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?

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Mars Rovers Rolling Again

As this blog has tracked over the past several weeks, a huge dust storm on Mars has been threatening to end the explorations of both of NASA's Red Planet rovers. Now, however, the storm is weakening, the rovers' power levels have been built up, and both will be on the move again shortly.

The danger to the missions is not over yet, however. Lots of dust is still in the atmosphere, cutting down on the amount of sunlight that reaches the surface. Some of that dust will settle on the rovers' solar panels, cutting their ability to collect energy. Ironically, the best thing for that settling dust would be a wind that blows the dust off the panels, as has happened earlier in these missions.

Strong winds, of course, can herald big storms. So it goes, on Earth, and on Mars.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

NASA: No Drunken Astronauts

Earlier this summer, reports circulated that some astronauts over the years had flown while under the influence of alcohol. As those reports named no names or specific missions, NASA went through all its records for every flight over the past 20 years and found no evidence supporting such charges.

Of course, NASA finding no evidence of astronaut wrongdoing could be suspect in the eyes of some people. One of the reports stated that an unnamed American astronaut had flown in a Russian Soyuz to the ISS after drinking alcohol. A few days later, as reported in this blog, a spokesman for the Russian space agency and a cosmonaut both denied any such thing had ever happened. Again, some wouldn't be convinced.

There is an interesting point in this story concerning how journalism in America can operate. The national television networks were enthralled covering the space program in the 1960s, but for years, network news has largely ignored NASA-- even while NASA missuins were transforming our understanding of the Solar System and the universe-- except when something went wrong. There has certainly been little to no systematic coverage of NASA in recent years by ABC, CBS, or NBC. Along comes a story about inebriated astronauts that gives no names, no mission designation, and no verifiable facts-- and it makes at least one of the network nightly news broadcasts.

That seems an interesting way for journalists to approach keeping the public informed.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Virgin Galactic Post Mojave

Virgin Galactic has kept a low profile since the rocket firing accident July 26th that killed three Scaled Composites employees and critically injured three others. Scaled Composites, under Burt Rutan, is designing and building Virgin Galactic's suborbital tourist spaceships.

Virgin's public relations strategy seems to be to let Rutan take the lead in explaining what happened and calming nerves. That approach may be aided by the lack of coverage the accident received in the national televiosion news reports. A spokesperson for Virgun Galactic did say recently that the company has received no cancellations from ticketholders since the accident, and in fact some more tickets have been sold.

The nightmare of those trying to build a space tourism industry has to be the loss of a flight before the industry has had a chance to prove itself. The Mojave accident is a reminder of what's on the line. Virgin's strategy of studied silence may be sound in the short run, but to build a robust industry over the long run, making sure everybody understands the risks of spaceflight is in the interests of the companies involved.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Saturn's Mysterious Hexagon

A giant hexagon-shaped storm sits over Saturn's north pole. Scientists first got a few looks at the bizarre formation during the Voyager flyby of the planet, and confirmed its existence with the arrival of Cassini to Saturn's system.

And yes, Virginia, it is a hexagon-- straight sides, clearly defined corners, the whole bit. It's also huge--7,500 miles to a side, it extends about 60 miles deep into Saturn's atmosphere. Since it was imaged by Voyager, the assumption is the storm has been raging for at least that long, and the possibility exists that it's been around for much longer.

Scientists have no idea how the shape came about, or how the shape is maintained. They hope to gather more data as the mission of Cassini continues. So far, the hexagonal storm on Saturn is unique in our universe.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Foam Fiddling at NASA

After the loss of Columbia, close monitoring of the ice and foam that flies off the shittle's external tank since, and the scare caused in the latest shuttle mission by a gouge in Endeavour's heat shield by foam shedding off the external tank, NASA is adopting new procedures before the next shuttle flies.

NASA will peel off a layer of foam around the brackets holding the external tank to the orbiter. The change is designed to further limit foam coming off during the launch phase and possibly damaging the orbiter.

