Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Messenger's First Photo

NASA's Messenger spacecraft, the first human spacecraft to slip into orbit around the planet Mercury, has sent back its first photo from orbit. The photo shows a part of Mercury's surface not yet imaged by any spacecraft-- a stretch of baked barrenness pocked by craters. A batch of other photos is expected today. These early photos notwithstanding, Messenger's science program begins April 4.

Losing Hope For Spirit

More than a year has passed since NASA was in contact with its Mars rover, Spirit. Managers of the rover program have been trying for several weeks to rouse Spirit. They had hoped that the arrival of Martian spring at Spirit's position would increase the energy available to the rover's solar arrays, thus enabling communication, but that hasn't happened. NASA plans to keep trying to raise Spirit for another few weeks, but the agency is not expecting success. In the meantime, Spirit's twin, Opportunity, continues to rip right along after more than seven years of exploration.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Something Over Colorado

There's been a wave of UFO sightings in Colorado after people saw and videotaped three red lights flying in rough formation in the night sky before fading away. Skeptic Benjamin Radford suspects a hoax. He notes the lights' relative positions change slightly on the video, which argues they weren't fixed lights on a large craft, and that the lights faded away instead of snapping out. Radford suggests the lights were road flares tied to balloons, a technique used in previous hoaxes. A weakness in the UFO case in general is that sightings tend to be local events. They are sighted in one place and not seen elsewhere. Rarely can investigators track a UFO over any distance. Possible explanations range from interdimensional travel to government cover up to the more prosaic, but the pattern seems to be there.

Monday, March 28, 2011

NASA Budget Woes

This is the last week of the first half of the U. S. Government's fiscal year, and there's still no federal budget, which means NASA has no budget. The whole government has been operating on a series of continuing resolutions based on the 2010 budget. That puts NASA in a bind. Under the 2010 budget, NASA was developing the Constellation, return to the Moon, program. President Obama has since canceled that effort, but the 2010 budget is still the baseline law, so NASA is still obliged to spend money on Constellation it could better spend elsewhere. Language could be added to a continuing resolution directing NASA not to spend money on Constellation, for example, but Congress hasn't seen fit to do that. In fact, Congress has failed on the budget generally. Writing a budget is an elemental responsibility that Congress has lately declined to discharge. That needs to change, and not just for the good of NASA.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Saturn's Electromagnetic Environment

Thirty years ago, spacecraft discovered radio noise coming from Jupiter, and scientists were able to tie that noise to the rotation of the planet, using it to accurately measure the length of the Jovian day. So, when Cassini detected similar radio noise emanating from Saturn, they assumed they could do the same thing. They were wrong. Extended monitoring by Cassini has shown that the noise in the northern hemisphere of Saturn has a different rotation rate than the noise in the southern hemisphere. The noise, therefore, can not be tied to a definite, solid surface. Further, over time, the lengths of the bursts of the noise varies between hemispheres, being longer in the north, say, and cycling to become longer in the south. This radio noise seems connected to Saturn's magnetosphere. The strength of auroral activity on Saturn can be related to the radio bursts, for example. The magnetosphere, in turn, is influenced by the Sun. The changing lengths of the bursts, north to south, is corelated with the change of seasons on Saturn, from winter to spring. Scientists think the noise is a product of the high atmosphere.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Space Coaches

An interesting new idea for a manned interplanetary spacecraft is the space coach, a ship made largely of water. Such a ship would have several advantages over traditional designs. First, it would be a true spaceship, built in space and never leaving space. Instead, it would fly between Earth orbit and targets through the Solar System. Because its technology could be constantly upgraded, a coach could last decades, flying several missions. Second, space coaches would be inexpensive. A trip to Mars could possibly cost as little as one space shuttle mission. A fleet of space coaches could lead the age of interplanetary exploration.

The key to the concept is its use of water. Superheated water would provide constant, if low thrust, propulsion. Water ice would both reinforce module walls and provide excellent radiation shielding for the crew. All that water should also aid in the growing of food during flight. Finally, water is abundant throughout the Solar System-- on Mars and moons. asteroids and comets. Such ships could top off supplies-- even possibly reshape themselves-- anywhere they went.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Martian Earthlings?

Researchers are working on building a device that could detect genetic material in the soil or in the subsurface of Mars and check it against Earthly DNA to see if there are any common sequences. Since we know Mars and Earth have been swapping rocks for billions of years, scientists say it's possible life originated on one planet and migrated to the other. The device may be ready to fly to Mars by 2018.

