Monday, August 31, 2009

Chandrayaan-1 Lost

India's first foray into planetary exploration seems to be over. Radio contact with its lunar orbiter, Chandrayaan-1, was lost Saturday, and ground control holds out little hope that the link can be reestablished. More likely, the probe will soon crash into the lunar surface.

The mission lasted 14 months out of a planned 24, however, and most of the science objectives were met. Perhaps the most intriguing contribution made by the probe was its discovery of lunar uranium. Depending on various factors, uranium on the Moon could be key to eventual lunar colonization.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Discovery Flying

The STS-128 mission got off to a spectacular start Friday night, burning brightly into a black Florida sky. Discovery is scheduled to dock with ISS later today.

STS-128 is an ISS resupply mission, and is scheduled to last thirteen days.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Ares Test Canceled

The first test firing of NASA's new Ares rocket was canceled yesterday, apparently due to a problem with a fuel valve. Sound familiar? Of course, complex rocket engines are chock full of fuel valves, so they might fail more than other parts do. The next attempt at a test firing will likely come next Tuesday.

Such problems are common in the development of any new technological system, but NASA and its Ares program definitely could have used a smooth, successful test firing at this point. The Augustine committee is due to present its recommendations on the future of NASA's manned spaceflight program to President Obama soon, and reports say Ares is hanging by a thread. A successful test firing just before the recommendations are made public might have been politically useful. As it stands, the committee's report will be viewed against a program seemingly still struggling to find itself.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

MRO At It Once More

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has shut down its main computer for the fourth time this year, putting itself in protective mode.

Engineers are trying to understand why the probe's main computer keeps turning itself off before they activate it again-- obviously, they haven't fully understood it to date-- but they expect to be doing science with MRO again by next week.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Again With The Valves

The launch of space shuttle Discovery was delayed again last night, this time because of a problem with the fuel valves.

NASA likes to remind us that the space shuttle is one of the most complex machines ever built by man. That's no doubt true, but complexity is a double-edged sword. It allows formidable capabilities, but it also means literally millions of things can go wrong. That weakness of complexity has been shown time and again during the thirty years NASA has flown shuttles. The fact that NASA plans to go back to a capsule for its new manned spacecraft can be seen as evidence that, at least for now, the agency sees the shuttle as a technological dead end.

Long term, however, space capsules are the dead end. We are not going to make Mars our own-- let alone go beyond that-- in capsules. Expanding into the cosmos will require huge, true spaceships, with lots of room to allow people to live active, interesting, even private lives during long voyages Those ships will never touch a planetary surface. People will come and go from them using shuttles. Those shuttles will almost certainly have more in common with Discovery and her sisters than with Mercury, Gemini, Soyuz, Apollo, and Orion.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Florida Storms

Florida thunderstorms once more intervened last night, delaying the launch of yet another shuttle mission. This time, however, the culprit wasn't the usual late afternoon storms, but one that went through Cape Kennedy in the middle of the night.

STS-128 will attempt to launch again tonight.

Monday, August 24, 2009


Shuttle Discovery is still scheduled to lift off in the wee hours tonight on STS-128. The mission is a resupply trip to ISS.

After STS-128. there are only six more scheduled shuttle flights, but the pace of the launches slows significantly. To fly all of them will likely mean extending the shuttle program into 2011.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Proof Positive

NASA's LRO lunar probe has taken some amazing shots of the surface that show the landing sites of Apollo 11 and Apollo 14. The images show the base sections of the lunar modules, the experiment packages deployed by the astronauts, and even tracks made by astronauts Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell at Apollo 14's Fra Mauro site.

The images should finally put to rest the enduring, fringe story that the lunar landings were faked. Will they? Probably not. Purveyors of such stories have a vested interest in those stories continuing. They will likely argue NASA fafed the images just as it faked the original missions.

LRO's real mission, however, is not confirming history. It will spend a year mapping the lunar surface and searching for water ice in preparation for the next era of human exploration of the Moon.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Weather Cooperating, So Far

The fickle Florida weather looks good for the early Tuesday morning launch of space shuttle Discovery. NASA plans to start the countdown August 22.

