Thursday, December 31, 2009

Lunar Lava Tubes

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to colonizing the Moon is the threat of radiation that can be lethal, especially after prolonged exposure. Luckily, rock is good protection against such exposure.

That's why lunar lava tubes are interesting possibilities for sites of bases and colonies. Lava tubes are just what the name implies-- tubes cut through solid rock by flowing lava at some point in the past. Earth has many such tubes, and the Moon, because of volcanism in its history and its low gravity, is thought to have huge tubes-- big enough to shelter bases and colonies.

Scientists working with data gathered by Japan's SELENE lunar probe have found a huge hole in the lunar surface they think might be a collapsed lava tube. The hole is something over 200 feet wide and perhaps 250 feet deep. The scientists think the hole might be a good place for a colony.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Russia To The Rescue?

The Russian Space Agency says it plans to launch a spacecraft to the asteroid Apophis that could deflect the asteroid into a different orbit. There is a small chance that Apophis could collide with Earth in 2029.

Developing a planetary defense capability is certainly a necessary long term project, and Russia says it will invite other nations to participate in the mission.

Refinements in Apophis' orbit show the chance of a collision is much less than first thought.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Hubble Goes Tiny

The Hubble Space Telescope has earned its place in the history of science by imaging big stuff that is far away in both space and time. Now, it has also found a tiny object far out in the Solar System.

A team of researchers has used HST images to find a body in the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune that is only roughly a half mile across. Previously, the smallest object found in the Belt was 30 miles across.

The object was not directly imaged. Rather, the team looked for occultations-- blinks-- of background stars. By noting the duration of the blink, the team could work out the size and speed of the object that moved in front of the star.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Chicxulub Firestorm Questioned

For the past several years, the generally accepted story of the demise of the dinosaurs included a worldwide firestorm as tiny, hot pieces of earth were thrown up by the asteroid impact that caused the Chicxulub crater off the modern Yucatan. Those pieces were supposed to have ignited forests around the world as they landed.

A new computer model suggests, however, that most of those pieces did not land immediately. Instead, they formed an opaque cloud well up in the atmosphere that actually blocked other pieces from hitting the surface. The world did heat up, according to this model, but not as much as the accepted theory holds, and there was no worldwide firestorm.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Local Fluff

Out on the very edge of the Solar System, where the two Voyager spacecraft are approaching interstellar space and still sending back data, astronomers have found a region they've dubbed "The Local Fluff."

The area seems to be about 30 light-years wide, and sits between interstellar space and the Sun's heliosphere-- the home of the Sun and its planets. The Fluff contains hydrogen and helium, and has a magnetosphere. That magnetic sphere is probably the most important feature. Emerging data suggests a star in the neighborhood exploded perhaps 10 million years ago, and scientists think the magnetic field of The Fluff helped protect life on Earth, and the rest of the Solar System, from the resulting burst of powerful radiation.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

New Telescope Almost Operational

Infrared astronomy is one of the fields that revolutionized mankind's understanding of the universe in the twentieth century. By expanding astronomy beyond the limited visual scope humans see, scientists have been able to gather data that had been unavailable, deepening our insights into how things work.

NASA's new Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer is currently undergoing final, on-orbit checks. So far, everything is fine. Within a month, NASA hopes to have the first images from its new window on the universe.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The ISS Five

After a successful Soyuz launch Sunday, three more people joined the ISS crew today, bringing the current number of crewmembers to five, one below the usual goal.

This five probably wouldn't make a good basketball team, but it will be able to conduct more scientific research than the two-man skeleton crew the three new arrivals augmented, which is good news.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

More Evidence Of Martian Water

All the wheel spinning the Mars rover Spirit has done over the past few months, trying to free itself from deep sand, has produced some data that wouldn't have been gotten otherwise.

Spirit's wheels haven't been able to get enough traction to drive Spirit away, but they have broken through the surface crust and dug through the next layer of sand. Beneath the surface, NASA has found sulfate material. Sulfates are formed in the presence of streaming water, or in hot springs. The odds are surely long against one of the early Mars rovers just happening to get stuck on the site of an ancient hot springs, which in turn suggests water once flowed rather freely on Mars.

It's one more piece of evidence for a wetter Mars in the past. That's good for those looking for Martian life-- and for those planning future human missions to the planet.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Spirit's Wheel

Mars is full of surprises, and so, it seems, is the Mars rover, Spirit.

Spirit's right front wheel stopped working in 2006, due to an open electrical circuit, and engineers assumed it was lost for good. Since then, as a consequence, Spirit has been driven around Mars in reverse. Last week, however, attempting to extricate the rover from the deep sand that's had it trapped for months, engineers took a shot and tried to use the dead wheel. It spun.

It didn't spin easily, and it didn't get the rover unstuck, and it has since stopped spinning, but the wheel did respond to commands. Team members are allowing publicly that they may never get Spirit moving again, but the unfrozen wheel is a reminder that strange things can happen on the Red Planet.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

ExoMars On Track

The European Space Agency has secured funding for the joint ESA/NASA ExoMars mission to launch in 2016 and 2018. ExoMars will include an orbiter, a lander, and a rover.

ESA officials say they will spend the next year negotiating with NASA to determine the exact role and responsibilities of each partner in the mission and will seek final approval for the mission from ESA member governments in 2012. They also say the budget for ExoMars of roughly $1.23 billion is a hard limit. Cost overruns could result in cancellation of some element of the mission. Any additional funding will require a unanimous vote of the member governments.

Of course, NASA will have something riding on a fully successful mission, as well. It's possible the Europeans might feel comfortable taking a hard line on the budget because they feel NASA might well pick up more of the tab rather than allow a headline Mars mission to be reduced in scope.

Friday, December 18, 2009


Today is opening day for James Cameron's much-hyped science fiction movie, Avatar. The project is said to set new technical standards for filmmaking, and with a budget of $400 million, it probably should.

The plot of the movie, judging from pre-release material on television, is much less avant-garde. Humans seem to be engaged in the military conquest of a people living on an extrasolar planet. Not only is that theme unfortunate, it's arguably unlikely. Projecting military power is hugely expensive. Projecting it into another star system would seem both a colossal waste of resources and a bizarre policy choice. Another problem with the movie might be its choice of alien. They might be ten feet tall, blue, and tough to kill, but they are definitely humanoid. Yes, the Screen Actors Guild only has humanoid types, but shouldn't that much money and that much technology get truly alien aliens?

Hopefully, by the time humans are capable of interstellar travel, we will also have left the notion of military conquest as a good thing far, far behind.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Second Life For Phoenix?

The Mars Phoenix team lost contact with the Lander in November, 2008, as the harsh Martian winter closed in over the probe. Lander's electronics were not designed to survive the bitter cold of the Martian arctic, so everyone thought the mission was over.

Well, maybe not.

Next month, JPL engineers are going to try to re-establish contact with Lander. At last contact, all the cameras and scientific instruments were still working well, so if the electronics did survive the winter and contact can be regained, there's some chance that the scientific work could be picked up where it was left off.

Peter Smith, leader of the Phoenix team, says reviving the mission is unlikely, but worth a try.

After all, NASA's Mars rovers were designed to last 90 days, and they're both going on six years.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Nearest Black Hole

New measurements show that the nearest black hole to Earth is only about half as far away as previously thought. Don't worry, though. There's still about 7,800 light years between it and us. That's a huge distance, even for something as powerful as a black hole.

Of course, our current search techniques aren't perfect, and the various objects in the galaxy are in constant motion, so there's no guarantee astronomers will never find a black hole closer to us than the current record holder. However, the Earth has been around for 4.5 billion years or so, and there's no reason to think it won't be around, orbiting a life sustaining Sun, for a very long time to come.

Black holes are not things to worry about, in any case. Time and energy and worry are best directed at matters that can be altered by human effort-- curing disease, ending wars, grappling with widespread poverty. If a black hole did have Earth in its crosshairs, there's absolutely nothing we could do about it. Not now, and not for thousands or perhaps millions of years.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


In 1996, a team of NASA researchers made big news by announcing they had found evidence for life on Mars in a meteor that had come from Mars. The meteor had been the first found in 1984 in the Allen Hills of Antarctica, and had been labeled ALH84001.

The claim was controversial. Many scientists argued the tiny structures inside the rock the NASA team saw as fossils could have non-biological explanations. Supporters of the life theory often conceded that point, but argued the most likely explanation was life.

After a decade of intensive study of Mars by numerous spacecraft designed to pursue numerous approaches to data-gathering, the case for life on Mars-- either in the past or currently existing-- is far from clinched. However, an argument for a warmer, wetter Mars early in its history-- and perhaps fairly recently-- seems to be strengthening. That Mars, of course, would have been more conducive to life.

Using better tools and more knowledge than were available in 1996, a team at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, which, it should be noted, included the key members of the 1996 team, has reexamined the meteor. The 2009 conclusion? The most likely explanation of the structures in the rock is Martian life.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Dragon To ISS

SpaceX's cargo capsule Dragon is scheduled to make the first of three demonstration flights to ISS between May and November next year. During that time three astronauts who have worked with Dragon will be aboard ISS if all goes as planned, and the company has said the first Dragon flight will take place when an astronaut familiar with the vehicle is on board the space station.

That's more important than it may seem at first blush. Dragon will not dock with the station. Instead, like Japan's cargo ship, Dragon will simply fly close enough to ISS for a robotic arm, operated by an astronaut, to grab it and bring it into the station.

SpaceX's Falcon 9 launcher will carry Dragon to space, and the first flight of that configuration is scheduled for early next year. After the three demonstration flights, SpaceX already has a contract with NASA to fly 12 cargo flights to ISS through 2015. That contract is worth $1.6 billion. The company is also working on man-rating both Falcon 9 and Dragon so that the company could ferry crews between Earth and low Earth orbit.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Iapetus Explained

For over 300 years, astronomers have known there was something odd about Saturn's moon, Iapetus. The leading hemisphere is much darker than the trailing. Recent images taken by the Cassini spacecraft confirm the leading explanation of the contrast.

