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Shooting star, seen from above

ISS image of a meteor

The bright streak of a Perseid meteor as it flashes into Earth's upper atmosphere. The image was snapped by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station.

THIS ASTRONAUT PHOTOGRAPH, taken from the International Space Station (ISS) while over China (approximately 400 kilometres to the northwest of Beijing), provides the unusual perspective of looking down on a meteor as it passed through the atmosphere.

Many people have spent time outdoors under a dark sky, watching for “shooting stars” to streak across the firmament. In some cultures, this event is an occasion to make a wish; in others it is viewed as a herald of important events, such as the birth of a future ruler.

While not actual stars, “shooting stars” do come from outer space, in the form of meteoroids entering the Earth’s atmosphere.

Meteor or meteorite?

Meteoroids are small objects moving through the Solar System that are attracted to the Earth by its gravitational pull.

These small objects—typically fragments of asteroids or comets, though they can also originate from the Moon or Mars—begin to heat and burn up as they collide with air molecules in Earth’s atmosphere, creating a bright vapour trail or streak.

At this point, the object is known as a meteor. If any remnant of the object survives to impact the Earth’s surface, it becomes known as a meteorite.

While most meteorites are natural in origin, on occasion manmade space debris can re-enter the atmosphere and also become a meteor or even a meteorite!

Comes from a comet

The image was taken on August 13, 2011, during the Perseid Meteor Shower that occurs every August. The Perseid meteors are particles that originate from Comet Swift-Tuttle; the comet’s orbit is close enough for these particles to be swept up by the Earth’s gravitational field every year—leading to one of the most dependable meteor shower displays.

Green and yellow airglow appears in thin layers above the limb of the Earth, extending from image left to the upper right. Atoms and molecules above 50 kilometres in the atmosphere are excited by sunlight during the day, and then release this energy at night, producing primarily green light that is observable from orbit.

Part of a ISS solar panel is visible at upper right; behind the panel.

Astronaut photograph provided by the ISS Crew Earth Observations experiment and Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, Johnson Space Centre. Text adapted from information issued by William L. Stefanov, Jacobs/ESCG at NASA-JSC.

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Space travel could kill you

EXPOSURE TO COSMIC RADIATION outside the Earth’s magnetic field could be detrimental to astronauts’ arteries, according to a study by University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) researchers.

Using mice as test animals, researchers assessed the affect of iron ion radiation commonly found in outer space to see if exposures promoted the development of atherosclerosis, as terrestrial sources of radiation are known to do.

They found it accelerated the development of atherosclerosis, independent of the cholesterol levels or circulating white blood cells of the mice. It also worsened existing atherosclerotic lesions.

“It’s well known that prolonged exposure to radiation sources here on Earth, including those used in cancer treatment, excessive occupational exposure and atomic bombs, are associated with an increased risk for atherosclerosis,” said Dennis Kucik, associate professor in the UAB Department of Pathology.

“But cosmic radiation is very different from X-rays and other radiation found on Earth. The radiation risks of deep-space travel are difficult to predict, largely because so few people have been exposed.”

Apollo astronaut

Only 27 Apollo astronauts have travelled beyond Earth's protective magnetic field.

Irreversible damage

X-rays can be blocked by lead shields. But cosmic radiation ions can become more dangerous when they interact with metals, generating secondary particles that also may have biological effects.

Although it’s possible to use other materials to shield against ion radiation, incorporating these into spacesuits presents significant challenges.

The only people who’ve been exposed to high levels of cosmic radiation are the 27 Apollo astronauts who travelled as far as the Moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Kucik said that because many people have early atherosclerosis—whether they travel in space or not—they could not draw any conclusions from the small number of astronauts who have been outside the Earth’s magnetic field.

Instead, they examined atherosclerosis development in mice following targeted exposure to a particle beam of high-velocity iron ions—similar to those found in space.

They tested the mice after 13 and 40 weeks to assess the development of atherosclerosis in the aorta and carotid arteries. They concluded there was a biological response to radiation injury.

“At 13 weeks it was surprising and quite remarkable that we already could see permanent damage—an irreversible thickening of the artery wall where it had been exposed to radiation,” said co-author Janusz Kabarowski, assistant professor in the UAB Department of Microbiology.

Artist's impression of a mission to Mars

Astronauts on future manned missions to Mars will need to be protected from deadly radiation.

Potential cancer spin-off

Knowing the effects of cosmic radiation on the heart health of deep-space astronauts will help meet the unique challenges of treatment and prevention posed by missions of long duration, Kabarowski said.

“Our future research will look at the mechanisms causing the damage, and we will try to find a way to target those mechanisms to correct the damage or prevent it altogether.”

Kucik said the team’s findings also may help cancer treatment. Newer proton radiation therapies can be targeted to stop and deposit all of their energy in a tumour, much like iron ions from space stop in the body.

“No one knows the atherosclerotic risk of this therapy,” Kucik said. “Anything we learn through these studies on deep-space travel will be useful for cancer patients.”

