Friday, January 30, 2009

Fighting Over Shuttles

The space shuttle era is scheduled to end next year, and museums and other sites around the country have begun jockeying to get one of the three remaining shuttles to display.

The National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D. C., is odds on favorite to get one of them, but there are several contenders for the other two. A Florida group that includes Bob Crippen, the pilot of the very first shuttle flight, has organized to argue that one shuttle should be on display at Kennedy Space Center, for instance. The KSC Visitors Center is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Florida.

Of course, if the Obama administration decides to extend the shuttle program to cut down on the gap betweem the last shuttle flight and the first Orion flight, the fight for a shuttle to display might go on for an extra year or more. We can only hope that, whenever the program ends, there are still three shuttles to distribute.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Ashes In Space

The ashes of Majel Barrett Roddenberry, along with the remainder of the ashes of her husband, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, will be lifted into deep space by Celestis, the company that has been offering this unique service for several years. Gene Roddenberry died in 1991, and Celestis flew some of his ashes into space in 1997. The flight carrying both Roddenberrys is scheduled for 2012.

Majel passed away of leukemia last month. She was 76.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Apollo 1 Anniversary

Forty-two years ago yesterday, at the end of a long, frustrating day of training in the new Apollo command module, a fire broke out in the capsule and roared through the pure oxygen atmosphere within, killing astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chafee. The accident stunned NASA and the nation. Grissom had been one of the Original Seven Mercury astronauts, and White was the first American to walk in space. Chafee was training for his first mission.

The three, however, did not die in vain. They had committed their lives to helping put Americans on the Moon, and after the fire, the command module was extensively redesigned, becoming a much more capable spacecraft. So capable, in fact, that it not only took nine crews to the Moon and brought them all home safely, but did so after shrugging off a lightning strike just after the launch of Apollo 12 and surviving the famous explosion in the service module during Apollo 13.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Twenty-three years ago tomorrow, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch. The members of that Challenger crew were the first humans to die during a NASA space mission. They remain the only people to die in the launch phase of a NASA mission. Given the complexity and inherent risk of launching spacecraft with current technology, that is a remarkable safety record-- one perhaps too little acknowledged.

In fact, the overall safety record of human spaceflight is astounding when put against the difficulty of the task. Newcomer China has flown only successful manned missions so far. The Russian Soyuz has a remarkable safety record that spans decades. The early years of in-atmosphere aviation, on the other hand, are littered with death and disaster.

The private spaceflight industry will start out with much better technology than NASA or the Soviets had early on, and it will have a much more robust knowledge base to draw upon. The problem will be exceeding NASA's safety record.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Nearby Asteroid Found

Even after five decades of space exploration, new stuff can turn up right in our backyard.

The asteroid currently designated 2009 BD seems to travel in essentially the same orbit Earth does, staying just beyond the Moon. The body is tiny, which is no doubt why it hasn't been noticed until now. At roughly 30 feet in diameter, it would not be a Doomsday rock even if it collided with Earth, and there's no reason to think it will ever do that.

Indeed, it could be a boon. If NASA wants to fly a manned mission beyond the Moon sometime in the near future, 2009 BD seems a convenient first target.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Tracking Global Warming

Japan has just launched a satellite designed to monitor greenhouse gasses in the Earth's atmosphere. Several nations and organizations are studying the atmosphere to learn about the advance, if any, of global warming, and the satellite is a major piece of Japan's contribution.

After checking out the systems of the satellite, it should begin producing data by the spring.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Super Neptune Found

The search for smaller and smaller exoplanets is beginning to produce results. So far, most of the 300 exoplanets found have been huge worlds-- Jupiter-sized and larger. That's no doubt to be expected, but the worlds astronomers really want to find are the Earth-sized ones that may support life.

We are getting closer.

Recently, planet humters discovered a world in orbit around a star 120 light years away that is roughly five Neptune masses. That's still a big world, but it's the smallest exoplanet found to date.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

No More Tourists On Soyuz

According to a Russian newspaper, the government will not take tourists to the ISS after 2009. Two more such excursions are planned for this year. The chief of the Russian space agency cited tthe expansion of the ISS crew from three to six, starting in May, as the reason for the change in policy.

