Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Another Advance For VG, NM

Virgin Galactic and the State of New Mexico have signed a 20-year lease for VG to use the new Spaceport America to launch its space tourism flights. VG will also build its worldwide headquarters at Spaceport America.

The length of the lease is interesting. It's among the first solid indications that the space tourism industry is planning to be more than a flash in the pan, Twenty years also brings the development of the industry into play. Quick suborbital flights will lose their novelty at some point. The next logical step would be orbital flights in spacecraft that are safe, comfortable, and reusable for dozens or hundreds of flights without major overhauls. In fact, such craft are the key to humanity's expansion into the Solar System, and we are nowhere near having those vehicles. Will we have them in twenty years, and will they launch from a commercial spaceport in New Mexico? Much rides on the answer.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Columbia Report

A report centered on the February 1, 2003, re-entry accident that destroyed space shuttle Columbia concludes the crew survived less than a minute after the craft flew out of control. The report confirms the crew did nothing wrong that caused or contributed to the disaster.

The report also suggests changes in emergency training for astronauts, as well as changes in cabin design. Since no more shuttles will be built, and the new Orion spacecraft takes a fundamentally different approach to re-entry and landing, however, many of the suggestions may have to wait for the next generation of manned space vehicle.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Double Teaming Dark Matter

The biggest challenge facing physics over the past quarter-century has been coming to grips with the nature of dark matter, and, later, dark energy. The math tells us those two make up about 96% of the matter in the universe, with everything we see in the night sky amounting to only 4$, yet physicists have no understanding of what dark matter actually is, let alone dark energy.

That may change relatively soon. The LHC, the largest atom smasher on Earth, is scheduled to go back online sometime in 2009, and will explore extremely high energy physics, likely producing particles never before seen. One or more of those particles may be the key to understanding dark matter. The second thrust in the effort should come sometime in the next decade, when the European Space Agency launches its Gaia probe. Gaia will map the positions of stars with unprecedented presicion, thus defining exactly where dark matter must be.

Combined, the huge particle collider that creates the unimaginably tiny and the little space probe that maps the cosmic may give humanity a completely new grasp of the universe.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Hubble Repair Launch Logistics

NASA is considering a launch strategy for the Hubble Repair Mission next spring that would keep the first launch of the Ares rocket on schedule.

Under current rules, NASA needs two launch pads for the last mission to Hubble-- one from which to launch the mission, and the other for a possible rescue mission. The problem is that the first launch of Ares is also scheduled for next spring, and it needs that second launch pad. So, NASA is considering going to Hubble without a rescue mission ready to go.

Two points. NASA has never launched a shuttle under emergency conditions. It's not clear trying to do that now would be a good idea. Beyond that, it is clear that NASA wants to get going on the new Constellation program as soon as possible, to show the new president things are going well. Launching Ares in spring rather than summer would be a good first step in that direction.

Friday, December 26, 2008

NASA Awards ISS Supply Contracts

NASA has awarded contracts to two small, commercial firms-- SpaceX and Orbital Sciences-- that will pay them $3.5 billion combined to deliver cargo to ISS through 2015. The contracts are potentially a boon not only to those two companies but to the developing NewSpace industry as a whole. They strongly suggest that NASA believes there's more to those two companies, at least, than possibility.

The fact remains, however, that neither SpaceX nor Orbital Sciences has yet demonstrated the capability to reach ISS with anything, let alone deliver cargo on schedule. In that sense, NASA is taking a big gamble. If it works out, though, this could mark a majpr step forward in the commercialization of space.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Mars, 2200 AD?

The History Channel series, The Universe, featured a program about the early colonization of Mars last evening, setting the time frame for colonization at the dawn of the twenty-third century. Alas, that premise promised more than the show even attempted to deliver.

