Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Clearing Out Space Debris

The current powerful solar storm hitting Earth is creating spectacular aurorae and messing with non-hardened electronics, but it could also help out with the space debris problem in low Earth orbit.

Huge storms on the surface of the Sun are currently flinging bursts of energy at Earth. That energy heats the atmosphere, causing it to expand. As the atmosphere reaches farther out into space, it applies more friction to objects in low Earth orbit. Friction slows objects, giving gravity an assist in bringing the objects back to Earth.

Of course, the effect is small, and thus will affect only small objects. Still, NASA estimates that perhaps half a million objects could fall out of orbit and burn up in the atmosphere. At orbital speed, each of those tiny pieces would act like a bullet fired from a high-powered rifle if it hit a spacecraft, so the fact that many of them will be gone is no small thing.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Building A Private Future

On February 7, NASA will solicit proposals from private companies wanting to work with NASA to build a private manned spacecraft capable of ferrying humans to and from ISS. This will be the third round in the process. NASA will give funding to more than one company, hoping that at least one design will produce an actual vehicle.

Given NASA's limited resources, the agreements executed will not give NASA the authority to dictate the final design of these new ships, but the space agency and the winning companies will work closely together.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Farmers Insurance Commercial

Farmers Insurance is currently airing a television commercial that shows a fake space capsule crashing into a little fake house. This happens in a presumably fake classroom. It seems the company offers homeowner's insurance that will protect against your home being hit by space debris.

Of course, no person has yet been killed by incoming space debris, and such debris hitting a house or a car is an extremely rare event, so the company stands to make solid money on such a policy. Still, the fact that the company is showcasing such an option might have significance beyond the corporate balance sheet. It suggests the company has data saying the American people are aware of the space debris problem. Perhaps someone in the political class should test that hypothesis. Solving the problem will eventually require someone to step up and say something must be done.


A new consortium of universities, research institutes, and corporations in the U. S. and several European nations has been put together to study strategies and hardware required to protect Earth from collisions with near-Earth objects (NEOs)-- asteroids and comets. The studies will be carried out over the next three and a half years, and the point, obviously, is to begin to develop real options before they become necessary.

Taxpayer funded space research is criticized as being a waste of money, but it was precisely that research that established comets and asteroids pose a continuing threat to Earth-- a theory developed during research supporting the Apollo lunar landings. That money may turn out to have been extraordinarily well spent.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Days Of Tragedy

This is a tough period for NASA each year. Yesterday marked the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire that claimed three astronauts. Nineteen years later, seven lives were lost-- remarkably. the first astronauts to die during a mission-- when Challenger exploded. On February 1, 2003, seven more were lost when Columbia broke apart during re-entry.

It's still the case that no astronaut-- likely no human-- has ever been lost while actually in space. Given the extreme danger of spaceflight, that record speaks volumes about the abilities of the engineers who design manned spacecraft, the workers who build them, and the astronauts and controllers who fly the missions.

Friday, January 27, 2012

More Florida Space Debate

In the CNN GOP presidential debate last night, space policy came up again. Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich restated their positions, while Rick Santorum and Ron Paul essentially said the country couldn't afford a huge new project like building a lunar base just now.

Romney also tried to use Gingrich's proposal to build an American lunar base by 2020 as a way to suggest Gingrich lacks sound, practical judgment. Gingrich countered by comparing his proposal with John Kennedy's call to put a man on the Moon within the decade. Whatever the political realities of this year turn out to be, the technological case is clear. Given national priority, the U. S. is far closer to being able to meet Gingrich's goal now than it was to being able to go to the Moon when Kennedy stood before Congress in May, 1961.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Gingrich Proposes Lunar Base

Campaigning on Florida's Space Coast, Newt Gingrich promised there would be an American lunar base by 2020 if he's elected president, saying America's space program needs "a kick in the pants."

At the same time, Mr. Gingrich said he would cut NASA's budget, arguing the agency needs to be leaner and less bureaucratic. The money saved would be used to establish huge prizes that would guide space development by encouraging the private sector to meet certain specific goals, like establishing a base on the Moon.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Final Entry For Phobos-Grunt

The failed Russian attempt to reach a moon of Mars, Phobos-Grunt, crashed into the South Pacific just short of the coast of Chile, according to the final official report.

The report puts the main crash area 50 miles off the coast. It notes, too, that some pieces of the probe could have reached land, but there have been no reports of injury or damage from such debris.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The First Florida Debate

Space policy came up in the first televised debate before next week's Florida presidential primary.

