Monday, March 31, 2008

Radiation Dangers

For decades, it's been clear that one of the main dangers to humans spending extended periods beyond Earth would the the effect of radiation-- cosmic rays or radiation from the Sun-- on the human body. A report released today by the National Research Council says the radiation may preclude human missions to Mars as well as extended stays on the Moon.

The report also says, however, that much more study is needed, both to determine exactly what the danger is and to find ways to deal with that danger. Siting bases or colonies inside huge lunar lava tubes, as suggested earlier in this blog and by researchers, was seen as one possible way to combat the radiation threat. The solid rock of the tube would block the radiation, so humans would only be exposed to the full brunt of radiation when they left the tube. Lava tubes on Mars are likely to be smaller than the lunar kind because of Mars' stronger gravity. However, Mars may offer a majestic alternative. The incredible Mariner Valley is in fact a huge canyon system. Many of its minor offshoots are larger than the Grand Canyon of Arizona. Walls of rock miles deep, properly oriented, could protect bases or colonies nestled at their feet.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Lynx

XCOR Aerospace announced last week it is building a suborbital vehicle that will carry payload plus a single passenger. That passenger, however, will sit in what is otherwise the co-pilot's seat, so the view will be spectacular.

The Lynx will be the size of a small airplane, and is designed to give small, private companies, researchers, and educators access to weightlessness. XCOR has nine years of experience building rocket engines, and the engine powering the Lynx will be simple, low mainenance, clean-burning, and able to fly several times a day. Because it will operate in the atmosphere, Lynx will be sleek-- the classic spaceship of the Golden Age of science fiction finally flying.

Lynx is scheduled to begin flying in 2010.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Interesting Stuff Around Saturn

The Cassini mission to Saturn's remarkable domain continues to return tantalyzing data. Lately, it has found evidence of organic chemicals in the water vapor rich plumes of the geysers around the south pole of the moon Enceladus.

Further, the probe has found the surface temperature around the vents from which the geysers erupt, while still cold, is substantially warmer than the rest of the surface. That leaves open the possibility that an ocean of liquid water may exist under the ice that covers the moon. Put heat, liquid water, and organic compounds in the same place and wait long enough, scientists think, and life may emerge.

Of course, Saturn's huge moon Titan is also in the running as a possible abode of life. Jupiter's moons Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto are also possibilities. And then there's Mars. If life has in fact developed in several places in our Solar System, the presumption of science will have to become that the universe is absolutely humming, teeming with life.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Rovers To Continue Roving

After scientists working on the Mars Rover mission said that proposed budget cuts would force them to shut down one of the rovers, NASA issued a statement assuring everyone that neither rover would be shut down. So, it seems the historic missions of Spirit and Opportunity will continue until the rovers finally fail.

Coupling the decision not to allow Washington money politics do what the harsh Martian environment has so far failed to do with the safe return of shuttle Endeavour last evening gives NASA a pretty good week.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

STS-123 Update

Space shuttle Endeavour is set to land early this evening at Cape Kennedy, ending a mission that, so far, has had very few problems. That trend seems to be holding. The Florida weather is predicted to be good for the landing.

Perhaps the biggest problem during the mission involved powering up Dextre, the big robot Endeavour delivered to ISS, but that was quickly handled. Dextre will be an important asset in completing the construction of the station and in maintaining it using a minimum number of human spacewalks.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Rover Budget Woes

What fierce Martian dust storms couldn't accomplish, Washington politics might.

NASA's tight budget situation might lead the agency to cut dowm on the funding of the ongoing Mars rover explorations to the point that one of the rovers may have to be shut down for months. Of course, that's not like leaving a car in the garage for a while. There is no guarantee that, once "hibernating" for that long, a rover could function again. Currently, both rovers are still working well, and still doing good science. Replacing the capability of one of them on Mars would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and several years-- and risk all the uncertainties if spaceflight, landing on Mars, and deployment after landing all over again. In short, there would be no replacement.

Forcing curtailmant of an extraordinarily successful mission that is still doing good science for want of $20-$30 million dollars over the next two years is clearly a case of being penny wise and pound foolish. Hopefully, some way can be found around this shortfall so Spirit and Opportunity can continue their historic navigations of the surface of Mars.

