Sunday, May 31, 2009

ISS At Full Strength

With the docking of the latest Soyuz last week, the crew size of ISS increased from three to six. Six is planned to be the crew size for the duration of the station.

That is actually quite a number. Maintaining six humans beyond Earth for years has never been done before. With the retirement of the shuttle, that maintenance will be done by unmanned supply ships, Soyuz capsules for crew rotation, and, possibly, privately owned and operated craft. The American Orion would not be ready until 2015.

The rationale behind a six-persn crew is tied to realizing the potential of ISS. It was designed-- and sold to Congress-- as a world-class research lab in space. Scientific breakthroughs were supposed to justify the station's cost. That hasn't happened so far. Doubling the crew is supposed to increase the science coming from ISS. It will also give humanity experience in dealing with fairly large space crews, which will be a plus as we prepare to establish a permanent base on the Moon and move on to Mars.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Virgin Galactic Takes Another Step

Virgin Galactic has successfully test fired the rocket engine that will boost SpaceShipTwo to the edge of space. SpaceShipTwo is designed to carry eight people-- two pilots and six passengers-- on suborbital flights.

VG already has 300 people signed up to fly at $200,000 a ticket, and seems on its way to starting commercial operations in 2011. SpaceShipTwo is essentially complete, and WhiteKnightTwo, the aircraft that will carry SpaceShipTwo to altitude, is well into its test flights.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Planets Aplenty?

The latest exoplanet to be found orbits one of the smallest stars known. In fact, the star, which is 20 light years away, is just barely massive enough to sustain fusion in its core, thus allowing it to shine.

The fact that such small stars can have planets suggests to scientists that planetary systems may be quite common; they may even be a natural part of star formation.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Observing An Exoplanet

Scientists have been able to observe a planet orbiting a star 1,600 light years away in visible light. The planet is roughly the size of Jupiter, so it's a relatively large target, but seeing it directly is still quite an achievement.

Astronomers believe they have confirmed the planet is tidally locked on its parent star, which means the same hemisphere always faces the star, much as the Moon always keeps the same face towards Earth. They came to that conclusion by measuring the temperatures of the two hemispheres of the world. The hemisphere facing the star is a boiling 3,600 degrees F, while the hemisphere turned away from the star is frigidly cold. That dichotomy suggests there is no interaction between the two sides, and that the same side always faces the star.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Opportunity Rolling Along

While NASA's rover, Spirit, is stuck in soft soil on one side of Mars, its twin on the other side of the planet, Opportunity, has just passed the ten miles traversed mark.

For a rover that was designed to cover one kilometer in 90 days, covering ten miles in more than five years is an astonishing achievement. Let's be clear, however-- it is ten miles in over five years. A manned mission could cover that much ground in one day, and do better science along the way.

The debate over manned versus robotic space exploration misses the point. Wherever possible, as on the Moon and on Mars, both should be employed, using the strengths of each.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Atlantis Home

The weather in Florida was still unfriendly to a shuttle landing, so NASA finally brought shuttle Atlantis home to Edwards Air Force Base in California this morning, ending what seems to have been an extremely successful Hubble repair mission.

Ferrying Atlantis back to Florida atop a 747 will cost NASA an extra couple million dollars, but we are approaching the end to that possible expense. It will go away when the shuttle is retired. The planned follow-up to the shuttle, Orion, is a capsule and will be recovered at sea.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

NASA Notes

Stormy weather over Florida has delayed the landing of space shuttle Atlantis for another day. NASA makes every effort to land shuttles in Florida to avoid the cost of shipping the orbiter cross country atop a 747, but tomorrow it will likely be either Florida or California.

In other NASA news, the Obama administration has confirmed it will nominate retired Marine major general and former astronaut Charles Bolden to be the next NASA administrator. Bolden is a veteran of four shuttle missions, two of which he commanded. He will also be the frst African-American to lead the space agency.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Another Day In Space

One thing that has constantly plagued the space shuttle program has been the stormy Florida weather. That weather has intervened again, this time delaying the return of the Hubble repair crew.

