Friday, December 31, 2010

More Cracks

Four new cracks have appeared in the external tank of space shuttle Discovery. NASA says these cracks will be fixed using the same techniques applied to earlier cracks in the same tank.

This mission, the last for Discovery, was scheduled to go in early November, but weather problems, a gas leak, and the initial cracks in the tank delayed things. Launch is now scheduled for February 3, but that too might be pushed back.

Discovery seems in no hurry to go into retirement.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Galaxy 15 Back Under Control

Galaxy 15, the communications satellite that went out of control last April and began wandering through the constellation of communications satellites, threatening havoc, came back under control last week. Engineers think the battery powering the satellite finally went dry, whereupon the onboard computer reset, as it was designed to do in such circumstances, and began accepting commands from the ground again.

Intelsat, owner of the satellite, has put it in safe mode until all its systems can be thoroughly checkd out. After that, a decision will be made as to whether Galaxy 15 can be returned to service. Engineers still don't know what made the satellite malfunction in the first place.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Dextre Checks Out

Dextre, the robotic astronaut assistant aboard ISS, successfully completed its final check out last week. The first real task for the two-armed robot will be next month. A Japanese cargo vessel will arrive, and Dextre will unload it and place two suites of equipment in their permanent positions.

Dextre is stationed on the outside of ISS and is designed to do some of the routine maintenance tasks that have been done up to now by spacewalking astronauts, thus relieving them of some more dangerous duty and freeing them to spend more time on more productive projects.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Exploring Titan

Mission planners studying ways to explore Saturn's magnificent moon Titan within the next few years are looking at several possibilities. The big element guiding their work involves deciding whether to try to cover a large area to get a broad overview, or, alternatively, study a smaller area in more detail.

If they choose the latter approach, the obvious choice would be to send a lander partnered with a rover. We know how to do that, but pulling it off on Titan would be a real challenge. For one thing, because of the distance between Earth and Titan, a rover there would either have to move extremely slowly, or it would need to be able to navigate and make decisions largely on its own-- in what is likely a more dynamic surface environment than the one on Mars, for example.

Covering a large area would require using aircraft; Titan's thick atmosphere allows a range of options. Lighter-than-air vehicles could fly high, studying the atmosphere, or fly under the haze layer to map large tracts of the surface. Hot-air balloon-type craft could also be used. Even jets are a possibility. A jet aircraft might be able to circumnavigate Titan at relatively low altitude in several hours.

Combining those two basic options might also be possible. A blimp or a balloon, for example, could drag an instrument package along the ground as it flew, thus sampling both sky and surface. Deciding exactly how best to go after Titan's mysteries in an era of extremely limited budgets will be at once a difficult and a fascinating exercise.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Noticing Novae

Scientists using data from a satellite meant to study the Sun and the solar wind have discovered four novae in the early stages of their eruptions. Only two of the stars were picked up by other means. A nova is the explosion of a white dwarf star. Not only doesn't the explosion destroy the star, but a single star can go nova several times. A supernova, on the other hand, does destroy the star, sometimes leaving a black hole.

The study suggests the astronomical community is missing many such events even when a nova reaches naked-eye visibility, resulting in an underestimation of the frequency of nova events in the universe. Dedicating an astronomical satellite to doing an all-sky survey every orbit of the Earth could pick up more nova explosions. The locations of those events could then be relayed to ground-based observatories for more detailed study. This seems to be a case in which a relatively modest program could produce important results.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Indian Mishap

India's largest launch vehicle, the GSLV, malfunctioned Saturday shortly after liftoff and had to be destroyed. It was the second failed launch of the rocket this year.

The GSLV carried a huge communications satellite and had had to be modified to accomodate that size. Whether that modification contributed to the malfunction is not yet known. Whatever the cause turns out to be, the failure is a setback for the building space power. Historically, however, failures are relatively common in the development of new rockets. The Indians plan to push forward, though, on their emerging space program.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Alien Comets

A new study suggests that most of the comets now orbiting the Sun in fact originated in other star systems. The study tries to put a number on the comet population of the Oort Cloud, a huge shell around the Sun far beyond the orbit of Pluto, and comes up with 400 billion. Using the current model, which assumes virtually all comets are left over pieces from the formation of the Solar System, the number comes to only about 6 billion.

The huge discrepancy probably stems from the birth circumstances of the Sun, researchers say. Astronomers think the Sun developed in a loose star cluster that contained perhaps between one hundred and one thousand members. The cluster broke apart, of course, since the Sun now flies through space essentially alone, but while the stars were close, they could have traded comets, and the Sun could have acquired a huge retinue.

Astronomers generally argue that studying comets can tell us a lot about the early Solar System. If this new study is correct, studying comets could also shed light on the formation of other solar systems-- a remarkable bonus for science.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Economics And Space Settlement

The economic situation in the world over the next few years may make the idea of settling space seem like a pipe dream. If part of the cure for our debt problem lies in creating a larger economy, however, expanding into space should be one engine harnessed.

Virtually all of the natural resources of the Solar System lie beyond Earth. We currently have the ability to begin resource-mapping other worlds as well as to assay asteroids-- and we have private, commercial firms building to meet the challenge of making profits directly from space operations. When that can be done, we should see an economic expansion rolling on indefinitely, creating a human economy no one today can imagine.

Can the same bunch of politicians and economists, essentially, that let the world economy nearly collapse now lay the legal and financial foundation that will support a vibrant economy that increasingly incorporates resources and products from beyond Earth? Over the next few years, that question will be answered.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Star of Bethlehem

Often this time of year, the American media runs a story about an astronomer trying to prove what the Star of Bethlehem actually was, or could have been. The usual suspects are a comet, a supernova, or a grouping of planets that had special astrological meaning. At the time, there were several cultures on Earth that had sophisticated understandings of the night sky, from the Chinese to the emerging civilizations in Mexico and South America. The people of that time were skywatchers.

None of those cultures seem to have recorded any remarkable stellar event around the time of Jesus' birth. Indeed, only one of the Gospels mentions the Star of Bethlehem. So, where does that leave the Christmas Story? There was a literary tradition in the cultures mixing in what is now called the Middle East at that time that the births of great men were marked by some event in the natural world. A new star sitting over a particular town would fit that tradition. The Gospels are not history in the way we understand history. They do seek to tell the story of a remarkable life, but they are also intent on making sure they convey just how remarkable that life was.

Does that mean there was no Star of Bethlehem? Certainly not. There are three basic options. There may have been a star noted around the world, but the passage of two thousand years has at least hidden the evidence. We might someday find that evidence, or we might not. Or, the Star may have been a beautiful, poetic, wholly legitimate literary device used to herald the beginning of a life that would change the world. Or, maybe the Star was exactly what the Christmas Story says it was, a sign from God that an extraordinary event had taken place. Perhaps it was not visible around the world because the initial Christian drama would play out only in Judea, on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire, and the power of Christianity was to rest on faith, not evidence.

Whatever the truth, astronomers probably shouldn't be looked to as the group to figure it out just because a story involves a star.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Hollow Worlds

There seems to be a group of UFOlogists, or ancient astronaut theorists, or whatever they call themselves, that takes seriously the notion that the Earth and the Moon are hollow. Honest to God. They say the Moon is a gigantic interstellar spaceship put in orbit around Earth to allow its crew to monitor Earth, and they further hold that there are likely alien bases, living dinosaurs, and all manner of stuff inside our planet.

Of course, Newton's Laws of Gravity allow us to "weigh" worlds by observing their interactions with other bodies and plugging the data we get from that observation into Newton's equations. That approach has allowed astronomers to determine the masses of stars and galaxies across the universe, and it has allowed humans to navigate space probes across their home solar system with exquisite precision. It works, and it is an extraordinary testament to the power of the human mind.

Those same laws tell us the concept of a hollow Earth and Moon is nonsense. We have directly measured the density of the outer shells of both worlds, and we know precisely how they interact gravitationally. If they were hollow, that interaction would be different because they would be less massive. Hollows lack the mass of solid, compressed rock.

Alien visitation of Earth early in the human epoch is not impossible. Continued visitation to this day seems to stretch reality almost-- but not quite-- to the breaking point. Making such a case, therefore, is extremely difficult for the most serious, rational investigator. Allowing such fantasies as exotic, abundant life filling huge open spaces in a hollow Earth to go unchallenged only makes the fundamental task virtually impossible.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Cosmic Background Rings

When physicists accidentally discovered radiation pervading the universe at an extremely low energy level nearly five decades ago, it was taken as evidence of the Big Bang-- in fact, as roughly the echo of the event that gave birth to our universe.

Now, two physicists studying that cosmic background radiation have discovered a "ring" of radiation in the data. They interpret the ring as evidence of a universe before the Big Bang, or, alternatively, as evidence of universes beside our own. Most physicists have generally held that we will never know what existed before the Big Bang-- if indeed "before the Big Bang" has any meaning at all. Theoretical physicists do allow for the possibility of other universes, but, so far, that idea has lacked supporting data.

Other physicists acknowledge the ring is in the data, but they reject the exotic explanations. They say the data can tell us more about the organization of the early universe, perhaps even about the split-second between the Big Bang and the inflation of spacetime that led to the universe we know. History suggests the majority of competent scientists are right about most things in their expertise most of the time, but leaps forward are made when a scientist hits upon an idea that turns out to be revolutionary.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Television News And Space

Television news has always had an odd relationship with the U. S. manned space program. During Mercury and Gemini, the networks of the day covered it extensively. There seemed to be a perfect match, after all-- television was a visual medium, and NASA provided remarkable visuals. Walter Cronkite and CBS, for example, also provided extraordinary coverage of the Apollo 11 mission, but by Apollo 13, the networks planned only limited coverage. That changed, of course, with the life-or-death battle Apollo 13 became, but subsequent Apollo missions again received limited live coverage-- as if every space mission is not a life-or-death battle.