Monday, March 24, 2008

NASA In Financial Perspective

Today it was announced that JPMorgan would buy Bear Stearns for $10 a share-- up from the $2 a share announced last week. Morgan will also be responsible for the first billion in Bear debt; the remaining $29 billion debt will fall on the U. S. taxpayer. Wall Street calls that a good deal, and the $29 billion chump change.

In the overall picture, Wall Street is correct. After all, a few individuals in the world-- including at least a couple Americans-- have net worths greater than $29 billion. To compare two numbers, that amount of Bear debt, that taxpayers might be told they should eat without so much as a grumble, is nearly twice the annual budget of NASA. The Iraq War has cost $100 billion and more each year for the past four or five years, and could do so a few years more. One year of that, spread over thirty years, would go a long way towards establishing a permanently manned lunar base and beginning the human exploration of Mars.

Absorbing the Bear debt would presumably be good for the U. S. economy in the short run. Fair enough. Paying for the Iraq War will arguably be to the strategic advantage of Western Civilization in the longer run. Again, fair enough. In the long run, what is the value-- economic, technologic, scientific, cultural, political, and perhaps in other ways-- of establishing humanity on three worlds of immense potential? That is a question deserving of more attention.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

NASA Budget Squeeze

NASA has been given, by Congress, a mandate to explore the Solar System. It has also been given, by President Bush and preliminarily by Congress, a mandate to return humans to the Moon by about 2020 and to plan for the human exploration of Mars. The problem is that Congress is reluctant to pay for all that.

NASA has been carrying out a systematic Mars exploration program over a decade and more, building the basis for future manned missions. That goal was formally set by President Bush in 2004. Now, however, because of budget constraints, the future of that systematic approach may be in some doubt. A sample return mission would be expensive enough to threaten other planned missions; NASA likely won't have the money for all of them. Nor is Mars the only target. Many planetary scientists want new missions to the outer planets undertaken. If a major thrust of NASA policy is the search for life beyond Earth, the argument can be made we are at least as likely to find extant life on Europa or Titan as on Mars.

Congress needs to decide how much it will spend on space exploration over the next few years, and define what it wants to accomplish with that money. Such decisions no doubt will wait until the next president takes office, which means there will be a year or more of uncertainty at NASA.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Titanic Ocean?

Saturn's moon Titan is larger than the planet Mercury and has an atmosphere that is thicker than Earth's Organic molecules litter its surface. Now, some clever scientific reasoning suggests there might be a substantial water ocean under that surface.

Scientists putting rogether a map of Titan's surface based upon images taken during the Casini mission found that, over a few short years, surface features had shifted position. The surface seems to be drifting-- or floating. The fact that the surface has changed on such a short time scale suggests to some scientists a model of the world of three basic elements-- a large core made of rock and ice, a thin surface, and an ocean of water between the two. That ocean would eventually harden into ice. In that model, the surface is floating around on the ocean underneath. A similar model has been suggested for Jupiter's moons Europa, Callisto, and Ganymede. Other scientists say longer observations of Titan is necessary before such a theory can be accepted.

If accurate, however, that model has some fascinating implications. Titan would be a dynamic world in which organic chemistry takes place, and it would have a huge ocean of water. The possibility of life on Titan would be squarely before us.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke, 1917-2008

The renowned science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke passed away earlier this week in his beloved adopted home nation of Sri Lanka.

Clarke published over 100 books of science fiction, stories that helped shape the culture and the careers of scientists and engineers that nourished the first phase of humanity's push into space. More than simply a writer-- although he said he wanted to be remembered principally as a writer-- Clarke is also credited with developing the concept of the communications satellite. Without that contribution, the modern world would be much less modern.

Sir Arthur (he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II) had hoped to see extraterrestrial contact. It's tragic he didn't live to that day-- and equally tragic humanity will not have his wise, optimistic counsel when that day comes.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

SA Acquires Zero G

Space Adventures, the company that sells flights to ISS and has plans to offer flights around the Moon, announced today it has acquired, as of January 1, 2008, the remaining piece of Zero G Corporation, the company that offers customers a few minutes of weightlessness on jets that fly parabolic arcs. SA already owned a large chunk of Zero G. With this acquisition, SA seeks to strengthen its leadership position in the space tourism area by offering everything from the weightless experience to, eventually, lunar flights.

Peter Diamandis, CEO and co-founder of Zero G along with former astronaut Byron Lichtenberg and SA's Eric Anderson, will remain CEO. Dr. Diamandis, of course, is likely better known as chairman of the X-Prize Foundation.

