Friday, April 29, 2011

Endeavour Delayed

The final launch of the space shuttle Endeavour, scheduled for this afternoon, has been delayed due to a malfunction of one of its three power units. Dealing with the problem will delay the launch for at least 48 hours.

Endeavour will deliver an astrophysics experiment, as well as tons of supplies, to ISS as NASA continues to prepare the space station for the post-shuttle era.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Flying To The Moon

Space Adventures, which has been selling trips to ISS aboard Soyuz capsules for ten years, is close to flying the first private manned mission to the Moon. The flight would use a Soyuz, which was originally intended for lunar missions, although no Soyuz has yet left Earth orbit. SA's offering would not include a lunar landing, but the travelers would get views of the lunar surface as yet seen only by Apollo astronauts.

SA needs two people to buy tickets before it can schedule the flight. One person has already committed, and SA expects to have a second sometime this year. That done, the flight could take place within three to five years. Cost of a lunar trip? Somewhere in the nine figures-- maybe $150 million. All things considered, as they say on the radio, that price tag, coupled with factors like physical fitness, no doubt cuts the pool of potential buyers way down.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

SETI Slashed

The economic downturn and budget cuts have, at least temporarily, halted the largest and most sophisticated search for radio signals from alien civilizations. The SETI Institute has closed its Hat Creek, California, facility of 42 radio telescopes due to funding problems.

The SETI Institute is a non-profit which gets part of its money from the National Science Foundation; Congress has cut the NSF budget. Another part of SETI funding comes from the University of California-Berkeley, which has had to cut its support due to California's state budget woes. That leaves SETI dependent upon private foundations and individual donors.

The Institute is currently talking to the U. S. Air Force about USAF funding in exchange for using Hat Creek to help track space debris-- a far cry from the facility's original, dedicated purpose.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Orbital Tourism

With suborbital commercial flights scheduled to commence relatively soon, a new study says the orbital tourism industry could be worth $100 billion in a few decades if the price of a ticket for a two week stay can be brought down to $500,000 apiece, or less.

To do that, the study says, requires the development of a completely reusable two-stage-to-orbit craft capable of carrying 40 passengers. Such a craft, according to the study, would lower the cost of reaching orbit to the point that $500,000 tickets would be profitable in a world with enough wealthy people to buy thousands or tens of thousands of such tickets per year. Key to such a craft would be the scramjet-- an engine that operates like a high performance jet in atmosphere and becomes a powerful rocket when the atmosphere is left behind.

The study could be too conservative. As reported in this blog recently, a British firm is currently developing the Skylon, a single-stage-to-orbit reusable space plane. A manned version of the earliest Skylon would carry 30 people. Skylon, too, is propelled by a scramjet-- and that engine is set for critical tests this summer. Assuming all goes well, the company plans to have Skylon in commercial service by 2020.

Monday, April 25, 2011


Since, or before, the IAU demoted Pluto from planet status, astronomers have been trying out different designations for certain bodies in the Solar System. One of those is Vesta, known for a couple centuries as the second largest asteroid. It does orbit, after all, in the Main Belt of asteroids between Mars and Jupiter. At 320 miles in diameter, Vesta is much smaller than several moons, and much smaller than Pluto.

On the other hand, Vesta is more than a big rock. It has evolved, developing an internal structure complete with a radioactive core and mantle. Some scientists want to call it a protoplanet-- a planetary core that never attracted enough additional mass to reach true planethood.

NASA's Dawn spacecraft will arrive at Vesta in July, going into orbit around it. The plan is to spend a year studying Vesta. Maybe after that we'll know what to call it.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Sex In Space

Have humans had sexual intercourse beyond Earth? There have been rumors, but a Russian official has recently said he's sure it hasn't happened on the Russian side. NASA has been flying mixed gender crews since 1983-- including at least one married couple-- but the agency insists no sexual intercourse has ever taken place on American flights, either. Astronauts back that up. If true, the program-- not to mention the married couple-- missed a golden opportunity to learn how microgravity may, or may not, affect the human sex act.

