Saturday, June 30, 2012

Excalibur Almaz

The space firm Excalibur Almaz, based  on Britain's Isle of Wight and headed by American lawyer Arthur Dula, has some big plans.  Using Russian manned spaceflight technology, the company intends to offer 30 lunar expeditions, circumlunar flights, between 2015 and 2025, for $150 million a ticket.

Even though no Soviet or Russian manned mission has ever left low Earth orbit, the Soyuz was deigned to fly to the Moon.  EA also owns Salyut space station modules, which it plans to use as part of its lunar ships.  Those ships will use an electric propulsion system.  The power generator of that propulsion system will also allow a rudimentary shield to protect the crew against potential solar storm activity.

EA is active across a broad range of space operations.  Currently, it relies on Russian and European technology, but it's looking at tapping into American technology, as well.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Shengzhou 9 Home

China's Shengzhou 9 successfully landed under parachutes, completing a 13-day mission that demonstrated the Chinese have the capability to dock spacecraft, both automatically and manually.  The three taikonauts also proved they could live and work in a space station module.

The landing was covered live by Chinese television, which suggests a real confidence by the Chinese powers-that-be in the space program.  The Soviets, by contrast, did not provide live television of its early space efforts, though, of course, American television did cover Mercury missions live.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Asteroid Sentinel

The B6 12 Foundation is announcing a project to build, launch, and operate a private, space-based telescope that would search out Near-Earth asteroids, both to establish a baseline to support planetary defense efforts and to target likely mining possibilities for companies like Planetary Resources,

NASA believes we have identified 95% of the large asteroids that could hit Earth, but that leaves 5%-- dozens or hundreds-- of the total still to be catalogued.  It's also an ongoing, dynamic process that needs monitoring.  As orbits change due to shifting gravitational influences, large bodies not now dangerous may become so.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Responding To WOW!

As part of the promotional campaign for The National Geographic Channel's new series, "Chasing UFOs," a reply to the famous WOW! signal will be sent to the stars using the Arecibo Observatory"s radio telescope.

The WOW! signal, detected in 1977 by Ohio State's Big Ear SETI effort, is the most tantalyzing signal yet found by any SETI search.  It had the characteristics scientists expect to see in a true alien signal.  The problem is that, despite repeated searches by SETI programs of the area of the sky from which the signal came, nothing like it has been found since.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Mars One

A Dutch company is leading an effort to establish the first human colony on Mars.  The first human landing is scheduled for 2023.  In the Mars One project, while building up the colony, the humans who go out there will never return to Earth.

The company figures getting through the first phase of the project will cost about $6 billion dollars and intends to make that money by selling corporate sponsorships.  After that, the company sees the colony being a going concern financially by producing media content-- the leading production of which would be a reality show type effort documenting life in the colony.

The company, of course, foresees the show as being the greatest media spectacle ever, but there's no guarantee people will watch.  What happens to the colonists if the media strategy fails to bring in the required revenue will presumably be addressed in the planning stage.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Expanding The Economy

Companies like Planetary Resources, Shackleton Energy, and others in the NewSpace sector intend to make their profits directly from space and space resources.  Their hope, however, is that their activities will spark a general move into space, expanding the economy, and igniting a new era for humanity.

Lots of work remains to be done before that can happen, however-- and not all of it involves science and engineering.  For example, before selling space resources is possible, establishing their legal status and defining property rights beyond Earth, and establishing the right to make profits in space and returning that profit to Earth must be settled.  Politicians around the world looking to support a move into space and growing the human economy could do no better than produce a legal framework that encourages investment in space on a large scale.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Bigger Than Expected Asteroid

The asteroid 2012 LZ1, which came within 3.3 million miles of Earth on June 14, turns out to be bigger than originally thought.  Astronomers at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico used radar to measure the asteroid during its close approach and determined it to be 0.6 miles across at its widest.

That's well short of the size of the dreaded Doomsday Rock, but its plenty big enough to create horrific damage if it struck Earth.  Happily, Arecibo was also able to refine the asteroid's orbit and determine there's no danger of such a collision for at least the next 750 years.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Mars Water

Scientists studying two meteorites thrown to Earth from the mantle of Mars-- the layer under the crust of the planet-- have found evidence that the interior of Mars is comparable to the interior of Earth in terms of water content.  That makes sense.  There is a wealth of evidence pointing to a wet early Mars, but where the water went has always been a problem.

