Friday, August 29, 2008

Computer Virus Hits ISS

Everyone who uses Windows-based software in their Internet accessing devices knows about computer viruses. In July, according to NASA, one such virus infected some of the lap top computers aboard ISS.

The virus involved wasn't the nasty variety; NASA calls it a nuisance. Nor did it get into the command software of the station, so ISS was never in any kind of danger. The virus has been wiped out.

How it got into ISS computers remains a mystery, though. One clue may be that it was the kind of virus that typically attacks online games. Maybe somebody on the ISS crew is a gamer in their free time.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Mars Exploration In 2008

The Mars Phoenix Lander is busy digging even deeper into the arctic ground, trying to find out if the depth it can reach will produce different results from those it has already obtained by digging down about seven inches.

Phoenix, though, is not the only exploration project currently operating on the surface of Mars. Both Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, are still hanging tough. Spirit will remain stationary for a few more months as it builds up its power reserves after a long Martian winter, but is taking panoramic photographs of its surroundings in the meantime. Opportunity, on the other hand, is still literally rolling along. It is beginning its climb out of Victioria Crater, which it has been exploring for about the past Earth year.

Add the probes orbiting Mars, and this is a remarkable time for the fourth planet from the Sun's interaction with humanity.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Pushing The Shuttle

Russia's recent invasion of Georgia seems to have an increasing influence on U.S. space policy. Such are the tangled ways of politics. Three Republican senators-- McCain of Arizona, Hutchison of Texas, and Vitter of Louisiana-- have sent President Bush a letter urging him to refrain from any action that wou;d preclude shuttles flying after 2010. Between the shuttle retirement and the first flight of Orion, as things stand now, the only way American astronauts will be able to reach orbit will be aboard a Russian Soyuz. An increasingly aggressive Russia may make that politically difficult.

On the outside side, Semator Obama has expressed support for at least one additional shuttle mission, and his space policy advisors seem to be urging him to go further than that to close the flight gap.

One nasty little question isn't really brought up, though: In trying to squeeze more flights out of spaceships that are pushing thirty years old, what happens if we lose another orbiter, and another crew?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

BA On The Uptick

Robert Bigelow, founder of Bigelow Aerospace, recently gave SPACENEWS an optimistic interview regarding the future of his company. Given the remarkable success of BA's Genesis series of test modules, establishing the viability of inflatable modules, BA is pushing ahead with building the Sundancer module, its first that will be man-rated. The company plans to have two Sundancers ready to fly by 2011, plus a larger BA 330 ready by 2012. The BA 330 will become the base module for eventual commercial space stations.

Potential tenants for such stations are already contacting BA, among them pharmaceucital and medical research companies. The possibilities for creating new medicines and carrying out basic biological research in microgravity have long held promise for breakthroughs. A commercial space station would seem to be the ideal place to pursue such projects.

BA is already expanding its North Las Vegas manufacturing facilities, and is looking at building plants in other areas of the country. Mr. Bigelow started BA in 1999, prepared to spend $500 million of his personal fortune on it by 2016. So far, he has spent about $150 million. BA looks to be in good shape.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Mars Society's New Project

One critical problem remaining to be solved before humans can undertake deep space missions lasting months or even years is how to counter the negative effects extended weightlessness has on the human body. Aggressive exercise programs during flight help, but more is probably needed.

The Mars Society, the world's leading advocacy group dedicated to putting humans on Mars, is pursuing a new project aimed at trying to determine how feasible supplying artificial gravity to a Mars ship may actually be. Costing between $250,000 and $500,000-- not a huge sum by any means-- the TEMPO project will give volunteers the opportunity to participate in a real space mission. A small probe will be launched into orbit. Attached to the probe will be a tether; a counterweight will be attached to the other end of the tether. If all goes well, the probe and the counterweight will revolve around their common center of gravity, held together by the tether. Centrifugal force created by the revolving bodies will act as artificial gravity.

If such a system can be shown to work, a long stride towards Mars and beyond will have been taken-- in this case, by private individuals working together.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Early Orion Test Fails

Last July 31, an early test of the parachute system that will float the new Orion spacecraft to a safe return to Earth failed, sending a mock-up of the Orion capsule crashing to the surface.