Perhaps the biggest logical flaw of the program was that it approached the technology of the colony by showing technology being developed today. That's roughly similar to trying to extrapolate early lunar exploration from technology used by Lewis and Clark. The result was a Mars colony that would not attract many colonists-- cramped, sterile, and constantly on the brink of disaster. Good drama for a documentary, but bad in reality. The program totally ignored the political and cultural underpinnings of such a project, and threw in an economic rationale-- rather curiously, mining asteroids-- largely as an afterthought.

If humanity establishes a colony on Mars by 2200, or before, it will be after decades of successfully, and prosperously, living on the Moon. A lunar political entity might be independent by then. There could well be space cities in their own orbits, home to tens of thousands of people, pursuing businesses and science that could not be done on Earth-- a vastly more wealthy civilization than we have today. A Mars colony probably would deal in asteroid mining, but the main driver of its economy would be the utilization of Martian resoures. With so much experience living beyond Earth, the first Mars colony would be relatively safe, prosperous, comfortable, and connected via a descendant of the Internet to the throbbing human civilization Sunward.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Life Supporting Planets

Science loves to classify. It's a way of organizing knowledge. Everything in the universe is part of some classification scheme. A British researcher has now developed a classification regime for life bearing worlds.

In this scheme, there are four classes: Earth-type, Mars-type, Europa-type, and water worlds. The final two are largely the inverses of earth other. Europa has an ice shell with an ocean (presumably) underneath, while a water world is covered in a water ocean with an ice shell surrounding the core of the planet. It could be argued, of course, that Earth and Mars are not, in fact, distinct types, but rather variations on a broader theme that mixes land, water, and atmosphere.

As often happens, the universe is likely to be far more imaginative and resourceful than any human can conceive.

Monday, December 22, 2008

WhiteKnightTwo Test Flight

Scaled Composites' twin fuselage carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo made its first test flight yesterday morning over Mojave, California, and everything went well. It was the first of a series of test flights before the craft will be put into service.

WhiteKnightTwo is designed to carry payloads to high altitudes. From there, most of the payloads will use their own rockets to go on suborbital flights that reach the edge of space. Various researchers are now working on developing experiments in a range of fields that could take advantage of a few minutes of microgravity. At some point, small probes might even be able to reach orbit using the WhiteKnight platform.

The most famous payload of WhiteKnightTwo, however, will be SpaceShipTwo, which will carry tourists on suborbital flights under the Virgin Galactic banner. The first SpaceShipTwo is currently under construction, but VG plans to begin commercial flights by late 2010.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Apollo 8

Forty years ago today, NASA launched Apollo 8 to the Moon. It was an extraordinary decision. The mission was only the second manned flight of the Apollo spacecraft, which was redesigned in important ways after the Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts. NASA still had a mandate to put a man on the Moon before the decade was out, however. so it made a bold decision that paid off.

A highlight of not only the space program but also of the tumultuous decade of the 1960s was the Christmas Eve broadcast from lunar orbut as the crew of Apollo 8-- Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders-- read passages from Genesis as the lunar surface rolled by its television camera.

Another cultural icon is also connected to Apollo 8. The famous "Earthrise" photograph taken on that mission sparked not only a space advocacy movement but also became an important image for the environmental movement.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Majel Roddenberry Passes

Majel Barrett Roddenberry, widow of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, died yesterday of leukemia at 76.

She will forever be linked to the creation of her husband, which has become a staple of pop culture over four decades. She was cast as the first officer of the Enterprise in the original pilot, but television executives at the time thought a woman in a command position was too far-fetched. They picked a Vulcan instead. Majel was Nurse Chapel in the original series, Counsellor Troi's outrageous mother in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and often was the voice of the ship's computer.

Indeed, her final role was as the voice of the computer in J. J. Abrams' upcoming Star Trek movie. She finished work on that project two weeks ago.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Carbonates Found On Mars

This blog has followed the gathering of evidence related to the possibility of life on Mars. Various missions have been studying the planet and its hisory, and one of the major objectives has been to determine whether life exists on Mars, or ever did exist. NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has made a discovery that may push the debate further towards life.

