Spacewalking like 'giving birth to yourself'
Russian cosmonauts set out on a spacewalk Thursday outside the orbiting international space station.
February 16th, 2012
05:14 PM ET

Spacewalking like 'giving birth to yourself'

Editor's note: Light Years guest blogger Kate Arkless Gray studied genetics at Cambridge, before embracing a career as a radio producer and broadcast journalist. She enjoys travel, photography and adventure. She writes the spacekate.com blog and can be found on Twitter @SpaceKate.

I'm grinning from ear to ear.

As I type this, cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Oleg Konenenko are engaged in a Russian spacewalk, whilst orbiting the Earth at 17,500 mph.

Cameras on the international space station, and also mounted on the cosmonauts' helmets, are showing me their every move.

It's fascinating.

A translator relays the conversation between the spacewalkers and mission control in Korolev, Russia.

During this spacewalk the pair were due to move a 46-foot (14 meter) crane from one part of the space station to another and install some shields to protect the station from space debris.

After grappling with the crane they ran out of time for installation of the shields and instead concentrated on taking some swab samples of surface residue from the Zvezda service module. The hope is to study the residue to get a better idea of the space station's lifespan.

The reason I'm smiling continuously throughout this six-hour EVA (extra-vehicular activity) is that I had the pleasure of meeting and befriending Anton Shkaplerov before he launched into space.

The author with Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov.

Today I witnessed Shkaplerov take his first steps outside of the space station and I feel full of excitement. Watching him work in space is breathtaking, so what must it be like for him on his first spacewalk?

I asked Canadian astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield to describe what it's like to pass through the ISS hatch and out into space.“Pulling yourself out into the void is bizarre” he said, “like deliberately giving birth to yourself."

"It is hard to concentrate on the vital work with the world pouring by next to you” he explained. "Africa going by gave me vertigo, which made me laugh."

I continue watching the live video stream from the cosmonauts' helmet cameras, watching the world pass below them. "To be alone, weightless, between the brilliant colors and textures of Earth and the eternal velvet blackness of space is a magnificent human experience," says Hadfield.

I can only imagine what that must be like, but I feel privileged to have been able to join Anton and Oleg on their spacewalk today. In spirit, at least!

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Filed under: In Space • News • People in Orbit
Aurora Borealis Over the Midwest
February 16th, 2012
09:48 AM ET

Aurora Borealis Over the Midwest

"In this image taken on Jan. 25, 2012, the Aurora Borealis steals the scene in this nighttime photograph shot from the International Space Station as the orbital outpost flew over the Midwest. The spacecraft was above south central Nebraska when the photo was taken. The image, taken at an oblique angle, looks north to northeast."

Source: NASA

Filed under: Light up the screen
February 15th, 2012
01:01 PM ET

Our crazy neighbor just got more bizarre

We all have a crazy neighbor, whether we realize it or not.

Sound familiar? This hot-headed, fiery personality is one of the biggest kids on the block - huge in fact. This kid is a little unstable, with a history of doing things that are hard to figure out. And what a clothes-horse this one is - all wrapped up in amazing colors. Oh yeah, and there's a little irritating sibling who comes around every so often.

Our "neighbor" is a star about 120 times bigger than our sun and lives relatively nearby - about 7,500 light years away. It goes by the name Eta Carinae. It's possibly the most studied object outside our own solar system.

Mainly Eta is famous for its mysterious temper tantrum of astronomical proportions that rocked the galaxy back in the 1840s. The tantrum, dubbed the Great Eruption, ignited Eta for just a few years to become among the brightest stars in the night sky  before it drastically faded, all for reasons unknown.

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Filed under: In Space • News
Rhea Before Titan
February 15th, 2012
10:11 AM ET

Rhea Before Titan

"Craters appear well defined on icy Rhea in front of the hazy orb of the much larger moon Titan in this Cassini spacecraft view of these two Saturn moons.

Lit terrain seen here is on the leading hemispheres of Rhea and Titan. North on the moons is up and rotated 13 degrees to the left. The limb, or edge of the visible disk, of Rhea is slightly overexposed in this view.

The image was taken in visible green light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Dec. 10, 2011. The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 1.2 million miles (2 million kilometers) from Titan and at a Sun-Titan-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 109 degrees. The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 810,000 miles (1.3 million kilometers) from Rhea and at a Sun-Rhea-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 109 degrees. Image scale is 8 miles (12 kilometers) per pixel on Titan and 5 miles (8 kilometers) per pixel on Rhea."

Source: NASA

Filed under: Light up the screen
February 15th, 2012
08:01 AM ET

Nature photographer launches global quest

Mr. Big does not look happy having his image immortalized on film.

But it's all a pose.

The photograph above shows an African lion strutting his stuff, doing what big cats do when confronted by a stranger. The resident of the Omaha Zoo charges and growls.

The man behind the picture is Joel Sartore, an experienced Nebraska-based freelance photographer with National Geographic magazine who is on a personal quest to document as many animal species on film as possible, before some disappear forever. He has launched the Biodiversity Project, a largely self-funded mission that has taken him around the world.

