Monday, April 30, 2012

Enterprise To Intrepid

The space shuttle Enterprise, which flew the first test flights of the shuttle program after being dropped from an aircraft, but never reached space, was delivered to New York City last week.  It will be on display, probably starting in July, at the museum centered on the U. S. S. Intrepid.

As the museum, until now, had no emphasis on space, many were surprised when NASA awatded it the Enterprise.  NASA argued, however, that more people would be able to see Enterprise if it were based in the Big Apple as opposed to any other site.  Judging from the reception from people watching it fly over the city atop its 747, Enterprise will have a good home.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Increasing The Odds For Life

Red dwarfs-- smaller, cooler stars than the Sun-- make up some 80 percent of the total stellar population.  Still, astronomers have not considered them likely hosts for life because their habitable zones are so small and so close to the star.  A new study, however, finds that 41 percent of red dwarf stars likely have planets in their habitable zones.  If confirmed, that would add billions of possible life sites.

There are some problems with life evolving on a world closer to its star than Mercury is to the Sun, the main one being powerful radiation from solar eruptions could destroy living tissue and break down genetic codes.  That could be countered, for example, by a planet with a good magnetic field, which is what happens on Earth.

There is also another possibility.  Even if a given red dwarf had no native life in its planetary system, it still could be home to an offshoot of an interstellar civilization.  Because red dwarf stars are so common overall, they could be ideal stepping stones for a civilization seeking to expand throughout the galaxy.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Peopling Luna

Recently, both China and Russia have announced timetables for their first manned lunar landings.  For China the target year is 2025, while the Russians are looking at 2030.  Russia seems to see the feat in the context of unfinished business, while China sees the accomplishment as a way to cement its status as a leading world power.  Several major nations, including China, have also expressed some interest in participating in an international progrram to establish a base on the Moon.  So far, the United States is not one of those.

Governments may not have the Moon all to themselves, however.  Randa Milliron, CEO of Interorbital Systems, fully expects IOS to be operating its own lunar base well before 2030.  Bigelow Aerospace firmly believes its inflatable module technology could be used to build a lunar base quickly, and is open to serious partners-- public or private-- to undertake such an effort.

To the extent that China and Russia see a manned lunar landing as an affirmation of national prestige, one has to wonder whether they would be as interested in such a mission if their crews would be met by people already living on the Moon as a result of an achievement by private enterprise.  If not, a private lunar base beating government progrrams there might push nations seeking prestige and technological development to look farther afield.  Mars beckons.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Blue Origiin Blueprint

Jeff Bezos' NewSpace company, Blue Origin, is known for its secrecy, but we do have its basic plan for the way forward.

BO sees the key to lowering the cost to space in developing a reusable launch system.  It is working on a system that will both launch and land vertically.  Beyond that, it is developing a suborbital vehicle, the New Shepard, that the company sees as carrying both tourists and scientists to the edge of space,  BO is also working on a vehicle capable of ferrying seven astronauts to and from low Earth orbit.

Though the New Shepard has yet to fly, the company sees the orbital craft in operation by 2016 or 2018.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

HD 10-180

The star HD 10-180 is a Sun-like star roughly 127 light-years away.  Astronomers have known for a little while now that it had a planetary system, but a new study suggests that system might be more extensive than previously thought.

In 2009, astronomers determined the star had at least five planets in its gravitational sway.  Now, however, evidence suggests it might have as many as nine full-blown worlds in orbit about it.  That's one more than the Sun has.

The planets involved include two hot super-Earths extremely close to the star and a Neptune-type world orbiting squarely in the habitable zone.

The fact that two stars of the same type both have multi-planet systems implies that at least G-type stars may tend to have planetary systems.  That could argue life might be relatively common around stars like ours.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Even Later Heavy Bombardment

Astronomers say the inner Solar System was subjected to an intense pounding between 4.1 and 3.8 billion years ago as the gravitational effects of the giant outer planets disrupted the orbits of comets and asteroids and sent them barreling towarrds the Sun.  They call that period the Late Heavy Bombardment.

