Monday, October 31, 2011

Boeing At KSC

Boeing and NASA have reached an agreement to lease one old space shuttle hangar at Kennedy Space Center to Boeing. The company will use the hangar as the place to build and test its new commercial manned spacecraft, the CST-100.

The agreement is for fifteen years, and both Boeing and NASA hope to have the CST-100 operational by 2015.

Sunday, October 30, 2011


A new study shows that the Kuiper Belt object Eris, which orbits the Sun about three times farther out than Pluto, has almost exactly the same diameter as Pluto. The discovery of Eris in 2005, when astronomers thought it was actually larger than Pluto, led to the demotion of Pluto to dwarf planet status.

The new study also finds Eris is roughly 27 percent more massive than Pluto, which makes it much denser-- implying a rocky core of some size under the ice field that seems to cover the entire world.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

THE WAY OUT Possiblity

Both Elon Musk of SpaceX and Robert Bigelow of Bigelow Aerospace are interested in someday sending people to Mars. SpaceX is making progress towards man-rating its Dragon capsule, but flying to Mars in a capsule-- even in linked capsules-- seems impossible from the standpoint of keeping a human crew healthy and sane. BA's inflatable module technology, on the other hand, could build large, capable, true spaceships for pushing into deep space.

See the possibility? Dragon could take the crew to the big, multi-modular Mars ship, which could then fly to the Red Planet. Another Dragon capsule could land on Mars. Now, if only we can figure out how to make a buck from such an enterprise-- preferably, lots of bucks.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Dragon Safety

NASA has approved the design of the crew escape system of SpaceX's Dragon capsule, bringing it a step closer to carrying humans into space.

The company claims its escape system makes Dragon the safest human spacecraft ever designed because the system is integrated into the overall design of the capsule. The rockets used to propel Dragon away from the Falcon 9 in case of an impending launch disaster will also be used eventually to bring Dragon down on land rather than in water, and could even land Dragon on another world.

Both NASA and SpaceX hope to have Dragon carrying crews to and from ISS by mid-decade.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Asteroid 2005 YU55's Close Approach

An asteroid 1,300 feet in diameter will pass by Earth at roughly 200,000 miles at closest approach on November 8. That's closer than the Moon gets. Astronomers, both professional and amateur, are organizing to take full advantage of the rare opportunity, planning to focus the major telescopes on Earth to get as much information about the body as possible.

Asteroid 2005 YU55 is certainly big enough to do major damage were it to strike Earth, and that is a possibility in the far future. There is no danger connected to this flyby, but astronomers can use it to gather data that will be useful in dealing with the asteroid when it is a real threat.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Selling James Webb....Again

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope is designed to show the first stars and galaxies, pushing our detailed knowledge of the universe back ever closer to the Big Bang itself. The project is also far behind schedule and way over budget, however-- so much so that Congress is on the verge of cancelling it. If a budget overrun is so bad that even Congress might not be able to stomach it, you know it's bad.

So, JWST supporters are now taking a different tack. Not only can it do this big stuff, they say, but it will also be able to directly image Earth-like worlds orbiting in the habitable zones of nearby stars. Having found such worlds, JWST will be able to detect the overall color of the world, which can tell us whether it's covered in water or rock, for example. It will also be able to detect planetary atmospheres, determine their composition, and see any change of season.

Finding other Earths-- and therefore possibly finding other life-- is, of course, a NASA priority, and JWST could no doubt aid in that. Whether emphasizing this new role for the telescope can help save it, however, is unclear.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Dwarf Galaxies And Dark Matter

Scientists believe dwarf galaxies are the best place to study dark matter because they are made up almost entirely of the stuff, whatever it is. A new study of two dwarfs, however, have befuddled them.

The usual assumption is that dark matter is concentrated in the center of dwarf galaxies. In these two, however, it seems to be spread evenly throughout the galaxies, which has thrown the researchers into a tizzy. According to one, they know less about dark matter after the study than they knew before. Of course, that isn't so if what they "knew" before was incorrect or incomplete.