MRO has found carbonates on Mars. Carbonates are associated with life. Some scientists have argued that even if life had developed on early Mars it wouldn't have survived long because the soil is too acidic. Acids eat away at living tissue, destroying it. Acids also destroy carbonates. Therefore, the continued existence of carbonates inply that at least some areas on Mars could have supported microbial life for long periods if life had established itself on the planet in the first place. More interestingly, MRO has identified carbonates in specific places. Thus, future missions to Mars already have priority targets to explore.

The discovery of carbonates does not clinch the deal for life on Mars, but it's one more piece in an increasingky strong argument in favor of life.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

More Competitors For Google Lunar X-Prize

The field of teams vying to win the $30 million Google Lunar X-Prize keeps growing, Two new teams, one based in China and the other in Europe, announced they're in the competition yesterday. A third team, which has kept its name and participation under wraps so far, may come public today.

Sixteen teams from around the world are now competing to put the first privare spacecraft on the Moon. To win, the craft must contain a rover, which must be driven across the lunar surface for at least 500 meters, and the rover must send back data. The teams range from family and friends getting together to take their shot all the way to more structured groups complete with business plans trying to win the competition and morph into space commerce companies.

The deadline for the big prize is 2012, so given the competitive aspect, the first attempt might be made within the next year or two.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

PML Keeps On Giving

NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander succumbed to the polar winter of Mars early last month, but analysis of data it obtained will go on for quite a while.

Already, scientists studying the water cycle determined by Lander instruments are seeing a niche environment at the surface within a film of water in which microbes could thrive. The question is whether microbes ever evolved on Mars to fill that niche.

The mission also confirmed water exists just under the surface in that area, and found elements often associated with life.

The emerging picture of Martian geologic and climatologic history seems to indicate that if life ever got started on Mars it could have survived over long periods of time. In that case, there are likely at least fossils waiting to be discovered.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Tough Transition At NASA?

So far, according to most accounts, the transition from the Bush administration to the Obama is going extremely well. That might not be the case at NASA.

According to Robert Shank, a blogger at, NASA administrator Michael Griffin is trying to control what information is given to the Obama NASA transition team. Griffin flatly denies doing any such thing. Instead, he says, he has told NASA executives to give all the help they can.

At stake seems to be the future of the Constellation program to return humans to the Moon, and thus possibly the fate of manned spaceflight at NASA for the immediate future. Mr. Obama seems to support manned spaceflight in theory, but he has yet to commit himself to any future goal that would give direction to NASA. Of course, he's not president yet.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

MRO Two Years Old

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has now been exploring the Red Planet for two years, which was the length of its original mission. The missuin has been extended for another two years.

Data from MRO has begun to paint a picture of the history of Mars that is not simply wetter than previously thought, but a picture in which water plays a significant role in sculpting the surface we see.

More water on the surface for longer periods of time, of course, strengthens the case for possible life on Mars.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Comets Incoming

Scientists have understood for a few decades that a shell of comets orbit the Sun far beyond the planets. That group is called the Oort Cloud, after Jan Oort, the developer of the concept.

Comets from that region occasionally blaze past Earth. Because the objects in the Oort Cloud are so far away, the Sun's gravity has only a tentative grip on them. Any little nudge can send one or several Sunward. A recent study reveals that even tiny shifts in the gravitational influence of the galaxy can alter a comet's orbit.

That type of comet is the wild card in the survival of life on Earth. Danger from near-Earth asteroids can be predicted decades in advance-- if the resources are put to that end. There would likely be time to build a capability to deflect such bodies away from Earth. But a comet comung into the inner Solar System for the first time would give us no time to plan. Only a mature spacefaring civilization could deal with such a threat. For now, our defense is that Earth is a tiny, fast moving target in the vastness of space.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Phoenix Lights

UFO Hunters examined the famous Phoenix Lights case of March 13, 1997, last night. The show dubbed the case the "Arizona Lights" because, in fact, the sightings of a huge ship that was part of the event stretched from the Nevada border to Tucson. Having made that point, however, the show concentrated its efforts on the Phoenix area.