To the extent that such tinkering with procedures this late in the shuttle program shows a weakness that has yet to be solved in the shuttle system, retiring the fleet in 2010, if not before, seems an imcreasingly good idea.

Friday, August 24, 2007

A Void in a Vaccuum

Science fiction authors writing space travel adventures sometimes use voids in space-- areas where nothing exists. Well, now scientists have found not simply the real thing, but the granddaddy of them all.

University of Minnesota astronomers using the VLA radio telescope facility near Soccoro, New Mexico, found a void in the universe nearly a billion light-years across. Only a few stars exist in the area. There also seems to be little to no gas, and not even any dark matter, that mysterious stuff scientists believe accounts for a good chunk of the mass of the universe.

The discovery caught astronomers by surprise. Astronomers knew of similar areas, but nothing remotely on the scale of this one, and they have no explanation for it. That is a good thing. After all, if today's scientists could completely explain everything, what would humans do for the next few thousand generations?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Life Found on Mars??

Researchers reanalyzing data from experiments on NASA's 1976 Viking mission say life was in fact detected in the soil of Mars by Viking.

The scientists looked at the data from the Gas Exchange experiment and said it indicated biological activity. Gilbert Lewis has been arguing for thirty years that Viking found life. Lewis was the lead invesitigator on Viking's Label Release experiment, which also looked at gases involved in biological processes. At the time, Lewis insisted his experiment had found life, but those findings seemed out of step with the results from the other experiments in the Viking suite, so NASA and the scientific community declined to make such a momentous claim.

Since then, however, we have discovered good evidence that early Mars could have supported life. We've also discovered life can flourish in a much wider range of environments than previously thought. We have the possibility of Martian life in a meteorite, and now we may have positive results from two Viking experiments. Maybe NASA should organize another scientific conference focused on the possibility of life on Mars.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

SETI's Growing Pains

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, is now largely accepted as a legitimate scientific enterprise. A huge new SETI project funded by Paul Allen is currently coming online in Hat Creek, California, for example. SETI researchers, however, have had to fight for that acceptance.

Began in the early 1960s, SETI was often lumped in with UFOs in the public mind. While UFO researchers tended to be amateurs freelancing away, however, SETI researchers are scientists-- astronomers and physicists. SETI requires access to sophisticated equipment, which requires funding, which requires a certain level of respect. SETI proponenrs have historically maintained a bright libe between their work and UFOlogy, arguing on mathemarical grounds how extremely unlikely it is that aliens would be visiting Earth, and on physical grouinds. The UFO community, they point out, has produced no evidence to support their claims. Skeptics of both efforts can point out, however, that SETI programs have produced no evidence, either.

SETI as a field of endeavor is evolving. Along with more capable searches for radio signals, the effort is broadening to include other types of possible signals-- optical as in lasers, infrared, and others. Some SETI researchers are even open to the possibility of detecting signals between centers of a civilization that has expanded beyond its home star system. That accepts interstellar travel as at least a possibility, something SETI researchers have been reluctant to do.

Mainstream science has been skeptical that interstellar travel is viable, but SETI theory has been that advanced civilizations would communicate only through long distance means, like radio. Accepting the possibility of interstellar spaceships carrying crews or colonists may actually increase SETI's chances for success, but it also begins ro weaken the basic thrust of SETI.

The times, they are a-changing.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Endeavour Safely Home

The STS-118 mission ended successfully today as Endeavour landed safely at Cape Kennedy. There had been some unease about the decision not to attempt a repair of the gouge in the shuttle's heat shield before re-entry, but NASA proved to be correct.

Eleven more shuttle missions are scheduled to fly over the next three years, including two more this year. That's a schedule comparable to the heyday of the program. After the shuttle is retired in 2010, private vehicles will have the American manned spaceflight stage to themselves for a few years. until NASA's deep-space Orion spacecraft is ready to take people back to the Moon and beyond.