Instead of landing on a runway, like the space shuttle, Orion will come down under parachutes, like Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. That decision was budget driven. Orion will likely usually splashdown, but NASA is looking at the possibility of coming down on land, as Soviet/Russian capsules have always done.

One parachute in a ten parachute system failed in the test. Such failures early on are not uncommon in any technology development program. NASA has until 2014 to get that worked out.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Iran's Space Plans

According to Iranian state television, Iran plans to put a man in space within ten years. The report said a firmer schedule leading to manned spaceflight will be developed over the next year.

Iran, of course, has many worried because of its nuclear ambitions and missile technology, coupled to rising oil revenues and an aggressive foreign policy. Some, indeed, may argue a space program could be used as a cover for the development of more advanced rockets. Iran, however, is already capable of launching small satellites into orbit. That capability is enough to deliver warheads on targets across the Middle East, for example. The ability to put manned spacecraft into orbit would be largely overkill in that regard, though it could lengthen Iran's reach to put targets in Europe and the U.S. within range.

Up to now, putting humans in space has been one confirmation that the nation doing it was a great power. That might be changing. Ten years from now, if everything breaks right, there could be more than one private corporation with that capability. Perhaps Iran is looking at the wrong goal if it wants a robust space program. On the other hand, if Iran wants to gain international respect by pursuing such a complex, peaceful project, this may be at least the beginning signal that Iran wants better relations with the West.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

NASA Still On Track

Tropical Storm Fay, currently giving Florida a wet time, shut down the Kennedy Space Center the past two days. No major damage seems to have been done at KSC, however, and NASA expects the next shuttle launch to go as scheduled.

That launch is planned for October 8, with shuttle Atlantis, and will be the last repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Galactic Suite Moving Ahead?

Barcelona-based space tourism company Galactic Suite announced in a press release and information packet today that 38 people from across the world have made reservations to stay at the company's space hotel just since January of this year via the company's website. The trips will cost 3 million euros, something over $4 million dollars at current exchange rates, and include four days in space after 18 weeks on a Caribbean island preparing for the flight. Family of the client will be welcomed on the island.

The information packet contained an interesting look at the approach the company proposes to take to launch its own spacecraft. It seems the launch will be done by accelerating the craft to the speed of sound along a three mile long maglev line, after which the craft's rocket engines will deliver it to orbit. That sounds neat, but the spead of sound is far short of orbital velocity, while that kind of acceleration may expose customers to substantial g-forces. Such acceleration at sea level would also heat the skin of the craft through friction with the thick air.

Galactic Suite's first space hotel is supposed to open in 2012, according to the press release. So far, however, nothing seems to be happening. Only a little more than three years out, there have been no test flights of what would be the first privately funded spacecraft capable of taking humans into orbit, and no scaled-down tests in space of the hotel modules-- unless GS plans to use Bigelow Aerospace's inflatable modules. Building a three-mile-long maglev line on a relatively small island is quite a task in itself, yet we have no indication that the project has even begun. The GS press release does not even specify which island will host these activities.

I wonder if the GS space hotels will serve fish.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Monster Comet Discovered

Astronomers have found a new comet out roughly around Neptune's distance from the Sun, and it is a biggie. At about 30 miles in diameter, it's the size of the famed Hale-Bopp, and five times as large as the body that struck Earth 65 million years ago, which at the very least helped to end the reign of the dinosaurs.

This comet makes one revolution around the Sun every 22,500 Earth years. Most of that time is spent at the farthest edge of the Sun's gravitational influence, in the Oort Cloud. NASA is just beginning to try to understand what would be required to fly a robotic mission into that area. Such a mission could take fifty years or longer to complete, and require technological upgrades and organizational innovations across the board. Having said that, however, Pioneer and Voyager probes have reached that area, and NASA maintained contact with them for pushing thirty years.

Happily, this big comet poses no threat to Earth, as its orbit never brings it that close to the Sun. Unhappily, for the same reason, the volatiles on the comet are never heated to life, so it never develops the classic comet tail. This big guy could probably put on quite a show.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Space Policy Back and Forth

Jeff Faust is owner/operator of The Space Review website, which features articles on virtually everything that is somehow related to space. I sometimes contribute articles there myself.

