Monday, December 31, 2012

Big Year Coming

Virgin Galactic is planning to commence commercial suborbital flights in 2013.  Spaceport America is  gearing up, and other spaceports are being developed.  SpaceX plans to make continued progress both towards upgrading its Falcon 9/Dragon stack to man-rated status and developing a reusable rocket.  Other companies are developing both suborbital and orbital manned vehicles of various configurations and concepts.  The Google Lunar X-Prize, a contest to put private rovers on the Moon, may see launches in 2013.

If all the plans work out, 2013 may ultimately be viewed as a watershed year in the move into space of  private enterprise.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Evolution In Space

Based on the fossil record, humanity began its journey out of Africa perhaps 100,000 years ago.  Since then, as people settled in various climates and environmental conditions, the flavors of mankind-- the races-- evolved.

As humans settle space and colonize other worlds, evolution can be expected to continue to work its will.  Space humans may develop a resistance to radiation, for example.  Populations that live for generations in low gravity situations may grow taller, thinner, and less muscular.  At some point in the distant future, descendants of generations away from Earth may find it physically uncomfortable to live on Earth.

Of course, this time, humans will have the ability to intervene in the biological evolution of the species by manipulating genes, taking evolution in a particular direction, speeding it up, or slowing it down.  That kind of control over the essence of ourselves clearly has huge moral implications, but going into space will challenge humans in ways we cannot yet imagine.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Predicting Earth 2.0

Several planet-hunting astronomers are feeling their oats.  They are predicting the first truly Earth-like exoplanet will be found in 2013.

In not quite twenty years, about 800 exoplanets-- planets outside the Solar System-- have been discovered, and over two thousand more identified by the Kepler spacecraft await confirmation.  Some of those orbit in their star's habitable zone, where life as we know it is possible, and some others roughly the size of Earth have also been found.  These astronomers predict 2013 will see the discovery of a world that is both physically similar to Earth and within its star's habitable zone.

They also predict such a discovery will have a profound effect on human culture.  They predict it will spark a new commitment to move into space, and to send humanity's first interstellar probe.  Perhaps we will see.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Rutan Speaks

Burt Rutan, designer of the vehicles that will allow Virgin Galactic to offer suborbital spaceflight to high net worth individuals, recently compared the early days of the private spaceflight industry to the beginning of the computer revolution.

Rutan noted critics who argue VG is marketing to millionaires interested in a fun adventure, and that's a very small customer pool.  Of course, those critics have a point.  Rutan countered that most people who bought early personal computers used them mostly to play games.  Only years later, when the Internet began to boom, did we see the real potential of personal computers to change the world.  That's also when the big bucks started to fill up Silicon Valley.  He said it might take a few years, but somebody will eventually figure out a business model that works for space operations, and then we'll see space hotels and the real opening of the space frontier.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Year Of Close Shaves

This year has seen several asteroids zip past Earth at close range, in astronomical terms.  That fact has not been emphasized by the American media, at least, which has been focused on the U. S. election campaign, the civil war in Syria, and several other admittedly big stories.  Unfortunately, by some standards, the only way planetary defense will become a big story is if we find ourselves in the cross hairs of a large asteroid or comet with the collision scheduled in the not-too-distant future.

Hopefully, we are wise enough, and lucky enough, to put some plans in place before that, regardless of jourmalistic interest.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Grasshopper Leaps Again

SpaceX's experimental rocket Grasshopper has passed its third straight flight test, this time rising 130 feet into the air before softly landing on its four legs.

SpaceX is convinced the way to reduce the cost of reaching low Earth orbit is to develop reusable rockets-- that is, rockets that land safely and in one undamaged piece to be used again after delivering a payload to orbit.  It would be a remarkable transition from the raw power and violence of a space launch to the controlled and delicate maneuvering required to bring a rocket stage down and landing it gently and vertically.

Grasshopper is an early step in learning how to do that.  So far, it has been so good, but there is still a long way to go.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Tallying Up Space

The Space Age began as a new theatre of the Cold War with the launch of Sputnik in 1957, but it quickly became more than that.  The demand for ever better, ever smaller technology to operate in space helped transform the American economy.  It also reshaped much of the world economy, to the point that the Soviet Union could no longer compete with the West.  Satellite intelligence gathering gave U. S. presidents a critical edge in avoiding World War III.  Communication satellites allow real-time interaction between virtually any two points in the world.  Improvements in weather prediction using storm-tracking satellites and other new technology have saved untold lives, and natural resource satellites can help lift regions and nations out of poverty.  Space probes and telescopes have given humanity a completely new universe.  Life could well be abundant throughout the cosmos, intelligent life elsewhere is perhaps more than possible, and the ways of Creation are mind-boggling.  Men have walked on the Moon, and humanity is poised to go deeper into space.

There has been a price to be paid, of course.  Transforming economies create new industries, but they also destroy old ones.  National space programs have spent hundreds of billions of dollars over decades that many argue could have been better spent elsewhere.  And lives have been lost.  Not many by battlefield standards, or compared to terrorist attacks or highway accidents, but lives have been lost.

On balance, the push into space has been a positive for mankind, and we're just getting started.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Christmas Star

Every year about this time, television weathercasters "track" Santa on his travels.  Almost as predictably, astronomers will appear on television trying to explain what the Star of Bethlehem, which guided the three wise men to the baby Jesus, may have been.

It's an odd quest.  The point of the Christmas Story is that the Star was special, unique, even supernatural.  In that case, astronomers, then and now, would be at a loss to explain it.  Further, the story we have of Jesus' birth that references a star was written, as far as scholars can tell, decades after Calgary.  There was also a literary tradition in that culture at that time to associate the birth of a major personage with some spectacular natural event-- an earthquake, an eclipse, the appearance of a comet.  Or, the appearance of a giant, beautiful guide star that stood over a small town.

So, will science ever be able to explain the Christmas Star?  That's very much open to question.  Did such a star actually exist, or did a devout Gospel writer, looking back on the life of his Savior, feel inspired to provide that life with an appropriate beginning?  We may never know.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Establishing Infrastructure

Before the space tourism industry can really take off, infrastructure to support its growth must be established, and that doesn't simply refer to physical facilities.  Legal and financial structures also have to be built up.  For example, there is currently no industry-wide health standards for determining who can fly into space.  That will evolve over time, but it's also important to have something in place in the early days.

Insurance across a range of actions, from launch to space operations to return to Earth, is also important.  No industry and no company can successfully function without insurance against whatever disasters might befall it.  Safety standards, either industry generated or government imposed, will also be important.  There is a lot of quiet work to do before private rockets can regularly roar to life.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Sailing To The Stars

NASA is working to perfect solar sail technology, which would allow ships to move throughout the Solar System and beyond without the use of rockets.

The basic concept is simple, similar to moving across water by letting the wind fill a sail to push the boat along.  There is a solar wind of energetic particles constantly streaming away from the Sun.  A large enough sail could capture enough of that energy to push a spacecraft along.  It would be slow going at first, but the speed would build steadily, perhaps over years, until it reached extreme levels.

Nor is the Solar System the limit.  Within twenty years, NASA expects to have the technology to send a small unmanned probe on an interstellar mission.  That sail wouldn't ride on the solar wind, however-- at least not all the way.  NASA would build a huge, powerful energy beam emitter.  That emitter would stay nearby, but the energy beam it shot out, perhaps a laser, would be focused on the sail of the probe, pushing it to its target star.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Ending Apollo

Forty years ago this week, Apollo 17, the last Apollo lunar mission, came home.  Congress and President Nixon, in their wisfom, had cancelled three more Apollo missions, and plans for a lunar base and manned missions to Mars were shelved.  Instead, the nation got the space shuttle--  a magnificent vehicle, but one that never had a chance to match its hype.

Soon after Apollo 17 came home, the nation was engulfed in the Watergate scandals, and it could be argued the American manned space program has lacked a firm goal since.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Tau Ceti Planetary System?

Tau Ceti is a star slightly smaller than the Sun and only 11.9 light years distant.  It is among the nearest stars to Earth, and bright enough to be seen with the naked human eye.  Now, a team of astronomers thinks Tau Ceti might have a planetary system of at least five worlds, with one of those orbiting in the star's habitable zone, meaning that planet might possibly support life as we know it.

All five of the possible exoplanets need to be confirmed, but three of them look very solid.  If Tau Ceti does have planets--especially one that may support life-- it may well be an early target for human interstellar expeditions.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Grail Gone

The twin Grail spacecraft, which spent almost a year mapping the Moon's gravitational field in unprecedented detail, were deliberately slammed into a lunar mountain yesterday.  Their fuel was nearly gone, and NASA wanted to make certain they did not crash into any historic areas, like the Apollo landing sites.

The crash site was named for the late Sally Ride, who led a student project connected to the mission until her death.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Chang'e 2 Encounters Toutatis

Chang'e 2 is the second spacecraft sent to the Moon by China, but it has become much more than that.  After successfully completing its lunar mission, it was sent out to the Earth-Sun L2 point, where the gravitational influences of the Earth and the Sun balance, to test China's ability to operate in deep space.  That, too, was a success.  Then, China set the probe on a course to rendezvous with the asteroid Toutatis.  According to the official Chinese news agency, the probe accomplished that last week, flying within two miles of the asteroid.

The travels of Chang'e 2 reveal an extremely confident and sophisticated Chinese space capability.  China is doing things early on that the United States and the Soviet Union took years to try.  Of course, that's part of the point.  Americans and Soviets worked out how to operate in space, and now China, and other nations as well as private groups, are executing.  That said, the flight of Chang'e 2 is a remarkable achievement.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

End Of The World?

According to some, the world will end this week.  They base that dreary prediction on a particular interpretation of Mayan cosmology.  Even though most Mayan scholars say the calendar on which the prediction is based calls for the end of one cycle and the beginning of a new cycle, not the end of the physical world, the gloomier take has gained some traction in American culture.

