Friday, October 31, 2008

Exploring Luna For Profit

Astrobotic Technology, Inc., one of the competitors in the Google Lunar Challenge, has announced plans that stretch well beyond the Challenge. It plans to launch first lunar mission, which would likely attempt to win the $30 million prize money of the Challenge, in May, 2010. The target will be Apollo 11's Tranquility Base. Care will be taken not to disturb the historic site.

ATI plans four missions after that. They will focus on gathering data on whether there is water ice on the lunar surface and on picking a site for a lunar base. Shackleton Crater will be a prime target. Data gathered on those missions will be sold to interested parties.

Odyssey Moon, another Google Lunar competitor, also has a business plan for long term success. It plans to put rovers on the Moon that ordinary people will be able to drive throygh the company's website and retail outlets.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

"UFO Hunters" Is Back

The History Channel's series UFO Hunters made its season debut last night with an investigation into mass sightings centered on an event in August, 2004, in the night skies over Tinley Park, Illinois. Tinley Park is near Chicago, which means lights in the sky are likely ordinary aircraft. It also means, however, that the people who live there are familiar with most types of aircraft. Hundreds of them made videotapes of this sighting precisely because they thought it strange.

The video was central to the show's investigation. Skeptics sometimes argue that with the explosion of camcorders in recent years, if UFOs are actual craft, we should be getting evidence by now. Tinley Park provided lots of video data, which seems to support the contention that a huge trianguler craft was there.

After a rocky start last season, the show seems to be hitting some kind of stride. While continuing to investigate new cases, perhaps the next step should be to pursue lines of inquiry developed towards the end of last season as far as they will go.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Possible Second Home?

The star Epsilon Eridani has often been mentioned by scientists as a possible parent of life. Only about 10.5 light years away, it's slightly smaller and cooler than the Sun, and much younger-- perhaps 850 million years old to the Sun's 4.6 billion years. New research suggests the star might have a planetary system similar to our own, as well.

Astronomers have found three debris rings orbiting Epsilon Eridani-- one icy ring far out from the star, another closer in similar to our Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune, and a third analogous to our Main Belt of asteroids. They postulate at least three giant planets in the outer part of the system, gravitationally policing the rings, and speculate that terrestrial planets could exist within the inner ring, which might put them in the star's habitable zone.

Ten light years is quite a distance, but if the payoff of making such a trip would be inheriting a brand new solar system similar to our own, an incredibly wealthy spacefaring human civilization several centuries from now might decide to make humanity immortal by establishing a branch of humankind around a second star.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Keeping Luna Junk Free

NASA has announced it plans to conduct the next phase of lunar exploration in such a way as to avoid whenever possible leaving junk in lunar orbit. The Apollo program tried to do that, as well, but the next generation of robotic probes and eventual manned exploration will be designed with one goal being to minimize despoiling the lunar environment.

The Moon has an interesting twist to its composition. Gravity is not uniform across the Moon because of the existence of particularly dense concentrations of mass ("mascons") throughout its body; gravity is stronger over the mascons than it is at other places. This means that no lunar orbit is ever stable over an extended period, and anything left in orbit will eventually crash into the surface.

NASA, of course, will not be the only organization operating on and around the Moon; other nations and even private concerns plan to be there, as well. To truly protect the lunar environment, all the players in the lunar game would have to agree to leave no junk behind.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Persistence Pays

After three years of work and several public failures, Armadillo Aerospace last weekend won the Lunar Lander Challenge, and with it $350,000.

The Challenge was designed to give private companies, especially small ones like AA, the experience of working on one facet of space operations so that it might eventually bid on providing that service to the space program. The service involved in the LLC is ferrying cargo, and possibly humans, between a lunar base and lunar orbit. To win the competition, AA had to launch a vehicle several hundred feet into the air. fly it horizontally for 90 seconds, and land it softly and safely at a designated target.

That's a long way from operating spacecraft on the Moon, but by the time NASA has a lunar base that needs a ferry service, AA might be ready to supply one-- for a price.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Lunar Colony Setback

Since the Clementine mission of 1994, scientists have entertained an unlikely possibility-- that water ice existed in substantial quantities in permanently shadowed crater floors. Even though the Moon has no atmosphere, and even though Apollo samples brought back were bone dry, Clementine results suggested water ice might exist on the floor of Shackleton Crater.

Well, maybe not. Japan's lunar probe Kaguya Selene has studied the floor of Shackleton, and found no evidence of large water ice deposits, though it's still possible that water ice may be mixed with the soil. The study did confirm, however, that the permanently shadowed part of the crater is easily cold enough to preserve ice indefinitely.