That, at least, is the current plan. Successful private spaceflight could easily build support for manned missions beyond low Earth orbit, on the theory that non astronaits will soon follow. The next step in reaching that exciting period is retiring the shuttle fleet on time, and without another tragedy.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Voyagers Still Voyaging

On August 20, 1977, Voyager 2 was launched towards the outer Solar System. On September 5, 1977, Voyager 1 was launched. Yes, that's right. Voyager 1 was launched on a path that would get it to Jupiter first, so even though it was launched second, it was designated Voyager 1. That bit of confusion kicked off a double mission that revoltutionized our understanding of the complexity of the cosmos.

Over the first 12 years of their flights, the Voyagers transformed Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune from tiny disks in our telescopes into three-dimensional giant worlds. They showed us the magnificent roiling in Jupiter's atmosphere in fine detail, and the thousands of ringlets that make up the broad, awesome rings of Saturns. The Voyagers showed us the four largest moons of Jupiter were full-fledged worlds in their own rights, laying the foundation for a new appreciation of the possibilities in the universe.

Thirty years into flights that may never end, both Voyagers are still in touch with Earth, still sending back data on their environment as they approach true interstellar space. Each probe is an everlasting testament to the vision and skill of the people who created them.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Endeavour Heading Home

The mission of STS-118 will end a day early because Hurricane Dean might threaten Mission Control in Houston the day Endeavour was scheduled to land.

The main NASA center for manned spaceflight was established in Houston primarily for political reasons; the vice president of the United States at the time was Lyndon Johnson, a power behind NASA since his days in the U. S. Senate, canny politician, and proud Texan. The site of Mission Control generally made little difference as long as NASA flew individual missions of relatively short duration. With the advent of continuous flight aboard the International Space Station, Houston and Moscow share mission control duties.

As NASA moves into a new era of lunar bases and extended missions to Mars, establishing a backup mission control may be a good idea. In a time of terrorism and possibly increased hurricane activity, continual support for crews on other worlds must be taken into account.

Where should a backup facility be placed? Obviously it should be far enough away from Houston that a disaster affecting Houston wouldn't bother the backup facility. The Senate Majority Leader at the moment is Harry Reid of Nevada. Might a future spaceship named Endeavour depend on a mission control in Reno?

Friday, August 17, 2007

STS-118 Update

After days of analysis and simulations, NASA has decided not to attempt repairs of the gouged heat shield on Endeavour's underbelly before the shuttle returns to Earth.

Simulations run earlier in the week suggests the part of the shuttle's skin under the gouge will be subjected to heat of 325 degrees during re-entry. The critical level is 350 degrees. That may seem a close call, but the heat will build and then ease as Endeavour slows in its flight through the atmosphere.

NASA clearly believes it has a margin of safety in this decision that outweighs the risks involved in attempring a repair in orbit. We can only hope NASA is correct.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Kardashev's Types

In 1964, Soviet scientist Nikolai Kardashev proposed a way to sequence civilizations based 9n the amount of energy they used. Type I civilizations would have access to all the energy resources of their home planet; Type II, of an entire solar system; and Type III would be in command of the energy output of an entire galaxy. '

It's fairly clear no Type III civilization exists in the Milky Way galaxy. Types I and II, however, are quite possible, and could be detected by us, perhaps by one of several strategies emerging in SETI, perhaps by astronomers finding something they cannot explain naturally-- or maybe a bit down the road when our space exploration effort comes across a machine of unearthly origin somewhere in our Solar System.

Kardashev's work on the subject of extraterrestrial intelligence fit within a rather strong stream of Soviet scientific thought. Soviet scientists who worked in experimental fields risked coming to conclusions that were contrary to Soviet dogma. That could be extremely unfortunate for the scientist and his or her family. Many scientists, therefore, chose to concentrate on theoretical work, where the State was less inclined to feel threatened.

