Friday, February 29, 2008

Pioneer Anomaly

For years now, since the Pioneer spacecrafts have been whizzing through deep space on their way out of the Solar System, scientists have been aware of a divergence between their actual flight paths and their projected flight paths. No one can yet explain why.

Now, studies have found that various space probes that have swung around Earth as a speed assist to slingshot them to their final targets farther out from the Sun-- Galileo and Cassini among them-- have also veered from the mathematically true course. No one can yet explain why. Clearly, though, whatever's happening is not solely a deep space phenomenon. Discrepancies in the Pioneer flight paths were not recognized until the probes were well beyond their target planets, but none of the others studied have reached those distances.

The Planetary Society is pursuing a project to study the Pioneer Anomaly. Part of that study involves retrieving and saving the data stored in 1970s-vintage computers. With these new flights, that project might have more data than anyone imagined.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Rendelsham Revisited

Since this blog recently took on The History Channel's new series, "UFO Hunters", a little bit, it's only fair to note what seemed to be a more useful effort. Last night's program featured an investigation of an incident in Rendelsham Forest, England, in late December, 1980, involving a U. S. Air base and USAF personnel.

Rendelsham is a key case in UFO history because of the presumed quality of the witnesses-- military police and the deputy base commander. The program seemed to break new ground. According to the show, the British Government knew about and was investigating the case before the Americans reported it to the British authorities. There may also be another witness to the events, though, so far, that witness doesn't want to come forward.

Skeptics have argued what the men saw in the forest was actually the beam of a nearby lighthouse playing among the trees. That such sightings have presumably not been reported before the incident or since should have seriously weakened the lighthouse theory, but the program seemed to do a good job finally putting that theory to bed. For example, the lighthouse keeper pointed out that a metal sheet has always been behind the beacon in the lighthouse, directing the light out to sea. In that case, the beam of light is blocked from playing among the trees. The accuracy of the metal sheet statement can be challenged, but the described arrangement certainly seems to make sense.

Bill Birnes and team may have failed yet again to crack a case, but this time, at Rendelsham, they may have pushed the matter forward.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Shuttle Shuffle

NASA has replaced Wayne Hale as head of the shuttle program with his deputy, John Shannon. Hale's new assignment is leading the effort to develop strategies to deal with the transition from the shuttle program and ISS to the resumption of manned lunar flights.

Shannon, on the other hand, is charged with winding down and wrapping up the shuttle program, and doing so safely. As people look to an uncertain future after shuttle, Shannon will have to keep everyone focused on properly doing the work at hand until the last flight is safely home. Another lost shuttle at this point would be a tragedy on many levels.

Hale is known throughout NASA and in Washington as a thoughtful, effective leader with the personal skills to deal with Congress and to speak to the public. By moving him to the Moon program, NASA leadership is likely putting the team that will fight for the program in the next presidential administration in place.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Getting Back Up To Speed

This blog is not about individuals, but some people are simply so good at what they do and so firmly tied to space in one way or another that they cannot be ignored. Burt Rutan is one of those.

Rutan was already a legendary aircraft designer before taking on the challenge of creating the first privately owned and operated manned spacecraft. He met that challenge with SpaceShipOne. Rutan is now leading the effort to build a fleet of SpaceShipTwos, which will carry paying passengers on suborbital flights.

Rutan, however, has been slowed over the past several months by what turned out to be a heart problem. After successful open-heart surgery at UCLA Medical Center earlier this month, Rutan is doing well. That's a big plus for the NewSpace industry.

Monday, February 25, 2008

A Watery Mars

Two recent studies argue water has a clear role in Mars' past, present, and future.

One finds that flowing water carved out many of the surface features we see on Mars today, including the vast Valles Marineris (roughly, Mariner Valley), a canyon system that stretches 2,500 miles across the planet. Flowing water capable of creating such geologic formations, of course, suggests huge amounts of water existed on the surface of Mars for extended periods. Though the study points out that the carving of surface features such as Marineris could conceivably have occurred quickly, over decades, many scientists believe Mars once had an ocean that covered perhaps one third of the surface. On present-day Earth, oceans cover roughly two thirds of the surface.

Another study has found water ice in the south polar ice cap. Astronomers thought for decades the Martian polar caps were carbon dioxide, or dry, ice. That's basically accurate, but a few years ago traces of water ice were found in the northern cap. Now, a study by Adrian Brown of the SETI Institute (yes, they do more than listen for alien radio signals) finds traces of water ice in the southern polar cap.

