Thursday, May 31, 2012

Dragon Successfully Home

After being released by the robotic arm of ISS, SpaceX's Dragon capsule fired its rocket to break orbit and successfuly splashed down in the Pacific under huge red and white parachutes earlier today, ending an historic test flight.

Dragon became the first privately owned spacecraft to reach ISS and set the stage for cargo flights that will earn SpaceX $1.6 billion dollars from NASA.

SpaceX is well on the way to establishing Dragon as a viable choice for many other projects, as well-- including possibly taking humans into orbit and back home by as early as 2015.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

John Glenn Honored

John Glenn was recently presented the Presidentiial Medal Of Freedom by President Obama.  It is the highest civilian honor bestowed by the nation.

In the case of Glenn, 91, the question might be: "What took so long?"  His main claim to fame is obviously being the first American to orbit the Earth, but he was also a decorated Marine fighter pilot, a long time U. S. Senator from Ohio, and a serious contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984.  Glenn also became the oldest person to fly in space when he flew on a shuttle mission to test the effects of microgravity on the elderly.

In short, John Glenn has led one of the most extraordinary American lives of the twentieth century-- and now well into the twenty-first.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Two Near Misses

Each of the past two days, NASA has watched a small asteroid whip past Earth at a distance well within lunar orbit.  Both were under 100 feet across, so they posed no real danger to Earth even if they had hit our world, but they continue a pattern of such close calls that NASA and the astronomical community have recently documented.

That rash of near misses this year would seem nicely timed, as they have come during a U. S. presidential election campaign, but none of the candidates have taken the opportunity to push for even a modest planetary defense program.  Odds are, they'll get away with that approach, but the truth is that they are ignoring an obvious threat.  Hopefully, we won't have to lose a city, or worse, before the policymakers of the world act.

The mainstream news media has also ignored the situation, at least in America.  Perhaps proposing the theory that these asteroids are in fact pot shots from aliens preparing to destroy Earth would get the attention of a group too interested in celebrities, gossip, and easy, gee whiz headlines.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Nine Planets After All?

Rodney Gomes, a respected astronomer at the National Observatory of Brazil, is pursuing a theory that another large planet exists at the very edge of the Solar System.  He bases his theory on the orbital movements of several small Kuiper Belt objects.  The Kuiper Belt is a region of space well beyond the orbit of Neptune.  Gomes argues the orbits of those objects cannot be explained by the combined gravitational influences of the known bodies of the Solar System, but can be accounted for by postulating a large body orbiting so far out we have yet to detect it.  Depending on the orbit assigned to it, the putative planet could be Mars-sized, or it could be as massive as Neptune, which is four times the mass of Earth.

Other astronomers say Gomes has his math right, but caution there are other possible solutions to the puzzle.  One possibility is that more data detailing the orbits of the objects in question will reveal there is in fact no inconsistency at all.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Brainstorming Mars Exploration

Since the federal budget travails forced NASA to reduce its planetary exploration expectations, the agency has reached out for proposals that would allow NASA to pursue its exploration of Mars at reduced funding levels.  So far, 400 ideas and program proposals have been sent in from all over the world.

NASA officials are taking that response as evidence of the importance scientists generally put on exploring Mars.  The agency's Mars planning group, consisting of some of NASA's highest officials, will spend the rest of this year whittling down that number to a few that might actually be pursued starting in 2018 and continuing for perhaps a decade after that.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Nature Of ET

Jill Tarter, who is stepping down as director of the SETI Institute, has taken issue with Hollywood's depiction of aliens as aggressive, bloodthirsty invaders.  She says any aliens that reach Earth will come strictly as explorers.

Sir Stephen Hawking, on the other hand, warns thay aliens coming to Earth will be aggressive, possibly here to strip mine our planet of its resources.

Two competent, experienced scientists coming to diametrically opposed conclusions.  Who's right?  Maybe both.  Seeing all alien races capable of interstellar travel as the same is almost certainly a mistake.  Diversity is the calling card of the cosmos.  Or maybe they're both wrong.  Alien races may have motivations that are, well. alien to us.  Determining why ET acts will have to wait until we can study ET in action.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Dragon Grabbed

The Dragon capsule once again maneuvered in close to ISS, and this time was grabbed by the station's robotic arm. ISS crew will unload Dragon tomorrow.

SpaceX is on the verge of successfully completing an historic spaceflight, one that could open an exciting new era of commercial activity in space, taking the pace and direction of space development out of the hands of government and putting it more in the hands of private individuals, corporations, and, eventually, groups of various kinds pursuing various visions.

The big things left for SpaceX to accomplish on this mission are the reentry and recovery of Dragon, which the company already pulled off on an earlier test flight.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Dragon At ISS

SpaceX's Dragon capsule successfully rendezvoused with ISS today, closing to witthin 1.6 miles of the station.  It was a major achievement for the first private spacecraft to fly to ISS.