As Iapetus orbits Saturn, dust-- perhaps from other moons, perhaps from Saturn's rings-- falls onto the leading hemisphere. Dust is much darker than ice, hence that hemisphere has become darker. Reinforcing the process, the layers of dust slightly warms the surface, which allows water vapor to migrate to the trailing hemisphere, where it freezes back into ice. The small size of Iapetus-- about 900 miles in diameter-- and, therefore, its low gravity also aids the migration of the water vapor, further supporting the entire process.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Spirit Wheel Problem

NASA's Mars rovers each have six wheels. Opportunity, after nearly six years on the planet, continues to roll right along.

Spirit, however, has had more problems. It has been functioning without an operating right front wheel since 2006, and for the past several months has been stuck in deep sand. During NASA's recent attempts to extricate Spirit, the right rear wheel has stopped spinning, perhaps permanently. The rovers were designed to function on four wheels if necessary-- three, if the right three-- but NASA isn't sure Spirit can get out of its current predicament with two dead wheels.

A time factor is also beginning to loom. Winter at Spirit's location on Mars begins in May 2010. Given the precise way the rover is situated, NASA doesn't believe it could gather enough solar energy to survive the winter. So, the fight to save Spirit might be reduced to a simple imperative. Move or die. In six months.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Saturn's Hexagon

One of the most bizarre things yet found in the Solar System is the hexagon of clouds that extends deep into Saturn's atmosphere directly over the planet's north pole. For the past several years, the area has been in darkness during Saturn's northern winter, but it is now emerging into light, and Cassini is taking the best pictures yet of the formation.

A jetstream of wind surrounds the formation, seeming to hold it together. Coming off each of the six corners is a wave of wind. Exactly how those features explain the formation is completely unclear at the moment, but the hexagon has been there for at least thirty years, so scientists will probably have plenty of time to puzzle it out.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Getting MRO Back

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been out of the data gathering business since August, when it put its main computer in safe mode. The craft had also had computer problems in February and June, so when the August event occurred JPL engineers decided to do a thorough study of MRO's software.

That study completed, JPL started uploading software fixes to the probe a couple weeks ago, and engineers hope to be getting data from MRO again by next week. That would be a big plus for Mars science. MRO is the most powerful of the probes currently orbiting Mars, and even with its computer problems has sent back more data about the planet than all other Mars probes combined.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Space Junk Conference

A conference seeking ways to deal with the space junk problem is being held in Washington this week. It is sponsored by NASA and DARPA-- two agencies famed for their high tech expertise.

An estimated 300,000 objects of one centimeter across or larger are whizzing around low Earth orbit. They are the core of the problem. Even a tiny piece of debris traveling at several times the speed of a bullet fired from a high-powered rifle could cause great damage to the thin skin and delicate electronics of a satellite, for example. Such debris could also be a real threat to manned spacecraft and astronauts' EVA spacesuits.

There is no shortage of possible technical fixes. The real tough parts of solving the problem may lie elsewhere. For example-- who will pay for the cleanup? There are also legal and national security issues to be worked out. After all, a technology that could take a dead satellite out of orbit could presumably also take a live, important satellite out. Solving that problem and finding effective ways to control the technology central to dealing with larger pieces of debris is key to dealing with the overall issue.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Not Only In America

A steady refrain of space program critics in America is that major NASA programs consistently run way over budget. Those folks, it should be noted, constitute a subset of critics of programs that run over budget across the scope of government activity. NASA is not unique, and could do better if Congress was more concerned about the budgeting needs of highly complex new technology programs. Political calculations, however, too often trump fiscal ones, for NASA, Defense, and a myriad of other government projects.

Budget overruns don't only happen in America, though. Japan's government seems on the verge of canceling a major rocket development program, the GX, because of large budget overruns in a bad economy-- and because Japan's current workhorse rocket is performing exceedingly well.

Watching how the worldwide recession affects space development over the next few years will be interesting. To the extent it makes financing private space companies more difficult, the financial collapse might delay the corporate expansion into space, and put the leadership of the drive into fewer hands. Whether that would be good or bad will be the judgment of future generations to make. Government space efforts will likely be cut back, but the tough economic environment and the need to create good jobs may work to internationalize large space projects. The building of ISS could serve as a model both of how to proceed and what to avoid. Establishing an international lunar base is an obvious example of a reasonable, useful project that has appeal in several major nations.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


Today marks the thirty-seventh anniversary of the launch of Apollo 17-- the last Apollo mission to the Moon. Tomorrow, December 7, will be the sixty-eighth anniversary of a turning point in modern history, the Japanese attack on the U. S. Navy's Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Far from securing Japanese dominance in the Pacific, the American response to the attack led to the United States achieving superpower status and the American leadership of the Free World in a tense contest with Communist totalitarianism. That contest gave birth to Apollo.

Tomorrow will also see the unveiling of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, which will be the first craft to provide paying custoners suborbital flights to the edge of space. VG plans to commence those commercial flights in 2011, assuming planned test flights go as expected. SpaceShipTwo will carry six passengers and be operated by two pilots. VG already has 250 confirmed customers; at six a pop, that's more than sixty flights already filled. At $200,000 per ticket, VG already has $50 million in ticket sales alone.

SpaceShipTwo will be unveiled in Mojave, California, near America's Pacific Coast.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Pondering Safety

Congress has begun a process aimed at developing a safety regime that would allow NASA astronauts to fly to orbit aboard commercial spacecraft. Currently, between the retirement of the space shuttle, likely in 2011, and the first flight of Orion, which might be delayed until 2017 because of budget problems, astronauts will have to hitch rides in Russian Soyuz capsules. For various reasons, many people are unhappy about such a Russian monopoly of access to a largely U. S.-built space station.

Of course, at the moment there are no commercial human-rated spacecraft, much less any capable of orbital flight, but there are companies working towards that goal. SpaceX and Orbital Sciences already have contracts with NASA to build cargo ships that will take supplies to ISS, and both are looking at transforming those unmanned vehicles into human-rated capsules. Several other NewSpace companies-- plus, perhaps, Lockheed Martin and Boeing-- are also trying to develop manned spacecraft. One, Interorbital Systems, plans a private orbital flight in 2011.

Before NASA will risk astronauts' lives in such vehicles, however, the craft will have to meet NASA safety requirements. The U. S. House committee with oversight of space policy has held hearings gathering testimony and facts about the safety issue. The committee is urging NASA and the FAA to cooperate in developing safety standards for commercial craft. NASA says it would probably take three years for it to be satisfied that a commercial spaceship was safe enough to fly astronauts. Three years doesn't seem an inordinate amount of time if a new company can get NASA's seal of approval.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Servicing ISS

Extending the lifetime of ISS beyond its current termination scheduled for 2015 would require cargo flights after 2015, and Europe and Japan are beginning to look at ways to pay for additional flights of the cargo ships they have developed.

The Augustine committee probably reflected the views of many in the space community when it argued ISS should be extended at least through 2020. Taking twenty years to complete the station and using it in its full capability for only four years makes very little sense, yet that is the current U. S. plan.

Europe and Japan both might run into budget constraints as the governments involved try to navigate the current economic downturn. As has happened in the U. S. for decades, when governments want to show they're being fiscally prudent, space budgets seem to be among the first to be slashed. If Europe and Japan fail to get funding, supplying ISS would fall to Russia, and perhaps to U. S. commercial carriers just now developing the necessary craft.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Space Solar Power

The idea of powering human civilization by collecting energy fron the Sun in huge satellites and beaming it into Earth's electrical grid has been around for decades. If things go right, the concept may finally be tested soon. Japan is studying a plan that would allow that island nation to get a large percentage of its energy from space-based solar by the 2030s. California is looking at a proposal to develop space-based solar as a viable energy alternative in fifteen years, and various other governments and private companies are looking at what's possible.

In a world quickly approaching nine billion humans, with expensive energy and climate damage, getting clean, limitless energy from the Sun is certainly attractive. At some point, the cost of space-based solar will be competitive with, say, oil, as that resource gets harder and harder to develop. Nor does space-based solar have the potential for disaster nuclear plants have. The guts of a SSP system, the huge satellite, would be beyond natural disasters, and would be beyond the reach of terrorist and most military attacks. Indeed, a mature SSP system would be a decentralized system; attacking one satellite would make very little sense.

Getting the energy from space to Earth is still a problem. Microwaves and lasers have been proposed as possible modes of delivery, but their effects on the atmosphere are still unclear. Building huge structures in space and keeping them properly oriented and maintained for decades or longer are still likely engineering feats beyond our capability, too, but that can change. In 1961, putting a man on the Moon and safely returning him to the Earth was utterly beyond any human agency-- but it wasn't by 1969.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

SuperEarths And Life

Harvard astronomy professor Dimitar Sasselov coined the term "SuperEarth" to refer to worlds similar to Earth, but with two to ten times the mass. Now, Sasselov is arguing such worlds might be better able to support life than our own.

He bases his argument principally on increased geologic energy on the more massive planets-- especially more efficient plate tectonics. That's important because tectonic shifts release carbon into the environment, and carbon is essential for life. Sasselov goes on to speculate that most civilizations might, therefore, be found on SuperEarths, and suggests that might explain why Earth hasn't been visited by aliens. Either the aliens haven't developed the technology to allow them to escape the deep gravity well of their home planet, or they see smal worlds like Earth as unikely homes of life.

Not to question a Harvard astronomy professor, but an extremely active planet geologically-- with volcanoes constantly erupting and the surface in a constant state of change-- doesn't seem like a good place for advanced civilization to rise and thrive. Life, perhaps; civilization capable of space travel, maybe not. There is also the matter of that strong gravitational field. Surely such a planet would tend to bring even more comets and asteroids to itself than Earth does, and we know life on Earth could be extinguished under such a bombardment. Increase the number of objects coming in, and the speed with which they hit the surface under the stronger gravity, and sustaining life might be problematical.

