Friday, July 30, 2010

Humans To Venus?

NASA is studying an extremely ambitious manned mission to Venus. Because of the hellish conditions at the surface of the planet-- high atmospheric pressure and extremely high temperatures-- humans actually landing on Venus is out of the question for the time being, but robotics have advanced to such a state that rovers could operate in those conditions for an extended period of time. The problem is that running rovers on one planet from another planet is slow, difficult, and inefficient.

Therefore, the idea is to put astronauts in orbit around Venus and have them control the surface rovers in basically real time, therefore making the exploration faster and more efficient. A solar powered airplane is also being considered to explore the atmosphere and cover vast tracts of ground.

Manned interplanetary flight is many years away, but, against all assumptions, the first one could go to Venus, not Mars.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Lunar Farming

One key to humanity's settlement of space is the ability to take plants along. A new study being proposed would use some of the lunar regolith brought back by Apollo astronauts to test whether plants would grow in it.

Of course, the regolith lacks some elements plants need, like oxygen and nitrogen, but it also has some elements plants use, such as magnesium. Learning to farm the Moon would not only give astronauts or colonists fresh food to eat and replenishable fresh air to breathe; plants could also aid in the extraction of certain minerals and elements that are bound in the regolith.

Once we mature off-Earth farming on Luna, many of the same techniques could be applied to farming on Mars-- with any luck at all, Martian soil will be a much richer medium for farming than lunar regolith-- and in colonies we eventually build in free space.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Tiny Can Be Better

So far, most satellites and space probes have been rather large because the electronics inside them were bulky and required fair amounts of power to operate. But just as computers have been made smaller-- and more powerful-- so miniaturization of electronic components has made extremely small space vehicles possible.

NASA is moving ahead exploring the new possibilities, but universities and private corporations like Interorbital System are working on their own. Because Cubesats, as some are called, can be built quickly and cheaply, they are ideal for giving students hands-on experience in building a satellite and flying a mission. The size also opens up a range of launch options. They can "piggyback" on larger missions, they can be launched on less powerful rockets, or several such missions can be launched on one rocket. There is also the option of having many of these tiny probes work together in space, creating a network with more capability and versatility than any single probe. We are just scratching the surface of the potential of such a strategy in Earth sensing, planetary exploration, and much else.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Asteroid Danger

A new study suggests a rather large asteroid-- roughly 2,000 feet across-- has a 1-in-1,000 chance of hitting Earth in 2182. Those may seem long odds, but if a body that size did hit it could cause a local and regional disaster.

Further, according to the study, the time to deflect the asteroid so that it definitely misses Earth is before 2080, and preferably before 2060. After that, orbital mechanics makes deflecting it much more difficult.

The good news is that, with any luck at all, we should have the technology and the understanding required to deflect such a body well before 2060. The issue would then be whether we had the will and the focus to do it.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Ice Age Theory Challenged

Some scientists have argued for a few years that the most recent ice age in the northern hemisphere of Earth came to a crashing close something more than 12,000 years ago when a comet or asteroid either slammed into Earth or exploded in midair, altering the climate for the warmer. That theory, kin to the one that holds an asteroid impact killed off the classic dinosaurs, leaving modern birds to continue that line, is an example of catastrophism, a view that large events have played a major role in shaping Earth's natural history.

A new study rejects the comet theory, however, arguing that the change in the sediment record used by supporters of the theory in fact extends over roughly five thousand years. It does not, therefore, point to a single event. Further, they argue, the chemical changes could have been produced naturally by fungus.

Climate, as revealed in the geologic and fossil records, swings between warm periods, like the current one which has seen the rise of human civilization, and ice ages over tens or hundreds of thousands of years. Holding that an asteroid or comet impact triggered each shift may be difficult to sustain. Such events could be responsible for specific shifts, but separating out exactly which ones would seem to be a real challenge.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Iran Manned Space Effort?

According to FOXNews, Iran's president has announced his country will put men into space by 2019. If that happens, Iran will likely become only the fourth nation to accomplish that feat. It would also be the first Muslim nation to do so.

The European Space Agency, Japan, and possibly India might be able to beat that date, but none has firmly stated that intention.

Putting humans into space has always been a proclamation the nation doing it is among the elite in the world. Gaining that stature would no doubt be a major part of the incentive for Iran to undertake such a program, but the West would be skeptical. Any nation capable of putting men into space would also be able to launch missiles against other nations. Iran is also developing nuclear technology, it says for peaceful purposes. Combine nuclear warheads with advanced rocket technology, however, and a threatening potential exists. Put that potential in the volatile Middle East, and the nerves of the world would reasonably be on edge. Should Iran actually pursue a manned space program, how it does so will be interesting and important.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Senate's Turn

The U. S. Senate subcommittee that handles NASA's budget has produced a bill that goes against the main points of President Obama's proposed space policy. The subcommittee would cut funds intended to help commercial firms develop private manned spacecraft, and increases by $3 billion the funding for continued development of the Orion capsule and a heavy lift vehicle based on work already done under the Constellation program that could launch Orion on deep space missions. The President wants to limit Orion to ISS lifeboat duties at first, and defer building a heavy lift launcher for at least five years.

As reported in this blog just yesterday, a House committee is also pushing a bill contrary in some key points to Mr. Obama's proposal. That bill, for example, also calls for the development of a heavy lift vehicle without a five year wait. The emphasis on heavy lift is partly based on jobs. Many in Congress want to retain the skilled workforce NASA currently has in that specialty rather than let those people go and start from scratch in five years. Partly, too, it's based on the $10 billion already spent on heavy lift under Constellation. Many in Congress see no point in starting over and wasting that money.

How the debate will finally end up is unclear, but President Obama may have some work to do if he intends to get his way in space.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The House Weighs In

The committee of the U. S. House responsible for NASA's budget seems about to pass a budget that is contray to some of President Obama's space policy proposal. The committee, like the Congress, is led by Democrats.

The committee, for example, stays with the Constellation program, at least to the extent of developing a government-owned spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from orbit, while the President would cancel Constellation and rely on new private spacecraft to do the ferrying. The committee would also go ahead with the development of a heavy lift capability based on work already done by NASA under Constellation whereas the President wants NASA to study heavy lift for five years.

Political context is important to note. Whatever bill gets out of the committee will then have to get out of the House as a whole. That bill will then have to be reconciled with whatever the Senate does before anything goes to the President. In a sense, the committee vote is a free vote for those members who want to establish a position on the issue because they know the bill that finally becomes law will bear only a passing resemblance to the one they vote out of committee. Nor is this evidence that the President is in trouble with his own party. Space policy has never been key in national politics, and it certainly won't say Democrats are leaving President Obama if Congress alters his plans for NASA. Smart chief executives, indeed, propose plans they know the legislature will alter in order to give themselves maneuvering room to get essentially what they want.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

UFOs As Tech Markers

This month, China has experienced two major UFO sightings, a real rarity for the Chinese. It's also true, of course, that the Chinese media has been and still is controlled by the government, so UFO incidents may not have been reported earlier. Both of the recent sightings were classic, simple "lights in the sky." That leaves open a range of explanations. China's industrial development has brought badly polluted air along with it. Polluted air can do strange things. A major dust storm in the area earlier this year may also has left the atmosphere in a funky state.

Chinese people may also be more aware of the sky because of their developing space program. China is only the third nation to launch humans into space, with both such flights, so far, coming this decade. In the U. S., the peak period for UFO sightings was 1965-75, coincident with Gemini, Apollo, and manned trips to the Moon. Many UFOs were reported across the old Soviet Union, as well. In fact, a Soviet commission jointly chaired by the Academy of Science and the military concluded some UFOs were extraterrestrial in origin. India has had five major UFO sightings recently, and the Indian space program is beginning to have great success.

The Soviet conclusion aside, could increased UFO sightings accompany a nation's technological maturation-- either as new industries produce new aerial phenomena or as people become more aware of new possibilities? It's an interesting question, but it does not, at first blush, address the totality of UFO phenomena. UFOs have been reported around the world, including in poor, rural areas seemingly unconnected to technological advance. More elaborate stories including alien beings and abduction of humans are also widespread. Perhaps such stories can be seen as expressing a distrust of technology, but more work is necessary to produce a complete, coherent, compelling explanation.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

No Nemesis

There seems to be an odd biological cycle on Earth. About every 27 million years, the planet suffers a mass extinction. Scientists have no real idea why that would be, but astronomers, noting the time scale, suggested in 1984 that the Sun might have a tiny, dim stellar partner that rattles the orbits of objects in the Oort Cloud such that roughly every 27 million years Earth is pounded by comets, creating the mass extinctions. Astronomers called the proposed star Nemesis.

A new study, interestingly, confirms the cycle does exist, but rules out any Nemesis-like star as the cause. Using computer models and simulations, the study argues that no star like the one proposed could remain in the necessary orbit over such large time spans because of the gravitational influences of other bodies as the Solar System swept through various regions of the galaxy on its orbit around the center of the Milky Way.

So, there is no Nemesis, but there is likely an extinction cycle, according to the fossil record. The next mass extinction is due in about 16 million years, which should give scientists plenty of time to solve the puzzle.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Tailed Planet

The more we learn about the universe, the stranger the place becomes.

A recent study of a Jupiter-class exoplanet in extraordinarily close orbit of its parent star confirms the body has a "tail." Orbiting only 4 million miles from the star, making a complete revolution every 3.5 Earth days, the exoplanet is slowly having its atmosphere ripped away by the powerful solar wind. That process is creating a tail of lost atmosphere-- which contains oxygen and water-- in the same way comet tails are formed.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

VG Making Progress

Virgin Galactic conducted the first manned test flight of its aircraft mothership/suborbital spaceship configuration Thursday, and the company was pleased with the result.

The two craft were not separated during the six hour flight, but systems were tested and passed with flying colors, to turn a phrase. Presumably, the successful test flight leaves VG on track to commence commercial suborbital flights sometime next year.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Boldly Going Again

A new and improved official Star Trek website re-launched yesterday. It promises to have more content, more merchandise, simply more stuff than it's ever had before. The new website aims to be the one essential spot online for all Trekkers.

The remarkable thing is that 44 years after the original series premiered, and 41 years after that series was canceled by NBC, there are still Trekkers. Millions of them. Around the world. No other television series has ever come close to such staying power, or to generating such enduring passion over a huge fanbase. The reason, presumably, since no one character or group of characters provide a constant focus through the various Trek series, is the society and the universe depicted in the stories. The human society of the Federation is advanced, extremely wealthy, and tolerant of all peoples. The show also features interesting alien societies, and the interactions among cultures are the springboards for many stories. Perhaps the real key to the longevity of the franchise, however, is its attempts to deal with serious issues affecting the human condition-- race relations, war, cultural diversity, scientific progress, and a fundamental optimism about the future.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Senate Panel Weighs In

The U. S. Senate committee that oversees NASA has voted out unanimously an authorization bill for NASA's next budget that envisions President Obama's plan for future manned spaceflight, but with some twists. The bill establishes goals of manned flights to an asteroid and later to Mars, as the President has, but plots a slightly different course to get there.

The bill calls for adding a shuttle flight next year and for using ISS at least until 2020. It also authorizes the immediate development of a heavy lift launcher by NASA-- Obama's plan calls for waiting five years before deciding whether to build such a vehicle or not. The bill also directs NASA to develop a deep space, human-rated spacecraft by 2016, years earler than the Obama plan would need one. Likely, that spacecraft would be something quite close to the Orion, since that capsule's development is already well underway. Of course, having a deep space ship by 2016, and a heavy lift rocket to launch it could lead to deep space missions well before the President's proposed mission to an asteroid in 2025.

The bill, of course, may or mat not become law, but watching the process and seeing what comes out will be interesting.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Dealing With Lunar Dust

Apollo astronauts set up instrument packages on the lunar surface that would continue to send back data after the men had left. The thinking at the time was that, since there is no appreciable lunar atmosphere, the instruments would remain in pristine condition indefinitely. A new study questions that assumption and puts new demands on future equipment destined for the Moon.

