Saturday, March 31, 2012

Apollo 11 Back In The News

Billionaire Jeff Bezos has mounted a project that used the latest deep sea technology to find the powerful F-1 engines from the Saturn V rocket that flung Apollo 11 to the Moon. Once there, of course, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin became the first humans to land on another heavenly body.

Having found the engines in 14,000 feet of water east of Florida, Bezos said his team will now try to raise at least one of them. If that attempt is successful, the engine will be turned over to NASA, which still owns the engines.

Earlier in the week, NASA announced its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has taken the most detailed images yet of the Apollo 11 landing site, and released the photographs. Clearly seen are the bottom stage of the lunar module, the instrument packages set up by Armstrong and Aldrin, and even the tracks created by the astronauts as they hopped and skipped over the lunar surface.

All in all, it was not a good few days for those folks who insist the lunar landings were faked.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Building A Way Out

Researchers are now arguing that there's enough water ice in the lunar polar regions to support a human move into the Solar System. Using data from various spacecraft, principally from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, they say there's enough water on the Moon to form part of the basis of a permanent, prosperous lunar society.

The ice exists in places that are never exposed to solar radiation. That means on the floors of deep craters. In permanent shadow, water ice could exist for billions of years. There is evidence for water ice around both lunar poles. One favorite area for those looking to site future bases and settlements is Shackleton crater, near the south pole. Shackleton is 12.5 miles across, but 3 miles deep. Evidence suggests there is water ice on Shackleton's floor, and we know some of the peaks in the crater's rim are in permanent sunlight. Combine substantial water resources with an inexhaustible power supply, and the possibilities are fascinating.

Water is important not simply as water. It can be split into its components of hydrogen and oxygen, and each would be useful. Recombined correctly, hydrogen and oxygen also makes an excellent rocket fuel that could power probes to planets and asteroids.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Congress Fidgeting

Some members of Congress are becoming impatient with the slow pace to date in developing private spacecraft capable of delivering cargo to ISS. NASA assures them that progress is being made, and indeed SpaceX is poised to launch its first Dragon mission to ISS, but everybody in Congress isn't satisfied.

Let's be clear-- Congress knew for years the space shuttle program was ending, because Congress mandated it end. and did not engineer a successor vehicle that would be ready immediately after the shuttle. Congress did establish the Constellation Moon-Mars program, which included the Orion capsule, but then canceled Constellation. Orion is still being developed, but Congress has made no move to hasten its development. NASA has a program to aid private companies in creating cargo, and eventually man-rated, spacecraft, but Congress in its wisdom reduced the funding for that program.

Perhaps members of Congress need to look at themselves and their fellow members before growling at other people to do a better job. That goes for areas beyond space policy, as well.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Billions And Billions

A new study suggests there are tens of billions of rocky planets orbiting within the habitable zones of red dwarf stars in the Milky Way galaxy alone. That figure was reached by examining our neighborhood and extrapolating from that to the entire galaxy.

It's certainly a heartening number for those seeking alien life, but the raw number may overstate the case. Red dwarfs are small, dim stars, which means their habitable zones are extremely close to the stars. They are also prone to big eruptions, which could fry life on a close in planet. Such planets would also tend to be tidaly locked-- one hemisphere turned constantly to the star-- which wouldn't be conducive to life.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Water On Mercury?

There would seem to be few more unlikely places in the universe to find water ice than the sizzling surface of Mercury. Now, however, some scientists are beginning to make that case.

Astronomers have had radar readings for years consistent with water ice existing around Mercury''s north pole. Recent images from NASA's Messenger probe in orbit around Mercury show the areas identified by radar are in fact permanently shadowed, thus shielded from the Sun's heat.

The case is not clinched yet, but once again Nature is forcing us to consider a completely counterintuitive reality.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Werner Von Braun

March 23, 2012, marked what would have been the one hundredth birthday of Werner Von Braun, the father of the giant Saturn V rocket that threw Apollo astronauts to the Moon. Without his ability and leadership, the Space Race could have turned out quite differently. Von Braun's real dream, however, was always to put humans on Mars. His plan to do that still informs approaches to reach the Red Planet.

