Thursday, September 30, 2010

Another Discovery At Gliese 581

Astronomers already knew the red dwarf star Gliese 581 had a planetary system. Now they've found a sixth world orbiting that tiny star, this one only three or four times the mass of Earth and circling the star completely within the "habitable zone"-- where temperatures would allow Earth-like life to flourish. For that reason, some astronomers think chances are good that the planet harbors life.

Red dwarfs are small, but they are also extremely stable for incredibly long periods. Scientists think, therefore, that if life ever did arise on a world like the one found, it would have a good chance to adapt and thrive.

There's also another possibility. Because red dwarfs are also extremely common, it's possible that a civilization intent on establishing interstellar branches would choose to put those branches around red dwarfs.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Phobos Ripped From Mars?

A new study using data from the European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft argues that the Martian moon Phobos formed after something large struck Mars, sending material from the planet into space. A similar scenario is thought to have led to the formation of Earth's Moon.

Data shows that the material making up Phobos is similar to what makes up Mars, as opposed to the composition of asteroids; a leading theory of the origin of Phobos and Mars' other tiny moon, Deimos, has been that they were asteroids somehow captured by Mars' gravity.

The study also shows that the density of Phobos is extremely low, which again suggests a body loosely flung together as opposed to a solid body. Indeed, Phobos' density is so low that there must be huge caverns under the surface. That could be a big break for the future exploration of Mars. A manned base under the surface of Phobos, protected from radiation by miles of rock all around, might be the ideal place from which to direct the first comprehensive surface exploration of Mars.

Russian Commercial Space Station

Two Russian companies with vast experience in the Russian manned space program-- includng the one that builds Soyuz capsules and has built much of the hardware flown by that program-- are teaming up to build a commercial space station to be open for business by 2015 or 2016. CSS will accomodate seven people at a time. and will be serviced mainly by Russia's Soyuz and Progress spacecraft, though its docking ports will be able to handle other spacecraft, as well.

The two companies plan for CSS to be an all-purpose station, hosting everything from pleasure trips for individuals to cutting edge scientific research, and they expect it to last at least 15 years. They also see it as an emergency backup for ISS, and as a final staging point for future deep-space manned missions.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Earth's Future

This week on The History Channel's The Universe, the show examined the opposite of history-- the ultimate fate of Earth as the Sun cycles through its evolution to the white dwarf stage and beyond. Using the opportunity to examine the life cycles of stars no doubt had some value-- that topic is interesting enough to a science-oriented viewership to stand on its own-- the program went through various ways Earth might meet its demise, complete with neat computer depictions.

For all the computer gee-whiz and all the brainy professors involved in the program, however, it lacked real imagination. The Sun will not enter its final stages for a few billion years, as the program acknowledges. That's an awfully long time, and an awful lot will happen between now and then. To assume nothing much will happen, as the program does, is intellectually sloppy. For instance, the program assumes-- no doubt for dramatic purposes-- that a human civilization will still be on Earth billions of years from now. It's likely, from biology, that even highly successful complex species only last a few million years before evolving into something else or dying out. It's likely from our increasing mastery of genetic engineering and cybernetics that even in a few hundred years, a human will be something quite different from us. The program also seems to assume that the human civilization a few billion years into the future will have mastered interplanetary, but not interstellar space travel. While we're speculating-- just to pick one thing-- why not imagine something of a civilization descended from our own that has spread throughout the universe and had the ability to maintain stars in prime conditions?

Of course, that would have knocked out all the computer-generated images of a boiling Earth, an Earth frozen solid, etc.

Northern Springtime On Titan

Spring is breaking out all over the northern hemisphere of Saturn's magnificent moon, Titan. Because Titan orbits Saturn, and Saturn orbits the Sun once about every 30 Earth years, springtime on Titan will last roughly 7 Earth years-- good news for any young lovers that might be there.

Northern spring seems to be characterized by cloudless skies at both poles, that according to both computer models of Titan's atmosphere and direct observation of that atmosphere, especially by NASA's Cassini spacecraft. Cassini's mission in the Saturnian system has been extended to 2017, so, if all goes well for the probe, Cassini will be able to monitor Titan through most of the new season.

Young lovers on Titan are not completely out of the question, either. Titan has a surface and atmosphere that are home to complex organic molecules. Energy drives an active and complex weather system. Liquid that could be the medium for early life-- methane, in this case, not water-- exists on the surface. Titan is incredibly cold, but we are learning life is incredibly tenacious and adaptable. If life got a start on Titan, and has had a relatively stable environment since, it may well have developed capabilities that allow it to thrive there.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Expanding Into Space

One approach NASA is considering for deep space exploration and settlement involves the custom genetic engineering of tiny, simple life forms. The idea is to engineer organisms that will thrive in an alien environment and produce necessities, like food, that would otherwise have to be brought from Earth.

The idea is not terraforming. The alien environment would not be altered in any wholesale way. Rather, the life would be designed to operate within specific confines to accomplish specific tasks. Carrying bacteria from Earth that could produce food or fuel at the destination could reduce the initial mass of an expedition by substantial amounts, for example, thus making a given expedition cheaper, or a larger expedition possible.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Another Possible Mars Meteorite

NASA's Mars rover Opportunity, on its way to Endeavour crater, has spotted what looks to be another meteorite on the surface. If the small, dark rock does in fact turn out to be a meteorite, it will be the fifth one Opportunity has found. The rover will be driven to the rock to make a final determination.

So far, in approaching seven years, Opportunity has traveled 14.5 miles over the surface. Finding that many meteorites in such a small area likely tells us that meteorites are fairly common on Mars. If that's accurate, human expeditions to the planet could not only learn Mars' history and build a future, they could also learn a lot about the history of the Solar System simply by picking up and analyzing the right rocks.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Downside To Lunar Water

The recent discovery of substantial amounts of water on the Moon excited those who want to build manned lunar bases, but it seems that water could also make lunar optical astronomy more challenging.

For decades, astronomers have dreamed of building huge optical telescopes on the Moon, taking advantage of the low gravity and perpetually cloudless sky to probe the mysteries of the universe. That was when the Moon was thought to be dry as chalk, however. Water is a complication. Sunlight breaks water down to hydrogen and hydroxyl, which could distort images taken by huge lunar scopes. Of course, Earth-based telescopes have been made more productive by using techniques that factor out the distortions caused by Earth's atmosphere. That atmosphere is thicker and more active than hydroxyls around the Moon would be, so there's every chance such lunar distortions could be overcome.

Radio astronomy-- especially from the far side of the Moon, where the bulk of the Moon would block radio noise from Earth-- would not be affected by hydroxyl distortion, and therefore retains incredible promise as a lunar-based science.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Discovery's Last Ride

The space shuttle Discovery is scheduled to make its final trip from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the launch pad tonight. Families of the workers who've kept the shuttles flying all these years will be there to watch the transfer.

Discovery will fly the next-to-last scheduled shuttle mission. Congress may yet add one more flight to go next summer, however.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Aboriginal Astronomy

Westerners likely see the Australian Aborigines as a people and culture still in the Stone Age when Europeans first encountered them in the late eighteenth century. Yet, according to a new study, those supposedly simple folk may have been the world's first astronomers.

By noting how the Aborigines used the appearances of certain stars to tell them when to plant, and when to hunt, the study says, an understanding of astronomy is clear. The study also argues that Aboriginal culture, mythology, and legends reveal a deep understanding of astronomy, and that that understanding could go back as far as 20,000 years-- thousands of years before the building of Stonehenge in Britain, for example, which reveals the astronomical knowledge of its builders.

MRO At It Again

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been an extremely important spacecraft. The remarkable amount of data it has sent back to Earth has been a large factor in helping to revolutionize our understanding of Mars. Yet, for all that, MRO seems to have a mind of its own.

On September 15, MRO's computer put itself into safe mode. That was the fifth computer glitch for the spacecraft in the past two years. Engineers are confident they can get MRO back to doing science, but by now, perhaps an equally interesting question is: Why does the MRO computer keep blinking out?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Trans-Neptunian Objects

Researchers using archived Hubble Space Telescope images have discovered 14 objects that orbit beyond the orbit of Neptune. They range in size from 25 to 60 miles in diameter.

The objects were found in a tiny sliver of the sky, so astronomers expect to find hundreds or thousands more when they expand the search area. Hubble was studying other things when it took the images being studied, so a new understanding of an entire class of objects deep in the Solar System may be acquired as a by-product of other research. Not a bad deal at all.

