Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Springtime on Mars

The coming of spring is different on Mars than it is on Earth. Mars has a two-tier polar cap configuration, for one thing. The planet has substantially permanent ice caps at both poles made of water ice. Unlike Earth, however, Mars also has seasonal caps. Carbon dioxide freezes through the winter, building upon the permanent caps. Those seasonal caps, of course, are not made of water ice. Instead, they are made of what we know as dry ice.

According to images taken from orbit, spring is breaking on Mars. With the warmer temperatures, the carbon dioxide changes directly back to gas. When that happens beneath the surface, the gas builds pressure and eventually explodes through the layer of ice on top.

Imagine being an early explorer of Mars, sitting in your pressurized scout vehicle, watching such explosions-- a Martian rite of spring.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Virgin Galactic Pushing Forward

Last week, test flights of Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo, the carrier plane that will take SpaceShipTwo from the ground to the altitude to fire its rockets, continued with the longest and fastest flight yet. VG is pleased with the progress being made in checking out the aircraft.

This specific WhiteKnightTwo has been christened "Eve," after the mother of Sir Richard Branson, founder and head of VG. Branson says he looks forward to flying in Eve even before test flights that carry SpaceShipTwo.

Once operational, Eve and her siblings are expected to fly up to four suborbital tourist flights a day.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Home Sweet Home

Space shuttle Discovery landed safely in Florida yesterday afternoon, bringing STS-119 to a successful conclusion. The mission largely completed construction of the ISS, and brought it to full power with the installation of the final pair of solar panel wings.

For a little more than a day, with a new Soyuz on its way to ISS and Discovery still in space, the human population in Earth orbit stood at 13, the highest ever.

Next up for the space shuttle program-- the final repair of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Dulce, New Mexico

According to this week's UFO Hunters, a butte in Dulce, New Mexico, on the Jicarilla Apache reservation, is home to an underground base at which humans and aliens perform horrific genetic experiments. In this episode, the show, which generally tries to stay somewhere close to the evidence it presents, goes over the top. It presents nothing supporting the assertion that anything is in the butte, for instance. Some witnesses report UFOs over the butte, but that's hardly sufficient. There seems to be stories about aliens whirling around the community, but the show offered nothing beyond that. Genetic experimentation? One set of pictures showing a fetus taken from a cow. The show suggested it was some sort of hybrid animal, but gave no further evidence to support that claim.

At its best, UFO Hunters can be interesting. This episode wasn't its best. Carl Sagan used to say, regarding aliens visiting Earth: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Bill Birnes, nominal leader of the UFO Hunters team, clearly doesn't agree with that. At Dulce, however, Birnes goes far beyond even his own lax standards.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Charles Simonyi

Billionaire Charles Simonyi became the first private space traveler to fly into space twice this morning when his Soyuz launched on its mission to ISS.

Both of Simonyi's flights have been courtesy of Space Adventures. Simonyi said in an interview that this will be his last flight for a very long time. It seems that when wives put the hammer down, even intrepid, billionaire space travelers bow to a higher power.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Charles Gibson

Last evening on ABC's World News Tonight, Charles Gibson, who is in Houston at the moment, ran the first of a two part report on the future of America's space program. It was not a strong effort. First, the focus of the report seems to be the manned spaceflight program, which ignores the extraordinarily successful unmanned program. Let's give Charlie a break on that one. Unfortunately, the report had several such loose statements.

Gibson began the report by asserting that most Americans don't know much about their space program. Assuming that's correct, why would it be? Could it be because the mainstream media, including ABC News, doesn't systemically cover the space program?

Gibson went on to note that NASA's headquarters is in Houston. Wrong. NASA HQ is in Washington. Johnson Space Center is in Houston. JSC could loosely be called the headquarters of the manned spaceflight program, but it still takes orders from NASA in Washington, D. C.

Gibson went on to discuss "NASA's plan" to return astronauts to the Moon and to go on to Mars. In fact, NASA doesn't make its own plans, any more than any other Federal agency is free to pursue its own plan. The plan Gibson referenced is U. S. policy. It was developed by the Bush administration in the wake of the space shuttle Columbia tragedy, adopted and funded, so far, by Congress, and maintained, so far, by the Obama administration. NASA is clearly excited by the prospect of sending astronauts beyond low Earth orbit again, but referring to the effort as "NASA's plan" is a touch misleading, and may border on the dismissive.

