Friday, November 30, 2007

Rockets and Water

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

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

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Mars or Bust

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Lightning On Venus

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Rare Moon, Plentiful Moons

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

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

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

Monday, November 26, 2007

An Emerging Industry

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

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

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

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Captured! II

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

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

All in all, Captured! is a good read.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Bezos Suborbital

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

New Russian Launch Site

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

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

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Yet Another Entry

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

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

Monday, November 19, 2007

Suggestion For Hoagland

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

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

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

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

Just a suggestion.

Sunday, November 18, 2007


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

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

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

Friday, November 16, 2007

Inflatable Bases

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

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

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

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Yet Another Lunar Mission

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Harmony Meets Destiny

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

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

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


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

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

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

Monday, November 12, 2007

Mexico Rising?

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

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

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

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Multitude Of Species

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

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

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

Friday, November 9, 2007

Germany May Go Lunar

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

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

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

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Hot Worlds

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

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

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Discovery Is Home

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 6, 2007


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

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

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

We might have neighbors fairly near by.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Changle 1 in Lunar Orbit

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

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

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Parazynski To The Rescue

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

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

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

Even beyond Earth, life is not fair.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Repairing A Solar Panel

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

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

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

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Viewing OSETI

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

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

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