Thursday, July 31, 2008

Ethane Lake On Titan

NASA has confirmed there is at least one lake of liquid ethane and other hydrocarbons on Saturn's largest moon, Titan. Analysis of data from the Cassini probe led to the discovery.

Titan was already a fascinating world. Comparable in size to the planet Mercury, Titan is the only moon in the Solar System that has an atmosphere-- and its atmosphere is denser than Earth's. Hydrocarbons, the building blocks of life, seem to be everywhere, making Titan a possible home for life despite its deep freeze temperatures.

The confirmed liquid lake is near Titan's south pole, and is larger than Lake Ontario. Earlier images of the surface taken by Cassini revealed lake-like structures dotting the moon. If they are all liquid, the possibility of life on Titan probably improves.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Watching Mars Change

When the Phoenix Mars Lander was in its final descent to the surface, the exhaust from its rocket engines blew away some nearby dirt, exposing what seemed to be a layer of ice that was beneath the surface before the landing.

Using cameras on Phoenix, scientists have kept watch on the area immediately around the Lander, and they have documented changes. The exposed ice layer, for example, was smooth on its surface at first, but now the surface is rough, cracks may be developing, and pebbles are where none were before. Scientists cannot yet explain exactly what is happening.

This is the first time humans have been able to watch change occurring on another world in something close to real time. Cool stuff.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Happy 50th, NASA

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the creation of NASA. Born out of the American reaction to Sputnik, the agency was created during the Eisenhower administration. Perhaps the major force behind the creation, however, was the then Senate Majority Leader, Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas.

NASA came into being under Eisenhower, but President Kennedy gave the agency its historic mission-- to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to the Earth. Implicit in Kennedy's challenge was completing the task before the Soviets did it. In fact, to this day, the only humans who have ventured beyond low Earth orbit have been NASA astronauts fulfilling Kennedy's directive.

After Apollo, NASA's manned space program has drifted for lack of leadership by presidents and Congress, but the unmanned program has produced spectacular results on many fronts, completely transforming our understanding of the universe. What the next fifty years will see is unclear, but among the milestones could be a thriving lunar settlement, bases on Mars, the discovery of Earthlike planets orbiting other stars, and the discovery of life beyond Earth. NASA would likely have a strong hand in all that.

Monday, July 28, 2008

WhiteKnightTwo Rolls Out

Virgin Galactic takes its next step towards space operations today as its mother ship, WhiteKnightTwo, makes its public debut in Mojave, California. Ground tests of the plane's various systems will be conducted over the next several weeks, and test flights will begin after that. No firm schedule has been set.

WhiteKnightTwo is a huge plane, with its double fuselage and 140-foot wingspan. Not only will it be used to carry SpaceShipTwo up 40,000 feet for its launch on a suborbital arc, but it can also be used as a launch platform for unmanned satellites and a platform for short duration microgravity experiments, among other things. VG is developing plans to fully exploit the plane's capabilities.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Preserving Lunar History

Plans to return to the Moon's surface, both by various nations and by private efforts, has brought up the question of how and whether to preserve the landing sites associated with the first era of lunar exploration some forty years ago.

It's an interesting subject. Virtually everyone involved in the debate agrees that the landing site of Apollo 11 should not be disturbed in any way, but the other Apollo sites might not merit such protection. Apollo 17, for example, left some items on the Moon specifically for future explorers to retrieve in order to study the affects of long term exposure to the lunar environment. Bringing those items back would seem justifiable-- finally ending the Apollo 17 mission, in a sense. Beyond the Apollo sites, there are also the unmanned sites-- from the American Ranger and Surveyor probes, and the Soviet Luna and Lunakhod vehicles.

The idea is to preserve certain areas of the Moon much as we preserve parts of Earth in national parks and heritage sites. The first such project in the world was Yellowstone National Park in 1872. At that time, the American West was still a frontier. Custer and his command died four years later. So, maybe it's not too soon to protect some areas of the lunar frontier.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Transiting Exoplanet

A team of European researchers has recently discovered a new planet orbitug another star by noting the planet's transit across the disk of its sun. The exoplanet is another "hot Jupiter," orbiting its star in 9.2 days, which happens to equal the rotation rate of the star about its axis-- its "day." The star is slightly larger than our Sun.

Observing transits to detect planets around other stars would seem to be a technique of limited value since it depends upon the planet's orbit being well enough aligned with Earth that our instruments can note the transit. Such alignment is a random occurrence, unless we postulate some deep connection between the Sun and the star in question, which nobody is doing. Still, several exoplanets have been discovered using the technique.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

More Time For Phoenix?

