Friday, April 30, 2010

Another Martian Life Flap

A British newspaper, the Sun, has reported that NASA scientists have announced the discovery of life on Mars. NASA, and the scientists involved, absolutely deny anything of the sort-- and of course they're right. Had NASA made that announcement, it would have been done in such a way as to leave no doubt about what was said. The story would be front page news in every newspaper in the world.

In fact, in 1996, NASA did precisely that. A team of NASA researchers announced what it thought was strong evidence for life on Mars found in a meteorite that originated on Mars. Since then, most scientists have rejected that claim, but the NASA team is still working to strengthen its case.

Then there is the controversy surrounding Viking in 1976. Two landers successfully reached Mars and carried out a set of three separate tests searching for life. Before the missions, scientists agreed that a positive result in any of the three tests would be evidence of life. Well, one test seemed to get positive results, but the science community backed away from making any historic claim. NASA did not claim to have found life in that instance, but the principal investigator of the test in question certainly did.

Deciding exactly what constitutes "proof of life" has been more difficult than even most scientists expected forty years ago.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Water On 24 Themis

Two independent teams of astronomers have discovered, and therefore confirmed, that the Main Belt asteroid 24 Themis, orbiting between Mars and Jupiter, is almost completely covered in frost. That is, water. This is the first time water has been directly identified on the surface of an asteroid.

Themis-- the twenty-fourth asteroid discovered-- is 123 miles across, so the water there is fairly substantial even if it's only on the surface. At that distance from the Sun, however, scientists say it's unclear how frost could remain on the surface over time. It should sublimate away. If it does, the frost is obviously replenished, which might mean Themis has even more water under the surface.

The discovery also strengthens the argument that Earth's water may have been brought to the planet via collisions with asteroids. In that scenario, life, too, may have arisen elsewhere and been brought to Earth-- possibly in the water.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Ancient Aliens

The History Channel is running a new series called Ancient Aliens which argues that aliens have been visiting Earth for thousands of years and have shaped-- indirectly, and sometimes directly-- the course of human civilization. The good part of the series is that it ranges from mythology to archaeology, from history to anthropology to genetics. The weak part is the conclusions reached.

One annoying habit in the show is the tendency to lump civilizations separated by thousands of years-- ancient Egypt, early China, and Native American cultures, for example-- into a group having direct contact with alien visitors. So, in fact, aliens didn't simply get the ball of human civilization rolling sometime in the deep past, but they have intervened over thousands of years, always in a different area of Earth. During these times, the argument is that the aliens made no particular effort to conceal their presence, even interacting openly with humans. Yet, in the modern age of UFOs, when at least some humans could meaningfully interact with such advanced beings, aliens, if they are among us, take pains to see to it their existence can't be proven. A loose regard for timelines and inconsistencies in alien behavior don't help the argument.

Another annoying habit is a shift in the narration. Early in the two-hour program, alien visitations are presented as possibilities. Towards the end, however, the show tends to assume such visitations have been proven. They haven't.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Hawking And Aliens

Professor Stephen Hawking said on a television program recently that meeting aliens wouldn't be good for humans, comparing that situation to what happened when Europeans came into contact with Native Americans. In his scenario, humans would be the Native Americans to the aliens' Europeans.

First, that view likely tells us more about Professor Hawking's mindset than it does about anything else. Second, Hawking is a physicist, not a historian, cultural anthropologist, or political scientist. That he knows about black holes doesn't necessarily mean he knows more about possible alien philosophies and motivations than any other human. Comparing fifteenth century European cultural attitudes to those of a culture that has mastered interstellar travel probably borders on nonsense.

Let's vastly simplify a complex historical situation and say Europeans came to the New World looking for natural resources. If aliens came into this solar system searching for natural resources, the simple fact is that the vast majority of that stuff in this system is beyond Earth. Even most of the water in the Solar System is beyond Earth. There is no obvious reason aliens would confront humanity to take the wealth of Earth when they could get the same stuff elsewhere. The one possible exception to that is life. They may be as interested in learning about Earthly life as we would be in learning about Them. Would such an interaction, however benign, change human culture? Probably-- just as it might change the alien culture. Should we, therefore, shy from contact? That's not clear.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Rover Record

NASA's Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity are closing in on the record for the longest operating probes on Mars. That record is currently held by NASA's Viking Lander-1, which touched down on Mars July 20, 1976-- seven years to the day after the first manned lunar landing-- and maintained contact with Earth for a bit over six years. Actually, it's not clear that Spirit is still operational-- its latest call home was March 31-- but Opportunity is still roving the surface, headed for its next target.

