Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Deflecting Asteroids

Two new studies look at how we may deflect asteroids that threaten to collide with Earth. A Chinese study suggests using solar sail technology to deliver a probe to an asteroid at the appropriate time. Solar sails, they say, would allow a much higher speed impact than conventional rockets could muster, thus producing a more powerful blow. A European study also suggests slamming a probe into an asteroid at high speed to deflect it into a different orbit, but also proposes a second probe to study the asteroid and monitor the effectiveness of the impactor.

Both studies, therefore, rely on violent measures to accomplish the deflection. That might be necessary if time were short, but if we could act decades before the predicted collision with Earth, that giant solar sail could be attached to the asteroid and slowly change its orbit. In that case, we would be in constant control of the process, and we could ultimately place the asteroid wherever we wanted it.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Powering Colonization

Scientists at the U. S. Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory have developed a small, safe nuclear reactor that could power bases or colonies on the Moon, Mars, or elsewhere. The reactor is about the size of a suitcase and would produce 40 kilowatts of power-- not terribly much, but more than NASA has available for space missions now, and enough to power an early base or small colony.

A model of the reactor will be built next year. If it works as well and as reliably as projected, this development could be a big step towards enabling eventual human settlement throughout the Solar System.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Cold, Wet Early Mars

By looking at the geochemistry of the lowlands in the northern hemisphere of Mars compared to land in the southern hemisphere, a new study suggests early Mars was cold and wet, complete with an ocean over the northern polar region.

The study splits the difference between the two current leading pictures of early Mars-- one cold and dry, the other warm and wet. The new picture envisions an ocean of near freezing water flanked by glaciers and with perhaps part of the ocean iced over.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Close Supernova

Astronomers were lucky enough last week to catch a supernova in the earliest stages of the explosion. This supernova is a Type 1a, the kind astronomers use to measure distances in the universe. It turns out all explosions of this type reach the same absolute magnitude, so the observed magnitude can be directly related to distance. Astronomers believe a Type 1a occurs when a white dwarf becomes too massive to support itself and explodes.

This is the closest supernova observed since 1986, and astronomers have already noted details in the process they've never seen before. Not to worry, though-- this supernova is still 21 million light-years away, in the Pinwheel Galaxy.

Friday, August 26, 2011

More UFOs On History

There was a time when programming on The History Channel focused on, well, history. The cable television network, though, seems to be getting farther and farther away from at least conventional history, presumably in search of higher ratings.

Last evening, the featured prime time offering on THC was a new documentary on UFOs. The program featured reports on some of what it called the best documented and most credible cases-- Rendelsham Forest, the Phoenix Lights, the Belgian Wave, and others. The program also pointed out how easy it is today to fake UFO images and video by using software to manipulate such things.

All in all, it was an interesting program. Assuming the facts presented were correct, the documentary made a good case for taking the study of UFOs more seriously. Of course, having to assume facts are good is a problem. Perhaps the next THC effort in this area should feature both UFOlogists and skeptics and weigh which side has the stronger grasp on reality.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Progress 44

The launch failure of the Russian Progress 44 cargo mission earlier this week has some U. S. officials concerned about relying on Russian technology to carry American astronauts into space. The launcher involved in the failure is an unmanned version of the rocket used to launch manned Soyuz capsules, and the mishap is the latest in a series of failures of various Russian launchers over the past several months.

That said, the Soyuz, on its record, is the safest spacecraft yet built, which also means its launcher has been extremely reliable. In any case, if astronauts are to fly to ISS over the next few years, the Soyuz is the only game in town. That's due to nothing the Russians did, but to the failure of U. S. policymakers to properly plan a transition beyond the space shuttle.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

NASA Science Fiction

NASA is teaming with a leading publisher of science fiction novels, Tor/Forge, to create a series of novels that feature NASA science and technology. The stories will showcase how NASA is relevant to everyday life, as well as describing technology the agency is working on for the future. Writers involved with the series will be given special access to NASA scientists and engineers, databases, etc.

The idea behind the project is to present a positive image of NASA to the reading public while also inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers much as science fiction inspired earlier generations. Those stories were told by writers like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradury, and Gene Roddenberry, however-- writers who had no contractual relationship with NASA to produce positive stories. This new project has at least the potential of producing NASA propaganda. All involved will have to work to avoid that.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Martian Life Perhaps More Likely

A new study using data from NASA's recent Phoenix Lander mission suggests that the soil on Mars may be friendlier to life than previously thought. Scientists had thought the soil contained a harsh oxidizing component which would tend to break up essential stuff like DNA molecules, but the Phoenix data argues the soil on Mars is no more hostile to life than the soil at some places on Earth.

