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UTEP Celebrates 50th Anniversary of Apollo 11 with former NASA Astronaut, UTEP Grad Danny Olivas

The University of Texas at El Paso College of Engineering marks the 50th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 mission with a celebration event Friday, July 19, at the Union Cinema.

A panel discussion led by Danny Olivas, Ph.D., former NASA astronaut, UTEP alum and special assistant to the dean of engineering, will precede a screening of the 2019 documentary film “Apollo 11,” which focuses on the first manned spaceflight that landed on the moon.

After the film, Olivas will answer questions and sign copies of his book, “Endeavour’s Long Journey.”

“Apollo 11 not only demonstrated that we could meet President Kennedy’s challenge to send humans to the moon and return them safely within the decade, it demonstrated that with hard work and determination, no challenge, even ones never before attempted, could be conquered by pulling together for a common cause,” Olivas said.

Olivas, who graduated from UTEP in 1989 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, participated in two space shuttle missions, Atlantis in 2007 and Discovery in 2009. He is the former director of UTEP’s Center for the Advancement of Space Safety and Mission Assurance Research (CASSMAR).

Olivas said the success of Apollo 11 reassured the nation’s confidence as it was embroiled in a heated space race with Russia.

“Apollo 11 and the subsequent space missions firmly established America as the global leader in space,” Olivas said. “From Apollo to shuttle to ISS (International Space Station), the United States has been seen as the pointy end of the spear which pierces the untapped truths of our universe. Furthermore, our open and engaging exploration of space for peaceful purposes has allowed us to bring the global community along to truly make this a worldwide endeavor.”

Ahsan Choudhuri, Ph.D., associate vice president for strategic initiatives and founding director of UTEP’s NASA MIRO Center for Space Exploration and Technology Research (cSETR) said a surge in interest in careers in science and engineering came as a result of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo human spaceflight programs.

“The space program brought a transformational change in U.S. science and engineering ecosystems,” Choudhuri said. “More importantly, what it did post-World War was inspire a Sputnik generation of engineers and scientists.”

At cSETR, faculty and students are working on developing lander technology for lunar and other planetary exploration. That represents a portion of the varied research related to space exploration being pursued on campus. Olivas said those opportunities could grow as the planet contends with issues such as climate change and the possibility of asteroid strikes.

“As people passionate in space find how to harness their talents and skill in pursuit of that passion, the universe will continue to reveal her secrets to us, helping us understand the most fundamental question, ‘Why are we here?’” Olivas said.

What:             Apollo 11 mission 50th anniversary celebration


When:            Friday, July 19, 2019


Where:          UTEP Union Cinema


Schedule:     5 p.m. panel discussion; 6 p.m. “Apollo 11” screening; 7:30 p.m. Q&A session and book signing with Danny Olivas, Ph.D.


To learn more click here.

Riverside HS teacher selected for NASA’s LiftOff Summer Institute

Riverside High School science and engineering teacher Sergio Estrada is the only educator from El Paso to be selected for the prestigious LiftOff Summer Institute, NASA’s Texas Space Grant Consortium announced Thursday.

“I feel fortunate to be selected for the NASA LiftOff Summer Institute, and look forward to interacting with other teachers who also have a passion for science and education,” said Estrada. “I plan to take what I learn during my experience and apply it into engaging and valuable lessons for my students at Riverside.”

Estrada will join the cohort of teachers June 23- 28 at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston to conduct experiments, tour facilities, and network with other educators while sharing innovative lesson plans and ideas.

LiftOff is a collaborative effort of Texas Space Grant Consortium members and affiliates, NASA, and industry.

The week-long institute features a series of workshops, hands-on activities, field investigations, and presentations by NASA scientists and engineers working on various missions.

This nationally competitive program selects teachers who will increase their knowledge of science, technology, engineering, and math through space education.

Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: Your Questions Answered – Radio Waves in Space

“How is it that things like planets, stars, and other things in space give off radio sounds?”

I love this question. It’s interesting to think that something like a planet or star would give off radio signals that can be recorded and heard. In fact, on YouTube there are several videos of the sounds of different planets and stars. They are eerie to listen to and I recommend doing so with headphones or earbuds.

In order to understand why and how this sound happens, one must first understand magnetic fields, which most planets and stars have.

The magnetic field of planets are usually, as far as scientists know, caused by the liquid of or near a planet’s core. So, for Earth, as an example, the core is solid nickel/iron but is surrounded by molten liquid. The churning of this liquid conducts electricity and has an electric charge.

Every planet’s magnetic field can differ depending on the core. So, in the case of Mars, the magnetic field is not contiguous around the planet’s entirety, likely because its core has solidified and there is no liquid surrounding it. This means that the ancient remnants of its magnetic field are only present in some areas of the planet, itself.

The magnetic field allows a given planet to maintain an atmosphere (and remain habitable if it’s in the goldilocks zone of its parent star).

Without such a field, the highly charged particles emanating from the parent star would blow the atmosphere away and cause other damage to the planet, making it completely uninhabitable. A lack of magnetic field will prevent a planet from producing and maintaining an ozone layer such as Earth’s, which keeps out the other harmful rays of the sun.

