Tuesday, July 31, 2007

NASA Funding

On July 26, the Democratically-controlled U.S. House passed a NASA funding bill allocating $17.6 billion for the agency next year. That is slightly more than the Bush Administration requested. The budget level maintains NASA's share of federal spending at less than one percent of the total federal budget. Some space advocates have been concerned that the Moon-Mats program initiated by President Bush may not survive his administration. If a Democratic Congress fully funds the program, perhaps the Democrats will have made the exploration vision their own.

Monday, July 30, 2007

NEO Voyaging

A group at NASA is studying the feasibility and rationale for a manned mission to a near-Earth object (NEO), an asteroid that orbits near Earth or crosses Earth's orbit, once NASA's new spacecraft is flying.

Such a mission would have several positives. It would focus attention on NEOs, which pose a threat to life on Earth; they've slammed into the planet before, and will again. It would give us a close look at one of this group. Planning a mission of 90 to 120 days, a NEO trip would be an ideal bridge mission between a short lunar flight and a long voyage to Mars. It would be a deep space test of the new Orion/Constellation ship/propulsion unit configuration. It would broaden our ability to go places and do things in space. If establishing a base on one of Mars' tiny moons is under consideration, as reported earlier in this blog, a NEO mission would give us valuable experience in working with such small bodies.

A NEO mission might make sense in various ways.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

NASA's 49th

President Dwight Eisenhower signed the act creating NASA this date in 1958. In the half century since, the agency has been in the forefront of a revolution in our understanding of the Solar System and the universe as a whole.

Last week, however, was not a good one for either NASA or for the emerging private space industry. NASA was rocked by two unrelated stories that happened to come out at the same time. One involved an employee of a contractor sabotaging a computer to be used on the next shuttle mission. NASA personnel caught the problem, and it's not clear what NASA could have done to stop the person, but that story got wrapped up with a report that two astronauts had flown missions when they had been drinking alcohol before launch. One of those incidents allegedly happened when an astronaut was flying to the ISS aboard a Soyuz. On Saturday, however, a Russian spokesman and a cosmonaut both denied any such thing ever happened. The initial report understandably shocked many people, and NASA promised to make sure there will be nothing like that in the future, but it's not a good way to celebrate a birthday.

In Mojave, California, as reported in this blog, three people were killed when a Scaled Composites rocket engine exploded during testing. That accident was not as widely reported as, say, the collision and crash of two television news helicopters in Phoenix. Four were killed in that accident.

The news helicopters were documenting a car chase by police when the pilots seemed to lose track of each other. Scaled Composites is trying to build a spacecraft that will begin opening space travel to private enterprise. The editorial choice in reporting the one and not the other is interesting.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Tragedy at Mojave

Three people were killed and three more injured as a result of an explosion during testing of a rocket engine at the Mojave airport/spaceport in California Thursday.

The workers were conducting the test on engines designed for SpaceShipTwo, the vehicle being developed by Scaled Composites to take passengers on suborbital flights under the Virgin Galactic banner.

Neither Burt Rutan, CEO of Scaled Composites, nor Sir Richard Branson, owner of Virgin Galactic, has as yet commented on the tragedy.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Mars Sample Return?

Alan Stern, NASA's new associate administrator in charge of the Science Mission Directorate, as well as a major force behind the mission currently on its way to explore Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, is calling for a mission to Mars that will bring rock and soil samples back to Earth. According to SPACE.com, Stern is aiming for the 2016-2020 period for the flight, which he estimates will cost between $3 and $4 billion.

Some planetary scientists are less than thrilled. They worry such an expensive mission during a time of tight budgets will suck money from other proposed Mars mission, destroying the momentum the current Mars exploration program is building by sending smaller missions on a regular schedule. Stern counters that, given the tight budget, they can either go for a big jump now or watch future funds be cut.

