Sunday, February 28, 2010

Mirror Bees

The Planetary Society, the space advocacy group founded by Carl Sagan among others, has always gone beyond simple advocacy to actually fund research and education projects around the world. No doubt the best known of those projects is the Society's support efforts to find extraterrestrial life, both by searching for radio signals (or perhaps optical signals) and by supporting research into the fundamentals of life with an eye towards establishing some parameters for possible life beyond Earth.

The Society is now tackling the problem of protecting Earth from large asteroid strikes by supporting early research into a concept called "Mirror Bees." It's a simple, elegant idea. Under it, if we found a dangerous body on a collision course with Earth decades, or at least many years before the event, we would dispatch a small fleet of small mirrors to rendezvous with it. The mirrors would be deployed in such a way as to allow them all to focus reflected sunlight on one tiny spot on the asteroid. That intense focus of energy would vaporize that part of the rock. The reaction of that vaporized rock jetting away into space would slowly push the asteroid into a new, harmless orbit. No nuclear bombs, no rockets, just mirrors.

There is still much work to be done on the idea. For instance, maintaining such a tight focus for several years in a dynamic situation would require some truly impressive formation flying of the mirrors. The approach may also work better on some types of bodies than others. Still, it's certainly well worth exploring.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Blue Origin Update, Sort of

It's an odd thing. Jeff Bezos made his billions founding and running, the online retailer that depends on a strong relationship with the public for its success, but Bezos' NewSpace company, Blue Origin, has been notable so far for the heavy veil of secrecy surrounding its operations. The secrecy has been so black it could inspire conspiracy theories and stories of aliens from other star systems.

A Blue Origin spokesman did appear at a conference regarding suborbital research recently, but he shed little light on the company or its plans. He did say the company has flown its Goddard prototype suborbital spacecraft several times, not just the once acknowledged publicly. He did say the company has a contract with NASA to develop a crew escape system that is superior to the old Apollo system. He did say the company is exploring research and applications opportunities for suborbital flight, not just space tourism. And he did say the company's New Shepard suborbital craft does not necessarily resemble Goddard, but it will launch and land vertically.

It's a start.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Bolden On Mars

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told a skeptical, sometimes hostile Senate committee that sending astronauts to Mars was the ultimate goal of the U. S. manned spaceflight program. He argued that NASA doesn't have that capability now, but by directing resources towards developing the necessary technology to combat radiation and other health issues and to cut months off the mission, we could have the capability in as few as ten years.

The ten year time frame is interesting. First, it is much sooner than even most interested laymen probably would have put the opening of manned Mars exploration. Of course, Bolden said we might have the capability in ten years; he didn't say we would head out as soon as we had the capability. Second, if we assume we would go soon after developing the means, the ten year time frame suggests Bolden might be thinking of going directly to Mars. Perhaps there would be no lunar base to test technologies needed for Mars. Such a base could be considered part of the infrastructure the Obama administration proposes building to support a human spaceflight effort, but the administration has so far embraced no such program.

The Obama approach faces a tough road in Congress. Many members think relying strictly on commercial spacecraft to get NASA astronauts into space-- spacecraft that have yet to fly-- is a bad idea. They argue NASA needs its own launch capability, and its own ships. Many also still support Constellation. Congress repeatedly voted, in a bipartisan fashion with healthy majorities, to support the Bush program over the past five years, and many members don't want to abandon that. The debate is just being joined.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Geysers Of Enceladus

In new images obtained by the Cassini spacecraft during its close flyby of Saturn's moon Enceladus last November 21, scientists got their best views yet of the water ice geysers that erupt from that body's south polar regions, in its "tiger stripe" terrain.

The images revealed many more geysers than had previously been found, and showed that some of those that were already known had "turned off," at least temporarily. The images also showed the geysers erupt along fissures in the surface. The fissures are warmer than the surrounding area, which makes sense. Geysers need a power source, and increased warmth implies energy.

