Friday, September 30, 2011

Killer Asteroid Count

NASA's WISE spacecraft, which uses the infrared part of the spectrum to gather data not available to visible light, has found 93 percent of the near-Earth asteroids that are one kilometer in diameter or larger. Those are the rocks that could potentially end all life on Earth in a collision. WISE has also found far fewer rocks 100 meters in diameter and up than expected.

All that is good news, but keeping track of all these objects will still be necessary-- and there's still that last 7 percent of the really big boys to find.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Tiangong 1 Launched

China has successfully launched Tiangong 1, a space station module that will serve as the target as China develops its rendezvous and docking capabilities. It also houses biological and engineering experiments.

Tiangong 1 is a first step towards building the 60-ton space station China plans to have in orbit by 2020.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

UARS Nailed Down

With the help of the Pentagon's Joint Space Operations Center, NASA has been able to announce where pieces of its huge UARS satellite fell. It turns out the pieces fell over a wide area of the South Pacific, well away from any large landmass.

Immediately after it was clear UARS had re-entered-- because NASA knew it was no longer in space-- the space agency announced it may never know where the surviving pieces of UARS came back. The Pentagon, however, has tracking assets NASA lacks because it is charged with monitoring near-Earth space, searching for possible national security threats. Obviously, those assets would be geared to track objects re-entering Earth's atmosphere.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Solar Radiation Threat

A new study suggests that superstorms on the Sun-- powerful magnetic storms associated with sunspot activity-- could damage satellites orbiting Earth more than previously thought, and the damage could be cumulative, continuing to degrade sensitive satellite electronics for years after the initial event.

Such damage would affect everything dependent on satellites-- communications, weather forecasting, resource identification, military uses, etc. Economic and security situations could be negatively impacted. Increased radiation shielding for satellites is one solution, but that would be expensive. Another solution may be to build more, simpler satellites, so if one stopped functioning a spare would be ready to go. That approach might even strengthen the aerospace industry.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Primordial Black Holes

Primordial black holes are, in theory, tiny black holes left over from the Big Bang. No such object has yet been confirmed, but physicists and astronomers are looking for them.

When black holes and stars physically interact, it's generally not good news for the stars. Primordial black holes are so small, however, that they would pass through a star instead of gobbling it up. In passing through, it would cause something like ripples on the surface of the star, and it's those ripples that scientists want to see. By studying those ripples, they could learn about the interior of the star, and, a new study suggests, get a better handle on the nature of dark matter.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

UARS Falls To Earth...... Somewhere

You'd think, with all NASA's assets, tracking a 6-ton satellite through a fiery re-entry all the way to the surface wouldn't be a particular challenge. Apparently, you'd be wrong.

NASA knows its giant UARS satellite fell to Earth because it's clearly no longer in space, but the space agency doesn't know exactly where it fell. The best estimate is somewhere in the Pacific, short of the North American coast. That estimate is partly based on the fact that there have been no reports of any debris crashing on land-- therefore, it crashed into the ocean. NASA says it may never know where the pieces of UARS that made it to the surface actually came down.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Debating NASA's Future

Neil Armstrong, Eugene Cernan, former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, and the GRAIL mission's Dr. Maria Zubor all testified before Congress this week, and all decried the state of NASA's human spaceflight capability. Cernan, the last Apollo astronaut to stand on the lunar surface, seemed particularly riled. He urged Congress to bring the space shuttle back to operational status so the U. S. can meet the commitment it made to international partners to keep ISS functioning. All four argued for a long term strategy for human space exploration.

Given the state of federal finances and the apparent inability of the current crop of Washington politicians to deal constructively with major concepts, however, NASA may well be without a guiding, coherent vision to pursue, not to mention adequate financial resources, for quite some time.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

UARS Re-Entry

NASA is refining where pieces of its huge UARS satellite will return to Earth, but it still can't pinpoint the exact location. The when, however, seems to be sometime Friday afternoon, EDT. In that case, North America would be outside the possible impact zone.

NASA computer models predict perhaps 26 chunks of the satellite will actually reach the surface, and the odds are good most if not all of those will hit water. The space agency doesn't think it will be able to predict with precision where the pieces will hit until about two hours before impact.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

China Set To Launch

China is preparing to launch the first module of its planned space station. Delayed by the recent failure of a rocket similar to the one scheduled to lift the module, the launch is now slated for sometime next week.

The principal task of the module, which weighs 8.5 tons, is to help the Chinese develop the capability to rendezvous and dock spacecraft-- essential for doing anything meaningful in space. At some point, the module will also host medical and biological research.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Hunting Snoopy

The Faulkes Telescope Project, based at the University of Glamorgan in Wales, uses robotically-controlled telescopes to engage students and amateur astronomers in serious astronomical research. The latest challenge put forth by the Project is surely among the most demanding-- find the Apollo 10 lunar ascent module. Find Snoopy.