Hopefully, the next part of the report will be stronger.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Salmonella In Space

Salmonella, the bacteria responsible for many illnesses and some deaths yearly, was sent to ISS by NASA to be studied in microgravity conditions, and the results show Salmonella is even more virulent there than it is on Earth. NASA researchers hypothesize that might be because microgravity is similar in some physical characteristics to the environment of fluidity found in the human gut. The same basic reasoning underlies the practice of astronauts training for spacewalks doing so underwater.

NASA hopes that studying Salmonella in microgravity can lead to new medical approaches to the disease-- both for astronauts in space and people on Earth.

Of course, such an approach won't stop at one disease. Studying how life generally behaves in various gravitational environments promises deeper insights into its fundamental workings. Manufacturing useful chemical compounds-- medicines-- in microgravity that cannot be manufactured at the bottom of Earth's gravity well is also a distinct possibility. Indeed, if such medicines are found to cure some of the real plagues of humanity, that could be the spark that finally establishes private enterprise beyond Earth.

Monday, March 23, 2009

ISS Finally Complete

With the work of STS-119, ISS has finally assumed its final configuration and is now at full power.

Getting there has taken nine years of work by NASA, Russia, various other nations, and Boeing, the prime contractor, but the push for a long-duration American space station goes back to the dawn of the Space Age. President Reagan put the nation on the course to ISS by backing the construction of a space station. That effort went through an incredible array of twists and turns, design changes and budget woes for years before NASA efforts were finally stabilized within the ISS structure. The concept of a space station goes back well before Reagan, however-- and well before America's Skylab and the Soviets' Salyut. Early theorists of manned spaceflight argued space stations in Earth orbit should be established before anyone was sent to the Moon. President Kennedy's insistence that Americans should be first on the Moon nixed the station approach.

Now, we have a substantial space station in Earth orbit as we prepare to send humans back to the lunar surface.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Still No NASA Chief

Two months into the Obama administration, the next administrator of NASA has yet to be nominated. Recently, two men seen as candidates for the post were appointed to other positions.

In January, as reported in this blog, there was a flurry of speculation that Mr. Obama might name his NASA pick before his inauguration, signaling his interest in space policy.

Of course, that didn't happen, and it must be noted that the President has had his hands full since taking office. It's also fair to note he found time to fill out his NCAA Men's basketball tournament brackets on ESPN. There's often a tension for a politician, however, between doing political things and spending the time to do the job properly. Presidents, especially, tend to see politics and policy as of a piece.

Still, many decisions about Ameica's future in space are pending. NASA needs someone at the helm soon.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Type II Supernovae

Astronomers have long thought Type II supernovae exploded from red supergiant stars. Now, that theory has been confirmed.

By comparing before and after photographs of an area of space that experienced such a blast, astronomers have found two cases where a red supergiant existed at the precise coordinates of a supernova before the blast, and nothing was at those coordinates after the explosion. That physical evidence, coupled with the physics of how science believes stars work, clinches a strong case for understanding the life cycle of stars that have roughly seven times the mass of the Sun.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Opportunity Spies Endeavour

NASA's Mars rover Opportunity has photographed its ultimate goal-- Endeavour Crater. The crater walls are visible jutting up from the surrounding plain.

Endeavour, at 14 miles in diameter, would be the largest crater yet visited by the rover. Reaching it, however, is far from a sure thing. Opportunity is still seven miles away. That trip could take two more Earth years. Getting there would mean Opportunity, built to last 90 days on the surface, would have operated on Mars for seven years.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Canada Exploring Options

The Canadian space industry has developed a specialty in robotics. Canada built the huge robotic arm on the space shuttle-- the Canadarm-- and now is looking at building a similar appendage for NASA's Orion spacecraft. Current plans for Orion don't include such an arm-- Orion, as a capsule, won't have a payload bay, which is where the Canadarm does much of its work-- but if Orion is used to service future space platforms as well as take astronauts to the Moon and beyond, a robotic arm would be useful.

Canada is also studying the possibility of using its expertise in robotics in a Canadian-led lunar rover mission. That puts Canada in a small knot of nations and private groups which have either flown their first lunar mission recently or plan to do so in the near future.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

No Collision. This Time

NASA has determined that the piece of space debris it feared might strike the ISS will in fact comfortably miss the space station. The object has been identified as a piece of an old Soviet military navigation satellite, Cosmos 1275. The Cosmos series seems to have had a variety of uses, and some carried radio active elements as a power source, but the piece in question seems to be garden variety stuff. Still, a five inch piece of metal traveling at an orbital velocity of something near 18,000 mph would be a devastating projectile if it hit a spacecraft.