The space shuttle program has operated in a different media environment. Cable news channels have meant anyone interested could see most or all shuttle launches live. Still, most were ignored by the major broadcast networks, and space policy was rarely addressed in a substantive way by either cable or broadcast news.

The same pattern was followed with the recent Falcon 9/Dragon launch-- limited coverage by the broadcast networks of an event that could mark a new era in the Space Age. The simplest explanation of that lack of interest, perhaps, is that the network news divisions don't understand the potential impact of private corporations operating space programs of their own. Why those vaunted divisions don't understand that when they do know who Kim Kardashian is lies beyond the scope of this blog. That it seems to be the case, however, is probably not a good sign for serious journalism at the network level. Such a situation would be unfortunate for the nation generally-- well beyond any effort to reach into space.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


The year 2010 did not see humanity's second manned mission to Jupiter, as it did in Arthur C. Clarke's novel centered on that year, but it may be remembered as a pivotal year in the history of mankind's move into space.

The year saw a shift in U. S. space policy, emphasizing technology development to build a foundation for deep space manned missions. It saw the continued maturation of unmanned programs around the world. China, India, and Japan had successful unmanned lunar missions, and Japan successfully returned samples from a comet to Earth. Several governments of major nations expressed interest in participating in an international program to build a lunar base.

Private space efforts continued gaining momentum, as well. The Google Lunar X-Prize competition gathered more teams; attempts to win the prize should commence very soon. Bigelow Aerospace and Boeing have joined to look at building private space stations and a transportation system to get people to them. Virgin Galactic is well into its test flight schedule for its commercial suborbital offering, and is already looking at orbital flights. Interorbital Systems is still planning a manned orbital flight launched from the sea off Tonga in a matter of months. SpaceX completed two successful test flights in 2010 of its projected workhorse launcher, the Falcon 9.

Several probes at Mars continue to provide data that deepens our understanding of that planet. Cassini continues to reveal marvels and mysteries in the system of Saturn. The year saw the number of exoplanets swell to over 500. With new appreciation of where life might thrive, new possibilities for finding life elsewhere in this solar system and beyond have opened up.

What 2011 may hold we can only wait and see.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Finding Your Own Planet

Scientists, for several years, have looked for ways to include the interested public in research projects online. The idea has been to foster understanding and enthusiasm for science while allowing investigators to get more done by utilizing thousands of volunteers.

The latest such project comes from the good folks at, and uses data from the Kepler planet-hunting spacecraft. Kepler searches for planets orbiting other stars by looking for transits-- times when a planet passes between Kepler and the planet's parent star. Such events cause dips in the amount of light from a star that reaches Kepler.

Finding a planet therefore becomes a pattern recognition problem. The human mind is very good at recognizing patterns. So, those who participate in this project will be given Kepler data to look through. If they find a pattern, they just might have found the latest exoplanet-- possibly even a new Earth. Of course, NASA will be doing the same thing, but it will be using powerful computers and custom-written software. Besides finding new worlds, finding out how the human mind fares against computers in this area should be interesting.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Commercial Spaceships

Orbital Sciences Corporation is working with NASA to develop a "blended body" human-rated spaceship to transport people to and from low Earth orbit. Blended body vehicles are extremely aerodynamic, which strongly suggests OSC sees the craft as being able to maneuver in the atmosphere, probably land on a runway, and flying multiple missions. The spaceship would launch atop an Atlas 5 rocket. OSC has also contracted with Virgin Galactic to use VG's WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft in test flights of its blended body. VG has made it clear it intends to offer orbital flights in short order. A relationship with OSC's manned orbital spaceship program may be a step in that direction.

The Sierra Nevada Corporation, based in Reno, is also working with NASA to complete development of the company's DreamChaser. DreamChaser has had a difficult history, not least because of financial problems, but it might yet fly. DreamChaser is another spaceplane-type vehicle.

Four hundred miles or so down the highway from Reno sits Bigelow Aerospace. BA is looking for a way to get people to and from low Earth orbit regularly and relatively inexpensively so it can begin building space stations. If things go right, BA may soon see that problem solved.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Ice Volcano Likely On Titan

Scientists using Cassini data think they have solid evidence of at least one ice volcano (cryovolcano) on Saturn's huge, remarkable moon, Titan. Lava flows from terrestrial volcanoes, but ice volcanoes throw out water or water vapor, hydrocarbons, or other complex chemicals. Such geologic activity on Titan would also explain the amount of methane in Titan's atmosphere, as ice volcanism could replenish methane, which, over time, is broken down by radiation.

The existences of ice volcanoes-- if there's one, there's likely more-- also increases the odds of life existing on Titan by keeping the complex chemistry we see stirred up, and by connecting organic compounds on the surface and in the atmosphere to a possible underground sea of liquid water. That thinking-- always going back to life in liquid water-- may turn out to be too Earth-centric. Life on Titan, and other worlds, may be really alien, after all. Still, water is our starting place for now.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Space Superfund?

A new study suggests a fund similar to the U. S. Superfund designed to finance the cleanup of polluted sites be established to deal with the problem of space junk. The study calls for the generators of space junk, both nation-state and private concern, to contribute to such a fund, and for nation-states to acknowledge junk in orbit is a problem and to commit to limiting the amount of such junk, or debris, in the future.

Further, the study calls for the development of technologies that will allow the removal of debris from Earth orbit, and, importantly, the testing of such technologies in space. It notes that during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill last summer, for example, technologies to shut off the spill were present before the accident, but they hadn't been tested in that specific situation, and too many of them didn't work. Testing various approaches in space, therefore, is crucial to developing a suite of technologies that would actually work on the full range of different kinds of junk in orbit.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Saturn's Rings

Various theories have tried to explain the existence of Saturn's magnificent ring system. Even the age of the rings has been debated-- some theories hold the rings are essentially as old as the planet, for example, while others argue the rings are a transitory phenomenon which happens to be there at a time humans have telescopes and spacecraft. A new model suggests the rings are indeed old.

The model posits a Titan-sized moon smashed into Saturn perhaps 4.5 billion years ago. As the moon spiraled into the huge planet, Saturn's gravity ripped it apart. The outer, icy layers of the moon stayed in space while the core barreled into Saturn. This could have happened more than once, suggesting an explanation for why Saturn has only one moon of any real heft while Jupiter, for example, has four.

The ice that stayed in space, according to the model, formed the ring system, which originally was made of virtually pure water ice. The model doesn't stop there, however. It goes on to argue ice ripped away from the early big moon(s) eventually formed some of Saturn's small, icy moons, like Tethys, Enceladus, and Mimas. The comprehensive nature of the model no doubt deepens its appeal, but scientists could soon get some hard data to put against the model. Near the end of its mission, in 2017, the Cassini spacecraft will fly directly into the rings, getting the best information yet about their composition, structure, and dynamics.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Krulwich And Armstrong

Robert Krulwich of NPR asked last week why Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin didn't stay on the lunar surface longer and roam farther from the lunar module than they did during the Apollo 11 mission, which was the first manned landing on another world. Armstrong responded via e-mail, patiently explaining that no one had ever walked on the Moon before, NASA wasn't entirely sure what would happen, NASA wanted the astronauts to stay within the field of view of the single television camera the astronauts had set up-- and NASA wanted to get the men back safely. Armstrong went on to point out that subsequent Apollo astronauts did roam farther from their lunar modules.

Perhaps a good question is why Mr. Krulwich asked his question. Assuming any basic appreciation at all of the achievement of Apollo 11, a few moments of reflection should tell anyone why Armstrong and Aldrin didn't sprint across the lunar surface. Of course, journalists get paid to ask questions-- often provocative questions-- not necessarily to reflect. Still, Krulwich did enough research to note that the surface explorations of the two astronauts could fit within a football field, or a baseball diamond. Such research-- with all due respect to Mr. Krulwich-- misses the point. The relevant distances that are important in the story of Apollo 11 are the distance from Earth to the Moon, the last several thousand feet separating the closest approach to the Moon of Apollo 10's lunar module from the lunar surface, and the distance home.

Friday, December 10, 2010

NASA Spending

The U. S. House passed a spending bill this week that, among other things, provided NASA's 2011 budget. In a time that finds many Americans, and many members of Congress, clamoring for deep cuts in federal spending, NASA did fairly well in the spending bill, getting only $90 million less than President Obama requested.

The NASA-related provisions in the bill also officially cancels the Constellation program, replacing it with Mr. Obama's emphasis on technology development and strengthening the commercial space sector. That said, however, the bill also continues funding for the development of a heavy-lift vehicle for NASA as well as for continued development of the Orion capsule-- two of the biggest pieces of Constellation.

The bill now goes to the U. S. Senate for its consideration.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Akatsuki Misses Venus

Japan's Akatsuki space probe was supposed to go into orbit around Venus December 6. Instead, there was a problem, and Akatsuki sailed right past the planet. The probe's rocket engine failed to fire long enough to insert the spacecraft into orbit.

The cause of the failure is not yet known. The rocket's nozzle could have been the problem, and there is also the possibility, however unlikely, that the spacecraft was hit by an object.

All is not completely lost for the mission, though. Akatsuki's current flightpath will take it back to Venus in 2016 or 2017. At that point, another attempt might be made to put Akatsuki into orbit around Venus and carry out its mission-- a detailed examination of the atmosphere of Venus with an eye towards explaining why that planet turned out so different than Earth.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Dragon Follow Up

After a successful launch this morning atop its Falcon 9, SpaceX's Dragon capsule orbited Earth, maneuvered in space, deployed a parachute to break it's re-entry speed, deployed three main parachutes, and splashed down in the target area in the Pacific.

