Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Kaguya Finds Uranium

Japan's Kaguya spacecraft, launched in 2007 to map the mineral resources of Earth's Moon, found, among many other useful elements and minerals, lunar unanium.

Kaguya used a spectrometer to do its work from lunar orbit. Spectrometers break ordinary light down into its components, and each element has its own spectral signature-- that has been determined by work in laboratories over the past century or so. If a signature is found in a spectrograph of a star or other heavenly body, we can say the element belonging to that signature is present in that heavenly body.

Lunar uranium presents some exciting possibilities. Nuclear reactors fueled by lunar uranium could power lunar bases and colonies, for example. Or, lunar uranium could fuel nuclear-powered spaceships that could allow humans to travel quickly to Mars and beyond without worrying about a launch accident involving radioactive material; the ship's reactor could be fueled after it reaches space. Or, lunar uranium could be used to power commercial reactors on Earth. That would allow nuclear power without the environmental costs of mining on Earth, and lunar uranium mining could be the essential first industry around which a vibrant, diversified lunar economy could be built.

Uranium on the Moon has the potential to be very big news indeed.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Comet At Tunguska

One of the enduring mysteries of the twentieth century concerns a horrific explosion over Tunguska in 1908 that leveled 2,000 square kilometers of Siberian forest, but left no crater. Had the explosion occurred over Europe, for instance, the loss of human lives would've been staggering. Had it happened sixty years later, it could easily have triggered nuclear war.

Scientists have narrowed the causes of Tunguska to either a comet or an asteroid exploding in Earth's atmosphere. New evidence may tilt that towards a comet.

Noctilucent clouds are the highest clouds produced in Earth's atmosphere, and physicists are just now beginning to get a handle on them. They consist of water vapor, and are very bright visually. Space shuttle launches, in fact, can trigger formation of these clouds because 97 percent of the exhaust from shuttle engines is water vapor, and some of it is released at very high altitude.

After the Tunguska event, northern Europe experienced several "bright nights"-- nights that didn't get entirely dark. Some scientists now suggest that could have been caused by bright noctilucent clouds high in the atmosphere that were fed by water vapor from whatever exploded. If that were the case-- a comet carries more water than an asteroid.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Spirit Showing Spirit

NASA's Mars rover Spirit has been stuck in soft soil since May 5, but that hasn't stopped it from getting scientific data.

The soil so far holding Spirit fast happens to be colorful and layered. Much of the color is due to iron present in substantial amounts. Overall, iron is what gives Mars its rusty red color. The layering suggests the area, which the rover team has dubbed "Troy," has an active geologic history. The trick is reading that history, and scientists are using every capability of Spirit's suite of scientific instruments to understand the area.

It's not the ideal situation-- rovers, after all, are supposed to rove-- but doing a detailed study of an interesting, layered area after five years of roving is not a bad thing, either.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Curiosity's Shield

The Mars Science Laboratory will be the largest, most complex probe yet sent to another planet. Lockheed Martin recently delivered to NASA the largest, most complex heat shield ever built for a probe. Also delivered was a shell to protect MSL's rover, Curiosity, to protect it during the fiery ride through the atmosphere of Mars.

MSL was originally scheduled to launch this summer, but budget problems delayed the mission until 2011.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

LRO, LCROSS Operating

NASA's new missions to the Moon, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the LCROSS impactor, are both functioning properly. Both have sent back images of the Moon.

The simple black-and-white images are not triumphs in terms of quality, but they do show the ccaft are in working trim.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ocean Inside Enceladus

Scientists have new evidence that Saturn's small moon, Enceladus, is home to an ocean under the shell of ice that covers its surface. Salt has been detected in the sprays of water that erupt from the moon's southern polar region. Salt gets in water through the interaction of rock with liquid water. Therefore, liquid saltwater exists under the ice.

If this discovery holds, Enceladus would join Jupiter's much larger moons Europa, Callisto, and Ganymede as worlds with likely subsurface oceans. Further, adding liquid water, an energy source that keeps the water liquid, and possible organic compounds leads to the possiblity of life.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

LRO On Post

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, after a four day flight, successfully fired its rocket and slipped into lunar orbit. LRO will map the surface of the Moon in unprecedented detail, paving the way for astronauts to return to the Moon. LRO data will be used to pick the site of the first lunar base.

