Sunday, January 31, 2010


Fifty-two years ago today, the United States answered the Soviet Union's Sputnik triumph with the launch of its first satellite, Explorer 1.

The launch of Explorer may or may not be seen as the initiation of the Space Race, but it did help begin the modern revolution in our understanding of the universe-- a revolution that is still going full speed ahead-- with its discovery of the radiation belts around Earth, named the Van Allen Belts after American physicist James Van Allen.

Friday, January 29, 2010

International Push On Asteroid Threat

A recent international gathering in Mexico City urged national governments to take the threat of asteroid impacts more seriously. The report from the conference called on the United Nations to develop a program to find dangerous objects in time to deflect them, and to develop a decision making mechanism to deal with any problem that might come up.

By calling for international cooperation in meeting this potential threat, the conference seems to have taken some of the burden off NASA to address the threat on its own. That would be good news all around. A shared danger should fairly and rationally create a shared burden.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Obama's Space Plan

President Obama's NASA budget cancels a return to the Moon by American astronauts any time soon. Instead, it supports extending the life of ISS until 2020, guarantees five more shuttle missions even if they do slip into 2011, seeks to once again make NASA a driver of technological and scientific innovation, and backs the development of human-rated spacecraft capable of reaching low Earth orbit by private companies. Development of such craft would be intended to provide some competition to the Russian Soyuz in the post-shuttle era.

Looked at from a long-term perspective, the President's plan may not be bad. Supporters argue it tries to establish an infrastructure that will allow deep space missions on a sustained basis sometime down the road. Politics in democratic societies, however, generally focus on the near term, and many members of Congress are unhappy with the President's plan. Congress, after all, has voted repeatedly in favor of returning astronauts to the Moon by 2020.

There is another factor, as well. If NASA doesn't return astronauts to the Moon for another twenty years, there may be no incentive to do so at all. China seems interested in its own manned lunar landing before then. Russia may try, as well. There are stirrings about an international lunar base-- and then there are private efforts. Interorbital Systems of Mojave, California, plans to have its own substantial lunar base in the 2015-2020 period, and Bigelow Aerospace of North Las Vegas, Nevada, is ramping up to provide the structures of a base for whoever wants to pay for them. If these private efforts succeed, Congress could well decide there's no reason for NASA to go back to the Moon. At that point, NASA might focus on going on to Mars, or it might just fade away.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Spirit Stilled

NASA announced yesterday it is abandoning attempts to free its Mars rover Spirit from the deep sand that has held Spirit fast for several months. The goal will now be to get Spirit's solar panels positioned so that they will take in the maximum amount of solar energy.

With that energy, Spirit will continue to collect data within the reach of its instruments. The stationary phase of this remarkable mission could last months, or even years.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

NASA's Budget

Reports indicate that NASA will not get the $1 billion increase in next year's budget that some expected when President Obama submits his proposed federal budget to Congress next week. Likely, that would mean cancellation of the Ares rocket program, as indications also are that the Obama budget will direct large sums to helping private industry develop launchers that could carry astronauts into low Earth orbit.

Likely, too, a quick return to the Moon will be scrapped in favor of other sorts of deep space manned missions, such as a flight to a Near Earth asteroid. Such flights would presumably be carried out using the Orion capsule launched by a private launcher-- SpaceX's Falcon 9, for example.

Of course, Congress will have its say on NASA's future, and might restore the billion dollar increase. After the past year or so, this U. S. Government cannot seriously argue a billion dollar outlay would bust its fiscal position. The Obama budget for NASA, and the space policy that budget begins to drive, will likely be debated through the summer.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Ganymede And Callisto

Jupiter's two large moons Ganymede and Callisto are similar in size and composition, but different in appearance. Ganymede has few craters on its surface, while Callisto is heavily cratered. Planetary scientists have tried for 30 years to explain the difference. Now, a computer simulation model suggests an answer.

The model postulates that early in the history of the Solar System, when large bodies were regularly being pounded by smaller bodies, the powerful gravity of Jupiter would have funneled asteroids and comets into itself. Ganymede orbits much closer to Jupiter than Callisto does. Therefore, Ganymede would have been struck more often than Callisto, and the striker would have been moving faster because it was deeper in Jupiter's gravity well.

So, why doesn't Ganymede have more craters than Callisto? Because the pounding Ganymede endured drove the heavy metals to the core of the moon, creating a molten center that supported tectonic processes that resurfaced the moon, wiping out old craters. The same process has wiped out the earliest craters on Earth. Callisto, because it was farther away from Jupiter, took fewer hits, developed no molten core or tectonic action, and therefore we see a more ancient, heavily cratered surface there.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Protecting Earth

A report by the National Academy of Science argues the United States should spend more in protecting the Earth from the threat of asteroid impact. It cites totals of $4 million on identifying asteroids that might pose a threat, and less than $1 million in developing strategies and spacecraft to deflect asteroids years before they strike. For its part, NASA says it would need $1 billion over 15 years to find all the asteroids Congress has tasked it to find.

