Monday, February 28, 2011

VG Flying Scientists

Virgin Galactic has always maintained there was more to its business plan than taking adventurous rich people on suborbital flights, and it took a step towards affirming that position recently when it signed an agreement with the Southwest Research Institute to fly two of its scientists on a suborbital flight, with an opton to fly six more.

The scientists will conduct experments in fields from biology to astronomy, beginning to lay the groundwork for future suborbital science. VG says it sees such science flights as a big part of its plans.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

X-Prize Entry List Set

The time to enter the Google Lunar X-Prize contest has passed. There will hopefully be a stiff competition, however, as 29 teams from 17 nations have entered the race to land a rover on the Moon, drive it 500 meters across the surface, and send data and images back to Earth.

First prize is $20 million, with another $10 million spread over various secondary achievements. Prize money, therefore, probably wouldn't cover the cost of developing the rover and flying the mission for any of the teams. The point of the prize, though, is to encourage the early development of lunar resources by supporting the development of technology, by private groups, that will allow commercial and other private activity on the Moon.

With 29 teams involved, ranging from not-for-profit efforts to teams backed by major corporations, there might be a reasonable chance a team will claim the prize before the December, 2015, deadline.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Discovery On Orbit

For a final time, space shuttle Discovery was successfully launched into orbit yesterday afternoon. Depending on what Congress does, there could be only two launches left in the shuttle era.

Discovery is now chasing down ISS to rendezvous and dock. During that chase, Discovery's crew will carry out an inspection of the orbiter's underbelly to determine whether any damage was done to the heat shield tiles during launch.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Planet Formation

For years, the dominant theory of how planets form has been that a disk of gas and dust forms around a young star-- a dynamic disk, animated by swirling streams of matter. Clumps of matter begin to form, and grow. Some clumps grow larger than others. Sometimes clumps collide and merge. Eventually, the clumps can grow large enough that they sweep up all the matter around them as they orbit their star, creating gaps in the disk. Clumps can become planets.

Astronomers seem to have found a disk with a gap in it around a young star 350 light years away. The star is similar to the Sun, except that it's only about 7 million years old. They are now looking for an object within the gap to clinch the deal. If they find such an object, it will argue that planets can begin to form quite soon after the parent star ignites.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Cirrous Clouds On Titan

Scientiists have long been intrigued by the atmosphere of Saturn's huge moon, Titan, because they think it bears a resemblance to the atmosphere of early Earth. The hydrocarbons and organics in Titan's atmosphere are thought to be some of the precursors of life on Earth. Now, astronomers have also found cirrous clouds on Titan.

They are made of exotic ices in the incredibly cold air of Titan, not the simple water vapor of their Earthly counterparts, but they are thin, wispy, and bright white in the smoggy, active, dirty atmosphere. Another touch of home.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Discovery's Cargo

When space shuttle Discovery lifts off, it will be carrying a storage module packed with 6,500 pounds of equipment, spare parts, and supplies to ISS. NASA wants to stuff ISS with spare parts and supplies before the shuttle program ends, but there is already a shortage of storage space onboard, hence the new module. Discovery will also deliver a second robotic helper to take some routine housekeeping chores off astronauts.

When the new storage module isn't being used to store, it can house scientific experiments.

Monday, February 21, 2011

WISE Mission Ends

NASA recently ended the mission of its WISE-- Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer-- spacecraft. Its planned mission ended last September, but it has been on an extended mission. The primary purpose of WISE was to conduct an infrared survey of the entire sky. In fact, it surveyed the sky one and a half times and was on its way to completing the second circuit when NASA pulled the plug for budgetary reasons.

Besides completing the all-sky survey and revealing some things in infrared that are not accessible in the visible spectrum, WISE also did work in the Solar System, discovering 19 comets and 33,500 asteroids. Of those asteroids, 120 are near-Earth objects.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Gliese 581g, Or Not?

Since the announcement last fall of the discovery of the first exoplanet that might be habitable, Gliese 581g, several studies have been done, some of which have concluded the world doesn't exist.

