Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Orion Test Flight In 2013?

Lockheed Martin, builder of the Orion space capsule, is looking at acquiring a Delta 4 Heavy rocket to launch a test flight of an unmanned Orion in 2013. The flight would look towards meeting NASA's goal of having an Orion ready by 2016.

In the test flight, Orion would be launched into a highly elliptical orbit, the apogee of which would be well into space. The point of that flight path would be to test the Orion's performance during re-entry at a speed that would approach that of an Orion returning from a lunar or deep space mission. Of course, NASA has no current plans to use Orion to go to the Moon, and the only deep space flight that has momentum is a manned flight to an asteroid in 2025. The future of NASA manned spaceflight, and of human spaceflight in general, however, is in a state of flux. Congress has its own ideas of where American astronauts should go next, other countries seem to be considering lunar missions, and there are also private possibilities. If LM had a human-rated spacecraft designed for deep space missions ready to fly soon, it might have more than NASA to service.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Ancient Gods

The History Channel's Ancient Aliens series is still moving along. In a recent installment, the show postulated that the gods of mythology-- Zeus, Apollo, Odin, etc.-- may in fact have been alien astronauts. That speculation, of course, is the logical extension of ancient astronaut theory. The question is just how much sense the theory makes.

Proponents of the theory argue there's more to the human past than we know. That's no doubt true; scholars regularly make new discoveries, some of which push the earliest human civilization back before Sumeria. Arguing humans were genetically engineered by aliens, however, is simply a bizarre assertion, resting on no facts at all. Arguing aliens guided humans into creating civilization simplifies a complex, extended evolution. Arguiing the gods of myths were in fact aliens confuses the likely origin. Such gods are similar across cultures, almost certainly, not because they're based on the same alien, but because they were created by human minds grappling with the same questions from similar viewpoints.

The show also suggested Jesus may have been an alien. That is in line with the theory and should give high marks for courage, at least. Again, though, it's a flyer, completely lacking in evidence.

Alien visitation of Earth in the distant past is a possibility, but throwing out notions is not the way to prove it.

Jupiter Rebounds

Over several months, astronomers, often led by amateur astronomers, have watched as a prominent feature of Jupiter's incredible atmosphere, the South Equatorial Belt, has faded nearly away. Now, according to amateur astronomer Christopher Go of The Philippines, the SEB is staging a comeback. Go has noted blobs appearing at the lattitude of the SEB that he thinks herald the return of the Belt.

Professional Jupiter watchers largely agree. The SEB has a history over the 400 years humans have observed Jupiter through increasingly good telescopes of fading in and out on occasion. There seems to be a rough pattern. So, when it faded this time, astronomers predicted the SEB would be back.

Astronomers can now better explain why the Belt fades. It doesn't disappear as much as it's obscured from outside observers by higher altitude clouds. When conditions high in the atmosphere change again, the darker clouds of the SEB reassert themselves.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Einstein's Cosmological Constant

Albert Einstein's General Theory of Relativity laid the groundwork for our current understanding of the universe, and indeed for much of modern high energy physics. The math of the basic theory demanded an expanding universe, however, and in the early twentieth century physicists believed in a steady state universe, so Einstein introduced a cosmological constant into his equations that essentially zeroed out any expansion. Later in the century astronomers showed the universe was, in fact, expanding, and Einstein called the cosmological constant the "biggest blunder" of his career.

Now, theoretical physicists are struggling to understand dark matter and build an overall theory that takes dark matter into account-- and it turns out that Einstein's cosmological constant fits into current approaches that includes dark matter.

At first thought, we might argue that Einstein stumbled on a deeper truth with his cosmological constant, one he never grasped and we are just now glimpsing. However, the essence of dark matter is that it powers universal expansion; Einstein used the constant to stop that expansion. Therefore, saying Einstein was right the first time is likely insufficient. Rejecting that explanation, however, would seem to say a factor introduced into one theory fits into another theory out of blind luck. The math is probably saying we still don't understand a large part of the puzzle.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Cassini Is Back

The Cassini spacecraft exploring the system of Saturn is back doing science. On November 2, Cassini's main computer put itself into safe mode, and engineers worked for the next three weeks trying to determine what had gone wrong. They finally traced the problem to a simple bit flip in the computer. They also saw that the Cassini computer had performed properly after the flip, and were able to put the spacecraft back into normal operations.

