Friday, July 31, 2009

Endeavour Home

The STS-127 mission ended successfully this morning with a safe landing at Kennedy Space Center, beating the summer storms that often develop later in the day in Florida. Those storms, in fact, twice delayed the launch of Endeavour on STS-127.

NASA has seven more scheduled shuttle missions, but the retirement date for the program is September, 2010. It's unlikely NASA will meet that date, and Congress is looking at shifting funds to extend the shuttle program into 2011. Doing that, however, would further delay the development of NASA's next manned space vehicle.

Congress and the Obama administration have not blinked at allocating hundreds of billions of dollars, and possibly much more, in an attempt to put the U. S. economy on sounder footing. Given that, making NASA shuffle much smaller sums among programs as it tries to accomplish all the goals Congress has set for it could suggest a lack of seriousness about space policy. If Congress and the Obama administration are not, in fact, serious enough about manned space exploration to give NASA the resources to do the job properly, they shouldn't be asking astronauts to risk their lives in the effort at all.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Virgin Galactic Adds Partner

Aabari Investments, based in Abu Dhabi, has made a $280 million investment in Virgin Galactic, taking a 32 percent stake in the company. By those numbers, Virgin Galactic is valued at something around $850 million.

VG has planned to launch small satellites from its WhiteKnightTwo platform when it wasn't launching tourists on suborbital flights. Aabari's investment is targeted at developing that small satellite business.

The deal also gives Aabari regional rights to VG services. Aabari plans to develop a science center and spaceport in Abu Dhabi.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Inspecting Endeavour

Shuttle astronauts are inspecting Endeavour's heat shield today before Friday's scheduled return home. Since the loss of Columbia, such inspections have often focused on finding damage that may have been done during launch.

This inspection, however, is different. Astronauts are looking for damage that might have been done by micrometeors-- and, no doubt, orbiting debris-- during the time Endeavour has been in space.

After STS-127, there are seven more scheduled shuttle flights.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Lake Life

Researchers working on some of the oldest fossils in the world suggest that multicellular animals, as opposed to single cell life, may have arisen in lake environments, not in the deep ocean as most biologists assume. Further, studying the fossils in a South China geologic strata implies that animal life diversified quickly after its appearance.

SPECULATION: Lakes provide a more dynamic environment than the deep ocean. Energy from the sun could penetrate deep into most lakes. Energy, water, abundant but limited food, and competition for that food may have led to cooperation among single cell organisms that led quickly to permanent associations. Since lakes are much smaller than oceans, interaction among cells would almost necessarily have been greater than they would have been in the open ocean. Interaction is the first step towards multicellular life forms.

Such a line of reasoning has clear implications for the search for life beyond Earth. We have good indications that Mars once had lakes of water (probably not oceans), and we know that Saturn's extraordinary moon Titan has lakes of methane, plus an energetic environment, plus organic compounds everywhere. Finding animal fossils on Mars, therefore, and at least that on Titan, may be more likely than previously thought.

Monday, July 27, 2009


The mission of STS-127 has been largely overshadowed by the commemorations surrounding the fortieth anniversary of Apollo 11. That, however, is positive. It strongly suggests the mission is going smoothly.

The mission does, in fact, seem to be going well. Astronauts just completed the fifth spacewalk of the mission. The final piece of Japan's Kibo laboratory has been installed, further strengthening the science capability of ISS.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Hubble Snaps Jupiter

Astronomers are still recalibrating the Hubble Space Telescope after the repairs made during a shuttle mission last May, but they decided getting an early image of the damage done to Jupiter by the impact of an object last week was important enough to interrupt the recalibration process.

Using Hubble's Wide Field Camera, which was ready to go in any case, they got a sharp image of the area of Jupiter's atmosphere which was entered by the object, likely a comet. The site is near Jupiter's south pole, and, according to one astronomer, the scar is about the size of Earth's Pacific Ocean.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Taking Note Of Time

Much has been written this week about the historic Apollo 11 mission of forty years ago. Happily, all three of the men who flew that mission-- Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins-- are still with us, and Buzz Aldrin, at least, is still extremely active in trying to push space exploration forward.