The Apollo 10 crew named the module "Snoopy," and named the command module "Charlie Brown." Apollo 10 served as the final check before the first manned lunar landing was attempted-- successfully, as it turned out-- on Apollo 11. NASA typically crashed the ascent modules into the Moon after their jobs were done, but for whatever reason, it didn't do that with Snoopy. That means Snoopy should still be somewhere in lunar orbit. NASA hasn't kept track of the craft over the past 42 years.

The Project acknowledges the chances of finding Snoopy aren't good, but points out the attempt will no doubt find faint asteroids and perhaps comets, so good science will come out of the effort even if Snoopy remains elusive.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Planet Orbiting Two Stars Found

NASA's Kepler planet hunting spacecraft has made a particulary interesting discovery-- a Saturn-sized world that orbits two stars, not just one.

Such worlds have been popular among science fiction writers for decades, but this is the first example of the arrangement found in nature. Now that one has been found, astronomers expect to find others.

The next step will be working out how planets form in such orbits. Current planetary formation theory works well enough with one star, but adding another star, and therefore another powerful gravitational influence and a competing solar wind, would seem to complicate the process. In the case discovered by Kepler, both stars involved are smaller than the Sun. The relatively low energy in this specific developing system might be a factor in explaining the planet's current orbit.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

UFO Spike

The Mutual UFO Network reports UFO sightings virtually doubled in August compared to the usual average rate. Over a thousand sightings were reported that month.

Over the latest six decades or so, at least, the UFO phenomenon has been marked, even sustained, by a series of such spikes, or "flaps." There are many possible explanations for that pattern, from the mundane-- people tend to look at the sky more when space-related news is prominent, as coverage of the retirement of the space shuttle was last summer-- to the exotic-- the time between spikes is related to transit time from Wherever to Earth.

One possible explanation of the entire phenomenon has been stress. The modern UFO period roughly arose alongside the Cold War. Social scientists have suggested the stress of living with the threat of possible nuclear annihilation may have led some people to embrace stories of spectacularly advanced aliens coming to Earth. Well, the American jobless rate is extremely high. The economy is struggling. People are worried about keeping their homes and their futures. In late July and early August, the U. S. Government looked unable to function. That's stress.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Funding James Webb

After the House voted last summer to cancel the James Webb Space Telescope project, which is vastly over budget and behind schedule, a U. S. Senate subcommittee voted this week to give the project $150 million more than the White House requested.

JWST is to be the follow-up to the Hubble Space Telescope. Just as Hubble has sparked a revolution in our understanding of the universe, the science community insists JWST will lead another revolution. How that factors into the federal debt problem is unclear.

Of course, the full Senate committee, and then the full Senate itself still have to vote on JWST, and if the project survives that it has to get through the reconciliation process, where differences in House and Senate bills are worked through, before finally, possibly, getting to President Obama's desk.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

SETI Gearing Back Up

Last April, the SETI Institute shut down its radio telescope array in Hat Creek, California, due to lack of funds. New money has been coming in since, however, and the search for alien radio signals will resume shortly.

When it does, among the first targets will be super-Earths found by planet hunters. That number has now reached 70, including the 16 announced by the European Southern Observatory in Chile earlier this week. Unfortunately, the most interesting of that 16, a world 3.6 times as massive as Earth which seems to orbit within its parent star's habitable zone, is below the horizon at Hat Creek, but SETI researchers are still excited by the discovery of so many planets.

Some scientists, indeed, now calculate that SETI will succeed in finding an alien signal within 15 to 20 years.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

SLS Unveiled

NASA announced today its concept for the new Space Launch System, the rocket mandated by Congress to be built to launch future manned missions into deep space. SLS will be the most powerful rocket since the legendary Saturn V. The first test flight of SLS, which is budgeted at $10 billion, is scheduled for 2017.

Critics of SLS contend that since the cancellation of the Constellation Moon program SLS is a heavy-lift rocket without a purpose. They also point out that private industry is developing a heavy-lift capacity that NASA could use at lower cost than building and maintaining its own new rocket.

In making the announcement, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden noted the SLS program would support "millions" of good-paying jobs. Whatever the technical merits of SLS might be, its fair to wonder how many members of Congress who support the program do so because they see it as a high-tech jobs program.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Exoplanet Count Up To 600

With the announcement yesterday by the European Southern Observatory of its finding of 50 more exoplanets, the total count of planets orbiting other suns has been pushed over 600.

NASA's Kepler Planet Finder spacecraft has also identified 1,200 candidate worlds waiting to be confirmed or shown to be false positives. Plus, technology to this point has only allowed the detection of large exoplanets. As technology improves and techniques are refined, smaller worlds-- Earth-sized and even smaller-- will begin to turn up. Likely, there are many more small planets than there are big ones.

It's becoming clear, therefore, that the universe is awash in worlds of a huge range of sizes, masses, and characteristics. Working out the details of how the cosmos is put together will keep scientists busy for a very long time.