The star Gliese 581 is only 30 percent the mass of the Sun, and is 20 light years away. It has four confirmed planets, and two more that are controversial-- they may or may not actually exist. The entire Gliese 581 system so far known orbits within the area of Earth's orbit about the Sun. That makes untangling the mathematics of the interactions of four, or six, worlds in such a crowded volume of space quite challenging. Presumably, too, it's possible that one or more planets might exist beyond the group we know about, which would add another factor to a complex mathematical situation. Under those circumstances, given the basis for establishing the existence of these worlds are tiny wobbles of Gliese 581 resulting from gravitational interaction with planets, it's not surprising there are disagreements.

Paul Vogt, co-discoverer of 581g, stands by that discovery. He says his team looked at hundreds of possibilities, and that the existence of 581g in the habitable zone of its star is the simplest explanation that fits the data. We shall see.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Not To Worry.........

Some astronomers maintain that the Sun might have a small companion star in orbit around it that comes close enough on a regular basis to disrupt the orbits of comets in the Oort Cloud. Some of those comets, in turn, blaze into the inner Solar System and slam into Earth, accounting for the rough regularity of mass extinctions observed in the fossil record. That mysterious companion star, which has never been seen, is called "Nemesis."

A new study of M-type dwarf stars, the most common type of star in the universe, didn't find Nemesis. but it did find 18 such stars that could possibly come fairly close to the Sun over the next billion years. None of them pose a real threat to the Solar System, however.


Europe's heaviest robotic spacecraft so far, the ATV-2 dubbed the Johannes Kepler, launched from ESA's South American facility yesterday and is on its way to deliver cargo to ISS. ATVs are the ESA's answer to supplying ISS; they fly to the station and dock on their own for a six-month stay. The ISS crew unloads the cargo.

The ATV-2 weighs in at 22 tons and is the size of a London double-decker bus. It carries 7 tons of supplies.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Deep Impact Crater

Photos snapped by NASA's Stardust probe have indeed imaged the crater made by the Deep Impact penetrator in 2005. The collision site on the head of Comet Tempel 1 is marked by a crater 492 feet across. Unlike craters on larger bodies, where ejecta from a collision spreads beyond the crater walls onto the surrounding countryside, the debris in this case seems to have gone straight up, and largely come right back down, partially refilling the crater.

Stardust's closest approach to Tempel 1 was 110 miles, but it still suffered a pretty good pounding from debris flying around the comet-- perhaps some of that debris being associated with the Deep Impact strike. The probe was hit as many as 20 times, with some of those particles driving through the outer layer of the spacraft.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Imaging Tempel 1

NASA's Stardust probe successfully encountered Comet Tempel 1 yesterday, coming within fewer than 200 miles of the comet. The probe snapped 122 photos, including 72 close ups. NASA plans a news conference for later today to release the pictures.

This was NASA's second visit to Tempel 1. The Deep Impact mission sent a penetrator into the comet a few years ago to determine its composition and internal structure. Scientists are hoping to see the crater made by the penetrator in the new images.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Freezing NASA

President Obama's 2012 budget, out today, freezes NASA's budget at 2010 levels. That would be a cut of $300 million. The freeze is part of an overall freeze in discretionary federal spending. Though this budget proposal deals only with 2012, the President has made it clear he plans to maintain the freeze for five years.

Mr. Obama argues that the freeze is necessary to begin to address the yawning federal deficit and crushing federal debt. He also acknowledges that won't be enough. The President and every member of Congress understands that actually controlling deficits and working down the debt means restructuring entitlements in some way, and reforming tax policy-- perhaps raising taxes. Those efforts are still struggling to get off the ground.

NASA is in an odd position. It is between manned spaceflight programs. The Obama administration canceled Constellation, but continued to develop the Orion spacecraft. Congress has also mandated NASA build a heavy-lift launcher, so the heart of Constellation still beats, and many people in NASA and in Congress would like to go back to it. With tight budgets for years to come, clarity of purpose is essential, and it seems to be lacking.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Selling Mars

A group of NASA engineers have worked out a plan to fly a manned mission to Mars, and establish a colony there, using private funding. The total cost of the project would be $150 billion.

The plan would be to make a profit, not simply fund the project. The authors of the plan say they would fund the project by selling various rights, for example-- advertising on the sides of launchers, naming rights to the ships, television and film rights, book and other publishing rights. etc. The project would also own patents and rights to technology developed through the effort.