Monday, October 24, 2011

NASA's Preservation Guidelines

Motivated in part by the Google Lunar X-Prize competition, which offers special prize money to the team that takes images of Apollo landing sites with its lunar rover, NASA has developed guidelines aimed at preserving as they are both manned and unmanned NASA landing sites for future historical and scientific study.

Under existing international law, no nation can claim territory on the Moon, so the United States cannot simply ban people and rovers from its lunar landing sites. It still owns the equipment and experiment packages left at those sites, however, and the NASA guidelines focus on those, along with the tracks in the lunar dust made by astronauts on foot and astronauts driving the manned lunar rovers.

The sites of Apollo 11 and Apollo 17-- the first and last Apollo lunar landings-- are given special protection under the guidelines.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

ROSAT Re-enters

The large ROSAT satellite re-entered Earth's atmosphere a few hours ago, but the German space agency, which had operated ROSAT, couldn't immediately say exactly where pieces of the satellite came down. Similarly, when UARS fell to Earth last month, NASA couldn't say where pieces had fallen until it got help from Defense Department tracking assets.

Presumably, those assets will be used again, especially since ROSAT was a joint German, British, and American project.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

ROSAT Coming Home

The second large satellite in a month is about to fall to Earth in an uncontrolled re-entry. ROSAT, a joint project of Germany, the US, and the UK, was launched in 1990 and gave astronomers a look at the universe in the X-Ray part of the spectrum. It has been defunct and drifting in space since 1998.

Most of the satellite will burn up during re-entry, but, like UARS last month, substantial pieces of ROSAT are expected to reach the surface. Also like UARS, those pieces are expected to fall into the ocean, but the exact landing area cannot yet be determined.

Falling satellites belong to the space junk problem. No provision was made to safely dispose of these things after their useful lifetimes were over, so they drift in space, threatening to collide with other objects in orbit, and some eventually barrel back to Earth in uncontrolled descents, threatening to destroy property and possibly lives on the surface. One proposal to deal with the space junk problem in the future is to require a plan to safely de-orbit a satellite once its mission is complete. That might increase the cost of a satellite, but it would also be a step in the right direction.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Using Space Junk

Space junk in Earth orbit has become a major problem, threatening future space operations, manned and unmanned, with the increasing chance of disastrous collisions. The Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, however, is pursuing a program that could begin to change junk into resource.

The idea is to salvage parts of defunct satellites and use them on new satellites. The first parts being looked at for re-use are antennas, but once technologies and craft are developed to intercept dead space vehicles, deconstruct them, and transfer usable parts to new satellites, the potential to use more than old antennas will be there. Ultimately, constructing entirely new craft from parts of old ones would be a possibility.

Unfortunately, a vehicle that could dismantle dead satellites would also have the potential to take apart active ones. That would make it, some nations would argue, an anti-satellite weapon. So, DARPA's program no doubt has legal and political hurdles to clear before it can grapple with the space junk problem.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Bigelow On Moon, China

Robert Bigelow, the power behind Bigelow Aerospace, warned yesterday that within 10-15 years China could claim huge areas of the Moon, and the resources therein, as Chinese territory, thus staking a claim to immense wealth and world leadership.

Mr. Bigelow also noted that even though American astronauts have landed on the Moon, the United States doesn't claim one square foot of the "damn place." That's true, and the reason is that the 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits any nation from making such territorial claims on any celestial body. The OST is still the governing law in this area. That's not to say China couldn't announce it was no longer bound by the OST, but making a claim of lunar ownership stick would likely be extremely difficult and detrimental to China's standing in the world.

