Friday, October 30, 2009

Damage To Ares

Upon finding the first stage of the Ares 1-X after its test flight, NASA divers discovered a fairly large dent in the rocket.

The first stage is designed to be recovered and potentially reused once the program is fully underway. It is supposed to float back to Earth under three huge parachutes and ride the Atlantic swells until picked up. On this flight, one of the chutes failed to open, which means the rocket hit the water harder than it was supposed to. That could possibly have caused the dent. NASA will know more once the rocket is recovered.

This blog has consistently noted NASA launch delays, particularly in the shuttle program. Given that pattern of reporting, it's fair to note that the Ares 1-X test flight was actually conducted three days ahead of the original October 31 target date.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Checking Einstein

One of the pillars of our understanding of the universe is Albert Einstein's Theory of General Relativity. After nearly a century of testing, both mathematically and experimentally, it holds up.

Some of the most recent tests were done with NASA's Fermi Gamma Ray Space Telescope. Scientists have used the probe's Large Area Telescope to detect and study gamma rays, incredily powerful bursts of energy from the deep past. In every case so far studied, the behavior of the bursts are in accord with Einstein's predicted behavior. His basic tenet that no natural phenomenon can travel faster than light remains inviolate.

In millenia to come-- or later today-- it might turn out that Einstein's work only points the way to some larger, deeper truths that underlie a universe that gave rise to intelligence capable of understanding the cosmos. Even if that eventuality comes to pass, however, it's clear that one man working alone got an awful lot right.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Ares 1-X Is History

The test flight of NASA's Ares 1-X was successfully flown this morning. The powered phase seemed to go smoothly, and the rocket reached an altitude of 28 miles before falling into the Atlantic, where part of it will be recovered.

The flight was simply the spectacular part of the effort, however. Now, teams of NASA engineers will spend months analyzing the data gathered by the 700 sensors on the rocket as they try to understand exactly how well the launcher did perform.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


NASA's test launch of the Ares 1-X rocket was scrubbed this morning due to cloudy weather-- and a boat that drifted into a forbidden zone just as a launch attempt was being counted down.

Another attempt to launch will be made in the morning. The weather forecast is better, and one can hope boats will stay out of the way.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Mars Caves

Using high resolution images from orbiting spacecraft, physicist Glen Cushing of the U. S. Geological Survey thinks he has identified entrances to a large system of caves or lava tubes on the slopes of a large volcano on Mars.

Caves on Mars, Cushing argues, would serve two important functions. They would be very good places to establish human bases because they would provide shelter from the dangers of the surface of Mars like radiation, extremes in temperatures, and dust storms. By the same logic, caves might be the ideal places to search for evidence of past or even present life on Mars.

Theorists of lunar settlement have made many of the same points advocating setting lunar bases and colonies in lava tubes. The early Hawaiians sometimes took refuge in lava tubes, but on low gravity worlds such as the Moon and Mars, such structures can be huge-- miles long and hundreds of feet wide. They could easily accomodate the early stages of a vibrant civilization.

The iconic caveman notwithstanding, early humans probably didn't live in caves. More fearsome creatures likely kept the caves for themselves, perhaps until humans' mastery of fire both gave them a frightening new weapon and a way to make caves more hospitable. Our earliest attempts to expand into the Solar System, however, may take us into alien caves. Those attempts will begin atop pillars of fire.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

New Rocket, Same Old Story

The Ares 1-X is ready to fly Tuesday morning, but, once again, the Florida weather might delay a NASA launch. To be fair, this launch has even stricter weather requirements than a space shuttle launch because the point of flying Ares 1-X is to gather data about this rocket, and part of that involves being able to visually track the flight.

