A Puzzling Distant Star – Kic 486

If you look up long into the sky on a clear night you can see hundreds of twinkling stars. Scientists observe these fluctuations and light because they contain information about stars, such as their composition, distance, and age.

There is a one star 1400 light years away from Earth whose strange flickering has been baffling astronomers for years. They have been observing the star using the Kepler telescope and recently. a team of researchers have put out their best theories for this bizarre twinkle. One possibility could be alien life.

The Royal Astronomical Society has published a paper on the star this month. The star called Kic 486, is unusual because the specific light curve coming from the star has never been observed before. The brightness of the star has been watched over time and about 4 years ago there was a big dip in the brightness, as if something was blocking part of the light from the star. The star stayed constant for a few years before a series of sharp dips in brightness occurred again. When Kepler’s observations were checked there were no errors in the data. This puzzled astronomers and made them question why this star is different from the 150,000 others that Kepler has looked at.

The light curve doesn’t make sense when ideas inside the box are applied. Scientists are now applying ideas from outside the box to try and and figure out what is going on with Kic 486. One of the paper’s authors, Professor of Astronomy at Yale University Debra Fischer’s best guess is a swarm of something. The paper suggests a swarm of comets. Fisher thinks this is not the best solution since the dips in light are very deep, deeper than what you would normally see with comet-like material. Another idea is a breakup of a planet that collided with another.

All these ideas are testable and researchers are now gathering more data to which these ideas can be applied and tested. One astronomer Jason Wright, a Professor at Penn State, believes the source is a natural one. However, based on the current data he suggests it might also be an alien megastructure. Until the mystery is solved of what is in front of Kic 486, this might be a good candidate for alien life. Only time and data will tell.


International Space Station

TInternational Space Stationhe International Space Station (ISS) is a huge spacecraft that orbits earth from a distance of about 220 miles. It serves both as a science lab and as home for astronauts. The ISS was jointly built by many nations. According to NASA, one of its uses is for astronauts to be able to adapt to living and working in outer space over very long periods of time..

The space station’s first module was launched by Russia in 1998 and the first astronauts arrived there on November 2nd, 2000. It is as big as a five bedroom house and has two washrooms, a gymnasium and a day window. Six people can live in the ISS at any one time. The accumulation of countries participating are currently the United States, Japan, Russia, and Europe, each with their own science labs.

Following are some interesting and amazing facts about the international space station that you might not know:

The Spacecraft

  • The ISS is said to be the most expensive object ever created by human beings. Currently, around $160 billion have been spent on it  
  • Astronauts had to take 136 spaceflights to build the space station
  • It consists of 70 major, and hundreds of minor components
  • 8 miles of electrical wire is used inside the space station, just for connecting the electrical power system
  • NASA reports that there are around 52 computers to control the space station
  • The spacecraft is larger than a Boeing 747 jumbo jet
  • The weight of the space station is around 1 million pounds
  • The ISS will remain functional at least until 2028
  • The ISS flies so fast that it can travel to the moon and come back within a day. Its speed is 4.791 miles/ second


  • Since 2000, when the first crew landed on the space station, the crew members have eaten around 25,000 meals
  • Total number of people who have visited the international space station is 211 and they were from 15 different countries
  • Astronauts need to perform physical exercises while at the ISS to maintain a healthy weight, which includes at least 2.5 hours of physical training each day.
  • The urine of laboratory animals and crewmembers in the ISS is filtered and added to the drinking water supply to ensure ample drinking water is available to astronauts
  • Process of ‘Electrolysis’ provides oxygen to the astronauts living in the International Space Station
  • Astronauts living in the ISS witness 15 sunrises and sunsets per day