Von Braun's early career is controversial. He worked at Peenemunde, the Nazi base built by slave labor from concentration camps, where he helped build the rockets that terrorized Britain. How much choice he actually had is open to question. Critics seem to assume he could have used his position and influence to somehow civilize the situation. Perhaps, but those critics, by and large, never had to contemplate facing the Gestapo.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Vesta's Blotches

NASA's Dawn spacecraft continues imaging and mapping the surface of the large asteroid, Vesta. New images show both dark and extremely bright patches scattered across the surface. Early on, astronomers are interpreting the bright patches as areas where the original surface of Vesta has been revealed while the dark spots may constitute scars from low velocity collisions-- bumps-- with other bodies.

There's some chance that Dawn ends up being among the first of a generation of missions that will transform and deepen our understanding of the small bodies of the Solar System. Given the budget problems of governments, and therefore of government space agencies, for the next many years, less costly missions will be funded over more costly, more complex missions to planets. The calculus might be that low budget efforts can produce more science bang for the buck exploring asteroids and moons than they could looking at a particular aspect of a complex planet. So, budget shortfalls on Earth may lead to a golden age of exploration in the Main Belt of asteroids that could lay the basic factual foundation for an eventual human move into the Solar System, creating an extraordinarily rich and diverse human economy.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Space Junk Threat

For the third time in 12 years, the ISS crew had to retreat to their Soyuz capsules in the face of a space junk threat. This time, the threat was a piece of a Russian rocket that NASA said barely got close enough to be classified a threat.

Had a hit been imminent, the six crew members would have undocked from ISS and returned to Earth.

As an aside, FOXNews, at least, has consistently referred to the rocket piece "floating" past ISS. That's a gentle verb which paints a mild picture. In fact, of course, everything in Earth orbit is moving at incredible speed, which means that if this piece, or anything else of any mass, did hit ISS, it would pack quite a punch. Likely, there'd be nothing gentle about it.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Powering Enceladus' Geysers

A new study establishes a good link between Saturn's gravity and the surface vents that give rise to geysers on Saturn's moon, Enceladus. Researchers show the vents are stressed, strained, and deformed as Enceladus orbits Saturn, with the greatest strain occurring when Enceladus is closest to Saturn.

Further, the fact the Enceladus can be so pulled and deformed implies a large body of liquid water exists within the icy shell that covers the moon. Stress from the constantly changing gravity vectors also heats the moon, which might be what keeps the water inside liquid.

We also know organic compounds are thrown out in the geyser spray. If you put organic compounds in liquid water, add a heat or energy source, and wait long enough, the odds that life will come to be may be reasonably high.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Europan Sub

Steven Squyres, lead investigator working with NASA's Opportunity rover on Mars, recently argued the next major planetary mission should be a Europan submarine to explore the huge ocean that seems to exist under the icy surface of the Jovian moon. Squyres and many other scientists think there's a good chance life could exist in that ocean.

Squyres admits that would be an extremely difficult mission to pull off-- landing on Europa, finding a way to get the submarine through what might be a miles-thick ice shell to the ocean, and finally navigating that ocean-- but the science pay off would be worth it, particularly if life is found. NASA probably agrees, but the question boils down to money. A Europan submarine mission would be extremely expensive, and NASA simply doesn't have the budget for such a mission, and likely won't have for the foreseeable future.

So, even though NASA's ultimate goal is to find life beyond Earth, the fiscal condition of the federal government will determine how quickly that goal will be pursued.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Learning About Mercury

Two new studies using data collected by NASA's Messenger probe are painting a new picture of the planet Mercury.

One study, using Messenger's laser altimeter, finds a smaller range between the highest and lowest points on Mercury's surface than there is on either Mars or Earth's Moon. Further, it notes that some impact craters-- including the largest-- have been partially filled in, which suggests Mercury was more active in volcanism, for a longer period, than previously thought.

