Friday, September 28, 2012

Gravel On Mars

NASA's Curiosity rover has come upon an ancient riverbed on Mars.  Large, rounded stones firmly placed in a conglomerate is strong evidence that water not only once existed on the surface, but that at some point water flowed swiftly enough, strongly enough, and long enough to smooth and round the stones.  Scientists calculate the water in the river was once about three feet deep.

The discovery of what is essentially gravel is simply the latest in a solid line of evidence supporting the thesis that Mars was once a warmer, wetter place than it is today.  That, in turn, increases the possibility that life arose on Mars, and may still exist there.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Pentagon's Space Wants

The U. S. military is pushing the development of space planes and reusable rocket boosters.  The Pentagon, of course, is tasked with defending the nation (as well as other nations) and U. S. interests and U. S. citizens around the world.  To meet those responsibilities, the rapid projection of force can be necessary, which is one place space planes come in.  Such vehicles could allow deployment of Marines anywhere on Earth within a half hour, for example.  Satellites are also increasingly critical to both U. S. security and the American economy, and thus need defending.

Of course, given federal budget woes, funding the development of such vehicles is problematical.  The Pentagon, therefore, is encouraging private efforts to develop such capabilities.  Perhaps also to push the necessary technology along, DARPA-- the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency-- is supporting a long term, private effort aiming at building a human starship within a century.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Super-Earths May Be Barren

A new study using computer models suggests that super-Earths-- worlds larger than Earth, but less than ten times as massive-- might not be good places for life to take hold.

The models imply that the extra mass fundamentally changes the formation of these worlds.  They tend to become one huge, dead rock instead of volcanically active, complex planets with mantles, hot, dynamic cores that produce magnetic fields, and plate tectonics.  Such activity, scientists say, is essential for the development of life.

Of course, that refers to native life.  Planets a few times as massive as Earth and chock full of natural resources might be ideal nodes for new branches of interstellar civilizations.  Even if the surface were unsuitable for the pioneering species, They could live comfortably in orbit while sending huge, tough machines to mine the planet.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Romney's Space Goals

The Romney campaign has released a white paper on space policy.  While short on details, it pledges a President Romney would give NASA clear priorities and goals, though he would not increase the agency's budget, arguing the issue is not the amount of money, but how that money is used.  The paper also says Romney would encourage private business to move into space, and pursue international partnerships for space projects.  National security concerns would also be key in a Romney space policy.

Predictably, the white paper also criticizes President Obama's approach to space, saying American leadership in space is eroding.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Mercury's Composition

Data from NASA's Messenger spacecraft orbiting Mercury shows a world unlike the other terrestrial planets.  Given Mercury's position so close to the Sun, that's not surprising, but the composition of the surface is.

The surface turns out to be similar to a particular class of chondrite meteorite.  That suggests the meteorites and Mercury were formed in the same process, if not at the same time.  Data also suggests lava flowed across Mercury, sculpting the surface we see, in two huge volcanic events, clearly separated in time.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Pushed To The Stars?

The advances made in medical care, public health, and understanding nutrition over the latest two centuries have doubled the average human lifespan.  Continued advances in medicine, such as gene therapy, could push the average lifespan well over one hundred active years.  That's good news, of course, but it also has profound social implications.  The economy would be under new strains to provide for a new class of elderly.  Young people may find establishing careers difficult if people work later and later in life.

Dealing with social policy may ultimately create a civilization that looks out into the universe.  Space colonization may be seen as a safety valve, relieving pressure, creating opportunities for the restless, the ambitious, and the adventurous.  Once space colonies are established, interstellar colonization will be the next step.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Shuttle Endeavour

This week, television news organizations have been documenting the "last flight" of space shuttle Endeavour as it was being delivered from Florida to its final home at a science center in California.   Newspeople also like to play historian, and they see this delivery as the end of an era.

The irony is, of course, that through most of the shuttle era, the mainstream media ignored most shuttle flights and rarely mentioned overall space policy.  Television news loves arresting video, though, and a space shuttle flying atop a 747 is certainly that.  Also, we'll probably never see it again-- the history angle.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Gliese 163c

The exoplanet Gliese 163c orbits a red dwarf star about 50 light years from Earth, which means the broadcast of John Kennedy's speech laying out the case for America going to the Moon within the decade is just now reaching that world.  Gliese 163c orbits just on the edge of its star's habitable zone, whuch means it's barely possible someone there may be listening to JFK.

