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Watch This Hauntingly Beautiful Footage From Orion’s Fiery Return to Earth


On December 5, 2014, at 7:05 a.m. EST, an enormous Delta IV Heavy roared into the sky from Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, sending a test version of NASA’s Orion spacecraft on a “flawless” four-and-a-half hour, two-orbit voyage which took it 3,604 miles away from Earth – farther than any spacecraft designed for human occupants has ventured since Apollo 17. (Read my personal account of that historic event here.) Later that same day Orion returned to Earth, reentering the atmosphere and splashing down in the Pacific off the southern tip of Baja California where U.S. Navy ships and recovery divers were waiting. The event was broadcast live as seen by surveillance aircraft, but today NASA has shared HD video captured from the spacecraft itself: a hauntingly beautiful rear-view mirror look at Orion’s “trial by fire” reentry, parachute descent, and splashdown.

A look back through Orion's reentry plasma trail (NASA)

A look back through Orion’s reentry plasma trail (NASA)

It’s ten minutes and fifteen seconds that you will certainly not want to miss. Check it out above.

“The video begins 10 minutes before Orion’s 11:29 a.m. EST splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, just as the spacecraft was beginning to experience Earth’s atmosphere. Peak heating from the friction caused by the atmosphere rubbing against Orion’s heat shield comes less than two minutes later, and the footage shows the plasma created by the interaction change from white to yellow to lavender to magenta as the temperature increases. The video goes on to show the deployment of Orion’s parachutes and the final splash as it touches down.”

Learn more about the Orion spacecraft and mission here.

Video credit: NASA

Seven Days Out: ESA’s Historic Landing on a Comet is Just a Week Away

In less than a week, on November 12, 2014, the Philae lander will separate from ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft and descend several kilometers down to the dark, dusty and frozen surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Its three spindly legs and rocket-powered harpoon are all that will keep the 100-kilogram spacecraft from crashing or bouncing hopelessly back out into space. It will be the culmination of a decade-long voyage across the inner Solar System, a testament to human ingenuity and inventiveness and a shining example of the incredible things we can achieve through collaboration.

Philae is getting ready for his biggest challenge yet!

Philae is getting ready for his biggest challenge yet!

But first, Philae has to get there… to touch down safely in the chosen site (named Agilkia, after a small island in the Nile) and successfully become, as designed, the first human-made object to soft-land on a comet. How will the little spacecraft pull off such a daring maneuver around a tumbling chunk of icy rubble traveling over 18 kilometers a second? The German Aerospace Center (DLR) has released a video about the event, with a finale worthy of the best sci-fi film. Watch it above, and follow along with the landing on Twitter with the hashtag #CometLanding.

Want a more playful version of Rosetta and Philae’s upcoming adventure? Check out the latest animated video from ESA below:

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What’s Ahead for Cassini?


If you’ve been a faithful reader of Lights in the Dark over the past five years you know that I just love Cassini (and you probably do too!) In orbit around Saturn since 2004, Cassini has taken us on an intimate tour of the Saturnian system for a decade now, revealing the incredible beauty of the ringed planet and its family of moons like no spacecraft ever has before. Thanks to Cassini and the Huygens probe, we have seen the surface of Titan for the first time, witnessed the jets of Enceladus, discovered many previously-unknown moons (and moonlets) and basically learned more about Saturn over the past ten years than since Galileo first pointed his telescope at it.

Cassini's final maneuver will be to dive through a gap in Saturn's rings in 2017 (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Cassini’s will dive through a gap in Saturn’s rings in 2017 and sample the planet’s upper atmosphere (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Although nearing the end of its life span, Cassini still has a few good years left and scientists are taking full advantage of its remaining time around Saturn to learn as much as they can before the spacecraft makes its final dive into the planet’s atmosphere in 2017.* The video above shows what awaits Cassini in the years ahead — some of its best discoveries may be yet to come. Check it out!

Learn more about the Cassini mission and read about its latest discoveries here and here.

*The exact plan for the end of Cassini’s mission has not yet been finalized.

Now You Can Watch Beautiful Live Video of Earth From Space

Image from one of the four HDEV cameras mounted on the ISS on May 7, 2014 (NASA_

Video screen capture from one of the four HDEV cameras mounted on the ISS on May 7, 2014 (NASA)

This is something really special, and everyone should know about it, and so I’m doing my part and sharing it here but please feel free to pass it along yourself as well. We now have publicly-accessible, high-definition video of our planet coming in live from the Space Station, thanks to the High Definition Earth Viewing (HDEV) experiment aboard the ISS. Activated April 30 of this year, HDEV consists of four cameras contained within a single housing mounted on the External Payload Facility of the European Space Agency’s Columbus module. When the experiment is running these cameras take actual video of the planet as the ISS passes overhead in real time (not a recording or time-lapse) which is simultaneously aired live online FOR EVERYONE TO SEE.

It’s beautiful, it’s mesmerizing, it’s fascinating (when it’s on, of course) and you really just need to see it for yourself.

Check out the live video here, or you can watch the Ustream feed right here on LITD below:

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What Is Pluto? A New Video from New Horizons

Is Pluto a planet? A dwarf planet? A Kuiper Belt Object? All — or none — of the above?

Pluto has been a topic of scientific fascination since Clyde Tombaugh discovered it in February 1930, and then a topic of controversy after the IAU reclassified it as a dwarf planet in 2006. While conversations continue over Pluto’s planetary identity, at least one theme carried through the talks at the Pluto Science Conference in July 2013. See if you can figure out what it is in the video above! (Hint: it’s not difficult.)

NASA’s New Horizons mission will help us understand worlds at the planetary frontier by making the first reconnaissance of Pluto in July 2015. Read more about the mission here.

#plutolives

Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Take a Scenic Flight Through the Universe

I don’t typically post things here about deep-space stuff (just to stay on theme) but this was too cool not to share. It’s a visualization of the Universe made from data acquired by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and shows the locations (and actual images, in most cases) of almost 400,000 galaxies as if we were in a starship soaring among them at many, many times the speed of light. (Without all the bothersome distortion effects of light-speed travel.)

Really, you’re going to want to full-screen this one. (And HD too if you can spare the bandwidth.)
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There’s a Jade Rabbit on the Moon!

Screenshot of a CCTV video showing the Yutu rover rolling onto the lunar surface (CCTV)

Screenshot of a CCTV video showing the Yutu rover rolling onto the lunar surface (CCTV)

There’s a rabbit on the Moon! A robot rabbit, that is — China’s Yutu rover (named after the mythological jade rabbit pet of the lunar goddess Chang’e) successfully deployed from the Chang’e-3 lander earlier this afternoon, completing the country’s first successful lunar landing and the first soft touchdown on the Moon by any nation since the Soviet Luna 24 mission in 1976. (“Soft” meaning not a crash impact, whether intentional or not.)

The image above is a screenshot from a YouTube video of the rover deployment from China Central Television — watch the full footage below:

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