The research has been published online in the journal Radiation Research.

Adapted from information issued by Jennifer Lollar, University of Alabama. Images courtesy NASA / Pat Rawlings (SAIC).

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Fifty years of spaceflight

TODAY MARKS 50 YEARS exactly since the Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit the Earth.

The celebrate, a special movie has been produced, called First Orbit, which combines historic footage from 1961 with new footage shot from the International Space Station, to give us an idea of what Gagarin experienced during his milestone flight.

You can download the whole movie at the First Orbit web site.

And here’s the three-part trailer:

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Moon craters honour shuttle crew

Craters named after Challenger astronauts

Lunar craters named after the seven Challenger astronauts. The craters are located in the Apollo basin.

FOLLOWING THE LOSS of the space shuttle Challenger during launch in 1986, seven craters on the eastern rim of the Moon’s Apollo basin were named after the crew—Gregory Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Dick Scobee and Michael Smith.

This image was taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera. See the full-size (1.7MB) image here.

Apollo is a 524-kilometre-diameter impact basin located within the centre of the giant lunar South Pole-Aitken basin. The region has been identified as an area of interest for future human lunar exploration.

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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Aussie astronaut to speak in Perth

NASA portrait photo of Dr Andy Thomas

Australian-born NASA astronaut Dr Andy Thomas will give a public lecture at Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia, on September 14, 2010.

Adelaide-born NASA astronaut Dr Andy Thomas will visit Australia in September, and one of the highlights will be a public lecture in Perth on the 14th.

Although he wasn’t the first Australian-born person to join NASA as an astronaut—that honour goes to Philip Chapman during the Apollo era—and although he wasn’t the first Australian-born person to fly in space—that honour goes to Paul Scully-Power, who flew aboard the space shuttle as an oceanographer in 1984—Andy Thomas was the first Aussie to fly in space as a professional astronaut and a member of NASA’s permanent astronaut corps.

Dr Thomas’ visit to Australia is an initiative of the Fogarty Foundation, a leading philanthropic and education organisation in Western Australia that engages leaders in their field to speak about their achievements and their passions and encourages others to take leading roles in our community.

The Fogarty Foundation is working in conjunction with The University of Western Australia, Curtin University, the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), Scitech, UWA’s Aspire program, the UWA/WA Department of Education teachers’ enrichment program (SPICE) and the US Consul General to enable Dr Thomas to speak with scholars and scientists, primary and secondary students and teachers and interested members of the public.

While in Perth one of his engagements will be a public lecture at Curtin University with a planned hook-up to the International Space Station (ISS), during which students will have a chance to quiz the Station astronauts. Australia has very restricted access to the International Space Station and this is a great opportunity co-inciding with his visit to Perth. If communications allow, Dr Thomas will speak to his wife Shannon Walker who is also an astronaut, and is presently aboard the International Space Station.

Dr Thomas’ public lecture details are as follows:

  • Date: Tuesday 14 September 2010
  • Time: 6.00pm – 7.30pm
  • Venue: Elizabeth Jolley Lecture Theatre, Building 210, Curtin University, Kent Street, Bentley
  • Register: events@curtin.edu.au or (08) 9266 2563 by Thursday 9 September 2010
  • RSVP is essential. Limit of 6 tickets per booking.

More details here.

Andy Thomas performing a spacewalk

Andy Thomas performed a spacewalk during shuttle mission STS-102.

Andy Thomas biography

After completing his studies, Thomas accepted an offer from Lockheed in Atlanta. By 1990 he was the company’s principal aerodynamic scientist. His career continued in the field, steering towards more senior research positions.

Thomas was selected by NASA in March 1992 and reported to the Johnson Space Centre in August 1992. In August 1993, following one year of training, he was appointed a member of the astronaut corps and was qualified for assignment as a mission specialist on Space Shuttle flight crews.

While awaiting space flight assignment, Thomas supported shuttle launch and landing operations as an Astronaut Support Person (ASP) at the Kennedy Space Centre. He also provided technical support to the Space Shuttle Main Engine project, the Solid Rocket Motor project and the External Tank project at the Marshall Space Flight Centre.

In June 1995, Thomas was named as payload commander for STS-77 and flew his first flight in space on Endeavour in May 1996. Although Paul D. Scully-Power had entered orbit as an oceanographer in 1985, Thomas was the first Australia-born professional astronaut to enter space.

Thomas next trained at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Star City, Russia in preparation for a long-duration flight. In 1998, he served as Board Engineer 2 aboard the Russian Space Station Mir for 130 days.

From August 2001 to November 2003, Thomas served as Deputy Chief of NASA’s Astronaut Office. He completed his fourth space flight on STS-114 and has logged over 177 days in space.

He is currently working for the Exploration Branch of NASA’s Astronaut Office.

Adapted from information issued by ICRAR / Curtin University / NASA.

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Life in space

European astronaut Frank De Winne answers some questions about what it’s like to live aboard the international space station for months at a time.

Adapted from information issued by ESA.