The NAS seems to assume the United States should foot the bill for this entire effort. In fact, a major asteroid strike would be a planetwide event. There is no reason, therefore, that any one nation should shoulder the entire burden. To the contrary, protecting the Earth from outside threats is a prime case for international cooperation. There is room for many nations to contribute to the effort, and the overall program is not so huge that even small nations cannot make significant contributions. Protecting Earth from asteroids could be another small step towards more orchestrated international efforts to deal with common concerns.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Nothing From Phoenix

NASA last heard from its Phoenix Mars Lander in November, 2008, as the brutal Martian arctic winter tightened its grasp on Lander's position. Lander's systems were not designed to survive the winter cold, but, just in case, NASA has been listening.

Spring is now breaking over Lander, and NASA has been listening for signals on the off chance the probe's computer did survive and was trying to phone home. So far, however, there's been nothing. NASA, though, isn't giving up. It will listen again in February and March, using the Mars Odyssey Orbiter, and will even send signals to Lander, in hopes of reawakening the probe.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Spirit Moves... Slightly

NASA's attempts to free its Mars rover Spirit from deep sand met some minor success recently. The body of the vehicle was lifted half an inch, and Spirit moved 2.5 inches. That's not much, but it's better than previous attempts.

The odds, however, are still probably against getting the rover free. NASA, therefore, is also preparing for Spirit's future as a stationary probe. The area immediately around Spirit happens to be geologically interesting; several intriguing rocks are within reach of its robotic arm. So, NASA wants to free the rover, but it doesn't want to do anything that might preclude continuing to gather data from where Spirit is now.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

BA's Plan

Bigelow Aerospace is working to develop inflatable structures that can be launched on expendable rockets like the Atlas 5 or SpaceX's Falcon 9. Once in orbit, the structures will expand into modules capable of supporting experiments or manufacturing processes or people. Two small prototypes have been performing well in orbit.

BA plans to be able to offer human-rated modules by 2015, but that year is partly dependent on the availability of launchers. The company has so far decided to stay out of the launch business, which leaves its success partly dependent on others. BA is currently seeking clients to lease the modules it can provide, and sees potential clients everywhere, from governments to corporations with various businesses to scientific researchers.

BA is also looking beyond low Earth orbit. A space station at the Lagrange 1 point-- that point between Earth and Moon where the gravitational tugs of the two worlds cancel each other out-- would tend to stay there indefinitely. That makes L-1 extremely valuable "real estate." Even farther out, BA is looking at a possible mobile lunar base that uses its expandable module technology. That base, with a total living area comparable to ISS, could potentially be hopped over the lunar surface using small rockets.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Spaceport Indiana

The Indiana General Assembly is considering creating not one but two spaceports in the Hoosier State. The Indiana Spaceport Authority argues commercial space will be a billion dollar industry, and Indiana should position itself to be a part of it.

Airports at two small cities, Columbus and Anderson, have been proposed as spaceport possibilities. Indiana may not seem the likeliest state for such facilities, but it is home to Purdue University, alma mater of many NASA astronauts-- including Neil Armstrong-- and home of a strong aerospace engineering program. The expertise at Purdue, and other universities in the state, could help guide a spaceport effort.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Post Shuttle Era Beginning

NASA is beginning in earnest the process of finding museum homes for its three remaining space shuttle orbiters. The price will be $28.8 million. That's down from the original $42 million, but that higher figure included "safeing" the vehicles. NASA will now prepare the orbiters to be safely displayed itself, and pay for the procedure with its own funds.

The transaction proposal calls for the orbiters to be delivered to their new homes next year, but that might have to be delayed. If NASA cannot fly the remaining five shuttle missions this year, Congress and President Obama seem willing to extend the program into 2011.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Haiti From Space

The 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti Tuesday, causing incredible destruction and tens of thousands of deaths so far, has sparked a huge international aid effort. Rescue workers from many nations are in Port-au-Prince searching for survivors. Part of that effort involves satellite images.

Several nations that have Earth-observation satellites have trained those cameras on the earthquake region over the past few days. Comparing those images with images of the same areas before the quake is giving rescuers some idea of where they might look for survivors. The satellite images are also in various wavelengths. Properly interpreted, that data can give rescue workers-- and later, architects and engineers-- an idea of what's underneath the surface of the rubble. That information can save lives, limit the risks to rescue workers, and eventually help determine exactly what happened to the buildings during the quake.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Studying A Solar Eclipse

India has launched a total of eleven sounding rockets to study today's annular solar eclipse over the country.

