Friday, November 30, 2012

Mercury Stunner

Scientists using data from the Messenger spacecraft orbiting Mercury have discovered huge amounts of water ice in permanently shadowed areas near the planet's poles.  Some of that ice simply sits on the surface under Mercury's tenuous atmosphere.   A lot of it is just below the surface, and some of that is under what may be something like a mat of organic compounds.  Yes, the building blocks of life-- on Mercury-- and in association with water ice.

Broadly speaking, there seems to be few more unlikely places in the universe to find water ice and organic compounds than the surface of Mercury-- yet there they are.  The case for life beyond Earth gets stronger and stronger.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

ESA And Orion

NASA's next manned spaceship will be Orion, a capsule designed to carry astronauts into deep space.  It will not be a wholly American project, however.  An agreement has been reached for the European Space Agency to build Orion's service module.  That contains the guts of the spacecraft-- propulsion, power, etc.  ESA will build the module to NASA's standards and specifications.

It's an interesting decision.  ESA has yet to be involved in building manned spacecraft, and now it's to deliver a critical part of the ship that will carry America back into space.  There's also a political angle.  Thousands of American space workers lost their jobs when the space shuttle program ended, yet a good chunk of the next American spaceship program will now go to Europeans.  Congress may grumble about that.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Curiosity Speculation

Ever since a NASA scientist announced Curiosity had made a discovery "for the history books" without saying-- yet-- what the discovery is, there has been speculation by scientists outside the mission and by nonscientists about what the discovery might be.

Most of the speculaation centers on results of a soil sample analysis Curiosity was conducting just before the announcement.  Many scientists speculate the discovery might involve organic compounds in the soil, or chemical tracers related to organics.  Organic compounds, of course, are the building blocks of life, so finding them on the surface of Mars would be a major find.

It could also put Viking results back in play.  Viking possibly found Martian life in 1976, but the science community decided the results of Viking's experiments could have been produced by nonbiological procsses.  Organics confirmed in Martian soil, however, might tip the judgment on Viking the other way.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Measuring Pluto's Atmosphere

Astronomers aren't sure exactly how big Pluto is because it's so small and so far away, so trying to measure its wispy atmosphere is clearly a challenge.  Combining two models of that atmosphere, however, has produced an interesting result.

Though tenuous, the atmosphere is still structured, with the upper and lower parts behaving differently.  The atmosphere also expands and contracts depending on Pluto's distance from the Sun.  A new study that combined models of the upper and lower atmosphere suggests that the very top of Pluto's atmosphere may extend almost halfway to the orbit of Pluto's largest moon, Charon-- or roughly 4.5 times the diameter of Pluto itself.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Year Long Spaceflight

One American astronaut and one Russian cosmonaut have been chosen to spend one full year aboard ISS beginning in spring 2015.  Training will begin next year.

The purpose of the flight is to see how the human body might respond to long spaceflights like what would be necessary to go to Mars.  Of course, this project involves only two individuals, both of whom happen to be male, so the flight can only be a step along the way towards gathering the necessary data.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Dust Storm Season On Mars

Spring recently sprung in the northern hemisphere of Mars, which means the dust storm season there has begun.  On cue, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spotted and is currently tracking a growing dust storm.  It has become a regional storm and could possibly become a global one.

Both of NASA's operational rovers-- Opportunity and Curiosity, which are on opposite sides of the planet-- have picked up indications of the storm.   If it does go global, the dust storm would be more of a problem for Opportunity, which gets its power from solar arrays gathering solar energy.  Dust collecting on the solar panels would cut down on the energy the panels could harvest.  Curiosity is nuclear powered, but dust in the air would cut down on the sharpness of the images sent home.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Super-Earths' Magnetic Fields

Key to complex life on Earth is the planet's magnetic field, which blocks deadly radiation coursing through space from reaching the surface.  That magnetic field is generated in Earth's core, and scientists have assumed it would be the same on super-Earths.

