Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Hubble Repair Mission Delayed

The space shuttle mission set to launch next week, the last repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, will be delayed, perhaps until next spring.

The problem causing the delay is not anything to do with the shuttle. A component of Hubble's communications system recently failed. NASA has a replacement, but it's been stored away for 18 years. Though NASA thinks the replacement will work, testing it to be sure will take months.

If this had to happem, the timing was fortuitous. Had it happened even two weeks later, after the repair missiom had come and gone, NASA would've been left in an extremely tough spot. As it is, the agency has a chance to look at the remaining years of Hubble and make a programmatic decision concerning whether the value of another repair mission is really worth the risk to a crew.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Success For Space-X

Last night, on the fourth attempt, Space-X's Falcon 1 two stage rocket performed perfectly, delivering a mock satellite to its planned orbit. The next Falcon 1 launch is set for early 2009, and will carry paying customers.

Falcon 1 launches will initially cost about $8 million dollars each, though that could come down with time, and development cosrs for Falcon 1 have been about $100 million. So, If Space-X can put a string of successful commercial flights together, it could become a profitable company fairly quickly.

If that happens, the NewSpace industry might be on the road to maturity.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Shenzhou Success

China's Shenzhou 7 mission seems to have been a complete and rousing success. The centerpiece of the mission, the first Chinese spacewallk, went off without a hitch, and the spacecraft made a safe landing in the steppes of Inner Mongolia earlier today.

Both the twenty-minute spacewalk and the landing were televised live in China. That suggests a confidence and openness more in line with NASA's approach than with the old Soviet way, even though Shenzhou is based on the Soyuz spacecraft, and Russian experts are advising the Chinese program.

The next hurdle China has to clear on its way to building a space station and going to the Moon is probably docking in space. That may require flying two manned missions simultaneously, which would be a sign of a truly serious and maturing program.

Friday, September 26, 2008

U. S. Senate Passes NASA Budget

The U. S. Senate recently passed a bill outlining NASA's 2009 budget. Among its provisions are sections allowing shuttle flights beyond 2010, and an endorsement of the Constellation program's goal of returning astronauts to the Moon by 2020. The bill also allocates $2 billion more to NASA than the administration requested.

The bill now goes to the House. Congressional aides say the House may suspend its rules to allow it to act quickly, and pass the Senate bill on a simple voice vote.

If the NASA budget passed by the Senate becomes law, the Constellation program would seem to be on sound politucal footing as it awaits a decision by the next president.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Shenzhou 7 On Its Way

China's third manned spaceflight was succrssfully launched earlier today. Shenzhou 7 boasts a three man crew, the largest so far for China.

The highlight of the planned five day mission is scheduled to be China's first spacewalk. Chinese officials say they plan to televise the spacewalk live, as a way to show China's confidence and transparency.

The spacewalk is important beyond that, however. Developing the capability to operate outside the ship is critical to achieving China's two stated goals for its manned spaceflight program-- the creation of an Earth orbiting space station, and, perhaps in the 2020s, landing on the Moon.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

SpaceX Delay

As reported in this blog, SpaceX had planned a launch of its Falcon 1 rocket yesterday or today if a static fire test conducted on Saturday went well. It did, but the company announced the next attempt at launch would be no earlier than September 28.

Out of an abundance of caution, according to CEO Elon Musk, the company decided to replace one small component after the test, which is the cause of the delay.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Obama Steps Up

In the midst of a major financial crisis and a tight presidential election campaign, Sen. Barack Obama sent a letter to the Democratic leaders of both houses of Congress urging them to pass legislation soon that will allow NASA astronauts to fly on Russian Soyuz flights beyond 2011.

Further, Obama called for funding additional shuttle flights after the scheduled end of the program in 2010 as a way to close the gap between shuttle and Orion, as well as a way to maintain the skilled NASA workforce.

Last month, Sen. John McCain, joining with other senators, called on NASA to refrain from doing anything that would preclude shuttle flights after 2010.

Monday, September 22, 2008

SpaceX Trying Again

According to Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, the company will try as early as tomorrow to launch its Falcon 1 rocket.

So far, all three launches of the rocket have failed, but SpaceX is convinced the most recent failure was due to a simple timing problem concerning separation of the stages of the rocket. That problem, the company says, can be easily fixed.

The early launch is dependent upon a successful statuc firing test to have been conducted Saturday. The company's website has not yet reported whether that test was, in fact, successful.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Huge GRB Detected

Scientists have recently detected an extremely powerful gamma-ray burst, or GRB, coming from the early days of the universe.