Phoenix also confirmed water ice exists under the Martian surface, and recent orbital images suggest that water might seasonally flow on the surface, at least in some specific sites, even now. Taken all together, the case for life on Mars-- in the past, and even in the present-- seems to be strengthening.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Unstable Planetary Systems

A new study looking at the formation of planetary systems suggests habitable planets like Earth may be rare.

Planets form by coalescing within disks of gas and dust orbiting a young star. The study argues that if a second such disk interacts with the first during that formative phase, an unstable planetary system can result in which planets follow odd orbits, hot Jupiters dominate, and worlds the size of Earth are thrown into deep space. Since most stars form in multiple star systems, the chances of such disk interactions are fairly high, which might mean other Earths are rare.

Of course, rare is relative. The galaxy is so huge that even if Earths are rare in percentage terms, in absolute numbers there could still be thousands or millions of them.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Reading Alien Minds

New research looking at what aliens might do if they found us sets out a range of possibilities, from wiping us out to helping us solve our major problems. It's interesting speculation, and probably a good way to publish an article, but it tells us precious little about aliens.

That's because we know nothing at all about intelligent aliens. We don't know what they would be like. We can assume aliens from different planets would be different one from the other; talking simply about aliens, therefore, probably misses a big point. On the other hand, many theorists argue if we ever physically meet ET, it will likely be in the form of intelligent machines. Machine civilizations may well be more uniform in structure, outlook, and approach than biology-based societies. We can also assume a star-hopping civilization will be incredibly wealthy in comparison to us.

Speculating about aliens is interesting, but it says more about what the speculator thinks about Us than anything about Them.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Designing Life For Mars

Geneticist Craig Venter, who led a team that successfully mapped the human genome a decade ago, and more recently led a team that created the first synthetic life, is currently working on creating a life form that eats carbon dioxide.

Venter says the primary reason for his current project is to find a way to counter global warming on Earth. Carbon dioxide, of course, is a major greenhouse gas. Venter also made the point, however, that such carbon dioxide eaters could also make Mars a more hospitable place for humans. By gobbling up the CO2 in the Martian atmosphere and producing biofuels and the raw material for a plastics industry, for instance, such synthetic life forms could help build the first human settlement on Mars.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Amino Acids And Life

Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, which are, in turn, the building blocks of life. On Earth, all life uses only 20 amino acids, even though there are hundreds found in nature. Scientists have long wondered how only the 20 found their way into living molecules, and whether other amino acids could play a part in life elsewhere.

A new study suggests the 20 amino acids in Earth life are there because they functioned slightly better in the primordial environment than other combinations of acids. Natural selection, then, shaped Earthly biology even before there was Earthly biology.

This suggests that life on an Earth-like world elsewhere could be made of the same stuff we are, right down to the amino acids. On the other hand, a slightly different environment at the beginning could result in life forms that use a different mix of amino acids.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Comet Elenin

Comet Elenin is currently whipping through the inner Solar System. It seems to be an average-sized or smaller comet which may or may not become visible to the naked human eye. Its closest approach to Earth will come in October, but that approach will be roughly 22 million miles distant.

All in all, Comet Elenin would have been an unremarkable visitor at other times, but we are approaching the 2012 Doomsday prediction of many New Agers, and some have said the coming of Comet Elenin marks the beginning of the end. So many people have been concerned about that possibility, as evidenced by Internet activity and emails to NASA, that the space agency has released public statements assuring people that this comet poses absolutely no threat to Earth.

Of course, those who believe the Mayans knew something that we don't about how the universe operates likely won't be comforted by NASA's statements, but everyone willing to go by evidence and modern science can relax.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Vibrating Gloves

Wearing gloves that vibrate during surgery may not sound like a really good idea for a surgeon, and much less for the patient, but a new study indicates it might be. Researchers say tiny vibrations can stimulate the nerves in the fingertips, making them hypersensitive. That could be very useful for surgeons performing delicate proceedures.

It could be useful in other situations, as well. One other profession that could potentially benefit from such vibrating technology is an astronaut. During spacewalks, astronauts can be called upon to perform delicate tasks in bulky, pressurized gloves. If sensitivity could be transmitted from the fingertips of spacesuit gloves to the digits inside, the most dangerous thing an astronaut does in space could be made more productive, quicker to accomplish, and, therefore, safer.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Pursuing Technology

NASA is facing severe budget restraints for as far as rhe fiscal eye can see, but the agency is supporting small projects aimed at developing technology that will be necessary for future ambitious missions. The approach is very much in line with President Obama's policy of building a space infrastructure that will support long term human presence in space at some point down the spacetime road.

