Monday, November 30, 2009

ISS Crew To Two

A major rationale for keeping the space shuttle flying this long was to complete ISS so that it could accomodate a crew of six. Six could do more science than three. Fine. Through most of December, 2009, however, the ISS crew will have a grand total of two.

Most of the time of the two men will be devoted to station keeping duties. Some science will be done, but the emphasis will be on keeping the station functioning.

A Soyuz flight is scheduled for December 23 that will bring the ISS crew strength back up,

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Space Junk And ISS

NASA had to closely monitor two pieces of space junk that potentially threatened ISS this past week. Fortunately, neither came close enough to force NASA to maneuver the space station.

Space junk is increasingly seen as a threat to future space operations. These two are only the latest possible threats to ISS. So far, they have all missed-- ISS, after all, is a tiny target in the vastness of orbital space-- but at some point a piece of debris could hit an active, important satellite, or a manned mission to the Moon, or force ISS to be maneuvered away.

One interesting proposal to deal with the problem is to allow private industry to retrieve debris and bring it back to Earth. There is a national security problem with that approach, however. Anybody who could track down and capture useless pieces of junk in space would also have the capability to capture or destroy active vehicles. The counter to that would be to build defensive systems into satellites that might be targeted, but that would increase the cost of satellites, as well as increase the complexity of the satellites, which would result in higher failure rates.

Dealing with the problem of space junk may be no more sexy than dealing with Earthly junk, but dealing with both is necessary.

Friday, November 27, 2009

STS-129 Home

Space shuttle Atlantis landed safely in Florida this morning, ending a nearly flawlessly executed STS-129 mission that delivered 15 tons of equopment and supplies to ISS.

That leaves five scheduled shuttle missions left in the program. The next one is scheduled for February, so it's still possible NASA could wrap up the program in 2010, but more likely the last flight or two will slip into 2011. Congress seems willing to fund such an extension, but why wouldn't it? After spending hundreds of billions-- at least-- over the latest few years over and above an already huge federal budget with a large deficit feeding a staggering national debt, four or five billion more to fly the the last couple shuttle missions is chump change.

What happens to NASA's human spaceflight program after the shuttle, however, is still open to question. Some interesting ideas are floating around, but the Obama administration has yet to make the decision.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Now, It's A Wheel

During NASA's latest attempt to find a way to free its Mars rover, Spirit, the vehicle's left rear wheel stalled. Both rovers have six wheels to help them navigate the rugged terrain, but Spirit has been operating with five for a while. One of its other wheels also stalled once, but engineers were able to get it back in operation.

NASA's next attempt to get Spirit moving is scheduled for today.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


According to UFOlogists, and local media at the time, a rather large object made a controlled landing in the woods around Kecksburg, Pennsylvania, in December, 1965. Exactly what the object was has been open to question ever since. Some say a major military recovery operation was carried out, while others say nothing of the sort happened.

Investigative journalist Leslie Kean, working with The Sci-Fi Channel, filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in 2002 seeking documents from NASA related to Kecksburg. Finally, this year, NASA released hundreds of documents to Ms. Kean pursuant to her long ago FOIA request. She reports there is no "smoking gun" in any of the documents, but that still leaves what landed near Kecksburg and what happened to it unresolved. Kean leans to a secret U. S. Government project as the answer, but says she can't rule out an extraterrestrial spacecraft as a possibility.

The more immediate concern, Kean argues, is how the FOIA works. She has a point. If the federal Freedom of Information Act is to be a tool useful to citizens and journalists trying to keep tabs on what the government is currently doing, it needs to produce faster results. Otherwise, it becomes a tool useful only to historians-- and an imperfect tool even then.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Astronauts To Asteroids?

The continuing review of NASA's post-shuttle manned spaceflight program has produced an interesting possibility. Lockheed Martin, prime contractor of the Orion spacecraft, has conducted a study which looks at using Orion-- possibly two Orions linked together-- to fly humans to a near Earth asteroid.

Such a mission has several positives in its favor. After all the years since Apollo, it would finally have humans going beyond Earth orbit again-- truly exploring space. Such a project, dubbed "Plymouth Rock" in the Lockheed study, would also spark greater efforts to identify asteroids that cross Earth's orbit, making it more likely we would find one on a collision course with our planet before it was in our laps. Flying the mission would develop the skills necessary to rendezvous, study, and interact with an asteroid. A flight to a properly chosen asteroid would also be the ideal bridge mission between a short lunar trip and a long voyage to Mars, serving as a test of technology for a future Mars ship.

Asteroids are important to the future of deep space exploration, as well. Many contain large stores of volatiles-- especially water-- that could support missions; the rock would also be ideal shielding against radiation. As a space-based economy is developed, asteroids will supply many essential raw materials.