Still, this possibke delay emphasizes the limitations inherent in flying rockets from areas that have dynamic weather. The ultimate solution to the problem is much more advanced spacecraft, but those seem to be decades away.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Alternatives To The Moon

Most space planners see the next goal for manned spaceflight as either the Moon or Mars. NASA plans a lunar base to test technology and strategy for a push to Mars. The Augustine committee advising President Obama on the near future of NASA's manned spaceflight program, however, suggests other destinations in its final report.

Instead of going to those big worlds immediately, the committee suggests visiting small worlds. One option would send a crew to an asteroid-- a true deep space mission that could produce useful science while stretching our flight capability. Another of the committee's options would send astronauts to a Martian moon, Phobos or Deimos. Many would no doubt argue that sending people all the way to Mars and not land on the planet makes little sense. Landing and operating on Mars, however, would substantially increase the cost, complexity, and danger of such a program. On the other hand, either tiny moon would be a good platform for a base. As they are likely captured asteroids, studying one would increase our knowledge of those bodies. A base could also be a gateway to Mars. A fleet of rovers controlled by astronauts on Deimos, for example, could cover more ground and do more science than two rovers controlled from Earth. Such an approach could really open the door to human expeditions.

That said, an international consensus for an international program to establish a lunar base seems to be building. With partners footing part of the bill, NASA would be the natural choice as lead agency for such an effort. That would confirm U. S. leadership in space well into the century. So, what to do? Doing both would expand the technology base, support science, encourage students to work hard, and lay the foundation for a much bigger human economy.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Hollywood And Stuff

Next month, ABC is giving the television sci-fi classic "V" another try in a new version of the tale. The story chronicles an alien invasion of Earth. The aliens look just like humans and seem to have humanity's best interests at heart, but underneath their human suits they are reptilians bent on our destruction. A movie called The Fourth Kind, about allegedly actual alien abductions of humans, opens next month, as well. Yet another movie, this one about the apocalypse supposing coming in 2012, is on the horizon.

These are examples of Hollywood trying to reap profits by exploiting cultural trends and symbols. Whether aliens are in fact visiting Earth or not, little gray kidnappers with big heads have become icons of modern popular culture, which-- hopefully for the studio involved-- gives a movie about them a leg up in the race for box office. More forceful alian invasions have been classic sci-fi fare since H. G. Wells. New Age and apocalyptic visions have also gained a spot in pop culture around the turn of the third Christian millenium. Of course, something similar swept through the Christian world a thousand years ago, and here we still are.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Now There Are Two

Mark Swain and his team have discovered a second exoplanet that contains the chemical building blocks of life-as-we-know-it in its atmosphere. Both worlds are gas giants, however, and therefore unlikely to support life.

Still, the fact that the building blocks exist in these two worlds suggest they might exist in many Earth-like worlds, as well. The Kepler spacecraft is already looking for such worlds. NASA is anticipating making some amazing announcements through the next decade.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Ares Roll Out

NASA has rolled out its new Ares launcher from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the launch pad. The unmanned Ares 1-X test flight is scheduled for next week.

At 327 feet tall, Ares is an impressive sight-- every inch the Moon rocket NASA hopes it will be. That future is in doubt, however. The Obama administration is still formulating its plans for manned spaceflight, and there's no guarantee Ares will be a part of them. Indeed, one possible indication that next week's flight is as much about politics as it is about engineering is that the next scheduled test flight of this launcher is not until 2014.

The Ares team needs a big success on Ares 1-X.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Planets Everywhere

Results of a study that looked at 2,000 solar-type stars for five years add 32 exoplanets to the list, pushing the total so far to over 400. The project was designed to look for exoplanets of smaller mass and in fact found several of five times Earth mass and five times Jupiter mass. Many of the exoplanets so far discovered are in fact much bigger than that, simply because bigger bodies are easier to detect.

The study suggests that 40 percent of solar-type stars could have Earth-type planets-- good news for those looking for life in the universe.