Now, the theory is that Mars had abundant water resources at its formation.  Mars' giant volcanoes spewed massive amounts of water onto the surface during a warm, early period, and substantial stores of water remain in the planet's interior.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

MRO Back On The Job

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which put itself into safe mode on June 8, is back up and running.  The onboard computer detected a jammed reaction wheel and put the craft into safe mode until NASA engineers could determine the cause of the problem and fix it.  A set of three reaction wheels maintains the craft's orientation in space without the need for thrusters.

Engineers fixed the problem by pressing a spare wheel into service.  That wheel hadn't been spun since before MRO's launch in 2000, but it's working fine.  NASA expects MRO to be back in full operation next week.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Shackleton Ice?

A new study using infrared images from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter suggests the lunar crater Shackleton may have massive amounts of water ice.  Shackleton is a relatively small crater by lunar standards at 12 miles across, but it is 2 miles deep and sittuated nearly exactly on the lunar south pole.  That location and depth means the floor is in virtually perpetual darkness, which makes it a cold trap where water could exist indefinitely, making Shackleton a prime candidate for the site of the first lunar base.

On the other hand, the bright reflections in infrared that could indicate water ice might also indicate fresh ground revealed by moonquakes, which could mean there's no ice in Shackleton at all.  NASA's upcoming GRAIL probe should be able to settle the matter.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Windy Mars

Though Mars' atmosphere is extremely thin, its winds can be quite strong.  The winds, in fact, have played, and continue to play, a role in the shaping of the planet's surface.

Researchers working with images taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter over several years have noted surface changes.  Some have been "sand avalanches" in the sand sea of the northern polar regions.  Some scientists think the best explanation for such avalanches is strong wind beginning the movement down the sandy slope.  Researchers have also noted sand dunes drifting across the surface, driven by the winds.

Mars is still, therefore, a dynamic world.  If it is still geologically active, there is a chance it could be biologically active to this day, as well.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Chinese Docking Success

The crew of the Shenzhou 9 has accomplished the first manned docking of two spacecraft in Chinese history, making China only the third nation, behind the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia, to do that.

After the docking, the crew entered the Tiangong 1space station module, where the three taikonauts will conduct scientific experiments and test technology.

The Chinese took an interesting approach to stimulating the crew.  They hid small items in the Tiangong module for the taikonauts to find-- a sort of orbital Easter egg hunt.  The point of the hunt, they say, is partly for fun and partly to test the crew's problem solving ability in microgravity.  After fifty years of space travel, the ability of humans to think in space should be well established, but one more demonstration won't hurt.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

X-37B Home

The U. S. Air Force has announced its secretive spaceplane, the X-37B, landed safely at Vandenburgh Air Force Base yesterday after 469 days in Earth orbit.

The USAF won't say exactly what the spaceplane was doing all that time.  It will only say the X-37B is a test vehicle which is being used to test new technologies.

Boeing, meanwhile, is working on an X-37C, which would be a bigger version of the X-37B and capable of carrying up to six astronauts to and from ISS.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Shenzhou 9 Launched

China launched the Shenzhou 9 mission to the Tiangong 1 space station module earlier today.  So far, all seems to be going well.

The main goal of the mission will be docking with Tiangong.  Two dockings are planned-- one automatic and one manual.  The flight is scheduled to last thirteen days, much of which the crew, which includes one woman, will spend conducting experiments in the module.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Asteroid 2012 LZ1

An asteroid 1,650 feet across came within 3.3 million miles of Earth yesterday.  That's not overly close, and NASA says it poses no threat to Earth for the foreseeable future, but in the context of the size of the Solar System, a few million miles is a relatively near miss.

Asteroid 2012 LZ1, as it is designated, may not represent any threat itself, but it is still worrisome.  A rock that size, if it hit Earth, could cause a major disaster, and it was only discovered this year.  Had we been in its path, that would've been far too late to attempt to deflect it away.  NASA says there are still many such objects yet to be found.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Methane Lakes On Titan

We've known for a while that lakes of liquid methane exist in the polar regions of Saturn's giant moon, Titan.  Scientists thought, however, that such lakes were confined to those areas, where the temperatures are always cold enough for methane to remain in liquid form.  Now, though, researchers have found a methane lake in Titan's tropics.

Using the infrared imaging technology of the Cassini spacecraft, researchers have found a huge lake of liquid methane near Titan's equator.  The lake is roughly the size of the Great Salt Lake in Utah at its lowest recorded levels, although the Titan lake is extremely shallow, perhaps only one to three feet deep.