Monday, November 30, 2009

ISS Crew To Two

A major rationale for keeping the space shuttle flying this long was to complete ISS so that it could accomodate a crew of six. Six could do more science than three. Fine. Through most of December, 2009, however, the ISS crew will have a grand total of two.

Most of the time of the two men will be devoted to station keeping duties. Some science will be done, but the emphasis will be on keeping the station functioning.

A Soyuz flight is scheduled for December 23 that will bring the ISS crew strength back up,

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Space Junk And ISS

NASA had to closely monitor two pieces of space junk that potentially threatened ISS this past week. Fortunately, neither came close enough to force NASA to maneuver the space station.

Space junk is increasingly seen as a threat to future space operations. These two are only the latest possible threats to ISS. So far, they have all missed-- ISS, after all, is a tiny target in the vastness of orbital space-- but at some point a piece of debris could hit an active, important satellite, or a manned mission to the Moon, or force ISS to be maneuvered away.

One interesting proposal to deal with the problem is to allow private industry to retrieve debris and bring it back to Earth. There is a national security problem with that approach, however. Anybody who could track down and capture useless pieces of junk in space would also have the capability to capture or destroy active vehicles. The counter to that would be to build defensive systems into satellites that might be targeted, but that would increase the cost of satellites, as well as increase the complexity of the satellites, which would result in higher failure rates.

Dealing with the problem of space junk may be no more sexy than dealing with Earthly junk, but dealing with both is necessary.

Friday, November 27, 2009

STS-129 Home

Space shuttle Atlantis landed safely in Florida this morning, ending a nearly flawlessly executed STS-129 mission that delivered 15 tons of equopment and supplies to ISS.

That leaves five scheduled shuttle missions left in the program. The next one is scheduled for February, so it's still possible NASA could wrap up the program in 2010, but more likely the last flight or two will slip into 2011. Congress seems willing to fund such an extension, but why wouldn't it? After spending hundreds of billions-- at least-- over the latest few years over and above an already huge federal budget with a large deficit feeding a staggering national debt, four or five billion more to fly the the last couple shuttle missions is chump change.

What happens to NASA's human spaceflight program after the shuttle, however, is still open to question. Some interesting ideas are floating around, but the Obama administration has yet to make the decision.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Now, It's A Wheel

During NASA's latest attempt to find a way to free its Mars rover, Spirit, the vehicle's left rear wheel stalled. Both rovers have six wheels to help them navigate the rugged terrain, but Spirit has been operating with five for a while. One of its other wheels also stalled once, but engineers were able to get it back in operation.

NASA's next attempt to get Spirit moving is scheduled for today.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


According to UFOlogists, and local media at the time, a rather large object made a controlled landing in the woods around Kecksburg, Pennsylvania, in December, 1965. Exactly what the object was has been open to question ever since. Some say a major military recovery operation was carried out, while others say nothing of the sort happened.

Investigative journalist Leslie Kean, working with The Sci-Fi Channel, filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in 2002 seeking documents from NASA related to Kecksburg. Finally, this year, NASA released hundreds of documents to Ms. Kean pursuant to her long ago FOIA request. She reports there is no "smoking gun" in any of the documents, but that still leaves what landed near Kecksburg and what happened to it unresolved. Kean leans to a secret U. S. Government project as the answer, but says she can't rule out an extraterrestrial spacecraft as a possibility.

The more immediate concern, Kean argues, is how the FOIA works. She has a point. If the federal Freedom of Information Act is to be a tool useful to citizens and journalists trying to keep tabs on what the government is currently doing, it needs to produce faster results. Otherwise, it becomes a tool useful only to historians-- and an imperfect tool even then.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Astronauts To Asteroids?

The continuing review of NASA's post-shuttle manned spaceflight program has produced an interesting possibility. Lockheed Martin, prime contractor of the Orion spacecraft, has conducted a study which looks at using Orion-- possibly two Orions linked together-- to fly humans to a near Earth asteroid.

Such a mission has several positives in its favor. After all the years since Apollo, it would finally have humans going beyond Earth orbit again-- truly exploring space. Such a project, dubbed "Plymouth Rock" in the Lockheed study, would also spark greater efforts to identify asteroids that cross Earth's orbit, making it more likely we would find one on a collision course with our planet before it was in our laps. Flying the mission would develop the skills necessary to rendezvous, study, and interact with an asteroid. A flight to a properly chosen asteroid would also be the ideal bridge mission between a short lunar trip and a long voyage to Mars, serving as a test of technology for a future Mars ship.

Asteroids are important to the future of deep space exploration, as well. Many contain large stores of volatiles-- especially water-- that could support missions; the rock would also be ideal shielding against radiation. As a space-based economy is developed, asteroids will supply many essential raw materials.

NASA likes Lockheed's idea. If the White House does, and if the preliminary plans can be successfully developed into a tight, strong mission plan, humans could be on their way to a near Earth asteroid in the 2020-2025 time period.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Successful Spacewalk

Even after being awakened by a false alarm on ISS, and even though one spacewalker was awaiting word of the birth of a baby, STS-129 astronauts put together what may be called a "spacerun" Saturday, completing every scheduled task and going on to perform tasks scheduled for the next excursion.

The next spacewalk is planned for Monday. By the way, the baby, a girl, was born after her father had finished his work outside, and both baby and mother seem to be doing well.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Slight Success For Spirit

NASA engineers trying to work the Spirit rover out of the Martian sand trap it got stuck in last April have finally found some success. Spirit moved. Not much-- less than an inch in three-dimensional space-- but it did move. It got off the dime. Further, this attempt was limited, a test to see what might happen.

NASA is analyzing exactly what did happen before deciding what to do next. Now, though, at least there is hope that at some point Spirit will be able to resume its explorations.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Apollo 12

Lest we forget, today marks the fortieth anniversary of the second manned landing on the Moon. Apollo 12 was a remarkable mission in other ways, too. Struck by lightning seconds after launch, the mission, far from being aborted, was successfully completed. The precision flying and pinpoint landing of Pete Conrad and Alan Bean proved Apollo was not limited to the wide open plains, setting the stage for later Apollo missions with challenging landing sites. Conrad and Bean also demonstrated astronauts could do important work over extended periods on the lunar surface.

Apollo 12 will probably never get the acclaim of Apollo 11, but it wrote a dramatic and extraordinary chapter in the history of space exploration.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

U. S., China To Talk Space

As President Obama ended his first official visit to China, the two countries released a joint statement that indicates they will pursue talks across a range of issues, including cooperation in space. That cooperation is to include human spaceflight. The NASA Administrator and the head of China's space effort are to exchange visits next year.

To cooperate with China in human spaceflight, of course, presumes America will have a human spaceflight capability after the space shuttle is retired. Mr. Obama, from his presidential campaign, has seemed to be a supporter of human spaceflight, but NASA remains in a holding pattern until he decides the future thrust in that area.

Statements out of China, on the other hand, have made it clear that the Chinese intend to remain in manned space. China seems to plan a small space station for the next decade, and a manned lunar landing sometime in the 2020s. China has also expressed some interest in participating in an international program to establish a lunar base. Indeed, several major nations have expressed interest in such a project. Perhaps the best approach to establishing mankind's first permanent outpost on another world, for a variety of reasons, would be to create a program backed by several nations.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

So Far, So Good

By the looks of the launch, STS-129 got off to a good start. Still, NASA is taking a good chunk of the first full day in space to inspect Atlantis' heat shield for possible damage. Such inspections have become standard operating procedure since the loss of Columbia in 2003.

Atlantis is scheduled to dock with ISS tomorrow, after which the task of transferring spare parts from the shuttle payload bay to the space station will begin. Three spacewalks are planned.

There will also be another close inspection of the orbiter's heat shield.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Lift Off For Atlantis

After a smooth countdown, space shuttle Atlantis rode a seemingly perfect launch through a bright blue Florida sky into the blackness of space this afternoon.

STS-129 will deliver tons of spare parts to ISS in anticipation of the end of the shuttle program. Indeed, there are only five more scheduled shuttle missions after this one.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

STS-129 A "Go"

After a smooth countdown to date, and a promising weather forecast, NASA is set to launch space shuttle Atlantis on STS-129 tomorrow afternoon.

STS-129 is scheduled to be an eleven day mission, and its main objective will be to deliver large spare parts to ISS, the latest in NASA's series of missions to prepare ISS for its post-shuttle future. If this mission is flown largely on time, it will keep to NASA's schedule to wind down the shuttle program roughly a year from now.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Upon analyzing data gathered by the impact of the LCROSS spacecraft into the south polar region of the Moon, NASA scientists have determined there is not only water on the Moon, but there is more water than expected. The discovery completely changes our view of the Moon, and bears directly on the future of lunar exploration.

The Moon is still an extremely dry place, but not as dry as the driest deserts on Earth, for example-- an extraordinary shift from the view developed after studying Apollo samples that the lunar surface was bone dry. A significant amount of water ice at or near the lunar surface suggests there's enough to provide drinking water to a lunar base, produce rocket fuel by breaking the water down into its constituent components of hydrogen and oxygen, and to provide a radiation shield for the base. Water, it turns out, is very good at blocking harmful radiation.

The Obama administration is currently considering what the next goal of NASA's manned spaceflight program should be, and how that goal should be pursued. The confirmation of so much lunar water could be the factor that tips the decision towards establishing a base on the Moon and structuring it to be a springboard to the rest of the Solar System.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Releasing Spirit

After months of study and experimentation, NASA is ready to try to get its Mars rover Spirit moving again.