Actually, "early days" is a slippery phrase. GRBs mark the explosion of stars when the universe was young. This particular one occurred 12.8 billion years ago, well before Earth even existed. No Earth, no days, early or otherwise, but the point is this GRB probably came from one of the first generation of stars.

Such titanic explosions thankfully do not occur in the current universe. The earliest stars were huge and short'lived. A similar explosion in the Milky Way today would seriously threaten life on Earth.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Phoenix Mars Extended Again

The highly successful mission of the Phoenix Mars Lander, which was originally schedued to end last month until given a 30-day estension, has gotten yet another extension. NASA has decided to fund the mission through December.

Phoenix has taken the first step towards actually finding evidence of life on Mars by establishing water ice exists just under the surface in the northern polar region of the planet.

Winter is closing in over Mars' northern hemisphere, and it's unlikely Phoenix will survive the bitter cold, so this extension will likely be the last. It's fair to note, however, that this extension alone will be for longer than the entire mission was originally planned to last. Phoenix Mars Lander has been a remarkable success.

NASA Considering Nuclear Lunar Base

NASA engineers designing the lunar base the agency is planning to build are considering powering it with a small fission reactor. The reactor would be buried underground to protect astronauts from the radiation produced. The engineers say the technology is in hand today to allow such a reactor to operate for eight years without need of maintenance.

The plan up to now has been to establish a base near the lunar south pole, partly because permanently shadowed areas in that region might contain useful quantities of water ice, but partly because some peaks in that region are in virtually constant sunlight. Solar collectors on those peaks could deliver constant power to the base below.

It is true, of course, that on average, a given spot of the Moon has two weeks of sunshine and two weeks of darkness. The trick is powering a base through the darkness. A simple solution might be to build a solar collector system that delivers at least double the energy the base requires and saving half of it, perhaps in fuel cells or batteries, to power the base through the long night. If the Sun didn't reappear at the end of those two weeks, a buried fission reactor wouldn't do anybody any good, anyway.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Seeing Is Bellieving

ABCNews aired a 90-minute special on UFOs last night. Hosted by David Muir, it followed a pattern that seems to be favored by network news divisions when they deal with UFOs-- which is rarely. Instead of looking at the details of a few cases-- a network news division might have the resources and clout to break new ground, if there's any new ground to be broken-- the program presented quick summaries of various cases. It also put the question of alien visitation of Earth in the broad context of life in the universe, which is its proper home. Overall, though skeptics were presented, the program dealt with UFOs as a legitimate subject worthy of serious inquiry.

The timing of the special raises an interesting question: Smack in the middle of a hotly contested presidential election campaign, in a dangerous world, in a worrying economic situation, why did ABC choose to devote 90 minutes in prime time to UFOs? The program as aired could have been broadcast just as easily in November, after the election, for example. One answer to that question is simply that UFOs get good ratings, which is, after all, what television networks are in business to do. Another possible answer may be that some ABC executives think the subject is truly important. In that case, we may see more frequent specials on UFOs from ABCNews.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

NASA Still On Track

Despite Hurricane Ike's pounding of Houston, including the area around the Johnson Space Center, NASA doesn't yet plan to delay the launches of the next two shuttle flights. The first of those, the last Hubble repair mission, is set for October 10, while the second is set for November 12.

JSC seems to have come through Ike with no real damage. Surrounding residential areas, including the homes of much of the JSC staff, were evacuated and remain without power, however. Getting flight support personnel and their families back and settled seems to be the biggest obstacle at this time to flying the two final missions of the year as scheduled.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Exoplanet Photographed... Maybe

Astronomers think they may have photographed their first planet orbiting a star similar to our Sun. The star is 500 light years distant, and has about 85 percent of the Sun's mass.

The planet is a strange one, however. At about eight times the mass of Jupiter, it seems to orbit the star at 330 times Earth's distance from the Sun. By comparison, Neptune orbits at only about 30 times that distance. Not only is such a huge world at such a huge distance unprecedented, so far, but it's unclear how such a body could reach that size that far from the parent star, according to current models of solar system formation.

The planet is also hot-- 1500 degrees Kelvin. That may suggest the body is closer to being a brown dwarf-- a failed star-- than a planet.

Designation of this body as a planet may be reconsidered in the years ahead.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


As reported in this blog last week, the DISCOVERY CHANNEL ran a special Friday night that documented, among other things, an attempt to beam power from Maui to the big island of Hawaii. The point of the attempt was to demonstrate power could be beamed through sixty miles of atmosphere, as would be done from a solar power satellite to deliver energy to Earth.