The best historical analogy to spreading into the Solar System is probably the European exploration of the world beyond Europe during the Age of Discovery. That thrust led directly to the world we know. The parallel with a coming age of expansion into space is far from perfect, but we might still be able to learn some things from it. One of those things might be the speed at which history can move. To take one example-- in 1600, there were no English colonies on the North American mainland. Two centuries later, on the North American mainland, an independent nation of roughly four million people, based on former British colonies, elected its third president, Thomas Jefferson.

Two Earth centuries is a cosmic twinkling-- and not so terribly long on the scale of human civilization, either. When people argue space exploration is really something for the far future, we may do well to remember the future can occasionally pounce upon the inattentive. Where might humanity be in space two centuries after Apollo 11? Maybe nowhere-- but maybe living in comfortable, prosperous communities throughout the Solar System, on the worlds we know and on worlds our descendants build for themselves, perhaps preparing to spread to another star system.

With any luck, our future will be entirely in our own hands.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Ares 1-X Delayed

The first flight of NASA's Ares 1 launcher, originally scheduled for last April, then rescheduled for next month, will now have a planned launch probably sometime in October. Engineers are still working some technical problems, including a vibration during powered flight that tests on the ground have uncovered.

Ares 1 is set to deliver astronauts to low Earth orbit during the Constellation program. Of course, that assumes there will be a Constellation program, and that Ares will be part of it. Other launchers have been proposed by credible people both outside and inside NASA. The Obama administration has not yet fully embraced any manned spaceflight strategy, choosing to wait for the views of Norm Augustine and his committee.

Encountering problems in the development stage of any complex technology program is to be expected. Still, had Ares 1-X successfully performed in April, NASA, and Constellation, would be in much stronger positions today.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Bolden Speaks

New NASA administrator Charles Bolden, in hiis first speech to NASA employees, told them the Obama administration supports human spaceflight, but that given the current economic situation, the challenge for the agency is to figure out how to return to the Moon and build towards Mars in a cost effective manner. That approach may or may not be good. Penny-pinching in technological development can lead to disaster. On the other hand, if the money situation leads Bolden to pursue international partners in building a lunar base, and further to bring private corporations into the program as junior partners, he may be able to create a model that will serve beyond Luna.

Just to note-- the National Space Society will be well represented in the new NASA leadership. Lori Garver, the deputy administrator, was executive director of NSS for nine years. George Whitesides, another former NSS executive director as well as an advisor to Virgin Galactic, will serve as Bolden's chief of staff.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Jupiter Hit Again

Exactly fifteen years after Comet Shoemaker Levy broke into pieces in Jupiter's powerful gravity and slammed into the giant planet a piece at a time, another object seems to have struck the planet. Anthony Wesley of Australia, an amateur astronomer like David Levy, observed a "scar" on Jupiter, and notified NASA, which is now monitoring Jupiter.

Jupiter, of course, is a big target, and it's made much bigger by a gravitational field that tends to bend the orbit of anything in the neighborhood towards the planet, so perhaps its not surprising Jupiter has been hit again so soon. Possibly, such events are relatively common in Jovian history, and we're just now catching on to that story thread. Still, it does bring up the subject of planetary defense. We know Earth and other substantial bodies in the Solar System have been pounded. The latest major such event on Earth happened over Tunguska in 1906.

We are just beginning to understand the nature of this threat ro civilization, and to life on Earth. As of now, our ability to defend ourselves from such a strike is extremely limited. Perhaps this collision with Jupiter will spur us to see develoing the capability to detect and deflect dangerous objects is a necessary tool for long term survival.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Opening The Way Out

Settling the Solar System will be essential for the long term survival of the human race. Nobody who understands the science involved seriously disputes that. Earth will only be able to support an advanced human civilization for a limited time, especially one with several billion individuals. That time may be thousands more years, or hundreds, or fewer.