For stars, magnetic fields are formed differently.

Stellar magnetic fields are caused by the motion of conductive plasma produced inside a star. If you’ve ever seen pictures of the sun, you’d have noticed large loops of plasma that come out from the surface and go back down again. These regions are caused by the convection happening inside the star as the plasma heats and cools in circular patterns, rising and falling again within the star.

These cause localized areas of electromagnetism. Typically, where the magnetic activity is highest is the areas where we see sunspots.

As charged particles, like those emanating from a stellar body, come into contact with a planet or star’s magnetic field, those particles are accelerated. These speedy particles can give off radio emissions that can sound like whizzes, pops, tones, and even regular static.

Now I bet you’re wondering: “What about rogue planets? If they are not a part of a solar system and are just floating freely in space, do they give off radio signals?”

The answer is: Yes, they do.

Charged particles, like those that we talked about above, continue to travel through space. Remember Newton’s first law of physics: an object in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force. This law applies to charged particles, as well. So, anything that emanated from a stellar body will continue to travel through space until it encounters something. And that includes rogue planets.

While the radio signals given off by this encounter will differ compared to that of any other body nearer to a star, there will still be something that can be recorded and heard.

In the end, any object in the cosmos that has a fluctuating magnetic field can produce radio waves. This means that anything, even asteroids and comets, can emit radio waves that can be detected.

If you’d like to hear some of the sounds recorded by NASA, you can do so by clicking here.

In the meantime, grab your lawn chairs and head outside on any given evening. While you can’t hear the radio signals with your own ears, you never know what you’ll see if you just keep your eyes to the skies.

Have a question about physics, astronomy, or a specific NASA mission? Email them to and be sure to check out my Facebook page and website for all kinds of interesting information about the universe!


For a daily dose of Amy’s Everyday Astronomy:, like and follow her Facebook Page; to read previous articles, click here.

Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: NASA’s InSight Detects First Likely Quake on Mars

Successfully touching down on the Red Planet on November 26, 2018, the Mars InSight lander was sent there to study the interior of Mars.

It does this by using sophisticated geophysical instruments that will delve deep beneath the surface to detect the fingerprints of the processes of terrestrial planet formation. You can read more about the Mars InSight Lander in my article about the mission.

After spending the last five months on our rusty neighbor, the InSight lander has measured and recorded, for the first time ever, a likely “Marsquake.”

The seismometer on InSight was placed on the planet’s surface on December 19, 2018. It enables scientists to gather data about the internal workings of Mars. Over the course of the last four months, the sensitive instruments have detected four seismic signals in total.

Three of these occurred on March 14 (Sol 105), April 10 (Sol 132), and April 11 (Sol 133) and were detected by InSight’s more sensitive Very Broad Band sensors. Unfortunately, they were very small and ambiguous in origin, so thus cannot be ruled as quakes at this time. However, the team plans to continue studying the data collected about these events to determine their cause.

In between those events, was the interesting one recorded on April 6 (Sol 128). This is the first recorded trembling that appears to have come from inside the planet. You can listen to that recording here.

“The Martian Sol 128 event is exciting because its size and longer duration fit the profile of moonquakes detected on the lunar surface during the Apollo missions,” says Lori Glaze, Planetary Science Division Director at NASA Headquarters.

NASA astronauts that flew on the Apollo missions installed five seismometers that measured thousands of quakes on the moon between 1969 and 1977. Because different materials can change the speed of seismic waves, and even reflect them, measuring these can allow scientists to learn about the interior of a terrestrial body. Measuring these different types of seismic waves can give us insight (pun intended) into how the rocky planets formed.

Though this new seismic event was too small to provide solid data on the Martian interior, the Sol 128 signal is an exciting milestone for the team.

“We are delighted about this first achievement and are eager to make many similar measurements with SEIS in the years to come,” says Charles Yana, SEIS Mission Operations Manager at Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES).

Since Mars, like the Moon, does not have tectonic plates, quakes occur differently than they do on Earth. Contrary to quakes on Earth, which occur on faults created by the motion of the plates, Marsquakes are caused by a continual process of cooling and contraction that creates stress within the crust.

This stress builds over time until it is strong enough to break the crust, causing a quake. But until now, no one was sure if this process still occurred on the Red Planet.

“We’ve been waiting months for a signal like this,” says Phillippe Lognonné, SEIS Team Lead at the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris (IPGP) in France. “It’s so exciting to finally have proof that Mars is still seismically active. We’re looking forward to sharing detailed results once we’ve had a chance to analyze them.”


For a daily dose of Amy’s Everyday Astronomy:, like and follow her Facebook Page; to read previous articles, click here.

Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: Second Time’s a Charm for Soyuz

Back in October, Nick Hague and Alexey Ovchinin were forced to abort their flight to the ISS mid-launch due to failure of proper booster separation. Thursday afternoon, as physicists around the world celebrated Pi-Day, there was even more cause for celebration.

Following on the heels of a successful launch of the unmanned SpaceX Dragon-Crew loaded with supplies for the ISS that took place last week; Alexey Ovchinin and Nick Hague found themselves, once again, aboard a Soyuz rocket, this time with a third crew member, Christina Koch.