NASA likes Lockheed's idea. If the White House does, and if the preliminary plans can be successfully developed into a tight, strong mission plan, humans could be on their way to a near Earth asteroid in the 2020-2025 time period.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Successful Spacewalk

Even after being awakened by a false alarm on ISS, and even though one spacewalker was awaiting word of the birth of a baby, STS-129 astronauts put together what may be called a "spacerun" Saturday, completing every scheduled task and going on to perform tasks scheduled for the next excursion.

The next spacewalk is planned for Monday. By the way, the baby, a girl, was born after her father had finished his work outside, and both baby and mother seem to be doing well.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Slight Success For Spirit

NASA engineers trying to work the Spirit rover out of the Martian sand trap it got stuck in last April have finally found some success. Spirit moved. Not much-- less than an inch in three-dimensional space-- but it did move. It got off the dime. Further, this attempt was limited, a test to see what might happen.

NASA is analyzing exactly what did happen before deciding what to do next. Now, though, at least there is hope that at some point Spirit will be able to resume its explorations.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Apollo 12

Lest we forget, today marks the fortieth anniversary of the second manned landing on the Moon. Apollo 12 was a remarkable mission in other ways, too. Struck by lightning seconds after launch, the mission, far from being aborted, was successfully completed. The precision flying and pinpoint landing of Pete Conrad and Alan Bean proved Apollo was not limited to the wide open plains, setting the stage for later Apollo missions with challenging landing sites. Conrad and Bean also demonstrated astronauts could do important work over extended periods on the lunar surface.

Apollo 12 will probably never get the acclaim of Apollo 11, but it wrote a dramatic and extraordinary chapter in the history of space exploration.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

U. S., China To Talk Space

As President Obama ended his first official visit to China, the two countries released a joint statement that indicates they will pursue talks across a range of issues, including cooperation in space. That cooperation is to include human spaceflight. The NASA Administrator and the head of China's space effort are to exchange visits next year.

To cooperate with China in human spaceflight, of course, presumes America will have a human spaceflight capability after the space shuttle is retired. Mr. Obama, from his presidential campaign, has seemed to be a supporter of human spaceflight, but NASA remains in a holding pattern until he decides the future thrust in that area.

Statements out of China, on the other hand, have made it clear that the Chinese intend to remain in manned space. China seems to plan a small space station for the next decade, and a manned lunar landing sometime in the 2020s. China has also expressed some interest in participating in an international program to establish a lunar base. Indeed, several major nations have expressed interest in such a project. Perhaps the best approach to establishing mankind's first permanent outpost on another world, for a variety of reasons, would be to create a program backed by several nations.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

So Far, So Good

By the looks of the launch, STS-129 got off to a good start. Still, NASA is taking a good chunk of the first full day in space to inspect Atlantis' heat shield for possible damage. Such inspections have become standard operating procedure since the loss of Columbia in 2003.

Atlantis is scheduled to dock with ISS tomorrow, after which the task of transferring spare parts from the shuttle payload bay to the space station will begin. Three spacewalks are planned.

There will also be another close inspection of the orbiter's heat shield.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Lift Off For Atlantis

After a smooth countdown, space shuttle Atlantis rode a seemingly perfect launch through a bright blue Florida sky into the blackness of space this afternoon.

STS-129 will deliver tons of spare parts to ISS in anticipation of the end of the shuttle program. Indeed, there are only five more scheduled shuttle missions after this one.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

STS-129 A "Go"

After a smooth countdown to date, and a promising weather forecast, NASA is set to launch space shuttle Atlantis on STS-129 tomorrow afternoon.

STS-129 is scheduled to be an eleven day mission, and its main objective will be to deliver large spare parts to ISS, the latest in NASA's series of missions to prepare ISS for its post-shuttle future. If this mission is flown largely on time, it will keep to NASA's schedule to wind down the shuttle program roughly a year from now.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Upon analyzing data gathered by the impact of the LCROSS spacecraft into the south polar region of the Moon, NASA scientists have determined there is not only water on the Moon, but there is more water than expected. The discovery completely changes our view of the Moon, and bears directly on the future of lunar exploration.

The Moon is still an extremely dry place, but not as dry as the driest deserts on Earth, for example-- an extraordinary shift from the view developed after studying Apollo samples that the lunar surface was bone dry. A significant amount of water ice at or near the lunar surface suggests there's enough to provide drinking water to a lunar base, produce rocket fuel by breaking the water down into its constituent components of hydrogen and oxygen, and to provide a radiation shield for the base. Water, it turns out, is very good at blocking harmful radiation.

The Obama administration is currently considering what the next goal of NASA's manned spaceflight program should be, and how that goal should be pursued. The confirmation of so much lunar water could be the factor that tips the decision towards establishing a base on the Moon and structuring it to be a springboard to the rest of the Solar System.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Releasing Spirit

After months of study and experimentation, NASA is ready to try to get its Mars rover Spirit moving again.

