Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Another Advance For VG, NM

Virgin Galactic and the State of New Mexico have signed a 20-year lease for VG to use the new Spaceport America to launch its space tourism flights. VG will also build its worldwide headquarters at Spaceport America.

The length of the lease is interesting. It's among the first solid indications that the space tourism industry is planning to be more than a flash in the pan, Twenty years also brings the development of the industry into play. Quick suborbital flights will lose their novelty at some point. The next logical step would be orbital flights in spacecraft that are safe, comfortable, and reusable for dozens or hundreds of flights without major overhauls. In fact, such craft are the key to humanity's expansion into the Solar System, and we are nowhere near having those vehicles. Will we have them in twenty years, and will they launch from a commercial spaceport in New Mexico? Much rides on the answer.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Columbia Report

A report centered on the February 1, 2003, re-entry accident that destroyed space shuttle Columbia concludes the crew survived less than a minute after the craft flew out of control. The report confirms the crew did nothing wrong that caused or contributed to the disaster.

The report also suggests changes in emergency training for astronauts, as well as changes in cabin design. Since no more shuttles will be built, and the new Orion spacecraft takes a fundamentally different approach to re-entry and landing, however, many of the suggestions may have to wait for the next generation of manned space vehicle.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Double Teaming Dark Matter

The biggest challenge facing physics over the past quarter-century has been coming to grips with the nature of dark matter, and, later, dark energy. The math tells us those two make up about 96% of the matter in the universe, with everything we see in the night sky amounting to only 4$, yet physicists have no understanding of what dark matter actually is, let alone dark energy.

That may change relatively soon. The LHC, the largest atom smasher on Earth, is scheduled to go back online sometime in 2009, and will explore extremely high energy physics, likely producing particles never before seen. One or more of those particles may be the key to understanding dark matter. The second thrust in the effort should come sometime in the next decade, when the European Space Agency launches its Gaia probe. Gaia will map the positions of stars with unprecedented presicion, thus defining exactly where dark matter must be.

Combined, the huge particle collider that creates the unimaginably tiny and the little space probe that maps the cosmic may give humanity a completely new grasp of the universe.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Hubble Repair Launch Logistics

NASA is considering a launch strategy for the Hubble Repair Mission next spring that would keep the first launch of the Ares rocket on schedule.

Under current rules, NASA needs two launch pads for the last mission to Hubble-- one from which to launch the mission, and the other for a possible rescue mission. The problem is that the first launch of Ares is also scheduled for next spring, and it needs that second launch pad. So, NASA is considering going to Hubble without a rescue mission ready to go.

Two points. NASA has never launched a shuttle under emergency conditions. It's not clear trying to do that now would be a good idea. Beyond that, it is clear that NASA wants to get going on the new Constellation program as soon as possible, to show the new president things are going well. Launching Ares in spring rather than summer would be a good first step in that direction.

Friday, December 26, 2008

NASA Awards ISS Supply Contracts

NASA has awarded contracts to two small, commercial firms-- SpaceX and Orbital Sciences-- that will pay them $3.5 billion combined to deliver cargo to ISS through 2015. The contracts are potentially a boon not only to those two companies but to the developing NewSpace industry as a whole. They strongly suggest that NASA believes there's more to those two companies, at least, than possibility.

The fact remains, however, that neither SpaceX nor Orbital Sciences has yet demonstrated the capability to reach ISS with anything, let alone deliver cargo on schedule. In that sense, NASA is taking a big gamble. If it works out, though, this could mark a majpr step forward in the commercialization of space.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Mars, 2200 AD?

The History Channel series, The Universe, featured a program about the early colonization of Mars last evening, setting the time frame for colonization at the dawn of the twenty-third century. Alas, that premise promised more than the show even attempted to deliver.

Perhaps the biggest logical flaw of the program was that it approached the technology of the colony by showing technology being developed today. That's roughly similar to trying to extrapolate early lunar exploration from technology used by Lewis and Clark. The result was a Mars colony that would not attract many colonists-- cramped, sterile, and constantly on the brink of disaster. Good drama for a documentary, but bad in reality. The program totally ignored the political and cultural underpinnings of such a project, and threw in an economic rationale-- rather curiously, mining asteroids-- largely as an afterthought.

If humanity establishes a colony on Mars by 2200, or before, it will be after decades of successfully, and prosperously, living on the Moon. A lunar political entity might be independent by then. There could well be space cities in their own orbits, home to tens of thousands of people, pursuing businesses and science that could not be done on Earth-- a vastly more wealthy civilization than we have today. A Mars colony probably would deal in asteroid mining, but the main driver of its economy would be the utilization of Martian resoures. With so much experience living beyond Earth, the first Mars colony would be relatively safe, prosperous, comfortable, and connected via a descendant of the Internet to the throbbing human civilization Sunward.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Life Supporting Planets

Science loves to classify. It's a way of organizing knowledge. Everything in the universe is part of some classification scheme. A British researcher has now developed a classification regime for life bearing worlds.

In this scheme, there are four classes: Earth-type, Mars-type, Europa-type, and water worlds. The final two are largely the inverses of earth other. Europa has an ice shell with an ocean (presumably) underneath, while a water world is covered in a water ocean with an ice shell surrounding the core of the planet. It could be argued, of course, that Earth and Mars are not, in fact, distinct types, but rather variations on a broader theme that mixes land, water, and atmosphere.

As often happens, the universe is likely to be far more imaginative and resourceful than any human can conceive.

Monday, December 22, 2008

WhiteKnightTwo Test Flight

Scaled Composites' twin fuselage carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo made its first test flight yesterday morning over Mojave, California, and everything went well. It was the first of a series of test flights before the craft will be put into service.

WhiteKnightTwo is designed to carry payloads to high altitudes. From there, most of the payloads will use their own rockets to go on suborbital flights that reach the edge of space. Various researchers are now working on developing experiments in a range of fields that could take advantage of a few minutes of microgravity. At some point, small probes might even be able to reach orbit using the WhiteKnight platform.

The most famous payload of WhiteKnightTwo, however, will be SpaceShipTwo, which will carry tourists on suborbital flights under the Virgin Galactic banner. The first SpaceShipTwo is currently under construction, but VG plans to begin commercial flights by late 2010.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Apollo 8

Forty years ago today, NASA launched Apollo 8 to the Moon. It was an extraordinary decision. The mission was only the second manned flight of the Apollo spacecraft, which was redesigned in important ways after the Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts. NASA still had a mandate to put a man on the Moon before the decade was out, however. so it made a bold decision that paid off.

A highlight of not only the space program but also of the tumultuous decade of the 1960s was the Christmas Eve broadcast from lunar orbut as the crew of Apollo 8-- Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders-- read passages from Genesis as the lunar surface rolled by its television camera.

Another cultural icon is also connected to Apollo 8. The famous "Earthrise" photograph taken on that mission sparked not only a space advocacy movement but also became an important image for the environmental movement.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Majel Roddenberry Passes

Majel Barrett Roddenberry, widow of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, died yesterday of leukemia at 76.

She will forever be linked to the creation of her husband, which has become a staple of pop culture over four decades. She was cast as the first officer of the Enterprise in the original pilot, but television executives at the time thought a woman in a command position was too far-fetched. They picked a Vulcan instead. Majel was Nurse Chapel in the original series, Counsellor Troi's outrageous mother in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and often was the voice of the ship's computer.

Indeed, her final role was as the voice of the computer in J. J. Abrams' upcoming Star Trek movie. She finished work on that project two weeks ago.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Carbonates Found On Mars

This blog has followed the gathering of evidence related to the possibility of life on Mars. Various missions have been studying the planet and its hisory, and one of the major objectives has been to determine whether life exists on Mars, or ever did exist. NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has made a discovery that may push the debate further towards life.

MRO has found carbonates on Mars. Carbonates are associated with life. Some scientists have argued that even if life had developed on early Mars it wouldn't have survived long because the soil is too acidic. Acids eat away at living tissue, destroying it. Acids also destroy carbonates. Therefore, the continued existence of carbonates inply that at least some areas on Mars could have supported microbial life for long periods if life had established itself on the planet in the first place. More interestingly, MRO has identified carbonates in specific places. Thus, future missions to Mars already have priority targets to explore.

The discovery of carbonates does not clinch the deal for life on Mars, but it's one more piece in an increasingky strong argument in favor of life.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

More Competitors For Google Lunar X-Prize

The field of teams vying to win the $30 million Google Lunar X-Prize keeps growing, Two new teams, one based in China and the other in Europe, announced they're in the competition yesterday. A third team, which has kept its name and participation under wraps so far, may come public today.

Sixteen teams from around the world are now competing to put the first privare spacecraft on the Moon. To win, the craft must contain a rover, which must be driven across the lunar surface for at least 500 meters, and the rover must send back data. The teams range from family and friends getting together to take their shot all the way to more structured groups complete with business plans trying to win the competition and morph into space commerce companies.

The deadline for the big prize is 2012, so given the competitive aspect, the first attempt might be made within the next year or two.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

PML Keeps On Giving

NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander succumbed to the polar winter of Mars early last month, but analysis of data it obtained will go on for quite a while.

Already, scientists studying the water cycle determined by Lander instruments are seeing a niche environment at the surface within a film of water in which microbes could thrive. The question is whether microbes ever evolved on Mars to fill that niche.

The mission also confirmed water exists just under the surface in that area, and found elements often associated with life.

The emerging picture of Martian geologic and climatologic history seems to indicate that if life ever got started on Mars it could have survived over long periods of time. In that case, there are likely at least fossils waiting to be discovered.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Tough Transition At NASA?

So far, according to most accounts, the transition from the Bush administration to the Obama is going extremely well. That might not be the case at NASA.

According to Robert Shank, a blogger at, NASA administrator Michael Griffin is trying to control what information is given to the Obama NASA transition team. Griffin flatly denies doing any such thing. Instead, he says, he has told NASA executives to give all the help they can.

