Friday, August 31, 2012

Romney On Space

In his acceptance speech at the Republican Convention last night, Mitt Romney made a positive reference to space exploration.  Noting the recent passing of Neil Armstrong, Romney pointed to the achievement of Apollo as an example of what Americans can accomplish when properly led.

That sentiment contrasts with Gov, Romney's reaction during the primaries to Newt Gingrich's proposal to build a lunar base by 2020.  Romney ridiculed the idea.  When John Kennedy set the goal of putting a man on the Moon, America had all of fifteen minutes of manned spaceflight experience.  The fact is America is much closer to being able to build a lunar base now than it was to going to the Moon in 1961.  Perhaps Gov. Romney's ideas on space policy are still evolving.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Obama On Space

President Obama, in an online chat session with members of the public, expressed his continued support for space exploration.  He argued NASA must build the technology base that will allow manned flights into deep space-- to an asteroid by 2025, and to Mars in the 2030s.  He also praised the Curiosity rover currently exploring Mars.

The projected budgets of NASA, however, are not necessarily consistent with Mr.Obama's words.  The agency is looking at basically flat budgets for years to come, and that includes a substantial reduction in the planetary exploration program, including Mars exploration.  There is no follow on to Curiosity in the works, for example.  NASA's budget constraints are obviously tied to the larger Federal debt and deficit dilemmas.  Perhaps President Obama meant he would support space exploration if the government had the money.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Sugar In Space

Astronomers have found sugar molecules orbiting a young sun-like star about 400 light-years away.  Sugar has been found in space before, but this is the first time it's been found in association with a star similar to the Sun.  The star in question is much younger than the Sun, however-- so young that its planetary system is still forming.

Sugar, of course, is one of the building blocks of life.  So, if the molecules can somehow eventually make it to the surface of a planet in the habitable zone of that star, life might develop there.  The sugar molecules found are about the same distance from their star that Uranus is from the Sun.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Preserving Apollo Sites

As reported in this blog, an effort is underway to protect the landing sites of the Apollo lunar missions from future contamination or damage by having them declared heritage sites.  That effort involves having Congress designate them national historic sites as well as having the UN declare them world heritage sites.

Some are suggesting the death of Neil Armstrong might give such efforts new momentum by reminding us that the Apollo astronauts will be gone soon, and then all we will have are their landing sites on the Moon.  As more and more private lunar projects, both manned and robotic, are being planned, preserving historic sites takes on a new urgency.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Nearly 800 Exoplanets

In two new papers, scientists using Kepler spacecraft data announced the confirmation of 41 more exoplanets in 27 star systems.  That brings the total number of confirmed exoplanets to nearly 800.

A huge shift has occurred in the past two decades.  Before that, we knew of nine planets in the cosmos.  Now, there are eight planets in the Solar System-- Pluto having been demoted to dwarf planet status-- a hundred times that number confirmed in other star systems, and thousands more awaiting confirmation.  It's remarkable.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Neil Armstrong Gone

Neil Armstrong, the first human to stand on another world, died yesterday at age 82.

Some people have a tendency to compare Armstrong to Christopher Columbus.  Both commanded the first voyages to new worlds, after all.  That's the only real similarity, however.  Columbus spent years promoting his project in various European royal courts before finally securing backing from Spain.  Armstrong was entrusted with the command of Apollo 11 because of his proven abilities as a pilot and astronaut.

The world got more than that after the crew of Apollo 11 returned home.  As the first man on the Moon, Armstrong was in a unique position.  After leaving NASA, Armstrong could have entered politics, or made a fortune selling his name and image promoting products.  Instead, he built a quiet life in academia and business, rarely re-entering the public sphere.  While Columbus died a bitter, disillusioned man, Armstrong seems to have been content with his life after Apollo 11.  We should all be so fortunate, and so comfortable with ourselves.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Pushing The Spaceflight Envelope?

A Russian news report says a year-long spaceflight involving one Russian and one American will take place aboard ISS beginning in 2015.  A NASA spokesperson said such a mission is a possibility, but no final decision has been made.

Such a mission would make sense, however.  President Obama has called for a manned flight to an asteroid in 2025, and a human mission to Mars in the 2030s.  Both of those would require long duration spaceflights, so stretching stays in space and testing the results in preparation for those long flights is necessary at some point.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Curiosity Zaps A Rock

A laser has been fired on the planet named for the Roman god of war.

The Curiosity rover used a laser to hit a nearby rock.  The pulses of pure energy, ten of them, vaporized a tiny bit of the rock so that the telescope of the rover's ChemCam could take a spectrograph of the vapor.  Analysis of the spectrograph should reveal the composition of the rock.

It might be slightly more complex than that, however.  Mission scientists think the laser might have also vaporized wind-blown dust that happened to be on the rock.  If that in fact occurred, the spectrographic signatures of the dust and the rock will have to be disentangled.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Maybe The Big Phase Shift?

