Thursday, April 30, 2009

Cattle Mutilations

One of the enduring themes of UFOlogy involves cattle mutilation by aliens conducting some sort of long term biological study. The stories involve ranchers finding individual cows or bulls dead, with certain parts cleanly cut out of the carcass. No blood surrounds the body. No tracks lead to or away from the unfortunate animal, not even its own.

That was the subject of last night's UFO Hunters. What happens to these animals was unclear before the show, and equally so afterwards. The fellows on the show-- ranchers, a judge, a retired sheriff-- seemed perfectly sound, but if that were taken as proof, the reality of alien visitation would've been established long ago. Even solid people can have screwy ideas-- or simply be mistaken.

The show noted a correlation between the discovery of the animals and reported UFO sightings in the area. It also suggested the U. S. military might be involved, but insisted the phenomenon is worldwide in scope, which surely argues against any military angle.

The most interesting information in the show was not pursued. In 1994, someone in Salida, Colorado, followed a cigar-shaped UFO for about an hour on his video camera. That's an extremely long time as these things go. That much data could be a treasure trove for analysts. Perhaps in a future show.

Venture Capital Concerns

Venture capital is the money used by small firms to expand. It is key to developing new ideas, and new industries. The economic collapse of the past few months has drastically affected venture capital, along with most other economic actvity, to the point that VC investment levels are at 12-year lows.

NewSpace firms have been shielded from that decline to the extent they are owned by extremely wealthy individuals-- Elon Musk, Sir Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos-- who put their own money at risk. Other NewSpace firms, however, have been forced to delay projects for lack of funds.

There may be a silver lining, though. One area VC firms continue to fund is the life sciences. With a ten year horizon on their investment, they still expect to do extraordinarily well in that area. Life science research and pharmaceutical manufacture in microgravity could easily be a key in the early phase of establishing an economy beyond Earth. With ten years to develop, some space-based efforts might still get a green light.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

First Splashdowns For Orion

NASA's new moonship will come back to Earth the same way the old Apollo command modules did-- behind an ablative heat shield, under huge parachutes, and into the ocean. NASA has begin testing recovery procedures, and Orion's seaworthiness.

Seaworthiness, at first thought, would seem a low priority for a spacecraft, but Orion must float long enough for the crew to be recovered. Floating upright would be preferable. Hopefully, recovery will take only a few minutes, but Orion, like Apollo, Gemini, and Mercury, could possibly come home well away from the recovery team. In that case, especially, Orion needs to be able to float in ocean swells.

So far, so good.

Astrobotic Technology

Astrobotic Technology is a little company with big plans-- and big buddies. AT plans to participate in the Google Lunar X-Prize contest, but unlike some of its competitors, AT plans to establish itself as a going concern, profiting from the opening of the lunar frontier.

The plan is for AT to offer its services and expertise to nations and private corporations and groups that want to explore a specific site on the Moon, or that want a soil sample from a specific area. AT sees its rovers as silicon brained Lewises and Clarks, opening the way for the human settlement of the Moon, With partners like Carnegie Mellon University, Arizona State's Lunar and Planetary Institute, and the mighty aerospace and defense giant, Raytheon, AT might have a real shot at success.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Michel Mayo

Michel Mayo led the team that discovered the first exoplanet in 1994-- one of the more significant events in twentieth century science, and an achievement that may well grow in cultural importance as the decades and centuries roll by. Since then, Mayo has been a leader in the field of planet hunting.

He has paid particular attention to the system of the red dwarf star Gliese 581. His team made the discovery of the lightest exoplanet yet discovered, in that system, as reported in this blog earlier this week. The team also made another tantalyzing discovery. One of the two super Earths in the Gliese 581 system-- weighing in at about seven Earth masses-- orbits in the star's habitable zone. Essentially, that means it could have liquid water on its surface-- and, therefore, potentially life. Mayo and his team speculate, in fact, that the world could well be a water world, home to a huge, deep ocean.

Mayo further speculates that we will discover the first exoplanet of roughly Earth's mass within two years. If he's right, and if that world happens to orbit within the habitable zone of its parent star, that discovery could well spark a new era-- in both science and culture.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Repairing Hubble

NASA is looking seriously at launching shuttle Atlantis on the final repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope a day earlier than scheduled. The move would be an attempt to avoid conflict with a military mission also scheduled for launch in May.

