Monday, December 24, 2007

Apollo 8

The twentieth century was a transforming time in human history, for both good and bad. It was a century that saw mass murder reach unprecedented levels, for example. The Inquisition and the activities of the Russian czars' secret police notwithstanding, the twentieth was the century of systematic torture.

It was also a time of unbelievable scientific and technological advancements. No one living in 1900 could have foreseen the world of 2000. In many ways, a high point of those advancements was reached about two-thirds of the way through the century, on Christmas Eve, 1968, during the flight of Apollo 8.

There had been only one Apollo mission before NASA decided to send Apollo 8 to the Moon. NASA was running out of decade, and it also had one eye on the Soviets. Worrying about things beyond flying the mission is probably not the ideal way to conduct a space program, but history is not about perfection. NASA sent Apollo 8 to the Moon, and NASA made it work.

Much of the world watched the live Christmas Eve broadcast from Apollo 8 as Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders read from Genesis while the extraordinary lunar surface rolled past their windows. The three men were only about sixty miles away from another world. The combination of the literary and spiritual achievement of Genesis and the technological achievement of spaceflight seemed to promise a hopeful future for mankind.

That promise hasn't been realized yet, but neither is that promise forfeit. Creating the future, it turns out, takes time. Today, many nations are trying to establish themselves as space powers by sending probes to the Moon. Further manned exploration, including the establishment of lunar bases, is being planned by the United States and others. Perhaps most importantly in the long run, private enterprise is actively looking for ways to move into space, and may be finding some.

Christmas commemorates the beginning of a new era in human affairs. Whether the Christmas Eve broadcast of Apollo 8-- and the subsequent historic flight of Apollo 11-- will usher in another new era has yet to be determined. In a nation seemingly intent on separating science and religion, however, perhaps the possibilities opened by embracing the whole of the human experience should be considered.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

SpaceDev Lunar Lander

SpaceDev conducted the first test of a prototype lunar lander last week. The test of the combined liquid/solid fuel engine was successful.

SpaceDev, which helped develop the engines for Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne, is pursuing the lunar lander for the International Lunar Observatory Association, a group which wants to land a station near the south pole of the Moon to conduct astrophysical and communication research.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Mars-Asteroid Collision?

Astronomers tracking Near-Earth Objects at NASA's JPL have recently found an asteroid that has a 1-in-75 chance of slamming into Mars January 30, 2008. Those odds are far higher than normal impact possibilities for any planet.

The asteroid in question seems to be roughly the size of the Tunguska object that exploded in the atmosphere over Siberia in 1906. Mars' atmosphere is not nearly as dense as Earth's, however, so if this body is on target, it will almost certainly reach the surface, creating a crater perhaps a half-mile wide. With all the scientific missions now operating at Mars, such an event would be extremely well documented.

This would be the second prominent planetary collision in fifteen years. In 1994, Comet Shoemaker-Levy plowed into the atmosphere of Jupiter. Even if this asteroid misses Mars, which is the likeliest outcome, the collision at Jupiter and a close brush at Mars, combined with documented near misses of Earth and the stark, mute testimony of pounding on the surfaces of Mars and Earth's Moon argue a space capability to deflect bodies away from Earth is essential to human survival.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Water or Land?

NASA is currently trying to decide whether its new Orion spacecraft will land in water, like Apollo, or on land, like Soyuz.

The basic difference of the two superpowers in the race to the Moon reflected the different strengths of the US and the USSR. Apollo landed in water because oceans are fat targets, and the US Navy was capable of operating in the bluest of blue water. The Soviet Navy in the early 1960s, on the other hand, was basically a coastal defense force. What the USSR did have, however, was land-- huge areas of empty steppe. Soyuz-- which has still yet to roam beyond low Earth orbit-- therefore landed on land.

For Oriom, the factors governing landing mode choice are basically reusability and recovery. If a capsule is to be used in more than one mission, coming down somewhere in the deserts of the western United States might be preferable. If reuse is not critical, splashing down off the coast of California might be best, because we know how to recover capsules at sea. In either case, precision landing will be critical. Aiming for the Utah desert and hitting downtown Salt Lake City would be disastrous. Missing an ocean landing area by tens of miles would also endanger the astronauts and their ship. Such misses occassionally occurred in the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Soyuz program.

Deadline for the decision is next September, when the overall design of Orion is to be finalized.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Tunguska Rethought

In 1906, something exploded in or above Siberia, leveling forest over a huge area. Many explanations-- some bizarre-- have tried to define exactly what exploded, but science has settled on a small asteroid as the likely culprit.

Now, running simulations on the supercomputer at Sandia National Labs, scientists suggest the asteroid responsible may have been even smaller than thought-- perhaps only 65 feet across.

If correct, that would make such disasters extremely difficult to defend against. The key to asteroid defense is detecting dangerous bodies well before they're on final approach to Earth. Finding and tracking such a body only feet wide may be beyond our capability for some time.

On the other hand, Tunguska-type events are rare, at least in human terms. They obviously are not wotld-enders. A Tunguska event could obliterate a major city, but by themselves they threaten neither the biosphere nor civilization. Finally, a robust, spacefaring civilization could almost certainly deal with such a small body even if it were zeroed in on its target.

If things fall right, humans might be only a century or so away from having built such a civilization.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

New Planet Formation Theory

A new theory of how the Solar System developed suggests the traditional theory is unworkable.

That traditional theory holds that the planets formed by coalescing out of material in a disk of gas and dust that surrounded the early Sun-- and that they did so in roughly their present orbits. The new theory says that there would never have been enough concentrated mass at the distances of Uranus and Neptune to allow those planets to form within the planetary formation window of a few hundred million years.

Instead, the new theory postulates a denser, more massive initial disk and argues that all the planets formed at about half their current distances, and migrated out to their current orbits, perhaps under the influence of a passing comet. Perhaps, too, a close brush with a passing star stretched the Sun's family of planets out to their current positions. Interestingly, the new theory also argues that Neptune and Uranus switched positions as they made their way to their present orbits.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Arthur C. Clarke at 90

Arthur C. Clarke, the famed science fiction writer who is also credited with the invention of the communicatioms satellite, celebrated his 90th birthday with a party Sunday and listed three birthday wishes. One was that the world switch to clean sources of energy. Another was for the end of the civil war in his adopted home of Sri Lanka. His third wish was for evidence of extraterrestrial beings.

At this stage of human civilization, the only way we will find such evidence is if those beings make themselves obvious to us in some deliberate way. Over the next few years and decades, humans, by our own efforts, may find simple life forms on Mars or Europa or Titan. Or, we may find extrasolar planets with atmospheric compositions that tell us they are likely the abodes of life. Clarke's wished for ET beings, however, would seem to be of a different order than simple alien bacteria.

The best shot at granting Sir Arthur's wish on that score any time soon is the world's SETI efforts, but there is also another intriguing possibility. Clarke himself has written stories about humans finding alien artifacts in our own solar system-- abandoned alien ships silently orbiting the Sun, or an alien probe waiting for us on the Moon. After nearly 50 years of exploring the Solar System, finding such artifacts cannot be ruled out.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

New Launch Date Set

NASA has set January 10, 2008, as the target date for the launch of STS-122. That will give the engineers time to solve the fuel sensor problem that stopped a launch in early December, while giving NASA personnel a few days off over the holidays.

The space shuttle program is scheduled to end in 2010, and the construction of the ISS must be completed before that, because the station's modules are specifically designed to fit in the shuttle's payload bay. Many more month-long delays could force some decisions NASA would rather not make.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Altair To Luna

NASA has decided to name the new vehicle that will actually carry humans to the surface of the Moon Altair. Altair flows from Arabic and, roughly translated, means "the flying one."

Altair is also the name of one of the brightest stars in Earth's sky, which is the alpha star of the constellation Aquila, The Eagle, harkening back to the name given to Apollo 11's lunar module.

Where the Apollo LMs could only support two people for a short period (Apollo 13 notwithstanding), Altair will be a much more substantial craft. It will carry four astronauts and be able to support them on the lunar surface for several days.

Now, Altair needs to be designed and built. NASA is looking for contractors now. The goal is to land humans on the Moon again before 2020.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Saturn's Old Rings

Astronomers have long believed the rings of Saturn, and other planets, constitituted transitory features. Using Voyager data, they thought the rings were about 100 million years old, formed perhaps when two large bodies-- say an asteroid and a moon of Saturn-- collided. Under that theory, the ring system will eventually collapse, and it was sheer serendipity that Saturn had rings when humans developed telescopes and spacecraft.

A new view seems to be emerging from Cassini data, however. Observations made by the probe in the ultraviolet suggests the ring system is much older than expected, and may even date back to the formation of the planet itself. A recycling process seems to be at work, maintaining the rings over the long term.

If the new theory is correct, whether it applies to the less spectacular rings of Jupiter and Urnanus is not clear. We shouldn't be surprised, however, if Nature has more than one way to produce planetary rings.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Spirit Looking For Power

NASA's Mars Rover Spirit is in danger of finally ending its mission. As documented in this blog, Martian dust storms last summer put great stress on the power supplies of both rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. Now, NASA says, Spirit has until Christmas to reach a sunny slope where it will spend the long Martian winter, building up its power reserves by soaking up solar energy.

Complicating the drive is the fact that Spirit can only travel every other day; it needs the off day to recharge its power supply. If the rover cannot rebuild its energy store, the various systems will freeze and may not be recoverable in the Martian spring.

Opportunity, nearer the equator, is in better shape.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Organic Compounds On Mars?

About a decade ago, NASA scientists captured worldwide attention by arguing that a meteorite found in Antarctica was not only from Mars, which is generally accepted by the scientific community, but that it also contained evidence of Martian life. That second conclusion was extremely controversial. Today, most researchers in the field probably reject the life hypothesis. Quietly, however, the NASA team has continued to build its case.