Both studies support the possibility of a substantial amount of subsurface water on Mars today. That, in turn, would be good news for both the possible human exploration and colonization of the planet, as well as for the possibility that native Martian life still wiggles.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

UFO Hunters

The History Channel has a new series called UFO HUNTERS. For about a month now, a team of investigators led by Bill Birnes, publisher of UFO Magazine, has taken one case a week and tried to prove an extraterrestrial connection using scientific methods. Predictably, they have failed. After all, if they had proven extraterrestrials had visited Earth, that nugget would not have remained secret until that episode aired. Birnes, however, does his level best at the end of every program to insist the alien angle in that case is still viable. He is only modestly convincing.

The History Channel has also run a series called UFO FILES for the past three years or so. It's an interesting enough series, but the connection to history seems tenuous. Again, the problem is the lack of evidence The study of history is the study of evidence. From that perspective, series about UFOs might be better placed on another network.

Of course, The History Channel is a business competing for ratings it can translate into fat ad rates. UFOs, it seems, sell.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Private Lunar Race Joined

The Google Lunar X-Prize challenge to put a privately funded and operated rover on the Moon by 2012 now has ten teams competing for the $20 million dollar first prize, plus various other prizes. According to the X-Prize Foundation, all ten teams seem to be positioning themselves to make serious runs at winning.

So far, seven American teams have entered, plus teams from Italy, Romania, and the Isle of Man, a small island in the Irish Sea. Odyssey Moon, of the Isle, entered the competition last December. More entries are expected.

A group called Space Florida is further sweetening the money pot. It is offering launch services to teams that launch from Florida, and if the winner launches from Florida, the group will kick in another $2 million in prize money. Space Florida's purpose is to ensure that the state's historic role in spaceflight is maintained into a new era.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Navy Did It

Yesterday, after the shuttle Atlantis had safely landed, the U. S. Navy demonstrated its ability to reach into space as it used a missile to destroy a dead U. S. spy satellite. The missile seems to have scored a direct hit on the satellite's fuel tank-- precisely on target. Tracking the debris, NORAD says it finds nothing bigger than a football left, which means virtually all of it will burn up in the atnospjere before reaching the surface.

Those who insist it's impossible to hit a bullet with a bullet take note. At impact, both the satellite and the missile were traveling several times faster than a bullet fired from a high-powered rifle.

Though the shoot down may be a short term plus for the Bush administration, in the longer term it may well put pressure on the U. S. to seriously address a weapons in space treaty. As reported in this blog, Russia and China are already pushing for a treaty banning weapons in orbit. The Navy did not put a weapon in orbit, but it did show doing so may not be necessary.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

STS-122 Home

Space shuttle Atlantis landed safely at Cape Kennedy this morning, successfully concluding the STS-122 mission that brought the construction of ISS one step closer to completion with the installation of the ESA's Columbus lab module.

Next milestone: installation of Japan's module.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Many Earths A Maybe

A recent study suggests from 20 to 60 percent of the sun-like stars in the disk of our galaxy might have planets similar to Earth orbiting them. Scientists using NASA's Spitzer Telescope, a cousin of Hubble, took the temperature of dust orbiting some 300 stars at distances roughly equivalent to between Earth's and Jupiter's orbits, and found warmer dust around many of them. Higher temperatures are taken to mean bodies in those dust rings are colliding regularly, which is precisely the process theory says leads to the formation of planets, especially rocky planets like Earth.

The 250 exoplanets so far discovered are all much larger than Earth, but that is due to the limitation of our technology. As technology and techniques have improved over the past fifteen years, smaller worlds, though still larger than Earth, have been found. Over the next twenty years, with space-based instruments dedicated to the task planned, many astronomers expect to find the first sibling Earths in what may well be a large, extended family.

Monday, February 18, 2008

China's Turn

The Chinese Government has now followed the Russian in questioning a U. S. plan to shoot down a damaged, dangerous U. S. spy satellite. China said it is monitoring the situation, and urged the Bush administration to "avoid causing damages to security" in outer space or anywhere on Earth. Not as direct as the Russian statement, the Chinese position is nonetheless clear.

Both China and Russia seem to assume the U. S. can in fact destroy this satellite in space. Maybe those two governments have information about American capabilities in this area the American public lacks-- or maybe they simply assume that if they could do it, the U. S. can do it.