The other study probably goes along with that increased volcanism. It suggests Mercury's iron core is much larger than previously thought. The study also found mascons (mass concentrations) within the planet. Mascons have also been found inside Mars and Earth's Moon, suggesting they might be a common feature of terrestrial worlds.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Ashton Kutcher To Fly

Virgin Galactic now has 500 reservations for its commercial suborbital flights. Actor and producer Ashton Kutcher bought the 500th, according to VG founder Sir Richard Branson.

At $200,000 per flight, the 500 reservations promises VG a tidy sum. The company plans to begin commercial flights in 2013 or 2014 from The Spaceport in New Mexico. Branson has promised he and his children will be on the first commercial flight.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Musk Money

During his interview on "60 Minutes" last evening, Elon Musk said he has put about $100 million of his own money into SpaceX. That's a lot of money for an individual, of course, but it's not a huge sum in the corporate world, and it's a small percentage of Musk's total wealth-- he's a billionaire.

Given the success of SpaceX, so far, the financial resources involved suggests opening space to widespread human activity need not cost billions of dollars up front. That's a positive sign for a better future.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

North Korean Space Program

North Korea announced Friday it plans to launch an Earth-observation satellite next month. North Korea claims it has two functioning satellites in orbit already, but other nations dispute that.

South Korea, Japan, and the United States are all concerned about what North Korea might really have in mind. Developing rocket technology for a space program, they worry, can cover development of a missile program, and since the North already has nuclear technology, having a delivery system for nuclear bombs would create an extremely dangerous situation-- not unlike that posed by a nuclear Iran. In both cases, we have regimes that hold themselves outside the international mainstream, one based in religious fanaticism, and the other in old-style, hard-nosed, police state communism, led at present by an inexperienced leader who may or may not understand the world outside his borders.

Both Iran and North Korea insist on pursuing space programs despite the alarms they know such efforts set off in other capitals. That is, perhaps, a worrying sign.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Elon Musk On "60 Minutes"

SpaceX head man Elon Musk will appear on "60 Minutes" Sunday evening after coverage of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, better known as "March Madness." Interviewed by Scott Pelley, Musk makes the case for SpaceX specifically and the emerging private space sector more broadly. He says he is confident SpaceX, which now employs 1,000 people in its tenth year of business, will be the first private company to put an astronaut into orbit.

Before founding SpaceX, Musk had already earned a place in business history by founding PayPal, which made executing financial transactions online safe and simple. If SpaceX delivers to the same degree, Musk will also be a major figure in opening the Solar System to human settlement.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Russian Space Plans

Russia announced its long range space plans this week, and they are ambitious. They include a new launch facility, which is already being built, a new, larger launcher to replace the Proton rocket, a new six-person spacecraft to replace the three-person Soyuz, and unmanned probes to Venus, Mars, and Jupiter. The Jupiter mission would be Russia's first venture beyond Mars.

The centerpiece of the plan, however, is a manned lunar landing by 2030. Sixty years after the Space Race, then, Russia would seek to close the deal. Russia is also considering putting a space station into lunar orbit by 2030.

Newly-elected Russian President Vladimir Putin has made it clear for years that he wants to return Russia to Great Power status. The new space plan is certainly worthy of a leading nation-- and worthy of Russia's historic role in space. The question might be whether Russia's still emerging economy can grow quickly enough to support such ambitions.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Genomic SETI

Paul Davies is a scientist willing to push some envelopes. He is also intrigued by the possibility of finding alien life. Those two combined led him to embrace genomic SETI.

Genomic SETI is a rather fanciful idea, but it has a foundation in fact and speculation. Let's assume aliens visited Earth before humanity arose; given the age of mankind against the age of Earth, and the age of life on Earth, that's a fair assumption. Let's further assume these aliens wanted to leave a message for an intelligent species that might eventually arise here. How would they leave a message that would last, perhaps, millions of years?

Davies and others, noting we've recently discovered most of human DNA seems to be useless, have hit upon the idea that aliens might have encoded a message in that useless part of DNA. Labs are in fact searching for such a message.

If such a visit did take place before humanity existed, of course, they would presumably have had to correctly predict which of the species around at that time would eventually lead to us. That would've been a trick nearly as good as interstellar travel.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Martian Dust Devil

By now, we have all seen storms on Earth from the perspective of Earth orbit. They are awesome, spectacular images. Recently, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter imaged a dust devil ripping across the surface of the Red Planet.