SpaceX has thus become the first private company to retrieve a capsule it put into orbit. That is a huge step forward, not only for the company, but for those who argue private companies can in fact operate in space. The object now is to replicate the feat until it becomes boring and routine, but SpaceX has pulled it off on the first try. There is no reason to think it cannot become routine-- and when it does, the age of opening space to commercial enterprises will have well and truly begun.

Dragon Flies

Well, it looks like NASA was right. After delaying the first flight of the Falcon 9/Dragon configuration yesterday, SpaceX initially said the launch would not be attempted until Thursday at the earliest. NASA engineers said maybe Wednesday. In fact, Dragon is in low Earth orbit after a successful launch and a successful burn of the second stage rocket. This is the second consecutive successful launch of a Falcon 9-- itself a good achievement for a new company operating a new rocket system. If Dragon is recovered by SpaceX personnel after a splashdown in the Pacific as planned, that would be another first for a private company.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Dragon Flight Pushed Back

SpaceX has delayed the first test flight of its Falcon 9/Dragon configuration. Both the company and NASA say the flight could yet take place this week.

A final inspection before launch turned up possible problems with the nozzles of the second stage rocket engines. Depending on how serious the problems are, the flight could take place as early as Thursday, according to SpaceX, or as early as Wednesday, according to NASA. The difference in the estimate is interesting, and the fact that the difference was made public even more interesting. This time, the difference is probably not important, but NASA and its private partners might want to work out who speaks for a project early on in this new era.

Monday, December 6, 2010

SpaceX Ready To Rumble

All seems to be A-OK for the first flight of a dummy Dragon capsule atop its Falcon 9 launcher, according to SpaceX, the company building both Dragon and Falcon 9. The launch is scheduled for tomorrow morning from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Dragon is scheduled to splashdown in the Pacific perhaps four hours later, to be recovered by a SpaceX ship.

The Falcon 9-Dragon configuration is slated to service ISS after the space shuttle is retired by delivering cargo and carrying away garbage. SpaceX is also looking at man-rating Dragon so that it can also ferry humans to and from low Earth orbit.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Tiger Stripes Of Enceladus

Scientists have found over centuries, and especially over the most recent few decades, that the closer you look at Nature, the more there is to see, and the more complex Nature looks.

That situation held true again during Cassini's August flyby of the southern hemisphere of Saturn's moon Enceladus. The south polar region of Enceladus is the home of the famed erupting geysers, which in turn explode from cracks in the surface ice shell astronomers have dubbed "tiger stripes." The August flyby-- the closest to that area until 2015-- revealed the tiger stripes in unprecedented detail and showed a more intricate system of cracks than scientists had imagined. Smaller cracks branch from large cracks. While the tiger stripes are warmer than the surrounding surface, there are even warmer hot spots within the crack system. Possibly, such hot spots will host future geyser eruptions.

Of course, warm is relative on Enceladus, but the geyser spray includes organic compounds, which themselves argue for more heat and complexity under the surface. That the tiger stripes, in all their detail, suggest something like a fractal arrangement is further evidence that Nature is infinitely subtle.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Arsenic Instead Of Phosphorus

NASA researcher Felise Wolf-Simon has discovered a strain of bacteria that can replace phosphorus-- which heretofore biologists have thought was essential for life-- with arsenic and continue to thrive. Yes, arsenic-- Agatha Christie's favorite poison. Phosphorus and arsenic are closely related chemically, which likely accounts for the bacteria's ability to switch them, but the discovery is still a game changer.

This discovery once again widens the parameters of life, a process that has been continuing for the past couple decades at least. When life was found around volcanic vents deep in the ocean, it became obvious life could exist over a wider range of environments than scientists had imagined. Since then, life has been found in various supposedly inhospitable places on Earth, including deep inside nuclear power plants, bathed in what should be lethal radiation. As that is not a natural environment, and has in fact existed for only a few decades, bacteria inside nuclear facilities might tell us something about how quickly evolution can move.

Wolf-Simon's discovery clearly has major implications for the search for alien life, as well. Life-as-we-know-it may be a woefully inadequate yardstick. Why wouldn't it be? If we assume life evolves according to local conditions, assuming further that life elsewhere would be built on the same base as Earth life seems a bit odd. Arsenic instead of phosphorus is likely one more step towards realizing the infinite complexity of the universe.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Body Bigger Than Jupiter?

Scientists are speculating that the outer Oort Cloud may contain more than comets. In fact, it might be home to a bruiser of a world, one up to four times more massive than Jupiter.

Scientists have noted there seems to be a pattern in the timing of mass extinctions on Earth, and they have tied one of those events-- the one that ended the Age of the Dinosaurs-- to a huge comet impact. The idea is that the pattern in mass extinctions might be explained by the Earth being struck periodically. That would require a trigger-- a big body out at the edge of the Solar System that alters the orbits of comets on something like a regular basis, sending them into the inner System. Astronomers studying the orbits of some comets think they have evidence of such a body. Similarly, astronomers mathematically inferred the existence and position of Neptune, leading to its optical discovery, by studying quirks in the orbit of Uranus.

The reason such a world has never been seen or photographed, they say, involves its incredible distance from the Sun. It would be too cold to be imaged in infrared, and receive too little sunlight to be seen in visual light. How a body so huge could form that far out remains a puzzle. Most stars like the Sun do have stellar companions, however, so this object, if it exists, could be a companion that didn't quite reach stardom.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Red Dwarfs

A team of astronomers is now proposing that there may be as many as three times the number of red dwarf stars as previously thought. Such stars are what the name suggests-- stars only a fraction of the Sun's mass that shine only feebly, hence the low energy red hue.

Astronomers already knew that red dwarfs were the most common star in the universe; this new number only solidifies that position. The increased number affects two important areas of study, however. First, three times as many as these stars in the universe adds a huge amount of mass, thereby reducing the amount of "dark matter" needed to account for the calculated masses of many galaxies.

Second, though red dwarfs shine only feebly, they do so for incredibly long time periods. They are also incredibly stable. Such lifespans and stability make them candidates for supporting life. It's true, their weakness would make their habitable zones extremely narrow and extremely close to the star, but given the red dwarf population in the universe and their long, stable lives, the odds are probably good that some of them support life.

Some may also support branches of civilizations that arose on planets circling other stars. The number and qualities of red dwarfs might make them attractive targets for civilizations that embrace interstellar travel as a way of expanding beyond their home solar systems. Such societies could place colonies in the habitable zones of red dwarfs, where they could potentially perk along for billions of calm, stable years.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Orion Test Flight In 2013?

Lockheed Martin, builder of the Orion space capsule, is looking at acquiring a Delta 4 Heavy rocket to launch a test flight of an unmanned Orion in 2013. The flight would look towards meeting NASA's goal of having an Orion ready by 2016.

In the test flight, Orion would be launched into a highly elliptical orbit, the apogee of which would be well into space. The point of that flight path would be to test the Orion's performance during re-entry at a speed that would approach that of an Orion returning from a lunar or deep space mission. Of course, NASA has no current plans to use Orion to go to the Moon, and the only deep space flight that has momentum is a manned flight to an asteroid in 2025. The future of NASA manned spaceflight, and of human spaceflight in general, however, is in a state of flux. Congress has its own ideas of where American astronauts should go next, other countries seem to be considering lunar missions, and there are also private possibilities. If LM had a human-rated spacecraft designed for deep space missions ready to fly soon, it might have more than NASA to service.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Ancient Gods

The History Channel's Ancient Aliens series is still moving along. In a recent installment, the show postulated that the gods of mythology-- Zeus, Apollo, Odin, etc.-- may in fact have been alien astronauts. That speculation, of course, is the logical extension of ancient astronaut theory. The question is just how much sense the theory makes.

Proponents of the theory argue there's more to the human past than we know. That's no doubt true; scholars regularly make new discoveries, some of which push the earliest human civilization back before Sumeria. Arguing humans were genetically engineered by aliens, however, is simply a bizarre assertion, resting on no facts at all. Arguing aliens guided humans into creating civilization simplifies a complex, extended evolution. Arguiing the gods of myths were in fact aliens confuses the likely origin. Such gods are similar across cultures, almost certainly, not because they're based on the same alien, but because they were created by human minds grappling with the same questions from similar viewpoints.

The show also suggested Jesus may have been an alien. That is in line with the theory and should give high marks for courage, at least. Again, though, it's a flyer, completely lacking in evidence.

Alien visitation of Earth in the distant past is a possibility, but throwing out notions is not the way to prove it.

Jupiter Rebounds

Over several months, astronomers, often led by amateur astronomers, have watched as a prominent feature of Jupiter's incredible atmosphere, the South Equatorial Belt, has faded nearly away. Now, according to amateur astronomer Christopher Go of The Philippines, the SEB is staging a comeback. Go has noted blobs appearing at the lattitude of the SEB that he thinks herald the return of the Belt.

Professional Jupiter watchers largely agree. The SEB has a history over the 400 years humans have observed Jupiter through increasingly good telescopes of fading in and out on occasion. There seems to be a rough pattern. So, when it faded this time, astronomers predicted the SEB would be back.

Astronomers can now better explain why the Belt fades. It doesn't disappear as much as it's obscured from outside observers by higher altitude clouds. When conditions high in the atmosphere change again, the darker clouds of the SEB reassert themselves.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Einstein's Cosmological Constant

Albert Einstein's General Theory of Relativity laid the groundwork for our current understanding of the universe, and indeed for much of modern high energy physics. The math of the basic theory demanded an expanding universe, however, and in the early twentieth century physicists believed in a steady state universe, so Einstein introduced a cosmological constant into his equations that essentially zeroed out any expansion. Later in the century astronomers showed the universe was, in fact, expanding, and Einstein called the cosmological constant the "biggest blunder" of his career.

