Thursday, June 30, 2011

Alien Life Discovered Soon?

Many astronomers involved in the search for extraterrestrial life and the discovery of planets beyond our solar system seem to be coalescing around a prediction that alien life will be found within twenty years. There is a difference in how the big event will come about, however. Some say SETI will succeed in finding a signal from an extraterrestrial civilization, while others say the find will more likely be of simple life forms on Mars, Europa, or Enceladus.

The more will learn about the cosmos, the more it seems to be that life is likely common throughout the universe. Still, twenty years is quite the prediction. The fact that several astronomers are willing to stand by that publicly may bespeak a quiet, considered confidence-- or it may mean that, once again, the universe will prove more complex than humans imagine.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Close Call

For just the second time, astronauts aboard ISS had to retreat to Soyuz capsules as a piece of space debris roughly two inches across threatened to rip a hole in ISS yesterday. That might not sound like a huge problem, but mass that size traveling at 17,500 miles per hour packs quite a punch. Had it hit and caused major damage, the astronauts would have attempted to return to Earth. NASA estimates that, in fact, the piece came within roughly a thousand feet of the station. While NASA generally has a couple days or more warning of such a potential problem, this time it only had fourteen hours.

The incident emphasizes the dangers posed by space debris in low Earth orbit to continuing operations there. Thousands of pieces of stuff that big are zipping around, and that number is only growing as more nations and corporations reach into space; the number of smaller, still dangerous bits is in the tens of thousands.

Space agencies and aerospace corporations are working on the problem by trying to make rocket operations less messy, and by finding ways to de-orbit debris already there. The solutions to the problem are slow in coming, however. There is a small but non-zero chance that we will lose a spacewalking astronaut-- and possibly ISS itself-- to collisions with space debris by 2020.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

New USAF Satellite

The U. S. Air Force is launching a new, sophisticated reconnaissance satellite tonight. The satellite is designed to markedly increase the warfighting capability of U. S. forces.

The U. S. is increasing dependent on satellites. American military power gets an edge over its adversaries through intelligence and communications abilities using satellites. Satellites also provide a wide range of services that strengthen the U. S. economy. The need to protect such assets will, at some point, shape U. S. space policy. Protecting satellites by giving them defensive capabilities would be expensive and add complexity to an already complex craft. Therefore, likely American policy moving forward will include support for efforts to deal with dangerous debris in orbit, as well as trying to restrict the development and deployment of anti-satellite technology.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Testing SpaceShipTwo

Test flights of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo continue to progress smoothly, systematically expanding the envelope within which the suborbital spacecraft has successfully flown. June 14 and 15 saw test flights on consecutive days-- an important demonstration for a system that will have to fly regularly once operational to be commercially viable.

VG plans to continue the test flight program the rest of this year, adding powered flights of SpaceShipTwo perhaps by October. So far, all test flights have been glides, checking out systems and flight characteristics. The flight program will slow in July, allowing engineers of Scaled Composites, builder of the craft, to thoroughly analyze the data collected up to that point.

Sunday, June 26, 2011


In 2001, NASA launched its Genesis probe to capture and bring to Earth particles of the solar wind. Genesis crashed in Utah in 2004, but enough of the pristine material survived to support two separate scientific studies.

Both studies suggest Earth was not formed from the original disk of gas and dust that orbited the Sun, as has been assumed. Differences in the abundances of isotopes of nitrogen and oxygen in the Earth and the solar wind suggest there was an intermediate step that changed the composition of the planetary disk before Earth formed.

Scientists have theories about what may have happened, but further work will be needed to work out exactly what caused the change.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Flying Saucers

Today marks the 64th anniversary of pilot Kenneth Arnold's sighting of nine strange ships flying in formation in the area of Mount Rainier, the extinct volcano that towers over Seattle. His report of the incident touched off the modern UFO era.

Of course, early on, they were called "flying saucers" after Arnold's description of the flight characteristics of the objects he saw; "UFO" came into usage much later. After Arnold's report, a wave of similar reports swept the nation, leading up to the Roswell Incident about two weeks later. Since then, UFO reports, for whatever reason, have tended to come in waves.

