December 17, 2015

NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio knows a thing or two about how spacesuits work. During his six-month stay on the International Space Station in 2013-2014, he practically had to redesign his suit to make it safer before stepping out into the vacuum of space. A few months earlier, during a spacewalk, Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano had experienced a suit malfunction that made water leak dangerously inside his helmet. Although he returned safely to the ISS, the next spacewalker, Mastracchio, was not taking any chances. With the help of NASA technicians on the ground, he and his crewmates overhauled the Extravehicular Mobility Units, as NASA spacesuits are also known, so that their heads would remain dry on their next assignment.


These and other anecdotes were part of an enjoyable visit by Mastracchio to Baylor University on December 3th and 4th. A veteran of four space missions, Mastracchio has performed nine spacewalks, has conducted a variety of experiments while in orbit, and has taken breath-taking pictures of Earth from above. He showed many of those pictures and additional videos to the audiences that came to Baylor to attend his presentations. People of all ages were captivated by his stories and his knowledge of the space shuttle, the ISS and the effects of weightlessness on the human body.


Faculty and students of Baylor’s Center for Astrophysics, Space Physics and Engineering Research had the opportunity to have lunch with Rick. We asked him many questions about how a space mission works and what kind of duties astronauts perform. One of the most interesting explanations that he gave was how astronauts move outside the ISS during a spacewalk. Contrary to what movies show us, astronauts do not use a jetpack to go from place to place. Instead, they rely on tethers to remain firmly attached to the space station, which has a multitude of handrails that are used as anchors.


Astronauts are often asked if they have seen something unusual in space during their missions. Rick responds that yes, he has, but that he can also explain every rare sighting. Orbital debris outside the ISS is common, mostly from discarded hardware. Effects created by light and shadows in orbit sometimes make it difficult to determine how far those objects really are from the viewing window. He once saw a disk-shaped object that, to the untrained eye, could have been interpreted as a “mother ship”. When he looked more closely, he realized it was a loose washer spinning around its axis.


NASA will soon be requesting applications for its astronaut program. Rick mentioned that NASA is interested in candidates who have a wide breadth of experience. He gave the example of a military applicant who was an F-16 fighter pilot with a degree in mathematics. That applicant was also an F-16 instructor and an expert on every aspect of flying F-16s. While his resume was impressive, it was rather narrow for the variety of skills that NASA wants of its astronauts.


Hearing an astronaut’s perspective is always a stimulating experience. Whether in regard to atmospheric re-entry, spectacular Earth views, or acquiring new skills, astronauts are professionals whose stories not only inspire young people, but can also motivate adults of all ages to explore and exceed personal limits. Rick Mastracchio shared some of the best astronaut traits with the Baylor community, and in so doing he surely encouraged many to aim for the stars.


The Martian official trailer

June 8, 2015

The novel “The Martian” is one of my favorites, and the movie is coming out this November. Here’s the official trailer.

Matt Damon stars as astronaut Mark Watney, an ingenious and sarcastic botanist who, against all odds, must solve problem after problem to stay alive on the martian surface after being abandoned by his crewmates.

To be fair, they didn’t abandon him on Mars on purpose; bad luck, circumstances and a tough decision by the mission commander all play against Watney in this scientific thriller that takes place in the not-too-distant future.

It would be scary enough to be left stranded in the middle of nowhere here on Earth, with few supplies and a grim outlook for survival. Now imagine what it would be like on a distant planet, knowing that you are the only human on a surface area approximately that of the entire area of Earth’s continents. You could decide to just give up and wait until you die of thirst and starvation. You could even make it quicker and take some pills or something. But you can also decide that you are going to keep yourself alive by somehow growing your own food, performing highly-complex maintenance on your living quarters, and crucially, trying to contact Earth so that they know you are alive. Sounds difficult? It certainly would be, but NASA didn’t select you as astronaut because of your looks. They selected you because of your intelligence, resourcefulness and emotional stability. To you, survival is not a desperate state of affairs that is likely to throw you into sheer panic. Survival is just another problem that needs to be solved, step by step, breaking down the myriad components involved into manageable, smaller problems. After all, that approach would be the only way to stay alive.

If you can survive the bad TV shows and music left behind by the crew, that is.

NASA grant proposal: diving into the world of equations of state

April 29, 2015

If you want to gain a good understanding of how the Moon probably formed, you have to first understand the intricacies and limitations of “equations of state”, or EOS for short. An EOS is essentially a mathematical expression that tells you how the pressure of some material changes when other properties of that material also change. Those properties can be the density (how much of the material there is in a certain volume), the temperature (something we are all familiar with), or the internal energy.

