Tag Archives: Mercury

John Glenn, last of the Mercury 7 – rest in peace

At the age of 95, John Glenn has passed away.

You almost certainly know his name; John Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth, a hard-working and principled man who already had an impressive career before NASA selected him for its first astronaut class, the Mercury Seven.  (The others were Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepherd, and Deke Slayton.)  He’d flown fighter aircraft in WWII and Korea, then after that set a record as the first person to fly across North America at an average velocity above the speed of sound, proving that the aircraft was strong enough to tolerate that. He wasn’t just fast; he was a damned good fighter pilot as well, earning a reputation for flying dangerously low (to improve shooting accuracy on ground targets, a decision which improved his kill rate but caused him to often return home with holes in his airplane, a fact which earned him the nickname “Magnet Ass” for all the literal flak he took) and for killing a lot of MiGs.

When Glenn was selected for NASA’s initial astronaut corps, he only barely met their requirements, just barely squeaking in under their upper age limit of 40.  (It’s a little ironic he was the last of the Mercury Seven to pass, as he was also always the oldest of them.)  He watched Alan Shepherd and then Gus Grissom fly on suborbital hops, boosted by the little Redstone rocket.  And then, on February 20, 1962, Glenn flew the first manned flight aboard an Atlas rocket.  (Atlas boosted four more Mercury capsules, and then retired from human spaceflight.  Its much more modern descendent, the Atlas V, will return the line to crewed spaceflight in either 2017 or 2018 with the first flight of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner.)  He remained active in the space program only through the Mercury program, resigning in 1964 to pursue a political career.  It took a while to get there, but Glenn was as persistent in politics as he had been in everything else, and attained the Senate as a Democrat from Ohio in 1980.  He served in this position until 1998, when he retired.  The election to replace him was held while he was away from home in a very fundamental way — in 1998, he made his second spaceflight, aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery’s STS-95 mission, becoming the oldest person in space at the age of 77.  After that, he retired, and enjoyed a long retirement — finally passing away at the age of 95.

With him, it feels as if an era has ended.  While about half of the Vostok cosmonauts are still living (mostly because Soviet-era astronaut recruiting favored much younger candidates), the Mercury Seven have all passed.  It falls upon us to remember them, and teach our children about them.  They were trailblazers, and we must not let that trail grow cold.

John Glenn’s first launch, on Friendship 7:

And his second, on Discovery’s STS-95 mission:

And now, he’ll fly higher than anyone of us here on Earth can conceive.  Godspeed, John Glenn.  Godspeed.


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Mercury transit now in progress!

If you don’t have a largish telescope and proper solar filtration, or even if you do, you can get a great live view courtesy of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center:

GSFC: 2016 Mercury Transit

That link carries imagery from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, which has a nearly uninterrupted view of the Sun from a sun-synchronous orbit around the Earth.  Transit will be going on for a few more hours, and then I believe that site will carry recorded views.

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May 5, 1961: Alan Shepherd becomes the first American in space

It’s late, but better late than never, eh?  Today isn’t just Cinco de Mayo; it’s also the anniversary of Americans in space.  Americans have been going to space for 55 years now.  SpaceflightNow linked to this amazing news broadcast from the occasion; skip ahead 2 minutes if you only want to see the rocket do its thing.  That’s Freedom 7, a Mercury capsule, aboard a Redstone rocket launching from Cape Canaveral Air Station.  The Redstone was essentially an uprated V-2; nearly identical engine, same flight control design, same propellants.  It was not capable of orbital flight, and was originally built as an intermediate range ballistic missile.  So, enjoy the news footage, and see how similar and how different it is to the modern live coverage.

In other space news, SpaceX is preparing for their next orbital launch, and another sea landing attempt.  It was scheduled for early today, but Florida weather got in the way.  They’ll try again the wee hours of the morning on May 6.

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Mercury transit coming up!

Next Monday, Mercury will transit the Sun as viewed from Earth.  It’s quite hard to see — just a speck, really, but even with a modest telescope (properly filtered!) it is very clearly a disk, and you can tell over time that it is in motion.   Mercury is far enough away from Earth that unlike a solar eclipse (which is basically the Moon transiting the Sun), this will happen at almost precisely the same time everywhere.  Well, everywhere in daylight, anyway.  The charts below (given in universal time) will let you figure out when to look, and whether or not your part of the Earth will see it.  😉  Because a Mercury transit takes many hours, at least some part of the event will be visible from almost everywhere on Earth.  The exceptions are Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, various other south Pacific nations, the eastern part of southeast Asia and China, the Korean peninsula, Japan, and portions of eastern Siberia.  (Kamchatka will be able to see it, though.)