The question really is how to expand out, and when. Humanity has the scientific knowledge and technological base to begin the expansion now. There is no guarantee either or both will be maintained indefinitely. A few private companies are currently working to find ways to make profits in space, and their ranks could easily grow. The governments of several major nations are considering plans to establish a manned lunar base fairly soon-- a key next step out. The time to make the fundamental decision would seem to be now.

Working out the how is another matter, but the basic building blocks could be those private companies, augmented by many major corporations representing a range of industries, and those governments already looking outward. Forging a public-private consortium that included corporations and governments would extend legal authority and legal protection of investment, property, and patents beyond Earth, creating whole new industries and vastly expanding the human economy. National governments would benefit by encouraging scientific breakthroughs and technological advances, by being part owners of those new industries, by building huge tax bases in the New Prosperity, and by maintaining some control over the pace and direction of change.

If humanity is to begin settling space yet this century, something like the partnership scheme sketched above may be the most viable approach.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Walter Cronkite

Walter Cronkite, the legendary CBS anchor during the period CBS News was unchallenged in television news coverage, passed away Friday night. He was 92. Among the many reasons Cronkite will always be a major figure in twentieth century American journalism, his coverage of the early American manned space program stands out. Cronkite worked to be informed about Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, and anchored coverage of flights. His marathon coverage of Apollo 11 recognized the mission's historic importance.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Foam Mystery

Shortly after the launch of space shuttle Endeavour, long strips of insulating foam came off the external tank, and some of it struck the underbelly of the orbiter. NASA is studying the situation, but so far sees no danger for this mission.

Engineers are puzzled, however. Foam has never come off the external tank in the area this stuff did, or when it did, or in strips. NASA wants to understand what happened before the next launch, which could mean-- you guessed it-- another delay in the program.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


Space shuttle Endeavour finally got off the ground on STS-127 last evening. It was the sixth attempt. STS-127 is scheduled to be a 16 day affair, and its main objective is the completion of Japan's Kibo laboratory on ISS.

On another NASA front, NASA finally has new leadership. The U. S. Senate has confirmed President Obama's nominations of Charles Bolden as administrator and Lori Garver as deputy administrator of the agency. Bolden is a former astronaut and veteran of four shuttle flights, two of which he commanded. Garver served for nine years as the executive director of the National Space Society, one of the most prominent space advocacy groups in the country.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

SpaceX Success

One of the bigger names in the emerging NewSpace industry, SpaceX, successfully launched a resource development satellite for Malaysia from a Pacific Ocean atoll soon after NASA scrubbed the launch of space shuttle Endeavour for the fifth time. It was the firm's first successful commercial launch.

Over the past few years, some observers have been following the development of several new companies that aimed at making big money from space operations of one kind or another. A few of those companies-- Bigelow Aerospace, Virgin Galactic, Interorbital Systems-- seem poised for success in the next decade, while smaller companies also show promise. SpaceX, however, has now hit paydirt first.

SpaceX also has much bigger plans. Its Falcon 1 multistage rocket launched the satellite, but a more powerful version, Falcon 9, is slated to deliver cargo to ISS. That cargo will ride in SpaceX's Dragon capsule. Dragon is being designed with more than cargo in mind, however. SpaceX hopes Dragon will be the first private man-rated spacecraft capable of reaching orbit, and that it will be used to ferry crews to and from ISS.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Still Endeavouring To Launch

The liftoff of space shuttle Endeavour on STS-127 was delayed again last evening. Again, weather was the culprit. NASA plans to try again tomorrow evening. The bad news, of course, is that stormy weather in the late afternoon and early evening is quite common in Florida summers.

