Saturday, December 31, 2011

GRAIL Twins At The Moon

NASA's twin GRAIL spacecraft are scheduled to drop themselves into lunar orbit this weekend after a voyage that started last September. The long trip gave mission managers time to thoroughly check out the two identical craft. By contrast, of course, Apollo capsules reached the Moon in two or three days.

The GRAIL spacecraft are designed to fly in the same orbit and study the Moon in microwave. The object is to map the lunar gravitational field in unprecedented detail. Doing that, scientists expect to learn much about the composition, internal structure, and evolution of the Moon.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Lava Tube Life

Researchers exploring lava tubes in the Cascade Mountains in Oregon have found many species of bacteria living inside the tubes, and they speculate similar life could exist in lava tubes on Mars.

Some of the bacteria found eats iron in olivine, which is a common rock on both Earth and Mars. Lava tubes would provide, potentially, a sheltered, more stable environment for life, as opposed to open plains.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Gig 'Em, Aggies

A Shuttle Motion Simulator, used to train astronauts to fly the space shuttle for 34 years, will have a new home and a new mission at Texas A&M University.

The SMS will have a dual purpose. It will be used by engineering faculty and students to help them develop new technology for new spacecraft, but it will also eventually be made available to everyone, giving anyone interested a taste of what it was like to ride the space shuttle.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Try, Try Again

Days after a failed Russian rocket launch, Russia successfully launched six communications satellites for an American firm.

Both rockets involved used Soyuz technology, but the successful one used an older, more basic version. The failure is still under investigation.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Organics On Pluto?

Researchers using the Hubble Space Telescope have found new evidence that the surface of Pluto may be covered by hydrocarbon and organic molecules, the building blocks of life as we know it. They note such molecules could account for the reddish tint of Pluto. We also know Pluto's surface contains many exotic ices, but the world is not considered a possible abode of life. It's simply too cold.

If all goes well, we'll shortly get a much closer look at Pluto. NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is scheduled to arrive there in 2015.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Chinese Launch Record

China successfully launched its 18th space mission of the year yesterday as a Long March rocket delivered a mapping satellite to orbit. The 18 successes in 19 tries set a Chinese record and beat the U. S. best of 17 successes in 18 attempts.

China plans to launch 20 missions in 2012, and that is to include its third manned flight.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Christmas Star

Every year about this time, the media speculates about what the Star of Bethlehem may have been. Was it a comet? A supernova? A miracle? We'll likely never know for sure.

But there is another possibility. It could have been a literary device. The tradition in that area at that time held that the birth of an extraordinary person was heralded by some remarkable natural event-- an earthquake, a fierce storm, or a new star. The Gospels, of course, were written after Jesus' ministry, and meant to proclaim His unique nature. So, using the device of a star marking the birth would have been understood by the people of the time as a way to open an important story.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Russian Space

A Soyuz spacecraft has delivered three more people to ISS, bringing the space station crew to its full complement of six for the first time since September, but a Russian military communications satellite crashed shortly after launch due to a rocket failure yesterday.

It was the fifth Russian rocket failure this year. Perhaps more disturbingly, the failures have occurred in more than one model of Russian launcher. The string of incidents bears directly on U. S. space efforts because, at least for the time being, the only way American astronauts have to access ISS is by riding on Soyuz. The most recent failure was by a rocket that is a derivative of the model that launches Soyuz.

These failures could simply be a statistically quirky bad stretch, but if they signal a weakening of Russian industry and technological capability, they have important implications beyond space.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Catching Up With Dawn

NASA's Dawn probe recently dropped into low orbit around the giant asteroid Vesta in order to take close up images of the surface. Early images show a wealth of detail-- lines, grooves, dimples, and a myriad of small impact craters.

After Dawn's studies of Vesta are complete, it is scheduled to move on to the largest asteroid, Ceres.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Naming Exoplanets

With hundreds of exoplanets already confirmed, and literally thousands more likely to be confirmed over the next several years, some researchers are suggesting we need to develop a process by which such worlds can be named. They point out that, among other things, giving a world a name would allow the general public to more easily identify with them. So far, each planet-hunting project has adopted its own method of designation, which has resulted in more scientific notations than actual names.