Now, theoretical physicists are struggling to understand dark matter and build an overall theory that takes dark matter into account-- and it turns out that Einstein's cosmological constant fits into current approaches that includes dark matter.

At first thought, we might argue that Einstein stumbled on a deeper truth with his cosmological constant, one he never grasped and we are just now glimpsing. However, the essence of dark matter is that it powers universal expansion; Einstein used the constant to stop that expansion. Therefore, saying Einstein was right the first time is likely insufficient. Rejecting that explanation, however, would seem to say a factor introduced into one theory fits into another theory out of blind luck. The math is probably saying we still don't understand a large part of the puzzle.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Cassini Is Back

The Cassini spacecraft exploring the system of Saturn is back doing science. On November 2, Cassini's main computer put itself into safe mode, and engineers worked for the next three weeks trying to determine what had gone wrong. They finally traced the problem to a simple bit flip in the computer. They also saw that the Cassini computer had performed properly after the flip, and were able to put the spacecraft back into normal operations.

During the down time Cassini missed collecting data through a close approach to Titan, but seems ready for a close flyby of Enceladus next week.

Discovery Delayed Again

NASA has pulled back from an early December launch of space shuttle Discovery, and has not yet committed to a mid-December launch. Though engineers have repaired the leaks and cracked ribs in the external tank, they don't understand how the problems developed, and they don't want to commit to a launch until they do understand.

If Discovery doesn't go in December, the next possible launch window does not open until next February.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Russian Space Plans

Russia is thinking big when it comes to remaining a leader in space exploration. According to news reports, Russia is studying developing a force field-type system to protect spacecraft and lunar bases from strikes by space junk or micrometeoroids. It is also looking at a proposed $2 billion ship that would sweep low Earth orbit clean of debris and deposit the stuff in the ocean.

Looking farther out, Russian is considering building nuclear-powered manned spaceships, to be ready to fly, perhaps, by 2020. They argue, probably correctly, that deep space exploration will require nuclear power to propel ships and power bases.

Whether Russia can deliver on such projects is another matter. The Russian economy is fairly small, especially for such a huge, resource-rich nation, and its industrial base is smaller yet. Still, Russia has an amazing space heritage. Betting against it being able to pull off at least one big project at a time probably wouldn't be wise.

Counting Exoplanets

Astronomers have now found roughly 500 planets orbiting other stars. The number is not exact because there's a possibility some of those may turn out to be false positives, but astronomers are confident the vast majority of the finds will hold up.

This first 500, of course, is literally only the beginning. Kepler, NASA's planet-hunting spacecraft, has already identified 700 stars that might have at least one planet, and its mission has barely begun; Kepler will almost certainly find hundreds or thousands more stars over the next few years. Other searches, using various strategies, will no doubt find even more.

Astronomers, however, are more intrigued by the variety of worlds they've found than by the sheer number. They are getting closer and closer to being able to identify worlds similar to Earth, and along the way they have found huge planets in orbits they never would have imagined, planets orbiting in the habitable zone of their stars, and even one that seems to have stayed with its star as the Milky Way absorbed its original home galaxy.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Lockheed Martin's Space Proposal

Aerospace giant Lockheed Martin has issued a white paper that lays out a series of missions to be flown by the Orion spacecraft that would build confidence and experience before moving to deep space missions to asteroids or Mars. These "stepping stone" missions would begin with Earth orbital shakedowns of Orion and move to lunar voyages, culminating in "L2 Farside" missions.

The L2 point is 40,000 miles beyond lunar orbit, where Earth's gravity and the Moon's gravity balance. A ship at that point could remain there indefinitely. The crew of such a ship would also have a spectacular view of both the lunar farside and Earth. LM argues such lunar missions would allow testing of technology and techniques to be used in future deep space missions while allowing astronauts to teleoperate robots on the farside to build giant telescope arrays and to explore the farside by teleoperating rovers on the lunar surface.

It's an interesting proposal, and fills in a blank left by President Obama's proposal to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025. Surely, several flights will need to be flown before that mission is attempted, as LM points out. Something else needs to be pointed out, too. LM builds Orion. A series of Orion flights, therefore, would mean a series of Orion spacecraft would need to be built-- presumably by LM, and presumably at some good profit. The money angle should not, by itself, invalidate LM's proposal, but it must be noted.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The World Biggest Satellite

Yesterday, from Cape Canaveral, a new satellite was launched into orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office. In a speech a few weeks earlier, the NRO Director said the satellite would be the world's biggest.

Of course, the NRO being the NRO, he didn't say what exactly the satellite would do. That can possibly be inferred by noting the NRO is among the more secret of the various agencies in America's intelligence community. Noting the largest commercial satellite weighs something over three tons, the NRO satellite would be even more massive than that.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Still Debating Pluto

Astronomers are still debating whether or not to classify Pluto as a planet. Some argue it is far smaller than any of the eight current planets, its composition is different than any of them, its orbit is different, and it is clearly one of many similar objects in the Kuiper Belt. If Pluto is a planet, they say, the number of planets will explode because those similar objects will also have to be called planets.

Some on the other side are fine with that. They argue, basically, that any object in orbit around the Sun that is large enough so that its gravity has pulled it into a spherical shape is a planet. That would include the largest asteroid, Ceres, for example, plus an unknown number of Kuiper Belt inhabitants. If that ultimately balloons the number of planets into the dozens, or hundreds, they say, it simply does.

With the exception of Ceres, the argument comes down to where the Kuiper Belt fits in the overall scheme of the Solar System. There seems to be four realms in the System-- that of terrestrial worlds out to the Main Belt of asteroids, that of the gas giants from the Main Belt to Neptune, the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune, and the Oort Cloud beyond the Kuiper Belt. The Cloud, home of long period comets, may in fact stretch halfway to the next star.

So, how should we classify Pluto? That debate might go on for a while.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

New Date For Discovery

NASA has set a new date for the last launch of space shuttle Discovery. The target is now December 3.

Discovery's mission has been delayed for both weather and technical reasons. That's an old story for the shuttle program, and ultimately showed shuttles would never come close to the launch rate promised when the program was being sold to Congress. Even with that, however-- and even with two fatal missions-- the space shuttle has been a remarkable flying machine.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Spaceship Company

Virgin Galactic is making good progress towards providing suborbital flights to paying passengers. SpaceShipTwo is performing well in test flights. The rocket engine that will carry SpaceShipTwo to the edge of space is also doing well in its test program. The Spaceship Company, which will build VG's fleet of ships, has recently broken ground in Mojave, California, on its production facility. Spaceport America, in New Mexico, which will be VG's operational base, continues its build out, as reported recently in this blog.

VG is increasingly confident that it will be in space next year, though whether that will be with commercial flights or only with test flights has yet to be determined. VG's first order with TSC calls for two carrier aircraft and five spaceships. Possible additions to that fleet will be judged according to customer demand after the initial rush.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Hayabusa Successful

Japan's ambitious mission to retrieve samples from a comet, Hayabusa, did precisely that. Though the probe returned to Earth last June, the Japanese have been careful about opening the container that would have any samples, working through procedures to limit possible contamination of samples by Earthly sources and document exactly what those sources might be in case contamination occurred.

This week, Japanese scientists and engineers finally opened the key container and determined they had in fact collected dust grain-sized samples from Comet Itakawa during a 2005 encounter. Careful analysis of the samples wll yield new insights into the nature of Itakawa specifically and of comets more generally.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

More "Mystery Missile"

Patrick Minnis is a contrail expert at NASA. Yes, they have such things. It seems contrails can lead to the creation of cirrous clouds, which in turn can affect the climate. Research by Minnis and others indicates 1% more cirrus clouds over the U. S. per decade exist due to contrails, and that can help push global warming.

So, after a KCBS news photographer captured what looked like a rocket launch off the California coast, Minnis was contacted by a reporter and asked his views. At first, he thought it was a rocket launch, he acknowleged, but after doing some research-- it turns out that whatever-it-was was picked up by NASA assets in orbit, which likely means the intelligence community has even better data on the event-- Minnis decided it was a jet contrail. He notes that a commercial airliner was scheduled to be at exactly that position at exactly that time.

That sounds fine, but here's one quibble. According to, Minnis notes data shows that conditions were right for the forming of contrails and cirrus clouds in that part of California on November 9. The event captured on professional television equipment by a professional photographer, however, happened the evening of November 8.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Now, A Fourth Crack

NASA engineers have discovered yet another crack in the external tank mated to space shuttle Discovery. So far, the agency is still aiming to go in the next launch window, which opens November 30 and closes around December 6.

As NASA continues to find cracks, the question must be asked: Did NASA miss these cracks before, or is the external tank cracking as it sits on the launch pad? If inspections missed cracks until now, that's a serious problem at the tail end of the shuttle program. If this is simply a bad external tank, how it got past quality control is another matter. Launching with this tank is surely being reconsidered, or will be if another crack is found.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Spaceport America Shaping Up

After its dedication last month, Spaceport America is looking forward to a successful first few years. Though facilities are still being constructed, everything is on schedule, and the huge runway that will support Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo is complete. The runway will also be able to be used by a wide variety of other large aircraft.

While VG is seen as the lead customer of SA, other aerospace firms are also either using it already or planning to use it. Lochheed Martin is one of them, but others include Armadillo Aerospace and UP Aerospace. SA, therefore, could well begin operations with a fairly solid customer base.

Those operations will likely officially begin sometime next year.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Third Crack

NASA engineers have found a third crack in space shuttle Discovery's external tank. The discovery of two cracks delayed the slated early November launch. NASA is not yet saying the scheduled November 30 liftoff is in jeopardy.