These repeated delays clearly give NASA critics room to say the agency is not up to its job-- and to question the value of manned spaceflight. NASA does need to get better, but we should undersrand a big part of getting better would involve developing better technology, which would argue for increasing the NASA budget, not holding it steady-- and certainly not cutting it. The argument over manned versus robotic missions goes beyond the scope of this blog entry, but perhaps it comes down to added value. Astronauts recently finished the final repair of the Hubble Space Telescope, for example, hopefully giving it a few more years of productive life. At this point in history, only humans in space could have done that. On Mars, the robot rover Spirit, now stuck in some kind of soil, is about two miles from its landing site after traveling about five miles in five years. A human expedition could cover that distance in a day. A human working from a base on Mars could free a trapped rover much more efficiently than we can from Earth. Both manned and unmanned programs, often reinforcing each other, have a place in a serious space exploration effort.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Scrubbed Again

Launch of space shuttle Endeavour was scrubbed again last evening, again due to storms in the Cape Kennedy area. That makes four delays for this mission after Endeavour was on the launch pad-- two due to technical delays, and two due to Florida weather.

Another attempt is scheduled for this evening, but again, weather might be a problem.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Lightning Delays Launch

Nine lightning strikes in the area of the launch pad delayed the liftoff of space shuttle Endeavour yet again last evening. Out of an abundance of caution, NASA put off the launch in order to make sure the shuttle was sound. Another attempt at launch is scheduled for this evening.

Lightning has interacted with space launches before, of course-- perhaps most famously with the launch of Apollo 12. That mission was launched into a deck of low clouds, and lightning struck the vehicle seconds after liftoff. The cautious decision then may well have been to abort the mission. Had that happened after the near disaster of Apollo 13, the decision may well have been different. But, as it was, NASA not only didn't abort Apollo 12, the mission continued to the Moon, where Pete Conrad and Alan Bean pulled off only the second manned lunar landing before returning safely home.

In a way, Apollo 12 may have been the high point of the Apollo program.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Mapping Unseen Craters

NASA's JPL has used the Goldstone System Radar to bounce signals off the south polar region of the Moon, creating a topographical map of the area. Data from Japan's recent Kaguya lunar probe was used as a check on the Goldstone results.

The topographical map shows several craters that are permanently shadowed; the Sun's rays have likely never reached the bottom of those craters. Because light never reaches those craters, they have never been seen before. Their existence is good news for those who think water ice may exist on the floors of such craters.

NASA intends to search for that water ice later this year. It will use the new map to target the LCRSS impactor into one of those craters and watch the "splash" after it hits for signs of water vapor.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Worms In Space

Nature is full of odd connections. For example, a species of worm, according to a 2004 study done on ISS which has been confirmed by experiments aboard Chinese and Japanese probes, is a good substitute for humans when studying the effects of microgravity on muscles, and the effects of radiation on genes.

Two major issues to be solved before long term human spaceflights are undertaken are how to maintain muscle strength and mass over prolonged periods in microgravity, and how to combat genetic damage done by exposure to high levels of radiation. The C elegans species of roundworm, for whatever reason, reacts similarly to humans to both of those issues. Studying the worms, therefore, can give insight into how to resolve the human situation.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Another Possible Delay

In a scenario that has been all too common during the run of the shuttle program, NASA is already saying the launch of space shuttle Endeavour Saturday evening may be delayed because of stormy weather. Such weather in the late afternoon and early evening is nearly the rule in Florida summers because of the energy that builds in the atmosphere through the early part of the day and the moisture in the air over a fairly narrow peninsula.

As long as spaceflight remains based on rocket launches, flying from Florida will have to factor in the weather. NASA's next program, Constellation, will also depend on rocket launches, and will also leave from Cape Kennedy. Long term, a robust space program must have a more reliable launch capability. Going somewhere that has more benign weather would be one solution, but NASA is not about to turn Cape Kennedy into an historic site any time soon. The ultimate solution will be moving away from rocket launches to spaceships that can take off from runways, and do so in most weather conditions. Unfortunately, those ships are likely decades away.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Crew Comes To Cape Kennedy

The crew of space shuttle Endeavour arrives at Cape Kennedy today in anticipation of a Saturday launch. Last month's attempted launch was scrubbed due to a hydrogen gas leak in the external tank, but NASA is confident that problem has been fixed.