This marks the third flight into space for Ovchinin, the second for Hague, and the first for NASA astronaut Koch.

At 3:14pm EST, the Soyuz MS-12 rocket carrying the trio of astronauts successfully launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Following an uneventful liftoff and four-orbit (six-hour) flight, the spacecraft docked to the station’s Rassvet module at 9:01pm.

The arrival of the trio restores the station’s crew compliment to six. Also aboard are Anne McClain of NASA, David Saint-Jacques of the Canadian Space Agency, and Commander Oleg Kononenko of Roscosmos.

For over 18 years, there has been a continued human presence on the station, as astronauts have lived and worked aboard in order to advance scientific knowledge and demonstrate new technologies. The zero-G environment allows for breakthroughs in research that are not possible on Earth, eventually enabling long-duration human and robotic exploration into deep space.

And this time is no different.

The new mission, Expedition 59, officially began for the crew at the time of docking. Crew members will spend the next six-months or so conducting roughly 250 science investigations in the fields of biology, Earth science, human research, physical sciences, and technology development.

Some of these investigations are sponsored by the U.S. National Laboratory, designated by Congress in 2005 to maximize its use for improving life on Earth. Highlights of these include devices that mimic the structure and function of human organs, free-flying robots, and an instrument that will measure Earth’s distribution of carbon dioxide.

Hague, Koch, McClain, and Saint-Jacques will begin preparations to venture outside the station’s Quest airlock for three planned spacewalks.

On March 22nd and 29th, spacewalks done in pairs will replace nickel-hydrogen batteries with newer, more the powerful lithium-ion ones (like those found in modern electronics) for power channels on one pair of the station’s solar arrays.

Then, on April 8th, the third spacewalk will be done to lay out jumper cables between the Unity module and the midpoint of the station’s backbone in order to establish a redundant power path to the Canadian-built robotic arm (Canadarm2) in order to enhance computer network capabilities.

While the astronauts work aboard the station, three resupply spacecraft—a Russian Progress, Northrop Grumman Cygnus, and SpaceX Dragon—are scheduled to arrive with science to support those investigations as well as additional supplies for the crew.

The crew will also be onboard during upcoming test flights of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which hopes to return human spaceflight launches for space station missions to US soil.

McClain, Saint-Jacques, and Kononenko are scheduled to return to Earth in June, while Ovchinin, Hague, and Koch aren’t set to leave the station until early this fall.

If you’re interested in following the NASA astronauts’ mission aboard the station, you can do so on their Twitter accounts: Nick Hague , Christina Koch, and Anne McClain.

You can also get news, images, and features from the space station on its Instagram or Twitter. 


For a daily dose of Everyday Astronomy with Amy, like and follow her Facebook Page; to read previous articles, click here.

Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: Week of Success for NASA and SpaceX

Space, the final frontier…a frontier we haven’t been able to reach from American soil since the last space shuttle flew nearly 9 years ago. But that looks to change thanks to a successful test of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon earlier this month.

Perched atop a Falcon 9 rocket, the Crew Dragon was launched into a beautiful pre-dawn sky from Cape Canaveral, Floriada on March 2nd.

With a crew consisting solely of a dummy astronaut named Ripley, and a stuffed Earth plush toy, the capsule was also carrying supplies for those aboard the ISS.

Elon Musk, having dreamed of this moment since he started SpaceX in 2002, felt honored to have the Crew Dragon launch from Pad 39A. This is the very same launch pad from which the NASA Apollo moon missions took flight, as well as the last space shuttle mission back in 2011.

“Thank you for letting us do that,” Musk told NASA Administrator, Jim Bridenstine.

“Thank you for refurbishing it,” Bridenstine replied, referring to SpaceX’s upgrade to the launch site.

As one might expect, this was a little overwhelming for Musk, after having suffered so many failures early on with SpaceX test launches.

Back in those early days, Musk felt there was maybe only a 10% chance of SpaceX ever getting anything into orbit. “I’m a little emotionally exhausted. It’s super stressful, but it worked, so far,” Musk said in a post-launch press conference at Kennedy Space Center.

And the success continued!

On March 3rd, Demo-1, as the mission is being called, docked with the ISS in a display of remote precision that had everyone cheering. You can see highlights of the launch and docking here.

After having spent 5 days in space, delivering 400lbs of supplies to the space station, the Demo-1 mission ended, and the Crew Dragon saw success once again as it splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of Florida early this morning. You can see its re-entry and touchdown here. 

All of this helps pave the way for SpaceX to start plans for sending crewed flights into orbit this summer.

“The whole goal of SpaceX was crewed spaceflight. Improved space exploration technologies,” says Musk. “That’s actually the full name of the company, Space Exploration Technologies.”

But SpaceX is not alone in its endeavors. It is one of two companies contracted with NASA to fly astronauts to and from the ISS. Boeing, the other company working with NASA, is developing the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft that looks to launch astronauts into space using the Atlas V rockets.

Like SpaceX, Boeing plans to test uncrewed flights and in-flight abort systems before sending humans into orbit.

In fact, Starliner’s first uncrewed test mission to the ISS could likely launch as early as next month. Boeing will be testing the capsule’s emergency escape test system and, if successful, the first crewed demonstration flight could occur as early as May and then again in August of this year.