Four planets were also found in orbit around small, cool, M-type stars. According to our current model of planetary formation, they shouldn't be there. Clearly, we still have much to learn.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Asteroid Whiz By

A small asteroid whizzed past Earth within the orbit of the Moon early Saturday. In astronomical terms, that's a close shave. However, such close shaves are fairly regular occurences with small bodies.

This particular asteroid is only about 30 feet across and wasn't discovered until Thursday. Had it hit a major city, it could have caused a major disaster, but otherwise any problem caused probably would have been local in nature. There is no defense against such an object discovered so late. Any such defense would require a vast, robust space infrastructure-- a civilization perfectly at home beyond Earth.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Roll Out Delayed

The roll out to the launch pad of NASA's Ares 1-X rocket has been delayed at least a day due to a glitch in the hydraulic system. The specific piece involved deals with the steering and stabilization of the rocket. The delay getting to the launch pad may or may not delay the scheduled test flight.

That test flight is set for October 27, but it's a short window. If the flight doesn't occur on the 27th or 28th, there will be a longer delay. For political reasons, if nothing else, NASA clearly wants a successful test flight as soon as possible to show that the Constellation program and its workhorse launcher is in fact making progress.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Rocket Plane

Last Saturday morning, Lochheed Martin and UP Aerospace teamed to quietly conduct a test flight of the prototype for what was termed a "reusable rocket plane." The flight took place at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

The companies gave out few details of the flight, except to say the test flight was a success and the vehicle was recovered. This was the third flight of a small, winged craft designed to test new technologies and how they work together, and new proceedures for supporting quick launches using fewer support crewmembers. The power source of the craft was not disclosed.

That would seem to suggest at least some Lochheed execs think the energing NewSpace industry is on to something-- and they see Lochheed being the 800-pound gorilla in that new room. For all the competition a giant like Lochheed could give the smaller companies in the industry short term, such a development might be good for everybody in the long term.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Sailing Titan's Seas?

NASA may be looking at sending a nuclear-powered ship to Saturn's gigantic moon Titan to sail one of the many lakes of ethane there. Most lakes on Titan are fairly small, but two rival North America's Great Lakes in size. One of those would make a relatively easy target.

Such a probe would need to be nuclear powered because solar cells wouldn't work that far from the Sun, especially given Titan's dense atmosphere, and batteries would only provide hours of power. NASA's nuclear power generators depend on radioactive decay to produce heat and energy; they are not nuclear reactors. The generators could power the ship for months.

The same Discovery-class mission that would deliver the ship might also deliver a balloon to ride the currents of Titan's active atmosphere. The moon is incredibly cold, but it has weather patterns and organics. Scientists liken it to the early Earth.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Enceladus Controversy

Since the Cassini probe detected water vapor in plumes exploding from Saturn's moon Enceladus, many scientists have worked on the theory that an ocean of liquid water could exist under the moon's shell of ice. That, in turn, opened the door to possible life in the ocean.

Enceladus may have liquid water, but a new study puts forth an alternative explanation for the water vapor in the plumes. Scientists conducting the new study recalculated Cassini's data and came up with far less water vapor in the plumes than initially thought. While the first results had enough water vapor to argue for substantial liquid water under the ice, the new study's reduced amount could be produced by sublimation-- water phasing from ice to vapor without passing through the liquid state. In that model, there could be no ocean inside Enceladus, and, therefore, no life.

Scientists involved in each study acknowledge the other's results can't be ruled out. The actual situation might lie somewhere between the two current models. The insides of Enceladus may feature icy slush, not liquid water, for example. Presumably that would reduce the chances for life. Everyone does agree that more study is needed.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Another Martian Meteorite

NASA's Mars rover Opportunity has discovered its third meteorite on the planet, and its second this year. The two rocks are within a half-mile of each other.

Opportunity spent six weeks studying the first one, and engineers are maneuvering the rover to get it in position to make contact with the second so analysis can begin. Presumably, a big question to pursue is whether the two were once part of the same body, or in fact represent two separate falls.