Recent research suggests otherwise.  It seems that magnesium oxide, under conditions that exist on super-Earths, becomes a liiquid metal that can support a magnetic field.  So, while current theory suggests that such huge worlds may lack dynamic cores, and therefore lack magnetic fields, it is possible for magnetic fields to be generated in the mantles of super-Earths, thus making life on such planets more plausible.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Musk Mars Colony

Elon Musk, he of PayPal, SpaceX, and Tesla Motors, has always said he wants to put humans on Mars.  Recently, he gave a few details of how he intends to do that.

First, he says, we need fully reusable rocket launchers and spacecraft, to cut the cost of going into space to a reasonable amount for individuals.  SpaceX is already working on that technology, and Musk is currently pegging the price for a ticket to Mars at around $500,000.  He envisions building a colony on Mars, starting with fewer than 10 people, but growing to perhaps 80,000, gaining self-sufficiency along the way.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

For The History Books???

NPR reports NASA's Curiosity rover has made what one team member calls a discovery "for the history books."  Exactly what has been discovered is being withheld for now to give sciemtists time to be sure the data is solid and that they thoroughly understand it, but reports the announcement will be made early next month at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

We know Curiosity has been busy analyzing soil samples, so it's reasonable to speculate the discovery is somehow related to that.  Have organic compounds, the building blocks of life, been found in Martian soil?  Even life itself?  Or has Curiosity's video camera picked up something totally remarkable?  We'll soon know.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


Some scientists are pushing for a sample return mission to Mars in which the robot wouldn't simply scoop up soil from the surface (though they want to do that, too) but instead have a rover enter a cave or lava tube and collect samples there.  Since the surface of Mars is constantly exposed to radiation, they argue the best place to look for life-- past or present-- would be subsurface.  Protected areas like caves or lava tubes, where rock blocks incoming radiation, might also work.  Plus, they point out, such places could preserve a history of life on Mars, as they do on Earth.

Future life on Mars could also be served by such a mission, they point out.  Lava tubes could be excellent sites for the first human settlements on Mars, as they would provide both protection from radiation and a consistent, controlled environment.

Of course, if Martian life already exists in such places, that could complicate or delay any human missions to the Red Planet.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Big World

Regular readers of this blog know about super-Earths.  Well, now astronomers have found a super-Jupiter, something they didn't necessarily think existed.

The world in question is 13 times as massive as Jupiter.  It orbits a young star about 170 light years away which is itself 2.5 times as massive as the Sun.  Since the planet orbits at a distance similar to Neptune's from the Sun, astronomers think it formed the same way most planets do.  The problem is that the current standard theory of planetary formation doesn't really contemplate planets of such size.  So, something has to give.  Either this planet did not form in what astronomers see as the customary manner, or the current theory has to be revised so that it accounts for such big worlds.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Kepler On Overtime

NASA's Kepler planet-hunting spacecraft has completed its primary mission and is now on an extended mission.  NASA expects Kepler to continue producing results until at least 2016.

Kepler has already identified more than two thousand possible exoplanets, and NASA expects to find many more, including some Earth-like worlds.  The longer Kepler can observe its 150,000 target stars, the smaller worlds, and the more worlds farther from their parent stars it can detect.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Extending Satellites' Lives

At least two companies are developing satellites that can repair and refuel other satellites in orbit.  Such capabilities would be big pluses economically, allowing governments and corporations to save money by extending the useful lives of satellites rather than building and launching new ones.

That would also help alleviate the space debris problem.  Fewer satellites launched should mean fewer derelict satellites in an absolute sense-- and fewer spent rocket stages, etc.  Beyond that, the ability to interact with satellites in orbit opens the possibility of safely de-orbiting them when they are no longer useful.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Nuking Asteroids

Experts in planetary defense say we need years if not decades of lead time to successfully deal with an asteroid on a collision course with Earth.  Only weeks advance warning, they say, and we are doomed.

A new study, however, presents an option for that situation-- a nuclear option.  It proposes sending a spacecraft containing two impactors to the asteroid.  The first impactor would drive into the asteroid, creating a deep hole.  It would be non-nuclear.  The second, nuclear-tipped impactor would follow the first into the hole and detonate inside the asteroiid, blowing it apart and sending most of its mass on new paths away from Earth.

