Wednesday, September 30, 2009


The MESSENGER probe completed its flyby of Mercury yesterday and seems to be in good shape looking ahead to the next phase of its mission-- mapping Mercury in detail from orbit starting in 2011.

There was a glitch during the flyby, however. Just as MESSENGER was reaching its closest approach to Mercury-- 142 miles-- it stopped transmitting data. Team members are sure the probe continued taking pictures, though, and expect to get most or all of the data at some point.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

MESSENGER At Mercury Again

NASA's MESSENGER probe is making its third and final flyby of Mercury today. Scientists expect to map another 5 percent of the surface, as well as get closer looks at some areas. At closest approach, MESSENGER will be only 142 miles away from the little world, which should result in some very detailed images.

This flyby marks the end of MESSENGER's preliminary mission. If all goes well, it will settle into orbit around Mercury in 2011 and study the planet at close range for years.

Monday, September 28, 2009

GAO Weighs In

The Government Accountability Office has issued a report saying it's unlikely NASA will be able to meet the goals set for its Constellation program because of inadequate budgets. The report echoes the findings of the Augustine committee. Both studies say NASA would need $3 billion more annually to successfully carry out the program.

The focus of the debate will be on NASA, and it's true that NASA designed Constellation. It's also true, however, that "NASA policy" and "NASA goals" are in fact U. S. Government policy and goals, set by Congress. That's true at NASA and every other federal agency. If Congress continues to pile goals and requirements on any agency while neglecting to supply adequate resources to carry out the work, the agency involved is not always to blame. In the case of Constellation, adjustments might be needed, but Congress and President Obama also need to make some fundamental decisions about space policy, and back up those decisions with the necessary funding.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Extracting Lunar Oxygen

The announcement that water exists on the Moon supports efforts to establish a lunar base. To turn promise into practicality, however, a way must be found to actually use the water.

NASA and researchers from Case Western Reserve University are working on that. Engineers are developing a device that will extract oxygen from lunar soil after separating water-bearing roccks from other rocks. Testing the sifting mechanism on the so-called "vomit comet"-- a jet that flies parabolas to simulate lunar gravity-- researchers have found the sifting method would seem to work on the Moon.

If it does, and if a system can be developed to produce oxygen-- and, eventually, other useful elements-- not only can a base be supported, but a diversified lunar economy can be established.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Now-- Water Ice On Mars

Just a day after NASA announced there is water on the Moon, another study indicates virtually pure water ice exists on the surface of Mars. The ice, some scientists speculate, may be a remnant of a climate on Mars, perhaps as few as 10,000 years ago, that was warmer and wetter than today. The study also suggests underground water exists over about half the planet, and estimates that the total amount of water on Mars may equal the amount locked in the Greenland ice sheet. Used correctly, then, there would seem to be enough water on Mars to support a small society.

Just as scientists may have misinterpreted suggestions of water in Apollo rock samples, so they may have barely missed confirming water on Mars thirty years ago. Had NASA's lander Viking 2 dug just four inches deeper into the soil, it rests at a lattitude that may have allowed it to discover water.

Clearly, the twin announcements this week buoy the prospects of human settlements throughout the Solar System. The next step is confirming these early indications. Assuming that's done, the hard but joyous work of planting outposts on other worlds can begin in earnest.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Water On The Moon!

There is now good, if still tentative, evidence from three separate spacecraft that water exists on the Moon. The datta suggests water in fact exists all over the Moon, though it is concentrated at the poles. Water seems to migrate across the surface, driven by the heat of the Sun, until it reaches deep craters near the poles where it is protected in constant shadow.

Oddly, rock samples brought back by Apollo astronauts showed signs of water, but scientists assumed the samples had been contaminated on Earth.

Depending on how much water is actually there and how accessible it is, this discovery could have a huge impact on humans returning to the Moon-- including on whether NASA participates in such an effort or not. Earlier this year, as reported in this blog, Japan's Kaguya lunar probe discovered lunar uranium. Now, we have confirmed lunar water. If the uranium is in distinct ore deposits, one or more of which is near a pole. siting a lunar base would seem a simple choice-- in the south pole region, where NASA has been focusing its efforts, near both water and uranium. A lunar economy could get off to a quick start.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Vaccines From Space

Astrogenetix, an Austin, Texas, biotech firm, has spent years flying experiments on space shuttle missions, studying bacteria and viruses in microgravity. For whatever reason, bacteria and viruses tend to grow faster and become more virulent in space than on Earth, which means conducting research on them in space can accelerate the process. Astrogenetix may begin human trials next year on a vaccine for salmonella which is based on research done in space. The company is also working on a vaccine for MRSA, an infection plaguing hospitals and causing thousands of deaths because it is resistant to antibiotics.

