Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Analyzing Light To Find Life

Astronomers have analyzed Earthshine-- sunlight that bounces off Earth to illuminate a darkened area of the Moon-- to see if that light could reveal life on Earth, and they found it could indeed. By picking apart the light's spectrum, they could identify the signatures of gases, like oxygen, that quickly combines with other elements. Therefore, finding free oxygen in an atmosphere implies it is constantly being replenished by something. That something is life. Closer analysis of the light also hinted at various landmasses and areas of vegetation on Earth's surface.

Astronomers plan to use techniques developed to analyze Earthshine to tease apart light bounced off an exoplanet and learn more about such worlds-- hopefully finding alien life by reading the signature it leaves in the atmosphere of its home world. Another good thing is that reflected light is polarized, while direct starlight is not. So, even though the light of a star would completely overwhelm the light reflected off one of its planets, astronomers focused on polarized light can concentrate on the planet.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Lunar Cataclysm

Around four billion years ago, which would have been only shortly after it was formed, the Moon was pounded by a flurry of bodies in what scientists have dubbed the "lunar cataclysm." A new study, using data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, finds that those cataclysmic flying rocks were not only numerous, they were also extremely energetic. Scientists interpret that increased energy as meaning the bodies were moving faster than normal.

So, why would they be moving faster during one specific period? Four billion years ago, the Solar System was still sorting itself out, settling into the system we know. Mighty Jupiter, especially, was disrupting the orbits of asteroids with its powerful gravitational field, throwing asteroids in towards the Sun. It was those asteroids that pummeled the Moon, creating some of the largest lunar basins we see today. As the giant planets established the orbits they have today, the bombardment of the inner System slowed to the occasional shot.

The Consequences Of Cuts

As Congress tries to deal with huge federal budget deficits that project for years into the future, NASA's budget-- well less than one percent of the overall federal budget-- is seeing the space agency devour its own in an attempt to maintain at least some momentum in its space exploration efforts.

After budget cuts forced NASA to withdraw from the ExoMars program it had developed with the European Space Agency, NASA is now looking at a smaller Mars mission. To pursue that mission, however, it is gutting funding for outer planet exploration-- Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and all their moons. A few of those moons are candidates to be the home of life. Finding life beyond Earth is supposed to be a main focus of NASA.

NASA says it will invite international partners to join its smaller Mars mission. The Europeans, at least, will likely decline.

Monday, February 27, 2012

2011 AG5

The asteroid 2011 AG5, discovered just last year, is the new body most likely to crash into Earth in the near future. The date is February 5, 2040. Of course, since it was just found last year, the asteroid has not yet been observed through one complete orbit. Once it is, astronomers will have a better idea of just how likely a collision actually is.

At 460 feet across, 2011 AG5 is not a Doomsday rock, but, depending on where it hit, a collision could still result in a huge disaster.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Managing Space Junk

A new NASA study suggests that de-orbiting five major pieces of space junk per year, coupled with less dramatic measures such as burning off fuel from old satellites, as well as discharging batteries that are no longer useful, could stabilize the problem of space junk in low Earth orbit at the current level for the next 200 years.

That, of course, would stabilize the situation at a relatively high risk level, but that would be preferable to letting the problem continue to develop. The key to ultimately dealing with this problem may well rest in Russia. Due to the robust space efforts over nearly six decades of the Soviet Union/Russia, the bulk of the junk is owned by Russia. Concentrating on de-orbiting American pieces would be a start, but finally dealing with the problem will require Russian cooperation.

De-orbiting large pieces of junk, such as spent rocket stages, by the way, could be, if properly structured, an early successful industry in the commercialization of space.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Nomad Planets

A new study indicates there may be as many as 100,000 times the number of nomad planets in our galaxy as there are stars. A nomad planet is a large body following its own path through interstellar space; it is not in orbit around any star.

Astronomers know very little about these worlds. Until recently, such worlds existed only in science fiction. Until very recently, astronomers had no way to detect them. Where they come from isn't clear. Some were ejected from solar systems, but there is evidence that too many exist for all of them to be accounted for in that way. Having said that, however, coming up with a process by which planets would form in free space, away from any stars, is a real challenge.

Once again, trying to understand the universe is forcing humans to expand our notions of what's possible.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Space Elevator?

According to a report in a Japanese newspaper, Tokyo-based Obayashi Corporation is seriously pursuing building a space elevator by 2050.

A space elevator would lift people and cargo into orbit without the need of a rocket launch. Similar to using an elevator in a building, a person would step into a car on Earth's surface, for example, and the car would ride up cables into space. In the Obayashi plan, the super strong cables made of carbon nanotubes would be 60,000 miles long and attached to a counterweight in space to keep them taut. That system could deliver a payload to geosynchronous orbit, 22,000 miles out, after a week of steady climbing. The elevator could be powered by solar energy.