It's not clear all of that would work out. News organizations, for example, would no doubt claim the right to cover such an historic program without having to pay for it, which would presumably diminish the value of any television rights. Still, it's an interesting approach to opening the Solar System.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Orion To Denver

NASA's first Orion space capsule is being shipped from New Orleans to Denver, where Lockheed Martin engineers will put it through an extensive testing program to establish whether or not it is up to the challenges of spaceflight. The first unmanned test flight could come as early as 2013, with the first manned flight possibly in 2016.

Orion was originally intended to carry astronauts back to the Moon under the Constellation program, but President Obama canceled Constellation. Orion was saved to be used as a lifeboat in case of emergency aboard ISS. It still may get into deep space, however. President Obama has proposed a goal of sending a manned missiion to an asteroid by 2025. To that end, Lockheed Martin planners have developed the "Plymouth Rock" concept, in which several Orions would be linked together to form the ship that would fly the asteroid mission.

Switching Funding

Some Republicans in the new GOP-controlled U. S. House want to take NASA funding out of climate change research and put it into manned spaceflight. They argue that, especially in a time of tight and possibly shrinking budgets, federal agencies should focus on their core missions, and for NASA that is exploring space.

They have a point. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would seem to be the obvious home for all federal climate change research, but the representatives involved did not call for shifting the money and researchers from NASA to NOAA. All of them represent districts in states that benefit from NASA spending, which critics no doubt will say makes these people more interested in saving jobs at home than in exploring space. Politicians looking out for their constituents, of course, is hardly new-- some would even say that's how the system works-- but the fact that this bunch might want to save jobs does not automatically mean these members are not also interested in space exploration. Having two, or more, motivations for an act is quite human.

The situation illustrates a basic problem, however. Too often since Apollo, space policy has been cobbled together to serve local, political ends. U. S. space policy needs to be developed to serve national interests.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Commercial Shuttles?

United Space Alliance is floating a proposal to continue flying space shuttles after NASA retires the three shuttle fleet. USA says it would fly two shuttle missions a year for $1.5 billion-- far less than such flights would cost NASA-- until other commercial options are available. Currently, the only access NASA astronauts will have to ISS between the shuttle's retirement and the debut of commercial ships will involve hitching rides on Russian Soyuz capsules.

USA acknowledges the plan is a long shot, but it says it is ready to pursue the project if NASA and other potential customers for the unique service show sufficient interest.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Spaceship Prometheus

Orbital Sciences Corporation is working with NASA to develop a spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from ISS, among other things. OSC has named the craft Prometheus.

Prometheus would be a blended lifting body that would initially carry four astronauts, but could eventually carry six. It would launch atop a rocket, but land on a runway. Prometheus would be designed to compete with Russia's Soyuz, SpaceX's Dragon, and perhaps others, to service ISS. That should lower the cost to orbit, perhaps opening new possibilities for commerce and research.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Shostak's Picnic

SETI's Seth Shostak, talking to, says results from NASA's Kepler spacecraft might suggest Earth-like worlds are as "common as ants at a picnic," but that still doesn't mean life is necessarily abundant.

First, some Earth-sized worlds Kepler finds might turn out to be "false positives." Beyond that, an Earth-like world doesn't guarantee life exists there. Far less guarenteed is the existence of intelligence. Of course, SETI works on the assumption that technological intelligence with the ability to beam radio signals might exist among the stars.

Some SETI researchers also work with Kepler, so they had advance knowledge of the Kepler data announced by NASA last week. The SETI Institute's Allen Array is already being aimed at some of Kepler's candidates.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Moon Race

In some quarters over the past four decades, some people have argued there was in fact no race to the Moon, that in fact the Soviet Union never intended to put a man on the Moon. Researcher Charles Vick has a different view.

Vick has gone through Soviet archives and interviewed engineers involved with the Soviet space program, and he says the Soviets authorized the building of a huge booster in 1960. In 1964, that booster was tasked with launching a manned lunar mission. It was to have been a tw0 man affair, with one man walking on the lunar surface. American intelligence kept close tabs on Soviet space efforts, he says, and the White House paced the U. S. effort partly on its knowledge of Soviet progress.

Between 1969 and 1972, according to Vick, the Soviets tried to test launch the booster-- the N-1-- three times. Each time ended in disaster. The program was canceled in 1974.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Developing International Space Conduct

Space law is still a sketchy area, largely because, historically, space operations have been the nearly exclusive province of the major powers of the time. That situation has changed. Many nations now have active space programs, and many private corporations, and other organizations, are moving out.