So much traction, in fact, that NASA has felt the need to announce everything will be fine.  The interesting question is why some people would accept the vague prediction of a Stone Age level society of a limited universe instead of the extraordinary, complex cosmos, brimming with possibilities, that modern science has revealed.  That would seem to highlight a monumental failure of the American education system.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Possible Europa Mission

NASA is looking at a possible probe to Jupiter's ice-covered moon, Europa.  The mission concept currently being studied calls for a probe to be put into orbit around Jupiter such that it does dozens of fly bys of Europa-- some as close as 15 miles above the surface.  The mission could be launched in the 2020-2022 time period, and take six years to reach Jupiter.

Scientists think there is a huge ocean under Europa's ice shell that might harbor life.  The proposed mission would measure the thickness of the ice shell, confirm, or not, the existence of the ocean, and search for possible landing sites for future missions.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Big River On Titan

Cassini's radar has imaged a large river on Saturn's huge and fascinating moon, Titan.  The river flows some 250 miles and empties into the largest lake yet found on Titan, which covers an area that is five times larger than the area covered by Lake Superior.

Of course, lakes and rivers on Titan are not filled with liquid water.  On that frigid world, water freezes as hard as rock.  Instead, the liquids in that super-cold environment are ethane and methane.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

North Korea Tries Again

The regime running North Korea seems intent on ignoring the protests of much of the rest of the world regarding its rocket launches.  Pyongyang insists it is pursuing developing a space program for purely peaceful reasons.  Many other governments, however, see the space program simply as a cover to allow North Korea to build bigger and better rockets that could be used as ICBMs to threaten other nations.

The latest North Korean launch occurred yesterday.

North Korea is one of the poorest nations on Earth.  Its citizens, except for those in a small ruling class, are often hungry.  For such a nation to pursue a space program seems both strange and irresponsible to many.  For such a nation to pursue technology it can both sell for money and use to increase its influence, as Pyongyang does with its rocket expertise, seems to make more sense.  The problem is that's a dangerous game, and North Korea is not a trusted member of the international community.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

2012 XE54

Asteroid 2012 XE54 was discovered by astronomers just two days ago.  At 120 feet long, if it collided with Earth the damage caused could be comparable to the devastation caused by the Tunguska event of 1904.  Today, 2012 XE54 flew past Earth at a distance of only 140,000 miles-- a close shave in cosmic terms.  It could come even closer in future passes.

This is simply the latest in a string of cases this year that make the case for planetary defense against possible asteroid or comet strikes.  Hopefully, it won't take a disaster to get world leaders to act.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Patrick Moore Dies

British astronomer Sir Patrick Moore died Sunday evening, according to the BBC.  He was 89.

Moore was a tireless popularizer of astronomy, writing more than 70 books on the subject, and hosting a BBC television series.  The Sky At Night began in 1957 and ran literally the rest of his life, airing a final episode the night he died.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Limiting The Theory Of Everything

Japanese scientists, usimg the Ikaros spacecraft to study gamma ray bursts, may be putting limits on any possible Theory Of Everything, the ultimate goal of theoretical physics.

Gamma ray bursts are some of the most energetic events in the universe.  Physicists think they're the result of a star collapsing into a neutron star, or the collision of two neutron stars.  The energy produced is enough to propel photons to nearly the speed of light, and studying those photons can give physicists data about the realm of high energy physics that can be used to test some aspects of cosmological models.  It's early days in the research, but so far the Standard Model seems to be holding up.  Physicists ultimately want to combine the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics into one coherent theory.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Brown Dwarf Planets

Brown dwarves are almost stars-- bodies not quite dense enough and massive enough to ignite and sustain nuclear reactions.  Astronomers have therefore assumed they wouldn't have planets.

A new study of a dusty disk around a brown dwarf 400 light years away, however, suggests Earth-sized planets are possible.  Given the size of a good proportion of the dust grains in the disk, astronomers think they will evventually coalesce into worlds similar to Earth.

As brown dwarves do not shine by nuclear reactions but dimly glow by gravitational contraction, it's unlikely any such worlds would harbor life.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Golden Spike

Golden Spike is a new company offering manned flights to the Moon-- including landing on the Moon-- starting in 2020.  Each flight will cost $1.5 billion.  The company is targeing nations, corporations, and individuals in its marketing efforts, and claims to already have some real interest.

The GS CEO is Alan Stern, a veteran NASA executive.  Stern, however, is more closely associated with unmanned planetary probe missions, such as the New Horizons probe currently on its way to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, than he is with manned spaceflight.  So far, he seems more scientist/administrator than visionary businessman.  Whether he is the person to make such an audacious business venture work remains to be seen.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Forty Years Ago

On this date forty years ago, Apollo 17 left for the Moon in a spectacular night launch.  It was the last Apollo lunar mission.  As Apollo 17 commander, Eugene Cernan became the last Apollo astronaut to stand on the lunar surface, and he remains the latest human to do so.  Cernan has often remarked that he never dreamed he would hold that second distinction for so long.

Indeed, there are no firm plans for anyone to take that distinction away from him any time soon.  Russia and China have anounced their intentions to land people on the Moon, but they're both still many years away from doing so.  Various nations have expressed interest in joining an international program to build a lunar base, but that doesn't seem to have gotten past the talking stage so far.  Private efforts to put humans back on the Moon are underway, as well, but their timetables are extremely soft.

So, Cernan could well remain the most recent human to stand on the Moon fairly deep into the twenty-first century.  There are grounds to speculate, however, that the next person on the Moon will be the first of a steady stream.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Followng Up On Curiosity

NASA has announced it plans to launch another rover to Mars in 2020, and many in the science community are already pushing for it to be at least the sample gathering and caching part of a sample return effort.  Ultimately, they argue, to search for life on Mars, we need to get likely soil and rock samples into the state-of-the-art labs on Earth.

NASA is still defining both the rover and its mission.  It will likely be based on Curiosity's design, however, which would presumably mean something like the same complex landing procedure that successfully put Curiosity in Gale Crater. That might be a mistake.  It worked once, but trying it again may be pressing our luck.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Deep Space Station Project Questioned

NASA has been working on a plan to put a manned space station into deep space for months.  The fact that NASA was willing to confirm such a plan existed led to speculation that the Obama administration had already approved the plan and was waiting until after the election to announce it.  Now, however, an unnamed senior administration official denies the White House supports such a project, according to

Of course, we're talking about Washington politics.  Officials who will not allow themselves to be identified on non-sensitive, non-national security matters hardly encourage confidence.  Remember, too, that Washington is currently in a huge public debate about, among other things, cutting federal spending.  This would not be a good time to push what could be painted as an expensive new space project.

We know NASA has been working on such a plan.  We know NASA made no determined effort to keep it secret, or to deny it.  We know the project would advance Mr. Obama's announced plan for human spaceflight.  So, will President Obama support it?   We'll see.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Curiosity's Big News

NASA announced today that Curiosity has found complex chemistry in the soil of Mars, but no life, and no organics.  Curiosity also found water in the soil, plus carbon compounds.  Carbon and water are essential to life as we know it.

Whether the announced discovery is "for the history books" or not, as a mission scientist said it would be last month, probably depends on future developments.  If it turns out Mars has never been home to more than interesting chemistry, this discovery might be footnote material.  However, if it leads us to life on Mars, either extinct or extant, then that scientist will have been proven correct.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Huge Black Hole Discovered

Astronomers have found the largest black hole yet in a small galaxy far, far away.  The object is 17 million solar masses, and its width is 11 times the orbit of Neptune.  It is huge.

It also contains 14 percent of the total mass of the galaxy in which it resides.  That figure for black holes in galaxies is usually 0.1 percent.  So, this black hole is one of an emerging class in which a black hole contains a significant percentage of the mass of the host galaxy.  Physicists don't understand yet how that happens, but explaining it is clearly important in working out a general theory of galaxy formation.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Mercury Stunner

Scientists using data from the Messenger spacecraft orbiting Mercury have discovered huge amounts of water ice in permanently shadowed areas near the planet's poles.  Some of that ice simply sits on the surface under Mercury's tenuous atmosphere.   A lot of it is just below the surface, and some of that is under what may be something like a mat of organic compounds.  Yes, the building blocks of life-- on Mercury-- and in association with water ice.

Broadly speaking, there seems to be few more unlikely places in the universe to find water ice and organic compounds than the surface of Mercury-- yet there they are.  The case for life beyond Earth gets stronger and stronger.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

ESA And Orion

NASA's next manned spaceship will be Orion, a capsule designed to carry astronauts into deep space.  It will not be a wholly American project, however.  An agreement has been reached for the European Space Agency to build Orion's service module.  That contains the guts of the spacecraft-- propulsion, power, etc.  ESA will build the module to NASA's standards and specifications.

It's an interesting decision.  ESA has yet to be involved in building manned spacecraft, and now it's to deliver a critical part of the ship that will carry America back into space.  There's also a political angle.  Thousands of American space workers lost their jobs when the space shuttle program ended, yet a good chunk of the next American spaceship program will now go to Europeans.  Congress may grumble about that.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Curiosity Speculation

Ever since a NASA scientist announced Curiosity had made a discovery "for the history books" without saying-- yet-- what the discovery is, there has been speculation by scientists outside the mission and by nonscientists about what the discovery might be.

Most of the speculaation centers on results of a soil sample analysis Curiosity was conducting just before the announcement.  Many scientists speculate the discovery might involve organic compounds in the soil, or chemical tracers related to organics.  Organic compounds, of course, are the building blocks of life, so finding them on the surface of Mars would be a major find.