To meet that date, however, the cracks will have to be repaired while Discovery sits on the pad. That has never been done before. It seems a little late in the shuttle program to be trying new procedures, especially those related to launch safety, but, so far, NASA seems convinced it can make the repairs and meet the next launch window.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Searching For Life

There is no more fascinating or important question on the science table today than: Are we alone in the universe? The first place we can try to answer that question directly is Mars, and some NASA scientists are suggesting we do precisely that. They say the next phase of robotic exploration of Mars should focus on searching for life.

So far, the only search for life on Mars was conducted by the Viking probes of the 1970s. The consensus of the scientific community at the time and since has been that Viking did not find life. Exploration of the planet since then, however, has revealed that Mars may have been friendlier to life in the past and suggests life could still exist under the surface, where it would be protected from harmful radiation.

The scientists argue that future robotic missions should include rovers that could explore likely places for life, such as ancient hot springs, and the ability to dig several meters below the surface in search of fossils, or, possibly, extant life.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Dealing With Dangerous Asteroids

Last month in Germany, an international group of experts on the dangers of asteroids colliding with Earth met to begin the process of creating a multi-national response to that threat. Much of that response remains precisely defining the threat-- finding and cataloguing potentially dangerous Near Earth Objects. The goal is not only to identify those that could possibly wipe out humanity, but also to locate the smaller mountains in the sky that could still produce regional disasters.

As is regularly the case, the political factors involved in this effort may be more complex and more difficult to accomodate than the engineering and scientific factors. Because the strike of a large body could threaten all of us, the whole international community should be involved. Because a failed attempt to shift the course of a smaller body could result in shifting the impact area from one nation to another, all nations that would be in the flight path would have to agree before an attempt to deflect was made. The meeting in Germany was an initial step towards establishing the parameters of such issues.

The experts called for the creation of a group to coordinate the efforts of the world's space agencies in this area. Next year, the United Nations is scheduled to take more formal action.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Mystery Missile Update

The Pentagon insists it was not responsible for the supposed missile launch off the coast of California Monday evening and further reports that neither NORAD nor the U. S. Northern Command picked up anything unusual in that area at that time. Some experts, incluiding John Pike of the American Federation of Scientists, say the object picked up by a KCBS camera was simply an ordinary airliner. The FAA also reports nothing moving at high speed was picked up on radar, and no pilots flying in the area at the time reported anything unusual.

The matter may not be quite as closed as the above paragraph suggests. Pilots hesitate to report unusual things in the sky, for instance-- they don't want to be labeled as crackpots because they want to keep their jobs. Whether pilots would put a mystery missile in the same category as a UFO is open to question. So far, we seem to have only the FAA's assurance about the lack of radar images, and only the Pentagon's assurance that it was not involved. All that against a professional photojournalist using a professional level television camera recording what looks like a rocket launch featuring the classic thick pillar of exhaust as opposed to an airliner trailed by a thin, white contrail.

It sure looked like a rocket launch.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Mysterious Sea Launch

Someone launched a missile from about 35 miles out to sea off the California coast last evening. A camera from CBS Los Angeles affiliate KCBS took video of the event. The U. S. Navy, however, insists it wasn't one of theirs. So did the U. S. Air Force; the USAF launching from water doesn't seem likely, though it may not be out of the question.

That leaves some interesting options. The Navy could be fibbing, for whatever reason. Or, another nation decided to demonstrate its ability to reach the U. S. mainland-- which would make the incident extremely important. Or, perhaps, it was the test launch of a private company's rocket-- that's increasingly a possibility in today's world.

Most likely? The Navy is fibbing.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Cassini Problem

NASA's extremely successful Cassini space probe, which has deepened our understanding of Saturn, its rings, and its moons by sending back streams of terrific data, missed a chance to document another close encounter with Titan last week. Days before that event, Cassini's main computer put itself into safe mode. Program managers are unsure why.

This is the second time the computer has gone into safe mode, but engineers are confident the probe will be back gathering data shortly. They still plan to be able to use the probe for the rest of its extended mission, which runs until May, 2017.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Politics And Space Policy

In the election November 2, the Republican Party took control of the U. S. House of Representatives and made gains in the Senate. Assuming the majority in the House, however, is the big deal. It means Republicans will hold committee chairs and decide which bills and which policies get real consideration. That means, in turn, that space policy could change again.

Some in Congress, including a few Republicans, have objected to the Obama administration's plans for NASA. More broadly, however, the GOP won the election by emphasizing the need to reduce government spending, and, at some point, to cut taxes. Often in the past when spending cuts have been in vogue, NASA has been among the first targets, regardless of which party has been wielding the ax.

Congress, therefore, has treated NASA as a luxury when politics get tough. At the same time, however, NASA also enjoys broad bipartisan support in Congress as well as among the American people. So, what will happen to the U. S. manned spaceflight program? Extending the life of ISS beyond 2020-- an Obama policy-- may well hold. But will Congress reinstate a specifc goal, like returning astronauts to the Moon in the near future as a way to organize and energize NASA's technology development effort? President Obama has called for a manned mission to an asteroid by 2025, but that seems to be a one shot deal to some that could be folded into a larger lunar base program.

Returning to the Moon sooner rather than later, or setting sail for Mars, of course, would require increasing NASA's budget, which would seem to be contrary to the basic GOP approach. On the other hand, maintaining U. S. leadership in space is likely something Republicans see as a positive. The direction of America's manned spaceflight program may still be open to question.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Leak Grounds Discovery Indefinitely

A hydrogen leak in the external tank has ended NASA's attempt to launch space shuttle Discovery in the current launch window.

Fixing the leak is now the priority. The earliest Discovery may fly is November 30, but NASA has not yet made a firm commitment to another launch date.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Discovery Still Grounded

The last launch of space shuttle Discovery was delayed again today as engineers found a hydrogen gas leak early this morning. The earliest Discovery will launch now is Monday.

Originally, NASA said the current launch window closed Sunday, but the agency has found a way to extend it one more day. If Discovery can't fly on Monday, it will have to wait until the end of the month to try again.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Another Shuttle Delay

The active Florida weather has once again made NASA change its plans. Due to persistent rain in the area around Cape Kennedy, the final launch of space shuttle Discovery has been delayed until Friday afternoon at the earliest.

The weather forecast for Friday is a huge improvement, but high winds might still be a concern.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Discovery Delayed

The launch of space shuttle Discovery missed today because of a glitch in the backup computer for the main engines. Now, the Thursday attempt may be in jeopardy. Engineers are still looking at the computer problem, but the Florida weather might be an issue, as it has often been during the run of the shuttle program.

If Discovery cannot launch by November 7, it will have to wait for the next launch window, which opens December 1.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Space Solar Power

In a press release emailed yesterday, the National Space Society announced it is teaming with a former president of India on a project to establish space solar power as a viable energy source in the near future. The project will be formally announced at a press conference in Washington, D. C., on Thursday.

Space solar power has been a driver for many in the space advocacy community for decades-- and for good reason. The concept is to capture solar energy with huge satellites in Earth orbit, convert that energy into, say, microwaves, and beam it to the surface, where the microwaves would be captured by rectenna farms. The energy would then be fed into the world's electrical grid, providing humanity with limitless, free, clean, safe power. It's a compelling vision.

The question is whether its a vision that can be turned into reality. Each of the collection satellites in the classic SSP model, for example, would be huge-- perhaps a mile across. We really have no solid idea yet as to how to build and control a space structure that big. Whether smaller satellites with improved technology could do the job is another question. Large or small, a fleet of such powersats would be necessary to power the world, which brings up the question of the required capital outlays. Energy from the Sun may be free, but building a system to harness that energy would not be. Financing such a project could well be beyond the ability of the bond market as it exists today, which would likely mean direct government funding of at least part of the project-- this as many governments are already facing huge debt problems for years to come. The ecological effect of dozens of energy beams constantly slicing through the atmosphere is also unknown.

Still, the basic concept is extremely appealing. It has extraordinary promise. A successful SSP system could be the basis of a stable, wealthy, expanding human civilization indefinitely into the future. If the National Space Society and a former Indian president can indeed put humanity on that road, they will have accomplished a very good thing.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Follow The Silica

Researchers have found silica associated with some vents on the flanks of a relatively young volcano on Mars. They say that means that, if life ever existed on Mars, the vents could have been among its last refuges.

Silica, or silica dioxide, is formed as a result of warm water flowing through rock. Warm water associated with a volcano is probably not a stunner, but the fact remains that liquid water combined with a heat source may produce a niche environment that could support life-- if life could get there. The identification of silica is a marker that can be used to guide scientists to potentially interesting places. Researchers suggest such vents may be among the first places to look for possible Martian fossils.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Final Countdown Begins

This afternoon, the countdown for the final mission of space shuttle Discovery begins. The launch is scheduled for Wednesday afternoon, and the weather, so far, looks good.

The launch has already been delayed two days because of a gas leak, but engineers are confident the leak has been fixed.

Mining The Moon

At a recent conference on developing the critical technologies for space settlement, sponsored by the Space Studies Institute, scientists and engineers agree that the technology to begin robotic mining of the Moon exists today, and they argue the Moon should be the first place extraterrestrial mining operations are mounted.

Their case rests on two points. The Moon is the nearest, most accessible extraterrestrial body, and it has substantial amounts of water. Water would be the basis of the first lunar export-- rocket fuel. Breaking water into its components of hydrogen and oxygen and recombining those elements into a rocket fuel, that fuel could be sent to low Earth orbit to top off the tanks of spaceships, probes, etc. Because of the Moon's low gravity, shipping the fuel from the Moon should be more economical than lifting it off Earth. Water is not the only valuiable lunar resource, either. Methane and ammonia could be profitably mined, for example, and lunar helium-3 could eventually fuel fusion reactors.