Among the people who have flown on Zero G flights is Stephen Hawking, the famed physicist who has been coping with ALS for most of his life. If Professor Hawking can safely fly what is sometimes called the "vomit comet," the potential market for such flights would seem to be huge.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

More New Earths Possible

Astronomers using the Spitzer Telescope have found water vapor on the inner edge of the planetary disks orbiting two stars. Both stars, which are unrelated to each other, are fewer than 500 light years distant. The location of the water vapor is important. It implies that if a small, Earth-like planet formed on the inner edge of either disk, as current models of planetary formation have happening, that world could easily have water.

Couple this finding with a model of the Alpha Centairi system that suggests Alpha Centauri B may have an Earth-like planet orbiting in its habitable zone (reported in this blog), and the likelihood of finding new Earths in other star systems seems to be increasing. Since planet hunters have already found numbers of exoplanets similar to Jupiter and Saturn, perhaps new Earths shouldn't be surprising.

Of course, Earth-like planets lead directly to the question of life in the universe. If Earth-like planets are common, is Earth-like life common? If the nearest such world is only 4.3 light years away, we may have the answer to that question sooner than most scientists ever dared imagine.

Monday, March 17, 2008

STS-123 Rolling Along

After working around a power glitch, astronauts on STS-123, plus the current crew aboard ISS, have things running smoothly. The first section of Japan's Kibo lab has been transferred to ISS from the shuttle's payload bay, and astronauts are working to get the huge new robot, Dextre, up and running.

The power glitch, in fact, involved Dextre. Power was not getting to the robot, but engineers on the ground worked out a different path that brought Dextre to life. Engineers have also been able to trace the glitch to a faulty power cable in the pallet housing Dextre in the shuttle's payload bay.

Clever folks, those engineers.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


Rolling Rock beer, a brand of Anheuser-Busch, is trying an innovative ad campaign. At the next full moon, which is March 21, Rolling Rock plans to use a laser to project an image of its logo onto the disk of the Moon. It's an interesting idea, though it has been tried before. Coke tried something similar in 1999, but that effort lost its fizzz.

Of course, such a project is in line with the growing effort to use space for commercial purposes. As documented in this blog, several companies are looking at different ways to expand economic activity beyond Earth. That said, however, the Rolling Rock project might well look better in the office of an ad agency than it does when actually attempted. Luna, for all its prominence in the history of life on Earth and in human affairs, is much smaller and dimmer than most people probably realize. A thumb at arm's length completely covers a full moon. That may be too small a platform to support an ad campaign.

On the other hand, the point of ad campaigns is to generate publicity for their subjects. In that respect, Moonvertising may well be successful.

Friday, March 14, 2008


A camera on Bigelow Aerospace's Genesis I experimental imflatable spacecraft has recorded a bright spot seemingly flying between it and Earth. The image has no details, but it is larger than a point source of light. Whatever it is, the image, which lasts a few seconds, is not an atmospheric phenomenon. Even though most of the time the image is seen against Earth, when it first appears, the image is at least partially against the blackness of space.

The UFO community has claimed for years that similar images caught by cameras on NASA spaceflights were evidence that extraterrestrials were watching humanity's space efforts. NASA has explained such images as water droplets, dust particles, urine blobs, camera peculiarities, etc. Well, this time NASA is not involved, and urine blobs, presumably, are not in the mix of possible explanations. Likely, another simple explanation will turn out to be correct, but we will see.

Go to and check out "Mystery of the Sky."

Thursday, March 13, 2008

STS-123 Update

Shuttle Endeavour has now safely docked at ISS, and the meat of the mission has already begun. The big robot arm on ISS, built in Canada, has already started moving cargo from the shuttle's payload bay to the station. On this mission, that arm will be joined by Dexter, a two-armed robot, also built in Canada, that will be able to move along the outside of ISS to perform tasks. Dexter is designed to cut down on the number of spacewalks astronauts need to undertake. It is the first of what will likely become a class of robots that will become standard equipment on space stations and habitats, interplanetary ships, and eventually interstellar ships-- doing maintenance on hulls in the harsh environment of space.

So far, after an inspection by the ISS crew, there seems no cause for concern about Endeavour's heat tile blanket. NASA engineers will study detailed photographs of the ship's underbelly to make a final determination.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Peruvian Meteorite Revisited

Last September, as reported in this blog, local people in Peru reported a meteor crashing into the ground in a remote area of the country. At the time, the scientific establishment tended to discount the story. Now, however, scientists are trying to work out how it happened.