This is not just about giggles and sighs. Before humanity can settle the Solar System, we must understand the necessary conditions for procreation. There is evidence that mammalian fetuses do not develop normally in microgravity, for example, but we don't know if that goes for humans, nor do we know how much gravity is required for normal development. Would Mars' roughly 1/3g be enough? Would the Moon's 1/6g? Would pregnant women need special gravitational environments? Does gravity bear on the vitality of sperm? Such questions need answered before we can build a spacefaring civilization.

Friday, April 22, 2011

A Wetter Mars

A new study shows there is 30 times the amount of carbon dioxide in the ice cap over the south pole of Mars than previously thought. That suggests a warmer Mars had a thicker atmosphere than it does now, which also means liquid water could have existed on the surface. That, in turn, suggests conditions were better for life on Mars.

The climate of Mars seems to go through a roughly 100,000 year cycle of wet and dry periods. We just happen to be seeing the planet during a dry period. It is interesting to speculate how the history of the development of science and philosophy would have been different had we first encountered Mars during one of its wet periods.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Project Red Rocks

Lockheed Martin space planners have developed a plan called "Project Red Rocks" which would use the tiny Martian moon Deimos as a stepping stone for a manned landing on Mars itself. The plan calls for the first human expedition to the Martian system to land on Deimos. Not only would the crew explore Deimos, it would also tele-operate a fleet of rovers on the Martian surface. Since astronauts on Deimos would be running the rovers instead of someone way back on Earth, the exploration could cover more ground more quickly.

Using Deimos as a base would also be simpler than attempting a human landing on Mars, and soil samples from Mars could be sent to Deimos for initial study, thus guarding against sending potentially dangerous alien biology back to Earth.

LM's planners have developed an interesting approach to the early days of human Mars exploration. Eventually, of course, Deimos will not be enough; humans will want to explore and likely settle the planet. Going to Deimos first, however, could be a good start.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Distributing Orbiters

It has long been settled policy that once the space shuttle program ends, the shuttles would head to museums around the country to be put on display. Recently, NASA named museums in New York City, Washington, D. C., and Los Angeles, along with the Kennedy Space Center, as recipients of a shuttle. The four orbiters include the remaining three that have flown in space plus the Enterprise, which never flew a space mission.

Everyone is not pleased with NASA's choices, however. People in Houston, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio-- and therefore their representatives in Congress-- are particularly miffed. One of their arguments is that New York has never been particularly associated with the space program, which is largely true, whereas Dayton has a renowned air and space museum, and Houston is, after all, Houston. NASA counters by arguing more people would get to see the shuttle if it were in New York. There is also some reason to believe that NASA Administrator Charles Bolden made the final decision on who got a shuttle at the very last moment, possibly just to get it done, which rankles some people who worked hard in the process NASA laid out.

Will the decisions be changed? Probably not, but in Washington these days, who knows?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Alien Radio Waves

No, not alien radio signals. Signals suggest someone or something is doing the signalling. A new study suggests that radio waves, however, can help us detect exoplanets.

Gas giant planets like Jupiter and Saturn are natural radio emitters, the result of the interaction between charged particles in the upper atmosphere and the planet's magnetic field. For that reason, radio noise is often associated with aurorae on such worlds. The new study argues that a radio telescope targeted on low frequency radio waves could detect such radio noise around other stars, thus helping to find new planets.

Happily, a radio telescope capable of detecting low frequency waves is coming online in the Netherlands later this year.

Monday, April 18, 2011


Britain has not been a major player in space up to now, but that might be about to change. A British company, Reaction Engines, is developing the Skylon space plane, a huge vehicle capable of carrying a ten ton payload to orbit, that would take off from and land on a runway. This would be the elusive single-stage-to-orbit craft space advocates have dreamed about. Key to the project is a powerful engine that is a jet in atmosphere and a rocket above that. A critical test of the engine is slated for June. If that test is passed, the project will bolt forward. The company is aiming to have Skylon in commercial service by 2020.

Sunday, April 17, 2011


Space Shuttle Endeavor is scheduled for its final launch April 29. Once again, the launch has been delayed more than once. Launch delays have been a consistent weakness of the shuttle program. Sometimes delays have been due to the fickle Florida weather, but more often they've reflected the complexity of the technology involved in the shuttle program. Even though the innards of the orbiters have been updated over the program's thirty year run, the basic system has not changed, and it is that complexity that both allowed the shuttle to fly at all and kept it from becoming the regular launch service originally promised. Today, several private companies are working to develop commercial, dependable launch systems. They are trying to keep the systems as simple as possible.

Friday, April 15, 2011

NASA Money

The agreement that averted a government shutdown last week funds the government through the rest of the current fiscal year. NASA's overall budget for the fiscal year was set at $18.45 billion. The agreement also finally, formally cancels Constellation. However, the agreement also directs NASA to continue developing the Orion spacecraft and to build a heavy lift launcher. Both of those were key elements of Constellation's return to the Moon effort, but the heavy lift launcher, some argue, now has no mission.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Early Galaxies

A new study has found evidence that galaxies were forming a mere 200 million years after the Big Bang, much sooner than previously thought. That fact, if confirmed, would force physicists to revise their theories about the nature of the earliest epoch. Of course, physicists have only been working on the universe we know today for a few scant decades, and even then they've been working with an incomplete data set and a similarly incomplete knowledge of the basics of extremely high energy physics, so it shouldn't be a shock that some current ideas will have to be revised. Others, no doubt, will turn out to be precisely wrong.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Increasing The Pace

With the retirement of the space shuttle later this year, SpaceX says NASA wants it to speed up the development of its Dragon cargo capsule so that it can begin delivering supplies to ISS next year. Without that, according to SpaceX, NASA said it may have to de-man ISS for periods due to a lack of supplies. That would almost certainly be seen generally as a huge step backwards. It would also be inexplicable. NASA and the other ISS partners have known for years the shuttle program was coming to an end. They should have planned well enough for that end to allow the continued operation of ISS without a last minute push to guarantee a supply capability.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Human Spaceflight At 50

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the first human spaceflight-- and the 30th anniversary of the first space shuttle launch. In that twenty years, we went from the small capsule of Yuri Gagarin to the huge, capable shuttle of John Young and Robert Crippen, but at the cost of limiting humanity to low Earth orbit after some forays to the Moon. Since then, human spaceflight has focused on learning to build and operate space stations, and on demonstrating humans can do real work in space. The Hubble repair mission, for example, was a remarkable example of human ingenuity that led directly to a new understanding of the universe. While the first 50 years were dominated by government run programs, the next 50 years of human spaceflight may well be dominated by private sector efforts. If that happens, we'll likely see a welter of spaceship designs. We'll also see the first true human spaceships-- vehicles built in space that will only ever operate in space. When those ships are ready, the opening of the Solar System to human exploration and commerce can begin in earnest.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Alan Or Yuri

History will forever record that Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, not American astronaut Alan Shepard, was the first human in space. Some historians argue, however, that it could have gone differently. They say that Shepard's mission was probably ready to go by March, 1961, but program managers decided on one extra test flight of the Mercury-Redstone rocket stack, which pushed Shepard's flight back to May 5. Gagarin flew April 12. How might history have changed had Shepard gone first? Possibly, not much. Shepard's mission was suborbital while Gagarin made one orbit of Earth. So, if Shepard had flown in March, all else being the same, Gagarin's orbital flight in April would have quickly trumped the American achievement. A young, aggressive President Kennedy may well have still seen the need to demonstrate the superiority of the American model, and of American technology. The Space Race may still have been run.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Ice Volcanoes On Titan? Maybe Not

In December, NASA researchers announced they had good evidence that ice volcanoes existed on Saturn's huge moon, Titan. Now, however, in a new study, other researchers say there is little evidence for that, and that the preponderance of the evidence suggests the surface features of Titan can be explained as the result of the action of wind, rain, and meteor impacts. An interesting point, however, is that the second group says the surface of Titan resembles the surface of Jupiter's moon, Callisto. Callisto may not have ice volcanoes, but neither does it have an atmosphere, so wind and rain were not factors there. So, the resemblance has to ignore the atmospheric sculptors. Whether Titan has ice volcanoes or not may have to wait for a future mission there.