The possibility exists, however, that the Navy missile will fail, and the satellite will come crashing down, possibly injuring or killing innocent people. If that happens, the Bush administration will clearly take another pounding this political year, the American ability to deal with its own mishaps in space will be questioned, and the U. S. anti-satellite capability will not seem as formidable. A lot will be riding on that Navy missile.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Russia Weighs In

Perhaps predictably, Moscow is questioning the reasoning behind the coming U. S. attempt to shoot down a damaged U. S. spy satellite before it re-enters Earth's atmosphere. Russia suggests the attempt is a "veiled" test of an anti-satellite capability.

For its part, the Bush administration has instructed U. S. diplomats around the world to distinguish between America's attempt to deal with a potentially dangerous situation-- left alone, perhaps hundreds of pounds of debris and dangerous fuel could reach the ground-- and China's destruction of a satellite in January, 2007. The Chinese action seems to have been an obvious test of anti-satellite technology.

The driver of the Russian statement is a proposed treaty banning weapons in space. Even though the American attempt and the Chinese action both involve direct launches from Earth, some see the U. S. action as a first step towards introducing weapons into Earth orbit. Russia and China support the proposed treaty, while the U, S. argues it's written to specifically restrain U. S. programs.

Whatever happens with the attempted shoot down, the issue of governing human activities in space will be far from settled.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Columbus In Shape

The ESA's Columbus lab module is now attached to ISS and functioning well, thus successfully accomplishing the main task of the STS-122 mission and bringing the construction of ISS another step closer to completion.

The 10 astronauts on site-- seven from the crew of Atlantis plus the three stationed on ISS-- will spend the next two days setting up experiments both inside and outside Columbus. Atlantis is scheduled to undock from ISS Monday in preparation for its trip home.

Activities within Columbus will be coordinated from a new ESA mission control facility in Munich, giving the Europeans experience in managing human space flights.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Satellite Shoot Down

As reported in this blog, a dead U. S. spy satellite is expected to return to Earth in early March; it would likely crash somewhere in North America. According to reports, the Bush administration has decided to use a specially designed Navy missile to shoot down the satellite before it enters the atmosphere. Such a course would add to the space debris problem in Earth orbit, at least over the short term, but the objective clearly is to keep a large chunk of the car-sized satellite from doing damage on Earth.

The shoot down would come at an inreresting time. As reported only yesterday in this blog, Russia and China are pushing a treaty that would ban weapons in space. The U. S. is resisting, arguing the treaty as written is really aimed at American weapons. Showing the capability to shoot down satellites, the Bush administration may only strengthen the hands of the Russians and the Chinese. On the other hand, a little more than a year ago, China demonstrated is own ability to destroy satellites in orbit, and its been assumed for years that Russia and the U. S. had that capability.

Those who want to ban weapons from space should perhaps broaden their agenda. The only way to finally keep weapons out of space may be to develop means and strategies to avoid war on Earth. Once wars begin, nations have a tendency to do whatever the leadership thinks it needs to do to prevail, prior treaties notwithstanding.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Weapons In Space

A diplomatic tussle over a treaty banning the deployment of weapons in Earth orbit is currently underway. Russia and China are supporting a proposed treaty; the Bush administration argues that proposal is aimed at banning American weapons, and is therefore resistiing it. Currently, those three nations seem to be the only three with the capability and potential inclination to put weapons in orbit.

First, the weapons under discussion would destroy the other side's satellites-- and possibly manned vehicles; they are not the incinerators of cities described in science fiction. In the public relations contest, nonetheless, Russia and China clearly have the upper hand. The American decision on this policy will likely be made by the next president.

Banning weapons, of course, is appealing, but it may be difficult to enforce such a treaty. We may be headed into a future in which space launches are regular, perhaps daily events around the world, by private companies as well as nations. Monitoring every launch for weapon-related technology may require the creation of an international agency with the authority to conduct intrusive inspections anywhere it chose. The theory behind banning weapons is also problematic. As the advanced societies depend more and more on space-based assets, those assets will become increasingly valuable to the nations that own them-- and, therefore, perhaps, prime targets in any attack. To argue forcefully such critical national assets should not be defended at all takes real work. Defense, like offense, may require weapons.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Insuring NewSpace

In today's modern societies, certainly in the United States, no business of any scale operates without insurance. Of course, all businesses are not equal in the eyes of insurance companies. Space tourism companies will be looked at very carefully.