At stake seems to be the future of the Constellation program to return humans to the Moon, and thus possibly the fate of manned spaceflight at NASA for the immediate future. Mr. Obama seems to support manned spaceflight in theory, but he has yet to commit himself to any future goal that would give direction to NASA. Of course, he's not president yet.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

MRO Two Years Old

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has now been exploring the Red Planet for two years, which was the length of its original mission. The missuin has been extended for another two years.

Data from MRO has begun to paint a picture of the history of Mars that is not simply wetter than previously thought, but a picture in which water plays a significant role in sculpting the surface we see.

More water on the surface for longer periods of time, of course, strengthens the case for possible life on Mars.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Comets Incoming

Scientists have understood for a few decades that a shell of comets orbit the Sun far beyond the planets. That group is called the Oort Cloud, after Jan Oort, the developer of the concept.

Comets from that region occasionally blaze past Earth. Because the objects in the Oort Cloud are so far away, the Sun's gravity has only a tentative grip on them. Any little nudge can send one or several Sunward. A recent study reveals that even tiny shifts in the gravitational influence of the galaxy can alter a comet's orbit.

That type of comet is the wild card in the survival of life on Earth. Danger from near-Earth asteroids can be predicted decades in advance-- if the resources are put to that end. There would likely be time to build a capability to deflect such bodies away from Earth. But a comet comung into the inner Solar System for the first time would give us no time to plan. Only a mature spacefaring civilization could deal with such a threat. For now, our defense is that Earth is a tiny, fast moving target in the vastness of space.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Phoenix Lights

UFO Hunters examined the famous Phoenix Lights case of March 13, 1997, last night. The show dubbed the case the "Arizona Lights" because, in fact, the sightings of a huge ship that was part of the event stretched from the Nevada border to Tucson. Having made that point, however, the show concentrated its efforts on the Phoenix area.

The show argued that the Phoenix Lights incident wasn't simply a one-time event-- that in fact similar lights were seen over Phoenix earlier that week. It also suggested the craft seen was a secret U. S. Government vehicle. Why such a vehicle would be flown over a major American city is unclear. The federal government owns most of the land in Nevada, after all, and has miles and miles of restricted airspace there. Surely, the place for test flights of huge, secret aircraft would be the dark and lonely night skies over the Great Basin.

So, what flew over Arizona that night? Likely, something did, but what is still a mystery.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Detecting Distant Water Vapor

Scientists have detected water vapor in the atmosphere of an exoplanet 65 light-years away. The world is a so-called "hot Jupiter"-- a massive planet orbiting extremely close to irs parent star-- so it's not seen as a likely home for life. The significance of the discovery of water vapor may be that science now has a proven method of detecting water vapor in the atmospheres of planets circling other stars.

Having said this exoplanet probably doesn't harbor life, last month carbon dioxide was detected in its atmosphere. Now we know there's carbon dioxide, water vapor, and an energy source. So....

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Planetary Climate Cycling

Earth has a slight wobble over time that produces major changes in climate. The polar tilt of the planet varies by only a couple of degrees over a 41,000 year period, but that's enough to produce the cycle of ice age to warm interlude we find in the geologic record. For the past few thousand years-- the whole history of human civilization-- Earth has been in a warm interlude.

Scientists studying the layering of sedimentary rock in four craters on Mars have concluded a similar cycling takes place there. Mars' wobble is much more extreme, varying by tens of degrees, so the climate shifts are more pronounced. Mars' cycle runs 100,000 years. Superimposed upon that is a million year cycle governed by the planet's interaction with the rest of the Solar System.

Mars happens to be in a cold period just now, but in warm periods water may exist on the surface. The cyclical nature of the Martian climate also implies a long term stability to which life might be able to adapt.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Blue Origin Coming Into Focus founder Jeff Bezos' suborbital spaceflight project, Blue Origin, seems to be on track. Test flights of the New Shepard prototype vehicle have been underway at the company's West Texas launch site since 2005, and Blue Origin expects to be offering flights dedicated to experiments from outside researchers starting in 2011, with flights requiring a human onboard beginning in 2012. At some point, the company plans to offer suborbital flights to space tourists.

New Shepard launches vertically, lands under a parachute, and is designed to be re-used many times. NASA is encouraging the development of such craft by private industry by working to identify experiments that could profitably by carried out on suborbital flights.

A few companies are now aiming to have suborbital craft in operation within the next three to five years. The odds of at least one of them succeeding might, therefore, be reasonably good. The big prize, however, will go to the builder of the first reliable and reusable private orbital ship.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Bacteria And Mars

A team of researchers in Denmark, looking at the possibility of bacterial life on Mars, is getting some interesting results. The team has constructed a Mars Environment Simulation Chamber. Inside the chamber, the team has recreated the environment of Mars-- its atmosphere, soil, and radiation and temperature levels-- as closely as possible. The team then introduced bacteria into the chamber, to see if it survived. Bacteria on the surface, exposed to the radiation, died. However, bacteria from roughly an inch below the surface and deeper, is surviving. The experiment is ongoing,

So far, of course, the experiment suggests bacterial life can exist below the surface of Mars. More precisely, it suggests Earthly bacteria could survive in subsurface Mars, Earthly bacteria obviously has an evolutionary history that does not include Martian conditions. If bacteria got a start on Mars, it would have evolved under the conditions on that planet. If Earthly bacteria could survive on Mars, native bacteria might thrive there. There is no evidence, however, of any life on the surface of Mars.

Friday, December 5, 2008

MSL Delayed Two Years

NASA's Mars Science Lab, a huge rover packed with the most sophisticated science tools yet put on Mars, will be delayed two years. It will now be scheduled to launch in 2011.

Program leaders maintain there was still a chance MSL could be ready to launch by next October, but NASA decided to take the two extra years to give everyone time to be sure everything is ready to go. MSL is designed to search for evidence of life on Mars, and as a complex, flagship mission, NASA wants to be as sure as possible that it will function properly.

The delay of two years is not due to the program, but to the alignment of the planets, given the flight path the probe will follow. If a launch window is missed, Earth and Mars aren;t in the same relative position to each other for another two years.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

CNN Cutting Science And Technology Unit

Miles O'Brien is leaving CNN after 16 years. For most of that time, he was CNN's chief science and technology correspondent. The network is disbanding its science and technology unit, turning that coverage over to general editorial assignments.

It's an unfortunate decision. In a world increasingly dependenr on, and threatened by, technology, more knowledgeable coverage is called for, not less. In a time of regular scientific discoveries and breakthroughs, explaining them correctly and putting them in the proper context is important. In a world threatened by fanaticism, covering a process of rational debate based on evidence and our understanding of how the universe actually works is useful.

The next decade or so may well see revolutions in space travel, astronomy, physics, medicine, energy production, and more. CNN seems to think much of that doesn't merit thoughtful, thorough coverage. Other networks, hopefully, will see their civic duty differently.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Constellation In Trouble?

President-elect Obama's transition team dealing with NASA has sent the space agency a questionnaire containing some questions that might suggest Obama may consider altering or cancelling the development of the Orion capsule and its Aries launcher. During the campaign, Obama pledged to build both, though he declined to endorse returning to the Moon as a national goal.

Of course, this is the time for political tea leaf reading. It's precisely the job of the transition team to thoroughly understand NASA's current situation, which includes the agency's plans for moving ahead. Nothing in the questionnaire suggests the new administration wants to stop manned spaceflight.

To the extent cutting NASA's budget is being considered because of the economic slowdown, it should be noted that NASA currently takes up well less that one percent of federal spending, and as the federal budget balloons to deal with recession, NASA's share will shrink absent a major increase for the agency.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

China and NASA

Chinese space officials are meeting with NASA leadership this week in Washington. It follows a visit to China by a NASA delegation last summer.

Since that visit, China has made its plans for manned spaceflight clear. It aims to launch Shenzhou 8 and 9, both unmanned, and dock them, creating a small space platform, in 2010. If that is successful, a manned Shenzhou 10 will be launched to fly to the platform, where the crew will conduct experiments. China plans to have a large space station in Earth orbit in 2020.

More than once, Chinese officials have stated publicly that China intends to put humans on the Moon in the not-too-distant future. Several natioms have openly expressed interest in being part of an international effort to establish a lunar base. Given the definite possibility of an economic slowdown lasting a while in the U. S. and elsewhere, sharing the cost of such a program among several nations might make sense as a way to keep manned spaceflight moving forward. One wonders if such a notion might be discussed in Washington today or tomorrow.

Monday, December 1, 2008

More On Enceladus

The Cassini mission to Saturn has been an extraordinary scientific success. One of its major accomplishments has been to focus on Saturn's moon Enceladus as a possible home to life. Recent research may bolster that possibility.

Cassini established geysers erupt from the southern polar regions of Enceladus. Later work suggested water vapor was in the geysers, which meshed with the theory that an ocean of water existed under the small moon's icy surface. An interior heat source strong enough to keep such an ocean liquid, plus the water itself, raised the possobility of life.

New work by JPL's Candace Hansen might have taken that argument one step further. Hansen and her team think they have found not just water vapor but actual liquid water molecules in the geysers' plumes. If true, that strengthens the case for the ocean.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Endeavour Coming Home

Space shuttle Endeavour is scheduled to land later this afternoon at Edwards AFB in southern California. Rough weather in Florida has precluded a return to the Kennedy Space Center.

Weather at the landing site has been a big factor throughout the shuttle program. The inability of the shuttle to deal with a range of weather conditions is one reason it never really had a chance to become the workhorse of the space program NASA originally envisioned. The new Orion spacecraft will have a different relationship with the weather, as it will fall to Earth under parachute; it will not fly through the atmosphere. So, if an Orion is returning from Earth orbit, bad weather over a landing area could still delay leaving orbit. However, if an Orion is returning from the Moon, once it leaves lunar orbit for the two day flight home, it probably will have relatively little ability to maneuver. Forecasting the weather two days out can still be tricky, so the Orion capsule needs a capacity to deal with rough weather the shuttle largely lacks.