Stern may be correct. Still, his proposal seems to put a lot of eggs in one basket. If the mission failed, as missions to Mars are prone to do, we can expect Congress to question a program that wastes so much money-- forgetting for the moment that Congress would have approved the mission yearly as it was developed. In this case, as in other government programs, the determining factor may not be as much the merit of the proposal as the surrounding, shifting politics.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Lonely No More

The classic image of a deep space explorer-- with the exception of the STAR TREK universe of characters-- is someone who cuts himself off from his society for years to explore the unknown. That image is no doubt based on the ocean-going explorers of the European Age of Discovery, who did something very close to that. To explore deep space, however, is not to explore eighteenth century Tahiti in a British ship.

The Internet has already profoundly affected society, and it will play a role in keeping explorers linked to home. Already, ISS crewmembers can videoconference with family and friends, send and receive email, and trade computer files. The situation will be much the same for lunar explorers.

As we move on to Mars, real-time conversations will be difficult because of the time lag involved, but all the other communications options will be open to explorers. Movie night at a Mars base will feature the same movies that are being shown back home at that time-- unless the crewmembers are Three Stooges fans.

Anywhere we travel in the Solar System, explorers and settlers of the far reaches will be able to remain part of their communities, receiving news only hours old at most. They will be able to read the same books and watch the same television as their families. Mail delivery will be faster than the U. S. Postal Service, and much of it will likely be video.

The lonely explorer will only begin to be relevant again as we head to the stars. As a starship powers into interstellar space, barring some breakthrough, news from home will gradually become history. The bond with Earth will weaken. Until then, however, no explorer of the Solar System need feel cut off from home.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Maybe, Maybe Not

Predicting the weather on Mars seems to be about as difficult as predicting the weather on Earth. Late last week, as reported in this blog, NASA was downbeat about prospects for its rovers on Mars because of the huge dust storm raging on the Red Planet. Over the weekend, however, there seemed to be more optimism. There seemed to be hope that the storm might blow itself out soon; in that case, the rovers might be able to resume their missions. NASA reported the power levels on both rovers-- the crux of the crisis-- were holding up nicely. Today, NASA again seems more inclined to be gloomy.

Stay tuned.

Monday, July 23, 2007

SA, BA in "serious talks"

Space Adventures CEO Eric Anderson tells SPACE NEWS that his company is in "serious talks" with Bigelow Aerospace about offering tourists flights aboard SA-owned Soyuz spacecraft to a Bigelow station in low Earth orbit. Bigelow is currently developing inflatable habitats-- modules that expand in space, allowing them to be launched atop conventional rockets. Two test versions are currently in orbit.

Anderson (no relation to me) gave no details, but he did point out that adventure tourism is the fastest growing sector of the booming tourism industry. He also said there are perhaps 20,000,000 millionaires alive today, and SA is having no problem selling its tourist flights to the International Space Station.

Though Anderson set no time frame for such a project, Bigelow plans to have man-rated modules ready to go by roughly 2013. Price? Anderson didn't say, but a flight to ISS is being bumped up to $30 million-- an extra $15 million can get you a spacewalk-- and a looping flight around the Moon is currently tagged at $100 million.

A stay at the first Earth-orbiting hotel, depending on various factors, should probably come in at something around $50 million for a week to ten days. That's strictly my number.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Opportunity Lost?

As covered in this blog, NASA is now concerned that the dust storm evolving on Mars over the past few weeks might end the rover missions. The storm has intensified over the latest few days, now covering virtually the entire planet and cutting off as much as 99% of the sunlight. Without sunlight reaching the surface the rovers cannot recharge their power supplies, and will eventually cease to function. Already, NASA has cut far back on rover activities in an attempt to preserve them until the storm blows itself out.

Friday, July 20, 2007

July 20

Thirty-eight years ago, my father and I sat up well into the night watching a grainy black-and-white television picture. We wouldn't normally do that, but the picture was coming from the surface of the Moon, and it showed two men, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, on that surface, kicking up dust and walking oddly in the light lunar gravity. A big chunk of humanity held its breath at the landing a few hours before, and watched those first steps with us. Dad and I went to bed when Armstrong and Aldrin were "safely" back in the lunar module.