It could also put Viking results back in play.  Viking possibly found Martian life in 1976, but the science community decided the results of Viking's experiments could have been produced by nonbiological procsses.  Organics confirmed in Martian soil, however, might tip the judgment on Viking the other way.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Measuring Pluto's Atmosphere

Astronomers aren't sure exactly how big Pluto is because it's so small and so far away, so trying to measure its wispy atmosphere is clearly a challenge.  Combining two models of that atmosphere, however, has produced an interesting result.

Though tenuous, the atmosphere is still structured, with the upper and lower parts behaving differently.  The atmosphere also expands and contracts depending on Pluto's distance from the Sun.  A new study that combined models of the upper and lower atmosphere suggests that the very top of Pluto's atmosphere may extend almost halfway to the orbit of Pluto's largest moon, Charon-- or roughly 4.5 times the diameter of Pluto itself.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Year Long Spaceflight

One American astronaut and one Russian cosmonaut have been chosen to spend one full year aboard ISS beginning in spring 2015.  Training will begin next year.

The purpose of the flight is to see how the human body might respond to long spaceflights like what would be necessary to go to Mars.  Of course, this project involves only two individuals, both of whom happen to be male, so the flight can only be a step along the way towards gathering the necessary data.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Dust Storm Season On Mars

Spring recently sprung in the northern hemisphere of Mars, which means the dust storm season there has begun.  On cue, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spotted and is currently tracking a growing dust storm.  It has become a regional storm and could possibly become a global one.

Both of NASA's operational rovers-- Opportunity and Curiosity, which are on opposite sides of the planet-- have picked up indications of the storm.   If it does go global, the dust storm would be more of a problem for Opportunity, which gets its power from solar arrays gathering solar energy.  Dust collecting on the solar panels would cut down on the energy the panels could harvest.  Curiosity is nuclear powered, but dust in the air would cut down on the sharpness of the images sent home.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Super-Earths' Magnetic Fields

Key to complex life on Earth is the planet's magnetic field, which blocks deadly radiation coursing through space from reaching the surface.  That magnetic field is generated in Earth's core, and scientists have assumed it would be the same on super-Earths.

Recent research suggests otherwise.  It seems that magnesium oxide, under conditions that exist on super-Earths, becomes a liiquid metal that can support a magnetic field.  So, while current theory suggests that such huge worlds may lack dynamic cores, and therefore lack magnetic fields, it is possible for magnetic fields to be generated in the mantles of super-Earths, thus making life on such planets more plausible.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Musk Mars Colony

Elon Musk, he of PayPal, SpaceX, and Tesla Motors, has always said he wants to put humans on Mars.  Recently, he gave a few details of how he intends to do that.

First, he says, we need fully reusable rocket launchers and spacecraft, to cut the cost of going into space to a reasonable amount for individuals.  SpaceX is already working on that technology, and Musk is currently pegging the price for a ticket to Mars at around $500,000.  He envisions building a colony on Mars, starting with fewer than 10 people, but growing to perhaps 80,000, gaining self-sufficiency along the way.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

For The History Books???

NPR reports NASA's Curiosity rover has made what one team member calls a discovery "for the history books."  Exactly what has been discovered is being withheld for now to give sciemtists time to be sure the data is solid and that they thoroughly understand it, but reports the announcement will be made early next month at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

We know Curiosity has been busy analyzing soil samples, so it's reasonable to speculate the discovery is somehow related to that.  Have organic compounds, the building blocks of life, been found in Martian soil?  Even life itself?  Or has Curiosity's video camera picked up something totally remarkable?  We'll soon know.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


Some scientists are pushing for a sample return mission to Mars in which the robot wouldn't simply scoop up soil from the surface (though they want to do that, too) but instead have a rover enter a cave or lava tube and collect samples there.  Since the surface of Mars is constantly exposed to radiation, they argue the best place to look for life-- past or present-- would be subsurface.  Protected areas like caves or lava tubes, where rock blocks incoming radiation, might also work.  Plus, they point out, such places could preserve a history of life on Mars, as they do on Earth.

Future life on Mars could also be served by such a mission, they point out.  Lava tubes could be excellent sites for the first human settlements on Mars, as they would provide both protection from radiation and a consistent, controlled environment.

Of course, if Martian life already exists in such places, that could complicate or delay any human missions to the Red Planet.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Big World

Regular readers of this blog know about super-Earths.  Well, now astronomers have found a super-Jupiter, something they didn't necessarily think existed.

The world in question is 13 times as massive as Jupiter.  It orbits a young star about 170 light years away which is itself 2.5 times as massive as the Sun.  Since the planet orbits at a distance similar to Neptune's from the Sun, astronomers think it formed the same way most planets do.  The problem is that the current standard theory of planetary formation doesn't really contemplate planets of such size.  So, something has to give.  Either this planet did not form in what astronomers see as the customary manner, or the current theory has to be revised so that it accounts for such big worlds.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Kepler On Overtime

NASA's Kepler planet-hunting spacecraft has completed its primary mission and is now on an extended mission.  NASA expects Kepler to continue producing results until at least 2016.

Kepler has already identified more than two thousand possible exoplanets, and NASA expects to find many more, including some Earth-like worlds.  The longer Kepler can observe its 150,000 target stars, the smaller worlds, and the more worlds farther from their parent stars it can detect.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Extending Satellites' Lives

At least two companies are developing satellites that can repair and refuel other satellites in orbit.  Such capabilities would be big pluses economically, allowing governments and corporations to save money by extending the useful lives of satellites rather than building and launching new ones.

That would also help alleviate the space debris problem.  Fewer satellites launched should mean fewer derelict satellites in an absolute sense-- and fewer spent rocket stages, etc.  Beyond that, the ability to interact with satellites in orbit opens the possibility of safely de-orbiting them when they are no longer useful.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Nuking Asteroids

Experts in planetary defense say we need years if not decades of lead time to successfully deal with an asteroid on a collision course with Earth.  Only weeks advance warning, they say, and we are doomed.

A new study, however, presents an option for that situation-- a nuclear option.  It proposes sending a spacecraft containing two impactors to the asteroid.  The first impactor would drive into the asteroid, creating a deep hole.  It would be non-nuclear.  The second, nuclear-tipped impactor would follow the first into the hole and detonate inside the asteroiid, blowing it apart and sending most of its mass on new paths away from Earth.

It's an innteresting idea, and gives humanity one last shot in a desperate situation.  Hopefully, though, we'll never have to try to make it work for real.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


SpaceX is working on a rocket it calls Grasshopper that will both launch and land vertically.  The landing part would seem to be a real challenge, but, so far, there have been two successful test "hops."  Each lifted the rocket only a few feet off the ground before setting it right back down, but it's a start.

The company's goal is to develop a completely reusable rocket/spacecraft stack.  The people at SpaceX are convinced that is the way to dramatically lower the cost of reaching orbit.  They may well be right.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Nearby Rogue Planet

Astronomers have discovered what is likely a rogue planet-- a planet zipping through space independently, unconnected to any star-- just 100 light years away.  The object, at four to seven times the mass of Jupiter, may also be a brown dwarf, a body not quite big enough to become a star, but current odds are that it's a planet ejected from a solar system.

Astronomers think such rogue worlds are common throughout the galaxy, and they are delighted to have found one so close by.  Since they won't have to deal with the overpowering glare of a host star, they look forward to learning a lot about this object fairly quickly, and using that knowledge to extrapolate about others of its kind.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Naming Exoplanets

Astronomers estimate there are 160 billion planets in the Milky Way galaxy.  Giving each world an unique nane would seem a daunting task, so Uwingu, a new company dedicated to finding new ways to fund space research, is throwing the process open to the public, allowing people to submit names, and to vote on the most popular.

Of course, giving each world its own name probably isn't necessary.  Most of them are huge dead rocks, or balls of gas and ice, that will never be important to us.  Naming exoplanets that might harbor life and giving all the others simpler designations would probably be sufficient.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Martian Life Revisited

Fifteen years ago, a team of NASA scientists announced they thought they'd found evidence for life on Mars in a meteorite that had originated on the Red Planet.  The science community generallly never bought that conclusion, but the team has not backed away from it.

Various studies have since shown that all the features the NASA team points to as evidence of life could be produced non-biologically,  The science consensus is, therefore, that we should assume they were produced non-biologically unless or until we have powerful additional evidenc to the contrary.  Scientists generally don't want to declare they've found alien life only to be proven wrong.  It's a good, solid, conservative position.  Whether it leads to the correct answer or not is yet to be determined.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Life Colors

There are various indicators that could suggest a planet might harbor life.  The location of its orbit is the first; if it's within the host planet's habitable zone, there's a shot.  Free oxygen in the atmosphere is another good indicator.  Methane's presence means the possibility of life must be seriously considered.

A new study points out that the overall color of a planet is another indicator.  A small planet that is basically blue and within the habitable zone, for example, could indicate a water world.  A similar world similarly positioned, but greenish, may mean that world is awash in chlorophyll, suggesting vegetation.  Spectroscopic analysis of the light bouncing off such a planet-- breaking down the light into its constituent parts-- could then give more details about the makeup of an alien atmosphere.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

NASA's L2 Plans

According to reports, NASA and the Obama administration have been quietly at work developing a new plan for U. S. manned spaceflight.

NASA wants to build a manned outpost at the Earth-Moon L2 point.  That's a point in space beyond the Moon where the gravitational influences of the Earth and Moon cancel each other out.  A spacecraft placed there would stay there with little or no further expenditure of fuel.  NASA, therefore, thinks an outpost there-- which could be built with international partners-- would be the ideal place to learn to live in deep space.  It could also serve as a staging site for missions deeper into space.  Finally, astronauts stationed there could teleoperate a fleet of rovers on the lunar surface, conducting an exploration of the Moon's far side.

