Friday, February 27, 2009

NASA Under Obama

The 2010 budget blueprint released by the Obama administration yesterday gives NASA $18.7 billion. Coupled with the $1 billion supplemental NASA received earlier this month, the space agency will have $2.4 billion more than it had in its 2008 budget.

The blueprint still calls for the retirement of the space shuttle in 2010, and maintains funding for the new Constellation program, which means that, so far, President Obama is keeping the goal of returning astronauts to the Moon by 2020. It's fair to say the President has probably been busy with things other than the direction of the manned spaceflight program, but it's also fair to say that a vigorous NASA seems to fit his emphasis on supporting basic scientific research.

The 2010 budget calls for increased spending on space research, climate studies and monitoring of Earth, and aeronautic research.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Area 51

This week, The UFO Hunters tackled the enigma that is Nevada's legendary Area 51. The show broke little new ground, though through the use of aerial and satellite photographs it seemed to establish the major buildup of the base at Groom Lake (Area 51) didn't begin until around 1980. UFOlogists, of course, often argue the U. S. Government possessed alien technology well before that, so the roughly 1980 building boom in the desert may suggest otherwise.

The show also tried to link recent sightings of huge trianguler craft with a huge new hangar on the base. That was, perhaps, the most interesting idea in the episode. Those triangular craft are sometimes estimated to be a mile wide, however. The new hangar did seem substantially wider than the other hangars, but it's not a mile wide. If the mile estimate is cut to several hundred feet-- still a huge craft-- then the show might be on to something.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Beaming Power

Advocates of space solar power are trying to persuade the Obama administration to take another look at beaming solar power collected by satellites back to Earth. Potentially, that could be the ultimate power source for human civilization, but all sides agree we are very far away from realizing that potential.

The Bush administration rejected a proposal to do a demonstration from ISS to determine whether power can in fact be beamed from orbit to the Earth's surface. That rejection came in December. In the few weeks since, however, the Obama administration has adopted a policy to aggressively pursue alternative sources of energy. It has also appointed people to NASA who support space solar power.

Developing a SSP system, however, would take huge capital outlays-- and capital seems in very short supply at present. A proof-of-concept program is likely all we'll be able to fund for quite some time.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

OCO Fails

NASA's OCO satellite, designed to measure the role of manmade carbon emissions in global warming, failed to reach orbit early Tuesday morning.

The shroud that protects the satellite during the short flight through the atmosphere is supposed to separate from the craft as the rocket pushes on to orbit. This time, the shroud didn't separate, and its added weight kept the rocket from reaching orbit. After a promising launch from California, headed for a near-polar orbit, the rocket crashed into the ocean just shy of Antarctica.

Monday, February 23, 2009

OCO To Go Tuesday

All seems ready to go for a Tuesday launch from California of NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory. The satellite will orbit the Earth for two years, monitoring both matural and manmade carbon emissions into the atmosphere. The mission will be part of the effort to determine the severity of global warming.

NASA is watching the weather, but there seems to be no problem on that front.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Yet Another Discovery Delay

A day long meeting at NASA headquarters Friday resulted in delaying once again the next space shuttle launch. Engineers are still uncomfortable with the fuel valves that led to the original delay. There is now a real chance that Discovery won't fly until April.

NASA is also studying the debris cloud created by the collision of two satellites earlier this month. Preliminary thinking is that the debris poses only a slightly increased risk to the ISS, but that the Hubble repair mission could be in jeopardy because of an increased risk to astronauts in that area. NASA will continue monitoring the debris cloud.

Worthy of note: If the Hubble repair mission is ultimately canceled because of the risk posed by the debris, it would be the first spaceflight scrapped because of a manmade danger in orbit.

Friday, February 20, 2009

New Life For Spirit

NASA's Mars rover Spirit, which just a week or so ago, as reported in this blog, seemed to have some kind of robotic senior moment, failing to record what it did for an entire day, now has some extra energy, thanks to a strong Martian wind.