NASA now plans to bring Atlantis home tomorrow, either in Florida or in California.

After such a grueling mission, though, an unscheduled, free day in weightlessness, watching the beautiful Earth drift by outside might not be all bad.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Aliens And Atomic Power

Last night's UFO Hunters focused on the theory that aliens are closely monitoring our most advanced scientific installations. Historically, there are clusters of UFO reports centered on such places, as well as around military bases that housed nuclear weapons. Roswell, for example, was home to a bomber group that would have delivered atomic bombs, had that become necessary immediately after World War II.

The notion that aliens capable of interstellar travel would be overly concerned about atomic explosions on Earth, however, is probably too human-centric. Cracking the atom was a monumental achievement for mankind, but it still left us centuries away from being able to leave our own solar system. There was no cause for interstellar panic. The notion that such an advanced society would dedicate such resources to keep ongoing track of human scientific progress probably also gives us too much credit.

There is a line of thought dating back to the so-called alien contactees of the 1950s that says aliens are here to keep us from destroying ourselves through nuclear war, pollution, or whatever. Under that theory, aliens don't fear our gathering capability, they just want to channel it down useful paths. Of course, the "aliens" who interacted with the contactees were themselves very human in form, and said they came from places like Venus and Saturn.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Cleaning Up After Ourselves

That space debris posed a problem has been clear to the space community for a while now, but there may also be another aspecct to that problem. According to some studies, spaceflight also poses an environmental hazard to the upper atmosphere.

When space junk drops back into the atmosphere, it burns up, unless a piece is big enough to reach the surface-- but that's not the end of the matter. Depending on the composition of the object, the burning can release chemicals that have a negative effect on the ozone layer, which protects Earth's surface from harmful radiation. Large particles of debris also hang in the upper atmosphere. Such pollution is not a serious problem yet, scientists say, but it could become serious unless addressed.

Chemical, staged rockets will not support a robust, spacefaring civilization. To build an economy that reaches into space, to other worlds, new, more powerful means of reaching Earth orbit will need to be developed. That's the economic factor pushing development forward. Now, there may be an environmental factor pushing in the same direction.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Freeing Spirit

As the Hubble repair mission successfully winds down, NASA is still studying ways to get its Mars rover, Spirit, moving again. As recently reported in this blog, Spirit is currently stuck in a patch of soft ground.

Engineers are using the other rover on Mars, Opportunity, to test the possibility of using Spirit's robotic arm to look beneath the rover, to see if its belly is resting on the ground. Since Martian winds have blown dust off Spirit's solar panels, thus increasing the rover's power supply, NASA is also using the Mars Odyssey orbiter to get in extra communication sessions with Spirit.

The next few weeks will be spent analyzing the situation and deciding what to do. No further attempt to move Spirit will be made until that process is complete.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Hubble's Last Visitors

Astronauts are currently performing the fifth and final spacewalk of the Hubble Repair Mission, and NASA is pleased with the results. One camera felled by an electrical short in 2007 could not be brought back online-- NASA considered that a long-shot in any case-- but other objectives of the mission seems to have been met. If all goes well, Hubble will continue delivering top quality science until 2014.

Today, astronauts have the melancholy task of attaching a ring to Hubble. In 2014, a spacecraft will latch onto that ring, and lead Hubble to its fiery doom as it re-enters Earth's atmosphere.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

NASA's Next Administrator

There was talk back in January that then President-elect Obama might name his choice for NASA administrator before his inauguration. That didn't happen.

Four months later, it still hasn't happened. A science advisor to the President, however, told Congress last week that an announcement is close, and that the leading candidate is retired Air Force Major General and former astronaut Charles Bolden.