There are no rivers or streams leading to the lake, so scientists are theorizing it's fed by underground sources.   They are also puzzled by the location; the tropics of Titan, they say, simply aren't cold enough to support methane in liquid form.

Perhaps, then, as with Saturn's rings, we just happen to be lucky enough to be at Titan when an extraordinary yet transitory feature is there.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Earth-Like Worlds May Be Plentiful

A new study suggests planets similar to Earth may be common in the Milky Way.  Basing their conclusions on data obtained by NASA's Kepler planet-hunting spacecraft, scientists are seeing that whereas gas giant planets like Jupiter seem to form only around metal-rich stars, small, rocky worlds like Earth can form around a broader range of stars.  Thus, they could be all over the galaxy.

There's also a time factor in this work.  Metals-- in astronomers' terms, everything other than hydrogen and helium-- were formed in the bellies of huge stars.  When those stars went supernova, the metals were thrown out across the universe to become part of subsequent stars, planets, people, etc.  That suggests planets like Jupiter didn't exist in the early universe, but worlds like Earth could be ancient.

That has clear implications for the possibility of life in the galaxy.  It also suggests that if and when humanity masters interstellar travel, there will be familiar places to go.  It could also suggest, however, that no race has yet mastered such travel, even after possibly billions of years, as we have no evidence for the existence of such a glorious civilization stretching across the Milky Way.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Moons, Moons, Moons

Jupiter is surrounded by at least 67 moons-- more are found every now and then.  In September, 2010, for example, NASA found two more.

A new sttudy of those moons reveal both are extremely small-- under two miles across each.  They both orbit millions of miles from Jupiter.  Most of Jupiter's moons are small bodies.  Some are likely captured asteroids, and others, like these two, could be fragments of comets or asteroids that collided.

If these two moons are in fact comet fragments, they might contain water ice or other useful volatiles.  In that case, sometime in the future, one of them might serve as an initial base for an early human expedition to Jupiter.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Mars Odyssey Trouble

NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter put itself in safe mode last week after one of its three reaction wheels malfunctioned.  The three reaction wheels work together to keep the craft properly oriented in space.

Odyssey has been in orbit around Mars since 2001, and has been a key element in NASA's exploration efforts.  It has produced the first mineralogocial and chemical maps of the planet and established that huge amounts of water ice exists under the surface of Mars.  Odyssey has also served as a relay station for NASA's Mars rovers, and will continue in that role for the Curiosity rover, scheduled to land on Mars in August.

The spacecraft has a spare reaction wheel, and is still in communication with NASA engineers.  Those engineers are presently deciding what to do next.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Financial Infrastructure For Space

Establishing any new industry is challenging, and establishing a commercial space industry will have more obstacles to overcome than most.  Among those challenges is the creation of a finamcial infrastructure that can captialize, support, and insure companies engaged in space operations.

Working in space is demanding and dangerous-- and making profits doing it will be a real trick.  Arranging financial resources to allow a company to function effectively and insure itself against potential disaster will be as important to putting the emerging NewSpace industry on its feet as the creation of a new technology.  Technology development, after all, requires funding.

The few minutes after launch is probably the most critical time for a commercial space company.  That's when a rocket can go off course and destroy property, and potentially injure and kill innocent people.  Insurance policies will pay damages only to a point, so Congress passed a law in 1988 that put the government behind the insurance companies to cover damages above the insurance limit.  The idea was to support a domestic launch industry, and the law has been renewed a few times since.  It's up for renewal again this year, and the industry and the FAA are seeking another five-year extension.  During that period, commrcial space could well finally begin to boom.

Whether Congress will pass the extension is still open to question.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Chinese Launch Soon

According to a report from China's official news agency, the nation will launch its next manned spacecraft within the next few days.  This mission will have a crew of three, and may include the first female taikonaut.

The objective of the flight will be to dock with the Tiangong 1 space station module.  Upon a successful docking, one taikonaut would remain in the Shengzhou 9 capsule, as a precaution, while the other two would enter the module.  The report did not say how long the mission is scheduled to last.

A successful mission would be another step forward for the Chinese manned space program.  China plans to have its own 60-ton space station in orbit by 2020-- much smaller than ISS, but perhaps comparable to the American Skylab of the 1970s.  China is pursuing its own space station after the U. S. kept it from becoming a partner in the ISS program because of concerns about technology transfer.  The Chinese space program is under the management of the People's Liberation Army.