Today, we can explain virtually all UFO reports of the first few decades of the era in Earthly terms. We also know the CIA encouraged UFO mania as a cover for the flights of its exotic spy planes. Still, there is a small core of reports that defy explanation. Often, that's because the information in the reports is not specific and detailed enough to allow hypotheses to be formed and tested. That will always be an issue for science in the field, however. There are also complex reports by seemingly capable people, sometimes with (claimed) physical evidence. What to make of those?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Salty Enceladus

Scientists using data from NASA's Cassini spacecraft have found important amounts of salt in the geyser spray of Saturn's moon, Enceladus. They found small amounts of salt in Saturn's wispy E-Ring, which is maintained by Enceladus' geyser eruptions, and higher amounts on the moon's surface just outside the geysers-- precisely the situation to be expected if the salt was erupting out of the geysers from deep within.

On Earth, ocean water is salty because of the interaction between water and the rock surrounding it, and scientists are assuming the same holds on Enceladus. Salt, therefore, is further evidence that an ocean of liquid water exists under the Enceladus ice shell, which in turn strengthens the case for life possibly existing at that moon.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

LRO Data

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has returned an immense amount of data about Earth's Moon, including enough images in enough detail to allow NASA to construct a map of the entire lunar surface of unprecedented accuracy. The images show several heretofore unnoticed natural bridges, for example. Such formations probably should be common on low-gravity worlds, but the fact remains it took LRO imaging to find many of them. LRO also reveals where large amounts of water ice might be readily available, and identifies sites that receive 240 or more days of sunshine per year-- excellent places to harvest solar power.

LRO was seen originally as a scout to help NASA identify sites for possible lunar bases. Since the launch, however, the Constellation Moonbase program has been canceled. Still, the wealth of the database LRO has built-- and continues to build-- will be a boon to planetary scientists.

It's also true that NASA wasn't the only group contemplating a lunar base. An international lunar base is still in the early talking stages. Private groups, including for-profit corporations, are also looking at possible lunar base projects. LRO data may yet be used for its originally intended purpose.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Messenger Update

NASA's Messenger spacecraft is about a quarter of the way through its scheduled mission studying Mercury from orbit, and it is already delivering surprises. Of course, scientists always seem surprised when a probe's findings don't match their preconceived notions. It's a quirk they have.

In this case, Messenger has so far gathered evidence that volcanism has played a larger role in Mercury's history than previously thought. Going along with that in all likelihood, sulphur is more abundant on the surface than imagined. Mercury's magnetic field is also different. It's shifted to the north, seemingly giving the planet's southern hemisphere less protection from the fierce solar wind.

Mercury, it's turning out, is not a bigger version of Earth's Moon, or a smaller yet denser Mars, but a unique world unto itself.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Googling Mars

Google Maps has put a database of images of the surface of Mars online, allowing anyone who wants to explore Mars to do so from their own computer, for instance. It's a cool idea-- one that plays to Google's strengths.

Inevitably, however, some people accessing the images have seen some curious things on Mars, from an alien base to a huge sculpture of Gandhi. NASA explains the alien base as a cosmic ray destroying part of the transmission of the image, creating a bright streak on the Martian plain. At higher resolution, Gandhi disappears.

People have been seeing things on Mars for more than a century. The patterns defined, however, have often not been on the Red Planet, but rather in the wiring of the human mind. To survive in the world, humans have developed a mind that seeks out patterns-- and sometimes creates patterns where none actually exists. That ability may have been critical in getting humanity where it is, but it can also lead the uncritical down some strange blind alleys.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Starship Travel

NASA is teaming with DARPA, the Defense Department's agency that manages extremely high technology-- often breakthrough-- projects, to study what would be necessary for a human journey to a star within 100 years. The agencies are calling for "big ideas" that would push such a project forward from engineers, scientists, and science fiction writers. Pursuing the project, the agencies argue, would help develop technologies that would transform both the civilian economy and the military's capabilities.