It's an innteresting idea, and gives humanity one last shot in a desperate situation.  Hopefully, though, we'll never have to try to make it work for real.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


SpaceX is working on a rocket it calls Grasshopper that will both launch and land vertically.  The landing part would seem to be a real challenge, but, so far, there have been two successful test "hops."  Each lifted the rocket only a few feet off the ground before setting it right back down, but it's a start.

The company's goal is to develop a completely reusable rocket/spacecraft stack.  The people at SpaceX are convinced that is the way to dramatically lower the cost of reaching orbit.  They may well be right.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Nearby Rogue Planet

Astronomers have discovered what is likely a rogue planet-- a planet zipping through space independently, unconnected to any star-- just 100 light years away.  The object, at four to seven times the mass of Jupiter, may also be a brown dwarf, a body not quite big enough to become a star, but current odds are that it's a planet ejected from a solar system.

Astronomers think such rogue worlds are common throughout the galaxy, and they are delighted to have found one so close by.  Since they won't have to deal with the overpowering glare of a host star, they look forward to learning a lot about this object fairly quickly, and using that knowledge to extrapolate about others of its kind.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Naming Exoplanets

Astronomers estimate there are 160 billion planets in the Milky Way galaxy.  Giving each world an unique nane would seem a daunting task, so Uwingu, a new company dedicated to finding new ways to fund space research, is throwing the process open to the public, allowing people to submit names, and to vote on the most popular.

Of course, giving each world its own name probably isn't necessary.  Most of them are huge dead rocks, or balls of gas and ice, that will never be important to us.  Naming exoplanets that might harbor life and giving all the others simpler designations would probably be sufficient.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Martian Life Revisited

Fifteen years ago, a team of NASA scientists announced they thought they'd found evidence for life on Mars in a meteorite that had originated on the Red Planet.  The science community generallly never bought that conclusion, but the team has not backed away from it.

Various studies have since shown that all the features the NASA team points to as evidence of life could be produced non-biologically,  The science consensus is, therefore, that we should assume they were produced non-biologically unless or until we have powerful additional evidenc to the contrary.  Scientists generally don't want to declare they've found alien life only to be proven wrong.  It's a good, solid, conservative position.  Whether it leads to the correct answer or not is yet to be determined.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Life Colors

There are various indicators that could suggest a planet might harbor life.  The location of its orbit is the first; if it's within the host planet's habitable zone, there's a shot.  Free oxygen in the atmosphere is another good indicator.  Methane's presence means the possibility of life must be seriously considered.

A new study points out that the overall color of a planet is another indicator.  A small planet that is basically blue and within the habitable zone, for example, could indicate a water world.  A similar world similarly positioned, but greenish, may mean that world is awash in chlorophyll, suggesting vegetation.  Spectroscopic analysis of the light bouncing off such a planet-- breaking down the light into its constituent parts-- could then give more details about the makeup of an alien atmosphere.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

NASA's L2 Plans

According to reports, NASA and the Obama administration have been quietly at work developing a new plan for U. S. manned spaceflight.

NASA wants to build a manned outpost at the Earth-Moon L2 point.  That's a point in space beyond the Moon where the gravitational influences of the Earth and Moon cancel each other out.  A spacecraft placed there would stay there with little or no further expenditure of fuel.  NASA, therefore, thinks an outpost there-- which could be built with international partners-- would be the ideal place to learn to live in deep space.  It could also serve as a staging site for missions deeper into space.  Finally, astronauts stationed there could teleoperate a fleet of rovers on the lunar surface, conducting an exploration of the Moon's far side.

The plans calls for establishing the outpost by 2021, before sending astronauts to an asteroid by 2025.  The proposal will not call for an increase in NASA's budget.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Chinese Space Plane

China seems to be developing a small space plane similar to the U. S. Air Force's secretive X-37B,  Space analysts aren't sure exactly what the X-37B is designed to do, and China watchers are even further away from understanding the Chinese craft, named Shentong.