Friday, November 28, 2008

STS-126 Update

Space shuttle Endeavour has undocked from ISS and will soon be headed home. A quick visual inspection of Endeavour by the ISS crew shortly after the undecking revealed no cause for concern.

During their twelve days at ISS, the STS-126 crew helped upgrade the station, making its living quarters more comfortable, and enlarging the capacity of the station. Next year, the size of the crew is scheduled to increase from three to six.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A New Model Of Jupiter

Researchers running a computer simulation of the behavior of hydrogen and helium in the core of Jupiter have come up with a model of the internal structure of the planet that is quite different from previous theories.

The simulation suggests Jupiter has a core similar to Earth's, consisting of rock and metals, 14 to 18 times the mass of Earth. That would mean the core has about 5 percent of Jupiter's mass. The simulation also suggests the core is surrounded by a layer of water ice. That model would make Jupiter similar in structure to Neptune and Uranus.

Previous theories have assumed Jupiter had a relatively small core-- or no core at all. Some even treated Jupiter as a failed star. If this model is proven correct, Jupiter, with its rocky, metallic core that aggregated through a process of collision, is decidedly not a star, failed or otherwise, but a planet in line with current theories of planetary formation.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

NASA Stuff

The new urine recycler on ISS seems to be working. As reported in this blog yesterday, the machine had not been working properly, but astronauts undertook repairs, and those repairs seem to have paid off.

On another matter entirely, President-elect Obama has appointed three more people to his NASA transition team. Two of them were NASA officials during the Clinton administration. Space policy was not one of President Clinton's real interests, so those appointments may not be good signs to those who read tea leaves. The third, however, is the National Space Society's George Whiteside, who is also a senior advisor to Virgin Galactic. That choice is provocative.

Lori Garver, who was NSS executive director before her own stint at NASA, was already on the team.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Recycling Troubles On ISS

The machine brought to ISS by STS-126 to recycle urine into drinkable water isn't working properly. Astronauts attempted to repair it yesterday, but it shut down three hours into a four-hour operating cycle.

The ISS crew is scheduled to double from three to six next May. Clearly, the life support systems of the station have to be working properly for that to be successful. Recycling urine and other wastewater into usable water is an important part of those systems.

Perhaps amazingly, NASA has no backup for the balky machine. Such a situation is symptomatic of trying to run a huge, complex project on a shoestring. Surely, a serious, well-managed, properly funded space program would have adequate supplies of key components to get the job done correctly. That's largely how NASA built the base of its manned spaceflight program in the 1960s, and Apollo not only accomplished its mission, but did so relatively on budget. Trying to count pennies on such programs may be not only pound foolish-- it may put lives unnecessarily at increased risk.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Commerce Secretary Richardson?

According to lots of press speculation, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is the likely pick by President-elect Obama to be the next Secretary of Commerce. If Richardson gets that post, it could be a plus for private space.

Gov. Richardson was a key mover in establishing Spaceport America in New Mexico, and has stated publicly his support for both private and public space efforts. As Commerce Secretary, he would be in a position to oversee the writing of regulations that will govern the space tourism industry, and other NewSpace efforts. He would also have a say in the modification of ITAR, the regulatory regime that governs the export of sensitive technology. Loosening of the rules governing space technology that can be obtained from other sources in any case could increase U. S. exports in that area.

Friday, November 21, 2008

More Water On Mars

Scientists have recently determined there are substantial glaciers made of water ice just below the surface in the mid-lattitudes on Mars. Coupling that with the water ice in the polar ice cap makes it clear Mars still has a fairly large quantity of water.

Researchers estimate the glaciers are roughly 100 million years old, which would suggest large amounts of water have been present on Mars throughout its history, and will likely rekindle debate about how large a role water has played in shaping the Mars we see today.

Water in large quantities over much of the planet also increases the odds of life on Mars. The prospects for future life there also increase. Readily available water makes establishing a human base or even settlement on Mars a much more realistic option.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Copernicus (Not The Crater)

Researchers seem to have found the physical remains of Nicholas Copernicus, the Polish priest who argued Earth orbited the Sun, not the other way around, which was the orthodoxy in Europe at the time. Samples of DNA taken from the bones and teeth of a skeleton in an unmarked grave in Poland matches that taken from a hair found in a book known to have been owned by Copernicus.

If historians put the birth of the modern world in the Renaissance, and perhaps more specifically at the first voyage of Columbus to the west in 1492, the great work of Copernicus, published after his death because of his fear of the reaction of the Church, stands as a turning point in the intellectual development of modern Western civilization.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Deflector Shields

Human spacecraft may have some form of deflector shield technology long before the starships depicted in Star Trek-- or their real-life equivalents-- are whizzing around the galaxy.

Researchers in England have found they can create a magnetic field in the lab that can form something like a bubble and block radiation from entering the bubble. That's a long way from a deflector shield for a spaceship, but it's a start. Such a system on Mars-bound ships, they say, wouldn't block gamma or cosmic rays, but it would deflect radiation from the Sun, which is by far the biggest danger to astronauts on interplanetary flights.

Several unmanned probes to Mars and elsewhere are being planned for the next two decades. If the first versiom of such a shield can be developed quickly, one of those probes might serve as a useful test bed. Lunar trips might test the first shields of manned ships. By the time people head for Mars, the shield system might be fairly robust.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Good News From Endeavour

NASA engineers have given Endeavour's heat shield the thumbs up. After studying images of the leading edges of the shuttle's wings, as well as of its nose, they see no reason to worry about re-entry.

Film taken of the launch last Friday night showed pieces of foam insulation breaking off the external tank, and there was concern that the orbiter's heat shield might have been damaged. That seems not to have happened.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Building A Future In Space

As reported in this blog, The Planetary Society presented its take on how the U. S. space program should proceed last week, arguing NASA should focus on putting humans on Mars, and leaving a return to the Moon for much later. Apollo 11's Buzz Aldrin supports the approach.

Apollo 17's Jack Schmidt, however, does not. In a letter to TPS leadership, Schmidt, who is also a former U. S. Senator from New Mexico, argues for returning to the Moon, and building on that, to go to Mars. That is essentially the approach set out by President Bush in January, 2004, and subsequently pursued by Congress.

The difference may come down to "the vision thing." If NASA's mandate is simply to explore-- and if you believe the goal of Mars is sufficiently alluring to maintain political support over the fifteen or twenty year runup to The Mission-- then perhaps Aldrin and TPS are right. If, however, you believe the way to reach and finally possess Mars is to build technological capabilities and develop at least the beginning of an Earth-Moon economy that will expand to include ever more space resources so that an ongoing Mars program can be supported, you likely agree with former Sen. Schmidt.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

STS-126 Update

The STS-126 mission got off to a fine start with the launch of Endeavour Friday evening. Later today, Endeavour is scheduled to dock with ISS.

Once there, the astronauts will deliver tons of supplies and new equipment to the space station, allowing an expansion of the size of the permanent crew from the current three to six. Doubling the crew will allow more science to be pursued.

There is some concern that Endeavour was struck by pieces of foam insulation during launch, but, so far, NASA says it's not a concern.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Tough Times On Mars

This has been a tough week for NASA's robotic explorers on Mars. The agency declared the Phoenix Mars Lander mission over after dust storms and oncoming winter robbed the probe of its power. A major dust storm also struck the rover, Spirit, cutting off communications. Contact with Spirit has since been restored, but dust still rests on its solar power arrays, and the future of the mission is yet in doubt.

The other Mars rover, Opportunity, is still going strong, jowever.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

TPS Weighs In

The Planetary Society, the world's largest space advocacy group, has developed its own plan for the future of space exploration, and will present it to Congress and the new Obama administration.

The centerpiece of the plan is no doubt its call to delay returning to the Moon in favor of an international effort to put humans on Mars. Along the way, the plan would send the first human mission to a near-Earth asteroid. Returning to the Moon would wait until we're ready to undertake the permanent settlement of Mars; the lunar effort then would serve as a testbed for technologies and techniques to be used on Mars.

Going to Mars sooner rather than later is certainly exciting, but it might undervalue the Moon. Even the first humans on Mars will spend weeks or months there; their technology must be completely reliable. NASA plans to test that technology on the Moon first, which certainly seems reasonable. The TPS plan also seems to ignore the economic potential of the Moon, with its low gravity, abundant solar power, and useful natural resources. Sustaining a program of Martian settlement will require a much larger economy than exists today. Developing a space economy that utilizes the unique assets beyond Earth, with a growing economy on the Moon, may be essential to bringing Mars into the human sphere.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Saturn's Strange Polar Phenomena

A new kind of aurora has recently been observed over Saturn's polar regions. Unlike aurorae on Earth, which are rings, the new kind on Saturn covers a broad area, more disk than ring. We know our aurorae are the result of an interaction between the solar wind and Earth's magnetic field. We also know that Saturn has an internal power source. So far, however, scientists can't explain what is causing and maintaining this new display.

Couple the new aurora with the huge, hexagon-shaped storm raging around Saturn's north pole, also recently discovered, and it's clear the polar regions of the Ringed Planet are weird and wonderful places.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

STS-126 Waiting

NASA is watching the Florida skies, hoping to launch Endeavour on STS-126 Friday evening. There is a chance of rain at KSC or in the area, which could scrub the launch if Endeavour could not fly back to KSC in case of emergency immediately after launch. From the technical side, everything is proceeding smoothly.

The main objective of the mission will be to increase the capacity of the ISS to support people, so the crew size can be increased from the current three to six.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Indian Lunar Success

Chandrayaan 1, India's first shot at the Moon, successfully inserted itself into lunar orbit Saturday. The initial orbit is highly elliptical, but the plan is to bring the probe into a circular orbit 62 miles above the surface over the next few weeks. Once that's done, Chandrayaan 1 is scheduled to spend two years making a chemical map of the entire Moon, which will be extremely useful to scientists, lunar base planners, and entreprenuers.

