Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Maturing NewSpace

Some venture capitalists and other businesspeople are saying the emerging commercial space industry may be reaching the point Internet companies reached in the mid 1990s, when huge amounts of new investment money flowed into them, creating the dot-com boom.  They cite SpaceX and Virgin Galactic as leaders of an industry on the verge of establishing itself.

Similar predictions were made a decade or so ago, and it obviously didn't work out.  This time, however, SpaceX, VG, and others have real successes behind them, and a better grasp on how they might make money.  Whether the industry is near a point of critical mass or not, however, remains to be seen.

Monday, July 30, 2012


Saturn's moon Iapetus is one huge ball of ice.  Most such bodies have rocky cores, but scientists believe Iapetus is water ice through and through.

That doesn't mean Iapetus is a simple ball, however.  It's equator sports a mountain range with peaks 12 miles high.  It's also an active world, at least potentially.  The Cassini spacecraft has snapped images of "landslides"-- actually ice slides-- that seem to have occurred recently.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Flags Of Apollo

Are the American Flags Apollo astronauts planted on the Moon still standing?  That question has intrigued people for decades.  Most scientists who've addressed the quesstion have answered in the negative, saying the harsh lunar environment would have destroyed the flags long ago.

Well, they seem to be wrong.

NASA has used the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to photograph all six of the Apollo landing sites from various angles and in various lighting conditions, and they've captured some remarkable details-- right down to the tracks made by the lunar rovers and by the astronauts' boots.  Those photos also seem to show shadows cast by the flags at every site except that of Apollo 11.  Buzz Aldrin reported that flag was knocked down when the Eagle lifted off from the lunar surface, and it seems he was right.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Early Spiral Gslazy Found

Astronomers have discovered the oldest spiral galaxy yet, one ten billion years old.

Early galaxies are irregular clumps, as if the universe hadn't yet learned to create elegant structures.  This galaxy, however, is a magnificent spiral in the classic style.

The galaxy has a smaller companion galaxy, as do many spirals, including the Milky Way.  Astronomers believe the gravitational influence of such small companuins may help spirals form.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Space Launch System

NASA's next heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System, passed it's first big programmatic test recently.  The review looled at the progeam's structure, the technical requiirements of developing the launcher, the necessary budget, etc.  The next hurdle, approval of the concept of the rocket, will come late next year.

SLS is designed to propel astromauts beyomd low Earth orbit-- to the Moon, asteroids, and Mars, for starters.  When fully developed, SLS would be more powerful than the legendary Saturn V that sent Apollo to the Moon.

The first test flight is scheduled for 2017.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Planetary Formation

A new study using data from NASA's Kepler planet-hunting probe has found a solar system put together much like our own.

Three huge exoplanets orbit a sunlike star, all in the star's equatorial plane-- just as the eight major planets in our system orbit the Sun.  Scientists take that as evidence in favor of the standard planetary formation theory, which holds that planets form in disks of gas and dust that orbit in the equatorial plane of a star.  Later gravitational interactions among planets can change orbital inclinations, but this young system supports the notion that planets begin in the same plane.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Sally Ride Gone

Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, died yesterday after a long struggle with pancreatic cancer.  She was 61.

Ride rode the space shuttle twice during her career at NASA.  A Stanford educated physicist, Dr. Ride also served on the boards that investigated the Challenger and the Columbia tragedies, as well as on the Augustine Commision that suggested a new course for NASA's human spaceflight program.

After leaving NASA, Dr. Ride focused her energy on promoting science education, especially for girls.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Titan's Surface

Scientists studying the surface of Saturn's moon Titan see parallels in the geologic forces  at work on Titan and on Earth.  Erosion by river networks-- rivers of water here, rivers of methane there-- have shaped both surfaces, for example.

Scientists also find relatively few large craters on Titan, which suggests a fairly young surface.  They also assume, however, that Titan is roughly as old as all the other major bodies in the Solar System.  That would mean the surface is renewed, as is Earth's, erasing old scars.  On Earth, the main erasers are geologic processes like vulcanism and plate techtonics, and the researchers think the same sort of forces may be operating on Titan.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Testing Nerves At JPL

When Curiosity attempts to land on Mars next month, it will go through a complex process that will take seven long minutes.  To find out if the landing is successful, however, mission staff may have to wait a bit longer than that seven minutes.

NASA's Mars Observer, orbiting Mars, was supposed to double as a communications relay station between Curiosity and JPL  The probe recently suffered a computer glitch, though, that might hamper the relay function.  If engineers can't get that cleared up in time, Earth will have to wait a few more minutes before learning whether Curiosity landed safely.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Asteroid 2002 AM31

Shortly, an asteroid perhaps two thousand feet wide wiill rip past Earth at a distance of a bit more than three million miles.  Asteroid 2002 AM31 poses no danger to Earth this time around, but it is on the watch list for future passes.

Asteroid 2002 AM31 is simply the latest of several documented near misses so far this year.  If a disaster occurs decades hence, it won't be because the governments of Earth didn't have fair warning.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

UK Releases More UFO Files

The British Government has declassified another batch of UFO documents, this time covering the period 1995-2005.  The thousands of pages contain no smoking gun. no hint of alien visitation of Britain.

