Fake photos and a problematic parachute: This month in space

By Benjamin Vermette

Space pictures aren’t always real

A lot of well-established and popular accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr recently posted this picture, claiming to be taken from Mars, and asserting that the three vertically-aligned lights in the sky were Earth, Venus and Jupiter. If you conducted a search for ‘mars skyline’ you’ll immediately see the image.

The problem with this photo is that it isn’t real.

Phil Plait is an American astronomer and he loves debunking ‘bad’ astronomy. He analyzed this image and maintains that the landscape color is too saturated. Compare the landscape of the photo to real ones taken by the Curiosity rover, and the difference is immediately clear.

Also the sky is the wrong color; Mars’ sky is a blue/grey.

The picture contains too many clouds and they also look like they’ve been digitally designed by software.

If that isn’t enough to prove the image wrong, well, let’s look deeper!

If you look very carefully, at the bottom left of the picture, you can see the letters ‘NE’, which stands for ‘northeast’. This acronym is what you see when you use software programs like SkySafari or Starry Night to display the sky. It points out the cardinal directions.

This means the picture is an image generated by a computer as a representation of a real scene.

However, if you want to see a real picture of Earth taken from Mars, the Spirit rover took one in 2004 (and, unsurprisingly, the real thing is much less visually dramatic).

 A real photo depicting how Earth appears from Mars. (NASA photo). 

A real photo depicting how Earth appears from Mars. (NASA photo). 

RS-25 engine test

The fledgling NASA Space Launch System (SLS) is a new-generation rocket that will carry astronauts to asteroids and eventually to Mars in the 2030s.

Four RS-25 engines and two solid rocket boosters will carry SLS in the vacuum of interplanetary space, where no human has yet ventured.

The RS-25 engines are simply former space shuttle main engines operating at higher power levels to provide the additional thrust needed to power the SLS. “While we are using proven space shuttle hardware with these engines, SLS will have different performance requirements,” said Steve Wofford, manager of the SLS Liquid Engines Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

On June 11 at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, a third static RS-25 fire test was performed, the previous ones being in January and at the end of May. For 500 seconds, the engine successfully burned and therefore completed a step towards the SLS first test launch, scheduled for 2017.

The next test was on June 25, also at Stennis Space Center — but this time the engine burned for 625 seconds.

Three additional tests were scheduled to occur sometime in July and August before the initial series is completed.

These tests are critical towards sending men to Mars and perhaps back on the moon, so let’s hope everything goes as planned.

Pluto’s pockmarks

Pluto is a mysterious world.

The NASA New Horizons probe was launched in 2006 and performed its Pluto flyby on July 14, 2015, becoming the first ever human-made object to visit the dwarf-planet.

As New Horizons got closer, a more detailed view of the small world was made available — and it surprised everyone.

 (NASA photo). 

(NASA photo). 

The spots you see (picture on the right) originally appeared blurred together due to low resolution (picture on the left), however, as the Pluto-explorer probe got closer and took higher-resolution pictures, it was able to show four distinct spots.

On June 27, when the spots were discovered, some speculated they were impact sites, where meteorites would have impacted. But they look a bit too evenly spaced. And after all, they’re all over the same hemisphere of Pluto.

Some think the spots are geysers or other phenomenon arising from the idea that Pluto might be geologically active. 

However, the pictures are too poor in details to really identify the spots.

Watch out ISS, there’s rocket debris!

 The International Space Station. (NASA photo). 

The International Space Station. (NASA photo). 

Carried into orbit by a space shuttle in 1998, the International Space Station (ISS) keeps supporting high-end scientific research. This $150-billion laboratory is the product of more than 17 years of nation-collaboration, and this is why it needs to be protected.

On June 8, the ISS conducted a pre-determined debris avoidance manoeuvre, to get out of the way of a used Minotaur rocket part. The debris was tracked the morning before, allowing ISS’ teams a day to gather additional data.

On Monday, tracking data showed that the path of the ISS was not sufficiently changed, so the rocket debris still presented a menace. Therefore, the ISS’ teams decided to use the thrusters of Progress M-26M, a capsule docked at the station, to clear the debris from entering the imaginary safety zone around the ISS, where no debris are ‘allowed’ to enter.

Progress’ engines burned for about 5 minutes, putting the ISS in a slightly higher orbit and increasing its velocity by 0.3 metres per second. 

A good team effort resulted in a successful debris avoidance manoeuvre, avoiding a collision with a part of a used Minotaur rocket, launched from NASA Wallops, Virginia, in November 2013.

Lately, a great number of debris and satellites are dropping from their original orbit and may present a danger to the ISS.

NASA’s new Mars lander test: Parachute failure

The Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) program is projected to cost about $290 million (CAD).

LDSD is a 3.4-ton lander designed to allow NASA carrying more massive payloads on the surface of Mars. LDSD will carry heavy rovers and payload at supersonic speed in Mars’ atmosphere, decelerate it and perform a soft landing on the red planet’s surface.

On June 8, NASA tested for the second time its ‘flying saucer’, as they like to call LDSD. High above Hawaii, at 180,000 feet of altitude to be more precise, LDSD fired solid-fuelled Star 48 retro-rockets, designed by Orbital ATK, to slow the lander from Mach 4 to Mach 2.35, which is a safe speed to deploy a giant 100-foot-wide supersonic parachute.

The thing is, the parachute did not deploy as expected. Okay, yes it did, however, one second after deployment, the chute ripped apart in the supersonic airflow. “A preliminary look at our loads data indicate that the parachute developed full, or nearly full, drag up to the point where that damage can be observed,” said Ian Clark, the experiment’s principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. A camera onboard the lander “shows what looks to be a largely, if not fully, intact parachute at full inflation,” Clark added.

 The lander, being retrieved from the Pacific Ocean. (NASA photo).

The lander, being retrieved from the Pacific Ocean. (NASA photo).

The splashdown in the Pacific Ocean damaged the 20-foot-wide lander, which has gained a speed higher than expected, due to the ripped chute.

Despite the parachute failure, NASA is confident in finding a solution to its problem. “We very much want to have these failures occur here in our testing on Earth rather than at Mars,” said Mark Adler, program manager for NASA’s LDSD project. “So it’s a success in that we’re able to understand and learn more about the parachutes, so we can get confidence and have highly reliable parachute for when we have a large mission going to Mars, where we can’t do anything about it.”

LDSD’s high-end technology is just an example of how NASA has an ambitious future on Mars.