Wednesday, March 31, 2010

MSL Coming Along

NASA's next flagship mission to Mars, Mars Science Laboratory, has had an eventful development phase. There's still a slight problem with the nuclear plant that will power the mission, but NASA is still planning on a 2011 launch.

MSL will be the most capable robotic mission ever sent to another planet. It will consist of both a lander that is an upgrade over the Phoenix Mars Lander-- which carried out a highly successful mission just recently-- and a rover named Curiosity that will be bigger and more powerful than the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity.

No doubt the most famous investigator on the MSL team is James Cameron, the power behind the blockbuster movie Avatar. Cameron, reasonably enough, will have cameras on the mission. If things go well, one camera will document the final two minutes of MSL's descent to the surface, which would be quite a show. If things go very well, MSL will also sport a 3-D camera. That camera would provide amazing views of Mars, which would not only be extremely useful to scientists, but could also bring the public into real space exploration in a way not done before.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Russian Module To ISS

If schedules hold, April 5 will be a big day at Cape Kennedy. That day, shuttle Discovery is scheduled to launch on its next-to-last space mission. Also that day, a Russian module is scheduled to be loaded into the payload bay of shuttle Atlantis for delivery to ISS on a flight slated for May 14.

The module, which contains another docking port, is among the finishing touches completing construction of ISS. It is being readied at the Cape in a building previously used to prepare Spacehab modules for shuttle flights. Spacehab is an American commercial company that flew modules containing research pallets covering a range of science in the shuttle payload bay. After a few more shuttle flights, the only way to get to ISS for a few years will be in a Soyuz capsule. Soyuz has no payload bay. There might be an important truth in there somewhere. Maybe truths.

Monday, March 29, 2010

New Course At NASA

In accordance with President Obama's new approach to space exploration, NASA has awarded $50 million contracts to five different companies that are working to develop new propulsion systems for spaceflight. Arguing the case that the chemical rockets that have powered spaceflight to date have probably reached the limit of what they can do is certainly possible, which would mean new propulsion methods must be found.

The Obama plan is to develop the technology and space infrastructure that will support a sustained space exploration program sometime in the future instead of focusing on reaching a location. Many critics argue, however, that having a specific goal gives direction to the overall effort.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

STS-131 On Schedule

The space shuttle Discovery is set to launch April 5 on STS-131. Previous problems with leaky valves have been judged to not pose a threat to the shuttle.

There are only four scheduled shuttle missions left, and, so far, NASA is on schedule to end the program in September. Discovery, in fact, is scheduled to fly that final mission.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Universal Expansion

Using data gathered by the Hubble Space Telescope about 446,000 galaxies, researchers have confirmed the universe is not only expanding, but the expansion is accelerating. Those results are in line with both Einstein's theory of relativity and other studies, but the sheer size of the dataset used in this study makes it important. Scientists say dark energy is the culprit pushing everything away from everything else-- even though they're not exactly sure what dark energy is.

Two caveats should be kept in mind. First, because the nature of dark energy has not been precisely defined, scientists can't say whether the expansion will continue until all structures-- including atoms-- are ripped apart, or whether this expansion might eventually stop, or even be reversed. Second, the findings, by their nature, apply to the observable universe only. There are various cosmological theories that postulate numerous universes existing in numerous dimensions. Our universe, according to many of those theories, may be only one bubble in a froth of bubbles. Its fate may or may not say anything about the fate of the broader multiverse.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Scrapping Over The Future

Many in Congress are still opposed to President Obama's plans for NASA manned spaceflight. Some of the opposition comes from representatives of districts and states that have large numbers of people who will lose their jobs under the Obama plan. Some more comes from people who have supported the Constellation program for six years. Still more comes from people who are uncomfortable with Russia controlling the only way Americans can access ISS. They question whether commercial manned orbital spacecraft can really be flying any time soon. That last group should have been more insistent years ago.

There is another position argued in Congress, as well. Some argue that, regardless of whether the private sector can meet the need or not, the U. S. Government needs to maintain its own ability to put astronauts into space if America is to remain a leader in space. It is, perhaps, months away from losing that ability with no plan to rebuild it. There are some things that governments need to have the capacity to do on their own. Whether the government of a great nation in our time, a time when increasing numbers of nations and private companies are looking at space operations, needs to be able to act in space on its own may be something Congress will have to decide.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Opportunity's AI

NASA's Mars rover Opportunity has been given a software update that allows it to make some decisions on its own. The new capability, now being tested, is a rudimentary form of artificial intelligence; NASA is using it now on Opportunity with an eye towards later missions.

