Sunday, July 31, 2011

Red Dragon

NASA scientist Chris McKay and his team are working with SpaceX to develop a low cost unmanned mission to Mars using the company's Falcon/Dragon stack. In the concept, a Dragon capsule would deliver a large science payload to the surface of Mars. The major experiment of the mission would look for prebiotic compounds by drilling three feet below the surface in a region known to have underground water. If NASA gives the project a green light, it would launch in 2018. McKay informally calls the project "Red Dragon."

SpaceX has other plans for Mars, as well. It is developing the Falcon Heavy, a heavy-lift launcher that could throw a Dragon to Mars. That rocket could be ready by 2015. SpaceX founder Elon Musk has said the company intends to send an astronaut to Mars within a decade or two. A private company undertaking such a project might have an advantage in being able to focus resources without having to worry about Congress. On the other hand, SpaceX is in business to make a profit. How a private manned mission to Mars could make enough money to cover the cost of the enterprise, let alone turn a profit, is not immediately clear. If SpaceX were able to develop a business model that allowed manned planetary exploration on an ongoing, profitable basis, however, that would be a fundamental turning point in the human expansion into space.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Moons And Life

A new study of the chaotic early solar system suggests that only about ten percent of terrestrial planets will have a satellite comparable to Earth's Moon. Because the Moon's gravitational influence serves to stabilize Earth's axial orientation, thus tending to help produce predictable climates over some long term, scientists argue that such large moons are important to the development of life. If so, and if only ten percent of terrestrial planets have large moons, some argue, life may be relatively rare in the cosmos.

Well, the study suggests that arrangements like the Earth-Moon system are rare. In fact, any specific arrangement is rare, and the more exacting we get, the more rare that arrangement becomes. It's perfectly possible to define ourselves into uniqueness. The study puts a rough number to a situation already understood, however, and that is useful.

The past few decades have hosted a revolution in our understanding of life's ability to adapt to and thrive in seemingly hostile environments, so we should careful in suggesting life, or even civilization, could not survive on a world in which the climate radically changed over hundreds of thousands or millions of years. Such a situation may produce life that is aggressive, resourceful, and keenly intelligent. Understanding that Earth-like life may well be only one strand in the fabric of life in the universe is probably a good idea, too.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Sulfur And ET

Scientists trying to develop techniques to find life on exoplanets similar to Earth have added sulfur to their quiver. Since some molecules on Earth eat sulfur and release sulfurous oxide, for example, they reason finding either of those in the atmosphere of an Earth-like exoplanet could suggest life.

Of course, sulfur would be only one marker. Evidence of photosynthesis occurring would be an obvious indicator of possible life, for example. Since oxygen quickly combines with other elements, the presence of free oxygen in an atmosphere would suggest some process is constantly replenishing the oxygen. That process may be life.

The spectroscopic signature of a vibrant biosphere is likely to be extremely complex. Teasing several markers from the data instead of relying on any single one will probably be what finally clinches the case for science.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Trojans of Earth

Trojan asteroids are asteroids that orbit in the same orbit as a planet, but 60 degrees ahead of or behind the planet. Jupiter has perhaps hundreds or thousands of Trojans. Mars has some. Until this year, however, no Trojans of Earth had been found.

That has changed. The asteroid 2010 TK7 has been confirmed as an Earth Trojan. It's a body about a thousand feet across, and leads Earth through space. Actually, this particular little world has a complex orbit that is also extremely inclined to Earth's path, but for all its gyrations 2010 TK7 maintain the relative position to Earth that classifies it as a Trojan.

Finding more Earth Trojans, in simpler orbits, would be a real boon. Such bodies, in terms of energy requirements, would be easier to reach than the Moon. If NASA wants to send humans to an asteroid as a precursor of missions to Mars, therefore, going to an Earth Trojan might be the ideal choice. Trojans could also contain huge amounts of useful and valuable natural resources. Given that, coupled with their energy proximity, Earth Trojans could easily become home to the first human bases beyond the Moon. Of course, first we'll have to find more of them.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Speeding Up SpaceX

NASA and SpaceX are quickly moving towards an agreement to speed up the shakedown of the company's Falcon 9/Dragon stack. The plan originally called for SpaceX to demonstrate Dragon could rendezvous with ISS on one flight, and actually dock with the space station on a second flight. Now, however, if final agreement is reached, both of those milestones will be attempted on the next flight, scheduled to launch in late November.