During the down time Cassini missed collecting data through a close approach to Titan, but seems ready for a close flyby of Enceladus next week.

Discovery Delayed Again

NASA has pulled back from an early December launch of space shuttle Discovery, and has not yet committed to a mid-December launch. Though engineers have repaired the leaks and cracked ribs in the external tank, they don't understand how the problems developed, and they don't want to commit to a launch until they do understand.

If Discovery doesn't go in December, the next possible launch window does not open until next February.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Russian Space Plans

Russia is thinking big when it comes to remaining a leader in space exploration. According to news reports, Russia is studying developing a force field-type system to protect spacecraft and lunar bases from strikes by space junk or micrometeoroids. It is also looking at a proposed $2 billion ship that would sweep low Earth orbit clean of debris and deposit the stuff in the ocean.

Looking farther out, Russian is considering building nuclear-powered manned spaceships, to be ready to fly, perhaps, by 2020. They argue, probably correctly, that deep space exploration will require nuclear power to propel ships and power bases.

Whether Russia can deliver on such projects is another matter. The Russian economy is fairly small, especially for such a huge, resource-rich nation, and its industrial base is smaller yet. Still, Russia has an amazing space heritage. Betting against it being able to pull off at least one big project at a time probably wouldn't be wise.

Counting Exoplanets

Astronomers have now found roughly 500 planets orbiting other stars. The number is not exact because there's a possibility some of those may turn out to be false positives, but astronomers are confident the vast majority of the finds will hold up.

This first 500, of course, is literally only the beginning. Kepler, NASA's planet-hunting spacecraft, has already identified 700 stars that might have at least one planet, and its mission has barely begun; Kepler will almost certainly find hundreds or thousands more stars over the next few years. Other searches, using various strategies, will no doubt find even more.

Astronomers, however, are more intrigued by the variety of worlds they've found than by the sheer number. They are getting closer and closer to being able to identify worlds similar to Earth, and along the way they have found huge planets in orbits they never would have imagined, planets orbiting in the habitable zone of their stars, and even one that seems to have stayed with its star as the Milky Way absorbed its original home galaxy.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Lockheed Martin's Space Proposal

Aerospace giant Lockheed Martin has issued a white paper that lays out a series of missions to be flown by the Orion spacecraft that would build confidence and experience before moving to deep space missions to asteroids or Mars. These "stepping stone" missions would begin with Earth orbital shakedowns of Orion and move to lunar voyages, culminating in "L2 Farside" missions.

The L2 point is 40,000 miles beyond lunar orbit, where Earth's gravity and the Moon's gravity balance. A ship at that point could remain there indefinitely. The crew of such a ship would also have a spectacular view of both the lunar farside and Earth. LM argues such lunar missions would allow testing of technology and techniques to be used in future deep space missions while allowing astronauts to teleoperate robots on the farside to build giant telescope arrays and to explore the farside by teleoperating rovers on the lunar surface.

It's an interesting proposal, and fills in a blank left by President Obama's proposal to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025. Surely, several flights will need to be flown before that mission is attempted, as LM points out. Something else needs to be pointed out, too. LM builds Orion. A series of Orion flights, therefore, would mean a series of Orion spacecraft would need to be built-- presumably by LM, and presumably at some good profit. The money angle should not, by itself, invalidate LM's proposal, but it must be noted.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The World Biggest Satellite

Yesterday, from Cape Canaveral, a new satellite was launched into orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office. In a speech a few weeks earlier, the NRO Director said the satellite would be the world's biggest.

Of course, the NRO being the NRO, he didn't say what exactly the satellite would do. That can possibly be inferred by noting the NRO is among the more secret of the various agencies in America's intelligence community. Noting the largest commercial satellite weighs something over three tons, the NRO satellite would be even more massive than that.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Still Debating Pluto

Astronomers are still debating whether or not to classify Pluto as a planet. Some argue it is far smaller than any of the eight current planets, its composition is different than any of them, its orbit is different, and it is clearly one of many similar objects in the Kuiper Belt. If Pluto is a planet, they say, the number of planets will explode because those similar objects will also have to be called planets.

Some on the other side are fine with that. They argue, basically, that any object in orbit around the Sun that is large enough so that its gravity has pulled it into a spherical shape is a planet. That would include the largest asteroid, Ceres, for example, plus an unknown number of Kuiper Belt inhabitants. If that ultimately balloons the number of planets into the dozens, or hundreds, they say, it simply does.