Spirit gets the energy it needs to operate by collecting solar energy through wings of solar cells. Mars has a dusty atmosphere, however, and dust settling on the solar panels degrades their ability to collect energy, thereby cutting the amount of power available to the rover. Recently, however, strong winds have scoured the solar panels, blowing away some of the dust, thus increasing the energy available to the rover. Now, instead of driving 50 minutes a day, Spirit might be able to travel for as long as 90 minutes.

This is the second time strong winds have blown dust off Spirit, extending its life. Mars taketh away, but it can also giveth.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

NASA Video Game

NASA is working with a video game developer to create a multiple player online game that allows players to "explore" the Moon, Mars, and beyond in a universe set to cover the next few decades. The current plan calls for having a playable demo of the game online later this year.

Technology NASA is looking at and developing for its Constellation and other exploration programs will be incorporated into the game. Later, it may be possible for players to design their own spacecraft and introduce their own technology concepts into the game.

Obviously, the point of this effort from NASA's perspective is to get more people interested in the space program. A well-designed, exciting game could become popular, but whether that would in fact translate into more support for NASA is open to question. It's worth a shot.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Charting The Next Move

NASA and ESA are discussing possible new missions to the systems of Jupiter and Saturn that would more thoroughly examine the most fascinating worlds in the realm of the gas giants.

The approach under discussion envisions joint ESA-NASA missions, similar to the extraordinarily successful Cassini, which is currently at Saturn, and may operate for several more years. The proposed mission to Jupiter would include one probe to orbit the planet, and another to study the moons Io, Europa, Callisto, and Ganymede in detail over several years. The Saturn mission would concentrate on Saturn, Titan, and Enceladus. The Titan component would include a lander, and, perhaps, a balloon that would examine large areas of that world by flying through its dense atmosphere.

The twin efforts are seen together as the capstone of Solar System exploration in the first half of the twenty-first century.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Texas Fireball

The fireball seen over a large part of Texas Sunday was likely a meteor, according to the FAA. Speculation had centered on debris from last Tuesday's crash involving an Iridium satellite and a spent Russian satellite, but the FAA concluded that was probably not the case.

Estimates of the size and speed of the object range up to the size of a truck with the consistency of concrete traveling between 15,000 and 40,000 miles per hour. Sonic booms were heard and felt over a wide area.

No crash site seems to have been found yet, even though finding it would be a matter of extending the flight path to its intersection with the ground. Perhaps, of course, the object never reached the ground, burning up in the atmosphere instead. Eight to ten such fireballs occur every year, and not all of them reach the surface.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Ancient Martian Ice Fields Possible

Evidence gathered by NASA's rover, Opportunity, may give insights to an earlier climate on Mars.

Opportunity has discovered salty minerals on the plains it has traversed. One theory has been that an ocean was stood on that spot, but there are no geologic formations that would form a basin that could contain liquid water. A new theory suggests that the salty minerals are in fact evidence of ancient ice fields.

Science has determined that Mars' poles have wandered over the surface over time. Opportunity is operating in what is now an equatorial region, but at some point in the past, according to this theory, it was a polar area and the climate was cold enough to support extensive ice fields.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Another Launch Delay

NASA has delayed the launch of space shuttle Discovery yet again. Now, the earliest date to fly is February 27. The problem remains questionable fuel valves. Tests on the valves are being conducted.

The delays are beginning to threaten future shuttle launches. If Discovery doesn't go by March 12, it will have to wait until at least March 26, to allow for a Soyuz mission to ISS. At that point, delaying future shuttle missions would likely have to be considered.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Debris Danger

NASA is studying the possible danger to other spacecraft posed by Tuesday's collision of an Iridium and a Russian satellite. The Iridium was still functional; the Russian was a derelict. Determining the risks of collision of additional spacecraft with pieces of debris could take several weeks.

Most at risk would seem to be Earth observation satellites, many of which orbit in the same general area of the collision; some orbits might go through the debris cloud. The Hubble Space Telescope, because of its size. is another possible problem. Of course, ISS is many times larger than Hubble, but its orbit is well inside where the collision took place.

