Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Chinese Space Rendezvous

There is good evidence that two Chinese satellites recently maneuvered in space and met, possibly even physically, gently touched. The ability to rendezvous spacecraft is central to any program with ambitions. The most famous example of that is the U. S. Gemini project. The biggest goals of Gemini were learning how to get astronauts out of and back into their ships in space, and developing experience in the rendezvous and docking of spacecraft. Both skills were essential to carrying out the lunar missions of Apollo.

That China has demonstrated the ability to rendezvous two unmanned craft shows the progress being made by the Chinese space program. Being able to rendezvous unmanned craft suggests manned craft could, too-- a skill essential for operating a space station. The capability to bring satellites together, some would point out, is another demonstration of anti-satellite potential. That, however, goes to political motivation, not technical achievement.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Eerie Silence

In this fiftieth anniversary year of SETI, physicist Paul Davies has published a book called The Eerie Silence which examines the premise of SETI and proposes a broader search for alien life generally and evidence of intelligence in the cosmos specifically. The book is full of fascinating ideas, from scouring Earth for life forms based on something besides DNA-- a "second genesis," as Davies calls it, that he says would cinch the case for life being abundant throughout the universe-- to speculation that if we ever find intelligent life, it will likely be machine intelligence, or cyborg, or something humans cannot yet imagine.

Davies is also currently chair of a taskgroup charged with working out possible procedures and strategies that might be employed if SETI, in fact, succeeds. His views on what might happen to human civilization and humanity's view of itself in that new circumstance are also interesting.

Since SETI has only been pursued for fifty Earth years so far, and for much of that time only fitfully and focused on strategies that made sense to humans but may or may not resonate with aliens, the silence to this point might not be particularly eerie, especially considering a few incidents that may yet lead to success. Still, it's a fascinating, worthwhile book.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Curious Commercial

A commercial currently running on television notes "a bunch of guys" once got together to build rockets. Well, that bunch was NASA and its contractors, and the guys didn't build the rockets on a lark, but in pursuit of U. S. Government policy. The point of the commercial is to sell cars, so expecting too much from it is a mistake, but expecting some more respect for one of the seminal achievements of humanity might not be asking too much.

Friday, August 27, 2010

NASA's Big Announcement

Well, the speculation wasn't exactly right.

Before the NASA press conference Thursday, as reported in this blog, some speculation had been that the planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft had discovered an Earth-like world that could possibly support life. In fact, NASA announced Kepler had discovered a star system that contained at least two Saturn-sized planets, and possibly another planet only slightly larger than Earth. Both big exoplanets travel in orbits that would be inside Mercury's orbit around the Sun, and the smaller world, if it's confirmed, is closer yet, taking about 1.6 Earth days to make one complete revolution. There is, therefore, no real question of life as we know it on any of those worlds.

Still, NASA and the astronomical community are pleased. The discoveries confirm the sensitivity of Kepler's instruments and the ability of the adopted strategy to find planets around other stars-- even worlds roughly the size of Earth.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Another Alien Star System?

NASA has scheduled a news conference for later today to announce new results from the Kepler space probe. Kepler is maintaining an unblinking gaze on a specific part of the Milky Way, looking for planets orbiting other stars by noting dips in a star's brightness that could be caused by a planet moving between the star and Kepler. Speculation is that NASA will announce it has found an Earth-like planet, and possibly one that orbits in its star's habitable zone-- possibly as part of a system of planets.

The habitable zone of a star refers to the space around it in which a planet could orbit and never get too hot or too cold to support life as we know it. Roughly, it's the distance from the star at which water could exist in liquid form on the surface of an Earth-like world.

If that is in fact the news, it would be a huge discovery-- one of the most significant yet in the Space Age. Coming on the heels of the announcement by astronomers using Earth-based telescopes that they have found a star system with at least five, and possibly seven planets, such an announcement could mark the opening of a new era of our understanding of the universe and our place within it.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Testing The Dragon

SpaceX has completed a series of tests of the parachute deployment and splashdown systems in its Dragon capsule. In the final test, a helicopter lifted Dragon to altitude off the California coast and releaseed it. The drop test seemed to be a success.

