Monday, January 31, 2011

UFOs Over Utah

Last week, people saw and recorded three red lights in the night sky over American Forks, Utah, which is near Provo and Salt Lake City. The lights, which were associated with no sound at all, seemed to be flying in formation. The real kicker, however, is that the red lights were seen to drop white or silver lights from them. A couple of the witnesses, who happened to have professional experience with military flares, said the white lights were not flares.

Local airports and military installations reported nothing in the air that night.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Discovery Ready Again

Space shuttle Discovery is scheduled to be rolled out to the launch pad once again tomorrow evening. Engineers and technicians have completed repairs on the shuttle's external tank that has delayed launch for something around two months.

The last launch of Discovery is currently set for February 24.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Plotting NASA'S Technology Course

NASA began a series of public conferences this week in which it discussed various new technologies that would be important for future long-duration human space missions. Focusing on such technologies is at the heart of President Obama's approach to manned spaceflight policy.

The problem is that NASA's funding doesn't allow the agency to pursue all the technologies, so it is asking the public to help it prioritize the technologies to fund. That might be a clever public relations ploy-- and it could be useful if "public" is carefully defined-- but bringing the American public at large into the process might not be the smartest thing. Every educational survey shows Americans generally are well behind the rest of the developed world in science and math. Closing that gap before giving the general American public a big voice in something as technical as technology development might be a good idea.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Oldest Galaxy So Far

Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have found the oldest galaxy to date-- one formed only 480 million years after the Big Bang. That means the universe was organizing itself into something like what we would recognize very early on.

The new galaxy is, so far, singular; only one galaxy has been found that early in time. By contrast, astronomers have so far detected 50 galaxies around the 650 million year mark. In the intervening 170 million years, therefore, things were beginning to pop. That popping soon developed into the unimaginable, explosive process that ultimately created the billions or trillions of galaxies in the universe we know.

A Quarter Century Ago

Twenty-five years ago this morning, space shuttle Challenger exploded in a cold, blue Florida sky, killing all seven crewmembers. They were the first American astronauts to die on an actual mission, though others had been lost during training. Given the nature of spaceflight, and the missions astronauts had undertaken, that was an extraordinary safety record.

After Challenger, and a three year hiatus in manned spaceflight, NASA put the shuttle program back together to fly the most spectacular, ambitious missions of the program. Always, however, Challenger was in the background, reminding everyone involved that spaceflight is incredibly dangerous. That memory helped lead to fourteen years worth of successful, safe missions.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


NASA and Bigelow Aerospace are currently in talks to perhaps agree to add a BA inflatable module to ISS. Both sides say the talks are going well.

Such an agreement would be good for both sides. For BA, it would not only give NASA's stamp of approval to the company's inflatable module technology, it would also give BA experience in space with a human-rated module before building its own space station. For NASA, the agreement would expand workspace aboard ISS, allowing for more reseaarch, and it would also strengthen NASA's connection to the commercial space community, which is a key element of President Obama's space policy.

The BA module would be launched to ISS atop a commercial rocket. NASA says the module could be on-orbit two years after signing the agreement-- fast track for the agency.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Voyager 2 At Uranus

Twenty-five years ago, Voyager 2, after a roundabout flight through the outer Solar System, encountered Uranus. It was the first, and so far the only, human spacecraft to reach the planet, providing the first close up images of that world, its rings, and its family of moons.

The Voyager program, consisting of two souped up Mariner spacecraft, was a remarkable success, as it gave humanity a first up close glimpse of the wonders and puzzles of the realm of the gas giants.

In launching the Voyagers, NASA took advantage of a rare alignment of the outer planets that allowed it to use the gravity of one huge world to slingshot the tiny spacecraft on to the next-- an amazing example of celestial navigation. Likely, another quarter century at least will elapse before another spacecraft reaches Uranus.