The rover can now pick targets of investigation on its own. First, it takes a panoramic image of the area around it. Then, using specific criteria established in the software, it scans the image for objects or areas of interest. When something interesting is found, Opportunity uses another camera to take more detailed images of the something interesting. The first test of the new approach worked well.

Giving planetary rovers more autonomy is clearly the way to go. Driving rovers on one planet from another planet has worked, but it is inefficient and time consuming. Much better, over the long haul, would be to put smart rovers on a world, define their missions, and let them execute with only minimal oversight from humans. Upgrading Opportunity's software is a step in that direction.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Virgiin Moves Ahead

Virgin Galactic successfully completed the first test flight of its SpaceShipTwo, named VSS Enterprise, under its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft. The flight lasted three hours, and all went well. SpaceShipTwo is designed to carry two pilots and six paying customers to the edge of space on suborbital flights.

VG plans an extensive series of test flights, with commercial flights starting in late 2011 or early 2012 from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

Monday, March 22, 2010

A Wet Luna

Scientists studying recently discovered evidence of water on the Moon are breaking that resource down into three categories. One is the large chunks of water ice found, so far, in 40 craters in the north polar regions. Another is the water ice found in permanently shadowed craters in the south polar regions. A third category is the trace surface water that seems to roam over large areas, and a subsurface layer of water ice that also seems to exist over large areas.

Whether the three categories in fact interact to form a coherent, functioning system of some sort is not known. Scientists, however, believe the water came from various sources. Some of it seems to be indigenous to the Moon, while some seems to have come from elsewhere in space.

While searching for water, scientists have also found other chemicals not heretofore thought to be on the Moon, including trace organics. This is not Neil Armstrong's Luna.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Spirit Still Transmitting

The Mars rover Spirit is now a stationary outpost on a bleak surface, still trapped in deep sand, awaiting the coming of a brutal Martian winter. Its power is low and destined to get lower as the Sun will not reach too high in the winter sky, reducing the power available to Spirit's solar panels. The temperature at Spirit's position is already -40 F, and will drop much further. Still, Spirit continues to send back weekly reports of its surroundings, and will do so as long as possible.

Meantime, on the opposite side of Mars, the rover Opportunity is making fast progress across the surface as it rolls into its seventh year.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Cold Homecoming

Americans are used to seeing astronauts come back to Earth in warm weather. Shuttles have always landed in Florida or southern California-- or occasionally in New Mexico. Before the shuttle, splashdowns generally occurred in tropical seas.

Russia has a different tradition. Cosmonauts have always literally landed-- in the vast steppes of Central Asia. That often means coming home to cold weather. So it was for the latest ISS crew to come home. Their Soyuz landed in four feet of snow and 20 degree F temperatures. A strong wind caught the big parachutes and rolled the capsule onto its side. Recovery teams reached the craft quickly, however, and the crew was fine.

As we move into the post-shuttle era, when, at least for a while, Russia's Soyuz will provide the only access to ISS, Americans will see more cold weather landings.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Spying Soviet Hardware

In a demonstration of just how powerful the camera onboard NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter actually is, the space agency has released images taken by that camera that show old Soviet probes on the surface.

LRO has imaged two types of Soviet hardware-- landers in the Luna series, and rovers of the Lunokhod program. Luna probes of the 1970s were sample return missions, and did return lunar samples.

The images are so good that a shadow of a Luna robotic arm can be seen, as can shiny pieces of a Lunokhod descent stage.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

China's Lunar Plans

At a recent international scientific conference, Chinese attendees discussed their country's plans for the Moon. First on the list is the creation of a facility to house and study lunar samples. Of course, that would be of little use without the samples, and China is planning a series of robotic lunar missions, from orbiters to rovers, that would lead to a sample return mission about 2017. With that timetable in mind, beginning work on the receiving facility now not only makes perfect sense, it also underscores how serious China is about expanding its space program to include lunar studies.