BA, of course, is planning to use its inflatable module technology to build lunar bases and colonies in the relatively near future. Attempting to preserve future business opportunities is surely legitimate for any businessperson, and doing that might be at least part of what Mr. Bigelow had in mind.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Snowy Enceladus

Saturn's moon Enceladus has no atmosphere, but that doesn't mean it lacks "snow." Researchers studying images taken by the Cassini probe have determined much of the material-- ice crystals-- thrown into space by Enceladus' famous geysers falls back to the surface of the moon in a constant, extremely light snowfall.

By comparing the rate of the snowfall to the depth of ice on the surface scientists have concluded the geysers have been active for perhaps tens of millions of years. That in turn implies the heat source that powers the geysers is long-lived, which strengthens the case for a liquid water ocean existing under the surface ice, and also increases the possibility of life in that ocean.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Space Tourism At The Cusp

Though it has taken longer than people wanted, space tourism seems on the verge of breaking out beyond millionaires buying time on ISS. Virgin Galactic may well begin commercial suborbital flights in 2013, if not sooner. XCOR Aerospace could begin test flights for its two-seater Lynx spacecraft next year. Other companies aren't far behind.

Bigelow Aerospace is taking a slightly different tack. It is planning an orbiting hotel to be launched later this decade. Presumably, the presence of a tourist destination in space would spur vehicle developers to build ships that could reach orbit. In case that doesn't happen quickly enough, however, Bigelow is teaming with Boeing to develop the CST-100, a craft intended to carry up to seven people to and from orbit. A scale model of the CST-100 is being tested in a NASA wind tunnel this month, and Boeing wants to be flying the real thing by around 2015.

Of course, if a disaster were to occur early on, the entire notion of private spaceflight could be discredited for years or decades in the public mind. Assuming the industry can establish itself before that inevitable first accident, however, the current decade could become a pivot point in human history.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Dedicating A Hangar

Today, a ceremony is taking place at New Mexico's Spaceport America to dedicate the Terminal Hangar Facility, which will house Virgin Galactic's fleet of spaceships and motherships. VG is, so far, the major customer of Spaceport America, and will fly its commercial suborbital flights from there.

The Terminal Hangar Facility is certainly up to the task of supporting VG's operations. It is large enough to accomodate two WhiteKnightTwo motherships and five SpaceShipTwo spaceships at once.

The dedication marks one more step along the way for a commercial space industry. Sometime within a year or so, regular operations are scheduled to commence for VG at Spaceport America. The real test for the company and the new industry will begin at that time.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Mapping Dark Matter

Using the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers are observing galaxy clusters-- some of the oldest and largest structures in the universe-- to work out the location of clumps of dark matter.

Dark matter can only be detected by noting its gravitational influence on normal matter, and on light. Astronomers determine its existence within and around galaxy clusters, for example, by measuring the visible mass in the cluster. If there's not enough mass there to account for the behavior of the components and the overall structure of the cluster, they deduce dark matter is making up the difference. Gravity also bends light. If light from a more distant source, passing through a cluster, is warped more than it should be given the visible mass, dark matter is again assumed to be the cause of the warping.

Theoretical physicists say perhaps 98 percent of the matter in the universe is dark. Everything we see amounts to froth.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Delays For Orbital, SpaceX

This year was to see the first flight of Orbital Science's Taurus 2 rocket and the third flight of Spacex's Falcon 9-- the second with its Dragon capsule. Both rockets are to be used to take cargo to ISS. According to NASA, however, the next flights of both will be delayed until at least early next year.

Such delays in the development of new rocket systems are not uncommon-- indeed, they are to be expected. That said, however, a lot is riding on the fairly prompt success of these new rockets-- for the companies, for NASA, for commercial space, and for the emerging NewSpace industry. Early 2012 will be an interesting time for reasons beyond presidential politics.

Friday, October 14, 2011

NASA And Virgin

NASA is contracting with Virgin Galactic to fly experiments on up to three suborbital SpaceShipTwo flights. The flights will be dedicated strictly to NASA. Up to now, payload positions on spaceflights have been extremely limited, so many worthwhile experiments haven't made the cut. VG wants to change that, starting with those experiments requiring only a few minutes in microgravity.