Monday, January 24, 2011

ET And Human Religions

At a recent meeting of the Royal Society in London the focus was on the affect the discovery of extraterrestrial life might have on established human religion. The consensus seemed to be that the discovery of ET microbes nearby-- on Mars or Europa, for instance-- probably wouldn't be a big problem, but finding ET signals coming from deep space would likely be a different matter entirely.

The debate seems to have emphasized the role of Jesus Christ, which would've given the discussion a Western tilt. Did Jesus die for humanity, or for a wider populace? Did Jesus die once, or several times, on several worlds, in various ways? Did a particular Roman hammer ring through the Universe?

These are not questions science can answer-- now, or in the foreseeable future.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Betelgeuse Explosion?

A story seems to be whipping around the Internet saying that the giant star Betelgeuse will explode in 2012, becoming a second sun in Earth's sky. The year would seem to give away the reason this story has gotten traction. According to the Mayan calendar, the world as we know it will end in 2012, and various people, from New Age types to Hollywood producers, have seized on that prediction.

One basis of the story is astronomers' prediction that Betelgeuse will go supernova soon. The "soon" is the issue. There's a huge difference between human timescales and astronomical timescales. Next year may be soon in human terms-- and it fits nicely with the Mayas. In astronomy, however, as in this case, soon may mean thousands or millions of years.

When Betelgeuse does explode, it will be visible in daylight here, but it won't rival the Sun. Nor will it threaten life on Earth. At several hundred light years distant, the explosion of Betelgeuse will be fascinating and spectacular from Earth, but nothing more.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Beam Propelled Spacecraft

NASA is currently conducting a study looking at the prospects of propelling spacecraft by either laser or microwave beam instead of onboard rocket. The study's report is due out March 11.

The basic idea is simple, and elegant. Instead of carrying rockets, spacecraft would only carry a propellant, like hydrogen. Power in the form of a laser or a microwave beam would be sent from a power plant to the spacecraft. That beam would excite the propellant in the spacecraft, sending it through a nozzle, thus providing thrust. Such a system would allow for simpler, lighter spacecraft with perhaps five times the payload capacity of a ship using onboard chemical rockets.

Power plants capable of producing beams of sufficient energy to be useful in such a project exist now. A mature program might bring on an era of cheap access to orbit and hundreds of launches daily. Longer term, a robust, space-based system could power our first interstellar probe within fifty years.

Such a program would also affect the case for space solar power. If microwave beams could power ships into orbit without environmental damage, the case for beaming solar power to Earth using microwaves would be stronger.

Thursday, January 20, 2011


NASA's Stardust-NEXT spacecraft is closing in on its encounter with a second comet. This time the comet will be Tempel 1, and the encounter will take place on February 14.

The encounter should be interesting. Tempel 1 has already had one visitor from Earth-- a particularly rude one. NASA's Deep Impact probe slammed into the comet a few years ago in an attempt to study the structure of the body. Unfortunately, debris from the impact obscured a view of the surface. Stardust-NEXT's primary objective will be to image the head of the comet to document any crater Deep Impact made. It's a rare and remarkable opportunity for follow up on a space mission.

Upgrading Dragon

SpaceX is already working with NASA to upgrade its Dragon space capsule so that it can carry astronauts. So far, Dragon has flown only once atop its Falcon 9 launcher, but that flight was highly successful.

SpaceX says Dragon will fly at least 11 more times before carrying passengers. The next flight is scheduled for this summer, and it might take Dragon to ISS. Dragon's first assignment will be flying as an unmanned cargo ship, delivering supplies to ISS.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Cassini At Rhea

The Cassini spacecraft recently made a close flyby of Saturn's second largest moon, Rhea. Rhea, which is roughly 950 miles in diameter, has not yet generated the interest that Titan-- about three times bigger than Rhea-- or Enceladus-- three times smaller-- have.

