Thursday, January 31, 2008

Satellite Incomimg

A satellite weighing as much as five tons is orbiting Earth out of control, and will likely crash into North America somewhere, sometime in late February or early March.

The U. S. Air Force is watching the situation and making plans to respond to a crash, but working out exactly where the satellite will hit will have to wait untl the thing actually re-enters the atmosphere. Because of the size of the satellite, the USAF is betting some of it will reach the ground, as opposed to burning up in the atmosphere, but how much might survive is unclear.

The satellite is a spy satellite that never spied. Shortly after reaching orbit, the onboard central computer malfunctioned, and the satellite has been useless.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Two Near Misses

Asteroids came close to hitting both Earth and Mars the past two days. Yesterday, 2007 TU24 whizzed past Earth just beyond the orbit of the Moon. Today, 2007 WD5 missed Mars by roughly 13,000 miles. In cosmic terms, both are near misses.

Neither asteroid poses a threat to either world in the near future, but they still might be cause for some concern. The 2007 in each designation means these two bodies were only discovered by astronomers last year. Part of the reason for that is both bodies are relatively small. Had either struck Earth, it would not have ended life on Earth, or even human civilization. Still, had either struck Earth, the result would've been a natural disaster of the first order.

The fact that astronomers only found these two last year, coupled with the fact that thousands of these small mountains are flying around the inner Solar System, suggests the current efforts to find and track them all need to be strengthened.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

UFO Stories

The recent reported sighting of a UFO over Stephenville, Texas, has led to a familiar pattern of behavior by the U. S. Air Force. At first, the USAF denied it had any planes in the area at the time the UFO was seen.

The USAF similarly denied, for example, it had planes up during the Phoenix Lights sighting in March, 1997. Months later, it turned out the Maryland National Guard was training above Phoenix that night-- and dropping flairs, which could be what people saw.

This pattern started with Roswell. First. the Army Air Corps put out a press release saying it had recovered a flying disk. The next day, another press release said it had done no such thing. Decades later, responding to public pressure, the USAF said a weather balloon had crashed at Roswell. Later still, it said what actually crashed was a high altitude balloon that was part of a top secret project to monitor possible nuclear bomb tests in the Soviet Unon-- and speculated that the reports of small alien bodies associated with the 1947 Roswell Incident may have been inspired by six-foot-tall crash dummies used in tests in the area in the 1950s.

Two weeks after the Stephenville sightings-- and after the matter had gained national attention-- the USAF admitted it had had planes in the air around Stephenville that night, suggesting their planes were what people had seen. Of course, some witnesses reported seeing fighter jets chasing the UFO.

The Air Force is not necessarily set up to deal with the public, but its handling of UFO cases through the years has tended to fan UFOlogists' mistrust. Though the USAF may get to the truth in the end, history suggests what actually happened over Stephenville might be up in the air for a while longer.

Monday, January 28, 2008


Today marks another sad anniversary for NASA and the nation. On this date in 1986, 73 seconds after launch on an unusually cold Florida morning, space shuttle Challenger and its launch stack exploded, killing all seven of its crew. They were the first people lost during an American spaceflight, and the only such losses in the twentieth century-- a remarkable record for such a hazardous undertaking.

As always, Challenger's launch was open to the public, and because the first teacher-astronaut, Christa McAuliffe, was part of the crew, children across the country watched the tragedy as it happened. A NASA investigation eventually determined the chilly temperatures played a role in the explosion, but put most of the blame on a NASA culture that had allowed a relaxation of standards, including safety procedures.

Barbara Morgan, McAuliffe's backup that day, stayed with the program and finally got her flight last year. NASA recovered from Challenger, and is now winding down the shuttle program after what will be thirty years, during which-- so far-- only two flights have been lost. Another such tragedy would almost certainly end the program. The shuttle's record presents a mixed picture, one marred by Challenger and Columbia. Perhaps the final judgment will be that the shuttle was a good concept that, for various reasons, never reached its promised potential.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Looking Back

Today is the 41st anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire that killed astronauts Roger Chafee, original Mercury astronaut Virgil (Gus) Grissom, and Ed White, the first American to walk in space.