Given SpaceShipTwo's payload capacity, NASA could fly up to 600 experiments per mission. That would produce lots of happy researchers. If NASA exercises the option to fly all three missions, the contract will be worth $4.5 million. At that price, if only a few of the hundreds of experiments produce significant results, the program could turn out to be a big bargain for everyone.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Exploring Uranus

Interest is building in the planetary science community in a mission to study Uranus, its faint rings, and its at least 27 moons. The ice giant is indeed an interesting place. It "rolls" around its orbit, perhaps having been knocked off-kilter by a titanic collision. Its magnetic field is displaced from the planet's rotational axis by 60 degrees. The internal structure seems more complex than what exists in other planets. The ring system of Uranus is clearly markedly different than the ring system of Saturn-- studying both could yield insights into the physics of ring formation. Uranus' moons are also varied and complex.

All that, unfortunately, is set against the cost of an orbiter mission-- something perhaps in the $2 billion range-- at a time of tight and declining space budgets due to enormous government deficit and debt. A mission to Uranus is unlikely to fly soon, but scientists in both the United States and Europe continue to push for one.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Spaceship Factory

The Spaceship Company, the joint venture between Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites established to build VG's fleet, opened a major new factory in Mojave, California, recently-- the latest big step in the development of a commercial space industry.

VG will initially fly its fleet out of Spaceport America in New Mexico, but the vehicles will be built in California, with final assembly and scheduled maintenance to be performed in the new facility.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Lunar Resource Riches

Scientists using data from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter have put together a map of the lunar surface that shows the Moon has rich titanium ores along with large deposits of ilmenite, a rock type made of titanium, iron, and oxygen. The findings are good on two fronts. First, such detailed knowledge of the composition of the surface gives scientists insights into the interior structure of the Moon. Second, rich ores of valuable metals could aid manned exploration of the surface as well as provide the basis of an early lunar economy.

Far from being the dead, incredibly dry world of Apollo, we now know the Moon has substantial stores of water ice. It also has ores of titanium and iron, large amounts of ilmenite, and deposits of uranium-- though perhaps not as much uranium as early reports suggested. The Moon is likely a dead world, but with all it offers, it might not be a lifeless world for much longer.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Building On X-37B

The U. S. Air Force is currently test flying its unmanned X-37B reuasble spacecraft. Last year, for example, the X-37B flew a mission of more than 200 days and made a successful landing. The craft is designed to fly itself, land itself, use a minimal crew for control and maintenance, and project a U. S. technological presence anywhere in the world within an hour or less.

The USAF is also considering developing a larger, manned version. The human-rated vehicle would be smaller than the space shuttle, but capable of carrying up to six people. It would be able to fly itself or be flown by an onboard human pilot.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Neptune's Day

Neptune was discovered more than 150 years ago, but astronomers had never been able to get a firm handle on the length of the Neptunian day. Determining the length of a day is generally pretty basic. Pick a feature on the surface of a planet, note its position, wait until the feature returns to that position, and the waiting period is the length of the day. If a planet's surface isn't visible, astronomers use atmospheric features to get a rougher value.

Neptune was a challenge because its beautiful blue atmosphere is bland. It has no features to really track. Using images from space probes in various wavelengths, however, astronomers have finally determined Neptune's day is two minutes and one second short of sixteen hours long.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Finding More Exoplanets

Astronomers have developed yet another way to ferret out exoplanets. Applying new planet hunting techniques to old Hubble Space Telescope data, astronomers have already found two exoplanets in HST data that were missed in 1998 because they were overwhelmed by the glare of their parent star.

Astronomers intend to go through archived HST data of possibly 400 stars hoping to find new worlds. Candidates found in the historical record would have to be confirmed by fresh observations.