A new study by different scientists may provide some underpinning for an argument that life could have arisen on Mars. A necessary precondition for life, as far as we know, is the creation and maintenance of organic compounds. The new study looks at volcanic rocks from Norway and concludes that organic compounds can be created in volcanic eruptions that occur in extremely cold climates.

Clearly, that leaves Mars in the mix. Did Martian volcanic eruptions in fact create organic compounds, and did those compounds lead to life? Stay tuned.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Private Moon Race Engaged

As reported in this blog, over 300 teams from around the world have looked seriously at competing for the Google Lunar X-Prize since the announcement of the project in September. Now, at least two have taken the next step.

The first American entry is Astrorobotics. It has engaged Raytheon to build its hardware. The other entry at this point is Odyssey Moon. It has contracted with the Canadian firm MDA to buld its craft. MDA is also the builder of the large robotic arm of the space shuttle program. Odyssey Moon is based on the Isle of Man, off the west coast of Britain, because the tiny island's laws and tax regime encourages such projects.

The Planetary Society will serve as both education and science advisor to Odyssey Moon, which sees the Lunar X-Prize as simply the first step in an ongoing business based in lunar exploration.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

STS-122 Delayed Until 2008

NASA again delayed the launch of space shuttle Atlantis on the STS-122 mission. The next attempt wull not be made until January.

Launch delays have been common throughour the shuttle program. Part of that has been due to the fickle Florida weather, but most involved the complexity of the shuttle system. NASA is proud to say the shuttle is the most complex vehicle ever flown, but that has a downside. The failure of the shuttle to deliver the reliability originally promised has fueled the push to develop a space vehivle that can take off from a runway, land on a runway, and be maintained and serviced like an airplane.

Such a vehicle is the Holy Grail of those who want to open the space frontier. A vehicle with that capability, however, would likely be even more complex than the shuttle system.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Another Delay for STS-122

NASA engineers are still working to fix the fuel sensors on shuttle Atlantis' external tank. Another try at launch will be made Saturday.

The current launch window ends December 13. Because of the co0mplexities of orbital mechanics, if the shuttle doesn't launch in that window, the mission will have to be delayed until January 2.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

STS-122 Delayed

The launch of space shuttle Atlantis was delayed today due to a sensor reading on a fuel gauge. Atlantis is to deliver the European lab module Columbus to the ISS.

If all goes well, NASA now plans to launch Atlantis tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

STS-122 Ready to Fly

Both space shuttle Atlantis and the Florida weather seem ready for the launch of STS-122 tomorrow afternoon from Cape Kennedy.

The main objective of this mission is to deliver the European lab module Columbus to the ISS, bringing the construction of the space station one step closer to completion. Three spacewalks are currently planned to install Columbus, but NASA is considering adding a fourth to look at a solar power array that proved troublesome on STS-121.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Law In Space

Space shuttle Atlantis is poised to deliver the European lab module, Columbus, to the ISS. With it will come another complication of the laws governing humans beyond Earth.

Astronauts on space missions are not beyond the law. Apollo lunar astronauts, for example, remained within U. S. jurisdiction, even though, by treaty, the United States could not claim the Moon as its territory. On ISS, natiomal sovereignty, and therefore national law, rides with the modules-- Russian law governs in the Russian module, Japanese in the Japanese, and U. S. in the American. That said, in some areas of law, such as patens, the law can go with the nationality of the inventor-- except when the module in which most of the work was done is a factor. The situation will be further complicated with the arrival Columbus, which is a project not of any single nation, but of the European Space Agency.

Such a legal patchwork might be acceptable when only a few people are involved, but as the human presence beyond Earth grows and diversifies, some sort of unified legal code might be more appropriate. Otherwise, trial lawyers stand to inherit another huge profit stream.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Google Lunar Gets Fast Start

According to Sarah Evans of the X-Prize Foundation, 347 teams from 29 countries have already registered to compete to be the first private group to put a spacecraft on the Moon. It's encouraging. Even though only a small fraction of those who look at the project are likely to ever really take a shot, the likelihood now may be that several teams will actually compete, which increases the chances that the Google Lunar X-Prize will be claimed.

In fact, Peter Diamondis, chairman of the X-Prize Foundation, thinks the contest could be won in three or four years, far ahead of the 2014 deadline.

The next question would be whether such a project could be developed into an ongoing business.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

PkanetSpace, Inc.

Chicago-based PlanetSpace, Inc., is yet another small company trying to develop a spacecraft capable of delivering cargo or crew to the ISS. After the shuttle is retired in 2010, and before the new Orion spacecraft is scheduled to fly in 2015, NASA will have no way to put astronauts in orbit. It is looking for a privately developed and operated craft to fill the gap.

PlanetSpace, in partnership with Lochheed Martin, is competing for NASA funding to build its Module Cargo Carrier. If it wins the contract, the first flight of the MCC is planned for 2010. The funding is available because, as reported in this blog, Rocketplane Kistler lost funding when it failed to find necessary private fundiing.

PlanetSpace is also developing the Silver Dart, a suborbital manned craft aimed at the space tourism market.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Rockets and Water

Launching a rocket due east from the equator would have definite advantages for attempts to put payloads into orbit. Doing so would use the Earth's rotation to help speed the payload skyward. At the equator, that free speed is about one thousand miles an hour.

The problem is that most of the equator runs through ocean. So, The Sea Launch Company has built a floating launch platform that is towed to the equater. The company's latest attempt to launch a satellite was thwarted by strong Pacific currents and high winds due to La Nina conditions. The launch will be rescheduled.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Mars or Bust

In last night's YouTube Republican presidential debate on CNN, a member of The Mars Society asked if any of the candidates would pledge to put a man on Mars by 2020. None did, and only two replied to the question. One of those, Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado said that, given the budget problems of the federal government, we can't afford to send a man to Mars.

Mr. Tancredo may have wanted to present himself as a hard-eyed fiscal realist willing to take unpopular stands with that response, but it's at least as much short-sighted as it is hard-eyed. In dealing with the budget problems over the next few years, failing to establish the broad outlines of a hopeful future beyond those few years would be a mistake. American leadership in the world rests on a few pillars. One of those is a technological edge in critical areas. A manned Mars program would help maintain that edge-- and do so in a nonthreatening, even inspirational, way. The cost of such a program is probably less than Mr. Tancredo believes, as well. The amount spent in one year in Iraq, spread over twenty to thirty years, could well do the job, sparking scientific and technological progress alomg the way. If America undertook such a program with partners, the cost to the American taxpayer would be further reduced.

The Mars Society supports the "Mars Direct" plan of its founder, Dr. Robert Zubrin. That plan would, if it worked, put humans on Mars quickly and relatively inexpensively-- hence the 2020 date. Mars Direct, however, would ignore putting a base on the Moon. That could be a long-term mistake, as well.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Lightning On Venus

The European Space Agency launched its Venus Express probe in 2005, and that probe is beginning to develop some interesting informatiom about the planet nearest to Earth not only in distance, but in terms of size, mass, and chemical composition, as well.

Venus Express has found the first evidence of lightning on Venus. Scientist had believed the Venusian atmosphere would not produce lightning, but the probe detected radio noise in the atmosphere that on Earth is associated with lightning strikes.

The probe also has found evidence that early Venus had oceans of water similar to Earth's. Scientists are looking at a theory that ties Venus' loss of all that water to its lack of a magnetic field. Earth's magnetic field blocks powerful radiation from reaching the surface. On Venus that radiation, possibly, broke water into its lighter components of hydrogen and oxygen, which then escaped into space.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Rare Moon, Plentiful Moons

NASA astronomers studying other star systems using the Spitzer Space Telescope contend that bodies like Earth's Moon are fairly rare. They base their conclusion on the paucity of dust they observe around other stars.

Current planetary formation theory holds that planets form early in a star system's history, when large amounts of dust are around. That dust eventually forms bodies like planets, but that's not the end of the process. After planets have established themselves, smaller bodies would still be ripping around, crashing into the planets or each other. Those collisions, soon after the era of planet formation, produce bodies like Earth's Moon-- plus huge amounts of dust. So, the astronomers reasoned, a star system of a certain age without lots of dust is also likely a star system without many bodies comparable to our Moon. The majority of systems, it turns out, fit that bill.

On the other hand, there's a huge number of stars, and almost certainly an even bigger number of planets. So, even though the process leading to the development of bodies like the Moon may be fairly rare, there are still likely millions or billions of such worlds orbiting planets. Such is the magic of mathematics.

Monday, November 26, 2007

An Emerging Industry

Private industry's push into space is slowly building momentum. Bigelow Aerospace is currently, and successfully, testing inflatable structures in Earth orbit. SpaceX continues to develop its rocket booster, which is designed to deliver payload to orbit. Several companies are pursuing development of suborbital ships which will carry passengers, with test flights hopefully scheduled within the next couple of years. All that is progress.

To really pull off a private space age, however, financial and legal infrastructure must be built. Instead of relying on rich individuals for financing, the companies in this new arena at some point will have to compete for investors' capital in the stock and bond markets. Also at some point, space ventures will need to be insured at some reasonable, consistent, and enduring level. Property rights beyond Earth and the legal status of off-Earth activities will have to be clearly defined before large amounts of capital will be risked there. Slow progress is beiyng made in these areas.

Such are the challenges of establishing any new industry, of course. Oil and gas rights did not exist before the petroleum industry. We should know fairly soon whether the private push into space will get off to a healthy start.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Captured! II

This blog noted the release of the book Captured! last August. Written by noted UFO researcher Stanton Friedman and Kathleen Marsden, the book details the alien abduction story of Barney and Betty Hill. Marsden is also a UFO investigator, but she is a niece of the Hills, as well.

Having read the book now, I am impressed by the detailed, consistent narrative it presents. There seems to be much more meat to the story than the mainstream media has presented. Like all UFO stories, however, it has weaknesses. The most bizarre weakness to me may be Betty's supposed ability to contact the aliens simply by going out in the backyard and calling to them.