Spirit has been stuck in soft soil since April, and NASA engineers have finally determined the best chance to free it rests with moving the rover over the tracks it made getting to its current position. The first order to begin that process will be sent to Mars Monday, but the rover team cautions it'll be a slow extrication, assuming it works at all.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Tracking Stellar Lithium

Astronomers may have stumbled upon a simple and efficient way to quickly determine which stars are most likely to have planetary systems. The element lithium might be a reliable marker. A new study suggests that stars with low levels of lithium tend to have planets, while stars with higher levels tend to be barren.

Exactly why that is remains to be worked out. Indeed, a detailed, comprehensive model of how planetary systems form remains a major challenge for theorists. If this new marker turns out to be solid, however, those theorists will have one more factor they'll know their model will have to produce. This discovery should also lead to finding more planetary systems, which will eventually give theorists more data to feed into their models.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


ABC's remake of "V" seems to be off to a good start in the ratings. Of course, most viewers probably already know the basic story, so continued success will likely depend upon execution.

No attempt to hide the true, reptilian nature of the aliens was made in this version, presumably because the audience is already familiar with the story, but there have been updates. Technology is better om both sides, for example. This version has suggested that the aliens have been living among us for some time before the mother ships arrived-- a risky strategy on Their part, given how easily their human suit can be ripped away. A subplot about a terrorist network seems to be developing. Early on, the favorite to lead the human resistance is a tough female detective.

We'll see if this version takes off like the original.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Solar Sail

The Planetary Society is planning to build and launch a solar sail by the end of next year thanks to $1 million from an anonymous donor.

Solar sails are basically sheets of extremely lightweight material that propel spacecraft by capturing the photons of the solar wind, much as nautical sails propel ships by harnessing the energy of terrestrial winds. Literally, solar sails ride on light. The acceleration, of course, is tiny, but it is constant. Over years, so the theory goes, that constant, tiny acceleration could develop impressive speed-- and, of course, the energy is free.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Searching For Intelligent ETs

A new study looking at determining which stars are most likely to harbor intelligent aliens concludes the best candidates are stars that closely resemble the Sun.

The money spent on the study probably could have been better spent elsewhere. Many research papers, television documentaries, and science books over three or four decades have asked the same question and come to the same conclusion. The reason is pretty basic. If you start out with a definition of life based on what we know about what's necessary for Earth life, and you narrow that to focus on the development of intelligence, the only model we have is what we think happened on Earth-- and why high level intelligence arose here is still something of a mystery-- you are actually replaying Earth history. Of course, Earth revolves around the Sun, so you're likely to conclude intelligent life is most likely to rise on planets circling Sun-like stars. There's a circularity not only to the orbits, but also to the logic.

The conclusion could still be correct, of course, especially if intelligence on the human level or beyond is rare in the cosmos, but a more interesting question may be: Where should we look for alien civilizations? If an extremely advanced technological civilization planned in terms of millions of years, it might well colonize the systems of small, extremely stable red dwarf stars-- the most numerous stars in the galaxy-- even if the species originated in the system of a Sun-like star. Under that theory, red dwarfs should be carefully examined.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

LCROSS A Sacrilege?

The impact of the LCROSS probe into the lunar surface has sparked a so far small movement that seeks to ban further such impacts, The fact that Luna is pounded by objects as big as LCROSS regularly-- and by smaller objects constantly-- in the natural course of events seems to be beside the point to the group. Those opposed to future impacts, screenwriter Amy Ephron among them, see the Moon as part of humanity's cultural heritage that should be protected. Some also seem to see such impacts as wanton acts of imperialists who have no regard for local ecosystems and indigenous cultures. The fact that the Moon is almost certainly barren, and therefore lacks local ecosystems and indigenous cultures also seems to be beside the point.

The fact that people are thinking about space issues is good. Space policy has been ignored by too many for too long, resulting in a manned program, at least, that has lacked focus for decades. However, crafting public policy on any issue surely requires a clear understanding of that issue, as well as the overall context of the issue. Perhaps those in this group should do some more studying. Their position, and the emergence of the group so soon after LCROSS, suggests more knee jerk reaction than considered judgment.

Such a reaction probably wasn't helped by the tendency of the media to refer to the impacts of LCROSS and its Centaur rocket as "bombing" the Moon. NASA crashed the two into the Moon in an attempt to detect water vapor in the resulting plume of debris. Confirming water on Luna would be a major discovery, and NASA is still analyzing that data. There was no bomb involved, however.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Space Elevator Contest

Rockets, as we all know, are both fickle and dangerous as transportation to space. Searching for another way out, science fiction master Arthur C. Clarke developed the concept of the space elevator that people and cargo could ride to low Earth orbit. Clarke was a scientist as well as an author, and he had developed the concept of the communications satellite in the 1940s, so his space elevator idea in the 1970s could not simply be dismissed. It wasn't.