Sending humans to another star within a century is an extremely ambitious goal. At the moment, going back to the Moon or sending humans to Mars any time soon seems beyond the grasp of the U. S. Government. Going to Mars would be an epochal human event, but going to another star would be several magnitudes of difficulty-- and significance-- beyond that.

Advances in technology will be important to allow us to undertake such a project, but the real obstacles may be political and financial. With that in mind, the group NASA and DARPA intend to set up to carry the project beyond the initial study should perhaps look to bringing other nations and private enterprise into the effort.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Cassini Short Circuit

NASA engineers have shut down an instrument aboard the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn because of an electrical short circuit. The spacecraft was continuing to operate normally, but engineers, being engineers, decided they needed to understand the problem before continuing with the mission.

The instrument shut down measures electrically-charged particles in the Saturnian system; the other 11 instruments should continue to operate normally. NASA thinks Cassini will be back at full strength soon.


Iran has launched its second satellite into space. Rasad-1 is an Earth-observation satellite launched atop a Safir rocket.

Israel and other Western nations are concerned Iran is using a space program as a cover for developing rockets capable of reaching their cities. Couple that capability with Iran's continued nuclear program, and the concern increases. Iran, however, insists its nuclear program is focused on peaceful purposes, and that its goals in space are to put a man in space by 2020 and to land a man on the Moon by 2025.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Ten New Planets

France's CoRoT satellite, which is similar to NASA's Kepler, has discovered ten new exoplanets. All are Neptune-sized or larger, but they exhibit a range of other characteristics. One is barely as dense as water, for example, while another has the density of a rocky world. One orbits a star twice as old as the Sun, while another orbits a star that is roughly 600 million years old-- a babe in the cosmic woods. Two have elongated orbits, which is interesting because such orbits are thought to be unstable.

These ten bring the number of confirmed exoplanets to 565.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Gingrich On Space

In the Republican presidential debate on CNN last night, a citizen, not a reporter, asked Newt Gingrich what he would do about the U. S. space program. Gingrich gave something of a fuzzy answer-- not uncommon by politicians in these things-- but essentially he said he would de-emphasize NASA and depend more on private enterprise to open up space. He also said he's a supporter of space exploration. His response was consistent with answers he gave this blogger in an email interview a few years ago.

The debate was in New Hampshire, which is not a part of the country especially associated with the space program, so it's interesting the question was asked at all. Likely, none of the professional journalists involved would have asked the question.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Nine Billion Miles

NASA's two extraordinary Voyager spacecraft are now pushing through the edge of our Solar System-- a turbulent region of magnetic bubbles-- and heading into interstellar space. They will be the first manmade objects to leave the Sun's domain.

In numerical terms, the edge of the Solar System turns out to be roughly 9 billion miles away. That's yet one more fact the Voyagers have established. In an odd coincidence, according to projections, by mid-century the human population of Earth will be about 9 billion. By that time, the Voyagers may have reached true interstellar space.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Virgin Flight Tests

Virgin Galactic's series of flight tests for its SpaceShipTwo suborbital spacecraft is progressing well. Test flight objectives have progressed to testing the "feathering" mechanism of the craft, which will allow it to maintain stability through the high atmosphere as the ship returns to Earth. Future flights will test the mechanism at higher and higher altitudes.

SpaceShipTwo is designed to carry six passengers and two pilots. VG hopes to begin commercial flights sometime next year.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Asteroids And Life

A new study of pieces of a meteorite that dropped into Canada's Tagich Lake in 2000 suggests more of the basic building blocks of life may exist in asteroids than previously thought.

Researchers studying various sections of the 22 pounds of material obtained from the meteorite have found different concentrations of organic compounds, sugars, and acids in the various sections. That kind of variety in one body was unexpected, and may strengthen the case for life arriving on Earth from elsewhere.

That theory has been around for a while now. That the current water supply on Earth was delivered by comets after the new planet had begun to calm down is probably generally accepted by scientists today, so the idea that life could have arrived in a similar fashion can't be ruled out-- especially given the affinity between Earth life and water. Pushing Genesis somewhere out into the cosmos is not intellectually or emotionally satisfying, however. We may never know for certain exactly where and how we got our start. It is science with a mystical edge.