The science team operating the Phoenix Mars Lander is asking NASA to extend the mission beyond the planned 90 days, which would end in late August. The team wants at least another 30 days.

After doing all the work to get Phoenix where it is, shutting down the mission while the Lander is still producing good science woukd seem foolish. There would likely be only one extension, however. Pjoenix is above Mars' Arctic Circle, and winter is closing in. Just as in Earth's polar regions, the Sun will stay below the horizon through winter. As Phoenix operates on solar power, it will not function in the long night. The intense cold will also destroy the systems of Phoenix before the Martian spring arrives.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Closing On Phobos

The European Space Agency's Mars Express probe will fly within 60 miles of the Martian moon Phobos today. It will be the closest of five approaches.

The Martian moons are interesting objects. Both Phobos and it's running mate, Deimos, are small-- both fewer than twenty miles along their longest axis. Astronomers aren't sure whether they are asteroids captured by Mars, or pieces of a larger moon that broke apart. Detailed images of their surfaces might help answer that, but Russia is planning to go one step further with a sample return mission to Phobos in the near future. Soviet operations at Mars were never very successful, so we'll have to see if the Russians can pull off their Phobos project.

Tiny as they are, one or noth Martian moons could play a big role in the human exploration of Mars. Some theorists argue the first human landfall in the Mars system shouldn't be on the planet itself, but on one of the moons. Establishing a base on Phobos, say, would allow the crew to study Mars ckisely over extended periods. A fleet of rovers could traverse Mars faster and more efficiently if controlled in nearky real rime by astronauts at the base, as opposed to rovers driven by pilots on earth with a lag time ranging to several minutes, depending on the distance between the two worlds. Landing on a Martian moon would be much less demanding than landing on the planet, as wel. That final huge step could be taken whenever we were sure we were ready if launched from a base on Deimos or Phobos.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Odd Ad

An interesting advertisement stretched across the top of the main page of today. The ad noted that December 21, 2012, marks the end of the Mayan calendar. Clicking on the ad takes the clicker to a websilte about UFOs, Nostrodamus, etc.

Nostrodamus, at least, would seem to have no connection at all with the Maya, except that New Age gurus who want to predict the end of the world-- and have that end come quite soon-- use the man and the civilization for their own purposes, Whenever the Mayam calendar ends, the Maya world ended roughly a thousand years ago. Had it flourished for another few hundred years, evolving as vigorous cultures do, it's at least possible that their calendar might have been extended beyond 2012. Even if not, focusing on the presumed prediction of one fairly isolated society is sort of strange.

Also strange is why such a link would be on covers, almost exclusively, factual stuff related to space-- some science fiction, a regular SETI feature, and the occasional UFO story-- but it's in no way a New Age site. Its visitors wouldn't seem terribly interested in fringe ideas. The ways of Madison Avenie can be about as obscure as one of Nostrodamus' couplets.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Odyssey Moon Looking Ahead

On the 39th anniversary of the historic first manned lunar landing, Odyssey Moon, a company trying to bring the Moon into the human economy, and the International Lunar Observatory Association, a non-profit based in Hawaii that is convinced the Moon has a huge role to play in the continued advancement of science, announced OM will help ILOA establish an astronomical observatory on the Moon.

ILOA sees the observatory as a boon to astronomers around the world, allowing study of both deep space and Solar System objects. OM plans to offer regular access to the Moon for commercial enterprises.

ILOA plans to base its observatory in the highlands around the lunar south pole to take advantage of near-constant access to solar energy. For the same reason, NASA is seriously looking at the area as the site of its lunar base. As things stand, however, ILOA and OM plan to be waiting there when NASA finally arrives.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


Thirty-nine years ago today, men from Earth made the first landing on another world. Centuries and millenia from now, if humanity successfully scatters among the stars, the feat of Apollo 11 will be seen as the seminal event of the twentieth century and one of the defining moments of human history. Yet, some people around today argue the lunar landings of Apollo never actually happened.

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is scheduled to go into orbit around the Moon next year. LRO's mission will be to map the entire surface of the Moon in unprecedented detail in preparation for the next wave of human exploration, now scheduled to commence in 2020. LRO will operate from a polar orbit; as the Moon rotates on its axis, the entire surface wil slide directly under LRO during the course of its mission.