Of course, how they should be named is another matter. Coming up with thousands, and eventually millions and billions, of distinct names is daunting, and probably unnecessary. Perhaps the protocol could be that those worlds capable of supporting life would get a name, while all others make do with simpler designations.

The possibility also exists that some of these worlds already have names that we might eventually learn.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Earth-Sized Worlds Found

Astronomers have confirmed the discovery of two Earth-sized exoplanets orbiting a star similar to the Sun that is 950 light years away. The two have 0.87 and 1.03 times the mass of Earth.

Alas, neither is in the habitable zone of the star; both orbit extremely close to the star. They are, therefore, almost certainly barren-- unbearably hot, and without atmospheres. That said, astronomers believe the worlds actually formed farther out in the system and migrated in to their current orbits, so there's a small chance they once orbited in the habitable zone, had atmospheres, and potentially supported life.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Shockwave Avalanches On Mars

Meteors slamming into a slope could directly trigger an avalanche. That's obvious. A meteor strike could also set up a seismic wave that could cause avalanches. That's pretty clear, too. Researchers have found a different twist on Mars, however. Meteors screaming through the thin Martian air also set up shockwaves that can bring on avalanches. Computer simulations have strengthened that case by producing the same patterns found in images of the Martian surface.

The atmosphere of Mars is so thin that it doesn't protect the surface from incoming space rocks, so Mars has several fairly substantial such collisions each year.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Romney And Lunar Colonies

During an interview on "Fox News Sunday" this week, Governor Mitt Romney once again criticized Newt Gingrich for his support of lunar colonies, citing that as an example of Gingrich being "zany."

First, "zany" seems an interesting word to use. Beyond that, however, Gov. Romney argues the federal government has no money for such a project. The fact is that the NASA budget in its entirety is a fraction of one percent of the federal budget. Adding a lunar base program over a few years could be accomplished while holding NASA's share of federal spending to one percent of the yearly total, especially given the bloated federal budgets coming up. That may or may not be a good idea, but it doesn't necessarily seem zany.

The above scenario also assumes the U. S. taxpayer would foot the entire bill. If NASA were the lead agency in an international lunar base program, the cost would be shared by the partner nations. Or, if it were done by a public/private consortium, to expand the economy beyond Earth while also pursuing breakthroughs in science and technology, the cost of the effort would be shared by the private partners and ultimately be covered by increased economic activity. Again, Gov. Romney may not be attracted to the idea, but that doesn't mean a case for it cannot be made.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Paul Allen

Of all the billions of humans who have ever lived, only a very few have had a truly deep and profound effect on society, history, and progress. If things break right, Paul Allen may turn out to be one of those few.

Allen co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates. Microsoft has played a key role in the personal computer revolution that continues to change the social world as it evolves into ever more advanced devices. Microsoft also made Paul Allen a billionaire. Allen has used that wealth to, among other things, team with Burt Rutan to produce the first privately funded manned spacecraft to actually reach space in 2004-- a huge accomplishment. Allen has also funded the Allen Telescope Array for the SETI Institute, which is searching the heavens for radio signatures of alien civilizations. Recently, Allen has also helped found Stratolaunch, a company that has a revolutionary approach to delivering payloads, eventually including humans, to Earth orbit-- an approach the company expects will lower the cost and increase the flexibility of space operations.

So, Paul Allen has already been at the heart of a transforming change involving culture and technology, as well as having a hand in a milestone in space travel. If he follows that up by helping in giving mankind reliable, relatively inexpensive access to Earth orbit and playing a role in humanity's first contact with an alien race, Allen could end up a major figure in human history.

Friday, December 16, 2011

UFO At Mercury?

UFOlogists, at least some of them, are claiming NASA recently imaged a huge UFO near Mercury. It's as big as the planet, they say.

