KFS at large: Is human spaceflight worth the money and risk?

tim peake spacewalk
ESA astronaut Tim Peake steps outside for a walk. Credit: ESA/NASA

After spending most of the day live streaming ESA astronaut Tim Peake’s first spacewalk last Friday, KFS headed to a debate at the Science Museum where a panel asked whether it was all worth it, discussing the question: Human spaceflight: is it worth the money and risk?

After Roger Highfield, the museum’s director of external affairs, introduced the panel, Astronomer Royal Martin Rees kicked off the debate, arguing that the billions invested by ESA in the $100bn ISS would have been better spent on un(hu)manned missions.

The agency should be concentrating on science – particle physics, robotics – rather than spaceflight, he said. Even in the years since ESA’s comet-chasing Rosetta mission launched, we’ve made great strides in robotics, which will allow us to achieve so much more in future un(hu)manned missions.

Human spaceflight – given its inherent dangers – is best left to the adventurers with lots of money: the Elon Musks and Richard Bransons, he added.

Branson tries out gravity
The UK’s first ever astronaut Helen Sharman, who most acutely understands the risks involved in space travel, said that humans have a massive advantage over their robot underlings, as we’re capable of making decisions on the fly, decisions that say, might have taken the bounce out of Philae’s nail-biting landing on comet 67P.

Although the price of sending people into space is far, far higher than sending probes, she argued that we’d get far more bang for our buck, as it would currently take a robot a Martian day to do what a human can do in a mere minute. Being able to bring samples back to Earth also pays off in a big way – researchers are still publishing papers based on what we brought back from the Apollo missions more than four decades ago, she said.

Professor Monica Grady, part of the team that brought you Rosetta, briefly brought us down to Earth, saying that space travel should be global mission, and that we must ask whether we’re doing it for the right reasons: are we advancing our understanding of the solar system, or just seeking to plant flags? She agreed that as a risky endeavour, human space travel suits private enterprise.

The ISS’s $100bn pricetag came at the expense of many missions to the solar system, argued Chris Lintott, professor of astrophysics at Oxford. What’s the better story, he asked, Elon Musk making it to Mars, or the Rosetta team’s jubilant reaction to Philae reaction of scientists to the Philae landing? Before you answer, here’s a video (that’s Grady hugging BBC science editor David Shukman).

Ultimately, the actions of the day may have spoken louder than the words exchanged at the debate. Peake’s adventures have been watched keenly by the UK’s youngest science enthusiasts – what could be more inspiring for the next generation of astronauts?


Coming soon to a solar system near you

2015 was an awesome year for getting to know our nearest celestial neighbours. We flew around a rubber duck-shaped comet, were dazzled by Ceres’ white bits and got to properly meet Pluto for the first time, as New Horizons returned some frankly almost pornographic images of the dwarf planet.

So what do we have to look forward to next year? Stick these in your diary:

March 14: ExoMars launch

The first of ESA’s ExoMars missions sets off this spring, its main objective to figure out how life originated in the solar system, and whether there was, or is, life on Mars. We’re sending two vehicles to Mars – the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) will search for trace gases in the Martian atmosphere, including methane, which indicates biological or geological processes, while the Schiaparelli lander will take atmospheric measurements from the surface.

The mission will also test out technologies for ESA’s future excursions to Mars, including ExoMars 2018, which will bring a rover to the red planet.

The fun begins on October 19, when the TGO enters Mars’ orbit, and lander Schiaparelli touches down and gets to work in Meridiani Planum, a plain near the Martian equator.

July 4: Juno’s nearest approach to Jupiter

After a five-year journey, NASA’s Juno will reach our solar system’s largest planet by summertime. Although we’ve flown by Jupiter no fewer than seven times since Pioneer blazed the trail in 1973, we’re still in the dark about how the titan formed: Is it the product of a massive planetary core that captured most of the material left over after the Sun was born, or did it arise from an unstable region within the nebula?

Jupiter’s secrets have been hidden behind a dense veil of swirling gaseous hell:

time lapse voyager approach jupiter
Hope you brought a windbreaker

Juno, named after the Roman god Jupiter’s wife (and sister – those were the days), will peer behind this veil, determining how the interior of Jupiter is composed, mapping the planet’s atmospheric variations and checking out the poles, to see how its magnetic field affects its atmosphere, over the course of 20 months.

Understanding Jupiter’s life story will give us a better idea about how the rest of the solar system formed.