The images returned by Cassini won't necessarily change that. At first look, they show a surface hammered by impacts. It is dominated by craters. There is also a scarp or two. While scarps might possibly suggest internal activity, the heavily cratered surface so far revealed argues that nothing except pounding from outside has happened on Rhea in a while. Of course, that's subject to change. Coming images might reveal a different character, and studying the ages of the craters could also reveal a different history.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

SpaceShipTwo Checking Out

Virgin Galactic is making good progress in proving its suborbital tourist spaceship, dubbed SpaceShipTwo, is up to the task. Four successively longer test flights have been flown, and all have been successful.

All four test flights so far have been simple glides from the WhiteKnightTwo mother ship. There will be more of those, followed by several flights in which SpaceShipTwo's rocket engine will be used for increasingly longer periods, leading up to a full-scale suborbital flight.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Legalities Of Lunar Mining

We now know there is a substantial amount of water on the Moon, perhaps enough to mine commercially to help build an early lunar economy by supporting local operations and by exporting to low Earth orbit. Such exporting would be economical at some point because of the Moon's low gravity and lack of atmosphere, which would make transporting water from the Moon to LEO cheaper than carrying it out from Earth.

We also have good evidence that the Moon has a range of other economically viable resources. One basic problem in tapping those resources, however, is a lack of clarity in the law. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 still governs in this area. Some space law experts read that treaty to allow the mining of resources, but who owns the stuff after it's been extracted is much less clear. That uncertainty no doubt will inhibit the flow of capital into space business. To successfully sell a product legally, the seller of that product must have the unambiguous ownership rights to that product.

The political, economic, and technological world that exists today is vastly different from the world of 1967-- likely different from any future imagined by politicians and diplomats in 1967. That different world, and the future that will develop from it, demands a new treaty that specifically guarantees the safety of investing in private space ventures, guarantees private property rights beyond Earth, and guarantees that profits made in operations beyond Earth can legally be brought back to Earth.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Crab Nebula Variability

The Crab Nebula is the result of a supernova that exploded in Earth's skies in 1054. Chinese astronomers recorded the event while Europe was in the Dark Ages. Through the twentieth century, the Crab was seen as an extremely stable energy source, to the extent that it has been used to calibrate instruments aboard space probes.

Now, some space-based X-ray telescopes have found the Crab to be more variable than expected in that region. A dip in output in the low frequency part of the X-ray spectrum, as well as variability in the high frequency area, seems to be based in the central part of the Nebula, about a light year across. Within that part lies the rapidly spinning neutron star which is the remains of the original star plus powerful magnetic fields associated with that star.

Astronomers think the variability is connected to the magnetic fields. They will go back over previous studies to determine whether the unrecognized variability in the Crab may have affected the results of those studies.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

New Launch Date

Space shuttle Discovery is now scheduled to launch on February 24. The last mission of Discovery has been delayed several times, both for weather-related reasons and for technological problems.

Most of those technological problems have involved certain ribs in the shuttle's external tank. Instead of swapping tanks, NASA has opted to repair this one, which was already mated to Discovery when the problem was found. Technicians are working to strengthen the ribs.

Friday, January 14, 2011

SA's New Agreement

Space Adventures has reached another agreement with Russia to fly private space travelers to ISS aboard Soyuz capsules. Russia will manufacture an extra Soyuz, beyond its own needs, to accomodate SA's clients. The agreement starts in 2013.

SA is currently the only private company to offer orbital flight. That could well be changing, however. Boeing/Bigelow, SpaceX, Interorbital Systems, Virgin Galactic, and others are all working towards developing a manned orbital capability. In each case, commercial flights would follow soon after the system is proven. New systems wouldn't have the history of reliability Soyuz has, of course, but they will be more advanced technologically in many ways.

This agreement could potentially be SA's last using Soyuz.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

One Billion Years, A. B. B.

Astronomers have recently been able to build an image of a galaxy cluster as it existed a scant one billion years after the Big Bang. That makes the cluster the oldest and most distant yet seen.