NASA is also saying the repair mission looks less risky than it had earlier. The concern was a collision with debris in orbit. That fear was heightened after the collision of an Iridium satellite and a defunct Russian satellite last winter, which created a huge new debris cloud.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Gliese 581

Gliese 581 is a red dwarf star about 20.5 light years from Earth. So far, that's unremarkable. Astronomers using the HARPS telescope, which is designed specifically to look for low mass exoplanets, however, have discovered the lightest exoplanet yet found. Gliese 581 e is a so-called Super Earth, but it has only 1.9 Earth masses. It also orbits the star in only a bit more than three Earth days, which means it likely does not support life.

The system also has at least three more planets, two of which would also seem to meet the Super Earth definition, which tops out at ten Earth masses; the other planet known in the system is even larger.

Using a ground-based technology to find an exoplanet so near Earth's size is a significant achievement, but the bigger story may be the emerging Gliese 581 planetary system. Red dwarfs account for roughly three quarters of all stars in the galaxy, and now we know they can be home to substantial planetary families. They are also stable in energy output for extraordinarily long periods. If life evolving around a red dwarf is unlikely, a stable star surrounded by immense natural resources might be extremely attractive to a civilization seeking to expand beyond its home star system and into the galaxy, one star system after another.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Memory Problems On Mars

NASA's Spirit rover continues to have computer problems. The latest glitches were three failures to store data in flash memory. Using flash memory ensures the data will be saved even if the rover is temporarily turned off.

Engineers aren't sure what's causing the recent odd behavior. NASA is calling it a kind of "amnesia." That might be taking things a bit far, but Spirit was supposed to last 90 days on Mars; so far, it has lasted roughly twenty times that long. If Spirit gets contrary now, nobody can reasonably complain.

Monday, April 20, 2009

CBO Weighs In

The Congressional Budget Office has released a study that says NASA would need billions more dollars to meet all its objectives-- retiring the shuttle next year, bringing Constellation online by 2015, returning astronauts to the Moon by 2020, and flying all planned science missions.

With due respect to the CBO, most people who've been paying attention to NASA budgets already knew that.

Of course, billions aren't what they were even last year. Well, they are, but not exactly. Fully funding NASA to CBO levels could mesh with objectives of the Obama administration. That money would go to support hundreds of thousands of middle class jobs. It would support American high tech. It would support world class science. It would secure U. S. leadership in space well into this century.

Apollo accomplished its goal on time and largely on budget partly because the budget was generous enough to allow engineers and scientists to do their jobs as they thought they should. Maybe that's something to keep in mind, too.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Kepler's First Image

NASA has received its first image from the Kepler spacecraft, the first spacecraft ever designed specifically to look for Earth-like planets orbiting other stars.

The image sent back is of the region of the Milky Way upon which Kepler will concentrate. Astronomers estimate the area contains 14 million stars, and they expect to find hundreds of planets, including some that could have liquid water on their surfaces, and therefore, may support life as we know it.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Retiring The Shuttle

On May 1, NASA will restart the process that will lead to the end of the space shuttle program in 2010. Last year, NASA was told by Congress to halt the process through April 30 to give the new president time to decide on space policy. President Obama has indicated he supports retiring the shuttle next year.

Two U. S. Representatives from Florida's Space Coast, one from each major party, insist they will continue to try to keep the shuttle program alive beyond 2010, citing the thousands of jobs and the experience and expertise that would be lost with the end of the program.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Spaceflight Gap

John Holdren, President Obama's science advisor, said in an interview with SpaceInsider, a blog of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, that Mr. Obama fully intends to retire the space shuttle next year, and that there will be "at least" a five year gap in NASA manned spaceflight. Several in Congress, however, are looking for ways to close that gap.

Holdren also speculated that astronauts could possibly fly to ISS aboard Chinese capsules during that gap, as well as aboard Russian Soyuz capsules.

The Chinese speculation opens some interesting questions. The Soyuz has been flying for decades; it's as close to a reliable spacecraft as we've ever had, China, on the other hand, has a grand total of three manned spaceflights under its belt. If NASA is ready to risk astronaut lives on China's short experience, why not work with private American companies to develop private man-rated spacecraft? SpaceX is already working on Dragon, Interorbital is developing Neptune, and there are others. Not only might such projects narrow the gap, but the U. S. could reach the end of the gap with both a vibrant new NASA manned spaceflight program, and a robust, still developing private manned spaceflight capability.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Constellation's Future

The first test flight of part of the Ares launcher that is being developed to power astronauts back to the Moon is set for early August. The various parts of the rocket are already arriving at Cape Kennedy, and assembly will begin shortly. It's unclear, however, whether that two minute flight will be the first step in the Constellation program, or another dead end.