With this probe, India joins China and Japan as nations with probes currently in lunar orbit. A contest for political primacy in Asia is being joined, and achievement in space is one factor being used to demonstrate superiority. Sound familiar?

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Exploring Titan

The next step in exploring Saturn's moon Titan might involve a hot air balloon. Titan, of course, has a substantial atmosphere, which, many scientists believe, may be similar to Earth's atmosphere before life began pumping oxygen into it. A hot air balloon could theoretically range over hundreds or thousands of miles of terrain-- much more than a surface rover could cover. The balloon would carry a scoop that would allow it to take surface samples along the way. A third element in the proposed mission would be an orbiter that would completely map Titan's surface.

NASA and ESA are looking to jointly pursue that mission, and a decision could be made next year. As planned, the mission would launch around 2020, and reach Titan about 2030.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Lunar Volcanism

Data from the Japanese probe now orbiting the Moon suggests the histories of the nearside and the farside might be quite different. Scientists have known for some time that the Moon was internally active at some point. the dark patches we see on the face is volcanic basalt. Now, however, scientists think volcanism endured longer on the nearside than on the farside.

Using data from the Selene Kayuga probe, scientists think volcanism existed on the farside until about 2.5 billion years ago, while on the nearside it lasted until about 1 billion years ago. The standard view has been that lunar volcanism ceased 3 billion years ago.

Nailing down the timeline will likely have to wait until we have actual samples from across the Moon.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Otero Voters Say No

By roughly 52-48 percent, voters in New Mexico's Otero County rejected increasing the county's sales tax to support development of Spaceport America.

Because most of the financing is already in place and two other counties involved in the project had already approved sales tax increases, the enterprise will move ahead. Current plans have 2010 as the year things will really begin to happen there.

If that timeframe holds, voters in Otero County may be asked to reconsider their decision in a couple years.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

It;s Officially Obama

Barack Obama of Illinois is now President-elect of the United States. Many challenges await him, and somewhere in that mix will be deciding how America will move its space policy.

Obama seems generally supportive of spaceflight. One of his television ads features him telling about he went with his grandfather to see Apollo astronauts come home when he lived in Hawaii. During the campaign, he promised to build the Orion and Aries hardware that would take us back to the Moon. He has also proposed devoting tens of billions more dollars to science research. That kind of mindset is probably good news for NASA.

Another question, though, is whether he will support the move of private enterprise into space-- especially, of course, American companies. By reshaping the so-called ITAR regulations that govern the transfer of technology to other countries, he could open markets for small U. S. companies. By bringing private enterprise into a lunar base program as a major element, he may be able to build stability into a long range effort. By directing the government to work with the fledgling companies of the NewSpace industry to create a workable regulatory environment for both sides, he could help establish a new sector for the American economy.

We shall see.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Ballot Battle In New Mexico

Voters in Otero County, New Mexico, will vote today on whether to approve a one-eighth of one percent increase in the county sales tax to fund the development of Spaceport America. By state law, the development budget is $198 million, not to exceed $225 million.

Virgin Galactic has already signed an agreement with Spaceport America to establish its headquarters there, and to fly its suborbital passenger flights from there. The Rocket Racing League, which plans to do precisely what the name suggests, also plans to operate from there.

Democratic New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a supporter of the spaceport project, believes the voters will approve the tax increase, as they already have in two nearby counties.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Phoenix Coming To The End

NASA lost contact with the Phoenix Mars Lander for a day or so last week. Winter is fast approaching in the Martian arctic, and last week a dust storm whipped over Lander. The combination of the deepening cold and dust blocking its solar power collectors forced Lander to shut down.

It revived to send out a signal, but at some point within the next few weeks, after a remarkably successful mission, the Lander will go quiet forever.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Armstrong Papers

Former NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong is donating his papers to Purdue University, his alma mater, the school announced yesterday. The commander of Apollo 11, and therefore the first human to set booted foot on the Moon, graduated from Purdue in 1955 after flying Navy fighters in combat missions during the Korean War.

Purdue is already home to the collected papers of Amelia Earhart, and a leader in education in both aviation and aerospace engineering.

Armstrong's papers cover his entire career, and have yet to be studied as a body by historians.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Exploring Luna For Profit

Astrobotic Technology, Inc., one of the competitors in the Google Lunar Challenge, has announced plans that stretch well beyond the Challenge. It plans to launch first lunar mission, which would likely attempt to win the $30 million prize money of the Challenge, in May, 2010. The target will be Apollo 11's Tranquility Base. Care will be taken not to disturb the historic site.

ATI plans four missions after that. They will focus on gathering data on whether there is water ice on the lunar surface and on picking a site for a lunar base. Shackleton Crater will be a prime target. Data gathered on those missions will be sold to interested parties.

Odyssey Moon, another Google Lunar competitor, also has a business plan for long term success. It plans to put rovers on the Moon that ordinary people will be able to drive throygh the company's website and retail outlets.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

"UFO Hunters" Is Back

The History Channel's series UFO Hunters made its season debut last night with an investigation into mass sightings centered on an event in August, 2004, in the night skies over Tinley Park, Illinois. Tinley Park is near Chicago, which means lights in the sky are likely ordinary aircraft. It also means, however, that the people who live there are familiar with most types of aircraft. Hundreds of them made videotapes of this sighting precisely because they thought it strange.

The video was central to the show's investigation. Skeptics sometimes argue that with the explosion of camcorders in recent years, if UFOs are actual craft, we should be getting evidence by now. Tinley Park provided lots of video data, which seems to support the contention that a huge trianguler craft was there.

After a rocky start last season, the show seems to be hitting some kind of stride. While continuing to investigate new cases, perhaps the next step should be to pursue lines of inquiry developed towards the end of last season as far as they will go.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Possible Second Home?

The star Epsilon Eridani has often been mentioned by scientists as a possible parent of life. Only about 10.5 light years away, it's slightly smaller and cooler than the Sun, and much younger-- perhaps 850 million years old to the Sun's 4.6 billion years. New research suggests the star might have a planetary system similar to our own, as well.

Astronomers have found three debris rings orbiting Epsilon Eridani-- one icy ring far out from the star, another closer in similar to our Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune, and a third analogous to our Main Belt of asteroids. They postulate at least three giant planets in the outer part of the system, gravitationally policing the rings, and speculate that terrestrial planets could exist within the inner ring, which might put them in the star's habitable zone.

Ten light years is quite a distance, but if the payoff of making such a trip would be inheriting a brand new solar system similar to our own, an incredibly wealthy spacefaring human civilization several centuries from now might decide to make humanity immortal by establishing a branch of humankind around a second star.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Keeping Luna Junk Free

NASA has announced it plans to conduct the next phase of lunar exploration in such a way as to avoid whenever possible leaving junk in lunar orbit. The Apollo program tried to do that, as well, but the next generation of robotic probes and eventual manned exploration will be designed with one goal being to minimize despoiling the lunar environment.

The Moon has an interesting twist to its composition. Gravity is not uniform across the Moon because of the existence of particularly dense concentrations of mass ("mascons") throughout its body; gravity is stronger over the mascons than it is at other places. This means that no lunar orbit is ever stable over an extended period, and anything left in orbit will eventually crash into the surface.

NASA, of course, will not be the only organization operating on and around the Moon; other nations and even private concerns plan to be there, as well. To truly protect the lunar environment, all the players in the lunar game would have to agree to leave no junk behind.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Persistence Pays

After three years of work and several public failures, Armadillo Aerospace last weekend won the Lunar Lander Challenge, and with it $350,000.

The Challenge was designed to give private companies, especially small ones like AA, the experience of working on one facet of space operations so that it might eventually bid on providing that service to the space program. The service involved in the LLC is ferrying cargo, and possibly humans, between a lunar base and lunar orbit. To win the competition, AA had to launch a vehicle several hundred feet into the air. fly it horizontally for 90 seconds, and land it softly and safely at a designated target.

That's a long way from operating spacecraft on the Moon, but by the time NASA has a lunar base that needs a ferry service, AA might be ready to supply one-- for a price.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Lunar Colony Setback

Since the Clementine mission of 1994, scientists have entertained an unlikely possibility-- that water ice existed in substantial quantities in permanently shadowed crater floors. Even though the Moon has no atmosphere, and even though Apollo samples brought back were bone dry, Clementine results suggested water ice might exist on the floor of Shackleton Crater.

Well, maybe not. Japan's lunar probe Kaguya Selene has studied the floor of Shackleton, and found no evidence of large water ice deposits, though it's still possible that water ice may be mixed with the soil. The study did confirm, however, that the permanently shadowed part of the crater is easily cold enough to preserve ice indefinitely.

If easily accessible water ice does not, in fact, exist on the Moon, the establishment of a lunar base is made more difficult; water will need to be brought from Earth, along with everything else. On the other hand, NASA has been planning to site its base near the lunar south pole largely because that's where the water supposedly was. If there is no usable ice, that may free NASA to look at the entire lunar nearside when deciding where to put the first permanent human base on another wor;d.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Garriott Home

Richard Garriott, the latest of Space Adventures' private space travelers, is back on Earth after his Soyuz landed safely in Kazakhstan yesterday.

Garriott, the son of Skylab astronaut Owen Garriott, is the first second-generation American to fly in space. He came home with the first second-generation cosmonaut.

SA is building an excellent safety recond. All of their clients so far have come home safely. In the early years of the space tourism industry, all companies involved will likely need similarly spotless records. The prospect of a tragedy early on that could set back the industry for years is no doubt one brake on investors' interest.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Virgin Galactic Getting Closer

Michael Blum is high on the list to fly when Virgin Galactic starts taking paying customers to the edge of space. Veteran space journalist Leonard David reports in his blog that Blum told him progress towards his flight is being made.

