Sunday, March 23, 2014

Orchestra performs under space shuttle Atlantis

     KENNEDY SPACE CENTER — The quintessential soundtrack for space exploration was performed by the Brevard Symphony Orchestra underneath the space shuttle Atlantis on Saturday, March 22. Musical selections from classical to contemporary were masterfully played beneath the awe-inspiring spacecraft, which brought this unique event called the “Symphonic Odyssey” to life.

     “We were very excited to have the opportunity to perform here,” said Christopher Confessore, the musical director and principal conductor for the Brevard Symphony Orchestra. Confessore has conducted this group for 19 years and marveled at the accomplishments of all the musicians, organizers, and supporters that work together to make a concert like this possible.

     Positioned under the large tile body spacecraft was the orchestra and audience at the bottom level of the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit, gazing upwards to the iconic shuttle, which itself, traveled nearly 126 million miles in space before being retired. Surrounding the concertgoers in this scientific concert hall were models and visual reminders of NASA’s revered 30-year space shuttle program.

     Percussionist, Jeremy Katalenic, who performed with the Brevard Symphony Orchestra for the first time on this night remarked at the location of the concert by saying “It’s amazing, I got caught a couple of times just looking up and finding it hard to believe that I’m playing under an actual spaceship.”

     The orchestra had only a brief time for individual warmups, and had no idea what acoustical impact the thousands of thermal protection tiles on the underside of Atlantis would have on the sound of the performance. Little to no sound dampening was noticeable as the evening of music progressed thanks to the close proximity of the audience to the orchestra.

     Two of the songs used to start off this concert were taken from the technologically groundbreaking film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” starting with “Fanfare from Also Sprach Zarathustra” known for its glorious crescendos and recognizable timpani solo. Followed by “The Beautiful Blue Danube,” a soft and enchanting waltz which easily conjured the images of floating astronauts and orbiting space stations when performed in this setting.

     A few selections from the film “Star Wars” followed, which notably left a costumed enthusiast dressed as Darth Vader nodding his head and smiling in the back of the audience as his character’s theme “The Imperial March” was played with full ominous tone.

     A very special moment in the concert occurred when former astronaut, Winston Scott, steped forward to share an inspiring story that illustrated the way music impacted his life. Scott’s high school music teacher came to his defence after he was initially denied access to attend Florida State University. After years of hard work in college and service in the Navy, he reached his goals of becoming an astronaut. His description of watching alignments in space is used as a beautiful metaphor, comparing that to the people and events that aligned in his life to help him reach great heights in his professional career.

     “Well everybody loves music, of course its not unusual for people who do things in science, mathematics, and engineering to also be musicians,” said Scott. “As a matter of fact, studies have shown that students who take music lessons perform better in math than students that don’t.”

     Scott also played with the Brevard Symphony Orchestra giving a wonderful trumpet solo during the song “Stardust.” This was the first time an astronaut played with the group, and in conjunction with Scott’s inspired remarks became a truly profound moment from this concert event.

     Another first for the orchestra on this night was their performance of “The Last Starfighter Overture” from the 1984 film “The Last Starfighter.” Confessore had to look up the composer Craig Safan online to find this score from the film, and even emailed him a day before this event to ask about a few problems with the arrangement.

     One of the seasoned musicians to perform was tuba player Claude Kashnig, who has more than 40 years experience and has been with the Brevard Symphony Orchestra for 28 years. When asked about what piece of music he had the most personal connection with he sighted the arrangement of “Music from Apollo 13.”

     “We’re doing the movie score from ‘Apollo 13,’ and if that doesn’t put all this into perspective I don’t know what does,” said Kashnig. “It just brings a tear to your eye every time you hear it, and if you have seen the film and lived through that moment, which I did, it’s just one of those miraculous recoveries that us Americans are known for.”

     If this performance didn't already have enough uniqueness about it, the last minute addition for the evening was one that has surely never been seen before at any symphonic concert. Audience members were all given gift bags, and near the end of the show some had looked into them to find miniature blinking toy lightsabers. After noticing some concertgoers waving them around during the last song “Star Wars Main Title,” Confessore thought up one more surprise to deliver;

     He encouraged everyone to look inside the gift bags and brandish their lightsabers for one encore performance. It was then that hundreds of lightsaber-wielding audience members joyfully conducted and clapped along to a rousing rendition of John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

     This “Symphonic Odyssey” under Atlantis brought a spectacular addition to the 60-year history of the Brevard Symphony Orchestra. Their success is testament to the creative events they devise and supporters from Florida’s Space Coast that work to see great music soar beyond the stratosphere.

By James Tutten

Atlantis shines bright over the Brevard Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Jason Rhian / SpaceFlight Insider.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Distant black hole spins over half of light’s speed

     Astronomers have measured the rotational speed of a distant black hole for the first time thanks to the combined efforts of two orbiting X-ray telescopes, NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) XMM-Newton, aided by the unique alignment with a large elliptical galaxy providing a visual boost.

     This supermassive black hole, known as RX J1131, was observed interacting with surrounding gas, other matter that creates a brilliantly luminous quasar. Matter that comes into contact with this supermassive black hole is heated to millions of degrees, as it forms an accretion disk due to the orbital movement around the black hole’s singularity, and produces observable X-rays that were used to calculate its rotation.