Spirit has been stuck in soft soil since April, and NASA engineers have finally determined the best chance to free it rests with moving the rover over the tracks it made getting to its current position. The first order to begin that process will be sent to Mars Monday, but the rover team cautions it'll be a slow extrication, assuming it works at all.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Tracking Stellar Lithium

Astronomers may have stumbled upon a simple and efficient way to quickly determine which stars are most likely to have planetary systems. The element lithium might be a reliable marker. A new study suggests that stars with low levels of lithium tend to have planets, while stars with higher levels tend to be barren.

Exactly why that is remains to be worked out. Indeed, a detailed, comprehensive model of how planetary systems form remains a major challenge for theorists. If this new marker turns out to be solid, however, those theorists will have one more factor they'll know their model will have to produce. This discovery should also lead to finding more planetary systems, which will eventually give theorists more data to feed into their models.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


ABC's remake of "V" seems to be off to a good start in the ratings. Of course, most viewers probably already know the basic story, so continued success will likely depend upon execution.

No attempt to hide the true, reptilian nature of the aliens was made in this version, presumably because the audience is already familiar with the story, but there have been updates. Technology is better om both sides, for example. This version has suggested that the aliens have been living among us for some time before the mother ships arrived-- a risky strategy on Their part, given how easily their human suit can be ripped away. A subplot about a terrorist network seems to be developing. Early on, the favorite to lead the human resistance is a tough female detective.

We'll see if this version takes off like the original.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Solar Sail

The Planetary Society is planning to build and launch a solar sail by the end of next year thanks to $1 million from an anonymous donor.

Solar sails are basically sheets of extremely lightweight material that propel spacecraft by capturing the photons of the solar wind, much as nautical sails propel ships by harnessing the energy of terrestrial winds. Literally, solar sails ride on light. The acceleration, of course, is tiny, but it is constant. Over years, so the theory goes, that constant, tiny acceleration could develop impressive speed-- and, of course, the energy is free.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Searching For Intelligent ETs

A new study looking at determining which stars are most likely to harbor intelligent aliens concludes the best candidates are stars that closely resemble the Sun.

The money spent on the study probably could have been better spent elsewhere. Many research papers, television documentaries, and science books over three or four decades have asked the same question and come to the same conclusion. The reason is pretty basic. If you start out with a definition of life based on what we know about what's necessary for Earth life, and you narrow that to focus on the development of intelligence, the only model we have is what we think happened on Earth-- and why high level intelligence arose here is still something of a mystery-- you are actually replaying Earth history. Of course, Earth revolves around the Sun, so you're likely to conclude intelligent life is most likely to rise on planets circling Sun-like stars. There's a circularity not only to the orbits, but also to the logic.

The conclusion could still be correct, of course, especially if intelligence on the human level or beyond is rare in the cosmos, but a more interesting question may be: Where should we look for alien civilizations? If an extremely advanced technological civilization planned in terms of millions of years, it might well colonize the systems of small, extremely stable red dwarf stars-- the most numerous stars in the galaxy-- even if the species originated in the system of a Sun-like star. Under that theory, red dwarfs should be carefully examined.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

LCROSS A Sacrilege?

The impact of the LCROSS probe into the lunar surface has sparked a so far small movement that seeks to ban further such impacts, The fact that Luna is pounded by objects as big as LCROSS regularly-- and by smaller objects constantly-- in the natural course of events seems to be beside the point to the group. Those opposed to future impacts, screenwriter Amy Ephron among them, see the Moon as part of humanity's cultural heritage that should be protected. Some also seem to see such impacts as wanton acts of imperialists who have no regard for local ecosystems and indigenous cultures. The fact that the Moon is almost certainly barren, and therefore lacks local ecosystems and indigenous cultures also seems to be beside the point.

The fact that people are thinking about space issues is good. Space policy has been ignored by too many for too long, resulting in a manned program, at least, that has lacked focus for decades. However, crafting public policy on any issue surely requires a clear understanding of that issue, as well as the overall context of the issue. Perhaps those in this group should do some more studying. Their position, and the emergence of the group so soon after LCROSS, suggests more knee jerk reaction than considered judgment.

Such a reaction probably wasn't helped by the tendency of the media to refer to the impacts of LCROSS and its Centaur rocket as "bombing" the Moon. NASA crashed the two into the Moon in an attempt to detect water vapor in the resulting plume of debris. Confirming water on Luna would be a major discovery, and NASA is still analyzing that data. There was no bomb involved, however.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Space Elevator Contest

Rockets, as we all know, are both fickle and dangerous as transportation to space. Searching for another way out, science fiction master Arthur C. Clarke developed the concept of the space elevator that people and cargo could ride to low Earth orbit. Clarke was a scientist as well as an author, and he had developed the concept of the communications satellite in the 1940s, so his space elevator idea in the 1970s could not simply be dismissed. It wasn't.

The concept is simple enough. One end of a superstrong cable would be attached to Earth; the other end would be attached to a large satellite in geostationary orbit, so the cable would remain taut and fixed in the sky. Add electrical power, and a vehicle could ride the cable to Earth orbit without the use of rockets.

Of course, even if such a system is finally practical, we're a long way from having it. Groups around the world, however, are working on the various challenges that need to be overcome before such a system can be built. Often, the groups are made up of professors and students from a university. NASA is involved with a contest to encourage and reward groups that make progress towards a space elevator, offering $2 million to get good work and solid results. So far, progress has been slow, but scientists and engineers can accomplish remarkable things in the fullness of time.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Galactic Suites

Xavier Claramunt, CEO of Galactic Suites, a Barcelona, Spain-based space resort company, has told Reuters that the company's first space hotel will be open for business in 2012. Four point four million dollars will get a three-night stay at an orbiting hotel. Claramunt says they already have 43 reservations and a waiting list of 200.

The problem is there seems to be a lack of evidence to support Claramunt. Such a huge project would have had to start bending metal and testing flight hardware long ago to be ready by 2012, yet there have been no test flights, and the company has not presented prototypes of its hotel "pods" to the press and public-- a curious approach to promotion. Claramunt says the project is backed by an American billionaire, but declines to say exactly which one.

Maybe Reuters will do some more digging on this one.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Cassini Pluming

The Cassini spacecraft exploring Saturn and its domain whizzed through the plumes of Enceladus on November 2. The plumes erupt from the south polar region of the tiny moon, which is only about 310 miles in diameter.

Enceladus, so small and so far from the Sun, would seem a highly unlikely place to find life. The plumes, however, contain water vapor, sodium, and organic chemicals-- similar in composition to the geyser eruptions of Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park. Water vapor suggests a ready source of liquid water. The plumes themselves demand an energy source to propel them. Put liquid water and enerrgy together with organic chemicals and enough time, and you get organic compounds. Organic compounds are the building blocks of life.

Several moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn are now seen as having some potential to support life. Saturn's Titan, indeed, may rival Mars as a likely place to find life in the Solar System beyond Earth. Jupiter and Saturn themselves, in their deep, complex, active atmospheres, likely have layers miles thick and stable over substantial periods of time that could support some kind of life. Carl Sagan suggested such a possibility years ago, when there was no real case to be made for life beyond Mars. That case seems to be strengthening steadily.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Falcon 9 Coming Along

SpaceX plans the first launch of its Falcon 9 rocket as early as February 2, 2010, from Cape Canaveral.

Falcon 9 is designed to carry the Dragon capsule to orbit. Dragon, in turn, is currently designed to deliver cargo to ISS, and SpaceX has a contract with NASA to do precisely that. The company, however, has even bigger plans. It wants to turn Dragon into a spacecraft capable of ferrying astronauts to and from ISS. SpaceX estimates Dragon could be ready for its first crew three years after NASA gives the green light.

A private company with the capacity to put people in orbit on a consistent basis could completely change the game. Once corporations, universities, and others have real access to low Earth orbit, the task of expanding the human economy beyond Earth can begin in earnest. Interorbital Systems plans its first manned launch in 2011 from Tonga, in the South Pacific. If both IOS and SpaceX are successful, the big boys like Lockheed Martin, sniffing a huge new opportunity, will inevitably jump in. That might be the point of no return. Humanity may finally be on the way to expanding into space.

Monday, November 2, 2009

A Flaming Success

Japan's new cargo spacecraft, launched September 11 to ISS, burned up as planned on its return to Earth.

The craft brought supplies to ISS and was loaded with garbage before leaving the station. Japan expects most of it burned up over the South Pacific, but allows some of the bigger pieces could have reached the ocean.

The future of Japan's contribution to the cargo vessel fleet is unclear, however. Russia already has one, as does Europe, and both SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are developing private versions under contract with NASA.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

More Spirit Trouble

In the week before Halloween, NASA's Mars rover Spirit had another computer memory glitch, failing to perform some science observations, or failing to report the results to Earth. Spirit had a string of four similar incidents last April.

Spirit has also been stuck in deep Martian sand for months. NASA has yet to find a way to free the rover. Aside from the occasional computer glitch and being stuck, however, engineers report Spirit continues to function well after nearly six years on the Red Planet. Those might seem to be two big asides, but Spirit's mission was originally to last only 90 days in 2004, so making too much of problems today would miss a much bigger point.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Damage To Ares

Upon finding the first stage of the Ares 1-X after its test flight, NASA divers discovered a fairly large dent in the rocket.

The first stage is designed to be recovered and potentially reused once the program is fully underway. It is supposed to float back to Earth under three huge parachutes and ride the Atlantic swells until picked up. On this flight, one of the chutes failed to open, which means the rocket hit the water harder than it was supposed to. That could possibly have caused the dent. NASA will know more once the rocket is recovered.

This blog has consistently noted NASA launch delays, particularly in the shuttle program. Given that pattern of reporting, it's fair to note that the Ares 1-X test flight was actually conducted three days ahead of the original October 31 target date.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Checking Einstein

One of the pillars of our understanding of the universe is Albert Einstein's Theory of General Relativity. After nearly a century of testing, both mathematically and experimentally, it holds up.