Dust devils are small, weak tornadoes, and they occur on both Earth and Mars. This specific one rose about half a mile into the thin Martian air, and was about one hundred feet wide.

Monday, March 12, 2012

John Carter

Disney's John Carter had a disappointing opening weekend at the box office. The movie is based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' novels about a human soldier who was transported to Mars, fought weird creatures, and won the hand of a Martian princess. It would seem to be the perfect action adventure sci fi special effects tale for today's Hollywood.

So, why the struggle selling tickets? Maybe the movie Mars doesn't ring true. Burroughs wrote his novels in the early twentieth century, when many people-- including many astronomers-- believed an advanced civilization existed on Mars. Readers, therefore, were willing to accept the premise of the stories as something like plausible. Today's moviegoers, however, have seen Mars up close, and they know it's not the world of the film.

Perhaps Disney would have been wiser to update the story and transport Carter to a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri, where they could have created a fresh, stunning world.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Speaking Of Pattern Recognition.....

The SETI Institute is starting a new program to bring the general public into the heart of the search for extraterrestrial radio signals. Unlike SETI@home, an earlier effort to engage the public built on commandeering personal computers to help analyze data obtained in SETI observing sessions, SETIlive asks people to spend time working with the raw data of a session themselves, hunting for that telltale signal from an alien civilization.

As in the program that has found evidence of a higher rate of star formation in the Milky Way than was previously thought, which was the subject of yesterday's blog post, the driver of SETIlive is the ability of the human brain to pick out patterns amidst complexity. SETI computers likely miss many potential finds-- which sort of negates the whole point of doing such research.

It's nice to know that even in these days of hot shot computers and ultra-sophisticated software there is still a place for the human brain in the cockpit.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Not So Tiny Bubbles

Citizen scientists-- amateur astronomers, in other words-- have used data from NASA's Spitzer Telescope to find thousands more bubbles blown in the gas and dust clouds by hot young stars of our galaxy than previously known, suggesting that the rate of new star formation in the Milky Way is much greater than realized. The research was done under the auspices of the online Milky Way Project, which gives the general public the opportunity to work with actual data and meaningfully contribute to science.

The human brain still beats computers at some things, like pattern recognition. In the complex, chaotic images of the galactic center and spiral arm plane, computers missed bubbles that overlapped, or that were otherwise partially hidden. Human brains, however, are hardwired to recognize patterns, and they discerned many more bubbles, giving astronomers a new perspective on the nature of our home galaxy.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Sun Spewing

Huge solar storms have been roiling the surface of the Sun for the past few days, and a sunspot complex that has been spewing charged particles directly at Earth continues to grow.

Space weather experts have warned the onslaught of particles could disrupt communication networks and power grids. That hasn't really happened yet, but it still could.

The situation could also continue for some time. The Sun is approaching its maximum in the 11-year solar activity cycle. More activity means more sunspots, which means more potential for outbursts that could affect electrical systems on Earth, and around Earth. Such storms also pose increased radiation risk to astronauts in orbit. The peak in this sunspot cycle is 2013.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Surviving First Contact

The Science Channel this month is asking "Are we alone?" In a THROUGH THE WORMHOLE this week, scientists suggest our first contact with an interstellar civilization might lead to humanity's doom. They argue that a species intelligent enough to build such a society would have arisen as a predator, because predators have the large, active brains required for hunting and politics, engineering and science. Predators, of course, are also aggressive by nature, so, the argument goes, if They come to Earth, we could be facing an aggressive, powerful foe that wants to take over Earth.

That might make for interesting television, but it might be extrapolating too far from too little. Aggression would be only one trait in a suite of traits, after all. A society that reaches the level of being able to reach the stars would have learned a lot along the way. It might well have successfully negotiated developmental bottlenecks that would have destroyed a civilization that simply followed its base instincts. Intelligence adds subtlety and judgment and control to the basic structure of needs and drives and reactions. Maybe some human subtlety and judgment and disciplined imagination is called for in this area.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Now, 2012 DA14

Yet another report about asteroids and Earth-- this time involving what NASA promises will be a near miss. Asteroid 2012 DA14 was discovered earlier this year. It's about 150 feet across, travels around the Sun in an orbit similar to Earth's, and has close approaches to Earth about every six months. That quick profile might make it a reasonable early candidate for the first manned mission to an asteroid.