NASA has given the go-ahead for the next phase of the mission.  Tomorrow, Dragon will fly even closer to ISS and be grabbed by the station's robotic arm.  The arm will then berth Dragon so the station crew can unload its cargo-- supplies and scientific equipment.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Rocky Mountain High

Colorado is moving ahead with its effort to build a spaceport on the high plains outside Denver.  The plan is to use open land to convert the Front Range Airport, which is near Denver International, into a spaceport.  The project has the support of Colorado's governor, state legislature, and congressional delegation-- plus, of course, the state's substantial aerospace business community.

Those behind the project envision a big future for Colorado as one major hub of a point-to-point suborbital travel network that would allow people to reach the farthest places on Earth within two hours.  That technology is nowhere near ready yet, but it does have the potential to revolutionize long distance travel, international business, and even military strategy.  The question is whether a business case can be made for a spaceport in the interim.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Success, So Far, For SpaceX

Just like old times, a rocket headed for space lit up the night sky over central Florida early this morning.  There was a twist, however.  It wasn't a NASA rocket, but the Falcon 9 of SpaceX putting the company's Dragon capsule into orbit.  If all goes well, Dragon will rendezvous with ISS on Thursday and be grabbed and berthed by the station's robotic arm.

The successful launch came shortly after a last second abort Saturday.  The quick recovery by the SpaceX  engineering team might make this mornimg's achievement more impressive than otherwise.  Executing the entire mission, however, is still critically important, and that's still to be done.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Ring Of Fire

Even during the baseball game on ESPN last night, the media provided coverage of the annular lunar eclipse, showing live images as the Moon began to slip between Earth and the Sun.

Of course, eclipses are dramatic events, and they produce compelling time-lapse video.  Televison loves compelling video, even though, since eclipses are completely predictable, they are not exactly news.  Television types would no doubt argue they perform a public service by informing the people about such eclipses and warning them not to look directly at it.

Fair enough, but a lot of people seem to have only the loosest grasp of what an eclipse actually is.  If television is really interested in doing a public service, it would do better to cover science and technology consistently and thoroughly instead of just focusing on gee-whiz moments.

By the way, you should never look directly at the Sun, eclipse or no.  By not stressing that, the media may be doing a tiny disservice.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Valve Problem Fixed

After the aborted launch attempt yesterday, SpaceX engineers went over the Falcon 9 rocket and found the cause of the abort-- a faulty check valve in the number five Merlin engine.  They swapped it out and continue to pore over the data, but so far, all lools well.

The next launch attempt is scheduled for early Tuesday.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Not Yet For Dragon

Onboard computers aborted the launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket this morning at the last possible second.  Higher than acceptable pressure was detected in one of the engines.

So, the first test flight of the Dragon capsule to ISS is now scheduled for an early Tuesday launch.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Icy Life

Noting that the most likely places to find life elsewhere in the Solar System are cold-- Mars, Jupiter's moon Europa, Saturn's Encyladus-- scientists are looking at life associated with ice sheets on Earth in an attempt to understand how they might detect life on those other worlds.  Methane might be the key. Methane can be created by both geological and biological processes, but it exists in different isotopic versions. If a methane isotope can be firmly tied to biology, that would be a useful marker.

Using Earth analogies probably has its limits, however.  It's reasonable to assume that the life around Earth's ice sheets, for example, originated elsewhere, spread to the cold regions, and adapted.  That history might make the life on Earth's ice sheets quite different from life that had to arise and endure in bitter cold.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Estimating Asteroids

A new NASA survey estimates there are around 4,700 Near-Earth asteroids bigger than 330 meters across.  That's large enough to cause at least regional disaster in the event of a collision.  The uncomfortable truth is that only about 30 percent of that populatiom has so far been found.

While this group holds the possibility for catastrophe, it also has great promise.  Many of those flying rocks are easier to reach than the Moon is in terms of energy requirements.  That makes them excellent targets for the first manned missions beyond the Moon, as well as for asteroid mining operations like those planned by Plannetary Resources.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

CST-100 In Doubt?

An official at Boeing recently said the company's commitment to its new manned spacecraft, the CST-100, may change if NASA funding for the program dries up.  Due to federal money problems, NASA's budget is under continuing pressure, and some in Congress want the agency to reduce its financial support for companies trying to build manned spacecraft that would be owned and operated by private corporations.  Boeing may still pursue the project without NASA backing, but the pace of development may slow.