Nikolai Kardashev and his classification scheme should be remembered for more than helping SETI researchers conceptualize possible alien neighbors. After all, in his classification, human society is not yet even a Type I civilization. Maybe Kardashev was making a political statement as well as speculating about intelligent life in the universe.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

STS-118 Update

NASA has made a preliminary decision, based on detailed examination of the gouge on Endeavour's underbelly and computer modeling of re-entry, that there is no need to attempt to fix the gouge before Endeavour comes home. More tests are currently being conducted, and NASA expects to announce a final decision later today.

At first thought, deciding to do nothing seems at least politically dangerous. After all, if nothing is done and the shuttle is lost because of the heat of re-entry, many people will question the future of the agency. Operating on the underside of an orbiter has its own risks, however. One miscalculation during an attempted repair could cause more damage than the repair was trying to address.

All things considered, NASA will be well out of the space shuttle business when the fleet is retired in 2010.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

BA Goes to Sundancer

Robert Bigelow, chair of Bigelow Aerospace, has announced that BA will accelerate its development program and move quickly to build Sundancer, the company's first inflatable craft that could actually support humans.

The decision was based on various factors. One involves economics-- BA is a for-profit company, remember. Rising launch costs in Russia plus the falling U. S. dollar has made launching from Russia less attractinve. Given the remarkable success of the company's first two experimental modules, Genesis I and II. Bigelow has decided to skip launching its Galaxy craft in favor of moving ahead with Sundancer, which could support a crew of three.

Sundancer could be it orbit by 2010. In announcing his decision, Mr. Bigelow noted that the private sector move into human spaceflight may come faster than anyone thought. Perhaps, but as of now, no private, manned vehicle has reached orbit, let alone returned safely, let alone accomplished such flights routinely, and the current shuttle mission is reminding us how challenging that is. The BA move is exciting, however. If all goes well for BA, Galactic Suite, Space Adventures, and NASA's Moon-Mars (possibly asteroid) program, historians in the far future may peg the next decade as the time humans became a spacefaring people.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Trouble for STS 118

NASA has found a deep gouge in the protective, essential layer of heat resistant tiles on the underbelly of shuttle Endeavour, near one of the rear wheel wells. A baseball-sized piece of foam broke away from the external tank during launch and struck the orbiter. The agency has not yet decided whether fixing the gouge before the shuttle returns will be necessary.

In an odd twist of fate, Barbara Morgan, Christa McAuliffe's backup on the last mission of Challenger, was one of the operators of the remote manipulator arm as Endeavour's crew documented the damage to their spacecraft.

NASA has been especially concerned about damage caused by shedding foam since the loss of Columbia in 2003, and has redesigned the foam covering of the external tank to minimize foam coming off. It's fairly certain, though NASA has never shouted it from the rooftops, that there were nicks and gouges in earlier shuttle flights that no one knew about until after the shuttle had landed safely. This gouge may be in a less vital area, but don't expect the folks at NASA to roll the dice. They shouldn't.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Galactic Suites

According to a rather sketchy report on, a company called Galactic Suite is planning to have a hotel in Earth orbit by 2012.

Looking at the company's website at you'll find a more complete explanation of the projected vision. A three-day stay would cost $4 million, but that would include several weeks on a Caribbean island for training; while in space, tourists would also take part in scientific research. The company, owned by investors from the United States, Japan, and the United Arab Emirates and based in Barcelona, Spain, estimates there are 40,000 people in the world who could afford such a vacation, though it is not sure how many of those will want to make the trip. GS plans a chain of orbital hotels.

The success of any such project will clearly depend on the availability of a reliable transport system to take visitors to the hotel and bring them home. No such system exists at present, though GS plans to operate its own vehicles. Suborbital tourist flights may begin next year, but reaching orbit vastly complicates the matter. Whether a system will be available by 2012 remains to be seen.

