Life on Mars, spacewalks, comets and more

By Benjamin Vermette


The Voyager 1 spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral on September 5, 1977 to study the outer solar system. Now traveling at a velocity of 61,000 km/h, it is the farthest space probe from Earth. A gold-plated audiovisual disc is attached to it carrying photos of the Earth and its life forms, scientific information, spoken greetings from different cultures around the Earth and a medley “Sounds of Earth” that includes sounds of whales, babies crying and a collection of music ranging from Mozart to Chuck Berry.

In 2012, Voyager 1 entered interstellar space, which is what we call the space between the stars, but what is that disk doing there? It would serve as an informational snapshot of life on Earth in the event that the spacecraft is found by intelligent life forms from other planetary systems.

On February 14, 1990, American astronomer Carl Sagan convinced NASA to use Voyager 1’s camera to take a picture of the Earth across a great expanse of space, more precisely from a distance of 6 billion kilometres.

See that pale blue dot? This is our home, the Earth, condensed into less than one pixel. This revolutionary image that changed our way of seeing Earth and humanity just turned 25 years old this past February. 

See that pale blue dot? This is our home, the Earth, condensed into less than one pixel. This revolutionary image that changed our way of seeing Earth and humanity just turned 25 years old this past February. 

“Twenty-five years ago, Voyager 1 looked back toward Earth and saw a pale blue dot, an image that continues to inspire wonderment about the spot we call home,” said Ed Stone, project scientist for the Voyager mission. The picture also inspired Carl Sagan to write one of the most beautiful and famous passages known, called “Pale Blue Dot”:

“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. […] The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbour life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. […] To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”


Between February 21 and March 1 of this year, NASA astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Terry Virts, as well as European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti were all onboard the International Space Station (ISS).

Throughout their time on the ISS, Wilmore and Virts performed spacewalks under the orders of Cristoforreti, a spacewalk choreographer and robotic arm operator who remained onboard the ISS.

A spacewalk consists of putting on a spacesuit and literally walking out into space alone. It is very useful for performing repairs outside the ISS. The first spacewalk, or extravehicular activity, occurred on February 21 and consisted of rigging a series of power and data cables and routing 340 feet of cable outside the ISS. The spacewalk was supposed to take 6 hours and 30 minutes in total, but Wilmore and Virts took 11 minutes more.

The second spacewalk on February 25 consisted of a similar mission. Wilmore and Virts had to lay more cables and lubricate one of Canadarm2’s two Latching End Effectors, which serve as the base of the arm. All the rigging, routing and laying of cables were precisely for one goal: readying the ISS for a pair of International Docking Adapters, which are designed to let future capsules dock with the ISS. It was also a 6 hour and 30-minute planned spacewalk and this time the spacewalkers took 13 more minutes. Virts had water floating in his helmet, but it was only a small amount so he was fine.

The third spacewalk on March 1 was to install C2V2 equipment. Commercial spacecraft delivering crews to the space station will use it to dock with the station’s orbital laboratory.


NASA launched Dawn in 2007 from Cape Canaveral. It was the first spacecraft to visit Vesta, one of the largest known asteroids in the solar system, entering its orbit in July 2011. Upon entering Ceres’ orbit on March 6, 2015, it became the first spacecraft to visit Ceres and to orbit two separate alien bodies.

Ceres and Pluto are both dwarf planets, but as Dawn entered Ceres’ orbit, and as New Horizons is starting to study Pluto, scientists will acquire new knowledge from these two missions and 2015 will be the year in which NASA makes its final decision: are Pluto and Ceres planets or only dwarf planets?

Unlike the larger planets, Ceres, like Pluto, “has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit,” according to the International Astronomical Union definition. This was one of the reasons Pluto got demoted from “planet” to “dwarf planet” in 2006.

In 2004, Hubble Space Telescope (HST) took a picture of Ceres and found a bright spot on its surface. It amazed everybody. That picture has been puzzling scientists ever since.

As Dawn spacecraft approached Ceres, it took a high-resolution picture that surprised scientists. Two bright spots sit one next to the other on the surface of the dwarf planet. The bright spot that HST saw on Ceres has a neighbour! ... and it is very mysterious. “This may be pointing to a volcano-like origin of the spots, but we will have to wait for better resolution before we can make such geologic interpretations,” explained Chris Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission.

As NASA scientists receive higher-quality images of Ceres, they hope to understand more about its origin and evolution, and also find out what these two bright spots are. “The brightest spot continues to be too small to resolve with our camera, but despite its size, it is brighter than anything else on Ceres. This is truly unexpected and still a mystery to us,” said Dr. Andreas Nathues of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research.


On February 7, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter completed its forty thousandth orbit of the planet, orbiting it since 2006.