Some see Shentong as a waste of resources trying to match the Americans, much as the Soviets wasted resources on Buran, their version of a manned space shuttle.  It never flew.  Others, however, say Shentong is the next step in an increasingly aggressiive manned space program.  Still others point out that the Chinese space program is run by the People's Liberation Army and suggest Shentong may have military implications.  Hopefully, Western intelligence has a better handle on Chinese intentions than Western academia has.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Life Abode?

A dwarf star 44 light years away has a system of six planets.  The outermost of the six orbits squarely within the star's habitable zone.  That makes it an early candidate for possibly being a home of life.

Better yet, it is a Super-Earth about seven times as massive as our world.  We, therefore, wouldn't be very comfortable there in all likelihood, but it's probably a rocky world, and liquid water could exist on its surface-- a big plus for possible life.

The next generation space telescopes should be able to image the planet directly in a few years.  That picture could possibly be a turning point in human history.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Four More Years For Obama

President Barack Obama was elected to a second term in the White House yesterday.  America is thus in an interesting historical period-- only once before has the nation had three consecutive two-term presidencies.  That was with the three Virginians-- Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe.

This time, we'll have Clinton, who helped establish ISS, among other things, George W. Bush, who set the space shuttles on the road to retirement and established the Constellation program to return U. S. astronauts to the Moon, and Obama, who canceled Constellation in favor of an approach to develop the technological base and infrastructure necessary to support a future, sustained program of deep space manned exploration.  With Mr. Obama's re-election, it's presumably safe to assume NASA's programs are set for the next four years.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Linne' Crater

Linne' Crater is small by lunar standards, but scientists have decided it's nearly perfect.  Because it's relatively young, it's also nearly pristine, so scientists can use it as a model for how impact craters form.  There are impact craters on Earth and Mars, but they are distorted by time and weathering.  Lunar craters are much less bothered by weathering, as the Moon has virtually no atmosphere.

By studying Linne' up close and comparing it to craters on other worlds, astronomers hope to not only tease out broad principles about impacts but also to learn about the history of those worlds by noting how far impact craters on them are from perfection.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Voting From Orbit

Americans, or at least Texans, can vote even if they're away from Earth.  The Texas legislature, noting most astronauts live around Houston, passed a law in 1997 allowing digital voting from space.

It so happens that both Americans currently aboard ISS voted early-- from their training facility in Russia-- but the Texas law establishes a good legal precedent. If increasing numbers of people work in space in the years ahead, they will require a way to discharge their civic duty while away.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Enterprise Possibly Damaged

The space shuttle Enterprise, being displayed on the flight deck of the decommissioned aircraft carrier USS Intrepid in New York Harbor, may have been damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

Enterprise had been being protected from the elements by a pressurized tent-like structure.   That was blown down by Sandy, exposing both the nose and the tail of the orbiter to possible damage.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

No Methane

The Curiosity rover, sniffing the air, has found no methane in the atmosphere of Mars.

Methane can be produced biologically, so it can be a marker of life; it can also be nonbiological in origin.  So, the fact that Curiosity has yet to find it weakens the case for extant life on Mars, but it may also be a matter of different atmospheric chemistry.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Asteroid Belts And Life

A new study argues that an asteroid belt similar to the one in our solar system is essential to the development of life on rocky planets inside the belt because asteroids will sometimes smash into those eocky worlds, bringing water and organic compounds-- the essentials of life.  The study further suggests, based on evidence so far obtained, that such asteroid belts are rare.

It's the latest in a string of studies that say, in effect, life similar to that on Earth needs situations similar to those that have existed in, on, and around Earth.  Yes, the arguments mustered are sound enough, but there's the barest hint of desperation in the whole approach.  It seems to want to insist we are the product of a special sequence of cosmic events.  Trying to broaden our understanding of life and how it might come to be might be more useful.

Thursday, November 1, 2012


Scientists working with images from the Cassini spacecraft have discovered that Saturn's huge moon Titan gives off the tiniest bit of a glow.  They weren't surprised by a glow high in Titan's atmosphere-- molecules there can be excited by solar radiation and emit light-- but the glow also comes from deep down in Titan's thick atmosphere.

Exactly what is exciting molecules down there where solar radiation is not really a factor is unclear.  It is clear, however, that Titan is still full of surprises.