Galactic Suite offers an exciting vision of the near future. Will that vision become reality? Stay tuned.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Mars Rover Update

As followed in this blog, a powerful dust storm on Mars has threatened the future usefulness of NASA's rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. Recently, however, the storm has weakened slightly, allowing more sunlight to reach the surface, thus allowing the rovers to recharge their batteries and warm their electrical innards.

All is not well quite yet, but the rovers may survive this storm yet. Either way, they were designed to last only 90 days, so NASA has been playing with the house's money for a very long time.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

STS-118 Underway

The flight of Endeavour in mission STS-118 got off to a smooth, punctual start last evening with a beautiful launch. The presense in the crew of Barbara Morgan, Christa McAuliffe's backup, brought the last flight of Challenger particularly to mind, but this time the 73-second mark passed without incident.

Endeavour's mission will focus on continuing to build the International Space Station. That, indeed, is the main reason shuttles are still flying at all. One twist this time will be an attempt to transfer power from ISS to Endeavour. If successful, the mission can be lengthened, and NASA will have one more option on future missions.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Barbara Morgan

Two decades ago, under President Reagan, NASA developed the "Teacher in Space" program, and planned to fly other civilians on the shuttle. Christa McAuliffe was the first teacher to fly. After the Challenger explosion took her life, no more civilians flew, except for the odd politician.

McAuliffe's backup was Barbara Morgan. Now a full astronaut, Morgan will finally get her ride into space aboard Endeavour on STS-118. Morgan will conduct class from orbit, as McAuliffe would have done. She will also operate the shuttle's remote manipulator arm.

Whatever she teaches from orbit, however, will not be as important as the lesson she is teaching simply by being there. It is a lesson of steadfastness in the face of tragedy, of patience, of vision, and of personal courage.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

California To Deal With Mojave Accident

The Federal Aviation Administration will allow California authorities to investigate the rocket engine explosion that killed three last month at the Mojave Air and Space Port. The FAA considers the tragedy an "industrial accident," not an accident related to flight, and so will leave the matter to the state.

How the accident will affect the first passenger flight of Virgin Galactic is unclear. That flight was not scheduled until late 2009 even before the accident. A rough parallel may be drawn with the Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts in January, 1967. That led to a major overhaul of the Apollo Command Module, but less than two years later, Christmas, 1968, three Apollo astronauts were orbiting the Moon.

Apollo, of course, had a deadline to meet. Virgin Galactic and the builder of its ships, Scaled Composites, are fighting no such deadline. Still, they can't simply tease potential customers; they need to fly at some reasonable point in time. We will see in the next weeks and months whether the explosion is a serious setback to the space tourism industry.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Hiroshima and Roswell

Today is the anniversary of the American atomic attack on Hiroshima, Japan. Some UFO researchers have speculated that the alien craft they say crashed near Roswell was flying over New Mexico because the aliens were concerned about our new atomic capability, and New Mexico was home to both Los Alamos and the world's only atomic strike force, based at Roswell.

First, any aliens acting on that theory would've been taking the very long view. At that time, humans were still centuries away from threatening anybody but each other. An interstellar civilization, conceivably, might take such a long view. That granted, let's look at some numbers.

The first atomic explosions that supposedly captured the attention of the aliens took place in 1945, two years before Roswell. Assuming the aliens cannot travel faster than light (because assuming anything else wouldn't get us anywhere), that would mean the aliens at Roswell came from, at most, a bit less than two light years away. The nearest star to the Sun is some more than four light years distant.

That would mean that if aliens visited Roswell in 1947 reacting to the atomic blasts, they likely came from a base in our Solar System. Indeed, several years ago, Nick Pope, who investigated UFOs for the British Ministry of Defence, told this author in an instant message conversation that he thought an alien base in the Solar System was the most likely explanation for many UFO reports.