Other worlds-- Mars, asteroids, comets, other moons, for instance-- also have useful natural resources, of course. The key is to build an economic situation that will allow private industry to profitably apply those resources to improving the human condition. Part of building that situation must include clearly defining property rights beyond Earth. Under current law, the rights of individuals and private corporations to own, use, and profit from claims on other worlds are weak and vague. The major obstacle to finally opening space to human endeavor may not be technological or even financial, but legal and political. Addressing that aspect before going to the Moon with major investments would seem to be as critical as building a robot miner.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Life In The Universe

Two recent studies seem to be good news for those arguing that life is common in the universe. In one, the Hubble Space Telescope was used to image Kuiper Belt objects, those objects that orbit with Pluto and beyond. Hubble showed a range of colors, with those objects that orbit in the plane of the planets having a distinctly reddish hue. Astronomers interpret the colors as indications of organic molecules. Not life, but the building blocks of life, and they say that implies those building blocks are common throughout the universe.

The other study looks at how common worlds similar to Earth might be by monitoring nearby G- and K-type stars, looking for wobbles in the stars that might be caused by planets' gravitational tug. The Sun is a G-type star, for example, and K-types are slightly smaller. The study concludes that worlds the size of Earth are probably fairly common around stars similar to the Sun. Perhaps a quarter of such stars, the study suggests, may have at least one Earth-like world in its gravitational sway.

Taken together, the two studies do not cinch the case for life in the universe. However, if the chemical building blocks of life are common features of solar systems, and if Earths are relatively common around Sun-like stars, an Earth orbiting at the right distance from its star could be occasionally showered with organic molecules. One, or more, of those showers could lead to life.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Hopping To Explore

A team from MIT and Draper Laboratory of Cambridge, Massachusetts, is developing a probe that will hop across a planetary surface. Until now, movable probes have been driven over the alien terrain, but the team argues a hopper could cover more ground more quickly. For example, NASA's extraordinarily successful Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, have covered approximately 20 miles combined since landing in 2004, whereas a hopper could possibly cover 25 miles in a day. "Hopper" may conjure the wrong mental image; the team isn't building exotic pogo-sticks. Rather, the probe, using small rockets, would fly more like a helicopter, flying over large areas before landing.

The team will compete in the Google Lunar X-Prize contest, but expects to have a hopper ready by 2014 while the main GLXP ends in 2012, so it's not clear how serious the hopper team is about winning the competition. Perhaps it is betting that the GLXP will not be won by 2012, and the competition will be extended.

Hoppers would not be limited to the Moon, however. They could be useful on many low gravity worlds-- Mars, the moons of the gas giants, and asteroids. Perhaps the ideal exploration strategy would be to use rovers and hoppers together. Hoppers could provide an overview of an area while rovers, possibly over years, could build up a detailed, connected data set.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Utilizing ISS

The European Space Agency is looking at ways to better use ISS as a research outpost. To that end, European nations not currently involved in the ISS project will be given access to the station for the next three years.

The ESA operates in an interesting way. Although the point of ESA is to allow European nations to pool resources and participate in major space projects, each nation can opt out of projects it does not choose to help fund. Therefore, although ESA is a partner in the ISS program, only 10 of ESA's 18 members actively participate, and three-- Germany, France, and Italy-- combine for most of the funding. Beyond ESA members, the European Union has 27 members all told, and EU members will also be able to use ISS.

The ESA approach would seem to be good news for space and microgravity research. No doubt it is; especially at this early stage of truly opening space, the more the merrier. However, there might be a private option to ISS. If Bigelow Aerospace is successful in quickly deploying its inflatable structure space stations. ISS will no longer be the only game in orbit. Indeed, as reported recently in this blog, BA is in contact with seven nations, including Sweden, the Netherlands, and the UK exploring what those nations would need to use a BA station. If BA establishes there is a good market for space stations, in the private as well as the public sectors, competitors to BA will emerge. ISS may be the first-- and last-- of its kind.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Dragon Launch Delayed

SpaceX has pushed back its scheduled first flight of the company's Dragon capsule. Now, instead of November 9, the launch of the Falcon 9 that will carry Dragon into orbit is slated for November 18. Of course, delaying rocket launches is not unusual, and the Falcon 9 is still a new system. It has only one successful flight to its credit.

The upcoming flight is to be a demonstration to NASA that SpaceX can fulfill its contractual obligaton to deliver cargo to ISS using the Falcon 9/Dragon configuration.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Beating Swords Into Ploughshares

Many people see much of the military spending governments do as an economic dead end. They argue that much of the equipment purchased in military and naval programs cannot be used in economically productive ways, so the capital spent on it, from an economic perspective, is simply wasted. With the advance of technology and a general lessening of major power tension around the world, however, that's becoming less true. Satellite imaging of Earth is now commercial, for example. De-commissioned submarines are just beginning to be used for commercial and scientific underwater exploration. Tiny satellites may well give older jet fighters new civilian missions, too.

Advances in technology has fostered a revolution in satellite design. Now, for many purposes, satellites weighing only a few pounds which can be built in weeks or months are just as capable-- if not more so-- as the large satellites that eat up years and money from design to deployment. Because the new satellites are so small and inexpensive they open opportunities for research and commercial projects to a wider spectrum of users. Some see the smallsat and nanosat market booming over the coming decade, establishing the area as an important part of opening space. Interorbital Systems, with its Cubesat and Tubesat programs to be launched on its Neptune modular launch system, seems to be an early pacesetter, with contracts to fly projects for universities and other groups from around the world.

While IOS will use a rocket booster to fly several smallsats at once-- thus keeping costs per project down-- other companies are looking at different delivery methods. Virgin Galactic, for example, plans to launch smallsats from its WhiteKnightTwo mothership. Another group plans to launch from jet fighters no longer in service. Instead of releasing missiles to knock other aircraft out of the sky, the ex-fighters will, perhaps literally, aim higher, releasing an upper stage rocket that will then carry tiny probes on suborbital flights or even into orbit.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Spinning Vesta

A new study of Vesta, the second largest asteroid in the Solar System, has found Vesta has a slightly larger axial tilt than previously thought. Using images snapped by the Hubble Space Telescope, the study also determined Vesta spins once on its axis every 5.3 hours.

The new information is timely because NASA's Dawn spacecraft will encounter Vesta next year. Knowing the tilt will allow scientists to better plan Dawn's observations of the surface as they factor in the angles at which sunlight will strike certain areas at certain times.

After its time at Vesta, Dawn is scheduled to reach Ceres in 2015. While Vesta is roughly 330 miles along its major axis, Ceres, the largest asteroid, has a diameter of something around 800 miles, similar to the distance all the way across Texas. Ceres is the only asteroid massive enough to have the gravity to pull itself into a sphere, thus the only one with a meaningful diameter.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Dedicating Spaceport America

As part of the dedication of Spaceport America yesterday, Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo made its first landing on the runway in southern New Mexico that will become its home. VG is basing its operations at Spaceport America and plans to begin commercial, suborbital flights in from nine to 18 months.

Sir Richard Branson, founder and chair of VG, will, together with his family, be on the first passenger-carrying flight of SpaceShipTwo. Branson also said VG plans to move quickly from suborbital to orbital flights. It is even planning to compete for a NASA contract to ferry crew to and from ISS. Whether orbital flights could be accomplished using VG's current aircraft-based launch system, or whether VG would have to go to the classic rocket booster launch, is unclear. The launch system, along with the method of dealing with the heat of re-entry, will likely determine if VG's orbital ships will be able to use the runway its suborbital ship just helped dedicate.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Wet Cabeus

Last year, NASA slammed the LCROSS probe into the lunar crater Cabeus in an attempt to discover whether water ice existed on its permanently shadowed floor. Well, they found it. In fact, a new study indicates the floor of Cabeus is wetter than the Sahara Desert-- a totally unbelievable situation only a few years ago. Further, the study finds that water is not the only surprise. Elements ranging from simple hydrogen to ammonia, calcium, carbon, methane, magnesium, and even silver has been found inside the crater.

Scientists believe much of that material was delivered to the Moon by comet impacts and found its way across the surface into the cold trap of Cabeus, where it has been preserved. Because sunlight never reaches its floor, the crater is among the coldest places in the entire Solar System.

Scientists also point out that Cabeus is likely not the only place on the Moon to house such goodies. Other craters around both the north and south poles could offer similarly advantageous niche environments. The case for colonizing the Moon, therefore, has been strengthened again. Given the developing political, fiscal, and technological situations on Earth, an intrigung question is who will be first to tap lunar resources to establish a branch of human civilization on another world-- governments, or the private sector?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Planetary Defense

A new report by an advisory group urges NASA to establish an office to focus on developing a planetary defense system to protect Earth from asteroid impacts. The report calls for the office to pursue a systematic approach to the detection of near-Earth objects-- especially those large enough to cause real damage in the event of a collision-- as well as to establish the composition of the objects, determine with precision the orbits of the objects, and develop various ways to deflect any objects that might be threatening.

The group also called for the NASA office to lead an international effort to deal with the threat. Not only does the nature of the threat argue for an international approach, since an asteroid could strike absolutely anywhere, but, given current economic conditions, several nations supporting the modest expenditures necessary would make the amount per nation even more modest, thus, hopefully, making it more likely something will get done.

Bigelow Building Up

In an exclusive, reports that Bigelow Aerospace has signed memorandums of understanding with six nations-- Japan, the Netherlands, Singapore, Sweden, Australia, and the UK-- to be clients of a private space station BA intends to build. The six are looking for more opprtunities to pursue space projects than exist on ISS, even though Japan has its own module attached to ISS.