A new study looking at evidence of possible asteroid impact through Earth's history, however, suggests the bombardment lasted much longer than that, maybe down to 2.5 billion years ago.  Further, there are indications that Earth was hit dozens of times by objects larger than the one that probably snuffed out the dinosaurs.

Theory has it that comets probably delivered water to Earth after the planet began to cool following its hot, violent formative period.  It's also possible that asteroids brought organic compounds to Earth.  If the bombardment lasted five times longer than previously thought, it's finally possible such strikes played a much larger role in the evolution of life than we have realized.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Utilizing ET Resources

Planetary Resources announced today a magnificent vision for the future of mankind, one of expanding opportuniities and increasing wealth for an increasing percentage of the human race.

The company plans to mine Near-Earth asteroids for their natural resources.  According to astronomical studies, those resources are extraordinary, rivaling in some metals, for example, the amount of that mined on Earth in all history.  Nor is it all about precious metals.  Industrial metals could be used to build structures in space, from space colonies to huge solar power satellites that could beam power to either space projects or directly into Earth's power grid.  Water in asteroids would also be valuable, both as drinking water, and, say, as rocket fuel when broken into its components of hydrogen and oxygen.

If PR succeeds, it will usher in a dazzling new chapter in the human story.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Planetary Resources, Inc.

A new company with a big goal is to be announced this week.  The company, to be called Planetary Resources, will attempt to make its money by leading the way to extend the human economy into space, using extraterrestrial resources to expand that economy.

Founders of PR include Peter Diamandis, of X-Prize Foundation fame, Eric Anderson, CEO of Space Adventures, and filmmaker James Cameron.  Other initial investors include Larry Page and Eric Schmidt of Google and Charles Simonyi. software developer and space tourist.

With that group backing the effort, learning exactly what PR will try to do will be interesting.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Indian Power

India successfully launched its first ICBM last week.  The test flight was another step towards the nation establishing itself as a major power.  Of course, India is one of the largest countries on Earth in area, the second most populous nation, and the largest democracy in terms of population, so it certainly has a case for being respected as a major power.  The Indians hope an expanding economy, a growing middle class, increasing military prowess, and a developing technology base will put it over the top.

The ICBM is capable of hitting not only India's mortal enemy, Pakiatan, but China, Iran, and parts of Europe, as well.  The new missile can no doubt be seen as benefiting from the successes of the Indian space program, which has put several satellites into Earth orbit and has flown one successful lunar probe mission.

The Indian ICBM test flight produced virtually none of the international uproar caused by North Korea's attempted launch of an Earth observation satellite a few days before, even though both nations already possess nuclear bombs.  That difference comes down to trust.  India is a known quantuty on the world stage, active in international politics.  All other countries might not agree with India, but they are more or less comfortable New Delhi is responsible.  On the other hand, North Korea is secretive and isolationist, and most of what the world does know about Pyongyang's policies and intentions doesn't necessarily inspire confidence.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Settling Shuttles

NASA has begun the process of sending space shuttles to their next homes-- museums around the country where they will be on permanent display.

Shuttle Discovery has been sent to the Smithsonian near Washington, D. C.  Other shuttles will be displayed in New York, Los Angeles, and the Kennedy Space Center.

The shuttles retired as they always were-- the most complex spacecraft yet produced by mankind.  That is finally a discouraging note.  After thirty years, we have made no progress in building better manned spacecraft.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Developing Private Spaceships

Deputy NASA Administrator Lori Garver recently reiterated NASA's position that it should provide financial backing to at least two private companies trying to develop manned spacecraft. The agency argues having more than one program underway brings competition into the process, which should result in better spaceships more quickly brought into service. The faster NASA can turn to private American ships to carry astronauts, the agency points out, the sooner it can stop sending American tax money to Russia for use of the Soyuz ferry.

Some in Congress are arguing NASA should focus on only one company to support with funding, to save money. Congress, of course, has a less than stellar record when it comes to money management. It is also responsible for the current state of the manned space program. Harnessing competition as a development tool is a rational strategy that Congress might consider using more broadly instead of cutting out.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Capturing Rogues

According to a new study, stars often capture rogue planets-- that is, planets flung out of the solar system where they formed. Predictably, more massive stars capture more than less massive ones. Astronomers say there may be billions of planets in new systems.

