Sunday, October 31, 2010

Final Countdown Begins

This afternoon, the countdown for the final mission of space shuttle Discovery begins. The launch is scheduled for Wednesday afternoon, and the weather, so far, looks good.

The launch has already been delayed two days because of a gas leak, but engineers are confident the leak has been fixed.

Mining The Moon

At a recent conference on developing the critical technologies for space settlement, sponsored by the Space Studies Institute, scientists and engineers agree that the technology to begin robotic mining of the Moon exists today, and they argue the Moon should be the first place extraterrestrial mining operations are mounted.

Their case rests on two points. The Moon is the nearest, most accessible extraterrestrial body, and it has substantial amounts of water. Water would be the basis of the first lunar export-- rocket fuel. Breaking water into its components of hydrogen and oxygen and recombining those elements into a rocket fuel, that fuel could be sent to low Earth orbit to top off the tanks of spaceships, probes, etc. Because of the Moon's low gravity, shipping the fuel from the Moon should be more economical than lifting it off Earth. Water is not the only valuiable lunar resource, either. Methane and ammonia could be profitably mined, for example, and lunar helium-3 could eventually fuel fusion reactors.

Other worlds-- Mars, asteroids, comets, other moons, for instance-- also have useful natural resources, of course. The key is to build an economic situation that will allow private industry to profitably apply those resources to improving the human condition. Part of building that situation must include clearly defining property rights beyond Earth. Under current law, the rights of individuals and private corporations to own, use, and profit from claims on other worlds are weak and vague. The major obstacle to finally opening space to human endeavor may not be technological or even financial, but legal and political. Addressing that aspect before going to the Moon with major investments would seem to be as critical as building a robot miner.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Life In The Universe

Two recent studies seem to be good news for those arguing that life is common in the universe. In one, the Hubble Space Telescope was used to image Kuiper Belt objects, those objects that orbit with Pluto and beyond. Hubble showed a range of colors, with those objects that orbit in the plane of the planets having a distinctly reddish hue. Astronomers interpret the colors as indications of organic molecules. Not life, but the building blocks of life, and they say that implies those building blocks are common throughout the universe.

The other study looks at how common worlds similar to Earth might be by monitoring nearby G- and K-type stars, looking for wobbles in the stars that might be caused by planets' gravitational tug. The Sun is a G-type star, for example, and K-types are slightly smaller. The study concludes that worlds the size of Earth are probably fairly common around stars similar to the Sun. Perhaps a quarter of such stars, the study suggests, may have at least one Earth-like world in its gravitational sway.

Taken together, the two studies do not cinch the case for life in the universe. However, if the chemical building blocks of life are common features of solar systems, and if Earths are relatively common around Sun-like stars, an Earth orbiting at the right distance from its star could be occasionally showered with organic molecules. One, or more, of those showers could lead to life.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Hopping To Explore

A team from MIT and Draper Laboratory of Cambridge, Massachusetts, is developing a probe that will hop across a planetary surface. Until now, movable probes have been driven over the alien terrain, but the team argues a hopper could cover more ground more quickly. For example, NASA's extraordinarily successful Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, have covered approximately 20 miles combined since landing in 2004, whereas a hopper could possibly cover 25 miles in a day. "Hopper" may conjure the wrong mental image; the team isn't building exotic pogo-sticks. Rather, the probe, using small rockets, would fly more like a helicopter, flying over large areas before landing.

The team will compete in the Google Lunar X-Prize contest, but expects to have a hopper ready by 2014 while the main GLXP ends in 2012, so it's not clear how serious the hopper team is about winning the competition. Perhaps it is betting that the GLXP will not be won by 2012, and the competition will be extended.

Hoppers would not be limited to the Moon, however. They could be useful on many low gravity worlds-- Mars, the moons of the gas giants, and asteroids. Perhaps the ideal exploration strategy would be to use rovers and hoppers together. Hoppers could provide an overview of an area while rovers, possibly over years, could build up a detailed, connected data set.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Utilizing ISS

The European Space Agency is looking at ways to better use ISS as a research outpost. To that end, European nations not currently involved in the ISS project will be given access to the station for the next three years.

The ESA operates in an interesting way. Although the point of ESA is to allow European nations to pool resources and participate in major space projects, each nation can opt out of projects it does not choose to help fund. Therefore, although ESA is a partner in the ISS program, only 10 of ESA's 18 members actively participate, and three-- Germany, France, and Italy-- combine for most of the funding. Beyond ESA members, the European Union has 27 members all told, and EU members will also be able to use ISS.

