Saturday, December 31, 2011

GRAIL Twins At The Moon

NASA's twin GRAIL spacecraft are scheduled to drop themselves into lunar orbit this weekend after a voyage that started last September. The long trip gave mission managers time to thoroughly check out the two identical craft. By contrast, of course, Apollo capsules reached the Moon in two or three days.

The GRAIL spacecraft are designed to fly in the same orbit and study the Moon in microwave. The object is to map the lunar gravitational field in unprecedented detail. Doing that, scientists expect to learn much about the composition, internal structure, and evolution of the Moon.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Lava Tube Life

Researchers exploring lava tubes in the Cascade Mountains in Oregon have found many species of bacteria living inside the tubes, and they speculate similar life could exist in lava tubes on Mars.

Some of the bacteria found eats iron in olivine, which is a common rock on both Earth and Mars. Lava tubes would provide, potentially, a sheltered, more stable environment for life, as opposed to open plains.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Gig 'Em, Aggies

A Shuttle Motion Simulator, used to train astronauts to fly the space shuttle for 34 years, will have a new home and a new mission at Texas A&M University.

The SMS will have a dual purpose. It will be used by engineering faculty and students to help them develop new technology for new spacecraft, but it will also eventually be made available to everyone, giving anyone interested a taste of what it was like to ride the space shuttle.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Try, Try Again

Days after a failed Russian rocket launch, Russia successfully launched six communications satellites for an American firm.

Both rockets involved used Soyuz technology, but the successful one used an older, more basic version. The failure is still under investigation.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Organics On Pluto?

Researchers using the Hubble Space Telescope have found new evidence that the surface of Pluto may be covered by hydrocarbon and organic molecules, the building blocks of life as we know it. They note such molecules could account for the reddish tint of Pluto. We also know Pluto's surface contains many exotic ices, but the world is not considered a possible abode of life. It's simply too cold.

If all goes well, we'll shortly get a much closer look at Pluto. NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is scheduled to arrive there in 2015.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Chinese Launch Record

China successfully launched its 18th space mission of the year yesterday as a Long March rocket delivered a mapping satellite to orbit. The 18 successes in 19 tries set a Chinese record and beat the U. S. best of 17 successes in 18 attempts.

China plans to launch 20 missions in 2012, and that is to include its third manned flight.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Christmas Star

Every year about this time, the media speculates about what the Star of Bethlehem may have been. Was it a comet? A supernova? A miracle? We'll likely never know for sure.

But there is another possibility. It could have been a literary device. The tradition in that area at that time held that the birth of an extraordinary person was heralded by some remarkable natural event-- an earthquake, a fierce storm, or a new star. The Gospels, of course, were written after Jesus' ministry, and meant to proclaim His unique nature. So, using the device of a star marking the birth would have been understood by the people of the time as a way to open an important story.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Russian Space

A Soyuz spacecraft has delivered three more people to ISS, bringing the space station crew to its full complement of six for the first time since September, but a Russian military communications satellite crashed shortly after launch due to a rocket failure yesterday.

It was the fifth Russian rocket failure this year. Perhaps more disturbingly, the failures have occurred in more than one model of Russian launcher. The string of incidents bears directly on U. S. space efforts because, at least for the time being, the only way American astronauts have to access ISS is by riding on Soyuz. The most recent failure was by a rocket that is a derivative of the model that launches Soyuz.

These failures could simply be a statistically quirky bad stretch, but if they signal a weakening of Russian industry and technological capability, they have important implications beyond space.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Catching Up With Dawn

NASA's Dawn probe recently dropped into low orbit around the giant asteroid Vesta in order to take close up images of the surface. Early images show a wealth of detail-- lines, grooves, dimples, and a myriad of small impact craters.

After Dawn's studies of Vesta are complete, it is scheduled to move on to the largest asteroid, Ceres.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Naming Exoplanets

With hundreds of exoplanets already confirmed, and literally thousands more likely to be confirmed over the next several years, some researchers are suggesting we need to develop a process by which such worlds can be named. They point out that, among other things, giving a world a name would allow the general public to more easily identify with them. So far, each planet-hunting project has adopted its own method of designation, which has resulted in more scientific notations than actual names.

Of course, how they should be named is another matter. Coming up with thousands, and eventually millions and billions, of distinct names is daunting, and probably unnecessary. Perhaps the protocol could be that those worlds capable of supporting life would get a name, while all others make do with simpler designations.

The possibility also exists that some of these worlds already have names that we might eventually learn.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Earth-Sized Worlds Found

Astronomers have confirmed the discovery of two Earth-sized exoplanets orbiting a star similar to the Sun that is 950 light years away. The two have 0.87 and 1.03 times the mass of Earth.

Alas, neither is in the habitable zone of the star; both orbit extremely close to the star. They are, therefore, almost certainly barren-- unbearably hot, and without atmospheres. That said, astronomers believe the worlds actually formed farther out in the system and migrated in to their current orbits, so there's a small chance they once orbited in the habitable zone, had atmospheres, and potentially supported life.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Shockwave Avalanches On Mars

Meteors slamming into a slope could directly trigger an avalanche. That's obvious. A meteor strike could also set up a seismic wave that could cause avalanches. That's pretty clear, too. Researchers have found a different twist on Mars, however. Meteors screaming through the thin Martian air also set up shockwaves that can bring on avalanches. Computer simulations have strengthened that case by producing the same patterns found in images of the Martian surface.

The atmosphere of Mars is so thin that it doesn't protect the surface from incoming space rocks, so Mars has several fairly substantial such collisions each year.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Romney And Lunar Colonies

During an interview on "Fox News Sunday" this week, Governor Mitt Romney once again criticized Newt Gingrich for his support of lunar colonies, citing that as an example of Gingrich being "zany."

First, "zany" seems an interesting word to use. Beyond that, however, Gov. Romney argues the federal government has no money for such a project. The fact is that the NASA budget in its entirety is a fraction of one percent of the federal budget. Adding a lunar base program over a few years could be accomplished while holding NASA's share of federal spending to one percent of the yearly total, especially given the bloated federal budgets coming up. That may or may not be a good idea, but it doesn't necessarily seem zany.

The above scenario also assumes the U. S. taxpayer would foot the entire bill. If NASA were the lead agency in an international lunar base program, the cost would be shared by the partner nations. Or, if it were done by a public/private consortium, to expand the economy beyond Earth while also pursuing breakthroughs in science and technology, the cost of the effort would be shared by the private partners and ultimately be covered by increased economic activity. Again, Gov. Romney may not be attracted to the idea, but that doesn't mean a case for it cannot be made.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Paul Allen

Of all the billions of humans who have ever lived, only a very few have had a truly deep and profound effect on society, history, and progress. If things break right, Paul Allen may turn out to be one of those few.

Allen co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates. Microsoft has played a key role in the personal computer revolution that continues to change the social world as it evolves into ever more advanced devices. Microsoft also made Paul Allen a billionaire. Allen has used that wealth to, among other things, team with Burt Rutan to produce the first privately funded manned spacecraft to actually reach space in 2004-- a huge accomplishment. Allen has also funded the Allen Telescope Array for the SETI Institute, which is searching the heavens for radio signatures of alien civilizations. Recently, Allen has also helped found Stratolaunch, a company that has a revolutionary approach to delivering payloads, eventually including humans, to Earth orbit-- an approach the company expects will lower the cost and increase the flexibility of space operations.

So, Paul Allen has already been at the heart of a transforming change involving culture and technology, as well as having a hand in a milestone in space travel. If he follows that up by helping in giving mankind reliable, relatively inexpensive access to Earth orbit and playing a role in humanity's first contact with an alien race, Allen could end up a major figure in human history.

Friday, December 16, 2011

UFO At Mercury?

UFOlogists, at least some of them, are claiming NASA recently imaged a huge UFO near Mercury. It's as big as the planet, they say.

Since this story is not on the television networks 24/7, NASA has obviously denied it's imaged any such thing. The key phrase in this controversy might be "as big as the planet." NASA explains the image pointed out by the UFOlogists involved is in fact an after image of Mercury itself. The image appears in a photograph of a huge solar flare. Those who see a giant spaceship also postulate cloaking technology that was temporarily overwhelmed by the powerful radiation to explain why such a spectacular spaceship hasn't been detected before or since. An after image of Mercury would seem more reasonable.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

NASA And 2012

NASA's Dr. Donald Yeomans recently took time to refute, point by point, various theories connected to the notion that the world will end December 21, 2012. Yeomans, reasonably enough, argued there's absolutely no reason to think anything untoward will happen that day.

He's no doubt correct, but it was likely a waste of his time to make that case. Those who don't believe an apocalypse is nigh don't need his assurance, while those who do believe likely won't listen to an Establishment type like Yeomans. He noted scientists needed to do a better job of communicating with and educating the general public, which is no doubt true, but that is the work of decades.

The Mayan calendar notwithstanding, we will have those decades.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Phobos-Grunt Gone

A Russian space official has told the local media that saving the Phobos-Grunt mission is "mission impossible" and predicts the probe will fall back to Earth sometime in mid-January, 2012.

The Soviet/Russian record at Mars is abysmal-- not one mission has been a complete success-- whereas American and European missions to Mars have regularly produced extraordinary results. On the other hand, Soviet Veneras are still the most successful probes to reach Venus, where American and European attempts have, on the whole, met with more limited success over the years.

Why the difference? Part of it is probably a matter of emphasis, but part of it is also simply the roll of the cosmic dice.


Paul Allen and Burt Rutan teamed to put the first private manned spacecraft into space in 2004. Now, they have established a company to take the next giant step.

The strategy of Stratolaunch is to do away with the iconic rocket on a launch pad. Instead, the largest aircraft ever built-- a dual-hulled bruiser with a wingspan of 385 feet-- will carry a spacecraft to altitude. From there, a multistage rocket built by SpaceX will ignite, driving the craft into Earth orbit. The system is designed to eventually deliver both manned and unmanned craft to orbit at a cost and complexity level that may finally open space to a broad range of people and possibilities.