Space Adventures, the American firm that sells the Soyuz flights, had no immediate comment.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Bigger May Be Better For Science

The giant Ares 5 launcher is being built to lift cargo and spaceships to the Moon during the Constellation lunar base program. Later, it would also launch the ships that would take humans to Mars. The science communuty, however, is excited about having the new rocket for other reasons.

The Ares 5, at 381 feet, will be taller than the mighty Saturn V. It will also be able to launch huge payloads, or smaller payloads at much higher speeds. Those abilities have scientists envisioning space telescopes that dwarf Hubble, extremely complex-- and therefore heavy-- planetary probes, and missions to the outer planets able to take more direct routes, thus cutting years off the missions.

Having a role beyond Constellation, of course, makes it more likely the Ares 5 will actually be built. That multipurpose plan would also bring economics into play. Building several per year over several years, as opposed to only those needed for Constellation, should lower the unit costs.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

NASA In Inaugural Parade

In recognition of NASA's 50th anniversary-- which means NASA is older than the President-- the space agency is participating in Barack Obama's inaugural parade. The crew of the most recent shuttle mission will ride in the parade, and another astronaut will drive an early version of NASA's Lunar Electric Rover, or LER, along the parade route. The LER is designed to carry two astronauts across the surface of the Moon for up to two weeks.

President Obama also stated once again his commitment to scientific research during his inaugural address. He also alluded to Apollo and the early explorations of the Moon as one of America's great achievements.

There seems to be reason for the space community to hope with Mr. Obama.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Eavesdropping On Al Qaeada

A new satellite for the intelligence community was launched from Cape Canaveral Saturday. The satellite is designed to pick up electronic communications by terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeada, as well as such communications from potentially dangerous goverments.

The role satellites have played in the history of the past fifty years is often skimmed over by space program critics. Weather satellites, for example, have likely saved hundreds of thousands of lives by giving early warning of storms. So-called spy satellites may well have had a big part in avoiding thermonuclear war by allowing American presidents to know the nuclear capability of the Soviet Union, as well as its level of readiness.

Reconnaissance satellites will remain an important tool in trying to defend the nation.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Looking For Lunar Ice

One big plus in establishing a lunar base would be the presence of water ice on the Moon's surface. Given that the Moon has no appreciable atmosphere, ice in the vaccuum would seem unlikely. Yet, over the past few years, there have been indications of just that in deep craters near the poles, where the heat of the Sun never reaches.

A NASA radar, which is part of the suite of scientific instruments aboard India's Chandrayaan-1 lunar probe, will look at the floors of craters that might contain ice. Over the next few months, the question of lunar ice could be answered.

It's an important subject. Substantial amounts of lunar ice could make supporting a human presence on the Moon easier. The ice could be melted into water for drinking, etc. The water could also be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen, which combined differently is a rocket fuel. The absence of lunar water ice would mean water would need to be transported to the Moon.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Lessons of History

A British historian has uncovered evidence that English mathematician Thomas Harriott was in fact the first person to draw a map of the surface of the Moon, beating Galileo by a few months. Harriott's lunar maps, it turns out, were also well done, as good as any lunar maps made by humans for the next few decades.

So, thenceforward and forever more, should Thomas Harriot get credit for his lunar mapping? Of course. Should he and Galileo now be seen as co-fathers of telescopic astronomy? No. Harriott seems never to have gone beyond the Moon, and perhaps not beyond the initial drawings we now have. Additionally, he seems not to have published his work, which is why it's been unknown for four centuries. Galileo did publish, and he also went beyond the Moon to help establish the groundwork for modern, observational astronomy, which had a significant role in shaping modern, Western thought-- something Galileo helped establish even at great cost to himself.

History, of course, is about documenting what actually happened. More importantly, however, history is about understanding how we got to where we are. Pointing a telescope at the Moon seems a natural act. Someone forever lost to us may in fact have been the first human to see lunar mountains and craters. That possibility does not take away from Harruitt's achievement; Harriott's maps do not change the history of the development of Western science.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

More Politics Surrounding NASA Pick

Democratic U. S. Senator from Florida Bill Nelson has weighed in on Scott Gration as NASA chief. Nelson, who chairs the Senate subcommittee that has oversight responsibility for NASA, believes the administrator should have a background in NASA. Gration has virtually none.

