Sunday, November 30, 2008

Endeavour Coming Home

Space shuttle Endeavour is scheduled to land later this afternoon at Edwards AFB in southern California. Rough weather in Florida has precluded a return to the Kennedy Space Center.

Weather at the landing site has been a big factor throughout the shuttle program. The inability of the shuttle to deal with a range of weather conditions is one reason it never really had a chance to become the workhorse of the space program NASA originally envisioned. The new Orion spacecraft will have a different relationship with the weather, as it will fall to Earth under parachute; it will not fly through the atmosphere. So, if an Orion is returning from Earth orbit, bad weather over a landing area could still delay leaving orbit. However, if an Orion is returning from the Moon, once it leaves lunar orbit for the two day flight home, it probably will have relatively little ability to maneuver. Forecasting the weather two days out can still be tricky, so the Orion capsule needs a capacity to deal with rough weather the shuttle largely lacks.

Friday, November 28, 2008

STS-126 Update

Space shuttle Endeavour has undocked from ISS and will soon be headed home. A quick visual inspection of Endeavour by the ISS crew shortly after the undecking revealed no cause for concern.

During their twelve days at ISS, the STS-126 crew helped upgrade the station, making its living quarters more comfortable, and enlarging the capacity of the station. Next year, the size of the crew is scheduled to increase from three to six.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A New Model Of Jupiter

Researchers running a computer simulation of the behavior of hydrogen and helium in the core of Jupiter have come up with a model of the internal structure of the planet that is quite different from previous theories.

The simulation suggests Jupiter has a core similar to Earth's, consisting of rock and metals, 14 to 18 times the mass of Earth. That would mean the core has about 5 percent of Jupiter's mass. The simulation also suggests the core is surrounded by a layer of water ice. That model would make Jupiter similar in structure to Neptune and Uranus.

Previous theories have assumed Jupiter had a relatively small core-- or no core at all. Some even treated Jupiter as a failed star. If this model is proven correct, Jupiter, with its rocky, metallic core that aggregated through a process of collision, is decidedly not a star, failed or otherwise, but a planet in line with current theories of planetary formation.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

NASA Stuff

The new urine recycler on ISS seems to be working. As reported in this blog yesterday, the machine had not been working properly, but astronauts undertook repairs, and those repairs seem to have paid off.

On another matter entirely, President-elect Obama has appointed three more people to his NASA transition team. Two of them were NASA officials during the Clinton administration. Space policy was not one of President Clinton's real interests, so those appointments may not be good signs to those who read tea leaves. The third, however, is the National Space Society's George Whiteside, who is also a senior advisor to Virgin Galactic. That choice is provocative.

Lori Garver, who was NSS executive director before her own stint at NASA, was already on the team.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Recycling Troubles On ISS

The machine brought to ISS by STS-126 to recycle urine into drinkable water isn't working properly. Astronauts attempted to repair it yesterday, but it shut down three hours into a four-hour operating cycle.

The ISS crew is scheduled to double from three to six next May. Clearly, the life support systems of the station have to be working properly for that to be successful. Recycling urine and other wastewater into usable water is an important part of those systems.

Perhaps amazingly, NASA has no backup for the balky machine. Such a situation is symptomatic of trying to run a huge, complex project on a shoestring. Surely, a serious, well-managed, properly funded space program would have adequate supplies of key components to get the job done correctly. That's largely how NASA built the base of its manned spaceflight program in the 1960s, and Apollo not only accomplished its mission, but did so relatively on budget. Trying to count pennies on such programs may be not only pound foolish-- it may put lives unnecessarily at increased risk.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Commerce Secretary Richardson?

According to lots of press speculation, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is the likely pick by President-elect Obama to be the next Secretary of Commerce. If Richardson gets that post, it could be a plus for private space.

Gov. Richardson was a key mover in establishing Spaceport America in New Mexico, and has stated publicly his support for both private and public space efforts. As Commerce Secretary, he would be in a position to oversee the writing of regulations that will govern the space tourism industry, and other NewSpace efforts. He would also have a say in the modification of ITAR, the regulatory regime that governs the export of sensitive technology. Loosening of the rules governing space technology that can be obtained from other sources in any case could increase U. S. exports in that area.

Friday, November 21, 2008

More Water On Mars

Scientists have recently determined there are substantial glaciers made of water ice just below the surface in the mid-lattitudes on Mars. Coupling that with the water ice in the polar ice cap makes it clear Mars still has a fairly large quantity of water.

Researchers estimate the glaciers are roughly 100 million years old, which would suggest large amounts of water have been present on Mars throughout its history, and will likely rekindle debate about how large a role water has played in shaping the Mars we see today.

Water in large quantities over much of the planet also increases the odds of life on Mars. The prospects for future life there also increase. Readily available water makes establishing a human base or even settlement on Mars a much more realistic option.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Copernicus (Not The Crater)

Researchers seem to have found the physical remains of Nicholas Copernicus, the Polish priest who argued Earth orbited the Sun, not the other way around, which was the orthodoxy in Europe at the time. Samples of DNA taken from the bones and teeth of a skeleton in an unmarked grave in Poland matches that taken from a hair found in a book known to have been owned by Copernicus.