This launch could potentially be the end of an era. It is scheduled to be the final nighttime shuttle launch. NASA has kept such events fairly rare because, in an energency, operating in the dark would be more difficult, but when they come off, night launches are extraordinary sights.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

NASA's New Approach?

The budget problems of the federal government might lead NASA to change how it gets things done. Both Charles Bolden, the new NASA chief, and his deputy, Lori Garver, favor bringing private industry more fully into the space effort.

Conventional wisdom holds that NASA's budget will remain flat for several years as Congress and the President struggle to regain control of federal spending. That means if NASA is to pursue big projects during those years it will have to form partnerships-- with the space agencies of other governments, and with private industry.

The first big test of international partnership in space-- ISS-- has produced a viable space station. It has also gone way over the original budget, but that's largely because the design of the station, through the early years, kept changing. Lessons can be learned from ISS.

Several nations have expressed an interest in participating in an international program to establish a manned lunar base. If NASA assumed a leadership role in such an effort, it could return astronauts to the Moon relatively soon, maintain U. S. leadership in space, stay within a static budget, and, perhaps, establish a precedent for Mars exploration. By bringing private industry into a lunar project, the beginning of a true space economy could be established. That would eventually support large exploration programs.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Discovery A Go

NASA has set a launch date for shuttle Discovery's mission to ISS. Assuming all goes as planned. the shuttle will launch in the wee hours of August 25.

NASA was concerned about foam insulation stripping off the external tank as it did during the previous mission, but engineers have determined the system is safe to fly.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Inflatable Heat Shields

NASA has successfully tested a prototype inflatable heat shield. Using a sounding rocket to throw the experiment 131 miles out, the shield, made of several layers of Kevlar, was inflated and brought back to Earth. The test seemed to meet or exceed all expectations.

NASA is looking at such a system especially in regard to future Mars missions; it would allow more massive objects to be delivered to Mars, both by saving mass in the heat shield, and by inflating the shield, expanding the surface area, thus creating more drag to slow the craft in the Martian atmosphere. The concept is further helped by the weaker gravity and thinner atmosphere of Mars, as compared to Earth. The heat during descent to Mars doesn't reach the blast furnace temperatures produced during re-entry on Earth.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Ares 1-X Standing Tall

NASA has a fully assembled Ares 1-X rocket standing in the cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center. It is scheduled to make a test flight October 31. At 327 feet, Ares 1-X is the tallest vehicle to stand in the VAB since the 1970s, when Saturn 1Bs launched Apollo capsules to Skylab, the first American space station.

The question is whether Ares has a future beyond Halloween. There are many critics-- both inside and outside NASA-- who argue Ares is not the way to go to return astronauts to the Moon by 2020, even assuming the Obama administration embraces that goal. The Augustine Committee, set up to advise the President on the future of NASA manned spaceflight, seemss to have concluded NASA would need an additional $30 billion to achieve that goal. Some critics have also argued Ares is not up to the job technologically.

A spectacular Halloween launch could bend the argument in Ares favor. On the other hand, a spectacular failure would likely take Ares out of the argument completely.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Tank Tests

NASA is performing additional tests on the shuttle's external tank before the scheduled launch of Discovery on August 24 in an attempt to make sure the foam insulation won't strip off.

During the launch of Endeavour last month, insulation strips came off the external tank in a way it hadn't before. NASA wants to understand why that happened before the next launch.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Orion Lite For BA?

Bigelow Aerospace has a problem. It is designing ingenius, inflatable space stations due to be in service in the next decade, but, so far, no way to get people to and from the stations.

In an attempt to solve that problem, BA is considering an "Orion Lite" manned spaccecraft-- a less robust version of NASA's proposed next manned spacecraft. BA's vehicle would use the same superstructure as an Orion capsule, but it would be designed strictly for flights to low Earth orbit. NASA's Orion is being built for deep space missions, and is therefore more complex and massive than BA's proposed ship. Because it would be so much lighter, BA says its version could be launched by an Atlas 5, or by SpaceX's Falcon 9.