Given the power of the event and the power of mass communications in 1969, it's probably fair to say that for a few minutes that July 20, mankind was united in a way that no conqueror, no monarch, no prophet ever achieved. The promise of Apollo was not built upon, however. For various reasons, the American manned space program has been restricted to low Earth orbit for decades.

That situation might be about to change. The generation that stayed up into the night with its parents watching Neil and Buzz may be able to spend retirement following the construction of the first lunar base with its grandchildren. Many in that generation had dreamed of more, but establishing a sound foundation for future space projects, both public and private, would be quite a legacy.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Humanoid Form

Few scientists will discuss UFO reports except to dismiss them, but some are willing to speculate about alien life in general. Almost always, they start with the notion that alien life will not look anything like Earth life, certainly not anything like us. Indeed UFO skeptics use that assertion to say the little humanoids found in many alien abduction stories are the product of limited human imagination, not of an evolutionary process on another planet that came up with beings similar to ourselves, at least in general form.

That's clearly one possibility, and given the state of our current knowledge, the most likely. The most likely, however, does not square with the absolute statement often made that because these alleged visitors are humanoid in form, they cannot be from another world.

One driving factor of evolution, at least in larger animals, is the interplay between form and environment. Because animals must live in an environment, the ones best suited to a given environment tend to be the ones that produce generations of offspring. That, in sketch form, is how species develop. On Earth, the larger land animals all tend to have a body, four limbs, and a distinct head. Many, of course, also have tails. That basic form presumably comes from a common ancestor deep in the past.

The question is: Why have the descendants of that common ancestor done so well? If the answer is essentially "serendipity," then yes, it's fair to say that the humanoid form is closely, or exclusively, associated with Earth. However, if the reason most big animals on Earth have four limbs, a head, etc., is because that form works well on this type of planet, we can entertain the idea that a similar evolutionary process operating in a similar environment might have produced a similar form. Maybe not, but maybe. If the evolution of humanity was tied to environmental factors, an intelligent, technological species from an Earthlike planet could possibly be similar in form to us.

Perhaps thousands of events went the "right" way to get humanity out of the ancestor that also gave rise to modern apes. Would such a series happen roughly the same way on another world? Answering that question is beyond us at the moment. Science, however, doesn't generally like explaining natural processes as finally due to simple chance.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Icy Charon

Astronomers have recently discovered that Pluto's moon Charon erupts in geysers of water ice. In fact, it looks as though Charon surface is covered in a new, thin sheet of water ise every 100,000 years.

Jupiter's moon, Europa, for example, also sports such geysers. In that case, however, scientists think the powerful gravity of Jupiyer, constantly pulling, squeezing, and flexing the interior of Europa, is the energy source for the geysers. Tiny Pluto-- now no lunger even a planet, according to the International Astronomical Union-- has no such fun with Charon. Some sientists speculate a source of radioactivity in the core of the moon could power the geysers.

When NASA's mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt finally arrives at Pluto in a few years, Charon might be the body putting on a show.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Forest Fires As Astronomical Tools

Forest fires are generally seen as fierce, destructive events. We think of the trees lost, and the final, terrified moments of those animals unable to get away. Science has shown, however, that our forests have evolved taking periodic fires into account, and using them. Fires clear out underbrush, for example, opening land for new growth. The seeds of some plants actually need the heat of fire to move from dormancy to active life.

Forest fires can also help astronomers and geologists. A recent fire whipped through a forest in Minnesota and uncovered meteoritic bits that have been traced to the huge impact crater in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. A body smashed into the Earth there nearly two million years ago, and the Minnesota discovery gives us more data on that event.

Our understanding of the bombardment of Earth can be traced to the Apollo program. Scientists preparing for the astronauts' visits to the lunar surface focused on the Moon and its history. From those studies came the understanding that not only had the Moon been pounded, but the Earth had as well. Dr. Eugene Shoemaker was a major force behind that new view, and Shoemaker also argued the Earth would be hit again. He was dramatically aided in that argument when a comet he had co-discovered, Shoemaker-Levy, slammed into Jupiter as Earth watched.