Since this story is not on the television networks 24/7, NASA has obviously denied it's imaged any such thing. The key phrase in this controversy might be "as big as the planet." NASA explains the image pointed out by the UFOlogists involved is in fact an after image of Mercury itself. The image appears in a photograph of a huge solar flare. Those who see a giant spaceship also postulate cloaking technology that was temporarily overwhelmed by the powerful radiation to explain why such a spectacular spaceship hasn't been detected before or since. An after image of Mercury would seem more reasonable.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

NASA And 2012

NASA's Dr. Donald Yeomans recently took time to refute, point by point, various theories connected to the notion that the world will end December 21, 2012. Yeomans, reasonably enough, argued there's absolutely no reason to think anything untoward will happen that day.

He's no doubt correct, but it was likely a waste of his time to make that case. Those who don't believe an apocalypse is nigh don't need his assurance, while those who do believe likely won't listen to an Establishment type like Yeomans. He noted scientists needed to do a better job of communicating with and educating the general public, which is no doubt true, but that is the work of decades.

The Mayan calendar notwithstanding, we will have those decades.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Phobos-Grunt Gone

A Russian space official has told the local media that saving the Phobos-Grunt mission is "mission impossible" and predicts the probe will fall back to Earth sometime in mid-January, 2012.

The Soviet/Russian record at Mars is abysmal-- not one mission has been a complete success-- whereas American and European missions to Mars have regularly produced extraordinary results. On the other hand, Soviet Veneras are still the most successful probes to reach Venus, where American and European attempts have, on the whole, met with more limited success over the years.

Why the difference? Part of it is probably a matter of emphasis, but part of it is also simply the roll of the cosmic dice.


Paul Allen and Burt Rutan teamed to put the first private manned spacecraft into space in 2004. Now, they have established a company to take the next giant step.

The strategy of Stratolaunch is to do away with the iconic rocket on a launch pad. Instead, the largest aircraft ever built-- a dual-hulled bruiser with a wingspan of 385 feet-- will carry a spacecraft to altitude. From there, a multistage rocket built by SpaceX will ignite, driving the craft into Earth orbit. The system is designed to eventually deliver both manned and unmanned craft to orbit at a cost and complexity level that may finally open space to a broad range of people and possibilities.

The first test flight could happen as soon as 2015, with operational flights commencing shortly thereafer.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

New Name For OSC Rocket

Virginia-based aerospace company Orbital Sciences has renamed its Taurus 2 rocket, christening it the Antares. The company says it expects the launcher to be a major factor in the aerospace industry, and therefore should have its own name.

Of course, the Taurus 2 has had two launch failures. Skeptics could argue that's another, less honorable reason to change the name. OSC, however, seems to be making no attempt to hide the fact that this isn't a new rocket, just a new name.

Antares is designed to carry cargo to ISS.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Mercury's Spin

For centuries, astronomers thought Mercury always had the same hemisphere facing the Sun, similar to the situation with the Moon and Earth. With the advent of the Space Age, however, they found the actual situation is very odd-- three days on Mercury equals two Mercurian years.

Now, they might know why. Caloris Basin is a huge impact site on Mercury-- exactly the right size, age, and location to mark the spot a giant asteroid crashed into the planet, knocking its rotation from being tidally locked on the Sun to its current strange rotation.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Romney And Gingrich

In a presidential debate last night, Mitt Romney criticized Newt Gingrich for supporting lunar colonies and lunar mining. Gov. Romney argued we don't have the money for that. Speaker Gingrich stood firm, however, countering that we need to build a better future and get today's children excited about math, science, and the lives they can have if they work hard.

Indeed, Gingrich has a history of supporting space exploration, dating back decades to when he was connected to the L-5 Society, a space advocacy group that supported space colonization. Given that history in the subject, which Gov. Romney seems to lack, it might be reasonable to assume that Gingrich has thought more and more deeply about how major projects in space may be successfully carried out than Mr. Romney has.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Martian Gypsum

NASA's Opportunity rover has found what looks to be a vein of gypsum on the rim of Endeavour crater. Gypsum has been found elsewhere on Mars, but this would be the first time it was found clearly in association to where it formed.

