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Heroes Of Space: Wernher von Braun

Posted: 29 Apr 2018 07:00 PM PDT


Dr. Wernher von Braun, as director of NASA Marshall Space Flight Centre, 1 May 1964

Von Braun is a man who splits opinion, to say the least. Having helped the Nazis develop  the V-2 missile in World War II that was responsible for thousands of deaths, he went on to become a pivotal figure in America's space programme – without him the manned missions to the Moon would likely not have been possible.

Some are willing to forgive him for his role in the war, a role he claimed he took only because of his love for science, while others are less well inclined. Whichever side of the fence you sit on, it's hard to deny that von Braun was one of the most important figures in rocketry in the 20th Century.

Wernher von Braun was born on 23 March 1912 in the town of Wirsitz, then part of the German Empire. He was part of an aristocratic family, with his father serving as Minister of Agriculture during the Weimar Republic and his mother having ancestry across Europe. His mother gave him a telescope at a young age, which inspired his passion for astronomy, while his love of rocketry was apparent from the age of 12 when he accidentally blew up a firework-powered toy car in a crowded street.

At the end of World War I, when Wirsitz was renamed Wyrzysk and became part of Poland, von Braun and his family moved to Germany and it was at school in Weimar, and later the island of Spiekeroog, that von Braun took up physics and mathematics to learn more about rocket engineering. In 1932, he graduated from the Berlin Institute of Technology with a degree in aeronautical engineering, and two years later he had a PhD in physics from the Frederick William University.824px-S-IC_engines_and_Von_Braun

While studying for his PhD von Braun had begun working as a rocket engineer for the German army. He became integral to the army and, during the Thirties, von Braun and his team successfully built and launched rockets that flew a few kilometres high. By 1944 the German army had a working V-2 rocket, which they used to devastating effect against the Allies.

Around this time von Braun realised that Germany would not win the war, and began making procedures to transfer to the US. In a daring escape in 1945, von Braun led his team from the German rocket facility at Peenemünde to American forces and duly surrendered.

Von Braun and his team were taken to the US in what was known as Project Paperclip. He was employed by the US Army for 15 years developing ballistic missiles, but in 1960 he transferred to the newly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). He was tasked first with developing the unmanned Mercury-Redstone programme before starting work on the development of the Saturn rockets. After the successful manned Mercury and Gemini projects, von Braun's dream of seeing man walk on the Moon was realised when, launching atop his Saturn V rocket, the crew of Apollo 11 ventured to the lunar surface in July 1969.

Von Braun retired from NASA in 1972 at the culmination of the Apollo programme, joining the aerospace company Fairchild Industries in Maryland. A few years later he helped establish the National Space Institute (now the National Space Society), before being diagnosed with cancer and passing away on 16 June 1977 at the age of 65. Von Braun's legacy continues to cause controversy to this day, and though he always insisted he was not a Nazi sympathiser there are some who do not forgive him for his actions during the war.

Nonetheless, his work in helping America land on the Moon was undoubtedly pivotal for the success of the Apollo missions, and it is for this reason he is revered by many for his work in comparatively peaceful rocket endeavours.

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New Worlds mission: Hunting for alien life using a starshade

Posted: 29 Apr 2018 09:00 AM PDT

An artist's impression of the New Worlds mission. Image Credit: Jay Wong

An artist’s impression of the New Worlds mission. Image Credit: Jay Wong

The question of whether life exists on other planets is one that scientists frequently ponder, but have so far failed to answer. Hoping to change this is the New Worlds mission that, while still in the early phases of development following years of research, is likely to bear fruit in the near future.

One of the problems with observing extrasolar planets is the amount of light emitted by the parent star they orbit. When scientists use a telescope to look deep into space, they find the brightness of these stars drowns out the light from the orbiting planets. They still see the more-intense glow of larger planets, but the smaller ones are virtually impossible to spot. Since those tinier planets are, like Earth, more likely to contain signs of life, it means experts risk missing potential life-supporting worlds.

Dr Webster Cash, of the University of Colorado at Boulder, has devised a method to combat this problem. He proposes using a starshade, effectively a large blocker spacecraft that would be placed between the telescope and the target star. It would prevent light from the star reaching the telescope that would, in effect, be cast within a shadow. Just as a ball heading your way from up high on a bright day is better seen if you hold your hand to block the sunlight, so the planets orbiting their parent star are brought into view when the brighter light is blocked.

In 2013 NASA created a mockup of the starshade. The initial plan had been to produce a round disc, but this caused a problem with diffraction. When light from the parent star hits a round circle, it will diffract around the edge. Not only does this give a halo-like glow but it also drowns out the dimmer light of the smaller extrasolar terrestrial planets being sought, because it remains so bright.

Could the New Worlds mission help us to find a planet like Earth? Image Credit: NASA

Could the New Worlds mission help us to find a planet like Earth? Image Credit: NASA

The idea is to make the starshade look like a series of slit petals, each one sitting around the inner disk. Since the perimeter shape of the object the light is hitting governs diffraction, this design controls the way the light waves of the star behave, drastically cutting diffraction. Because the starshade will be tilted when put into space, the light from our own Sun will not disrupt the telescope's view of the extrasolar planetary system either.

Although the proposal is to fly the starshade and the telescope into space in formation, it's more likely that the telescope will be sent up first and the starshade will follow at a later date. Though a launch date is far from being confirmed, the mission concept is being put together and should be complete by 2015. The team behind it is conscious of cost – with a budget of around £1.8 billion ($3 billion) – so it'll either work with an existing collector, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, or a four-metre (13-foot) telescope likely to be built in the future.

This won't be an easy mission, as the starshade will be sent to space in a folded state before unfurling. It also needs to be aligned with a telescope around 200,000 kilometres (124,000 miles) away. With little room for error and the need to maintain alignment, so much could go wrong. If the mission enables scientists to see planets they'd otherwise miss, enabling them be to analysed for water vapour, carbon dioxide and oxygen, the big question of the universe could be answered soon.

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