The plans calls for establishing the outpost by 2021, before sending astronauts to an asteroid by 2025.  The proposal will not call for an increase in NASA's budget.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Chinese Space Plane

China seems to be developing a small space plane similar to the U. S. Air Force's secretive X-37B,  Space analysts aren't sure exactly what the X-37B is designed to do, and China watchers are even further away from understanding the Chinese craft, named Shentong.

Some see Shentong as a waste of resources trying to match the Americans, much as the Soviets wasted resources on Buran, their version of a manned space shuttle.  It never flew.  Others, however, say Shentong is the next step in an increasingly aggressiive manned space program.  Still others point out that the Chinese space program is run by the People's Liberation Army and suggest Shentong may have military implications.  Hopefully, Western intelligence has a better handle on Chinese intentions than Western academia has.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Life Abode?

A dwarf star 44 light years away has a system of six planets.  The outermost of the six orbits squarely within the star's habitable zone.  That makes it an early candidate for possibly being a home of life.

Better yet, it is a Super-Earth about seven times as massive as our world.  We, therefore, wouldn't be very comfortable there in all likelihood, but it's probably a rocky world, and liquid water could exist on its surface-- a big plus for possible life.

The next generation space telescopes should be able to image the planet directly in a few years.  That picture could possibly be a turning point in human history.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Four More Years For Obama

President Barack Obama was elected to a second term in the White House yesterday.  America is thus in an interesting historical period-- only once before has the nation had three consecutive two-term presidencies.  That was with the three Virginians-- Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe.

This time, we'll have Clinton, who helped establish ISS, among other things, George W. Bush, who set the space shuttles on the road to retirement and established the Constellation program to return U. S. astronauts to the Moon, and Obama, who canceled Constellation in favor of an approach to develop the technological base and infrastructure necessary to support a future, sustained program of deep space manned exploration.  With Mr. Obama's re-election, it's presumably safe to assume NASA's programs are set for the next four years.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Linne' Crater

Linne' Crater is small by lunar standards, but scientists have decided it's nearly perfect.  Because it's relatively young, it's also nearly pristine, so scientists can use it as a model for how impact craters form.  There are impact craters on Earth and Mars, but they are distorted by time and weathering.  Lunar craters are much less bothered by weathering, as the Moon has virtually no atmosphere.

By studying Linne' up close and comparing it to craters on other worlds, astronomers hope to not only tease out broad principles about impacts but also to learn about the history of those worlds by noting how far impact craters on them are from perfection.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Voting From Orbit

Americans, or at least Texans, can vote even if they're away from Earth.  The Texas legislature, noting most astronauts live around Houston, passed a law in 1997 allowing digital voting from space.

It so happens that both Americans currently aboard ISS voted early-- from their training facility in Russia-- but the Texas law establishes a good legal precedent. If increasing numbers of people work in space in the years ahead, they will require a way to discharge their civic duty while away.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Enterprise Possibly Damaged

The space shuttle Enterprise, being displayed on the flight deck of the decommissioned aircraft carrier USS Intrepid in New York Harbor, may have been damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

Enterprise had been being protected from the elements by a pressurized tent-like structure.   That was blown down by Sandy, exposing both the nose and the tail of the orbiter to possible damage.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

No Methane

The Curiosity rover, sniffing the air, has found no methane in the atmosphere of Mars.

Methane can be produced biologically, so it can be a marker of life; it can also be nonbiological in origin.  So, the fact that Curiosity has yet to find it weakens the case for extant life on Mars, but it may also be a matter of different atmospheric chemistry.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Asteroid Belts And Life

A new study argues that an asteroid belt similar to the one in our solar system is essential to the development of life on rocky planets inside the belt because asteroids will sometimes smash into those eocky worlds, bringing water and organic compounds-- the essentials of life.  The study further suggests, based on evidence so far obtained, that such asteroid belts are rare.

It's the latest in a string of studies that say, in effect, life similar to that on Earth needs situations similar to those that have existed in, on, and around Earth.  Yes, the arguments mustered are sound enough, but there's the barest hint of desperation in the whole approach.  It seems to want to insist we are the product of a special sequence of cosmic events.  Trying to broaden our understanding of life and how it might come to be might be more useful.

Thursday, November 1, 2012


Scientists working with images from the Cassini spacecraft have discovered that Saturn's huge moon Titan gives off the tiniest bit of a glow.  They weren't surprised by a glow high in Titan's atmosphere-- molecules there can be excited by solar radiation and emit light-- but the glow also comes from deep down in Titan's thick atmosphere.

Exactly what is exciting molecules down there where solar radiation is not really a factor is unclear.  It is clear, however, that Titan is still full of surprises.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Martian Soil

You wouldn't want to sunbathe on Mars, but, according to analysis of soil in Gale Crater by the Curiosity rover, the soil there is similar to that found on the flanks of Hawaii's Mauna Kea volcano.  Actually, you may not want to sunbathe there, either.

Curiosity's work so far also shows more evidence of interaction with liquid water in early soil, and an extremely dry environment later on, which is consistent with the overall picture of Mars' history that scientists are piecing together.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Explaining The Moon

Since early space probes revealed stark differences between the far side of the Moon and the hemisphere that always faces Earth, scientists have been trying to explain how that came about.

The basic difference between the two lunar hemisphere is that the far side is largely highlands whereas the near side has several large basins.  They are the dark areas visible with the unaided eye.  Astronomers first assumed they were volcanic in origin, but an impact theory was developed around Apollo.  A team of Japanese researchers, focusing on the makeup of the rocks along the periphery of the basin, say those rocks are consistent with huge impacts that would have created pools of molten lava a thousand miles wide and several hundred miles deep.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Dragon Home

SpaceX's Dragon cargo capsule splashed down off the coast of southern California yesterday afternoon, successfully completing the first commercial flight to ISS.

Among other things brought back to Earth by Dragon are blood and urine samples from ISS crews.  The samples, part of ongoing biological research, have been stored aboard ISS since the space shuttle's retirement because, until Dragon, there was no way to get them to Earth.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Putting Things Together

The latest several years have seen the confirmed discovery of hundreds of planets orbiting other stars, with thousands more awaiting confirmation.  No Earth-like planets have been found yet, but astronomers are convinced that's only a matter of time.  Recently, a planet has been found in the Alpha Centauri system-- right next door-- and other worlds may yet be found there.

Back on Earth, various nations are moving ahead with space programs, including plans for manned flight, as reported in this blog,  Several governments and space agencies have also expressed interest in joining an international lunar base program.  Private enterprise is also developing big plans for expanding the human economy well beyond Earth, incorporating extraterrestrial resources into an expanding sphere of economic activity,

We may be witnessing the initial stirrings of a spacefaring civilization.  Working out the kinks, establishing the fundamental principles that will guide such a civilization, will take time-- perhaps centuries-- but the glimmerings to be seen now are both suggestive and encouraging.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Orion Moving Ahead

Construction of the Orion space capsule, NASA's next generation manned spaceship, is going along well, according to the agency.  Project managers are aiming for the first unmanned test flight to be in 2014, with the first manned flight scheduled for 2021.

Orion is being designed to allow NASA to fly deep space manned missions-- to the Moon, to near-Earth asteroids, and eventually in a manned Mars mission.  The question is whether by 2021, or 2025, or 2030, there might not be better options for such missions.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Saturn Storms

Jupiter and Saturn, and to a lesser extent Uranus and Neptune, are known for the incredible storms that blow up in their huge atmospheres.  Jupiter's Great Red Spot is no doubt the most famous.  Bigger than Earth, it has probably existed since before Galileo became the first human to train a telescope on Jupiter.

Saturn lacks such a signature storm, but it has had a series of Great White Spots over the years.  The latest was also the biggest yet seen.  Observed by the Cassini spacccraft, that storm eventually expanded until it encircled the planet, and temperatures within the storm were at points 100 degrees F higher than in the surrounding atmosphere-- a huge amount of generated energy.  That storm can still be seen, but it seems to be petering out.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

China's Space Rockets

China is continuing to develop its Long March rocket series.  The next one up is the Long March 5, which could be test flown in 2014.  It is the most powerful yet, capable of putting 25 tons in low Earth orbit or 14 tons in geosynchronous orbit, and Long March 6 and 7 are also under development.

The Long March 5 will give China the capability to put a space station in orbit by 2020, which is the country's stated goal for its manned program.  The rocket could also launch a manned lunar mission, for whatever that's worth.  Outside experts disagree on whether China is actively pursuing putting a taikonaut on the Moon any time soon, but it seems to be developing the hardware and the flight capability to attempt such a mission if it so chooses.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Japan's Manned Space Plans

Japan is moving ahead in developing a manned spaceflight capability.  First, it is looking to have a capsule or mini-shuttle which could be flying people by 2022.  The capsule would land by parachute and come down on either land or water, depending on the size of the capsule, while the mini-shuttle would launch atop a rocket and land on a runway.

Second, longer term, Japan is considering a space plane that would both take off from and land on runways.  It's also looking at hypersonic vehicles that would fly "point-to-point" anywhere on the planet.  That would revolutionize long distance travel.

Japan has the technological base to undertake such projects.  Its economy, while struggling for many years, is still large enough to support such ambitions.  If they succeed, Japan could rather quickly overtake China, at least technologically, to become the leading Asian manned space power.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

X-Ray Black Hole

The center of our galaxy is a wild and woolly place-- no place for humans, or, probably, for any other life.  Recently, astronomers pinpointed a black hole there by observing an X-ray nova.

Supernova explosions blow stars apart; nova explosions are titanic, but they leave a star intact.  Astronomers observed such a nova explosion in the X-ray spectrum-- an extremely rare event.  By studying the X-ray radiation, they found it moved into the accretion disk of a black hole. Black holes cannot be observed directly because light does not escape them, but their existence can be inferred by the effect they have on the immediate area.  Accretion disks, gas and dust in furious orbit around a black hole that can be excited by energetic radiation and thus observed, are dead giveaways.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Shiny Martian Objects

Curiosity has found "shiny objects" in the soil of Mars.  At first, NASA thought the objects might be debris from Curiosity itself, but now it's fairly clear they are indigenous to Mars.