The Obama administration has yet to name a NASA administrator, which leaves the future of the manned space program in flux. Mr. Obama could decide to proceed with Constellation, or he could decide to review and revamp it, or delay it, or cancel it. There's probably no good reason to think the President will simply cancel the program, or even significantly delay it, but he could well want to leave his mark on it. That could mean a launcher other than Ares.

While Constellation seeks to return astronauts to the Moon by 2020, Interorbital Systems plans to begin building a lunar base in the 2014-2015 period. That seems awfully soon, but other NewSpace companies have similar time frames for private, Earth orbital space stations. If IOS can secure funding for its plan fairly soon, it could force a fundamental rethinking of Constellation.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Spirit Glitches

NASA's Mars rover Spirit rebooted its computer three times this past weekend. Mission engineers aren't sure why.

Spirit, and Opportunity, were designed to last 90 days on Mars. In fact, they've both lasted over five years. During that extended mission, the software for both rovers has been rewritten and transmitted to Mars several times, giving the rovers new capabilities on the fly-- a remarkable feat in an extraordinary mission. Engineers are looking at the most recent software update to Spirit as a possible source of the glitches.

The fact is, though, that Opportunity has the same software and got the same update, and it continues to function normally. That argues the problem might be specific to Spirit.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Hunting A Hypothetical Planet

NASA's STEREO mission studies solar activity using two probes, one each on opposite sides of the Sun. Scientists, however, intend to use the probes to do a little bonus work.

The leading current theory about the formation of the Moon holds that a large body-- perhaps another planet-- collided with the young Earth. The debris from that collision presumably eventually formed the Moon. As the STEREO probes approach two Lagrange points-- positions in space where the gravity of Earth and Sun balance out-- scientists plan to use the probes to search for remnants of the hypothetical planet that might have collected in those special areas.

The hypothetical planet has been given a real name-- Theia.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Where Space Begin

So far, science has not firmly defined where the Earth's atmosphere ends and space begins. A new study puts that boundary at 72 miles out, based on the fact that that's where charged particles from outside begins to overwhelm the air molecules in the wispy upper atmosphere.

Astronaut status, however, is given to anyone who reaches 50 miles out. For purposes of shuttle flights, NASA defines space beginning at 76 miles. The internationally recognized legal definition is 62 miles.

This is probably one definition that can reasonably vary depending on why the definition is required.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Abodes Around Red Dwarfs?

Scientists have tended to discount the possibility of life existing on planets orbiting red dwarf stars. Such stars are small, dim, and, at least early in their life cycles, given to emitting powerful bursts of radiation on a regular basis. Such stars, however, also constitute perhaps three quarters of the stars in our galaxy, so excluding them from the search for life cuts way down on the possibility of life. A new study suggests that exclusion may not be necessary.

The study argues that most of a red dwarf's violent behavior occurs in its first 2 to 3 billion years. After that, they seem to settle into a stable pattern for many billions of years. So, if a planet could retain a viable atmosphere through those early years-- or somehow develop one afterwards-- life on a planet close to a red dwarf might be possible. A larger version of Earth-- a so-called Super Earth-- could possibly do the trick.

There is also another possibility. Because red dwarfs are so long-lived and so stable after a more chaotic youth, and because they are so common throughout they galaxy, they may be adopted homes. An interstellar civilization that arose in the system of a bigger star might well plant offshoots of itself around red dwarfs, either on a planet or in a world of its own construction. By using red dwarfs, such a civilization could spread out from its home star fairly quickly.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Kepler Opens Its Eye

NASA's Kepler probe is on schedule to begin its mission. The protective covering over the lens of the photometer that will be used to look for transits of planets across the disk of their parent star was successfully jettisoned earlier this week.

The next few weeks will be spent calibrating the instrument. Detecting a transiting planet by noting the tiny dip in light coming from a star is a demanding task, so having the photometer in top operating order is essential.

When the callibration is complete, the real fun will begin.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Staying Ripped

One major obstacle to extended spaceflight is the effect microgravity has on human muscles. There's no point in sending a crew to Mars if the people will be too weak to function on the planet once they arrive. For decades, studies have been done on space stations in attempts to determine what is necessary to maintain fitness in weightlessness.

The latest study, done on ISS astronauts and supplemented by Earthbound bed rest studies, suggest maintaining muscle mass requires intense exercise periods concentrated on pushing muscles in resistance regimes. Aerobic exercises, which ISS astronauts now do for roughly two hours a day, seem to be less effective.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Maybe More Space Tourists

The word was that the current space tourist, Charles Simonyi, might be the last for a while. With the doubling of the ISS crew from three to six and the retirement of the space shuttle, all the seats on the Soyuz capsules, it was thought, would be taken by bona fide astronaut/cosmonaut types.