Friday, April 8, 2011

ISS And Mars

In a recent speech, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden argued his agency is on its way to a manned mission to Mars, and that ISS is a crucial tool to help us get there. He said ISS will be the test bed for technologies and techniques necessary for a Mars flight. Space advocates have argued for years the primary role of ISS should be precisely that. Given the budget problems of the U. S. Government far into the future, however, saying NASA is headed to Mars is a tough sell. True, President Obama has said he expects to see humans going to Mars in the 2030s, but presidential expectations do not constitute policy. The Obama policy that, the President maintains, will lead to Mars is being debated in Congress, and the outcome of that debate is still unclear.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Asteroid 2005 YU55

This coming November 8, Asteroid 2005 YU55 will whip past Earth just inside the orbit of the Moon. In cosmic terms, that's a very near miss. While there is little to no chance of a collision this year, 2005 YU55 is one of the asteroids astronomers are watching closely; at some point down the road, it could pose a threat to Earth. It is big enough to do extraordinary damage if it hit us. Massive enough to have pulled itself into a sphere, 2005 YU55 is 1,300 feet across. While not a civilization killer, a body that size could wreak havoc on a regional scale. Astronomers are planning to use the November approach to study the asteroid in unprecedented depth and detail, employing some of the most advanced astronomical tools on the planet in an attempt to thoroughly understand a body humanity might have to deflect away from Earth someday.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Falcon 9 Heavy

With two successful launches of its Falcon 9 rocket under its corporate belt, SpaceX is now developing the Falcon 9 Heavy-- essentially a Falcon 9 with strap-on boosters. SpaceX says Heavy would be about half as powerful as the legendary Saturn V. Heavy would thus be able to propel private missions to the Moon, for example, though a mission might require more than one launch and assembly of the lunar ship in Earth orbit. A private lunar base isn't just a theoretical possibility, either. Bigelow Aerospace, for example, is looking at establishing just such a base using its inflatable module technology. BA's base would be designed to support tourism, scientific research, and commercial enterprises. SpaceX says the Falcon 9 Heavy could be ready by 2013. The company is also looking at a super heavy configuration which would be 50 percent more powerful than the Saturn. Such a rocket would not only be able to launch Moon missions, but Mars missions, as well.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Space Debris Threat

In 2007, China destroyed one of its own satellites in a demonstration of its anti-satellite capability. Today, the crew of ISS is having to take shelter in the docked Soyuz capsule while a piece of that destroyed satellite comes perilously close to ISS. In 2009, a Russian COSMOS satellite and a commercial Iridium satellite collided. Last Friday, given more warning time, ISS was moved out of the way of a piece of COSMOS-Iridium debris. The two incidents emphasize the threat space debris poses to the continued use of low-Earth orbit. Hopefully, a manned spacecraft will not have to be destroyed before a robust plan to deal with space debris is put into action.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Asteroids And ETs

A new search strategy for finding extraterrestrial civilizations that have spread into space involves studying the asteroid populations around other stars. The premise is that as a civilization enters space it will use asteroids as a physical resource, and we might be able to detect a difference between a natural asteroid population and one that is being exploited for industrial use. For example, a lack of industrial metals in asteroids could suggest mining. Similarly, scarcity of large asteroids could imply a civilization found it more economical to mine and disassemble large bodies, thus leaving only smaller asteroids. Unusual heat in an asteroid belt could also mean industrial activity. None of those would be proof of ET, but-- especially if all three are found in the same solar system-- such indications could be flags telling us to look closer.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Space Debris Radar For Europe

The European Space Agency is developing plans for its own radar system to track space debris in low Earth orbit. As ESA looks to operating more spacecraft, it sees the need to be able to track potentially dangerous objects in orbit. The system is to be deployed between 2012 and 2018. Currently, Europe depends on the U. S. tracking system, but with the space debris problem becoming more serious, having a second system monitoring it is probably a good idea. Already, ISS has to dodge debris four or five times a year.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Ring Ripples

Two new studies indicate certain ripples in the ring systems of Jupiter and Saturn can be traced to debris associated with comets that struck the rings. The ripples studied in Jupiter's dark, sparse rings, for example, could be traced back to the Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 debris cloud. Scientists think studying such ripples can give them a better idea of the number of comets in the Solar System, as well as a better understanding of exactly how dynamic an area the outer Solar System is.