Before that happens, however, there will be an extremely close shave in February of next year as 2012 DA14 whizzes past our planet on a path that will be within the orbit of geostationary satellites.

So, between now and 2040, at least three asteroids will come close to Earth-- and two of those, 2012 DA14 and 2011 AG5-- were discovered only recently. There may be others. If policymakers around the world fail to take note and begin to build planetary defense capabilities, the argument that we need different policymakers will have some resonance. Hopefully, world leaders don't wait until there's a disaster before they act.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Comet Blast 13,000 Years Ago?

A new study argues a comet exploded over what is now central Mexico some 12,900 years ago. Evidence for such a blast include the presence of spherules and nanodiamonds in a thin layer at the site which could only have been created under extreme heat and pressure. Further, a similar layer dated to precisely that same time has been found at many places across at least the northern hemisphere, suggesting a worldwide event did in fact occur.

The timing of the alleged event also coincides, at least roughly, with the latest large extinction event in the fossil record, which saw the ending of the reign of the megafauna-- mammoths, giant bison, saber-toothed cats-- in North America. It also coincides with a change in the global climate which would be consistent with such a titanic explosion.

Of course, this new theory will be challenged, just as the theory that an asteroid impact sealed the fate of the dinosaurs is still being debated. Most scientists still favor explanations based in gradualism-- slow change over geologic time-- as opposed to catastrophism, which says change can be brought about by huge, specific events. Both approaches obviously operate in the real universe.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Rethinking A Threat

As reported recently in this blog, scientists have found that there is about a 1-in-625 chance that the asteriod 2011 AG5, which orbits the Sun between the orbits of Venus and Earth, will collide with Earth in 2040. With a diameter longer than a football field, 2011 AG5 could cause real damage if it hit.

NASA scientists, however, are downplaying any danger. They point out that the asteroid hasn't be followed through one complete orbit yet, and once it has been, the odds are very good we'll find the rock poses no threat to Earth.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Defining Life Into A Corner

With all the exoplanets being discovered, scientists are trying to define exactly the parameters of the type of worlds that may be home to life. That's what scientists do, and the fact is that Science has been remarkably successful at revealing the universe in its wondrous complexity.

Establishing parameters, however, can be tricky-- precisely because Nature is so complex. Various elements for a life-bearing world have been proposed, everything from the presence of liquid water on the surface of a world to the axial tilt, which should be present, but shouldn't be too extreme.

Taken separately, each such factor may have merit, but added up we tend to get a world almost exactly like Earth. Since Earth life is the only life we know, that's fair and understandable, but it might miss the bigger picture. Exploring the universe should be about opening our minds to possibilities. Over the latest three decades, we have found life on Earth in some shocking places, after all. Any parameters applied to other planets should probably by loose-- in acknowledgement of the simple fact that we are still in the very early days of understanding life in all its possible manifestations.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Gone Stuff

NASA has admitted it has "lost" pieces of equipment over the last few weeks and months. Most people probably see the space agency as an extremely disciplined place, but it seems human limitations are on display there, too.

Among the items gone are laptops, including at least one that has the control codes for ISS. If in fact that laptop was stolen, not simply lost, it could potentially be a problem.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

AAS Steps In

The American Astronomical Society is engaging in the debate over the emerging shape of NASA's space exploration effort under President Obama's 2013 budget. While noting the budget problems of the U. S. federal government, AAS is arguing for a balance among large, medium, and small science missions, as well as among various fields of science. AAS also notes NASA must be a reliable international partner. That comes in the wake of NASA's withdrawal from the ExoMars project with the Europeans.

The public debate now shifts to Congress, where special interest groups like AAS often have significant influence over specific aspects of federal spending. Whether that will hold true this election year when federal spending will be a huge campaign issue is open to question.