Assuming the new plan works out, it will bring forward the time when Dragon can begin delivering cargo to ISS. That, in turn, may hasten the day Dragon ferries humans to and from low Earth orbit.

Monday, July 25, 2011


Haumea is a curious denizen of the Kuiper Belt. Cigar-shaped, it's about 1,200 miles long, and astronomers have recently determined it is largely covered by crystalline water ice, as is at least one of its moons. The fact that it's crystalline water ice is important because water molecules so organized imply a nearby heat source. In the case of Haumea, scientists think the heat source likely is radioactive elements under the ice.

If the Haumea system is in fact rich both in water and in elements that could fuel nuclear reactors, it might become an important base in centuries to come as humans venture into the outer Solar System and beyond.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Gale Crater

NASA has selected Gale Crater as the landing site for its Mars Science Laboratory, which features the huge, sophisticated Curiosity rover. MSL is due to land on Mars in August, 2012.

Gale is a large crater-- 96 miles across, with a three mile high central peak. It also has a fascinating geology. Many features strongly suggest the presence of liquid water on the surface for extended periods of the past, for instance. The central peak also looks to be geologically layered. If Curiosity can reach the peak, scientists believe the layers can tell them the geologic history of Mars going well back in time just as sediment layering on Earth tells geologists about our world.

Given the timescales accessible for study in Gale coupled with the likely presence of past water, scientists believe the crater is also an excellent place to pursue the question of whether life ever existed on Mars.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Viking On Mars

Seven years to the day after the first manned landing on the Moon, Viking 1 successfully soft-landed on Mars. The Viking program, which included two landers, gave science its first comprehensive, close-up view of the Red Planet.

Viking also conducted the first search for life on Mars, and the results have been fussed over ever since. Three experiments were designed to look for life, and before the mission scientists generally agreed that positive results in any of the three would be taken as proof of life. In fact, positive results were obtained, but the majority of scientists backed away from embracing a momentous conclusion that might eventually be proven wrong, preferring explanations of the results based on Earthly contamination of the landers or non-biological processes. It was the conservative approach-- which may also have been correct. Still, a small minority of scientists to this day think Viking may well have found life on Mars.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Shuttle Era Over

Space shuttle Atlantis safely landed early this morning at Cape Kennedy, thus ending the shuttle era.

No doubt predictably, the shuttle program has gotten more attention from the major networks' nightly newscasts during this last mission than it has since the Columbia tragedy more than eight years ago. Watching how-- or if-- those news organizations cover NASA astronauts hitching rides on Soyuz capsules will be interesting. Similarly, watching for coverage of the development of new manned spacecraft by NASA and by private companies will by an indicaton of how seriously the media takes space policy-- and by extension, how interested the media think the American people are in it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Four Moons For Pluto

The Hubble Space Telescope is best known for looking deep into space, collecting images that have helped shape our present understanding of the universe. It can also be useful closer to home, however.

In 2006, Hubble was used to find two small moons of Pluto to go with the large one already known. This summer, Hubble has identified a fourth moon that is even smaller. Astronomers put it at anywhere from 8 to 20 miles across. They speculate that the moons were formed when a large body slammed into Pluto. That may be, but so far from the Sun, with so few large bodies roaming such a vast volume of space, such collisions must be much less frequent than they are in the inner System.

The New Horizons probe is currently on its way to Pluto, to arrive in 2015, so we should get a close-up view of Pluto and its emerging family of moons fairly soon.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


The United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, has entered into an agreement with NASA to work with the space agency to determine how quickly the Atlas 5 rocket can be upgraded to launch spacecraft carrying humans.

So far, the Atlas 5 has a 100% performance record since 2002 launching satellites.

This effort would aim at getting American astronauts flying aboard American commercial spacecraft, launched by the Atlas 5, as soon as possible. Speculation is that the Atlas 5 could be man-rated in three or four years. If successful, the effort could provide competition to both the Russian Soyuz and SpaceX's Falcon 9/Dragon stack, thus, hopefully, reducing the cost of human spaceflight and bringing in more competitors.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Atlantis Headed Home

Space shuttle Atlantis undocked from ISS this morning and is scheduled to land on Thursday at Cape Kennedy.