Some of the most recent tests were done with NASA's Fermi Gamma Ray Space Telescope. Scientists have used the probe's Large Area Telescope to detect and study gamma rays, incredily powerful bursts of energy from the deep past. In every case so far studied, the behavior of the bursts are in accord with Einstein's predicted behavior. His basic tenet that no natural phenomenon can travel faster than light remains inviolate.

In millenia to come-- or later today-- it might turn out that Einstein's work only points the way to some larger, deeper truths that underlie a universe that gave rise to intelligence capable of understanding the cosmos. Even if that eventuality comes to pass, however, it's clear that one man working alone got an awful lot right.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Ares 1-X Is History

The test flight of NASA's Ares 1-X was successfully flown this morning. The powered phase seemed to go smoothly, and the rocket reached an altitude of 28 miles before falling into the Atlantic, where part of it will be recovered.

The flight was simply the spectacular part of the effort, however. Now, teams of NASA engineers will spend months analyzing the data gathered by the 700 sensors on the rocket as they try to understand exactly how well the launcher did perform.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


NASA's test launch of the Ares 1-X rocket was scrubbed this morning due to cloudy weather-- and a boat that drifted into a forbidden zone just as a launch attempt was being counted down.

Another attempt to launch will be made in the morning. The weather forecast is better, and one can hope boats will stay out of the way.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Mars Caves

Using high resolution images from orbiting spacecraft, physicist Glen Cushing of the U. S. Geological Survey thinks he has identified entrances to a large system of caves or lava tubes on the slopes of a large volcano on Mars.

Caves on Mars, Cushing argues, would serve two important functions. They would be very good places to establish human bases because they would provide shelter from the dangers of the surface of Mars like radiation, extremes in temperatures, and dust storms. By the same logic, caves might be the ideal places to search for evidence of past or even present life on Mars.

Theorists of lunar settlement have made many of the same points advocating setting lunar bases and colonies in lava tubes. The early Hawaiians sometimes took refuge in lava tubes, but on low gravity worlds such as the Moon and Mars, such structures can be huge-- miles long and hundreds of feet wide. They could easily accomodate the early stages of a vibrant civilization.

The iconic caveman notwithstanding, early humans probably didn't live in caves. More fearsome creatures likely kept the caves for themselves, perhaps until humans' mastery of fire both gave them a frightening new weapon and a way to make caves more hospitable. Our earliest attempts to expand into the Solar System, however, may take us into alien caves. Those attempts will begin atop pillars of fire.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

New Rocket, Same Old Story

The Ares 1-X is ready to fly Tuesday morning, but, once again, the Florida weather might delay a NASA launch. To be fair, this launch has even stricter weather requirements than a space shuttle launch because the point of flying Ares 1-X is to gather data about this rocket, and part of that involves being able to visually track the flight.

Still, this possibke delay emphasizes the limitations inherent in flying rockets from areas that have dynamic weather. The ultimate solution to the problem is much more advanced spacecraft, but those seem to be decades away.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Alternatives To The Moon

Most space planners see the next goal for manned spaceflight as either the Moon or Mars. NASA plans a lunar base to test technology and strategy for a push to Mars. The Augustine committee advising President Obama on the near future of NASA's manned spaceflight program, however, suggests other destinations in its final report.

Instead of going to those big worlds immediately, the committee suggests visiting small worlds. One option would send a crew to an asteroid-- a true deep space mission that could produce useful science while stretching our flight capability. Another of the committee's options would send astronauts to a Martian moon, Phobos or Deimos. Many would no doubt argue that sending people all the way to Mars and not land on the planet makes little sense. Landing and operating on Mars, however, would substantially increase the cost, complexity, and danger of such a program. On the other hand, either tiny moon would be a good platform for a base. As they are likely captured asteroids, studying one would increase our knowledge of those bodies. A base could also be a gateway to Mars. A fleet of rovers controlled by astronauts on Deimos, for example, could cover more ground and do more science than two rovers controlled from Earth. Such an approach could really open the door to human expeditions.

That said, an international consensus for an international program to establish a lunar base seems to be building. With partners footing part of the bill, NASA would be the natural choice as lead agency for such an effort. That would confirm U. S. leadership in space well into the century. So, what to do? Doing both would expand the technology base, support science, encourage students to work hard, and lay the foundation for a much bigger human economy.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Hollywood And Stuff

Next month, ABC is giving the television sci-fi classic "V" another try in a new version of the tale. The story chronicles an alien invasion of Earth. The aliens look just like humans and seem to have humanity's best interests at heart, but underneath their human suits they are reptilians bent on our destruction. A movie called The Fourth Kind, about allegedly actual alien abductions of humans, opens next month, as well. Yet another movie, this one about the apocalypse supposing coming in 2012, is on the horizon.

These are examples of Hollywood trying to reap profits by exploiting cultural trends and symbols. Whether aliens are in fact visiting Earth or not, little gray kidnappers with big heads have become icons of modern popular culture, which-- hopefully for the studio involved-- gives a movie about them a leg up in the race for box office. More forceful alian invasions have been classic sci-fi fare since H. G. Wells. New Age and apocalyptic visions have also gained a spot in pop culture around the turn of the third Christian millenium. Of course, something similar swept through the Christian world a thousand years ago, and here we still are.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Now There Are Two

Mark Swain and his team have discovered a second exoplanet that contains the chemical building blocks of life-as-we-know-it in its atmosphere. Both worlds are gas giants, however, and therefore unlikely to support life.

Still, the fact that the building blocks exist in these two worlds suggest they might exist in many Earth-like worlds, as well. The Kepler spacecraft is already looking for such worlds. NASA is anticipating making some amazing announcements through the next decade.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Ares Roll Out

NASA has rolled out its new Ares launcher from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the launch pad. The unmanned Ares 1-X test flight is scheduled for next week.

At 327 feet tall, Ares is an impressive sight-- every inch the Moon rocket NASA hopes it will be. That future is in doubt, however. The Obama administration is still formulating its plans for manned spaceflight, and there's no guarantee Ares will be a part of them. Indeed, one possible indication that next week's flight is as much about politics as it is about engineering is that the next scheduled test flight of this launcher is not until 2014.

The Ares team needs a big success on Ares 1-X.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Planets Everywhere

Results of a study that looked at 2,000 solar-type stars for five years add 32 exoplanets to the list, pushing the total so far to over 400. The project was designed to look for exoplanets of smaller mass and in fact found several of five times Earth mass and five times Jupiter mass. Many of the exoplanets so far discovered are in fact much bigger than that, simply because bigger bodies are easier to detect.

The study suggests that 40 percent of solar-type stars could have Earth-type planets-- good news for those looking for life in the universe.

Four planets were also found in orbit around small, cool, M-type stars. According to our current model of planetary formation, they shouldn't be there. Clearly, we still have much to learn.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Asteroid Whiz By

A small asteroid whizzed past Earth within the orbit of the Moon early Saturday. In astronomical terms, that's a close shave. However, such close shaves are fairly regular occurences with small bodies.

This particular asteroid is only about 30 feet across and wasn't discovered until Thursday. Had it hit a major city, it could have caused a major disaster, but otherwise any problem caused probably would have been local in nature. There is no defense against such an object discovered so late. Any such defense would require a vast, robust space infrastructure-- a civilization perfectly at home beyond Earth.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Roll Out Delayed

The roll out to the launch pad of NASA's Ares 1-X rocket has been delayed at least a day due to a glitch in the hydraulic system. The specific piece involved deals with the steering and stabilization of the rocket. The delay getting to the launch pad may or may not delay the scheduled test flight.

That test flight is set for October 27, but it's a short window. If the flight doesn't occur on the 27th or 28th, there will be a longer delay. For political reasons, if nothing else, NASA clearly wants a successful test flight as soon as possible to show that the Constellation program and its workhorse launcher is in fact making progress.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Rocket Plane

Last Saturday morning, Lochheed Martin and UP Aerospace teamed to quietly conduct a test flight of the prototype for what was termed a "reusable rocket plane." The flight took place at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

The companies gave out few details of the flight, except to say the test flight was a success and the vehicle was recovered. This was the third flight of a small, winged craft designed to test new technologies and how they work together, and new proceedures for supporting quick launches using fewer support crewmembers. The power source of the craft was not disclosed.

That would seem to suggest at least some Lochheed execs think the energing NewSpace industry is on to something-- and they see Lochheed being the 800-pound gorilla in that new room. For all the competition a giant like Lochheed could give the smaller companies in the industry short term, such a development might be good for everybody in the long term.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Sailing Titan's Seas?

NASA may be looking at sending a nuclear-powered ship to Saturn's gigantic moon Titan to sail one of the many lakes of ethane there. Most lakes on Titan are fairly small, but two rival North America's Great Lakes in size. One of those would make a relatively easy target.

Such a probe would need to be nuclear powered because solar cells wouldn't work that far from the Sun, especially given Titan's dense atmosphere, and batteries would only provide hours of power. NASA's nuclear power generators depend on radioactive decay to produce heat and energy; they are not nuclear reactors. The generators could power the ship for months.

The same Discovery-class mission that would deliver the ship might also deliver a balloon to ride the currents of Titan's active atmosphere. The moon is incredibly cold, but it has weather patterns and organics. Scientists liken it to the early Earth.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Enceladus Controversy

Since the Cassini probe detected water vapor in plumes exploding from Saturn's moon Enceladus, many scientists have worked on the theory that an ocean of liquid water could exist under the moon's shell of ice. That, in turn, opened the door to possible life in the ocean.

Enceladus may have liquid water, but a new study puts forth an alternative explanation for the water vapor in the plumes. Scientists conducting the new study recalculated Cassini's data and came up with far less water vapor in the plumes than initially thought. While the first results had enough water vapor to argue for substantial liquid water under the ice, the new study's reduced amount could be produced by sublimation-- water phasing from ice to vapor without passing through the liquid state. In that model, there could be no ocean inside Enceladus, and, therefore, no life.