Obama advisors counter by saying Gration helped write the campaign's space policy statement, released last August. They argue that statement, which, among other things affirmed the goal of returning American astronauts to the Moon by 2020, was the most comprehensive space policy yet released by a presidential candidate.

This political dance, of course, is par for the course, as much about power and influence as about who runs NASA. There's no reason to think, however, that it won't be over soon.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Gration To NASA... Maybe

Reports have President-elect Obama nominating retired Air Force Major General Scott Gration to take over as the next NASA administrator. Announcement of the choice could come as early as today, which would be the first time a NASA chief was named before the inauguration of the president doing the naming.

Gration has no particular background in space, but he is seen by those who know him as a leader who knows how to manage a large organization. He was an advisor to Obama on military and security policy during the campaign.

Speculating on what this nomination might mean suggests President Obama might intend to keep the formulation of space policy-- as seems to be the case with economic policy-- inside the White House. Gration would then be a loyal aide who knows how to get things done. That's certainly not a bad approach. Picking a NASA chief so early could also signal Mr. Obama's interest in space policy, even though that hasn't been clear before. Time will tell.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Cockeyed Cosmos?

Astronomers have been struck at how uniform the universe is. No matter which direction they looked, the universe seemed fundamentally the same. Recent studies of the cosmic background radiation that is the dying hiss of the Big Bang itself, however, show a lopsided cosmos-- one direction is in fact different from the other.

A team from Caltech has worked out a model of the universe that accounts for such a divergence. If their model holds, it will have the added bonus of giving insight into the time before the Big Bang, something scientists had heretofore held to be impossible.

Later this year, the ESA plans to launch its Planck probe, which will map the cosmic background radiation in unprecedented detail. If Planck confirms that the universe is not uniform, a whole new vista will open for human thought.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Putting Black Holes On A Diet

Science fiction, and science journalism, have tended to portray black holes as constantly devouring everything that comes close. That's basically accurate. Astronomers have known for a while, however, that the black holes at the centers of some galaxies were "starved" of material. Now, there's a theory to explain how.

Supernova explosions are regular events in most galaxies that have black holes at the center. Not only are they bright enough to ourshine their parent galaxy for a time, but such explosions also set up huge shock waves that behave akin to tsunamis in Earth's oceans. A tsunami moving through deep water does little harm, but when that energy builds up in shallow water, huge, powerful waves result. Similarly, in massive galaxies, gravity overwhelms supernova shock waves, the waves do not drive gas and dust away from the center of the galaxy, and that material continues to fall into the black hole. In less massive galaxies, however, the gravity is not as strong, and continual shock waves can sweep gas and dust out of the reach of black holes.

Of course, the situation is temporary. At some point, the rate of supernova explosions within a galaxy will fall off, the effectiveness of the shock wave mechanism will decrease, and the black hole will still be there. Waiting.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Modeling A Supernova

Over the past few decades, computer models and computer simulations have proven to be invaluable tools across a range of fields. MIT scientists have recently used computers to reconstruct a star that exploded into a supernova centuries ago.

Cassiopeia A is a powerful source in the radio part of the spectrum. It's also a nebula, the remnants of a supernova that exploded over 300 years ago. Using both ground- and space-based images taken over a period of years, scientists have played back time, creating a 3-D image of the titanic blast.

There is no guarantee that every supernova proceeds in the same fashion, although only really massive stars go supernova, but reconstructing the process in fair detail in one case is a fascimating project that could yield valuable insights.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Kennel For NASA?

Charles Kennel, sources say, may be the frontrunner to be the next administrator of NASA. Kennel has run NASA's Earth sciences effort. He is also a former head of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, and is currently chair of the National Academy of Science's Space Studies Board.

Kennel's nomination, if it happens, would put an accomplished scientist at the helm of the space agency, which should please the science community. It also brings up questions, however. Kennel's focus has been on Earth. Would his appointment signal President Obama intends to turn NASA inward-- to help understand and combat global warming, for example? Kennel is a scientist, not necessarily attuned to how business works. Would he encourage and support the development of an entrepreneurial NewSpace industry and private space initiatives?

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Discovery On The Move

Space shuttle Discovery has begun its move to the launch pad for its scheduled February 12 liftoff to deliver the final piece of the main core of ISS, the strut the will support the main solar power array that will provide electricity for the station.