Have you heard about the Mars One organisation, which plans on establishing a permanent human settlement on Mars? The plan is that every two years, starting in 2024, they’ll send a crew of four to colonise the planet, and crews will come back… Wait. Crews will never come back: they agreed to die on that unknown planet. Well, we shouldn’t get too excited about it. Yes, the Mars One organisation is very confident that their plan will work, but MIT scientists are less optimistic.

According to their study, a lot more machinery will be needed than the Mars One organization thought, racking up an initial bill of $4.5 billion USD. Crews on Mars will be totally dependent on what they are provided in the beginning and what they can squeeze out of Mars, like water from the soil. The problem lies in the fact that current technologies aren’t ready to squeeze anything out of Mars just yet.

MIT scientists predict the first fatality will occur on day 68 due to the absence of an adequate air system, which is way before the Mars One organization expected. If somehow crewmembers do not die from hypoxia for whatever reason, they may starve to death. An area of 200m3 will be needed for crops to keep astronauts healthy, which is four times larger than what the organization has proposed.

Let’s not say the Mars One mission is impossible, but perhaps that more concrete plans are needed to start taking this seriously. If you want, you can meet the hundred candidates left in the race to be part of Mars One’s crew on their website. They were chosen among a quarter million people and only 24 will make the final cut.

In other news, take a look at this footage of a mystery plume on Mars taken by amateur astronomers:

Interesting, isn’t it? “At about 250 kilometers, the division between the atmosphere and outer space is very thin, so the reported plumes are extremely unexpected,” said Agustin Sánchez-Lavega from País Vasco University. Some ideas have been considered to explain this mystery, such as: a reflective cloud of water/ice; the plumes may be related to an auroral emission; volcanic eruptions, etc. Of course, many think it is due to martians but astronomers don’t yet know the answer to that puzzling question: What is causing hundreds-of-kilometer-high plumes on Mars?


You may have seen Comet Lovejoy recently but do you actually know what a comet is?

A comet is a small solar system body made primarily of rock and covered in ice which passes very close to the sun at rapid speeds then at the very outmost part of the solar system due to its unconventional orbit. While getting closer to the Sun, it heats up and begins to release a bunch of gases trapped in its ice sometimes displaying a tail. More precisely, the heat evaporates the comet’s gases, causing it to emit microparticles (ions and electrons) and as the pressure of the sun’s radiation affects them they form a tail.

After passing by the Sun, their highly elliptical orbit makes them travel far out into the solar system making them freeze again. Some comets take several years to complete an orbit but others can take up to several millions of years.

How did they form? The entire solar system was created about 4.6 billion years ago by the collapse of a giant cloud of dust. A lot of matter merged into planets, but some remained in the outer level of the solar system where temperatures are cold enough to freeze water. With this far-away matter collapsing the comet came to be!


In mid-February, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched their Intermediate Experimental Vehicle (IXV) for a 100-minute mission and it was a success. The IXV resembles a mini, 5-metre interpretation of the American Space Shuttle. It was testing new designs, new technologies and materials for possible future orbital flights. Note that it was the first time the ESA succeeded in a controlled re-entry. Congratulations ESA for a successful mission!

NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) is scheduled to launch on March 12 and its primary mission is to study the mystery of magnetic fields around the Earth.

Perhaps the most entertaining launch of the month is planned on March 27 and it’s the launch of the crew of the ISS One Year mission. From Kazakhstan, Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko will take off onboard a Soyuz Rocket on its way to the International Space Station and they’ll spend a whole year in space.

Every major launch is streamed live on the Internet and you can watch here.

Rocket madness in January and February

By Benjamin Vermette

Space X CRS-4 Dragon orbiting above Earth. The recent launch of CRS-5 was delayed, prolonging the delivery of supplies headed for the ISS.

Space X CRS-4 Dragon orbiting above Earth. The recent launch of CRS-5 was delayed, prolonging the delivery of supplies headed for the ISS.

Orion EFT-1 Success

“And lift-off! At dawn! The dawn of Orion and a new era of American space exploration!

Friday, December 5 marked a milestone in the world of cosmos exploration. NASA’s greatest hope, Lockheed Martin’s Orion Capsule, launched from Cape Canaveral, at dawn, on top of a 243 ft. rocket. NASA’s Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1) was the first mission with the Orion capsule, designed for deep space expeditions. Even though it was a short flight to test some of the controls onboard the spacecraft, it was a success, and subsequently initiated a new era of space exploration.

Scheduled to launch the previous day on December 4, EFT-1 was postponed due to an issue with the fill and drain valves onboard the rocket that appeared during the launch attempt that day. “Recommend we scrub today’s operations […]. So please set up for a 24-hour recycle.” explained the launch director. Despite that minor complication, the promising mission virtually had a textbook space flight. Orion did fly 15 times higher than the International Space Station, its controls did correctly answer all the criteria, the capsule did splashdown in the Pacific Ocean about 4 hours after launch and did indeed get picked up by the USS Anchorage, one of the U.S. Navy’s ships.