International Cooperation

  • ISS is a sign of international cooperation and helped ease the tensions among countries that developed during the Cold War
  • Countries which were involved in ISS’s construction included: The United States, Canada, Russia, Denmark, Japan, Brazil, Belgium, The Netherlands, France, Norway, Italy, Germany, The United Kingdom, Spain, Switzerland and Sweden
  • The International Space Station has served as the spaceport for 4 Japanese HTV cargo spacecrafts, 89 Russian Soyuz spacecrafts, 3 Space X Dragons, 37 space shuttle missions and 4 European ATV cargo spacecrafts
  • Europe was responsible for making the greatest contribution for building of the international space system. 29 % of all its modules were built by Europe
  • In 2001, Pizza Hut paid $1 million to Russia to deliver their pizza to the ISS

NASA and Leonard Nimoy’s Legacy

Leonard Nimoy’s Lasting Impact on NASA

Actor Leonard Nimoy passed away February 27, after battling a lung disease that ultimately took his life. While he was best known for playing the character Spock on the Stark Trek television series, he had a lasting impact on NASA in real life, too.

He, along with other cast members, took part in special NASA events and promoted the agency’s missions.

“Leonard Nimoy was an inspiration to multiple generations of engineers, scientists, astronauts, and other space explorers,” Charles Bolden, NASA administrator, said in a statement. “As Mr. Spock, he made science and technology important to the story, while never failing to show, by example, that it is the people around us who matter most.”

Nimoy was also present at NASA for the rollout of the shuttle Enterprise in 1976. The spacecraft was named for the iconic ship in Star Trek.

In 2007, he narrated a video prior to the launch of the Dawn mission to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Until the Dawn mission, this area of the inner Solar System was among one of the few unexplored regions.

A little more than a week after Nimoy’s death, the spacecraft entered the orbit of Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt. When it was initially discovered, Ceres was first classified as a planet in 1801 before being downgraded to an asteroid. Now, however, it is considered a dwarf planet, like Pluto.

His fellow actors paid tribute to him on social media, as did President Barack Obama, and NASA astronaut Terry Virts, who posted the Vulcan salute while he was in orbit on the International Space Station above the late actor’s home state of Massachusetts.

“One can only hope that, maybe, the attention paid to Nimoy’s passing might inspire Congress to properly fund NASA and get the Orion capsule flying with crew on board as soon as possible, so that, soon, the United States can once again will boldly go where no one has gone before,” wrote Collin Skocik, an op-ed writer for Spaceflight Insider.

Space Shuttle Columbia Specifications

Space Shuttle Columbia was Known as OV-102, Columbia was the first ever reusable spacecraft.  It was also the first to carry large satellites both to and from orbit. It launches like a rocket, maneuvers in Earth orbit like a spacecraft, and finally lands back on Earth like an airplane. Like other orbiters such as the Discovery, Atlantic, and Endeavor that are currently in operation, it is designed to fly at least 100 missions.

The Columbia has three main parts. The first is the Orbiter, which contains the crew. The orbiter is commonly referred to as the space shuttle. On Columbia, the size of the crew can vary between 6 to 8 astronauts. The second part is the external tank that holds the fuel for the main engines. The final part of the shuttle are the two solid rocket boosters which lift the Shuttle during the first two minutes of flight to an altitude of 140,000 feet. Every part except the external fuel tank are designed to be reused.

The orbiter is made many from aluminium alloy, while the engine thrust structure is made from titanium alloy. Electrical power is provided by three hydrogen-oxygen fuel cells that also provide drinkable water to its crew. Interestingly, the windows of the orbiter are tinted using the same ink that is used to make American banknotes and the agreed typeface used on the orbiter was Helvetica.

Columbia has a length of 122 feet, a height of 58 feet, and a wingspan of 78 feet. It is the heaviest orbiter to date, weighing 178,000 pounds. The maximum speed of Columbia is 17,000 mph. The total miles flown is equivalent to the distance from Earth to Venus.

Space Shuttle Columbia

Space Shuttle Columbia
Space Shuttle Columbia preparing for launch

The space shuttle Columbia became a feat of engineering excellence. It was most complex machine ever built to bring humans to and from space and beyond and which has successfully expanded the era of space exploration. The space shuttle has an unsurpassed legacy of achievement.