The show argued that the Phoenix Lights incident wasn't simply a one-time event-- that in fact similar lights were seen over Phoenix earlier that week. It also suggested the craft seen was a secret U. S. Government vehicle. Why such a vehicle would be flown over a major American city is unclear. The federal government owns most of the land in Nevada, after all, and has miles and miles of restricted airspace there. Surely, the place for test flights of huge, secret aircraft would be the dark and lonely night skies over the Great Basin.

So, what flew over Arizona that night? Likely, something did, but what is still a mystery.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Detecting Distant Water Vapor

Scientists have detected water vapor in the atmosphere of an exoplanet 65 light-years away. The world is a so-called "hot Jupiter"-- a massive planet orbiting extremely close to irs parent star-- so it's not seen as a likely home for life. The significance of the discovery of water vapor may be that science now has a proven method of detecting water vapor in the atmospheres of planets circling other stars.

Having said this exoplanet probably doesn't harbor life, last month carbon dioxide was detected in its atmosphere. Now we know there's carbon dioxide, water vapor, and an energy source. So....

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Planetary Climate Cycling

Earth has a slight wobble over time that produces major changes in climate. The polar tilt of the planet varies by only a couple of degrees over a 41,000 year period, but that's enough to produce the cycle of ice age to warm interlude we find in the geologic record. For the past few thousand years-- the whole history of human civilization-- Earth has been in a warm interlude.

Scientists studying the layering of sedimentary rock in four craters on Mars have concluded a similar cycling takes place there. Mars' wobble is much more extreme, varying by tens of degrees, so the climate shifts are more pronounced. Mars' cycle runs 100,000 years. Superimposed upon that is a million year cycle governed by the planet's interaction with the rest of the Solar System.

Mars happens to be in a cold period just now, but in warm periods water may exist on the surface. The cyclical nature of the Martian climate also implies a long term stability to which life might be able to adapt.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Blue Origin Coming Into Focus founder Jeff Bezos' suborbital spaceflight project, Blue Origin, seems to be on track. Test flights of the New Shepard prototype vehicle have been underway at the company's West Texas launch site since 2005, and Blue Origin expects to be offering flights dedicated to experiments from outside researchers starting in 2011, with flights requiring a human onboard beginning in 2012. At some point, the company plans to offer suborbital flights to space tourists.

New Shepard launches vertically, lands under a parachute, and is designed to be re-used many times. NASA is encouraging the development of such craft by private industry by working to identify experiments that could profitably by carried out on suborbital flights.

A few companies are now aiming to have suborbital craft in operation within the next three to five years. The odds of at least one of them succeeding might, therefore, be reasonably good. The big prize, however, will go to the builder of the first reliable and reusable private orbital ship.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Bacteria And Mars

A team of researchers in Denmark, looking at the possibility of bacterial life on Mars, is getting some interesting results. The team has constructed a Mars Environment Simulation Chamber. Inside the chamber, the team has recreated the environment of Mars-- its atmosphere, soil, and radiation and temperature levels-- as closely as possible. The team then introduced bacteria into the chamber, to see if it survived. Bacteria on the surface, exposed to the radiation, died. However, bacteria from roughly an inch below the surface and deeper, is surviving. The experiment is ongoing,

So far, of course, the experiment suggests bacterial life can exist below the surface of Mars. More precisely, it suggests Earthly bacteria could survive in subsurface Mars, Earthly bacteria obviously has an evolutionary history that does not include Martian conditions. If bacteria got a start on Mars, it would have evolved under the conditions on that planet. If Earthly bacteria could survive on Mars, native bacteria might thrive there. There is no evidence, however, of any life on the surface of Mars.