Space debris in Earth orbit, as noted earlier in this blog, is increasingly being seen as a problem. Some have proposed a new policy mandating that a group that puts a satellite into orbit must also safely de-orbit the satellite once its useful life was complete. Holding nations to that standard would likely require a new treaty, which means that forward-looking solution is probably years away. Even then, there would still be all the junk currently in orbit.

Monday, March 16, 2009

STS-119 Finally Underway

Space Shuttle Discovery lifted off without incident last evening, getting the much-delayed STS-119 mission off to a good start. The main tasks of the mission will be to deliver and install the last section of ISS' main truss and the final set of solar wings.

NASA is also monitoring more debris that could pose a threat to ISS. One piece currently being watched may come within a half-mile of the station. That would be closer than an old rocket part that flew past two miles or so distant just last week. The ISS crew spent ten minutes in the Soyuz docked at the station during that potential encounter, just in case.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Cassini On Backup Thrusters

The Cassini spacecraft, which has revolutionized our understanding of Saturn and its environs over the past decade, is now operating on backup thrusters.

The failure of the probe's primary thrusters came only weeks after NASA and ESA decided to extend the mission for another seven years. The backup propulsion system is identical to the primary, so the extended mission is not necessarily in jeopardy.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Fairly Close Call For ISS

Yesterday afternoon, the crew of ISS retreated into the Soyuz docked at the station as a safety precaution until a piece of space debris flew past. The debris, a piece of a satellite motor, was picked up by NASA the night before, which did not leave enough time to plan a maneuver to push ISS out of possible danger.

None of the crew visually detected the object, which NASA projected could come within 2.4 miles of the station. That is close enough for concern because tracking such pieces of debris lacks precision, and it would be of real concern if talking about a comet approaching Earth, for example, but ISS is finally an extremely small target. Further, it has no gravity field funneling stuff into itself.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Another Shuttle Launch Delay

The launch of STS-119 was delayed until at least March 15 because of a gas line leak yesterday. If the shuttle can't launch by March 17, the mission will be delayed until April to accomodate a Soyuz mission to ISS that is set to launch March 26.

If STS-119 is delayed until April, the remainder of the shuttle launch schedule will probably have to be pushed back. The main tasks of STS-119 will be to deliver the final piece of the main truss of ISS, as well as the final pair of solar power wings.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


The British Government has not traditionally been heavily involved in large space projects, although the space community there is currently arguing Britain should develop its own manned spaceflight capability. Her Majesty's Government has, however, just invested in a project that could revolutionize access to low Earth orbit.

Skylon is an attempt to build a single-stage spaceplane that would take off from a runway, reach orbit, and land on the same runway. The key technology in the effort will be a hybrid engine that operates as an air-breathing jet in the atmosphere and a rocket once it reaches space.

Such a craft is still years away, but enough progress has been made by the private company pursuing the program that the British Government has invested just over $1 million in it. Not a huge amount as these things go, but if the program succeeds, Britania may not rule the waves again, but it cou;d lead humanity and commerce into low Earth orbit and beyond.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Liquid Water On Mars?

Team members who ran the Phoenix Mars Lander mission last year are about to publish a paper which argues the mission found liquid water at the landing site. The paper contends that globules photographed on the lander's legs were in fact brine-- a mixture of soil and liquid saltwater-- that splashed onto the legs during landing. The presence of liquid water on the surface of Mars, of course, would radically change the prospects for life on Mars.

Not every team member agrees with the conclusion of the paper. Some insist the surface-- especially in the polar regions where Phoenix landed-- is too cold and too dry to support liquid water. Indeed, the "warmest" temperature at the Phoenix site is about -20 degrees F. Backers of the paper, including team leader Peter Smith, point out the salty water doesn't freeze at the same point freshwater does.

The presumed failure of Viking to find life on Mars in the 1970s was disputed by the lead investigator of the biology suite. Now, we may have a controversy over surface liquid water. Human explorers on Mars could settle such questions quickly.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Jupiter's Shrinking Red Spot

Jupiter's legendary Great Red Spot, a huge storm that has been raging in that planet's remarkable atmosphere for at least 300 years, has shrunk by about 15 percent over the past several years. Scientists base that conclusion on the amount of energy lost by the storm.

The closest Earthly analogy to such storms on Jupiter is the hurricane. That is clearly a poor comparison, however. Hurricanes may last weeks; Jupiter's storms can last decades or centuries. The Great Red Spot, which has roughly twice the diameter of Earth, was first observed in the 1600s, in the early days of telescopic astronomy. How long it was there before then is anybody's guess.