Mitt Romney, noting the economic problems of the Space Coast and arguing President Obama has no space policy, said he would bring together leaders from NASA, the military, universities, and commercial space to develop a goal for the nation that would maintain American leadership in space.

Newt Gingrich took a different tack. He argued for a smaller, leaner NASA and the establishment of huge financial prizes to encourage development of a space industry capable of accomplishing big things, like building a lunar base, or putting people on Mars. He noted such prizes aided the development of air travel.

Neither Rick Santorum nor Ron Paul addressed the issue.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Antarctic Meteorites

A recent scientific expedition to Antarctica has netted planetary geologists 300 rocks that originated on other worlds. Antarctica is a favorite hunting ground for meteorites because the dark rocks are easily seen on the white snowfields.

With limited budgets facing NASA and other space agencies for the foreseeable future, Antarctica may be scientists' main physical connection to the cosmos for quite a while.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Gingrich And Florida

Newt Gingrich's dominating victory in yesterday's GOP presidential primary in South Carolina puts him in position to make a strong bid to win the Florida primary January 31.

Space policy may play a role in Florida. With the retirement of the space shuttle, jobs is an issue on the Space Coast; Florida is trying to attract more private space companies, which would hopefully hire some of the highly skilled people furloughed by NASA and shuttle contractors, for example. Gingrich is a long-time supporter of moving into space, and emphasizes the role private enterprise should play in the process. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, has called Gingrich's support for building a manned lunar base "zany" in this era of huge budget deficits.

Sparks about space might fly.

Tracking The X-37B

On its second test flight, the USAF's X-37B unmanned spaceplane has far exceeded it's supposed maximum flight time of 270 days, and there's no indication when it might land.

Exactly what it's doing out there is unclear-- the USAF isn't telling-- but as its orbit takes the craft repeatedly over the Middle East and Afghanistan, some speculate it might be on an intelligence-gathering mission.

Officially, the USAF says the X-37B is testing new technologies, which could cover just about anything.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Dragon Delayed

The first flight of SpaceX's Dragon capsule to ISS has been delayed. The launch had been scheduled for February 7, but now the company says the flight will take place sometime in the spring.

No specific reason for the delay was given. A company spokesperson simply said the delay would give the company more time to work on the capsule.

SpaceX is trying to become the first private company to dock a spacecraft at ISS.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Axial Tilt And Life

An often ignored factor in determining the habitability of a planet is the tilt of that planet's axis of rotation, says astrobiologist Rene Heller. The tilt of Earth's polar axis creates the seasons, of course, but Heller says it does more than that-- it moderates and stabilizes the climate over long periods, allowing life to develop and thrive. Without the tilt, he argues, equatorial regions would becomes blazingly hot, and polar regions freeze solid. Life would be a challenge.

Heller goes beyond that. He notes the over the long term a star's gravity erases axial tilt, bringing all planets straight up and, eventually, into tidal lock-- that is, the same hemisphere of the planet would always face the star. That would not be conducive to life. Therefore, he argues, axial tilt is intimately related to habitability.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

New Take On Lunar Water

A new study using the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has found more evidence that significant amounts of water ice exists in the permanently shadowed regions of the Moon.

The study looked at deep craters near the lunar poles. Elsewhere on the Moon, soil is about 0.5 percent water, but in these sheltered areas perhaps 2 percent is water. That's enough to support human operatioms.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Martian Meteorites

Last July, a shower of meteors fell to the desert sands of Morocco. Subsequent studies have shown the space rocks originated on Mars.

Some 220 pounds of rock that is recognized as coming from Mars now exist on Earth; about ten percent of that total comes from the new Moroccan haul. Scientists and collectors are now scrambling to snap up as many of the rocks as possible.

This particular bunch of rocks could play a role in the search for life on Mars. Because we know precisely when the rocks arrived on Earth and were able to collect them quickly, if studies find evidence suggesting life, it's a good bet that evidence also come from Mars.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Through The Wormhole

"Through The Wormhole" is a series of one hour documentaries hosted, narrated, and executive produced by actor Morgan Freeman which runs on the Discovery Science Channel. The program explores a range of science topics, from how to build a stable wormhole to the question of life beyond Earth, from speculation about machine intelligence to the possibility of extending the average human lifespan into the thousands of years.