The space stations BA is planning would accomodate a crew of fifteen, and the company says its capsule would carry a minimum of seven passengers.

BA is confident it could have its version flying by 2013, years before NASA plans to have Orion in service.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Hunting Killer Asteroids

The National Academy of Sciences says NASA needs more money to find all the near-Earth objects that might crash into Earth. NASA, not surprisingly, agrees, saying it needs between $800 million and $1 billion more money to build the telescopes and other equipment necessary. In this day of billions in federal bailouts and stimulus plans, with seemingly little concern about budget balancing, the amount NASA cites would seem to be chump change-- especially given whaat could happen if we fail to find a killer rock in time to divert it.

The funding shortfall has come about because Congress played one of its favorite budgetary tricks. In 2005, Congress ordered NASA to find all dangerous objects in the near-Earth population by 2020, but did not fund the program. Members could thus honestly tell their constituents they voted to save the planet, even while refusing to make the hard policy choice involved in allocating scarce resources. Its called creating an unfunded mandate. State governments regularly complain about Congress using that policy device on them.

Having said that, apart from small programs undertaken by Canada and Germany, the U. S. is pursuing these objects on its own. There's no reason it should. The threat is global; the program to counter the threat, therefore, should also be global. Perhaps a first step in that direction could have other nations chipping in the extra $1 billion.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Thicker Martian Atmosphere

NASA's rover Opportunity, as reported in this blog, has discovered two meteorites on Mars during its travels. The second one, found last month, is a big iron-nickel specimen. So big, in fact, that scientists say it could not have fallen through Mars' thin atmosphere and ended up where it is. A meteor that size would have roared through the atmosphere, slammed into the surface, been obliterated by the impact, and left a crater.

But there it sits, its bluish tint at odds with its reddish surroundings. The answer? At some point, Mars' atmosphere was thicker than it is today. A thicker atmosphere would have produced more friction on the rock during its descent, thus slowing it down enough to allow a big piece of the original body to reach the surface at a speed that left it intact.

Opportunity is continuing to study the rock, gathering data and looking for clues about when it felll. Scientists think early Mars did have a thicker atmosphere, but if the meteorite hit after that epoch it might mean Mars' atmosphere somehow cycles between thick and thin.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Stimulus For Space Exploration

NASA recently won approval from Congress to spend $1 billion in economic stimulus funds to support entrepreneuriial activity in space exploration. The agency has already announced $50 million of that will go to the winner of a competitive bid contract that will seek to develop a private sector capability to deliver crew and cargo to orbit. That is separate from the COTS program, which has already awarded contracts to SpaceX and Orbital Sciences to develop vehicles capable of delivering cargo to the ISS.

Having a private sector spacecraft capable of ferrying people to and from Earth orbit would clearly be a game changer. Not having to rely on NASA for such access would allow university researchers and private companies to finally begin working out how to bring the resources and unque possibilities of the space environment into the human economy. Doing that could well mark the opening of an era that could lift human wealth and opportunity beyond the wildest dreams of anyone who has yet lived.

Monday, August 10, 2009

MRO Acting Up Again

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has once again had a computer glitch. As reported in this blog, MRO had computer problems in February and June, as well. This time, the probe has put its main computer in safe mode and switched operations to its backup system.

Engineers are confident they can fix the problem and get MRO back to doing science shortly, but the bigger question surely is why the computer keeps spitting its silicon bit. So far, NASA is stumped.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Good Start For Kepler

NASA's Kepler spacecraft is gearing up for its mission to fimd Earth-like planets in orbits similar to Earth's. It has already detected a "hot Jupiter" already discovered, which encourages the team running the mission that the probe is functioning well.

By monitoring 100,000 stars over several years, NASA hopes Kepler will find at least 50 Earth-like planets orbiting their suns at distances which would make life on those worlds a possibility. If such worlds are found, the case for life being abundant in the universe will be strengthened. If no such worlds are found, that too could say something important about life.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Nuclear Powered Bases

NASA is making progress in developing small fission reactors that could power manned bases on the Moon and Mars. Tests on three separate elements of the system, performed jointly by NASA and the U. S. Department of Energy, were all successful. One of the projected reactors would generate enough energy to power eight American homes-- enough for a small outpost. A suite of the reactors, then, would presumably power a larger base.