Dragon is to begin carrying cargo to ISS under contract to NASA after the shuttle is retired. It will also bring garbage back from ISS. Later, SpaceX has plans to turn Dragon into a human-rated spacecraft that would ferry up to seven astronauts between Earth and low Earth orbit. NASA is looking for just such a commercial American craft to compete with Russia's Soyuz in the early post-shuttle era. SpaceX also plans to add a rocket package to Dragon at some point that would allow it to come down on land as well as into water.

Dragon's first spaceflight, atop its Falcon 9 launcher, is scheduled for next year.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Alien Star System

Astronomers have found a planetary system circling a Sun-like star 127 light-years away. The system has five firmly established planets, plus two more likely ones. All five of the firm planets have masses similar to Neptune, but they orbit their star close in, closer than Mars' orbit around the Sun. With five masses of that size orbiting so comparatively close to each other, the long term stability of that arrangement might be open to question.

The most interesting worlds in the system, however, might be the two not completely nailed down yet. One seems to have the mass of Saturn and orbits the star at a distance roughly comparable to Saturn's distance from the Sun. The second likely seems to be only a bit more massive than Earth-- which would make it the smallest exoplanet yet discovered-- but it orbits its star twice in about three of our days. No Earth-like life there.

All these worlds were discovered by noting "wobbles" in the star caused by the gravity of planets tugging it this way and that. The prrocess is laborious and time-consuming, but it works.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Jupiter Bashed Yet Again

For the third time in thirteen months, observers have documented a body slamming into Jupiter. This time, two amateur astronomers in Japan saw a flash that seemed to have been a fireball exploding high in the Jovian atmosphere. No mark was subsequently seen on the planet, so astronomers theorize the object didn't penetrate too far into the giant planet's thick, complex atmosphere.

This rash of collisions has some astronomers suggesting they need to rethink the frequency of such events. That could not only change how we view the dynamics of the area of space that Jupiter's immense gravity influences; it could also lead to a re-evaluation of the threat such collisions pose to Earth.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Brazil and UFOs

The Government of Brazil recently announced it will make public the files it has about UFO sightings. In doing so, Brazil follows Britain, which is also releasing the files of UFO cases Her Majesty's Government has investigated over the past several decades.

Brazil, in fact, has been something of a hot spot for UFO sightings over the years. One of the earliest cases in the modern UFO era, indeed, involved photographers in the Brazilian Navy snapping pictures of a classic, disk-shaped flying saucer. That sighting remains unexplained.

The United States Government, of course, has not released its files. It maintains the U. S. hasn't investigated UFOs for decades.

Friday, August 20, 2010

VG Incident

Virgin Galactic experienced what seemed to be a minor glitch recently when the left main landing gear of the WhiteKnightTwo aircraft collapsed upon landing after a test flight. VG says no major damage was done. The WhiteKnightTwo will carry the SpaceShipTwo on its commercial, suborbital flights. At altitude, SpaceShipTwo will separate from the mothership and use its rockets to reach the edge of space.

If all continues to go well, VG plans to commence commercial flights next year.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Encouraging Commercial Space

Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat from Florida, is backing a bill that would give tax breaks to companies trying to develop private, human-rated spaceships. The bill would also establish up to five economic development zones around the country to attract commercial space firms to those areas, where they would receive further special treatment from the federal government to help them grow their businesses.

If the bill passes into law, it will have little to do with space policy, however. Congress is concerned with saving and producing jobs across the economic board. Sen. Nelson, it's fair to say, wants to be seen as working to provide alternative employment for those NASA workers who will be let go when the space shuttle program ends-- most of whom live in Florida. There is also an unease in Congress about America having to rely on the Russian Soyuz to put astronauts in space after the shuttle is retired. The quickest way to break that Russian monopoly, it seems, is to encourage the development of private craft.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Chinese Space Station

Reports from China say the country has completed building the first component of its first space station, and the module will be launched into orbit sometime in the first half of next year. If all goes well, China plans to send its first astronauts-- "taikonauts"-- to the station in 2012.

The current plan is for China to add two more modules to the station, completing it by 2022, and operating it for three years thereafter. That would take us to 2025. In recent years, there have been reports that China intends to land humans on the Moon relatively soon. The accuracy and reliability of those reports have been questioned by some China scholars, but successfully building and operating a space station for over a decade would seem to put China in a position to attempt lunar trips sometime before 2030 if it decides to do so.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

SETI Success In 25 Years?

Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute and perhaps the most prominent public spokesperson for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, opined over the weekend at SETIcon that we could well have proof of aliens within 25 years.

Of course, if a SETI search finds an alien signal sometime around 2035, chances are fairly good that will happen within a context of extraterrestrial life already having been established. Continued exploration of Mars could well turn up fossils, if not actual, current subsurface life. Life could also be found in the ocean under the ice shell of Jupiter's Europa or Saturn's Enceladus. Exotic life could also exist on Saturn's Titan.

The Kepler probe could find a population of Earth-like worlds over the next several years. Analysis of those worlds' orbits and atmospheres-- sometimes using more powerful space probes currently being planned-- should allow very good guesses about whether life exists on a given exoplanet. We could even detect possible industrial activity by studying an atmosphere. So, by the time SETI finds a clearly intelligent signal, it may be taken less as a bolt from the black and more as a logical progression of life in the universe.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Pump Installed

Astonauts have successfully installed a new pump in the U. S. segment of the ISS cooling system. The task took three spacewalks, rather than the originally scheduled two, to complete.

Getting the cooling system operating again is critical for the long term use of ISS, and installing the pump is a big step forward. Working out what was necessary to repair a major spacecraft system will also give NASA valuable experience as it looks to planning deep space missions.

Saturday, August 14, 2010


This weekend in California's Silicon Valley, the SETI Institute hosts SETIcon, a public event modeled on science fiction conventions, to mark fifty years of searching for extraterrestrial intelligence. SETIcon will feature not only scientists and engineers who have helped make SETI a respected scientific endeavor, but actors and sci-fi authors as well-- those who have dealt with aliens in the realm of human imagination.

Of course, SETI has so far failed in its search, though there have been a few interesting incidents. The truth is, however, that for most of that fifty years SETI searches were weak and sporadic. Now, there is a radio telescope array primarily used for SETI, searches have become more robust with better technology, search strategies have become more sophisticated, and researchers are moving beyond radio to include optical searches for lasers, for example.

After a few decades to establish itself and lay the foundation of its field, SETI seems to be growing into itself, finally becoming able to pursue its goal systemically.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Neptune Trojan

Astronomers have discovered the first asteroid in the L-5 position in the orbit of Neptune. The L-5 refers to a point in space at which the gravitational influences of Neptune and the Sun balance, which means a body in that slot will tend to remain there indefinitely. It turns out there are five such points in a two-body gravitational arrangement.

Estimates are the asteroid discovered is about 60 miles across and may be one of 150 in the L-5 area. A similar swarm has already been discovered occupying Neptune's L-4 region. Jupiter and Saturn also have asteroids in the corresponding areas of their orbits. Astronomers call such asteroids "Trojans." Bodies at the L-5 and L-4 points have the same orbit as the planet-- Neptune, in this case-- but are 60 degrees ahead of the planet and 60 degrees behind it in the orbit.

The stability at all five of the points make them attractive places to park spacecraft and eventually establish bases. With so many asteroids, and thus so much raw material already there, when humans venture into the realm of the gas giants, major bases may well be established at these points, leading us ever deeper into space.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Adding Spacewalks

Astronauts successfully removed the broken pump in the ISS cooling system yesterday, but the job is proving to be bigger than NASA had first thought. The space agency is now saying four spacewalks, twice the original number, will be required to do the job.

The third spacewalk is scheduled for sometime next week. NASA is being careful to get the repair process right, and to avoid overtaxing either the ISS crew or the engineers on the ground working to develop the techniques and procedures the spacewalkers will use.