The first test flight could happen as soon as 2015, with operational flights commencing shortly thereafer.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

New Name For OSC Rocket

Virginia-based aerospace company Orbital Sciences has renamed its Taurus 2 rocket, christening it the Antares. The company says it expects the launcher to be a major factor in the aerospace industry, and therefore should have its own name.

Of course, the Taurus 2 has had two launch failures. Skeptics could argue that's another, less honorable reason to change the name. OSC, however, seems to be making no attempt to hide the fact that this isn't a new rocket, just a new name.

Antares is designed to carry cargo to ISS.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Mercury's Spin

For centuries, astronomers thought Mercury always had the same hemisphere facing the Sun, similar to the situation with the Moon and Earth. With the advent of the Space Age, however, they found the actual situation is very odd-- three days on Mercury equals two Mercurian years.

Now, they might know why. Caloris Basin is a huge impact site on Mercury-- exactly the right size, age, and location to mark the spot a giant asteroid crashed into the planet, knocking its rotation from being tidally locked on the Sun to its current strange rotation.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Romney And Gingrich

In a presidential debate last night, Mitt Romney criticized Newt Gingrich for supporting lunar colonies and lunar mining. Gov. Romney argued we don't have the money for that. Speaker Gingrich stood firm, however, countering that we need to build a better future and get today's children excited about math, science, and the lives they can have if they work hard.

Indeed, Gingrich has a history of supporting space exploration, dating back decades to when he was connected to the L-5 Society, a space advocacy group that supported space colonization. Given that history in the subject, which Gov. Romney seems to lack, it might be reasonable to assume that Gingrich has thought more and more deeply about how major projects in space may be successfully carried out than Mr. Romney has.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Martian Gypsum

NASA's Opportunity rover has found what looks to be a vein of gypsum on the rim of Endeavour crater. Gypsum has been found elsewhere on Mars, but this would be the first time it was found clearly in association to where it formed.

Gypsum is a mineral associated with running water on Earth, and scientists think the same would hold true on Mars. If it does, this discovery could be the strongest evidence yet for a warmer, wetter early Mars. That, in turn, would increase the odds for life existing on Mars at some point.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Colorado Spaceport?

The State of Colorado is asking the FAA for authority to develop a commercial spaceport. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper says the spaceport would likely be developed outside Aurora, which is a suburb of Denver.

Colorado is already a major state in the aerospace industry, so building a commercial spaceport probably makes sense. So far, the only commercial spaceport on the horizon in the U. S. is Spaceport America in New Mexico, though other areas, such as Florida's Space Coast, are also looking at similar projects.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Gullies cut into the polar regions of Mars were taken to be evidence of water running on the surface, but a new study argues the gullies were instead cut by flowing carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide and water make up the Martian polar caps.

The study looks at the climate history of Mars and determines that carbon dioxide would flow at a higher temperature than water. which makes it the more likely gully-cutter.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Phobos-Grunt Doomed?

According to, Russia's Phobos-Grunt mission may be doomed. One analyst involved in the attempt to save the probe is quoted as saying it seems to be "dead in the water." Indeed, the probe has been uncontrolled and out of radio contact since shortly after launch on November 8 except for one brief burst on November 23.

One experienced satellite watcher is predicting the spacecraft will fall back to Earth sometime in January. Of course, since Phobos-Grunt was designed to return rock samples from Mars' moon Phobos to Earth, it has a heat shield for re-entry into Earth's atmosphere. Some fairly large chunk of the probe, therefore, may reach the surface.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

ATA Back

The Allen Telescope Array of the SETI Institute is back in operation after seven months in mothballs due to funding shortfalls. The University of California at Berkeley dropped out of the project, but the general public and the U. S. Air Force came through.

ATA will concentrate early on observing worlds found by NASA's Kepler planet-hunting spacecraft, especially those in the habitable zones of their stars.

Monday, December 5, 2011


NASA has announced its Kepler planet-hunting spacecraft has confirmed the discovery of a planet in the habitable zone of its star-- which happens to be a star similar to our Sun. That means the world, dubbed Kepler-22b, could support life. It has a radius 2.4 times larger than Earth, and, depending on how its atmosphere works, the average temperature on Kepler-22b could be a balmy 72 degrees F.

NASA also announced Kepler has found another 1,000 candidate planets, which pushes Kepler's overall total to over 2,300. Of those, 207 are approximately the size of Earth, and dozens are in their star's habitable zone.

Shiny Regions

Synthetic aperture radar on the Cassini probe has shown the surface of Saturn's moon Enceladus is extremely rough and crisscrossed by grooves in the ice, some of which are wide and deep and many miles long. It has also shown a particularly shiny region on the surface that scientists can't yet explain.

This is especially peculiar because Saturn's huge moon Titan-- a world very different from Enceladus-- also has a shiny region. That one is in the foothills of a mountain range. Whether the two could have the same cause is unclear.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Phobos--GRUNT Update

Phobos-GRUNT, the Russian attempt to bring a soil sample back to Earth from the Martian moon Phobos, seems on the verge of complete failure.

Laumched November 8, an upper stage rocket failed to fling it on to Mars, leaving the probe stranded in low Earth orbit. Radio contact with the probe has also been lost, and the launch window to reach Phobos has closed.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

More Huge Planets Found

Editor's note: The last three weeks I have been dealing with family emergencies, and I apologize for the break in this blog.

Astronomers have discovered 18 new Jupiter-sized planets orbiting stars slightly larger and slightly older than the Sun, bringing the number of confirmed exoplanets to over 700. They aren't "hot" Jupiters. either. They orbit their stars at distances roughly comparable to the distance at which Jupiter orbits the Sun.

So, some of these systems might give us an inkling of the future of our Solar System.

Friday, November 11, 2011


Russian engineers are trying to save the Phobos-GRUNT Mars mission now stranded in extremely low Erth orbit, but there are reports that they have lost contact with the probe.

If that's the case, and if communications cannot be re-established, Phobos-GRUNT will fall back to Earth in fairly short order.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The First Stars

Astronomers have traditionally thought the first stars to form in the universe were giants that blazed through their short lives and exploded in titanic supernovae that seeded the universe with the heavier elements. It's a fantastic, majestic vision.

It may also be wrong. A new study at JPL, using computer simulations to re-create the early universe, suggests the first stars were much smaller than previously thought, perhaps only tens of times larger than the Sun. That would mean supernovae then were similar to supernovae today, which suggests the heavier elements built up over time.

Launching Orion

NASA is pushing to bring the first test flight of the Orion capsule, being built by Lochheed Martin, forward three years into 2014.

Orion is designed to carry astronauts on deep space missions. and NASA wants the early, unmanned test flight to judge how ready Orion would be for such missions. The idea is to put Orion into an Earth orbit having an apogee of about 5,000 miles and letting it barrel back to a splashdown on Earth from there, thus simulating the speed, and therefore the re-entry heat, associated with a return from deep space.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

YU55 And Planetary Defense

As predicted, Asteroid YU55 whizzed past Earth yesterday, coming closer than the Moon does. Astronomers, both amateur and professional, welcomed the event and used the opportunity to collect data on the composition and structure of the body.

Due to cosmic geometry, YU55 never posed a danger to Earth, but the close shave is a reminder of what could happen. Efforts to protect Earth from asteroid and comet strikes are moving ahead, but they are gathering little pace. Hopefully, a really near miss-- let alone a real disaster-- won't be necessary to get detect-and-deflect programs on a faster track.

Problem For Phobos-GRUNT

A malfunction threatens Russia's first attempt at an interplanetary mission since 1996. The Phobos-GRUNT probe is stranded in Earth orbit after the upper stage rocket that has to fling the probe on its way to Mars failed to ignite. Engineers have three days to salvage the mission.

Phobos-GRUNT's objective is to reach the Martian moon Phobos, scoop up a sample of the surface, and return the sample to Earth.

Hitching a ride on Phobos-GRUNT is China's first attempt at an interplanetary mission, a probe intended to go into orbit around Mars.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Blurry Vision

Another negative facing at least some astronauts on long space missions may be blurry vision, a new study finds. The vision can blur in space and persist, perhaps for months, after returning to Earth.

Scientists think the problem is due to changing blood flow patterns in microgravity.

Phobos-GRUNT Set To Fly

Russia's Phobos-GRUNT mission to the Martian moon is set to launch today. The goal of the mission is to pick up a sample of Phobos and bring it back to Earth for analysis.

This will be Russia's first interplanetary effort in nearly two decades. The old Soviet Union didn't have much luck with Mars mission, so we'll see if Russia can do better.

Monday, November 7, 2011

White House Denies Contact With ETs

Responding to two petitions on a White House website, an official with the Office of Science and Technology has stated for the record that the U. S. Government is not now nor has ever been in contact with ETs.

Fat chance that will settle the matter.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Successful Proton Launch

After a stumble last summer, a Russian Proton rocket successfully launched three Russian communications satellites last week.

The satellites are part of the Russian equivalent of the U. S. GPS system. The Russian network was allowed to degrade during the 1990s due to financial problems in Moscow. Now, Russia is rebuilding the 24-satellite constellation.

The Proton suffered a launch failure last summer, which raised some concerns about flying NASA astronauts aboard the Soyuz, which is launched atop a Proton derivative. Russia conducted a quick investigation, however, and successful launches since have probably rebuilt some confidence.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Searching For Alien Lights

Noting that the lights of human cities, on the night side of Earth, could be seen from well out in the Kuiper Belt using technology on a par with our current stuff, astronomers are now suggesting we should look for the lights of possible alien colonies out there. Just in case.

They also say that the next generation of space telescopes will be able to detect the lights of alien settlements in the Kuiper Belts of nearby stars. Coupled with a robust SETI effort and an aggressive exoplanet finding program, this new approach increases the chance of finding interstellar civilizations.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Mars500 Ends

Mars500, the simulated Mars missioon in Russia that included six crewmembers, has ended after 520 days. All seems to have gone well.