Lunar dust moves. It got all over the astronauts, but it also moves when humans aren't around. Excited by the energy flowing in from the Sun, dust particles can raise kilometers above the surface before drifting back down-- settling sometimes on machines put there by humans, degrading the machines' performance. Designing machines that will be able to counteract the dust will be one key in the future exploration and settlement of the Moon.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Japan On A Roll

This summer is proving to be a good one for the Japanese space program. Recently, Japan successfully concluded a seven-year deep space mission by bringing a probe back to Earth and recovering it. Scientists are checking now to see if the probe brought back samples from an asteroid.

Another mission has also achieved a notable first. Japan's space agency, JAXA, has confirmed that the solar sail on its Ikaros probe has in fact been accelerated simply by the pressure of sunlight. Science has known for decades that such a space propulsion system was possible, but that is the first time acceleration by sunlight has actually been demonstrated.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Rocketplane Gone

Rocketplane filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy earlier this year. Unlike Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which allows the company to reorganize itself and its finances while continuing to function, Chapter 7 is about liquidation. With final financial assets worth roughly $400,000 and debts totaling more than $13 million, Rocketplane is no more.

Getting a new company off the ground at any time in any industry, of course, is a real challenge. Trying to start a company that would build commercial spaceships makes the task even tougher. Trying to steer such an effort through a worldwide financial disaster seems to have been beyond the ability of Rocketplane's leadershup. Other NewSpace companies have not simply survived the economic downturn, but are moving forward. That also suggests the leaders of Rocketplane may have made critical mistakes.

Thirteen million dollars is not an inordinate sum in modern business; thousands of individuals have that much money to invest, for example. The fact that no one looked at Rocketplane's patents and spaceship designs and at least kept the company afloat may also be telling.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Public Private Partnerships

One facet of the Obama administration's strategy to get the economy moving again is the creation of public-private partnerships. Mostly, such partnerships are aimed at creating jobs and getting private companies back on track by providing government funding and are focused on building out infrastructure of various kinds. The idea is to provide jobs immediately while also laying the foundation for a stronger economy in the future.

The Obama plan for the future of manned spaceflight at NASA also focuses on building a technological infrastructure that will support a long term space exploration problem. Further, the plan seeks to encourage the private sector to develop a true space-based part of the economy. So, might public-private partnerships focused on specific projects work in space, as well?

Bigelow Aerospace, for example, is ready to try to begin establishing manned space stations in Earth orbit, using its inflatable module technology, that could serve as research outposts, factories, or even hotels. The single greatest obstacle to opening space to commerce is getting to low Earth orbit reliably and relatively inexpensively. Coupling NASA expertise and some federal resources with private resources and the profit motive might hasten the building of a space infrastructure.

While President Obama is committed to increased spending and infrastructure building, partnering with private industry to build specific projects related to opening space might be as useful as such partnerships to build highways or rural Internet access.

Friday, July 9, 2010

MSL Curiosity

The Mars Science Laboratory and its huge rover, Curiosity, is slated for launch next year, to arrive on Mars in 2012. The landing of MSL will employ a new strategy. Up to now, NASA's highly successful Mars rovers-- Sojourner, Spirit, and Opportunity-- have been protected inside their mother ships during landing. Curiosity, however, will land directly on its six wheels.

NASA plans to make this new approach the norm in deploying rovers. It saves the weight of the metal panels previously used to protect the rovers-- and saving weight is critical in spaceflight. NASA plans to use the weight thus freed up to pack in more scientific instruments.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

LRO Anniversary

After about a year on the job, NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has returned more sheer data than any other space probe in history, and it's still performing exceedingly well. LRO has helped confirm the existence of water ice-- plus other useful compounds-- in the deep cold of permanently shadowed craters. It has photographed Apollo landing sites, even imaging the tracks astronauts left behind. It is conducting the best study of the lunar far side yet undertaken, and it continues to build a high precision map of virtually the entire lunar surface.