Two such NASA projects are trying to develop improved landing gear that could be used on either probes to other worlds or manned craft to those worlds. The agency is also looking at various in-space propulsion technologies that would bring the planets closer.

Private corporations and nonprofit organizations are likewise working on such technology. With the various efforts moving ahead, this century may yet see the maturation-- not the end-- of The Space Age.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Hypersonic Test Flight Fails

The second test flight of a hypersonic craft being developed by the Pentagon lost communication with the ground last week before crashing into the Pacific. The unmanned vehicle was designed to crash into the ocean, but in both test flights so far, communications were lost.

The craft is designed to fly at Mach 20, which is faster than computer simulations can reliably model. Test flights, therefore, are important-- the data gathered will shape our understanding of what it takes to fly at such speeds.

The goal of the Pentagon program is to develop a craft that can reach anywhere on the planet within minutes. Inevitably, however, if that goal is achieved, it will also influence the future of long distance transportation on Earth as well as the ability to reach low Earth orbit cheaply and regularly.

Friday, August 12, 2011

ATA Coming Back

The Allen Telescope Array, the only astronomical observatory in the world devoted primarily to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, was shut down in April due to a lack of funds. Now, however, more money has been raised, and ATA should be back hunting alien radio signals in a couple of months.

Donations came into the SETI Institute, which operates ATA, from the general public. Institute scientists take the donations as evidence of public support for SETI research. The money so far collected will keep ATA up and running through the end of the year.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Opportunity At Endeavour Crater

NASA's amazing rover, Opportunity, has reached Endeavour Crater after a three-year drive over rugged Martian terrain. That drive began after Opportunity had already survived on Mars for four years.

Endeavour is the largest crater Opportunity has encountered so far, but the rover will likely not drive down to the crater floor. Rather, the current plan is to study rocks on the crater's rim. They seem to be different than rocks so far examined. Clays also seem to be present on the rim, and scientists are eager to study those. Clay is an indicator that liquid water existed in the area at some point, so studying the clay of Endeavour could produce another data point in the building case that Mars was once wetter and warmer than it is today. That, in turn, would strengthen the case that life could have existed on Mars.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Seeding NewSpace

NASA has let two-year contracts totaling $10 million in value to seven American NewSpace companies that call on the companies to fly scientific payloads and researchers on suborbital flights reaching 62 miles out, which is regarded as the edge of space.

The dollar amount isn't overly impressive, especially when spread among seven companies, but NASA is trying to use it as seed money to encourage the development of technologies and capabilities necessary for our continued expansion into space.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Large Moons And Life

Physicists have held over the past few decades that Earth's large moon has played an important role in the development of life by stabilizing Earth's axial tilt, thus helping to maintain consistent climate regimes to which life could adapt. A new study, however, suggests that while the Moon has indeed played that role, life-- even intelligent life-- could probably have arisen without the gravitational influence of a large moon.

According to the study, data argues that the gravitational influence of the other planets, but especially that of mighty Jupiter, would have kept Earth's axial tilt relatively stable even absent the Moon.

If this new view is correct, it has profound implications for the likelihood of extraterrestrial civilizations. Under the big moon theory, perhaps only one percent of all Earth-like worlds within the habitable zone of its parent star would have a large moon. Therefore, ET civilizations would be rare. But if planets in a solar system-- especially a Jupiter-sized planet-- could stabilize the climate on an Earth-like world, perhaps 75 percent of those worlds could be potential homes of civilizations.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Flying CST-100

Boeing has decided that the Atlas 5 will be used to launch its new manned spacecraft, the CST-100 (hopefully the company eventually gives the craft a snappier name), and plans the first manned test flight of the capsule for late 2015. The CST-100 will carry up to seven people and is designed to be reusable, with each capsule flying up to ten times. The spacecraft is to be tasked to deliver cargo and crew to low Earth orbit, either to ISS or to private space stations now on the drawing boards.

Boeing is also looking for pilots to fly the CST-100. One obvious pool of candidates for those jobs is NASA astronauts, who no longer have an American ride into space. Boeing says it will welcome former astronauts into its program, but will consider other candidates, as well.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Space Fuel Depots

NASA has let contracts to four companies to study the concept of establishing fuel depots in space. NASA and many space advocates argue such celestial gas stations will be necessary for both deep space exploration and space colonization. Indeed, the space policy of the Obama administration emphasizes building infrastructure to support a long term human presence in space.