While researchers say the device has other uses, like diagnosing diseases in space and determining how much of a threat possible Martian microbes might pose to human explorers, selling it as a way to test whether Earth life came from Mars might be a mistake politically. Even if that hypothesis has scientific merit, it seems out there with UFOs and ancient astronaut theory. In this day of tight NASA budgets, that's probably not where you want to be.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Visiting An Asteroid

With President Obama's goal of sending humans to an asteroid by 2025 in mind, scientists and engineers have begun searching for likely targets. Though there are probably thousands of Near-Earth Objects, they are finding choosing one is easier said than done.

At this stage, the group is trying to establish parameters. They want one close enough to allow for a reasonably short mission, for example-- maybe six months for the round trip. They also want to find one that is large enough that truly valuable science can be done on it. And they want one that isn't spinning on its axis too rapidly-- that would only complicate what would already be an extremely dangerous mission.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

New Earths Estimate

A study of the early data from the Kepler planet-hunting probe suggests that there could be two billion Earth-like planets orbiting within the habitable zones of Sun-like stars in the Milky Way. That number is so huge that some scientists say chances are good that life-- even intelligent life-- exists among the stars.

That's not all. Red dwarfs are by far the most numerous stars in the galaxy, and there is reason to think Earth-like worlds can be found orbiting those, as well-- which would kick the number of such worlds even higher. Further still, if Earths exist around stars like the Sun-- the study puts that rate at roughly two percent of Sun-like stars-- and if Earths exist around red dwarfs, there's probably no reason to think Earths wouldn't orbit types of stars between red dwarfs and the Sun. If that line of reasoning were to prove out, it would mean yet more Earths are out there.

Monday, March 21, 2011

AI For Rockets?

In an attempt to lower the cost of launching and operating rockets, the Japanese space agency is pursuing building artificial intelligence into launchers. Current rockets are covered with sensors that send data back to mission control, where perhaps hundreds of humans make the decisions about the flight. An AI system built into the rocket could make some of those decisions itself, improving rocket performance and cutting the number of support personnel required, thus lowering launch costs.

Japan hopes the fly the first AI launcher in 2013 and build sophistication and reliability into the system over the years.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

New Horizons Update

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, humanity's first attempt to send a probe to Pluto, is just now crossing the orbit of Uranus. It will cross Neptune's orbit in August, 2014, and reach Pluto in July, 2015.

After the encounter with Pluto and its three moons, New Horizons will proceed into the Kuiper Belt, a realm of frozen worlds, some of which might be quite large. Indeed, some astronomers classify Pluto as a Kuiper Belt object. The New Horizons management team will soon begin searching for targets in the Belt that the spacecraft can visit after it leaves Pluto.

Friday, March 18, 2011


Last night, NASA's MESSENGER space probe finally went into orbit around the planet Mercury after a roundabout 6.5 year flight. It is the first probe to orbit the planet.

Since Mercury is always so close to the Sun, as seen from Earth, it has been difficult for astronomers to study historically. If all goes well, they will learn more about Mercury during the twelve months scheduled for the orbital phase of the mission than they have through all previous history.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Iran's Space Goals

Iran recently launched a rocket and capsule into space, according to the official Iranian news agency. The capsule is designed to carry animals, and Iran plans to send a monkey into space, but this test flight carried no animals.

Iran has big plans for its manned spaceflight program. The goals are to put a man in space by 2020, and a man on the moon by 2025.

Some political analysts suspect Iran is using its space program as a sort of cover to develop a rocket capability to deliver bombs at least to Europe, and possibly to anywhere on Earth. Iran is already a strengthening regional power, and a manned program would increase the nation's prestige in the world even without taking the military step. Whether Iran would take that next step remains to be seen.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Dark Energy Strengthened

Using a camera installed on the Hubble Space Telescope during the final servicing mission in 2009, scientists have measured the rate of expansion of the universe to a higher degree of accuracy than ever before. That measurement not only confirmed the universe is expanding, but found the rate of expansion is faster than previously thought.

The study used Type 1a supernovae as markers. That subset of supernovae explosions always reaches the same brightness level. Therefore, the distance to one of these stars can be determined by comparing the apparent magnitude-- how dim the star looks-- with how bright we know them to be.

The study strengthens the case for dark energy. Simply, gravity pulls mass towards mass, while dark energy rips mass apart. This is still a theoreical force; dark energy has not yet been confirmed in Nature. However, the expanding universe seems to be a fact, and evidence seems to suggest the rate of expansion is accelerating. Something must be behind that acceleration, and, for now at least, physicists are calling that something dark energy.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Astronaut Exodus From NASA

Garrett Reisman, veteran of two shuttle flights, recently became the third astronaut this year to retire from NASA. Such an exodus shouldn't really be surprising. After the space shuttle stops flying, there will be relatively few opportunities for NASA astronauts to fly over the next few years as they will be relying on the Russian Soyuz for transportation to and from space.

