Monday, December 24, 2007

Apollo 8

The twentieth century was a transforming time in human history, for both good and bad. It was a century that saw mass murder reach unprecedented levels, for example. The Inquisition and the activities of the Russian czars' secret police notwithstanding, the twentieth was the century of systematic torture.

It was also a time of unbelievable scientific and technological advancements. No one living in 1900 could have foreseen the world of 2000. In many ways, a high point of those advancements was reached about two-thirds of the way through the century, on Christmas Eve, 1968, during the flight of Apollo 8.

There had been only one Apollo mission before NASA decided to send Apollo 8 to the Moon. NASA was running out of decade, and it also had one eye on the Soviets. Worrying about things beyond flying the mission is probably not the ideal way to conduct a space program, but history is not about perfection. NASA sent Apollo 8 to the Moon, and NASA made it work.

Much of the world watched the live Christmas Eve broadcast from Apollo 8 as Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders read from Genesis while the extraordinary lunar surface rolled past their windows. The three men were only about sixty miles away from another world. The combination of the literary and spiritual achievement of Genesis and the technological achievement of spaceflight seemed to promise a hopeful future for mankind.

That promise hasn't been realized yet, but neither is that promise forfeit. Creating the future, it turns out, takes time. Today, many nations are trying to establish themselves as space powers by sending probes to the Moon. Further manned exploration, including the establishment of lunar bases, is being planned by the United States and others. Perhaps most importantly in the long run, private enterprise is actively looking for ways to move into space, and may be finding some.

Christmas commemorates the beginning of a new era in human affairs. Whether the Christmas Eve broadcast of Apollo 8-- and the subsequent historic flight of Apollo 11-- will usher in another new era has yet to be determined. In a nation seemingly intent on separating science and religion, however, perhaps the possibilities opened by embracing the whole of the human experience should be considered.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

SpaceDev Lunar Lander

SpaceDev conducted the first test of a prototype lunar lander last week. The test of the combined liquid/solid fuel engine was successful.

SpaceDev, which helped develop the engines for Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne, is pursuing the lunar lander for the International Lunar Observatory Association, a group which wants to land a station near the south pole of the Moon to conduct astrophysical and communication research.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Mars-Asteroid Collision?

Astronomers tracking Near-Earth Objects at NASA's JPL have recently found an asteroid that has a 1-in-75 chance of slamming into Mars January 30, 2008. Those odds are far higher than normal impact possibilities for any planet.

The asteroid in question seems to be roughly the size of the Tunguska object that exploded in the atmosphere over Siberia in 1906. Mars' atmosphere is not nearly as dense as Earth's, however, so if this body is on target, it will almost certainly reach the surface, creating a crater perhaps a half-mile wide. With all the scientific missions now operating at Mars, such an event would be extremely well documented.

This would be the second prominent planetary collision in fifteen years. In 1994, Comet Shoemaker-Levy plowed into the atmosphere of Jupiter. Even if this asteroid misses Mars, which is the likeliest outcome, the collision at Jupiter and a close brush at Mars, combined with documented near misses of Earth and the stark, mute testimony of pounding on the surfaces of Mars and Earth's Moon argue a space capability to deflect bodies away from Earth is essential to human survival.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Water or Land?

NASA is currently trying to decide whether its new Orion spacecraft will land in water, like Apollo, or on land, like Soyuz.

The basic difference of the two superpowers in the race to the Moon reflected the different strengths of the US and the USSR. Apollo landed in water because oceans are fat targets, and the US Navy was capable of operating in the bluest of blue water. The Soviet Navy in the early 1960s, on the other hand, was basically a coastal defense force. What the USSR did have, however, was land-- huge areas of empty steppe. Soyuz-- which has still yet to roam beyond low Earth orbit-- therefore landed on land.

For Oriom, the factors governing landing mode choice are basically reusability and recovery. If a capsule is to be used in more than one mission, coming down somewhere in the deserts of the western United States might be preferable. If reuse is not critical, splashing down off the coast of California might be best, because we know how to recover capsules at sea. In either case, precision landing will be critical. Aiming for the Utah desert and hitting downtown Salt Lake City would be disastrous. Missing an ocean landing area by tens of miles would also endanger the astronauts and their ship. Such misses occassionally occurred in the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Soyuz program.

Deadline for the decision is next September, when the overall design of Orion is to be finalized.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Tunguska Rethought

In 1906, something exploded in or above Siberia, leveling forest over a huge area. Many explanations-- some bizarre-- have tried to define exactly what exploded, but science has settled on a small asteroid as the likely culprit.

Now, running simulations on the supercomputer at Sandia National Labs, scientists suggest the asteroid responsible may have been even smaller than thought-- perhaps only 65 feet across.

If correct, that would make such disasters extremely difficult to defend against. The key to asteroid defense is detecting dangerous bodies well before they're on final approach to Earth. Finding and tracking such a body only feet wide may be beyond our capability for some time.