A media alert put out by the National Space Society before the program ran said the test was a success. Well, almost. It did show power can be beamed over distance; instruments aboard a helicopter did indeed detect the beam sixty miles out from its origination point. The program did not show, however, the beam hitting its target on Hawaii. Presumably, that didn't happen. The beam, in fact, split in two at some point, one stronger and one weaker.

The attempt does show promise. Many issues-- financial, political, environmental, and technological-- remain to be resolved, but the concept is extremely attractive. Thirty years of work across all those fronts could conceivably build the energy basis for human civilization for millenia.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Hitching Rides On Soyuz

U. S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) has announced he will push to have current law allowing NASA astronauts to fly aboard Russian Soyuz capsules extended beyond 2011, into the gap between the retirement of the shuttle and the first flight of Orion.

Nelson claimed he didn't like the situation, but it was the only way to ensure American access to "our own station" meaning ISS, during the gap. Perhaps Sen. Nelson and the rest of Congress should have planned better several years ago to avoid such a situation. The Soyuz approach gives Russia extraordinary leverage over the short term future of the U. S. manned spaceflight program. It also means American money will go to Russia at a time the Russian Government seems to be becoming increasingly authoritarian and aggressive.

Both major presidential candidates have urged finding ways to close the gap between shuttle and Orion from its current five years.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

First Step Towards Europa's Ocean?

Imagine sending a tiny submarine into the ocean under the ice of Europa, or into the methane lakes of Titan. Such probes could possibly make our first contact with alien life. Or, perhaps centuries from now, such a craft will conduct our first exploration of the ocean of an Earthlike world in another solar system.

A team of Swedish engineers are currently developing a tiny submersible-- perhaps 5 centimeters across and 20 long, in a cylindrical shape-- that will be designed to plumb not alien seas, but subhlacial lakes on Earth. Scientists think such lakes might contain life trapped in them for millions of years.

The team acknowledges, however, that their work could be extremely useful for designers of future deep space missions.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

SSP Breakthrough?

According to a media a;lert sent out Tuesday by the National Space Society, a respected space advocacy groip, an announcement will be made Friday claiming a breakthrough in the long-distance, wireless transmission of power that could bring space-based solar power (SSP) one big step closer to reality.

Advocates of SSP have long argued it is the ultimate power solution for an advanced technological civilization. Energy collected from the Sun by huge satellites and beamed to the Earth's surface to be used in the power grid would be clean, safe, and inexhaustible. There would be no more need for any power plants on Earth. An SSP system would be decentralized, and therefore essentially impossible to disrupt.

The beaming part has been a sticking point, but the NSS alert says wireless transmission of power has been demonstrated between two Hawaiian islands. If true, given the curvature of the Earth, that might be trickier than beaming from orbit. The project will be examined Friday night as part of an energy special on DISCOVERY CHANNEL.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Bugs Beat Space Environment

Tiny bugs called water bears were launched into orbit aboard an ESA satellite last September and exposed to the harsh realities of open space. Upon recovery of the satellite, scientists found most of the water bears had survived. They are now breeding away as usuial.

Scientists knew before the flight that water bears have the ability to go into a dormant state when their environment turns against them. Clearly, that's what they did in space. Researchers have found no DNA damage in the creatures, either. Since the water bears were exposed to radiation over an extended period, scientists think their DNA had to have been damaged, which means it found some way to repair itself.

The ability of these tiny creatures to survive incredible conditions hint at the remarkable discoveries that may be made in an extensive program of basic biological research beyond Earth. Pharmaceutical companies are interested in carrying out such research, obviously within the context of developing new therapies and increasing their profits over some long term. That's how capitalism works. The excitement of space tourism notwithstanding, the promise of fundamental new insights into life processes-- insights that could not be achieved on Earth-- may be what makes all the money spent on space so far seem like a bargain of historic proportions.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Accidents Will Happen

Ever hear of Advent Launch Services? It's a tiny, Texas-based company trying to develop the launch strategy that will finally deliver cheap and reliable access to low Earth orbit, one of several companies in the hunt for that lucrative but elusive solution.

Recently, on a Texas ranch, a supply of ASL rocket fuel exploded. It happily turned out to be a harmless explosion-- no damage to life or property-- but it is a reminder that establishing ourselves in space is not without danger. Everything will not go as computer simulations say it should. Accidents will happen. Lives will be lost. If our society is not ready to accept the bad stuiff on the way out, perhaps we should stay home.