The concept is simple enough. One end of a superstrong cable would be attached to Earth; the other end would be attached to a large satellite in geostationary orbit, so the cable would remain taut and fixed in the sky. Add electrical power, and a vehicle could ride the cable to Earth orbit without the use of rockets.

Of course, even if such a system is finally practical, we're a long way from having it. Groups around the world, however, are working on the various challenges that need to be overcome before such a system can be built. Often, the groups are made up of professors and students from a university. NASA is involved with a contest to encourage and reward groups that make progress towards a space elevator, offering $2 million to get good work and solid results. So far, progress has been slow, but scientists and engineers can accomplish remarkable things in the fullness of time.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Galactic Suites

Xavier Claramunt, CEO of Galactic Suites, a Barcelona, Spain-based space resort company, has told Reuters that the company's first space hotel will be open for business in 2012. Four point four million dollars will get a three-night stay at an orbiting hotel. Claramunt says they already have 43 reservations and a waiting list of 200.

The problem is there seems to be a lack of evidence to support Claramunt. Such a huge project would have had to start bending metal and testing flight hardware long ago to be ready by 2012, yet there have been no test flights, and the company has not presented prototypes of its hotel "pods" to the press and public-- a curious approach to promotion. Claramunt says the project is backed by an American billionaire, but declines to say exactly which one.

Maybe Reuters will do some more digging on this one.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Cassini Pluming

The Cassini spacecraft exploring Saturn and its domain whizzed through the plumes of Enceladus on November 2. The plumes erupt from the south polar region of the tiny moon, which is only about 310 miles in diameter.

Enceladus, so small and so far from the Sun, would seem a highly unlikely place to find life. The plumes, however, contain water vapor, sodium, and organic chemicals-- similar in composition to the geyser eruptions of Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park. Water vapor suggests a ready source of liquid water. The plumes themselves demand an energy source to propel them. Put liquid water and enerrgy together with organic chemicals and enough time, and you get organic compounds. Organic compounds are the building blocks of life.

Several moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn are now seen as having some potential to support life. Saturn's Titan, indeed, may rival Mars as a likely place to find life in the Solar System beyond Earth. Jupiter and Saturn themselves, in their deep, complex, active atmospheres, likely have layers miles thick and stable over substantial periods of time that could support some kind of life. Carl Sagan suggested such a possibility years ago, when there was no real case to be made for life beyond Mars. That case seems to be strengthening steadily.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Falcon 9 Coming Along

SpaceX plans the first launch of its Falcon 9 rocket as early as February 2, 2010, from Cape Canaveral.

Falcon 9 is designed to carry the Dragon capsule to orbit. Dragon, in turn, is currently designed to deliver cargo to ISS, and SpaceX has a contract with NASA to do precisely that. The company, however, has even bigger plans. It wants to turn Dragon into a spacecraft capable of ferrying astronauts to and from ISS. SpaceX estimates Dragon could be ready for its first crew three years after NASA gives the green light.

A private company with the capacity to put people in orbit on a consistent basis could completely change the game. Once corporations, universities, and others have real access to low Earth orbit, the task of expanding the human economy beyond Earth can begin in earnest. Interorbital Systems plans its first manned launch in 2011 from Tonga, in the South Pacific. If both IOS and SpaceX are successful, the big boys like Lockheed Martin, sniffing a huge new opportunity, will inevitably jump in. That might be the point of no return. Humanity may finally be on the way to expanding into space.

Monday, November 2, 2009

A Flaming Success

Japan's new cargo spacecraft, launched September 11 to ISS, burned up as planned on its return to Earth.

The craft brought supplies to ISS and was loaded with garbage before leaving the station. Japan expects most of it burned up over the South Pacific, but allows some of the bigger pieces could have reached the ocean.

The future of Japan's contribution to the cargo vessel fleet is unclear, however. Russia already has one, as does Europe, and both SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are developing private versions under contract with NASA.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

More Spirit Trouble

In the week before Halloween, NASA's Mars rover Spirit had another computer memory glitch, failing to perform some science observations, or failing to report the results to Earth. Spirit had a string of four similar incidents last April.

Spirit has also been stuck in deep Martian sand for months. NASA has yet to find a way to free the rover. Aside from the occasional computer glitch and being stuck, however, engineers report Spirit continues to function well after nearly six years on the Red Planet. Those might seem to be two big asides, but Spirit's mission was originally to last only 90 days in 2004, so making too much of problems today would miss a much bigger point.