WATCH: Neil deGrasse Tyson to commentate SpaceX's historic mission to ISS

The Demo-2 mission represents a new era for American spaceflight.

WATCH: Neil deGrasse Tyson to commentate SpaceX's historic mission to ISS
  • On Wednesday afternoon, SpaceX is set to become the first private company to launch humans into orbit.
  • The company's Crew Dragon, launched by the Falcon 9 rocket, is scheduled to take two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.
  • Neil deGrasse Tyson will host the American Museum of Natural History's live-stream coverage of the launch.

On Wednesday afternoon, a SpaceX rocket is set to launch two NASA astronauts into space on a mission to the International Space Station. If successful, it'll be the first time a private company has put humans into orbit, and the first time astronauts have launched from American soil since NASA's Space Shuttle program ended in 2011.

At 4:33 p.m E.T., SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket is set to take off from the company's Launch Complex 39A site in Cape Canaveral, Florida. About 90 minutes before launch, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will walk across a walkway 230 feet above the ground and climb into Crew Dragon — the SpaceX capsule that sits atop the Falcon 9 rocket.

NASA astronauts

Hurley (R) and Behnken (L)

Photo by Bill Ingalls / NASA

It won't be the Crew Dragon's first mission. Last year, SpaceX successfully sent a Crew Dragon carrying only cargo to the International Space Station. But the company has also suffered setbacks with the capsule, including thruster and parachute complications, and a 2019 explosion that occurred during testing.

If successful, Falcon 9 will launch the Dragon capsule into low Earth orbit 12 minutes after takeoff. The rocket will then begin a controlled descent to its landing site on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean. Hurley and Behnken will manually fly Crew Dragon toward the ISS.

When they approach the station, Crew Dragon's autonomous docking system will take over, and the capsule will connect to the station at 11:29 a.m. on Thursday. The NASA astronauts will then board the ISS, where they'll likely remain for several months. (NASA has yet to confirm the details of the return mission.)

Crew Dragon

Walkway to SpaceX's Crew Dragon atop the Falcon 9 rocket

Photo: SpaceX

In addition to being a milestone for private spaceflight, Wednesday's mission — called Demo-2 — is also the culmination of NASA's Commercial Crew Program. Started in 2010, the federally funded program aims to pair NASA with private companies — like SpaceX and Boeing — to transport astronauts to and from the ISS. The mission also represents the end of an era in which the U.S. has relied on Russia to transport American astronauts to the ISS.

"This is a unique opportunity to bring all of America together in one moment in time and say, look at how bright the future is," Jim Bridenstine, NASA's administrator, said at a news conference on Tuesday.

Here's where you can live-stream the historic launch:

American Museum of Natural History

The American Museum of Natural History will begin streaming around 11 a.m. E.T. The live-stream event will begin with curator Ruth Angus examining "the awe-inspiring leap from imagination to scientific achievement in space exploration." At 1 p.m., the museum's Director of Astrovisualization Carter Emmart and astrophysicist Jackie Faherty will take viewers on a virtual field trip to the ISS. Around 4 p.m., Hayden Planetarium Director Neil deGrasse Tyson will join Faherty and museum curator Michael Shara to provide live commentary on the launch.

NASA TV

NASA's live-streaming channel will begin covering the launch Wednesday at 12 p.m. E.T. The agency will provide live commentary, and will also show the astronauts joining the crew of the ISS after the capsule docks with the station.

SpaceX

SpaceX's YouTube channel will also live-stream the launch, though the link is not yet available. We'll update it as it comes online.

UPDATE: The SpaceX link is now active and the live-stream is scheduled to begin at 12:15 p.m.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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Deep Nostalgia/My Heritage
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