Researchers expect to learn much about the physical and psychological stresses of an actual mission, and Russia suggests the logical follow-up study would be a similar program done in microgravity on ISS. Such an effort, Russia says, could be done after 2014.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

New Take On Doomsday

Scientists have developed a new model for simulating the damage caused if a huge meteor struck Earth. The previous model used was vastly simplified-- assuming Earth was a perfect sphere with a perfectly smooth surface. The new model uses Earth's actual shape-- not quite perfectly spherical-- along with the actual topography and the actual wind and water currents to simulate a more realistic catastrophe.

There is at least some good news. Taking the strike that allegedly killed off the dinosaurs as a test case, researchers found the simulation showed less damage from the strike than previous simulations had. Earth's "imperfections" had limited the damage.

That probably didn't help the dinosaurs, but it suggests a bigger rock than previously thought might well be needed to wipe out human civilization.

Succes For China

China successfully docked its Shengzhou 8 spacecraft and Tiangong 1 module yesterday, demonstrating a critical capability for any space program with ambitiion.

The two vehicles will remain docked for 12 days, after which they will separate and dock a second time, for the practice.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Chinese Docking

Two Chinese space vehicles are scheduled to make the first orbital docking in the history of the Chinese space program today. Though the vehicles are unmanned, a successful docking would be a big step forward, as docking is essential to doing big things in space.

China plans big things, aiming to have a manned space station in Earth orbit in a few years.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Extending Kepler

The managers of NASA's planet hunting Kepler mission are considering writing a proposal to extend the mission beyond its original November 2012 end. So far, Kepler has identified 1.235 candidate exoplanets, including dozens of potential Super Earths and Earth-like worlds. All those numbers would be increased if NASA could continue the mission.

Operating Kepler at the current level in an extended mission would cost about $20 million a year. If Congress and President Obama are serious about supporting basic scientific research even during these tight budget times, extending Kepler should be an easy call.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Boeing At KSC

Boeing and NASA have reached an agreement to lease one old space shuttle hangar at Kennedy Space Center to Boeing. The company will use the hangar as the place to build and test its new commercial manned spacecraft, the CST-100.

The agreement is for fifteen years, and both Boeing and NASA hope to have the CST-100 operational by 2015.

Sunday, October 30, 2011


A new study shows that the Kuiper Belt object Eris, which orbits the Sun about three times farther out than Pluto, has almost exactly the same diameter as Pluto. The discovery of Eris in 2005, when astronomers thought it was actually larger than Pluto, led to the demotion of Pluto to dwarf planet status.

The new study also finds Eris is roughly 27 percent more massive than Pluto, which makes it much denser-- implying a rocky core of some size under the ice field that seems to cover the entire world.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

THE WAY OUT Possiblity

Both Elon Musk of SpaceX and Robert Bigelow of Bigelow Aerospace are interested in someday sending people to Mars. SpaceX is making progress towards man-rating its Dragon capsule, but flying to Mars in a capsule-- even in linked capsules-- seems impossible from the standpoint of keeping a human crew healthy and sane. BA's inflatable module technology, on the other hand, could build large, capable, true spaceships for pushing into deep space.

See the possibility? Dragon could take the crew to the big, multi-modular Mars ship, which could then fly to the Red Planet. Another Dragon capsule could land on Mars. Now, if only we can figure out how to make a buck from such an enterprise-- preferably, lots of bucks.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Dragon Safety

NASA has approved the design of the crew escape system of SpaceX's Dragon capsule, bringing it a step closer to carrying humans into space.

The company claims its escape system makes Dragon the safest human spacecraft ever designed because the system is integrated into the overall design of the capsule. The rockets used to propel Dragon away from the Falcon 9 in case of an impending launch disaster will also be used eventually to bring Dragon down on land rather than in water, and could even land Dragon on another world.

Both NASA and SpaceX hope to have Dragon carrying crews to and from ISS by mid-decade.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Asteroid 2005 YU55's Close Approach

An asteroid 1,300 feet in diameter will pass by Earth at roughly 200,000 miles at closest approach on November 8. That's closer than the Moon gets. Astronomers, both professional and amateur, are organizing to take full advantage of the rare opportunity, planning to focus the major telescopes on Earth to get as much information about the body as possible.

Asteroid 2005 YU55 is certainly big enough to do major damage were it to strike Earth, and that is a possibility in the far future. There is no danger connected to this flyby, but astronomers can use it to gather data that will be useful in dealing with the asteroid when it is a real threat.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Selling James Webb....Again

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope is designed to show the first stars and galaxies, pushing our detailed knowledge of the universe back ever closer to the Big Bang itself. The project is also far behind schedule and way over budget, however-- so much so that Congress is on the verge of cancelling it. If a budget overrun is so bad that even Congress might not be able to stomach it, you know it's bad.

So, JWST supporters are now taking a different tack. Not only can it do this big stuff, they say, but it will also be able to directly image Earth-like worlds orbiting in the habitable zones of nearby stars. Having found such worlds, JWST will be able to detect the overall color of the world, which can tell us whether it's covered in water or rock, for example. It will also be able to detect planetary atmospheres, determine their composition, and see any change of season.

Finding other Earths-- and therefore possibly finding other life-- is, of course, a NASA priority, and JWST could no doubt aid in that. Whether emphasizing this new role for the telescope can help save it, however, is unclear.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Dwarf Galaxies And Dark Matter

Scientists believe dwarf galaxies are the best place to study dark matter because they are made up almost entirely of the stuff, whatever it is. A new study of two dwarfs, however, have befuddled them.

The usual assumption is that dark matter is concentrated in the center of dwarf galaxies. In these two, however, it seems to be spread evenly throughout the galaxies, which has thrown the researchers into a tizzy. According to one, they know less about dark matter after the study than they knew before. Of course, that isn't so if what they "knew" before was incorrect or incomplete.

Monday, October 24, 2011

NASA's Preservation Guidelines

Motivated in part by the Google Lunar X-Prize competition, which offers special prize money to the team that takes images of Apollo landing sites with its lunar rover, NASA has developed guidelines aimed at preserving as they are both manned and unmanned NASA landing sites for future historical and scientific study.

Under existing international law, no nation can claim territory on the Moon, so the United States cannot simply ban people and rovers from its lunar landing sites. It still owns the equipment and experiment packages left at those sites, however, and the NASA guidelines focus on those, along with the tracks in the lunar dust made by astronauts on foot and astronauts driving the manned lunar rovers.

The sites of Apollo 11 and Apollo 17-- the first and last Apollo lunar landings-- are given special protection under the guidelines.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

ROSAT Re-enters

The large ROSAT satellite re-entered Earth's atmosphere a few hours ago, but the German space agency, which had operated ROSAT, couldn't immediately say exactly where pieces of the satellite came down. Similarly, when UARS fell to Earth last month, NASA couldn't say where pieces had fallen until it got help from Defense Department tracking assets.

Presumably, those assets will be used again, especially since ROSAT was a joint German, British, and American project.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

ROSAT Coming Home

The second large satellite in a month is about to fall to Earth in an uncontrolled re-entry. ROSAT, a joint project of Germany, the US, and the UK, was launched in 1990 and gave astronomers a look at the universe in the X-Ray part of the spectrum. It has been defunct and drifting in space since 1998.

Most of the satellite will burn up during re-entry, but, like UARS last month, substantial pieces of ROSAT are expected to reach the surface. Also like UARS, those pieces are expected to fall into the ocean, but the exact landing area cannot yet be determined.

Falling satellites belong to the space junk problem. No provision was made to safely dispose of these things after their useful lifetimes were over, so they drift in space, threatening to collide with other objects in orbit, and some eventually barrel back to Earth in uncontrolled descents, threatening to destroy property and possibly lives on the surface. One proposal to deal with the space junk problem in the future is to require a plan to safely de-orbit a satellite once its mission is complete. That might increase the cost of a satellite, but it would also be a step in the right direction.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Using Space Junk

Space junk in Earth orbit has become a major problem, threatening future space operations, manned and unmanned, with the increasing chance of disastrous collisions. The Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, however, is pursuing a program that could begin to change junk into resource.

The idea is to salvage parts of defunct satellites and use them on new satellites. The first parts being looked at for re-use are antennas, but once technologies and craft are developed to intercept dead space vehicles, deconstruct them, and transfer usable parts to new satellites, the potential to use more than old antennas will be there. Ultimately, constructing entirely new craft from parts of old ones would be a possibility.

Unfortunately, a vehicle that could dismantle dead satellites would also have the potential to take apart active ones. That would make it, some nations would argue, an anti-satellite weapon. So, DARPA's program no doubt has legal and political hurdles to clear before it can grapple with the space junk problem.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Bigelow On Moon, China

Robert Bigelow, the power behind Bigelow Aerospace, warned yesterday that within 10-15 years China could claim huge areas of the Moon, and the resources therein, as Chinese territory, thus staking a claim to immense wealth and world leadership.

Mr. Bigelow also noted that even though American astronauts have landed on the Moon, the United States doesn't claim one square foot of the "damn place." That's true, and the reason is that the 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits any nation from making such territorial claims on any celestial body. The OST is still the governing law in this area. That's not to say China couldn't announce it was no longer bound by the OST, but making a claim of lunar ownership stick would likely be extremely difficult and detrimental to China's standing in the world.

BA, of course, is planning to use its inflatable module technology to build lunar bases and colonies in the relatively near future. Attempting to preserve future business opportunities is surely legitimate for any businessperson, and doing that might be at least part of what Mr. Bigelow had in mind.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Snowy Enceladus

Saturn's moon Enceladus has no atmosphere, but that doesn't mean it lacks "snow." Researchers studying images taken by the Cassini probe have determined much of the material-- ice crystals-- thrown into space by Enceladus' famous geysers falls back to the surface of the moon in a constant, extremely light snowfall.