The author of "RARE: Portraits of America's Endangered Species" has been blogging about his efforts and displaying some of his unique work on his website and National Geographic's Field Test blog. Prints of his work can be purchased at his website.

CNN spoke recently with Sartore, just before he headed out on another assignment.

CNN: Why did you launch the Biodiversity Project?

Sartore: This project basically looks at any animal I can put on a black and white background that will hold still long enough to get a picture of. The point is to get people to look these creatures in the eye and see if they care. Do we care that we're losing half of all the world's species by the turn of the next century? We better care, because what happens to them will eventually happen to us. It's folly to think that we can drive every other species on the planet to extinction and it won't affect us somehow.
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Filed under: On Earth
Oldest Recorded Supernova
February 14th, 2012
09:27 AM ET

Oldest Recorded Supernova

"This image combines data from four space telescopes to create a multi-wavelength view of all that remains of RCW 86, the oldest documented example of a supernova. Chinese astronomers witnessed the event in 185 A.D., documenting a mysterious "guest star" that remained in the sky for eight months. X-ray images from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton Observatory were combined to form the blue and green colors in the image. The X-rays show the interstellar gas that has been heated to millions of degrees by the passage of the shock wave from the supernova.

Infrared data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and WISE, Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer, shown in yellow and red, reveal dust radiating at a temperature of several hundred degrees below zero, warm by comparison to normal dust in our Milky Way galaxy.

By studying the X-ray and infrared data, astronomers were able to determine that the cause of the explosion was a Type Ia supernova, in which an otherwise-stable white dwarf, or dead star, was pushed beyond the brink of stability when a companion star dumped material onto it. Furthermore, scientists used the data to solve another mystery surrounding the remnant - how it got to be so large in such a short amount of time. By blowing away wind prior to exploding, the white dwarf was able to clear out a huge "cavity," a region of very low-density surrounding the system. The explosion into this cavity was able to expand much faster than it otherwise would have.

This is the first time that this type of cavity has been seen around a white dwarf system prior to explosion. Scientists say the results may have significant implications for theories of white-dwarf binary systems and Type Ia supernovae.

RCW 86 is approximately 8,000 light-years away. At about 85 light-years in diameter, it occupies a region of the sky in the southern constellation of Circinus that is slightly larger than the full moon. This image was compiled in October 2011."

Source: NASA

Filed under: Light up the screen
Love of numbers: How equations changed the world
February 14th, 2012
08:00 AM ET

Love of numbers: How equations changed the world

Ian Stewart is a mathematician at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom. His new book "In Pursuit of the Unknown" is published by Basic Books in the United States in March. In the United Kingdom it is available from Profile Books with the title "Seventeen Equations That Changed the World."

I was one of those annoying kids who actually liked equations. I collected them in a notebook. I loved the way you could plug a few numbers into an equation and find out how bright the Sun would be if you were standing on Pluto. Or work out how big a rainbow looks from the refractive index of water and the time of day.

I realize I am a rarity in that respect. Stephen Hawking’s publishers allegedly told him that every equation he put into his runaway bestseller "A Brief History of Time" would halve its sales. So, if he’d left out Einstein’s E=mc2, he would have sold another 10 million copies. But his publishers had a point. Although the great equations have had more impact on humanity than all the kings and queens in the history books put together, they can look very off-putting.

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Planetary exploration hit in NASA budget
The Orion deep space exporation vehicle, seen in January.
February 13th, 2012
04:49 PM ET

Planetary exploration hit in NASA budget

So, NASA’s proposed budget for 2013 is sort of a good news, bad news proposition.

The good news is that it could have been a lot worse. If it stands, the space agency will have just under $18 billion, a little less than last year.

So what’s the bad news? Planetary exploration would fall by $300 million. As expected, Mars exploration is getting hit hardest, a whopping $226 million cut, about 38%. In its budget statement the agency says, “NASA is taking a fresh look at robotic Mars exploration.”

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Filed under: News
Fish scales may inspire body armor
Despite the piranha's sharp teeth, it can't break through the scales of the arapaima.
February 13th, 2012
11:12 AM ET

Fish scales may inspire body armor

A huge fish that is impervious to piranha attacks could become the inspiration for a new class of ultratough composite materials.

Its scales are so tough that piranha teeth crack when they chomp down onto them. Each scale is coated with a rock-hard mineral material, but they have soft cores made from strings of stretchy protein. The fish is called the arapaima, and it's native to Brazil.

“You often find this in nature, where you have something hard on the outside, but it rides on something softer that gives it toughness,”  Marc Meyers, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, said in a statement.

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Filed under: On Earth
February 10th, 2012
08:59 AM ET

Astronaut feels space's toll on his body

It’s not really why he signed up to be an astronaut, but like it or not, Mike Barratt and his eyes have become a science project.

The eye charts he reads, the red drops that turn his eyes yellow and the ultrasounds being performed on him could determine whether he or any other astronaut ever journeys into deep space or sets foot on other worlds.

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Filed under: In Space
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