Scientists involved in each study acknowledge the other's results can't be ruled out. The actual situation might lie somewhere between the two current models. The insides of Enceladus may feature icy slush, not liquid water, for example. Presumably that would reduce the chances for life. Everyone does agree that more study is needed.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Another Martian Meteorite

NASA's Mars rover Opportunity has discovered its third meteorite on the planet, and its second this year. The two rocks are within a half-mile of each other.

Opportunity spent six weeks studying the first one, and engineers are maneuvering the rover to get it in position to make contact with the second so analysis can begin. Presumably, a big question to pursue is whether the two were once part of the same body, or in fact represent two separate falls.

The story of the Mars rovers is amazing, but note-- Opportunity spent six weeks on one rock. A human expedition would have taken samples off the meteorite for analysis and moved on. The proceedure may have taken a couple hours. The question is: Are we in any hurry to understand Mars? If not, continuing with robotic probes is probably good enough. However, if the point is to put together the big picture within the next two or three decades, that may well require putting humans on Mars.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Laliberte Home

Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte safely returned from his visit to ISS, landing in his Soyuz capsule on the steppes of Kazakhstan.

Laliberte's trip was arranged by Space Adventures. So far, SA has had the space tourism industry all to itself, but that is scheduled to change over the next few years. Virgin Galactic plans to start offering suborbitil flights. SpaceX and Interorbital Systems are working on privately-owned spacecraft capable of orbital flight. Bigelow Aerospace is looking at establishing space hotels based on its inflatable structure technology. BA is also looking for a partner to deliver people to and from the hotels, which could give SpaceX and IOS a market for their craft.

Space Adventures is trying to maintain its leadership in the industry by offering a trip around the Moon aboard a Soyuz, which was originally designed to fly lunar missions. SA is not unchallenged, however. IOS plans its own lunar base, not simply for tourism, but to begin the creation of a diversified lunar economy. BA is touting its inflatable structures for bases on other worlds.

If even some of the projects now underway work out, Space Adventures' strategy will need to change radically for the company to prosper.

Friday, October 9, 2009

LCROSS Slams Into Cabeus

NASA's LCROSS lunar probe and its Centaur rocket stage slammed into the Moon as planned this morning in an attempt to obtain more evidence of lunar water.

The rocket stage and the probe barreled into Cabeus crater, a formation in the south lunar polar region that is sixty miles across-- big by lunar standards, but not huge. The idea of crashing into Cabeus is to study the ejecta for signs of water vapor. So far, NASA has not announced the results of that study. Actually, a complete analysis of the data produced will take some time.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Life In Europa?

Scientists have held for several years that Jupiter's moon Europa has an ocean under its icy surface. If the surface ice is several miles thick, as expected, the ocean beneath could have twice as much water as all of Earth's oceans combined. Liquid water brings up the possibility of life. Liquid water held within an ice shell suggests heat in the interior of the moon. That could result from internal processes, or from friction caused by the constant stress of being under Jupiter's gravitational sway. Heat plus liquid water means the chances for life go up.

Now, according to one study. the Europan ocean may be richer in oxygen than previously thought. Oxygen, scientists believe, is important for the metabolism of life, although it is possible to have life without having free oxygen in the environment. Indeed, oxygen is a poison to some life forms.

Still, a huge ocean protected from outside radiation by miles of ice, maintained in liquid form by some energy source for hundreds of millions of years with, perhaps, enough oxygen to animate something wiggly may be a promising place to look for life beyond Earth.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Space Wars

The History Channel series, The Universe, generally deals with astronomy, cosmology, and physics. Last night, however, it took on space wars. The subject lent itself to cool pictures and a discussion of physics, but the underlying concept of wars in space is highly questionable.

One scenario the show presents is a lunar colony starting a war of conquest and independence. As the show also points out, any such colony in the foreseeable future will be incredibly vulnerable to military attack, so why any leadership of such a colony would start a shooting war is unclear. Much more likely, the leaders of such an independence movement would adopt a subtle strategy driving on the colony's economic importance to Earth.

The show also looks at wars in deep space, complete with neat space cruisers. Again, the idea of military conflict in interplanetary or interstellar space is questionable. If most wars are put down as contests over natural resources, the universe-- and likely every inhabited solar system-- has resources galore. Forcefully taking some would be unnecessary. If wars are seen as clashes of cultures, it's hard enough to find other cultures in space. Going to war with somebody light years away makes very little sense.

Still, there were some great action sequences.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Tight Fit

The next shuttle launch is scheduled for November 12, but various constraints could push it into January. That's even before the glitches shuttle engineers often have to wrestle before a launch.

There's a week in this launch window, starting November 12, for a mission to ISS. After that week, the sun-angle at ISS won't be good enough to supply enough solar power to support the mission. That situation would last a few days. Throw in a commercial launch at Cape Canaveral on November 14 that must be accomodated, the Leonid meteor shower, and the new year-- shuttle computers can't deal with a change of year-- and the launch could drift into 2010.

While the space shuttle is a remarkable machine, those looking to build a manned system that will truly open space should take note. Such a system would be built on a technology base that is well understood and reliable. The system would be simple enough to maintain with relatively few people and to check thoroughly between flights. It would be robust enough to fly many times before getting a complete overhaul, and it could operate in a range of weather conditions. And, it would be able to fly December 31 and on into the new year.

Monday, October 5, 2009


Yesterday marked the anniversaries of two historic flights, those of Sputnik and SpaceShipOne. This year marked the fortieth anniversary of the flight of Apollo 11. And, as Bob Werb points out in an article on The Space Review website, this year marks another fortieth anniversary.

Gerard K. O'Neill was a physics professor at Princeton in 1969, a heady time for space enthusiasts, if not for NASA's future plans in Congress. Dr. O'Neill developed what has become the best known design for a space colony built in free space-- a huge structure that rotated to create artificial gravity, home to perhaps thousands of people. Perhaps more importantly, Dr. O'Neill also provided the rationale for such colonies by putting them in the context of a human economy expanding into space, using space resources to create a wealthy civilization and a clean, ecologically sound Earth. Werb suggests that the NewSpace industry now developing may be the tool by which O'Neill's vision is realized.

If the next few centuries do see humanity's expansion into space, Gerard O'Neill could well be remembered as one of the great thinkers of his time.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Five Years Out

Forty-seven years to the day after Sputnik ushered in the Space Age, Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X-Prize and the $10 million that went with it by becoming the first private craft to deliver a human into space twice within two weeks.

There have been no more private spaceflights since, but if all goes well the next five years will see the beginning of an extraordinary period in human history. Several private companies have been working hard to lead private enterprise into space in a major way. Rutan and Virgin Galactic are offering paying customers suborbital flights. Bigelow Aerospace is developing the concept of inflatable structures that, potentially, could quickly lead to manned orbital research facilities, space factories, space hotels, and bases on other worlds. SpaceX and Interorbital Systems are developing large, powerful launchers and manned craft capable of reaching orbit. IOS, indeed, plans its first orbital flight carrying two people in 2011. IOS also plans its own lunar base later in the decade.

Couple the private push with what seems to be a building movement among national governments to establish an international lunar base, and there is the real possibility of creating a human economy that would utilize the unque energy and gravitational aspects of free space and the material and water resources of the Moon and near-Earth asteroids. Such an economy would be capable of ending poverty on Earth as well as establishing the technology base to allow humans to expand exploration and settlement to Mars and beyond.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Pavel Popovich

The sixth man to orbit Earth, Pavel Romanovich Popovich, died a few days after suffering a stroke. He was 78.

Popovich flew Vostok 4 in 1962, completing 48 orbits. He also commanded a Soyuz mission in 1974. From 1966-68, he trained in the Soviet lunar effort, scheduled to command a lunar mission. Of course, the Soviet program to put a cosmonaut on the Moon was scrapped, probably due to the failure of their counterpart of the Saturn V launcher.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Laliberte In Space

The latest Space Adventures flight is going smoothly. The space tourist involved is Canadian acrobat Guy Laliberte, founder of Circ du Soleil. He is the first person with a non-technical background to fly in SA's program.

The Soyuz-TM carrying Laliberte and his companions-- one cosmonaut and one astronaut-- is scheduled to dock with ISS shortly. During his ten day stay, Laliberte plans to publicize the evolving water problem on Earth.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009


The MESSENGER probe completed its flyby of Mercury yesterday and seems to be in good shape looking ahead to the next phase of its mission-- mapping Mercury in detail from orbit starting in 2011.

There was a glitch during the flyby, however. Just as MESSENGER was reaching its closest approach to Mercury-- 142 miles-- it stopped transmitting data. Team members are sure the probe continued taking pictures, though, and expect to get most or all of the data at some point.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

MESSENGER At Mercury Again

NASA's MESSENGER probe is making its third and final flyby of Mercury today. Scientists expect to map another 5 percent of the surface, as well as get closer looks at some areas. At closest approach, MESSENGER will be only 142 miles away from the little world, which should result in some very detailed images.

This flyby marks the end of MESSENGER's preliminary mission. If all goes well, it will settle into orbit around Mercury in 2011 and study the planet at close range for years.

Monday, September 28, 2009

GAO Weighs In

The Government Accountability Office has issued a report saying it's unlikely NASA will be able to meet the goals set for its Constellation program because of inadequate budgets. The report echoes the findings of the Augustine committee. Both studies say NASA would need $3 billion more annually to successfully carry out the program.