By comparing the rate of the snowfall to the depth of ice on the surface scientists have concluded the geysers have been active for perhaps tens of millions of years. That in turn implies the heat source that powers the geysers is long-lived, which strengthens the case for a liquid water ocean existing under the surface ice, and also increases the possibility of life in that ocean.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Space Tourism At The Cusp

Though it has taken longer than people wanted, space tourism seems on the verge of breaking out beyond millionaires buying time on ISS. Virgin Galactic may well begin commercial suborbital flights in 2013, if not sooner. XCOR Aerospace could begin test flights for its two-seater Lynx spacecraft next year. Other companies aren't far behind.

Bigelow Aerospace is taking a slightly different tack. It is planning an orbiting hotel to be launched later this decade. Presumably, the presence of a tourist destination in space would spur vehicle developers to build ships that could reach orbit. In case that doesn't happen quickly enough, however, Bigelow is teaming with Boeing to develop the CST-100, a craft intended to carry up to seven people to and from orbit. A scale model of the CST-100 is being tested in a NASA wind tunnel this month, and Boeing wants to be flying the real thing by around 2015.

Of course, if a disaster were to occur early on, the entire notion of private spaceflight could be discredited for years or decades in the public mind. Assuming the industry can establish itself before that inevitable first accident, however, the current decade could become a pivot point in human history.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Dedicating A Hangar

Today, a ceremony is taking place at New Mexico's Spaceport America to dedicate the Terminal Hangar Facility, which will house Virgin Galactic's fleet of spaceships and motherships. VG is, so far, the major customer of Spaceport America, and will fly its commercial suborbital flights from there.

The Terminal Hangar Facility is certainly up to the task of supporting VG's operations. It is large enough to accomodate two WhiteKnightTwo motherships and five SpaceShipTwo spaceships at once.

The dedication marks one more step along the way for a commercial space industry. Sometime within a year or so, regular operations are scheduled to commence for VG at Spaceport America. The real test for the company and the new industry will begin at that time.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Mapping Dark Matter

Using the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers are observing galaxy clusters-- some of the oldest and largest structures in the universe-- to work out the location of clumps of dark matter.

Dark matter can only be detected by noting its gravitational influence on normal matter, and on light. Astronomers determine its existence within and around galaxy clusters, for example, by measuring the visible mass in the cluster. If there's not enough mass there to account for the behavior of the components and the overall structure of the cluster, they deduce dark matter is making up the difference. Gravity also bends light. If light from a more distant source, passing through a cluster, is warped more than it should be given the visible mass, dark matter is again assumed to be the cause of the warping.

Theoretical physicists say perhaps 98 percent of the matter in the universe is dark. Everything we see amounts to froth.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Delays For Orbital, SpaceX

This year was to see the first flight of Orbital Science's Taurus 2 rocket and the third flight of Spacex's Falcon 9-- the second with its Dragon capsule. Both rockets are to be used to take cargo to ISS. According to NASA, however, the next flights of both will be delayed until at least early next year.

Such delays in the development of new rocket systems are not uncommon-- indeed, they are to be expected. That said, however, a lot is riding on the fairly prompt success of these new rockets-- for the companies, for NASA, for commercial space, and for the emerging NewSpace industry. Early 2012 will be an interesting time for reasons beyond presidential politics.

Friday, October 14, 2011

NASA And Virgin

NASA is contracting with Virgin Galactic to fly experiments on up to three suborbital SpaceShipTwo flights. The flights will be dedicated strictly to NASA. Up to now, payload positions on spaceflights have been extremely limited, so many worthwhile experiments haven't made the cut. VG wants to change that, starting with those experiments requiring only a few minutes in microgravity.

Given SpaceShipTwo's payload capacity, NASA could fly up to 600 experiments per mission. That would produce lots of happy researchers. If NASA exercises the option to fly all three missions, the contract will be worth $4.5 million. At that price, if only a few of the hundreds of experiments produce significant results, the program could turn out to be a big bargain for everyone.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Exploring Uranus

Interest is building in the planetary science community in a mission to study Uranus, its faint rings, and its at least 27 moons. The ice giant is indeed an interesting place. It "rolls" around its orbit, perhaps having been knocked off-kilter by a titanic collision. Its magnetic field is displaced from the planet's rotational axis by 60 degrees. The internal structure seems more complex than what exists in other planets. The ring system of Uranus is clearly markedly different than the ring system of Saturn-- studying both could yield insights into the physics of ring formation. Uranus' moons are also varied and complex.

All that, unfortunately, is set against the cost of an orbiter mission-- something perhaps in the $2 billion range-- at a time of tight and declining space budgets due to enormous government deficit and debt. A mission to Uranus is unlikely to fly soon, but scientists in both the United States and Europe continue to push for one.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Spaceship Factory

The Spaceship Company, the joint venture between Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites established to build VG's fleet, opened a major new factory in Mojave, California, recently-- the latest big step in the development of a commercial space industry.

VG will initially fly its fleet out of Spaceport America in New Mexico, but the vehicles will be built in California, with final assembly and scheduled maintenance to be performed in the new facility.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Lunar Resource Riches

Scientists using data from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter have put together a map of the lunar surface that shows the Moon has rich titanium ores along with large deposits of ilmenite, a rock type made of titanium, iron, and oxygen. The findings are good on two fronts. First, such detailed knowledge of the composition of the surface gives scientists insights into the interior structure of the Moon. Second, rich ores of valuable metals could aid manned exploration of the surface as well as provide the basis of an early lunar economy.

Far from being the dead, incredibly dry world of Apollo, we now know the Moon has substantial stores of water ice. It also has ores of titanium and iron, large amounts of ilmenite, and deposits of uranium-- though perhaps not as much uranium as early reports suggested. The Moon is likely a dead world, but with all it offers, it might not be a lifeless world for much longer.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Building On X-37B

The U. S. Air Force is currently test flying its unmanned X-37B reuasble spacecraft. Last year, for example, the X-37B flew a mission of more than 200 days and made a successful landing. The craft is designed to fly itself, land itself, use a minimal crew for control and maintenance, and project a U. S. technological presence anywhere in the world within an hour or less.

The USAF is also considering developing a larger, manned version. The human-rated vehicle would be smaller than the space shuttle, but capable of carrying up to six people. It would be able to fly itself or be flown by an onboard human pilot.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Neptune's Day

Neptune was discovered more than 150 years ago, but astronomers had never been able to get a firm handle on the length of the Neptunian day. Determining the length of a day is generally pretty basic. Pick a feature on the surface of a planet, note its position, wait until the feature returns to that position, and the waiting period is the length of the day. If a planet's surface isn't visible, astronomers use atmospheric features to get a rougher value.

Neptune was a challenge because its beautiful blue atmosphere is bland. It has no features to really track. Using images from space probes in various wavelengths, however, astronomers have finally determined Neptune's day is two minutes and one second short of sixteen hours long.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Finding More Exoplanets

Astronomers have developed yet another way to ferret out exoplanets. Applying new planet hunting techniques to old Hubble Space Telescope data, astronomers have already found two exoplanets in HST data that were missed in 1998 because they were overwhelmed by the glare of their parent star.

Astronomers intend to go through archived HST data of possibly 400 stars hoping to find new worlds. Candidates found in the historical record would have to be confirmed by fresh observations.

This new use of HST data is a reminder that Hubble will continue to make important contributions to science long after the telescope itself falls back to Earth.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Creating Earth's Oceans

For decades, the idea that the water in Earth's oceans was delivered by comets has been around. After all, early Earth was a molten, violent, extremely hot place; any water that was here originally would likely have boiled away. Now, a new study suggests that Earth's water did indeed come from comets originating in the Kuiper Belt.

The study compares isotopic ratios in water and deuterium (heavy water) in Earth's water, asteroids, Kuiper Belt comets, and Oort Cloud comets, and determined the ratio in Earth's water most closely fits the ratio in the water ice found in Kuiper Belt objects. The Kuiper Belt is that region of the Solar System from beyond the orbit of Neptune to well past the orbit of Pluto, where many comets orbit, some of which are occasionally jostled onto a flight path that has them swoop into Earth's neighborhood.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Unveiling Vesta

Early returns from the Dawn probe orbiting the giant asteroid Vesta are revealing a world some scientists are calling the smallest terrestrial planet. Images so far show a world with a much rougher, more heavily cratered surface than most asteroids, and a world that has seen lava flows. There is also a marked difference between the northern and southern hemispheres.

Perhaps the most dramatic find so far is a mountain on Vesta-- a world only 330 miles in diameter-- that is taller than Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain on Earth as measured from the ocean floor.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

ALH84001 In The News Again

Fifteen years ago, a group of NASA scientists studying the Mars meteor fragment ALH84001 said they had found evidence of life on early Mars. That conclusion has been contested ever since. Now, another group of scientists say ALH84001 holds evidence of a warmer, wetter Mars in the past.

The current group is being careful to say their conclusion says nothing at all about the possibility of life on Mars, nor about the overall climate of early Mars.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Star Travel

A recent symposium in Orlando, Florida, looked at various challenges involved in sending a human expedition to another star within one hundred years. Inevitably, one of the biggest challenges discussed was the biological-- having sex and giving birth in microgravity were seen as difficult. Fetal development in microgravity could well be dangerous. And, of course, we already know extended periods of weightlessness is harmful to the human organism.

All of which suggests we won't be ready to go to the stars a century from now. That's fine. Exploring and settling the Solar System and bringing its vast resources into a human economy wealthy enough to easily support human interstellar flight will be the work of centuries.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

ET And Religion

There is an ongoing discussion among philosophers, religious thinkers, scientists, and science fiction writers concerning what might happen to human religions if or when alien civilizations are found. One consensus seems to be that Christianity would have a particular problem in that event, given its unique premise. During the Middle Ages in Europe, Christian theologians, in a deeply religious society, seriously debated how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Important doctrinal points were at issue. The ET debate, to modern, secular ears, might have echoes of that earlier controversy.

The real appeal of finding ET for most of the people involved in the discussion would be exchanging views with an alien civilization. How many such societies embrace religion at all? What would alien philosophies be? Would they mesh with, or conflict with, human philosophical assumptions? The matter obviously goes beyond any particular faith-- assuming, of course, an alien religion does not parallel a human one. That, no doubt, would spark a huge debate.

As for the particular danger to Christianity, there's a fundamental friction to the debate. Modern scholars try to limit what a deity can do, so they can make arguments about what's possible and what isn't. The God of Christianity, however-- and Judaism, Islam, and others-- is defined as omniscient and omnipotent. All knowing and all powerful. That deity is beyond any effort to limit its actions.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Elon Musk's Big Plan

Elon Musk, founder and leader of SpaceX, announced Thursday the company will attempt to build a fully reusable system, from launcher to space capsule, based on the Falcon 9/Dragon configuration the company is already developing.

Musk has always said he started SpaceX to help humanity explore and colonize the Solar System. If the company can create a stack that could fly perhaps a thousand times, he will have taken a huge step towards that goal.

Musk said the approach they will pursue works in simulations, but he put no timetable on the effort.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Killer Asteroid Count

NASA's WISE spacecraft, which uses the infrared part of the spectrum to gather data not available to visible light, has found 93 percent of the near-Earth asteroids that are one kilometer in diameter or larger. Those are the rocks that could potentially end all life on Earth in a collision. WISE has also found far fewer rocks 100 meters in diameter and up than expected.

All that is good news, but keeping track of all these objects will still be necessary-- and there's still that last 7 percent of the really big boys to find.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Tiangong 1 Launched

China has successfully launched Tiangong 1, a space station module that will serve as the target as China develops its rendezvous and docking capabilities. It also houses biological and engineering experiments.

Tiangong 1 is a first step towards building the 60-ton space station China plans to have in orbit by 2020.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

UARS Nailed Down

With the help of the Pentagon's Joint Space Operations Center, NASA has been able to announce where pieces of its huge UARS satellite fell. It turns out the pieces fell over a wide area of the South Pacific, well away from any large landmass.

Immediately after it was clear UARS had re-entered-- because NASA knew it was no longer in space-- the space agency announced it may never know where the surviving pieces of UARS came back. The Pentagon, however, has tracking assets NASA lacks because it is charged with monitoring near-Earth space, searching for possible national security threats. Obviously, those assets would be geared to track objects re-entering Earth's atmosphere.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Solar Radiation Threat

A new study suggests that superstorms on the Sun-- powerful magnetic storms associated with sunspot activity-- could damage satellites orbiting Earth more than previously thought, and the damage could be cumulative, continuing to degrade sensitive satellite electronics for years after the initial event.

Such damage would affect everything dependent on satellites-- communications, weather forecasting, resource identification, military uses, etc. Economic and security situations could be negatively impacted. Increased radiation shielding for satellites is one solution, but that would be expensive. Another solution may be to build more, simpler satellites, so if one stopped functioning a spare would be ready to go. That approach might even strengthen the aerospace industry.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Primordial Black Holes

Primordial black holes are, in theory, tiny black holes left over from the Big Bang. No such object has yet been confirmed, but physicists and astronomers are looking for them.

When black holes and stars physically interact, it's generally not good news for the stars. Primordial black holes are so small, however, that they would pass through a star instead of gobbling it up. In passing through, it would cause something like ripples on the surface of the star, and it's those ripples that scientists want to see. By studying those ripples, they could learn about the interior of the star, and, a new study suggests, get a better handle on the nature of dark matter.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

UARS Falls To Earth...... Somewhere

You'd think, with all NASA's assets, tracking a 6-ton satellite through a fiery re-entry all the way to the surface wouldn't be a particular challenge. Apparently, you'd be wrong.

NASA knows its giant UARS satellite fell to Earth because it's clearly no longer in space, but the space agency doesn't know exactly where it fell. The best estimate is somewhere in the Pacific, short of the North American coast. That estimate is partly based on the fact that there have been no reports of any debris crashing on land-- therefore, it crashed into the ocean. NASA says it may never know where the pieces of UARS that made it to the surface actually came down.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Debating NASA's Future

Neil Armstrong, Eugene Cernan, former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, and the GRAIL mission's Dr. Maria Zubor all testified before Congress this week, and all decried the state of NASA's human spaceflight capability. Cernan, the last Apollo astronaut to stand on the lunar surface, seemed particularly riled. He urged Congress to bring the space shuttle back to operational status so the U. S. can meet the commitment it made to international partners to keep ISS functioning. All four argued for a long term strategy for human space exploration.

Given the state of federal finances and the apparent inability of the current crop of Washington politicians to deal constructively with major concepts, however, NASA may well be without a guiding, coherent vision to pursue, not to mention adequate financial resources, for quite some time.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

UARS Re-Entry

NASA is refining where pieces of its huge UARS satellite will return to Earth, but it still can't pinpoint the exact location. The when, however, seems to be sometime Friday afternoon, EDT. In that case, North America would be outside the possible impact zone.

NASA computer models predict perhaps 26 chunks of the satellite will actually reach the surface, and the odds are good most if not all of those will hit water. The space agency doesn't think it will be able to predict with precision where the pieces will hit until about two hours before impact.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

China Set To Launch

China is preparing to launch the first module of its planned space station. Delayed by the recent failure of a rocket similar to the one scheduled to lift the module, the launch is now slated for sometime next week.

The principal task of the module, which weighs 8.5 tons, is to help the Chinese develop the capability to rendezvous and dock spacecraft-- essential for doing anything meaningful in space. At some point, the module will also host medical and biological research.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Hunting Snoopy

The Faulkes Telescope Project, based at the University of Glamorgan in Wales, uses robotically-controlled telescopes to engage students and amateur astronomers in serious astronomical research. The latest challenge put forth by the Project is surely among the most demanding-- find the Apollo 10 lunar ascent module. Find Snoopy.

The Apollo 10 crew named the module "Snoopy," and named the command module "Charlie Brown." Apollo 10 served as the final check before the first manned lunar landing was attempted-- successfully, as it turned out-- on Apollo 11. NASA typically crashed the ascent modules into the Moon after their jobs were done, but for whatever reason, it didn't do that with Snoopy. That means Snoopy should still be somewhere in lunar orbit. NASA hasn't kept track of the craft over the past 42 years.

The Project acknowledges the chances of finding Snoopy aren't good, but points out the attempt will no doubt find faint asteroids and perhaps comets, so good science will come out of the effort even if Snoopy remains elusive.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Planet Orbiting Two Stars Found

NASA's Kepler planet hunting spacecraft has made a particulary interesting discovery-- a Saturn-sized world that orbits two stars, not just one.

Such worlds have been popular among science fiction writers for decades, but this is the first example of the arrangement found in nature. Now that one has been found, astronomers expect to find others.

The next step will be working out how planets form in such orbits. Current planetary formation theory works well enough with one star, but adding another star, and therefore another powerful gravitational influence and a competing solar wind, would seem to complicate the process. In the case discovered by Kepler, both stars involved are smaller than the Sun. The relatively low energy in this specific developing system might be a factor in explaining the planet's current orbit.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

UFO Spike

The Mutual UFO Network reports UFO sightings virtually doubled in August compared to the usual average rate. Over a thousand sightings were reported that month.

Over the latest six decades or so, at least, the UFO phenomenon has been marked, even sustained, by a series of such spikes, or "flaps." There are many possible explanations for that pattern, from the mundane-- people tend to look at the sky more when space-related news is prominent, as coverage of the retirement of the space shuttle was last summer-- to the exotic-- the time between spikes is related to transit time from Wherever to Earth.

One possible explanation of the entire phenomenon has been stress. The modern UFO period roughly arose alongside the Cold War. Social scientists have suggested the stress of living with the threat of possible nuclear annihilation may have led some people to embrace stories of spectacularly advanced aliens coming to Earth. Well, the American jobless rate is extremely high. The economy is struggling. People are worried about keeping their homes and their futures. In late July and early August, the U. S. Government looked unable to function. That's stress.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Funding James Webb

After the House voted last summer to cancel the James Webb Space Telescope project, which is vastly over budget and behind schedule, a U. S. Senate subcommittee voted this week to give the project $150 million more than the White House requested.

JWST is to be the follow-up to the Hubble Space Telescope. Just as Hubble has sparked a revolution in our understanding of the universe, the science community insists JWST will lead another revolution. How that factors into the federal debt problem is unclear.

Of course, the full Senate committee, and then the full Senate itself still have to vote on JWST, and if the project survives that it has to get through the reconciliation process, where differences in House and Senate bills are worked through, before finally, possibly, getting to President Obama's desk.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

SETI Gearing Back Up

Last April, the SETI Institute shut down its radio telescope array in Hat Creek, California, due to lack of funds. New money has been coming in since, however, and the search for alien radio signals will resume shortly.

When it does, among the first targets will be super-Earths found by planet hunters. That number has now reached 70, including the 16 announced by the European Southern Observatory in Chile earlier this week. Unfortunately, the most interesting of that 16, a world 3.6 times as massive as Earth which seems to orbit within its parent star's habitable zone, is below the horizon at Hat Creek, but SETI researchers are still excited by the discovery of so many planets.

Some scientists, indeed, now calculate that SETI will succeed in finding an alien signal within 15 to 20 years.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

SLS Unveiled

NASA announced today its concept for the new Space Launch System, the rocket mandated by Congress to be built to launch future manned missions into deep space. SLS will be the most powerful rocket since the legendary Saturn V. The first test flight of SLS, which is budgeted at $10 billion, is scheduled for 2017.

Critics of SLS contend that since the cancellation of the Constellation Moon program SLS is a heavy-lift rocket without a purpose. They also point out that private industry is developing a heavy-lift capacity that NASA could use at lower cost than building and maintaining its own new rocket.

In making the announcement, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden noted the SLS program would support "millions" of good-paying jobs. Whatever the technical merits of SLS might be, its fair to wonder how many members of Congress who support the program do so because they see it as a high-tech jobs program.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Exoplanet Count Up To 600

With the announcement yesterday by the European Southern Observatory of its finding of 50 more exoplanets, the total count of planets orbiting other suns has been pushed over 600.