On the other hand, Tunguska-type events are rare, at least in human terms. They obviously are not wotld-enders. A Tunguska event could obliterate a major city, but by themselves they threaten neither the biosphere nor civilization. Finally, a robust, spacefaring civilization could almost certainly deal with such a small body even if it were zeroed in on its target.

If things fall right, humans might be only a century or so away from having built such a civilization.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

New Planet Formation Theory

A new theory of how the Solar System developed suggests the traditional theory is unworkable.

That traditional theory holds that the planets formed by coalescing out of material in a disk of gas and dust that surrounded the early Sun-- and that they did so in roughly their present orbits. The new theory says that there would never have been enough concentrated mass at the distances of Uranus and Neptune to allow those planets to form within the planetary formation window of a few hundred million years.

Instead, the new theory postulates a denser, more massive initial disk and argues that all the planets formed at about half their current distances, and migrated out to their current orbits, perhaps under the influence of a passing comet. Perhaps, too, a close brush with a passing star stretched the Sun's family of planets out to their current positions. Interestingly, the new theory also argues that Neptune and Uranus switched positions as they made their way to their present orbits.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Arthur C. Clarke at 90

Arthur C. Clarke, the famed science fiction writer who is also credited with the invention of the communicatioms satellite, celebrated his 90th birthday with a party Sunday and listed three birthday wishes. One was that the world switch to clean sources of energy. Another was for the end of the civil war in his adopted home of Sri Lanka. His third wish was for evidence of extraterrestrial beings.

At this stage of human civilization, the only way we will find such evidence is if those beings make themselves obvious to us in some deliberate way. Over the next few years and decades, humans, by our own efforts, may find simple life forms on Mars or Europa or Titan. Or, we may find extrasolar planets with atmospheric compositions that tell us they are likely the abodes of life. Clarke's wished for ET beings, however, would seem to be of a different order than simple alien bacteria.

The best shot at granting Sir Arthur's wish on that score any time soon is the world's SETI efforts, but there is also another intriguing possibility. Clarke himself has written stories about humans finding alien artifacts in our own solar system-- abandoned alien ships silently orbiting the Sun, or an alien probe waiting for us on the Moon. After nearly 50 years of exploring the Solar System, finding such artifacts cannot be ruled out.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

New Launch Date Set

NASA has set January 10, 2008, as the target date for the launch of STS-122. That will give the engineers time to solve the fuel sensor problem that stopped a launch in early December, while giving NASA personnel a few days off over the holidays.

The space shuttle program is scheduled to end in 2010, and the construction of the ISS must be completed before that, because the station's modules are specifically designed to fit in the shuttle's payload bay. Many more month-long delays could force some decisions NASA would rather not make.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Altair To Luna

NASA has decided to name the new vehicle that will actually carry humans to the surface of the Moon Altair. Altair flows from Arabic and, roughly translated, means "the flying one."

Altair is also the name of one of the brightest stars in Earth's sky, which is the alpha star of the constellation Aquila, The Eagle, harkening back to the name given to Apollo 11's lunar module.

Where the Apollo LMs could only support two people for a short period (Apollo 13 notwithstanding), Altair will be a much more substantial craft. It will carry four astronauts and be able to support them on the lunar surface for several days.

Now, Altair needs to be designed and built. NASA is looking for contractors now. The goal is to land humans on the Moon again before 2020.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Saturn's Old Rings

Astronomers have long believed the rings of Saturn, and other planets, constitituted transitory features. Using Voyager data, they thought the rings were about 100 million years old, formed perhaps when two large bodies-- say an asteroid and a moon of Saturn-- collided. Under that theory, the ring system will eventually collapse, and it was sheer serendipity that Saturn had rings when humans developed telescopes and spacecraft.

A new view seems to be emerging from Cassini data, however. Observations made by the probe in the ultraviolet suggests the ring system is much older than expected, and may even date back to the formation of the planet itself. A recycling process seems to be at work, maintaining the rings over the long term.

If the new theory is correct, whether it applies to the less spectacular rings of Jupiter and Urnanus is not clear. We shouldn't be surprised, however, if Nature has more than one way to produce planetary rings.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Spirit Looking For Power

NASA's Mars Rover Spirit is in danger of finally ending its mission. As documented in this blog, Martian dust storms last summer put great stress on the power supplies of both rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. Now, NASA says, Spirit has until Christmas to reach a sunny slope where it will spend the long Martian winter, building up its power reserves by soaking up solar energy.

Complicating the drive is the fact that Spirit can only travel every other day; it needs the off day to recharge its power supply. If the rover cannot rebuild its energy store, the various systems will freeze and may not be recoverable in the Martian spring.

Opportunity, nearer the equator, is in better shape.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Organic Compounds On Mars?

About a decade ago, NASA scientists captured worldwide attention by arguing that a meteorite found in Antarctica was not only from Mars, which is generally accepted by the scientific community, but that it also contained evidence of Martian life. That second conclusion was extremely controversial. Today, most researchers in the field probably reject the life hypothesis. Quietly, however, the NASA team has continued to build its case.