With that landing, the space shuttle era of spaceflight will be over. The shuttle did not achieve the goals of the program, for various reasons, but it did give us a glimpse of a future based on reusable spaceships. The challenge now is to reach that era as quickly as possible.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Dawn Enters Orbit

NASA's Dawn spacecraft became the first space probe to orbit a Main Belt asteroid last night as it slipped under the gravitational influence of the large, bright asteroid, Vesta.

Exactly when Dawn entered orbit is unclear as Vesta's mass, which determines the strength of its gravitational field, is not precisely known. That will be nailed down soon. Also to be determined is why Vesta is so bright.

After studying Vesta, Dawn is scheduled to move on to the even larger asteroid, Ceres-- which in fact is currently classified as a dwarf planet.

Friday, July 15, 2011


This year marks the 165th Earth year since the human discovery of the planet Neptune. That comes out to one Neptunian year.

Neptune is the first planet discovered after a deliberate attempt to find it. Using Newton's Laws to analyze the orbit of Uranus, two mathematicians independently concluded that another large planet was gravitationally acting on Uranus, and they worked out where in the sky that planet should be. Astronomers pointed telescopes in that direction, and quickly found Neptune. It was a stunning demonstration of the power of science and mathematics to understand the universe.

Nearly a century later, similar reasoning led to the search for Planet X, which culminated in the discovery of Pluto by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. Pluto, however, never really measured up, and it was eventually decided that there were in fact no unexplained irregularities in the motion of Neptune. Serendipity also plays a part in scientific discovery.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Bolden On Capitol Hill

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden testified before Congress this week, arguing for funding for both a new heavy-lift vehicle and the James Webb Space Telescope. Given the state of federal finances, Bolden has a couple tough sells.

Congress has in fact ordered NASA to build a new heavy-lift launcher, but, with the cancellation of the Constellation Moonbase program, critics contend there is no need on the horizon for such a big rocket. To the extent that argument is seen as credible, it could be used to save money in these tough times.

The same holds for JWST. Bolden argued the follow-on to the Hubble Space Telescope could produce discoveries even more profound than the ones Hubble enabled. First, that's a tall order, however well supported the statement may seem. Second, the JWST program has been plagued by slipping schedules and cost overruns. In a period of extremely tight money, that wouldn't seem the type of program likely to win support.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Cutting Satellites

The U. S. House may vote today to cut funding for two satellite programs of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Part of the money saved may go to a different satellite program that is backed by the White House.

Of course, the House vote is just one step in the process. The Senate gets its say, too, for instance. Still, a willingness in the House to cut satellites that would have focused on Earth may not bode well for NASA, with its focus on other worlds.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

JWST In Trouble

The James Webb Space Telescope, a huge, orbiting infrared telescope designed to take up where the Hubble Space Telescope leaves off in deepening our understanding of the universe, is in jeopardy of being canceled. The program is both far over budget and behind schedule, leading the House committee writing NASA's budget to stop funding JWST in the early phases of hammering out the next budget.

Though only preliminary, the committee's decision has upset a large part of the science community. While that's understandable, the current fiscal state of the federal government has to be acknowledged. Keeping JWST is still possible, but its backers will have to deal with the political realities of the moment.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Dawn At Vesta

After four years in space, NASA's Dawn spacecraft is finally approaching the Main Belt asteroid Vesta. Dawn will go into orbit around Vesta, thoroughly map its surface, and determine its composition.

One of Dawn's first tasks will be to search for a moon or moons orbiting Vesta. A few smaller asteroids are known to have one or two moons, so Vesta, one of the largest asteroids at 330 miles across, could well have company in its travels.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

CNN And Space

This morning, CNN interviewed Charles Bolden, NASA administrator. Bolden said he expects U. S. astronauts to be flying into space aboard commercial American spacecraft by 2014 or 2015. CNN also provided live coverage of Atlantis docking with ISS.

The network further featured an interview with Myles O'Brien. O'Brien was CNN's science and space correspondent for years-- until CNN disbanded its science and space unit. O'Brien suggested that since most television journalists have educational backgrounds in history, political science, or some other social science they don't understand space projects and the physical sciences, so they don't, as a group, see the value of space exploration. That partly explains, he said, why coverage of space has declined over the decades since Apollo-- though he also pointed out that public interest in space seemed to have peaked with the safe return of Apollo 11.