According to Blum, VG told him that test flights of the giant WhiteKnightTwo, the aircraft that will carry SpaceShipTwo to altitude, will begin in two or three weeks. Ground tests of the aircraft's systems are proceeding well. Test flights will continue into next spring, when test flights with SpaceShipTwo attached will begin.

A new era might be creeping over the horizon.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

India To The Moon

India has successfully launched its first lunar probe. Chandrayaan-1 is scheduled to reach lunar orbit November 8 to begin a two year mission mapping the lunar surface. Before that mapping begins, however, a subsatellite will be sent to the surface, giving India's space agency experience landing on the Moon.

Chandrayaan-1 carries 11 experiments, including some from ESA and NASA. It also joins probes from China and Japan already in lunar orbit. Add to those various private efforts to send unmanned probes to the Moon, Space Adventures' offer to send a private space traveler around the Moon, NASA's plan to launch an unmanned probe to scout out a location for a manned lunar base, and the interest expressed by various nations in participating in an international lunar base program, and the next two decades could see humanity finally and permanently established on another world.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Gravity and Life

Astronomers have traditionally seen the "habitable zone" around a star-- the area in which a planet might support life-- as a function of the energy output of the star. The universe being what it is, though, things might be more complicated than that.

A recent study suggests gravity might expand the habitable zone of a solar system. If a planet is in a highly elliptical orbit, the pull of gravity from the parent star will constantly vary, constantly stressing the internal structure of the planet. The reaction to that stress will generate heat, which would make its way to the surface, possibly supporting life at the surface or below it even though heat from the star might not be enough for life. Presumably, such a situation would be unlikely as the home of a civilization, but simple life forms are another matter.

We see smaller versions of such a scenario close to home. Going strictly by the Sun's energy output, both Europa and Enceladus would be well beyond the solar habitable zones. Both are seen as possible abodes of life, however, because they are not frozen solid. Their interiors are stressed, and internal heat is produced, by the constant manipulation of the gravity of Jupiter and Saturn, respectively.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Atlantis Taken Away

Space shuttle Atlantis is being removed from the launch pad. As reported earlier in this blog, the final repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope was delayed when a problem onboard Hubble developed a couple weeks before Atlantis was to launch. The repair mission will now include replacing the part that failed, and will be rescheduled for next spring.

The next shuttle mission, scheduled for next month, will focus on continuing the construction of ISS.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

ESA Delays Mars Rover

Soon after NASA decided to go ahead with a 2009 launch of its next Mars rover mission, the ESA tentatively decided last week to delay Europe's first Mars rover until a 2016 launch.

The reason for the delay was grounded in financial concerns. Scientists are pushing for a rover with increased capabilities, which would increase the budget. Several ESA member governments objected to the higher budget, no doubt influenced by the current economic crisis in Europe and America.

ESA managers plan to use the extra time to seek cooperation agreements with NASA and the Russian space agency in a bid to increase the capability of the rover while stabilizing the budget.

The tentative decision could be confirmed at a ministerial meeting of the member governments of ESA next month.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Phobos A Rubble Pile

Scientists using new data, including new images from Europe's Mars Express probe, have determined that Phobos, the larger moon of Mars, is in fact not one solid body, but several smaller pieces loosely held together by mutual gravitational attraction. Scientists literally call such objects "rubble piles."

One possible strategy for the manned exploration of Mars would establish a base on Phobos from which surface expeditions would depart and to which they would return. That strategy may be less viable now. The various pieces in the pile of Phobos no doubt occasionally shift around under changing gravitational influences. Likely, then, Phobos would not be seen as a stable platform for a base.

Of course, that still leaves the other tiny Martian moon, Deimos.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Phoenix Beats Dust Storm

It's not enough that the brutal Martian arctic winter is slowly tightening its grip on NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander. Last weekend, a dust storm whipped over the Lander, cutting the sunlight that could reach Lander's solar collectors, and coating the collectors in dust.

The storm caused a substantial drop in power, which forced delay or cancellation of some experiments. After the storm passed, power generation went back up, but that's only a temporary reprieve. The long night of arctic winter will soon steal over the Lander's location, depriving it of an energy source.

Dust storms in the Martian arctic are common in the fall and winter, so the Phoenix Mars Lander could still suffer an earlier demise, ending a remarkable scientific project.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Cyclones On Saturn

In addition to studying the rings and moons of the planet, the Cassini mission to Saturn obviously investigates the huge sixth planet from the Sun itself. Despite its distance from the Sun, Saturn is a wild and woolly place. Well, not woolly.

Recent images from Cassini confirm huge, long-lasting cyclones whip around each pole of Saturn. The storms are hundreds of times more powerful than the largest hurricanes on Earth. Those Earthly storms develop over warm ocean water and take advantage of energy from the Sun. There are no oceans on Saturn, and solar energy is not a real factor. The cyclones are fueled by energy coming from Saturn itself.

One more extremely odd thing-- at one pole, these huge cyclones seem to be boxed in by a giant hexagonal structure within the atmosphere. No such structure appears at the other pole. What kind of atmospheric condition could create straight lines and definite angles and maintain a hexagon over an extended period of time is baffling.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Hubble and Aries

The law of unintended consequences governs NASA just as it does other areas of human activity.

The biggest goal for NASA's manned space program in the short term is to narrow the gap between the last shuttle flight and the first flight under the new Constellation program. NASA had been pushing for the first launch of an early version of the new Aries launcher to go next April. Because if the delay of the final repair mission to Hubble until next spring, the Aries test will be delayed. It seems the shuttle needs the launchpad NASA plans to modify to accomodate Aries.

There should be no overall delay in the Constellation program, but there is irony. After Columbia, NASA decided another repair mission to Hubble would be too dangerous. Public opinion and the science community got that decision reversed. Now, that mission will delay at least the first test of the flight hardware intended to carry NASA into the future.

Monday, October 13, 2008


As reported recently in this blog, NASA was considering delaying or canceling the Mars Science Laboratory project due to technical problems and cost overruns. The agency announced Friday, however, that it is sticking to a planned October, 2009, launch of the mission.

NASA chief Mike Griffin met with MSL managers Friday and determined to go ahead as planned. Another meeting is scheduled with Griffin in January to look at the mission again, but MSL leaders are confident they can have the technical problems under control by then.

NASA says it is unlikely MSL will be canceled now.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Richard Garriott To ISS

Space Adventures announced in a press release today that private space traveler Richard Garriott has been succcessfully launched aboard a Soyuz.

During his stay at ISS, Garriott will be busy pursuing various educational and scientific projects. He hopes to use his flight ro further the case for private enterprise in space.

Richard is the son of former NASA astronaut Owen Garriott. He therefore becomes the first second generation space flier.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Two More Google Lunar Teams

Two more teams recenty announced they are competing in the Google Lunar X-Prize Challenge. One of the new teams is from Malaysia, while the other is based at the University of Central Florida. They bring to 14 the number of teams competing to land a privately funded spacecraft on the Moon, drive a rover across the lunar surface, and send back data and video.

For all of Florida's long and intimate connection with the American space program, the UCF team is the first from Florida in the competition. Malaysia, on the other hand, now has two teams competing. Perhaps the U. S. should take note. If Americans want to continue to lead humanity into space, resting on past glories won't do it.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Cassini at Enceladus

As I'm writing this, NASA's Cassini spacecraft is having a close encounter with Saturn's moon, Enceladus. At its closest approach, Cassini will skim just 16 miles above the moon's icy surface.

Enceladus has become an important focus of the mission. Before Cassini, most astronomers would have said Titan was the best bet as the home of life in the system of Saturn. Life on Titan is still possible, but Enceladus, with a huge ocean of liquid water under its icy surface as well as organic molecules in that ocean, has become another possible abole of life.

Today is the first of two close encounters Cassini will have with Encel;adus this month. The second will be on October 31.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Budget Overruns Threaten MSL

Mars Science Laboratory is supposed to quicken the pace of searching for life on Mars. A nuclear-powered, 9-foot long rover, MSL has capabilities far exceeding the rovers Spirit and Opportunity. NASA plans to launch MSL next year, but budget overruns may yet scuttle the project.

So far, $1.5 billion has heen spent, which is well over budget. Given today's economic climate, Congress could decide to end the project.

The problem with MSL is illustrative of a historical tug within NASA regarding planetary missions: Do you do fewer big projects capable of doing lots of science, which makes failure disastrous, or do you do several less expensive, more focused missions, which will produce less science but might increase the chances of at least some success? Both approaches have worked in the past. Perhaps the next administration will chart the immediate future.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

MESSENGER Comes Through Again

NASA's MESSENGER is delivering more data on its second flyby of Mercury. Images sent back so far include pictures of impact craters complete with ray systems, similar to lunar impact craters. The rays are made of bright material ejected when the crater was gouged out of the surface. The presence of a ray system suggests the crater at its center is relatively young.

The probe is also building a mosaic of images, which will allow better maps of the surface.

MESSENGER has one more flyby of Mercury after this one before going into orbit around the planet in March, 2011.

Monday, October 6, 2008

MESSENGER Returns To Mercury

NASA's MESSENGER probe is currently in its second flyby of the planet Mercury. This one will bring it within 125 miles of Mercury's surface, which is still largely unseen.

Because of Mercury's small size and proximity to the Sun, studying the planet has always been a challenge for Earthbound astronomers. Designers of space missions have found it a tough target, as well. Indeed, it was only with MESSENGER's first flyby several nonths ago that scientists were able to determine Mercury has shield volcanoes.

They hope to see more of the surface during this flyby, and on through the remainder of the MESSENGER mission.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

A Little Bang

Just as most cosmologists say the universe was birthed in a Big Bang, a new computer model supports the theory that our solar system started in a Little Bang.