The world is seven times Earth's mass, so it's either a super Earth or a world similar to Neptune.  Neither would necessarily be good for life, but it does orbit in the habitable zone, and it's not a hot Jupiter, so it warrants further study by those looking for life.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Early Galaxy Found

Astronomers have recently observed the earliest galaxy found so far. They say it formed only about 200 million years after the Big Bang.  It therefore would be among the first galaxies to form.

Researchers found it by focusing NASA's Hubble and Spitzer telescopes on a tiny area of the sky, so they believe more galaxies of that epoch are there to be disscovered.  That wouldn't necessarily jibe with current cosmological theory, which tends to put galaxy formation at a later period.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Curiosiity Captures Eclipse

The camera atop the mast of the Curiosity rover, meant to take panoramuc views of the surrounding surface, has also done a bit of basic astronomy, documenting a solar eclipse by Mars' larger moon, Phobos.

At 14 miles across, Phobos isn't big enough to completely block the Sun during an eclipse like Earth's Moon does, but that only emphasizes the fact that Curiosity is not in Kansas.  Documenting such eclipses also allows scientists to refine the orbit of Phobos, and, eventuually, the orbit of Mars' second, smaller moon, Deimos.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Warp Drive May Be Possible

Warp Drive powers the fictional starship Enterprise on its faster-than-light voyages.  Physicists have held, however, that the amount of energy required to make that work-- the energy equivalent of a mass the size of Jupiter-- makes such a project impractical.

A new approach, though, cuts the energy needed way down, to the equivalent of a mass the size of the Voyager spacecraft.  With tweaks. that energy requirement could drop even more.  That massive drop, some researchers say, makes WD worthy of more serious study.  Theoretically, WD could reach speeds of ten times the speed of light.  That would throw open the galaxy to human exploration.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Planets In Star Clusters

Astronomers have tended to doubt planets could exist around stars in star clusters.  They have reasoned that so many powerful, conflicting gravitational fields in such a relatively small area would prevent any planet from forming.

It made sense-- except it turns out to be wrong.  A planet has now been found in orbit around a star in the Beehive Ckuster, which contains about a hundred stars.  The discovery has implications for life in the universe.  Most stars exist in multiple star systems, of which star clusters are the most extreme examples.  If planets can exist in star clusters, life has that many more chances to take hold.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Snows On Mars

Researchers using data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have established that carbon dioxide snow falls over at least the southern polar regions of Mars.  The planet has an ice cap topped by carbon dioxide, or dry ice, over its south pole, so the snow may be one way the cap is maintained.

We already knew water-ice snow-- the stuff we have on Earth-- falls in the northern polar region.  Carbon dioxide snow forms at much lower temperatures than the water-ice variety; Earth never gets cold enough for that.  So, Mars is the only planet in the Solar System to have two distinct types of snow fall to its surface.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Solar System Bigger Than Thought?

Voyager 1 was launched 35 years ago, and is still in communication with Earth.  Scientiists had thought Voyager would be headed into interstellar space by now, but data says it's still within the domain of the Sun.

The solar wind flows out from the Sun until it begins to interact with, curve along, and break down as it reaches the interstellar medium.  Voyager doesn't detect that happening yet, contrary to the predictions of humans.  Now, physicists are saying it might be another year before Voyager is finally beyond the influence of the Sun.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Exploring On Antimatter

The second half of this century-- fewer than two hundred years after the first flight of the Wrightt brothers-- may see large manned spaceships powered by nuclear fusion and antimatter, according to a NASA study.  Such ships could fly to Jupiter in four months, open the whole Solar System to human exploration, and put us on the long road to interstallar travel.

Several breakthroughs are needed before that future is ours, however.  The most basic one is being able to produce the required amounts of antimatter.  We're nowhere near that yet, but the production rate is improving.  One fuel for such fusion reactors could be tritium, which is abundant on the Moon.  Mining tritium could become one driver of an early lunar economy.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Martian Clays

Clays on Earth are generally associated with water, so when clays were found on Mars it was taken as good evidence for a wet early Mars.

There are still several lines of evidence pointing to liquid water on the Martian surface in the past, including clays, but a new study points out that clay can also be formed by magma.  That weakens the case for life on Mars, but not by much.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Clinton On Interstellar Travel

Former president Bill Clinton has lent his support to an effort to develop a starship within a century.  He agrees with the project's leaders that such a project would lead to scientific and technological breakthroughs along the way that would enhance life on Earth even as we pushed towards the stars.

