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.