The show is well produced and intelligently presented. The speculation offered is based on the science or mathematics involved, not speculation based upon other speculation. The series is also willing to deal with some of the implications of the possibilities discussed. This program is worth a look.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Phobos-Grunt Crashes

The failed Russian Mars probe Phobos-Grunt crashed into the central Pacific this past weekend. Russia's space agency said pieces of the probe likely reached the surface, but nothing has been confirmed.

Therefore, there have also been no reports of damage or injury caused by falling debris.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Second Saturn?

Astronomers have found what could be a planet with a ring system similar to Saturn's orbiting a young, Sun-like star 430 light years away. The object was found by observing the pattern of starlight blocked by the object as it passed in front of the star. Usually, the pattern is a simple dip in light, but in this case the pattern was more complex, consistent with four dust rings orbiting the object.

The mass of the thing is not yet clear, so it could be a super-Saturn, in which case the rings could be made of dust and shepherded by tiny moons, or it could be big enough to be a developing small star. In that case, the rings could be a disk of material from which planets will eventually form. Further observation will determine just how massive the object really is.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Computer Virus At JAXA

It can happen to the best of us.

A computer at the Japanese space agency has been infected with a virus. The agency said the virus got access to sensitive information about the H-2 Transfer Vehicle, the Japanese cargo ship that services ISS.

The agency doesn't yet know where the virus originated, but the very same computer was infected last summer.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Phobos-Grunt Coming Home

Phobos-Grunt, the Russian space probe intended to sample the Martian moon Phobos and return the sample to Earth, is expected to fall back to Earth sometime this weekend. The probe never made it out of Earth orbit as an upper stage rocket failed to ignite.

Russia says most of the probe will burn up during re-entry, but as many as twenty pieces may reach the surface. Those pieces are currently seen hitting harmlessly in the Indian Ocean, but that could still change.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Kepler Finds Tiny Solar System

Using data from the Kepler planet-hunting spacecraft, astronomers have discovered three tiny planets in orbit around a tiny star. The star is a red dwarf, and all three worlds are smaller than Earth-- a major breakthrough in the search for exoplanets. One of the three, the smallest, is roughly the size of Mars. All three orbit the star in less than two Earth days, so they are not seen as likely homes of life.

This discovery does bring up another possibility related to life, however. Red dwarfs are the most common stars in the universe. They are also stable for extraordinarily long periods-- billions of years. If a civilization decided to expand beyond its home star system, therefore, establishing colonies in red dwarf systems might be obvious stepping stones. Now, we have confirmed that at least some red dwarfs have planetary systems, which would mean those potential colonizers could have plenty of raw materials at their disposal in their new homes. It might be worth monitoring such stars for radio signals.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

More Planets Than Stars

There are roughly 100 billion stars in the Milky Way. According to a new study, however, there are even more planets-- perhaps 160 billion-- orbiting their stars in an area corresponding to the expanse between Venus and Saturn. Further, most of those worlds are small and rocky, roughly similar to Earth.

Actually, of course, there are even more planets than that because we know planets orbit stars both inside and outside those boundaries. Just in the Solar System, Mercury orbits inside Venus while Neptune and Uranus orbit outside Saturn. It's also possible that most planets do not orbit stars at all. They are rogue planets, ejected from their home systems, flying through the void of space unattached.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Another Approach To Finding Exoplanets

Astronomers using old Hubble Space Telescope data have already found a couple of exoplanets. Now, they are going to take a more systematic approach to mining HST archival data in hopes of finding more.

The new effort will focus on 350 nearby stars. Using the data, researchers have found planets in orbit around a star 130 light years distant. If any further possible exoplanets are found in the ten years of data available, they can be checked by leading observatories using techniques not yet developed when the HST images were originally taken.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Searching For Aliens

SETI researchers have already begun focusing their search for alien radio signals on Earth-like exoplanets found by the Kepler planet-hunting spacecraft. That list will almost certainly grow as Kepler continues its mission. There is also another possibility. Astronomers have found Jupiter- and Neptune-type worlds orbiting in the habitable zones of their stars, and speculate those exoplanets could have Earth-like exomoons. If such giant satellites are discovered, they would also be SETI possibilities.

This, of course, constitutes a new era for SETI. Heretofore, researchers would sometimes target Sun-like stars, but most SETI searches scanned the sky.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Using The X-37B

Reacting to a news report that said the U. S. Air Force is using its secret X-37B unmanned spaceplane to spy on China's space station module, the USAF insists it's doing nothing of the kind. Outside experts tend to agree, noting the difference in the orbits of the two spacecraft. Of course, that doesn't mean the U. S. isn't interested in Tiangong 1, but those same experts say America has better ways to get information about it.