This new use of HST data is a reminder that Hubble will continue to make important contributions to science long after the telescope itself falls back to Earth.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Creating Earth's Oceans

For decades, the idea that the water in Earth's oceans was delivered by comets has been around. After all, early Earth was a molten, violent, extremely hot place; any water that was here originally would likely have boiled away. Now, a new study suggests that Earth's water did indeed come from comets originating in the Kuiper Belt.

The study compares isotopic ratios in water and deuterium (heavy water) in Earth's water, asteroids, Kuiper Belt comets, and Oort Cloud comets, and determined the ratio in Earth's water most closely fits the ratio in the water ice found in Kuiper Belt objects. The Kuiper Belt is that region of the Solar System from beyond the orbit of Neptune to well past the orbit of Pluto, where many comets orbit, some of which are occasionally jostled onto a flight path that has them swoop into Earth's neighborhood.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Unveiling Vesta

Early returns from the Dawn probe orbiting the giant asteroid Vesta are revealing a world some scientists are calling the smallest terrestrial planet. Images so far show a world with a much rougher, more heavily cratered surface than most asteroids, and a world that has seen lava flows. There is also a marked difference between the northern and southern hemispheres.

Perhaps the most dramatic find so far is a mountain on Vesta-- a world only 330 miles in diameter-- that is taller than Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain on Earth as measured from the ocean floor.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

ALH84001 In The News Again

Fifteen years ago, a group of NASA scientists studying the Mars meteor fragment ALH84001 said they had found evidence of life on early Mars. That conclusion has been contested ever since. Now, another group of scientists say ALH84001 holds evidence of a warmer, wetter Mars in the past.

The current group is being careful to say their conclusion says nothing at all about the possibility of life on Mars, nor about the overall climate of early Mars.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Star Travel

A recent symposium in Orlando, Florida, looked at various challenges involved in sending a human expedition to another star within one hundred years. Inevitably, one of the biggest challenges discussed was the biological-- having sex and giving birth in microgravity were seen as difficult. Fetal development in microgravity could well be dangerous. And, of course, we already know extended periods of weightlessness is harmful to the human organism.

All of which suggests we won't be ready to go to the stars a century from now. That's fine. Exploring and settling the Solar System and bringing its vast resources into a human economy wealthy enough to easily support human interstellar flight will be the work of centuries.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

ET And Religion

There is an ongoing discussion among philosophers, religious thinkers, scientists, and science fiction writers concerning what might happen to human religions if or when alien civilizations are found. One consensus seems to be that Christianity would have a particular problem in that event, given its unique premise. During the Middle Ages in Europe, Christian theologians, in a deeply religious society, seriously debated how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Important doctrinal points were at issue. The ET debate, to modern, secular ears, might have echoes of that earlier controversy.

The real appeal of finding ET for most of the people involved in the discussion would be exchanging views with an alien civilization. How many such societies embrace religion at all? What would alien philosophies be? Would they mesh with, or conflict with, human philosophical assumptions? The matter obviously goes beyond any particular faith-- assuming, of course, an alien religion does not parallel a human one. That, no doubt, would spark a huge debate.

As for the particular danger to Christianity, there's a fundamental friction to the debate. Modern scholars try to limit what a deity can do, so they can make arguments about what's possible and what isn't. The God of Christianity, however-- and Judaism, Islam, and others-- is defined as omniscient and omnipotent. All knowing and all powerful. That deity is beyond any effort to limit its actions.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Elon Musk's Big Plan

Elon Musk, founder and leader of SpaceX, announced Thursday the company will attempt to build a fully reusable system, from launcher to space capsule, based on the Falcon 9/Dragon configuration the company is already developing.

Musk has always said he started SpaceX to help humanity explore and colonize the Solar System. If the company can create a stack that could fly perhaps a thousand times, he will have taken a huge step towards that goal.

Musk said the approach they will pursue works in simulations, but he put no timetable on the effort.