All in all, Captured! is a good read.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Bezos Suborbital

Jeff Bezos, founder of, has used part of the fortune he made on the Internet to found a space transportation startup. Called Blue Origin, the company is working to develop a VTOL (vertical take off and landing) suborbital craft that will carry tourists to the edge of space.

Blue Origin has been perhaps the most secretive of the New Space companies, but Bezos recently allowed that progress is being made. He also said his goal is to develop a safe, reliable vehicle, and that everyone should understand developing such a vehicle could take several years.

If Blue Origin is successful, however, it will be a major step forward. A reusable VTOL craft would have a huge economic advantage over expendable launchers and spacecraft that splash down. The next step would be to go from a VTOL suborbital to a VTOL orbital. That craft could open the Solar System in a fundamental way.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

New Russian Launch Site

Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to build a new space launch complex, this one on Russian soil. Construction of the site is scheduled to begin in 2010, with the opening scheduled for 2018.

The historic Russian lainch site is at Baikonur. During Soviet days, that was inside the Soviet Union, but the collapse of the USSR left the base in independent Kazakhstan. Russia has been leasing Baikonur from Kazakhstan since, and will continue to do so, but Putin's decision puts Russia in complete control of its space program down the road and clearly indicates Russia intends to pursue its space efforts over the long term.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Yet Another Entry

South Korea has announced it, too, is building a space program. Seoul plans an Earth orbiting satellite made in South Korea and using only South Korean technology by 2017, a probe orbiting the Moon by 2020, and an unmanned probe landing on the Moon in 2025. That seems to be a reasonable yet aggressive schedule for a nation with an expanding economy that is lead by a strong technology sector.

As documented in this blog, many nations are at least considering increased spending on space technology over the next twenty years or so. There are also many exciting projects being pursued by private industry. By the time we are ready to begin a manned exploration program of Mars, the worldwide technology base could be extremely robust, allowing many nations to meaningfully participate in the effort.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Suggestion For Hoagland

Richard Hoagland is a man of complex theories. He also seems to have a large audience, as evidenced by the success of his current book, Dark Mission: A Secret History of NASA. Hoagland lays out many theories in the book. Maybe it's time he put one to the test.

Hoagland argues there are huge structures on the Moon, for example, obviously built by an extremely advanced civilization. He further argues that NASA has covered up that discovery for decades, even going as far as doctoring photographs and hypnotizing astronauts to make them forget what they saw.

Well, as reported in this blog, both China and Japan currently have probes in lunar orbit, and other nations have similar plans. NASA can no longer control lunar photography. If Hoagland's huge structures are really there, we should know shortly.

Or, if Hoagland argues there's a worldwide government conspiracy, there are several private lunar ventures on the drawing board, including the X-Prize Google Lunar Challenge. Hoagland could even mount his own lunar probe mission. Sending a simple probe carrying a simple camera would likely cost in the $100-200 million range. Hoagland seems to have the expertise to oversee such a project, and he knows exactly where to point the camera. Such a mission would likely be a marketer's dream. There would be television rights to sell, book rights, who knows what rights, conferences to hold as the spacecraft is being built-- a slick marketing plan could probabky pay for the project before launch. Afterward, the photographs of the lunar surface would be in Hoagland's hands, no one else's.

Just a suggestion.

Sunday, November 18, 2007


Last week, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin told a Senate committee that an extra $2 billion over two years could speed up the development of the Orion spacecraft and Ares booster.

Currently, the space shuttle is scheduled to be retired in 2010, and Orion will be ready in 2015. In that five years, NASA will have no way to deliver its astronauts to orbit. Plans call for NASA to buy flghts for its astronauts from private companies-- none of those envisioned vehicles exist yet-- or buy flights from Russia. NASA astronauts depending on the Soyuz to get into space would be deeply symbolic on many levels. Of course, that situation could give Russia a temporary veto over U. S. manned spaceflight. With the extra money, Orion could be ready by 2013.

That extra money is far from certain, however. Historically, at least since the Apollo buildup, Congress has kept NASA on a short budgetary leash. During that time, however, NASA had no long term mandate. Now, it has. Congress' decision on the additional funding could tell us how solid the plans for the Moon and Mars really are.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Inflatable Bases

NASA plans to begin testing inflatable habitats in Antarctica in January to help determine whether such structures could serve as bases on the Moon and Mars. Tests in ideal condiruins resulted in the deployment of a prototype habitat in four minutes

NASA is going to Antarctica in search of harsh conditions. Even though January is summer in Antarctica, the environment is still challenging. As a sort of bonus, working in bulky cold weather gear to deploy the habitat will be roughly comparable to deploying one in a bulky spacesuit.

NASA is not the only organization pursuing inflatable habitats. As reported in this blog, Bigelow Aerospace is also pursuing the concept. BA currently has two test inflatable structures in Earth orbit, and both have performed exceedingly well. BA is looking to using inflatable modules to construct space stations and orbiting hotels as well as surface habitats on alien worlds.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Yet Another Lunar Mission

Russia and India have agreed to jointly develop and fly a robotic lunar mission. The mission would include a lunar orbiter and a rover. Target year for the mission is 2013.

If all goes as planned, the joint project with Russia will be India's second trip to the Moon. India is scheduled to launch its own lunar probe next April.

The linking of Russia and India is one more indication of the emerging strength of Asia. Japan has been a major economic factor in the world for decades. Now, China and India, with their huge populations, are growing economically. Even the Russian economy, based on that nation's vast natural resources, is beginning to hum. So far, expading economies have supported growing space programs. If that trend is long-term, the Solar System could be explored and settled by the combined efforts of many nations.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Harmony Meets Destiny

ISS crewmembers Peggy Whitson and Dan Tari used the station's remote manipulator arm to move the Harmony module recently delivered on STS-120 to its final position, attached to the Destiny module. The move was completed two hours ahead of schedule. Spacewalks next week will attach utility lines to Harmony, integrating the module into the station.

The move clears the way to finish the construction of ISS. The next step down that road is planned to be the next shuttle mission, scheduled to fly next month.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


The Minor Planet Center keeps track of asteroids and comets, especially those that might collide with Earth. Recently, the MPC found an object that would soon pass within 5,000 miles of Earth-- less than the diameter of the planet. In astronomical terms, that's dangerously close. The MPC alerted astronomers worldwide to watch this thing.

Well, one Russian astronomer noticed something familiar about the object's path. The MPC's potentially dangerous "asteroid" turned out to be the Rosetta space probe, launched by the ESA in 2004. Rosetta is on its way to investigate a comet, and is swinging by Earth to get a gravity assist from the planet to pick up more speed-- a common technique used in deep space missions.

The MPC quickly issued another alert, saying, in effect, "Never mind." The system worked, however. The actual situation was soon determined. This time, it turned out to be good news.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Mexico Rising?

Space writer Leonard David reports in his blog that the Government of Mexico is considering creating its own space agency. Such an agency, its supporters argue, would push for improved education, help broaden and bolster the Mexican economy, improve weather forecasts, improve disaster prevention by providing early warning, and help secure Mexico's place among the leading nations on Earth.

Mexico, for all its poverty, cultural challenges, and fractious political history, has real potential. It has a large population, no doubt containing millions of individuals of ability, talent, and ambition. It is currently an oil exporter, and may be well positioned geographicallly to become a net exporter of electricity derived from solar power projects. It has a strong tourism industry and a cultural heritage that buttresses a sense of Mexican nationhood.

If a national space agency could serve as a rallying point for bringing Mexico fully into the developed world, it would be an agency well worth creating.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Multitude Of Species

Tomorrow, at the National Press Club in Washington, D. C., a group of UFO researchers say they will present strong evidence supporting the thesis that extraterrestrials are visiting Earth. Further, they say, the U. S. Government is prepared to release all its UFO information, which will finally prove that we are not alone.

Perhaps the weakest link in a case that suffers from a severe lack of solid evidence on the pro-UFO side is the number of alien species supposedly visiting Earth. Through the years, various UFOlogists have claimed possibly six alien races of various shapes, sizes, and colors are at work in Area 51. Abductees report a similar range. Worldwide, alien races seem to be associated with specific areas of Earth, suggesting to skeptics the aliens originate in human culture,

Postulating an alien visitation of Earth in the recent past as a singular event is one thing. Postulating ongoing contact with one alien race might be acceptable. Postulating several races are visiting Earth regularly would seem to stretch credulity to the breaking point. Those who would make that case need to present extraordinary evidence.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Germany May Go Lunar

At a space exploration conference in Berlin, leaders of the German space program announced they were considering putting an all-German probe into lunar orbit in 2012. Britain is considering a similar project.

Both Germany and Britain, of course, are members of the European Space Agency. Indeed, Germany is the ESA's second largest financial contributor. ESA policy, however, is focused on the exploration of Mars, along with possibly sending European astronauts to the Moon in cooperation with NASA's plans to estabkush a lunar base in the 2020s.

The space race between the United States and the Soviet Union was driven to a large degree by a strategy to enhance national prestige. The emerging space race, with the Moon again as the prize, involves Japan, China, India, possibly Germany, and possibly Great Britain. Brazil may also be lurking in the wings. A driver of the current race is also national prestige.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Hot Worlds

NASA's ground-based Wide Angle Search for Planets has turned up three incredibly hot worlds orbiting sun-like stars.

All three are so-called "hot Jupiters"-- gas giants orbiting extremely close to their stars. In these cases, the planets range from 20 to 40 times nearer their stars than Earth is to the Sun. That means they are moving at incredible speeds and likely keep one hemisphere to the star, as the Moon does to Earth. The calculations work out that the star hemispheres of these worlds could be 3,400 degrees Fahrenheit. That would make Venus seem positively balmy!

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Discovery Is Home

Shuttle Discovery landed safely in Florida early this afternoon, bringing the STS-120 mission to a successful conclusion.

STS-120 was an ambitious mission that got even more so. The goal of the mission was to prepare ISS for the final phase of its construction. Part of that involved repositioning a solar power array. In the process of doing that, a solar panel was torn, and the array stuck short of full deployment. So, NASA improvised on the fly.