Obayashi suggests the biggest obstacle to be overcome to bring this project into reality may be financing it.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

GJ 1214b

GJ 1214b is a planet that orbits a red dwarf star about 40 light years distant. It has 7 times Earth's mass and 2.7 times Earth's diameter, which makes it a super-Earth. Using the Hubble Space Telescope to study the planet's atmosphere, researchers have also found the planet is largely made of water.

Orbiting close to its star, GJ 1214b's surface temperature is high-- too high, scientists say, for life to exist there. They also say, however, that the planet probably formed farther away from the star and migrated in to its current position. At some point, they speculate, the planet may have had Earth-like temperature. If so, and if life arose during that period-- likely aquatic life-- that life could conceivably still exist within a comfortable layer of that deep ocean.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Shakin' Goin' On?

Researchers using photographs taken by orbiting probes suggest both Mars and Earth's Moon may still be seismically active.

A group studying Mars have found trails made by boulders rolling down cliffs-- and the trails seem to radiate from what would be the epicenter of a marsquake. The fact that the trails are still obvious suggests they were made recently.

Another group, studying the Moon, has also found evidence of recent moonquakes. Grabens, long trenches across the surface associated with seismic activity, have been photographed on the far side. Of course, Apollo instrument packages have monitored moonquakes, but the newly created grabens add another line of evidence that the Moon may still be active.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Friendship 7 At Fifty

Fifty years ago today, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, completing three orbits in a five-hour mission aboard his Mercury capsule, which he named the Friendship 7.

The flight made Glenn one of the most famous Americans alive, and he was able to parlay that fame into a highly successful political career, but it could have gone quite differently. During the flight, there were indications that the heat shield of the capsule was loose. Had it fallen off, Glenn would have burned up during re-entry. NASA wasn't sure the heat shield would work until Glenn was safely on his way to splashdown, having survived the critical period while plasma surrounding his capsule blocked radio contact with the ground.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Detecting A Devoured Dwarf

Researchers using Hubble have found a smattering of large blue stars surrounding a middleweight black hole. It's a curious assemblage that astronomers are interpreting as evidence of a recent galactic homicide.

The theory is intriguing. Black holes are generally found at the center of galaxies, but this smallish one is accompanied only by the blue stars. Researchers theorize the black hole was once at the center of a dwarf galaxy which was swallowed up by a larger galaxy, leaving the black hole alone. The digestion of the dwarf compressed gas and dust clouds near the black hole, creating the blue stars. If the theory is correct, there's even a time for the crime. Large blue stars burn very hot and die very young. Astronomers calculate, based on the blue stars, that the dwarf was destroyed and the stars created only about 200 million years ago.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

John Glenn On Mars

John Glenn, who became the first American to orbit the Earth fifty years ago, says America should commit to going to Mars.

He does not say there should be an Apollo style effort, however. Rather, Glenn says we need to take full advantage of ISS to learn how to live and work in space. The former U. S. senator from Ohio envisions a Mars ship being assembled in low Earth orbit and leaving from there as opposed to being launched directly from Earth.

Of course, President Obama has said he expects Americans to reach Mars sometime in the 2030s, but Glenn wants Mars to be a more definite goal.

Friday, February 17, 2012

China Moving On

China is planning to launch its fourth manned space mission sometime this summer. The Shengzhou 9 mission will have a crew of three and is scheduled to visit the Tiangong 1 space station module. A major goal of the mission will be to demonstrate a manual docking capability. After docking, the crew will spend time working aboard Tiangong 1, making the mission the most ambitious Chinese manned flight to date.

China may also launch a fifth manned mission later in the year.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Russian Space Issues

A problem during testing has caused a delay in the next manned Soyuz launch to ISS. On top of a string of mishaps in 2011, some are wondering whether the Russian space program is simply going through a bad patch, or whether there is a systemic weakness in the Russian effort.

Operating in space is among the toughest things humans do, so the bad patch option is definitely a possibility. However, a case can be made for the weakness in the system explanation. Over the past few years-- even though Russia takes great pride in its space program-- funding for the Russian space program has been kept at very low levels. At the same time, many scientists and engineers have either retired or left the program for better opportunities. Sound familiar?

Russia is now increasing space funding, so maybe the program will regain its historical competence.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Trimming NASA's Sails

President Obama's new budget is cutting way back on NASA's exploration program. As reported in this blog, the shortfall in funding will likely force NASA to withdraw from its partnership with ESA in the ExoMars program, which would have worked towards a robotic sample return mission. Now, NASA is also putting its Flagship program to the outer Solar System on indefinite hold. A Flagship mission is a huge, expensive mission, like Cassini or Galileo, that attempts to answer big, important questions.