The Sun Acts Up

As human life depends on a stable Sun, astrophysicists like to think they understand the basics of solar behavior. So, when the Sun does something they've never seen before, they scramble to explain it.

Such an event happened June 7, when a moderate solar flare coupled with a huge coronal mass ejection. Scientists don't know yet if the two occurrences are somehow physically linked. The CME was also a bit odd. Usually, the mass ejected in such an event is in fact ejected-- blown out into the Solar System. This time, however, a big part of the mass ejected from the Sun actually fell back into the Sun. Scientists don't know yet why that happened, either, but they'll probably be working on it for years.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Budget Problems For MSL

NASA's Mars Science Laboratory project has been plagued by budget overruns virtually from the start, and, according to a report by the agency's independent Inspector General, those problems not only continue, but they threaten the November launch date. NASA says it agrees with the report and its conclusions, and is working to solve the problems.

MSL is a highly complex mission meant to study whether Mars is now or ever has been habitable. Its Curiosity rover will be the largest, most capable rover yet sent to another world. MSL already missed a launch window in 2009, and if it can't launch this November or December, the next launch window isn't for another 26 months. Delaying again would cost even more money.

Mapping Luna

Using altimeter data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, scientists have put together the most detailed topographical map of the lunar surface to date. The true, established roughness of the surface suggests the Moon's past was even more violent than scientists had thought-- and they'd already thought it was pretty violent.

The new map can also help those planning to settle Luna. By identifying areas that are permanently in shadow, and therefore constantly cold, the map can tell us where water ice might exist on the surface-- a key to the success of future outposts and settlements.

Monday, June 6, 2011


Scientists have recently discovered worms living deep within the Earth-- thousands of feet under the surface, in fact. They had expected to find no life at all that deep, or, at best, bacteria or single cell organisms. In comparison to such things, the tiny worms found are absolutely huge.

The discovery makes finding life on other worlds more plausible. Life deep under the surface of Mars, especially, is given a boost. If these worms can exist so deep within Earth, as the reasoning goes, something similar might exist deep within Mars.

Of course, this discovery is simply the latest in a string in which life has been found in supposedly extreme environments. Virtually everywhere on Earth scientists have looked for life, they've found it-- and sometimes when they haven't been looking for it, life has made itself obvious. The worms, therefore, maybe should not have been such a surprise. They do remind us, however, that we are nowhere near able to define exactly where life might thrive and where it will not.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Copenhagen Suborbitals Succeed

An amateur rocketry group called the Copenhagen Suborbitals has successfully launched a rocket from a platform floating in the Baltic Sea. The group had hoped the rocket would reach ten miles altitude. In fact it only reached two miles, but the group still said this first test flight was a success.

The goal of the Copenhagen Suborbitals is to develop an extremely inexpensive launch system capable of carrying indiviiduals on suborbital flights. That's quite a goal for an amateur group, and the Suborbitals clearly have a very long way to go in that regard. Still, they are off to a solid start.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Milky Way Twin

Astronomers have found a galaxy that looks to be the twin of our Milky Way. It is NGC 6744, and it's 30 million light years away in the southern sky.

Looks can be deceiving, however. NGC 6744 is actually about twice as big as our home galaxy.

The Sounds of Titan

When we contemplate other worlds, we rarely include sounds. Often, that's reasonable. Sound requires an atmosphere, so worlds that lack atmospheres will be silent.

Saturn's moon Titan, however, has an atmosphere that is thicker than Earth's. It produces storms. It has methane rain. The surface of Titan could be a noisy place. Scientists are currently trying to understand what sounds there might be like so they can build instruments for future Titan probes which will be able to listen. Specifically, they're interested in detecting thunder. Thunder implies lightning, and lightning jolting the organic compounds of Titan could spark the creation of life.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Endeavour Finally Home

Space shuttle Endeavour came home for the final time early this morning, making a rare night landing on the long runway at Cape Kennedy. Potentially, that might be the last time a shuttle will use the runway.

Endeavour will soon be headed west, where it will be displayed at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.