In the meantime, SpaceX is looking to launch its first crewed flight, called Demo-2, as early as July.


For a daily dose of Everyday Astronomy with Amy, like and follow her Facebook Page; to read previous articles, click here.

Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: NASA Declares Opportunity Mission Complete

Wednesday was a bittersweet day for NASA and JPL as they said goodbye to the second of the rover twins exploring the Red Planet.

Launched in 2003, Opportunity landed shortly after its twin counterpart, Spirit, in 2004.

Though the mission is considered a success, it was declared complete this afternoon after NASA/JPL team members failed to receive a response from Opportunity after having sent the final recovery commands.

Initially slated to run for only 90 days, the total mission lasted a surprising 14 ½ years. At the onset, the mission was racked with issues beginning with a massive solar storm that threatened to irreparably damage the rovers. In order to save functionality, JPL ordered Spirit and Opportunity to completely shut down onboard computers in order to save them.

Once safely on the surface of Mars, mission specialists noticed that the heater on Opportunity’s robotic arm was stuck in the ON position.

This meant that precious battery power was being wasted. JPL then sent commands to the rover instructing it to go into deep sleep mode on a nightly basis. With a battery life consisting of 5000 charge/discharge cycles, it would now operate at a continued 80% capacity for the remainder of its mission.

Because this deep sleep mode could not be initiated prior to the historic dust storm that encircled the planet in June 2018, mission specialists believe this is the main reason for its failure to respond to recovery commands: the battery has likely been completely drained.

Another issue Opportunity encountered during the mission was that of the failure of the flash memory. When this stopped working, Opportunity could no longer save data collected in a given day, prior to shut down at night. This meant that the team back on Earth had to work quickly to download all the data collected each day to prevent an irretrievable loss of valuable information.

Despite these issues, Opportunity spent nearly two decades on Mars, producing some important scientific discoveries.

Akin to a forensic scientist, the rover was a robotic field geologist that used it rock sampling ability to determine information about Mars’ past. While today Mars is a cold, dry, and desolate place, it wasn’t always so. The Red Planet used to be quite the opposite: a hot and steamy place with violent meteor impacts and volcanic explosions. This was proven by Opportunity when it found evidence of past hydrothermal activity.

This evidence shows that Mars may once have been an extremely habitable place for hearty microorganisms.

The first mission given to Opportunity lasted for 9 years and hit geologic pay-dirt from the beginning. Starting at Little Eagle Crater, the rover made the journey to Endurance Crater, and then Victoria Crater.

This mission took 4 ½ years to complete. Younger rocks in these areas showed that liquid water had once existed below the surface. Though to say liquid water gives the wrong impression.

It was discovered that the liquid was in the form of sulfuric acid when the rover determined that the rocks in the area were composed of sulfate sandstone, which is largely made up of sulfur and evaporated salt water.

Once this part of the mission was complete, JPL set its sights on Endeavor Crater. Because of topographical issues, the route to Endeavor was not a direct one, making the journey take years. Once Opportunity was on the rim of the newest target, it saw evidence of drinkable water.

This was determined by studying rocks that predated the creation of the crater, itself, that were composed of clay minerals that are typically formed near neutral Ph (drinkable) water.

Chief Administrator Jim Bridenstine, joked that he takes full responsibility for the end of the rover mission since the massive dust storm and ensuing radio silence occurred shortly after he took on this new position with NASA.

But NASA promises we will see much more science to come with the launch of the Mars 2020 rover in July of next year. It is the legacy of Spirit and Opportunity that helped with the development of this newest mobile science station.

Mars 2020 will be equipped with better wheels, have the ability to talk to the orbiters, and the ability to do things faster with the help of auto-navigation that will allow the rover to navigate more complex terrain.

Slated to land in Jezero Crater in Columbia Hills, the rover will be looking for evidence of past life. Jezero Crater is known to have once had standing water within it and the team hopes to find out if life ever existed there. Additionally, JPL is hoping to find out why Mars’ climate changed and where all the life (if ever any existed) went.

Another cool mission we can look forward to is that of a sample return mission. This will allow samples collected on the Red Planet to be brought back to Earth for more detailed study about Mars’ past climate and habitability.

In talking of plans to eventually send humans to Mars, Bridenstine stresses the importance of figuring out how to safeguard our men and women against the deadly solar flares that affected Spirit and Opportunity en route, given that these flares are a regular occurrence. He reinforced the importance of working with international partners in order to get to Mars safely to work alongside the robots and rovers that will already be there.

He further stated that the main goal is to discover life on another world, especially given that the Curiosity rover found complex organic compounds on the Red Planet not too long ago. Though, Bridenstine admits these compounds do not guarantee that life ever existed on Mars.

As for the rovers, themselves, there are no plans to ever retrieve them. Mars is their permanent home and they sit where they worked as a testament to human ingenuity and the drive to learn and explore.


For a daily dose of Everyday Astronomy with Amy, like and follow her Facebook Page; to read previous articles, click here.

