Astronaut Michael Collins, the command module pilot for the Apollo 11 moon landing mission, passed away on Wednesday. Collins was 90.
“I am too old to fly to Mars, and I regret that. But I still think I have been very, very lucky. I was born in the days of biplanes and Buck Rogers, learned to fly in the early jets, and hit my peak when moon rockets came along. That’s hard to beat.” —Michael Collins
The Aleutian Chain was rocked by an incredible storm over New Years. The wonderfully named Bomb Cyclone, set a record in Alaska for a low pressure system.
High and low-pressure systems form when air mass and temperature differences between the surface of the Earth, and the upper atmosphere, create vertical currents. In a low pressure system, the air currents flow upward, sucking air away from the earth’s surface like a giant Shop*Vac.
Eareckson Air Force Base on Shemya Island recorded the record low pressure at 924.8 millibars.
A sea buoy off of Amchitka Island, registered a wave at 58.1 feet. Winds at Shemya hit gusts of 83 mph. This was an impressive storm that pummeled the outer islands of the Aleutian Chain. From Atka to Adak, the islands were seeing 40-50 foot waves and hurricane force winds.
St Lawrence Island and the Yukon Delta saw high winds and blizzard conditions when the storm hit Alaska’s mainland.
Unlike a hurricane, which extract heat from the ocean, as they grow in power, a maritime cyclone creates energy by drawing together warm and cold air masses. It’s the energy created when the warm air rises and the cold air sinks, that gives rise to the cyclone.
Earth, caught in a ray of light; Image credit: Voyager 1/NASA
The image was taken by Voyager 1 at the suggestion of Carl Sagan on 14 February 1990. At the time, Voyager 1 was 4 billion miles away from its home planet. As the spacecraft was approaching the fringe of our solar system, engineers turned it around for one final glimpse at Earth.
Artist rendering of Voyager 1; Credit: NASA
‘Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.’
The recovery of the Apollo 13 crew, near Samoa in the Pacific Ocean; Photo credit: US Navy
The command module, Odyssey, was the only module capable of reentering the earth’s atmosphere. Apollo 13’s crew moved back into Odyssey, then jettisoned Aquarius. They splashed down in the Pacific Ocean 142 hours, 54 minutes, 41 seconds from the time of liftoff.
Fred Haise, Jack Swigert and Jim Lovell aboard the recovery ship USS Iwo Jima
Fred Haise remained in the astronaut rotation after Apollo 13, and was the backup mission commander for Apollo 16. Following Apollo 16, Haise transferred over to the Space Shuttle program. He retired from NASA in 1979.
Jack Swigert was selected as the command module pilot for the Apollo-Soyuz test project, the first joint U.S. – Soviet mission. Swigert left NASA in 1977, and was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer in 1982. Swigert died in December of that same year.
Jim Lovell is one of three men to have flown to the moon twice, but he never walked on its surface. Lovell accumulated 715 hours in space, and watched 269 sunrises from space. Lovell, along with Haise and Swigert hold the record for the farthest distance humans have traveled from earth. He retired from the U.S. Navy and Space Program in 1973.
Apollo 13 Command Module; Photo credit: National Air & Space Museum
In the early morning hours of April 14, the Apollo 13 crew maneuvered their crippled craft into a free-return trajectory around the moon and back towards earth. Radio contact was lost with Apollo 13 that evening, as the spacecraft passed behind the moon.
Apollo 13, the mission that was supposed to be the third lunar landing, came within 164 miles of the moon’s surface at its closest. The mission set a then record distance from earth at 249,205 miles.
The above video was put together by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. It uses data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to recreate the view that Apollo 13 had as it passed over the far side of the moon.
As Apollo 13 headed for home, oxygen supplies and cooling water remain in good shape. The astronauts had reduced their water intake to 6 ounces per day. Electricity demand had been reduced by 80%.
Aquarius was not designed to carry three astronauts, and its carbon dioxide filters could not keep up with what the crew was putting into the LM. The filters from the command module did not fit Aquarius, so NASA engineers on the ground were forced to quickly design a makeshift adapter. The setup was dubbed “the mailbox”. All that mattered, was that it worked.
The launch and following day, April 12 went perfectly for the Apollo 13 crew. On the evening of the 13th, the astronauts did a routine pressurization of the lunar module Aquarius. Suddenly, a loud explosion was heard, and all three crew members scrambled into the command module Odyssey to examine the instrument panels.
Haise then contacted Houston:
Haise: Okay Houston-
Lovell: I believe we’ve had a problem here.
Mission control: This is Houston. Say again please.
Lovell: Houston, we’ve had a problem. We’ve had a main B bus undervolt.
The service module had two cryogenic oxygen tanks, and one of them had dropped to zero pressure. These two tanks, along with the cryogenic hydrogen tanks fed the spacecraft’s fuel cells, which in turn, powered the generation of electrical power, the oxygen for breathing and drinking water.
Aquarius became the crew’s lifeboat. The LM was designed for only two men, so it was a cramped living situation, and now all thoughts of a third moon landing were scrapped. As the Apollo 13 crew moved into Aquarius, they were 20 hours from the moon.
The launch of Apollo 13 from Cape Kennedy, Florida
Fifty years ago today, the crew of Apollo 13 was launched from Cape Kennedy, pushed along by the massive Saturn V. Just 2-1/2 hours from launch, the S IVB third stage reignited, providing the final push towards the moon.
Apollo 13’s trajectory was so accurate, the first planned course correction was cancelled. A return to the moon’s surface was looking good.
The crew of Apollo 13: James Lovell, commander; Jack Swigert, command module pilot; Fred Haise, lunar module pilot. Photo credit: NASA
Rocket Launch at Poker Flat; Photo credit: NASA/Chris Perry
NASA and the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute teamed up with some scientists from Virginia Tech University to launch a sounding rocket over the weekend at the Poker Flat Research Range.
The Polar Night Nitric Oxide (PolarNOx) experiment saw a hang fire on the first night of their launch window, but the rocket was launched successfully on the second night.
The aurora borealis adds nitric oxide to the polar atmosphere, and levels increase in the winter months, but then dissipate in the summer months, with the increase of sunlight. Nitric oxide will destroy ozone under certain conditions. The sounding rocket was launched to collect data to better understand the build up of nitric oxide.
Nitric oxide exists between 53 – 93 miles altitude, with its peak concentration between 62 – 68 miles altitude. The sounding rocket rose to an apex of 161 miles above the earth’s surface, before coming back down to our very frozen Interior.
The landing pad; Photo credit: Poker Flat Research Range
For those who were up in the early morning hours to witness the launch, the rocket was seen from all over the area. I had planned on being out there, but I was forced to make a quick run to the border instead. At least I saw a lot of caribou.
The fine folks out at Poker Flat Research Range have announced future launch windows. The first one opens on 26 January. Poker Flat does stream the launches of their sounding rockets online. One can receive launch updates by following the instructions above.
The aurora in Venetie, Alaska; Photo credit: PFRR
PFRR also has their nightly All-Sky Camera, which is very sensitive to the aurora. You can find their camera here: