Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Martian Soil

You wouldn't want to sunbathe on Mars, but, according to analysis of soil in Gale Crater by the Curiosity rover, the soil there is similar to that found on the flanks of Hawaii's Mauna Kea volcano.  Actually, you may not want to sunbathe there, either.

Curiosity's work so far also shows more evidence of interaction with liquid water in early soil, and an extremely dry environment later on, which is consistent with the overall picture of Mars' history that scientists are piecing together.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Explaining The Moon

Since early space probes revealed stark differences between the far side of the Moon and the hemisphere that always faces Earth, scientists have been trying to explain how that came about.

The basic difference between the two lunar hemisphere is that the far side is largely highlands whereas the near side has several large basins.  They are the dark areas visible with the unaided eye.  Astronomers first assumed they were volcanic in origin, but an impact theory was developed around Apollo.  A team of Japanese researchers, focusing on the makeup of the rocks along the periphery of the basin, say those rocks are consistent with huge impacts that would have created pools of molten lava a thousand miles wide and several hundred miles deep.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Dragon Home

SpaceX's Dragon cargo capsule splashed down off the coast of southern California yesterday afternoon, successfully completing the first commercial flight to ISS.

Among other things brought back to Earth by Dragon are blood and urine samples from ISS crews.  The samples, part of ongoing biological research, have been stored aboard ISS since the space shuttle's retirement because, until Dragon, there was no way to get them to Earth.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Putting Things Together

The latest several years have seen the confirmed discovery of hundreds of planets orbiting other stars, with thousands more awaiting confirmation.  No Earth-like planets have been found yet, but astronomers are convinced that's only a matter of time.  Recently, a planet has been found in the Alpha Centauri system-- right next door-- and other worlds may yet be found there.

Back on Earth, various nations are moving ahead with space programs, including plans for manned flight, as reported in this blog,  Several governments and space agencies have also expressed interest in joining an international lunar base program.  Private enterprise is also developing big plans for expanding the human economy well beyond Earth, incorporating extraterrestrial resources into an expanding sphere of economic activity,

We may be witnessing the initial stirrings of a spacefaring civilization.  Working out the kinks, establishing the fundamental principles that will guide such a civilization, will take time-- perhaps centuries-- but the glimmerings to be seen now are both suggestive and encouraging.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Orion Moving Ahead

Construction of the Orion space capsule, NASA's next generation manned spaceship, is going along well, according to the agency.  Project managers are aiming for the first unmanned test flight to be in 2014, with the first manned flight scheduled for 2021.

Orion is being designed to allow NASA to fly deep space manned missions-- to the Moon, to near-Earth asteroids, and eventually in a manned Mars mission.  The question is whether by 2021, or 2025, or 2030, there might not be better options for such missions.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Saturn Storms

Jupiter and Saturn, and to a lesser extent Uranus and Neptune, are known for the incredible storms that blow up in their huge atmospheres.  Jupiter's Great Red Spot is no doubt the most famous.  Bigger than Earth, it has probably existed since before Galileo became the first human to train a telescope on Jupiter.

Saturn lacks such a signature storm, but it has had a series of Great White Spots over the years.  The latest was also the biggest yet seen.  Observed by the Cassini spacccraft, that storm eventually expanded until it encircled the planet, and temperatures within the storm were at points 100 degrees F higher than in the surrounding atmosphere-- a huge amount of generated energy.  That storm can still be seen, but it seems to be petering out.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

China's Space Rockets

China is continuing to develop its Long March rocket series.  The next one up is the Long March 5, which could be test flown in 2014.  It is the most powerful yet, capable of putting 25 tons in low Earth orbit or 14 tons in geosynchronous orbit, and Long March 6 and 7 are also under development.

The Long March 5 will give China the capability to put a space station in orbit by 2020, which is the country's stated goal for its manned program.  The rocket could also launch a manned lunar mission, for whatever that's worth.  Outside experts disagree on whether China is actively pursuing putting a taikonaut on the Moon any time soon, but it seems to be developing the hardware and the flight capability to attempt such a mission if it so chooses.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Japan's Manned Space Plans

Japan is moving ahead in developing a manned spaceflight capability.  First, it is looking to have a capsule or mini-shuttle which could be flying people by 2022.  The capsule would land by parachute and come down on either land or water, depending on the size of the capsule, while the mini-shuttle would launch atop a rocket and land on a runway.

Second, longer term, Japan is considering a space plane that would both take off from and land on runways.  It's also looking at hypersonic vehicles that would fly "point-to-point" anywhere on the planet.  That would revolutionize long distance travel.

Japan has the technological base to undertake such projects.  Its economy, while struggling for many years, is still large enough to support such ambitions.  If they succeed, Japan could rather quickly overtake China, at least technologically, to become the leading Asian manned space power.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

X-Ray Black Hole

The center of our galaxy is a wild and woolly place-- no place for humans, or, probably, for any other life.  Recently, astronomers pinpointed a black hole there by observing an X-ray nova.

Supernova explosions blow stars apart; nova explosions are titanic, but they leave a star intact.  Astronomers observed such a nova explosion in the X-ray spectrum-- an extremely rare event.  By studying the X-ray radiation, they found it moved into the accretion disk of a black hole. Black holes cannot be observed directly because light does not escape them, but their existence can be inferred by the effect they have on the immediate area.  Accretion disks, gas and dust in furious orbit around a black hole that can be excited by energetic radiation and thus observed, are dead giveaways.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Shiny Martian Objects

Curiosity has found "shiny objects" in the soil of Mars.  At first, NASA thought the objects might be debris from Curiosity itself, but now it's fairly clear they are indigenous to Mars.

The question is: What are they?  Curiosity will be analyzing them shortly.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Strange System

Amateur astronomers working with professionals in the Planet Hunter project have found a gas giant planet slightly bigger than Neptune in a quadruple star system.

The planet orbits the pair of stars at the core of the system once every 139 days.  The other two stars in the system orbit the core pair much farther out.  How a planet could be where that one is so far stumps scientists.  It's a reminder of how much we still have to learn about the ways of the cosmos.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Checking On Private Manned Spaceflight

All three American companies working on building private manned spacecraft are making progress, they report.

SpaceX is already flying its Dragon capsule as a cargo vehicle, and plans the first Dragon manned flight in 2015.

Boeing is working on its CST-100 capsule, and is aiming for its first crewed test flight in 2016.  Boeing, of course, has been involved in building manned spacecraft for decades.

Sierra Nevada sees its Dream Chaser flying in the 2016-17 period.  Dream Chaser will launch atop an Atlas 5, but it is winged, so it will land on a runway.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Forming Earth's Moon

The generally accepted theory of how Earth's Moon formed holds that something big crashed into the young Earth, and debris from that collision coalesced to form the Moon.  Three new studies support that general idea.

One study posits a smaller impactor than Mars, one assumes a Mars-sized body, and one looks at the role of water in the process, but they all reinforce the basic collision theory.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Stuff Of Science Fiction

So far, scientists have found planets in distant star systems-- over 800 confirmed to date.  Now, however, they are announcing the discovery of a planet in the Alpha Centauri system.  Right next door.

The new world is slightly more massive than Earth and orbits Alpha Centauri B in 3.2 days.  Astronomers think its surface is so hot it could be molten lava.  However, where there's one rocky world, there may be others.

Alpha Centauri is, in fact, a triple star system, with A and B-- B is a sunlike star-- and Proxima Centauri, which is the single closest star to the Sun.  The whole system is 4.3 light years from Earth.  Astronomers now think there's a possibility that Earthlike worlds could exist in the habitable zones of the system.  If such a world, or worlds, exists, the public reaction could easily result in a more robust space program.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


The star KOI-500 is about 1,100 light years away.  It has about the same mass as the Sun, though only three-quarters the diameter, and it's young-- about a billion years old.

The most interesting thing about KOI-500, however, is its planetary system.  Using data from Kepler, astronomers have determined it has at least five planets, each of which is slightly larger than Earth, and each of which orbits its star much closer than Mercury orbits the Sun.  Whereas Mercury zips around the Sun in 88 days, the outermost of the five gets around KOI-500 in 9.5 days.

Scientists think all five planets formed farther away from the star and migrated inward.  The orbits now, however, appear gravitationally interlocked and stable.  Figuring out the history of that system will likely keep theorists busy for quite some time.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Lunar Water

Since the presence of water on the Moon has been confirmed. scientists have been trying to figure out where the water originated.  Now, they think a large percentage of it might have come in on the solar wind.

Comets smashing into the Moon have no doubt brought some water, but researchers studying Apollo 11 regolith samples that were gathered by Neil Armstrong found an isotope of hydrogen in tiny glass beads.  That isotope is associated with the Sun, so they asume it and water molecules reached the Moon in the solar wind.

If the theory is correct, it could mean water exists on other airless worlds throughout the Solar System.  That, in turn, could be good news for human exploration.

Sunday, October 14, 2012


NASA is developing exoskeletons astronauts could don to increase their physical abilities during spacewalks.  The contraptions would fit outside the spacesuits and multiply the strength of the astronauts' arms and legs, allowing them to accomplish more work per excursion.

The exoskeletons could have important Earthly applications, as well.  Fitted to the needs of paraplegics, they could substitute for legs that don't work, providing the strength and control to allow the person to walk.  Exoskeletons could be similarly useful on paralyzed arms.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Columbus Day

Today is the 520th anniversary of the first sighting of land in the New World by Christopher Columbus' three ship fleet.  It is, therefore, a good candidate for the birthday of the modern world.  Congress, in its wisdom, celebrates Columbus Day some other time.

In that five and a fifth century span, the balance of economic and political power has shifted to the New Workd, with the emergence of one superpower and dozens of other nations on the European model that usurped native political structures.  In Columbus' time, China was probably the most advanced power on Earth.  Those who followed Columbus fairly quickly established a world dominated by European powers that explored when China pulled back into itself, however.  That Europe-centric world eventually gave way to a global society led by the United States.