Herald Post’s Amy Cooley Named ‘NASA Solar System Ambassador’ for West Texas

The El Paso Herald-Post is proud to announce that our contributor Amy Cooley, known best for her column Amy’s Everyday Astronomy, has been selected to be a NASA Solar System Ambassador for West Texas.

After undergoing a rigorous selection process and attending several classes with NASA, Amy is now able to work in an official capacity with educators and the public, alike, to give insight into NASA missions and programs.

Though many individuals apply for this opportunity, few are selected.

It is because of her education and background in astronomy and science that she was chosen to be among this elite group.

As part of her mission, Amy is looking to help educators make learning fun. Her goal has always been to make science and astronomy accessible to everyone. In an effort to show students the wonders of science and astronomy, Amy wants to come and inspire your students by engaging them in discussions and activities that will fire their imaginations. You can contact her at for more information.

As her first official act as NASA Ambassador, she would like to share with all college professors an exciting opportunity for their science and engineering students.

Professors will be able to connect their students with NASA and other college engineering students through the 2019 NASA Optimus Prime Spinoff Promotion and Research Challenge (NASA OPSPARC).

This mission (Mission 3) offers unique mentorship opportunities with other college students around the country. It will include building 3D virtual models and developing a marketing plan, which will all take place in a protected 3D virtual world. In order to get started, you can download the packet online.

Deadline for Mission 3 products is February 19, 2019. Selected teams will be notified and introduced to their college mentor by Friday, February 22nd. Mentors will work with their teams in the virtual world between February 22nd thru March 26th. Six finalists will be selected by March 29th.

Finalists will present to NASA and industry researchers April 10th and 11th within the virtual world. Winning teams will be announced by early May and will be invited to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center for behind-the-scenes workshops and an award ceremony June 19th and 20th.

If you have any questions about the NASA OPSPARC Mission, you can contact Sharon Bowers at

Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: Global Warming and Its Effects on Seasons

As the Midwest prepares for a strong storm system caused by a polar vortex, some are wondering how there can still be talk of global warming when temperatures in the northern United States are due to reach lows not seen in decades, or even centuries.

The science behind these weather patterns and their connections can seem complicated. And though some still deny the human contribution to climate change, the overall scientific evidence of global warming is irrefutable.

As temperatures around the globe increase, polar ice melts, causing ocean and sea levels to rise. This allows for more evaporation to occur while simultaneously shifting the jet stream further south.

When this happens, colder arctic air pushes southward during the winter months. This, coupled with the excess evaporation of water, increases the chances for harsher winters with heavier snow storms and more freezing snaps.

This happens due to a rise in overall greenhouse gas levels. As the levels rise, many plants are unable to absorb as large a percentage of those gases as they could in the past due to the overabundance.

This increases the amount of greenhouse gas that remains in the atmosphere.

When this happens, the remaining carbon gasses then cause a rise in temperatures during spring and summer months. Hotter temperatures mean shorter growing seasons for various crops and other types of plants.

And the cycle continues.

In fact, a new study by NASA is showing a correlation between warming of tropical oceans and the potential affects it could have on increasing the frequency of extreme rain storms during summer months in the coming century.

NASA’s JPL study team recently combed through 15 years of data that was gathered by their Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) instrument above the tropical oceans in order to determine if there is a correlation between the average sea surface temperature and the onset of severe storms.

What they discovered was that these extreme storms formed when the water’s surface temperature was higher than about 82°F (28°C).

“It is somewhat common sense that severe storms will increase in a warmer environment. Thunderstorms typically occur in the warmest season of the year,” says Hartmut Aumann, leader of the NASA/JPL team that did the study. “But our data provide the first quantitative estimate of how much they are likely to increase, at least for the tropical oceans.”

The currently accepted climate models have projected that the steady increase of carbon gases in the atmosphere will cause tropical ocean surface temperatures to rise by as much as 4.8°F (2.7°C) by the end of this century.

If this were to happen, the study team concludes that the frequency of extreme storms is likely to increase by as much as 60% by that time.

Admittedly, climate models are not perfect. But their results can be used as guidelines for those that are looking to prepare for the potential effects of a changing climate. These studies can also be used to help us determine how we can all work together to change the outcome by changing the way we affect the environment.

“Our results quantify and give a more visual meaning to the consequences of the predicted warming of the oceans,” Aumann said. “More storms mean more flooding, more structure damage, more crop damage, and so on, unless mitigating measures are implemented.”


For a daily dose of Everyday Astronomy with Amy, like and follow her Facebook Page; to read previous articles, click here.

Blue Origin Set to Launch NASA-Sponsored Payloads Tuesday

Monday morning, officials with Blue Origin, the regional spaceflight company with launch facilities located just north Van Horn, announced a new launch scheduled for Tuesday morning.

Blue Origin’s next New Shepard mission (NS-10) is currently targeting liftoff Tuesday, December 18 at 7:30 am.  This will be the 10th New Shepard mission and is dedicated to bringing nine NASA-sponsored research and technology payloads into space through NASA’s Flight Opportunities program.

NASA’s Flight Opportunities program is an essential program for researchers providing access to microgravity for technology development. Blue supports NASA’s Flight Opportunities program and its role in perfecting technology for a future human presence in space.