The new model is the first to present a plausible development scenario. It suggests a nearby star exploded in a supernova. The shock waves of that blast condensed parts of a huge cloud of gas and dust. One of those parts became the Sun. A key piece of the case for this theory is the presence of a rare isotope of iron in meteorites and asteroids. That isotope is only created in the cores of huge stars. When such a star goes supernova, the iron is thrown out into space. So, the shock waves from the explosion triggered the formation of the Sun, and the rare iron isotope became part of the new solar system.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Bush Okays Soyuz Flights

On September 30, President Bush signed into law the bill giving NASA authority to negotiate with Russia to purchase flights for Western astronauts aboard Soyuz capsules. That will allow NASA access to ISS between the final shuttle flight and the first flight of Orion.

Hopefully, the irony of the necessity of such a deal is not lost on anyone. Forty years after America won the Space Race, NASA has been reduced to buying seats on Soyuz flights to get astronauts into space for three or four years. The American political system has proven unable to develop and execute a long range technological program. That is discouraging in a world that will rely increasingly on high technology.

The Soyuz bill was part of a larger bill that included NASA funding for part of the next fiscal year. Funding will be maintained at current levels, which comes out to just under $ 18 billion a year, or less than one percent of total federal spending.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Moon First

NASA's Mike Griffin, speaking earlier this week in Scotland, told a gathering of the International Astronomical Union that returning to the Moon is essential before sending people to Mars, citing the complexity of a Mars mission and the capabilities that need to be developed before the attempt is made.

He noted the Apollo astronauts spent a total of 27 days exploring the Moon, which has a surface area equal ro Africa. There is much lunar exploration left to be done, he said. Griffin also argued that before we undertake a Mars mission, we should be confident we could send a crew for a 6- to 9-month stay on ISS, on to the Moon for a similar time, and back to ISS for another 6- to 9-month stay before returning home-- all without resupply. The point would be to simulate a Mars mission in relative safety. Clearly, even a consortium of spacedaring nations would be many years away from being able to carry out even that mission.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the successful Shenzhou 7 mission, a spokesman for the Chinese space program said China plans to send a man to the Moon in the near future. Some experts on China say a person in such an official capacity would not have made such a statement unless China had in fact decided on a lunar mission fairly soon.

Couple government efforts to reach the Moon with the plans of various private organizations, and the next two decades could see the early stage of humanity firmly establishing itself beyond Earth.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Space Adventures Sued

A Japanese businessman is suing Space Adventures in U. S. Federal court for $21 million for breach of contract because he was denied a trip to ISS after Russian physicians determined he had kidney stones. SA offers flights to ISS aboard Soyuz capsules.

SA's position on the suit is that the contract their customers sign clearly states that physical requirements must be met. The man suing, it seems, has a history of developing kidney stones. That probably should disqualify him for long duration spaceflights, but the SA flights are only a few days, which potentially could be a different case. The suit also brings up a question: If the man has a history of a physical condition that would preclude spaceflight, why did SA sign a contract with him and take his money in the first place?

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Hubble Repair Mission Delayed

The space shuttle mission set to launch next week, the last repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, will be delayed, perhaps until next spring.

The problem causing the delay is not anything to do with the shuttle. A component of Hubble's communications system recently failed. NASA has a replacement, but it's been stored away for 18 years. Though NASA thinks the replacement will work, testing it to be sure will take months.

If this had to happem, the timing was fortuitous. Had it happened even two weeks later, after the repair missiom had come and gone, NASA would've been left in an extremely tough spot. As it is, the agency has a chance to look at the remaining years of Hubble and make a programmatic decision concerning whether the value of another repair mission is really worth the risk to a crew.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Success For Space-X

Last night, on the fourth attempt, Space-X's Falcon 1 two stage rocket performed perfectly, delivering a mock satellite to its planned orbit. The next Falcon 1 launch is set for early 2009, and will carry paying customers.

Falcon 1 launches will initially cost about $8 million dollars each, though that could come down with time, and development cosrs for Falcon 1 have been about $100 million. So, If Space-X can put a string of successful commercial flights together, it could become a profitable company fairly quickly.

If that happens, the NewSpace industry might be on the road to maturity.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Shenzhou Success

China's Shenzhou 7 mission seems to have been a complete and rousing success. The centerpiece of the mission, the first Chinese spacewallk, went off without a hitch, and the spacecraft made a safe landing in the steppes of Inner Mongolia earlier today.

Both the twenty-minute spacewalk and the landing were televised live in China. That suggests a confidence and openness more in line with NASA's approach than with the old Soviet way, even though Shenzhou is based on the Soyuz spacecraft, and Russian experts are advising the Chinese program.

The next hurdle China has to clear on its way to building a space station and going to the Moon is probably docking in space. That may require flying two manned missions simultaneously, which would be a sign of a truly serious and maturing program.

Friday, September 26, 2008

U. S. Senate Passes NASA Budget

The U. S. Senate recently passed a bill outlining NASA's 2009 budget. Among its provisions are sections allowing shuttle flights beyond 2010, and an endorsement of the Constellation program's goal of returning astronauts to the Moon by 2020. The bill also allocates $2 billion more to NASA than the administration requested.

The bill now goes to the House. Congressional aides say the House may suspend its rules to allow it to act quickly, and pass the Senate bill on a simple voice vote.

If the NASA budget passed by the Senate becomes law, the Constellation program would seem to be on sound politucal footing as it awaits a decision by the next president.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Shenzhou 7 On Its Way

China's third manned spaceflight was succrssfully launched earlier today. Shenzhou 7 boasts a three man crew, the largest so far for China.

The highlight of the planned five day mission is scheduled to be China's first spacewalk. Chinese officials say they plan to televise the spacewalk live, as a way to show China's confidence and transparency.

The spacewalk is important beyond that, however. Developing the capability to operate outside the ship is critical to achieving China's two stated goals for its manned spaceflight program-- the creation of an Earth orbiting space station, and, perhaps in the 2020s, landing on the Moon.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

SpaceX Delay

As reported in this blog, SpaceX had planned a launch of its Falcon 1 rocket yesterday or today if a static fire test conducted on Saturday went well. It did, but the company announced the next attempt at launch would be no earlier than September 28.

Out of an abundance of caution, according to CEO Elon Musk, the company decided to replace one small component after the test, which is the cause of the delay.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Obama Steps Up

In the midst of a major financial crisis and a tight presidential election campaign, Sen. Barack Obama sent a letter to the Democratic leaders of both houses of Congress urging them to pass legislation soon that will allow NASA astronauts to fly on Russian Soyuz flights beyond 2011.

Further, Obama called for funding additional shuttle flights after the scheduled end of the program in 2010 as a way to close the gap between shuttle and Orion, as well as a way to maintain the skilled NASA workforce.

Last month, Sen. John McCain, joining with other senators, called on NASA to refrain from doing anything that would preclude shuttle flights after 2010.

Monday, September 22, 2008

SpaceX Trying Again

According to Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, the company will try as early as tomorrow to launch its Falcon 1 rocket.

So far, all three launches of the rocket have failed, but SpaceX is convinced the most recent failure was due to a simple timing problem concerning separation of the stages of the rocket. That problem, the company says, can be easily fixed.

The early launch is dependent upon a successful statuc firing test to have been conducted Saturday. The company's website has not yet reported whether that test was, in fact, successful.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Huge GRB Detected

Scientists have recently detected an extremely powerful gamma-ray burst, or GRB, coming from the early days of the universe.

Actually, "early days" is a slippery phrase. GRBs mark the explosion of stars when the universe was young. This particular one occurred 12.8 billion years ago, well before Earth even existed. No Earth, no days, early or otherwise, but the point is this GRB probably came from one of the first generation of stars.

Such titanic explosions thankfully do not occur in the current universe. The earliest stars were huge and short'lived. A similar explosion in the Milky Way today would seriously threaten life on Earth.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Phoenix Mars Extended Again

The highly successful mission of the Phoenix Mars Lander, which was originally schedued to end last month until given a 30-day estension, has gotten yet another extension. NASA has decided to fund the mission through December.

Phoenix has taken the first step towards actually finding evidence of life on Mars by establishing water ice exists just under the surface in the northern polar region of the planet.

Winter is closing in over Mars' northern hemisphere, and it's unlikely Phoenix will survive the bitter cold, so this extension will likely be the last. It's fair to note, however, that this extension alone will be for longer than the entire mission was originally planned to last. Phoenix Mars Lander has been a remarkable success.

NASA Considering Nuclear Lunar Base

NASA engineers designing the lunar base the agency is planning to build are considering powering it with a small fission reactor. The reactor would be buried underground to protect astronauts from the radiation produced. The engineers say the technology is in hand today to allow such a reactor to operate for eight years without need of maintenance.

The plan up to now has been to establish a base near the lunar south pole, partly because permanently shadowed areas in that region might contain useful quantities of water ice, but partly because some peaks in that region are in virtually constant sunlight. Solar collectors on those peaks could deliver constant power to the base below.

It is true, of course, that on average, a given spot of the Moon has two weeks of sunshine and two weeks of darkness. The trick is powering a base through the darkness. A simple solution might be to build a solar collector system that delivers at least double the energy the base requires and saving half of it, perhaps in fuel cells or batteries, to power the base through the long night. If the Sun didn't reappear at the end of those two weeks, a buried fission reactor wouldn't do anybody any good, anyway.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Seeing Is Bellieving

ABCNews aired a 90-minute special on UFOs last night. Hosted by David Muir, it followed a pattern that seems to be favored by network news divisions when they deal with UFOs-- which is rarely. Instead of looking at the details of a few cases-- a network news division might have the resources and clout to break new ground, if there's any new ground to be broken-- the program presented quick summaries of various cases. It also put the question of alien visitation of Earth in the broad context of life in the universe, which is its proper home. Overall, though skeptics were presented, the program dealt with UFOs as a legitimate subject worthy of serious inquiry.