NASA will continue to try to develop smaller, less expensive missions, but the first golden age of planetary science might be coming to an end.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Finding Dark Matter

Japanese researchers don't know what dark matter is, but they have managed to map its distribution throughout the universe.

Scientists can't detect dark matter directly. Instead, they infer its existence by the pull its gravity exerts on normal matter. By carefully studying galaxies, the researchers found dark matter is all over. Indeed, galaxies are not isolated systems-- dark matter extends far beyond the visible galaxy to form a web that links all galaxies together, making the cosmos one unimaginably huge, complex structure.

Now, if we can only figure out exactly what the stuff is.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Obama's 2013 NASA Budget

The Obama administration presented its 2013 federal budget today. The NASA budget, less than 0.5 percent of total federal spending, is basically flat, but priorities within that budget have changed slightly.

Spending on planetary science is cut in this budget, which would likely mean NASA would have to abandon its partnership with ESA on its ExoMars missions set for launch in 2016 and 2018. On the other hand, spending on manned spaceflight, technology development, and support for commercial space initiatives is increased. In manned spaceflight, the funding is for continuing development of the Orion space capsule and the heavy-lift launcher meant to push Orion into deep space.

Of course, this is simply the first step in a long, often bewildering process. Mr. Obama's budget as offered today will not pass Congress; it is just a place to start. By the end of the process, NASA's budget could be very different, and the overall federal government may or may not come out with a budget at all.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Europan Water

Researchers have theorized for years that Jupiter's moon Europa may have a huge ocean of liquid water under the shell of ice that completely covers the surface. Some researchers now say there might be lakes, as well.

The lakes of liquid water would exist above the ocean, within the outer ice shell. The lakes would serve as a system linking the water in the ocean with the surface, providing a way to replenish the ice of the shell while also allowing energy from outside to reach the ocean. Such an exchange system could increase the possibility that life could exists inside the moon.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Cutting Mars Exploration?

The debt and deficit problems of the federal government may force cancellation of NASA's two missions to Mars set for launch in the second half of this decade.

The science community will no doubt fight for the missions, which are being developed in partnership with the ESA, but budget troubles in both the U. S. and Europe may make saving the missions an uphill battle.

NASAA designed its Mars exploration program to build a foundation that would support a manned Mars mission. So, cutting part of that program, at least for now, would seem to push the first human flight to Mars deeper into the future. That may or may not be inevitable given the economic reality of our time, but it is unfortunate on many levels.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Deep Space Study

NASA is looking at ways to advance deep space exploration sooner rather than later. One study is looking at the advantages and disadvantages of establishing an outpost at the Earth-Moon L-2 point. That's a point in space beyond the Moon at which the gravity of Earth, Moon, and Sun cancel out, so an object placed there will tend to stay there. Since the point is beyond the Moon it would be the farthest into space humans have yet ventured. It would also allow astronauts there to tele-operate rovers on the far side of the Moon, thus carrying out the first extensive exploration of that lunar hemisphere.

NASA would also use the outpost to test technology and understand the challenges of sending humans into deep space. The space agency will also bring in academics and commercial space experts to develop a rounded rationale for the project.

The study is to be completed March 30, 2012.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Ramping Towards Reusability

Armadillo Aerospace is making step-by-step progress in its goal of building a reusable manned spaceflight system capable of reaching orbit. The same AA STIG-A rocket was successfully launched on suborbital flights in both December and January from Spaceport America in New Mexico. The company is already working on the STIG-B, which is designed to be a reusable launcher capable of reaching orbit. The STIG-B is scheduled for a test flight in the spring.

AA is also in a partnership with Space Adventures to develop a manned suborbital spacecraft. Seats on those commercial flights would go for $102,000-- half the cost of a ticket on a Virgin Galactic suborbital.

Reusability, of course, would be a huge step forward in truly opening the space frontier. Fleets of private craft capable of flying multiple missions to orbit would allow any number of exciting projects-- which would push technology even further.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Encouraging Commercial Spacecraft

NASA hopes to give at least two companies development money for private manned spacecraft that would carry astronauts to and from ISS. NASA wants a demonstration flight in 2017, and a test flightt before that.

The big problem may be money. Congress failed to fully fund this effort last year, and it could fail to do so again this year.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Ancient Martian Oceans?

As reported in this blog yesterday, a new study argues Mars has been in the grip of a "super-drought" for the latest 600 million years. Another new study, however, presents some of the best evidence yet that Mars boasted oceans billions of years ago.