The system ASL is trying to develop, by the way, involves a vertical rocket launch and a winged vehicle that will glide back to Earth and land in water. Obviously that's not the ultimate solution, bit it might be a step forward.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Nailing Down Water On Mars

Scientists working with the Phoenix Mars Lander are working to understand the water cycle on Mars. We have solid evidence that water exists well below the surface. We know water ice exists in the polar ice caps of the planet. Phoenix' robot arm dug into the soil and found water ice inches below the surface. Yet, as measured by a probe on Phoenix, the air above it is extremely dry.

Water vapor would be expected to be in the atmosphere, especially in the polar regions where Phoenix is, as molecules sublimate from the cap, for example, into the air, but Phoenix hasn't found it.

Scientists intend to dig deeper into the soil to determine how much water ice is there.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Storms Delay Shuttle Flights

Having your launch site in the low lattitudes has its plusses and minusses. On the plus side, launching east from such a site takes advantage of the speed of the Earth's daily rotation. On the minus side, such locations have to deal with the weather patterns of the regions. In Florida, that includes tropical storms and hurricanes. NASA is delaying, for at least two days, the next two shuttle flights because of interruptions in preparations caused by Fay and Hannah. Depending on the course of Hurricane Ike, not to mention possible future storms, the delays could be longer.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Virus Battle On ISS

As noted recently in this blog, NASA announced last month that a computer virus somehow got into some laptops aboard ISS in July. That virus did not get into the command programs of ISS software and caused no harm.

In response to the incident, however, a cosmonaut currently serving aboard ISS has been assigned to update the antivirus software used in many ISS computers. Clearly, NASA and its partners in the station project don't want to take the risk that the next virus might not be so harmless.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Home Sweet Lunar Home

Settlers of new areas have always built homes using whatever was available. In the American experience, for example, that has meant log cabins in wooded areas, soddies on the Great Plains, and adobe structures in the Southwest. Homes on the Moon will follow that pattern.

Preparation for establishing a base on the Moon is already moving ahead. Scientists are looking at how to build lunar habitats using lunar resources. One group has come up with a way to "dig" lunar regolith by forcing gas into the ground, thus lifting dirt out. That dirt could be turned into building material, but there's a simpler way to use it.

Perhaps the single biggest obstacle to settling the Moon is the danger to humans posed by radiation. Fortunately, simple dirt is a good shield; the more dirt, the better the protection against radiation. So, imagine a Bigelow Aerospace inflatable module on the lunar surface-- or several connected together and fully deployed. Using the above digging technique, copious amounts of regolith from the area immediately around the modules could be thrown onto the habitat, creating radiation shielding feet thck, if needed. Dig out the doorways, and we'd be well on the way to establishing a lunar outpost.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Itchy Chinese Feet?

According to reports in the Chinese media, that nation's next manned spaceflight may launch later this month rather than early next. The mission, Shengzhou 7, is scheduled to feature China's first spacewalk.

A Hong Kong newspaper has set the launch date somewhere between September 27 and October 1.

A September 27 launch could mean the mission would be over by October. An early October launch could get the Chinese out and back to Earth before the next shuttle launch, scheduled tentatively for October 8. Why that would matter to China is unclear. Perhaps it simply doesn't want a direct comparison between the Chinese capsule and the American shuttle.

Monday, September 1, 2008

ISS Dodges Space Junk

Last Wednesday, NASA fired the engine of the European-built cargo ship Jules Verne, which was docked at ISS, to move ISS away from a possible collision with a piece of space junk. The rocket burn required lasted over five minutes, and was the first such maneuver in nearly five years.

The space junk being dodged in this instance was a piece of an old Russian surveillance satellite, but Russia is by no means the only culprit in junking up low Earth orbit. Other countries, including the U. S., bear responsibility, as do private space efforts.

Studies by NASA and others have argued junk could destroy the usefulness of low Earth orbit in the years ahead, as well as make manned spaceflight even more dangerous than it already is. That situation has led to an interesting idea for a business-- the space junk collector. Such a company would develop vehicles and techniques to capture old satellites and other pieces of useless hardware, and literally take it out of circulation. The company could not only charge for the service. but could also reclaim the precious metals used in high tech electronics, for example.

Exactly who would pay for the service, unfortunately, is not clear. Ownership of the particular pieces of junk could also pose thorny legal problens; a clear definition of "abandoned spacecraft" would need to be accepted by all parties. No doubt the biggest problem with such a service, however, is that if the company could capture and deorbit old, inactive satellites, it could presumably do the same to active ones. Still, at some point, the problem of space junk will need to be solved in some way.