If easily accessible water ice does not, in fact, exist on the Moon, the establishment of a lunar base is made more difficult; water will need to be brought from Earth, along with everything else. On the other hand, NASA has been planning to site its base near the lunar south pole largely because that's where the water supposedly was. If there is no usable ice, that may free NASA to look at the entire lunar nearside when deciding where to put the first permanent human base on another wor;d.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Garriott Home

Richard Garriott, the latest of Space Adventures' private space travelers, is back on Earth after his Soyuz landed safely in Kazakhstan yesterday.

Garriott, the son of Skylab astronaut Owen Garriott, is the first second-generation American to fly in space. He came home with the first second-generation cosmonaut.

SA is building an excellent safety recond. All of their clients so far have come home safely. In the early years of the space tourism industry, all companies involved will likely need similarly spotless records. The prospect of a tragedy early on that could set back the industry for years is no doubt one brake on investors' interest.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Virgin Galactic Getting Closer

Michael Blum is high on the list to fly when Virgin Galactic starts taking paying customers to the edge of space. Veteran space journalist Leonard David reports in his blog that Blum told him progress towards his flight is being made.

According to Blum, VG told him that test flights of the giant WhiteKnightTwo, the aircraft that will carry SpaceShipTwo to altitude, will begin in two or three weeks. Ground tests of the aircraft's systems are proceeding well. Test flights will continue into next spring, when test flights with SpaceShipTwo attached will begin.

A new era might be creeping over the horizon.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

India To The Moon

India has successfully launched its first lunar probe. Chandrayaan-1 is scheduled to reach lunar orbit November 8 to begin a two year mission mapping the lunar surface. Before that mapping begins, however, a subsatellite will be sent to the surface, giving India's space agency experience landing on the Moon.

Chandrayaan-1 carries 11 experiments, including some from ESA and NASA. It also joins probes from China and Japan already in lunar orbit. Add to those various private efforts to send unmanned probes to the Moon, Space Adventures' offer to send a private space traveler around the Moon, NASA's plan to launch an unmanned probe to scout out a location for a manned lunar base, and the interest expressed by various nations in participating in an international lunar base program, and the next two decades could see humanity finally and permanently established on another world.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Gravity and Life

Astronomers have traditionally seen the "habitable zone" around a star-- the area in which a planet might support life-- as a function of the energy output of the star. The universe being what it is, though, things might be more complicated than that.

A recent study suggests gravity might expand the habitable zone of a solar system. If a planet is in a highly elliptical orbit, the pull of gravity from the parent star will constantly vary, constantly stressing the internal structure of the planet. The reaction to that stress will generate heat, which would make its way to the surface, possibly supporting life at the surface or below it even though heat from the star might not be enough for life. Presumably, such a situation would be unlikely as the home of a civilization, but simple life forms are another matter.

We see smaller versions of such a scenario close to home. Going strictly by the Sun's energy output, both Europa and Enceladus would be well beyond the solar habitable zones. Both are seen as possible abodes of life, however, because they are not frozen solid. Their interiors are stressed, and internal heat is produced, by the constant manipulation of the gravity of Jupiter and Saturn, respectively.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Atlantis Taken Away

Space shuttle Atlantis is being removed from the launch pad. As reported earlier in this blog, the final repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope was delayed when a problem onboard Hubble developed a couple weeks before Atlantis was to launch. The repair mission will now include replacing the part that failed, and will be rescheduled for next spring.

The next shuttle mission, scheduled for next month, will focus on continuing the construction of ISS.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

ESA Delays Mars Rover

Soon after NASA decided to go ahead with a 2009 launch of its next Mars rover mission, the ESA tentatively decided last week to delay Europe's first Mars rover until a 2016 launch.

The reason for the delay was grounded in financial concerns. Scientists are pushing for a rover with increased capabilities, which would increase the budget. Several ESA member governments objected to the higher budget, no doubt influenced by the current economic crisis in Europe and America.

ESA managers plan to use the extra time to seek cooperation agreements with NASA and the Russian space agency in a bid to increase the capability of the rover while stabilizing the budget.

The tentative decision could be confirmed at a ministerial meeting of the member governments of ESA next month.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Phobos A Rubble Pile

Scientists using new data, including new images from Europe's Mars Express probe, have determined that Phobos, the larger moon of Mars, is in fact not one solid body, but several smaller pieces loosely held together by mutual gravitational attraction. Scientists literally call such objects "rubble piles."

One possible strategy for the manned exploration of Mars would establish a base on Phobos from which surface expeditions would depart and to which they would return. That strategy may be less viable now. The various pieces in the pile of Phobos no doubt occasionally shift around under changing gravitational influences. Likely, then, Phobos would not be seen as a stable platform for a base.