Enceladus' south polar region will enter a fifteen year period of darkness before Cassini flies by again. If the geyser activity is related to solar energy, it might well stop during that long winter. If the geysers are powered strictly by an internal power source, however, they may continue erupting. Watching the north polar region as it turns to the Sun during that period might also be interesting. Geyser activity might develop there.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Falcon 9 Standing Tall

SpaceX's new 180-foot tall rocket, the Falcon 9, is standing on a launch pad at Cape Kennedy, awaiting liftoff. Tests remain to be conducted before that happens, but the flight might take place in or before May.

The Falcon 9 is designed to be the workhorse launcher of SpaceX. After the space shuttle is retired, Falcon 9 will deliver the cargo ship, Dragon, on its resupply missions to ISS.

Monday, February 22, 2010

STS-130 Home

The rain and low clouds over Florida's Space Coast proved insufficient to prevent the landing of space shuttle Endeavour at Kennedy Space Center last night, ending the STS-130 mission. It was the last scheduled night landing in the shuttle program.

There are only four shuttle missions left, and the odds are improving that NASA will be able to wrap up the program yet this year.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Weather, Again

Rain and low clouds around Cape Kennedy tonight may delay the landing of space shuttle Endeavour, or shift the landing to Edwards Air Force Base. The weather in California, however, may also be a problem.

Such problems have plagued the shuttle program throughout its run. The next phase of manned spaceflight will be capsule-based, so weather concerns about coming home will likely change to concerns about recovery teams being able to reach the capsule quickly after it reaches the surface, either in water or on land.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Looking Towards Home

The crew of Endeavour is back in the orbiter, preparing to undock from ISS later today after what has been a highly successful mission to date.

That's generally the case. For various reasons, NASA probably doesn't get as much recognition for the consistent delivery of results in manned spaceflight as it should. Some Mercury and Gemini flights didn't go quite as planned, Apollo 13 was a desperately close call, and two shuttles and their crews have been lost, but NASA has gone for years at a time, flying complex and dangerous missions-- from landing on the Moon to repairing Hubble to building ISS-- with nothing but meeting mission objectives. It's a record organizations operating in less challenging areas would be doing well to equal.

Hopefully, if NASA takes a less direct role in manned spaceflight down the road in favor of private operations, ways will be found to carry the best of The NASA Way with us as we push deeper into the Solar System.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Pluto At 80

Clyde Tombaugh, a Kansas farmboy with a fascination for astronomy, discovered Pluto 80 years ago today while working at Lowell Observatory outside Flagstaff, Arizona. Tombaugh was searching for Planet X. Astronomers thought there was an as yet undiscovered planet gravitationally tugging on Neptune, creating discrepancies in Neptune's orbit the astronomers found. In fact, in later years after more precise data was available, astronomers determined there were no discrepancies, and Planet X was not needed. The discovery of Pluto, therefore, is an example of those odd twists and turns that litter the history of science.

For decades after its discovery, Pluto was classified as a planet. That's what Tombaugh was looking for, after all. Now, however, exactly how to classify Pluto is unclear. Is it a planet, or a dwarf planet? A Kuiper Belt Object? Maybe a huge comet head? Whatever it is, NASA has a probe on its way to a flyby of Pluto and its companion, Charon, in 2015. If all goes well, that mission will tell us more about Pluto than we've learned in the past 80 years.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

STS-131 Delayed

Even as STS-130 is still docked at ISS, NASA has delayed the launch of STS-131 from March 18 into at least early April due to the current cold snap in Florida. Cold can damage the various seals on a shuttle, so NASA has yet to move the next shuttle, Discovery, from its hangar to the huge Vehicle Assembly Building, where it will be mated to its solid rocket boosters and external tank.

So far, NASA has not pushed back subsequent flights, so the last shuttle flight is still scheduled for a September liftoff.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Searching For Martian DNA

A team of researchers is building a prototype of an instrument that could find, analyze, and copy DNA on Mars. NASA is supporting the project, and a version of the instrument could fly on a future NASA robotic mission to the planet.

Despite the tantalyzing case that can be made for Mars being suitable for life at some point in the past, we still have no firm evidence life ever existed there. Some scientists argue, therefore, that looking for Martian DNA is premature. The instrument being developed, however, would be extremely sensitive to bits of genetic material in simple soil samples-- and, of course, if it found anything, the debate over life on Mars would be ended.