Though the goal of LRO is to map out the future, the extraordinary acuity of its cameras will enable it to spot the Apollo landing sites. None of the lunar probes since Apollo have had that capability. Spotting the bases of the lunar modules of Apollo, or the lunar rovers, from orbit would be a remarkable achievement, and should silence those who have a conspiratorial view of history.

Of course, those who don't believe the evidence from Apollo probably won't believe the images of LRO, either.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Problems at NASA

An internal NASA report leaked to this week documents financial and technical problems with the development of the launch system and spacecraft that are to replace the space shuttle. NASA had been informally aiming for a first flight of the new ship in 2013, but now that will likely be pushed back to the official target of 2015.

The report lists several technical problems that have yet to be solved. Of course, as NASA points out, we are still several years from the first flight of a completely new system. Technical problems at this stage are to be expected. More troubling is the financial situation. Some analysts outside the agency argue NASA is being tasked to accomplish a complex mission with inadequate funding. Apollo was a priority of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and NASA was funded so that it could develop its spacecraft properly. Even then, however, the Apollo 1 fire cost three lives and forced a substantial redesign of the command module before Apollo was ready to carry out its historic mission.

Congress needs to do its job. If it wants a new manned spacecraft, it should fund the program to allow NASA to develop systems that are as reliable and robust as possible. If Congress insists NASA proceeds on what may be inadequate budgets, the billions of wasted dollars, if the effort finally fails, and the blood of any people lost in the attempt will be the responsibility of Capitol Hill.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Phoenix Gathers Ice

The robot arm of the Phoenix Mars Lander has been busy. After digging into the surface to reveal an ice layer underneath the soil, it drilled into the ice. That drilling produced flakes, which a scoop on the arm was able to pick up. A rasp on the arm was also able to scrape filings off the rock-hard ice.

All of the above supports the notion that the substance was in fact ice. That conclusion was further strengthened when the sample in the scoop changed shape after several hours exposure to the direct heat of the sun. On Earth, ice melts when exposed to heat. In the low atmospheric pressure of Mars, however, water in ice exposed to heat would change into a gas-- water vapor. That fits with what scientists observed.

The next step will be to deliver a sample of the ice to a lab onboard Phoenix for chemical analysis.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Another Swing To Wet Mars

For decades, scientists have been debating the role water has played in the history of Mars. The pendulum has swung from a relatively dry Mars, which suggests life there may not be likely, to a wet Mars early on, which leaves the question of life open.

The latest evidence, images from a probe now in orbit, supports the notion of a wet early Mars. Clays that form in the presence of water have been sighted in outcroppings at thousands of spots throughout the highlands of the planet's southern hemisphere. This suggests water in large quantities flowed over much of Mars very early in its history, up to about 3.7 billion years ago.

No such evidence has yet been found in the northern hemisphere by the rovers Spirit and Opportunity, but scientists say that is still a possibility.

On Earth, clays roughly 3.6 billion years old show evidence of early life, so Mars seems to have begun to dry out at an intriguing point. If life developed early on Earth, it might have done so on a wet Mars, as well. Or maybe not. Our robots may come upon the answer, but finding tiny fossils on a huge world-- or determining no such fossils exist-- may ultimately require human explorers on Mars.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Jupiter Versus Aries

NASA engineers are hard at work developing the Aries launcher for the post-shuttle manned spaceflight era. NASA says the first test flight of Aries is less than a year away. That might be critical for maintaining political support for the Moon/Mars program through the change in presidential administrations. After hours, however, some of those same engineers are working on an alternative approach.

That alternative is called "Jupiter." Jupiter relies more heavily on evolving shuttle rocket technology than Aries does. Its supporters say Jupiter would be simpler and more powerful, and save $19 billion in development costs. NASA says Jupiter is a "design on a napkin" that wouldn't work, as against the Aries program that is moving along.

While NASA may be right about that, the argument is weakened by the fact that some engineers are working on both efforts. Holding an engineer to be competent to judge designs when working on Aries and something less than that a few minutes later when working on Jupiter is surely one thing that won't fly.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Asteroids On Close Approach

Two asteroids flying in tight formation-- astronomers just determined they were two smaller bodies, not one larger object-- will zip past Earth today at about six times the distance of the Moon. They therefore pose no danger, but the neighborly encounter will give astronomers an opportunity to study them at close range.