In an extremely challenging, potentially dangerous spacewalk (as if all spacewalks aren't potentially dangerous), astronaut Scott Parazynski repaired the tear and allowed the array to fully deploy, which means it will supply all the power it was designed to deliver.

This mission demonstrated once again the level of maturity of NASA's spaceflight capabilities.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007


Geoff Marcy, famed planet hunting astronomer, announced today the discovery of a planetary system that contains at least five planets. It is the largest planetary system, in terms of the number of planets. yet discoved beyond our own.

The parent star of the brood is 55 Cancri, a sun-like star in the constellation Cancer that is 41 light-years away-- just down the block in galactic terms. The five planets so far confirmed in the 55 Cancri system are all gas giants, bur Marcy is optimistic that further observations will reveal at least one rocky planet like Earth in the system.

One of the gas giants orbits wirhin the star's "habitable zone"-- comparable to Earth's orbit around the Sun. If that planet has a large, rocky moon or rwo (think Titan, or larger), life could exist in the 55 Cancri system. As yet undiscovered rocky planets could also possibly harbor life.

We might have neighbors fairly near by.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Changle 1 in Lunar Orbit

China's lunar probe, Changle 1, has successfully been inserted into lunar orbit. The probe will spend the next year carrying out photographic studies of the lunar surface and chemical and geological stidies of the Moon's interior. China is now the fourth nation, after the United States, the old Soviet Union, and Japan, to place a probe in lunar orbit.

Changle 1 is also a first step. China plans a lunar rover in 2012, and a lunar soil sample return five years later. Both of those would be unmanned, but China is also looking at putting people on the Moon in the not-too-distant future.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Parazynski To The Rescue

STS-120 astronaut Scott Parazynski successfully completed repair of a solar array of ISS, opening the way for the completion of the station.

Had Parazynski failed in what NASA called one of the most dangerous and difficult spacewalks ever attempted, the future of the station would've been in serious doubt because of a lack of sufficient power. Had Parazynski lost his life in the attempt, the future of the shuttle program-- and possibly of the manned spaceflight effort-- would have been seriously questioned.

NASA accepted those risks, went ahead with the spacewalk, and seems to have prevailed,. Unfortunately, in today's media climate, NASA will likely fail to get attention and credit for a bold move expertly executed even while it would've been hammered if something had gone wrong.

Even beyond Earth, life is not fair.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Repairing A Solar Panel

Tomorrow, STS-120's dynamic duo of Scott Paraczynski and Doug Wheelock will undertake yet another spacewalk, this time to repair a torn solar panel on the array they moved and reattached earlier in the mission.

Paraczynski will be maneuvered into place at the end of the space station's robot arm, and Wheelock will be there to assist.

NASA is calling this spacewalk one of the most difficult and dangerous ever undertaken. It's being attempted to provide ISS with the most possible power. Without full power, the usefulness of the European and Japanese lab modules to be installed later will be limited. Preparing ISS for those modules was the point of the STS-120 mission.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Viewing OSETI

Optical SETI is the search for intelligent signals in what we call the optical part of the spectrum. For an alien race from a world different from Earth, of course, the optical part of the spectrum might be somewhere else. Still, the physics of creating powerful laser beams that could reach across interstellar distances would be the same.

The Planetary Society is conducting an OSETI search using a 72-inch telescope in Massachusetts that is dedicated solely to conducting an all-sky survey looking for signals. Now, by logging on to, people can see a live view of the night sky over the telescope and learn exactly where it's pointed.

Another interstiing idea from an organization that has been highly successful in bringing the public into scientific research and space exploration for a quarter century.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Spy Tech and Mars Exploration

NASA's Mars rovers are an incredibly successful duo, but they've covered relatively little territory. Since Mars has an atmosphere that would support aircraft, scientists and engineers have been working for decades to find a way to fold a small aircraft into the payload area of a rocket, send it to Mars, deploy the aircraft, and fly over thousands of square miles of Martian terrain.

Back on Earth, the U. S. intelligence community has been looking for a small aircraft that could be quickly deployed to a trouble spot to give the president an early sense of what was happening. In a project called "Rapid Eye," the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency intends to enlist help from NASA engineers working on Mars aircraft concepts to help guide development of just such an aircraft.

Spy satellites helped avoid World War III by telling the president of the United States exactly what the Soviets had and where it was located at critical points. That tradition seems to be continuing with Rapid Eye.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Power Array Reattached

STS-120 spacewalking astronauts have successfully reattached a huge solar power array to the ISS. An attempt to unfurl the array's solar panels to their full configuration was cut short, however, when astronauts noticed a section of the panels seemed to be stuck.

NASA has not yet decided what to do about the stuck panels, but the mission has been extended one day due to metal shavings found in a node connecting a section of the power array to the ISS. Solar panels, obviously, need to face the Sun constantly to provide constant power, but the ISS is constantly moving. To maintain a lock on the Sun, the power array's connection to the station allows the panels to rotate. In at least one connection node, metal shavings suggest possibly serious wear. In another such node, however, astronauts report seemingly "brand new" conditions.

If NASA decides on another spacewalk to inspect the nodes, it might also decide to check out the stuck solar panels.

Monday, October 29, 2007

A Frustrated Armadillo

Armadillo Aerospace, under John Carmack, was expected by most people, including Carmack, to win the Lunar Challenge competition-- and prize money-- at the X=Prize Cup in New Mexico this past weekend. Well, the prize money is still available for next year.

Carmack and Armadillo were so confident because they had successfully completed the requirements of the Level 1 Challenge several times in practice. Unfortunately, hitting in spring training doesn't mean a player can hit in the World Series. With the pressure of competition, with NASA watching, with 5,000 spectators at the event, Armadillo tried four times-- twice Saturday and twice Sunday-- to fly two simulated kunar launches and landings back to back using the same vehicle. One attempt fell just short of success, but ultinately, all four attempts failed.

One reason for the failures seems to have been dirt and dust clogging the rocket's igniter. That is ironic. One of the major challenges of settling the Moon will involve finding a way to keep our equpmint, and ourselves, free of lunar dust.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

STS-120 Mission Progressing Well

Spacewalking astonauts have successfully unattached a huge solar power array from the ISS. Now comes the hard part. On Tuesday, using the robot arm, they will attempt to maneuver the array to its permanent position on ISS and reattach it.

During the procedure, astronaut Daniel Tari discovered meral shaving at the connection of the power array to the station. Mission control had Tari collect samples of the shavings. The discovery is a reminder of the stresses that act on large structures assembled in space. Maintaining a space station over long periods of time requires effort, as the Russians learned over decades with several stations.

NASA has various robots to help with station maintenance in development. If ISS is to last another decade or more, those robots will be needed. Similar robots will likely accompany all large ships wherever humans travel in space.

Friday, October 26, 2007

A New Room With A View

Astronauts Scott Parazynski and Doug Wheelock spent a six hour spacewalk preparing the Harmony module for installation into the International Space Station a few hours ago, Harmony is a substantial addition of living area on ISS, and will be the gateway to the European and Japanese laboratory modules to be brought out on subsequent shuttle flights.

Much work remains for the crew of STS-120, however. Before finally attaching Harmony to ISS, a solar panel array needs to be moved to its permanent position on ISS and made operational. NASA has had problems properly deploying such arrays on previous missions, so the astronauts responsible for that task, Stephanie Wilson and Daniel Tai, have their work cut out for them.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Wirefly X-Prize No More?

On the eve of the X-Prize Foundation's biggest annual event, the space show and rocketship competition in New Mexico this weekend, the biggest corporate sponsor is cutting back on its financial support.

So confirmed X-Prize Foundation spokeswoman Sarah Evans to journalist Leonard David, according to his blog. The size of the reduction was not stated, nor was the reason.

The move might open an interesting possibility, however. Google is already sponsoring one X-Prize competition, the Lunar Challenge-- and Google and its founders are immensely rich. Landing Google as its main corporate sponsor could get the Foundation all the prize money it would ever need to truly kickstart a private space industry. The money would come out of Google's petty cash drawer.

Just a thought.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

China Jumps In

Hard on the heels of Japan's first lunar robotic mission, China has successfully launched its own. Called Change 1 after a goddess in Chinese folklore who lives on the Moon, the probe will study the chemical composition of the luner surface, as well as probing the lunar interior. Perhaps the most interesting study planned, however, is a three-dimensional photographic map of bhe lunar surface.

The scientific part of the mission is scheduled to last a year, so if all goes well on both missions, the Chinese and Japanese probes will both be beaming back lunar data for several months. That should be a treasure trove for planetary scientists.

India is still on track to launch its first lunar probe next year, as well. The Asian Space Race has well and truly begun.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

STS-120 Has Begun

The flight of Space Shuttle Discovery got off to a fine start this morning, rocketing into a blue Florida sky.

This mission will be commanded by a woman, Pamela Melroy, and the lead, most experienced spacewalker on the complex construction mission will be another woman, Stephanie Wilson. This is surely the first space mission in which two women have had such prominent positions. Oddly, it comes after a summer of Lisa Novak, an astronaut who seems to have gone off the deep end, at least temporarily. Melroy and Wilson will no doubt perform at a higher standard.

Monday, October 22, 2007


If all goess well, and if the weather cooperates-- always a factor in Florida-- shuttle mission STS-120 will lift off tomorrow morning. It will be an ambitious mission, aimed at no less than the physical transformation of the International Space Station.

Shuttle Discovery will deliver the Harmony module to ISS. Harmony will strengthen the capability to do science on ISS, paving the way for installation on future missions of European and Japanese science lab modules. Adding Harmony to ISS, however, also requires shifting a solar panel array to its final position. All the adding and moving of big stuff makes STS-120 a complex, challenging mission. The spacewalks and use of the shuttle's robot arm needed to reconfigure ISS will be among the most demanding ever attempted.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

NASA Drops RpK

As followed in this blog, Rocketplane Kistler has failed to meet milestones in its agreement with NASA to develop a vehicle capable of ferrying cargo and humans between Earth and the International Space Station. Finally last week, NASA pulled its portion of RpK's funding.