If historians put the birth of the modern world in the Renaissance, and perhaps more specifically at the first voyage of Columbus to the west in 1492, the great work of Copernicus, published after his death because of his fear of the reaction of the Church, stands as a turning point in the intellectual development of modern Western civilization.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Deflector Shields

Human spacecraft may have some form of deflector shield technology long before the starships depicted in Star Trek-- or their real-life equivalents-- are whizzing around the galaxy.

Researchers in England have found they can create a magnetic field in the lab that can form something like a bubble and block radiation from entering the bubble. That's a long way from a deflector shield for a spaceship, but it's a start. Such a system on Mars-bound ships, they say, wouldn't block gamma or cosmic rays, but it would deflect radiation from the Sun, which is by far the biggest danger to astronauts on interplanetary flights.

Several unmanned probes to Mars and elsewhere are being planned for the next two decades. If the first versiom of such a shield can be developed quickly, one of those probes might serve as a useful test bed. Lunar trips might test the first shields of manned ships. By the time people head for Mars, the shield system might be fairly robust.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Good News From Endeavour

NASA engineers have given Endeavour's heat shield the thumbs up. After studying images of the leading edges of the shuttle's wings, as well as of its nose, they see no reason to worry about re-entry.

Film taken of the launch last Friday night showed pieces of foam insulation breaking off the external tank, and there was concern that the orbiter's heat shield might have been damaged. That seems not to have happened.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Building A Future In Space

As reported in this blog, The Planetary Society presented its take on how the U. S. space program should proceed last week, arguing NASA should focus on putting humans on Mars, and leaving a return to the Moon for much later. Apollo 11's Buzz Aldrin supports the approach.

Apollo 17's Jack Schmidt, however, does not. In a letter to TPS leadership, Schmidt, who is also a former U. S. Senator from New Mexico, argues for returning to the Moon, and building on that, to go to Mars. That is essentially the approach set out by President Bush in January, 2004, and subsequently pursued by Congress.

The difference may come down to "the vision thing." If NASA's mandate is simply to explore-- and if you believe the goal of Mars is sufficiently alluring to maintain political support over the fifteen or twenty year runup to The Mission-- then perhaps Aldrin and TPS are right. If, however, you believe the way to reach and finally possess Mars is to build technological capabilities and develop at least the beginning of an Earth-Moon economy that will expand to include ever more space resources so that an ongoing Mars program can be supported, you likely agree with former Sen. Schmidt.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

STS-126 Update

The STS-126 mission got off to a fine start with the launch of Endeavour Friday evening. Later today, Endeavour is scheduled to dock with ISS.

Once there, the astronauts will deliver tons of supplies and new equipment to the space station, allowing an expansion of the size of the permanent crew from the current three to six. Doubling the crew will allow more science to be pursued.

There is some concern that Endeavour was struck by pieces of foam insulation during launch, but, so far, NASA says it's not a concern.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Tough Times On Mars

This has been a tough week for NASA's robotic explorers on Mars. The agency declared the Phoenix Mars Lander mission over after dust storms and oncoming winter robbed the probe of its power. A major dust storm also struck the rover, Spirit, cutting off communications. Contact with Spirit has since been restored, but dust still rests on its solar power arrays, and the future of the mission is yet in doubt.

The other Mars rover, Opportunity, is still going strong, jowever.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

TPS Weighs In

The Planetary Society, the world's largest space advocacy group, has developed its own plan for the future of space exploration, and will present it to Congress and the new Obama administration.

The centerpiece of the plan is no doubt its call to delay returning to the Moon in favor of an international effort to put humans on Mars. Along the way, the plan would send the first human mission to a near-Earth asteroid. Returning to the Moon would wait until we're ready to undertake the permanent settlement of Mars; the lunar effort then would serve as a testbed for technologies and techniques to be used on Mars.

Going to Mars sooner rather than later is certainly exciting, but it might undervalue the Moon. Even the first humans on Mars will spend weeks or months there; their technology must be completely reliable. NASA plans to test that technology on the Moon first, which certainly seems reasonable. The TPS plan also seems to ignore the economic potential of the Moon, with its low gravity, abundant solar power, and useful natural resources. Sustaining a program of Martian settlement will require a much larger economy than exists today. Developing a space economy that utilizes the unique assets beyond Earth, with a growing economy on the Moon, may be essential to bringing Mars into the human sphere.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Saturn's Strange Polar Phenomena

A new kind of aurora has recently been observed over Saturn's polar regions. Unlike aurorae on Earth, which are rings, the new kind on Saturn covers a broad area, more disk than ring. We know our aurorae are the result of an interaction between the solar wind and Earth's magnetic field. We also know that Saturn has an internal power source. So far, however, scientists can't explain what is causing and maintaining this new display.