The question is: What are they?  Curiosity will be analyzing them shortly.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Strange System

Amateur astronomers working with professionals in the Planet Hunter project have found a gas giant planet slightly bigger than Neptune in a quadruple star system.

The planet orbits the pair of stars at the core of the system once every 139 days.  The other two stars in the system orbit the core pair much farther out.  How a planet could be where that one is so far stumps scientists.  It's a reminder of how much we still have to learn about the ways of the cosmos.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Checking On Private Manned Spaceflight

All three American companies working on building private manned spacecraft are making progress, they report.

SpaceX is already flying its Dragon capsule as a cargo vehicle, and plans the first Dragon manned flight in 2015.

Boeing is working on its CST-100 capsule, and is aiming for its first crewed test flight in 2016.  Boeing, of course, has been involved in building manned spacecraft for decades.

Sierra Nevada sees its Dream Chaser flying in the 2016-17 period.  Dream Chaser will launch atop an Atlas 5, but it is winged, so it will land on a runway.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Forming Earth's Moon

The generally accepted theory of how Earth's Moon formed holds that something big crashed into the young Earth, and debris from that collision coalesced to form the Moon.  Three new studies support that general idea.

One study posits a smaller impactor than Mars, one assumes a Mars-sized body, and one looks at the role of water in the process, but they all reinforce the basic collision theory.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Stuff Of Science Fiction

So far, scientists have found planets in distant star systems-- over 800 confirmed to date.  Now, however, they are announcing the discovery of a planet in the Alpha Centauri system.  Right next door.

The new world is slightly more massive than Earth and orbits Alpha Centauri B in 3.2 days.  Astronomers think its surface is so hot it could be molten lava.  However, where there's one rocky world, there may be others.

Alpha Centauri is, in fact, a triple star system, with A and B-- B is a sunlike star-- and Proxima Centauri, which is the single closest star to the Sun.  The whole system is 4.3 light years from Earth.  Astronomers now think there's a possibility that Earthlike worlds could exist in the habitable zones of the system.  If such a world, or worlds, exists, the public reaction could easily result in a more robust space program.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


The star KOI-500 is about 1,100 light years away.  It has about the same mass as the Sun, though only three-quarters the diameter, and it's young-- about a billion years old.

The most interesting thing about KOI-500, however, is its planetary system.  Using data from Kepler, astronomers have determined it has at least five planets, each of which is slightly larger than Earth, and each of which orbits its star much closer than Mercury orbits the Sun.  Whereas Mercury zips around the Sun in 88 days, the outermost of the five gets around KOI-500 in 9.5 days.

Scientists think all five planets formed farther away from the star and migrated inward.  The orbits now, however, appear gravitationally interlocked and stable.  Figuring out the history of that system will likely keep theorists busy for quite some time.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Lunar Water

Since the presence of water on the Moon has been confirmed. scientists have been trying to figure out where the water originated.  Now, they think a large percentage of it might have come in on the solar wind.

Comets smashing into the Moon have no doubt brought some water, but researchers studying Apollo 11 regolith samples that were gathered by Neil Armstrong found an isotope of hydrogen in tiny glass beads.  That isotope is associated with the Sun, so they asume it and water molecules reached the Moon in the solar wind.

If the theory is correct, it could mean water exists on other airless worlds throughout the Solar System.  That, in turn, could be good news for human exploration.

Sunday, October 14, 2012


NASA is developing exoskeletons astronauts could don to increase their physical abilities during spacewalks.  The contraptions would fit outside the spacesuits and multiply the strength of the astronauts' arms and legs, allowing them to accomplish more work per excursion.

The exoskeletons could have important Earthly applications, as well.  Fitted to the needs of paraplegics, they could substitute for legs that don't work, providing the strength and control to allow the person to walk.  Exoskeletons could be similarly useful on paralyzed arms.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Columbus Day

Today is the 520th anniversary of the first sighting of land in the New World by Christopher Columbus' three ship fleet.  It is, therefore, a good candidate for the birthday of the modern world.  Congress, in its wisdom, celebrates Columbus Day some other time.

In that five and a fifth century span, the balance of economic and political power has shifted to the New Workd, with the emergence of one superpower and dozens of other nations on the European model that usurped native political structures.  In Columbus' time, China was probably the most advanced power on Earth.  Those who followed Columbus fairly quickly established a world dominated by European powers that explored when China pulled back into itself, however.  That Europe-centric world eventually gave way to a global society led by the United States.

Where will the leading human power be in another five centuries?  Maybe on Earth... but perhaps it will be a relatively young, technologically sophisticated, extraordinarily rich society based beyond Earth, active on several worlds-- maybe even spreading to the stars.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Sentinel Space Telescope

The B612 Foundation and Ball Aerospace are teaming to launch the Sentinel Space Telescope, the first private space telescope.

Sentinel's mission will be to find near-Earth asteroids.  Experts think it could find 500,000 such bodies in its six-year lifespan, compared to 10,000 found so far.  Sentinel will be an infrared telescope stationed somewhere around the orbit of Venus, so it will be looking out away from the Sun.  The goals of the project are to find asteroids that threaten Earth, asteroids suitable for a human mission, and asteroids that would be targets for future mining operations.

Sentinel is scheduled for launch in 2017.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Sarah Brightman To Orbit

Singer Sarah Brightman has signed a different kind of contract.  This one is with Space Adventures to fly onboard ISS.  Brightman, who is also active as a UNESCO Ambassador, sees living in space as advancing understanding of living according to sound ecological principles on Earth.

Besides offering ISS visits, SA is also still offering a trip around the Moon in a Soyuz spacecraft.  So far, there have been no takers.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Voyager 1 Crossed Over?

For a few years now, scientists have been eagerly awaiting the time Voyager 1 passed out of the Sun's primary influence, crossing into interstellar space.  Recent data suggests that milestone may have already been reached.

In late August, the data shows, Voyager was being hit more often by high-energy particles and less often by low-energy ones.  Scientists interpret the high energy strikes to be cosmic rays from deep space and the low energy hits to be the Sun's solar wind.  Therefore, there's a good chance Voyager may already be out of the Solar System.

If the next reading of the magnetic field yonder shows a shift consistent with the magnetic field of interstellar space, that would likely clinch the deal.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Dragon Flies

The fickle Florida weather cooperated last night, and SpaceX launched its first commercial flight to ISS, with its Falcon 9 booster delivering its Dragon capsule to orbit.

Dragon is set to rendezvous with ISS early Wednesday.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Florida Weather......Again

The dynamic weather of central Florida often delayed launches of space shuttles, and now it threatens to delay the first commercial launch of Space-X's Dragon capsule to ISS tonight.

If the launch is delayed, the weather for the next two nights looks more favorable.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Dragon Poised

So far, Space-X's Falcon 9/Dragon stack is a :"Go" to launch to ISS tomorrow night.

Dragon reached ISS last May, but that was a test flight.  This will be the first commercial flight delivering supplies to ISS-- the first of 12 such flights called for by the contract Space-X has with NASA.  The contract is worth $1.6 billion.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Titan Boat

Scientists are looking at the possibility of exploring Saturn's huge moon, Titan, by boat.  Mars is dry land, essentially, so using wheeled rovers there makes sense-- though using aircraft would also be an interesting option.  Aircraft on Titan would also work in that dense atmosphere, but because the surface is dominated by lakes and rivers of liquid methane, scientists are evaluating boats.

The mission under study would plop a boat into the largest methane lake on Titan and sail it to the shoreline, taking samples along the way.  A cooler idea for Titan's frosty surface might be an amphibious vehicle that could "land" (methane?) in the lake, sail those bonny waves to the shore, and then drive overland.  Just a thought.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Sputnik Plus 55

Fifty-five years ago today, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, into Earth orbit.  It was basically a propaganda attempt to show the superiority of the Soviet system over the capitalist West.

Now, of course, the Soviet Union is long gone, but Sputnik did begin a revolution that has already reshaped our view of the cosmos several times, and promises to do so several more.  Though Sputnik itself wasn't a scientific triumph, or designed to be, it did open the door for scientists and engineers who wanted to go into space to explore and learn, and those people have given us a new understanding of ourselves.

Sometimes an act meant to accomplish one thing can have consequences that are completely separate from the original intent.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

First Exoplanets, Now Exoconets

Astronomers have now detected clouds of comets orbiting other stars, just as the Oort Cloud of at least potential comets orbits the Sun.  The finding is one bit of evidence that scientists do in fact understand, in broad terms, how planetary systems form.

Another bit of evidence along that line is that the compositions of comets, here and there, are largely the same.  In both cases, elements like olivine, which had to form in close to the star, has been flung into the depths of the star system, and current theory explains that process.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Deep Space Station

There seems to be solid support within NASA for building an international space station beyond the Moon, at a point where lunar and Earth gravity cancel each other out.  Such a station could be a premier science outpost, directing the telerobotic exploration of the lunar farside, conducting research onboard, and serving as the jump off point for missions deeper into space.

The project is in line with President Obama's approach to building a durable thrust into space, but a President Romney might have other ideas.

Monday, October 1, 2012

A Warm Gale

Curiosity is finding the floor of Gale Crater to be warmer than expected, cracking the freezing mark during the day even in late Martian winter, though nights are still incredibly cold.

That finding surprised most scientists, and strengthens the possibility of life.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Gravel On Mars

NASA's Curiosity rover has come upon an ancient riverbed on Mars.  Large, rounded stones firmly placed in a conglomerate is strong evidence that water not only once existed on the surface, but that at some point water flowed swiftly enough, strongly enough, and long enough to smooth and round the stones.  Scientists calculate the water in the river was once about three feet deep.