The training accident stunned the nation and NASA. The space agency, charged with meeting President Kennedy's challenge to put a man on the Moon before the decade was out, and returning him safely to the Earth, was driving towards that goal when the fire devastated the new Apollo command module. Implicit in Kennedy's challenge was that the United States should beat the Soviet Union to the Moon. In early 1967, from NASA's viewpoint, the outcome of that race was still unclear.

Still, with so much on the line, NASA decided it had to undertake a massive redesign of the Apollo spacecraft. That redesign resulted in an extremely capable vehicle. No one was ever lost on an Apollo mission. The Apollo 12 command module was struck by lightning seconds after launch, but the flight continued to accomplish the second manned lunar landing. The remarkable story of Apollo 13 is well known.

By the end of Kennedy's decade, NASA had put not one man on the Moon, but four men, on two separate missions. Chafee, Grissom, and White did not die in vain.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Asteroid Near Miss

While the national media is focused on the Republican Florida Primary next Tuesday, a small asteroid will be whipping past Earth at a distance roughly 100,000 miles farther away than the Moon's orbit. It will be easily visible in a backyand telescope or good binoculars. The asteroid poses no danger, but in cosmic terms, that distance is a near miss.

Asteroid 2007 TU24 was discovered by astronomers only last October. That's due largely to its size, which is anywhere from 500 to 2,000 feet across. The close approach will give astronomers the opportunity to nail down its size and determine much else about the body.

A clever journalist, or political candidate, could put this event with the near miss of Mars by another small asteroid reported in this blog recently, the near miss of Earth by another asteroid the same day of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, Shoemaker Levy crashing into Jupiter in 1994, the 1906 Tunguska Event, and our evolving understanding of the threat to Earth posed by collisions with comets or asteroids to bring up the subhect of developing a space capability that would allow us to deflect such bodies. Not trying to develop such a capacity is simple gambling, with everything-- literally everything human-- on the line.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Virgin Galactic Unveiling

Sir Richard Branson and Burt Rutan unveiled models of WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo this week. The vehicles will be the workhorses of Virgin Galactic, which will take tourists to the edge of space in suborbital flights, perhaps beginning next year. Test flights of the vehicles will begin this summer.

WhiteKnightTwo, which will carry SpaceShipTwo to altitude, will be a substantial aircraft. With a wingspan rivaling a B-29, the twin=cabin jet will also be able to launch small satellites into orbit, giving VG another revenue stream.

SpaceShipTwo will carry two pilots and six passengers-- more people than the typical shuttle crew-- and will feature large windows and a cabin comparable in size to that of a Gulfstream jet. During the few minutes of weightlessness on each flight, the passengers will be able to leave their seats and float around the cabin as they drink in the view. Passengers will wear pressure suits as a safety measure.

Rutan estimates that SpaceShipTwo will be about as safe as 1930s airliners were. That's not bad. Those planes established regular air travel as safe and routine enough to bring in business travelers and tourists. Branson and Rutan are betting on being able to do much the same thing in the years ahead.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Defending Manned Space Exploration

On The Space Review website this week ( Dr. David Livingston writes an article arguing in favor of space exploration in general and human spaceflight in particular. Dr. Livingston is an economist and business consultant, as well as founder and host of The Space Show on radio (, which looks at the development of outer space commerce and space tourism, among other subjects.

Dr. Livingston argues in his TSR article that, from an economic perspective, manned spaceflight specifically, certainly through Apollo, has not only paid for itself, but has led to economic development, even long after Apollo ended. He also points out that a generation of scientists and engineers was inspired by the space program, and the efforts of those people have transformed America and the world.