The ESA approach would seem to be good news for space and microgravity research. No doubt it is; especially at this early stage of truly opening space, the more the merrier. However, there might be a private option to ISS. If Bigelow Aerospace is successful in quickly deploying its inflatable structure space stations. ISS will no longer be the only game in orbit. Indeed, as reported recently in this blog, BA is in contact with seven nations, including Sweden, the Netherlands, and the UK exploring what those nations would need to use a BA station. If BA establishes there is a good market for space stations, in the private as well as the public sectors, competitors to BA will emerge. ISS may be the first-- and last-- of its kind.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Dragon Launch Delayed

SpaceX has pushed back its scheduled first flight of the company's Dragon capsule. Now, instead of November 9, the launch of the Falcon 9 that will carry Dragon into orbit is slated for November 18. Of course, delaying rocket launches is not unusual, and the Falcon 9 is still a new system. It has only one successful flight to its credit.

The upcoming flight is to be a demonstration to NASA that SpaceX can fulfill its contractual obligaton to deliver cargo to ISS using the Falcon 9/Dragon configuration.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Beating Swords Into Ploughshares

Many people see much of the military spending governments do as an economic dead end. They argue that much of the equipment purchased in military and naval programs cannot be used in economically productive ways, so the capital spent on it, from an economic perspective, is simply wasted. With the advance of technology and a general lessening of major power tension around the world, however, that's becoming less true. Satellite imaging of Earth is now commercial, for example. De-commissioned submarines are just beginning to be used for commercial and scientific underwater exploration. Tiny satellites may well give older jet fighters new civilian missions, too.

Advances in technology has fostered a revolution in satellite design. Now, for many purposes, satellites weighing only a few pounds which can be built in weeks or months are just as capable-- if not more so-- as the large satellites that eat up years and money from design to deployment. Because the new satellites are so small and inexpensive they open opportunities for research and commercial projects to a wider spectrum of users. Some see the smallsat and nanosat market booming over the coming decade, establishing the area as an important part of opening space. Interorbital Systems, with its Cubesat and Tubesat programs to be launched on its Neptune modular launch system, seems to be an early pacesetter, with contracts to fly projects for universities and other groups from around the world.

While IOS will use a rocket booster to fly several smallsats at once-- thus keeping costs per project down-- other companies are looking at different delivery methods. Virgin Galactic, for example, plans to launch smallsats from its WhiteKnightTwo mothership. Another group plans to launch from jet fighters no longer in service. Instead of releasing missiles to knock other aircraft out of the sky, the ex-fighters will, perhaps literally, aim higher, releasing an upper stage rocket that will then carry tiny probes on suborbital flights or even into orbit.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Spinning Vesta

A new study of Vesta, the second largest asteroid in the Solar System, has found Vesta has a slightly larger axial tilt than previously thought. Using images snapped by the Hubble Space Telescope, the study also determined Vesta spins once on its axis every 5.3 hours.

The new information is timely because NASA's Dawn spacecraft will encounter Vesta next year. Knowing the tilt will allow scientists to better plan Dawn's observations of the surface as they factor in the angles at which sunlight will strike certain areas at certain times.

After its time at Vesta, Dawn is scheduled to reach Ceres in 2015. While Vesta is roughly 330 miles along its major axis, Ceres, the largest asteroid, has a diameter of something around 800 miles, similar to the distance all the way across Texas. Ceres is the only asteroid massive enough to have the gravity to pull itself into a sphere, thus the only one with a meaningful diameter.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Dedicating Spaceport America

As part of the dedication of Spaceport America yesterday, Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo made its first landing on the runway in southern New Mexico that will become its home. VG is basing its operations at Spaceport America and plans to begin commercial, suborbital flights in from nine to 18 months.