Endeavour's mission is scheduled to last 16 days. At the end of that time, NASA will be fast approaching being only a year away from the planned September 2010 retirement of the shuttle. It's unlikely, in light of the history of the program, that NASA will be able to complete all the missions now scheduled by then. Congress and the Obama administration are considering extending the shuttle program until all those missions are flown, but spending more on shuttle might take money from Constellation, thus delaying NASA's new manned program. Those responsible for space policy over the latest couple of decades have put the agency in a tight box.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Sharing Meteor Info

This blog recently reported the Pentagon was changing a policy under which it gave data from surveillance satellites to scientists when the satellites picked up meteors burning their way through the atmosphere. The satellites that gather the data are designed to monitor Earth, looking for nuclear explosions in the atmosphere, and will also detect large meteors.

According to journalist Leonard David, there will be an accomodation. Indeed, the USAF general in charge of dispensing the information says there has been no change in policy. Rather, he says, he has simply been reviewing the procedures that govern the program. Those procedures need tightening, he says, but once that's been done, the data will continue to be released to the scientific community.

He hopes the new procedures will make the data even more useful to scientists.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Pace Of Development

On July 4, 1776, some three million people scattered along the east coast of North America announced to the world their independence from the mightiest empire on Earth. Before two centuries were up, that largely agricultural society had transformed into a continental nation, an industrial giant, leader of the Free World, and a people with the wherewithal and vision to put a dozen men on the Moon and return them all safely to the Earth.

One of many lessons in the sweep of American history bears on the question of interstellar civilizations. Societies change. Sometimes they get on incredible rolls. What is impossible at one time may not be even a short trip down the spacetime road. In 1776, who could've imagined mankind was two long human lifetimes from setting foot on the Moon-- or that the people to do that would be the descendants of New England minute men, Southern planters, and enslaved Africans?

Those who profess to know how interstellar civilizations would behave, or who argue that humans will never travel to the stars, might do better to read more history. Humility and open minds are better guides to the future than simple extrapolation from what we have and think we know today.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Data From Phoenix Mars Lander

Results from the mission of the Phoenix Mars Lander are beginning to be published. They make an interesting casse for Martian life.

Perhaps most importantly, Lander confirmed that water ice exists just under the surface in the polar regions. It also found compounds, like calcium carbonates, that can be associated with life.

Increasingly, the case can be made that if life ever arose on Mars, it could have existed for quite some time. In fact, there seems to be a possibility that life could still exist well underground, safe from the deadly radiation that likely makes the surface sterile.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Endeavour Rescheduled

NASA engineers think they have found and sealed the hydrogen gas leak that scuttled the shuttle launch last month. Endeavour is now scheduled to launch July 11.

The centerpiece of Endeavour's mission will be the delivery and installation of the final piece of Japan's Kibo laboratory to ISS. Kibo will be an important component of the scientific research capability of ISS.

At the same time NASA is pushing to complete construction of ISS before the planned retirement of the shuttle next year, it is also beginning to look to deorbiting ISS in 2016. After all the billions spent on ISS, that would only give us five years use of the fully deployed station. Surely there's a better way. Such shortsightedness is one piece of the argument for bringing private enterprise and commercial interests into the space program. An element concerned frankly with the creation of wealth would take a more strategic view of assets in space as well as fashioning a broader, more coherent vision of space development. In the current economic situation, creating new wealth would seem to be an excellent idea.

President Bush, in his 2004 speech announcing his Moon-Mars plan, held out the possibility that private companies might be brought into the heart of the program. His NASA never really pursued that. Perhaps the Obama administration, which seems to support public-private partnerships in other areas-- as well as an expansion of basic scientific research-- should approach the private sector about joint space projects. It could begin by trying to work out more of a future for ISS.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Troy Comes To Pasadena

JPL engineers trying to find a way to unstick NASA's Mars rover Spirit have built an area duplicating as closely as possible the area around Spirit, which the rover team has dubbed Troy. They've also placed a replica Spirit in the real Spirit's predicament. Soon, they will begin working on ways to free their rover, in hopes that what works in Pasadena will also work on Mars.

The first test will be spinning the wheels. If that has no effect in Pasadena, the engineers can proceed to work the problem with more confidence. If the test rover is easily freed, however, the engineers will have to rebuild their little bit of Mars.