A new study by different scientists may provide some underpinning for an argument that life could have arisen on Mars. A necessary precondition for life, as far as we know, is the creation and maintenance of organic compounds. The new study looks at volcanic rocks from Norway and concludes that organic compounds can be created in volcanic eruptions that occur in extremely cold climates.

Clearly, that leaves Mars in the mix. Did Martian volcanic eruptions in fact create organic compounds, and did those compounds lead to life? Stay tuned.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Private Moon Race Engaged

As reported in this blog, over 300 teams from around the world have looked seriously at competing for the Google Lunar X-Prize since the announcement of the project in September. Now, at least two have taken the next step.

The first American entry is Astrorobotics. It has engaged Raytheon to build its hardware. The other entry at this point is Odyssey Moon. It has contracted with the Canadian firm MDA to buld its craft. MDA is also the builder of the large robotic arm of the space shuttle program. Odyssey Moon is based on the Isle of Man, off the west coast of Britain, because the tiny island's laws and tax regime encourages such projects.

The Planetary Society will serve as both education and science advisor to Odyssey Moon, which sees the Lunar X-Prize as simply the first step in an ongoing business based in lunar exploration.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

STS-122 Delayed Until 2008

NASA again delayed the launch of space shuttle Atlantis on the STS-122 mission. The next attempt wull not be made until January.

Launch delays have been common throughour the shuttle program. Part of that has been due to the fickle Florida weather, but most involved the complexity of the shuttle system. NASA is proud to say the shuttle is the most complex vehicle ever flown, but that has a downside. The failure of the shuttle to deliver the reliability originally promised has fueled the push to develop a space vehivle that can take off from a runway, land on a runway, and be maintained and serviced like an airplane.

Such a vehicle is the Holy Grail of those who want to open the space frontier. A vehicle with that capability, however, would likely be even more complex than the shuttle system.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Another Delay for STS-122

NASA engineers are still working to fix the fuel sensors on shuttle Atlantis' external tank. Another try at launch will be made Saturday.

The current launch window ends December 13. Because of the co0mplexities of orbital mechanics, if the shuttle doesn't launch in that window, the mission will have to be delayed until January 2.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

STS-122 Delayed

The launch of space shuttle Atlantis was delayed today due to a sensor reading on a fuel gauge. Atlantis is to deliver the European lab module Columbus to the ISS.

If all goes well, NASA now plans to launch Atlantis tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

STS-122 Ready to Fly

Both space shuttle Atlantis and the Florida weather seem ready for the launch of STS-122 tomorrow afternoon from Cape Kennedy.

The main objective of this mission is to deliver the European lab module Columbus to the ISS, bringing the construction of the space station one step closer to completion. Three spacewalks are currently planned to install Columbus, but NASA is considering adding a fourth to look at a solar power array that proved troublesome on STS-121.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Law In Space

Space shuttle Atlantis is poised to deliver the European lab module, Columbus, to the ISS. With it will come another complication of the laws governing humans beyond Earth.

Astronauts on space missions are not beyond the law. Apollo lunar astronauts, for example, remained within U. S. jurisdiction, even though, by treaty, the United States could not claim the Moon as its territory. On ISS, natiomal sovereignty, and therefore national law, rides with the modules-- Russian law governs in the Russian module, Japanese in the Japanese, and U. S. in the American. That said, in some areas of law, such as patens, the law can go with the nationality of the inventor-- except when the module in which most of the work was done is a factor. The situation will be further complicated with the arrival Columbus, which is a project not of any single nation, but of the European Space Agency.

Such a legal patchwork might be acceptable when only a few people are involved, but as the human presence beyond Earth grows and diversifies, some sort of unified legal code might be more appropriate. Otherwise, trial lawyers stand to inherit another huge profit stream.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Google Lunar Gets Fast Start

According to Sarah Evans of the X-Prize Foundation, 347 teams from 29 countries have already registered to compete to be the first private group to put a spacecraft on the Moon. It's encouraging. Even though only a small fraction of those who look at the project are likely to ever really take a shot, the likelihood now may be that several teams will actually compete, which increases the chances that the Google Lunar X-Prize will be claimed.

In fact, Peter Diamondis, chairman of the X-Prize Foundation, thinks the contest could be won in three or four years, far ahead of the 2014 deadline.

The next question would be whether such a project could be developed into an ongoing business.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

PkanetSpace, Inc.

Chicago-based PlanetSpace, Inc., is yet another small company trying to develop a spacecraft capable of delivering cargo or crew to the ISS. After the shuttle is retired in 2010, and before the new Orion spacecraft is scheduled to fly in 2015, NASA will have no way to put astronauts in orbit. It is looking for a privately developed and operated craft to fill the gap.

PlanetSpace, in partnership with Lochheed Martin, is competing for NASA funding to build its Module Cargo Carrier. If it wins the contract, the first flight of the MCC is planned for 2010. The funding is available because, as reported in this blog, Rocketplane Kistler lost funding when it failed to find necessary private fundiing.

PlanetSpace is also developing the Silver Dart, a suborbital manned craft aimed at the space tourism market.