The realization of the danger posed by a future collision with a comet or an asteroid is a benefit from Apollo rarely acknowledged.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Apollo 11's Launch

Thirty-eight years ago today, on an otherwise quiet Florida day, a thunderous event occurred. Thunderous in decibels, and thunderous in historical significance. For the first time in the history of the world, and possibly for the first time in the history of the universe, natives of one world were going to try to physically touch another.

Of course, they succeeded. The United States had gone literallly from nowhere in space to launching Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins into a kind of immortality in just about eight years. That ranks with the greatest achievements of all time. It was accomplished in the climate of the Cold War. The U. S. under John Kennedy and the Soviet Union under Nikita Khrushchev had tacitly agreed to compete in space to prove which system was strongest, in an attempt to avoid meeting on the battlefield. Something worked. Both leaders who started the Space Race were long gone by the launch of Apollo 11-- Kennedy dead, and Khrushchev deposed-- but the chain of events they started was about to reach a climax.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Possible Approach to Exploring Mars

NASA is considering an approach to exploring Mars that could involve establishing a manned base on one of the Martian moons, Phobos and Deimos.

Establishing a base on one of the tiny moons before attempting to land on the planet itself would potentially have several advantages. Both bodies are believed to be captured asteroids, so studying one of them would be scientifically valuable, Mars aside. To the extant the same base used on Earth's airless, rocky Moon could be used to put a base on an airless, rocky moon of Mars, such a base might be established sooner and cheaper than a Mars surface ezpedition could be attempted.

From such a base, forays to the other moon could be mounted. Astronauts would have an extraordinary view of Mars. They could directly control a fleet of surface rovers. Instead of controlling rovers from Earth, as is done now, with the limitations imposed by the time radio signals need to travel between the two planets, astronauts on Phobos, say, could drive a rover on Mars virtually in real time. That would vastly increase the speed and range of a rover, and dramatically increase productivity. Finally, a base on a Martian moon could give future missions to the planet itself a relatively safe place to abort if something went wrong.

On the down side, based on Soviet/Russian data, both moons seem to be incredibly dusty-- as in dust perhaps feet deep. Maintaining equipment in such an environment would pose a real challenge. Establishing a lunar base will mean dealing with a significant dust problem, too, As many argue, Luna might be a school and a stepping stone to the rest of the Solar System.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Still Growing

The big dust storm on Mars, noted earlier in this blog, continues to grow. It has now covered the planet's southern hemisphere and is moving north. NASA seems confident, however, that the storm poses no real threat to the rovers on Mars, as yet.

Just as it's now summer in Earth's northern hemisphere, it's currently summer in Mars' southern hemisphere, which is when these storms blow up. NASA is giving this one a couple more months. If the space agency is right, the rovers should be able to wait out this storm and resume their explorations.

Literally-- after the dust settles.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Armchair Lunar Exploration

One big key to successfully expanding the human economy into space is directly linking space commercial activities to consumers. Various space tourism companies are attempting to do that, but at least early on, the cost of a ticket on ome of their flights will be prohibitive for all but the extremely wealthy.

A small company called Lunacorp had a different approach in the 1990s. It wanted to land rovers on Earth's Moon and allow ordinary people to drive the rovers around the surface for a fee. Obviously, that project never came to fruition, but it's a neat idea. The Planetary Society, a space advocacy group with 100,000 members around the world, also tries to involve ordinary people in space exploration projects, though that is a non-profit group. The potential early market for a scheme like Lunacorp's would seem to be substantial-- not just individual enthusiasts, but, say, schools around the world, professional and academic scientific researchers, and commercial interesets looking at potential lunar projects.