This week, Faust has an excellent article on the site that looks at the evolving space policy positions of both Barack Obama and John McCain. From space policy statements on the respective campaign websites to statements actually made by the candidates to debates between surrogates, advocates of human spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit should be heartened. Both candidates now seem to be firmly on record supporting the Constellation program, with no delays, trying to minimize the gap between the shuttle retirement and Orion flights, and returning humans to the Moon as a first step to going even deeper into the Solar System.

Heartened, but perhaps cautious. These are politicians, after all-- politicians in the heat of a presidential race. It's probably best to wait until one of them is president, NASA gets the funding it needs, and Constellation is in high gear, bending metal at a furious pace before advocates declare provisional victory. As Ronald Reagan used to say: "Trust, but verify."

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Enceladus' Exploding Tiger Stripes

The Cassini spacecraf's recent close flyby of Saturn's moon Enceladus has produced a wealth of new information. Images show the little moon's remarkable geysers originate in the so-called "tiger stripes" on the surface-- fractures in the ice that are 980 feet deep, cutting into the moon in a steep V shape. The geysers explode into space from the bottom of the fractures. Deposits along the sides of the fractures indicates some of the water vapor in the geysers falls back to the surface and creates icy hills.

Further analysis of the data and the process could allow scientists to determine whether an ocean of liquid water that could support some kind of life exists under the icy surface.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Imaging Martian Dust

NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander has logged another first. Using its atomic force microscope, Lander has produced a 3-D image of a single dust particle on Mars, allowing scientists to study the structure of the particle in detail. At about one micrometer across-- one-millionth of a meter-- the particle is the smallest distinct object yet imaged off Earth.

Understanding the dust on Mars is important if humans ever intend to operate on the planet. Dust is everywhere, and is blown around by the wind. Huge dust storms sometimes totally engulf the world. For all of Mars' similarities to Earth. outlasting a monster Martian dust storm wouldn't be much fun. The dust in the atmosphere would cut the amount of sunlight reaching the surface, producing a dark, cold, forbidding world even at high noon. The strong wind would propel dust into any weakness in equipment. Any attempt to master Mars will have to come to grips with the dust. We now have our first image of that adversary.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

International Space Politics

The Russian invasion of Georgia, and the U.S. response to it, could have negative consequences for the U.S. space program, according to Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who has actually flown on the space shuttle.

As things stand now, the only way American astronauts will have to reach orbit between the retirement of the shuttle in 2010 and the commencement of the Constellation program in 2015 will be aboard the Russian Soyuz. Sen. Nelson is concerned that if tensions continue to build between the two nations, Russia could either refuse to fly astronauts, or charge exorbitant fees to do so. That's what happens when somebody has a monopoly.

Which might mean the U.S. could try to break the monopoly. Adding funds to NASA to shorten the gap, as Sen. Obama recently suggested he might do, would be one approach. Another approach would be to increase support for private firms currently trying to develop manned orbital spacecraft and buy rides for astronauts to and from ISS from them. That market approach could eventually lead to a strong private space sector sooner than would've happened otherwise, which could be the key to really opening the space frontier once and for all.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Spaceport America Gearing Up

Early this morning, according to Leonard David, Lochheed Martin and UP Aerospace jointly carried out a test flight of a new aircraft that uses some advanced technology. The flight left from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

Spaceport officials says they plan to host vertical launches by the first quarter of 2009, and the main buildings at the facility will be ready by 2010.

Exactly what the advanced technology being tested involves is unclear; the companies have decided to hold that information between themselves for now. Checking to see if there were a flurry of UFO reports over New Mexico this morning might give some clues. The area, of course, has a history as a home of both UFO sightings and honest-to-gosh but hush-hush testing of experimental craft.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Funding Hampers Constellation

NASA had been pushing to fly the first manned test flight of the new Orion spacecraft in 2013, just two years after the retirement of the shuttle. Now, however, due to tight funding, NASA is pushing back that flight well into 2014. Mission status for Orion, its Ares launcher, and the overall Constellation program will still be achieved by 2015, but the U.S. stands to have three years during which it has no way to put astronauts into space.