Some American scientists at the conference who interacted with the Chinese are also convinced China is planning manned lunar missions, and that Chinese taikonauts will be on the Moon before American astronauts return.

Of course, judging China's real intentions has never been easy, and its intentions in this case may not ultimately be matched by its capabilities. That said, the Chinese economy continues to strengthen, the government is in a position to take whatever resources are necessary for a manned lunar program, and whatever challenges may exist to the long term stability of the current political system, that system could well maintain itself long enough to put Chinese taikonauts on the Moon.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Is A Goal Needed?

Since the unveiling of President Obama's budget plan for NASA, which cancels the return to the Moon by American astronauts in favor of technology development programs designed to establish the capability to sustain deep space exploration efforts in the future, many involved in space policy have criticized it on various grounds. That is not to say the plan has no support. It does. One of the points at issue, however, is the plan's lack of a destination to reach, or a timetable to reach it.

Many experts argue NASA needs that kind of goal to focus its technology development efforts. Such an argument, whatever its merits, may rely a bit too much on the dramatic days of Apollo. The Space Race was one element in a complex competition between the U. S. and the Soviet Union meant to determine world leadership while avoiding thermonuclear war. There seems to be no comparable driver today that would give manned space exploration urgency. Even if there were such a driver, those experts don't agree on what the destination should be. Some say the Moon is the obvious place to develop skills and technology needed to settle the Solar System. Others argue no other place has the sparkle and value of Mars in the public mind. Still others point out the scientific and natural resource treasure trove to be found in asteroids.

Of course, those destinations are not mutually exclusive. A rational blueprint bringing in private industry could be laid out to include all those destinations. Such a move would finally throw open the Solar System to humanity. Whether President Obama would embrace that Kennedyesque boldness is yet to be seen.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Successful Falcon 9 Firing

Over the weekend, SpaceX successfully test fired the engines of the first stage of its two-stage Falcon 9 rocket. The engines fired for 3.5 seconds, and the test seems to have been a complete success.

The next step in the process is the actual test flight from Cape Kennedy. That could take place any time from March to May, but SpaceX may be looking at April 12. Sound familiar? Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space April 12, 1961, and twenty years later the first flight of Columbia opened the shuttle era.

Another interesting juxtaposition: the next space shuttle mission is scheduled to launch April 5. We could well see that launch with Falcon 9 standing tall in the background-- the immediate past and, perhaps, the immediate, commercial future of American manned spaceflight intersecting.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Extending ISS

The partners who built and operate ISS-- Europe, Russia, the United States, Japan, and Canada-- not only support the Obama administration's decision to extend the lifetime of ISS to 2020, but want to extend it to at least 2028. That year would mark the 30th anniversary of the deployment of the Russian module that was the first element of the station.

The fact that ISS is modular presents an interesting possibility. As space colonization advocate Stephen Ashworth has pointed out, it's possible to maintain a modular station virtually indefinitely by replacing old modules with new ones in a systematic way. Such an approach would see the capability of a station increase as it got older-- the opposite of what happens to a human. That kind of program should also reduce the cost per module and develop a new industry that would build modules for space stations, spaceships, and other structures in space over the long term.

Replacing core modules would require some fancy flying-- taking the station apart, removing the old module, inserting the new, and putting the whole thing back together-- but such feats will be necessary if we are to develop a truly spacefaring civilization.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Channels Of Mars

One element of the case for large amounts of surface water at points in the history of Mars has been channels cut in the surface that look as though they were created by flowing, driving liquid water. The debate has always been whether the channels were cut by flowing water or flowing lava, and with the confirmation of large amounts of water ice in recent years, flowing water as the channel carver may have gained the upper hand in the planetary science community.

A recent study, however, may challenge that view. Researchers comparing a channel on the flank of a huge Martian volcano, a channel on the Big Island of Hawaii that was created in a 1859 volcanic eruption, and a channel in the Moon's Mare Imbrium argue all three formations have similar characteristics. They suggest, therefore, that at least some channels on Mars are volcanic in origin, cut by flowing lava.

Those researchers point out, too, that they are not suggesting all channels on Mars were created by lava, only that the lava explanation should be considered along with those featuring water. Mars is clearly a complex world; it's only natural such a world would have a complex history in which several factors have made contributions.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Weightless Lab

The ZERO-G Corporation, a subsidiary of Space Adventures, is announcing a new program. The Weightless Lab program will offer commercial and academic researchers access to various gravitational regimes-- Martian, Lunar, microgravity, and even hypergravity-- in two-day programs in July and September.