The Chandra and Hubble space telescopes and the Keck Telescope in Hawaii were used to piece the image together. It shows a "protocluster" 40 million lights years across populated by galaxies thick with gas and dust-- a perfect environment for the growth of huge, bright stars that existed only a short time before exploding. Quasars and black holes were also identified.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Natural Antimatter

Believe it or not, Earth naturally produces antimatter.

A new study has discovered that some thunderstorms are powerful enough to beam gamma rays into space, and the process that produces the rays can also produce positrons, the antimatter partner of electrons. Of course, in this universe dominated by matter, antimatter doesn't last long. As soon as a positron encounters an electron, both are utterly destroyed, producing an immediate and intense burst of energy.

So, it seems extremely high energy explosions were occurring on Earth long before 1945.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Smallest Exoplanet So Far

NASA's Kepler spacecraft has found the smallest exoplanet yet discovered. The world is 1.4 times the size of Earth, 4.6 times as massive, and orbits a star similar to the Sun. That star is 500 light years away.

The size and mass of the exoplanet mean it's clearly a rocky world, like Earth-- another breakthrough for planet hunters. Unfortunately, its orbit around its star is 20 times closer than Mercury's circuit around the Sun, so this is a hot, inhospitable place. Its density, by the way, is something like that of Mercury, which may or may not hint at a basic, close relationship between dense, rocky worlds and Sun-like stars

Monday, January 10, 2011

Studying ET

Two studies looking at the possibility of alien civilizations are out. One argues that either we are alone, because we've not yet found evidence of ET, or any intelligent aliens out there will pose a danger to us. They will have been shaped by the same laws of biological evolution that we were, the study says, and thus will be violent and greedy, as we are-- possibly roaming the galaxy in search of resources. Maybe they'd take our stuff.

Of course, even assuming there are universal laws of biological evolution, we don't yet have a grasp of the complete set, so predicting based on what we know may well get the wrong answer. It's also true that Darwin's theory contemplates cooperation as a driver of evolution, not just merciless competition. The fact also is that we know even less about the evolutionary pathways of civilizations than we know about those traveled by life, so presuming to know the primary urges of an advanced ET civilization likely says more about the leanings of those who did the study than it does about Them. We do know the universe is chock full of resources. The idea that ET would bother taking Earth's resources from us is a bit paranoid.

The other study takes a more optimistic view. The fact that we haven't found evidence for ET after only fifty years of looking means nothing. In those years, it points out, we have established the universe is friendlier to life than imagined before. Human societies in general, it notes, seem to be moving towards peaceful coexistence; an aggressive alien, star-hopping civilization is not the only possibility.

So, what do we really know about ET civilizations? As of yet, nothing at all.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Brazil Joins ESO

Brazil has joined the European Southern Observatory, a program by which European nations operate astronomical observatories in South America, principally in the Andes. Brazil is the first non-European member of ESO.

Brazil, of course, is the largest nation in South America, and is quickly becoming an economic power and emerging as a player on the world stage. Brazil sees joining ESO as a component in its effort to develop technologically and support its scientific community.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Lunar Core

A new study using old data has concluded the Moon has a core similar to Earth. Using data from the seismic stations set up by Apollo astronauts, plus techniques used to study the interior structure of Earth, the study finds the Moon has an iron core surrounded by a molten shell, like Earth, but the Moon seems to have a ring of magma around that shell, too.

In short, the more we learn about the Moon, the more distinctive it becomes as a world in its own right, and the more potentially useful that world becomes as we expand into the Solar System.

Streamlining NASA

NASA is considering merging the space operations and human spaceflight directorates. It certainly would be a sign of the times. NASA says the reorganization would be done with a view to better aligning programs and resources.

