January 22, 2010

Space-Stuff Day

n this date in 1992, Dr. Roberta Bondar, Canada's first female astronaut, became the first neurologist to enter space. She flew on the Discovery space shuttle and did microgravity experiments with a variety of organisms. Dr. Bondar also served as NASA's head of space medicine.

On this date in 1997, American Lottie Williams became the first—and, so far, only— human ever reported to be hit by human-made space debris (also known as “space junk”). Williams was jogging in a park near her Oklahoma home very early in the morning, and she saw a brilliant fireball-type meteor. She felt a “gentle tap” on her shoulder and looked down; on the ground was a piece of blackened metal. Later it was confirmed that the metal was a piece (shown here, right) of a fuel tank for a rocket that had launched a U.S. Air Force satellite the year before. The rest of the fuel tank crashed into a field in Texas (shown here, left).

On this date in 2003, we said bye to Pioneer 10, the first thing made by humans to leave the solar system. The next day (January 23, 2003) scientists were able to detect the last feeble signal from the spacecraft as it continued to speed away from Earth.

Launched in 1972, Pioneer 10 was the first spacecraft to fly through the asteroid belt and to fly by Jupiter. Even though it accomplished these two main goals before two years had passed, Pioneer kept up the studies and transmissions as it streaked through the outer regions of our solar system. All told the spacecraft studied interplanetary and planetary magnetic fields; solar wind parameters; cosmic rays; the heliosphere; neutral hydrogen abundance; distribution, size, mass, flux, and velocity of dust particles, Jovian aurorae and radio waves, atmosphere of Jupiter and some of its satellites. Of course, it also photographed Jupiter and its satellites.

The mission was formally ended in 1997. After that time the probe was used in training flight controllers on how to acquire radio signals from space. Scientists believe that no longer have contact with Pioneer 10 because it is too far away and because the power supply is dwindling—not because of equipment failure.

A Message to Aliens?

Before Pioneer 10 and its sister spacecraft Pioneer 11 were launched, a journalist named Eric Burgess had a great idea—putting a message of some sort to any alien intelligences that may discover the probe, somewhere, someday. He made his suggestion to Carl Sagan, a famous astronomer and science writer.

Sagan loved
the idea and, with the help fellow scientist Frank Drake and wife Linda Salzman Sagan, created a clever message to unknown creatures and minds, trying to communicate with images a little about who we humans are and where we live.

The plaque is 9 inches by 6 inches and made of gold-adonised aluminum. Here is a simple explanation of what the various symbols mean.

Read about Space Junk.

Build a Pioneer 10 paper model.
Help design microgravity experiments!

Run gravity simulations.

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