Despite the fact that satellites have allowed improved weather forecasting to save thousands of lives; despite the fact that intelligence satellites played a major role in helping to avoid a thermonuclear World War III; despite the fact that the space program led to the modern world of instant global communications and a deeper scientific and technological well, critics of the space program will still argue we've gotten too little for our money spent on space. Perhaps if terrible diseases begin to be eradicated because of research done in space, or by drugs manufactured in microgravity, every reasonable person will finally agree reaching into space has returned huge dividends to humankind.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Saturn's Extraordinary Rings

The Cassini mission to Saturn continues to produce amazing new data. The latest example of that involves the planet's magnificent ring system.

Astronomers have thought for centuries that the rings of Saturn were extremely thin-- maybe only a few feet thick. Indeed, when properly aligned with Earth, the rings seem to disappear completely. New images from Cassini, however, show the rings can be two miles thick in places, with "peaks" perhaps double that.

The dynamism of the system is a result of the complex gravitational interplay involving the planet itself, the mass within the ring system, and the masses of various moons. Sorting through all that to come to a complete understanding of the system will likely be the work of a few careers. Cassini gathered these images, by the way, on an extended mission. Had the mission been stopped as planned. we likely wouldn't have had this knowledge for decades, or even generations.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Why Is Mars Red?

The current theory explaining Mars' reddish color-- which is obvious enough to the naked eye that the ancient Greeks and Romans named the planet after their gods of war-- holds that liquid water running over the surface essentially rusted the rocks.

A new theory, however, suggests that hermatite, the red component of the Martian surface, could have been created by erosional processes. In that case, running water on the surface is not necessary.

The new theory is interesting, but there's a good case to be made that water did in fact exist on the surface at some point in the past. We know water ice exists just under the surface today. Channels on the surface seem to have been cut by flowing water. There are also geologic formations that seem to be ancient lakebeds, and theories arguing that Mars once had a thicker atmosphere that could have supported surface water. Perhaps the truth will turn out to be that both erosion and flowing water played parts in turning Mars red.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Japan's New Cargo Ship

Japan's contribution to the space cargo ship fleet successfully arrived at ISS on its first flight. Unlike other such ships, Japan's version doesn't dock at the space station. Rather, it maneuvers close enough to let an astronaut using ISS' robotic arm snatch. The astronaut has 99 seconds to get the ship before it drifts out of range. Such an approach seems less efficient than actually docking, but it worked well the first time.

The future of government supported cargo ships might be limited, however. That niche would seem ideal for private corporations trying to establish a space capability. Indeed, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are working under contract with NASA to develop such ships. If corporations can fly cargo to ISS after the space shuttle is retired, the question will be whether to go with government programs from Russia, ESA, and Japan, or turn that function over to private industry to build a private ability to operate in space.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Lunar Water Ice?

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has gone through its testing and calibration phase and is ready to begin its scientific work. Scientists, however, were able to get some data during the testing, and that data points to possible water ice on the Moon.

LRO's main task is to identify possible sites for future manned landings in the south polar region. NASA believes from previous data that that is the most likely area to find water ice at or near the surface. There are deep craters in the area, and their floors are in permanent shadow-- natural deep, deep freezers where water ice could exist. Water on the Moon, of course, would be a big plus for human operations there.

The preliminary LRO data points towards water ice existing in those shadowed regions. It also suggests, however, that water may exist in areas beyond the shadows, which doesn't seem physically possible; any water exposed to the Sun's heat in that environment should boil away virtually instantaneously. Scientists have the whole of the LRO mission to solve that small mystery.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Now, To Congress

The Augustine committee has now presented its recommendations on the immediate future of NASA's manned spaceflight program to Congress, but its clear some in Congress aren't ready to change course without a fight.

The committee laid out several possible ways forward, with only a small minority of those using the hardware currently being built for the Constellation program. Some in Congress object to wasting all the money already spent on that effort; they argue the current program should be strengthened, not discarded. The Augustine committee counters that approach by arguing Constellation is vastly underfunded, too underfunded to meet its goals. To do so, the committee says, would require $3 billion more dollars per year.

Not so very long ago, that seemed like real money. The fact is, however, that Congress has been dealing in much higher figures than that, basically in lump sums, since the invasion of Iraq. Three billion dollars a year is not a showstopper to Congress. There's also another funding possibility. If a moonbase program is pursued internationally, NASA's new partners in the effort should certainly be ready and able to pick up at least that much of the tab.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Spirit May Be Finished

Engineers are beginning to consider the possibility that NASA's Mars rover Spirit, stuck in soft soil since May, might never rove again. They have been studying the situation and trying different approaches to free Spirit, but nothing has worked.

