high-tech solution to a mundane problem, of American excess vs. Russian sensibility.

It's also entirely false.

To understand why NASA was so keen on a workable space pen, you have to understand that the pencil is not suited for space travel. The problem is that they have a habit of breaking, shattering, and leaving graphite dust behind. The wood, too, can make it a serious fire risk in the pressurized, oxygen-rich capsule. All of these common issues become life-threatening hazards in space.

Still, there were attempts to bring pencils into space. In 1965, the agency famously ordered 34 specially designed mechanical pencils in hopes of finding the perfect writing tool for astronauts. But at $128 each, they weren't exactly cheap, and it only got worse when the public got wind of the price. Thankfully, an alternative was not too far behind.

Astronaut Walt Cunningham, pilot of the Apollo 7 mission, uses the Fisher Space Pen while in flight.
Astronaut Walt Cunningham, pilot of the Apollo 7 mission, uses the Fisher Space Pen while in flight.
NASA

The Space Pen was invented by Paul Fisher, head of Fisher Pen Company. Unlike a typical pen, the Fisher Space Pen uses compressed nitrogen to force ink out of the nozzle, instead of using gravity to make it flow. This made it the ideal device for writing in space, while upside down, or submerged underwater. It wrote crisp and clean, without the safety concerns of a pencil.

Fisher contacted NASA to give his pens a try in 1965 and in 1967, after months of testing, they were impressed enough to bulk buy 400 of them for future missions. Contrary to those urban legends, NASA didn't commission the pen or contribute any funding to it. The Soviets soon ditched their grease pencils and were eventually buying the same Fisher pens as NASA, too. The price? After a 40 percent discount from Fisher, both space agencies were paying $2.39 a pen.

The Fisher Space Pens made their debut in 1968 on the Apollo 7 mission and have been involved in all manned missions since.

So, the short reason is that astronauts only used pencils when they were waiting for something better to come along. As soon as it did, they switched and never looked back. Even the Russians thought it was a good idea.

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