Reisman, a mechanical engineer, is joining SpaceX. He will be part of the team charged with transforming the Dragon cargo capsule into a human-rated spaceship. Reisman's boss at SpaceX will be another ex-NASA astronaut, Ken Bowersox.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Rep. Giffords To Attend Launch

Last week, an encouraging announcement was made. U. S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head in January, will attend the launch of the next space shuttle mission, which will be commanded by her husband, Mark Kelly.

By all accounts, Rep. Giffords is making steady progress in rehabilitation. She is walking on her own and talking in complete sentences, according to reports.

The launch is scheduled for April.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Shorter Days

The powerful earthquake that has devastated Japan has also shortened the length of the day on Earth by slightly redistributing the mass of the planet. According to preliminary estimates, the day is shorter by something more than one one millionth of a second. That could still increase, too. Aftershocks of the primary quake have at times been major quakes in their own right, and could add to the mass shift.

The earthquake also brought Japan eight feet closer to North America.

The past few years have provided ample, if tragic, evidence of the power of a geologically active planet. Japan, New Zealand, Chile, Haiti, and several nations around the Indian Ocean have been cruelly reminded that mankind doesn''t have nearly the control we like to think we have.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Voyager 1 Still Producing

Voyager 1 is more than ten billion miles from the Sun after more than three decades in space, but it is still producing scientific data as it approaches the point where the Sun's influence is trumped by the environment of interstellar space.

Voyager is monitoring the solar wind as that wind begins what seems to be a complex interaction with what's called the interstellar wind. The probe, in fact, had to be re-oriented earlier this week to maintain contact with the solar wind-- a maneuver it hasn't been asked to perform since 1990-- and such rolls-and-holds will be necessary on a regular basis in the future.

One rough gauge of the challenge of interstellar flight is that after three decades Voyager is still in the Sun's neighborhood. It did take a roundabout route through the outer planets, but the simple fact is that the stars are still well beyond our reach.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Scientists, AI, And Interstellar Travel

It's become something of an article of faith among scientists who think about such things that intelligent machines, not biological life, will travel among the stars. They argue life like humans is simply not up to such journeys, whereas sufficiently advanced machines could deal with both the conditions in deep space and those on a new world.

There are many counters to the basic thrust of their position, but let's focus on a factor physicists should know something about-- time. Humans today are ill-suited for interstellar travel, but we're not undertaking it. Evolution works over time. In the future, any humans in position to go to the stars will be members of an incredibly rich civilization that dominates the Solar System. Economic and other factors will have led to the construction of increasingly sophisticated space settlements and. over generations, cultures and societies will have evolved to embrace life in those places-- which will be nothing like living in tin cans.

There's also the argument that intelligent machines will supplant humans as the dominant force on Earth-- perhaps quite soon. In fact, artificial intelligence is still in its infancy, and still under human control. Its development could still go any number of ways, and it's not clear that advanced AI would seek to control humans. Human urges have evolved from human experience. Will a machine that was nowhere in its history hunted by sabre-toothed cats have the urge to control its environment? Will a machine that never had to struggle for survival know from competition or ambition, fear or ruthlessness?

Perhaps the answers to those questions will be clear at some point, but no one knows them yet.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Where To Go?

The National Research Council issued a report Monday which suggested directions NASA might go with its planetary exploration program over the decade 2013-2022. First on the wish list is a Mars mission designed to study whether life ever existed on the Red Planet. Second is an orbiter of Jupiter's moon, Europa. Both of those, however, are only recommended if their budgets can be kept under control.

The NRC also suggested NASA continue its strategy of flying less expensive, more frequent missions-- this time to Earth's Moon, asteroids, Venus, and possibly Saturn and Uranus.

The report, indeed, has a focus on budgets, given the debt and budget problems of the U. S. Government. That's understandable, but might be poor strategy. Perhaps the NRC should simply lay out what is technologically feasible and scientifically important to open the debate, and then see what's politically possible.

Discovery Home

Space shuttle Discovery landed safely this morning, ending both a successful STS-133 mission and its time as a spacecraft.