Founded by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin launches their missions from Van Horn, Texas, 120 miles east of El Paso.  Make sure to follow Blue Origin on Twitter for launch day updates and, to watch the launch live, log on to their website at

The payloads flying with us on NS-10 include:

Carthage College Space Sciences Program: The Modal Propellant Gauging experiment led by Dr. Kevin Crosby is a joint effort with the NASA Kennedy Space Center Cryogenics Laboratory. It demonstrates a way to measure fuel levels in microgravity by using sound waves.

Controlled Dynamics Inc.: The Vibration Isolation Platform (VIP) aims to separate payloads from the normally occurring vibrations experienced during spaceflight. The payload led by Dr. Scott Green allows researchers to have a clear understanding of microgravity’s effects on their research results.

Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab: On its second flight with Blue, the EM Field experiment will observe and collect data on the naturally occurring electromagnetic fields both inside and outside New Shepard during the launch. Principal Investigator Dr. Todd Smith will use success of this experiment to determine how global measurements of the Earth’s electromagnetic field can be conducted in the future.

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center: Cooling tightly-packed electronics onboard a spacecraft can be challenging, and many solutions have not been able to undergo robust testing. Principal Investigator Franklin Robinson will test one of these solutions in his Flow Boiling in Microgap Coolers experiment.

NASA Johnson Space Center: On its third flight on New Shepard, the Suborbital Flight Experiment Monitor-2 (SFEM-2) led by Dr. Katy Hurlbert will analyze various aspects of the flight environment during New Shepard’s mission profile, measuring cabin pressure, temperature, CO2, acoustic conditions, acceleration and more. The data collected will help future researchers on New Shepard design the most effective experiments for the vehicle.

Purdue University: Dr. Steven Collicott’s payload looks at Zero-Gravity Green Propellant Management Technology, which aims to help advance the use of a safer and more environmentally friendly rocket propellant by better understanding the fuel’s behavior in microgravity.

University of Central Florida: Two teams led by Dr. Josh Colwell and Dr. Addie Dove both have planetary science payloads on NS-10. The Collisions Into Dust Experiment (COLLIDE) aims to understand how dust particles react after surface contact during exploration missions to places such as the Moon, Mars and asteroids. The Collection of Regolith Experiment (CORE) addresses the unique challenge of collecting and analyzing material samples in microgravity.

University of Florida: Dr. Rob Ferl and Dr. Anna-Lisa Paul are adapting technology designed for the ISS to suborbital uses with their experiment, Validating Telemetric Imaging Hardware for Crew-Assisted and Crew-Autonomous Biological Imaging in Suborbital Applications. By recalibrating the way data is collected, the experiment will enable more biological research on suborbital missions.

Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: NASA Confirms Voyager 2 Entered Interstellar Space

Back in 1977, Voyager 2 was launched 16 days before Voyager 1. Both spacecraft were designed to last five years in order to conduct up-close and personal studies of Jupiter and Saturn.

As the success and longevity of the missions continued, remote reprogramming was used to give the twins greater capabilities. This allowed the mission parameters to change from a two-planet to a four-planet flyby.

Knowing the spacecraft were never destined to return to Earth, each was loaded with a Golden Record of Earth sounds, pictures, and messages in multiple languages.

The Voyager story has inspired generations of scientists and engineers, as well as music, art, and films like Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

And while we’ve not found that either has yet been enhanced by alien tech, the spacecraft and their respective Golden Records could last billions of years. While the twins haven’t been out in space for quite that long, their five-year mission has stretched to 41 years, so far. This makes Voyager 2 the longest running mission of NASA.

Even though Voyager 1 was launched second, the twins were sent on different trajectories, allowing Voyager 1 to enter interstellar space back in 2012.

Interstellar space is the area that lies beyond the Heliosphere. For reference: the outflow of plasma from the sun, also known as solar wind, creates a bubble that envelopes all the planets in our solar system. It is this bubble that is known as the Heliosphere.

The space surrounding Voyager 2 was predominately filled with plasma flowing from the Sun, until recently.

Evidence of this comes from Voyager’s Plasma Science Experiment (PLS), an onboard instrument that uses electrical current of the plasma to detect the temperature, density, speed, pressure, and flux of the solar wind. Since November 5th, Voyager 2 has observed a steep decline in the speed of the solar wind particles making it likely that it has exited the Heliosphere.

And, indeed, NASA confirmed today that Voyager 2 has also entered interstellar space.

“Voyager has a very special place for us in our heliophysics fleet,” said Nicola Fox, director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters. “Our studies start at the Sun and extend out to everything the solar wind touches. To have the Voyagers sending back information about the edge of the Sun’s influence, gives us an unprecedented glimpse of truly uncharted territory.”

Although the twins have left the heliosphere, they have no yet left the solar system. Far beyond the planets is an area known as the Oort Cloud. This is a collection of small objects that are still under the Sun’s gravitational influence. While the actual width of the Oort Cloud in not known, it is estimated to extend from roughly 1000 AU to about 100,000 AU (an astronomical unit, or AU, is the distance from the Earth to the Sun and is the standard measurement used when calculating distances within our solar system).