The four companies will look at strategies for establishing a system of depots, as well as define the technologies required. Perhaps the key problem to overcome is determining how to store super cold rocket fuels for extended periods in the glare of the Sun. Of course, creating such a system assumes chemical rockets will be the workhorses of the transportation system. Ion engines will likely power slow cargo ships into deep space relatively early in that coming era. Solar sails will also probably have a role. For faster flights, nuclear-powered rockets will be used in decades to come. Until then, however, chemical rockets will take us wherever we go, and those will be more efficient if we have fuel depots at key points in space.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Juno On Its Way

NASA successfully launched its Juno spacecraft yesterday. In five years, if all goes well, Juno will reach Jupiter and insert itself into an elliptical polar orbit around the giant planet.

Juno is scheduled to spend one Earth year orbiting Jupiter and studying its internal structure, including its magnetic and gravitational fields. At the end of its mission, the probe will be deliberately crashed into the planet to preclude any possibility of it ever crashing into one of Jupiter's moons that might harbor life.

The decision to crash into the planet is curious. Surely there is an orbit it could be put in that would keep the probe away from the moons, and which would allow it to be retrieved at some point in the future. That would have historical and, presumably, scientific value. Beyond that, life somewhere in Jupiter's vast and complex atmosphere is not completely out of the question. So, mission planners are making the judgment that life on one of the moons is more likely than life in Jupiter's atmosphere. Whether we know enough yet about life, or the moons, or Jupiter itself is another matter.

Friday, August 5, 2011

New Evidence For Martian Water

Scientists studying images taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have found slopes on the surface of Mars have channels that seem to have been cut by liquid water flowing on the surface. The channels appear in lower lattitude areas, where temperatures can climb to levels that would allow liquid water to exist. Further, the channels seem to change with the seasons, drying up in winter and expanding in the spring, a pattern consistent with water freezing in winter and flowing again in the warmer springtime.

Science has been comfortable for several years saying water ice existed in the Martian polar caps and underground. The channels in the slopes suggests liquid salty water has flowed recently on the surface-- and may exist even today, at least near the equator during the warmer seasons. "Warmer" in a Mars context is relative, of course. The land that may support this water is similar to permafrost in Siberia.

Flowing water, of course, increases the chances for life on Mars. Perhaps even more importantly, it increases the chances for life in places we could reach easily, first with rovers and later with human explorers.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Musk On Mars

Elon Musk, founder of and driving force behind SpaceX, recently reiterated in public has goal of sending humans to Mars within 20 years, if not sooner.

Musk says astronauts could make the trip in a Dragon capsule. That probably needs more thought. Technically, he may be right, but people living in a capsule for that long? Dragon needs to be the taxi taking the Mars crew to a large interplanetary ship assembled in space-- perhaps using Bigelow inflatable module technology.

My two cents.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Twenty Miles For Opportunity

NASA's Mars rover Opportunity recently passed the twenty mile mark in its travels across the Martian surface. That's a remarkable achievement for a vehicle that was meant to travel only 0.37 miles in its original, 90-day mission. That mission has become a more than seven year trek.

Opportunity's goal for the past couple of years has been the 14-mile wide crater, Endeavour. Scientists believe Endeavour's outcroppings hold significant data about the geological history of the planet. When Opportunity was first pointed towards Endeavour, it was a goal no one was sure Opportunity could reach. Now, it should reach the crater in just a few days.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Taurus 2 Delay

The initial flight of Orbital Sciences' Taurus 2 rocket will be delayed two months, into December for now, as the company works a fuel line problem. Such delays are not uncommon in the development of new rockets, and OSC says this delay will not materially affect its overall program.

The Taurus 2 rocket and the Cygnus capsule are OSC's answer to SpaceX's Falcon 9/Dragon configuration. Both companies are working with NASA to build systems able to deliver cargo to ISS.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Dawn Begins Work

NASA's Dawn spacecraft, in orbit around the huge asteroid Vesta, has returned its first close-up images. They show the surface of Vesta in unprecedented detail, revealing a world battered by impacts, but also a world shaped by internal processes.

Dawn will begin streaming back other kinds of data this month, and the plan is for Dawn to photograph Vesta from three different orbits over the next year, giving planetary scientists different perspectives on the surface features and how they inter-relate.