Even though Bill Clinton saved NASA's space station program by bringing in international partners to build what became ISS, he was not known as a president overly interested in space policy.  It's interesting he would take a position on interstellar flight.  Perhaps he is mainly attracted to the economic development possibilities.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Curiosity On The Move

Curiosity has begun roving across the floor of Galen Crater.  So far, it has traveled over 300 feet, though, because that hasn't been in a straight line, it's only 69 feet from its landing site.

Curiosity's progress is being monitored from orbit by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.  The probe's high resolution camera picks up not only the rover itself, but its tracks, and scorch marks from the rockets that lowered Curiosity to the surface.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Boilermaker Pride

The Purdue University football team, the Boilermakers, will wear a decal on their helmets this season featuring a spacesuited astronaut holding a Purdue flag in honor of Neil Armstrong.

Armstrong was a Purdue alum, as are 20 other astronauts, including Eugene Cernan, the latest man to stand on the Moon as commander of Apollo 17.  Purdue's new engineering building was already named for Armstrong.  A statue of the astronaut as a student sits outside the building and was the focal point of a memorial service held shortly after Armstrong's death.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Burial At Sea

Neil Armstrong flew78 combat missions off the decks of aircraft carriers as a young Navy pilot during the Korean War.  Following his wishes, his remains will be buried at sea.

That will give Armstrong another tie to Christopher Columbus.  The exact final resting place of Columbus is unclear; more than one spot claims that distinction.  Now, there will be no grave for Armstrong, either.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

An Ocean Inside Triton?

Researchers are looking at the possibility that a water ocean may exist under the ice shell of Neptune's largest moon, Triton.

They theorize Triton is a Kuiper Belt object that was captured by Neptune's gravity.  They think that because Triton orbits Neptune in the opposite direction from other moons in the Solar System.  If captured, the original orbit likely would've been highly elliptical, but the current orbit is almost perfectly round.  The energy involved in slowly reshaping that orbit, along with other possible energy-producing processes, could have produced enough heat to keep a water ocean-- especially one liberally laced with ammonia-- liquid under the shell.

Of course, an energy source plus liquid water opens the possibility of life.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Odd Star

Globular clusters are huge groups of stars held together in a spherical formation by their mutual gravitational attraction.  Because such clusters are physical associations, all the stars in a given cluster are about the same age.

Messier 4 is  a well-known globular cluster among astronomers, amateur and professional.  Recently, however, professiomal astronomers have found an odd star in M4.  While the cluster is made up of older stars, one star seems much younger.  Astronomers tell the age of stars by their chemical composition.  The star in question still has a component of lithium, an element that is usually used up early in a star's life.  So, either this star is very young, or its lithium is somehow replenished.  Either way, it's interesting.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Kepler 47

NASA recently announced the discovery of a binary star system, dubbed Kepler 47 after the spacecraft that found it, that is 5,000 light years away.  Kepler 47 is particularly interesting because it has at least two planets, one of which orbits solidly within the system's habitable zone.

That planet is a gas giant, so it's unlikely to support life.  A large moon, however, might, as could a rocky planet nearby.  The discovery is important because it suggests life could arise on a planet in a binary system.  Since most stars are in multiple-star systems, if life could exist in those systems, the number of possible abodes of life would be greatly expanded.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Uwingu To Fund SETI

Uwingu, a new firm set up to aid the funding of science projects in these days of government debt and deficits which result in reduced government spending for science, technology, engineering, and math, has announced it will help fund the SETI Institute's Allen Telescope Array.

The ATA, the largest radio telescope installation in the world devoted primarily to the search for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations, was shut down a good part of last year because of funding shortfalls.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Prepping For An Asteroid Mission

NASA recently conducted a 10-day simulated manned exploration of an asteroid in preparation for meeting President Obama's goal of a manned mission to an asteroid by 2025.  The agency is confident it will have the technology required to do the job.

At the moment, the biggest problem is that NASA has yet to find an asteroid that fits its criteria.  NASA wants to fly about a 90-day mission, so it wants to find an asteroid that comes relatively close to Earth, and one that orbits in the same plane as Earth does.  That would require less fuel to be brought along as less maneuvering would be needed to reach the asteroid.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Mars One Getting Funding

Mars One, a private Dutch effort to begin the colonization of Mars in 2023, has begun getting funding from five European firms that have signed on as sponsors.

Mars One thinks $6 billion will be needed to start colonization, and believes it can raise most of that through the vehicle of a reality style television show that will follow the project as it develops.  The show is scheduled to begin next year, documenting the selection of a 40-person astronaut corrps.