The BA space station will be made using BA's inflatable structure technology. Two prototypes testing that technology are currently in Earth orbit, having exceeded expectations.

These six are all governments, but BA is also seeking to work with private, for-profit concerns and scientific research organizations. These "sovereigns," as Bigelow calls the governments, seem to put the question of the legitimacy of NewSpace-- or at least of BA-- in sharp relief. After spending $200 million of his own fortune on his space company, Robert Bigelow has either snookered six governments fully capable of thoroughly investigating him and his company, or he has built a company with a real chance to completely change the rules in space.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Lunar Greenhouse

Greenhouses on Earth are generally largely glass structures meant to take in as much sunlight as possible for the plants inside. On the Moon and Mars, things will be different-- as they are for the greenhouse that supplies fresh veggies to the crew of a base near the South Pole of Earth.

Researchers manning the South Polar base are cut off from the rest of the world for six to eight months a year due to the extreme weather and extraordinary cold of the area; the base, therefore, is a good analogy for what would be required for deep space missions, or bases on other worlds, where the crew would be entirely on its own. The greenhouse at the South Pole is, in fact, buried underground. Light is manufactured. Plants are grown hydroponically-- that is, with water, but without soil.

The same company responsible for the South Pole greenhouse is now turning its attention to building a greenhouse for a lunar base. That one, too, would be buried underground, to protect the plants from radiation. It would also be collapsible, to allow transportation by rocket. The South Pole of Earth, a lunar lava tube, a cave on Mars, and the high-tech efficiency of a manned, interplanetary spacecraft may all be unique environments, but the basics of growing food may be the same in them all.

Monday, October 18, 2010

China And UFOs

This year has seen something of a wave of UFO sightings in China. The latest major sighting took place earlier this month. At least twice, the sightings have shut down a major Chinese airport.

The UFOs in question seem to be of the "lights in the sky" variety; video of the things don't suggest substantial objects. Secret Chinese aircraft might still be one possible explanation, just as secret U. S. aircraft seem to account for many American sightings down through the decades. Odd reflections of city lights in the badly polluted urban Chinese atmosphere might be another explanation.

Given the rich and ancient Chinese culture, seeing whether modern UFOs will find a place in China as they have in Western pop culture will be interesting.

NASA Buying Private Lunar Data

NASA has contracted with six teams involved in the Google Lunar X-Prize to purchase technical and scientific data gathered by the teams. The base contracts are tiny in monetary value-- $10,000-- but that could rocket to as much as $10 million, depending on the data being sold.

The awards are being seen as a signal from NASA that it's open to relying on private companies to obtain at least some of the data needed to carry out its own deep-space exploration mission. If that is the case, an exciting new business sector-- space exploration for profit-- becomes a possibility. Such an industry might have an economic model similar to the old wildcat oil exploration companies. Large aerospace firms may well have corporate units in the field. but there would also be room for small, independent companies. Most of those small companies will fail, some will merge to stay alive, and a few could hit it very, very big. They could become the first players in a truly space based economy.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Rethinking Gliese 581g

A huge stir zipped through the scientific community and beyond recently with the announcement by astronomers of the discovery of a world with only three or four times the mass of Earth that orbited in the habitable zone of the red dwarf star Gliese 581, only 20 light years away. The mass told us the planet was a rocky world like Earth, and the location of the orbit told us that liquid water could exist on its surface.

Well, maybe not.

Other astronomers are now questioning whether the world, dubbed Gliese 581g, even exists. The discovery of this exoplanet-- as well as of most of the hundreds of other such planets so far discovered-- was done by monitoring tiny movements by the parent star that could be caused by the gravity of planets tugging on it. Obviously, more massive planets close to the star are easier to detect than less massive ones. A few astronomers who have looked at the Gliese 581g discovery data say they see no obvious pattern in it. The Gliese 581 system already has four confirmed exoplanets, and the announcement of "g" was coupled with the announcement of another, even smaller world. Any pattern, therefore, would be extremely complex and subtle, possibly difficult to distinguish from the random "noise" always present in such endeavors.

So, does a slightly larger version of Earth orbit Gliese 581, or not? Answering that question is within our capability, and will be even more within it as technology develops. So, we will know what actually exists in the system of this particular red dwarf, but it could take a while.

More Moon Interplay

Scientists are increasingly finding that, perhaps contrary to common assumptions, bodies in space can and do interact with each other on a regular basis. For a few years now, the case has been made that some meteorites found on Earth originated on Mars. Recent studies expand on that theme. Using data from the extraordinarily successful Cassini mission to Saturn, scientists now think the geysers of Enceladus may seed the upper atmosphere of the giant moon Titan with organic molecules that originate in Enceladus' subsurface ocean, thus making life on Titan more likely.

Nor is that all Enceladus does. A new study suggests electrons from that moon, propelled by the geyser eruptions, reach five more Saturnian moons in a plasma, interacting with the surfaces of those moons.

With Saturn's system as a model, some are saying much the same interplay could take place among the moons of Jupiter. In that case, the extreme vulcanism of Io would drive the process.

All this indicates a level of complexity in planetary systems not imagined in any depth before the Space Age.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Dragon To Fly

SpaceX is ready for the first test flight of its cargo-carrying capsule, Dragon, atop the company's Falcon 9 rocket. The launch is planned for early November from Florida. The flight is scheduled to last perhaps four hours, during which all Dragon's systems will be tested, and the capsule is to splash down in the Pacific off southern California.

Dragon is supposed to take supplies to ISS after the space shuttle is retired, so demonstrating the company can in fact fly it in space is important to SpaceX, to NASA, and to President Obama's plan to use private spacecraft to serve low Earth orbit while NASA concentrates on deep space exploration. Dragon, indeed, is designed to eventually ferry humans to and from orbit.

The Falcon 9, so far, has only one successful launch to its credit, so a successful flight in November would allow SpaceX to build momentum and confidence. A failure, however, could increase the doubt some analysts have that private companies are ready for their expanded role in NASA's new marching orders.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Orbital Expeditions

Interorbital Systems, an American NewSpace firm which is probably better known in Europe than it is in the U. S., is moving ahead with a program to offer tourists, and others, orbital spaceflights. Launched from the waters of the South Pacific kingdom of Tonga, the IOS spacecraft will carry up to six passengers plus a pilot. IOS is planning a two-man orbital flight sometime in 2011-12, with commercial flights to begin in the 2012-13 period.

Orbital Expedition flights will last about a week and cost $5 million per ticket. However, the company is offering a bargain deal-- the first ten tickets sold will go for $250,000 apiece. Two of the ten have already been snapped up, and, according to IOS CEO Randa Milliron, the company will begin a marketing effort to tell the public about the program soon. In an interesting comparison, Virgin Galactic is offering suborbital flights that will feature a few minutes of weightlessness in a fairly small cabin for $200,000 whereas a few people, for $50,ooo more, would get to experience true spaceflight-- days of weightlessness in a module with a large enough volume to allow real exploration of the possibilities of microgravity, dozens of sunrises and sunsets, and extended opportunities to observe the Earth and other celestial bodies from space-- on an early Orbital Expeditions flight.

Whether IOS, or, indeed, VG, can actually turn their plans into profitable reality is still open to question, but IOS is moving across a broad front, pursuing both manned and unmanned projects. It is even looking at the Moon-- in the context of the Google Lunar X-Prize competition, but also in flying a lunar sample return mission, and in establishing a substantial, private, manned lunar base in just a few years. If IOS succeeds across the board, it will have secured a place as one of the most important corporations in human history.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

VG Moving Closer

Virgin Galactic took another step towards providing commercial suborbital spaceflights today when its SpaceShipTwo was released from its giant WhiteKnightTwo mothership during a test flight for the first time. The spaceship glided on its own for about 15 minutes before making a perfect landing in Mojave, California.

VG plans to offer its tourist flights from Spaceport America in New Mexico, and in a related matter, the main runway of Spaceport America will be dedicated later this month.

VG already has at least 340 people ready to pay the $200,000 the company is charging per ticket, with SpaceShipTwo capable of carrying six passengers per flight. VG plans to begin commercial flights next year.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Simulating Chemistry On Titan

A new study looks at what could be going on in the upper atmosphere of Saturn's extraordinary moon, Titan, by roughly replicating in a laboratory the chemical and energy environment there. The results are amazing. Many complex organics formed, including all the base acids of Earth's DNA molecules. The raw materials for the chemistry seems to come, at least partly, from another of Saturn's moons, Enceladus. Scientists are seeing meaningful interactions among the moons of both Jupiter and Saturn, a phenomenon not necessarily anticipated before the missions of Galileo and Cassini, respectively.

Not only does the study's findings make the case for life on Titan stronger, they also throw another possibility into the debate on how and where life started on Earth. The prevailing view is that water was critical to that event, but water plays no role in the study, as water is frozen on Titan. So, if Titan's atmosphere-- except for the temperature, which might be a major factor-- is similar to early Earth's, and if the basics of life are created in Titan's upper atmosphere without water, then it's possible life on Earth did not, in fact, require water to get started. That, as they say, would be a game changer.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Water In Asteroids

A second asteroid, 65 Cybele, has been found to contain both water and organic molecules. A view is emerging in the scientific community that water may be common on asteroids. If true, it would significantly change how we see the Solar System. First, it would further blur the line between comets and asteroids. If both are small bodies containing volatiles-- water-- the only differences between the two may be location in the Solar System and orbital characteristics.

Second, the discovery that water may be common in asteroids strengthens the theory that water, and possibly life, came to Earth from outside.