On October 22, NASA will ask for new proposals from companies wanting to pursue the project. The winning proposal will get some or all of the money withdrawn from RpK.

RpK, which has been working closely with NASA in an attempt to save its agreement, is free to submit a proposal in the new competition. Several other companies have expressed interest in the project, however, so its not clear why NASA would turn back to RpK, even though the company has recently come under new management.

Friday, October 19, 2007

X-Prize Lunar Lander Cup

Next weekend at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, the 2007 competition for the Northrup Grumman X-Prize Lunar Lander Cup will be held. The competition is also associated with NASA, which is providing the $2 million award to the first team to meet the criteria of the contest.

Eight teams-- including one from Laramie and Chugwater, Wyoming-- are entered in the contest. The basic idea is to build a vehicle that can fly a simulated mission from the surface of the Moon to lunar orbit and back to a safe landing-- and fly that mission during the competition. Hovering in the air for two minutes will substitute for lifting off the lunar surface and descending back to it. The mission will have to be successfully flown twice during the competition, by the same vehicle, to claim the award.

By backing this and similar competitions, NASA is trying to encourage development of a private space industry. Specifically in this case, the goal is to develop a private capability to transport humans and cargo between the lunar surface and lunar orbit. There'll be no need for such a capability for a while, of course, but that's a good thing. The competition is being held again this year because no team accomplished the feat lasr year.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Fire Still in Mars' Belly?

Scientists studying images of the huge volcano complex on Mars think it's possible the volcanoes may be dormant, not extinct.

The images taken by both NASA and ESA craft orbiting the planet suggest lava could have flowed down the flanks of the volcanoes within the last two million years. That sounds like quite a long time, but in geologic terms it leaves open the possibility of future activity.

Scientists are also discussing a new theory. Up till now, they have used the shield volcanoes in Hawaii as models of Mars' major volcanoes. In Hawaii, the Earth's crust has moved over a so-called "hot spot" that powered volcanoes and created the Hawaiian chain. On Mars, the situation might be exactly the opposite. The Martian crust may be stable, but a plume of magma may be moving around underneath. When the plume comes in contact with a weakness, the magma might break through.

How a possibly active Mars might affect plans for human exploration is unclear. Planets and people operate on vastly different time scales, however. The odds that dormant volcanoes would come back to fiery glory just as humans reach Mars must be long indeed.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Stony Apophis

Near-Earth asteroid Apophis is a stony chondrite, researchers say. That means it's a solid body, not a pile of rocks loosely held together by gravity, as some asteroids are.

Knowing that is important for two reasons. First, Apophis may be a candidate for an early human mission to an asteroid, perhaps late next decade. Second, it might pose a threat to Earth. By current calculations, in 2028 Apophis will pass within 22,000 miles of Earth-- about a tenth of the Moon's distance-- and in 2036 there's a 1-in-45,000 chance that it will hit Earth.

Technologies and techniques to allow us to deflect bodies away from Earth are being developed. The first step is to understand the structure and composition of the body in question. That first step is currently in stride at Apophis.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Manned vs. Robotic Exploration

NASA has extended the missions of the rovers on Mars, Spirit and Opportunity, for a fifth time. The two have been roving since January, 2004, and this extension will take the mission into 2009. For missions scheduled to last only 90 days each, the rovers have been incredibly successful. Together, they have beamed back nearly 200,000 images, plus other streams of scientific data. The Rovers of Mars will always have a chapter in any history of early space exploration.

All that said, however, they also tell us about the limitations of robotic exploration. In 45 months, Opportunity has traveled a bit over 7 miles, while Spirit has made about 4.5 miles. A well-equipped human mission-- the only kind worth sending-- could cover that much ground the first day, and curious, educated human scientists on the spot could explore with more insight and efficiency. It's true, more advanced robots could do better than Spirit and Opportunity, but the biggest need is for artificial intelligence,, to allow the robot to act on its own, and developing AI has proven much more difficult than scientists originally believed. Progress is being made, but AI capable of tackling Mars might have to wait for the second half of this century.

So, if we want to study Mars but don't really care how long it takes to get the answers we seek, a continued robot program would be sufficient. If, on the other hand, we want to understand Mars and know whether there has ever been Martian life and leave exciting options to our children, mounting a program to send human explorers is essential.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Health on Luna

Many space advocates see the establishment of lunar bases as the first steps towards full-fledged lunar settlements, much as cities in the American West grew up around Army forts, tradiing posts, harbors, and railroad routes. It's an attractive argument to many, but it ignores at least one fundamental factor. People in nineteenth century America knew humans could survive in the plains, mountains, and deserts of the West. Today, it's not yet clear humans can live indefinitely on the Moon.

Radiation and the effect of low gravity on the human body over an extended period seem to pose the biggest health concerns. As we get into such a project, however, we may well find other negative factors. Building habitats in free space and controlling every aspect of the environment-- including radiation levels and the strength of gravity-- may be the only way humans can live lifetimes beyond Earth.

On the other hand, blocking radiation from reaching lunar settlement areas in thoroughly possible, and low gravity has its benefits. Falling on Luna, for example, would be a much slower affair. Most people could easily catch themselves. In any case, landing would not be the thump it is on Earth. Stress on the heart on Earth comes from requiring the heart to constantly, rhythmically push blood from the feet up against the pull of Earth's gravity. Lunar gravity is only one-sixth as strong. All else being equal, therefore, a human heart could last many times as long on Luna as it does on Earth. Throw in advanced medical care and a calm, functioning, fulfilling society and Lumans might enjoy absolutely Old Testament lifespans.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Dawn's Ion Engines

NASA's Dawn mission to the asteroid belt passed a test of its clustered ion engines this month, paving the way for the flight to Vesta, Ceres, and beyond.

Ion propulsion is one technology NASA believes may really open up the Solar System. The Dawn mission, therefore, is about science, but it's also about technology demonstration. The spacecraft's engines will operate continuously for five years. Ion engines produce very little thrust, but they can do so for enormously long periods of time, slowly building up great speed.

The eventual role of ion drives may encompass more than robotic spacecraft.. Ion propulsion might be ideal for unmanned ships transporting cargo throughout the Solar System, helping to establish an economy beyond Earth. Possibly, it could drive early Martian exploration and settlement. The ultimate value of ion drive, however, could lie in the opening of the outer Solar System. The vast distances involved may fit ion's steady build to enormous speed perfectly.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Pluto's Family

Astronomers using the Keck telescope in Hawaii have taken the best photos yet of the Plutonian system. They hope to increase our basic kbowledge of Pluto and its three moons before the arrival next decade of the New Horizons probe.

For such a small body moving so slowly so far into the depths of the Solar System, Pluto has quite a bit going on around it. Charon, its largest moon, is roughly half the size of Pluto itself. We used to say Charon was the largest moon relative to its planet in the Solar System, but Pluto is no longer officially a planet. The largest moon relative to its planet now reverts back to Earth's Luna. Conspiracy? Anyway, Pluto also has two tiny moons, Nix and Hydra. Astronomers hope to get enough high quality images to pin down the smaller moons' orbits and masses.

The two small moons of Mars are thought to be captured asteroids. Mars orbits on the inner edge of the Main Belt of asteroids, so such captures seem plausible. It's likely fair to say Pluto orbits on the inner edge of the Kuiper Belt, but such a comparison is probably misleading. The outer Solar System is a vast realm, and Pluto is a featherweight; Pluto and Charon combined probably don't come to even half the mass of Mars. How Pluto could have captured two small bodies while bigger Mars captured the same number in a busier neighborhood seems to ask for an explanation. Part of that explanation likely is that bodies move more slowly in Pluto's neighborhood, and so would be more easily captured. Lack of speed coupled with the area involved, of course, also suggests close approaches that might allow captures would the extremeky rare.

The histories of Nix and Hydra might be quite interesting.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Opening Day for ATA

Today, the Allen Telescope Array will see first light-- err, hear first radio crackle-- as Paul Allen, cofounder of Microsoft and major financial force behind the ATA, will push the button that brings the first 42 radio telescopes online. The ATA will be the key tool in the largest SETI research program yet undertaken.

The 42 telescopes Allen will activate are only the first installment of an array that will finally contain 350 individual instruments. The real power of the installation, though, is not the number of individual telescopes. Rather, it's the fact that those telescopes will be used together to essentially create one huge radio telescope. Though constructed to take SETI research to the next level, the ATA will also be capable of groundbreaking work in radio astronomy.

Located 300 miles northeast of San Francisco in California's Hat Creek Valley, the Array is being built in a remote, mountainous area where the radio sky is fairly quiet. Dr, Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute has speculated we could well find our first radio signal from an alien civilization by 2025. Starting today, the chances of that happening are increasing.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Enceladus Has Geysers

As reported earlier in this blog, scientists working on the Cassini mission to Saturn and its environs discovered eruptions from the moon Enceladus, Now, the team led by Carolyn Porco has determined the eruptions come from geysers.

The geysers are in the area of the south pole, and the ejecta from the geysers account for the so-called "tiger stripes" on the surface. The ejecta also seems to feed the E-ring, a tenuous ring surrounding Saturn.

The geysers are likely driven by friction within Enceladus caused by the gravity of Saturn as it pulls on the body of the moon. Scientists also believe there is a huge ocean of water underneath the surface of Enceladus. With water, with energy, and possibly with organic compounds, the possibility of life exists.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Asteroid Bonanza

Sometimes you look for one thing, but find something else entirely. That's what happened to a team of five astronomy students from the University of Washington.

The team, working under the direction of assistant professor Andrew Becker, was looking for supernovae, but asteroids kept getting in the way Eventually, the team catalogued about 1,300 previously undiscovered asteroids. That's about 1 out of every 260 known objects in the Solar System.