NASA's current plan is to establish a lunar base near the south pole, partly because mountains there would give the base access to continuous solar power; some peaks are high enough to be in constant sunlight. Fission reactors the size of trash cans would open the entire lunar surface to bases. For example, the early Apollo missions landed on the relatively flat plains near the equator because that was the easiest place to reach. A commercially-oriented settlement intending to trade with Earth could have a preference for the equatorial region to simplify the flight aspect of that trade. Reliable fission power could make such sites reasonable.

One more factor: as was noted in this blog, it was recently reported that Japan's Kaguya lunar probe found uranium on the Moon. Uranium is the preferred fuel for fission reactors. The basis for a lunar economy may be slowly beginning to emerge.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Augustine Optins

The report by the Augustine Committee tasked by President Obama to recommend the future direction of NASA's manned spaceflight program is due out next week. According to news reports, seven basic options are under consideration. They range from focusing on using ISS and more slowly building towards a return to the Moon, to going directly to Mars.

Perhaps the most interesting, most optimistic-- and most exciting-- aspects to virtually all the options is the reliance on international partnerships and commercial spacecraft that will be capable of ferrying NASA astronauts to and from low Earth orbit sometime in the next decade.

Presumably, that means the members of the committee think NewSpace companies will succeed, largely on schedule, in creating a viable industry. The other possibility would be that the committee is trying to sabotage manned spaceflight by making it dependent on vehicles the committee does not think will actually be operational. To take the brighter view, a world which has access to space from various sources will be able to pursue building the future from a list of many options. Some of those options are bound to pay off.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Sustainability Base

NASA is building an office complex at its Ames Research Center that's being dubbed "Sustainability Base." Using the latest energy saving and eco-friendly technologies-- including some used on NASA spacefraft, the agency wants the building to be the "greenest" of federal buildings and to serve as a model for what's possible.

The building, which is going to use solar panels, fuel cells, and other technologies which NASA projects will have it use no net energy, is scheduled for completion by November, 2011.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Missile Defense Progress

On July 30, the U. S. Navy successfully conducted another test of its developing missile defense capability, destroying a target missile 100 miles out from Earth.

The next test is scheduled to use a more powerful rocket engine in the interceptor. Building a shield that could knock down thousands of sophisticated ICBMs is still in the realm of science fiction, but that's no longer the need. The object now is to have the capability to knock down one, or a few, simple ICBMs launched, for example, from a rogue state like North Korea. Having such a defensive system could potentially save an American city.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Meteorites On Mars

NASA's Mars rover Opportunity may have spied its second meteorite on Mars. In January, 2005, soon after landing, it spotted a rock about half a mile from its landing site that turned out to be a meteorite-- a remarkable coincidence, if you think about it.

Last month, Opportunity's cameras imaged another possible meteorite. Currently, the rover is analyzing the rock's chemical composition to nail down whether it's a meteorite or not.

Opportunity has driven over 10 miles across Mars, but not all that distance has been straight away from its landing site, so the possibility exists that two meteorites from such a small area may be related-- may even be pieces of the same bigger object. Such a finding would be yet another remarkable coincidence.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Bright Spot On Venus

Recently, an amateur astronomer alerted NASA that a comet, or some other object, had just barreled into Jupiter, focusing attention on the giant planet. Curiously, at around that same time, another amateur astronomer observed a bright spot in the thick atmosphere of Venus.

Professional astronomers have no idea what the bright spot is. Venus has not had the scientific attention that Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn have gotten. Partly, that's due to NASA's policy decision to search for life beyond Earth. The hellish conditions at the surface of Venus rule out the possibility of any life there that current science can imagine.

The bright spot suggests the next step in planetary science, however. The European Space Agency has its Venus Express probe at the planet and will study the spot, but really understanding the other worlds in the Solar System would likely require maintaining monitoring probes at each planet. Such a program might cost several billion dollars, but it would also establish a systematic approach to understanding our neighborhood.