The first of NASA’s Space Shuttle fleet was the orbiter known as Columbia, named after a sailing vessel that operated out of Boston in 1792 and explored the mouth of the Columbia River. . Construction on Columbia started in 1975 in Palmdale, California and it was delivered to the Kennedy Space Center in 1979. The shuttle was named after a ship that operated out of Boston in 1792 and explored the Columbia river. One of the first U.S. Navy ships to circumnavigate the globe was also named Columbia.

The shuttle experienced many programs which resulted in a delay of its first launch. Columbia successfully took off and completed its Orbital Flight Test Program missions in 1981 on April 12th, which was the 20th anniversary of the first spaceflight and first manned human spaceflight in history known as Vostok 1. Columbia orbited the Earth 36 times, commanded by John Young, a Gemini and Apollo program veteran, before landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Columbia’s last successful mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope launched in 2002 and was the shuttle’s 27th flight. Its next mission, STS-107, saw a loss of the orbiter when it disintegrated during reentry into the atmosphere and killed all seven of its crew. In 2011, President Bush retired the Shuttle orbiter fleet and the 30 year Space Shuttle program in favor of the new Constellation program with a new shuttle fleet including spacecraft Orion. The many costs and delays involved in this new program were the reason it was cancelled by President Obama in favor of using private companies to service the International Space Station. Today, U.S. crews will access the ISS via the Russian Soyuz spacecraft until a U.S. crew vehicle is ready.

Sadly, on February 1, 2003, on mission STS-107, the Columbia ran into trouble while flying over Texas, as a piece of foam insulation broke off from the shuttle’s propellant tank and damaged the edge of the shuttle’s left wing. This caused the shuttle to break apart just minutes before Columbia was scheduled to land at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. All seven crew members on board were killed instantly.

Space Shuttle Columbia Mission STS-107 Crew

The crew members were:

  • Commander: Rick D. Husband, a U.S. Air Force colonel and mechanical engineer, who piloted a previous shuttle during the first docking with the International Space Station (STS-96).
  • Pilot: William C. McCool, a U.S. Navy commander.
  • Payload Commander: Michael P. Anderson, a U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, physicist and mission specialist who was in charge of the science mission.
  • Payload Specialist: Ilan Ramon, a colonel in the Israeli Air Force and the first Israeli astronaut.
  • Mission Specialist: Kalpana Chawla, an Indian-born aerospace engineer who was on her second space mission.
  • Mission Specialist: David M. Brown, a U.S. Navy captain trained as an aviator and flight surgeon. Brown worked on scientific experiments.
  • Mission Specialist: Laurel Blair Salton Clark, a U.S. Navy captain and flight surgeon. Clark worked on biological experiments.

The Columbia disaster was the second major tragedy in the history of the space shuttle program. A few minutes after launch on January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger broke apart and all seven astronauts on board perished as well.



The Space Shuttle

Space Shuttle ProgramAs the Apollo space program was coming to an end, the officials at NASA were already working on a more efficient spacecraft that they could reuse over and over again instead of the current disposable rockets that wasted time money each time another one needed to be built. This idea of a reusable rocket that could launch astronauts into space, but dock and land like an airplane was a well accepted project for future space travel.Enter the Space Shuttle.

In 1972, President Nixon announced that NASA would develop a reusable space transportation system (STS). NASA decided that the shuttle would consist of an orbiter attached to solid rocket boosters and an external fuel tank. This design was considered safer and more cost effective.

One of the first obstacles was to design a spacecraft that didn’t use ablative heat shields, which subsequently burned up each time the spacecraft re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. For the shuttle to be reusable, a different strategy would have to be initiated. The designers came up with an idea to overlay the craft with insulating ceramic tiles that would absorb the heat of reentry, without causing any danger to the astronauts.

Space Shuttle leaving orbit
Amazing photo from the International Space Station of the Space Shuttle leaving orbit.

The first of four test flights began in 1981, leading to operational flights beginning in 1982. They were used on a total of 135 missions from 1981 to 2011. The launchpad used was the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Like the previous Saturn V rocket, the Space Shuttle had different components of its own, which  included the Orbiter Vehicle (OV), a pair of recoverable solid rocket boosters (SRBs) and the expendable external tank (ET), containing liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen as fuel.