Boston University planetary geologist Peter Schultz visited the area in Peru where the meteor supposedly fell and discovered a 40-foot wide crater complete with fractures in the ground and tiny fragments of what he has identified as a stony meteor. It seems the local people were right, after all.

From the evidence, Schultz estimates the body was moving at 15,000 miles an hour when it hit the ground, which is far faster than physicists would have predicted. Indeed, the laws of physics seem to say a stony body of that size traveling at that speed would burn up in the atmosphere. Well, apparently not always. The challenge now is to understand how this one made it all the way down. Early speculation is that perhaps this rock happened to have an aerodynamic shape that allowed it to cut through the atmosohere before burning up.

Illnesses were reported that seemed to be connected to the impact, but they too were discounted at the time. Perhaps scientists should remember the basics of their endeavor-- investigate first, discount second.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

STS-123 Underway

NASA had a devil of a time getting STS-122 off the ground, finally launching weeks behind the original schedule, but STS-123 went smoothly last night. Space shuttle Endeavour is now on its way to ISS.

Though it's early in the4 mission, there seems to be no concerns about the orbiter's tiles.

Monday, March 10, 2008

STS-123 Set To Fly

Everything is going smoothly for a launch tonight of space shuttle Endeavour on STS-123. Even the Florida weather seems in a cooperative mood. The mission will deliver the first of three parts of Japan's Kibo laboratory, as well as a powerful robotic arm from Canada, to the ISS.

A night launch for the shuttle is rare. In fact, this will be the first since the loss of Columbia put added emphasis on checking an orbiter's heat shield. NASA is confident that a new lighting and video system will still allow inspection of the tiles on the orbiter's underbelly during ascent. According to the accident reports after both Challenger and Columbia, however, NASA has tended to get lax on safety procedures after a string of successful missions. We are five years out from Columbia, the shuttle program is winding down, and workers on that program are concerned about their futures. STS-123 could be the first flight in a two year period of increased danger.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

A New Earth?

A recent study using a computer simulation program modeling planetary formation suggests Earth might have a neighbor similar to itself orbiting in the habitable zone of Alpha Centauri B, one of the stars in the Alpha Centauri multiple star system that is the closest stellar neighbor to the Sun. Alpha Centauri B is a Sun-like star right down to its high metals content. That's important because it suggests there might be rocky, metal-rich planets, like Earth, in orbits that could support life. The Sun's habitable zone, for example, has Venus on its inner edge, Earth in the middle, and Mars on the outer edge.

If Nature goes along with the computer simulation, it could give the collective space efforts of humanity a compelling long term objective that would structure shorter terms plans. Settling Earth's Moon would then be about establishing the beginning of an economy that includes off-world resources. Settling Mars would be about expanding that economy, creating an outpost at the inner edge of the resource-rich Main Belt of asteroids, and becoming a spacefaring civilization. From that base, perhaps a couple centuries down the road, humans might be in a position to undertake an interstellar journey to a new Earth.

Long before that, of course, we would learn a lor about that planet. NASA missions scheduled for launch within the next few years will be able to determine whether the simulation is correct. If it is, telescopes coming online soon will be able to give us more information-- including whether the planet might be inhabited. The Alpha Centauri system is a bit more than four light-years away, which makes an interstellar flight by humans at least conceivable. That distance might also allow us to launch an unmanned interstellar probe yet this century.

The possibilities are enormous-- and exciting.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Holden Crater Holdin' Secrets?

Holden Crater is now simply one of thousands of craters that pockmark the surface of Mars. New evidence, however, suggests that Holden has been home-- perhaps more than omce-- to a lake.

Researchers studying the floor of the crater have found debris they say is consistent with debris caused by standing water. They have also found, they believe, a layer of clay, such as what streaming water would lay down as sediment. Currently, scientists think there may have been two periods during which a lake stood in the crater.

The researchers estimate the first lake in Holden may have lasted for thousands of years, while the second lake period may have been only hundreds of years long. Still, they say, if life existed there, the clay layer would be ideal for preserving fossils. NASA's next lander mission is scheduled to launch for Mars next year, and Holden Crater was already on the list of possible landing sites. With this new evidence, it may well jump up that list.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

NASA and Virgin Galactic

With the retirement of the space shuttle in 2010, and no American manned program until Constellation is ready in 2015, NASA is beginning to look at alternatives to continue space research through that gap. One way is to buy Soyuz flights from Russia to ferry astronauts between Earth and ISS. Another possibility is to purchase suborbital flights from private carriers to conduct research over a range of scientific disciplines.

