Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Spy Tech and Mars Exploration

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Power Array Reattached

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

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

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

Monday, October 29, 2007

A Frustrated Armadillo

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

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

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

Sunday, October 28, 2007

STS-120 Mission Progressing Well

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

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

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

Friday, October 26, 2007

A New Room With A View

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

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

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Wirefly X-Prize No More?

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

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

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

Just a thought.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

China Jumps In

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

STS-120 Has Begun

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

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

Monday, October 22, 2007


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

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

Sunday, October 21, 2007

NASA Drops RpK

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

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

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

Friday, October 19, 2007

X-Prize Lunar Lander Cup

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

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

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

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Fire Still in Mars' Belly?

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Stony Apophis

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Manned vs. Robotic Exploration

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

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

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

Monday, October 15, 2007

Health on Luna

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

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

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

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Dawn's Ion Engines

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

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

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

Friday, October 12, 2007

Pluto's Family

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

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

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

The histories of Nix and Hydra might be quite interesting.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Opening Day for ATA

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Enceladus Has Geysers

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Asteroid Bonanza

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

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

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

Monday, October 8, 2007

Kistler Staggering

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

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

The letter did not go over well.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

IAU Goes Trek... Again

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

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

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

Friday, October 5, 2007

Japanese Probe in Lunar Orbit

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

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

Exciting times may be just ahead.

Thursday, October 4, 2007


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

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

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

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Buckling an Asteroid Belt

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Take Part in Galactic Research

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 1, 2007

BA's Potential Problem

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

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

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

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