LRO was conceived and launched as part of the effort to return American astronauts to the Moon. That program is all but abandoned, but the scientific return of LRO will revolutionize our understanding of the Moon. Those detailed maps meant to guide NASA astronauts may yet have a purpose, too. There is some sentiment around the world for establishing an international lunar base program. There are also private companies looking to make profits on the Moon. Interorbital Systems, for one, plans to build a large, private lunar base within a few years. Surely, top quality surface and mineral maps would be exceedingly useful to IOS and other entrpreneurs.

Particles In Hayabusa

Scientists carefully opening Japan's Hayabusa spacecraft, which hopefully has returned dust samples from the asteroid Itokawa, have in fact found particles inside the probe's Chamber A. The next step is to determine whether the particles are from Itokawa, or whether they are contamination from Earth.

And yes, there is a Chamber B, which also might contain samples. It will be opened at a later date.

Successfully returning asteroid samples on this mission would cement Japan's position as a major player in robotic space exploration.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Captured Stars

A new study using computer simulations suggests many of the stars in the halo of our galaxy were in fact captured from other galaxies-- meaning some stars in the Milky Way are in fact older than the Milky Way.

The Milky Way is a spiral galaxy. That means huge spiral arms filled with stars and planets, gas and dust, revolve in a plane around a central bulge. At the heart of that bulge, as perhaps in most galaxies, sits a huge black hole. The halo consists of those stars above and below the plane of the spiral arms that nonetheless orbit the center of the galaxy.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Progress Success

In a second attempt at docking, the Progress 38 cargo ship successfully connected to ISS Sunday. After a failed docking attempt Friday, Russian engineers thoroughly checked out all the systems involved and decided to go with another automated try rather than have a cosmonaut aboard ISS fly the final approach manually. The second attempt went smoothly.

Those Russian engineers think the cause of the initial failure was electrical interference with the Progress' guidance system by a TV system on ISS.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Another Problem With Progress

For the second consecutive time, an unmanned Russian Progress cargo ship has had a problem docking with ISS. On May 1, as reported in this blog, a cosmonaut aboard ISS took over control of a Progress and flew it to a successful docking. This time, just yesterday, a Progress flew right past ISS, missing the space station by two miles. Another attempt to dock the ship will presumably be made at some point.

Before these two mishaps, the Progress series had an excellent record of delivering the goods. After the space shuttle is retired, the Progress will be the main cargo carrier to ISS, though Europe and Japan have small programs and the American private firms SpaceX and Orbital Sciences have contracts with NASA to deliver cargo to ISS. If Progress continues to have problems and becomes less reliable for some reason, there may be an even bigger opportunity for private enterprise in this area than previously thought.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Gaming The Future

Both NASA and ESA are looking at online games as one tool to educate the next generation about space and space exploration. Both space agencies understand the games must be entertaining above all else in order to attract players and keep players coming back, but they are also working with game developers to make the games as realistic as possible.

That insistence on realism is having a side benefit, as well. Engineers working on actual projects for the future are using the games as a kind of simulation, testing ideas that might someday become reality on another world.

NASA's game, which challenges players to construct and operate a Moonbase, begins July 6.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Shuttles Into 2011

NASA has decided to delay the final two scheduled shuttle missions, which takes the last one into 2011. The agency would also like to fly one additional mission, which would be tentatively scheduled for next summer, but it needs White House approval for an extra flight. That approval has so far not been forthcoming, and to fly next summer the approval is needed soon.

NASA says the delays are due to cargo delivery and scheduling problems. Accurate as that may be, pushing shuttle flights into 2011 also has a political angle. Many people concerned about President Obama's new approach to manned spaceflight at NASA-- including several members of Congress-- have called for shuttle flights into at least 2011, to cut down on the gap between the last shuttle flight and the first flight of the next American manned spacecraft-- whatever that will be and whenever it will fly. Moving flights into 2011, thus keeping the support team employed beyond the 2010 elections, may also weaken the issue of dismantling that skilled workforce as a campaign issue in key House races this year.

Cargo delivery may indeed be the cause of the delay, but history has turned on smaller matters.