September 3: OSIRIS-REx launch

In September, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx will start its four-year journey to an asteroid called Bennu, a 492m rock in near-Earth orbit that was discovered in 1999. The mission, which completes NASA’s New Frontiers programme (the other two being New Horizons and Juno) will return 60g of asteroid rock back for study – a first for the US.

What’s with the name? Osiris was the ancient Egyptian lord of the underworld, and stands for Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security. The ‘REx’ stands for Regolith Extractor. Bennu was named after a bird from the same mythology by a third grader (age 9 to 10) who thought the craft resembled it.

bennu and oriris

We’re interested in Bennu as it’s made from the ingredients of the early solar system – rock and organic material – components that could help us understand the origin of life and the Earth’s oceans. It also has a slim chance of hitting the Earth 100 or so years from now (hence all the underworld business). Bennu’s orbit isn’t as predictable as we’d like due to the Yarkovsky effect, a phenomenon where after the Sun’s energy cooks one side of a celestial body, subsequent radiation of the heat away from the body “pushes” it into a different orbit.

Bennu Yarkovsky effect

OSIRIS-REx will give us better understanding of this effect, knowledge we can use if Bennu does start to wander a bit closer to us.

November 29: Cassini begins “Grand Finale”

Cassini has been one of the hardest working spacecrafts in history. As well as sending us back some stunning images of Saturn, the solar system’s resident show off, Cassini brought our attention to the icy geysers of Enceladus, making the moon a serious candidate for discovering life.

enceladus plumes
Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Cassini has gone well beyond its original call of duty. It entered Saturn’s orbit in 2004 after a seven-year journey, its primary mission slated at just four years. It’s now been at work for nearly half a Saturnian year now, and as summer the planet’s northern hemisphere we’re starting to see what was in darkness when we arrived.

As we go into 2016, Cassini is warming up for some orbital gymnastics in its grand finale – a set of deep dive orbits that will see it loop around Saturn 22 times, each time passing between the planet and its ring system.

cassini deep dives
Scream if you want to go faster

These death-defying dives will help us understand more about the planet’s magnetic field and mass of its rings. Cassini will also map Saturn’s gravitational and magnetic fields on its loop-the-loop, revealing how the planet’s composed on the inside.

In 2017, after 20 years of service, Cassini will be crashed into Saturn to avoid any possible contamination of Enceladus and Titan, “the biologically interesting moons”.

From Laika to nematodes: animals in space

Behold! It’s the perfect crossover of animals and space as behind door 23 in the Royal Institution’s Advent calendar this year is this delightful infographic featuring the most well-travelled creatures in the animal kingdom. Click to embiggen.

Animals in space RI infographic thumb
Credit: Anthony Lewis/Royal Institution of Great Britain

And a very merry Christmas from KFS!

Blast off! Tim Peake heads to the International Space Station

It’s not very often when you get to witness history being made minute by minute. But today, the UK watched as its first ESA astronaut blasted off to the International Space Station, with NASA astronaut Tim Kopra, and cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko (honoured as the first person to get married in space).

Tim Peake will spend five months at the ISS as part of Expedition 46, where he’ll conduct assorted experiments in areas including novel materials and fluid dynamics on behalf of ESA, and be a human guinea pig as he notes the effects of space flight on the body.

Though he set off at 11:03 GMT, the excitement of the occasion was palpable even into the evening as KFS headed to the Science Museum for a celebratory evening of space-themed fun and games.

KFS was pleased to meet commander of the last Apollo mission, the Gene Cernan (impersonator), and got a good close up look at a prototype of ESA’s Mars rover, Bridget, due to touch down on the Red Planet with the second ExoMars mission in 2019.

ESA Bridget Mars rover
Give us a twirl, Bridge

It was a good day. Here it is in pictures.

crew prepares to dock with its
Aboard the Soyuz: the crew prepares to dock
Credit: Sergey Volkov ‏@Volkov_ISS
Tim greets NASA astronaut Scott Kelly
Opening the hatch: Tim greets NASA astronaut Scott Kelly
The crew wave goodbye after taking questions from Earth
It’s been a long day: the crew waves goodbye after taking questions from Earth

Astronauts oversleep, too: follow Apollo 17 live!*

December 6 marked the 43rd anniversary of the launch of Apollo 17, the last mission that landed men on the Moon.

To mark the occasion, developer Ben Feist has created a site that using actual recordings and visuals from the entire mission, lets you live Apollo 17 in real time, second by second as it played out in 1972, and it’s a real treat.