Couple the new aurora with the huge, hexagon-shaped storm raging around Saturn's north pole, also recently discovered, and it's clear the polar regions of the Ringed Planet are weird and wonderful places.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

STS-126 Waiting

NASA is watching the Florida skies, hoping to launch Endeavour on STS-126 Friday evening. There is a chance of rain at KSC or in the area, which could scrub the launch if Endeavour could not fly back to KSC in case of emergency immediately after launch. From the technical side, everything is proceeding smoothly.

The main objective of the mission will be to increase the capacity of the ISS to support people, so the crew size can be increased from the current three to six.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Indian Lunar Success

Chandrayaan 1, India's first shot at the Moon, successfully inserted itself into lunar orbit Saturday. The initial orbit is highly elliptical, but the plan is to bring the probe into a circular orbit 62 miles above the surface over the next few weeks. Once that's done, Chandrayaan 1 is scheduled to spend two years making a chemical map of the entire Moon, which will be extremely useful to scientists, lunar base planners, and entreprenuers.

With this probe, India joins China and Japan as nations with probes currently in lunar orbit. A contest for political primacy in Asia is being joined, and achievement in space is one factor being used to demonstrate superiority. Sound familiar?

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Exploring Titan

The next step in exploring Saturn's moon Titan might involve a hot air balloon. Titan, of course, has a substantial atmosphere, which, many scientists believe, may be similar to Earth's atmosphere before life began pumping oxygen into it. A hot air balloon could theoretically range over hundreds or thousands of miles of terrain-- much more than a surface rover could cover. The balloon would carry a scoop that would allow it to take surface samples along the way. A third element in the proposed mission would be an orbiter that would completely map Titan's surface.

NASA and ESA are looking to jointly pursue that mission, and a decision could be made next year. As planned, the mission would launch around 2020, and reach Titan about 2030.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Lunar Volcanism

Data from the Japanese probe now orbiting the Moon suggests the histories of the nearside and the farside might be quite different. Scientists have known for some time that the Moon was internally active at some point. the dark patches we see on the face is volcanic basalt. Now, however, scientists think volcanism endured longer on the nearside than on the farside.

Using data from the Selene Kayuga probe, scientists think volcanism existed on the farside until about 2.5 billion years ago, while on the nearside it lasted until about 1 billion years ago. The standard view has been that lunar volcanism ceased 3 billion years ago.

Nailing down the timeline will likely have to wait until we have actual samples from across the Moon.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Otero Voters Say No

By roughly 52-48 percent, voters in New Mexico's Otero County rejected increasing the county's sales tax to support development of Spaceport America.

Because most of the financing is already in place and two other counties involved in the project had already approved sales tax increases, the enterprise will move ahead. Current plans have 2010 as the year things will really begin to happen there.

If that timeframe holds, voters in Otero County may be asked to reconsider their decision in a couple years.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

It;s Officially Obama

Barack Obama of Illinois is now President-elect of the United States. Many challenges await him, and somewhere in that mix will be deciding how America will move its space policy.

Obama seems generally supportive of spaceflight. One of his television ads features him telling about he went with his grandfather to see Apollo astronauts come home when he lived in Hawaii. During the campaign, he promised to build the Orion and Aries hardware that would take us back to the Moon. He has also proposed devoting tens of billions more dollars to science research. That kind of mindset is probably good news for NASA.

Another question, though, is whether he will support the move of private enterprise into space-- especially, of course, American companies. By reshaping the so-called ITAR regulations that govern the transfer of technology to other countries, he could open markets for small U. S. companies. By bringing private enterprise into a lunar base program as a major element, he may be able to build stability into a long range effort. By directing the government to work with the fledgling companies of the NewSpace industry to create a workable regulatory environment for both sides, he could help establish a new sector for the American economy.

We shall see.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Ballot Battle In New Mexico

Voters in Otero County, New Mexico, will vote today on whether to approve a one-eighth of one percent increase in the county sales tax to fund the development of Spaceport America. By state law, the development budget is $198 million, not to exceed $225 million.

Virgin Galactic has already signed an agreement with Spaceport America to establish its headquarters there, and to fly its suborbital passenger flights from there. The Rocket Racing League, which plans to do precisely what the name suggests, also plans to operate from there.

Democratic New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a supporter of the spaceport project, believes the voters will approve the tax increase, as they already have in two nearby counties.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Phoenix Coming To The End

NASA lost contact with the Phoenix Mars Lander for a day or so last week. Winter is fast approaching in the Martian arctic, and last week a dust storm whipped over Lander. The combination of the deepening cold and dust blocking its solar power collectors forced Lander to shut down.

It revived to send out a signal, but at some point within the next few weeks, after a remarkably successful mission, the Lander will go quiet forever.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Armstrong Papers

Former NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong is donating his papers to Purdue University, his alma mater, the school announced yesterday. The commander of Apollo 11, and therefore the first human to set booted foot on the Moon, graduated from Purdue in 1955 after flying Navy fighters in combat missions during the Korean War.

Purdue is already home to the collected papers of Amelia Earhart, and a leader in education in both aviation and aerospace engineering.

Armstrong's papers cover his entire career, and have yet to be studied as a body by historians.