The theory behind the DNA approach is that life on the two worlds might be genetically connected. Life from Mars could have come to Earth inside a meteor, for example-- or vice versa. Or, life on both planets could share a common, third source. The thinking goes that if the genetic codes are similar, we should be able to recognize Martian DNA for what it is.

Of course, if Martian life was, or is, based on a completely different genetic molecule, all bets are off.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Jammed Bolts On ISS

Astronauts' attempts to move the Cupola observation deck to its final position on ISS were hampered by glitches and jammed bolts, but with a little improvisational aid from the robotic arm on ISS, all is well. The crew should get its first look out the huge windows of the Cupola after the final scheduled spacewalk of STS-130, during which astronauts will remove protective coverings from the windows.

NASA speculates the bolts jammed because they were screwed in too tightly on Earth. It's amazing how such a small and simple thing could cause problems for such a large, complex, expensive project. The fact that such things don't crop up more often also argues for the ability and attention to detail of those who put ISS together over the last twenty years.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Wetter Mars Clinched?

Scientists have found a butte in a crater on Mars that seems to present strong evidence that Mars was much wetter early in its history than it is today. That means, of course, that the chances for life on early Mars are improved.

The butte is huge and layered-- much as similar formations in the American Southwest are layered. In images taken from orbit, scientists see the bottom of the formation is dominated by clays, which suggest a wet environment. The higher up the butte, its composition progressively changes to be more in line with a more arid world-- perfectly in line with the theory that early Mars had a significant amount of liquid water on the surface that was gradually lost.

Gale Crater, home of the formation, was already being considered by NASA as a possible landing site for a future rover mission. This discovery certainly won't hurt the area's chances to be explored.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Tranquility Installed

STS-130 astronauts have successfully added the Tranquility module to ISS during the first of three scheduled spacewalks in the mission.

Also added was the Cupola, an observation deck featuring a round window 31 inches across. Later, the Cupola will be moved to give astronauts what should be stunning views of Earth. With its emphasis on recreation and aesthetics, the Cupola may be seen as a link between ISS and future space hotels.

Assembling Falcon 9

SpaceX's projected workhorse rocket, the Falcon 9, has arrived at Cape Kennedy in pieces, and the work of assembling the launcher is underway. When that is completed and the company is ready to go, the demonstration flight NASA demands before going ahead with assigning SpaceX cargo missions to ISS will be flown. Launch for that flight, according to SpaceX, is from one to three months away.

With the announcement of President Obama's new NASA policy, which relies on private companies being able to ferry astronauts to and from ISS, a successful demonstration flight of Falcon 9 would have importance beyond boosting the bottom line of SpaceX. It would be solid evidence that the Obama approach can work at a time Congress is likely to be extremely cautious.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

STS-130 Update

Space shuttle Endeavour successfully docked with ISS last night, beginning an eight day stay during which the Tranquility module and the Cupola viewport will be installed. At the end of a successful STS-130 mission, ISS will be 98 percent complete.

Astronauts have also checked Endeavour for possible damage suffered during launch. So far, there seems to be no problem.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Enceladus Evidence

New evidence suggests Saturn's moon Enceladus may indeed have an ocean under its surface of thick ice. While flying through plumes of water vapor that erupt from Enceladus' southern polar regions, the Cassini spacecraft discovered negatively charged ions of water vapor. On Earth, such ions are only found in association with moving liquid water, as in ocean waves.

Cassini also found negatively charged ions of hydrocarbons in the plumes. Put an ocean of liquid water, an energy source to keep that ocean liquid, and hydrocarbons all in the same place, and you have an excellent place to search for life.

Monday, February 8, 2010

STS-130 Underway

The space shuttle Endeavour got off the ground in a dramatic nighttime launch very early this morning. The launch of STS-130 was the last scheduled night launch in the shuttle program.

Only four shuttle flights remain after this one. Given President Obama's new approach to manned spaceflight, these final few shuttle missions may also be the last few times NASA launches its own astronauts. If so, they will be the end of an extraordinary period in human history. The last signs that human beings ever existed may not be the Pyramids of Egypt, or even the fossil record. Rather, they could be the Apollo landing sites on the Moon. Various probes, of course, are currently on their way into interstellar space, but they could easily never be discovered by any other civilization.