With the exception of Ceres, the argument comes down to where the Kuiper Belt fits in the overall scheme of the Solar System. There seems to be four realms in the System-- that of terrestrial worlds out to the Main Belt of asteroids, that of the gas giants from the Main Belt to Neptune, the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune, and the Oort Cloud beyond the Kuiper Belt. The Cloud, home of long period comets, may in fact stretch halfway to the next star.

So, how should we classify Pluto? That debate might go on for a while.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

New Date For Discovery

NASA has set a new date for the last launch of space shuttle Discovery. The target is now December 3.

Discovery's mission has been delayed for both weather and technical reasons. That's an old story for the shuttle program, and ultimately showed shuttles would never come close to the launch rate promised when the program was being sold to Congress. Even with that, however-- and even with two fatal missions-- the space shuttle has been a remarkable flying machine.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Spaceship Company

Virgin Galactic is making good progress towards providing suborbital flights to paying passengers. SpaceShipTwo is performing well in test flights. The rocket engine that will carry SpaceShipTwo to the edge of space is also doing well in its test program. The Spaceship Company, which will build VG's fleet of ships, has recently broken ground in Mojave, California, on its production facility. Spaceport America, in New Mexico, which will be VG's operational base, continues its build out, as reported recently in this blog.

VG is increasingly confident that it will be in space next year, though whether that will be with commercial flights or only with test flights has yet to be determined. VG's first order with TSC calls for two carrier aircraft and five spaceships. Possible additions to that fleet will be judged according to customer demand after the initial rush.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Hayabusa Successful

Japan's ambitious mission to retrieve samples from a comet, Hayabusa, did precisely that. Though the probe returned to Earth last June, the Japanese have been careful about opening the container that would have any samples, working through procedures to limit possible contamination of samples by Earthly sources and document exactly what those sources might be in case contamination occurred.

This week, Japanese scientists and engineers finally opened the key container and determined they had in fact collected dust grain-sized samples from Comet Itakawa during a 2005 encounter. Careful analysis of the samples wll yield new insights into the nature of Itakawa specifically and of comets more generally.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

More "Mystery Missile"

Patrick Minnis is a contrail expert at NASA. Yes, they have such things. It seems contrails can lead to the creation of cirrous clouds, which in turn can affect the climate. Research by Minnis and others indicates 1% more cirrus clouds over the U. S. per decade exist due to contrails, and that can help push global warming.

So, after a KCBS news photographer captured what looked like a rocket launch off the California coast, Minnis was contacted by a reporter and asked his views. At first, he thought it was a rocket launch, he acknowleged, but after doing some research-- it turns out that whatever-it-was was picked up by NASA assets in orbit, which likely means the intelligence community has even better data on the event-- Minnis decided it was a jet contrail. He notes that a commercial airliner was scheduled to be at exactly that position at exactly that time.

That sounds fine, but here's one quibble. According to SPACE.com, Minnis notes data shows that conditions were right for the forming of contrails and cirrus clouds in that part of California on November 9. The event captured on professional television equipment by a professional photographer, however, happened the evening of November 8.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Now, A Fourth Crack

NASA engineers have discovered yet another crack in the external tank mated to space shuttle Discovery. So far, the agency is still aiming to go in the next launch window, which opens November 30 and closes around December 6.

As NASA continues to find cracks, the question must be asked: Did NASA miss these cracks before, or is the external tank cracking as it sits on the launch pad? If inspections missed cracks until now, that's a serious problem at the tail end of the shuttle program. If this is simply a bad external tank, how it got past quality control is another matter. Launching with this tank is surely being reconsidered, or will be if another crack is found.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Spaceport America Shaping Up

After its dedication last month, Spaceport America is looking forward to a successful first few years. Though facilities are still being constructed, everything is on schedule, and the huge runway that will support Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo is complete. The runway will also be able to be used by a wide variety of other large aircraft.

While VG is seen as the lead customer of SA, other aerospace firms are also either using it already or planning to use it. Lochheed Martin is one of them, but others include Armadillo Aerospace and UP Aerospace. SA, therefore, could well begin operations with a fairly solid customer base.

Those operations will likely officially begin sometime next year.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Third Crack

NASA engineers have found a third crack in space shuttle Discovery's external tank. The discovery of two cracks delayed the slated early November launch. NASA is not yet saying the scheduled November 30 liftoff is in jeopardy.