Of course, that still leaves the other tiny Martian moon, Deimos.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Phoenix Beats Dust Storm

It's not enough that the brutal Martian arctic winter is slowly tightening its grip on NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander. Last weekend, a dust storm whipped over the Lander, cutting the sunlight that could reach Lander's solar collectors, and coating the collectors in dust.

The storm caused a substantial drop in power, which forced delay or cancellation of some experiments. After the storm passed, power generation went back up, but that's only a temporary reprieve. The long night of arctic winter will soon steal over the Lander's location, depriving it of an energy source.

Dust storms in the Martian arctic are common in the fall and winter, so the Phoenix Mars Lander could still suffer an earlier demise, ending a remarkable scientific project.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Cyclones On Saturn

In addition to studying the rings and moons of the planet, the Cassini mission to Saturn obviously investigates the huge sixth planet from the Sun itself. Despite its distance from the Sun, Saturn is a wild and woolly place. Well, not woolly.

Recent images from Cassini confirm huge, long-lasting cyclones whip around each pole of Saturn. The storms are hundreds of times more powerful than the largest hurricanes on Earth. Those Earthly storms develop over warm ocean water and take advantage of energy from the Sun. There are no oceans on Saturn, and solar energy is not a real factor. The cyclones are fueled by energy coming from Saturn itself.

One more extremely odd thing-- at one pole, these huge cyclones seem to be boxed in by a giant hexagonal structure within the atmosphere. No such structure appears at the other pole. What kind of atmospheric condition could create straight lines and definite angles and maintain a hexagon over an extended period of time is baffling.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Hubble and Aries

The law of unintended consequences governs NASA just as it does other areas of human activity.

The biggest goal for NASA's manned space program in the short term is to narrow the gap between the last shuttle flight and the first flight under the new Constellation program. NASA had been pushing for the first launch of an early version of the new Aries launcher to go next April. Because if the delay of the final repair mission to Hubble until next spring, the Aries test will be delayed. It seems the shuttle needs the launchpad NASA plans to modify to accomodate Aries.

There should be no overall delay in the Constellation program, but there is irony. After Columbia, NASA decided another repair mission to Hubble would be too dangerous. Public opinion and the science community got that decision reversed. Now, that mission will delay at least the first test of the flight hardware intended to carry NASA into the future.

Monday, October 13, 2008


As reported recently in this blog, NASA was considering delaying or canceling the Mars Science Laboratory project due to technical problems and cost overruns. The agency announced Friday, however, that it is sticking to a planned October, 2009, launch of the mission.

NASA chief Mike Griffin met with MSL managers Friday and determined to go ahead as planned. Another meeting is scheduled with Griffin in January to look at the mission again, but MSL leaders are confident they can have the technical problems under control by then.

NASA says it is unlikely MSL will be canceled now.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Richard Garriott To ISS

Space Adventures announced in a press release today that private space traveler Richard Garriott has been succcessfully launched aboard a Soyuz.

During his stay at ISS, Garriott will be busy pursuing various educational and scientific projects. He hopes to use his flight ro further the case for private enterprise in space.

Richard is the son of former NASA astronaut Owen Garriott. He therefore becomes the first second generation space flier.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Two More Google Lunar Teams

Two more teams recenty announced they are competing in the Google Lunar X-Prize Challenge. One of the new teams is from Malaysia, while the other is based at the University of Central Florida. They bring to 14 the number of teams competing to land a privately funded spacecraft on the Moon, drive a rover across the lunar surface, and send back data and video.

For all of Florida's long and intimate connection with the American space program, the UCF team is the first from Florida in the competition. Malaysia, on the other hand, now has two teams competing. Perhaps the U. S. should take note. If Americans want to continue to lead humanity into space, resting on past glories won't do it.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Cassini at Enceladus

As I'm writing this, NASA's Cassini spacecraft is having a close encounter with Saturn's moon, Enceladus. At its closest approach, Cassini will skim just 16 miles above the moon's icy surface.

Enceladus has become an important focus of the mission. Before Cassini, most astronomers would have said Titan was the best bet as the home of life in the system of Saturn. Life on Titan is still possible, but Enceladus, with a huge ocean of liquid water under its icy surface as well as organic molecules in that ocean, has become another possible abole of life.

Today is the first of two close encounters Cassini will have with Encel;adus this month. The second will be on October 31.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Budget Overruns Threaten MSL

Mars Science Laboratory is supposed to quicken the pace of searching for life on Mars. A nuclear-powered, 9-foot long rover, MSL has capabilities far exceeding the rovers Spirit and Opportunity. NASA plans to launch MSL next year, but budget overruns may yet scuttle the project.