China is also looking at a possible manned lunar landing by 2025.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Lynx Scheduled To Fly

NewSpace firm XCOR has announced it plans to begin commercial operations with its Lynx suborbital spacecraft next year.  Lynx will begin taking tourists to the edge of space from Mojave, California, in 2013, according to the company, and the plan is to expand operations to flights from the Caribbean island of Curacao in 2014.

Lynx is a spacecraft right out of futuristic science fiction.  It's sleek and small, taking off from and landing on a runway.  Lynx seats two, a pilot and a passenger, and a ticket goes for $95,000, less than half the price of a Virgin Galactic ticket.  VG also plans to begin commercial flights next year.  XCOR plans to be able to fly the same Lynx up to four times a day.

Since Lynx can only fly one paying passenger at a time, XCOR's economic model has to be different than that of a company like VG, but, so far, it has 175 reservations for Lynx flights.  That's not a bad start.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Asteroid Warning System

The Secure World Foundation is calling for the establishment of a worldwide asteroid warning system.  The system would inform policymakers and the general public when an asteroid is found to be on a collision course with Earth.  It would also, however, educate everyone about the scientific and economic value of asteroids.

So far this year, astronomers have documented several close calls-- asteroids barely missing Earth-- and we can only assume there have always been a large number of near misses.  We are simply watching now.  The evidence is clear Earth has been struck many times before, and it obviously will happen again unless we develop a capability to detect and deflect dangerous rocks.  Establishing a system that issues warnings and educates the public is a step towards that capability.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Ray Bradbury Dies

Famed science fiction author Ray Bradbury has died at age 91.  Bradbury was also an early advocate of space exploration.  His The Martian Chronicles, a classic of science fiction, takes a more poetic, philosophical approach to mankind's first contact with extraterrestrials than many such stories more focused on engineering and science.  Bradbury wrote short stories, novels, plays, and screenplays.

Bradbury once said he wanted to be the first person buried on Mars.  With any luck, his remains could be taken there in two or three decades.  Given that he would've played a role in bringing that historic flight about, honoring his wish might be appropriate.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Tough Retirement Start For Enterprise

Space travel is extraordinarily dangerous, but, it turns out, retiring to a museum can be tough, too.

The space shuttle Enterprise, which never flew in space, is being displayed in retirement at the museum in New York City centered on the U. S. S. Intrepid.  To get Enterprise there, the shuttle had to be put on a barge and sailed under several bridges.  While under one bridge, a microburst pushed Enterprise against the bridge, damaging the foam on one wing.

The damage looked to be only slight, however.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Heating Early Mars

A new study argues that huge impacts early in Mars history, nearly four billion years ago, could have heated the planet hundreds of degrees, releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that could have sustained a warm, wet climate for centuries.

Huge craters on Mars, hundreds of miles in diameter, bear witness to several catastrophic collisions, each of which would have dwarfed the shot that presumably wiped out the dinosaurs.  The terrific energy of the blasts would have pushed the surface temperature well beyond the boiling point of water, but the planet would have begun to cool.  At some point during the cooling, before Mars became the cold, dry world of today, it would have passed through a brief era when liquid water could have existed on the surface.  There is good geological evidence to support water playing a significant role in shaping the surface we see.

Was the warm, wet period long enough to allow life to arise?  That's the big question, and it remains unanswered.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Iran's Space Center

Iran announced recently it is building a new space center from which it will launch satellites into orbit.

Unfortunately, the situation isn't that cut and dried.

Several major nations, including the United States, see the Iranian space program fundamentally as a cover to allow continued rocket development, which can lead to improved ICBMs, which Iran could use in various ways to project its power.  Iran, of course, is perfectly aware of how the West tends to view it, yet it continues to pursue programs it knows will tweak those governments.  True, Iran is a sovereign nation and has every right to set policy as it chooses, but some policies and programs are more provocative than others.  Sticking with such programs beyond a certain point risks disaster.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Dream Chaser Tested

While SpaceX and its Dragon capsule grabbed headlines this week-- and correctly so-- another emerging commercial space company was flight testing its own potential man-rated spacecraft.

Sierra Nevada Corporation is developing its Dream Chaser spacecraft, a sort of mini-shuttle that will launch vertically and land on a runway.  During Dragon's mission to ISS, Dream Chaser was suspended under a heavy lift helicopter in the skies over Colorado to test its aerodynamic characteristics.

Over the next decade, a welter of new, private, man-rated spacecraft are set to emerge.  If they all pass the technological tests, economics will decide the winners and losers.