Still, the fact that NASA would no longer have a division solely dedicated to human spaceflight speaks volumes about the financial plight of the U. S. Government as well as about the immediate future of NASA's role in the human exploration of space.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Comets And Asteroids

Comets and asteroids are typically represented as different classes of objects. Asteroids are rocky bodies that basically orbit the Sun inside the orbit of Jupiter. Comets, on the other hand, contain volatiles, gas and ice, and spend most of their time in the far reaches of the Solar System, swooping in close to the Sun only occasionally.

Then we have 596 Schelia. Discovered in 1906 and classified as an asteroid because it orbits in the Main Belt of asteroids between Mars and Jupiter, new observations of Schelia suggests it might have a coma and a wispy tail-- characteristics of comets. Schelia thus seems to be the latest in a small group of bodies that seem to straddle the line between asteroids and comets. Astronomers are perplexed by Schelia, for example, because a body orbiting in the Main Belt shouldn't have been able to retain volatiles from the beginning of the Solar System. One obvious solution, of course, is that Schelia has not always orbited where it does now.

On a broader perspective, perhaps comets and asteroids are in fact fundamentally the same thing. A rocky body orbiting too close to the Sun to hold on to ice is an asteroid, but put that same body out beyond Neptune where it could retain ice, and maybe it's a comet. Schelia might be making that case.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

ESA Funding For ISS

While everyone involved seems to agree that the European Space Agency will extend its commitment to ISS at least to 2020, getting that decision nailed down is taking some time. It didn't happen at the December meeting of ESA's ruling council, for example, which was focused on dealing with the financial woes of Arianespace. Most believe the ISS commitment will come at the meeting in March.

The success of the Falcon 9/Dragon flight seems to have added another factor to the European's calculations. The entry of private companies like SpaceX into the ongoing ISS program, providing cargo flights and eventually manned flights, is certainly a factor to be taken into account when determining ESA's funding level over the next decade, but that entry has been clearly in the mix for a while. SpaceX's recent success should not have stunned any member state of ESA.

Likely, it didn't. Reaching a decision that involves so many nations can be complex and difficult. Various interests have to be properly aligned. Such diplomatic politics takes time. A final commitment in March would be just fine.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Martian Tectonics?

Planetary geologists generally argue plate tectonics have not played a significant role in the history of Mars. They say that Mars is simply not massive enough to maintain a hot core over geologic time. Without a hot core, there can be no molten mantle open which tectonic plates can float and roam and slam into each other.

As is usual in science, however, not everyone agrees. A new study of a previously unexplored area not far from the huge volcano Olympus Mons, for example, shows ridges and scarps consistent with plate tectonics. Strings of volcanoes on Mars suggests a plate passing over a "hot spot," building volcanoes as it moved, much like the Hawaiian Islands were built up, and are still developing. Some scientists see Valleris Marineris, the incredibly huge canyon system on Mars, as a classic tectonic formation. The new study also suggests plate tectonics were active on Mars within the last 250,000 years-- and may be even today.

It's a controversial position, one sure to be vigorously debated. If the question of an active planet comes down to mass, after all, we know Mars is only about 11 percent as massive as Earth. However, if it turns out that plate tectonics can be maintained on a low gravity terrestrial world with less inner fire than Earth has. our understanding of the universe will have taken another step forward.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Opportunity And Spirit

This month marks the seventh anniversary of the landings on Mars of NASA's two rovers. Spirit landed January 4, 2004, and Opportunity followed on th 26th. That both successfully landed was an achievement in itself-- many missions to Mars have failed-- but the landings were only the beginning of what became an historic mission.

Each rover was scheduled to last only 90 days in the harsh, alien environment; both exceeded that time limit by many multiples of 90 days. Spirit covered almost 5 miles before getting stuck in deep sand last March; it has also been silent for several months. NASA is still holding out hope that contact with Spirit can be re-established over the next few months, but the truth is Spirit's extraordinay mission may be over. Opportunity, on the other hand, continues apace. It has covered nearly 17 miles so far, and is still going strong.