Sir Richard Branson, founder and chair of VG, will, together with his family, be on the first passenger-carrying flight of SpaceShipTwo. Branson also said VG plans to move quickly from suborbital to orbital flights. It is even planning to compete for a NASA contract to ferry crew to and from ISS. Whether orbital flights could be accomplished using VG's current aircraft-based launch system, or whether VG would have to go to the classic rocket booster launch, is unclear. The launch system, along with the method of dealing with the heat of re-entry, will likely determine if VG's orbital ships will be able to use the runway its suborbital ship just helped dedicate.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Wet Cabeus

Last year, NASA slammed the LCROSS probe into the lunar crater Cabeus in an attempt to discover whether water ice existed on its permanently shadowed floor. Well, they found it. In fact, a new study indicates the floor of Cabeus is wetter than the Sahara Desert-- a totally unbelievable situation only a few years ago. Further, the study finds that water is not the only surprise. Elements ranging from simple hydrogen to ammonia, calcium, carbon, methane, magnesium, and even silver has been found inside the crater.

Scientists believe much of that material was delivered to the Moon by comet impacts and found its way across the surface into the cold trap of Cabeus, where it has been preserved. Because sunlight never reaches its floor, the crater is among the coldest places in the entire Solar System.

Scientists also point out that Cabeus is likely not the only place on the Moon to house such goodies. Other craters around both the north and south poles could offer similarly advantageous niche environments. The case for colonizing the Moon, therefore, has been strengthened again. Given the developing political, fiscal, and technological situations on Earth, an intrigung question is who will be first to tap lunar resources to establish a branch of human civilization on another world-- governments, or the private sector?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Planetary Defense

A new report by an advisory group urges NASA to establish an office to focus on developing a planetary defense system to protect Earth from asteroid impacts. The report calls for the office to pursue a systematic approach to the detection of near-Earth objects-- especially those large enough to cause real damage in the event of a collision-- as well as to establish the composition of the objects, determine with precision the orbits of the objects, and develop various ways to deflect any objects that might be threatening.

The group also called for the NASA office to lead an international effort to deal with the threat. Not only does the nature of the threat argue for an international approach, since an asteroid could strike absolutely anywhere, but, given current economic conditions, several nations supporting the modest expenditures necessary would make the amount per nation even more modest, thus, hopefully, making it more likely something will get done.

Bigelow Building Up

In an exclusive, reports that Bigelow Aerospace has signed memorandums of understanding with six nations-- Japan, the Netherlands, Singapore, Sweden, Australia, and the UK-- to be clients of a private space station BA intends to build. The six are looking for more opprtunities to pursue space projects than exist on ISS, even though Japan has its own module attached to ISS.

The BA space station will be made using BA's inflatable structure technology. Two prototypes testing that technology are currently in Earth orbit, having exceeded expectations.

These six are all governments, but BA is also seeking to work with private, for-profit concerns and scientific research organizations. These "sovereigns," as Bigelow calls the governments, seem to put the question of the legitimacy of NewSpace-- or at least of BA-- in sharp relief. After spending $200 million of his own fortune on his space company, Robert Bigelow has either snookered six governments fully capable of thoroughly investigating him and his company, or he has built a company with a real chance to completely change the rules in space.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Lunar Greenhouse

Greenhouses on Earth are generally largely glass structures meant to take in as much sunlight as possible for the plants inside. On the Moon and Mars, things will be different-- as they are for the greenhouse that supplies fresh veggies to the crew of a base near the South Pole of Earth.

Researchers manning the South Polar base are cut off from the rest of the world for six to eight months a year due to the extreme weather and extraordinary cold of the area; the base, therefore, is a good analogy for what would be required for deep space missions, or bases on other worlds, where the crew would be entirely on its own. The greenhouse at the South Pole is, in fact, buried underground. Light is manufactured. Plants are grown hydroponically-- that is, with water, but without soil.

The same company responsible for the South Pole greenhouse is now turning its attention to building a greenhouse for a lunar base. That one, too, would be buried underground, to protect the plants from radiation. It would also be collapsible, to allow transportation by rocket. The South Pole of Earth, a lunar lava tube, a cave on Mars, and the high-tech efficiency of a manned, interplanetary spacecraft may all be unique environments, but the basics of growing food may be the same in them all.

Monday, October 18, 2010

China And UFOs

This year has seen something of a wave of UFO sightings in China. The latest major sighting took place earlier this month. At least twice, the sightings have shut down a major Chinese airport.

The UFOs in question seem to be of the "lights in the sky" variety; video of the things don't suggest substantial objects. Secret Chinese aircraft might still be one possible explanation, just as secret U. S. aircraft seem to account for many American sightings down through the decades. Odd reflections of city lights in the badly polluted urban Chinese atmosphere might be another explanation.