That's a useful opportunity beyond simple scientific enquiry. At some point-- maybe millenia from now, but maybe yet this century-- an asteroid will be on a collision course with Earth. The more we know about the makeup and internal structure of the various classes and families of asteroids, the better equipped we'll be to deal with any that might have Earth in their sights.

On a positive note, asteroids also contain mind boggling amounts of natural resources, from water to metals to rock useful in various ways. Tapping those resources could remake the human economy and support our expansion into the Solar System.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Stephenville Again

For the second week in a row, Larry King devoted the Friday edition of his CNN talk show to a discussion of UFOs. This week, the show focused almost completely on last winter's prolonged sightings seige in the skies around Stephenville, Texas. The show called Stephenville the most important mass sightings case since the Phoenix Lights incident in March, 1997.

A former newspaper reporter in Stephenville and two witnesses of the alleged UFO-- one of whom was a deputy sheriff-- were featured in the program, along with two UFO researchers. The skeptic role was filled by Dr. Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute.

Even though the two witnesses seemed to be solid, credible fellows, perhaps the most important evidence in this case is a large mass of raw radar data from airports in the area. When set against eyewitness reports that track the movement of the UFO over several minutes one night. the radar data seems to suggest something was in fact in the sky that night where witnesses put the UFO, and that something moved precisely as the witnesses described the flight of the UFO. If further analysis of the radar data supports the tentative judgments, Stephenville might be in the headlines a while longer.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Sun Is Fine

Some scientists have expressed concern lately that the current solar minimum is lasting longer than normal, but NASA researchers say everything is fine.

The Sun goes through a roughly 11 year cycle of activity, pegged to the number of sunspots. Solar minimum refers to a period of time when few or no sunspots are visible. The cycle may well say something important about how the Sun operates, but, so far, no one has figured out what that is. In any case, NASA researchers are saying the current minimum is within the normal range, and point out that one in the twentieh century lasted twice as long as the current one has lasted so far.

An interesting fact about solar minimums is that at least one of them can be correlated to a so-called "mini-Ice Age" on Earth. A slight dip in solar output results in a slightly colder Earth. Makes sense. That does set up an interesting question, however. If global warming is heating the Earth, and a quiet Sun is cooling it, how would that interaction play out?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Suborbital Science

NASA is interested in studying whether there is useful science to be done by humans in suborbital flights. Automated experiments can be usefully flown on such flights, but NASA wants to determine whether having a human directly "in the loop" would enhance the value of such experiments.

If NASA decides putting astronauts on such flights would be useful, it would be a plus for that part of the NewSpace industry that is trying to develop suborbital craft. Not only would ferrying astronauts to the edge of space and back give those companies an added income stream and a public relations boon, but it would allow them to work with NASA procedures and technology. A stable source of income may even allow them to pursue an orbital craft a bit sooner than expected.

Such an approach would also give NASA a way to give astronauts flight time between the retirement of the shuttle and the first flight of Aries/Orion.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Water on the Moon

Apollo is history, and the rock samples astronauts brought back from the Moon have been studied every way from Sunday, right? Well, Apollo is history, but advances in technology over the past thirty years have allowed scientists to study the samples in new ways. That has led to the firm discovery of lunar water.

A group of researchers has recently found water in tiny lava beads astronauts brought back. Until now, scientists have seen the Moon as completely and incredibly dry-- save, perhaps, for ice delivered by the impacts of comets. Water inside beads of lava that flowed from the lunar interior, however, indicates the Moon had (perhaps still has) indigenous water in its interior.

How much water is still open to question. Whether there's enough water to aid plans to establish lunar bases and settlements is unknown. Whether any water present would be accessible is unknown. But, because of Apollo and the continued advance of technology, exploing such possibilities now seems reasonable.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Continued Progress at Phoenix

The robot arm of the Phoenix Mars Lander has successfully deposited a second soil sample into the probe's wet chemistry lab. The first sample contained several water soluble elements. Analysis of the second sample will take place over the next few days.

Scientists are also trying to find a way to get ice into the Lander's lab. They're used the robot arm to dig down to a subsurface layer of ice, and even scraped some off, but so far haven't been able to bring an icy sample into the Phoenix lab system.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Weddings in Space

Last week, the Japanes firm First Advantage and the U. S. firm Rocketplane Global, Inc., announced plans to offer weddings in space. The cost of the service is tentatively set at $2.3 million.

Tentatively because there's currently a big catch in the plan. Rocketplane doesn't yet have a space vehicle capable of taking anyone into space. It's working on a suborbital craft, but that has yet to begin test flights. In any case, that could only support quickie oath exchanges in weightlessness.