Happily, none of the asteroids discovered pose an immediate danger to Earth, though some of them do cross Earth's orbit in their own orbits, and may, therefore, threaten Earth at some point.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Kistler Staggering

Rocketplane Kistler, or RpK, on the verge of losing its contract with NASA, has switched presidents. Randy Brinkley, who led Kistler through its acquisition of Rocketplane, as well as through the process that secured the NASA contract, is out. William Byrd, an RpK board member, is in.

As reported earlier in this blog, RpK has struggled to meet benchmarks in the NASA contract, largely due to an inability to attract private investment. Last week, Brinkley wrote a letter to NASA, blaming the space agency for his company's problems.

The letter did not go over well.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

IAU Goes Trek... Again

The International Astronomical Union has recently named a Main Belt asteroid after actor George Takei, whose signature role was playing Sulu, helmsman of the starship Enterprise in the orginal Star Trek television series and several subsequent movies.

The IAU has honored science fiction authors Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein by naming asteroids for them, and has recognized the place Star Trek carved out in twentieth century popular culture before, naming asteroids for Gene Roddenberry, creator of the show, and Nichelle Nicholas, the actress who portrayed Uhura, communications officer of Kirk's Enterprise,

Of course, there are thousands of asteroids yet unnamed. That leaves plenty of opportunities to add William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, and James Doohan-- not to mention Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner, Marina Sirtis, LeVar Burton, Jonathan Frakes, Gates McFadden....

Friday, October 5, 2007

Japanese Probe in Lunar Orbit

The lunar probe Japan launched September 14 has been successfully inserted into lunar orbit. The orbit will be refined over the next few weeks to optimize it for the planned scientific studies of the Moon.

This mission puts Japan in the lead of an emerging Asian space race. China plans to launch its own lunar probe in December, and India plans the same feat next April. With its current mission, Japan becomes only the third nation to put something in orbit around the Moon. In 2002, China became the third nation to launch a man into space and plans to establish a manned lunar base in roughly the same time period NASA does. India plans to put a human into space itself by 2015, and Japan is interesting in partnering in an international manned lunar program.

Exciting times may be just ahead.

Thursday, October 4, 2007


Fifty years ago today, the Space Age was born. That's conventional wisdom. Nazii V-rockets would occasionally reach the edge of space, but we tend to ignore that, which is probably just as well.

Sputnik was certainly the first human venture into Earth orbit, and certainly sparked the subsequent history we know. Without Sputnik, there would have been no Apollo 11 a mere twelve years later.

That line of reasoning can be over done, however. Absent Sputnik, there likely still would've been a Space Age. The Soviets were first into space only because the U. S. had not given Werner Von Braun's team the go ahead. That, of course, assumes a successful first American launch. Had America been first into space, the Soviets almost certainly would have responded with Sputnik, but the ensuing superpower competition would have been twisted from what we know. Where it might have led is impossible to say.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Buckling an Asteroid Belt

MIT researchers, looking ahead, have proposed a solution to a problem that does not yet exist.

Walking on an asteroid may not sound like a big deal for a space explorer, but a one kilometer asteroid, for example, would have very little surface gravity. "Landing" on such a worldlet may well consist of an astronaut simply leaving the airlock of his or her ship and using a maneuvering unit attached to the spacesuit to reach the asteroid. Once there, an overly energetic step could launch the explorer back into space. To avoid that, MIT engineers want to secure a belt around the asteroid and have explorers attach themselves to the belt to stay on the suface. Simply drilling pitons into the rock to hold astronauts on the surface may not work, they say, because some small asteroids seem to be aggregations of rocks loosely held together by gravitational attraction. Drilling into rock by an astronaut in free space, unattached to anything, would also be tricky.

Such an approach would seem to be practical only for small bodies visited by small crews, but of course, that's all it needs to address. Larger bodies, like Ceres or Vesta, have stronger surface gravity.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Take Part in Galactic Research

Astronomers have gathered so much data about so much stuff in recent years that they are enlisting the help of the rest of us.

SETI@Home, for example, is a program developed by SETI researchers to help them get through a huge backlog of data. Essentially, it's a software program that creates a network of computers through the Internet. Once downloaded and installed, the program becomes the computer's screensaver; whenever the computer is on but not being actively used. the program analyzes blocks of real data gathered over the years, looking for possible alien signals. It's neat, but passive.

If you want to take a more active role in a space research project, go to There, astronomers want your mind. About a million galaxies need classified as either spiral or elliptical, and it turns out that the human brain is still much better at recognizing patterns than a computer is. So, log on, sign up, go through a quick tutorial that teaches you what to look for, and start classifying galaxies. You'll be advancing scientific knowledge, looking at amazingly beautiful images, and seeing things no human has even seen before.

When you've finished classifying galaxies for the day, why not leave the computer on for a while? Maybe it will uncover the first signal found from an extraterrestrial civilization.

Monday, October 1, 2007

BA's Potential Problem

Bigelow Aerospace seems well on its way to proving its concept of inflatable space habitats. The company has two experimental modules in Earth orbit now, and both have performed extremely well. So well, in fact, that BA is now aiming to put a man-rated habitat in orbit by 2010.

Executives at BA are concerned, however, that when their habitat is ready for people, there may be no cost effective way to get people to it. By 2010, the space shuttle will be retired-- it's expensive to fly, anyway-- and the next NASA manned spacecraft won't be ready yet. That leaves the Russian Soyuz, and possibly a private spacecraft or two. If Soyuz is the only ride out for a few years, Russia will be in a very strong economic position. No private orbital craft that may exist by 2010 will yet have a safety record of any length.

In the oil industry, there are the "integrateds"-- corporations that operate at every level through the petroleum cycle, from exploration through to the gas station on the corner. Such corporations, in any industry, bring anti-trust concerns, and many have been broken up over the past several decades as a result, but that may be the way to open space to commerce. If BA had a launch capability it was developing in tandem with its inflatable habitats, progress need not be slowed for lack of a partner. Controlling every aspect of the project would also allow tighter financial control. Galactic Suites, for example, seems to be taking that approach.

John D. Rockefeller took that approach in building Standard Oil. At some point, the U. S. Government broke up Standard to encourage competition, but by then the oil industry was firmly established.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Second Generation Space Travelers

After more than forty years of manned spaceflight, we are beginning to see children of early space travelers following their parents into low Earth orbit.

If all goes well, next year will see Richard Garriot, son of former astronaut Owen Garriot, fly to the ISS on a Space Adventures tourist ticket. Owen flew one of the Skylab missions, plus an early shuttle flight. SA tickets aren't cheap, of course. Richard made his fortune in the computer game industry.

Perhaps predictably, Richard says he has always dreamed of flying into space. While his dad was in the astronaut corps trying to beat the Soviets to the Moon, Richard will fly a Soyuz to the ISS. Looked at one way, that's progress. It also means, however, that he will be flying what is essentially an updated forty-year-old spacecraft-- and doing so because there is no better option. That is not progress.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Internet UFO Mystery

For several weeks. a debate has been raging across the Internet over a piece of video that purportedly shows a UFO over Haiti and the Dominican Republic "up close and personal," as ABC Sports used to say. The video is amazing. It is jaw-dropping. But is it real, or a hoax?

According to David Sams of the Los Angeles Times, it's an incredibly good hoax done as a sort of experiment by a professional animator in Paris who is working on a movie project. The animator's boss on the project confirmed to Sams that, yes, this guy was a genius, and he'd made the video and put it on the Internet, never realizing the uproar it would cause. He might be a genius in film production, this fellow Sams doesn't name in the article about this matter-- Sams refers to him by an e-mail address-- but the animator seems less than savvy about the world if he truly didn't realize what a stir such a clip would cause. Sams seems never to have spoken to this guy directly because the animator preferred to speak through a woman. There's nothing really wrong with that, but maybe it's a bit odd.

The bigger question posed by this incident is whether we can trust what we see on video, anymore. For several years, both UFO researchers and skeptics have pointed out that computer technology has become so good that it's becoming nearly impossible to separate inspired hoaxes from what could be the real thing. The UFO over Haiti may be a prime example of that difficulty.

Of course, the problem goes well beyond UFOs. If reality can be manipulated-- or created-- on video, the door is wide open to more serious misuse. The anonymous animator may have done everyone a service by reminding us to be careful about things open to being twisted to serve an agenda.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Opportunity Roving

NASA's rover Opportunity has entered Victoria crater and is poised to begin studying a layer of bright rock in the crater wall that scientists think may represent the surface of Mars before the body that created Victoria came calling. That is precisely the kind of science NASA had hoped to do with the rovers.

Opportunity's handlers are proceeding cautiously, however. Moving down the crater wall means the rover will be tilted at about 25 degrees, and NASA wants to make sure it will not get stuck or tip over before moving forward. After all, if Opportunity did tip over, no one would be along to set it back on its six wheels for another thirty years.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Peruvian Meteor Mystery

As noted earlier in this blog, a meteor reportedly crashed into a remote area of Peru last August, setting off a wave of illness among the local people. Doctors visiting the area since, however, say the number of illnesses were exaggerated and put much of the incident down to "mass hysteria" encouraged by breathless media reporting.

Scientists point out that arsenic is a component of the subsurface of the area, so if some explosion did occur-- and scientists are still not sure anything actually happened-- small amounts of arsenic may have entered the environment and caused some of the reported sickness. That, presumably, may have started the wave.

The mass hysteria hypothesis brings to mind Orson Welles' 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast, which reportedly led some people to commit suicide rather than face Martian invaders. There are other examples as well. The Salem witch trials resulted in the hanging of nineteen people, based largely on the stories of two little girls. A similar fear of witchcraft in medieval Europe brought about the torture and execution of thousands, mostly women.

Did a meteor streak across the sky in Peru last summer? That's entirely possible; such visits are not terribly rare. Did it reach the surface and unleash mayhem? That's less clear.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Dawn of the Solar System

NASA's Dawn mission to the asteroid belt-- a mission that has been cancelled and reinstated-- is set for launch Thursday from Cape Kennedy.