Lunacorp dissolved in 2003. That was before the extraordinary successes of NASA's Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Mars, which are driven each day by someone at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Remotely driving a rover on Mars while pursuing scientific objectives is much more challenging than remotely driving a lunar rover would be. Radio signals take several minutes to travel between Earth and Mars, but only a little more than a second to go from Earth to the Moon. A commercial lunar rover need be far less complex than NASA's Mars rovers, and therefore less expensive per unit. If a fleet of such vehicles were built, the per unit cost should drop still more. Versions meant for more serious explorations would no doubt be slightly more expensive.

Imagine going to your local ExploraStore, putting down a few dollars, and getting to remotely control a rover on the Moon for an hour or two, seeing things no human had seen before. The chance to make an exciting discovery would be ever-present. Imagine simply logging on to the Internet from home, going to a website, and exploring Luna whenever you wanted for however long you wanted. Such an approach could be cheap enough to let most people try it out. That could bring the public along as we expand into space with bigger projects.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Extrasolar Water

For the first time, astronomers have found water vapor in the atmosphere of a planet orbiting another star. That's not surprising-- water seems to be common throughout the universe, and scientists had expected to find water vapor on such worlds-- but it is confirmation that our models are on to something.

The planet is a "hot Jupiter" orbiting a star similar to our Sun a bit over six light-years away, which makes that star a close neighbor. Hot Jupiters are gas giants, like Jupiter, that orbit very close to their parent star. This one, in fact, whips around its star in only two days, which makes our Mercury seem absolutely pokey.

Generally, the presence of water brings up the question of life. That may not happen in this case. Gas giants generally, and hot Jupiters specifically, are not viewed as good homes. Having said that, however, the late Dr. Carl Sagan once envisioned "floaters" riding the air currents of Jupiter's huge atmosphere, staying and thriving in the temperate zones and belts.

Maybe somewhere out there, Dr. Sagan's fanciful notion actually breathes, flies, and lives.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Bureaucratic Politics

NASA currently operates weather satellites in Earth orbit, as well as similar satellites in Martian orbit. It also sends exploratory craft to other planets, to study their atmospheres, as often as the budget allows. Going to other planets is what NASA should be-- and wants to be-- all about. Another federal agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is charged with studying the environment of Earth.

Here's a thought.

Have NASA launch and maintain federal weather satellites-- that's what NASA does best-- but once the satellites are in orbit, transfer them to NOAA. That would give NOAA more resources to do its job (even though NOAA scientists clearly have access to NASA-obtained data now), give both agencies a stronger bureaucratic ally when the time to wrestle more money out of the political leadership rolled around, and allow NASA to focus on its main mission-- exploring space.

Just a thought.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Launch Sites

Drveloping a spacecraft that can takeoff and land like an airplane has proven to be a formidable engineering challenge-- so much so, in fact, that it looks as if the classic, straight-up launchers will be with us for decades to come. Hopefully, more reuseability can be built into them, but by their nature, they will always need their own launch sites.

In order to avoid disasters at launch, it's best to have nothing downrange for a rocket to plow into. That was more important in the early days, but flying over a populated area still wouldn't be a good idea. One reason Cape Canaveral was picked as the main NASA launch site was that it allowed launches over the Atlantic.

Starting from scratch to build a launch site, you'd ideally want water to the east. Because Earth rotates west to east, launching a rocket to the east gives the rocket a headstart. That headstart is most pronounced at the equator. There, a given point on Earth is traveling east at about 1,000 miles an hour. (The circumference of Earth is about 25,000 miles, and Earth rotates once in 24 hours.) So, where would the ideal launch site be?

Grab a globe. One would be northern South America, which is why the European Space Agency launches from there. Another is Australia's Cape York, the northernmost part of that continental nation, and the Aussies have been talking about building a launch site there for years. The third would be Kenya, smack on both the equator and the east African coast.

A company called SeaLaunch is developing the capability to launch a rocket into space from the water, which means their launch platform could be towed to the equator. Seeing the mighty Saturn V as a sea creature, however, takes some doing. Certainly for now, SeaLaunch is concentrating on smaller vehicles.