This time, instead of preparing Discovery for its next mission, NASA personnel will prepare the orbiter to become a museum exhibit. Some would say that's a decade overdue; Columbia should've been preserved in a museum rather than flying until it disintegrated over Texas. Still, for all its limitations and complexities, the shuttle program has allowed mankind to accomplish extraordinary things-- proving the concept of a reusable spaceship, repairing Hubble, building ISS. Those things, and the shuttle, should be celebrated.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Heat From Enceladus

Scientists using Cassini spacecraft data have determined that the heat source powering the geysers on Saturn's moon Enceladus is several times stronger than they had thought. In fact, they now calculate the geothermal heat powering Enceladus' geysers is about 2.6 times the source powering all the geysers in Yellowstone National Park.

The presence of so much heat in the interior of the moon strengthens the case for a huge liquid water ocean within the ice shell that makes up the surface. The case for life is also strengthened. If Enceladus has a huge amount of liquid water, organic compounds, and a significant internal energy source, life may require only time and a relatively stable environment to emerge and endure.

Scientists, however, aren't sure where the heat comes from. The postulate it may be a product of gravitational tidal interactions among Saturn, Enceladus, and another Saturnian moon, Dione. That interaction may change over time, and we may be seeing a high point. Whether the ocean would reduce in size at a low point may be another question.

Monday, March 7, 2011

China's Space Station Plans

A spokesman for China's space program has announced China has a busy decade planned. First, it will master both manned and unmanned rendezvous and docking in Earth orbit. Starting perhaps in 2013, two small outposts will be launched consecutively, supporting three man crews on 20- and 40-day missions, respectively.

Then, in 2020-22, China plans to orbit a 60-ton, long-duration space station. China will open that station to scientists from around the world. Chinese docking hardware will also be compatible with ISS hardware, enabling cooperation and enhancing safety.

Sunday, March 6, 2011


Space shuttle Discovery's final mission, STS-133, has, so far, been quietly successful, just as everyone involved in such missions want them to go. Discovery is scheduled to undock from ISS early tomorrow morning after delivering a pile of supplies to the station. Discovery is slated to return to Earh for the last time March 9.

There are only two more flights in the shuttle era.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Climate Satellite Lost

Early this morning, NASA lost a satellite when the nose cone of the Taurus XL launcher carrying the satellite failed to separate, leaving the vehicle too heavy to reach orbit. It was the second consecutive failure for a Taurus XL.

The lost satellite, called "Glory," was to measure the amount of aerosols in the atmosphere-- both natural and artificial-- and to measure solar energy entering the atmosphere. Aerosols deflect escaping energy back down into the atmosphere, thus playing a role in the global warming debate, which at some point became the climate change debate. Glory was designed to get more data to allow a better basis for understanding the Earth's complex and dynamic atmosphere. Now, getting that data will be delayed.

Thursday, March 3, 2011


The second flight of the U. S. Air Force's secretive unmanned space vehicle, the X-37B, is set for tomorrow afternoon from Cape Canaveral. Of course, keeping a space launch secret is next to impossible, so the USAF doesn't really try, but it doesn't share what the X-37B does in orbit. The vehicle, which resembles a small space shuttle, complete with payload bay, launches atop an Atlas 5 rocket, but glides home, landing itself on a runway. It can stay in space for months, generating its electricity through a solar power array, which would put an upper limit on the amount of energy it requires.

The program was originally pursued by NASA, but was shifted to the Defense Department, and on to the USAF, for budgetary reasons.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Budget Manipulations

The biggest problem facing the U. S. Government today likely is getting control of spending. That likely demands at least some cuts. A government shutdown beginning Friday is still possible, but there seems to be a deal in the works to push that deadline back two weeks.

That two weeks, if all goes well, will get the government beyond the current shuttle mission, but the essential work of government would go on even during a shutdown. Supporting a manned mission already underway, like ISS, would qualify as essential work, but supporting unmanned missions and continuing research projects may not.

So, a government shutdown could have serious implications not only for NASA and its workforce, but for science, as well. Ideally, the politicians in charge will find a way through the thicket that avoids an interruption.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Planets A-Plenty

Scientists working with NASA's Kepler planet-hunting spacecraft have made a preliminary estimate of the number of planets in the Milky Way galaxy. They put the number at 50 billion, with 500 million possible Earth-like worlds.

That comes out to roughly every other star in the galaxy having one planet. That's obviously not literally the case. The Sun, for example, has eight planets (at least), and we already have evidence of other planetary systems, so in fact planets probably exist around certain types of stars and not around other types.

Still, those numbers suggest life could be common in the galaxy, and that those few species that master interstellar travel would have lots of places to visit.