Of course, before President Obama's policy is official, Congress will have to go along with it, which is not a foregone conclusion just now.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Another Shuttle Launch Delay

Low clouds over Cape Kennedy early this morning scrubbed the first attempt to launch STS-130.

Another attempt to launch will be made Monday morning.

Friday, February 5, 2010

STS-130 A "Go"

Everything is looking good for an early Sunday morning launch of space shuttle Endeavour on STS-130. It is the last scheduled night launch of the shuttle program. That's too bad; night launches are absolutely spectacular sights.

This mission will be the last ISS construction mission. It will deliver the Tranquility module, which contains the Cupola, an area with seven huge windows that will give astronauts absolutely extraordinary views of the outside.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Oddities Of History

American astronauts landed on the Moon forty years ago to capture a politically driven space race. At that time, and for many years thereafter, most scientists thought the Moon was a completely dead world. In 2004, when President Bush announced his plan to return astronauts to the Moon by 2020, there were hints that lunar water ice might exist at or near the surface, but no more than that.

Now we have confirmation of lunar water ice in quantities that could support a long term human presence, making the establishment of a lunar base more practicable than it has ever been. Several major nations have expressed at least some interest in participating in an international lunar base program. Japan's recent lunar probe discovered uranium on the Moon, which could open up various options to begin to build a lunar economy. In short, there has never been a better case for going to the Moon.

So, is the Obama administration leading the effort to establish a lunar base as one piece of its strategy to develop a space infrastructure that will eventually economically support deep space manned missions? No.

Space entrepreneurs, however, seem eager to step into the breach. Space Adventures already offers a circumnavigation of the Moon in a Soyuz spacecraft for $100 million, though no one has bought that ride yet. Elon Musk of SpaceX predicts commercial lunar trips by 2020. Robert Bigelow is planning to build several space hotels over the next decade or so. Randa Milliron's Interorbital Systems plans the first commercial manned orbital flight next year, to be followed shortly by a large, private lunar base.

Here's an interesting question: If the United States plans to pull back from doing human spaceflight on its own, by what legal authority could it seek to direct, shape, or regulate future efforts to explore and settle the Solar System?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Iran In Space

Iran announced today that it launched live animals into space. No word yet on the fates of the animals-- a rat, two turtles, and a worm. The Iranians also unveiled new telecommunications satellites and a new rocket engine design.

There is a tendency among some in the West to see the Iranian space effort essentially as cover to allow the nation to continue to develop improved rocket technology that could then power missiles carrying warheads. Analyzing that position is beyond the scope of this blog, except to note that it's possible Iran is pursuing both the prestige of becoming one of the few nations supporting a vigorous space program and the influence in its region and beyond that goes with increased military power.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Alpha Centauri Possibility

A new computer simulation suggests that planetary disks, which lead to the formation of planets, can form in binary star systems under the right conditions. Astronomers and physicists have generally thought that the interaction of gravitational fields in multiple star systems would inhibit the formation of planets.

If the general is interesting, the specific is tantalyzing. Applying the model to the Alpha Centauri system, researchers say there's a possibility Earth-like planets could exist there, especially around Alpha Centauri B. No planets have yet been found in that system, however.

Finding a world similar to Earth in the Alpha Centauri system would be a game changer. It would strongly suggest that worlds in Earth's general category are relatively common throughout the cosmos, with everything that implies. It would focus the space programs of humans on a long term goal. An unmanned probe could easily be on its way to the Centauri system yet this century, and human missions to Mars could be put in a broader context. Far from being threatened, human spaceflight could become a distinguishing feature of the twenty-first century.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Building Spaceport America

Work is beginning on the main runway of Spaceport America in the New Mexican desert. When complete, which is scheduled to be sometime in August, the runway will be one of the longest in the world. It will also be usable immediately upon completion.

Virgin Galactic, the anchor tenant of Spaceport America, plans to start carrying paying customers on suborbital flights from the site sometime next year.