Friday, May 30, 2008

Salt and Life on Mars

Too much salt isn't good for a person, nor, according to scientists, is it good for the evolution of life.

Studies of four billion year old rocks on Mars using data from orbiting probes as well as direct measurements using instruments on the rover, Opportunity, suggest that the water that once flowed on Mars was extremely salty. Though there are life forms on Earth that thrive in brine, scientists think they evolved from forms that originated in less salty water. Salt complicates the chemistry of life, thus making it less likely life would arise in extremely saline environments.

Less likely, however, is not impossible, as the scientists involved with the study acknowledge. Fresher water may also have flowed some places on Mars at some point, they say. That would've given life an opportunity to establish itself, and perhaps adapt to too much salt.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

STS-124 a "Go"

Space shuttle Discovery seems ready for its Saturday afternoon launch on STS-124. The Florida weather also seems to be cooperating.

The main task of STS-124 will be delivering the main cabin of Japan's Kibo lab to ISS, thus bringing completion of the space station one step closer to completion. Discovery will make another important delivery, however-- a new pump for the station's only toilet. The toilet went on the fritz last week, forcing the crew to use backup methods. The new pump will likely be installed promptly.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Lunar Living Studied

Preparing to establish a lunar base sometime near 2020, NASA is studying how to establish a long-term human presence.

Lunar dust poses one problem. Apollo astronauts found the dust got in everything; in the low gravity environment, it didn't settle immediately. For a crew living at a lunar base for six months, dust inhaled could be a real health concern. NASA is looking at a few ways to keep dust down, including enclosed lunar surface vehicles and surface suits that never come into the main living space of the base.

Radiation from space poses another danger. The simplest solution to a large part of that problem might be to establish the base underground, using the solid rock above to block the radiation. A variant of that approach would be to establish the base in a giant lunar lava tube. There, huge caverns already exist under rock, waiting to be occupied.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Jupiter's Amazing Atmosphere

Watching the atmosphere of Jupiter has fascinated both amateur and professional astronomers for centuries. It's bands, swirls, spots, and color variations can be easily tracked over time using good backyard telescopes. The Great Red Spot, a huge hurricane-like storm, has been a constant in Jupiter's atmosphere perhaps for as long as humans have had telescopes to observe the planet. There have been periods when the storm seemed to weaken, but it has always come back strong.

Such spots are not uncommon on Jupiter, but most are short'lived. At the moment, however, a storm is developing that already rivals the Great Red Spot in wind speed (well over 300 mph), but seems to be still growing. Further, the Great Red Spot seems to be getting cut off from its energy source.

We have no idea whether this is simply a long-period cycle in the Jovian atmosphere or somethiing more significant, but this summer may have some stunners in store for Jupiter watchers.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Phoenix Arrives

NASA's Phoenix lander successfully landed softly in the north polar region of Mars yesterday. So far, the spacecraft is functioning well.

Phoenix has already begun sending images of its surroundings back to Earth. Those images will allow scientists to put later data in a geological context. That later data will come when the lander uses its one arm to dig into the soil and ice around it. The ultimate goal of the mission is to find evidence of life-- either extinct or extant-- on Mars. If that goal is achieved sometime in the 90 days of the projected mission, the universe as understood by humans will be fundamentally different-- filled with more possibilities-- before the World Series.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

This Date in 1961

On this date in 1961, President John Kennedy addressed Congress and challenged the nation to put a man on the Moon and return him safely to the Earth by the end of the decade. Kennedy was attempting to define the space competition with the Soviet Union in a way that the United States could win it. The decision was, therefore, essentially political in nature. Kennedy, initially, was not too interested in space-- Vice President Johnson was the space program's champion early on-- but the President became enthusiastic as Mercury and Gemini ramped up. Kennedy may have embraced manned spaceflight, but there are indications that the cost of meeting his goal may have led the President to propose the US and the USSR go to the Moon together. We can never know whether Kennedy would have done that, but we do know the challenge he laid down this date was picked up and met by the nation he once led.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Lunar X-Prize Field Grows

The Google Lunar X-Prize Challenge seems to be a success if the number of teams competing for it is any indication.