No, the company hasn't come up with a neat new mode of interplanetary travel. Instead, ZERO-G flies jets in parabolic arcs, which produce simulated gravitational environments; different parabolas produce different gravity states. Such flights, called "vomit comets" by some who don't take well to roller coasters, are best known for their roles in astronaut training and movies, but they also offer valuable research opportunities across a range of fields, from biology and pharmaceuticals to fluid and fundamental physics and materials science to space hardware.

The company is marketing the program as a less costly, more reliable way to get needed data than waiting for opportunities for flying experiments in space.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Abort For Falcon 9 Test

SpaceX was seconds away from igniting the engines of its Falcon 9 rocket yesterday for a short burn test when the test was aborted due to an unspecified problem. An initial look at the rocket indicates it's in good shape.

Such false starts, and worse, are not uncommon in the development of new rockets, so the abort is not particularly a cause for concern. That said, however, SpaceX, and potentially the United States, has a lot riding on Falcon 9 quickly showing it's a reliable launcher. It is to be the workhorse of SpaceX's rocket program, and would be the rocket to launch NASA astronauts to ISS after the space shuttle is retired.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

New Mexico Steps Up

Last week, Governor Bill Richardson signed into law a bill passed by the New Mexico legislature that limits the legal liability of companies offering suborbital spaceflight. The law requires participants to sign pre-flight waivers in which they take personal responsibility for the risks inherent in such flights. The waivers would not shield any company charged with negligence or otherwise operating in an unsafe manner. The law also does not cover flights that launch from one site and land at another.

Clearly, then, the law is aimed at protecting New Mexico's investment in Spaceport America and its lead customer, Virgin Galactic. VG plans to start commercial operations, offering suborbital flights that launch from and land at Spaceport America, likely starting next year. One obstacle to the development of a space tourism industry has been the difficulty companies have had in obtaining insurance. New Mexico has taken a step towards allowing potential insurers a bit more legal protection, which could lead to easier insurance for the industry.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Ongoing Influence Of STAR TREK

No other television series-- let alone a cancelled television series-- has had the extraordinary afterlife of STAR TREK. Through fan conventions, novels, follow-on television series, and a string of feature films, TREK has earned a significant and lasting place in American popular culture. A generation or two of scientists and engineers has also grown up watching the show, and some of those people-- perhaps curiously, but, then again, perhaps not-- have taken to trying to determine if the "technologies" used in the show might actually work.

The latest such attempt is a look at STAR TREK's famous warp drive. A physicist and Trekker has come to the conclusion that travel at close to the speed of light is impossible because, at such speeds, the stray hydrogen atoms in interstellar space would rip through the ship and kill the crew with lethal radiation. Of course, warp drive in the TREK universe allows ships to travel at multiples of the speed of light. His analysis seemingly doesn't address the behavior of hydrogen atoms in that context.

The Trekker in this fellow no doubt understood the error he was making, but it seems the physicist in him couldn't help himself.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Closing In On Mars

In recent years, we have established that Mars has plenty of water to support human activities on the planet. That's a huge boost to those who argue for extending human civilization to the Red Planet. Actually getting people there, however, is still a problem. With current propulsion technology, flying people to Mars would take several months. That would expose the crew to a dose of radiation that could have extremely serious long term medical implications. The radiation threat, indeed, might be the single biggest obstacle to interplanetary spaceflight by humans.

One way to deal with the radiation issue would be to cut down on mission flight time. That's where the work of physicist and former astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz comes in. He has developed what he calls the VASMIR, a propulsion system that could cut a one way flight between Earth and Mars to 40 days. Conceivably, that could mean a full mission to Mars could be completed in less than a year, which would make Mars exploration less daunting on many levels.

The catch? For VASMIR to have the power required to reach that 40 day level the ship would need to carry a nuclear reactor. NASA has always shied from full bloom nuclear power because the American people have been uncomfortable with it. However, if we are serious about flying deep space missions, nuclear fission, and eventually onboard nuclear fusion, will have to be in the technology mix.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Hutchison Bill

Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison has introduced a bill that would keep the space shuttle flying for two years after its scheduled retirement later this year and task NASA to develop a heavy lift launcher capable of delivering astronauts to low Earth orbit by 2013, and beyond Earth orbit by 2018. Sen. Hutchison argues that having Russia and China being the only two nations capable of putting humans in space, which would be the case if the shuttle is retired this year, is unacceptable.