The timing of the special raises an interesting question: Smack in the middle of a hotly contested presidential election campaign, in a dangerous world, in a worrying economic situation, why did ABC choose to devote 90 minutes in prime time to UFOs? The program as aired could have been broadcast just as easily in November, after the election, for example. One answer to that question is simply that UFOs get good ratings, which is, after all, what television networks are in business to do. Another possible answer may be that some ABC executives think the subject is truly important. In that case, we may see more frequent specials on UFOs from ABCNews.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

NASA Still On Track

Despite Hurricane Ike's pounding of Houston, including the area around the Johnson Space Center, NASA doesn't yet plan to delay the launches of the next two shuttle flights. The first of those, the last Hubble repair mission, is set for October 10, while the second is set for November 12.

JSC seems to have come through Ike with no real damage. Surrounding residential areas, including the homes of much of the JSC staff, were evacuated and remain without power, however. Getting flight support personnel and their families back and settled seems to be the biggest obstacle at this time to flying the two final missions of the year as scheduled.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Exoplanet Photographed... Maybe

Astronomers think they may have photographed their first planet orbiting a star similar to our Sun. The star is 500 light years distant, and has about 85 percent of the Sun's mass.

The planet is a strange one, however. At about eight times the mass of Jupiter, it seems to orbit the star at 330 times Earth's distance from the Sun. By comparison, Neptune orbits at only about 30 times that distance. Not only is such a huge world at such a huge distance unprecedented, so far, but it's unclear how such a body could reach that size that far from the parent star, according to current models of solar system formation.

The planet is also hot-- 1500 degrees Kelvin. That may suggest the body is closer to being a brown dwarf-- a failed star-- than a planet.

Designation of this body as a planet may be reconsidered in the years ahead.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


As reported in this blog last week, the DISCOVERY CHANNEL ran a special Friday night that documented, among other things, an attempt to beam power from Maui to the big island of Hawaii. The point of the attempt was to demonstrate power could be beamed through sixty miles of atmosphere, as would be done from a solar power satellite to deliver energy to Earth.

A media alert put out by the National Space Society before the program ran said the test was a success. Well, almost. It did show power can be beamed over distance; instruments aboard a helicopter did indeed detect the beam sixty miles out from its origination point. The program did not show, however, the beam hitting its target on Hawaii. Presumably, that didn't happen. The beam, in fact, split in two at some point, one stronger and one weaker.

The attempt does show promise. Many issues-- financial, political, environmental, and technological-- remain to be resolved, but the concept is extremely attractive. Thirty years of work across all those fronts could conceivably build the energy basis for human civilization for millenia.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Hitching Rides On Soyuz

U. S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) has announced he will push to have current law allowing NASA astronauts to fly aboard Russian Soyuz capsules extended beyond 2011, into the gap between the retirement of the shuttle and the first flight of Orion.

Nelson claimed he didn't like the situation, but it was the only way to ensure American access to "our own station" meaning ISS, during the gap. Perhaps Sen. Nelson and the rest of Congress should have planned better several years ago to avoid such a situation. The Soyuz approach gives Russia extraordinary leverage over the short term future of the U. S. manned spaceflight program. It also means American money will go to Russia at a time the Russian Government seems to be becoming increasingly authoritarian and aggressive.

Both major presidential candidates have urged finding ways to close the gap between shuttle and Orion from its current five years.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

First Step Towards Europa's Ocean?

Imagine sending a tiny submarine into the ocean under the ice of Europa, or into the methane lakes of Titan. Such probes could possibly make our first contact with alien life. Or, perhaps centuries from now, such a craft will conduct our first exploration of the ocean of an Earthlike world in another solar system.

A team of Swedish engineers are currently developing a tiny submersible-- perhaps 5 centimeters across and 20 long, in a cylindrical shape-- that will be designed to plumb not alien seas, but subhlacial lakes on Earth. Scientists think such lakes might contain life trapped in them for millions of years.

The team acknowledges, however, that their work could be extremely useful for designers of future deep space missions.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

SSP Breakthrough?

According to a media a;lert sent out Tuesday by the National Space Society, a respected space advocacy groip, an announcement will be made Friday claiming a breakthrough in the long-distance, wireless transmission of power that could bring space-based solar power (SSP) one big step closer to reality.

Advocates of SSP have long argued it is the ultimate power solution for an advanced technological civilization. Energy collected from the Sun by huge satellites and beamed to the Earth's surface to be used in the power grid would be clean, safe, and inexhaustible. There would be no more need for any power plants on Earth. An SSP system would be decentralized, and therefore essentially impossible to disrupt.

The beaming part has been a sticking point, but the NSS alert says wireless transmission of power has been demonstrated between two Hawaiian islands. If true, given the curvature of the Earth, that might be trickier than beaming from orbit. The project will be examined Friday night as part of an energy special on DISCOVERY CHANNEL.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Bugs Beat Space Environment

Tiny bugs called water bears were launched into orbit aboard an ESA satellite last September and exposed to the harsh realities of open space. Upon recovery of the satellite, scientists found most of the water bears had survived. They are now breeding away as usuial.

Scientists knew before the flight that water bears have the ability to go into a dormant state when their environment turns against them. Clearly, that's what they did in space. Researchers have found no DNA damage in the creatures, either. Since the water bears were exposed to radiation over an extended period, scientists think their DNA had to have been damaged, which means it found some way to repair itself.

The ability of these tiny creatures to survive incredible conditions hint at the remarkable discoveries that may be made in an extensive program of basic biological research beyond Earth. Pharmaceutical companies are interested in carrying out such research, obviously within the context of developing new therapies and increasing their profits over some long term. That's how capitalism works. The excitement of space tourism notwithstanding, the promise of fundamental new insights into life processes-- insights that could not be achieved on Earth-- may be what makes all the money spent on space so far seem like a bargain of historic proportions.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Accidents Will Happen

Ever hear of Advent Launch Services? It's a tiny, Texas-based company trying to develop the launch strategy that will finally deliver cheap and reliable access to low Earth orbit, one of several companies in the hunt for that lucrative but elusive solution.

Recently, on a Texas ranch, a supply of ASL rocket fuel exploded. It happily turned out to be a harmless explosion-- no damage to life or property-- but it is a reminder that establishing ourselves in space is not without danger. Everything will not go as computer simulations say it should. Accidents will happen. Lives will be lost. If our society is not ready to accept the bad stuiff on the way out, perhaps we should stay home.

The system ASL is trying to develop, by the way, involves a vertical rocket launch and a winged vehicle that will glide back to Earth and land in water. Obviously that's not the ultimate solution, bit it might be a step forward.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Nailing Down Water On Mars

Scientists working with the Phoenix Mars Lander are working to understand the water cycle on Mars. We have solid evidence that water exists well below the surface. We know water ice exists in the polar ice caps of the planet. Phoenix' robot arm dug into the soil and found water ice inches below the surface. Yet, as measured by a probe on Phoenix, the air above it is extremely dry.

Water vapor would be expected to be in the atmosphere, especially in the polar regions where Phoenix is, as molecules sublimate from the cap, for example, into the air, but Phoenix hasn't found it.

Scientists intend to dig deeper into the soil to determine how much water ice is there.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Storms Delay Shuttle Flights

Having your launch site in the low lattitudes has its plusses and minusses. On the plus side, launching east from such a site takes advantage of the speed of the Earth's daily rotation. On the minus side, such locations have to deal with the weather patterns of the regions. In Florida, that includes tropical storms and hurricanes. NASA is delaying, for at least two days, the next two shuttle flights because of interruptions in preparations caused by Fay and Hannah. Depending on the course of Hurricane Ike, not to mention possible future storms, the delays could be longer.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Virus Battle On ISS

As noted recently in this blog, NASA announced last month that a computer virus somehow got into some laptops aboard ISS in July. That virus did not get into the command programs of ISS software and caused no harm.

In response to the incident, however, a cosmonaut currently serving aboard ISS has been assigned to update the antivirus software used in many ISS computers. Clearly, NASA and its partners in the station project don't want to take the risk that the next virus might not be so harmless.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Home Sweet Lunar Home

Settlers of new areas have always built homes using whatever was available. In the American experience, for example, that has meant log cabins in wooded areas, soddies on the Great Plains, and adobe structures in the Southwest. Homes on the Moon will follow that pattern.

Preparation for establishing a base on the Moon is already moving ahead. Scientists are looking at how to build lunar habitats using lunar resources. One group has come up with a way to "dig" lunar regolith by forcing gas into the ground, thus lifting dirt out. That dirt could be turned into building material, but there's a simpler way to use it.

Perhaps the single biggest obstacle to settling the Moon is the danger to humans posed by radiation. Fortunately, simple dirt is a good shield; the more dirt, the better the protection against radiation. So, imagine a Bigelow Aerospace inflatable module on the lunar surface-- or several connected together and fully deployed. Using the above digging technique, copious amounts of regolith from the area immediately around the modules could be thrown onto the habitat, creating radiation shielding feet thck, if needed. Dig out the doorways, and we'd be well on the way to establishing a lunar outpost.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Itchy Chinese Feet?

According to reports in the Chinese media, that nation's next manned spaceflight may launch later this month rather than early next. The mission, Shengzhou 7, is scheduled to feature China's first spacewalk.

A Hong Kong newspaper has set the launch date somewhere between September 27 and October 1.

A September 27 launch could mean the mission would be over by October. An early October launch could get the Chinese out and back to Earth before the next shuttle launch, scheduled tentatively for October 8. Why that would matter to China is unclear. Perhaps it simply doesn't want a direct comparison between the Chinese capsule and the American shuttle.

Monday, September 1, 2008

ISS Dodges Space Junk

Last Wednesday, NASA fired the engine of the European-built cargo ship Jules Verne, which was docked at ISS, to move ISS away from a possible collision with a piece of space junk. The rocket burn required lasted over five minutes, and was the first such maneuver in nearly five years.