Should NASA decide to go that way, Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic plans to be in position to accomodate the space agency. The company's flight combination of WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo has been designed to handle research flights as well as tourist flights, and the company expects flight testing of the system to be completed this summer. So, by 2011, if all goes well, NASA experiments and researchers could be reaching the fringe of space onboard VG craft.

Such a program would no doubt be a welcome added revenue stream in VG's early years, clearly helping it secure such business from other customers, as well. A prospering, busy VG would also be a big plus for its headquarters, Spaceport USA, currently being developed in the Las Cruces-Truth Or Consequences area of New Mexico.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Plants In Space

Among the first experiments carried out in the Columbus module on ISS has French astronaut Leopold Eyharts tending to plants growing in zero gravity. The plants, which happen to be a relative of mustard, will be brought back to Earth on the next shuttle mission and analyzed against similar plants grown in normal gravity.

The idea of growing plants on huge spaceships for food and other reasons, of course, is a staple of both space-oriented science fiction and the plans of engineers and designers mapping out deep space missions. If plants cannot be successfully grown beyond Earth, maintaining human groups in space over any length of time is likely impractical.

Happily for the adventurous among us, that doesn't seem to be the case. Botth NASA and the Soviets/Russians have experimented with growing various types of plants on space stations and shuttle flights for years. The growth patterns in zero gravity seem to alter, but the plants do grow. When humanity has a permanent presence on the Moon, comparing plants grown in zero gravity, in the one-sixth Earth gravity of the Moon, and in normal Earth gravity may provide the key to growing plants wherever we go.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Continuing The Wet Mars Debate

Cameras on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter recently picked up, virtually in real time, an avalanche occurring near the north pole of Mars. Scientists say large blocks of water ice mixed with dust is likely what roared down a slope, though they don't yet know why. Currently, it's early spring in the northern hemisphere of Mars, which seems a likely time for such events. Scientists will be studying the polar region closely to determine whether dynamism on Mars is widespread or occasional.

It's been known for a while now that there is water ice in that polar cap, but the larger debate about water on Mars--how much is there now, how much was there early on, where might water be found today, etc.-- continues. Some argue Mars once had a substantial ocean, and that water played a significant role in shaping the planet we see today. Others argue Mars has never had that much water. One avalanche won't settle that debate either way, but if this avalanche is the first solid evidence that things continue to happen on Mars, the case for water-- and life-- probably strengthens.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Obama On Space

The day before presidential primaries that could finally determine the standard bearers of the two major American political parties seemed a good day to note one tactic the Barack Obama campaign seems to be using. For weeks or months now, an ad for Sen. Obama, which is also a link to his website, has been extremely prominent on

There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but it is curious. Space policy has not been a major issue in this long campaign-- Sen. Obama certainly hasn't pushed it. Indeed, what little he has said about the subject has not been encouraging for those seeking a robust manned space program. He has said he might delay the Moon-Mars program for five years as one step in getting the federal budget under control. How wedded he is to that approach is unclear. How useful cutting an agency's budget that is currently less than one percent of overall federal spending would be is also open to question. The impression given by Sen. Obama, and Sen. Clinton, and Sen. McCain, is that they haven't given space policy much thought.

Fair enough. But then, what's the deal about Obama's smiling face being displayed so prominently for so long on It"s entirely possible, of course, that Sen. Obama has no idea his campaign has such a link on that website. It's also possible that his campaign didn't particularly target Perhaps that ad is simply part of a larger "media buy" the campaign made. Still, matching campaign message with campaign ad strategy probably makes more sense.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

STS-123 Launch Date Set

NASA is aiming for a March 11 liftoff for shuttle Endeavour on STS-123. The main objectives of the mission will be to deliver the first module of Japan's Kibo laboratory, as well as a robot arm from Canada, to the ISS.

At sixteen days, STS-123 is scheduled to be the longest shuttle mission yet. This mission will also be the inaugural flight for control centers in Japan and France. They will join centers in the United States, Russia, and Germany. Whatever happens, ISS should never lose contact with home.