The Shuttle was launched vertically, same as any rocket in its category would launch, using the two SRBs to jettison it. The SRBs operated in a parallel fashion by utilizing the fuel from the ET.

Once the mission had been completed, the shuttle would land similar to an jet aircraft on the runway of the Shuttle Landing Facility of KSC or Rogers Dry Lake in Edwards Air Force Base, California. After landing at the base, the orbiter was then flown back to the KSC on the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, which was a specially modified Boeing 747.

Space Shuttle Columbia Accomplishments

The Space Shuttle Columbia was like nothing else in the 20tht century. It flew a total of 28 missions, spending 300 days in space and completing 4,808 orbits around the Earth.

Launching on April 12th in 1981 it became the first shuttle mission. Later that year in November, it became the first re-used manned spacecraft. Its third mission in 1982 became the first mission with an unpainted external tank and the first and only time it landed at the White Sands Space Harbor located in New Mexico. The shuttle saw its first four-person crew deploy the first commercial satellite in November of 1982.

In 1983, Spacelab was installed inside the orbiter’s cargo bay. This would allow the crew to work on various instruments and experiments in an enclosed area while still connected to an outside payload pallet. Spacelab’s 16th and final mission was ended in 1998.

The first European Space Agency astronaut, Germany’s Dr. Ulf Merbold flew aboard Columbia during the 9th mission in 1983. Chiaki Mukai was the first Japanese woman to fly in space when she flew aboard Columbia in 1994. The first ceremonial first pitch in outer space was thrown in 1995 aboard Columbia during game five of the 1995 baseball World Series.

One of Columbia’s largest achievements was the deployment of the Chandra-X-ray Observatory in 1999. It was also the heaviest payload ever launched by Columbia. It is still in orbit today, providing images from billions of light years away. The Observatory continues to provide insights on our Universe’s structure and evolution.


SpaceX Moves Towards Manned Missions

The 21st century is bringing us to manned space missions above and beyond that of NASA’s contributions. Europe has for many years been on the forefront of space exploration, with countries, so as Israel gaining ground in its research and development of sending astronauts to outer space as well.

Needless to say, private companies have also jumped on the space bandwagon, such as the now famous SpaceX corporation, under the direction of billionaire Elon Musk.

NASA, following the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts, will provide assistance to Musk’s SpaceX company, using its Crew Dragon spacecraft for its first mission to launch astronauts to the International Space Station from U.S. soil, at its Hawthorne, California location.

SpaceX CA
SpaceX Facility

“It’s really exciting to see SpaceX and Boeing with hardware in flow for their first crew rotation missions,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “It is important to have at least two healthy and robust capabilities from U.S. companies to deliver crew and critical scientific experiments from American soil to the space station throughout its lifespan.”

In addition, Boeing has also contracted with NASA for outer space flights.

Which company will fly its mission to the station first will be decided in 2016, but the contracts call for orders to take place prior to certification to support the lead time necessary for missions in late 2017, provided the contractors meet readiness conditions.

Commercial crew missions to the space station, on the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft, will restore America’s human spaceflight capabilities and increase the amount of time dedicated to scientific research aboard the orbiting laboratory.

SpaceX’s crew transportation system has advanced in the last couple of years. The company recently demonstrated that their transportation system has reached a sufficient level of design maturity to work toward fabrication, assembly, integration and test activities.

“The authority to proceed with Dragon’s first operational crew mission is a significant milestone in the Commercial Crew Program and a great source of pride for the entire SpaceX team,” said Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX. “When (SpaceX’s) Crew Dragon (spacecraft) takes NASA astronauts to the space station in 2017, they will be riding in one of the safest, most reliable spacecraft ever flown. We’re honored to be developing this capability for NASA and our country.”