At Apollo17.org, you get to experience all the minutiae of space travel, including equipment meter reads, the details of onboard experiments, you even hear what crewmembers Eugene “Gene” Cernan, Ronald Evans and Jack Schmitt had for breakfast. The stream is strangely gripping – it’s easy to get roped into all the fluid dynamics in microgravity experiment action.

apollo 17 fluid experiment pie shaped things

You get to know the crew too – Commander Cernan seems serious, and colours inside the lines (well, it figures), while Schmitt’s sense of humour keeps things light. It’s also a reminder that, while they’re achieving crazy feats of exploration, astronauts are only human.

On day three of the mission, something was amiss. As planned, Houston played the crew’s wakeup music (the University of Kansas J-Hawk Fight Song, as you ask – Evans’s alma mater) in an attempt to rouse them at 56 hours and 35 minutes. No response.

A minute later, Houston wishes Apollo 17 a good morning, and again a few minutes later. No response.

Cue the wakeup music again, 10 minutes later. No response.

57 hours, 5 minutes, 2 seconds: “Good morning, Apollo 17. It’s time to rise and shine. Over.”

No response.

Another play of the music half an hour later, and, well, this happened:

apollo 17 oversleep 1

apollo 17 oversleep 2

apollo 17 oversleep 3

apollo 17 oversleep 4

apollo 17 oversleep 5

Their punishment for such a disappearing act? One day annual leave docked. Ouch.

Cernan, Evans and Schmitt, currently* orbiting the Moon, will be landing tomorrow at just before 8pm GMT.

*43 years hence

Hello, stranger: New Horizons returns best ever images of Pluto

Pluto and Charon HubbleThat’s a picture taken from my Pocket Dorling Kindersley Space Facts book, published in 1995. Back then, that was the clearest image we had of Pluto and its moon Charon.

There have been so many unknowns around Pluto, even in recent memory. It has long been a mysterious place.

Which is what makes the images from New Horizons so exciting – we get a proper look at an old friend for the first time.


These are vast sheets of water ice in Sputnik Planum, a frozen plain bordered by the al-Idrisi mountains in Pluto’s northern hemisphere. It’s just one of the images from New Horizon’s nearest approach of Pluto on July 14, which reveal the ex-planet to be far more geologically interesting than that Hubble snap suggests.

“The new details revealed here, particularly the crumpled ridges in the rubbly material surrounding several of the mountains, reinforce our earlier impression that the mountains are huge ice blocks that have been jostled and tumbled and somehow transported to their present locations,” said John Spencer, a New Horizons science team member.

At a resolution of about 80 metres per pixel, the images are six times more detailed than anything we’ve seen before. It’ll take until late next year to get everything back, but unless we go back, these are going to be the best pictures we get of Pluto.

New Horizons’ next stop will be small Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69, which hangs around in orbit nearly a billion miles past Pluto. It’ll reach 2014 MU69, also known as Potential Target 1, on January 1, 2019.

New Horizons Pluto

Thanks again, Pluto. You’ve been great.

Go boldly, LISA Pathfinder

Here’s footage of the LISA Pathfinder launch, which happened at 4.04am GMT this morning. More to follow…

Update: December 11, 22:46

Fifteen years after the mission was approved, on December 3 the European Space Agency (ESA) launched LISA Pathfinder, a spacecraft that’ll test the waters for a grand experiment seeking evidence of gravitational waves, or ripples in the fabric of space-time.

The original date of launch was almost auspicious – it was delayed to a day after the 100th anniversary of the publication of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which predicted the existence of such gravitational waves. Who said scientists can’t be romantic?

Ripples in space-time are created by the collision of huge bodies in space, such as galaxies or supermassive black holes. They’ve never been directly observed, though there are teams looking out for them from Earth.

The purpose of LISA Pathfinder is to check whether we’d be able to pick up these ripples in space-time with our experiment setup.

Source: ESA–C.Carreau

The spacecraft, currently orbiting the Earth, contains two identical 2kg gold-platinum cubes separated by 38cm. The cubes will be set in perfect freefall when Pathfinder reaches its final destination, at a point between the Earth and the Sun where they’ll be isolated from all external forces but gravity.

Pathfinder will see if we can achieve the freefall. In the real experiment, which will go ahead in 2034, a set of lasers will be bounced off three cubes in freefall, separated from each other by 5 million km, to detect deviations in their motion to the accuracy of a trillionth of a metre.

The craft will reach its intended orbit, 1.5 million kilometres away from the Earth around a sweet spot called Lagrange Point 1, next February.