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!


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, 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.