Data from the ESA's Mars Express spacecraft suggests a large area of the lowlands in the northern hemisphere of Mars contains sedimentary material that is consistent with the makeup of an ocean floor. Previously, researchers had identified what looks to be ancient ocean shorelines on Mars.

The two new studies are not mutually exclusive. The supposed oceans would have existed, and disappeared, hundreds of millions or billions of years before the super-drought took hold.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Drought Conditions On Mars

Researchers studying soil samples collected by NASA's Phoenix Lander three years ago say that while Mars was warmer and wetter early in its history, the surface has suffered a "super drought" for the past 600 million years that makes today's surface inhospitable to life.

They looked for evidence that the soil had interacted with water, such as the presence of particles of clay. In fact, extremely small amounts of clay were found. Scientists estimate that in the billions of years of Mars history the surface has been exposed to water for a total of perhaps only 5,000 years.

Mars may still harbor life, but if it does, that life almost certainly exists well beneath the surface, where Mars also has tons of water ice.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Recruiting Astronauts

Even though NASA currently has no spaceship capable of putting humans into space, it is still recruiting astronauts. Perhaps more interestingly, the agency is having great success. More than 6,300 applications for the astronaut class of 2013 have been received. That's the second highest total for a class ever.

There are 58 people in NASA's astronaut corps at present, and the space agency is looking to add between nine and fifteen in the 2013 class.

Given the uncertainty surrounding NASA's manned spaceflight future, the number of applications may seem curious. Then again, the one trait all astronauts share might will be an optimism about the future.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Eating Our Way To Mars

When you think of Mars, you probably don't think of Hawaii, or vice versa. Nevertheless, a research project involving a mock Mars mission is going to take place on the Big Island.

Cornell University is partnering with the University of Hawaii-Manoa to conduct a four month study meant to gain insight into the eating habits of astronauts on deep space missions. Six volunteers will spend the time in a mock Mars ship, and their eating will be monitored and analyzed. We know astronauts on extended missions tend to eat less as time goes by, which could pose health risks to future Mars explorers. So, the study will seek ways to keep astronauts interested in eating over the long term.

VG Looking Forward

George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic, told an aerospace group in Los Angeles recently that test flights of its WhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo combination are continuing apace. So far, the suborbital spaceship has only been tested in glider mode, but rocket-powered flights are expected to begin this summer. VG hopes to begin commercial suborbital flights from Spaceport America in New Mexico next year.

VG is also contemplating the farther future. Whitesides said the company's technology will at some point allow point-to-point travel which would theoretically allow people to reach any point on Earth within an hour. He also said VG is looking at orbital capability. For now, however, the focus is on getting the suborbital business up and flying.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Iranian Satellite Launch

Iran announced it launched a 110-pound Earth observation satellite into orbit earlier today. The satellite is to fly a two month mission.

Iran has said it plans to put a man on the Moon by 2025, but many nations are concerned Iran's space effort is a cover for developing rockets that can deliver nuclear warheads. Given that-- and given recent talk of tough international economic sanctions against Iran because of its nuclear program, speculation that Israel may soon attack Iran's nuclear facilities, and reports that the U. S. has developed a bomb capable of destroying even hardened, underground installations-- an Iranian rocket launch at this precise moment is, to say the least, interesting.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Possible Abode Of Life Found

Astronomers have discovered an exoplanet a mere 22 light years away that is the strongest candidate yet found to be the home of life.

The world is a so-called super-Earth, with 4.5 times the mass of Earth, and orbits a red dwarf. Astronomers hadn't expected to find such worlds around such tiny stars. Further, this planet orbits firmly within its star's habitable zone, which means liquid water can exist on its surface. Scientists go on the assumption that where liquid water exists, life can exist.

Another surprise-- the host star is part of a triple-star system. Astronomers have generally doubted planets could maintain stable orbits over the long term in multiple star systems. Once again, Nature is showing us that the possibilities for life in the cosmos are broader than we imagined.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Columbia Aftershocks

Nine years ago today, space shuttle Columbia was torn apart during re-entry. It has always been clear that launch and re-entry were the two most dangerous elements of a manned spaceflight, but somehow losing Columbia was a particular shock.

The accident led to fundamental changes. The Bush administration undertook a high level review of NASA's manned spaceflight effort and decided to end the shuttle program, replacing it with Constellation, a capsule-based program that would establish a manned lunar base and go on to put astronauts on Mars. Constellation was underfunded, however, and the Obama administration canceled it.

Current U. S. manned space policy focuses on building a technological infrastructure that will support deep space missions and a broad, permanent move into space. If a Republican wins the White House this year, that policy will likely be replaced, with Newt Gingrich pushing fundamental change and aggressive goals. while Mitt Romney seems interested in putting his own stamp on the space program.

All that began with a fireball in the skies over Texas.