Something approaching traditional weddings beyond Earth will have to wait for the development of space hotels. That setting could produce quite spectacular weddings-- not to mention honeymoons offering interesting new options couples could explore together. The initial space hotels are on the drawing boards now, but waitong to be married in one would require an extremely long engagement.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Larry King and UFOs

Larry King of CNN seems to have something of an interest in UFOs. Every few weeks he does a program on the subject that features UFO investigators, skeptics, and witnesses of one kind or another. Since that mix is fairly constant, the discussions on the programs tend to follow the same pattern.

King, in fact, invariably gets around ro asking the question the mainstream media and some skeptics seem to think is something close to a clincher. "If aliens are coming to Earth," the question goes, "why do they land in the boondocks? Why don't they land in New York's Central Park, or on the White House lawn?" The implication is that unless ufologists can answer that question, their arguments need not be taken seriously.

Well, nonsense. First, the people who ask that generally live and work in big cities. It suggests, therefore, a possible bias against rural areas and the people who live in them. Second, the questions assumes people who study UFOs should understand the motives and strategies of an advanced, sophisticated alien race. Journalists often struggle to understand the motives and strategies of other humans. The fact that ufologists cannot explain presumed alien behavior means not a wit. Indeed, if they claimed perfect knowledge of the subject, skeptics would be justified in suggesting ufologists were blowing smoke. Third, the premise of the question is incorrect. There are numerous reports of the range of UFO activities, including abductions and landings, in major cities.

Mr. King may want to fimd a fresh angle before his next UFO program. Even suggesting by asking that question that aliens smart enough to get to Earth would think like the American mainstream media is a bit much.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Potential Problem on Phoenix

Phoenix Mars Lander investigators are preparing to dump another soil sample into its oven to heat the sample and perform a chemical analysis. Engineers warn, however, that the next time might be the last time.

The next such experiment will be the second. The first showed no evidence of life. Other tests, however, have shown water near the surface and water soluble elements present that are also involved in biological processes.

As reported in this blog, there was a problem getting soil in the oven the first time. Finally doing so required vibrating the screen over the oven to shake some soil loose. Unfortunately, that shaking also resulted in a short circuit, and engineers worry that another short circuit could end at least that part of the mission.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Mercury Has Volcanoes

Since Mariner 10's fly bys of the planet Mercury in 1974 and 1975, astronomers have been trying to explain the surface features they saw. The MESSENGER spacecraft seems to have solved the mystery.

Last January, as reported in this blog, MESSENGER made its first of three fly bys of Mercury and delivered the best images of the planet's surface yet. The pictures showed strong evidence of volcanism-- clear indications of lava flows, what looks like a large shield volcano, and geologic fault zones.

MESSENGER will fly by Mercury again in Seprember, and a third time in October, 2009, before going into orbit around the planet in 2011 for a year-long mapping mission. At the end of that mission, scientists should have a much better grasp of the mystery of Mercury.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Spaceport America

Building Spaceport America in New Mexico is moving ahead. The New Mexico Space Authority has asked for bids to build a road to the site; it hopes work on the road can begin by September. The plan calls for having the main terminal and hangar ready to open in 2010.

Virgin Galactic has already committed to locating its headquarters and main operations at the spaceport, and other companies, including Lochheed Martin, have also expressed interest in using it. VG is scheduled to begin test flights for its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft later this month in Mohave, California. Other companies are working on their own spacecraft and launchers, but few iof them show obvious signs of becoming realuty any time soon.

If Spaceport America is going to prosper off the bat, those signs need to change quickly.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Opportunity Still Knocking

Lest we focus all our Martian attention on the Phoenix Mars Lander, it's good to recall other robotic explorations of the planet are continuing. The rover Opportunity, for example, is not only still functioning after four years and more, but it is currently undertaking one of the most exciting projects of its journey.

Opportunity is in Victoria Crater, which would be small by lunar standards, but is a substantial formation. Inside Victoria there are cliff faces. Those cliffs can be over 200 feet high, and the faces show sedimentary layering, which promises to detail the geologic history of that area well into the past. Opportunity is now roughly 20 feet from one such cliff face, imaging it in high resolution. At some point, Opportunity may be driven close enough to the cliff to directly analyze the rock.

Of course, fossils of ancient life can often be seen in similar layered formations on Earth. If Phoenix strikes out in its search for life this summer, there may still be Opportunity.