The discovery of what is essentially gravel is simply the latest in a solid line of evidence supporting the thesis that Mars was once a warmer, wetter place than it is today.  That, in turn, increases the possibility that life arose on Mars, and may still exist there.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Pentagon's Space Wants

The U. S. military is pushing the development of space planes and reusable rocket boosters.  The Pentagon, of course, is tasked with defending the nation (as well as other nations) and U. S. interests and U. S. citizens around the world.  To meet those responsibilities, the rapid projection of force can be necessary, which is one place space planes come in.  Such vehicles could allow deployment of Marines anywhere on Earth within a half hour, for example.  Satellites are also increasingly critical to both U. S. security and the American economy, and thus need defending.

Of course, given federal budget woes, funding the development of such vehicles is problematical.  The Pentagon, therefore, is encouraging private efforts to develop such capabilities.  Perhaps also to push the necessary technology along, DARPA-- the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency-- is supporting a long term, private effort aiming at building a human starship within a century.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Super-Earths May Be Barren

A new study using computer models suggests that super-Earths-- worlds larger than Earth, but less than ten times as massive-- might not be good places for life to take hold.

The models imply that the extra mass fundamentally changes the formation of these worlds.  They tend to become one huge, dead rock instead of volcanically active, complex planets with mantles, hot, dynamic cores that produce magnetic fields, and plate tectonics.  Such activity, scientists say, is essential for the development of life.

Of course, that refers to native life.  Planets a few times as massive as Earth and chock full of natural resources might be ideal nodes for new branches of interstellar civilizations.  Even if the surface were unsuitable for the pioneering species, They could live comfortably in orbit while sending huge, tough machines to mine the planet.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Romney's Space Goals

The Romney campaign has released a white paper on space policy.  While short on details, it pledges a President Romney would give NASA clear priorities and goals, though he would not increase the agency's budget, arguing the issue is not the amount of money, but how that money is used.  The paper also says Romney would encourage private business to move into space, and pursue international partnerships for space projects.  National security concerns would also be key in a Romney space policy.

Predictably, the white paper also criticizes President Obama's approach to space, saying American leadership in space is eroding.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Mercury's Composition

Data from NASA's Messenger spacecraft orbiting Mercury shows a world unlike the other terrestrial planets.  Given Mercury's position so close to the Sun, that's not surprising, but the composition of the surface is.

The surface turns out to be similar to a particular class of chondrite meteorite.  That suggests the meteorites and Mercury were formed in the same process, if not at the same time.  Data also suggests lava flowed across Mercury, sculpting the surface we see, in two huge volcanic events, clearly separated in time.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Pushed To The Stars?

The advances made in medical care, public health, and understanding nutrition over the latest two centuries have doubled the average human lifespan.  Continued advances in medicine, such as gene therapy, could push the average lifespan well over one hundred active years.  That's good news, of course, but it also has profound social implications.  The economy would be under new strains to provide for a new class of elderly.  Young people may find establishing careers difficult if people work later and later in life.

Dealing with social policy may ultimately create a civilization that looks out into the universe.  Space colonization may be seen as a safety valve, relieving pressure, creating opportunities for the restless, the ambitious, and the adventurous.  Once space colonies are established, interstellar colonization will be the next step.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Shuttle Endeavour

This week, television news organizations have been documenting the "last flight" of space shuttle Endeavour as it was being delivered from Florida to its final home at a science center in California.   Newspeople also like to play historian, and they see this delivery as the end of an era.

The irony is, of course, that through most of the shuttle era, the mainstream media ignored most shuttle flights and rarely mentioned overall space policy.  Television news loves arresting video, though, and a space shuttle flying atop a 747 is certainly that.  Also, we'll probably never see it again-- the history angle.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Gliese 163c

The exoplanet Gliese 163c orbits a red dwarf star about 50 light years from Earth, which means the broadcast of John Kennedy's speech laying out the case for America going to the Moon within the decade is just now reaching that world.  Gliese 163c orbits just on the edge of its star's habitable zone, whuch means it's barely possible someone there may be listening to JFK.

The world is seven times Earth's mass, so it's either a super Earth or a world similar to Neptune.  Neither would necessarily be good for life, but it does orbit in the habitable zone, and it's not a hot Jupiter, so it warrants further study by those looking for life.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Early Galaxy Found

Astronomers have recently observed the earliest galaxy found so far. They say it formed only about 200 million years after the Big Bang.  It therefore would be among the first galaxies to form.

Researchers found it by focusing NASA's Hubble and Spitzer telescopes on a tiny area of the sky, so they believe more galaxies of that epoch are there to be disscovered.  That wouldn't necessarily jibe with current cosmological theory, which tends to put galaxy formation at a later period.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Curiosiity Captures Eclipse

The camera atop the mast of the Curiosity rover, meant to take panoramuc views of the surrounding surface, has also done a bit of basic astronomy, documenting a solar eclipse by Mars' larger moon, Phobos.

At 14 miles across, Phobos isn't big enough to completely block the Sun during an eclipse like Earth's Moon does, but that only emphasizes the fact that Curiosity is not in Kansas.  Documenting such eclipses also allows scientists to refine the orbit of Phobos, and, eventuually, the orbit of Mars' second, smaller moon, Deimos.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Warp Drive May Be Possible

Warp Drive powers the fictional starship Enterprise on its faster-than-light voyages.  Physicists have held, however, that the amount of energy required to make that work-- the energy equivalent of a mass the size of Jupiter-- makes such a project impractical.

A new approach, though, cuts the energy needed way down, to the equivalent of a mass the size of the Voyager spacecraft.  With tweaks. that energy requirement could drop even more.  That massive drop, some researchers say, makes WD worthy of more serious study.  Theoretically, WD could reach speeds of ten times the speed of light.  That would throw open the galaxy to human exploration.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Planets In Star Clusters

Astronomers have tended to doubt planets could exist around stars in star clusters.  They have reasoned that so many powerful, conflicting gravitational fields in such a relatively small area would prevent any planet from forming.

It made sense-- except it turns out to be wrong.  A planet has now been found in orbit around a star in the Beehive Ckuster, which contains about a hundred stars.  The discovery has implications for life in the universe.  Most stars exist in multiple star systems, of which star clusters are the most extreme examples.  If planets can exist in star clusters, life has that many more chances to take hold.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Snows On Mars

Researchers using data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have established that carbon dioxide snow falls over at least the southern polar regions of Mars.  The planet has an ice cap topped by carbon dioxide, or dry ice, over its south pole, so the snow may be one way the cap is maintained.

We already knew water-ice snow-- the stuff we have on Earth-- falls in the northern polar region.  Carbon dioxide snow forms at much lower temperatures than the water-ice variety; Earth never gets cold enough for that.  So, Mars is the only planet in the Solar System to have two distinct types of snow fall to its surface.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Solar System Bigger Than Thought?

Voyager 1 was launched 35 years ago, and is still in communication with Earth.  Scientiists had thought Voyager would be headed into interstellar space by now, but data says it's still within the domain of the Sun.

The solar wind flows out from the Sun until it begins to interact with, curve along, and break down as it reaches the interstellar medium.  Voyager doesn't detect that happening yet, contrary to the predictions of humans.  Now, physicists are saying it might be another year before Voyager is finally beyond the influence of the Sun.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Exploring On Antimatter

The second half of this century-- fewer than two hundred years after the first flight of the Wrightt brothers-- may see large manned spaceships powered by nuclear fusion and antimatter, according to a NASA study.  Such ships could fly to Jupiter in four months, open the whole Solar System to human exploration, and put us on the long road to interstallar travel.

Several breakthroughs are needed before that future is ours, however.  The most basic one is being able to produce the required amounts of antimatter.  We're nowhere near that yet, but the production rate is improving.  One fuel for such fusion reactors could be tritium, which is abundant on the Moon.  Mining tritium could become one driver of an early lunar economy.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Martian Clays

Clays on Earth are generally associated with water, so when clays were found on Mars it was taken as good evidence for a wet early Mars.

There are still several lines of evidence pointing to liquid water on the Martian surface in the past, including clays, but a new study points out that clay can also be formed by magma.  That weakens the case for life on Mars, but not by much.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Clinton On Interstellar Travel

Former president Bill Clinton has lent his support to an effort to develop a starship within a century.  He agrees with the project's leaders that such a project would lead to scientific and technological breakthroughs along the way that would enhance life on Earth even as we pushed towards the stars.

Even though Bill Clinton saved NASA's space station program by bringing in international partners to build what became ISS, he was not known as a president overly interested in space policy.  It's interesting he would take a position on interstellar flight.  Perhaps he is mainly attracted to the economic development possibilities.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Curiosity On The Move

Curiosity has begun roving across the floor of Galen Crater.  So far, it has traveled over 300 feet, though, because that hasn't been in a straight line, it's only 69 feet from its landing site.

Curiosity's progress is being monitored from orbit by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.  The probe's high resolution camera picks up not only the rover itself, but its tracks, and scorch marks from the rockets that lowered Curiosity to the surface.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Boilermaker Pride

The Purdue University football team, the Boilermakers, will wear a decal on their helmets this season featuring a spacesuited astronaut holding a Purdue flag in honor of Neil Armstrong.

Armstrong was a Purdue alum, as are 20 other astronauts, including Eugene Cernan, the latest man to stand on the Moon as commander of Apollo 17.  Purdue's new engineering building was already named for Armstrong.  A statue of the astronaut as a student sits outside the building and was the focal point of a memorial service held shortly after Armstrong's death.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Burial At Sea

Neil Armstrong flew78 combat missions off the decks of aircraft carriers as a young Navy pilot during the Korean War.  Following his wishes, his remains will be buried at sea.