The article is well worth reading, especially in this political year.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

CA Cites Scaled Composites

Last July, as reported in this blog, three workers were killed and three more injured when a rocket engine exploded during testing. Scaled Composites, the company that built the first privately funded and operated manned craft to reach space, was building the engine for its SpaceShipTwo, a craft designed to carry paying customers on suborbital flights.

California safety inspectors who investigated the incident have now cited Scaled Composites for failing to properly train its employees, and failing to inform its employees of the hazards of using nitrous oxide-- a component of the rocket fuel being used.

Scaled Composites released a statement saying the company has cooperated fully in the state's investigation, and will continue to do so.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Giuliani on Space

Presidential candidates rarely discuss space policy, but Rudolph Giuliani did recently. More, he supported an aggressive space effort, saying specifically that the current five year gap between the retirement of the shuttle and the first flight of the new Orion craft was "not acceptable."

Giuliani made the remarks not simply in Florida, where he is campaigning before the next GOP primary, but on the Space Coast, in Port Canaveral and Titusville, after touring the Kennedy Space Center, and while meeting with aerospace industry executives. So, he was unlikely to argue the Earth is flat. Still, he is now on record making positive remarks about the space program.

The Florida Primary is a week from tomorrow. If space policy is going to be discussed in the presidential campaign at all, this might be the logical time.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

UFO Test Case Needed

Last week, several witnesses reported seeing a huge, totally quiet UFO in the skies over Stephenville, Texas. Some put the craft at a mile long. Just on general principles, a mile long seems unlikely, but maybe everything really is big in Texas. That said, such huge craft have been reported before, perhaps most notably over Phoenix in March of 1997.

Larry King featured the Stephenville sightings on his nightly CNN talk show. King, over the latest few months, has regularly featured UFO discussions. They always play out the same way. Those who think there's something real and extraterrestrial in the UFO phenomenon point to all the reports, many from reputable people, many with multiple witnesses, and some, they insist, complete with physical evidence. Skeptics, on the other hand, simply deny any real evidence of extraterrestrial visitations exists.

Lawyers looking to pin down some fine legal point will look for a test case, a case that turns precisely on the point the lawyer wants determined, with no extraneous issues that could muddy the decision. Barring aliens presenting themselves on the White House lawn at high noon, the best way for UFOlogists to finally prevail would be for them to find the perfect test case.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Final Four?

Reports have it that NASA has narrowed the competition to demonstrate and build a resupply module for ISS to four companies. The NASA contract up for grabs is worth $175 million to the winner.

The four finalists, according to a report on, are Spacehab, Andrews Space, PlanetSpace, and Orbital Sciences. Orbital is most likely the best established of the four.

The competition is part of NASA's attempt to support small space oriented companies. By doing so, NASA hopes to develop innovative approaches, lower the cost of space operations, and, frankly, broaden its own support base.

NASA will likely officially announce the finalists on or before February 7.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Scientists as Interest Group

The national media, based in New York and Washington, D. C., is largely focused on politics. It is, therefore, pretty good at pointing out biases and contradictions in the stands of politicians and groups pushing policies in line with narrow agendas. One group, however, tends to escape skeptical looks from the national press. That group, broadly, is scientists.

The mainstream political press seems to give scientists a benefit-of=a-doubt when one or more takes a public stand on a political issue; the press seems to assume scientists making political judgments are as fair-minded, thorough, and objective as they ideally are when making scientific judgments. First, as the science press knows, scientists are neither Vulcans nor computers; the judgment of a scientist can be colored by his or her personal beliefs and agendas. Second, correct policy options are no more obvious in areas scientists might be interested in than they are in relation to tax policy, welfare programs, or military affairs. A person can have exemplary judgment in a scientific field, and god awful judgment in politics.

Take the debate pitting human spaceflight against unmanned missions, for example. Many physicists and planetary scientists argue thar human flights are wastes of resources. More science could be done more cheaply, they argue, with robotic crafts. Fair enough. Implicit in that argument, however, is the view that the only reason to go into space at all is to do science. Put another way, they are saying the space program should exist solely to advance their work. The right or wrong of that position aside, that kind of view belongs to a special interest group trying to influence the spending of federal funds.