The focus of the debate will be on NASA, and it's true that NASA designed Constellation. It's also true, however, that "NASA policy" and "NASA goals" are in fact U. S. Government policy and goals, set by Congress. That's true at NASA and every other federal agency. If Congress continues to pile goals and requirements on any agency while neglecting to supply adequate resources to carry out the work, the agency involved is not always to blame. In the case of Constellation, adjustments might be needed, but Congress and President Obama also need to make some fundamental decisions about space policy, and back up those decisions with the necessary funding.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Extracting Lunar Oxygen

The announcement that water exists on the Moon supports efforts to establish a lunar base. To turn promise into practicality, however, a way must be found to actually use the water.

NASA and researchers from Case Western Reserve University are working on that. Engineers are developing a device that will extract oxygen from lunar soil after separating water-bearing roccks from other rocks. Testing the sifting mechanism on the so-called "vomit comet"-- a jet that flies parabolas to simulate lunar gravity-- researchers have found the sifting method would seem to work on the Moon.

If it does, and if a system can be developed to produce oxygen-- and, eventually, other useful elements-- not only can a base be supported, but a diversified lunar economy can be established.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Now-- Water Ice On Mars

Just a day after NASA announced there is water on the Moon, another study indicates virtually pure water ice exists on the surface of Mars. The ice, some scientists speculate, may be a remnant of a climate on Mars, perhaps as few as 10,000 years ago, that was warmer and wetter than today. The study also suggests underground water exists over about half the planet, and estimates that the total amount of water on Mars may equal the amount locked in the Greenland ice sheet. Used correctly, then, there would seem to be enough water on Mars to support a small society.

Just as scientists may have misinterpreted suggestions of water in Apollo rock samples, so they may have barely missed confirming water on Mars thirty years ago. Had NASA's lander Viking 2 dug just four inches deeper into the soil, it rests at a lattitude that may have allowed it to discover water.

Clearly, the twin announcements this week buoy the prospects of human settlements throughout the Solar System. The next step is confirming these early indications. Assuming that's done, the hard but joyous work of planting outposts on other worlds can begin in earnest.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Water On The Moon!

There is now good, if still tentative, evidence from three separate spacecraft that water exists on the Moon. The datta suggests water in fact exists all over the Moon, though it is concentrated at the poles. Water seems to migrate across the surface, driven by the heat of the Sun, until it reaches deep craters near the poles where it is protected in constant shadow.

Oddly, rock samples brought back by Apollo astronauts showed signs of water, but scientists assumed the samples had been contaminated on Earth.

Depending on how much water is actually there and how accessible it is, this discovery could have a huge impact on humans returning to the Moon-- including on whether NASA participates in such an effort or not. Earlier this year, as reported in this blog, Japan's Kaguya lunar probe discovered lunar uranium. Now, we have confirmed lunar water. If the uranium is in distinct ore deposits, one or more of which is near a pole. siting a lunar base would seem a simple choice-- in the south pole region, where NASA has been focusing its efforts, near both water and uranium. A lunar economy could get off to a quick start.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Vaccines From Space

Astrogenetix, an Austin, Texas, biotech firm, has spent years flying experiments on space shuttle missions, studying bacteria and viruses in microgravity. For whatever reason, bacteria and viruses tend to grow faster and become more virulent in space than on Earth, which means conducting research on them in space can accelerate the process. Astrogenetix may begin human trials next year on a vaccine for salmonella which is based on research done in space. The company is also working on a vaccine for MRSA, an infection plaguing hospitals and causing thousands of deaths because it is resistant to antibiotics.

Despite the fact that satellites have allowed improved weather forecasting to save thousands of lives; despite the fact that intelligence satellites played a major role in helping to avoid a thermonuclear World War III; despite the fact that the space program led to the modern world of instant global communications and a deeper scientific and technological well, critics of the space program will still argue we've gotten too little for our money spent on space. Perhaps if terrible diseases begin to be eradicated because of research done in space, or by drugs manufactured in microgravity, every reasonable person will finally agree reaching into space has returned huge dividends to humankind.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Saturn's Extraordinary Rings

The Cassini mission to Saturn continues to produce amazing new data. The latest example of that involves the planet's magnificent ring system.

Astronomers have thought for centuries that the rings of Saturn were extremely thin-- maybe only a few feet thick. Indeed, when properly aligned with Earth, the rings seem to disappear completely. New images from Cassini, however, show the rings can be two miles thick in places, with "peaks" perhaps double that.

The dynamism of the system is a result of the complex gravitational interplay involving the planet itself, the mass within the ring system, and the masses of various moons. Sorting through all that to come to a complete understanding of the system will likely be the work of a few careers. Cassini gathered these images, by the way, on an extended mission. Had the mission been stopped as planned. we likely wouldn't have had this knowledge for decades, or even generations.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Why Is Mars Red?

The current theory explaining Mars' reddish color-- which is obvious enough to the naked eye that the ancient Greeks and Romans named the planet after their gods of war-- holds that liquid water running over the surface essentially rusted the rocks.

A new theory, however, suggests that hermatite, the red component of the Martian surface, could have been created by erosional processes. In that case, running water on the surface is not necessary.

The new theory is interesting, but there's a good case to be made that water did in fact exist on the surface at some point in the past. We know water ice exists just under the surface today. Channels on the surface seem to have been cut by flowing water. There are also geologic formations that seem to be ancient lakebeds, and theories arguing that Mars once had a thicker atmosphere that could have supported surface water. Perhaps the truth will turn out to be that both erosion and flowing water played parts in turning Mars red.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Japan's New Cargo Ship

Japan's contribution to the space cargo ship fleet successfully arrived at ISS on its first flight. Unlike other such ships, Japan's version doesn't dock at the space station. Rather, it maneuvers close enough to let an astronaut using ISS' robotic arm snatch. The astronaut has 99 seconds to get the ship before it drifts out of range. Such an approach seems less efficient than actually docking, but it worked well the first time.

The future of government supported cargo ships might be limited, however. That niche would seem ideal for private corporations trying to establish a space capability. Indeed, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are working under contract with NASA to develop such ships. If corporations can fly cargo to ISS after the space shuttle is retired, the question will be whether to go with government programs from Russia, ESA, and Japan, or turn that function over to private industry to build a private ability to operate in space.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Lunar Water Ice?

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has gone through its testing and calibration phase and is ready to begin its scientific work. Scientists, however, were able to get some data during the testing, and that data points to possible water ice on the Moon.

LRO's main task is to identify possible sites for future manned landings in the south polar region. NASA believes from previous data that that is the most likely area to find water ice at or near the surface. There are deep craters in the area, and their floors are in permanent shadow-- natural deep, deep freezers where water ice could exist. Water on the Moon, of course, would be a big plus for human operations there.

The preliminary LRO data points towards water ice existing in those shadowed regions. It also suggests, however, that water may exist in areas beyond the shadows, which doesn't seem physically possible; any water exposed to the Sun's heat in that environment should boil away virtually instantaneously. Scientists have the whole of the LRO mission to solve that small mystery.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Now, To Congress

The Augustine committee has now presented its recommendations on the immediate future of NASA's manned spaceflight program to Congress, but its clear some in Congress aren't ready to change course without a fight.

The committee laid out several possible ways forward, with only a small minority of those using the hardware currently being built for the Constellation program. Some in Congress object to wasting all the money already spent on that effort; they argue the current program should be strengthened, not discarded. The Augustine committee counters that approach by arguing Constellation is vastly underfunded, too underfunded to meet its goals. To do so, the committee says, would require $3 billion more dollars per year.

Not so very long ago, that seemed like real money. The fact is, however, that Congress has been dealing in much higher figures than that, basically in lump sums, since the invasion of Iraq. Three billion dollars a year is not a showstopper to Congress. There's also another funding possibility. If a moonbase program is pursued internationally, NASA's new partners in the effort should certainly be ready and able to pick up at least that much of the tab.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Spirit May Be Finished

Engineers are beginning to consider the possibility that NASA's Mars rover Spirit, stuck in soft soil since May, might never rove again. They have been studying the situation and trying different approaches to free Spirit, but nothing has worked.

Power is also becoming a problem. Martian dust storms have swept over the rover's position, coating Spirit's solar panels in dust and limiting their ability to harvest solar energy. Of course, more than once during the mission, Martian winds have also swept dust off a rover's solar panels, giving new life. Presumably, that could happen again, but Spirit would still be mired in the soft soil.

If Spirit does remain a stationary outpost until it stops working altogether, that shouldn't take away from its remarkable performance. Designed to last 90 days in the harsh Martian environment, it has in fact operated for well over five years.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Manned Spaceflight

While the future of NASA's manned spaceflight program is in some doubt, there seems to be a building capability in the U. S. private sector to take on that challenge.

The best known of those attempts is no doubt Burt Rutan's elegant solution to suborbital flight. Teamed with British billionaire Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, Rutan's system will give paying customers a real taste of spaceflight starting next year, if all goes well. Interorbital Systems, however, plans to go VG one better. IOS plans to offer orbital flights starting in 2012. Then there is SpaceX's Falcon 9/Dragon configuration that plans to be capable of ferrying astronauts to and from ISS before NASA's Ares/Orion stack is ready-- so, well before 2015. There are also other efforts underway. If many such efforts succeed, competition among them can be expected to drive innovation, pushing ever more capable technology and producing ever more robust craft.

Internationally, China is moving ahead with manned missions, and India is considering a manned program of its own. ESA is weighing developing a manned capability independent of NASA, and Britain is mulling a manned capability independent of ESA. Japan clearly has the wherewithal to build a manned spaceflight program if it so chooses. There are also efforts outside the U. S. to create a private capability.

The Obama administration will no doubt look at NASA's immediate future within that broad context. So far, successors to the shuttle remain unproven, but if even a few of them prove their viability Washington will have to figure out how to remain a leading force in the exploration and development of space.

Monday, September 14, 2009

IOS Steps Up

Interorbital Systems has announced it will conduct a manned, orbital spaceflight using its own launcher and its own human-rated capsule in 2011. Likely, if the flight goes as planned, it will be the first manned, orbital spaceflight conducted by a private group-- a real milestone in human history.