Bolden denies he's been offered the job. There is some pressure to get someone in the position quickly, though. Critical decisions about NASA's future generally and about the future of the manned spaceflight program particularly must be made shortly NASA needs a leader to carry its banner into those policy battles.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Recent Martian Rivers?

Scientists using images taken by probes orbiting Mars suggest there were running rivers on the planet fewer than a billion years ago. That's obviously a long while back, but the current consensus view is that Mars' wet period ended about 3.5 billion years ago, which would make life on Mars at any time relatively unlikely. Liquid water on the surface a billion years ago would be encouraging to those searching for life.

The evidence for rivers is a system of 800 foot wide valleys in a crater in Mars' northern hemisphere that scientists say was cut by running water. They believe that even now a glacier of water ice covered by dust exists in the crater, which is at a low elevation. That means the atmospheric pressure at the floor of the crater would be higher than normal on Mars, which would better support liquid water.

Life has not been found on Mars to date, but it remains a tantalyzing possibility. Scientists have narrowed places to look for life. They are developing fairly sophisticated search strategies. If life ever arose on Mars, we should know within decades, if not sooner.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Space Junk and Atlantis

Space junk is increasingly a problem in Earth orbit. Last winter's collision involving an Iridium satellite and a defunct Russian satellite both worsened and highlighted the potential for disaster. The current Hubble repair mission is more dangerous than it would've been because of flying debris.

NASA reports Atlantis may indeed have been struck by a piece of junk, although-- this time-- there seems to have been no damage. NASA is also tracking another piece of junk that might come relatively close to the shuttle.

If Atlantis would be disabled, space shuttle Endeavor is on the pad, ready to attempt a rescue. Should an astronaut be struck during a spacewalk, everything could depend on getting the person back inside the pressurized cabin quickly. The best defense against that happening is probably size, or the lack of it. A human is a tiny target in the vastness of orbital space.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Hubble Captured

Space shuttle Atlantis successfully rendezvoused with the Hubble Space Telescope, and the crew used the shuttle's robotic arm to grab hold of it. So begins the meat of the final repair mission. Five spacewalks are planned, during which astronauts will carefully swap out certain components of Hubble's imaging and control systems for new ones.

Inspection of Atlantis' heat tiles revealed scuffing of some tiles on the leading edge of one wing, but NASA doesn't think it's a problem.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Stuck Spirit

NASA's Mars rover Spirit is stuck in soft ground, and engineers say it might be weeks before they attempt to move the rover again. The team is analyzing the situation, both by using Spirit's scientific instruments to study the dirt it's in and by running simulations at JPL in Pasadena, California.

In 2005, the other rover, Opportunity, was similarly bogged down--though not in a bog-- and the rover team was able to extricate the vehicle. Opportunity is still roving Mars, on the opposite side of the planet from Spirit.

The real news here is probably that such situations haven't occurred more often. Driving a rover on one planet from another planet is no easy thing. Throw in the fact that Mars has a varied topography and geology, and that the rovers are constantly on new ground, and the quality of the work done by the engineers and scientists to keep the rovers alive and producing for five years becomes apparent.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Atlantis Away

Space shuttle Atlantis launched minutes ago into a bright blue Florida sky on its way to the Hubble Space Telescope.

The Hubble repair mission plans five space walks as astronauts upgrade Hubble's technology to make its images several times more detailed than they've ever been. That would be an extraordinary boon to science. Scientists hope this mission will give Hubble five more years of useful service.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

ABC News and HST

ABC News has been following the crew of the Hubble repair mission, set to launch Monday, for about a year. A series of reports began last week and will continue throughout the mission. It is rare, comprehensive coverage of a space mission by one of the major networks.