Fourteen teams are now entered, including four more this week. Those teams are from North Carolina, Japan, Malaysia, and a mystery location. The fourth team has elected not to release details about itself until the entry deadline of July, 2009. Speculation is futile.

The basic Challenge is to land a rover on the Moon, drive it across the surface a specified distance, and radio back data and images by 2013.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Surprising Life

Scientists testing equipment that might be used on Mars someday recently drilled into rock in Spain they thought was sterile, and got a big surprise. Not only did they find life, they also found the environment inside the tock had been altered by the life to make it more hospitable to life.

They reasoned microbes colonized the niche environment in the rock first. Heat given off by the microbes, while extremely little, was enough to make the environment more hospitable for other life forms. Those, in rurn, also shaped their tiny homes through interaction with the environment. Presumably, at least before the human intervention, a relatively stable ecology had been established.

The realization of how life can operate to transform seemingly inhospitable places for its own ends clearly influences how we will pursue looking for life on other worlds. First up on that hit parade will be Mars. Scientists generally agree that Mars had warmer periods in the past. If life ever got started there, it might yet hold on in such niche environments, created by life, for life.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Moonbase Armstrong?

The NASA authorization bill currently working its way through Congress carries a section mandating the first U. S. manned lunar outpost be named after Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the Moon. It's an interesting proposal, though Armstrong himself, who has shunned the spotlight since the flight of Apollo 11, may or may not be thrilled with it. Presumably, the point of naming the base now, even though it won't exist for a decade or more, is to give the base an identity and a kind of reality that will make it harder to kill, as opposed to simply any old lunar base program.

Armstrong is a fine name for a U. S. base, but if the program is eventually pursued as part of an international lunar exploration program, other countries will have a say in the name. Armstrong may still work, however. Much of the world watched live as Armstrong took his first step into the lunar dust. For a few minutes, the whole of humanuty was likely as united as its been since groups of humans wandered out of Africa and began settling a planet. Armstrong himself has steered clear of politics throughout his career, so he may not be particularly linked to unpopular U. S. policies. Once again, the quiet Midwesterner may be the ideal choice.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Europan Ocean Case Strengthened

Scientists studying the icy surface of Jupiter's moon Europa have found evidence that the poles of Europa can shift position, thus changing the rotation of the body. We know this happens on other worlds, including Earth and Mars, but finding it on Europa indirectly affects the argument for life under the ice.

When poles shift, the crust of the world tends to shift, floating to a new position. On Earth, the crust is rocky, and floats on hot magma. On Europa, huge slabs of ice make up the surface. If they float, as this theory argues, they must float on an ocean of water. And if there is an energy source deep in Europa's interior that keeps the moon from freezong solid, and abundant water, and organic molecules from the outside-- there may well be life.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Datekube UFOs

Last evening, NBC's news magazine Dateline did an hour looking at ten UFO sighting incidents, from one over McMinnville, Oregon over half a century ago, to the current flap around Stephenville, Texas. The program focused on sightings "cauught on tape" (actually, the McMinnville sighting was caught on film, but the meticulous journalists at NBC let that slide), which eliminated many cases they could have explored. Still, this was television, and television thrives on images, so the choice was perhaps understandable.

Overall, the journalism displayed on the program was uninspired. Ten cases in an hour might be a nice round number, but it also may be too many to cover each adequately. Fewer in more depth may have worked better. The UFO phenomenon has many aspects-- several of which would have been more interesting even to viewers unfamiliar with the subject than a gee-whiz survey. The program had the inevitable expert skeptics and expert ufologists, but made no attempt to check statements made by either side, not even when the assertions seemed simple enough to support or knock down.