Well, maybe not.

Eric Anderson, CEO of Space Adventures, the company that sells the Soyuz flights, says a seat aboard a Soyuz may become available for one of his clients in September. Two of those clients have already completed the necessary training. Further, Anderson (no relation to me) speculates there might be occasional openings in the years ahead.

SA has contracted with Russia to build Soyuz capsules which SA will own, and which will carry two tourists per flight. The first of those flights is scheduled for 2012. Longer term, SA is also planning to offer flights around the Moon using the Soyuz spacecraft.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Randa Milliron Interview

Randa Milliron is CEO of Interorbital Systems, one of the New Space companies bidding to open space to private enterprise. She kindly gave this blog an email interview, which is produced below. Ms. Milliron has much to say.

You will note in answering one question she offers me the opportunity to change that question because the information on the IOS website has recently been updated. I decided to leave that question as it was, partly as a matter of journalistic transparency, but partly also because the questiom and the way she approached it gives another insight into Ms. Milliron. IOS seems to be in good hands.

*) Give us some idea of the process by which Interorbital decided to develop the Neptune, a private manned spacecraft.

The main goal of Interorbital Systems (IOS) has always been to establish a permanently manned corporate lunar base. The Neptune is required to accomplish that goal. We have been heavily influenced by the work of Lutz Kayser, the founder of OTRAG (the world’s first commercial space company). The modular construction we favor is directly traceable to his original concepts. Also, our use of the high-density storable propellant nitric acid as our oxidizer descends directly from Wernher von Braun (LOx was von Braun’s second choice) and Kayser.

*)Has the global economic downturn affected its development or prospects?

The economic downturn does not affect this sector. Space tourism and spacelift will always be high-ticket items, whether it’s $50,000 or $500,000,000---the base clientele will always be part of the upper income tier, or will be government, academic, or corporate customers, all of whom are used to paying top dollar for any type of space services. We believe that the demographic we serve can now and will in future be able to afford the price of a ticket or launch. One major difference in our program that could influence any of these potential customers, should they be affected by the economic downturn, is IOS’ price structure. Since we intend to offer our launch vehicles and launch services at the lowest price in the world, any of these entities in need of a cheaper flight to orbit than they have previously paid will be pleased to discover that our costs will set a new lower end pricepoint for spacelaunch. We believe our activities will open space for many new customers for whom standard industry costs are simply unaffordable.

*)NOTE: you may want to change this question---the website has been significantly updated this past week) Your corporate website says passenger flights in the Neptune spacecraft will likely begin in 2010. Yet, there seems to have been no test flights to date, and no grand unveiling of the spacecraft to the public. Will the 2010 target be met?

You were looking at an old webpage. That date was projected with the requirement of IOS having generated full-funding. As with all New Space rocket companies, including those run by millionaires and billionaires, operational date slippage is not uncommon, in fact, it has become the rule. In IOS’ case, delays have always been caused by funding requirements. Our propulsion systems were perfected over ten years ago, when we began an extensive R&D and testing program, so that is not a factor in terms of cash outlay, but flight tests are---and, not surprisingly, these require large amounts of money. 2010 will bring extensive flight tests of certain Neptune modules. Realistically, our human spaceflight program will begin in 2011-2012.

*) Once you have consistent access to Earth orbit, any number of possibilities open up. What are your instincts moving out? Interorbital has become involved in the Google Lunar X-Prize Challenge. Might the Moon figure in your long range plans? Might construction of hotels on Earth orbit be the next logical business step?

When we formally established Interorbital Systems in 1996 (after two years of R&D with the Pacific Rocket Society the world’s oldest experimental rocket society established for research into liquid propulsion), we also started the nonprofit scientific research and educational corporation, Trans Lunar Research. Our lunar base program is detailed on that site at The IOS corporate lunar base, with housing for researchers and lunar expedition crews, will serve as the first lunar hotel.*) If Interorbital succeeds in establishing a man-rated system capable of delivering cargo and humans to orbit, the big boys of the aerospace industry will either try to buy you or beat you. Is Interorbital's financial situation such that you will be able to follow an independent course? We’re not interested in selling. We have always made our own money with and for this enterprise, and put that money back onto the program. This has allowed us to pursue a completely self-made and self-sustaining course. We are independent by definition, and intend to stay that way. The founders own a majority of the company. Less than 1.5 % of the company is owned by investors. We intend to offer a maximum of 5% equity, and not to exceed that limit. We offer other types of participation, like our program for fractional ownership of the launch vehicles, and a profit sharing program for a lunar sample return mission. Ticket sales for Neptune six-person orbital expeditions and satellite launch bookings generate cash flow for our R&D.