February 12, 2009, by the way, is the 200th anniversary of the births of both Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln. The world has changed remarkably in those centuries, do in large part to the great works of those two men. Anyone who despairs for the human future might reflect on what has been accomplished in so short a time. A species capable of embracing such change probably shouldn't be bet against over the long term.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

New NASA Chief

Michael Griffin is preparing to step down as administrator of NASA as Barack Obama takes over the presidency. Indications have been that Griffin was willing to stay on if asked, but he has not, in fact, been asked.

Possible candidates for the position include former astronauts Charlie Bolden and Sally Ride. Also mentioned are three NASA veterans who've already had distinguighed stints at the agency-- Alan Stern, Wesley Huntress, and Scott Hubbard.

Another possibility might be Lori Garver. She is a leader of the Obama NASA Transition team and spoke for Obama on space policy several times during the campaign. Garver is also a former associate administrator of NASA, as well as a former executive director of the National Space Society.

Garver, or Ride, would be the first female NASA chief, while Bolden would be the first African-American to hold the top space job.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Falcon 9 Building

SpaceX has announced preparation of its first Falcon 9 booster for launch from Cape Canaveral is moving nicely along. Integration of the payload to the upper stage is complete. Shortly, erecting the two-stage booster will take place. Standing upright, Falcon 9 will be an impressive 180 feet tall.

SpaceX plans five launches of the Falcon 9 from Florida in 2009, including two demonstration flights for NASA designed to show the rocket can deliver cargo in the Dragon capsule to ISS starting in 2013. The company has already won a billion-dollar contract from NASA to do precisely that.

Longer term, SpaceX intends to man-rate both the Falcon 9 booster and the Dragon capsule.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Richardson Declines Commerce Post

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, President-elect Obama's first choice to be Secretary of Commerce, has declined that offer to deal with a potential scandal in New Mexico. He said he didn't want that situation to distract from the new administration's efforts to deal with the economy.

Richardson is an advocate of private enterprise moving into space, and his appointment to Commerce led some to hope he would fashion a regulatory environment favorable to the NewSpace industry. That hope is gone, at least for the moment. Now, the focus will turn to who Obama picks instead of Richardson.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Spirit-- Five Years Later

NASA's rover Spirit landed on Mars inside a system of balloons five years ago yesterday. Bouncing to a stop seemed on odd way to land a complex robot on another planet, but it worked. Twice. Partly, that was due to Mars' lower gravity. Dropping onto Mars and bouncing to a stop isn't quite the same as slamming into the rocks of Earth.

Spirit's mission roving Mars was to last 90 days. Five years later, it's still functioning. So is its twin rover, Opportunity, which landed on Mars three weeks after Spirit. The rover missions have been extraordinary suiccesses. They stand as testament to what dedicated, educated humans can accomplish-- useful to remember in these difficult times.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Larry King... Again

On New Year's Eve, CNN's Larry King hosted yet another confrontation between UFO researchers and skeptics. These things follow the same pattern, not least because King asks the same questions over and over.

One aspect of the pattern might be revealing, however. The researchers want to talk about the evidence they say they've found, and accuse the skeptics of not studying the cases. From the skeptics' responses, it's often fairly clear they haven't-- or at least they choose not to argue the evidence. That could be because they haven't studied the cases, or it might be because they found no evidence worthy of the name.

Having only one person from each side and allowing them to really engage each other may be a better way to shed more light than heat.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

James McDonald

James E. McDonald was a physicist at the University of Arizona. He was also one of the first academics to investigate UFO cases from a scientific perspective.

UFO Hunters ended 2008 by looking at McDonald's career, focusing on three of the most prominent cases he investigated. The problem with such an approach is that it plays into the hands of skeptics. Most UFO reports are shallow and short on details; skeptics use that to dismiss the reports. It's probably better, therefore, if such programs drive deeply into one or two incidents at a time.

Having said that, the program did try to counter, seemingly successfully, some points skeptics have made about the cases examined. McDonald studied UFOs from 1953-1970, and left a rather large body of work to the University of Arizona, where it is now archived. Perhaps a thorough examination of that material by competent scientists using current capabilities would be useful.