When we finally develop launchers that can operate out of airports, all the above will quickly become obsolete. But until then, a good launch site is important.

Sunday, July 8, 2007


Sixty years ago today, newspapers and radio stations across the country and over the world reported that a "flying disk" had been recovered in the desert around Roswell, New Mexico. Later that day, the United States Government denied any such thing had happened.

Fifty years later, the U. S. Air Force put out a report arguing the Roswell UFO story could be explained by the crash of a high altitude balloon that was part of Project Mogul, a program designed to detect Soviet nuclear tests.

After that, the USAF put out yet another report, this one arguing that the alien bodies associated with Roswell were in fact six-foot crash test dummies used in high altitude tests in the 1950s.

Many Americans find these sequential truths unconvincing. Whatever their objective merits, the various stories are seen by many against a background of Vietnam and the social turbulence it caused, clear cases of government lies in the interests of secrecy during the Cold War, Watergate, and the general decline in trust in not only politicians and government, but in the mainstream media, as well.

Each Roswell researcher seems to have his own version of what happened during a thunderstorm in 1947, but the basic story of a crashed alien spacecraft has taken its place in American popular culture. It has also boosted the Roswell economy, grafting a tourism industry onto an otherwise quiet ranching community.

By now, after all these years, the only way to get one side to agree with the other about what actually happened may be to have the aliens come back, openly, perhaps in search of their fellows. Anything less would be subject to interpretation. Of course, that means that finally proving nothing out of this world happened may be impossible.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Searching For Alien Life

A new report by the National Academy of Scoence, sponsored by NASA, encourages NASA to take a broader approach in its search for alien life.

So far, NASA has largely focused on looking for Earthlike life and Earthlike conditions on extrasolar planets. That approach, for example, has led to NASA's "follow the water" strategy in searching for life on Mars, either current or fossilized. Because of NASA's political and budgetary situation, trying to find life everyone can immediately recognize was probably a necessity, possible realities of the universe notwithstanding.

The Academy committee that produced the report, however, points out that alien life could be fundamentally alien. Some life forms may not have DNA-based genetics, for example. Some life may not need water in the same way Eathly life does. That could mean Saturn's moon Titan, with its lakes of mixed ammonia and water, should be studied more closely. Many scientists see Titan as an analogy of early Earth. It may be more analogous than most dared dream.

Trying to define life in all its possibilities, and trying to construct an exploration strategy that will encompass that definition, could be beyond our capabilities of the moment. Exploring may simply mean keeping an open mind and looking for complex chemistry.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Mars Rovers in Trouble

As reported earlier in this blog, a huge dust storm is developing on Mars. NASA was not terribly concerned about the storm initially, as it was well away from either rover. Recently, however, the storm has exploded in both size and intensity, and is approaching the position of the rover, Opportunity.

This is becoming a massive storm, throwing enough dust into the atmosphere to block nearly all sunlight from reaching the surface. The rovers are powered by solar cells, so if sunlight can't reach them, the rovers will run out of power. Without enough power to warm their electronic innards against the fierce cold of Mars, the rovers' ability to function after the storm passes will be destroyed. Should that happen, though, let's remember the rover missions were originally scheduled to last 90 days each. Both Spirit and Opportunity have gone far beyond that, setting a high bar for future missions.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Looking for Life on Europa

A small engineering firm based in Austin, Texas, has some big ideas about the exploration of space. Better yet, Bill Stone is on the way to turning those ideas into reality.

Stone Aerospace is currently conducting field tests of a robot that explores watery depths on its own, with no directions from humans after it's deployed. Last month, the robot successfully explored deep sinkholes in Mexico completely on its own A similar robot is scheduled to explore an ice covered lake in Antarctica in December, 2008. That mission will be a sort of dress rehearsal for Stone's ultimate goal-- exploring the ocean under the icy surface of Jupiter's moon, Europa. If Stone gets his wish for a 2015 launch of that mission, we could know if there is life in Europa's ocean by 2019.