Third, if substantial amounts of water are easily accessible throughout the Solar System, exploring and settling space would be much easier. Water could be used as water, or split into its hydrogen and oxygen components and used as rocket fuel, or the oxygen could be used for breathing while hydrogen is used in another way. Water and rock are also good protection against radiation. Eventually, too, asteroids laden with water ice could be moved to where the water was needed. Space could be open to humanity.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Chemistry On Europa

A new study suggests that Jupiter's moon Europa may support chemical reactions both on its icy surface and below the surface, beyond the reach of sunlight. Scientists have found that water and sulfur dioxide react easily and quickly even in the extreme cold that reigns on Europa. The sulfur involved, in one of Nature's amazing twists, seems to come from the volcanic eruptions on another of Jupiter's moons, the volatile Io.

Scientists believe a huge ocean exists under the Europan ice shell. With complex molecules possibly migrating down into that ocean, and a heat and energy source that keeps the water in the ocean liquid, the case for at least the precursors of life existing on Europa seems to be strengthened by this study. Further, the results of the study do not apply solely to Europa. For example, they could also apply to the other two large moons of Jupiter, Callisto and Ganymede.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Explaining Enceladus' Eruptions

A new study of Saturn's intriguing moon Enceladus outlines a possible mechanism to explain the erupting geysers in the moon's southern polar region. Key to the new theory is the presence of a saltwater ocean of flowing liquid beneath the icy shell of the surface that also interacts with a solid core.

The theory is that the ocean is an active, dynamic environment that brings minerals, dust, and gas from the core to the upper levels. Heated, the gas expands and powers the geysers.

Perhaps the most important element of the theory is the fact that a water ocean is critical to its operation. Such an ocean had already been postulated to occupy the interior of Enceladus, but making a saltwater ocean integral to the explanation of an observed phenomenon-- the geysers-- also might suggest a stronger case for the existence of an ocean, though that reasoning, perhaps, cannot be pushed too far. Still, add up a huge, active, water ocean with access to various minerals, an energy source, and the established existence of organic compounds, and a case for possible life inside Enceladus is likely strengthened.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

More Seed Money

NASA has announced a second round of monetary awards to private industry. The point of the awards is to encourage the development of specific technologies necessary to establish a commercial manned spaceflight capabiity, which is in line with President Obama's policy to foster such a capability.

The amount to be awarded has yet to be determined because Congress has yet to pass a budget, but NASA plans to give out the awards in March.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Sputnik Plus 53

Many historians date the birth of the modern world to the first voyage of Columbus to what became the "New World" to Europeans. That event marked the beginning of the dominance of Europe, and eventually of the United States, in world affairs.

Fifty-three years ago today, with the Soviet Union's launch of the first space probe, another age in the history of mankind was ushered in. Since then, the Space Age has brought successive revolutions in our understanding of the universe, and helped spark revolutions in technology and information handling that have, among other things, led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and reshaped the economy and political reality of the world.

The Space Age seems poised for a new era-- that of commercial operations in space. If the cost of space projects can be brought down and controlled to allow actual, sustainable profits, the progress made so far in the Space Age, in knowledge and capability, could well quicken. The second fifty-three years of the Space Age may be even more extraordinary and transformative than the first.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Garver Weighs In

Lori Garver, deputy administrator of NASA, says that despite the new goal of sending a manned mission to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025, lunar exploration is not off the agency's radar. Indeed, NASA currently has a probe orbiting the Moon and plans for more in the years ahead.

Garver notes that the Moon is an obvious element in humanity's migration into space. It is, in fact, the world nearest to Earth, and a world rich in natural resources, including substantial reserves of water. Several nations are sending unmanned probes to the Moon, and several of the major nations have expressed at least some interest in participating in an international program to establish a manned lunar base. Private corporations like Bigelow Aerospace and Interorbital Systems are also planning manned bases on the Moon in the near future. If such private, for profit efforts successfully establish bases before a government-run program does, the Space Age will have taken what could be a decisive turn-- and with that turn, human civilization will begin a process of redefinition.

Garver is past executive director of the National Space Society, so she is aware of the role colonizing the Moon plays in the plans of many space advocates. Perhaps that perspective will yet have an influence on U. S. space policy.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Scouting The Bay Of Rainbows

China's second lunar probe, Cheng'e 2, is on its way to the Moon, and will arrive there next week. When it arrives, its first task will be to take detailed images of the vast lunar impact basin, the Bay of Rainbows, in preparation for China's first unmanned lunar landing.

A Chinese spokesman noted that most lunar probes have landed in the Moon's equatorial region because that is the easiest area to reach and makes communications simpler. China, however, wants to reach an area that has not yet been explored. It's a good decision, and one that suggests China's emerging confidence in its space capabilities.

China's first unmanned lunar landing mission is scheduled for 2013.

Friday, October 1, 2010

New Directions For NASA

The U. S. House passed a budget for NASA this week that embraces President Obama's plan for the future of NASA manned spaceflight. The budget means the shuttle program will end next year, costing thousands of jobs, but opening the way for private companies to take over transporting humans to and from low Earth orbit, thus freeing NASA to focus on manned deep space exploration.

The question might be whether this new policy will hold. The American political situation seems to be in a particularly turbulent phase at present. The election next month could flip control of the House-- and possibly the Senate, as well-- to the Republicans. If that happens, the GOP might decide to put its own stamp on space policy, which could well take the form of directing NASA have its own manned spaceflight capability independent of whatever private companies can come up with. A NASA manned spacecraft, of course, might demand a specific goal.

And so it might go.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Another Discovery At Gliese 581

Astronomers already knew the red dwarf star Gliese 581 had a planetary system. Now they've found a sixth world orbiting that tiny star, this one only three or four times the mass of Earth and circling the star completely within the "habitable zone"-- where temperatures would allow Earth-like life to flourish. For that reason, some astronomers think chances are good that the planet harbors life.

Red dwarfs are small, but they are also extremely stable for incredibly long periods. Scientists think, therefore, that if life ever did arise on a world like the one found, it would have a good chance to adapt and thrive.

There's also another possibility. Because red dwarfs are also extremely common, it's possible that a civilization intent on establishing interstellar branches would choose to put those branches around red dwarfs.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Phobos Ripped From Mars?

A new study using data from the European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft argues that the Martian moon Phobos formed after something large struck Mars, sending material from the planet into space. A similar scenario is thought to have led to the formation of Earth's Moon.

Data shows that the material making up Phobos is similar to what makes up Mars, as opposed to the composition of asteroids; a leading theory of the origin of Phobos and Mars' other tiny moon, Deimos, has been that they were asteroids somehow captured by Mars' gravity.

The study also shows that the density of Phobos is extremely low, which again suggests a body loosely flung together as opposed to a solid body. Indeed, Phobos' density is so low that there must be huge caverns under the surface. That could be a big break for the future exploration of Mars. A manned base under the surface of Phobos, protected from radiation by miles of rock all around, might be the ideal place from which to direct the first comprehensive surface exploration of Mars.

Russian Commercial Space Station

Two Russian companies with vast experience in the Russian manned space program-- includng the one that builds Soyuz capsules and has built much of the hardware flown by that program-- are teaming up to build a commercial space station to be open for business by 2015 or 2016. CSS will accomodate seven people at a time. and will be serviced mainly by Russia's Soyuz and Progress spacecraft, though its docking ports will be able to handle other spacecraft, as well.

The two companies plan for CSS to be an all-purpose station, hosting everything from pleasure trips for individuals to cutting edge scientific research, and they expect it to last at least 15 years. They also see it as an emergency backup for ISS, and as a final staging point for future deep-space manned missions.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Earth's Future

This week on The History Channel's The Universe, the show examined the opposite of history-- the ultimate fate of Earth as the Sun cycles through its evolution to the white dwarf stage and beyond. Using the opportunity to examine the life cycles of stars no doubt had some value-- that topic is interesting enough to a science-oriented viewership to stand on its own-- the program went through various ways Earth might meet its demise, complete with neat computer depictions.

For all the computer gee-whiz and all the brainy professors involved in the program, however, it lacked real imagination. The Sun will not enter its final stages for a few billion years, as the program acknowledges. That's an awfully long time, and an awful lot will happen between now and then. To assume nothing much will happen, as the program does, is intellectually sloppy. For instance, the program assumes-- no doubt for dramatic purposes-- that a human civilization will still be on Earth billions of years from now. It's likely, from biology, that even highly successful complex species only last a few million years before evolving into something else or dying out. It's likely from our increasing mastery of genetic engineering and cybernetics that even in a few hundred years, a human will be something quite different from us. The program also seems to assume that the human civilization a few billion years into the future will have mastered interplanetary, but not interstellar space travel. While we're speculating-- just to pick one thing-- why not imagine something of a civilization descended from our own that has spread throughout the universe and had the ability to maintain stars in prime conditions?

Of course, that would have knocked out all the computer-generated images of a boiling Earth, an Earth frozen solid, etc.

Northern Springtime On Titan

Spring is breaking out all over the northern hemisphere of Saturn's magnificent moon, Titan. Because Titan orbits Saturn, and Saturn orbits the Sun once about every 30 Earth years, springtime on Titan will last roughly 7 Earth years-- good news for any young lovers that might be there.

Northern spring seems to be characterized by cloudless skies at both poles, that according to both computer models of Titan's atmosphere and direct observation of that atmosphere, especially by NASA's Cassini spacecraft. Cassini's mission in the Saturnian system has been extended to 2017, so, if all goes well for the probe, Cassini will be able to monitor Titan through most of the new season.

Young lovers on Titan are not completely out of the question, either. Titan has a surface and atmosphere that are home to complex organic molecules. Energy drives an active and complex weather system. Liquid that could be the medium for early life-- methane, in this case, not water-- exists on the surface. Titan is incredibly cold, but we are learning life is incredibly tenacious and adaptable. If life got a start on Titan, and has had a relatively stable environment since, it may well have developed capabilities that allow it to thrive there.