The story of the Mars rovers is amazing, but note-- Opportunity spent six weeks on one rock. A human expedition would have taken samples off the meteorite for analysis and moved on. The proceedure may have taken a couple hours. The question is: Are we in any hurry to understand Mars? If not, continuing with robotic probes is probably good enough. However, if the point is to put together the big picture within the next two or three decades, that may well require putting humans on Mars.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Laliberte Home

Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte safely returned from his visit to ISS, landing in his Soyuz capsule on the steppes of Kazakhstan.

Laliberte's trip was arranged by Space Adventures. So far, SA has had the space tourism industry all to itself, but that is scheduled to change over the next few years. Virgin Galactic plans to start offering suborbitil flights. SpaceX and Interorbital Systems are working on privately-owned spacecraft capable of orbital flight. Bigelow Aerospace is looking at establishing space hotels based on its inflatable structure technology. BA is also looking for a partner to deliver people to and from the hotels, which could give SpaceX and IOS a market for their craft.

Space Adventures is trying to maintain its leadership in the industry by offering a trip around the Moon aboard a Soyuz, which was originally designed to fly lunar missions. SA is not unchallenged, however. IOS plans its own lunar base, not simply for tourism, but to begin the creation of a diversified lunar economy. BA is touting its inflatable structures for bases on other worlds.

If even some of the projects now underway work out, Space Adventures' strategy will need to change radically for the company to prosper.

Friday, October 9, 2009

LCROSS Slams Into Cabeus

NASA's LCROSS lunar probe and its Centaur rocket stage slammed into the Moon as planned this morning in an attempt to obtain more evidence of lunar water.

The rocket stage and the probe barreled into Cabeus crater, a formation in the south lunar polar region that is sixty miles across-- big by lunar standards, but not huge. The idea of crashing into Cabeus is to study the ejecta for signs of water vapor. So far, NASA has not announced the results of that study. Actually, a complete analysis of the data produced will take some time.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Life In Europa?

Scientists have held for several years that Jupiter's moon Europa has an ocean under its icy surface. If the surface ice is several miles thick, as expected, the ocean beneath could have twice as much water as all of Earth's oceans combined. Liquid water brings up the possibility of life. Liquid water held within an ice shell suggests heat in the interior of the moon. That could result from internal processes, or from friction caused by the constant stress of being under Jupiter's gravitational sway. Heat plus liquid water means the chances for life go up.

Now, according to one study. the Europan ocean may be richer in oxygen than previously thought. Oxygen, scientists believe, is important for the metabolism of life, although it is possible to have life without having free oxygen in the environment. Indeed, oxygen is a poison to some life forms.

Still, a huge ocean protected from outside radiation by miles of ice, maintained in liquid form by some energy source for hundreds of millions of years with, perhaps, enough oxygen to animate something wiggly may be a promising place to look for life beyond Earth.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Space Wars

The History Channel series, The Universe, generally deals with astronomy, cosmology, and physics. Last night, however, it took on space wars. The subject lent itself to cool pictures and a discussion of physics, but the underlying concept of wars in space is highly questionable.

One scenario the show presents is a lunar colony starting a war of conquest and independence. As the show also points out, any such colony in the foreseeable future will be incredibly vulnerable to military attack, so why any leadership of such a colony would start a shooting war is unclear. Much more likely, the leaders of such an independence movement would adopt a subtle strategy driving on the colony's economic importance to Earth.

The show also looks at wars in deep space, complete with neat space cruisers. Again, the idea of military conflict in interplanetary or interstellar space is questionable. If most wars are put down as contests over natural resources, the universe-- and likely every inhabited solar system-- has resources galore. Forcefully taking some would be unnecessary. If wars are seen as clashes of cultures, it's hard enough to find other cultures in space. Going to war with somebody light years away makes very little sense.

Still, there were some great action sequences.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Tight Fit

The next shuttle launch is scheduled for November 12, but various constraints could push it into January. That's even before the glitches shuttle engineers often have to wrestle before a launch.