That will give Armstrong another tie to Christopher Columbus.  The exact final resting place of Columbus is unclear; more than one spot claims that distinction.  Now, there will be no grave for Armstrong, either.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

An Ocean Inside Triton?

Researchers are looking at the possibility that a water ocean may exist under the ice shell of Neptune's largest moon, Triton.

They theorize Triton is a Kuiper Belt object that was captured by Neptune's gravity.  They think that because Triton orbits Neptune in the opposite direction from other moons in the Solar System.  If captured, the original orbit likely would've been highly elliptical, but the current orbit is almost perfectly round.  The energy involved in slowly reshaping that orbit, along with other possible energy-producing processes, could have produced enough heat to keep a water ocean-- especially one liberally laced with ammonia-- liquid under the shell.

Of course, an energy source plus liquid water opens the possibility of life.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Odd Star

Globular clusters are huge groups of stars held together in a spherical formation by their mutual gravitational attraction.  Because such clusters are physical associations, all the stars in a given cluster are about the same age.

Messier 4 is  a well-known globular cluster among astronomers, amateur and professional.  Recently, however, professiomal astronomers have found an odd star in M4.  While the cluster is made up of older stars, one star seems much younger.  Astronomers tell the age of stars by their chemical composition.  The star in question still has a component of lithium, an element that is usually used up early in a star's life.  So, either this star is very young, or its lithium is somehow replenished.  Either way, it's interesting.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Kepler 47

NASA recently announced the discovery of a binary star system, dubbed Kepler 47 after the spacecraft that found it, that is 5,000 light years away.  Kepler 47 is particularly interesting because it has at least two planets, one of which orbits solidly within the system's habitable zone.

That planet is a gas giant, so it's unlikely to support life.  A large moon, however, might, as could a rocky planet nearby.  The discovery is important because it suggests life could arise on a planet in a binary system.  Since most stars are in multiple-star systems, if life could exist in those systems, the number of possible abodes of life would be greatly expanded.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Uwingu To Fund SETI

Uwingu, a new firm set up to aid the funding of science projects in these days of government debt and deficits which result in reduced government spending for science, technology, engineering, and math, has announced it will help fund the SETI Institute's Allen Telescope Array.

The ATA, the largest radio telescope installation in the world devoted primarily to the search for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations, was shut down a good part of last year because of funding shortfalls.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Prepping For An Asteroid Mission

NASA recently conducted a 10-day simulated manned exploration of an asteroid in preparation for meeting President Obama's goal of a manned mission to an asteroid by 2025.  The agency is confident it will have the technology required to do the job.

At the moment, the biggest problem is that NASA has yet to find an asteroid that fits its criteria.  NASA wants to fly about a 90-day mission, so it wants to find an asteroid that comes relatively close to Earth, and one that orbits in the same plane as Earth does.  That would require less fuel to be brought along as less maneuvering would be needed to reach the asteroid.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Mars One Getting Funding

Mars One, a private Dutch effort to begin the colonization of Mars in 2023, has begun getting funding from five European firms that have signed on as sponsors.

Mars One thinks $6 billion will be needed to start colonization, and believes it can raise most of that through the vehicle of a reality style television show that will follow the project as it develops.  The show is scheduled to begin next year, documenting the selection of a 40-person astronaut corrps.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Romney On Space

In his acceptance speech at the Republican Convention last night, Mitt Romney made a positive reference to space exploration.  Noting the recent passing of Neil Armstrong, Romney pointed to the achievement of Apollo as an example of what Americans can accomplish when properly led.

That sentiment contrasts with Gov, Romney's reaction during the primaries to Newt Gingrich's proposal to build a lunar base by 2020.  Romney ridiculed the idea.  When John Kennedy set the goal of putting a man on the Moon, America had all of fifteen minutes of manned spaceflight experience.  The fact is America is much closer to being able to build a lunar base now than it was to going to the Moon in 1961.  Perhaps Gov. Romney's ideas on space policy are still evolving.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Obama On Space

President Obama, in an online chat session with members of the public, expressed his continued support for space exploration.  He argued NASA must build the technology base that will allow manned flights into deep space-- to an asteroid by 2025, and to Mars in the 2030s.  He also praised the Curiosity rover currently exploring Mars.

The projected budgets of NASA, however, are not necessarily consistent with Mr.Obama's words.  The agency is looking at basically flat budgets for years to come, and that includes a substantial reduction in the planetary exploration program, including Mars exploration.  There is no follow on to Curiosity in the works, for example.  NASA's budget constraints are obviously tied to the larger Federal debt and deficit dilemmas.  Perhaps President Obama meant he would support space exploration if the government had the money.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Sugar In Space

Astronomers have found sugar molecules orbiting a young sun-like star about 400 light-years away.  Sugar has been found in space before, but this is the first time it's been found in association with a star similar to the Sun.  The star in question is much younger than the Sun, however-- so young that its planetary system is still forming.

Sugar, of course, is one of the building blocks of life.  So, if the molecules can somehow eventually make it to the surface of a planet in the habitable zone of that star, life might develop there.  The sugar molecules found are about the same distance from their star that Uranus is from the Sun.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Preserving Apollo Sites

As reported in this blog, an effort is underway to protect the landing sites of the Apollo lunar missions from future contamination or damage by having them declared heritage sites.  That effort involves having Congress designate them national historic sites as well as having the UN declare them world heritage sites.

Some are suggesting the death of Neil Armstrong might give such efforts new momentum by reminding us that the Apollo astronauts will be gone soon, and then all we will have are their landing sites on the Moon.  As more and more private lunar projects, both manned and robotic, are being planned, preserving historic sites takes on a new urgency.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Nearly 800 Exoplanets

In two new papers, scientists using Kepler spacecraft data announced the confirmation of 41 more exoplanets in 27 star systems.  That brings the total number of confirmed exoplanets to nearly 800.

A huge shift has occurred in the past two decades.  Before that, we knew of nine planets in the cosmos.  Now, there are eight planets in the Solar System-- Pluto having been demoted to dwarf planet status-- a hundred times that number confirmed in other star systems, and thousands more awaiting confirmation.  It's remarkable.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Neil Armstrong Gone

Neil Armstrong, the first human to stand on another world, died yesterday at age 82.

Some people have a tendency to compare Armstrong to Christopher Columbus.  Both commanded the first voyages to new worlds, after all.  That's the only real similarity, however.  Columbus spent years promoting his project in various European royal courts before finally securing backing from Spain.  Armstrong was entrusted with the command of Apollo 11 because of his proven abilities as a pilot and astronaut.

The world got more than that after the crew of Apollo 11 returned home.  As the first man on the Moon, Armstrong was in a unique position.  After leaving NASA, Armstrong could have entered politics, or made a fortune selling his name and image promoting products.  Instead, he built a quiet life in academia and business, rarely re-entering the public sphere.  While Columbus died a bitter, disillusioned man, Armstrong seems to have been content with his life after Apollo 11.  We should all be so fortunate, and so comfortable with ourselves.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Pushing The Spaceflight Envelope?

A Russian news report says a year-long spaceflight involving one Russian and one American will take place aboard ISS beginning in 2015.  A NASA spokesperson said such a mission is a possibility, but no final decision has been made.

Such a mission would make sense, however.  President Obama has called for a manned flight to an asteroid in 2025, and a human mission to Mars in the 2030s.  Both of those would require long duration spaceflights, so stretching stays in space and testing the results in preparation for those long flights is necessary at some point.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Curiosity Zaps A Rock

A laser has been fired on the planet named for the Roman god of war.

The Curiosity rover used a laser to hit a nearby rock.  The pulses of pure energy, ten of them, vaporized a tiny bit of the rock so that the telescope of the rover's ChemCam could take a spectrograph of the vapor.  Analysis of the spectrograph should reveal the composition of the rock.

It might be slightly more complex than that, however.  Mission scientists think the laser might have also vaporized wind-blown dust that happened to be on the rock.  If that in fact occurred, the spectrographic signatures of the dust and the rock will have to be disentangled.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Maybe The Big Phase Shift?

A new study argues that the Big Bang that created the universe may have been less a bang and more a phase shuft, similar to how liquid water becomes ice.  The theory postulates simple, fornless energy suddenly organized itself into the early universe we know about 13.7 billion years ago.

The mathematics work out, and the theory also sets out a way to test it.  Just as water ice develops cracks during the freezing process, so theorists say the phase change would have left "cracks" in spacetime.  Those cracks could be found and studied, if they in fact exist.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Curiosity In Good Shape

NASA is still checking out all thw systems and equipment on its Curiosity rover, but so far things seem to be in good order.  There seems to be a small problem with some wind sensors in the rover's weather station component, but other than that all seems to be well.

Curiosity has already taken its first short test drive of roughly twenty feet forward and back.  Its real journey across the floor of Galen Crater may begin as early as this weekend.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

India To Mars

India plans to launch its first interpkanetary mission next year.  The probe will be sent to Mars.  The mission will attempt to build on the success of India's first lunar prrobe, which discovered water on the surface of the Moon.

The Mars probe will be basic, but it wil help establish India as a space power. That is one factor in an ongoing contest among India, China, and Japan for leadership in Asia, much as the Space Race of the 1960s was one factor in the contest between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Eagle-Eyed MRO

As reported in this blog, the high resolution camera of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter caught a remarkable image of Curiosity under parachute as it descended to the Martian surface.  Now, that same camera has found Curiosity on the ground.

NASA isn't just looking for "gee whiz" pictures, howeveer.  Detailed images of the terrain around Curiosity will help mission managers plot Curiosity's course through Gale Crater.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Curiosity Gearing Up

The software switch in Curiosity's computer, shifting the rover from flight mode to surface mode, was successfully completed last week, paving the way for the mission to begin in earnest.  NASA plans an initial movement of the rover soon, perhaps tomorrow, simply as a test, but checking out and calibrating the rover's systems and instruments will still take weeks.  Curiosity probably won't begin to really roll until sometime next month.