Where will the leading human power be in another five centuries?  Maybe on Earth... but perhaps it will be a relatively young, technologically sophisticated, extraordinarily rich society based beyond Earth, active on several worlds-- maybe even spreading to the stars.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Sentinel Space Telescope

The B612 Foundation and Ball Aerospace are teaming to launch the Sentinel Space Telescope, the first private space telescope.

Sentinel's mission will be to find near-Earth asteroids.  Experts think it could find 500,000 such bodies in its six-year lifespan, compared to 10,000 found so far.  Sentinel will be an infrared telescope stationed somewhere around the orbit of Venus, so it will be looking out away from the Sun.  The goals of the project are to find asteroids that threaten Earth, asteroids suitable for a human mission, and asteroids that would be targets for future mining operations.

Sentinel is scheduled for launch in 2017.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Sarah Brightman To Orbit

Singer Sarah Brightman has signed a different kind of contract.  This one is with Space Adventures to fly onboard ISS.  Brightman, who is also active as a UNESCO Ambassador, sees living in space as advancing understanding of living according to sound ecological principles on Earth.

Besides offering ISS visits, SA is also still offering a trip around the Moon in a Soyuz spacecraft.  So far, there have been no takers.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Voyager 1 Crossed Over?

For a few years now, scientists have been eagerly awaiting the time Voyager 1 passed out of the Sun's primary influence, crossing into interstellar space.  Recent data suggests that milestone may have already been reached.

In late August, the data shows, Voyager was being hit more often by high-energy particles and less often by low-energy ones.  Scientists interpret the high energy strikes to be cosmic rays from deep space and the low energy hits to be the Sun's solar wind.  Therefore, there's a good chance Voyager may already be out of the Solar System.

If the next reading of the magnetic field yonder shows a shift consistent with the magnetic field of interstellar space, that would likely clinch the deal.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Dragon Flies

The fickle Florida weather cooperated last night, and SpaceX launched its first commercial flight to ISS, with its Falcon 9 booster delivering its Dragon capsule to orbit.

Dragon is set to rendezvous with ISS early Wednesday.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Florida Weather......Again

The dynamic weather of central Florida often delayed launches of space shuttles, and now it threatens to delay the first commercial launch of Space-X's Dragon capsule to ISS tonight.

If the launch is delayed, the weather for the next two nights looks more favorable.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Dragon Poised

So far, Space-X's Falcon 9/Dragon stack is a :"Go" to launch to ISS tomorrow night.

Dragon reached ISS last May, but that was a test flight.  This will be the first commercial flight delivering supplies to ISS-- the first of 12 such flights called for by the contract Space-X has with NASA.  The contract is worth $1.6 billion.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Titan Boat

Scientists are looking at the possibility of exploring Saturn's huge moon, Titan, by boat.  Mars is dry land, essentially, so using wheeled rovers there makes sense-- though using aircraft would also be an interesting option.  Aircraft on Titan would also work in that dense atmosphere, but because the surface is dominated by lakes and rivers of liquid methane, scientists are evaluating boats.

The mission under study would plop a boat into the largest methane lake on Titan and sail it to the shoreline, taking samples along the way.  A cooler idea for Titan's frosty surface might be an amphibious vehicle that could "land" (methane?) in the lake, sail those bonny waves to the shore, and then drive overland.  Just a thought.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Sputnik Plus 55

Fifty-five years ago today, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, into Earth orbit.  It was basically a propaganda attempt to show the superiority of the Soviet system over the capitalist West.

Now, of course, the Soviet Union is long gone, but Sputnik did begin a revolution that has already reshaped our view of the cosmos several times, and promises to do so several more.  Though Sputnik itself wasn't a scientific triumph, or designed to be, it did open the door for scientists and engineers who wanted to go into space to explore and learn, and those people have given us a new understanding of ourselves.

Sometimes an act meant to accomplish one thing can have consequences that are completely separate from the original intent.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

First Exoplanets, Now Exoconets

Astronomers have now detected clouds of comets orbiting other stars, just as the Oort Cloud of at least potential comets orbits the Sun.  The finding is one bit of evidence that scientists do in fact understand, in broad terms, how planetary systems form.

Another bit of evidence along that line is that the compositions of comets, here and there, are largely the same.  In both cases, elements like olivine, which had to form in close to the star, has been flung into the depths of the star system, and current theory explains that process.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Deep Space Station

There seems to be solid support within NASA for building an international space station beyond the Moon, at a point where lunar and Earth gravity cancel each other out.  Such a station could be a premier science outpost, directing the telerobotic exploration of the lunar farside, conducting research onboard, and serving as the jump off point for missions deeper into space.

The project is in line with President Obama's approach to building a durable thrust into space, but a President Romney might have other ideas.

Monday, October 1, 2012

A Warm Gale

Curiosity is finding the floor of Gale Crater to be warmer than expected, cracking the freezing mark during the day even in late Martian winter, though nights are still incredibly cold.

That finding surprised most scientists, and strengthens the possibility of life.