Some might assume the Moon was mapped before Apollo and question why it needs to be done again, especially since the Moon is essentially a dead, unchanging world. There are several aspects to answering that question, but it comes down to mission definition. Apollo was focused on relatively safe landing sites and short stays. That led to mapping centered on the Moon's equatorial regions. A lunar base, however, is about permanence and extended exploratory forays from that base. More factors come into play than during Apollo, and, therefore, a better data base is needed. LRO is intended to provide that.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Augustine Underway

Hearings of the Augustine Committee, which will advise President Obama on the future of NASA's manned spaceflight program, began holding hearings last week. The CEOs of some private launch companies, not surprisingly, argued they could launch NASA's new Orion capsule more cheaply rhan NASA could develop the new Aries 1 rocket to do it. Later, however, Mr. Augustine, a former chairman of Lochheed Martin, did say that some of those companies were further along than he'd thought.

Key to maintaining a long term exploration initiative is building broad support for it. Bringing private industry, and therefore the profit motive, into the program could start to do that. Perhaps not coincidentally, profit was a factor in the European exploration efforts that, for good and ill, ushered in the modern world. International partners in establishing a lunar base would also be useful; it is likely inevitable. The Augustine Committee may not get into such overtly political, diplomatically complex areas, but perhaps it should.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Step Forward

Groundbreaking ceremonies for Spaceport America were held last week in New Mexico. Supporters of the project, as well as the State of New Mexico, hope the facility will become the hub of the NewSpace industry.

The first anchor tenant will be Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic. VG plans to start flying paying customers on suborbital flights to the edge of space from Spaceport America in 2011.

Friday, June 19, 2009

To The Moon Again

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and LCROSS impactor are on their way to the Moon. They were scheduled for launch Wednesday, but that was delayed in favor of space shuttle Endeavour. As it turned out, of course, Endeavour didn't go, and won't until at least mid-July.

The major goal of NASA's first lunar mission in a decade, as reported earlier in this blog, is to determine whether water ice exists on the permanently shadowed floors of deep craters near the lunar poles.

If it does exist in usable quantities, establishing a permanent human presence on the Moon will be that much easier. Not easy, or inexpensive, but easier. The location of the ice would also give NASA, and perhaps the international community, a clear site for the first base, which should help focus the project in the public mind.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The End Time

Over the last few years, ostensibly because of the Mayan calendar which ends this time cycle in 2012, there has been a curious mix of New Age philosophy, odd astronomical notions, and biblical interpretations that predicts the end of our world that fateful year.

The people pushing this notion like to say the Mayans were extremely advanced astronomers. First, predicting the future in this way by looking to the heavens is not astronomy. Second, the Maya were advanced astronomers in their historical context; they do not rival our astronomers. Our guys and gals are happily planning observing programs beyond 2012. They see no reason to think the world will end that year.

Why the notion of the end of the world in our lifetime has any appeal is a question certainly well beyond the scope of this little blog. Is it an expression of the fear of death? Does it derive from a feeling that life has been a disappointment, so why not end it across the board? Are people who are attracted to the notion that the world will end with them simply so self-centered that they can't imagine the world without them?

Scientists say the Earth, barring some unlucky and unlikely catastrophe, still has hundreds of millions of good years left. Go with that.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Another Leak, Another Delay

The space shuttle launch scheduled for early this morning was scrubbed when NASA found yet another hydrogen leak in the external fuel tank. The STS-127 mission will now be delayed until mid-July at the earliest.