A high percentage of the total number of missions that have aimed for Mars have failed. Getting there is tough. However, as those three efforts demonstrate, if you can get your technology to the surface in one functioning piece, the Martian environment is not so harsh as to disallow extended operations. That's good news for the future of Mars exploration, both robotic and manned.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Hubble At Twenty

The Hubble Space Telescope has now been in orbit for twenty years. Those two decades could reasonably be dubbed "The Age of Hubble," certainly in astronomy, and even in popular science more broadly. The stunniing beauty of Hubble's detailed views of the cosmos have transcended astronomy and made the telescope a cultural icon.

Hubble's mission got off to a rocky start, however. It was launched with a faulty mirror that threatened to severely limit the telescope's effectiveness. Such a huge mistake on such an important project, especially soon after the Challenger disaster, called into question the very competence of NASA to do big things. The dramatic repair mission mounted by NASA to fix the mirror was likely the most important mission since Apollo 11, and its success completely turned around the space agency's image.

Hubble has revolutionized our understanding of the universe. Its deep space views-- which equate to views of the early history of the universe-- have shown the universe to be vastly bigger than many thought pre-Hubble. They have also helped us fix the age of the universe we know at right around thirteen billion years. It has given scientists and the public spectacular views of star nurseries, galactic structures, and the area around black holes. The Hubble Space Telescope ranks with the greatest creations of humankind.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Einstein Confirmed..... Again

Two new studies, both using data from NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory, support, once again, Albert Einstein's General Relativity. Both studies looked at galaxy clusters, the largest gravitationally-bound structures in the universe; studying mass and, therefore, gravity is key to relativity. One of the studies looked at a competing theory of gravity, and that theory failed on the data. The second study directly tested General Relativity at the level of galactic distances, and the results were in close agreement to the predictions of Einstein's theory.

After nearly a century of debate and testing, relativity seems firmly established in describing the workings of the universe at one level. just as Isaac Newton's Laws of Gravity described-- and still do-- how the universe operates at a different level. Likely, relativity will remain the ruler of motion in the cosmos until someone sees an even deeper level of reality. That might take a while.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Nimoy Retires

Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock in various versions of Star Trek, has announced he is retiring from acting. Nimoy is 79.

Spock was the first "alien" to be a major character on American network television. He was also something of a sex symbol in the late 1960s, according to fanmail the show received. Female viewers were attracted to Spock's logical approach to life, and the way he treated everyone with the same respect.

Curiously, subsequent network aliens-- Mork from Ork, ALF, and the team from Third Rock From The Sun--have been played essentially for laughs. That may or may not say something about developments in American society and culture, but it's probably safe to predict that the sober, cerebral, logical Spock, and Leonard Nimoy, will be remembered far longer than any of the comedic followers.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Cassini Helps Define Titan

The Cassini mission to Saturn continues to yield fundamental insights into that planet, its ring system, and its moons. The latest comes from the flybys of Saturn's huge, intriguing moon, Titan.

By carefully noting the gravitational effects Titan has on the probe as it whizzes past, researchers have deduced Titan's interior is not layered like most bodies, with massive rock dominating the core and lighter ices above that. Rather, Titan is simply a mix of rock and ice all the way through.

That means Titan never really heated up very much during its formation; heat would have allowed the rock to sink to the core. The lack of heat means Titan formed slowly, coalescing gradually in what was no doubt a wild environment of small bodies orbiting Saturn early in the history of the Solar System.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Discovery Home

Space shuttle Discovery landed safely at Cape Kennedy this morning, ending the extended STS-131 mission.

There are now only three scheduled shuttle missions remaining, so NASA is looking very good for being able to end the program this year. Pushing it into next year at this point may take some sort of major problem. The next mission, scheduled for launch next month, will be the final flight, at this point, of space shuttle Atlantis.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Shuttle Landing Delayed

Rain and low clouds around Cape Kennedy delayed the landing of space shuttle Discovery until tomorrow morning. If Discovery can't land in Florida tomorrow, a landing in California will be attempted. It pretty much has to come home Tuesday, however, because the crew only has supplies through Wednesday. NASA doesn't want to get itself into a situation that even whiffs of desperation.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Asteroid By 2025

In his speech at KSC Thursday, President Obama tried to address criticism that his plans for NASA's manned spaceflight future lacked direction by proposing a manned mission to an asteroid by 2025. Such a mission would be a step forward in spaceflight, science, and planetary defense.