Because orbital space is so vast, and any spacecraft, by comparison, is so tiny, the odds of debris hitting another craft are extremely low, but, as was dramatically demonstrated Tuesday, they are non-zero.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

When Satellites Collide

A functioning Iridium telecommunications satellite and a spent Russian satellite have collided in space, about 430 miles out from Earth, destroying both satellites and creating a huge cloud of orbital debris that could potentially affect other satellites. There is only a very small chance the debris could threaten ISS.

Of course, there was only a very small chance of two satellites crashing into each other. The collision highlights the growing problem of orbital debris around Earth. Suggestions for dealing with the situation have included mandating that satellites be de-orbited at the end of their service. Such a provision may have avoided this collision, and would be helpful in the future, but there would still be the defunct satellites and spacecraft parts currently orbiting Earth. Hopefully, a solution will be found before a real tragedy occurs.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Martian Sanctuary?

Olympus Mons on Mars is an incredible natural formation. A volcano-- possibly still simmering, if not outright active-- it is three times the height of Mt. Everest, with a base equal in area to the State of Arizona. According to a recent study, Olympus Mons might have yet another remarkable distinction. It might be a sanctuary for Martian life.

At its most basic, scientists argue, life needs energy and liquid water. If there is still heat in the belly of the giant volcano, Olympus Mons could supply the energy. Does it shelter liquid water? Possibly. The formation is lopsided, and the study argues that could imply it rests atop a water-rich layer of sediment that has allowed the mountain to slide.

NASA's Christopher McKay argues we need to follow extremely strict biological protocols when exploring Mars to avoid possibly contaminating the planet with Earth microbes that could survive beneath the surface. That might be especially important as we undertake what would be an extraordinary chapter-- the exploration of Olympus Mons.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Griffin Still In The Game

Former NASA administrator Mike Griffin is still insisting he made the correct decision in choosing the Ares 1 rocket to launch astronauts during the Constellation program rather than an upgraded Air Force missile. He cotes probabilistic studies that suggest Ares would be twice as safe as the alternative, and insists crew safety must be a major factor in picking a launcher.

The Obama administration has yet to select Griffin's replacement, so the final decision on the launcher could still be some time away.

Monday, February 9, 2009


MarsDrive is an interesting addition to the space community. First, it's based in Australia. There are a few prominent Aussie space scientists and advocates, but being based Down Under gives MarsDrive a slightly different twist. What's most interesting about the group, however, is its vision for settling Mars sooner rather than later. MarsDrive and its chief, Frank Stafford, argue for a public-private consortium that would lead the effort. The key to the success of such a program, Stafford insists, is to maintain public support over decades. He points to the drop of public support for Apollo after two or three Moon landings because the public saw nothing in the way of a real benefit coming its way. At that time, NASA had the resources and experience to establish a lunar base and go on to Mars within another decade or so. A program led by the private sector, not getting ahead of public support, MarsDrive argues, is the way to get to the Red Planet.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Another Discovery Delay

Launch of space shuttle Discovery has been delayed again, to at least February 22, as NASA engineers try to make sure a fuel valve problem is under control.

Delays have been a hallmark of the shuttle program. It's an extremely complex craft, of course, and making sure everything is in working order takes time. That complexity is the reason the shuttle never came close to fulfilling its original promise of perhaps 50 launches a year. That said, the space shuttle will go down in aviation history as a remarkable technological achievement.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Weapons In Space

The Obama administration has announced it is ready to negotiate a treaty banning weapons from Earth orbit. The previous administration approached the subject from the starting position that the U. S. reserved the right to ensure U. S. access to space and to defend U. S. assets in space.

Mr. Obama will surely start there, as well, but his emphasis seems to be on discussing issues. The history of limiting weapons is not terribly good. Most experts agree, for example, that the Soviet Union routinely violated nuclear arms control agreements-- and some experts say the U. S. didn't follow those treaties to the letter, either. The Washington Naval Treaty of 1923 limited the size of battleships, but that didn't stop Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan from developing navies with substantial offensive capabilities. On the other hand, international bans of chemical and biological weapons seem to be holding.