Boeing, Space Adventures Unite

Boeing Aerospace and Space Adventures are teaming up to offer commercial flights on BA's CST-100 capsule. The first launch of the capsule is slated for 2015.

The CST-100 will be capable of servicing ISS, but Boeing is also exploring a plan with Bigelow Aerospace to provide transport to and from Bigelow's inflatable module space stations and space hotels.

The initial infrastructure of the commercial Space Age may be beginning to emerge.

Halley's Comet

A new study likely pushes back the earliest recorded observation of Halley's Comet to 466, B. C., recorded by the Greeks. This beats the previous earliest recorded observation by more than 200 years. That one was made by Chinese astronomers and is solidly Halley because the Chinese gave details about the comet's position in the sky. The Greek observation lacks such specificity.

The same year as the Greeks' recorded sighting of Halley, they also recorded a large meteorite impacting northern Greece. The meteorite likely had nothing to do with the comet, but it did give the Greeks a glimpse of the universe beyond Earth.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Danes Delayed Until 2011

The Copenhagen Suborbitals experienced another delay of the first test flight of their rocket when, of all things, a hair dryer lost power. The hair dryer was supposed to keep a liquid oxygen valve warm on its launch platform in the cold Baltic Sea. When the dryer lost power, the valve-- exposed to the outside temperature longer than planned-- froze up, and the launch had to be scrubbed. The group plans another launch attempt sometime next year after addressing weaknesses in the system uncovered by two attempts at launch this month.

The goal of the group is to fly a manned suborbital mission.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Rethinking Viking

The Viking project of thirty-odd years ago was designed to search for life on Mars. Despite interesting results from one of the main tests, the scientific community has decided that Viking did not find life.

A new study, while affirming that Viking probably didn't find life, suggests nonetheless that Viking may have found evidence of organic compounds that can lead to life. A key element in the new study's reasoning is the discovery of perchorates in the soil by Mars Phoenix. Viking experiments included one that heated Martian soil samples looking for chemical reactions from life. That one seemed to get a hit, but no organics were subsequently found in the samples. Perchorates-- complex chemical compounds-- destroy organics when heated, however, so they might explain the absence of organics recorded by Viking.

The study is a reminder of how science works. It accumulates data over time, develops hypotheses, and accumulates more data. The significance of a project is sometimes not known until much later.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


China is planning to launch its second lunar probe, Chang'e-2, later this year. Chang'e-1 was a solid success. China took a conservative approach flying to the Moon the first time, but plans a more direct route with the next one, planning to reach the Moon with Chang'e-2 in just five days. That, by the way, is still longer than the flight times of the Apollo lunar missions.

China plans another Chang'e mission, probably in 2013, and a lunar sample return mission aroud 2017.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Opportunity Halfway There

The Mars rover Opportunty, after spending two years in Victoria crater, is now more than halfway to the huge Endeavour crater. So far, it has taken Opportunity two years to cover six miles from Victoria.

Endeavour is particularly interesting to scientists because satellite images have shown it contains clays. Clays implies water, and water could support life. Endeavour is also a very old crater, dating from a time when Mars could have been more suitable for biology.

Though the Mars rovers are remarkable machines, six miles in two years is extremely slow. A manned expedition could cover that distance in one day.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

KSC Closed....... Temporarily

A break in a huge water pipe has closed the Kennedy Space Center to everyone except essential personnel, at least for today.

Space shuttle Discovery was to be moved from its hangar to the Vehicle Assembly Building today, where it will be mated to an external tank and solid rocket boosters in preparation for its final flight, currently still scheduled for November 1. The VAB is near the water pipe break, however, so Discovery's move was delayed until tomorrow morning.

Close Calls

Two asteroids will zip past Earth today, both well inside the orbit of the Moon. Both are small-- only tens of feet across-- which accounts for the fact that they were only discovered recently. Neither poses a threat to Earth.

Still, they are reminders of the threat posed by such roving rocks. Objects the size of these two, if they did hit Earth, could explode in the atmosphere, or, reaching the surface, could do serious local damage. Hitting the ocean, a rock that size could raise a tsunami.

Astronomers say such close calls are fairly common, but two in one day are rare.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Setback For Danes

The attempt to test fly a new rocket by the Copenhagen Suborbitals, a private, non-profit group trying to launch a human on a suborbital spaceflight, was aborted this past weekend due to a malfunction of the main liquid oxygen valve, the group said.