So, why haven't we found such a base? Perhaps because we haven't really looked. Some researchers, including some reputable scientists, are urging NASA and SETI researchers to keep an open mind about alien bases or artifacts in the neighborhood. The alien probe that observed the blasts at Trinity Site, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, and sent that information to its masters, may yet be waiting for us.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Phoenix to Mars

Early Saturday, NASA launched its Phoenix Lander mission to Mars. So far, the flight is going perfectly.

Phoenix is designed to land within the Martian Arctic Circle next May and use a long robotic arm to dig into the ice and soil in a search for organic compounds that might suggest earlier life on Mars. That's the official objective of NASA and the scientific community. We know, however, that life is extremely adaptive. We know part of the polar ice is water ice. Some scientists think water may exist under the surface of Mars. Finding live life is not completely out of the question.

Next summer could be a fascinating time.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Following Up on Exploration

On this date in 1492, Columbus left Spain, sailing west. By March, 1493, he was back in Spain, reporting on what he thought he'd found. In November, 1493, he was back in the Caribbean, this time commanding seventeen ships carrying one thousand men and enough European livestock to support a new colony. Columbus also carried the grand title of viceroy.

American Apollo astronauts first set boot on the Moon in 1969, and there is still no lasting human presence there.

Part of the difference is a difference in the law. Ferdinand and Isabella felt quite free to claim all lands discovered by their explorers, whereas, under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, no nation could claim any celestial body. Still, NASA had ambitious post-Apollo plans, including lunar bases and manned missions to Mars in the 1980s. The United States, so proud of its pioneer heritage, pulled back.

The difference in the two choices cannot be economic. At the time of Columbus' discovery, Ferdinand and Isabella were still assembling modern Spain by absorbing smaller kingdoms. They had just finally defeated the Moors, denying Islam a beachhead in emerging Christian Europe. They were persecuting Jews through the Spanish Inquisition. Their plates were full, yet they acted aggressively and built an empire. At the time of the Apollo lunar landings, the United States was the world's leading economic power, and the leader of the Free World. It was in a far stronger position to build upon Apollo than Spain had been to build upon Columbus.

Perhaps the difference was timing. Columbus' discovery was a kind of culmination of a process begun decades earlier by Portugal to systemically develop the ability to sail the ocean, reach new lands, and open new trade routes. Ferdinand and Isabella immediately grasped the potential in Columbus' discovery, and acted.

Apollo, though, was more of a brilliant improvisation, brilliantly carried out. Once the lunar landing had been achieved, America had no notion of what to do next. Only now are we beginning to sketch a future that brings space activities into the human economy. Only now, perhaps, are we developing the plans, philosophy, and technological base to become a truly spacefaring civilization.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Spaceport America on Its Way

The New Mexico Spaceport Authority today announced it has selected a construction and design team to build the terminal and hangar for Spaceport America, a facility meant to be home to private spaceflight companies. Virgin Galactic, for example, plans to build its headquarters there.

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, currently a candidate for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, has helped push the spaceport idea to the edge of concrete reality in his state, but he has not stressed any specific space policy in his presidential campaign. Perhaps that's because he doesn't think Americans are particularly interested in the subject. If he sees potential in the emerging private space industry, however, maybe he should put out a proposed national space policy and push it as he stumps around the country. Nothing he's said so far has gotten his poll numbers out of single digits.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

A Leaky Endeavour

NASA is trying to launch Space Shuttle Endeavour on another construction mission to the International Space Station, but before that can happen engineers need to track down a leak in the living area of the shuttle. Atmosphere is escaping from the shuttle cabin, or from the tube connecting the cabin to a SPACEHAB module to be carried in the payload bay. Engineers have not yet pinpointed the location of the leak, but they seem to be concentrating on the shuttle itself, not the SPACEHAB module. SPACEHAB is a private contractor based in Seattle that builds modules that supports scientific and commercially-oriented experiments.

This will be Endeavour's first flight since 2002. For those five years, it has been receiving upgrades to various systems. Endeavour, on paper, will be the fittest, most capable shuttle ever to fly-- just as soon as NASA can find and plug that leak.