A new study argues that the Big Bang that created the universe may have been less a bang and more a phase shuft, similar to how liquid water becomes ice.  The theory postulates simple, fornless energy suddenly organized itself into the early universe we know about 13.7 billion years ago.

The mathematics work out, and the theory also sets out a way to test it.  Just as water ice develops cracks during the freezing process, so theorists say the phase change would have left "cracks" in spacetime.  Those cracks could be found and studied, if they in fact exist.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Curiosity In Good Shape

NASA is still checking out all thw systems and equipment on its Curiosity rover, but so far things seem to be in good order.  There seems to be a small problem with some wind sensors in the rover's weather station component, but other than that all seems to be well.

Curiosity has already taken its first short test drive of roughly twenty feet forward and back.  Its real journey across the floor of Galen Crater may begin as early as this weekend.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

India To Mars

India plans to launch its first interpkanetary mission next year.  The probe will be sent to Mars.  The mission will attempt to build on the success of India's first lunar prrobe, which discovered water on the surface of the Moon.

The Mars probe will be basic, but it wil help establish India as a space power. That is one factor in an ongoing contest among India, China, and Japan for leadership in Asia, much as the Space Race of the 1960s was one factor in the contest between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Eagle-Eyed MRO

As reported in this blog, the high resolution camera of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter caught a remarkable image of Curiosity under parachute as it descended to the Martian surface.  Now, that same camera has found Curiosity on the ground.

NASA isn't just looking for "gee whiz" pictures, howeveer.  Detailed images of the terrain around Curiosity will help mission managers plot Curiosity's course through Gale Crater.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Curiosity Gearing Up

The software switch in Curiosity's computer, shifting the rover from flight mode to surface mode, was successfully completed last week, paving the way for the mission to begin in earnest.  NASA plans an initial movement of the rover soon, perhaps tomorrow, simply as a test, but checking out and calibrating the rover's systems and instruments will still take weeks.  Curiosity probably won't begin to really roll until sometime next month.

Before the rover moves, however, the plan is to use the onboard laser to zap a nearby rock.  The laser will vaporize a tiny bit of the rock, allowing Curiosity's ChemCam to analyze the vapor for its chemical composition.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Twittering Aliens

More than 10,000 tweets and videos were beamed into space this week using the radio telescope at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

It was done as a promotional stunt for a television show, which suggests it was not a serious effort.  Given the assumption that aliens will probably never receive the message, the project is likely harmless enough.  However, Stephen Hawking and others suggest that calling attention to ourselves might be a mistake.  Interstellar civilizations are likely aggressive, they argue.  That may or may not turn out to be accurate, but it is a possibility that should not be ignored.

Losing everything because we didn't take the potential of communicating with aliens seriously would be the ultinate shame.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Lunar Helium Found

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has detected helium in the wispy atmosphere of the Moon.   So far, researchers have been able to establish the helium is associated with the Moon, as opposed to simply being in the background space.  The next step is to determine whether the helium came from inside the Moon, or from outside, on the solar wind.

The discovery supports a measurement garnered by a science package deployed on the lunar surface by Apollo 17 astronauts forty years ago.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Dawn Glitch

NASA's Dawn spacecraft is completing its time orbiting the asteroid Vesta, but the planned continuation of its mission to the dwarf planet Ceres might be in some doubt.

Earlier this month, a reaction wheel on the probe malfunctioned.  Reaction wheels keep a craft properly oriented in space.  Thus is the second problem Dawn has had with a reaction wheel.

NASA dealt with the first issue, and continues to prepare for a flight to Ceres.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Beautiful Betty

The Copenhagen Suborbitals is an amateur rocketry group in Denmark attempting to develop a single person suborbital spacecraft at an extremely low cost.  Two weeks ago, CS launched a two-stage rocket from a platform in the Baltic Sea, with limited success.  This past weekend it launched Beautiful Betty.

That's the name given the capsule launched in a test of the group's Launch Escape System.  The LES failed-- and Betty slammed into the waves-- but CS is pleased with the data it obtained.  Developing rockets on any budget is tough.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Strategizing Exploring Mars

A working group at NASA is looking at ways to approach the exploration of Mars over the next twenty years.  That would bring us to the early 2030s, which is the time frame President Obama set for the first human mission to the planet.  Budget problems scuttled NASA's earlier step-by-step plan to explore Mars, so the agency is trying to find a new conceptual framework.

The effort will likely focus on developing new technologies that will increase the capability of spacecraft mission to mission.  That will also slowly develop the technology base needed for a manned flight.  The main goal of the exploratory missions will be to determine whether ever did-- or possibly does now-- support life.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

New Software For Curiosity

Now that Curiosity is safely on Mars, NASA is swapping out the flight software in the big rover's primary and backup computers in favor of a software package that will maximize Curiosity's ability to function on the surface.  The exploration software will enhance control of all the scientific instruments on the rover while also giving Curiosity a limited ability to operate independently.