Given the rich and ancient Chinese culture, seeing whether modern UFOs will find a place in China as they have in Western pop culture will be interesting.

NASA Buying Private Lunar Data

NASA has contracted with six teams involved in the Google Lunar X-Prize to purchase technical and scientific data gathered by the teams. The base contracts are tiny in monetary value-- $10,000-- but that could rocket to as much as $10 million, depending on the data being sold.

The awards are being seen as a signal from NASA that it's open to relying on private companies to obtain at least some of the data needed to carry out its own deep-space exploration mission. If that is the case, an exciting new business sector-- space exploration for profit-- becomes a possibility. Such an industry might have an economic model similar to the old wildcat oil exploration companies. Large aerospace firms may well have corporate units in the field. but there would also be room for small, independent companies. Most of those small companies will fail, some will merge to stay alive, and a few could hit it very, very big. They could become the first players in a truly space based economy.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Rethinking Gliese 581g

A huge stir zipped through the scientific community and beyond recently with the announcement by astronomers of the discovery of a world with only three or four times the mass of Earth that orbited in the habitable zone of the red dwarf star Gliese 581, only 20 light years away. The mass told us the planet was a rocky world like Earth, and the location of the orbit told us that liquid water could exist on its surface.

Well, maybe not.

Other astronomers are now questioning whether the world, dubbed Gliese 581g, even exists. The discovery of this exoplanet-- as well as of most of the hundreds of other such planets so far discovered-- was done by monitoring tiny movements by the parent star that could be caused by the gravity of planets tugging on it. Obviously, more massive planets close to the star are easier to detect than less massive ones. A few astronomers who have looked at the Gliese 581g discovery data say they see no obvious pattern in it. The Gliese 581 system already has four confirmed exoplanets, and the announcement of "g" was coupled with the announcement of another, even smaller world. Any pattern, therefore, would be extremely complex and subtle, possibly difficult to distinguish from the random "noise" always present in such endeavors.

So, does a slightly larger version of Earth orbit Gliese 581, or not? Answering that question is within our capability, and will be even more within it as technology develops. So, we will know what actually exists in the system of this particular red dwarf, but it could take a while.

More Moon Interplay

Scientists are increasingly finding that, perhaps contrary to common assumptions, bodies in space can and do interact with each other on a regular basis. For a few years now, the case has been made that some meteorites found on Earth originated on Mars. Recent studies expand on that theme. Using data from the extraordinarily successful Cassini mission to Saturn, scientists now think the geysers of Enceladus may seed the upper atmosphere of the giant moon Titan with organic molecules that originate in Enceladus' subsurface ocean, thus making life on Titan more likely.

Nor is that all Enceladus does. A new study suggests electrons from that moon, propelled by the geyser eruptions, reach five more Saturnian moons in a plasma, interacting with the surfaces of those moons.

With Saturn's system as a model, some are saying much the same interplay could take place among the moons of Jupiter. In that case, the extreme vulcanism of Io would drive the process.

All this indicates a level of complexity in planetary systems not imagined in any depth before the Space Age.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Dragon To Fly

SpaceX is ready for the first test flight of its cargo-carrying capsule, Dragon, atop the company's Falcon 9 rocket. The launch is planned for early November from Florida. The flight is scheduled to last perhaps four hours, during which all Dragon's systems will be tested, and the capsule is to splash down in the Pacific off southern California.

Dragon is supposed to take supplies to ISS after the space shuttle is retired, so demonstrating the company can in fact fly it in space is important to SpaceX, to NASA, and to President Obama's plan to use private spacecraft to serve low Earth orbit while NASA concentrates on deep space exploration. Dragon, indeed, is designed to eventually ferry humans to and from orbit.

The Falcon 9, so far, has only one successful launch to its credit, so a successful flight in November would allow SpaceX to build momentum and confidence. A failure, however, could increase the doubt some analysts have that private companies are ready for their expanded role in NASA's new marching orders.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Orbital Expeditions

Interorbital Systems, an American NewSpace firm which is probably better known in Europe than it is in the U. S., is moving ahead with a program to offer tourists, and others, orbital spaceflights. Launched from the waters of the South Pacific kingdom of Tonga, the IOS spacecraft will carry up to six passengers plus a pilot. IOS is planning a two-man orbital flight sometime in 2011-12, with commercial flights to begin in the 2012-13 period.