A recent study concluded rogue planets may outnumber planets orbiting stars in our galaxy by as much as fifty percent. If even a good percent of those planets orbiting stars are in fact captured rogues, it suggests the early stages of solar system formation may be even more dynamic, chaotic, and explosive than previously thought. The traditional picture of planetary formation, after all, does not include worlds being ejected willy-nilly into interstellar space.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


The Space Studies Institute is looking to tackle some of the major questions that must be answered before humans can really settle space. One of those is the effect low gravity and microgravity has on human biology, and on biology in general. SSI plans to address that area through a project called G-Lab.

We know extended periods in microgravity harms human biology in a variety of ways, but we don't know, for example, how much gravity is necessary for the human body to function property. Is full Earth gravity required, or would something less do? How much gravity is necessary for human fetuses to develop properly? For children to grow normally? What about the effect gravity has on other animals we might like to bring with us? G-Lab would be a free-flying platform associated with ISS that would investigate such issues.

The details of G-Lab remain to be worked out, but as SSI argues, until we have good answers to those questions, we can't move ahead with the settling of space.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Surviving Disaster

A new study suggests that while a major asteroid or comet impact can destroy all life on the surface of a planet, life deep underground can survive and even flourish. Such a theory wouldn't even have been advanced a few decades ago because we were unaware life existed in the rocks deep inside Earth. Now it's clear even miles under the surface bacteria and microbes thrive by extracting nutrition from rock, for example.

The study points out that the underground environment is extremely stable, and while an impact and subsequent earthquakes could disturb that environment, it would fairly quickly return to normal. An impact's heat would sterilize the upper layers of the world, but it could also mix nutrients with rock and drive them deep beneath the surface, thus enriching underground niches for life.

Again, we are left with the impression that once life has a foothold on a world, eradicating it might well require a deliberate decision and a thoroughgoing and determinedly executed strategy.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Colorado Convo

The National Space Symposium is being held in Colorado Springs this year. The convention will bring together some 9,000 people from around the world who are engaged in the range of areas that now constitute mankind's involvement with space. Included are representatives from various government space agencies, private sector aerospace, NewSpace, the military, academia, etc.

The featured speaker will be today's Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Tightening The Focus On Mars

In the wake of budget cuts that have decimated its Mars exploration program, NASA is trying to formulate a smaller, less expensive approach to exploring the Red Planet. The focus of the new approach will be the search for Martian life-- either extinct life or, possibly, extant life.

Instead of multibillion dollar missions, NASA is asking for project proposals in the $500-$750 million range that would still be scientifically valuable and push forward the search for life. NASA wants the first mission under the new regime ready to fly by 2018 or 2020.

Friday, April 13, 2012

North Korean Failure

North Korea attempted to launch a satellite yesterday, but the rocket failed soon after liftoff, and the vehicle crashed into the sea.

Several nations had protested the launch, seeing North Korea's space program as a cover for an effort to develop missiles that could deliver nuclear warheads to the United States, for example. The U. S. and North Korea, recall, are still technically at war. Upon confirmation of the attempt, President Obama stated that even though the mission failed the attempt still represented a threat to security. He therefore canceled the next shipment of food to North Korea. Almost certainly, that will harm people who have no control over what Pyongyang does.

In a break with the past, North Korean television informed its viewers of the rocket's failure. Maybe the new young ruler will have a different approach to governing-- or maybe acknowledging the failure is the requisite first step towards blaming others for it.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Expanding Universe

A new study looking at galaxies in the early universe gives added evidence that the universe is not only expanding, but that the expansion is accelerating.

That acceleration puzzles scientists. By adding up all the matter in the universe, physicists get to the conclusion that the acceleration should be slowing down; the gravity associated with all that mass should eventually pull the universe back into a Big Crunch. The observed facts say otherwise, however. In attempting to explain their observations, physicists have postulated the existence of dark energy. They don't know what it is, and can't detect it directly, but they need it to make their theory work.

In that way, dark energy might be similar to Einstein's cosmological constant. He included that factor in his equation describing the universe even he didn't understand why he needed it. Einstein eventually disavowed his cosmological constant. Now, however, it looks like something akin to the cosmological constant is in fact necessary.