There are thousands of near-Earth asteroids and comets, perhaps a thousand of which pose some threat to Earth. Sending probes to some of them, which some nations are already pursuing, and sending humans to explore at least one, would give us a better grasp of their structure and composition, which would allow us to devise realistic options for deflecting any on a collision course with Earth. Asteroids and comets are also chock full of natural resources. Nailing down exactly what's there on specific bodies is the first step towards using those resources.

During the speech, the President also rejected returning to the Moon, saying we've already been there. That could be argued. The Moon as we understand it today is very different from the Moon that hosted the six Apollo landings. We know now there is a significant amount of water ice on the Moon, as well as lunar uranium. The Moon we know today is much more inviting than Apollo's was. If Europeans, for example, had made six landings in the Caribbean and along the east coast of the Americas and decided not to return because they'd already been there, they would have missed lots of amazing stuff and never realized the incredible potential of the New World.

Not going back to the Moon, therefore, is questionable. By concentrating on deep space, the United States may cede Luna to other nations-- and to private industry. Interorbital Systems is planning a significant lunar base yet this decade; Bigelow Aerospace has similar plans. Several nations have expressed interest in participating in an international lunar base project. Such a project could easily bring NASA to what could be called the New Moon.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Obama At KSC

President Obama went to the Kennedy Space Center yesterday to make the case for his new space policy. While returns are not yet fully in, and changes and compromises are presumably still possible, the President did fill in some details, especially regarding the future of NASA manned spaceflight, which seemed to be the major bone of contention.

He said, for example, that the Orion capsule will be developed as a crew rescue vehicle to be attached to ISS, but also with the capability to evolve into a moonship. He also said a heavy lift launcher will be pursued, to be ready to be built by 2015. Whether it would be built would depend on circumstances.

The President's critics often focused on the lack of a goal in his approach, so he gave them a few. He envisioned a manned flight to an asteroid relatively soon, for example-- an intriguing, exciting foray into deep space. He also said he expected to see American astronauts going to Mars in the 2030s, with a landing on Mars sometime later. While that sequence worked during Apollo with the Moon, it's not clear that sending a crew all the way to Mars and not attempting a landing makes much sense. After perhaps dozens of unmanned landings on Mars by then, we will know how to do it. So, if we risk a crew on a flight to Mars at all, going all the way probably makes more sense. An alternative might be establishing a manned base on one of the Martian moons, but that call is for the future.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

BA To The Moon

Robert Bigelow, founder of Bigelow Aerospace, has said in an exclusive interview with that he foresees a private lunar base capable of supporting up to 18 astronauts and built using BA's inflatable structure technology fairly soon.

Before that can happen, however, the legal infrastructure to support and protect private investments and profits beyond Earth must be established. According to BA exec Mike Gold, the company is currently trying to deal with that by building a private consortium of "sovereign clients" to undertake projects in low Earth orbit. Once the legal precedent is established in LEO, so the theory goes, it can be extended to govern such projects on the Moon and beyond.

BA is also pursuing the development of a private, man-rated spacecraft-- with Boeing, no less-- that would get people to and from BA's orbital installations. The largest of those inflatable space stations currently being pursued would have living volumes equal to or greater than ISS, could be deployed more quickly at much less expense, and could be configured in a variety or ways, according to the needs of the client. Indeed, BA already foresees space hotels, laboratories, and possibly factories in low Earth orbit, using its technology, yet this decade.

It's a remarkable, exciting vision. We'll have to see whether BA and the governments and other private companies involved can actually turn that vision into reality.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Commanders' Letter

According to NBC News, Neil Armstrong, commander of Apollo 11, James Lovell, commander of Apollo 13, and Eugene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17 and-- so far-- the last human to stand on the lunar surface, have jointly sent a letter to President Obama in which they argue NASA needs to have an ongoing human spaceflight program if the U. S. is to maintain its leadership in space.

It should also be noted that Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, lunar module pilot with Armstrong on Apollo 11 and a space activist for many years since, has publicly supported the Obama plan.

