Remembering the Final Space Shuttle Mission

NASA // Public Domain
NASA // Public Domain

On July 8, 2011, the Space Shuttle Atlantis launched on the final mission of the Space Shuttle (STS) program. The mission was designated STS-135.

That final mission carried the smallest shuttle crew since STS-6 in 1983—just four astronauts. They were Chris Ferguson, Doug Hurley, Sandra Magnus, and Rex Walheim.

They were sent up to deliver over 11,600 pounds of equipment and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). This trip was vital to the ISS, because the end of the Shuttle program meant the end of NASA's ability to deliver heavy payloads to orbit. After the Shuttle, NASA had to rely on commercial launches (not yet in full swing in 2011) and international partners. (Shown at the top of this post is Mission Specialist in the "cupola" of the ISS, observing Earth, while Atlantis was docked with the space station.)

President Obama and the First Family stand beneath the Space Shuttle Atlantis prior to its final flight.
President Obama and the First Family stand beneath the Space Shuttle Atlantis prior to its final flight.
NASA // Public Domain

STS-135 was a minor media sensation, with the Obama family visiting Kennedy Space Center prior to the launch, President Obama meeting the crew at the White House, and the crew appearing on The Colbert Report. The Empire State Building was lit in red, white, and blue on July 20 in tribute to the Shuttle program.

Stephen Colbert salutes the crew of STS-135 on The Colbert Report.
Stephen Colbert salutes the crew of STS-135 on The Colbert Report.
NASA // Public Domain

In line with NASA tradition, STS-135 received some notable wakeup calls during the mission. Some of the biggies included messages recorded by Beyoncé, Paul McCartney, Michael Stipe, and Elton John, preceding their songs (including a brief a capella version of REM's "Man On the Moon" by Stipe). On the Shuttle's last wakeup call, CAPCOM played "God Bless America" as performed by Kate Smith. It was introduced by astronaut Shannon Lucid. It really was the end of an era.

Space Shuttle Atlantis docked with the International Space Station for the last time.
Space Shuttle Atlantis docked with the International Space Station for the last time.
NASA // Public Domain

STS-135 ended when Atlantis landed at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 21, 2011. Today, Atlantis remains on display at Kennedy. Of the original five Space Shuttles, it is one of three that remain intact. Discovery is on display in Virginia, and Endeavour is in Los Angeles.

Stardust Created 7 Billion Years Ago Is the Oldest Stuff on Earth

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Harvard-Smithsonian CfA
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Harvard-Smithsonian CfA

Between 5 and 7 billion years ago, a dying star shot an explosion of particles through space. Some of that stardust ended up in a meteorite that landed in Murchison, Australia, in 1969. And according to new research, it's officially the oldest known solid material on Earth.

For the new study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 30 years after the research began, scientists pulverized fragments of the meteorite to determine its age. The resulting paste-like substance reportedly smelled like "rotten peanut butter." The strange aroma "comes from byproducts of the breakdown of the abiotic organic molecules—molecules that didn't form from life—in the Murchison meteorite," lead author Philipp R. Heck, a curator at Chicago's Field Museum, tells Mental Floss.

Heck used acid to further break down the rock and isolate the grains of stardust, which are smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. To date the particles, the team measured neon isotopes that formed when cosmic rays hit the solid matter making up the stardust. The older the stardust is, the more cosmic rays it has been exposed to, so the amount of neon isotopes it contains can be used to estimate its age. Heck compares the method to collecting water in a bucket to determine how long it's been raining.

The team found that the meteorite contained particles older than 5.5 billion years and possibly as old as 7 billion years. The Earth has only been around for 4.5 billion years, and the sun for 4.6 billion. The formation of this super-old stardust is believed to have occurred during an "astral baby boom," according to a statement released by the Field Museum, in which an uptick in stellar activity literally created the matter that shapes the world we know today.

When the grains formed, "most stars that we see tonight in the sky didn’t exist," Heck says. "The bright stars that would have been shining through our galaxy were the previous generation of stars, our parent stars. [They] formed the elements that later became fuel and ingredients for the solar system, Earth, and us. These stars formed the material that we are made out of."

While the grains in the Murchison meteorite are the oldest solid material on the planet, many of the gases on Earth are much older. Some of the hydrogen in your body, for example, may have originated with the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago.

17-Year-Old NASA Intern Helped Discover Twin-Starred 'Tatooine' Planet

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Smith
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Smith

On January 6, NASA announced that it had detected an Earth-sized planet, TOI 700 d, 100 light-years away from Earth that could be capable of hosting life. The same mission also led to the discovery of a rare planet with twin suns courtesy of a 17-year-old intern.

As CNN reports, high school student Wolf Cukier was combing through data collected by NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, when he noticed something strange about one binary star system. The system TOI 1338 consists of two stars that orbit each other once every 15 days. When the smaller of the two stars passes across the larger one, it's known as a stellar eclipse. But one signal that had been flagged as a stellar eclipse wasn't an eclipse at all; just three days into his internship at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Cukier had found a planet orbiting the two stars.

The planet, since dubbed TOI 1338 b, is like a real-life version of Luke Skywalker's home planet Tatooine from the Star Wars movies. It's located roughly 1300 light-years away in the Pictor constellation and is somewhere between Neptune and Saturn in size. Twin-starred planets are rare, and this marks this first one detected through NASA's planet-hunting TESS mission.

TESS launched in 2018 with the goal of finding new planets outside our own solar system. Planets are typically discovered by recording stars over time and looking for dips in their brightness that indicate passing planets. This system becomes complicated when dealing with binary star systems, as dips in light caused by a planet in transit can get confused with an eclipsing star and vice versa. Without Cukier's keen eye, this latest discovery may have gone undetected.

It may have the same number of stars as Tatooine, but the similarities TOI 1338 b shares with the planet from Star Wars end there. So far, TOI 700 d is the only planet discovered by TESS that has a chance of being habitable.

[h/t CNN]

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