Generally, the press would be sensitive to such attempts to funnel taxpayers' money, but space scientists especially tend to go largely unchallenged. Why? Maybe because most journalists in positions of authority are basically political reporters who see scientists, particularly those engaged in space exploration, as disinterested occupants of ivory towers. Or perhaps the flip side is closer to the truth. Perhaps reporters see scientists as kindred spirits. Both groups, after all, base their claims to the public's attention on being objective purveyors of facts. If scientists turn out to be something less than that when they step into the public arena, well, then....

The above argument can be overdone. Big Science doesn't always get its way, for example, which could suggest the press doesn't simply accept every position establishment scientists take. The real question, though, is whether the mainstream press delves deeply enough into issues related to science.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Possible British ISS Contribution

Currently, Britain is not involved in any way with the ISS, except as a signatory to the agreement establishing the station as an international project. Indeed, Britain is not involved in any manned spaceflight program.

That may change.

A proposal that would have Britain make a significant contribution to the ISS has been floated. The proposal is for Britain to build two habitation modules that would be attached to the ISS, perhaps in 2011. The modules would allow the size of the permanent ISS crew to double from the current three people. Six person crews were the original standard for the station. Because 2011 would be after the space shuttle is due to be retired, the proposal calls for the modules to be launched on Russian boosters. Supporters of the proposal argue that a larger crew would mean more science would get done. They also argue that Great Britain should be involved in manned spaceflight.

The British Government has taken no position on the proposal as of yet.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Russia Moving Out

Russia recently announced it is planning to put a "space platform" in Earth orbit by 2020. The platform, which will come online roughly when the ISS is scheduled to be decommissioned, will support the launching of manned missions to the Moon and Mars. Russia plans its first manned lunar mission around 2025.

Assuming a space platform is basically a space station, the project will build on Russia's historic strength. From a series of Salyuts, through Mir, to the ISS, Russia has more experience building and operating space stations than any other nation. With all that experience in low Earth orbit, however, no manned Soviet or Russian spacecraft has ever ventured beyond Earth orbit, so the focus on flights to the Moon and Mars represents a shift in Moscow's thinking. By positioning this project post-ISS and in the same time frame the U. S. plans to build a lunar base, Russia could become a major player in any international lunar base program. China, too, is planning manned lunar flights in the 2020s, and the Europeans are interested in participating in a lunar program with partners.

If international political friction doesn't get in the way, an international, cooperative lunar base program in the 2020s seems somewhere in the cards. If that comes about and is successful, it could serve not simply as a model for an international Mars program, but perhaps as a way to approach major problems on Earth.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Four Years Later

Four years ago today, President Bush made a speech at NASA Headquarters laying out his "Vision" of Space Exploration. (This President Bush seems to have a penchant for visions, perhaps to counter his father's alleged difficulty with "the vision thing.") The VSE, as laid out in the speech, however, was a seemingly reasonable approach to reinvigorating the manned space program by moving beyond the shuttle and low Earth orbit. The President called for completion of the ISS, retirement of the shuttle in 2010, having a new manned spacecraft capable of deep space missions in operation by 2014, returning humans to the Moon by 2020, establishing a manned lunar base, and going on to Mars. NASA was to do all that with roughly one percent of annual federal spending over roughly thirty years.

Four years later is still early days in such a program, but the various elements seem largely on track so far. To expect military precision in such a far reaching effort is asking too much, even from the military. There have already been budget overruns, and management problems, and gripes from the science community that its favorite projects are getting the short stick in the new emphasis on manned exploration. Those sorts of issues are subject to Congressional oversight and media attention. So far, neither Congress nor the national press has been interested in setting hot fires under anyone's feet in this area. The biggest uncertainty about the effort is what the next presidenr may do about it, but that's been a factor all along.