     RX J1131 is around six billion light-years away, so our view of it is from six billion years in the past. This was a time in the universe’s history when black holes were more active because of an abundant supply of near-by stars and matter to fuel their growth creating an active galactic nuclei (AGN).

     A large elliptical galaxy that actually blocks our direct line of sight to this black hole enhanced this recent observation. It produces a bending known as “gravitational lensing’ in X-ray spectrum of light emitted by the quasar, and enhances the magnification of the space-based observatories allowing them to peer at great distances with enhanced detail.

     “Because of this gravitational lens, we were able to get very detailed information on the X-ray spectrum – that is, the amount of X-rays seen at different energies – from RX J1131,” said astronomer Mark Reynolds, in a paper he co-authored that was published in the journal Nature this Wednesday. “This in turn allowed us to get a very accurate value for how fast the black hole is spinning.”

     Astronomers found that the rotational speed of the accretion disc around RX J1131 is spinning at over half the speed of light. Matter can orbit a spinning black hole much closer than one that is more stationary, and detecting such a fast rotation shows that the black hole was formed through a rabid phase of collisions and mergers with great amounts of matter as fuel.

     “We estimate that the X-rays are coming from a region in the disk located only about three times the radius of the event horizon, the point of no return for infalling matter,” said Jon M. Mille, another author on the paper. “The black hole must be spinning extremely rapidly to allow a disk to survive at such a small radius.”

     Though the rotational speed of supermassive black holes has been calculated before, the X-ray rotational speed was only observable with some deal of certainty in relatively close black holes, like the supermassive black hole located 60 million light-years away in the center of the Great Barred Spiral Galaxy (NGC 1365). Before this recent finding, the most distant spin estimates were taken from black holes located between 2.5 billion and 4.7 billion light-years away.

     Most astronomers are confident that our own Milky Way galaxy has a supermassive black hole in its center, but have been unable to detail much about its size or rotational speed due to its lack of direct interaction with surrounding matter. This is expected to change sometime before spring of this year, as a gas cloud three times the size of Earth called G2, continues on a steady collision course with the center of the Milky Way known as Sagittarius A*.

     Studying the behavior of supermassive black holes near and far, will help astronomers and astrophysicist better understand the life and death cycles of these elusive dark devourers.

By James Tutten

(Above photo provided by NASA/CXC/Univ of Michigan/R.C.Reis et al.)

(Published at on March 10, 2014.)

ESA's Newton XMM observatory was one of the telescopes used to make this new discovery. (Image Credit: CNES)

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Last shuttle commander flies CST-100 virtually

     Boeing’s Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 spacecraft recently passed a software demonstration milestone by exhibiting an in-flight control system with a flight simulator, which was piloted by retired space shuttle commander Chris Ferguson. In addition to this review, this same simulator is planned by Boeing to train and ensure flight readiness of future astronauts on missions returning to low-Earth orbit (LEO).

     “It was great to be back in the pilot’s seat, even if I didn’t leave the ground,” said Ferguson in a statement released by Boeing. “It’s important for the spacecraft to have manual controls because although it’s designed to be largely autonomous, the pilot should always be able to back up that autonomy. Manual flight controls provide a sort of a belt-and-suspenders capability for piloting the spacecraft.”

     Ferguson is currently working as the crew and mission operations director for Boeing’s commercial crew program, which involves him overseeing CST-100’s crew interface systems and testing technologies for integrated launch and ground systems. He is also a veteran astronaut that served on three space shuttle missions where he spent more than 40 days in space. This included his role as a pilot for STS-115, and commander for both STS-126 and the final space shuttle mission STS-135, which closed out the shuttle era in 2011.

     This developmental landmark is referred to as “Pilot in the Loop,” and involved Ferguson’s demonstration of the manual operation of a flight simulator with hand controls designed by Boeing engineers. This is directly tied into Boeing’s ongoing compliance with requirements set by NASA’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) agreement.

     CST-100’s flight simulator test allowed Ferguson to demonstrate key in-flight maneuvers that involve rendezvous and docking with the International Space Station, and navigation of altitude and velocity control upon the spacecraft’s reentry with the Earth’s atmosphere.

     Though CST-100 is planned to be largely autonomous for crews in regards to its flight controls, its software had to demonstrate an ability to switch over to manual control of avionic systems to the spacecraft’s pilot if needed.

     Technicians for CST-100 worked with Boeing’s Global Services and Support division in St. Louis to develop the lifelike software used for this flight simulator.

     “We’ve continued to develop our training and our aircraft technology over the last 30-40 years, and so we’re able to put that technology into the new spacecraft,” said Andrew Schamp, a lead technical software engineer, in another statement released by Boeing. “I think it could certainly be the most advanced thing we’ve ever done.”

     Another upcoming milestone for CST-100 is the critical design review of the spacecraft’s primary design structure, which will determine if the project can move on to its manufacturing phase.

     The Boeing Company hopes that continued progress with CST-100 will lead to their first two test flights planned for 2016. If all goes according to plan, the spacecraft will join SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft as well as Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser space plane in ferrying crews to the International Space Station.

By James Tutten

(Photos provided by Boeing and ULA)

(Published at on March 1, 2014.)

Concept animation of Boeing's Crew Space Transportation (CST-100) spacecraft in orbit. (Image by Boeing)

CST-100 will ride a ULA Atlas V rocket to orbit. (Image by ULA / Boeing)

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