To meet that date, however, the cracks will have to be repaired while Discovery sits on the pad. That has never been done before. It seems a little late in the shuttle program to be trying new procedures, especially those related to launch safety, but, so far, NASA seems convinced it can make the repairs and meet the next launch window.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Searching For Life

There is no more fascinating or important question on the science table today than: Are we alone in the universe? The first place we can try to answer that question directly is Mars, and some NASA scientists are suggesting we do precisely that. They say the next phase of robotic exploration of Mars should focus on searching for life.

So far, the only search for life on Mars was conducted by the Viking probes of the 1970s. The consensus of the scientific community at the time and since has been that Viking did not find life. Exploration of the planet since then, however, has revealed that Mars may have been friendlier to life in the past and suggests life could still exist under the surface, where it would be protected from harmful radiation.

The scientists argue that future robotic missions should include rovers that could explore likely places for life, such as ancient hot springs, and the ability to dig several meters below the surface in search of fossils, or, possibly, extant life.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Dealing With Dangerous Asteroids

Last month in Germany, an international group of experts on the dangers of asteroids colliding with Earth met to begin the process of creating a multi-national response to that threat. Much of that response remains precisely defining the threat-- finding and cataloguing potentially dangerous Near Earth Objects. The goal is not only to identify those that could possibly wipe out humanity, but also to locate the smaller mountains in the sky that could still produce regional disasters.

As is regularly the case, the political factors involved in this effort may be more complex and more difficult to accomodate than the engineering and scientific factors. Because the strike of a large body could threaten all of us, the whole international community should be involved. Because a failed attempt to shift the course of a smaller body could result in shifting the impact area from one nation to another, all nations that would be in the flight path would have to agree before an attempt to deflect was made. The meeting in Germany was an initial step towards establishing the parameters of such issues.

The experts called for the creation of a group to coordinate the efforts of the world's space agencies in this area. Next year, the United Nations is scheduled to take more formal action.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Mystery Missile Update

The Pentagon insists it was not responsible for the supposed missile launch off the coast of California Monday evening and further reports that neither NORAD nor the U. S. Northern Command picked up anything unusual in that area at that time. Some experts, incluiding John Pike of the American Federation of Scientists, say the object picked up by a KCBS camera was simply an ordinary airliner. The FAA also reports nothing moving at high speed was picked up on radar, and no pilots flying in the area at the time reported anything unusual.

The matter may not be quite as closed as the above paragraph suggests. Pilots hesitate to report unusual things in the sky, for instance-- they don't want to be labeled as crackpots because they want to keep their jobs. Whether pilots would put a mystery missile in the same category as a UFO is open to question. So far, we seem to have only the FAA's assurance about the lack of radar images, and only the Pentagon's assurance that it was not involved. All that against a professional photojournalist using a professional level television camera recording what looks like a rocket launch featuring the classic thick pillar of exhaust as opposed to an airliner trailed by a thin, white contrail.

It sure looked like a rocket launch.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Mysterious Sea Launch

Someone launched a missile from about 35 miles out to sea off the California coast last evening. A camera from CBS Los Angeles affiliate KCBS took video of the event. The U. S. Navy, however, insists it wasn't one of theirs. So did the U. S. Air Force; the USAF launching from water doesn't seem likely, though it may not be out of the question.

That leaves some interesting options. The Navy could be fibbing, for whatever reason. Or, another nation decided to demonstrate its ability to reach the U. S. mainland-- which would make the incident extremely important. Or, perhaps, it was the test launch of a private company's rocket-- that's increasingly a possibility in today's world.

Most likely? The Navy is fibbing.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Cassini Problem

NASA's extremely successful Cassini space probe, which has deepened our understanding of Saturn, its rings, and its moons by sending back streams of terrific data, missed a chance to document another close encounter with Titan last week. Days before that event, Cassini's main computer put itself into safe mode. Program managers are unsure why.

This is the second time the computer has gone into safe mode, but engineers are confident the probe will be back gathering data shortly. They still plan to be able to use the probe for the rest of its extended mission, which runs until May, 2017.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Politics And Space Policy

In the election November 2, the Republican Party took control of the U. S. House of Representatives and made gains in the Senate. Assuming the majority in the House, however, is the big deal. It means Republicans will hold committee chairs and decide which bills and which policies get real consideration. That means, in turn, that space policy could change again.