Perhaps the biggest change in space since 2004 has been the push by private companies to develop space capabilities, including manned spaceflight, not dependent upon NASA. Several private concerns, as reported in this blog, are pursuing various manned projects. If they succeed, or even if some of them prove workable, NASA would be pursuing the VSE in an environment likely quite different from the one Mr. Bush and his advisors envisioned. Using those new capabilities to realize the Vision-- creating new capabilities as we move out-- may ultimately by the key to establishing humanity beyond Earth.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

STS-122 Launch Date Set

NASA has officially set February 7 as the scheduled launch date of shuttle Atlantis on STS-122. The mission was originally set for early last month, but fuel sensors on the external tank failed to perform properly. STS-122 will deliver the European Space Agency's Columbus lab module to the International Space Station, continuing the completion of the ISS.

Pushing STS-122 into February also delays delivery of Japan's lab module into March and sets a schedule for five shuttle missions this year as NASA tries to complete construction of the ISS before the scheduled retirement of the shuttle in 2010.

Friday, January 11, 2008


NASA's MESSENGER probe begins the first of three flybys of Merciry next week. If all goes well, it will get the first images ever of a side of the planet missed by Mariner in 1974 and 1975.

MESSENGER is scheduled to make three flybys of Mercury before settling into orbit around the planet in 2011 for a full (Earth)year of collecting data. The MESSENGER mission, as has every first mission to a planet, promises to revolutionize our understanding of the planet closest to the Sun.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Big Boy Black Hole

Astronomers have found the most massive black hole to date, a monster 18 billion times as massive as the Sun. It lies 3.5 billion light years away-- which is to say, we see it as it was 3.5 billion years ago, when Earth was very young-- in the constellation Cancer the Crab.

The mass of this object, which is six times more massive than the previous record holder, was able to be determined because another black hole is in orbit around it. Masses of objects in space are derived from their gravitational influence on other objects. The more powerful the gravity, the more massive the body-- that's the essential relationship. So, this is the most massive black hole for which we have been able to calculate a mass. There likely are bigger ones we haven't gotten around to yet, and unless the biggest ones happen to have bodies orbiting them, we'll be able to estimate their masses only through indirect means.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Missing the Mars Mark

As reported in this blog, astronomers recently found an asteroid that looked as if it might slam into the planet Mars on January 30. The latest observations and calculations, however, lower the odds of a collision to a 1-in-40 chance. That's still high in cosmic terms, but the chances are decreasing, not increasing, and astronomers see no reason for that trend to reverse.

The saga of Asteroid 2007 WD5 remains a cautionary tale, however. Astronomers at the University of Arizona only discovered the body last month, during a sky survey. Had it been headed for Earth, there is nothing we could've done to avoid a collision. A body that size would not be a Doomsday Rock, but it could cause a major tragedy. It could level most or all of a large city. Or, if it struck in an ocean, as is the likeliest possibility for any such event, it would have raised huge tsunamis, causing destruction over a wide area.

The key to intervening to stop such a collision is early detection of potentially dangerous objects, There are small programs aimed at doing that detecting now, but perhaps, in this presidential election year, a prudent candidate should suggest beefing up planetary defense efforts.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Big Year For China

China recently announced plans to launch 15 rockets and 17 satellites this year. More satellites than rockets clearly means China is trying to move ahead with the capability of launching more than one satellite per rocket. Beijing's top space priority this year, however, will be the launch of its third manned mission. This one will feature a three man crew, as well as the program's first spacewalk.

China, of course, is also hosting the Summer Olympics this year. Hosting the Games is part of a strategy, according to political types, to improve China's image in the world. Pursuing a space program is a way to establish a nation as a leading power. China is already only the third nation to put humans into space, and it has set as a goal landing humans on the Moon, perhaps in the 2020s. A three man crew and the capability to conduct spacewalks would be steps in the right direction.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Rich Space Explorers

Several men who have built extraordinary fortunes have decided to devote some of their resources to exploring space. Elon Musk, Robert Bigelow, and Jeff Bezos, for example, are all building companies in the NewSpace industry, as is Sir Richard Branson. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is financially backing the Allen Telescope Array at Hat Creek, California. The ATA is the leading SETI research facility in the world, will provide communication support for teams engaged in the Google Lunar X-Prize competition, and will also do groundbreaking radio astronomy research.