Hydrogen leaks in the external tank have become a problem of late. NASA has been launching shuttles in the same configuration for nearly thirty years, generally with complete success, so it's probably unlikely that the leaks are the result of some fundamental flaw in the system, but NASA cannot afford such glitches. Retirement for the shuttle is looming, and there is still much work for it to do.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

STS-127 On Again

NASA has slated space shuttle Endeavour for launch early Wednesday morning after repairing a hydrogen gas leak that aborted the launch last Saturday,

The two unmanned lunar probes that were to launch Wednesday will now launch no earlier than Thursday afternoon.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Looking For Water On Luna

At first blush, the lunar surface would seem an extremely unlikely place to find water-- in the form of ice or otherwise. Yet, two U. S. probes in the 1990s, Clementine and Lunar Prospector, found evidence suggesting water ice may in fact exist on the floors of deep craters near the lunar poles, where the heat of solar radiation never reaches.

Now, NASA is set to try to solve the mystery. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will map the lunar surface in detail. At the same time, an impactor will be sent roaring into the lunar surface where ice might exist. LRO will also monitor the plume created by the impact, in search of traces of water vapor.

Positive results would be a boost for NASA. Negative results would likely mean the debate about lunar water ice would continue.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Endeavour Delayed

The launch of space shuttle Endeavour on STS-127 was delayed Saturday when a hydrogen leak was found during fueling of the external tank.

The delay will be at least four days. Four days, however, will bring the shuttle into conflict with the launches of two unmanned lunar probes. If Endeavour doesn't get the nod over the probes, the shuttle mission will be delayed at least into July. Of course, such a delay wouldn't be good news for NASA, which is charged with winding up the shuttle program next year.

Friday, June 12, 2009

STS-127 A Go

Launch of space shuttle Endeavor on STS-127, set for early tomorrow morning, is looking good. The Florida weather seems to be cooperating.

The mission will deliver the final piece of Japan's Kibo laboratory. It's a so-called "porch" that will house experiments that will be exposed to the space environment.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Classified Space Rocks

The U. S. Department of Defense has announced a change in policy. For 15 years, data from satellites monitoring Earth for suspicious explosions has been shared with astronomers when rocks from space have been detected. No more. Now, that data will be classified.

Astronomers are predictably upset. Data about incoming bodies increased their understanding of the Solar System, and it's data they can't really get anywhere else. It allowed astronomers to gauge the threat to Earth from collisions with asteroids or comets. That's certainly important work.

However, the DoD satellites in question were not designed to do that. They were designed, essentially, to detect nuclear explosions. Over the past decade or so, with the Soviet Union gone, that task may not have seemed as pressing. Now, North Korea seems intent on testing devices. Iran is a worrying possibility. Iran's trajectory towards becoming a nuclear power may push other nations in the area to pursue their own nuclear capability. The Pentagon may have decided it can no longer tip what its satellites can and cannot detect.

Hopefully, there is a middle ground-- a way to give the astronomers the data they've been receiving without revealing U. S. capabilities to those who should probably have to guess about such things.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Good News From Mars

After a tough period, NASA got some good news from Mars. As expected, engineers have been successful in bringing the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter out of safe mode. MRO's computer put itself into safe mode a few days ago. Engineers believe it was struck by a cosmic ray or a charged solar particle. MRO is now back to reconnoitering.

That still leaves the Spirit rover held fast by a patch of soft Martian soil. NASA continues to work that problem. In the meantime, the other rover, Opportunity, is still functioning well, and the orbital assets are back at full strength.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


Preparations for the next shuttle mission, scheduled for a Saturday morning launch, are proceeding smoothly.

The main task of STS-127 will be to complete constructiom of Japan's Kibo laboratory. Like last month's Hubble repair mission and other ISS construction missions, this one will require extensive spacewalks. That's probably not a good thing. If humanity is serious about pushing into deep space, developing sophisticated robots that can do most of the outside work should be a priority.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Funding Manned Spaceflight

A subcommittee of the U. S. House voted last week to cut 16 percent from next year's NASA manned spaceflight budget. Members insist the move is a "pause" until the Augustine commission on the future of manned space exploration reports its views later this summer.

It might be just a pause. President Obama has been generally, if vaguely, supportive of a vigorous manned space program, and his first budget included an extra $1 billion for NASA. Mr. Augustine, too, has argued for a strong manned program.