The host and main reporter of the program, alas, was unable to resist making silly cracks throughout the program. They weren't even original cracks. They were, however, the kind of asides that too often pass for wit in American journalism. If NBC News wanted to deal with the subject of UFOs now-- as opposed to looking at the earthquake in China, the tragedy in Myanmar, the future of coal as an energy source, the emergence of Brazil as an economic power, or any of dozens of other issues-- it could have done a better job.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Falcon To Try Again

Sometime next month, SpaceX launcher Falcon 1 will try for the third time to put a payload into Earth orbit. The first attempt was a clear failure-- not uncommon for a new rocket. On the second attempt, Falcon 1 reached space, but failed to achieve orbit.

SpaceX, founded and run by billionaire Elon Musk, is often seen as one of the strongest companies in the developung NewSpace industry. It plans to launch satellites for a living, but it is also developing a vehicle to service ISS. That craft could also be upgraded to ferry people to and from ISS.

First, though, Falcon has to prove itself up to the task.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Deeper Martian Ice

Scientists using the radar on the Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter to probe the ice cap over the north pole of the planet have found the ice there to be thicker than expected. They've also found it to be layered-- dusty layers alternating with layers of pure ice. Like the icefields on Earth, the north polar cap on Mars maintains a history of the planet's climate changes.

Thicker ice caps means flowing water is deeper below the surface. When NASA's Phoenix probe lands in the polar regions later this month and digs into the surface, it will hit ice, not water.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Company For Orion

Russia recently announced plans to team with the European Space Agency to build a new manned spacecraft. The craft will carry a crew of six, be able to go to the Moon as well as operate in Earth orbit, and should be ready by 2018. It will launch from the new complex Russia is building in western Siberia. As things stand, Russia will build the capsule, and ESA will build the service module and engine block.

Of course, this new ship is scheduled to be ready about the time NASA hopes its new ship, Orion, is taking astronauts back to the Moon. There could also be one or more private craft capable of orbital flight by then, and real destinations in Earth orbit for adventure tourists. Beyond all that, China has said it intends to put people on the Moon, and Japan has expressed interest in participating in an international nanned lunar program. The elements of such a program seem to be emerging. Now, if only someone can put them all together.

The fate of Soyuz is unclear. Presumably, the new craft would take over for the old Russian workhorse. However, Space Adventures, as reported in this blog, has already publicized plans to offer looping flights around the Moon in a Soyuz. The Soyuz, after all, was origunally designed to fly lunar missions, though none has ever been attempted. Russia, therefore, might conceivably continue to build Soyuz capsules to service private spaceflights. An historic Communist spaceship might end its career as the first privately operated spaceship capable of lunar voyages.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Brit UFOs

The National Archives of the UK has released a first batch of UFO files. The files detail sightings investigated by the British Government. The policy of that government, after dealing with numerous Freedom of Information Act requests over the years, is to eventually release all its UFO files.

The first batch contained reports from the 1970s and early 1980s. As usual, the vast majority of the sightings could be easily explained, but a stubborn few remained inexplicable. Some of those were reported by presumably credible witnesses-- air traffic controllers, pilots, military and police officers. Many of those witnesses asked that their names be withheld, to protect their careers.

No physical evidence was reported in connection with any of the sightings, but that might not mean too much. The Ministry of Defence investigated the reports, and focused on whether they represented a threat to Britain. Once it was detemined no threat was apparent, the MoD stopped investigating. No extended attempt to actually explain the sighting was made.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

After 400 Years, Believing in ET is OK

The chief astronomer of the Vatican, in a published interview, has recently said that believing aliens exist-- even intelligent ones-- is not at odds with faith in God. Such a notion, he held, simply recognizes the universe as revealed by modern science encompasses life beyond Earth.