*) What is your take on the early days of space industrialization? We look at Polar Orbit as the new industrial zone. We are currently in negotiations to conduct pharmaceutical, biomedical and medical experimentation in our orbiting Station Module (OSM). New Space is indeed a gold mine and we are very willing prospectors!

*)What will establish private enterprise beyond Earth in a meaningful and enduring way?

The availability of relatively low-cost industrial launchers that are able to operate independently of land-based federal spaceports will enable launch-on-demand---like the Neptune Series. Space tourism? Pharmaceutical research and manufacturing? Something else? Lunar colonization, cargo lift, sat launch, and tourism. I notice that some of the New Space critics think that lunar activities are silly or useless and that we should just dash ahead to Mars. As I am fond of saying that when I look at the Moon, I see real estate. It’s been referred to as the Eighth Continent and we at Interorbital believe that to be true. The Moon is the natural and logical location for the establishment of a permanent human presence. First the Moon, then onto the rest of the Solar System!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

North Korean Rocket Launch

Hours ago, North Korea launched a multi-stage rocket. The first stage fell into the Sea of Japan, while the rest overflew Japan and crashed into the Pacific.

That's about all we know for certain.

North Korea says it was a space launch, meant to deliver a satellite to orbit. In that case, the effort seems to have failed. The United States and others, however, see the launch as a test of an ICBM that could threaten Alaska, Hawaii, and possibly even the North American west coast south of Alaska. Clearly, Japan is within range. President Obama called the launch "a provocation." If it was an ICBM test, the fact that it seems to have been less than perfect is not necessarily good news. A lot seems to have gone right, and engineers learn from failures.

Exactly where the world will go from here is uncertain. Sanctioning a nation that already lives largely in its own little world may be of limited use. A military strike to prevent the next launch could reignite the Korean War, with disastrous consequences. Allowing North Korea to mate nuclear bombs to missiles of appreciable range, however, would seem to be a bad idea. Allowing North Korea to sell its dangerous expertise to whoever has the money may be an even worse idea.

President Obama and the rest of the world may have been handed yet another situation that could go very bad very quickly if not handled carefully and competently.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Odyssey Moon Branching Out

Odyssey Moon, a NewSpace company trying to find ways to turn profits by exploring the Moon, is teaming with Paragon Space Development Corporation to deliver a greenhouse to the lunar surface. The goal of the project will be to study the development of the plant inside the greenhouse in lunar gravity, about one-sixth Earth gravity. The project will be in conjunction with OM's attempt to win the Google Lunar X-Prize Challenge.

Growing plants beyond Earth, of course, is essential to a human expansion into space, and has already been done in microgravity aboard space stations, with interesting results. By studying the development of a plant from seed to maturity in lunar gravity and comparing that with what happens in microgravity and normal Earth gravity scientists will be able to begin to tease out the role gravity plays in life.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Space And The Economy

The global recession has clearly had a devastating effect on some national economies and many industries, but, so far. the aerospace industry has escaped majpr harm. The communication satellite industry, which constitutes a large chunk of private spending in space, made a small profit in 2008. NewSpace companies, so far, seem to be sticking to their projections.

On the other hand, most money spent on space is spent by governments, and at some point overall government spending will presumably have to be cut. The major aerospace corporations are wary. President Obama, for example, has called for reforming Pentagon procurement procedures, saying billions of dollars could be saved; that money, of course, now largely goes into corporate coffers. Further, the President has argued military spending should be cut, and some weapon systems eliminated. That would be a real blow to the major defense contractors. He has also yet to make a decision about NASA programs.

Likely, projects already underway, like ISS and planetary missions already funded, will be maintained, but the pace of new initiatives may be in doubt.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A Bonus From Hubble

By going over old images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have found a photo of an exoplanet snapped ten years before it was officially "discovered." It's more than a curiosity. First, the find shows Hubble can be used to find planets beyond the Solar System. Second, having the image confirms the exoplanet does in fact orbit that star.

Hubble got the image of the planet when it was taking a coronagraph of the star. To observe a star's corona-- which is roughly its outer atmosphere-- the telescope blocks the body of the bright star. Without that glare, the corona can be studied-- and, it turns out, planets can be found. Hubble has used that technique on around 200 stars. Astronomers now plan to go over that data again in hopes of finding more exoplanets.