NASA has that option now because the backup cooling system in the U. S. part of ISS and the Russian system in the Russian part are both working well. If one of those falters, however, the pressure will be on to get these repairs finished quickly.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Tranquility To An Asteroid?

A group at NASA is looking at the possibility of using the Tranquility module installed on ISS in February as the core of a ship to take astronauts to an asteroid in 2025. Tranquility would be removed from ISS after 2020, fitted with a propulsion and guidance unit and perhaps with inflatable modules like the ones being pursued by Bigelow Aerospace. The inflatable modules would add living areas for the crew.

It's an interesting idea. For one thing, the proposal seems to recognize that flying weeks- or months-long missions in a capsule is impractical. Deep space ships will of necessity be large, multi-module vehicles that are assembled in Earth orbit. Because of their size and cost, such ships should also be designed to fly several deep space missions, not just one.

By 2020, however, the situation in manned space could be radically different than it is today. Several space stations built with Bigelow's inflatable technology could be in Earth orbit. In that case, building a deep space ship using BA's technology for the entire ship might be the obvious way to go. By then, too, private companies may have established lunar bases. Both BA and Interorbital Systems, for example, are looking at precisely that. In such circumstances, NASA may have more options for manned deep space exploration than we can currently imagine.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

ET Hypotheses

Physicist Enrico Fermi famously asked "Where are they?" when discussing the possibility of extraterrestrial civilizations. His point was simple. If a civilization in the Milky Way had achieved spaceflight even a million years ago-- not long in cosmic terms-- it would have had time to spread throughout the galaxy. They should be here. Since Fermi had no evidence of that, he concluded there likely were no mature, spacefaring civilizations in the galaxy.

UFO researchers disagree there is no evidence, but they have yet to produce a single smoking gun. SETI researchers are also looking for evidence in the form of electronagnetic transmissions that can be picked up across interstellar space. A few interesting possibilities have been found, but nothing has been confirmed.

There have also been hypotheses to counter Fermi's question. The Zoo Hypothesis holds that Earth is being watched by ETs much as we watch animals in a zoo. A similar idea, the Quarantine Hypothesis, argues that Earth has been put off-limits by ETs to allow humanity to develop as we will. A third, the Jungle Hypothesis, suggests that ETs are around and are not particularly trying to hide from us, but they operate at such a different level that we are unlikely to come in contact with them, much as a given ant in a jungle is unlikely to ever come across a human even though humans don't try to hide from ants.

All these attempts to deal with Fermi's simple question suffer from the same basic weakness. They lack evidence to support them. They are, therefore, at least for the moment, more philosophical constructs than scientific hypotheses. That could change in a moment, of course, perhaps especially in the case of SETI, where researchers are pursuing plausible strategies in a systematic way. Until that new moment, however, all we can really say about the possibility of other civilizations in this galaxy is absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Visiting An Asteroid

This week, NASA will host a conference bringing together experts from government, academia, industry, and the international community that will focus on what is required to send humans to a near-Earth asteroid. President Obama has already called for such a flight by NASA by 2025, even though Congress has yet to endorse his plan.

Such a flight would expand human spaceflight capability and do good science, but another factor likely to be put forward in support of such a mission is its contribution to planetary defense. We know it's only a matter of time before Earth is hit once again by an asteroid or comet big enough to threaten our very existence. To counter that threat, we need to know more about those bodies than we do at present, and a human flight to one would help focus public attention and funds on preparing to deflect dangerous bodies away from Earth.

A possible question might also be whether one human flight would be sufficient. We know all asteroids are not the same, so human flights to various bodies, each representing a different category of asteroid, might make sense. Such a program could also build towards human missions to Mars in a systematic way.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

ISS Repairs Delay

The first spacewalk to repair the ISS cooling system ran into another problem yesterday as astronauts found an ammonia leak. That is potentially serious, as the station obviously has only a limited supply of ammonia to circulate through the cooling system. Because of the leak, the astronauts failed to swap pumps.