The situation, though, is fluid. Many in Congress are unhappy with the gap, and Congress may yet add money to NASA's budget which might allow the agency to bring Orion's first flight forward. Or, added money might support shuttle flights beyond 2011. The development of Constellation is also being challenged by a group of NASA engineers, as reported in this blog, who argue too much completely new technology is being developed for Constellation. They say shuttle-derived technology could accomplish Constellation's goal of returning humans to the Moon more efficiently.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Cassini at Enceladus

As I write, the Cassini spacecraft is encountering the moon Enceladus for the fifth time during its exploration of Saturn and its system. During the mission, Cassini has not only confirmed Titan is a fascinating world that might be home to some sort of biology, it has also put Enceladus firmly on the list of possible abodes of life in the Solar System.

Cassini will pass within 30 miles of the icy surface of Enceladus, flying over the geysers in the moon's south polar region. The pass should produce some spectacular images. It's also a chance to look for water or water vapor in the geyser plumes. Scientists now speculate there is an extensive ocean of water under the surface, kept liquid by a heat source. They have also found traces of possible organucs on Enceladus. Water, energy, and organic compounds all in the same place, given enough time, could produce life.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Busy October

While the world is focused on the Beijing Olympics, China is moving ahead with its manned space program. Last week, China's news services reported the Shenzhou 7 spacecraft is undergoing final preparation for an October flight. The mission will carry a crew of three taikonauts into orbit and will feature the first Chinese spacewalk. The ability to do work in space, outside the capsule, is critical to China's plan to build a space station in Earth orbit.

NASA plans to be busy in October, as well. The next shuttle flight, and the last servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, is scheduled for early in the month. It's possible, therefore, that China and NASA will be undertaking particularly demanding missions at the same time. One is trying to find a direction for its future after an extraordinary past, while the other is trying to establish itself as a space power. How each of those futures in space unfolds may tell us something about which nation will lead Earth through this century.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Using Light To Identify Earths

Ever since Newton showed light was made up of components that could be separated, as using a prism does, scientists have been trying to discover new ways to gain information from light. A basic tool of astronomers has long been the spectrograph, for example, which lays out light from a target across the visible light spectrum, allowing scientists to identify elements in that target by studying markers in that spectrum.

Simple light may also help us to find extrasolar Earths. Light from a home star glinting off the surface of a planetary ocean, for instance, could tell us that world may be Earthlike. That technique-- which has been tested by using ESA probes orbiting Mars and Venus to look at Earth-- works best when the target planet is in crescent phase, so the light will be coming from a dark background. Studying the"light curve"-- the nature of the light that is reflected away from a body-- can also tell us whether the light bounced off water, ice, or dry land, and perhaps give an indication of the planet's rate of rotation on its axis.

The planet finder probes scheduled for launch in the next decade could give us some wonderful surprises.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

UFOs and Civilized Behavior has a feature it calls the "SETI Channel" that presents articles or essays concerned with some aspect of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. It's a good feature. If I ran a cable science network, I'd make it a regular documentary series. Often, the writer of the articles is Dr. Seth Shostak, senior astronomer of the SETI Institute. This week, for example, Dr. Shostak discusses the abuse he regularly takes from UFO investigators and believers.

As noted in this blog, Larry King's talk show ran a series of programs focusing on UFOs in July. Dr. Shostak played the skeptic on at least two of the programs. In his SETI Channel article, he complains about how he and Bill Nye were treated on the show, and about how he gets abusive emails from the UFO community. He has a point. The King shows did degenerate into personal remarks against Shostak and Nye at times. However, that has become the nature of such shows. When several people are trying to be heard at once, you'll likely get frustrated people saying things they shouldn't. That's what passes for good television these days. That's why Mr. King didn't try too terribly hard to cut the potshots. TV people, seemingly, crave confluct as vampires need warm blood. If Shostak and Nye don't understand that, perhaps they should limit their appearances to more controlled situations.

Dr. Shostak also notes in his article that he can understand the frustrations of UFO investigators who feel their work is not taken seriously by reputable scientists. Mainstream science points out that sixty years after Roswell no physical evidence has ever been brought forward by ufologists. That is true, but it's also true that we don't know what might be turned up if more scientists put more time, energy, and resources into trying to settle this matter once and for all. Ufologists say they have some strong cases. Start there. See what happens.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Obama's Space Plans

Speaking to voters along Florida's Space Coast recently, Sen. Barack Obama pledged to build the spacecraft and launcher of the new Constellation program and seek to narrow the time gap between the last shuttle flight and the first Constellation flight, even if that might mean additional shuttle flights. He also said he wanted to use ISS "intelligently" and give NASA a mission that would once again "inspire" the world.