Gypsum is a mineral associated with running water on Earth, and scientists think the same would hold true on Mars. If it does, this discovery could be the strongest evidence yet for a warmer, wetter early Mars. That, in turn, would increase the odds for life existing on Mars at some point.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Colorado Spaceport?

The State of Colorado is asking the FAA for authority to develop a commercial spaceport. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper says the spaceport would likely be developed outside Aurora, which is a suburb of Denver.

Colorado is already a major state in the aerospace industry, so building a commercial spaceport probably makes sense. So far, the only commercial spaceport on the horizon in the U. S. is Spaceport America in New Mexico, though other areas, such as Florida's Space Coast, are also looking at similar projects.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Gullies cut into the polar regions of Mars were taken to be evidence of water running on the surface, but a new study argues the gullies were instead cut by flowing carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide and water make up the Martian polar caps.

The study looks at the climate history of Mars and determines that carbon dioxide would flow at a higher temperature than water. which makes it the more likely gully-cutter.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Phobos-Grunt Doomed?

According to, Russia's Phobos-Grunt mission may be doomed. One analyst involved in the attempt to save the probe is quoted as saying it seems to be "dead in the water." Indeed, the probe has been uncontrolled and out of radio contact since shortly after launch on November 8 except for one brief burst on November 23.

One experienced satellite watcher is predicting the spacecraft will fall back to Earth sometime in January. Of course, since Phobos-Grunt was designed to return rock samples from Mars' moon Phobos to Earth, it has a heat shield for re-entry into Earth's atmosphere. Some fairly large chunk of the probe, therefore, may reach the surface.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

ATA Back

The Allen Telescope Array of the SETI Institute is back in operation after seven months in mothballs due to funding shortfalls. The University of California at Berkeley dropped out of the project, but the general public and the U. S. Air Force came through.

ATA will concentrate early on observing worlds found by NASA's Kepler planet-hunting spacecraft, especially those in the habitable zones of their stars.

Monday, December 5, 2011


NASA has announced its Kepler planet-hunting spacecraft has confirmed the discovery of a planet in the habitable zone of its star-- which happens to be a star similar to our Sun. That means the world, dubbed Kepler-22b, could support life. It has a radius 2.4 times larger than Earth, and, depending on how its atmosphere works, the average temperature on Kepler-22b could be a balmy 72 degrees F.

NASA also announced Kepler has found another 1,000 candidate planets, which pushes Kepler's overall total to over 2,300. Of those, 207 are approximately the size of Earth, and dozens are in their star's habitable zone.

Shiny Regions

Synthetic aperture radar on the Cassini probe has shown the surface of Saturn's moon Enceladus is extremely rough and crisscrossed by grooves in the ice, some of which are wide and deep and many miles long. It has also shown a particularly shiny region on the surface that scientists can't yet explain.

This is especially peculiar because Saturn's huge moon Titan-- a world very different from Enceladus-- also has a shiny region. That one is in the foothills of a mountain range. Whether the two could have the same cause is unclear.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Phobos--GRUNT Update

Phobos-GRUNT, the Russian attempt to bring a soil sample back to Earth from the Martian moon Phobos, seems on the verge of complete failure.

Laumched November 8, an upper stage rocket failed to fling it on to Mars, leaving the probe stranded in low Earth orbit. Radio contact with the probe has also been lost, and the launch window to reach Phobos has closed.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

More Huge Planets Found

Editor's note: The last three weeks I have been dealing with family emergencies, and I apologize for the break in this blog.

Astronomers have discovered 18 new Jupiter-sized planets orbiting stars slightly larger and slightly older than the Sun, bringing the number of confirmed exoplanets to over 700. They aren't "hot" Jupiters. either. They orbit their stars at distances roughly comparable to the distance at which Jupiter orbits the Sun.

So, some of these systems might give us an inkling of the future of our Solar System.