So far, $1.5 billion has heen spent, which is well over budget. Given today's economic climate, Congress could decide to end the project.

The problem with MSL is illustrative of a historical tug within NASA regarding planetary missions: Do you do fewer big projects capable of doing lots of science, which makes failure disastrous, or do you do several less expensive, more focused missions, which will produce less science but might increase the chances of at least some success? Both approaches have worked in the past. Perhaps the next administration will chart the immediate future.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

MESSENGER Comes Through Again

NASA's MESSENGER is delivering more data on its second flyby of Mercury. Images sent back so far include pictures of impact craters complete with ray systems, similar to lunar impact craters. The rays are made of bright material ejected when the crater was gouged out of the surface. The presence of a ray system suggests the crater at its center is relatively young.

The probe is also building a mosaic of images, which will allow better maps of the surface.

MESSENGER has one more flyby of Mercury after this one before going into orbit around the planet in March, 2011.

Monday, October 6, 2008

MESSENGER Returns To Mercury

NASA's MESSENGER probe is currently in its second flyby of the planet Mercury. This one will bring it within 125 miles of Mercury's surface, which is still largely unseen.

Because of Mercury's small size and proximity to the Sun, studying the planet has always been a challenge for Earthbound astronomers. Designers of space missions have found it a tough target, as well. Indeed, it was only with MESSENGER's first flyby several nonths ago that scientists were able to determine Mercury has shield volcanoes.

They hope to see more of the surface during this flyby, and on through the remainder of the MESSENGER mission.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

A Little Bang

Just as most cosmologists say the universe was birthed in a Big Bang, a new computer model supports the theory that our solar system started in a Little Bang.

The new model is the first to present a plausible development scenario. It suggests a nearby star exploded in a supernova. The shock waves of that blast condensed parts of a huge cloud of gas and dust. One of those parts became the Sun. A key piece of the case for this theory is the presence of a rare isotope of iron in meteorites and asteroids. That isotope is only created in the cores of huge stars. When such a star goes supernova, the iron is thrown out into space. So, the shock waves from the explosion triggered the formation of the Sun, and the rare iron isotope became part of the new solar system.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Bush Okays Soyuz Flights

On September 30, President Bush signed into law the bill giving NASA authority to negotiate with Russia to purchase flights for Western astronauts aboard Soyuz capsules. That will allow NASA access to ISS between the final shuttle flight and the first flight of Orion.

Hopefully, the irony of the necessity of such a deal is not lost on anyone. Forty years after America won the Space Race, NASA has been reduced to buying seats on Soyuz flights to get astronauts into space for three or four years. The American political system has proven unable to develop and execute a long range technological program. That is discouraging in a world that will rely increasingly on high technology.

The Soyuz bill was part of a larger bill that included NASA funding for part of the next fiscal year. Funding will be maintained at current levels, which comes out to just under $ 18 billion a year, or less than one percent of total federal spending.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Moon First

NASA's Mike Griffin, speaking earlier this week in Scotland, told a gathering of the International Astronomical Union that returning to the Moon is essential before sending people to Mars, citing the complexity of a Mars mission and the capabilities that need to be developed before the attempt is made.

He noted the Apollo astronauts spent a total of 27 days exploring the Moon, which has a surface area equal ro Africa. There is much lunar exploration left to be done, he said. Griffin also argued that before we undertake a Mars mission, we should be confident we could send a crew for a 6- to 9-month stay on ISS, on to the Moon for a similar time, and back to ISS for another 6- to 9-month stay before returning home-- all without resupply. The point would be to simulate a Mars mission in relative safety. Clearly, even a consortium of spacedaring nations would be many years away from being able to carry out even that mission.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the successful Shenzhou 7 mission, a spokesman for the Chinese space program said China plans to send a man to the Moon in the near future. Some experts on China say a person in such an official capacity would not have made such a statement unless China had in fact decided on a lunar mission fairly soon.

Couple government efforts to reach the Moon with the plans of various private organizations, and the next two decades could see the early stage of humanity firmly establishing itself beyond Earth.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Space Adventures Sued

A Japanese businessman is suing Space Adventures in U. S. Federal court for $21 million for breach of contract because he was denied a trip to ISS after Russian physicians determined he had kidney stones. SA offers flights to ISS aboard Soyuz capsules.

SA's position on the suit is that the contract their customers sign clearly states that physical requirements must be met. The man suing, it seems, has a history of developing kidney stones. That probably should disqualify him for long duration spaceflights, but the SA flights are only a few days, which potentially could be a different case. The suit also brings up a question: If the man has a history of a physical condition that would preclude spaceflight, why did SA sign a contract with him and take his money in the first place?