Modern science hadn't reached that point in 1601, and the Catholic Church had a drastically different view of what Catholics could and could not believe. A priest named Giordano Bruno had a wide-ranging intellect, a free spirit, and a stubborn streak. Bruno speculated, as had others through the centuries, that the stars in the sky were in fact other suns, and that other planets with intelligent life might orbit them. The Church ordered him to recant thos views, but Bruno refused to do so, even when it was clear that refusal would cost him his life. Bruno was burned at the stake.

We have come a long way in 400 years.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Discovery In Good Shape

The check out of the space shuttle Discovery for the STS-124 mission has gone extremely well so far. Engineers preparing Discovery for its next flight have found only 40 glitches, well below the current shuttle program low of 76, which was also on Discovery.

The major objective of STS-124 is to install another huge piece of Japan's Kibo lab, thus taking one more step towards completing construction of ISS.

Discovery is scheduled to launch on STS-124 May 31.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

First Space Lawyer

Michael Dodge graduated from the University of Mississippi Law School yesterday. That wouldn't especially be news usually as thousands of new lawyers are loosed on the American public each spring, but Mr. Dodge pursued an interesting specialty-- space law.

The Ole Miss law school is the only one in North America to offer that course of study, and Dodge is the first graduate to have won that certifiicate.

In a world reliant on satellites for everything from remote sensing of natural resources to weather prediction to communications to intelligence gathering to the execution of military strategies, not to mention a world on the verge of expanding into space in a big way, with citizens of various nations interacting beyond Earth in both private efforts and government programs, Mr. Dodge might be a busy fellow.

Friday, May 9, 2008

BA Hits Milestone

Bigelow Aerospace's first experimental spacecraft, Genesis 1, has now completed ten thousand orbits of Earth over nearly two years, and is still functioning well. BA's second satellite, Genesis 2, is also performing properly. Two for two right out of the box is quite an accomplishment for a new space company.

BA, however, has bigger plans. The basic task of the Genesis series is to establish that inflatable spacecraft can be deployed and maintained in orbit. That task seems to have been achieved. By 2012, BA plans to have an inflatable module that can support humans. Linking such modules together could create an orbiting research facility, or an orbiting hotel. Later, such structures could serve as habitats on the Moon, and possibly on Mars.

If BA can continue its success, the sky is not the limit.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Building A Case For Space

Most space activists and theorists agree that we should avoid the "Apollo trap" as we develop future space policy. That is, we should not pick a goal, like landing humans on Mars by a date certain, and allow that goal to drive the entire effort. Apollo met its goal, but led nowhere. NASA's programs should be integrated into broader economic and science policies.

That will require building infrastructure, both on Earth and beyond, that will support continuing activities in space-- by NASA, and by private industry and other groups. Part of that necessary infrastructure is legal in nature. If we want capital invested to expand the economy into space, we must make it clear to investors and corporations that their investments, and any resulting profits, will legally belong to them. Space law on this point at the moment is squishy and untested.

Establishing infrastructure will require educating the public, and many politicians, on the issues involved. One useful tool in that education effort may be developing a series of conferences, held at sites across the country or across the world, that would focus on the specific issues involved in expanding the human economy to the Moon and beyond. Quarterly conferences with outreach efforts (publications, websites, etc.), could educate the public, provide focus and support for a public debate, and monitor progress.

Isn't that how modern democracies function?

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

John Glenn Weighs In

Former astronaut, former U. S. Senator, and former presidential candidate John Glenn has called for extending the working life of ISS beyond 2015, as well as delaying the retirement of the space shuttle.

Glenn said that even though the shutle is old, it still works very well, and that spending the millions required to keep it flying a year or two beyond its current retirement date of 2010 would be worth it to cut the time American astronauts would be dependent on the Russian Soyuz to reach orbit.