NASA's Kepler Planet Finder spacecraft has also identified 1,200 candidate worlds waiting to be confirmed or shown to be false positives. Plus, technology to this point has only allowed the detection of large exoplanets. As technology improves and techniques are refined, smaller worlds-- Earth-sized and even smaller-- will begin to turn up. Likely, there are many more small planets than there are big ones.

It's becoming clear, therefore, that the universe is awash in worlds of a huge range of sizes, masses, and characteristics. Working out the details of how the cosmos is put together will keep scientists busy for a very long time.

Monday, September 12, 2011

More Exoplanets Found

The European Southern Observatory announced today it has discovered 50 new exoplanets, including 16 super-Earths. A super-Earth is a rocky planet similar to Earth, only more massive. They are as close as current technology allows astronomers to get to finding truly Earth-like worlds, though that situation is rapidly changing.

One of those super-Earths is particularly interesting. At 3.6 times Earth's mass-- among the smallest exoplanets yet found-- this world could orbit within its parent star's habitable zone, which means it could potentially support life. The parent star is similar to our Sun and is only 35 light-years away.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

GRAIL On The Way

NASA successfully launched its twin GRAIL lunar probes yesterday. The goal of GRAIL will be to conduct the most sophisticated study of the interior structure of the Moon yet attempted. Scientists think that understanding the Moon inside out will help them to understand the evolution of rocky planets generally.

The two probes will work together to map the Moon's gravitational field. They will constantly exchange signals while in lunar orbit, and by studying the variations in those signals, scientists will be able to see fluctuations in lunar gravity, which they then will be able to relate to the Moon's interior structure-- one of several techniques to be used.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Look Out Below

NASA's Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite, launched aboard the space shuttle in 1991, will re-enter Earth's atmosphere in late September or early October.

UARS is 35 feet long, 15 feet in diameter, and weighs 6.5 tons. Computer models suggest, however, that only about a thousand pounds of that will reach the ground. That's still quite a bit of stuff, but NASA points out no one has ever been injured by such falling debris.

Exactly where that debris will hit is not yet clear, but NASA is closely monitoring the satellite's path, and will refine its projections of where and when the debris will reach the surface right down to the event, and will keep the public informed.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

T-Plus 45 Years

On September 8, 1966, Star Trek premiered on NBC with Captain James T. Kirk commanding the Federation starship Enterprise. The original series aired only three seasons, but that was long enough to build a fan base that demanded the show be continued in some way. It was, first as feature films starring the bridge crew of the television series, and later as several new television series. Star Trek: The Next Generation, like the original series, also had a good run in the movies.

The lasting appeal of the concept has been the subject of much discussion. Clearly, every television producer would love to hit upon a fictional universe that explodes into a multi-billion dollar industry encompassing television, films, novels, etc. Part of the appeal of the original series can be put down to the excitement engendered by the Space Race of the 1960s, but that wouldn't seem to account for the show's ongoing, worldwide popularity. That seems more due to the show's portrayal of an optimistic future in which mankind has come together to solve its myriad problems and is engaged, with other races, on a wonderful journey of discovery.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

More Apollo Pics

NASA has released another batch of images of Apollo landing sites taken by its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. The new images show the sites of Apollo 12, Apollo 14, and Apollo 17 in unprecedented detail as LRO swooped to within 14 miles of the lunar surface.

Among the details distinguishable are the lunar module descent stages, the lunar rovers the astronauts drove, the instrument packages left by the astronauts, and the tracks left by both the rovers and the astronauts on foot. Studied closely, the two types of tracks can be separated. It's a remarkable historical record-- and one with scientific value. Scientists can now pinpoint where specific samples were taken, for example.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Future Spacesuits

NASA is looking at developing a new spacesuit design that would simulate the effects of gravity on the astronaut wearing it. The suit would anticipate the astronaut's movements, and resist those movements. NASA hopes the resistance will simulate gravity to the extent that it will allow astronauts to retain their coordination during long spaceflights.

NASA is pursuing the project with Draper Laboratory and MIT, and hopes to have a prototype suit ready within a decade.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Curiosity Contamination Concern

A new study says the risks of contaminating Mars with Earth bacteria could be higher with the upcoming Curiosity rover than with previous rovers.

The difference involves differing landing strategies. Up to now, rovers have landed on a platform and haven't come into physical contact with the Martian surface for hours or days. That gave the harsh Martian environment time to kill whatever microbes might have survived the long spaceflight from Earth. Curiosity, however, will not land on a platform. Instead, it will land directly on its six wheels, thus giving whatever live microbes it might contain immediate access to Mars.

Of course, odds are any Earthly bacteria that make it to Mars won't survive long in any case.

Curiosity is scheduled to land on Mars in August, 2012, after months in space.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Blue Origin Failure

Blue Origin, the NewSpace company founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, lost a suborbital vehicle during a test flight last week. According to Bezos, the vehicle developed a "flight instability" problem and had to be destroyed by the range safety team.

Also according to Bezos, the company will push ahead with its plans. Blue Origin is working on both a suborbital and an orbital craft, and has contracts with NASA. It plans to develop a spacecraft that will ferry humans to and from low Earth orbit.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Space Junk Study

A new study of the problem of spent rockets, dead satellites, and smaller bits of debris cluttering up orbital space around Earth suggests the problem may be at or near a critical phase. Even if no more junk was left in orbit, the stuff already there could be enough to initiate a cascade of crashes that in the worst case could render orbital space essentially useless.

The study calls on NASA to give the problem a higher priority and more resources. Of course, given the current fiscal problems of the U. S. Government, getting more resources for NASA may be about as difficult as solving the space junk problem itself.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Deflecting Asteroids

Two new studies look at how we may deflect asteroids that threaten to collide with Earth. A Chinese study suggests using solar sail technology to deliver a probe to an asteroid at the appropriate time. Solar sails, they say, would allow a much higher speed impact than conventional rockets could muster, thus producing a more powerful blow. A European study also suggests slamming a probe into an asteroid at high speed to deflect it into a different orbit, but also proposes a second probe to study the asteroid and monitor the effectiveness of the impactor.

Both studies, therefore, rely on violent measures to accomplish the deflection. That might be necessary if time were short, but if we could act decades before the predicted collision with Earth, that giant solar sail could be attached to the asteroid and slowly change its orbit. In that case, we would be in constant control of the process, and we could ultimately place the asteroid wherever we wanted it.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Powering Colonization

Scientists at the U. S. Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory have developed a small, safe nuclear reactor that could power bases or colonies on the Moon, Mars, or elsewhere. The reactor is about the size of a suitcase and would produce 40 kilowatts of power-- not terribly much, but more than NASA has available for space missions now, and enough to power an early base or small colony.

A model of the reactor will be built next year. If it works as well and as reliably as projected, this development could be a big step towards enabling eventual human settlement throughout the Solar System.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Cold, Wet Early Mars

By looking at the geochemistry of the lowlands in the northern hemisphere of Mars compared to land in the southern hemisphere, a new study suggests early Mars was cold and wet, complete with an ocean over the northern polar region.

The study splits the difference between the two current leading pictures of early Mars-- one cold and dry, the other warm and wet. The new picture envisions an ocean of near freezing water flanked by glaciers and with perhaps part of the ocean iced over.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Close Supernova

Astronomers were lucky enough last week to catch a supernova in the earliest stages of the explosion. This supernova is a Type 1a, the kind astronomers use to measure distances in the universe. It turns out all explosions of this type reach the same absolute magnitude, so the observed magnitude can be directly related to distance. Astronomers believe a Type 1a occurs when a white dwarf becomes too massive to support itself and explodes.

This is the closest supernova observed since 1986, and astronomers have already noted details in the process they've never seen before. Not to worry, though-- this supernova is still 21 million light-years away, in the Pinwheel Galaxy.

Friday, August 26, 2011

More UFOs On History

There was a time when programming on The History Channel focused on, well, history. The cable television network, though, seems to be getting farther and farther away from at least conventional history, presumably in search of higher ratings.

Last evening, the featured prime time offering on THC was a new documentary on UFOs. The program featured reports on some of what it called the best documented and most credible cases-- Rendelsham Forest, the Phoenix Lights, the Belgian Wave, and others. The program also pointed out how easy it is today to fake UFO images and video by using software to manipulate such things.

All in all, it was an interesting program. Assuming the facts presented were correct, the documentary made a good case for taking the study of UFOs more seriously. Of course, having to assume facts are good is a problem. Perhaps the next THC effort in this area should feature both UFOlogists and skeptics and weigh which side has the stronger grasp on reality.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Progress 44

The launch failure of the Russian Progress 44 cargo mission earlier this week has some U. S. officials concerned about relying on Russian technology to carry American astronauts into space. The launcher involved in the failure is an unmanned version of the rocket used to launch manned Soyuz capsules, and the mishap is the latest in a series of failures of various Russian launchers over the past several months.

That said, the Soyuz, on its record, is the safest spacecraft yet built, which also means its launcher has been extremely reliable. In any case, if astronauts are to fly to ISS over the next few years, the Soyuz is the only game in town. That's due to nothing the Russians did, but to the failure of U. S. policymakers to properly plan a transition beyond the space shuttle.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

NASA Science Fiction

NASA is teaming with a leading publisher of science fiction novels, Tor/Forge, to create a series of novels that feature NASA science and technology. The stories will showcase how NASA is relevant to everyday life, as well as describing technology the agency is working on for the future. Writers involved with the series will be given special access to NASA scientists and engineers, databases, etc.

The idea behind the project is to present a positive image of NASA to the reading public while also inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers much as science fiction inspired earlier generations. Those stories were told by writers like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradury, and Gene Roddenberry, however-- writers who had no contractual relationship with NASA to produce positive stories. This new project has at least the potential of producing NASA propaganda. All involved will have to work to avoid that.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Martian Life Perhaps More Likely

A new study using data from NASA's recent Phoenix Lander mission suggests that the soil on Mars may be friendlier to life than previously thought. Scientists had thought the soil contained a harsh oxidizing component which would tend to break up essential stuff like DNA molecules, but the Phoenix data argues the soil on Mars is no more hostile to life than the soil at some places on Earth.