The next flight of Orion is scheduled no earlier than September 30, 2018. It will be an unmanned mission, just like EFT-1, but this time around it will consist of sending Orion in a circumlunar trajectory, around the far side of the moon and back to Earth, extending the duration of the mission to 7-10 days.

Expedition 42/43

About a month ago, astronauts Terry Virts, Anton Shkaplerov, and Samantha Cristoforetti climbed onboard a Soyuz rocket on its way to the International Space Station (ISS) for a 6-month voyage. Expedition 42/43, as their mission is called, is the 42nd expedition and the one that is currently on the ISS. Virts, Shkaplerov and Samantha Cristoforetti docked with the station’s Rassvet module on November 23, 2014, joining the crew of expedition 41/42, who had been onboard the ISS since September 26, 2014. On the station, the crew operates multiple science experiments while staying tuned into social media via Twitter and posting amazing pictures of the Earth seen from a vantage point 415 km beyond its surface.

In light of the fact that NASA is still trying to get a future permanent rocket to send men into space again since the last shuttle mission in 2011, they have resorted to using the Russian Soyuz rocket to send their space expeditors to the ISS. With the Soyuz rocket, you can’t send more than three astronauts at a time. So the way it works, is that you send three of them to the ISS, joining three other cosmonauts already on board, then you take back the three that were previously there to send three others a few moments later. So you constantly have six bodies up there. This is why the mission’s name always carries two numbers (for example expedition 42/43), because the astronauts and cosmonauts of the 43rd expedition will join the members of the 42nd expedition in March 2015.

SpaceX CRS-5

The International Space Station needs to be resupplied every 90 days or so. This is why SpaceX, a private company, will send its unmanned Dragon cargo spacecraft on top of a Falcon 9 rocket, for the fifth time, to resupply the ISS with basic necessities such as air and water. However, the primary motivation for this mission is to deliver science-related equipment and systems needed to perform different experiments. This mission, dubbed SpaceX CRS-5, will launch on January 6, from Cape Canaveral. Originally, it was to launch on December 16, but as NASA explains, SpaceX CRS-5 was postponed to “allow SpaceX to take extra time to ensure they do everything possible on the ground to prepare for a successful launch.”

One interesting aspect of the SpaceX CRS-5 mission is a tiny experiment housed in the space of a 4-inch cube. Inside the tiny box may be the key to Alzheimer’s disease. Called SABOL (Self-Assembly in Biology and the Origin of Life), the experiment will be 100% automated and of course, will operate on the ISS. “We don't understand the true mechanism of the disease. If we’re lucky, then we’ll find out whether proteins will aggregate in space. Only in weightlessness can you produce an environment free of convection so you can see whether they form on their own. We expect to learn incrementally from this,” said Dan Woodard, a consultant of the ISS research team based at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

New Horizons is awake! Pluto awaits!

New Horizons is a NASA space probe launched in January 2006 with the primary objective to study the dwarf planet Pluto. This spacecraft is estimated to begin its Pluto main science mission and observations in February 2015.

On December 6, 2014, New Horizons spacecraft transitioned from hibernation, when most of the spacecraft is unpowered, to active mode. To wake the space explorer up, NASA send signals to perform critical systems checks, calibrate instruments, and perform corrections, if needed. After nine years and three billion miles of flight, the radio signal, moving at speed of light, needed about four hours to make its way from the probe to Earth. December 6 turned out to be the last “waking up” of the space probe, as NASA is now waiting for Kuiper belt’s object observation in January 2015.

Symbolically, this [the waking up of New Horizons on Dec. 6th] is a big deal. It means the start of our pre-encounter [of Pluto] operations,” said Glen Fountain, New Horizons project manager.

A cool thing about New Horizons is that in May 2015, it will be so close to the Kuiper belt that it will take incredibly high-resolution pictures of it. The quality of these images will exceed the ones taken by Hubble Space Telescope, one of NASA’s most prestigious space telescopes.

A photo depicting known objects in the Kuiper belt, a region of the Solar System beyond the planets.

A photo depicting known objects in the Kuiper belt, a region of the Solar System beyond the planets.

Overfilled Launch Schedule:

Due to a packed schedule, the odds of having a rocket launch at any moment in January and February are greatly in your favour.

The December 2014 launch schedule began on the 2nd with an Indian missile. It continued with another Japanese launch on the 3rd, which pre-empted Orion EFT-1. From Orion’s flight to New Year’s, there were 15 launches scheduled, forming a total of 18.

In January 2015, there were/are four major launches on the calendar; two from United Launch Alliance and the other ones from SpaceX.

You can find every major launch streamed live on the Internet or on NASA’s TV website. It’s always very impressive to see a controlled explosion boosting up a man-made rocket into space you should check it out!