Orbital Expedition flights will last about a week and cost $5 million per ticket. However, the company is offering a bargain deal-- the first ten tickets sold will go for $250,000 apiece. Two of the ten have already been snapped up, and, according to IOS CEO Randa Milliron, the company will begin a marketing effort to tell the public about the program soon. In an interesting comparison, Virgin Galactic is offering suborbital flights that will feature a few minutes of weightlessness in a fairly small cabin for $200,000 whereas a few people, for $50,ooo more, would get to experience true spaceflight-- days of weightlessness in a module with a large enough volume to allow real exploration of the possibilities of microgravity, dozens of sunrises and sunsets, and extended opportunities to observe the Earth and other celestial bodies from space-- on an early Orbital Expeditions flight.

Whether IOS, or, indeed, VG, can actually turn their plans into profitable reality is still open to question, but IOS is moving across a broad front, pursuing both manned and unmanned projects. It is even looking at the Moon-- in the context of the Google Lunar X-Prize competition, but also in flying a lunar sample return mission, and in establishing a substantial, private, manned lunar base in just a few years. If IOS succeeds across the board, it will have secured a place as one of the most important corporations in human history.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

VG Moving Closer

Virgin Galactic took another step towards providing commercial suborbital spaceflights today when its SpaceShipTwo was released from its giant WhiteKnightTwo mothership during a test flight for the first time. The spaceship glided on its own for about 15 minutes before making a perfect landing in Mojave, California.

VG plans to offer its tourist flights from Spaceport America in New Mexico, and in a related matter, the main runway of Spaceport America will be dedicated later this month.

VG already has at least 340 people ready to pay the $200,000 the company is charging per ticket, with SpaceShipTwo capable of carrying six passengers per flight. VG plans to begin commercial flights next year.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Simulating Chemistry On Titan

A new study looks at what could be going on in the upper atmosphere of Saturn's extraordinary moon, Titan, by roughly replicating in a laboratory the chemical and energy environment there. The results are amazing. Many complex organics formed, including all the base acids of Earth's DNA molecules. The raw materials for the chemistry seems to come, at least partly, from another of Saturn's moons, Enceladus. Scientists are seeing meaningful interactions among the moons of both Jupiter and Saturn, a phenomenon not necessarily anticipated before the missions of Galileo and Cassini, respectively.

Not only does the study's findings make the case for life on Titan stronger, they also throw another possibility into the debate on how and where life started on Earth. The prevailing view is that water was critical to that event, but water plays no role in the study, as water is frozen on Titan. So, if Titan's atmosphere-- except for the temperature, which might be a major factor-- is similar to early Earth's, and if the basics of life are created in Titan's upper atmosphere without water, then it's possible life on Earth did not, in fact, require water to get started. That, as they say, would be a game changer.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Water In Asteroids

A second asteroid, 65 Cybele, has been found to contain both water and organic molecules. A view is emerging in the scientific community that water may be common on asteroids. If true, it would significantly change how we see the Solar System. First, it would further blur the line between comets and asteroids. If both are small bodies containing volatiles-- water-- the only differences between the two may be location in the Solar System and orbital characteristics.

Second, the discovery that water may be common in asteroids strengthens the theory that water, and possibly life, came to Earth from outside.

Third, if substantial amounts of water are easily accessible throughout the Solar System, exploring and settling space would be much easier. Water could be used as water, or split into its hydrogen and oxygen components and used as rocket fuel, or the oxygen could be used for breathing while hydrogen is used in another way. Water and rock are also good protection against radiation. Eventually, too, asteroids laden with water ice could be moved to where the water was needed. Space could be open to humanity.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Chemistry On Europa

A new study suggests that Jupiter's moon Europa may support chemical reactions both on its icy surface and below the surface, beyond the reach of sunlight. Scientists have found that water and sulfur dioxide react easily and quickly even in the extreme cold that reigns on Europa. The sulfur involved, in one of Nature's amazing twists, seems to come from the volcanic eruptions on another of Jupiter's moons, the volatile Io.

Scientists believe a huge ocean exists under the Europan ice shell. With complex molecules possibly migrating down into that ocean, and a heat and energy source that keeps the water in the ocean liquid, the case for at least the precursors of life existing on Europa seems to be strengthened by this study. Further, the results of the study do not apply solely to Europa. For example, they could also apply to the other two large moons of Jupiter, Callisto and Ganymede.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Explaining Enceladus' Eruptions

A new study of Saturn's intriguing moon Enceladus outlines a possible mechanism to explain the erupting geysers in the moon's southern polar region. Key to the new theory is the presence of a saltwater ocean of flowing liquid beneath the icy shell of the surface that also interacts with a solid core.