There has been grumblings, both inside and outside of NASA, that the new Constellation program is going down the wrong path, but the Augustine group likely won't have the time to analyze the program in detail. What it might do is note the stirrings of support for an international effort to establish a lunar base and support that direction. Bringing international partners into the program could cut costs to NASA even while establishing a vigorous new manned exploration initiative that could lead to more ambitious programs.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Another Problem At Mars

The computer of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter suffered a glitch last week and put itself in safe mode. NASA engineers think MRO may have been struck by a cosmic ray or solar particle.

NASA doesn't believe any serious damage was done and expects MRO to be back doing science later this week. MRO is on an extended mission, having completed its planned mission last year.

Even with this problem with MRO and the current problem with the Mars rover Spirit, the present generation of NASA's Mars probes have proven to be extremely durable.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Tough Life On Mars

Scientists testing microbes that live in one of the most extreme, most Mars-like environments on Earth, in Antarctica, have determined that even those microbes wouldn't survive long on Mars. Using the "Mars room" at the Kennedy Space Center, in which Mars surface conditions are simulated, they found the UV radiation that pours onto the planet's surface would quickly kill the Earthly microbes.

Of course, it shouldn't be surprising that life which evolved on one world wouldn't do well on another, but the results of the study have some interesting implications. First, they suggest contaminating Mars with Earth life might not be the potential problem scientists had feared. Second, the study might suggest that life on Mars, current or extinct, may be found well under the surface, where it would be protected from the radiation. Third, if we ever decide to terraform Mars, using Earthly lifeforms to start may not work. Bio-engineering life to thrive on Mars, or using nonbiological techniques may by necessary from the outset.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Releasing Spirit

NASA engineers are still trying to find a way to get the Mars rover Spirit out of the soft soil which has trapped it for about a month. The soil is up to the rover's hubcaps, which is not a good situation.

NASA's latest attempt to get a handle on precisely what's wrong involved using the microscopic imager at the end of Spirit's robotic arm to look under the rover, to see whether it's belly is on the ground. The image wasn't good, because the imager used was never designed for such a task, but Spirit may be resting on a rock.

Analysis of the image continues.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Atlantis Back At KSC

Space shuttle Atlantis has completed its two day flight from California to Florida-- with stops in Texas and Mississippi-- atop its 747 carrier aircraft.

The pilot of the 747 took Atlantis on a kind of victory lap up and down the Florida Space Coast before landing at Kennedy Space Center. Onlookers were delighted, but the lap may have been bittersweet, as well. That flight could easily have been the last time a space shuttle is brought home to Kennedy in that way.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Same Old Shuttle Story

NASA is preparing shuttle Endeavor for a June 12 launch to ISS on a mission that will complete construction of Japan's Kibo laboratory. The mission has a three-day launch window; if it doesn't go in that window, the mission must be delayed until next month.

As it has been so many times, Florida's weather is the wild card. NASA is watching possible storms closely. Getting a system as complex as the shuttle ready to launch is difficult enough. Doing that while keeping one eye on the weather has degraded the performance of the program. Of course, one time NASA seemingly risked weather conditions being good enough was in January, 1986, when Challenger was lost. The cold that morning was at least one factor in the tragedy.

Conceiving humanity really opening space until we have a launch system robust enough to operate safely in most weather conditions is tough. The shuttle, early in its design phase, was supposed to do that, but the shuttle that was actually built never came close to such capability. In fact, such a system may still be decades away.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Finding Liquid Water On Exoplanets

By using NASA's Deep Impact space probe and Earth, astronomers are working at developing techniques which will allow them to search for liquid water on the surface of a planet orbiting another star. Water vapor has already been found in the atmospheres of some exoplanets, but finding water on the surface of a rocky world orbiting within the habitable zone of its star would make that world a strong candidate for hosting life.

Deep Impact took pictures of Earth from millions of miles away, simulating the view astronomers would have of an Earthlike exoplanet. By analyzing the shifting light, astronomers were able to deduce Earth has both land and water on its surface and an atmosphere that supports clouds. They think the technique would work on exoplanets, as well. The next step is to find an exoplanet as small as Earth.