Scientists don't expect the Great Red Spot to fade away any time soon. It still has winds of 300 mph. Jupiter's climate is currently undergoing change, however, with energy within the atmosphere being redistributed and rebalanced. There are other storms on Jupiter currently as powerful as the Spot. Those storms, though, are newcomers. The Great Red Spot has shown itself to be a survivor.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Kepler In Space

NASA successfully launched its Kepler planet hunting probe Friday night from California. Kepler, if all goes well, will spend at least three years focused on a small, star-rich area of the Milky Way, searching for planets similar to Earth.

Kepler will do that by looking for transits-- catching a planet moving across the disk of its parent star. To see that requires that faraway star system to be perfectly aligned with Kepler, which seems wildly unlikely. Astronomers argue, however, that the sheer number of stars in the area being studied will allow them to find many new worlds.

Transits are actually extremely useful events. Timing the transits can yield the speed of the planet, which-- using Johannes Kepler's Laws of Planetary Motion-- gives the distance of the planet from the star. That distance can tell us whether the planet is in the "habitable zone" of the star-- where life could exist. The magnitude of the dip in starlight which signals a transit is occuring tells us the size of the planet.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Are We From Ceres?

Ceres is a body roughly 600 miles in diameter. It is the largest of a swarm of objects that orbit between Mars and Jupiter. It may have water ice, and a water ocean under the surface. And, according to scientist John Houtkopper, it may be the ultimate home of life on Earth.

Houtkopper suggests life may have developed on Ceres early in the history of the Solar System and migrated to Earth in a chunk that somehow broke off Ceres and escaped the dwarf planet's weak gravity. This is the latest version of an old theory that holds life came to Earth from somewhere else-- Mars, Venus, a comet, or another star system.

It's sort of the search for the Holy Grail for a certain group of scientists. Of course, the upshot of the basic theory keeps the origin of life a mystery by pushing that event beyond the reach of humanity, at least at present. NASA's Dawn spacecraft is scheduled to encounter Ceres in 2015. At that time, science should learn more about Ceres than it has since Ceres' discovery in 1801.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Discovery Moves Up

There has been another change in the launch date of space shuttle Discovery, but this time it's being moved up a day. The launch is now scheduled for March 11. The fuel valves that had delayed the launch from February 12 were finally simply replaced last week.

Discovery's main mission will be to deliver the last part of the main truss of ISS, plus the station's final pair of solar power wings.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Another Cassini Discovery

The Cassini probe has discovered a new moon in the midst of Saturn's glorious rings. The tiny moon, too small to be resolved by Cassini's camera, is likely the source of dust for the G-ring in the ring system.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

China On The Moon

China became the latest nation to put a spacecraft on the Moon Sunday, deliberately crashing its Changle 1 probe into the surface after it successfully completed a year long study of the Moon using a suite of sophisticated instruments.

Changle 1 was only the first step in the Chinese lunar program. Over the next few years, China plans to soft land a probe on the Moon, as well as deliver and operate a lunar rover.

Weighing in at over 5,000 pounds, Changle 1 no doubt created yet another lunar crater when it crashed into the surface.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Asteroid Flyby

An asteroid roughly 115 feet long flew past Earth this morning at a distance of about 44,000 miles. That's a close shave in cosmic terms, but astronomers had been monitoring the rock for several months and were confident there was no chance of collision.

Scientists estimate this asteroid, designated 2009 DD46, is about the same size as the body that exploded over Tunguska, Siberia, in 1908. If such a body exploded over a major city, for example, the city would be obliterated.

Asteroid 2009 DD46 is the latest reminder that Earth will be hit by a large body again unless we develop the capability to deflect such bodies into safe orbits.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

North Korean Satellite Launch

North Korea seems ready to attempt to launch its first satellite. That wouldn't concern the U. S.-- which is still technically in a state of war with North Korea-- except that an ability to orbit a satellite would also mean North Korea would have the ability to hit the U. S. with an ICBM. Couple that with nuclear bomb capability, and an American city could be at risk.

To counter such a threat, the U' S. is developing a missile defense system, but that program has been slow to mature, partly because of the inherent difficulty of the task, and partly because critics of the effort have resisted the concept. They argue that a fully effective missile defense is impossible to achueve, and further, that delivering a nuclear device to an American city would likely be done not atop a missile that could be traced back to its launch, but by some other means.

The Pyongyang regime, however, has not always been predictable; it has shown little inclination to act according to what others see as logical. Faced with a secretive, brutal dictator who has the ability to deliver nuclear bombs within a radius of thousands of miles, the rest of the world-- and the Obama administration-- will have an extremely tough decision to male.