The material from which the Moon formed was pretty exotic: it was a mixture of very hot magma (that is, molten rock) surrounded by quite hot rock vapor. Where did that stuff come from? It was going around the Earth right after our planet was smashed by another planet, shortly after the Earth had formed. The collision obliterated the planetary projectile, and gave the Earth a pretty big dent. Most of the Earth’s surface was melted by the blow, and about two-Moons’ worth of hot liquid and vapor was sent into Earth orbit. The Moon would form from that stuff shortly afterwards.

The thing is that the Moon-forming debris was composed of different rock materials, and so describing its thermodynamic behavior (that is, how its pressure changed with temperature or density) is not so easy. But there are several EOS out there that have been used by scientists to study how the planetary debris behaved, mainly through computer simulations. It’s both a fascinating and challenging tale of thermal physics, and I’m in the process of writing it clearly and concisely.


(Video by Canup 2012)


The Martian

April 23, 2015

In case you haven’t heard, a science-fiction movie called The Martian will come out in November. It’s based (supposedly) on a novel of the same title written by engineer Andy Weir. I was introduced to the book by my friend Chris, and when I read the first line, I was instantly hooked. It ranks as one of my favorite hard sci-fi books.

Most of the story is told by “the Martian” himself, an astronaut that gets stranded on Mars after his crewmates are forced to leave him there, due to an emergency. He is then forced to apply every last bit of ingenuity to stay alive, in the hopes that someone will try to rescue him.

What I liked about the book is that it’s a story of survival, reliance and hope, but from the point of view of a professional who is more interested in doing everything that he can to stay alive than in lamenting that he might not see anybody else ever again. He doesn’t appeal to his emotions to find strength, but rather he appeals to his scientific and engineering skills, as well as his astronaut training, to contact anyone who might hear (or see) him.

I wonder if they’ll make the book mandatory reading for astronauts.


Working on NASA grant proposal

April 19, 2015

Lunar and Planetary Institute

June 5th is the deadline to submit a grant proposal for NASA’s “Emerging Worlds” program. I’m currently working on the Scientific/Technical/Management section, which is the main component of the proposal. It has a 15-page limit, including figures. I won’t give away what the proposal is on exactly, but suffice it to say that the background material that I’m currently writing deals with the formation of the Moon!

Space shuttle Columbia launch and landing video from the cockpit

March 21, 2015

If you are a space geek like me, you’ll enjoy this video of space shuttle Columbia mission STS-64 shot from the cockpit, with internal communications. Watch especially around the 12-minute mark, when the main engines are shut off.

Christopher Columbus and Mars

March 13, 2015

Were Christopher Columbus’ voyages analogous to an eventual trip to Mars? In this very engaging blog post, the author argues they were. The discussion at the bottom is quite interesting too.

Wikimedia Commons.

Wikimedia Commons.

What would happen if Earth was hit by a 500-km asteroid?

March 1, 2015

An amazing computer visualization by the Discovery Channel (reported here by IFL Science) shows the damage caused by an impact of a 500-km asteroid with our fragile Earth. Basically, many things would fry. An ocean of magma (melted rock) would be created. Hot debris would rain down thousands of kilometers from the impact site. School would probably be cancelled.

Be sure to also check out the link to the impact calculator mentioned at the end of the IFL Science post. It tells you what would happen in the event of collisions with different parameters, such as impactor size, velocity, composition, etc.

Discovery Channel

Discovery Channel

Lunar and Planetary Science Conference approaching

February 26, 2015

Only 20 more days till the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) begins! This is a venerable gathering of scientists who study the geology, geochemistry, and astrophysical aspects of solar system objects. It promises to be an exciting event to learn the latest in lunar research, hear about the latest results from the Mars Curiosity rover, and feast on the amazing science being delivered by the Rosetta space probe currently in orbit around a comet! I’ll be blogging from the Conference.

Credit: NASA/JPL

Credit: NASA/JPL

An opportunity to see bison up close and help in conservation efforts

April 10, 2014

I found this amazing project to study wildlife on the prairies of Northeastern Montana. They require volunteers to gather data and help build the largest protected wildlife area in the continental United States, making it larger than Yellowstone National Park!

More information here.

Credit: Dennis Linghor

Credit: Diane Hargreaves

Credit: Valerie Bruchon