The launch window is open until September 17, however, so the test flight may yet take place soon. The mission the Suborbitals are trying to fly would be reminiscient of the first couple Mercury flights. That a private, volunteer group can even seriously consider a project that demanded the resources and commitment of the U. S. Government fifty years ago is an indication of how advances in science and technology have changed the world over those few decades.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Cassini At Dione

The Cassini spacecraft recently took close-up images of Saturn's small moon, Dione. Dione happens to be about the same distance from Saturn as Earth's Moon is from Earth.

The images reveal an ice ball of a world, but they also show relatively few craters, That suggests cryovolcanism is at work-- that is, eruptions resurface Dione, but instead of molten lava, ice and perhaps liquid water do the deed. That process, in turn, implies heat and energy at the moon's core. The driver of that energy is no doubt Saturn's powerful gravity, which constantly acts on Dione as the moon orbits the planet.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Hawking Again

Stephen Hawking has made a couple headlines this year-- no doubt part of a marketing strategy to promote his latest book. First, Professor Hawking advised humanity should be wary about contacting alien civilizations, lest we risk meeting the same fate the Aztecs and Incas met at the hands of technologically more advanced Europeans, for example. That argument can be questioned. The natives the Europeans encountered, after all, had things the Europeans wanted-- from gold to human souls in need of saving by the Christian god. Likely, humanity over the next few centuries will have little or nothing that would fire an interstellar civilization to nastiness.

Now, Hawking has said God is not necessary to account for the creation of the universe. That's hardly a surprising position coming from a sciemtist, except it does seem to be different from an earlier statement Hawking made. Of course, changing views in light of more evidence and a deeper understanding of nature is precisely what scientists should do, if necessary. Hawking, indeed, seems to make an argument consistent with the approach of a scientist. He says a Creator is not necessary for the creation of the universe because that creation flows naturally from the laws of physics. He does not seem to say, however, that because God isn't necessary, God doesn't exist. That might be a distinction without a difference, but it could also be a deliberate formulation from a careful scientist. This is also a tricky area. Even if Hawking is right about the laws of physics, we still can't explain how those laws emerged precisely as they are, governing the universe we know.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Danish Surprise

So far, only the Soviet Union/Russia, the United States, and China have launched humans into space. By simply looking at an Earth globe, those three huge nations might seem logical candidates to accomplish such a feat. The fourth to do it might be a shock, however. That nation might be little Denmark.

A group of volunteers has built a rocket and capsule that will carry one person on a suborbital flight. Called the "Copenhagen Suborbitals," the group plans a test flight this weekend. Several such test flights will be flown before a person rides the Tycho Brahe capsule, named for the famed Danish astronomer. The capsule is designed to descend under parachutes and splash down in the Baltic.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Finding A Target

In a preliminary search for near-Earth asteroids that would be suitable targets for manned missions, NASA has identified only three that could be reached before 2050. One could be visited in 2020, another in 2025, which is President Obama's proposed year, and a possible third in 2046.

Criteria used by NASA in the selection process included diameters of at least 50 meters, round trip mission times of 180 days or fewer, and a body close enough to be monitored by Earth-based telescopes.

More possible targets will almost certainly be found; astronomers are actively searching for such objects not just in preparation for a manned mission, but also for their scientific value, as well as to find any that might pose a threat to Earth. Very likely, if a manned mission to an asteroid is flown in 2025, it will go to a rock we don't even know exists now.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

"Plymouth Rock"

President Obama's proposal to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 seems to be gaining momentum. It has even acquired an unofficial project name-- Plymouth Rock. The idea has appeal on many levels. Getting humans beyond low Earth orbit is important to many space advocates. Using the Orion spacecraft originally designed for the lunar missions of the Constellation program might save some aerospace jobs, use the work already done on Orion, and mollify some in Congress. Such a mission would produce some good science and fulfill President Obama's commitment to a robust manned spaceflight program.

The question is what will get through Congress. Some members are still trying to save as much of Constellation as they can-- some for policy reaons, some out of political calculations grounded in the state or House district they represent. Some other members would like to cut back on NASA's budget entirely in this time of huge Federal deficits, even though cuts to NASA would be purely symbolic, doing nothing at all to grapple with the real problems driving the budget deficits. Much remains to be hashed out, but a manned mission to a near-Earth asteroid may well come out a winner.