Phoenix also confirmed water ice exists under the Martian surface, and recent orbital images suggest that water might seasonally flow on the surface, at least in some specific sites, even now. Taken all together, the case for life on Mars-- in the past, and even in the present-- seems to be strengthening.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Unstable Planetary Systems

A new study looking at the formation of planetary systems suggests habitable planets like Earth may be rare.

Planets form by coalescing within disks of gas and dust orbiting a young star. The study argues that if a second such disk interacts with the first during that formative phase, an unstable planetary system can result in which planets follow odd orbits, hot Jupiters dominate, and worlds the size of Earth are thrown into deep space. Since most stars form in multiple star systems, the chances of such disk interactions are fairly high, which might mean other Earths are rare.

Of course, rare is relative. The galaxy is so huge that even if Earths are rare in percentage terms, in absolute numbers there could still be thousands or millions of them.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Reading Alien Minds

New research looking at what aliens might do if they found us sets out a range of possibilities, from wiping us out to helping us solve our major problems. It's interesting speculation, and probably a good way to publish an article, but it tells us precious little about aliens.

That's because we know nothing at all about intelligent aliens. We don't know what they would be like. We can assume aliens from different planets would be different one from the other; talking simply about aliens, therefore, probably misses a big point. On the other hand, many theorists argue if we ever physically meet ET, it will likely be in the form of intelligent machines. Machine civilizations may well be more uniform in structure, outlook, and approach than biology-based societies. We can also assume a star-hopping civilization will be incredibly wealthy in comparison to us.

Speculating about aliens is interesting, but it says more about what the speculator thinks about Us than anything about Them.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Designing Life For Mars

Geneticist Craig Venter, who led a team that successfully mapped the human genome a decade ago, and more recently led a team that created the first synthetic life, is currently working on creating a life form that eats carbon dioxide.

Venter says the primary reason for his current project is to find a way to counter global warming on Earth. Carbon dioxide, of course, is a major greenhouse gas. Venter also made the point, however, that such carbon dioxide eaters could also make Mars a more hospitable place for humans. By gobbling up the CO2 in the Martian atmosphere and producing biofuels and the raw material for a plastics industry, for instance, such synthetic life forms could help build the first human settlement on Mars.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Amino Acids And Life

Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, which are, in turn, the building blocks of life. On Earth, all life uses only 20 amino acids, even though there are hundreds found in nature. Scientists have long wondered how only the 20 found their way into living molecules, and whether other amino acids could play a part in life elsewhere.

A new study suggests the 20 amino acids in Earth life are there because they functioned slightly better in the primordial environment than other combinations of acids. Natural selection, then, shaped Earthly biology even before there was Earthly biology.

This suggests that life on an Earth-like world elsewhere could be made of the same stuff we are, right down to the amino acids. On the other hand, a slightly different environment at the beginning could result in life forms that use a different mix of amino acids.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Comet Elenin

Comet Elenin is currently whipping through the inner Solar System. It seems to be an average-sized or smaller comet which may or may not become visible to the naked human eye. Its closest approach to Earth will come in October, but that approach will be roughly 22 million miles distant.

All in all, Comet Elenin would have been an unremarkable visitor at other times, but we are approaching the 2012 Doomsday prediction of many New Agers, and some have said the coming of Comet Elenin marks the beginning of the end. So many people have been concerned about that possibility, as evidenced by Internet activity and emails to NASA, that the space agency has released public statements assuring people that this comet poses absolutely no threat to Earth.

Of course, those who believe the Mayans knew something that we don't about how the universe operates likely won't be comforted by NASA's statements, but everyone willing to go by evidence and modern science can relax.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Vibrating Gloves

Wearing gloves that vibrate during surgery may not sound like a really good idea for a surgeon, and much less for the patient, but a new study indicates it might be. Researchers say tiny vibrations can stimulate the nerves in the fingertips, making them hypersensitive. That could be very useful for surgeons performing delicate proceedures.

It could be useful in other situations, as well. One other profession that could potentially benefit from such vibrating technology is an astronaut. During spacewalks, astronauts can be called upon to perform delicate tasks in bulky, pressurized gloves. If sensitivity could be transmitted from the fingertips of spacesuit gloves to the digits inside, the most dangerous thing an astronaut does in space could be made more productive, quicker to accomplish, and, therefore, safer.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Pursuing Technology

NASA is facing severe budget restraints for as far as rhe fiscal eye can see, but the agency is supporting small projects aimed at developing technology that will be necessary for future ambitious missions. The approach is very much in line with President Obama's policy of building a space infrastructure that will support long term human presence in space at some point down the spacetime road.

Two such NASA projects are trying to develop improved landing gear that could be used on either probes to other worlds or manned craft to those worlds. The agency is also looking at various in-space propulsion technologies that would bring the planets closer.

Private corporations and nonprofit organizations are likewise working on such technology. With the various efforts moving ahead, this century may yet see the maturation-- not the end-- of The Space Age.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Hypersonic Test Flight Fails

The second test flight of a hypersonic craft being developed by the Pentagon lost communication with the ground last week before crashing into the Pacific. The unmanned vehicle was designed to crash into the ocean, but in both test flights so far, communications were lost.

The craft is designed to fly at Mach 20, which is faster than computer simulations can reliably model. Test flights, therefore, are important-- the data gathered will shape our understanding of what it takes to fly at such speeds.

The goal of the Pentagon program is to develop a craft that can reach anywhere on the planet within minutes. Inevitably, however, if that goal is achieved, it will also influence the future of long distance transportation on Earth as well as the ability to reach low Earth orbit cheaply and regularly.

Friday, August 12, 2011

ATA Coming Back

The Allen Telescope Array, the only astronomical observatory in the world devoted primarily to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, was shut down in April due to a lack of funds. Now, however, more money has been raised, and ATA should be back hunting alien radio signals in a couple of months.

Donations came into the SETI Institute, which operates ATA, from the general public. Institute scientists take the donations as evidence of public support for SETI research. The money so far collected will keep ATA up and running through the end of the year.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Opportunity At Endeavour Crater

NASA's amazing rover, Opportunity, has reached Endeavour Crater after a three-year drive over rugged Martian terrain. That drive began after Opportunity had already survived on Mars for four years.

Endeavour is the largest crater Opportunity has encountered so far, but the rover will likely not drive down to the crater floor. Rather, the current plan is to study rocks on the crater's rim. They seem to be different than rocks so far examined. Clays also seem to be present on the rim, and scientists are eager to study those. Clay is an indicator that liquid water existed in the area at some point, so studying the clay of Endeavour could produce another data point in the building case that Mars was once wetter and warmer than it is today. That, in turn, would strengthen the case that life could have existed on Mars.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Seeding NewSpace

NASA has let two-year contracts totaling $10 million in value to seven American NewSpace companies that call on the companies to fly scientific payloads and researchers on suborbital flights reaching 62 miles out, which is regarded as the edge of space.

The dollar amount isn't overly impressive, especially when spread among seven companies, but NASA is trying to use it as seed money to encourage the development of technologies and capabilities necessary for our continued expansion into space.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Large Moons And Life

Physicists have held over the past few decades that Earth's large moon has played an important role in the development of life by stabilizing Earth's axial tilt, thus helping to maintain consistent climate regimes to which life could adapt. A new study, however, suggests that while the Moon has indeed played that role, life-- even intelligent life-- could probably have arisen without the gravitational influence of a large moon.

According to the study, data argues that the gravitational influence of the other planets, but especially that of mighty Jupiter, would have kept Earth's axial tilt relatively stable even absent the Moon.

If this new view is correct, it has profound implications for the likelihood of extraterrestrial civilizations. Under the big moon theory, perhaps only one percent of all Earth-like worlds within the habitable zone of its parent star would have a large moon. Therefore, ET civilizations would be rare. But if planets in a solar system-- especially a Jupiter-sized planet-- could stabilize the climate on an Earth-like world, perhaps 75 percent of those worlds could be potential homes of civilizations.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Flying CST-100

Boeing has decided that the Atlas 5 will be used to launch its new manned spacecraft, the CST-100 (hopefully the company eventually gives the craft a snappier name), and plans the first manned test flight of the capsule for late 2015. The CST-100 will carry up to seven people and is designed to be reusable, with each capsule flying up to ten times. The spacecraft is to be tasked to deliver cargo and crew to low Earth orbit, either to ISS or to private space stations now on the drawing boards.

Boeing is also looking for pilots to fly the CST-100. One obvious pool of candidates for those jobs is NASA astronauts, who no longer have an American ride into space. Boeing says it will welcome former astronauts into its program, but will consider other candidates, as well.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Space Fuel Depots

NASA has let contracts to four companies to study the concept of establishing fuel depots in space. NASA and many space advocates argue such celestial gas stations will be necessary for both deep space exploration and space colonization. Indeed, the space policy of the Obama administration emphasizes building infrastructure to support a long term human presence in space.

The four companies will look at strategies for establishing a system of depots, as well as define the technologies required. Perhaps the key problem to overcome is determining how to store super cold rocket fuels for extended periods in the glare of the Sun. Of course, creating such a system assumes chemical rockets will be the workhorses of the transportation system. Ion engines will likely power slow cargo ships into deep space relatively early in that coming era. Solar sails will also probably have a role. For faster flights, nuclear-powered rockets will be used in decades to come. Until then, however, chemical rockets will take us wherever we go, and those will be more efficient if we have fuel depots at key points in space.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Juno On Its Way

NASA successfully launched its Juno spacecraft yesterday. In five years, if all goes well, Juno will reach Jupiter and insert itself into an elliptical polar orbit around the giant planet.

Juno is scheduled to spend one Earth year orbiting Jupiter and studying its internal structure, including its magnetic and gravitational fields. At the end of its mission, the probe will be deliberately crashed into the planet to preclude any possibility of it ever crashing into one of Jupiter's moons that might harbor life.