Five of the rockets were launched before the eclipse, to gather baseline data on the atmosphere. The other six were launched during the eclipse. The point of the study is to look at the effects, if any, on the atmosphere of the reduced solar energy during the eclipse.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Spirit Near The End?

As the brutal Martian winter approaches the area in which NASA's rover Spirit is stuck in deep sand, engineers are saying they may not be able to get Spirit roving again. Aside from the sand, only four of the rover's six wheels are functioning, and only one of those on the vehicle's right side.

If NASA decides the rover is stuck for good, attempts will shift to trying to position Spirit's solar panels so that they collect as much energy from the Sun as possible, thus allowing Spirit to continue to do science as a stationary probe.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Another Close Shave

A small asteroid whizzed between the Earth and Moon this morning, which is a very near miss by cosmic standards. It missed the planet by 80,000 miles, which is about a third of the Earth-Moon distance. At about 36 feet long, this one was not a threat to the planet, but it could've caused a local disaster.

This incident is yet one more reminder that we need to pay attention to the possibility of such collisions and develop a defensive system which will allow us to deflect dangerous bodies before they hit. While governments around the world are laying out billions or trillions of dollars to bring the worldwide economy back, maybe a few million should be put towards planetary defense.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Indian ASAT

India recently announced it is developing an anti-satellite capability. The nation has a quickly developping economy, and is one of the few nations to acknowledge it has nuclear weapons. It also has a strong unmanned space program that has just completed a successful first lunar mission, and has made noises about starting a manned program. India, in short, is a nation on the rise; by landmass and population, it should be one of the major nations and a force in international affairs.

Attaining that position seems to be a goal of the government, and the decision to pursue anti-satellite technology should likely be seen in that light. So far, China and the United States have recently demonstrated an anti-satellite capability, and it's assumed Russia also has that capability. For India to develop it, therefore, would put the Indians in another elite club. Doing so would also match China. Those two huge nations will likely vie for supremacy in Asia over the next few decades, if not this entire century. Getting a capability China already has, as well as a means to hurt China, and other major powers, may be the motivation behind India pursuing ASAT. Also worth noting is the fact that India announced its intent before it has developed the technology. That might suggest New Delhi sees this effort at least as a potential bargaining chip in some future negotiation with, say, Beijing.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Maybe Another Delay

The bursting of a hose in the cooling system of the Tranquility module space shuttle Endeavour will deliver to ISS may force a delay in the February 7 launch. Endeavour will also deliver the Cupola, a module featuring seven large windows that promises to create a remarkable viewing position on ISS.

Launch delays, of course, have been a problem throughout the shuttle program. While not often serious, such delays helped tell the public and Congress that the shuttle would never approach the efficiency of an airliner, which was one of the selling points when shuttle was being sold to Congress. It should be noted that the faulty hose threatening this delay is not on Endeavour, but it must also be noted that launch delays this year will threaten to push the end of the shuttle program into 2011. Congress and President Obama seem willing to fund that, but such an extension would likely impact other NASA priorities.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Another Super Earth Found

Astronoomers have found the second smallest exoplanet yet, a world only four times as massive as Earth. It orbits its parent star every four days, so it's not a good candidate for harboring life, but it confirms our growing ability to find smaller worlds.

Indeed, astronomers can increasingly support the assumption that Earth sized worlds exist. Most of the 400 or thereabouts exoplanets so far discovered are still "hot Jupiters"-- huge worlds close to their suns. New technology, however, has allowed the discovery of several worlds in the Super Earth category in fairly short order, which makes astronomers confident they will find sibling Earths in fair abundance when technology allows.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Bolden Urges True Partnership

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden argued this week that NASA should move ahead in space exploration by establishing international partnerships. They should also be true partnerships, he said. The U. S. should not decide on a program and invite other nations to join the effort. Rather, other nations should be brought in on the ground floor, and the objective should be decided upon together. Bolden argued such an approach would improve America's image in the world. Given the economic straits the world is in at present, and given that a full economic recovery may take several years, spreading the cost of a program among several nations may also be the best way to keep manned space exploration moving ahead.

Perhaps the most obvious program that would fit Bolden's approach would be the establishment of an international lunar base. Several major nations-- China, India, Japan, Russia, Britain, Canada-- have expressed interest in such an international effort, as has the ESA. True, NASA has already started work on such a program, but nothing has been set in stone; a broader project that included other nations, and even private corporations, could still be fashioned.