Before the rover moves, however, the plan is to use the onboard laser to zap a nearby rock.  The laser will vaporize a tiny bit of the rock, allowing Curiosity's ChemCam to analyze the vapor for its chemical composition.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Twittering Aliens

More than 10,000 tweets and videos were beamed into space this week using the radio telescope at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

It was done as a promotional stunt for a television show, which suggests it was not a serious effort.  Given the assumption that aliens will probably never receive the message, the project is likely harmless enough.  However, Stephen Hawking and others suggest that calling attention to ourselves might be a mistake.  Interstellar civilizations are likely aggressive, they argue.  That may or may not turn out to be accurate, but it is a possibility that should not be ignored.

Losing everything because we didn't take the potential of communicating with aliens seriously would be the ultinate shame.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Lunar Helium Found

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has detected helium in the wispy atmosphere of the Moon.   So far, researchers have been able to establish the helium is associated with the Moon, as opposed to simply being in the background space.  The next step is to determine whether the helium came from inside the Moon, or from outside, on the solar wind.

The discovery supports a measurement garnered by a science package deployed on the lunar surface by Apollo 17 astronauts forty years ago.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Dawn Glitch

NASA's Dawn spacecraft is completing its time orbiting the asteroid Vesta, but the planned continuation of its mission to the dwarf planet Ceres might be in some doubt.

Earlier this month, a reaction wheel on the probe malfunctioned.  Reaction wheels keep a craft properly oriented in space.  Thus is the second problem Dawn has had with a reaction wheel.

NASA dealt with the first issue, and continues to prepare for a flight to Ceres.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Beautiful Betty

The Copenhagen Suborbitals is an amateur rocketry group in Denmark attempting to develop a single person suborbital spacecraft at an extremely low cost.  Two weeks ago, CS launched a two-stage rocket from a platform in the Baltic Sea, with limited success.  This past weekend it launched Beautiful Betty.

That's the name given the capsule launched in a test of the group's Launch Escape System.  The LES failed-- and Betty slammed into the waves-- but CS is pleased with the data it obtained.  Developing rockets on any budget is tough.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Strategizing Exploring Mars

A working group at NASA is looking at ways to approach the exploration of Mars over the next twenty years.  That would bring us to the early 2030s, which is the time frame President Obama set for the first human mission to the planet.  Budget problems scuttled NASA's earlier step-by-step plan to explore Mars, so the agency is trying to find a new conceptual framework.

The effort will likely focus on developing new technologies that will increase the capability of spacecraft mission to mission.  That will also slowly develop the technology base needed for a manned flight.  The main goal of the exploratory missions will be to determine whether ever did-- or possibly does now-- support life.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

New Software For Curiosity

Now that Curiosity is safely on Mars, NASA is swapping out the flight software in the big rover's primary and backup computers in favor of a software package that will maximize Curiosity's ability to function on the surface.  The exploration software will enhance control of all the scientific instruments on the rover while also giving Curiosity a limited ability to operate independently.

The changeover will take four Martian days.

Friday, August 10, 2012


Scientists have thought since the 1930s that quasicrystals-- similar to crystals, but with a more complex organization-- did not occur naturally.  It seems that's wrong.

Researchers have found quasicrystals in the Kuryak Mountains of Russia.  They are associated with a meteorite impact area dated at about 15,000 years old.  That means they are likely extraterrestrial in origin.

The mystery now is where they came from.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Armstrong Hospitalized

Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon, underwent quadruple bypass heart surgery earlier this week.  According to his wife, Armstrong is doing well, and doctors expect a good recovery.  Armstrrong is 82.

Prior to commanding Apollo 11, Armstrong flew on Gemini 8 and performed the first docking of two space vehicles-- a critical capability for a lunar trip.   Before becoming an astronaut, Armstrong was a test pilot flying the legendary X-15.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Looking For Life's Limits

Thirty years ago, scientists assumed the interior of Earth was lifeless.  Now, some  scientists think there might be more biomass within Earth than on its surface.  The discovery of extremophiles-- life forms that thrive in extreme physical environments-- has changed the way we look at life.

Biologists are now trying to determine the minimum requirements in energy and nutrients for life to sustain itself deep underground on Earth.  That minimum, they believe, could then be related to possible life on other worlds, like Mars or Europa.  NASA landed the Curiosity rover in Gale crater because the crater floor is well below the surrounding plain, thus giving Curiosity some access to the Mars underground.  Because the Martian surface is constantly scoured by deadly radiation, scientists think the most likely home for Martian life would be the interior of the planet.  That brings us back to extremophiles on Earth.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Extraordinary Snapshot

After months of work by programmers to get the timing and target area precisely right, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter caught an image of Curiosity as it was descending to Mars under its huge parachutes.

MRO took the image, which clearly shows details such as the lines connecting the rover to the parachutes, from 211 miles away. That speaks volumes about the power of MRO's high resolution camera.  It also raises a question: If NASA's public technology can do that, what can classified intelligence technology do?

Monday, August 6, 2012

Curiosity On Mars

Following an amazing display of technological prowess that used an intricate sequence of critical steps to bring NASA's Curiosity rover from orbit to standing on its six wheels on the surface of Mars, the most ambitious search to date for life on the Red Planet will begin.

Curiosoty, a one-ton, nuclear-powered rover chock full of scientific instruments, is scheduled to roam Mars for two years searching for evidence that life once existed-- or perhaps still exists-- on the little world next door.

Many Americans woke up this morning to news not only of Curiosity's successful landing, but also of another mass killing, this time a shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.  The two events tell of the heights educated, discipliined humans can reach, as well as the depths to which humans can fall.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

NASA's Unintentioned Gamble

When NASA approved the complex, novel, risky landing approach for the Curiosity rover, it knew it was taking a huge gamble, but it didn't realize the whole Mars program might be riding on it.

Since the mission architecture was approved, the federal budget has suffered historic deficits, and NASA's budget has been cut; cuts are also projected into the future.  The agency's planetary exploration program has been especially hard hit.

So, if Curiosity crashes, so might NASA's planetary program for the foreseeable future.  Unintentded consequences can change history.

Friday, August 3, 2012

A Billion For Manned Spaceflight

NASA has awarded a total of $1.1 billion to three companies developing a manned spacecraft to help those companies complete their designs.  Final designs are due May 31, 2014.

The three companies are Boeing and SpaceX, each of which is developing a capsule, and the Sierra Nevada Corporation, which is working on the winged Dream Chaser, a cousin of the space shuttle.  Contrary to the company's name, SNC is headquartered in Louisville, Colorado.

Plans call for each of the new craft to fly manned test flights mid-decade.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Just Supposing

The main objective of Curiosity's mission to Mars is to search for life, either past or present.  What if it succeeds?  NASA is betting finding any alien life will be a game-changer, ensuring funding for future Mars operations.  That may or may not work out.

Given the financial shape of the federal government, many politicians will have a hard time increasing spending on space no matter what the reason.  The public might force that increae, but that in turn may well depend on what kind of evidence is found.  An artefact from an alien civilization would clinch the deal, as would a multicellular creature-- especially one that squirmed or squiggled.

But what about a single cell organism, or a bacterium, or simply a fossil?  Would that be enough?  The answer to that is unclear.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Martian Hot Wheels

The toy company Mattel, makers of the Hot Wheels model series, has a history with NASA that goes back to the first rover on Mars, Sojourner.  Mattel marketed a Hot Wheels version  of Sojourner that quickly sold out.  Mattel followed that success with models of other NASA spacecraft.

Now, Mattel is coming out with a Hot Wheels model of NASA's huge Curiosity rover, scheduled to land on Mars next week.

The toymaker says it will market the Curiosity model regardless of what happens on the landing attempt on Mars.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Maturing NewSpace

Some venture capitalists and other businesspeople are saying the emerging commercial space industry may be reaching the point Internet companies reached in the mid 1990s, when huge amounts of new investment money flowed into them, creating the dot-com boom.  They cite SpaceX and Virgin Galactic as leaders of an industry on the verge of establishing itself.

Similar predictions were made a decade or so ago, and it obviously didn't work out.  This time, however, SpaceX, VG, and others have real successes behind them, and a better grasp on how they might make money.  Whether the industry is near a point of critical mass or not, however, remains to be seen.

Monday, July 30, 2012


Saturn's moon Iapetus is one huge ball of ice.  Most such bodies have rocky cores, but scientists believe Iapetus is water ice through and through.

That doesn't mean Iapetus is a simple ball, however.  It's equator sports a mountain range with peaks 12 miles high.  It's also an active world, at least potentially.  The Cassini spacecraft has snapped images of "landslides"-- actually ice slides-- that seem to have occurred recently.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Flags Of Apollo

Are the American Flags Apollo astronauts planted on the Moon still standing?  That question has intrigued people for decades.  Most scientists who've addressed the quesstion have answered in the negative, saying the harsh lunar environment would have destroyed the flags long ago.

Well, they seem to be wrong.

NASA has used the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to photograph all six of the Apollo landing sites from various angles and in various lighting conditions, and they've captured some remarkable details-- right down to the tracks made by the lunar rovers and by the astronauts' boots.  Those photos also seem to show shadows cast by the flags at every site except that of Apollo 11.  Buzz Aldrin reported that flag was knocked down when the Eagle lifted off from the lunar surface, and it seems he was right.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Early Spiral Gslazy Found

Astronomers have discovered the oldest spiral galaxy yet, one ten billion years old.

Early galaxies are irregular clumps, as if the universe hadn't yet learned to create elegant structures.  This galaxy, however, is a magnificent spiral in the classic style.

The galaxy has a smaller companion galaxy, as do many spirals, including the Milky Way.  Astronomers believe the gravitational influence of such small companuins may help spirals form.