IOS' NEPTUNE 1000 will launch the two-man capsule into a self-decaying orbit from the company's Kingdom of Tonga launch site. The self-decaying orbit will ensure the capsule's return 12 hours, or 8 orbits, after launch. Eight orbits, by the way, would be longer than Yuri Gagarin's flight, and longer than a few Mercury missions. IOS' capsule will splash down in the South Pacific, near Tonga.

Commercial flights of the system are scheduled to begin in 2012, with a price tag of $800,000. It is, therefore, much higher than a ticket price on Virgin Galactic's suborbital flights, for example, but an orbital flight would be a much richer, more fascinating experience. IOS would also have the key to begin truly opening space to private enterprise if it's able to provide consistent access to low Earth orbit. The flight of the NEPTUNE 1000 and crew in 2011 would be a significant step in that direction.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

STS-128 Safely Home

Space shuttle Discovery landed safely at Edwards Air Force Base in California last evening, ending a successful STS-128 mission.

Storms over Florida, once again, prevented a shuttle from landing at Kennedy Space Center.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Successful Ares Test

Thursday in Utah, the contractor building NASA's new Ares rocket successfully conducted a 123-second test firing of the rocket engines that would power Ares.

The next question is whether Ares will be pursued. The Augustine committee empaneled to advise President Obama on the future of NASA's manned spaceflight program has developed several options for Mr. Obama. Only a minority of those options include the Ares program.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Florida Weather Again

Not only has Florida's active weather been a plague to space shuttle launches throughout the program, it has disrupted planned landings, as well. Storms threaten to delay the return of Discovery earliy this evening, yet again showing that while flying in space is extremely dangerous, many of the variables that are beyond NASA's ability to counter are in Earth's atmosphere, and they make launch and landing the most dangerous parts of any mission. Indeed, NASA has never lost a manned mission in space; all the tragedies have occurred within the atmosphere.

The weather outlook for Florida doesn't improve this weekend, so Discovery may end up returning to California, or even New Mexico.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Discovery Headed Home

Shuttle Discovery has undocked from ISS, and the crew is preparing to return home. Landing is scheduled for Thursday evening in Florida.

A final inspection of the orbiter's heat tiles apparently showed no reason for concern. Such inspections, emphasized after the loss of Columbia, now look not only for damage done during launch, but also for damage done during flight by bits of space debris or by micrometeors.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Voyager 2 At Triton

To commemorate Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune's largest moon, Triton, twenty years ago, NASA has released new pictures of Triton drawn from Voyager data. At first blush, the pictures have a lunar aspect, complete with craters and features formed by vulcanism. On Triton, however, the sculpting tool of geologic activity would be ice, not lava.

Voyager, of course, was an astounding success, perhaps still the high point of unmanned space exploration. Voyagers 1 and 2 conducted the first reconnaissance of the outer Solar System, delighting the public and often befuddling scientists with our first quick glimpses of the wondrous realms of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

Both Voyagers are well beyond the planets now, headed into interstellar space. Both are still functioning, too, sending back data about their surroundings-- a testament to the engineers and workers who built them.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Maintaining ISS

After the retirement of the space shuttle, whenever that happens, supplying ISS with needed consumables and new equipment will have to be done another way. Russia and Europe have cargo ships to take more of that task, and Japan is ready to launch its first unmanned cargo ship.

The Russian Soyuz, at present, will be the only vehicle capable of delivering people to ISS and bringing them home, although Europe is considering developing its own manned spaceflight capability. Various U. S. private companies are also trying to develop a private manned spacecraft capable of orbital flight.

Japan is working under an interesting restriction. If it can't launch this month, the launch will be delayed until February so as not to interfere with the nation's fishing season. The fishing industry is an important piece of the Japanese economy. Japan's launch facility is on the coast, and fisherman don't want spent rocket stages crashing into the Pacific scaring away their livelihood.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

MRO Sidelined

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which put itself into safe mode on August 26 for the fourth time this year, will be kept in safe mode for several weeks as engineers work to find a permanent solution.

MRO is the most powerful probe to ever orbit Mars, and has returned more data and images than all other missions combined.

NASA expects MRO to go back to delivering that data and those images after the problem is resolved.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Watching Space Junk

Space debris in low Earth has recently begun to emerge as a serious problem for space operations, both manned and unmanned. The most recent demonstration of that potential involved ISS and STS-128.

A rather large piece of an Ariane 3 rocket launched in 2006 came within a mile of ISS this week. The shuttle is docked at ISS, and 13 people are currently in the complex. A mile might seem like a wide miss, but in orbital space, given the consequences of a collision, it's uncomfortably close. Add to that the fact that NASA had been monitoring that piece of space junk for several days and predicted it would miss ISS by two miles, and there may be even more cause for concern.

If humanity is serious about a future in space, before we get too carried away with Moon trips and Mars ships and space hotels, perhaps the governments of Earth should get together, bring in private industry, and find a way to deal with the problem of space debris in low Earth orbit before it causes a real disaster.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Finding Exo-Moons

NASA's Kepler probe is designed to find Earth-sized planets around other stars. Now, scientists have determined it will also be possible to find "exo-moons"-- moons orbiting exo-planets.

As Kepler will detect planets by noting dips in the light from a star as a planet passes between Kepler and the star it will also be possible to detect wobbling in the planet's movement that would be due to the pull of a moon's gravity on the planet.

The best kind of planet for such a moon search would be one similar to Saturn-- large, but not very dense-- that a moon's gravity could move around. That brings up an interesting possiblity. A Saturn-like planet orbiting in the habitable zone of a star might not be a good candidate to harbor life, but a substantial enough moon of that planet could be.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


NewSpace company Interorbital Systems is pioneering an innovative approach designed to give more access to orbital space. The company's TubeSat is billed as the first personal satellite and priced so that individuals can purchase them.

TubeSats are being sold in "kits" that include the satellite bus, power system, basic yet flexible operating system, and launch on IOS' NEPTUNE 30 vehicle. Launches are scheduled to begin next year. The satellite will be put into a low Earth orbit that will bring it back to Earth after perhaps a few months, so the program will not add to the orbital debris problem.

Cost of a TubeSat is $8,000 total, which will put them within reach of individual researchers, for example, as well as small businesses. Uses of a TubeSat are wide ranging, from microgravity research to Earth imaging to even such projects as space burials.

According to personal communications with IOS CEO Randa Milliron, in the first few weeks of the program, four kits have aleady been sold, and more than twenty are pending.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Wildfire Threat

The huge wildfire still burning out of control in southern California can be seen from space. It also could yet affect mankind's efforts to comprehend the universe.

Over the weekend, the so-called Station Fire, the largest of the wildfires in the area, directly threatened JPL, a critical center in the development and directiion of unmanned space exploration. That danger is past, at least for now, but the fire has moved on to threaten Mount Wilson. Mount Wilson Observatory is not only a leader in Earth-based astronomical research today, it has a century of leadership behind it. George Hale, founder of the observatory, determined the nature of sunspots there. Harlow Shapley helped determine the Solar System's place in the Milky Way Galaxy there, and Edwin Hubble showed that the Milky Way is simply one of inumerable galaxies there.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Chandrayaan-1 Lost

India's first foray into planetary exploration seems to be over. Radio contact with its lunar orbiter, Chandrayaan-1, was lost Saturday, and ground control holds out little hope that the link can be reestablished. More likely, the probe will soon crash into the lunar surface.

The mission lasted 14 months out of a planned 24, however, and most of the science objectives were met. Perhaps the most intriguing contribution made by the probe was its discovery of lunar uranium. Depending on various factors, uranium on the Moon could be key to eventual lunar colonization.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Discovery Flying

The STS-128 mission got off to a spectacular start Friday night, burning brightly into a black Florida sky. Discovery is scheduled to dock with ISS later today.

STS-128 is an ISS resupply mission, and is scheduled to last thirteen days.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Ares Test Canceled

The first test firing of NASA's new Ares rocket was canceled yesterday, apparently due to a problem with a fuel valve. Sound familiar? Of course, complex rocket engines are chock full of fuel valves, so they might fail more than other parts do. The next attempt at a test firing will likely come next Tuesday.

Such problems are common in the development of any new technological system, but NASA and its Ares program definitely could have used a smooth, successful test firing at this point. The Augustine committee is due to present its recommendations on the future of NASA's manned spaceflight program to President Obama soon, and reports say Ares is hanging by a thread. A successful test firing just before the recommendations are made public might have been politically useful. As it stands, the committee's report will be viewed against a program seemingly still struggling to find itself.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

MRO At It Once More

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has shut down its main computer for the fourth time this year, putting itself in protective mode.

Engineers are trying to understand why the probe's main computer keeps turning itself off before they activate it again-- obviously, they haven't fully understood it to date-- but they expect to be doing science with MRO again by next week.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Again With The Valves

The launch of space shuttle Discovery was delayed again last night, this time because of a problem with the fuel valves.

NASA likes to remind us that the space shuttle is one of the most complex machines ever built by man. That's no doubt true, but complexity is a double-edged sword. It allows formidable capabilities, but it also means literally millions of things can go wrong. That weakness of complexity has been shown time and again during the thirty years NASA has flown shuttles. The fact that NASA plans to go back to a capsule for its new manned spacecraft can be seen as evidence that, at least for now, the agency sees the shuttle as a technological dead end.

Long term, however, space capsules are the dead end. We are not going to make Mars our own-- let alone go beyond that-- in capsules. Expanding into the cosmos will require huge, true spaceships, with lots of room to allow people to live active, interesting, even private lives during long voyages Those ships will never touch a planetary surface. People will come and go from them using shuttles. Those shuttles will almost certainly have more in common with Discovery and her sisters than with Mercury, Gemini, Soyuz, Apollo, and Orion.