There's a week in this launch window, starting November 12, for a mission to ISS. After that week, the sun-angle at ISS won't be good enough to supply enough solar power to support the mission. That situation would last a few days. Throw in a commercial launch at Cape Canaveral on November 14 that must be accomodated, the Leonid meteor shower, and the new year-- shuttle computers can't deal with a change of year-- and the launch could drift into 2010.

While the space shuttle is a remarkable machine, those looking to build a manned system that will truly open space should take note. Such a system would be built on a technology base that is well understood and reliable. The system would be simple enough to maintain with relatively few people and to check thoroughly between flights. It would be robust enough to fly many times before getting a complete overhaul, and it could operate in a range of weather conditions. And, it would be able to fly December 31 and on into the new year.

Monday, October 5, 2009


Yesterday marked the anniversaries of two historic flights, those of Sputnik and SpaceShipOne. This year marked the fortieth anniversary of the flight of Apollo 11. And, as Bob Werb points out in an article on The Space Review website, this year marks another fortieth anniversary.

Gerard K. O'Neill was a physics professor at Princeton in 1969, a heady time for space enthusiasts, if not for NASA's future plans in Congress. Dr. O'Neill developed what has become the best known design for a space colony built in free space-- a huge structure that rotated to create artificial gravity, home to perhaps thousands of people. Perhaps more importantly, Dr. O'Neill also provided the rationale for such colonies by putting them in the context of a human economy expanding into space, using space resources to create a wealthy civilization and a clean, ecologically sound Earth. Werb suggests that the NewSpace industry now developing may be the tool by which O'Neill's vision is realized.

If the next few centuries do see humanity's expansion into space, Gerard O'Neill could well be remembered as one of the great thinkers of his time.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Five Years Out

Forty-seven years to the day after Sputnik ushered in the Space Age, Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X-Prize and the $10 million that went with it by becoming the first private craft to deliver a human into space twice within two weeks.

There have been no more private spaceflights since, but if all goes well the next five years will see the beginning of an extraordinary period in human history. Several private companies have been working hard to lead private enterprise into space in a major way. Rutan and Virgin Galactic are offering paying customers suborbital flights. Bigelow Aerospace is developing the concept of inflatable structures that, potentially, could quickly lead to manned orbital research facilities, space factories, space hotels, and bases on other worlds. SpaceX and Interorbital Systems are developing large, powerful launchers and manned craft capable of reaching orbit. IOS, indeed, plans its first orbital flight carrying two people in 2011. IOS also plans its own lunar base later in the decade.

Couple the private push with what seems to be a building movement among national governments to establish an international lunar base, and there is the real possibility of creating a human economy that would utilize the unque energy and gravitational aspects of free space and the material and water resources of the Moon and near-Earth asteroids. Such an economy would be capable of ending poverty on Earth as well as establishing the technology base to allow humans to expand exploration and settlement to Mars and beyond.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Pavel Popovich

The sixth man to orbit Earth, Pavel Romanovich Popovich, died a few days after suffering a stroke. He was 78.

Popovich flew Vostok 4 in 1962, completing 48 orbits. He also commanded a Soyuz mission in 1974. From 1966-68, he trained in the Soviet lunar effort, scheduled to command a lunar mission. Of course, the Soviet program to put a cosmonaut on the Moon was scrapped, probably due to the failure of their counterpart of the Saturn V launcher.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Laliberte In Space

The latest Space Adventures flight is going smoothly. The space tourist involved is Canadian acrobat Guy Laliberte, founder of Circ du Soleil. He is the first person with a non-technical background to fly in SA's program.

The Soyuz-TM carrying Laliberte and his companions-- one cosmonaut and one astronaut-- is scheduled to dock with ISS shortly. During his ten day stay, Laliberte plans to publicize the evolving water problem on Earth.