Charles Gibson, anchor of World News Tonight, insisted on calling the mission challenging and dangerous. Well, it is, but every manned spaceflight is challenging and dangerous; ABC and Gibson have seemingly felt no need to emphasize that right along. This will also be the third Hubble repair, so NASA should have some sort of handle on it. Still, this mission was canceled by NASA after the Columbia tragedy because it was seen as too risky; pressure from the public and the science community led NASA to reconsider. It's also true that NASA has a second shuttle on a launch pad in case a rescue attempt is required. We can probably forgive Mr. Gibson for hyping this one.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Bob White's Object

This blog has been critical of the television series, UFO Hunters, when it tried to stretch nothing into something, so it's only fair to note when it seems the show might be on to a real lead.

In 1985, a fellow named Bob White saw a UFO over western Colorado. A piece of the object fell, or was shot away, from the UFO. White recovered the piece, and has spent the years since having it tested at various laboratories, including Sandia National Lab in New Mexico. White says other reputable labs have also tested the object, but don't want their names made puiblic in this context. That, of course, makes it difficult to judge White's claims. Be that as it may, he reports labs have found anomalous properties associated with the object. This week's show featured two scientists who were willing to talk on television-- though they wouldn't say where they worked. Both confirmed White's object was strange, was manufactured, was made using a metal alloy humans don't make, and speculated, therefore, that the object had an extraterrestrial origin.

Assuming those conclusions are based in solid science, UFOlogists would seem to be close to having the smoking gun they've always needed. That produces a question for the show and the larger UFO community: If they are so close to finally proving at least one extraterrestrial visitation of Earth, why not pound away at that instead of going off into other stuff that is far less compelling than an object of extraterrestrial manufacture you could hold in your hand?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Budget Cuts

President Obama announced plans today to cut or eliminate 121 programs across a range of domestic and military spending totaling some $17 billion in this year's Federal outlays. The President acknowledged the programs targeted are small and that the total cut was also small, but he argued this is a first step in a process to bring Federal spending under control while maintaining necessary government capabilities.

Seventeen billion dollars is an interesting figure. It roughly equals NASA's entire budget for last year, which means it is more than was spent on the entire space program; part of NASA's budget goes for aeronautical programs, the first "A" in NASA. The new Constellation program was designed to require only modest increases in the NASA budget well down the road. If international and/or private partners come into the program, even that increase could be reduced or eliminated.

Of course, Congress may or may not agree to the President's cuts. Because they are so small, the White House might decide not to go to the mat over them if powerful people in Congress threaten to fight to keep one or another of the programs. There's also no guarantee Constellation will come in on budget. Understanding the scale of the space program in relation to total Federal spending is useful, however. We are trying to explore the universe and open space to scientific research and eventual commerce on a shoestring.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Warp Drive

Gene Roddenberry was developing a science fiction television series in the mid-1960s, and he needed a way to get his starship to a different star system each week. Conventional physics of the day said that was impossible. Roddenberry, relying on the traditions of science fiction and some informed speculation, gave the starship Enterprise warp drive.

Forty-odd years later, another STAR TREK feature film is being released, and physicists are arguing about whether warp drive was simply a literary device, or might something like that actually work. A ship can never achieve light speed, according to Einstein, but some physicists speculate that a bubble of spacetime might travel faster than light. Indeed, the entire universe seems to have expanded at faster than light speed shortly after the Big Bang. A ship within such a bubble could then travel faster than light.

Such speculation is interesting, but it brings up a question first asked by Enrico Fermi even before Captain Kirk reported for duty the first tiime. If it is possible for races only a few hundred or a few thousand years ahead of us technologically and scientifically to zip around the galaxy, where are They?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Scheduled to launch tonight as a secondary payload aboard a U. S. Air Force missile is a ten pound nanosatellite called PharmaSat. It's home to yeast cultures, antifungals, and antibiotics. Scientists will use PharmaSat to study how drugs perform in microgravity by monitoring the interactions of the antifungals and antibiotics with the yeast.