Active Galaxies

ActiveGalaxyWith ingenious devices scanning the heavens in spectrums beyond the visible, many marvels have been revealed in recent years, and some of the most awesome are the aptly named active galaxies.

Normal galaxies  make up about 90% of all galaxies in the universe., but are a class of galaxies that are referred to as active galaxies.  There are two main differences between active galaxies and normal galaxies:

  • Total Luminosity – An active galaxy has a larger total luminosity (is the total amount of energy emitted by an astronomical object per unit time) than a normal galaxy of the same type.
  • Spectrum – The luminosity from a normal galaxy is basically equal to the sum of the luminosities of its stars. However, the spectrum of an active galaxy shows that it gives off a lot of nonsteller radiation that is coming from a source other than the stars in the galaxy.

Radio galaxies spew jets of matter many light-years long from a relatively small nucleus called an AGN, an active galactic nucleus, brightly lit in X-ray and radio frequencies even though they may be optically dim. These radio galaxies show nuclear and extended radio emissions. They are usually elliptical and show two lobes of radio frequency emission that are aligned with the jets observed in the visible spectrum and may extend for millions of light years. These galaxies can live for a few hundred thousand years or up to a few million.

Seyfert galaxies are spinning discs with intensely active highly ionized nuclei. They were the earliest distinct class of AGN to be identified. They show optical range nuclear continuum emission, narrow and occasionally broad emission lines. They also occasionally show strong nuclear X-Ray emission including a weak small scale radio jet.

Elliptical N-galaxies have nuclei that vary in intensity, and a subspecies, known as BL Lacertae (BL Lac) objects, they are also called “Blazers” because they have active nuclei that are even more wildly fluctuating. This is probably as a result of being head-on into a jet.

Quasars (quasi-stellar radio sources) are a hundred to a thousand times brighter than normal galaxies and emit vast quantities of radiation. It is thought that they are the bright hearts of active galaxies, powered by supermassive black holes. With very high redshifts suggesting a very great distance, quasars are thought to be young galaxies from the earlier ages of our universe.

However, there are puzzles. Twin quasars have been observed on each side of younger, lower redshift active galaxies, suggesting that they might be connected, hence at the same distance. This raises the possibility that redshifts are not always caused by recession speed and so they might not be such a reliable measures of distance, although the effect could be caused by gravitational lensing. Additionally, some jets have extreme redshifts, appearing to be moving faster than light, breaking the cosmic speed limit. These seemingly super luminal emissions may be due to serious space-time distortions in the high energy zones dominated by the huge black holes from which they have burst.

Eris: Dwarf Planet of Strife

A year before the International Astronomical Union (IAU) definition of a “planet” bumped Pluto down to a dwarf planet in 2006, Eris was discovered and described, for a short time, as the 10th planet in our Solar System.

Although discovered in 2005, the dwarf planet was not named until more than a year later, while the IAU deliberated over whether it would be considered a planet or not. In September 2006 it was named Eris, for the goddess of strife and discord. Before that time, it was informally named Xena, for the title character of the television series.

Eris is the second-most distant observed object (not counting long-period comets) in our Solar System, and until very recently, it had been the most distant observed object. However, In October 2015, a team discovered V774104, which is farther away. At this point, the newly discovered object does not have a planet designation and its orbital elements are still unknown.

Eris is roughly three times the size of Pluto and has only one known moon: Dysnomia, which is the name of Eris’ daughter in Greek mythology. Similar to how Eris was known by Xena until an official name was chosen, Dysnomia was nicknamed Gabrielle, the name of Xena’s sidekick.

In many ways, Eris’ discovery was the reason for Pluto being demoted from a planet, as Eris is larger and astronomers expected to find other objects of similar size in the future.

The dwarf planet, which reaches a maximum possible distance from the Sun of 97.65 astronomical units, has an orbital period of 588 years. The orbit is highly eccentric, and as such comes as close as 37.9 astronomical units from the Sun, which places it within the orbit of Pluto, though is still far from Neptune. However, a day on Eris is similar in length to Earth as it takes 25 hours for the dwarf planet to complete a rotation.