The theory is that the ocean is an active, dynamic environment that brings minerals, dust, and gas from the core to the upper levels. Heated, the gas expands and powers the geysers.

Perhaps the most important element of the theory is the fact that a water ocean is critical to its operation. Such an ocean had already been postulated to occupy the interior of Enceladus, but making a saltwater ocean integral to the explanation of an observed phenomenon-- the geysers-- also might suggest a stronger case for the existence of an ocean, though that reasoning, perhaps, cannot be pushed too far. Still, add up a huge, active, water ocean with access to various minerals, an energy source, and the established existence of organic compounds, and a case for possible life inside Enceladus is likely strengthened.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

More Seed Money

NASA has announced a second round of monetary awards to private industry. The point of the awards is to encourage the development of specific technologies necessary to establish a commercial manned spaceflight capabiity, which is in line with President Obama's policy to foster such a capability.

The amount to be awarded has yet to be determined because Congress has yet to pass a budget, but NASA plans to give out the awards in March.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Sputnik Plus 53

Many historians date the birth of the modern world to the first voyage of Columbus to what became the "New World" to Europeans. That event marked the beginning of the dominance of Europe, and eventually of the United States, in world affairs.

Fifty-three years ago today, with the Soviet Union's launch of the first space probe, another age in the history of mankind was ushered in. Since then, the Space Age has brought successive revolutions in our understanding of the universe, and helped spark revolutions in technology and information handling that have, among other things, led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and reshaped the economy and political reality of the world.

The Space Age seems poised for a new era-- that of commercial operations in space. If the cost of space projects can be brought down and controlled to allow actual, sustainable profits, the progress made so far in the Space Age, in knowledge and capability, could well quicken. The second fifty-three years of the Space Age may be even more extraordinary and transformative than the first.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Garver Weighs In

Lori Garver, deputy administrator of NASA, says that despite the new goal of sending a manned mission to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025, lunar exploration is not off the agency's radar. Indeed, NASA currently has a probe orbiting the Moon and plans for more in the years ahead.

Garver notes that the Moon is an obvious element in humanity's migration into space. It is, in fact, the world nearest to Earth, and a world rich in natural resources, including substantial reserves of water. Several nations are sending unmanned probes to the Moon, and several of the major nations have expressed at least some interest in participating in an international program to establish a manned lunar base. Private corporations like Bigelow Aerospace and Interorbital Systems are also planning manned bases on the Moon in the near future. If such private, for profit efforts successfully establish bases before a government-run program does, the Space Age will have taken what could be a decisive turn-- and with that turn, human civilization will begin a process of redefinition.

Garver is past executive director of the National Space Society, so she is aware of the role colonizing the Moon plays in the plans of many space advocates. Perhaps that perspective will yet have an influence on U. S. space policy.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Scouting The Bay Of Rainbows

China's second lunar probe, Cheng'e 2, is on its way to the Moon, and will arrive there next week. When it arrives, its first task will be to take detailed images of the vast lunar impact basin, the Bay of Rainbows, in preparation for China's first unmanned lunar landing.

A Chinese spokesman noted that most lunar probes have landed in the Moon's equatorial region because that is the easiest area to reach and makes communications simpler. China, however, wants to reach an area that has not yet been explored. It's a good decision, and one that suggests China's emerging confidence in its space capabilities.

China's first unmanned lunar landing mission is scheduled for 2013.

Friday, October 1, 2010

New Directions For NASA

The U. S. House passed a budget for NASA this week that embraces President Obama's plan for the future of NASA manned spaceflight. The budget means the shuttle program will end next year, costing thousands of jobs, but opening the way for private companies to take over transporting humans to and from low Earth orbit, thus freeing NASA to focus on manned deep space exploration.

The question might be whether this new policy will hold. The American political situation seems to be in a particularly turbulent phase at present. The election next month could flip control of the House-- and possibly the Senate, as well-- to the Republicans. If that happens, the GOP might decide to put its own stamp on space policy, which could well take the form of directing NASA have its own manned spaceflight capability independent of whatever private companies can come up with. A NASA manned spacecraft, of course, might demand a specific goal.

And so it might go.