The changeover will take four Martian days.

Friday, August 10, 2012


Scientists have thought since the 1930s that quasicrystals-- similar to crystals, but with a more complex organization-- did not occur naturally.  It seems that's wrong.

Researchers have found quasicrystals in the Kuryak Mountains of Russia.  They are associated with a meteorite impact area dated at about 15,000 years old.  That means they are likely extraterrestrial in origin.

The mystery now is where they came from.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Armstrong Hospitalized

Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon, underwent quadruple bypass heart surgery earlier this week.  According to his wife, Armstrong is doing well, and doctors expect a good recovery.  Armstrrong is 82.

Prior to commanding Apollo 11, Armstrong flew on Gemini 8 and performed the first docking of two space vehicles-- a critical capability for a lunar trip.   Before becoming an astronaut, Armstrong was a test pilot flying the legendary X-15.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Looking For Life's Limits

Thirty years ago, scientists assumed the interior of Earth was lifeless.  Now, some  scientists think there might be more biomass within Earth than on its surface.  The discovery of extremophiles-- life forms that thrive in extreme physical environments-- has changed the way we look at life.

Biologists are now trying to determine the minimum requirements in energy and nutrients for life to sustain itself deep underground on Earth.  That minimum, they believe, could then be related to possible life on other worlds, like Mars or Europa.  NASA landed the Curiosity rover in Gale crater because the crater floor is well below the surrounding plain, thus giving Curiosity some access to the Mars underground.  Because the Martian surface is constantly scoured by deadly radiation, scientists think the most likely home for Martian life would be the interior of the planet.  That brings us back to extremophiles on Earth.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Extraordinary Snapshot

After months of work by programmers to get the timing and target area precisely right, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter caught an image of Curiosity as it was descending to Mars under its huge parachutes.

MRO took the image, which clearly shows details such as the lines connecting the rover to the parachutes, from 211 miles away. That speaks volumes about the power of MRO's high resolution camera.  It also raises a question: If NASA's public technology can do that, what can classified intelligence technology do?

Monday, August 6, 2012

Curiosity On Mars

Following an amazing display of technological prowess that used an intricate sequence of critical steps to bring NASA's Curiosity rover from orbit to standing on its six wheels on the surface of Mars, the most ambitious search to date for life on the Red Planet will begin.

Curiosoty, a one-ton, nuclear-powered rover chock full of scientific instruments, is scheduled to roam Mars for two years searching for evidence that life once existed-- or perhaps still exists-- on the little world next door.

Many Americans woke up this morning to news not only of Curiosity's successful landing, but also of another mass killing, this time a shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.  The two events tell of the heights educated, discipliined humans can reach, as well as the depths to which humans can fall.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

NASA's Unintentioned Gamble

When NASA approved the complex, novel, risky landing approach for the Curiosity rover, it knew it was taking a huge gamble, but it didn't realize the whole Mars program might be riding on it.

Since the mission architecture was approved, the federal budget has suffered historic deficits, and NASA's budget has been cut; cuts are also projected into the future.  The agency's planetary exploration program has been especially hard hit.

So, if Curiosity crashes, so might NASA's planetary program for the foreseeable future.  Unintentded consequences can change history.

Friday, August 3, 2012

A Billion For Manned Spaceflight

NASA has awarded a total of $1.1 billion to three companies developing a manned spacecraft to help those companies complete their designs.  Final designs are due May 31, 2014.

The three companies are Boeing and SpaceX, each of which is developing a capsule, and the Sierra Nevada Corporation, which is working on the winged Dream Chaser, a cousin of the space shuttle.  Contrary to the company's name, SNC is headquartered in Louisville, Colorado.

Plans call for each of the new craft to fly manned test flights mid-decade.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Just Supposing

The main objective of Curiosity's mission to Mars is to search for life, either past or present.  What if it succeeds?  NASA is betting finding any alien life will be a game-changer, ensuring funding for future Mars operations.  That may or may not work out.

Given the financial shape of the federal government, many politicians will have a hard time increasing spending on space no matter what the reason.  The public might force that increae, but that in turn may well depend on what kind of evidence is found.  An artefact from an alien civilization would clinch the deal, as would a multicellular creature-- especially one that squirmed or squiggled.

But what about a single cell organism, or a bacterium, or simply a fossil?  Would that be enough?  The answer to that is unclear.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Martian Hot Wheels

The toy company Mattel, makers of the Hot Wheels model series, has a history with NASA that goes back to the first rover on Mars, Sojourner.  Mattel marketed a Hot Wheels version  of Sojourner that quickly sold out.  Mattel followed that success with models of other NASA spacecraft.

Now, Mattel is coming out with a Hot Wheels model of NASA's huge Curiosity rover, scheduled to land on Mars next week.

The toymaker says it will market the Curiosity model regardless of what happens on the landing attempt on Mars.