The USAF says it is using the X-37B to test new technologies, but declines to go beyond that. For whatever it's worth, the outside experts say that's reasonable.

One of those new technologies is clearly not a cloaking device. Amateur astronomers around the world are tracking both spacecraft.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Greeley Haven

NASA's Mars rover Opportunity will spend the long Martian winter at a rocky outcrop on the rim of Endeavour Crater dubbed Greeley Haven by the rover team. The spot will allow Opportunity to keep its solar panels trained on the Sun through the winter, as well as providing some interesting rocks for study in the immediate vicinity.

Greeley Haven is named for Ron Greeley, a planetary scientist involved in the exploration of Mars since the early days of Mariner. Greeley died last October.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Infiniti Commercial

A television commercial for Infiniti cars starts out: "If no one ever challenged the status quo, the Earth would still be flat....."

Well, no. Earth was never flat. Dark Ages Europeans may have thought so, but they were an uneducated lot, on the whole. Even then, educated Europeans interested in such things, and Moslem scholars, and others in the world, understood Earth is round.

Yes, the only point of the commercial is to sell cars, and yes, the flat Earth notion is commonly accepted in our culture, but its still fair to point out when mass media is sloppy.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Finding Life Bearing Exomoons

Of the thousands of exoplanets found so far by NASA's Kepler spacecraft, 37 Neptune-sized worlds and 10 more that are Jupiter-sized orbit within the habitable zone of their parent stars. While they are not necessarily good candidates to be the home of life (though Carl Sagan once imagined life flourishing in more benign layers of the huge atmospheres surrounding such planets), possible terrestrial type moons orbiting those worlds could support life.

Astronomers are now developing techniques that will allow them to detect such moons. Just as Kepler finds planets by observing dips in starlight signifying a planet could be crossing the star's disk, astronomers are refining that approach so they can see the even tinier dips caused by a moon. They believe they can detect moons about one-third the size of Earth. Any smaller than that and the world probably couldn't hold a life-supporting atmosphere in any case.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Testing Orion MPCV

Last month, NASA conducted a flight test of its Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, the spacecraft designed to carry astronauts into deep space. The flight dropped an Orion from an aircraft to test how it would survive a landing on only two parachutes instead of the standard three. Orion hit the ground at the top of the predicted speed range and made it through intact.

NASA is aiming for a first, unmanned spaceflight of Orion in 2014, but the first manned deep space mission may not be until 2021.

By then, if all goes extremely well, there could be one or more private companies with a similar deep space manned capability-- that seems to be the goal of Obama administration policy. So why should NASA build Orion and the huge rocket meant to launch it? Are those efforts largely job programs for aerospace workers who might otherwise swell the already unhealthy number of the unemployed? Will Orion ever fly beyond low Earth orbit? We'll know in a few years.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Eight Years Ago Today

Eight Earth years ago today NASA's Spirit rover landed on Mars. Seventeen days later, on the other side of the Red Planet, Opportunity bounced to a stop.

Those two events marked the beginning of a remarkable exploration. Slated for 90 day missions, both rovers far exceeded that. Spirit only gave out last year, and Opportunity is still rolling along. Together, they have helped scientists build a new understanding of Mars, making a strong case that water once flowed on the surface of the planet.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Planetary Lake Lander Project

The Planetary Lake Lander Project is developing technology to explore the depths of two mountain lakes in the central Andes of Chile. One of the lakes is crystal clear, while the water of the other is brown with silt, thus furnishing different challenges.

A major goal of PLLP is to study the effects of climate change on the lakes, but another goal is to develop techniques of remote robotic exploration, and possibly even technology, that could be used to explore the methane lakes of Saturn's moon Titan.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Oldest Galaxy?

Astronomers, after taking two years to confirm their data, recently announced the discovery of what could be one of the first galaxies to form. It is 12.9 billion light years away, which means it may have formed only 750 million years after the Big Bang.

A galaxy so early on surprised astronomers, but they had another shocker coming. The galaxy is also producing stars at a prodigious rate-- another fact that goes against current theories about the early universe and the earliest galaxies.

Possibly, the first galaxy found in that early epoch happens to be an anomaly. If further research finds the earliest galaxies were in fact energetic, dynamic places, however, theory will have to change.