Some in Congress, including a few Republicans, have objected to the Obama administration's plans for NASA. More broadly, however, the GOP won the election by emphasizing the need to reduce government spending, and, at some point, to cut taxes. Often in the past when spending cuts have been in vogue, NASA has been among the first targets, regardless of which party has been wielding the ax.

Congress, therefore, has treated NASA as a luxury when politics get tough. At the same time, however, NASA also enjoys broad bipartisan support in Congress as well as among the American people. So, what will happen to the U. S. manned spaceflight program? Extending the life of ISS beyond 2020-- an Obama policy-- may well hold. But will Congress reinstate a specifc goal, like returning astronauts to the Moon in the near future as a way to organize and energize NASA's technology development effort? President Obama has called for a manned mission to an asteroid by 2025, but that seems to be a one shot deal to some that could be folded into a larger lunar base program.

Returning to the Moon sooner rather than later, or setting sail for Mars, of course, would require increasing NASA's budget, which would seem to be contrary to the basic GOP approach. On the other hand, maintaining U. S. leadership in space is likely something Republicans see as a positive. The direction of America's manned spaceflight program may still be open to question.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Leak Grounds Discovery Indefinitely

A hydrogen leak in the external tank has ended NASA's attempt to launch space shuttle Discovery in the current launch window.

Fixing the leak is now the priority. The earliest Discovery may fly is November 30, but NASA has not yet made a firm commitment to another launch date.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Discovery Still Grounded

The last launch of space shuttle Discovery was delayed again today as engineers found a hydrogen gas leak early this morning. The earliest Discovery will launch now is Monday.

Originally, NASA said the current launch window closed Sunday, but the agency has found a way to extend it one more day. If Discovery can't fly on Monday, it will have to wait until the end of the month to try again.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Another Shuttle Delay

The active Florida weather has once again made NASA change its plans. Due to persistent rain in the area around Cape Kennedy, the final launch of space shuttle Discovery has been delayed until Friday afternoon at the earliest.

The weather forecast for Friday is a huge improvement, but high winds might still be a concern.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Discovery Delayed

The launch of space shuttle Discovery missed today because of a glitch in the backup computer for the main engines. Now, the Thursday attempt may be in jeopardy. Engineers are still looking at the computer problem, but the Florida weather might be an issue, as it has often been during the run of the shuttle program.

If Discovery cannot launch by November 7, it will have to wait for the next launch window, which opens December 1.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Space Solar Power

In a press release emailed yesterday, the National Space Society announced it is teaming with a former president of India on a project to establish space solar power as a viable energy source in the near future. The project will be formally announced at a press conference in Washington, D. C., on Thursday.

Space solar power has been a driver for many in the space advocacy community for decades-- and for good reason. The concept is to capture solar energy with huge satellites in Earth orbit, convert that energy into, say, microwaves, and beam it to the surface, where the microwaves would be captured by rectenna farms. The energy would then be fed into the world's electrical grid, providing humanity with limitless, free, clean, safe power. It's a compelling vision.

The question is whether its a vision that can be turned into reality. Each of the collection satellites in the classic SSP model, for example, would be huge-- perhaps a mile across. We really have no solid idea yet as to how to build and control a space structure that big. Whether smaller satellites with improved technology could do the job is another question. Large or small, a fleet of such powersats would be necessary to power the world, which brings up the question of the required capital outlays. Energy from the Sun may be free, but building a system to harness that energy would not be. Financing such a project could well be beyond the ability of the bond market as it exists today, which would likely mean direct government funding of at least part of the project-- this as many governments are already facing huge debt problems for years to come. The ecological effect of dozens of energy beams constantly slicing through the atmosphere is also unknown.

Still, the basic concept is extremely appealing. It has extraordinary promise. A successful SSP system could be the basis of a stable, wealthy, expanding human civilization indefinitely into the future. If the National Space Society and a former Indian president can indeed put humanity on that road, they will have accomplished a very good thing.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Follow The Silica

Researchers have found silica associated with some vents on the flanks of a relatively young volcano on Mars. They say that means that, if life ever existed on Mars, the vents could have been among its last refuges.

Silica, or silica dioxide, is formed as a result of warm water flowing through rock. Warm water associated with a volcano is probably not a stunner, but the fact remains that liquid water combined with a heat source may produce a niche environment that could support life-- if life could get there. The identification of silica is a marker that can be used to guide scientists to potentially interesting places. Researchers suggest such vents may be among the first places to look for possible Martian fossils.