Obama, however, declined to commit himself to returning humans to the Moon, let alone going on to Mars, saying he intended a thorough study of what NASA should do in the future. Fair enough. Likely, a review of NASA's direction is in store no matter who wins the presidency. The Constellation hardware, however, is being designed to support deep space manned missions. If that hardware is built, logic-- economic and otherwise-- would seem to drive a decision to use it for what it was intended.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

More Planethood Debate

Is the New Horizon probe flying to a planet? The mission's target is Pluto, but in just the past two years Pluto has been defined by groups of astronomers as a planet, a dwarf planet, and a plutoid. No kidding.

Next week, another group of astronomers will meet in Laurel, Maryland, to try to come to a consensus on the definition of "planet." This bizarre little controversy really caught fire in 2006 when the International Astronomical Union decided Pluto would no longer have planet status. The IAU's case is based on the facts that Pluto is much smaller than any other planet-- indeed, smaller than some moons, including our own. The case can also be made that Pluto is simply the closest in a new class of objects orbiting in the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune. We are beginning to find others, and New Horizon may visit one or more after its Pluto flyby.

On the other hand, many argue Pluto is a substantial, spherical body that orbits a star; it is, therefore, a planet. If that definition means a few more bodies in the Solar System get uograded to planets, they say, so be it.

Whatever the outcome at Laurel, the conference will look at extrasolar planets, as well, and try to find consensus that covers bodies everywhere. One further quirk in the IAU's decision is that its definition of planethood applied only to this solar system, leaving open the possibility that the definition in other solar systems could be different. Laurel, hopefully, will bring that position into the modern age.

Monday, August 4, 2008

More Evidence Supporting Dark Energy

Dark energy and its running mate, dark matter, constitute one of the biggest mysteries in modern day physics. Scientists don't understand exactly what they are or how they work. The role they seem to play in the universe, however, is profound. Estimates are that 74% of the universe is dark energy, 22% dark matter, and only 4% everything we see and touch and know. Dark energy seems to be responsible for the acceleration in the expansion of the universe scientists have recently discovered.

A recent study by a team of astronomers at the University of Hawaii buttresses the case for the existence of dark energy. The team studied microwave radiation before it entered a supercluster of galaxies, and microwave radiation leaving the supercluster. The team also studied microwaves before they entered a supervoid, and microwaves leaving it. Supervoids are exactly what you'd expect-- huge areas of space that contain little or no matter. The obsrved behavior of the microwave radiation fit precisely what it would be if dark energy exists.

We may not know what dark energy is, but it certainly seems to be around.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

SpaceX Ups and Downs

On Saturday, SpaceX's Falcon 1 rocket failed for the third time to put a payload into orbit. This time, the payload included a microsat built by SpaceDev. The flight went wrong when the second stage failed to separate a bit more than two minutes after launch.

Failures in the early days of developing a new rocket are not uncommon, and Elon Musk, chairman of SpaceX, has made it clear the company will continue the process.

Indeed, all was not gloom at SpaceX last week. On July 31, the company successfully carried out the first ground firing test of the main engine of its large Falcon 9 rocket. The Falcon 9 is slated to deliver cargo, and possibly a manned capsule, to ISS early in the next decade.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Water Down, Organics To Go

NASA announced yesterday that it had confirmed the existence of water on Mars, at least in the form of subsurface ice. Scientists have had good evidence for several years of water on Mars, but the Phoenix Mars Lander was finally able to deliver a sample of the ice into its lab, heat it, and confirm it was made of water. If that ground truth can be used to validate evidence of water obtained from orbiting probes, there would seem to be more than enough water to support human exploration and settlement of the planet.

The next goal for Phoenix, however, is to look for organic compounds and molecules, starting with the ice sample. If organics are discovered, that wouldn't necessarily prove Mars has Martians, but it would confirm the building blocks of life are present. Mix water, organics, and a more hospitable climate in the past, and the case for life on Mars at some point becomes fairly strong.

If life arose independently on at least two worlds in the same solar system, that would strongly argue life is common throughout the universe. With any luck, we should be able to settle the question of how rare or abundant life actually is yet this century.