Dawn's mandate is to study the early Solar System by focusing on two of the largest bodies in the asteroid belt, Ceres and Vesta. Scientists believe studying those bodies can reveal how planets may have formed. Ceres, which is now officially a dwarf planet, may be especially interesting and important. Telescopic studies suggest it may have a thin atmosphere, and there are indications it might have water under its surface. Some scientists suggest Ceres may have six times the amount of fresh water that Earth has. If that estimate turns our to be even remotely accurate, Ceres could eventually become a key deep space base as we push towards the stars.

NASA is under pressure to launch Dawn by the end of October. If it doesn't, the orbital interplay of the bodies involved won't be right again until 2022.

Monday, September 24, 2007

SpaceDev in the Wings

As reported in this blog, Rocketplane Kistler is in danger of losing a NASA contract to develop a man-rated spacecraft capable of transporting crews to and from the International Space Station. Acquiring private funding to augment NASA funding has proven to be a problem.

If RpK can't continue in its development, and if NASA wants to maintain a competitor against SpaceX, SpaceDev is ready to step up. The Poway, California, based corporation came in third in the original contract award competition, but has continued to develop its vehicle, the Dream Chaser. SpaceDev has an income stream, several products, and several clients, so it would seem to be in a financial position to push the program forward with an infusion of NASA dollars.

SpaceDev says Dream Chaser is designed to be more than a ferry between Earth and ISS. It could operate as a space platform on its own, as well as serving in the space tourism industry. So, whatever happens with RpK. we might be hearing much more about SpaceDev and Dream Chasers.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Mars Stuff

As reported in this blog, the Mars Odyssey orbiter had a software glitch recently and its computer went into safe mode, as it was supposed to do.

The problem has now been fixed, and the orbiter is back in the exploration business. Its next project will be following up on the discovery of several cave entrances found on the flanks of one of Mars' huge volcano complexes. The particular caves so far found are likely too high on the mountain to be useful, but they confirm caves exist on Mars. Caves at lower elevations could provide sheltered environments for martian life or for future human explorers. Extensive caverns, at the very least, could provide relatively easy access to the subsurface of Mars.

Meanwhile, another orbiter, the MRO, has snapped the sharpest images yet of landslides scientists thought provided evidence for flowing water on Mars within the latest few years. The new images are inconclusive, but they suggest the landslides may have resulted from flowing lava instead of flowing water. That, in turn, suggests a drier Mars down through the ages. Instead of oceans of water in the past, there may have been only lakes.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Lunar Exploration Plans

NASA has begun sharpening its strategy for future manned exploration of the lunar surface. One new emphasis will be on getting scientifuc results that can be useful to space commerce firms early in the effort. That emphasis has the effect of giving NASA political allies for its lunar exploration plans, but it also bases those plans, at least partly, on economic grounds.

To accelerate the rate of scientific data, NASA is now looking at delivering perhaps three large habitats on unmanned cargo flights instead of slowly building up a base over several manned missions. With that approach, astronauts will be able to begin exploring more quickly.

And explore they will. NASA plans call for pressurized rovers that will allow astronauts to drive across the surface for up to two weeks. Two of the rovers will be used per expedition, so if one breaks down, both crews will be able to make it back to base in the remaining one.

Another emphasis will be on securing international partners. Japan has expressed interest in such participation, as have-- in varying degrees-- Russia, China, and Europe. All of those, plus a few others, would be able to make substantive contributions to such a program-- technologically, financially, or both. Of course, partners would mean U. S. taxpayers wouldn't have to foot the bill for the whole shebang, which should make Congress more willing to support the project.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Space Based Solar Power

A Pentagon study group looking at global security issues through this century is moving towards recommending space based solar power as a way to skirt wars over energy resources.

The group acknowledges the technology needed is not in hand yet, but also says no technological or scientific showstoppers have yet been found.

Through this century, the human population is expected to grow substantially. At the same time, many poor, populous nations will be trying to grow their economies. That will put enormous strains on Earth's natural resources-- perhaps especially its energy resources. Shortages in critical resources could lead to wars in a world filled with very nasty weapons of mass destruction. Solar power is abundant and constant-- and, if properly developed, no group will be able to dominate its distribution. Such a reliable energy source would be a stabilizing influemce in an otherwise troubled world.

The study group estimates that 10 percent of the baseline energy used by the U. S. could be beamed down from solar power satellites by 2050, if not sooner, and that a demonstration of the concept could be carried out in five to seven years.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Peruvian Mystery

According to reports, a meteor crashed to Earth last weekend in Peru, creating a crater 18 feet deep and 90 feet across. Further, some 200 people, including seven police officers who investigated the reports, have fallem ill. Nome of the illnesses seem serious, however.

Scientists, being scientists, aren't sure a meteor even fell. Some argue geological activity is more likely to be behind the event; gases from inside Earth, they say, are more likely to be the source of the odor reported as well as the illnesses. If it was a meteorite (that is, a meteor that struck the ground), Dr. Donald Yeomans, chief of NASA's Near Earth Object program, says it was probably a small metal meteor. Small, because the supposed impact crater is small, and metal because stony, small meteors burn up in the atmosphere before reaching the ground. If Yeomans is correct, the reported gas would've been released from Earth by the impact; it would not have come from the meteor.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Glitch on Mars Odussey

NASA's Mars rovers recently survived a dust storm. Now the problem is a computer glitch. The computer of the Mars Odyssey orbiter put itself into safe mode recently; the problem seems to be a software glitch. The orbiter generally relays signals from the rovers back to Earth.

Since the problem, the rovers have been using their high-gain antennae to connect directly with Earth. NASA is confident, however, that the orbiter will be back in the loop later this week.

Even with the problem, surface exploration has continued. Opportunity has begun its descent into Victoria Crater, and is now well below rim level.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Tiny Test for Martians

The European Space Agency is currently testing, in Earth orbit, a postage stamp-sized experiment that may eventually be used to search for life on Mars.

The experiment works on the same principle that underlies simple pregnancy tests; the tiny area is packed with chemicals that glow when exposed to proteins and DNA. Of course, that is Earthly DNA. If life on Mars is based on a different kind of genetic molecule... well, presumably there would still be proteins.

If the experiment survives being exposed to the vaccuum and radiation of space, it could fly to Mars on the ESA's planned "ExoMars" mission-- a robotic rover scheduled for launch in 2013.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Rendelsham Forest

One of the more significant UFO cases took place in Britain over two nights around Christmas, 1980. Rendelsham is a complex narrative, involving not only lights in the night sky, but also a close, physical encounter with some sort of craft.

What sets Rendelsham apart, however, is not so much the narrative, but the narrators. The UFO interacted with a team of security officers from a nearby U. S. Air Force base. The leader of the team, and author of the report that lays out the incident, was the deputy base commander. That base, and those security officers, were in charge of nuclear weapons. Presumably, therefore, they cannot be easily dismissed.

Skeptics have tried to explain the incident by appealing to the sweeping light of a nearby lighthouse. They seem unable to explain, however, why such phenomena weren't seen before and haven't been seen since. Others note that a Soviet satellite re-entered Earth's atmosphere at about that time--but satellites don't take two days to burn up coming home.

Rendelsham Forest seems to come down to the value of credible witnesses who were trained observers used to dealing with high technology. If those witnesses are believed, something needs explained. If the witnesses are suspect-- why were those men in control of nuclear weapons? Looking in from outside, the report seems not to have had an adverse affect on the career of any of the men involved. That may or may not be important, but it is interesting.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Kaguya to Luna

Japan has launched the largest spacecraft to the Moon since Apollo. Named for a moon princess in Japanese folklore, Kaguya will take five days to reach its obhective.

Once in lunar orbit, the mission is scheduled to last about a year. Kaguya carries 14 scientifuc instruments, plus two microsatellites which will be used to study the lunar interior and gravitational field. Perhaps the most intriguing instrument Kaguya sports is a video camera. The Japanese plan to film Earth rising over the lunar surface, much as Apollo astronauts did in a famous series of still shots.

Japan plans to put an unmanned lander on the Moon in 2010, and to participate in an international program of manned lunar exploration.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Google Lunar X-Prize

Google and the X-Prize Foundation are announcing a private race to the Moon. Any group of individuals that is the first to land a rover on the Moon, drive it at least 500 meters, and have it send back data will win a $30 million prize. To get the full prize, the feat must be accomplished by 2012; if it is not done until 2013 or 2014, the prize money will be cut.

The X-Prize Foundation offered a similar prize to stimulate the development of a private, reusable, manned spacecraft. That worked. Burt Rutan is now building ships for Virgin Galactic based on his SpaceShipOne. As a lunar rover competition does not encompass safety considerations beyond the launch phase, odds may be good this prize will be won, as well.

To help those odds even more, SpaceX will offer a ten percent reduction in its rate to launch Prize missions, and the SETI Institute has agreed to provide deep space communications for the missions through its radio telescope array at Hat Creek, California, at no cost to the teams.

If the $30 million is won, several lunar missions could be flown before 2012, and people everywhere will be able to participate in space exploration via the Internet. Such an experience, years before NASA plans to return humans to the Moon, could well be instrumental in keeping the human expansion into space on course.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

SA's Singapore Spaceport Struggling

Space Adventures, the leading space tourism company, announced a few months ago it was building a spaceport in Singapore, from which it would fly tourists on subortal flights. The project, however, is suffering from a lack of investor support. Even though the amount needed from investors is a rather modest amount for a commercial development project at US$15 million, SA has yet to raise it.