Instead of trying to work out a major new treaty to govern the new and evolving reality, the Obama administration's space policy is taking a step-by-step approach. It is pursuing an agreement on dealing with space debris, and seeking to establish a code of conduct for space operations. Also, the U. S. is pursuing partnerships with other nations while the Department of Defense will begin offering commercial and scientific payloads rides on DoD launches that have excess capacity-- both to help establish overall rules of the road and to maximize tight budgets in tough economic times.

At some point, another major treaty will be required, but starting out by establishing a common mode of behavior seems reasonable.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Jerusalem UFO

During times of increased tensions, UFO sightings often go up in number, suggesting a psychological basis. This week, with the Middle East teetering, a white light was seen to descent upon the Dome of The Rock, then shoot away.

The event, however, was captured on video by at least two observers from two angles. Not, then, psychological.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Active Mars Geology

Researchers using a high resolution camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have discovered that huge sand dune fields in the northern polar region of the planet can change relatively quickly-- in two Martian years, for example, which equals about four Earth years.

They explain the changes by noting the actions of carbon dioxide and wind. During the Martian winters, carbon dioxide is stable in frozen form. It exists atop and within dunes, adding to their stability. In the spring, however, the carbon dioxide changes directly into gas, thus leaving voids in the dunes, and weakening their overall structure. Thus, when winds pick up, the sand can be blown to shape new dunes.

In a narrow sense, therefore, Mars is geologically active now. Whether it is in a broader sense, one that would include marsquakes, water acting in some way to shape the planet even today, or active vulcanism remains to be seen.

More Kepler Stuff

At a news conference yesterday, NASA released a huge amount of data from the operations of the Kepler planet-hunting spacecraft. Two of the main objectives of Kepler are to find Earth-sized worlds and to find worlds that orbit within the habitable zone of the parent star-- essentially, that's the area around the star where water could exist in liquid form on a planetary surface.

So far, Kepler is doing well. The data show 68 potentially Earth-sized worlds, and 54 worlds orbiting within the habitable zone. Five worlds are in both groups. Further research is necessary to confirm, or deny, these results, but the possibilty for exciting finds is there. We should also understand that the concept of a habitable zone simply projects what's necessary for Earthly life into other star systems. That's almost certainly too limiting. For example, three of the strongest possibilities for harboring life elsewhere in this solar system-- Jupiter's Europa, and Saturn's Titan and Enceladus-- all lie outside the Sun's habitable zone.

Kepler is currently in safe mode-- not doing science. Engineers are working to determine why the computer onboard shut things down.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Six Exoplanet System Found

NASA's Kepler spacecraft has discovered a star system that has six confirmed planets-- the most in an alien system yet found. The planets orbit a Sun-like star 2,000 light years away. Five of them orbit that star closer than Mercury orbits the Sun, and their masses range from 2.3 times that of Earth to 13.5 times. All of them could possibly have been hot Jupiters at some point in the past, but their proximity to their star may have resulted in much of their atmospheres, and their masses, being burned away. The sixth planet in the system completes one orbit in 118 days, slightly less than half the orbital period of Venus.

The discovery is just one element of a massive release of Kepler data from NASA today. If all indicators of exoplanets in the data are eventually confirmed, this single release could double the number of exoplanets known, bringing the total to over a thousand.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Geoff Marcy

Geoff Marcy, astronomer and planet hunter at UC- Berkeley, in an interview on, says that several tens of thousands of exoplanets will likely be discovered in the next few decades, largely because of the capabilities of NASA's Kepler planet-hunting spacecraft, and because of the even greater capacities of follow up probes already on the way.

He said Earth-like planets will be found, but Earth-like planets in the habitable zone of their parent stars-- which would mean they could support life as we know it-- are likely to be rare. Marcy points out that worlds the size of Earth would be lightweights in systems that contain Jupiter-sized and larger worlds, and the smaller world could easily get ejected from the system if it came too close to the big guys.

He also suggested intelligent beings and technological civilizations may be rare, citing the fact that such intelligence has arisen on Earth only once, and that one instance occurred extremely recently in geologic time.

That view notwithstanding, Marcy also called for an "Apollo-style" SETI program that would conduct a thorough, systematic search for alien signals, finally really testing the premise underlying SETI after all these years.