Now, Microsoft's other co-founder, Bill Gates, and former Microsoft executive Charles Simonyi are teaming up to donate $30 million to fund the construction of a telescope complex high in the Chilean Andes that will survey the entire sky in only three nights. That has never been acconplished. If all goes well, the new telescope will come online in 2015.

The common thread tying these fellows together, besides their immense wealth, is likely the fact that they grew up with Sputnik and Apollo, Space exploration and travel. for the most part, has always been a part of their world. If their efforts are successful, space will be a part of humanity's world for generations to come.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Slipping Schedules

The launch date of the next space shuttle mission has slipped again, this time from January 10 to possibly January 24, though that date could easily slip into early February. The problem is still the external fuel tank sensors that delayed the mission in early December.

Because NASA wants to maintain at least five weeks between shuttle missions, this delay pushes delivery of Japan's lab module to the ISS into March at the earliest.

Such delays, of course, have been a problem throughout the shuttle era. It's in the nature of that beast that seems to roar to life at the ignition of its engines. The shuttle, as NASA has often reninded us, is the most complex machine ever to fly, Many things, therefore, can go wrong. Even without the tragedies of Challenger and Columbia, the inherent unreliability of the shuttle would have argued for moving the U. S. manned program in another direction.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Asteroid 2007 WD5

That's the designation of the rock that may slam into Mars at 3,000 miles an hour this January 30. As of observations taken through January 2, astronomers have reduced the chance of an impact to 1-in-28 from 1-in-25, and further refinements could rule out a collision, at least for this time around.

Astronomers, however, are hoping those further refinements lead to an impact. As noted earlier in this blog, the flotilla of probes now studying Mars would allow extraordinary coverage of such an event. Asteroid 2007 WD5 is roughly the size of the body that produced Meteor Crater in Arizona. If it hits Mars, it could produce a crater a half-mile across and eject material high into Mars' atmosphere. By plowing well below the planet's surface, scientists also hope it would aid the search for life on Mars by revealing layers of Mars that we couldn't otherwise access for decades.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Neat Astronomy Idea

In amateur astronomy, star parties are popular social gatherings. One or more owners of telescopes will pick a good observing spot and invite other amateurs to join them-- to make observations with a telescope, to learn more about the hobby, to trade information and techniques, or simply to socialize. A few annual star parties have grown to be regional or national in scope, and feature well known speakers.

Well, the good people at Astronomy magazine are looking at bringing star parties to the Internet. Technical issues still need to be worked out, but the basic idea is to have a telescope that would be operated by computer, and allow people to log on to a website. There, a user could control the telescope from home, or view the image the telescope was taking, or view an archive of data, or interact with other people logged on to the site. Astronomy staffers are calling the idea an "iStar Party."

Many print publications and television outlets and programs are searching for ways to extend into the Internet and interact with their publics. Astronomy magazine, for example, already has an excellent website. Adding an iStar Party website may be the logical next step.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Another Planet Hunting Success

A young planet for a young year. Astronomers have found the youngest exoplanet yet. Orbiting a Sun-like star 180 light-years from Earth, the planet is believed to be bewteen 8 and 10 million years old. By contrast, Earth is around 4.5 billion years old.

Numbers aside, the new planet, a so-called "hot Jupiter" several times more massive than Jupiter, is still within a protoplanetary disk of gas and dust that orbits the parent star. Scientists have long theorized that planets form in just such disks, but this is the first time we've been able to directly link a new planet with such a disk.

That achievement probably won't make any of the evening news broadcasts, but it's not bad for a species that has struggled not only to simply survive on Earth but to understand the big picture. Let's start the new year on that optimistic note.