Monday, September 12, 2011

More Exoplanets Found

The European Southern Observatory announced today it has discovered 50 new exoplanets, including 16 super-Earths. A super-Earth is a rocky planet similar to Earth, only more massive. They are as close as current technology allows astronomers to get to finding truly Earth-like worlds, though that situation is rapidly changing.

One of those super-Earths is particularly interesting. At 3.6 times Earth's mass-- among the smallest exoplanets yet found-- this world could orbit within its parent star's habitable zone, which means it could potentially support life. The parent star is similar to our Sun and is only 35 light-years away.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

GRAIL On The Way

NASA successfully launched its twin GRAIL lunar probes yesterday. The goal of GRAIL will be to conduct the most sophisticated study of the interior structure of the Moon yet attempted. Scientists think that understanding the Moon inside out will help them to understand the evolution of rocky planets generally.

The two probes will work together to map the Moon's gravitational field. They will constantly exchange signals while in lunar orbit, and by studying the variations in those signals, scientists will be able to see fluctuations in lunar gravity, which they then will be able to relate to the Moon's interior structure-- one of several techniques to be used.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Look Out Below

NASA's Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite, launched aboard the space shuttle in 1991, will re-enter Earth's atmosphere in late September or early October.

UARS is 35 feet long, 15 feet in diameter, and weighs 6.5 tons. Computer models suggest, however, that only about a thousand pounds of that will reach the ground. That's still quite a bit of stuff, but NASA points out no one has ever been injured by such falling debris.

Exactly where that debris will hit is not yet clear, but NASA is closely monitoring the satellite's path, and will refine its projections of where and when the debris will reach the surface right down to the event, and will keep the public informed.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

T-Plus 45 Years

On September 8, 1966, Star Trek premiered on NBC with Captain James T. Kirk commanding the Federation starship Enterprise. The original series aired only three seasons, but that was long enough to build a fan base that demanded the show be continued in some way. It was, first as feature films starring the bridge crew of the television series, and later as several new television series. Star Trek: The Next Generation, like the original series, also had a good run in the movies.

The lasting appeal of the concept has been the subject of much discussion. Clearly, every television producer would love to hit upon a fictional universe that explodes into a multi-billion dollar industry encompassing television, films, novels, etc. Part of the appeal of the original series can be put down to the excitement engendered by the Space Race of the 1960s, but that wouldn't seem to account for the show's ongoing, worldwide popularity. That seems more due to the show's portrayal of an optimistic future in which mankind has come together to solve its myriad problems and is engaged, with other races, on a wonderful journey of discovery.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

More Apollo Pics

NASA has released another batch of images of Apollo landing sites taken by its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. The new images show the sites of Apollo 12, Apollo 14, and Apollo 17 in unprecedented detail as LRO swooped to within 14 miles of the lunar surface.

Among the details distinguishable are the lunar module descent stages, the lunar rovers the astronauts drove, the instrument packages left by the astronauts, and the tracks left by both the rovers and the astronauts on foot. Studied closely, the two types of tracks can be separated. It's a remarkable historical record-- and one with scientific value. Scientists can now pinpoint where specific samples were taken, for example.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Future Spacesuits

NASA is looking at developing a new spacesuit design that would simulate the effects of gravity on the astronaut wearing it. The suit would anticipate the astronaut's movements, and resist those movements. NASA hopes the resistance will simulate gravity to the extent that it will allow astronauts to retain their coordination during long spaceflights.

NASA is pursuing the project with Draper Laboratory and MIT, and hopes to have a prototype suit ready within a decade.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Curiosity Contamination Concern

A new study says the risks of contaminating Mars with Earth bacteria could be higher with the upcoming Curiosity rover than with previous rovers.

The difference involves differing landing strategies. Up to now, rovers have landed on a platform and haven't come into physical contact with the Martian surface for hours or days. That gave the harsh Martian environment time to kill whatever microbes might have survived the long spaceflight from Earth. Curiosity, however, will not land on a platform. Instead, it will land directly on its six wheels, thus giving whatever live microbes it might contain immediate access to Mars.

Of course, odds are any Earthly bacteria that make it to Mars won't survive long in any case.

Curiosity is scheduled to land on Mars in August, 2012, after months in space.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Blue Origin Failure

Blue Origin, the NewSpace company founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, lost a suborbital vehicle during a test flight last week. According to Bezos, the vehicle developed a "flight instability" problem and had to be destroyed by the range safety team.

Also according to Bezos, the company will push ahead with its plans. Blue Origin is working on both a suborbital and an orbital craft, and has contracts with NASA. It plans to develop a spacecraft that will ferry humans to and from low Earth orbit.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Space Junk Study

A new study of the problem of spent rockets, dead satellites, and smaller bits of debris cluttering up orbital space around Earth suggests the problem may be at or near a critical phase. Even if no more junk was left in orbit, the stuff already there could be enough to initiate a cascade of crashes that in the worst case could render orbital space essentially useless.

The study calls on NASA to give the problem a higher priority and more resources. Of course, given the current fiscal problems of the U. S. Government, getting more resources for NASA may be about as difficult as solving the space junk problem itself.