A slower development of the CST-100 would also effect Bigelow Aerospace.  Boeing and Bigelow are currently working on a project that would put a Bigelow space station in low Earth orbit and use the CST-100 to ferry crew to and from the station.  So, if Boeing eases back on developing the spacecraft, it could also be delaying the opening of an important new era of the Space Age.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

PR Swamped By Applications

Since Planetary Resources announced it plans to mime asteroids for profit on April 24, the company has been inundated by job applicatiions, mostly from engineers who want to help design the robot probes that will do the mining.  After 2,000 applicatiions had been received online, PR closed down that part of its website.

Part of that response, no doubt, is attributable to a sluggish economy and the uncertainty surrounding NASA's future.  On the other hand, if there's a hot job market anywhere in America, it's in high technology talent, which would obviously include various types of engineers.  Another part of PR's appeal is no doubt the challenge of opening space.  Maybe Congress should take note.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Dragon Rescheduled

After a three week delay, the Falcon 9/Dragon stack is scheduled to launch on its first test flight to ISS on May 19.  Dtagon is set to be the first private spacecraft to visit ISS.

Dragon will carry supplies and equipment to ISS.  Instead of actually docking with the space station, which would add complexity to the mission, Dragon will maneuver close to ISS, and astronauts will grab it using the station's robotic arm.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

SpaceX, BA Team Up

Bigelow Aerospace and SpaceX announced Thursday that they will team up to create the first private space station.  BA will build the station in low Earth orbit using its inflatable module technology, and SpaceX will transport people to and from the station with its Dragon/Falcon 9 system.  No timetable or cost was mentioned, but SpaceX plans to have Dragon man-rated within three years, and the two companies plan to start contacting potential customers immediately.

BA also has a partnership with the other BA-- Boeing-- that will have Boeing's manned spacecraft under development, the CST-100, also service a Bigelow space station.

If the Bigelow-SpaceX collaboration reaches its goal, that will be a major turning point in the history of the early Space Age.  Private enterprise will finally have not only access to space, but a manned spaceflight capability, and a foothold in orbit.  From that, the future will be wide open.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Ferreting Out Exoplanets

Astronomers not associated with the Kepler project are now combing through data gathered by the probe to find exoplanets based solely on the worlds' gravitational pull on exoplanets caught by Kepler as they transit the disks of their parent stars.

The theory behind the effort is basic.  As planets orbit a star, they also tug on each other gravitationally.  By observing wiggles in the planets' motion during a transit, astronomers can work out the position, orbit, and mass of a world they have yet to see.  So far, using this method, astronomers have "found" one Saturn-sized world and possibly a super-Earth in the same system.

The approach is reminiscient of how Neptune was discovered.  In the mid nineteenth century, mathematicians noticed quirks in the orbit of Uranus, decided another, so far unknown planet beyond Uranus was responsible, and predicted its position.  Astronomers using the best telescopes of the day found Neptune at precisely that position.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Going To Mars Together

Recently, a top Russian space agency official stated Russia and the United States should cooperate on a manned mission to Mars.  NASA Administrator Charles Bolden agreed.  Both men argued the scope and technological challenges of such an effort-- that is to say, the cost-- of going to Mars is beyond the reach of any one nation.
Among the challenges to be addressed are the development of a propulsion system that would allow missions to Mars to be flown as quickly as possible, as well as finding a way to protect crews against cancer-causing cosmic radiation.

The effort needn't be limited to two nations, either.  An international coalition of several nations, Bolden said, is the way to go. Nothing formal is underway at the moment, but informal discussions seem to be bubbling around the world.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Warm, Wet, Young Mars

The Mars rover Spirit came upon a particular rock in its travels.  Scientists studying that rock determined it was volcanic in origin, and a new study now sees the rock as evidence that early Mars was similar to Earth.

The study argues the rock was blown out of a Martiam volcano and fell back to the surface.  By measuring the depression, or bomb sag, the rock made when it hit the ground, the study determined it traveled slowly enough that it must have been moving through a much thicker atmosphere than the one Mars has today.  That is another line of inquiry pointing to a warmer, wetter Mars early in its history-- one that would have had a thicker atmosphere.

Scientists say the volcano in question erupted 3.5 billion years ago.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Mars Probe Network Proposal

In the wake of cuts to NASA's budget, and in anticipation of further cuts, some scientists are looking at ways to continue the exploration of Mars on the relative cheap.

One such proposal envisions a network of six penetrator probes crashing into Mars and driving 4 to 8 inches below the surface.  The object would be to search for life.  Indeed, it would be the first mission dedicated to the search for life since the Viking program of the 1970s.  Most scientists think any life on Mars would be subsurface, protected from cosmic radiation, hence the penetrators.

Supporters of the project estimate it could be done for under $300 million, and that it could be ready for launch in 2018.