Power is also becoming a problem. Martian dust storms have swept over the rover's position, coating Spirit's solar panels in dust and limiting their ability to harvest solar energy. Of course, more than once during the mission, Martian winds have also swept dust off a rover's solar panels, giving new life. Presumably, that could happen again, but Spirit would still be mired in the soft soil.

If Spirit does remain a stationary outpost until it stops working altogether, that shouldn't take away from its remarkable performance. Designed to last 90 days in the harsh Martian environment, it has in fact operated for well over five years.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Manned Spaceflight

While the future of NASA's manned spaceflight program is in some doubt, there seems to be a building capability in the U. S. private sector to take on that challenge.

The best known of those attempts is no doubt Burt Rutan's elegant solution to suborbital flight. Teamed with British billionaire Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, Rutan's system will give paying customers a real taste of spaceflight starting next year, if all goes well. Interorbital Systems, however, plans to go VG one better. IOS plans to offer orbital flights starting in 2012. Then there is SpaceX's Falcon 9/Dragon configuration that plans to be capable of ferrying astronauts to and from ISS before NASA's Ares/Orion stack is ready-- so, well before 2015. There are also other efforts underway. If many such efforts succeed, competition among them can be expected to drive innovation, pushing ever more capable technology and producing ever more robust craft.

Internationally, China is moving ahead with manned missions, and India is considering a manned program of its own. ESA is weighing developing a manned capability independent of NASA, and Britain is mulling a manned capability independent of ESA. Japan clearly has the wherewithal to build a manned spaceflight program if it so chooses. There are also efforts outside the U. S. to create a private capability.

The Obama administration will no doubt look at NASA's immediate future within that broad context. So far, successors to the shuttle remain unproven, but if even a few of them prove their viability Washington will have to figure out how to remain a leading force in the exploration and development of space.

Monday, September 14, 2009

IOS Steps Up

Interorbital Systems has announced it will conduct a manned, orbital spaceflight using its own launcher and its own human-rated capsule in 2011. Likely, if the flight goes as planned, it will be the first manned, orbital spaceflight conducted by a private group-- a real milestone in human history.

IOS' NEPTUNE 1000 will launch the two-man capsule into a self-decaying orbit from the company's Kingdom of Tonga launch site. The self-decaying orbit will ensure the capsule's return 12 hours, or 8 orbits, after launch. Eight orbits, by the way, would be longer than Yuri Gagarin's flight, and longer than a few Mercury missions. IOS' capsule will splash down in the South Pacific, near Tonga.

Commercial flights of the system are scheduled to begin in 2012, with a price tag of $800,000. It is, therefore, much higher than a ticket price on Virgin Galactic's suborbital flights, for example, but an orbital flight would be a much richer, more fascinating experience. IOS would also have the key to begin truly opening space to private enterprise if it's able to provide consistent access to low Earth orbit. The flight of the NEPTUNE 1000 and crew in 2011 would be a significant step in that direction.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

STS-128 Safely Home

Space shuttle Discovery landed safely at Edwards Air Force Base in California last evening, ending a successful STS-128 mission.

Storms over Florida, once again, prevented a shuttle from landing at Kennedy Space Center.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Successful Ares Test

Thursday in Utah, the contractor building NASA's new Ares rocket successfully conducted a 123-second test firing of the rocket engines that would power Ares.

The next question is whether Ares will be pursued. The Augustine committee empaneled to advise President Obama on the future of NASA's manned spaceflight program has developed several options for Mr. Obama. Only a minority of those options include the Ares program.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Florida Weather Again

Not only has Florida's active weather been a plague to space shuttle launches throughout the program, it has disrupted planned landings, as well. Storms threaten to delay the return of Discovery earliy this evening, yet again showing that while flying in space is extremely dangerous, many of the variables that are beyond NASA's ability to counter are in Earth's atmosphere, and they make launch and landing the most dangerous parts of any mission. Indeed, NASA has never lost a manned mission in space; all the tragedies have occurred within the atmosphere.

The weather outlook for Florida doesn't improve this weekend, so Discovery may end up returning to California, or even New Mexico.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Discovery Headed Home

Shuttle Discovery has undocked from ISS, and the crew is preparing to return home. Landing is scheduled for Thursday evening in Florida.

A final inspection of the orbiter's heat tiles apparently showed no reason for concern. Such inspections, emphasized after the loss of Columbia, now look not only for damage done during launch, but also for damage done during flight by bits of space debris or by micrometeors.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Voyager 2 At Triton

To commemorate Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune's largest moon, Triton, twenty years ago, NASA has released new pictures of Triton drawn from Voyager data. At first blush, the pictures have a lunar aspect, complete with craters and features formed by vulcanism. On Triton, however, the sculpting tool of geologic activity would be ice, not lava.