To view it, you will need some sort of solar observing setup.  Since Mercury is so tiny, magnification of at least 50x is recommended.  I will be using my 130mm Newtonian, with a full-aperture solar filter.  This is very important!  If using telescope or binoculars, you must put your filter over the front aperture, or focused sunlight may be hot enough to loosen your lenses and damage your telescope’s optics!  I used my Newtonian for the last Mercury transit, and it was effective.  Projection setups can work as well, but need to be able to focus very clearly for Mercury to be visible, and pinhole projectors are unlikely to be effective due to the small size.  The Sun does not have any particularly impressive sunspots right now (just some very small ones), so Mercury should be relatively easy to spot with sufficient magnification.

Otherwise, check the Internet during and after — people are bound to post pictures!



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Beginnings and ends and approaching horizons

I’ll do these in reverse order.  😉  It’s been a busy day in spaceflight!  First off, the approaching horizon: New Horizons is getting inexorably nearer to Pluto, and can now faintly make out surface details.  Check out this animated GIF the team just released, covering almost a week of time earlier this month.  What I love is how clearly you can see what we’ve known for a long time: that Charon and Pluto are mutually synchronous.  OK, you can’t see Charon’s rotation here, but Pluto’s is unmistakably the same duration as Charon’s orbital period.  And that’s amazing to actually *see*.  The other amazing thing to see in this picture is the proper motion of Pluto and Charon.  This is really a double planet; the barycenter of the system is in open space between the two.


And now, some endings.  First off, an update on the ill-fated Progress M-27M: it’s bad.  They have been unable to restore communications, and at its current rate of sink, it’ll likely deorbit in the next week or so; Roscosmos is predicting a range from May 5-May-7, USSTRATCOM is predicting May 9 +/- six days, ESA is predicting May 9 +/- two days, and Spaceflight101 is predicting May 10 +/- three days.  None of these are near enough to predict the impact zone, so stay tuned.

Second, the mission of MESSENGER has finally come to an end.  Long after the end of its primary mission, and extended past the end of propellant depletion through the cunning use of helium pressurant gasses, MESSENGER has finally succumbed to the tidal influences of the Sun and Mercury.  It impacted Mercury earlier today.  It is expected to have created a small crater, which will be inspected by ESA’s BepiColumbo probe when it becomes the second Mercury orbiter in 2024.  On its way down, it took this picture:


At 2.1 meters per pixel, this is by far the highest resolution image ever taken of the innermost planet, within the crater Jokai.  MESSENGER then smashed down somewhere north of the Shakespeare Basin.

And finally, a new beginning: the relatively secretive Blue Origins company has conducted a successful test-launch of their New Shepherd suborbital spacecraft.  The rocket, boosted by a BE-3 hydrogen/LOX engine, failed to complete the flyback return they were planning, due to a loss of hydralulic pressure.  But the launch was smooth and the payload’s performance was flawless, right up through soft landing.  There is another commercial spaceflight contender coming up, and it is clearly not dependent on getting NASA funding.  Interesting….

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Icarus ain’t got nothing on this: ice on Mercury

Scientists have expected for a long time that water ice might be found in the permanently shadowed recesses of Mercurian craters, but nobody’s ever actually seen any — until now.  In Kadinsky Crater, near the north pole of Mercury, the MESSENGER spacecraft has spotted ice.  It was able to photograph the ice because although the crater is permanently shaded, it isn’t in complete darkness; reflected sunlight from the crater rim does dimly illuminate it.  It’s still very dark, but it’s enough for MESSENGER’s Wide Angle Camera, with the right camera settings.


Water is turning out to be a bit more ubiquitous than we’d realized, even in the innermost parts of the solar system.

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A new view of the lunar eclipse . . . from Mercury

This is definitely one of those “living in the future” moments.  Not only can we predict eclipses (heck, we’ve been able to do that for centuries), but today we’re able to watch them from different planets.




I’m sort of a sucker for photos of the Earth-Moon system anyway, but this one is really special.  I’m pretty sure it’s a first — first time the Moon was photographed going into the Earth’s umbra from outside the Earth-Moon system.  My hat is off to you, MESSENGER team!

MESSENGER’s View of This Week’s Lunar Eclipse

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