Monday, May 7, 2012

SuperMoons And Retired Shuttles

The televisision news media's approach to covering things space is interesting.  Recently, it has given time to the delivery of a space shuttle to a New York City museum, and to the latest SuperMoon.  A SuperMoon occurs when a full moon coincides with when the Moon is at its closest approach to Earth.  That happens on a regular schedule.  Strictly speaking, therefore, it's probably not news at all.

A huge full moon on the horizon, however, is a compelling image, as is a space shuttle riding piggyback atop a 747 as it flies over New York City landmarks, and television loves compelling images.  If the goal of television news is to help create and support a well-informed public, though, there are more important stories to cover.  Examining the political fight over NASA's budget would be one.  Looking at the emergence of the NewSpace industry would be another.  Providing updates on the continuing exploration of Mars and the Cassini mission to Saturn would show voters their tax money at work while also providing television with stunning pictures.  The American people aren't interested in space beyond gee-whiz stuff, say television news big wigs.  That argument would be stronger if the news media covered space seriously and got flooded with negative feedback from a range of viewers for doing so.

Brian Williams of NBC News seems inclined to cover space whenever he can put something on.  He, presumably, doesn't think he's driving viewers away.  Ignoring a major area of science and technology in a world increasingly dependent on science and technology seems to miss the boat.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Cassini Fly Bys

The Cassini probe had two encounters with moons of Saturn last week.  One with Enceladus was a close one, only about 48 miles from that moon at closest approach; the goal was to learn more about that moon's gravitational field, and therefore its internal structure.  The second encounter was a long distance photography session with the moon Dione.  From 5,000 miles, Cassini was still able to snap some interesting new images of that alien surface.

Nor is Cassini finished encountering in May.  Later, it has another fly by opportunity with mighty, mysterious Titan.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Dragon Delayed Again

SpaceX has again delayed the first launch of its Dragon cargo ship to ISS.  The launch is now scheduled for May 19, with a backup date of May 22.  The company wants more time to check out its Falcon 9 rocket.

This will be the first flight by a private company's vehicle to ISS, and both SpaceX and NASA want to do everything possible to make it a success.  If they succeed, the flight will open a new era of the Space Age.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Hungry White Dwarfs

Astronomers have found four white dwarf stars they believe to be in the process of  devouring planets similar to Earth.  The evidence for such an extraordinary conclusion lies in the composition of the stars' atmospheres.

Usually the atmosphere of a white dwarf is almost completely made up of hydrogen and helium.  The composition of the atmospheres of the four under study, however, include magnesium, oxygen, iron, and silicon-- the four most common elements in Earth's makeup.  So, astronomers theorize the stars are absorbing terrestrial-type planets that once orbited them.

White dwarfs are the final life stage for stars like the Sun.  As they begin to run low on their nuclear fuels, such stars first swell inro red giants, then implode into white dwarfs.  That dying process, as you might imagine, is not kind to planets orbiting close to the stars.  When the Sun goes through it, for example, Mercury and Venus will be swallowed up, Earth may or may not be, and the changing gravitationnal environment of the system will throw the outer planets into disarray.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

JUICE To Jupiter

The European Space Agency has approved its first Large Class mission-- a sophisticated probe to study the four Galilean moons of Jupiter and how they interact with the giant planet.  The mission will be called JUICE.

JUICE is scheduled to launch in 2022 and take eight years to reach the Jovian system.  If all goes well, it will tour the moons for three years, studying them in unprecedented detail.  The four are big and bright enough that they were discovered by Galileo in 1610, and they are a fascinating quartet.  Io is the most volcanically active body in the Solar System, while Callisto is the most heavily cratered.  Europa likely has a huge ocean-- and possibly life-- under its icy shell, and Ganymede is the largest moon in the Solar System.  It even has a magnetic field.

The mission is budgeted at $1.1 billion.  Despite Europe's current economic weakness, ESA is pushing ahead.  That's in stark contrast to what has happened in the United States, where NASA is suffering cuts to its planetary exploration program, especially that part dealing with the outer planets.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Delaying Dragon?

According to CBS News' William Harwood, the test flight of SpaceX's cargo capsule Dragon scheduled for May 7 will be delayed until at least May 10.  The launch has already been delayed from April 30 to allow further testing of Dragon's flight software, and Harwood reports the second delay will be to accomodate continued testing.

Dragon is tasked with delivering food, supplies, and scientific equipment to ISS.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Glass Particles On Mars

Scientists using data from Europe's Mars Express probe have discovered glassy particles spread over a huge area of the northern hemisphere of the Red Planet.  Glass is formed in such conditions-- similar to the case of Iceland-- when sand, volcanism, and water interact.  The glass on Mars is the first direct evidence for explosive volcanism on Mars.

It could also point us to possible habitats for life on Mars.  The hydrothermic vents that produced the glass that was thrown across the northern lowlands would combine energy, potential food, and water-- a solid habitat for life, and therefore, an excellent place to search early on.