Voyager, of course, was an astounding success, perhaps still the high point of unmanned space exploration. Voyagers 1 and 2 conducted the first reconnaissance of the outer Solar System, delighting the public and often befuddling scientists with our first quick glimpses of the wondrous realms of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

Both Voyagers are well beyond the planets now, headed into interstellar space. Both are still functioning, too, sending back data about their surroundings-- a testament to the engineers and workers who built them.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Maintaining ISS

After the retirement of the space shuttle, whenever that happens, supplying ISS with needed consumables and new equipment will have to be done another way. Russia and Europe have cargo ships to take more of that task, and Japan is ready to launch its first unmanned cargo ship.

The Russian Soyuz, at present, will be the only vehicle capable of delivering people to ISS and bringing them home, although Europe is considering developing its own manned spaceflight capability. Various U. S. private companies are also trying to develop a private manned spacecraft capable of orbital flight.

Japan is working under an interesting restriction. If it can't launch this month, the launch will be delayed until February so as not to interfere with the nation's fishing season. The fishing industry is an important piece of the Japanese economy. Japan's launch facility is on the coast, and fisherman don't want spent rocket stages crashing into the Pacific scaring away their livelihood.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

MRO Sidelined

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which put itself into safe mode on August 26 for the fourth time this year, will be kept in safe mode for several weeks as engineers work to find a permanent solution.

MRO is the most powerful probe to ever orbit Mars, and has returned more data and images than all other missions combined.

NASA expects MRO to go back to delivering that data and those images after the problem is resolved.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Watching Space Junk

Space debris in low Earth has recently begun to emerge as a serious problem for space operations, both manned and unmanned. The most recent demonstration of that potential involved ISS and STS-128.

A rather large piece of an Ariane 3 rocket launched in 2006 came within a mile of ISS this week. The shuttle is docked at ISS, and 13 people are currently in the complex. A mile might seem like a wide miss, but in orbital space, given the consequences of a collision, it's uncomfortably close. Add to that the fact that NASA had been monitoring that piece of space junk for several days and predicted it would miss ISS by two miles, and there may be even more cause for concern.

If humanity is serious about a future in space, before we get too carried away with Moon trips and Mars ships and space hotels, perhaps the governments of Earth should get together, bring in private industry, and find a way to deal with the problem of space debris in low Earth orbit before it causes a real disaster.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Finding Exo-Moons

NASA's Kepler probe is designed to find Earth-sized planets around other stars. Now, scientists have determined it will also be possible to find "exo-moons"-- moons orbiting exo-planets.

As Kepler will detect planets by noting dips in the light from a star as a planet passes between Kepler and the star it will also be possible to detect wobbling in the planet's movement that would be due to the pull of a moon's gravity on the planet.

The best kind of planet for such a moon search would be one similar to Saturn-- large, but not very dense-- that a moon's gravity could move around. That brings up an interesting possiblity. A Saturn-like planet orbiting in the habitable zone of a star might not be a good candidate to harbor life, but a substantial enough moon of that planet could be.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


NewSpace company Interorbital Systems is pioneering an innovative approach designed to give more access to orbital space. The company's TubeSat is billed as the first personal satellite and priced so that individuals can purchase them.

TubeSats are being sold in "kits" that include the satellite bus, power system, basic yet flexible operating system, and launch on IOS' NEPTUNE 30 vehicle. Launches are scheduled to begin next year. The satellite will be put into a low Earth orbit that will bring it back to Earth after perhaps a few months, so the program will not add to the orbital debris problem.

Cost of a TubeSat is $8,000 total, which will put them within reach of individual researchers, for example, as well as small businesses. Uses of a TubeSat are wide ranging, from microgravity research to Earth imaging to even such projects as space burials.

According to personal communications with IOS CEO Randa Milliron, in the first few weeks of the program, four kits have aleady been sold, and more than twenty are pending.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Wildfire Threat

The huge wildfire still burning out of control in southern California can be seen from space. It also could yet affect mankind's efforts to comprehend the universe.

Over the weekend, the so-called Station Fire, the largest of the wildfires in the area, directly threatened JPL, a critical center in the development and directiion of unmanned space exploration. That danger is past, at least for now, but the fire has moved on to threaten Mount Wilson. Mount Wilson Observatory is not only a leader in Earth-based astronomical research today, it has a century of leadership behind it. George Hale, founder of the observatory, determined the nature of sunspots there. Harlow Shapley helped determine the Solar System's place in the Milky Way Galaxy there, and Edwin Hubble showed that the Milky Way is simply one of inumerable galaxies there.