The universe is a strange old place.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

North Korea Conundrum

Perhaps later this week, North Korea will attempt to launch a rocket in what the nation insists is its space program. Most other governments, however, suspect North Korea is simply using the concept of a space program to cover the development of missiles that could deliver nuclear warheads to the U. S., for example. By all accounts, it already has nuclear bombs, though they would probably have to be miniaturized to fit atop a missile, which is another technological challenge.

Whatever North Korea's actual intent is, the fact is that rockets constitute a dual-use technology. Rockets can be used to open space, or to terrorize and destroy places on Earth. The fact also is that a nuclear missile attack on another nation would be suicidal for the Pyongyang regime. Hopefully, it will stick to building a space program if it insists on having rockets at all.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Martian Elephant

NASA has released an image of a lava flow on the surface of Mars that looks surprisingly like the head of an elephant in profile, complete with a big ear, a little eye, and a trunk. Of course, that has nothing to do with Mars and everything to do with how the human mind seeks out patterns in nature, even if it has to make them up.

Mars especially has fostered such leaps of the human imagination. At the turn of the twentieth century, the astronomer Percival Lowell argued that there was an advanced civilization on Mars because he saw a network of canals stretching across Mars and connecting cities to the planet's polar caps. The problem was that nobody else saw Lowell's network. Decades later, a cottage industry grew up around a NASA image that seemed to show something like a human face on Mars alongside a pyramid complex. Under different lighting conditions, the face and pyramids looked like ordinary mesas.

In this political year, having found an elephant on Mars, let's see if NASA can also find a jackass.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Putting Parameters On Technological Intelligence

For the first time in human history, scientists can realistically search for extraterrestrial life. We may find simple life nearby-- on Mars, Europa, Titan, Enceladus, and perhaps elsewhere. What most people really want to find, however, is advanced life, life we can marvel at, relate to, even communicate with.

Currently, the only way we can really search for that kind of life is through SETI, which is limited to turning up what we can call technological intelligence. A civilization might be vibrant and brilliant-- on the order of ancient Rome or China, or Europe before 1900-- but SETI will never find it. So, can we say anything about technological intelligence?

Well, we know it's possible, because we're here. We can say there's probably not another such civilization in our general neighborhood, else we'd probably know it by now. We can say no one civilizarion has yet spread throughout our galaxy, else we'd likely know it. So, we can begin to put some hard parameters on technological intelligence. The challenge now is to begin to tighten those parameters.

Sunday, April 8, 2012


For decades, space advocates have touted solar power satellites as the ultimate solution to the world's energy needs. Such satellites would collect energy pouring out from the Sun and beam it down to Earth, where it would enter the planet's electric power grid. That energy, they argue, would be clean, essentially inexhaustible, and, at least over time, cheap.

The drawbacks for SPS have been a huge initial capital cost, and the equally huge size of the power satellites themselves. Now, NASA is backing a new technology project called SPS-ALPHA which seeks to deal with both cost and size. Instead of constructing a large structure in orbit-- several times larger than ISS-- SPS-ALPHA will study an approach that would use tens of thousands of small elements that would fly in a configuration that would allow them to do the same job as a large SPS. The concept is the same as using a network of several small telescopes to essentially create one huge telescope. By using the same component tens of thousands of times per power satellite, the theory is that by relying on components that could be mass produced, the cost of the overall actual project could be drastically reduced.

SPS-ALPHA is a one year concept study. The near-term goal of the study is to lay the groundwork for a test flight of the technology required in a few years.

Friday, April 6, 2012


For decades, NASA has been using plutonium-238, an isotope of plutonium, to power spacecraft on extended, deep space missions. No, it's not a matter of nuclear reactions. Rather, plutonium-238 gives off heat, and that heat is used in radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) to turn that heat into power that runs the spacecraft, often over decades.

The problem is the United States stopped producing plutonium-238 in the 1980s, and now the supply of the stuff is running low, which puts future NASA exploration of the outer planets, for example, in jeopardy. The Department of Energy, however, is restarting production, and plans to have a usable supply by 2017.