Given this estimation, it will likely be another 300 years before Voyager 2 reaches the inner edge of the Oort Cloud at its current speed. That means it could take 30,000 years to fly beyond it.

“I think we’re all happy and relieved that the Voyager probes have both operated long enough to make it past this milestone,” said Suzanne Dodd, Voyager project manager at NASA’s JPL. “This is what we’ve all been waiting for. Now, we’re looking forward to what we’ll be able to learn from having both probes outside the heliopause.”


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Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: NASA Announces New Moon to Mars Commercial Partnerships

NASA Chief, Jim Bridenstine, announced today that nine US companies are eligible to bid on delivery services to the surface of the moon through Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) contracts.

The companies will be able to put up bids on delivering science and technology payloads, including integration and operations that will launch from Earth and land on the surface of the Moon. NASA expects to be just one of many customers that will use the commercial landing services.

Leading up to these selections, NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) initiated the request for the proposals. Serving as the interface between NASA mission directorates, the scientific community, and other external stakeholders, the SMD is helping to develop a strategy to enable an integrated approach for both robotic and eventual human exploration in NASA’s Moon to Mars Exploration Campaign.

The Commercial Lunar Payload Services contracts will have a combined maximum value of $2.6 billion during the next ten years. The agency will look at several factors when comparing the bids, including price, schedule, and technical feasibility.

Back in October of this year, NASA issued a call for potential instruments and technologies for studying the Moon. Those proposals are due in January 2019. This will make lunar payload flight launches possible as early as 2019, as well. If all goes well, these early missions could enable important technology demonstrations that will allow for the development of future landers as well as other explorations systems that are needed for humans to return to the lunar surface. Ultimately, this will help prepare the agency to send astronauts to Mars.

“Today’s announcement marks tangible progress in America’s return to the Moon’s surface to stay,” said Bridenstine. “The innovation of America’s aerospace companies, wedded with our big goals in science and human exploration, are going to help us achieve amazing things on the Moon and feed forward to Mars.”

NASA may offer additional companies the opportunity to join the Commercial Lunar Payload Services through a contract process called on-ramping. They will do this by periodically re-examining the private market for new and emerging lunar delivery capabilities.

For now, the companies that have been selected are:

Astrobotic Technology, Inc: Pittsburgh
Deep Space Systems: Littleton, Colorado
Draper: Cambridge, Massachusetts
Firefly Aerospace, Inc: Cedar Park, Texas
Intuitive Machines, LLC: Houston
Lockheed Martin Space: Littleton, Colorado
Masten Space Systems, Inc: Mojave, California
Moon Express: Cape Canaveral, Florida
Orbit Beyond: Edison, New Jersey


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Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: NASA to Broadcast Russian Supply Mission to ISS

Back in early October, the Soyuz Spacecraft carrying Cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin and Astronaut Nick Hague was forced to abort its mission during launch due to separation failure of the first stage boosters.

Luckily for those aboard the ISS, there were still plenty of supplies to get the crew through the next few months of zero-G living.

Recently, NASA announced the Russian cargo vessel, Progress 71, is set to launch this Friday, November 16th from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 1:41pm EST.

Loaded with almost three tons of fuel, food, and supplies, the unmanned spacecraft will dock with the Zvezda Service Module on the

Photo courtesy NASA

Russian segment where it will remain for the next four months.

In March, the Progress 71 will depart for deorbit into Earth’s atmosphere.

For those interested in watching the launch live, you can see it on NASA Television Website. For those here in the Borderland, the live stream will begin at 11am local time.

Additionally, if you’d like to watch the live broadcast of the docking, tune in to NASA TV on Sunday, November 18th, at 11:45am MST.


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Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: Soyuz Failure and the Future of Spaceflight

Last week, the Soyuz spacecraft had to suddenly abort its flight to the ISS, sending Cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin and Astronaut Nick Hague on a rapid decent to the Earth below.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Nick Hague gave his account of what it was like during the failed mission.

“We knew that if we wanted to be successful, we needed to stay calm and we needed to execute the procedures in from of us as smoothly and efficiently as we could. Any time you’re launching yourself into space and your booster has a problem when you’re going 1,800 meters per second, things are pretty dynamic, and they happen very fast.”

Warning lights gave the first indication of a problem just as the team was able to see the curve of the horizon as the atmosphere faded to black.

“I knew once I saw that light that we had an emergency with the booster, that at that point we weren’t going to make it to orbit that day—so the mission changed to getting back down on the ground as safely as we could. That’s the system that saved our lives, Alexey and I are standing because of that.”

Although many have been skeptical of future launches aboard Soyuz rockets, Hague reassures the public that there is little need to worry.
“[the abort system is] on every rocket, and for manned launches on the Soyuz, they haven’t had to use that system for 35 years, but it’s always been there. It’s always been ready, and we proved that last week. The Soyuz is an engineering marvel. That thing is reliable, and I’m just glad that there are so many people that have invested so many years of their life making that system as strong as it is.”

Alexey Ovchinin spoke highly of Nick Hague’s response to the emergency, saying, “My partner, Nick, acted as a true expert and was completely coolheaded. I never saw even a hint of fear in his eyes. [he responded] immediately to all questions from the Earth. It was obvious that he was in total control of the situation.”