At the FAA's latest annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference, experts warned the pressure will really be on the first few flights. To start, insurance policies will be extremely expensive for space tourism companies. That's probably not shocking to anyone. If there are failures early on, the industry might not be able to get insurance at all. That could easily delay at least commercial human spaceflight for a generation. However, if the first 10 to 15 flights across the industry go off without a hitch, or if the first three flights of a given company go smoothly, insurance rates could drop quickly.

Of course, if the companies involved can't go three, or ten, or fifteen flights without incident, they'll have more to worry about than insurance. The space tourism industry will only be viable if people who want to fly can be reasonably confident they'll get home in one healthy piece. Proving that to insurers seems to be no harder than proving it to the general public, which is good news for NewSpace.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Clean Bills of Health

NASA has determined the underbelly of Atlantis is in perfect shape to come home. There is still a slightly torn heat shield tile on one of the engine pods, but NASA seems comfortable that's not cause for real concern.

On the ill astronaut front, NASA still hasn't named the astronaut or revealed the problem, but the ESA website has reported that one of its astronauts had a medical issue that was incompatible was performing a spacewalk yesterday. Hans Schlegel, 56, is expected to be able to take his turn outside later in the mission.

Hopefully, STS-122 will have smooth sailing from now on.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Bumpy Start For STS-122

Glitches have plagued the start of the STS-122 mission, though none of them appear serious. A backup conputer onboard Atlantis has been temporarily turned off. NASA has spotted a heat shield tile on Atlantis that seems to have a small tear, though it also seems to be in an area where heat is more a problem during liftoff than reentry. Finally, a spacewalk scheduled for today has been put off until tomorrow, and the mission extended a day, because one of the astronauts is ill. NASA has not revealed which astronaut it is, nor commented on the nature of the illness.

One measure of the maturity of a space program is the ability to deal with problems on the fly and move on. NASA has demonstrated that ability many times over the years. It may have to again.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Griffin Speaks

At a recent breakfast with Space Transportation Association members, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin defended his approach to implementing President Bush's Moon-Mars program. While acknowledging there were other legitimate approaches to carrying out the program, Griffin argued that, given the constraints on NASA's budget currently and projected over the next several years, his approach will accomplish the goals within those budgetary restraints.

Perhaps more interesting-- since he could be expected to defend his own decisions, as most people would-- were Griffin's views on future lunar exploration. He expects China to put people on the Moon before Americans go back. He also pointed out that Russia held onto its manned space program through some extremely difficult times, and has everything required for a lunar mission except the lander. Given Russia's current booming economy fueled by high oil prices, Griffin thinks Russian cosmonauts could conceivably be on the Moon "within six years." He also expects India to pursue a vigorous space program, reasoning a rising Subcontinent will not allow China to be the only Asian superpower.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Atlantis On Its Way

The Florida weather cooperated today, and spac shuttle Atlantis was just successfully launched. The mission, STS-122, will deliver the Columbus laboratory module to the ISS.

The launch itself seemed to be textbook, and. at least on the Fox News Channel, extremely well covered by television. FNC stayed with images of Atlantis through the period of powered flight, first watching the ascent, and then, from a camera onboard Atlantis, watching main engine cutoff and the separation of the external tank from the orbiter.

From that first, quick look, the underbelly of Atlantis looked extremely clean. NASA and the crew, of course, will soon make a detailed inspection of the orbiter's heat shield tiles.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Another Delay for STS-122?

Space shuttle Atlantis was scheduled to lift off tomorrow afternoon on STS-122, but the weather may well delay the launch. The same storm system that spread death and destruction across the Southeast yesterday is now headed for Florida.

STS-122, of course, has already been delayed since early December, 2007, when a faulty fuel sensor on the external tank forced postponement. The twin variables of an extremely complex flying machine and the shifting weather patterns of Florida tell much of the story of the shuttle. Conceived as a cost effective way to reach space regularly, the shuttle never accomplished that goal. Its complexity required months between flights, and-- too often-- when the shuttle was ready to fly, the weather stopped the show, maybe for a day, maybe for several days, and sometimes factors combined to cause dalays of weeks.

Building a reusable spacecraft that won't be subject to such delays is the ultimate goal of many in the NewSpace industry. They have their work cut out for them.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

ESA Difficulties

The European Space Agency is awaiting the next shuttle launch, which is scheduled to deliver its Columbus module to the ISS. Columbus is supposed to be the focus of the ESA's human spaceflight efforts over the next few years, but late last year, as reported in this blog, there were proposals being floated around Europe for a more substantial European presence in manned space. Those proposals incuded building a European manned spacecraft.