Understanding how drugs behave in microgravity, of course, is key if humanity is going to expand into space. So far, the few people who have traveled into Earth orbit and beyond have been carefully monitored for days or weeks before launch, and there have been only isolated instances of sickness in space. As more people venture out and stay longer, however, there will inevitably be illnesses that will require treatment out there. PharmaSat is a step along the way to see what to use in those treatment situations, and how to use it.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Shuttle Layoffs

Last Friday, NASA sent out the first 160 layoff notices of the shuttle program. A total of 900 jobs are on the line as the shuttle program winds down.

As reported in this blog last week, an effort to extend the program beyond the current 2010 deadline is already moving through Congress. One justification for extending the program is to close the gap between the last shuttle flight and the first Orion mission. The effort is being spearheaded by Florida representatives, however, and they make it clear they also want to save jobs at Kennedy Space Center.

Politicians trying to save their constituents' jobs is nothing new, of course. There's nothing wrong with it, at least not in isolation. The case can be made, however, that the U. S. should have moved beyond the shuttle years ago. The proper final destination for shuttle Columbia after twenty years of service was the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D. C.-- not scattered in bits over central Texas. Congress failed to develop a rational space policy, and at least three presidents failed to lead. Now, Congress might try to squeeze every last ounce out of a thirty year old system, even though the remaining shuttles are not that old, and to do it for a mix of reasons. Hopefully, when the shuttle era is finally over, there will still be three intact shuttles for museum display.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Downsizing Orion

NASA originally sketched out two versions of the new Orion capsule-- a sporty four-seater to take astronauts back to the Moon, and a bigger six-seater to ferry crews to and from the ISS. Starting later this month, the full crew complement of ISS will increase from three to six. In order to keep the Orion program on track and within budget for a 2015 first flight, however, NASA is delaying development of the six person model.

The decision has safety implications for ISS crews. After the shuttle is retired, there will be no single spacecraft capable of evacuating the entire ISS crew. The Russian Soyuz accomodates only three people. Therefore, in an emergency requiring removing the entire crew from the space station, two spacecraft would be needed-- either two Soyuz capsules, or one Soyuz and one Orion. That kind of complication is not good, especially if part of the ISS crew involves scientists, or tourists, who are not thoroughly trained, professional astronauts or cosmonauts.

At some point, the decision to pursue hardware that match objectives in space policy will have to be made. If it's not, resources will be wasted, opportunities will be missed, and lives will be put at more risk than necessary.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Putting Off Shuttle's Retirement

Congress, led by members from Florida, is looking at softening the 2010 deadline for the final shuttle flight, adding $2.5 billion to NASA's 2011 budget to allow for possible shuttle missions that year.

Proponents of the approach argue holding NASA to a firm deadline might lead to pressure to launch before the ship is completely ready. Investigations into the 1986 Challenger and the 2003 Columbia accidents found pressure to launch was a factor in both tragedies. Proponents also argue that flying the shuttle beyond 2010 would help close the gap between the shuttle and the Constellation programs, as well as save 3,500 jobs in the shuttle program.

Of course, those jobs wouldn't be saved as much as they would be extended-- perhaps not an insignificant factor in the current economy. The core question, however, might be whether extending an aging spacecraft as long as possble is really a good idea, consistent with crew safety.

Understanding Mercury

Scientists analyzing data sent back from the MESSENGER spacecraft's flyby of Mercury last year are developing a new picture of the tiny planet.

Historically, astronomers have seen Mercury as a dead world, akin to Earth's Moon. The emerging picture, however, is putting Mercury closer to Mars. Volcanism has played a substantial role in shaping the surfaces of both worlds-- a surprise in Mercury's case. Astronomers had assumed impacts would be a dominant factor.

That's not to say there haven't been impacts. MESSENGER, indeed, found a 430 mile wide crater-- that on a world having well less than half the diameter of Earth. Interestingly, at the same time scientists acknowledged volcanism has played a major role on Mercury, they also said the floor of the roughly 3.9 billion year old crater, named Rembrandt, seems to be relatively untouched by volcanism. Clearly, we still have much to learn.