That's to be expected.  However, Nick Pope, who headed the British Defence Ministry's investigation into UFO reports for many years, believes aliens are around.  So, ufologists could argue that the declassifications are, in fact, selective.  The "good stuff" is still being held back, they might say.  Disproving that is nearly impossible.  UFOs will probably be around a while longer.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Little World Possibly Found

Astronomers using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope believe they have found an exoplanet two-thirds the size of Earth orbiting a star 33 light-years away.  The world orbits its star at a distance of only 1.7 million miles, which means it's one hot place, with surface temperatures exceeding 1,000 degrees F.

Astronomers are particularly excited because if this discovery is confirmed it will mean Spitzer is one more tool they'll be able to use to search for planets orbiting other stars.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

New Approach For ESA?

The European Space Agency is looking to upgrade its Ariane 5 rocket.  Until now, ESA has spread the work on such a major program among several member nations, much as NASA spreads contracts over many congressional districts, but the agency is taking a different approach this time.

Noting the success SpaceX has had in developing and building the Falcon 9 in one factory, ESA plans a similarly centralized program.  The question, given the economic trouble in Europe, is whether the member nations of ESA will finally go along with a program that doesn't spread the associated jobs among them.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Space Week

Forty-three years ago today, Apollo 11 left for the Moon.  Since then, some space advocates have urged declaring this week "Space Week."  Indeed, some in the space community have recognized it as such on their own.

Having a yearly focus for celebrating space achievements is a good idea, whether it's a legal holiday or more of a culturally supported time.  It could be used not only to educate people about the history of the Space Age, but also to organize conferences and other events to help set the course of the future.  That would also give the media an annual hook-- a way into covering the story.

If a majority of the space projects now under development work out, media coverage shouldn't be a problem.  Still, having a week each year dedicated to gauging progress and bringing the public into the discussion would be useful.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Square Kilometer Array

A huge new radio telescope project, the Square Kilometer Array, is currently being pursued.  If funding is secured, which comes to about $1.5 billion, phase one of the project could be completed by 2018 with the third and final phase being finished in 2024.  The SKA will consist of thousands of small radio telescopes networked together to create, in effect, one gigantic instrument.  The component telescopes will be spread over southern Africa, though mostly in the nation of South Africa, and in Australia.  The Africa-Australia connection would give the SKA a huge baseline, which would translate into incredible resolving power.

The SKA is designed to probe such things as the formation of planets, the behavior of black holes, and the early universe.  It would also be an extraordinary tool for SETI research.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

SpaceX Passes Review

SpaceX passed a concept review for NASA recently that moved its Dragon capsule one step closer to carrying astronauts.

During the review, the company laid out how it would fly people, from detailing how its abort rescue system will work-- the space shuttle had no such rescue system-- to how the company would pursue safety in other phases of flight.

SpaceX hopes to be flying astronauts to and from ISS by 2015.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Vortex On Titan

The Cassini spacecraft has photographed a huge vortex over the southern polar region of Saturn's huge moon, Titan.  Scientists theorize the vortex is a product of Titan's atmosphere transitioning into winter in its southern hemisphere.

Several worlds-- including Saturn and Earth-- display such atmospheric vortices on occasion.  That Titan's complex, methane-dominated atmosphere has them, as well, suggests a variety of atmospheric systems operate on the same principles of physics.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Pluto's Fifth

Astronomers preparing for the encounter of Pluto by the New Horizons probe in 2015 have discovered a fifth moon of the dwarf planet.  This one is irregularly shaped, and its orbit is well outside the other four.

Pluto is so small and so far away that learning much about it is difficult.  Even the Hubble, which was used to find this latest tiny moon, can only give hints of what might be there.  We will have to wait for New Horizons to arrive in the area to get solid, detailed information.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

VG's Next Step

Sir Richard Branson has announced that Virgin Galactic intends to begin offering a satellite delivery service in 2016, thus adding another income stream to the company's fortunes.

WhiteKnightTwo will carry aloft an expendable, two-stage rocket-- LauncherOne-- which will be capable of putting a 500-pound satellite into low Earth orbit, or a 225-pound satellite in Sun synchronous orbit.  VG says it already has  dozens of customers lined up.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Arsenic Life Disputed

In December 2010, as reported in this blog, a researcher concluded a certain bacteria could replace phospherous with arsenic in its DNA.  As biologists see phospherous as one of the essential building blocks of all life, that claim was a big deal.

Since then, however, the arsenic claim has been disputed.  Two studies question the methodology used in the initial paper, arguing it wasn't stringent enough to support such a potentially revolutionary conclusion.

The lead author of the arsenic paper supports the new studies, saying she welcomes research on the question.

Monday, July 9, 2012

XCOR To Midlands

XCOR Aerospace has announced it is building its R&D Headquarters at the international airport in Midlands, Texas.  The company plans to develop an orbital spacecraft capable of carrying two passengers there.