Now, such proposals seem to be in trouble. The various national governments involved in ESA are uncertain they want to shoulder the cost of a full-blown manned program. At the moment, of course, ESA astronauts ride on the American shuttle and the Russian Soyuz. When the shuttle is retired, the Soyuz will still be available to get to ISS.

That monopoly will put Russia in the driver's seat. Even when the U. S. Orion program comes online, its goal will likely be the Moon, not ferrying people to low Earth orbit. That would seem to create a splendid opportinity for any private company that can build and operate a spacecraft that can compete with the Soyuz. Several new companies are trying to seize that opportunity.

If one or more can, the next decade may be the busiest for manned spaceflight to date. Not only will ISS be there, but Bigelow Aerospace plans to have at least one manned space station in operation. BA has just announced a deal with Lochheed to use Atlas 5 launchers; Lochheed, of course, also knows a thing or two about creating high perfomance, high altitude aircraft and spacecraft-- likely precisely the mix of skills needed to build the first private, orbital, reuseable spacecraft. Other companies are looking at orbital hotels, and BA could be involved in that, as well. Space Adventures intends to be flying tourists around the Moon. A decision by Europe not to supply its astronauts with ships could be one more spur to the NewSpace industry.

Monday, February 4, 2008

BA Pushing Ahead

Bigelow Aerospace has been talking to the United Launch Alliance for months about what would be required to man-rate the Atlas 5 rocket to launch crews to BA's planned space station, according to both sides. Those talks have become negotiations focused on putting the space station in orbit in 2011, and transporting crew and cargo to the station for several years thereafter.

The Atlas 5 has an excellent record for safety and reliability, which is why BA saw it as a good candidate to be upgraded so it can be licensed to launch people. Launches would likely be from Cape Canaveral in Florida, where the necessary infrastructure already exists. If the shuttle is retired in 2010, as planned, and BA meets its projections, the Americans flying into space from the Space Coast between 2010 and the first flight of Orion, perhaps in 2015, will be employees of a private company, not NASA astronauts.

BA plans to build space stations and habitats for use on the Moon and beyond based on inflatable modules. It has already had great success with the concept. Two test satellites, Genesis 1 and 2, have performed well and continue to function in Earth orbit.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Beatles to Polaris

Tomorrow, NASA will beam the Beatles song "Across the Universe" into space, towards Polaris, using the Deep Space Network. The DSN is the system of radio telescopes around the world that allows NASA to stay in comtact with its far-flung probes. The beaming is in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the song, the 45th of the DSN, and the 50th of NASA.

Clearly, NASA sees this action as harmless fun, uniting a pop culture legend and geekdom, if only for a few minutes. NASA is probably right. However, there is a bigger picture. Some argue that we shouldn't be calling attention to ourselves. A more advanced civilization, once it knew of our existence, would be in the position to decide our fate, or so the concern goes. There are several huge assumptions underlying that worry that no doubt say more about ourselves than about any theoretical aliens, but at this point in time, possibilities are all we have in this area.

It's also true that Earth continually broadcasts its existence in the radio spectrum as broadcast signals from commercial stations to military users fly into space. Such disjointed, broad spectrum noise is inevitable for a civilization of our level, however; some risks simply cannot be avoided. Using tight, directed radio beams to sed signals into space for no particular reason, on the other hand, may not be the best idea.

Friday, February 1, 2008


Five years ago today, space shuttle Columbia was lost during re-entry. All seven people on board were killed. Subsequent investigation showed some of the shuttle's protective heat shield tiles were damaged during launch, so when the crew tried to come home, the tiles failed, and Columbia became a fireball. The investigation also called NASA to task for its attitude towards safety measures-- a finding depressingly similar to one reached by investigators of the Challenger disaster seventeen years before. We should note, however, that those seventeen years saw dozens of shuttle missions, some of them among the most ambitious spaceflights ever attempted, and they were all accomplished safely.

The loss of Challenger led to the examination of manned spaceflight policy that led to President Bush's Moon-Mars proposal, the Vision for Space Exploration. That program, currently being pursued, calls for the retirement of the shuttles by 2010, and the development of a new spacecraft that will take humans back to the Moon, establish a lunar base, and go on to Mars. The essential shift the Bush plan makes in human spaceflight policy is to say that if the United States is going to risk human lives by pursuing human spaceflight, the people going out should be doing something worthy of the cost some of them might pay, not just endlessly orbiting Earth.

If that turns out to be the program NASA follows, the crew of Columbia will have an important legacy.