Of course, extending the shuttle for two years would only bring us to 2012, and NASA's new Orion/Aries stack is not scheduled to fly until 2015. There would still be a substantial gap, even with Glenn's approach. Bringing the new vehicle forward a bit might be possuble, but that, too, would cost extra money. The simple fact is that the maneuverings of Congress, coupled with a White House focused on other matters, has put the American manned space effort in something of a pickle.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Nano Starships

Michio Kaku's new book, Physics of The Impossible, is filled with interesting ideas and informed speculation. One chapter covers starships, and whether interstellar travel is possible given the laws of physics as we understand them. Kaku thinks manned interstellar flight is likely possible, though we may be centuries away from being able to do that.

Another possibility he considers is also interesting, however. With advances in nanotechnology, sending tiny unmanned probes to the stars would be possible. Such probes could be smaller than grains of sand. We could launch billions of them to a star at speeds approaching the speed of light using one of a few possible propulsion schemes; if even a tiny fraction of the probes survived the mission to send back data, the project would be a success. More advanced self-replicating machines could also use the raw material they found in a solar system to reproduce and head for the next star, bouncing from one system to another, every few years or decades contacting Earth with new discoveries. Kaku thinks the first unmanned interstellar flight, using nanoprobes or some other approach, could conceivably leave Earth yet this century.

Of course, if we find a close cousin of Earth orbiting one of the nearby stars before then, sending a mission there could move up the schedule.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Phoenix On Target

NASA's Phoenix lander is closing in on Mars after a near-perfect flight so far. The real tough part, of course, is still ahead. Roughly half of the missions so far sent to Mars by humans have failed.

Phoenix can be seen as a throwback mission. Unlike recent missions to the surface, it has no rovers, and rather than land on parachutes and airbags, Phoenix is designed to descend on a pillar of fire from its rocket engine. Once on the surface, Phoenix will use its robot arm to dig into the soil or water ice around it and deposit samples in mini-lab experiments onboard to search for signs of life. The lander will also deliver daily weather reports back to Earth from the Martian far north.

Phoenix is scheduled to land May 25.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Hubble Mission Delayed

NASA has delayed the final repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope for up to five weeks. The delay is to allow the use of a new external tank on the mission-- a tank redesigned to limit foam shedding after the 2003 Columbia tragedy.

The Hubble mission is the big exception to the approach of concentrating on finishing the construction of ISS before the shuttle is retired. NASA originally ruled out another Hubble repair mission as too dangerous post-Columbia. The public and the science community, however, pressured NASA to reconsider, arguing having an operational Hubble for a few more years justified the risk.

The mission will likely take place in the fall.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Sci-Fi To Sci-Fact?

There is a long tradition of science fiction anticipating actual developments; some would even argue science fiction inspires such developments, given that many scientists and engineers were sci-fi fans in their youths. Terrence Deacon, professor of linguistics at Cal-Berkeley, thinks the universal translator may one day be reality.

Professor Deacon argues that any language would have a structure, and would be based in references to the physical world. Once those references and that structure are understood, software can be developed to build on that base and translate even completely unconnected languages.

Physicist Michio Kaku comes to the same fundamental conclusion in his new book, Physics of The Impossible. Of course, before we can translate alien languages, we must find aliens-- or have them find us.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Edwards AFB UFOs

On the night of October 7, 1965, according to UFO Hunters, up to seven UFOs flew over Edwards Air Force Base for about six hours. The objects were seen by USAF personnel and picked up on several radars in the area. The USAF report on "The Incident"-- recently declassified-- said the objects were that old standby, weather balloons. Edwards, then as now, deals with some of the most advanced aircraft in the world; it's certainly questionable whether many people at that base would be fooled by weather balloons.

The program featured the man in the air traffic control tower at the time of The Incident, and played snippets of what the program claimed were six hours of audiotape detailing what went on that night. A special, covering more of those tapes, might be appropriate. If the story hangs together, the Edwards Incident, because of its duration, the presumed quality of the witnesses, and the corroboration of those sightings by radar hits, could possibly change everything.