The decision to crash into the planet is curious. Surely there is an orbit it could be put in that would keep the probe away from the moons, and which would allow it to be retrieved at some point in the future. That would have historical and, presumably, scientific value. Beyond that, life somewhere in Jupiter's vast and complex atmosphere is not completely out of the question. So, mission planners are making the judgment that life on one of the moons is more likely than life in Jupiter's atmosphere. Whether we know enough yet about life, or the moons, or Jupiter itself is another matter.

Friday, August 5, 2011

New Evidence For Martian Water

Scientists studying images taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have found slopes on the surface of Mars have channels that seem to have been cut by liquid water flowing on the surface. The channels appear in lower lattitude areas, where temperatures can climb to levels that would allow liquid water to exist. Further, the channels seem to change with the seasons, drying up in winter and expanding in the spring, a pattern consistent with water freezing in winter and flowing again in the warmer springtime.

Science has been comfortable for several years saying water ice existed in the Martian polar caps and underground. The channels in the slopes suggests liquid salty water has flowed recently on the surface-- and may exist even today, at least near the equator during the warmer seasons. "Warmer" in a Mars context is relative, of course. The land that may support this water is similar to permafrost in Siberia.

Flowing water, of course, increases the chances for life on Mars. Perhaps even more importantly, it increases the chances for life in places we could reach easily, first with rovers and later with human explorers.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Musk On Mars

Elon Musk, founder of and driving force behind SpaceX, recently reiterated in public has goal of sending humans to Mars within 20 years, if not sooner.

Musk says astronauts could make the trip in a Dragon capsule. That probably needs more thought. Technically, he may be right, but people living in a capsule for that long? Dragon needs to be the taxi taking the Mars crew to a large interplanetary ship assembled in space-- perhaps using Bigelow inflatable module technology.

My two cents.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Twenty Miles For Opportunity

NASA's Mars rover Opportunity recently passed the twenty mile mark in its travels across the Martian surface. That's a remarkable achievement for a vehicle that was meant to travel only 0.37 miles in its original, 90-day mission. That mission has become a more than seven year trek.

Opportunity's goal for the past couple of years has been the 14-mile wide crater, Endeavour. Scientists believe Endeavour's outcroppings hold significant data about the geological history of the planet. When Opportunity was first pointed towards Endeavour, it was a goal no one was sure Opportunity could reach. Now, it should reach the crater in just a few days.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Taurus 2 Delay

The initial flight of Orbital Sciences' Taurus 2 rocket will be delayed two months, into December for now, as the company works a fuel line problem. Such delays are not uncommon in the development of new rockets, and OSC says this delay will not materially affect its overall program.

The Taurus 2 rocket and the Cygnus capsule are OSC's answer to SpaceX's Falcon 9/Dragon configuration. Both companies are working with NASA to build systems able to deliver cargo to ISS.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Dawn Begins Work

NASA's Dawn spacecraft, in orbit around the huge asteroid Vesta, has returned its first close-up images. They show the surface of Vesta in unprecedented detail, revealing a world battered by impacts, but also a world shaped by internal processes.

Dawn will begin streaming back other kinds of data this month, and the plan is for Dawn to photograph Vesta from three different orbits over the next year, giving planetary scientists different perspectives on the surface features and how they inter-relate.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Red Dragon

NASA scientist Chris McKay and his team are working with SpaceX to develop a low cost unmanned mission to Mars using the company's Falcon/Dragon stack. In the concept, a Dragon capsule would deliver a large science payload to the surface of Mars. The major experiment of the mission would look for prebiotic compounds by drilling three feet below the surface in a region known to have underground water. If NASA gives the project a green light, it would launch in 2018. McKay informally calls the project "Red Dragon."

SpaceX has other plans for Mars, as well. It is developing the Falcon Heavy, a heavy-lift launcher that could throw a Dragon to Mars. That rocket could be ready by 2015. SpaceX founder Elon Musk has said the company intends to send an astronaut to Mars within a decade or two. A private company undertaking such a project might have an advantage in being able to focus resources without having to worry about Congress. On the other hand, SpaceX is in business to make a profit. How a private manned mission to Mars could make enough money to cover the cost of the enterprise, let alone turn a profit, is not immediately clear. If SpaceX were able to develop a business model that allowed manned planetary exploration on an ongoing, profitable basis, however, that would be a fundamental turning point in the human expansion into space.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Moons And Life

A new study of the chaotic early solar system suggests that only about ten percent of terrestrial planets will have a satellite comparable to Earth's Moon. Because the Moon's gravitational influence serves to stabilize Earth's axial orientation, thus tending to help produce predictable climates over some long term, scientists argue that such large moons are important to the development of life. If so, and if only ten percent of terrestrial planets have large moons, some argue, life may be relatively rare in the cosmos.

Well, the study suggests that arrangements like the Earth-Moon system are rare. In fact, any specific arrangement is rare, and the more exacting we get, the more rare that arrangement becomes. It's perfectly possible to define ourselves into uniqueness. The study puts a rough number to a situation already understood, however, and that is useful.

The past few decades have hosted a revolution in our understanding of life's ability to adapt to and thrive in seemingly hostile environments, so we should careful in suggesting life, or even civilization, could not survive on a world in which the climate radically changed over hundreds of thousands or millions of years. Such a situation may produce life that is aggressive, resourceful, and keenly intelligent. Understanding that Earth-like life may well be only one strand in the fabric of life in the universe is probably a good idea, too.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Sulfur And ET

Scientists trying to develop techniques to find life on exoplanets similar to Earth have added sulfur to their quiver. Since some molecules on Earth eat sulfur and release sulfurous oxide, for example, they reason finding either of those in the atmosphere of an Earth-like exoplanet could suggest life.

Of course, sulfur would be only one marker. Evidence of photosynthesis occurring would be an obvious indicator of possible life, for example. Since oxygen quickly combines with other elements, the presence of free oxygen in an atmosphere would suggest some process is constantly replenishing the oxygen. That process may be life.

The spectroscopic signature of a vibrant biosphere is likely to be extremely complex. Teasing several markers from the data instead of relying on any single one will probably be what finally clinches the case for science.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Trojans of Earth

Trojan asteroids are asteroids that orbit in the same orbit as a planet, but 60 degrees ahead of or behind the planet. Jupiter has perhaps hundreds or thousands of Trojans. Mars has some. Until this year, however, no Trojans of Earth had been found.

That has changed. The asteroid 2010 TK7 has been confirmed as an Earth Trojan. It's a body about a thousand feet across, and leads Earth through space. Actually, this particular little world has a complex orbit that is also extremely inclined to Earth's path, but for all its gyrations 2010 TK7 maintain the relative position to Earth that classifies it as a Trojan.

Finding more Earth Trojans, in simpler orbits, would be a real boon. Such bodies, in terms of energy requirements, would be easier to reach than the Moon. If NASA wants to send humans to an asteroid as a precursor of missions to Mars, therefore, going to an Earth Trojan might be the ideal choice. Trojans could also contain huge amounts of useful and valuable natural resources. Given that, coupled with their energy proximity, Earth Trojans could easily become home to the first human bases beyond the Moon. Of course, first we'll have to find more of them.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Speeding Up SpaceX

NASA and SpaceX are quickly moving towards an agreement to speed up the shakedown of the company's Falcon 9/Dragon stack. The plan originally called for SpaceX to demonstrate Dragon could rendezvous with ISS on one flight, and actually dock with the space station on a second flight. Now, however, if final agreement is reached, both of those milestones will be attempted on the next flight, scheduled to launch in late November.

Assuming the new plan works out, it will bring forward the time when Dragon can begin delivering cargo to ISS. That, in turn, may hasten the day Dragon ferries humans to and from low Earth orbit.

Monday, July 25, 2011


Haumea is a curious denizen of the Kuiper Belt. Cigar-shaped, it's about 1,200 miles long, and astronomers have recently determined it is largely covered by crystalline water ice, as is at least one of its moons. The fact that it's crystalline water ice is important because water molecules so organized imply a nearby heat source. In the case of Haumea, scientists think the heat source likely is radioactive elements under the ice.

If the Haumea system is in fact rich both in water and in elements that could fuel nuclear reactors, it might become an important base in centuries to come as humans venture into the outer Solar System and beyond.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Gale Crater

NASA has selected Gale Crater as the landing site for its Mars Science Laboratory, which features the huge, sophisticated Curiosity rover. MSL is due to land on Mars in August, 2012.

Gale is a large crater-- 96 miles across, with a three mile high central peak. It also has a fascinating geology. Many features strongly suggest the presence of liquid water on the surface for extended periods of the past, for instance. The central peak also looks to be geologically layered. If Curiosity can reach the peak, scientists believe the layers can tell them the geologic history of Mars going well back in time just as sediment layering on Earth tells geologists about our world.

Given the timescales accessible for study in Gale coupled with the likely presence of past water, scientists believe the crater is also an excellent place to pursue the question of whether life ever existed on Mars.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Viking On Mars

Seven years to the day after the first manned landing on the Moon, Viking 1 successfully soft-landed on Mars. The Viking program, which included two landers, gave science its first comprehensive, close-up view of the Red Planet.

Viking also conducted the first search for life on Mars, and the results have been fussed over ever since. Three experiments were designed to look for life, and before the mission scientists generally agreed that positive results in any of the three would be taken as proof of life. In fact, positive results were obtained, but the majority of scientists backed away from embracing a momentous conclusion that might eventually be proven wrong, preferring explanations of the results based on Earthly contamination of the landers or non-biological processes. It was the conservative approach-- which may also have been correct. Still, a small minority of scientists to this day think Viking may well have found life on Mars.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Shuttle Era Over

Space shuttle Atlantis safely landed early this morning at Cape Kennedy, thus ending the shuttle era.

No doubt predictably, the shuttle program has gotten more attention from the major networks' nightly newscasts during this last mission than it has since the Columbia tragedy more than eight years ago. Watching how-- or if-- those news organizations cover NASA astronauts hitching rides on Soyuz capsules will be interesting. Similarly, watching for coverage of the development of new manned spacecraft by NASA and by private companies will by an indicaton of how seriously the media takes space policy-- and by extension, how interested the media think the American people are in it.