The company said it is looking at possibilities in China, Japan, and Korea, but is still confident the Singapore project will work out. SA is clearly trying to establish itself as the leader in the potentially huge Asian market, but the fact that investors are not more interested seems one more piece of evidence suggesting the expansion of private enterprise into space will be a slow process.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Trouble for Private Launch

Rocketplane Kistler won a contract with NASA last year to build a launch system capable of delivering cargo to the International Space Station. Instead of going with a major aerospace corporation, NASA bet on two startup companies-- RpK, as it's called, and SpaceX, a California company led by the Internet megabuckser Elon Musk. At the time of winning the contract, neither company had put anything into space. By giving them that opportunity, NASA was clearly trying to support the emerging New Space industry.

RpK, however, is in danger of losing its contract. Even with the NASA backing, it has failed to find the necessary additional private funding. Technological progress has also been slower than projected. The next month might be critical to the company's relationship with NASA.

If RpK is dropped by NASA, SpaceX might benefit. It seems to be on firmer financial ground, and it has conducted test flights of its system, with moderate success. If neither company can develop a reliable launch system within the next three years, however, NASA might be driven back into the arms of the current aerospace establishment. That might mean commercial space will come as an extended process rather than an historic, emphatic boom.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Gray Musings

The evil little aliens in most abduction stories have generally become known as "the Grays." In a way, that's an odd designation. The dominant features of the creatures seem to be the large heards, huge cold eyes, and small bodies; the color would seem the least descriptive characteristic. The Grays, however, definitely has a dramatic ring.

A good question is: Does the color belong to the being, or to what the being is wearing? Most people seem to assume these little guys are buck naked. That's almost certainly wrong. Even if a culture had no tradition of clothing, a civilization capable of interstellar travel would know its biology, including its germs, viruses, etc.; it would understand the need for surface suits on an alien world-- both to protect its explorers from alien bugs, and to protect that world from their bugs.

So, gray is likely simply the perceived color of their surface suits. That possibility was brought out briefly in Fire In The Sky, a movie based on Travis Walton's story, but it's usually, oddly, ignored.

Of course, if the Geays are nonbiological entities....

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Opportunity at Victoria

On the sixth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, NASA's rover Opportunity may begin its descent into Victoria Crater on Mars. Victoria has been a major objective of mission scientists for months.

Victoria is a substantial crater at 2,400 feet across, and images show layers of rock in its walls. Planetary scientists think those layers can tell them a lot about the history of Mars, including providing more evidence supporting the picture of a wet early Mars.

On the other side of Mars, the rover Spirit has already ascended a low mesa nicknamed Home Plate, another long sought goal.

A few weeks ago, the continued missions of both rovers were in serious doubt as a huge dust storm threatened to cut off all solar power to the surface. NASA put the rovers in low-power mode, however, and the storm seems to be in the process of blowing itself out.

Friday, September 7, 2007

In the Shadows of the Moon

"In the Shadows of the Moon" is a new documentary film by British director David Sington. The film concerns the human side of traveling to the Moon. So far, that has only been done by a few Apollo astronauts, and Sington interviewed at least one member of each crew that made a lunar voyage, from Apollo 8 through Apollo 17. We should recall that Apollo 9 was an Earth orbital mission meant to test the lunar module in space. The lunar module, of course, was the ship that actually touched the lunar surface.

Besides interviewing the men who flew, Sington also had access to NASA's video archives of the missions, and the film has footage that has never been seen in public before. That in itself would be a real kick to space buffs. Add stories about the experience of flying to the Moon told by many of the men who actually did it, and the film promises to be both entertaining and informative.

"In the Shadows of the Moon" opens today in New York and Los Angeles.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Beating Hubble

Astronomer Craig Mackay of Cambridge University recently used a research telescope in the relatively clean, clear skies around San Diego to take clearer astrophotoes than the Hubble Space Telescope takes.

Mackay's technique is to take many shots per second, take the few clearest, and digitally blend them to produce one supersharp image. Many shots are taken so quickly in an attempt to minimize the effects of Earth's constantly moving atmosphere. The first attempt produced an image about twice as sharp as a Hubble shot, and Mackay thinks the technique will do even better. At a cost of about $100,000, the approach is vastly cheaper than the billions spent on Hubble. That low figure, of course, does not count the cost of constructing the observatories which will use the technique, whereas the Hubble figure includes everything.

Space-based telescopes still have an advantage when extremely long exposure times are necessary. That is a good thing, because NASA and the Europeans are planning to deploy more of them. The advantage huge research scopes on Earth have now over any space-based cousins is size; space scopes are currently limited in size to the largest current launch systems can carry. That will eventually change. Space and low gravity bodies like our Moon allow constructing huge telescopes, in both lense size and focal length. Using several scopes as a connected array could produce the caoability of a telescope that was miles across.

For now, though, Earth-based observatories are still the backbone of astronomical research.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Tying Tycho To T-Rex

Wulliam Botke and his team at the Southwest Research Institute have come up with a mind-boggling possibility. Using computer simulations fueled by data from the field, they suggest a connection between the glorious lunar crater Tycho and the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Planetary astronomers have long known that there are "families" of asteroids; follow enough asteroidal orbits back in time far enough and some of them will be at the same place at the same time. Botke and his team found one such family was struck by a huge interloper roughly 160 million years ago, setting various bodies on new courses. About 65 million years ago, one of those mountains in the sky slammed into Earth, killing the dinosaurs and many other forms of life. Another body from the initial collision deep in the Main Asteroid Belt, according to computer projections, eventually struck the Moon, creating the crater Tycho.

Tycho is one of the jewels of the Moon. It is one of the brightest craters, due to its relative youth, and is beautifully constructed, with magnificent terraced walls and a prominent central peak. Tycho's brilliant ray system, which traces the path of material ejected by the impact that created the crater, can be followed halfway around the Moon.

Whether Botke's theory is ultimately supported by clinching evidence or not, it's one cool idea.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Humanity Parks

There is some talk in the space community, still not quite fifty years after Sputnik, about saving some areas on celestial bodies of scientific or historical importance or particular natural beauty as parks, so future generations will have them. The impulse behind such an idea is the same that has led to the development of national and international park systems around the world.

Some candidate sites are obvious, like Apollo 11's Tranquility Base-- and perhaps all Apollo landing sites on the Moon. What about the landing sites of U. S. and Soviet lunar probes that paved the way for human missions? They dot the lunar surface on the near side. On Mars, perhaps the area being explored now by NASA's Spirit and Opportunity rovers would be set aside, even though the recent dust storm may have wiped out the rovers' tracks.

For sheer natural beauty and power, there are several magnificent impact craters, Copernicus and Tycho certainly near the top. Of course, one point of establishing parks is to allow people to visit them. We may be just entering an era in which adventurous, financially well off people could visit a hotel perched on the rim of Tycho, rather as similar people in the 1870s visited the new national park called Yellowstone.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Ice on Mercury?

Mercury was well named by the Romans-- the planet that moves the fastest through space is named for the fleet-footed messenger god in the Roman pantheon. The planet's orbital speed is due to its proximity to the Sun. One year on Mercury is only 88 Earth days long.

That proximity affects the very nature of Mercury. The planet is the smallest in the Solar System, likely because the Sun's gravity interfered with the coalescing process that builds planets. It has no atmosphere, largely because the Sun would boil any atmosphere away. The Mercurian day is roughly twice as long as its year because the Sun's gravity slows its rotation. Because of that slow rotation, temperatures on the surface have time to reach extremes-- 800 degrees on the sunlit side, -300 on the dark side. Offhand, Mercury may be among the last places in the Solar System to expect to find water on the surface. Yet, radar studies suggest precisely that.

Much as may exist on Earth's Moon, there seems to be deep craters in at least the north polar regions of Mercury where the crater floors are always in shadow. There, water ice seems to exist, either directly on the surface or under a thin layer of dust. Presumably, the ice was delivered by comets smacking into Mercury. How much ice is there is unclear, but the fact that any at all might be there reminds us of the fundamental quirkiness of the cosmos.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Barney and Betty Hill Captured

The first story of alleged alien abduction took place in 1961 and burst upon the public in the mid-1960s. Barney and Betty Hill were a married couple who had a "missing time" period that bothered Barney enough that they consulted a Boston psychiatrist, Dr. Benjamin Simon. Dr. Simon used hypnosis as a tool to aid Barney's memory. He also hypnotised Betty as a check on Barney's story. The classic alien abduction story emerged, told from each person's perspective.

UFO skeptics tend to dismiss alien abduction stories as fantasies influenced by images current in popular culture. People are "abducted" by little gray humanoids, they say, because that's the image society has of aliens. Well, that wasn't especially the case when the Hills went to see Dr. Simon, and yet both described small beings with large heads. The dominance of the Grays in UFO literature, it can be argued, began with the Hills' story. Maybe all subsequent stories of Gray abductions are therefore suspect-- or maybe there's a more direct explanation.

Kathleen Marden, a niece of the Hills, and Stanton Friedman, prominent UFO researcher, have just published a book about the alleged abduction. Entitled Captured, the book uses transcripts made from tapes of the hypnosis sessions to examine the incident. The book might be worth a look. At the least, it looks at one of the central stories in one of the stronger and strangest social phenomena of the last half of the twentieth century.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Russian Space Plans

Anatoly Perminov, head of the Russian Federal Space Agency, has laid out some ambitious plans for his nation's future in manned space exploration.

Perminov, according to a report on, said Russia is considering seeking an extension of the useful life of the International Space Station from 2015 to 2020, by which tim,e Russia will be ready to deploy its next generation station. Of course, the Russians/Soviets have more experience operating space stations than anyone else. Perminov also said they are developing a new manned spacecraft, after decades of flying the Soyuz.

That new spacecraft will carry cosmonauts beyond low Earth orbit for the first time in history. Russia plans to land cosmonauts on the Moon by 2025, establish a manned lunar outpost in the 2028-2032 period, and send cosmonauts to Mars in 2035.

Perminov's remarks come at a time when Russia seems to be trying to reclaim its position as a major power. Its economy is doing well, its vast natural resources promise a prosperous future, and Russian foreign policy is becoming more assertive. Those plans, of course, roughly mirror current U. S. plans. Does that suggest a new space race, or possibly exploring the Solar System as international partners?