Friday, November 11, 2011


Russian engineers are trying to save the Phobos-GRUNT Mars mission now stranded in extremely low Erth orbit, but there are reports that they have lost contact with the probe.

If that's the case, and if communications cannot be re-established, Phobos-GRUNT will fall back to Earth in fairly short order.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The First Stars

Astronomers have traditionally thought the first stars to form in the universe were giants that blazed through their short lives and exploded in titanic supernovae that seeded the universe with the heavier elements. It's a fantastic, majestic vision.

It may also be wrong. A new study at JPL, using computer simulations to re-create the early universe, suggests the first stars were much smaller than previously thought, perhaps only tens of times larger than the Sun. That would mean supernovae then were similar to supernovae today, which suggests the heavier elements built up over time.

Launching Orion

NASA is pushing to bring the first test flight of the Orion capsule, being built by Lochheed Martin, forward three years into 2014.

Orion is designed to carry astronauts on deep space missions. and NASA wants the early, unmanned test flight to judge how ready Orion would be for such missions. The idea is to put Orion into an Earth orbit having an apogee of about 5,000 miles and letting it barrel back to a splashdown on Earth from there, thus simulating the speed, and therefore the re-entry heat, associated with a return from deep space.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

YU55 And Planetary Defense

As predicted, Asteroid YU55 whizzed past Earth yesterday, coming closer than the Moon does. Astronomers, both amateur and professional, welcomed the event and used the opportunity to collect data on the composition and structure of the body.

Due to cosmic geometry, YU55 never posed a danger to Earth, but the close shave is a reminder of what could happen. Efforts to protect Earth from asteroid and comet strikes are moving ahead, but they are gathering little pace. Hopefully, a really near miss-- let alone a real disaster-- won't be necessary to get detect-and-deflect programs on a faster track.

Problem For Phobos-GRUNT

A malfunction threatens Russia's first attempt at an interplanetary mission since 1996. The Phobos-GRUNT probe is stranded in Earth orbit after the upper stage rocket that has to fling the probe on its way to Mars failed to ignite. Engineers have three days to salvage the mission.

Phobos-GRUNT's objective is to reach the Martian moon Phobos, scoop up a sample of the surface, and return the sample to Earth.

Hitching a ride on Phobos-GRUNT is China's first attempt at an interplanetary mission, a probe intended to go into orbit around Mars.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Blurry Vision

Another negative facing at least some astronauts on long space missions may be blurry vision, a new study finds. The vision can blur in space and persist, perhaps for months, after returning to Earth.

Scientists think the problem is due to changing blood flow patterns in microgravity.

Phobos-GRUNT Set To Fly

Russia's Phobos-GRUNT mission to the Martian moon is set to launch today. The goal of the mission is to pick up a sample of Phobos and bring it back to Earth for analysis.

This will be Russia's first interplanetary effort in nearly two decades. The old Soviet Union didn't have much luck with Mars mission, so we'll see if Russia can do better.

Monday, November 7, 2011

White House Denies Contact With ETs

Responding to two petitions on a White House website, an official with the Office of Science and Technology has stated for the record that the U. S. Government is not now nor has ever been in contact with ETs.

Fat chance that will settle the matter.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Successful Proton Launch

After a stumble last summer, a Russian Proton rocket successfully launched three Russian communications satellites last week.

The satellites are part of the Russian equivalent of the U. S. GPS system. The Russian network was allowed to degrade during the 1990s due to financial problems in Moscow. Now, Russia is rebuilding the 24-satellite constellation.

The Proton suffered a launch failure last summer, which raised some concerns about flying NASA astronauts aboard the Soyuz, which is launched atop a Proton derivative. Russia conducted a quick investigation, however, and successful launches since have probably rebuilt some confidence.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Searching For Alien Lights

Noting that the lights of human cities, on the night side of Earth, could be seen from well out in the Kuiper Belt using technology on a par with our current stuff, astronomers are now suggesting we should look for the lights of possible alien colonies out there. Just in case.

They also say that the next generation of space telescopes will be able to detect the lights of alien settlements in the Kuiper Belts of nearby stars. Coupled with a robust SETI effort and an aggressive exoplanet finding program, this new approach increases the chance of finding interstellar civilizations.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Mars500 Ends

Mars500, the simulated Mars missioon in Russia that included six crewmembers, has ended after 520 days. All seems to have gone well.

Researchers expect to learn much about the physical and psychological stresses of an actual mission, and Russia suggests the logical follow-up study would be a similar program done in microgravity on ISS. Such an effort, Russia says, could be done after 2014.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

New Take On Doomsday

Scientists have developed a new model for simulating the damage caused if a huge meteor struck Earth. The previous model used was vastly simplified-- assuming Earth was a perfect sphere with a perfectly smooth surface. The new model uses Earth's actual shape-- not quite perfectly spherical-- along with the actual topography and the actual wind and water currents to simulate a more realistic catastrophe.

There is at least some good news. Taking the strike that allegedly killed off the dinosaurs as a test case, researchers found the simulation showed less damage from the strike than previous simulations had. Earth's "imperfections" had limited the damage.

That probably didn't help the dinosaurs, but it suggests a bigger rock than previously thought might well be needed to wipe out human civilization.

Succes For China

China successfully docked its Shengzhou 8 spacecraft and Tiangong 1 module yesterday, demonstrating a critical capability for any space program with ambitiion.

The two vehicles will remain docked for 12 days, after which they will separate and dock a second time, for the practice.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Chinese Docking

Two Chinese space vehicles are scheduled to make the first orbital docking in the history of the Chinese space program today. Though the vehicles are unmanned, a successful docking would be a big step forward, as docking is essential to doing big things in space.

China plans big things, aiming to have a manned space station in Earth orbit in a few years.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Extending Kepler

The managers of NASA's planet hunting Kepler mission are considering writing a proposal to extend the mission beyond its original November 2012 end. So far, Kepler has identified 1.235 candidate exoplanets, including dozens of potential Super Earths and Earth-like worlds. All those numbers would be increased if NASA could continue the mission.

Operating Kepler at the current level in an extended mission would cost about $20 million a year. If Congress and President Obama are serious about supporting basic scientific research even during these tight budget times, extending Kepler should be an easy call.