The letter is a response to the eminent ending of the space shuttle program and the cancellation of the Constellation program in favor of relying on so far unproven private space vehicles-- or the Russian Soyuz-- to carry U. S. astronauts to orbit and back. That approach would leave NASA with no means of flying manned missions on its own, and, the commanders argue in their letter, the experience and technical expertise developed in flying consistently is crucial to successfully executing missions with a margin of safety.

There is some indication the President will support continued development of a less capable Orion capsule. The new version would be used as a crew rescue vehicle attached to ISS-- a spacecraft, therefore, that would hopefully never be used-- instead of as a moonship. Such a craft would not answer the commanders' letter.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Searching For Earths

Astronomers searching for Earth-like exoplanets have tended to concentrate on looking around Sun-like stars. That's reasonable enough, but a group of researchers has recently added a time factor to that approach. To date, the search has focused on stars that are currently Sun-like, but we are confident, this group points out, that such stars end their lives as white dwarfs-- a class of star extremely common in the galaxy. The researchers argue, therefore, that white dwarfs should be studied to determine how many of their spectra contain elements heavier than helium. Those dwarfs that have heavier elements may also have planetary systems, possibly including rocky worlds like Earth.

A problem with that approach may be how stars get to be white dwarfs. The Sun, for example, will theoretically bloat into a red giant before collapsing into a white dwarf. During the red giant phase, Mercury, Venus, and possibly Earth will be destroyed. True, during that phase, the "life belt" around the Sun may make worlds like Mars and Saturn's Titan more hospitable to life, but that would not hold after the Sun becomes a tiny white dwarf.

Monday, April 12, 2010


In our time of extraordinary scientific progress, astrology seems to maintain its appeal for millions. It's very strange. Even though modern astrologers use computer programs and insist they've updated their profession-- which would seem to mean early astrologers got the wrong results-- the star charts used haven't really changed. They focus on the few dozen stars in the zodiacal constellations of the ancient Middle Eastern or Mediterranean cultures. We now know, of course, that the universe is vastly larger and more complex than those ancients could have possibly imagined.

So why hasn't a belief in astrology faded away? Well, many people use astrology for entertainment; they do not take it seriously. Others use it as a way to connect with people, romantically or otherwise. Some, however, still take astrology seriously. They insist the personality types they see in the world match those described under the twelve astrological signs. Personalities are not shaped by genetic tendencies and upbringing, they insist, but by the mysterious influence emanating from huge balls of plasma many light years away chosen arbitrarily by a group of people thousands of years ago who had no idea what they were seeing.

It's very strange.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

STS-131 Extended

The mission of STS-131 has been extended an extra day to allow NASA more time to study the orbiter's heat shield. A piece of debris struck Discovery during launch, and although NASA says it doesn't believe there's a problem, it has also obviously decided to be as sure as possible.

The extra day at ISS also gives the combined crews of Discovery and ISS more time to get cargo transferred from the shuttle to the station-- and to transfer trash from the station to the shuttle.

Friday, April 9, 2010

New Data On Venus

As if the surface of Venus wasn't hellish enough, new data from Europe's Venus Express probe suggests volcanoes might still be erupting there. Seeing the surface from orbit is not possible because of thick cloud layers in the dense atmosphere, but the probe can detect "hot spots" on the surface by noting thermal differences. Three such spots seem to correspond with three volcanoes already mapped.

Last year, a small bright spot was seen in Venus' atmosphere that some scientists interpreted as a volcanic eruption. Taken with this new data, if that spot can be related to a volcano on the surface, a strong case could be made that Venus is still a geologically active world. That would require a complete rethinking of how we view the planet, and perhaps spark new insights into Earth history, and even into the processes that lead to climate change.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

STS-131 Moving Along

Shuttle Discovery is now docked at ISS and the crew has successfully transferred the Leonardo cargo module from the shuttle payload bay to the space station. The next task is to unload the equipment and supplies packed inside the module for the trip. Later in the mission, shuttle astronauts will perform a spacewalk to attach the module to ISS in its correct position.

NASA is also studying Discovery's heat shield. A piece of debris seems to have struck the orbiter during launch, and NASA is trying to determine if any of the tiles are damaged. So far, NASA doesn't seem too concerned, but it is continuing to work the potential problem.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Silicon Boones

President Obama's new approach for NASA could see a maturing of robotic technology. The plan calls for two missions a year to the Moon exploring the surface, finding water ice and learning how to utilize it, developing mining techniques, and preparing landing sites for future manned missions. Another program, a joint effort between NASA and GM, is developing a humanoid robot that will work alongside astronauts on EVAs, making the human part of the team more productive.