Of course, because of federal government budget woes, NASA has cut way back on its outer planets exploration prograam, but if money ever flows back into that area, there should be enough plutonium-238 to power the probes all the way out.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Atlas 5

The United Launch Alliance is confident it can upgrade its Atlas 5 rocket to man-rated status in time to be operational and carrying astronauts to orbit by 2015, two years ahead of NASA's schedule.

The Atlas 5 will be the launcher of choice for the new manned spacecraft being developed by Boeing, the Sierra Nevada Corporation, and Blue Origin, though Blue Origin is also working on its own launcher. Of course, designing an upgrade so the Atlas 5 is compatible with three different manned vehicles is quite an engineering challenge, but ULA is comfortable it can do the job.

Since its first flight in 2002, the Atlas 5 has 28 successful launches without a failure, so its fundamental reliability is fairly well established. Man-rating it will require more powerful upper stage, but ULA already has that rocket in its stable. NASA and the American aerospace industry are eager to bring private sector vehicles online to end the monopoly in manned spaceflight currently enjoyed by the Russian Soyuz.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Many Minimoons Of Earth

A new study using one of the longest, most complex computer simulations yet done suggests Earth often has more than one moon.

The study says that over the billions of years of Earth history, the planet's gravitational well-- the deepest in the inner Solar System, after all-- has captured many small asteroids and held them in orbit for months, years, or decades. Those orbits, however, have been highly elliptical, and the interplay of the interacting gravitational fields of Earth, the Moon, and the Sun eventually kick the minimoons out of Earth orbit and back into solar orbit.

Had such a minimoon been around the past few decades, it would have been a real boon for science, and obviously an early target in the Space Age. The possibility does suggest an interesting approach for the future. Instead of waiting for Earth to capture another one on its own, we could help things along by maneuvering a small body into such a temporary Earth orbit. That would extend our capabilities in space while giving us an asteroid to study at close range using the full resources of Earth's astronomical community. By setting up sophisticated science packages on the asteroid while it orbits Earth and waiting, we could eventually have a very good observatory in solar orbit.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Closing In On Alien Life

Shawn Domagal-Goldman, a research exobiologist based at NASA Headquarters, predicts that we will find an "alien Earth"-- a world similar to Earth in size and composition, and orbiting within the habitable zone of its parent star-- by 2014. The prediction is based largely on the data being gathered by NASA's Kepler planet hunting spacecraft, which has already found thousands of candidate exoplanets. Candidates have to be confirmed before being officially recognized as worlds.

Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute is holding to a prediction he made that we will find a signal from an extraterrestrial civilization within the next twenty years. With the continued development of the Allen Telescope Array, SETI searches will become increasingly wide-ranging over that period, making Shostak's inkling more plausible.

Scientists generally are careful about making bold assertions. They don't want to end up looking stupid any more than anybody else does. So, when two scientists make such predictions, perhaps the rest of us should note that we may be getting close to answering in the negative the fundamental question: "Are we alone?"

Monday, April 2, 2012

Space Coast Woes

Scott Pelley followed up his"60 Minutes" interview with SpaceX founder Elon Musk by looking at Florida's Space Coast in the wake of the retirement of the space shuttle. It wasn't a pretty picture. Businesses are failing, families are moving away, lives are being disrupted. That's the economic impact on Brevard county of ending the money flow of the shuttle program without replacing it with another program.

There's also an emotional component. Workers who built their careers, thirty years, in the shuttle program are now, too often, high and dry. Many of those people took immense, intense pride in doing a job for their country that no other group in the world could do. Many of those are struggling with that pride, trying to understand why their country abandoned the shuttle program, and with it a leadership role in space.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Celestial Target Practice

In less than a week, three asteroids have zipped past Earth well within the orbit of the Moon, and a fourth is scheduled to fly past just outside lunar orbit April 4. Today, the asteroid 2012 EG5, 150 feet across, which was only discovered March 23, flew past at little more than half the distance to the Moon.

NASA assures us that none of those bodies pose a threat to Earth, but the sheer number of close shaves it continues to document should give policymakers around the world pause. The major question is whether a planetary defense program will be put into place before a disaster occurs, or after.