In the years ahead, O'Brien said the excitement in space will be in the commercial space arena. We will see how CNN and the other televison networks cover that.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Shuttle And The Media

Throughout this past week, as the launch of the final space shuttle mission approached, the major television networks covered the upcoming event as it only rarely covered the program over its thirty year run. Partly, that was NASA's fault. The agency had sold the program to Congress as a way to make human spaceflight "routine." The shuttle did nothing of the sort, of course, but NASA flew it well enough that the television networks gave shuttle missions less and less coverage. They seem to have bought NASA's line, if only because doing so may have fit their overall business strategy. Only occasional events-- the repair of the Hubble Space Telescope, the twin tragedies of Challenger and Columbia-- brought the networks back full steam.

That distance from the program, and from space in general, may have helped shape this week's coverage. For instance, the program has been scheduled to end around this time for several years, yet a focus of the coverage was how many shuttle workers were going to lose their jobs. True, the present economic situation has made the situation worse, but NASA, the rest of the federal government, and the workers themselves had time to plan-- perhaps the networks missed a story somewhere back there. If U. S. astronauts depending on the Russian Soyuz for access to space somehow seems wrong, perhaps the networks missed another story a while back. A more consistent approach to covering policy in general and space in particular-- as opposed to concentrating on drama-- might be more useful.


The final space shuttle mission got off to a smooth, successful start yesterday as Atlantis launched into a cloudy Florida sky before a huge crowd of onlookers.

The mission of STS-135 is to deliver enough supplies to ISS to take the station through 2012.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Launching Atlantis

Florida's fickle weather is plaguing the space shuttle program right to the end.

Atlantis is scheduled to lift off Friday on the final shuttle mission, but weather forecasters say there's a 70 percent chance of storms in the area. There's also a 60 percent chance of storms Saturday, but that drops to 40 percent Sunday.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


Transformers: Dark of the Moon was a major box office success over the holiday weekend. The movie, of course, involves an alien invasion of Earth, which has been a favorite science fiction theme of Hollywood for decades. Advances in special effects technology also encourage such stories, allowing spectacular scenes to be credibly depicted.

The transformers of the title are, of course, intelligent machines. Many scientists speculate that our first contact with extraterrestrials will, in fact, be with intelligent machines. Machines, they argue, are better able to deal with the rigors of spaceflight than biological life forms are. Further, machine intelligence, once created, will quickly blow by biological brains. Once artificial intelligence starts designing computers, the pace of progress will quicken.

Will spacefaring intelligent machines be aggressive, acquisitive, political? For a while yet, at least in Hollywood, they probably will be.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Growing Galaxies

Scientists have generally thought that the main way galaxies increased in size was by merging, or by bigger galaxies swallowing up smaller ones. A new study suggests that accounts for only a small percentage of the growth. Most of it, instead, comes from a steady accumulation of gas.

Gravity is the key. A large gravity field will tend to bring nearby gas, and other stuff, under its sway. That, in turn, adds mass to the galaxy, further strengthening the gravitational field and allowing the capture of more gas. The incoming gas is the fuel that ignites and supports star formation.

It's a less dramatic, more systematic approach to the building of the cosmos we know. In that sense, it echoes the gradualism versus catastrophism debate in geology. We know Earth has suffered catastrophes that have profoundly changed the planet, just as we know galaxies do in fact merge, but slow processes may have a greater influence on the final product.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Dream Chaser

The Sierra Nevada Corporation is developing the Dream Chaser spacecraft, which is designed to ferry humans to and from low Earth orbit, launching on a rocket and landing on a runway, much like NASA's space shuttle. While it borrows from the shuttle, it also has a more interesting history.

In the early 1980s, U. S. assets recorded the Soviets recovering a small, sleek spacecraft, which seemed to be an answer to the American shuttle. (The Soviets also built Buran, a close cousin of the shuttle, which flew precisely once.) NASA engineers were given photos of the small craft, and they began to "reverse engineer" it. That effort was so successful it developed into the NASA project, the HL-20. The HL-20 was eventually canceled, but the work done on that project serves as the basis of the Dream Chaser program.

SNC-- which is based in Colorado, not near the Sierra Nevadas-- plans to have a short test flight of Dream Chaser in 2013 and an orbital flight in 2014.