In his 2004 speech announcing his Moon-Mars initiative, President Bush explicitly stated that international partners and private enterprise could be brought into the effort. NASA under his administration, however, seems to have pursued neither option. Maybe NASA under the Obama administration-- and under economic pressure-- will seek a broader base for putting humanity back on the Moon.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Falcon 9 On Track

Falcon 9, the two stage, 180 foot tall launcher meant to be the workhorse of SpaceX, passed its final test as the second stage successfully completed a full duration static firing. According to Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, the vehicle will now be shipped to Cape Canaveral, probably arriving by the end of this month, and a demonstration launch will be conducted one to three months later.

That demonstration flight, assuming it's successful, will fulfill one part of the obligations SpaceX has under its contract with NASA to deliver cargo to ISS after the shuttle is retired. The contract is worth $1.6 billion. The company's cargo module, Dragon, is also moving right along through its development program.

Ultimately, SpaceX plans to man-rate Falcon 9 and turn Dragon into a capsule that will ferry humans to and from low Earth orbit.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Solar Systems Like Ours

A couple of Ohio State astronomers involved in the search for extrasolar planets calculate that around 15 percent of the stars in the Milky Way have planetary systems similar to our Solar System. They acknowledge their study uses incomplete data, but think it gives astronomers a good idea of the probable abundance of such systems.

They also opine that most stars that have such systems will have fewer planets than orbit the Sun. That, too, is based on admittedly incomplete data.

Fifteen percent of stars constitute a rather small minority, but in absolute terms it suggests hundreds of millions of stars in our galaxy alone may harbor life similar to that found on Earth. That scattering is also consistent with the negative results so far reported in SETI searches. If we start with only a few hundred million stars instead of several billion, and assume advanced technological civilizations orbit at this instant only a small minority of those few hundred million, the nearest one to us could be quite a distance away. SETI, as its supporters have always argued, needs to be seen as a long term project.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Shutting Down The Shuttle

Only five shuttle missions remain on the schedule. If all goes as planned, the last one will launch in September, 2010, which means NASA will average a mission less than every two months. The first mission of the year is scheduled for February.

What happens after September is unclear. If the schedule slips, there are indications that both Congress and President Obama will support extending the program into 2011, if necessary. After the end of the shuttle program, the future of manned spaceflight at NASA is still undetermined. The Obama administration is still mulling options. After it decides whatever it decides, Congress will have its say.

A new U. S. space policy is likely quite a while away.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Earth-Sized Worlds In Oort?

A new theory postulates there may be worlds as large as Mars, or even Earth, that are as yet undiscovered in the Sun's Oort Cloud. The Oort Cloud is a shell of objects that orbit the Sun at the very edge of the Solar System. Some theorists suggest the Oort Cloud may in fact extend halfway to the nearest neighboring star, which would be the Alpha Centauri triple star system.

Alan Stern, principal investigator for the New Horizons mission now on its way to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt-- a region far out from the Sun, but still well short of the main area of the Oort Cloud-- has argued substantial objects could have developed in the inner Solar System only to run afoul of Jupiter's powerful gravity. Such worlds, he says, could have been thrown into the Oort Cloud.

If such huge worlds do exist right on the edge of interstellar space, they could be a boon to interstellar travel. That concentration of natural resources so far out would likely be used as a waystation and "topping off" point by a human ship headed to a star.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Six Years On

On January 3, 2004, NASA's rover Spirit landed on Mars to begin what was supposed to be a 90-day mission. Though Spirit has been stuck in deep sand for months, and may never get free, it is still functioning otherwise, still producing data for its science team.

The other rover, Opportunity, landed three weeks after Spirit on the other side of Mars, and it is still roaming the surface, producing data. Opportunity has, in fact, covered 11 miles since landing, and, remarkably, has come across three meteorites. So, Opportunity has not only helped revolutionize our understanding of Mars, but has also provided glimpses of elsewhere in the Solar System.

Friday, January 1, 2010

New Horizon

Starting the new year is probably as good a time as any to note that deep space missions that take years to complete are often forgotten by everyone except those directly involved until the probe, seemingly magically, is at its destination, sending back extraordinary images.

So it probably is with NASA's New Horizon mission. That probe is now flying between the orbits of Saturn and Neptune, traveling 750,000 miles a day-- more than three times the Earth-Moon distance. It is the fastest probe yet launched by NASA.

Even with all that speed, New Horizon is still only halfway to its target investigation area-- the Kuiper Belt at the edge of the Solar System. Of course, by far the most famous Kuiper Belt object is the demoted planet, Pluto. The flyby of Pluto is scheduled for July 14, 2015.