So, would banning space weapons by treaty end the problem? Probably not. Nations pursue what their leaders perceive as the national interest. Would such a treaty, therefore, be a waste of time and effort? Not necessarily. It would focus attention on space, which the media almost totally ignores. A treaty banning offensive weapons while allowing defensive systems might also establish a stable, durable dynamic.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Giant UFOs

The UFO Hunters last night featured cases involving huge UFOs, largely over Europe. The cases followed a similar pattern. They involved pilots (military and civilian) as primary witnesses, the pilots were flying aircraft at the time of the sightings, the sightings included other witnesses (sometimes pilots in other planes), and the objects seen seemed to show up on radar, including ground radar. The incidents, therefore, seem to demand some explanation.

The weakest part of the cases might be the reported size of the UFO-- some were said to be a mile wide; another, miles long. Imagining why the aircraft attached to an expedition of an interstellar civilization would be so huge is extremely difficult. Almost certainly, space travel drives miniaturization of technology. Imagining such huge ships escaping the notice of all but a few people is also difficult. In one case, one huge disk seemed to have the capability of rendering itself invisible-- but then why show itself at all?

That said, huge ships seem to be sighted fairly regularly recently, including over America. If the dimensions are hundreds of feet, not miles, they could possibly be advanced, secret aircraft of our own making.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Discovery Launch Delayed

The launch of space shuttle Discovery has been put off at least a week from its February 12 target so that NASA engineers can look at a potential problem with fuel valves. The valves regulate the flow of fuel between the shuttle's main engines and the external fuel tank during ascent to orbit. NASA maintains it's not a big concern, and the delay is out of an abundance of caution.

The key task of Discovery's mission will be the delivery to ISS of the station's final set of solar power arrays.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Spirit Back On The Job

As noted in this blog, NASA lost contact with its Mars rover, Spirit, late last month. Contact has since been restored, but NASA still doesn't know what happened. It may never know. Spirit failed to record what it did for one full Martian day, or sol. The rover's computer memory for that time is blank.

Spirit, of course, was supposed to have lasted 90 Earth days on Mars. It's now into its sixth Earth year on the Red Planet. No one can reasonably gripe if it begins to have occasional senior moments.

Monday, February 2, 2009

It's Not Raining Rain, You Know...

On Saturn's huge moon Titan, it rains methane. According to a recent study of images of Titan's surface taken by the Cassini probe, it rains lots of methane.

Cassini photographed Titan's south polar region in 2004 and again later in 2005. Where dry surface existed in the 2004 image, a rather substantial methane lake stood in 2005. In the interim, astronomers had observed heavy, roiling, thunderstorm-like clouds over that area. The conclusion drawn seems pretty obvious. Titan's atmosphere-- ten times denser than Earth's-- produces some real gullywashers.

Funding for Cassini runs out in September, 2010, but program managers are preparing to ask for a seven year extension. If Cassini continues producing data at its present rate, such an extension would be a terrific bargain.

Sunday, February 1, 2009


Six years ago today, the first space shuttle, after suffering damage to its protective heat tiles, disintegrated durimg re-entry. All aboard were lost.

That tragedy became a pivot for the American manned spaceflight program. Before it, NASA was flying the shuttles and constructing the ISS, but there was nothing beyond. The Bush administration used the period after the loss of Columbia to develop a plan for the next few decades. That plan called for the retirement of the shuttle fleet after the construction of the ISS was complete, and the development of a new spaceship that would take astronaurs back to the Moon, and, eventually, on to Mars. All of that was to be done while holding NASA's budget to roughly one percent of the federal budget.

Where that plan will go under the Obama administration, amid economic difficulties, is unclear. At one point, Mr. Obama looked poised to announce his choice for NASA administrator before his inauguration, suggesting a real interest in space policy, but that didn't happen. The legacy of Columbia and her final crew has yet to be determined.