XCOR will take over an existing hangar at the airport, refurbishing it for a 2013 opening.  It also plans to begin suborbital flights of its Lynx spacecraft in 2013 in California.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Curiosity's Closing In

In less than a month, NASA's Curiosity rover is scheduled to land on Mars.  The landing site is an impressive 95 mile wide crater that boasts a 3 mile high central mountain.  Curiosity, the size of a Mini Cooper, is loaded with scientific equipment that will allow it to study Mars' atmosphere, surface, and past in an attempt to determine whether Mars boasts, or ever boasted, life.

Before Curiosity can do any of that, however, it must land safely, and NASA is going with an untried, complex landing sequence to get the most sophisticated rover ever sent to another planet on the ground.  Curiosity will enter the Martian atmosphere behind a heat shield, then descend under huge parachutes.  Rockets will take over and further slow the probe as it nears the ground, and at about twenty feet off the surface, rockets will create a kind of steady platform, a "sky crane," from which Curiosity will be dropped on to its six wheels.  Many things have to go right at the right time for the landing to be successful.

NASA decided to put so many of its eggs in one basket, then risk that basket on a complex, novel landing approach because of the high quality-- even potentially historic and breakthrough-- science the mission promises.  Another factor is surely that the agency could not count on Congress to support a step-by-step approach, so it went with some big mission gambles along with a steady orbiter progrram.  Curiosity is the last of those big gambles as Congress has indeed cut the planetary exploration program in the wake of the economic downturn.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Curiosity And Life

NASA's Curiosity rover, scheduled to land on Mars August 5, may be able to detect life.  According to a new study, though the Martian surface is likely sterile due to its constant exposure to radiation, organic molecules could exist mere inches below the surface-- within range of Curiosity's drills.

Organic molecules wouldn't clinch the case for life, however.  The study finds it'd be necessary to go down feet before real life would be likely.  That's beyond the reach of Curiosity, but a strategy might change that.  Researchers propose Curiosity should seek out a young crater and descend into it.  The floor of such a crater would be well below the surrounding surface, thus giving the rover access to what might be some interesting strata.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Oldest Crater Yet

The oldest impact crater yet found on Earth has been identified in Greenland.  The formation, badly degraded by geological processes, is put at three billion years old.

The crater is 62 miles across, and scientists put the meteor that made it at 19 miles across.  That would be a Doomsday Rock, ending virtually all life on Earth, if it struck today.  Three billion years ago, by the fossil record, all life on Earth was single-celled, and obviously some of it survived the impact.  As life gets more complex, it also gets more vulnerable.  Something to keep in mind.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Higgs Boson Likely Found

Physicists are stoked today.  The theoretical Higgs boson particle, long sought by physicists and sometimes called "The God Particle," has likely been found by researchers using the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland.  Confirmation of the discovery would be a major step forward in our understanding of the universe.

The Higgs, assuming it exists, is much heavier than a proton.  Physicists think it is the key in explaining why there is mass in the universe.  Absent the Higgs, therefore, nothing we see around us would exist.

The Higgs is also predicted by the Standard Model of the creation of the universe.  Discovery of the Higgs, therefore, would also strengthen the Standard Model.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Titan's Interior Ocean

New evidence seems to confirm what scientists already suspected-- a substantial ocean of liquid water likely exists under the surface of Saturn's giant moon, Titan.

By analyzing orbital data of the Cassini spacecraft, as well as the tides raised on Titan by Saturn's powerful gravity, scientists have determined that both Titan's mass and its observed flex are consistent with a large iinterior ocean which allows the outer shell to floart and move.

They aren't sure whether the ocean is made simply of water or a mix of water and ammonia, but the existence of a large liquid water ocean, the heat energy to keep it liquid, and the organic compounnds that exist on Titan increases the possibility that life exists there.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Water Inside Early Mars

A new study using deep craters in the southern highlands of Mars as windows into the subsurface suggests that the Red Planet had a large amount of water underground through the first billion years of its history.  Minerals that are associated with water are present on the floors, walls, and rims of the craters.

The case for substantial amounts of water and water ice through Martian history is strong and seems to get stronger the more we probe.  That's good news for those looking for life on Mars.  We know that water ice exists underground over much of the northern hemisphere today.  That's good news for a possible human future on Mars.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

"Chasing UFOs"

The National Geographic Channel premiered its new series, "Chasing UFOs," this weekend.  It's pretty typical of a stripe of show that seems fairly popular on cable televison-- a team of investigators seek the truth about some provocative subject.  The "Chasing UFOs" team includes a ufologist, a scientist/engineer type, and a young woman who says her mind is open on the question of alien visitation of Earth. Perfectly balanced.  This team is also foul-mouthed, for whatever that's worth.  It also seems to like to work in the dark of night.  Sometimes that's legitimate, but searching a hillside for possible spaceship shards in the middle of the night seems a bit strange.

Ultimately, this show suffers from the same weakness that all similar shows have.  Viewers who think about it know there will be no payoff.  If the team had proven aliens exist, the world would have known about it long before the show aired.