Friday, December 5, 2008

MSL Delayed Two Years

NASA's Mars Science Lab, a huge rover packed with the most sophisticated science tools yet put on Mars, will be delayed two years. It will now be scheduled to launch in 2011.

Program leaders maintain there was still a chance MSL could be ready to launch by next October, but NASA decided to take the two extra years to give everyone time to be sure everything is ready to go. MSL is designed to search for evidence of life on Mars, and as a complex, flagship mission, NASA wants to be as sure as possible that it will function properly.

The delay of two years is not due to the program, but to the alignment of the planets, given the flight path the probe will follow. If a launch window is missed, Earth and Mars aren;t in the same relative position to each other for another two years.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

CNN Cutting Science And Technology Unit

Miles O'Brien is leaving CNN after 16 years. For most of that time, he was CNN's chief science and technology correspondent. The network is disbanding its science and technology unit, turning that coverage over to general editorial assignments.

It's an unfortunate decision. In a world increasingly dependenr on, and threatened by, technology, more knowledgeable coverage is called for, not less. In a time of regular scientific discoveries and breakthroughs, explaining them correctly and putting them in the proper context is important. In a world threatened by fanaticism, covering a process of rational debate based on evidence and our understanding of how the universe actually works is useful.

The next decade or so may well see revolutions in space travel, astronomy, physics, medicine, energy production, and more. CNN seems to think much of that doesn't merit thoughtful, thorough coverage. Other networks, hopefully, will see their civic duty differently.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Constellation In Trouble?

President-elect Obama's transition team dealing with NASA has sent the space agency a questionnaire containing some questions that might suggest Obama may consider altering or cancelling the development of the Orion capsule and its Aries launcher. During the campaign, Obama pledged to build both, though he declined to endorse returning to the Moon as a national goal.

Of course, this is the time for political tea leaf reading. It's precisely the job of the transition team to thoroughly understand NASA's current situation, which includes the agency's plans for moving ahead. Nothing in the questionnaire suggests the new administration wants to stop manned spaceflight.

To the extent cutting NASA's budget is being considered because of the economic slowdown, it should be noted that NASA currently takes up well less that one percent of federal spending, and as the federal budget balloons to deal with recession, NASA's share will shrink absent a major increase for the agency.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

China and NASA

Chinese space officials are meeting with NASA leadership this week in Washington. It follows a visit to China by a NASA delegation last summer.

Since that visit, China has made its plans for manned spaceflight clear. It aims to launch Shenzhou 8 and 9, both unmanned, and dock them, creating a small space platform, in 2010. If that is successful, a manned Shenzhou 10 will be launched to fly to the platform, where the crew will conduct experiments. China plans to have a large space station in Earth orbit in 2020.

More than once, Chinese officials have stated publicly that China intends to put humans on the Moon in the not-too-distant future. Several natioms have openly expressed interest in being part of an international effort to establish a lunar base. Given the definite possibility of an economic slowdown lasting a while in the U. S. and elsewhere, sharing the cost of such a program among several nations might make sense as a way to keep manned spaceflight moving forward. One wonders if such a notion might be discussed in Washington today or tomorrow.

Monday, December 1, 2008

More On Enceladus

The Cassini mission to Saturn has been an extraordinary scientific success. One of its major accomplishments has been to focus on Saturn's moon Enceladus as a possible home to life. Recent research may bolster that possibility.

Cassini established geysers erupt from the southern polar regions of Enceladus. Later work suggested water vapor was in the geysers, which meshed with the theory that an ocean of water existed under the small moon's icy surface. An interior heat source strong enough to keep such an ocean liquid, plus the water itself, raised the possobility of life.

New work by JPL's Candace Hansen might have taken that argument one step further. Hansen and her team think they have found not just water vapor but actual liquid water molecules in the geysers' plumes. If true, that strengthens the case for the ocean.