The plan also foresees using privately owned and operated robots for some work. That could give the companies involved in the Google Lunar X-Prize some place to go after that competition. A few of them already have business plans extending beyond GLXP, but the Obama approach might let more of the teams stay together at a profit.

After the Moon, there might also be asteroids and Mars. As Daniel Boone helped open the trans-Appalachian west to American settlers just a bit more than two centuries ago, so could our robots lead a wave of humanity into the Solar System.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


Britain hasn't taken a major role in space. It has cooperated with NASA-- there have been a few British astronauts-- and it has contributed to some of Europe's space efforts, but there's not been much beyond that level of engagement.

Well, that might change. Britain's government has now created the United Kingdom Space Agency to coordinate British space efforts and develop a national space program. There is talk of establishing a British manned spaceflight capability-- and a private British aerospace company may be leading the way in developing the first true spaceplane. That would change everything, putting Britain once again in a world leadership role. Parliament and Downing Street seems finally to be taking notice.

Monday, April 5, 2010

STS-131 Off

Space shuttle Discovery launched on time early this morning, creating a dramatic start for the STS-131 mission.

The mission got off to a rocky start, however, when the Discovery's Ku-band communications system failed to kick in. The Ku-band handles the shuttle's high speed, high density communications. The loss of the system should not hamper the execution of the mission, and the Ku-band can still be recovered, but it's not the way NASA wanted to begin the next-to-last flight of Discovery.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Who Should Speak For Earth?

The ongoing attempt to find signals from extraterrestrial civilizations raises an interesting set of questions. If we find such a signal, what, if anything, should we do? If we decide to put a message on the same wavelength that carried the alien signal to us, for example, what should our message say, and who should decide? Who should speak for Earth?

Government protocols exist laying out what should happen if a likely alien signal is detected, but once the news got out, the event would obviously become a matter of political judgment. In that situation, should the Secretary General of the United Nations speak for mankind? Should the President of the United States, as the leader of the most powerful nation on Earth? Should a committee speak for us, and if so, who decides who's on the committee? Will the people in direct control of the largest radio telescope complexes in the world become the most powerful people on Earth in this matter, because they would be able to send whatever message they wanted?

There is a school of thought that argues we should not reply so as not to give away the fact of our existence, by the way, but our broadcasts over the past eighty years or so have been leaking into space and already reached more than a few stars. That cat may already be out of the bag.

If we send a message, what should it say? Likely, that won't matter, because the alien at the other end won't understand human languages, anyway. Still, on the theory that an alien civilization might exhaustively analyze such a signal-- as we would-- we may want to send something suitably complex and internally coherent, to suggest we were capable of some fairly fancy thinking. The mathematical derivation of Einstein's theory of relativity, perhaps. Or maybe one of our grandest symphonies. After sending our message, the hard part would be waiting years or decades for a response.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Twilight Launch

If all goes as planned, space shuttle Discovery will launch Monday morning just before local sunrise. That should make the ascent to orbit easy to see across a large area. Increasing that opportunity will be the flight path. Instead of barreling out over the Atlantic as usual, this mission will fly up the East Coast, so many people from Florida to the Carolinas will be able to see it. Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, saw the first flight of the Wright Brothers, and not quite 107 years later-- within a long human lifespan-- may glimpse one of the final space shuttle missions reaching for orbit.

NASA recently executed the last planned night shuttle launch, the last planned night landing, and now has the last planned twilight launch on tap. It's sending the shuttle into retirement in style.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Hibernating Spirit?

The Mars rover Spirit missed its scheduled communication with Earth this week. NASA engineers think the rover may have gone into hibernation mode to conserve power as it heads into winter. They note that the power reserves in the rover's batteries have been declining over several weeks and theorize the power may have reached the level at which Spirit's computer would shut down virtually every system in an attempt to keep the core system functioning until the power in the batteries can be restored.

The question is whether contact with Spirit will ever be restored. After six demanding years on Mars for a vehicle that originally had only a 90-day mission, the brutal Martian winter may finally be too much. We will need to wait several months to find out.