Hague recalls when they finally landed safely and were waiting for rescue, “You can imagine the scene.

We’re kind of hanging upside-down from our straps…and we looked at each other, big grins. He holds out a hand. I shake his hand. And then we start cracking a few jokes between us about how short our flight was.”

Now that the crew is home and in good health, Roscosmos has continued their investigation into what happened.

The Soyuz MS-series has a modular design. At launch, four first-stage boosters ignite. Each of these are fueled by kerosene RD-107A engines. Because these four boosters are radially arranged, once they finish their job, they are simultaneously jettisoned.

The Russian agency believes that it is likely that a collision between part of the first and second stage booster separation occurred when part of the first stage didn’t separate cleanly.

If that’s the case, the failed booster may have collided with the body of the rocket as it ejected minutes after launch.

This would have led to the automatic abort.

Though the investigation isn’t yet completed, the Russian agency is close to solving the mystery. In fact, Roscosmos is expected to release a full report around October 20th.

NASA Chief, Jim Bridenstine shared his faith in continued work with Roscosmos in the near future. “I fully anticipate at this point that we will fly again on a Russian Soyuz rocket, and I have no reason to believe, at this point, that it won’t be on schedule.”

Bridenstine went on to say, “I look forward to a very bright future for both or these countries and for all of our international partners. The NASA family has to be so proud of all the people that worked so hard and prepared so well for this. We had the right people in the right place.”

Likewise, Dmitry Rogozin of Roscosmos states, “This rocket has a long history of failureless execution,” reaffirming his faith in the Soyuz program.

Both men are certain that Alexey Ovchinin and Nick Hague will be able to fly again aboard a Soyuz rocket this coming Spring.

This is all good news, but a Spring launch could still mean the ISS is in jeopardy. Though the crew has plenty of supplies, and can continue their experiments in orbit, they can’t stay up there forever. The ISS has a Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft docked, currently. It arrived last June and has a 200-day certification life.

This means that the craft must be cleared to fly prior to the end of that time. Failure to do so might mean the ISS is left without a crew on board. And with SpaceX and Boeing test launches still a way off for manned craft, it may be a while before a replacement crew can be sent to the ISS.

Without a crew to man the onboard systems, the ISS could potentially lose attitude control, which would send it tumbling. If this were to happen, the antennas would quickly lose signal lock and be unable to receive commands.

Without those commands, the solar arrays would no longer be pointed at the sun and the batteries would completely run out of power. Once this happens, no crew could dock with the station in order to regain control.

Though this would pose no immediate danger to those of us living on the ground, it would mean a substantial loss for all the countries that invested in, and still use the station for zero gravity experiments and training.

So, while shooting for the moon is a worthy venture, it seems we have more pressing concerns. And with NASA unable to fly without the help of commercial companies or international partnerships, perhaps our immediate focus should be on getting crews off the ground before we make plans to aim for our nearest cosmic neighbor.


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Video+Story: Amy’s Everyday Astronomy – Soyuz Crew Safe After Launch Failure

Early Thursday morning, the Russian Soyuz rocket failed during its launch while carrying a US-Russian crew to the International Space Station.

Luckily, the crew is safe despite the capsule falling back to Earth in a ballistic re-entry, according to NASA officials.

While NASA hasn’t provided many details about the failure, they did confirm that there was an issue when the booster failed to separate from the Soyuz.

NASA has also stated that Roscosmos has created a commission to investigate exactly what went wrong. NASA and Roscosmos worked closely to insure the safe retrieval of the crew of the Soyuz and both astronauts have been taken to Moscow to be medically evaluated.

NASA Chief, Jim Bridenstine was on site at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan during the launch. This was the first time he has attended a Russian launch since becoming the NASA Administrator.

NASA astronaut Nick Hague (lf) and Russian Cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin (rt)

In a statement following the launch failure, Bridenstine emphasized the importance of crew safety said “NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin are in good condition following today’s aborted launch. I’m grateful that everyone is safe. A thorough investigation into the cause of the incident will be conducted.”

Obviously, this failure will cause ripples within the schedule of the ISS crew as well as planned spacewalks that were to take place on October 19th and 25th to replace batteries attached to the outside of the space station.

Those spacewalks had already been delayed after a Japanese cargo vehicle carrying the new batteries ran into launch issues back in September.

And while it’s too early to determine if this launch failure will affect the return of the ISS astronauts that is scheduled for December, the good news is that the ISS crew has plenty of supplies.

Another piece of good news is that SpaceX is planning to launch an unmanned test flight in January of its Crew Dragon spacecraft.

Depending on NASA’s needs, SpaceX states the Crew Dragon could be ready to launch as early as December of this year. If all goes well with this launch, a manned flight of the Crew Dragon could occur as early as June of 2019.

On the heels of this news, Boeing has plans to launch an unmanned test flight of its Starliner space capsule in March of 2019 with a crewed flight to follow in August of 2019.

These prospects are exciting because it will mean that NASA will no longer be dependent on Russia’s Soyuz rockets to ferry astronauts back and forth to the ISS.

If you’d like to see the entire launch, you can check out the official NASA YouTube video above.


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