The space junk being dodged in this instance was a piece of an old Russian surveillance satellite, but Russia is by no means the only culprit in junking up low Earth orbit. Other countries, including the U. S., bear responsibility, as do private space efforts.

Studies by NASA and others have argued junk could destroy the usefulness of low Earth orbit in the years ahead, as well as make manned spaceflight even more dangerous than it already is. That situation has led to an interesting idea for a business-- the space junk collector. Such a company would develop vehicles and techniques to capture old satellites and other pieces of useless hardware, and literally take it out of circulation. The company could not only charge for the service. but could also reclaim the precious metals used in high tech electronics, for example.

Exactly who would pay for the service, unfortunately, is not clear. Ownership of the particular pieces of junk could also pose thorny legal problens; a clear definition of "abandoned spacecraft" would need to be accepted by all parties. No doubt the biggest problem with such a service, however, is that if the company could capture and deorbit old, inactive satellites, it could presumably do the same to active ones. Still, at some point, the problem of space junk will need to be solved in some way.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Computer Virus Hits ISS

Everyone who uses Windows-based software in their Internet accessing devices knows about computer viruses. In July, according to NASA, one such virus infected some of the lap top computers aboard ISS.

The virus involved wasn't the nasty variety; NASA calls it a nuisance. Nor did it get into the command software of the station, so ISS was never in any kind of danger. The virus has been wiped out.

How it got into ISS computers remains a mystery, though. One clue may be that it was the kind of virus that typically attacks online games. Maybe somebody on the ISS crew is a gamer in their free time.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Mars Exploration In 2008

The Mars Phoenix Lander is busy digging even deeper into the arctic ground, trying to find out if the depth it can reach will produce different results from those it has already obtained by digging down about seven inches.

Phoenix, though, is not the only exploration project currently operating on the surface of Mars. Both Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, are still hanging tough. Spirit will remain stationary for a few more months as it builds up its power reserves after a long Martian winter, but is taking panoramic photographs of its surroundings in the meantime. Opportunity, on the other hand, is still literally rolling along. It is beginning its climb out of Victioria Crater, which it has been exploring for about the past Earth year.

Add the probes orbiting Mars, and this is a remarkable time for the fourth planet from the Sun's interaction with humanity.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Pushing The Shuttle

Russia's recent invasion of Georgia seems to have an increasing influence on U.S. space policy. Such are the tangled ways of politics. Three Republican senators-- McCain of Arizona, Hutchison of Texas, and Vitter of Louisiana-- have sent President Bush a letter urging him to refrain from any action that wou;d preclude shuttles flying after 2010. Between the shuttle retirement and the first flight of Orion, as things stand now, the only way American astronauts will be able to reach orbit will be aboard a Russian Soyuz. An increasingly aggressive Russia may make that politically difficult.

On the outside side, Semator Obama has expressed support for at least one additional shuttle mission, and his space policy advisors seem to be urging him to go further than that to close the flight gap.

One nasty little question isn't really brought up, though: In trying to squeeze more flights out of spaceships that are pushing thirty years old, what happens if we lose another orbiter, and another crew?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

BA On The Uptick

Robert Bigelow, founder of Bigelow Aerospace, recently gave SPACENEWS an optimistic interview regarding the future of his company. Given the remarkable success of BA's Genesis series of test modules, establishing the viability of inflatable modules, BA is pushing ahead with building the Sundancer module, its first that will be man-rated. The company plans to have two Sundancers ready to fly by 2011, plus a larger BA 330 ready by 2012. The BA 330 will become the base module for eventual commercial space stations.

Potential tenants for such stations are already contacting BA, among them pharmaceucital and medical research companies. The possibilities for creating new medicines and carrying out basic biological research in microgravity have long held promise for breakthroughs. A commercial space station would seem to be the ideal place to pursue such projects.

BA is already expanding its North Las Vegas manufacturing facilities, and is looking at building plants in other areas of the country. Mr. Bigelow started BA in 1999, prepared to spend $500 million of his personal fortune on it by 2016. So far, he has spent about $150 million. BA looks to be in good shape.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Mars Society's New Project

One critical problem remaining to be solved before humans can undertake deep space missions lasting months or even years is how to counter the negative effects extended weightlessness has on the human body. Aggressive exercise programs during flight help, but more is probably needed.

The Mars Society, the world's leading advocacy group dedicated to putting humans on Mars, is pursuing a new project aimed at trying to determine how feasible supplying artificial gravity to a Mars ship may actually be. Costing between $250,000 and $500,000-- not a huge sum by any means-- the TEMPO project will give volunteers the opportunity to participate in a real space mission. A small probe will be launched into orbit. Attached to the probe will be a tether; a counterweight will be attached to the other end of the tether. If all goes well, the probe and the counterweight will revolve around their common center of gravity, held together by the tether. Centrifugal force created by the revolving bodies will act as artificial gravity.

If such a system can be shown to work, a long stride towards Mars and beyond will have been taken-- in this case, by private individuals working together.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Early Orion Test Fails

Last July 31, an early test of the parachute system that will float the new Orion spacecraft to a safe return to Earth failed, sending a mock-up of the Orion capsule crashing to the surface.

Instead of landing on a runway, like the space shuttle, Orion will come down under parachutes, like Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. That decision was budget driven. Orion will likely usually splashdown, but NASA is looking at the possibility of coming down on land, as Soviet/Russian capsules have always done.

One parachute in a ten parachute system failed in the test. Such failures early on are not uncommon in any technology development program. NASA has until 2014 to get that worked out.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Iran's Space Plans

According to Iranian state television, Iran plans to put a man in space within ten years. The report said a firmer schedule leading to manned spaceflight will be developed over the next year.

Iran, of course, has many worried because of its nuclear ambitions and missile technology, coupled to rising oil revenues and an aggressive foreign policy. Some, indeed, may argue a space program could be used as a cover for the development of more advanced rockets. Iran, however, is already capable of launching small satellites into orbit. That capability is enough to deliver warheads on targets across the Middle East, for example. The ability to put manned spacecraft into orbit would be largely overkill in that regard, though it could lengthen Iran's reach to put targets in Europe and the U.S. within range.

Up to now, putting humans in space has been one confirmation that the nation doing it was a great power. That might be changing. Ten years from now, if everything breaks right, there could be more than one private corporation with that capability. Perhaps Iran is looking at the wrong goal if it wants a robust space program. On the other hand, if Iran wants to gain international respect by pursuing such a complex, peaceful project, this may be at least the beginning signal that Iran wants better relations with the West.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

NASA Still On Track

Tropical Storm Fay, currently giving Florida a wet time, shut down the Kennedy Space Center the past two days. No major damage seems to have been done at KSC, however, and NASA expects the next shuttle launch to go as scheduled.

That launch is planned for October 8, with shuttle Atlantis, and will be the last repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Galactic Suite Moving Ahead?

Barcelona-based space tourism company Galactic Suite announced in a press release and information packet today that 38 people from across the world have made reservations to stay at the company's space hotel just since January of this year via the company's website. The trips will cost 3 million euros, something over $4 million dollars at current exchange rates, and include four days in space after 18 weeks on a Caribbean island preparing for the flight. Family of the client will be welcomed on the island.

The information packet contained an interesting look at the approach the company proposes to take to launch its own spacecraft. It seems the launch will be done by accelerating the craft to the speed of sound along a three mile long maglev line, after which the craft's rocket engines will deliver it to orbit. That sounds neat, but the spead of sound is far short of orbital velocity, while that kind of acceleration may expose customers to substantial g-forces. Such acceleration at sea level would also heat the skin of the craft through friction with the thick air.

Galactic Suite's first space hotel is supposed to open in 2012, according to the press release. So far, however, nothing seems to be happening. Only a little more than three years out, there have been no test flights of what would be the first privately funded spacecraft capable of taking humans into orbit, and no scaled-down tests in space of the hotel modules-- unless GS plans to use Bigelow Aerospace's inflatable modules. Building a three-mile-long maglev line on a relatively small island is quite a task in itself, yet we have no indication that the project has even begun. The GS press release does not even specify which island will host these activities.

I wonder if the GS space hotels will serve fish.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Monster Comet Discovered

Astronomers have found a new comet out roughly around Neptune's distance from the Sun, and it is a biggie. At about 30 miles in diameter, it's the size of the famed Hale-Bopp, and five times as large as the body that struck Earth 65 million years ago, which at the very least helped to end the reign of the dinosaurs.

This comet makes one revolution around the Sun every 22,500 Earth years. Most of that time is spent at the farthest edge of the Sun's gravitational influence, in the Oort Cloud. NASA is just beginning to try to understand what would be required to fly a robotic mission into that area. Such a mission could take fifty years or longer to complete, and require technological upgrades and organizational innovations across the board. Having said that, however, Pioneer and Voyager probes have reached that area, and NASA maintained contact with them for pushing thirty years.

Happily, this big comet poses no threat to Earth, as its orbit never brings it that close to the Sun. Unhappily, for the same reason, the volatiles on the comet are never heated to life, so it never develops the classic comet tail. This big guy could probably put on quite a show.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Space Policy Back and Forth

Jeff Faust is owner/operator of The Space Review website, which features articles on virtually everything that is somehow related to space. I sometimes contribute articles there myself.

This week, Faust has an excellent article on the site that looks at the evolving space policy positions of both Barack Obama and John McCain. From space policy statements on the respective campaign websites to statements actually made by the candidates to debates between surrogates, advocates of human spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit should be heartened. Both candidates now seem to be firmly on record supporting the Constellation program, with no delays, trying to minimize the gap between the shuttle retirement and Orion flights, and returning humans to the Moon as a first step to going even deeper into the Solar System.

Heartened, but perhaps cautious. These are politicians, after all-- politicians in the heat of a presidential race. It's probably best to wait until one of them is president, NASA gets the funding it needs, and Constellation is in high gear, bending metal at a furious pace before advocates declare provisional victory. As Ronald Reagan used to say: "Trust, but verify."