That's about the time NASA hopes to start building a base on Earth's moon, and Stone Aerospace intends to be a part of that, as well. The firm is lookin5 at building a robot capable of drilling several meters into the Moon in search of water ice. If water is found, the firm's energy company would then sell the water to NASA, for use at the base, or split water molecules into their components, hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen and oxygen, when used correctly, make an extremely useful rocket fuel. Lunar ice could power craft traveling throughout the Earth-Moon system and become the first export of a young lunar economy.

A lot of work remains before Bill Stone reaches his goals in space, but they are certainly worthy of the effort.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Virgin Galactic: On Target

According to SPACE.com, Virgin Galactic is right on target. Carolyn Wincer, head of Astronaut Sales for the company, told the website that 200 people have already put a deposit down on a ticket to fly into space. The price per seat is $200,000, and the flights are scheduled to begin in 2009.

Virgin Galactic officials had expected a slow period in ticket buying until the unveiling of their first passenger ship later this year, but Wincer said that hasn't happened. She argued that was good news for the company as well as for the new space tourism industry. Virgin Galactic plans a fleet of at least five passenger spacecraft, each capable of carrying six passengers. Do the math. With that much capability, and assuming reasonable flight rates, the 200 now waiting will get their flights fairly quickly into the effort, if all goes well. Virgin Galactic and its leader, Sir Richard Branson, seem to be building for the long term.

That long term is going to play out from the company's headquarters at Spaceport America in New Mexico. The flights planned so far are all suborbital. The entire experience a passenger will get will run three days; the flight itself will take about 2.5 hours, with about 30 minutes of that actually in what is defined as space by international bodies that govern such things,

Virgin Galactic may not live up to its name quite yet, but it seems off to a promising start.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Belting Away

Searching for extraterrestrial life has recently won its spurs in the scientific establishment--recently in this case being within the latest decade or so. That has to do with the increased ability to gather evidence bearing on the subject. Collecting evidence is what separates scientific inquiry from simple, if interesting, speculation. Within a decade or two, we have found planets orbiting other stars, good evidence for the existence of a huge water ocean under the ice of Jupiter's moon, Europa, and a meteor from Mars that may or may not contain evidence of Martian life.

Scientists have come up with a theory to guide the search for life in the universe. Called variously the "Life" or "Green" Belt theory, it points out that there is a belt around every normal star in which temperatures would be right for the existence of life as we understand it. Around smal, dim red dwarfs, that belt is extremely narrow, but would last billions and billions of years. Around huge, bright blue giants that burn through their nuclear fuel quickly, the life belt is broad, but short-lived. There's almost certainly not enough time for life to develop on a planet orbiting a blue giant before the star goes nova. Not surprisingly-- really, basically by definition-- the stars most likely to support life and civilizations under this theory are stars most like our Sun.

So, the search for civilizations should concentrate on stars like ours, right? Perhaps. If we assume interstellar travel is impossible, that conclusion would be, well, conclusve. If we allow for the possibility of immensely wealthy, advanced, long-lived civilizations mastering interstellar flight, however, things might change. A blue giant might be a good place to plant an energetic group. A close orbit around a red dwarf might be ideal for a civilization that had developed elsewhere. Life in life belts may be more abundant than we realize.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Bigelow Success, So Far

Preliminary data from Genesis II, Bigelow Aerospace's newest experimental spacecraft, indicates that the craft inflated properly, and that all systems are working well. Final confirmation should come soon.

If in fact Genesis II is working well, that would be quite a coup for BA. Most space efforts are beset by problems and outright failures in their early days. In fact, that goes for complex engineering and science programs generally, space-related or not. Genesis I continues to perform nicely nearly a year after launch and might continue operating for years, according to BA. If Genesis II follows that path, BA's technology, especially its signature inflatable module concept, will have to be seen as a serious contender to be used in large projects as humanity begins to settle space.