The Hutchison bill is contrary to the recently announced space policy approach of the Obama administration, which favors ending the shuttle program as planned and encouraging the development of commercial spacecraft capable of taking humans to low Earth orbit. Hutchison is a Republican, but perhaps as importantly, she represents Texas, a state which benefits from a healthy NASA manned spaceflight program.

Earlier this week, Sen. Hutchison lost in her attempt to gain the Republican nomination to run for governor. Before her defeat, she had said she would leave the Senate soon. Now that she won't be running for governor in the fall, it's not clear that she will still leave the Senate before her term is up. If she does leave, the fate of her bill is also unclear.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

More About Water

A few decades ago, one limiting factor to humanity's colonization of the Solar System was thought to be a lack of water beyond Earth. We now know that won't be a problem.

There's a significant amount of water on the Moon. Jupiter's moon Europa may have the largest ocean in the Solar System under its icy surface. Saturn's moon Enceladus may be made largely of water.

And then there's Mars. The polar ice caps contain substantial amounts of water. We know from some of the probes orbiting Mars, as well as from the Phoenix Mars Lander, that water ice is present just under the surface over extensive areas. Now, in new data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, there's confirmation that glaciers, with ice miles thick, lie under the surface, likely dotting Mars.

So, if humanity ever ventures in earnest beyond Earth, there will be challenges to be overcome, but running out of water should not be one of them.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Successful Wet Dress

SpaceX conducted a successful "wet dress" rehearsal for the launch of their Falcon 9 rocket last Friday. "Wet" refers to the fact that fuel was pumped into the vehicle. The countdown to launch was taken down to the final few seconds before being aborted, and SpaceX engineers report the whole procedure went smoothly.

That test dd not include an ignition of the engines, but the next test will involve a short test firing of the rocket. If that is successful, the actual launch of the vehicle could be just around the corner. No attempts to launch are expected before March 22, however.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

More Lunar Water

A NASA instrument aboard India's first lunar probe, Chandrayaan-1, detected water ice in the Moon's north polar region. Not just a few cubes, either, but hundreds of millions of tons of it spread among the floors of forty craters that are permanently shadowed, thus protecting the ice from the heat of the Sun.

Coupled with the earlier confirmation that water ice exists in the south polar region, and subsurface across much of the Moon, the new finding makes the case for a lunar base stronger than ever. Far from being old hat, the Moon has suddenly become a world we don't fully grasp, a world of surprises and possibilities. Add to the water the discovery made by Japan's first lunar probe of uranium there, and locally powered nuclear bases become possible, lowering the cost while upping the power available to explorers. The helium isotope He-3 is also relatively abundant on the Moon. It could one day fuel fusion reactors on Earth and elsewhere. The outlines of a sustainable lunar economy capable of supporting not just bases but permanent communities may be coming into focus.

Private efforts may lead the way in the basing and settlement of the Moon. Interorbital Systems, as previously noted in this blog, is planning a lunar base with a crew ranging up to forty people-- comparable to the early days of Plymouth and Jamestown-- to be established later this decade. Now, the company may have to decide whether to go to the south pole, or the north.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Space Planes

The dream of most space advocates is likely a vehicle that can take off from a runway like a plane, fly to Earth orbit where it would operate like a spacecraft, and ultimately land on a runway. A space plane. A fleet of such vehicles-- or several commercial fleets-- would finally throw space wide open to commercial development and exploration. Government-owned space planes could also perform many tasks, from intelligence gathering to rapid deployment of forces to actually attacking an enemy.

Several efforts to build such craft are currently underway. Among those is one by Italy. Perhaps later this month, an Italian group will drop a prototype model of a space plane from a high altitude balloon and test how well it can actually fly-- maneuver-- at hypersonic speeds. It's an aspect of these future sleek ships that is often taken for granted, yet it is clearly of real importance. Being able to actually fly in the atmosphere will allow space planes to avoid bad weather, use alternative airports, etc.