NASA now says repairing the system will require a third spacewalk, and the second won't take place until Wednesday at the earliest. NASA still says the crew is in no immediate danger, but the cooling system is a vital system. Currently, ISS is working at less than full capacity; some lesser systems have been shut down, for example, to lessen the heat burden on the cooling system. At some point fairly soon, NASA needs to get the primary cooling loop back functioning.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Churchill and UFOs

The British Ministry of Defence has begun making its UFO files public. One of the most recent batch released involves Winston Churchill.

During World War II, it seems, a RAF bomber had a very close encounter with a craft the crew of the bomber couldn't identify. Churchill ordered the incident covered up because he feared the public might panic and people might begin questioning their religious beliefs.

There have been stories about "foo fighters" during World War II since the war. Both sides reported encounters with strange craft, and each side seemed to have assumed the things were advanced aircraft from the other side. Indeed, a current favorite among UFO skeptics is to explain most UFO reports as sightings of advanced, experimental aircraft with which the public was unfamiliar.

An advanced German aircraft might have panicked the British public, although German rocket attacks-- a completely new terror, and one the RAF could not counter once the rocket was on its way-- did not break British resolve. How such an aircraft could have had the British people questioning their religious beleifs, though, is unclear. That suggests Churchill, at least, saw the craft that encountered the RAF bomber as something fundamentally different than a Nazi creation-- something that could strike at the very heart of Western civilization. Exactly what that could possibly have been, in an strictly Earthly context, is extremely difficult to imagine.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Another Delay

NASA has once again delayed the first spacewalk to deal with the failed pump of the ISS cooling system. Now, that spacewalk is scheduled for Saturday, while a second is slated for no sooner than next Wednesday. NASA says its engineers need the extra day to refine procedures necessary in the repair.

Essentially, the first spacewalk will remove the bad pump and put the replacement in position, while the second will actually connect the new pump to the cooling system.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Emergency Spacewalk Delayed

NASA has delayed for one day the emergency spacewalk to repair the ISS cooling system, which malfunctioned Saturday. Engineers decided they needed one more day of practice in the Johnson Space Center's neutral bouyancy tank to get the necessary procedures worked out. The first of two scheduled spacewalks will now take place on Friday.

The cooling system is critical to the long term operation of ISS, so getting the primary loop back up and running is critical, but NASA insists the crew is in no danger. The backup system is working well, and the problem is confined to the U. S. segment of the station. The cooling system in the Russian segment is still functioning properly, and in a pinch it could take over cooling the entire complex for a short time.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Checking Up On MESSENGER

NASA's MESSENGER mission to Mercury is in good shape to begin its primary mission to the innermost planet. Scheduled to drop into orbit next March 18, the plan is for the probe to study Mercury for one Earth year. It will be the most extensive examination of the planet yet.

Launched in 2004, MESSENGER has already flown by Mercury three times as it jockeyed for the right angle and speed to allow it to reach the desired orbit in 2011. Science done during those flybys has already changed our view of Mercury. It seems to have a magnetic field similar to Earth's, for example, which argues Mercury still has an active core-- a surprise to most planetary scientists. There also seems to be volcanism in the Mercurian past, another surprise. We also now know Mercury has an atmosphere, albeit a wispy one, which seemed quite unlikely for such a small planet so exposed to the powerful, stripping solar wind.

No doubt the Mercury that emerges by the end of the MESSENGER mission will be different again from the image we now have.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Emergency Spacewalk

NASA is planning an emergency spacewalk-- more likely two-- to repair the ISS cooling system that collapsed Saturday. Two astronauts will replace a pump module that is supposed to the send supercold ammonia throughout the station, keeping its electrical systems from overheating.

"Emergency" may be a bit misleading. The first of the two spacewalks is scheduled for Thursday, after all-- which jibes with NASA's statement that the crew is in no danger-- so we don't have a desperate space drama unfolding unless something else goes wrong. Still, this is a major malfunction which is forcing an unscheduled repair-- never a good thing in the spaceflight business.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Cooling ISS

A power spike aboard ISS set off an alarm that woke up the entire crew late yesterday. The crew had to shut down some systems-- including the primary cooling system-- to reduce power usage.

NASA says the crew-- three Russians and three Americans-- is in no danger.