Monday, December 31, 2012

Big Year Coming

Virgin Galactic is planning to commence commercial suborbital flights in 2013.  Spaceport America is  gearing up, and other spaceports are being developed.  SpaceX plans to make continued progress both towards upgrading its Falcon 9/Dragon stack to man-rated status and developing a reusable rocket.  Other companies are developing both suborbital and orbital manned vehicles of various configurations and concepts.  The Google Lunar X-Prize, a contest to put private rovers on the Moon, may see launches in 2013.

If all the plans work out, 2013 may ultimately be viewed as a watershed year in the move into space of  private enterprise.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Evolution In Space

Based on the fossil record, humanity began its journey out of Africa perhaps 100,000 years ago.  Since then, as people settled in various climates and environmental conditions, the flavors of mankind-- the races-- evolved.

As humans settle space and colonize other worlds, evolution can be expected to continue to work its will.  Space humans may develop a resistance to radiation, for example.  Populations that live for generations in low gravity situations may grow taller, thinner, and less muscular.  At some point in the distant future, descendants of generations away from Earth may find it physically uncomfortable to live on Earth.

Of course, this time, humans will have the ability to intervene in the biological evolution of the species by manipulating genes, taking evolution in a particular direction, speeding it up, or slowing it down.  That kind of control over the essence of ourselves clearly has huge moral implications, but going into space will challenge humans in ways we cannot yet imagine.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Predicting Earth 2.0

Several planet-hunting astronomers are feeling their oats.  They are predicting the first truly Earth-like exoplanet will be found in 2013.

In not quite twenty years, about 800 exoplanets-- planets outside the Solar System-- have been discovered, and over two thousand more identified by the Kepler spacecraft await confirmation.  Some of those orbit in their star's habitable zone, where life as we know it is possible, and some others roughly the size of Earth have also been found.  These astronomers predict 2013 will see the discovery of a world that is both physically similar to Earth and within its star's habitable zone.

They also predict such a discovery will have a profound effect on human culture.  They predict it will spark a new commitment to move into space, and to send humanity's first interstellar probe.  Perhaps we will see.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Rutan Speaks

Burt Rutan, designer of the vehicles that will allow Virgin Galactic to offer suborbital spaceflight to high net worth individuals, recently compared the early days of the private spaceflight industry to the beginning of the computer revolution.

Rutan noted critics who argue VG is marketing to millionaires interested in a fun adventure, and that's a very small customer pool.  Of course, those critics have a point.  Rutan countered that most people who bought early personal computers used them mostly to play games.  Only years later, when the Internet began to boom, did we see the real potential of personal computers to change the world.  That's also when the big bucks started to fill up Silicon Valley.  He said it might take a few years, but somebody will eventually figure out a business model that works for space operations, and then we'll see space hotels and the real opening of the space frontier.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Year Of Close Shaves

This year has seen several asteroids zip past Earth at close range, in astronomical terms.  That fact has not been emphasized by the American media, at least, which has been focused on the U. S. election campaign, the civil war in Syria, and several other admittedly big stories.  Unfortunately, by some standards, the only way planetary defense will become a big story is if we find ourselves in the cross hairs of a large asteroid or comet with the collision scheduled in the not-too-distant future.

Hopefully, we are wise enough, and lucky enough, to put some plans in place before that, regardless of jourmalistic interest.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Grasshopper Leaps Again

SpaceX's experimental rocket Grasshopper has passed its third straight flight test, this time rising 130 feet into the air before softly landing on its four legs.

SpaceX is convinced the way to reduce the cost of reaching low Earth orbit is to develop reusable rockets-- that is, rockets that land safely and in one undamaged piece to be used again after delivering a payload to orbit.  It would be a remarkable transition from the raw power and violence of a space launch to the controlled and delicate maneuvering required to bring a rocket stage down and landing it gently and vertically.

Grasshopper is an early step in learning how to do that.  So far, it has been so good, but there is still a long way to go.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Tallying Up Space

The Space Age began as a new theatre of the Cold War with the launch of Sputnik in 1957, but it quickly became more than that.  The demand for ever better, ever smaller technology to operate in space helped transform the American economy.  It also reshaped much of the world economy, to the point that the Soviet Union could no longer compete with the West.  Satellite intelligence gathering gave U. S. presidents a critical edge in avoiding World War III.  Communication satellites allow real-time interaction between virtually any two points in the world.  Improvements in weather prediction using storm-tracking satellites and other new technology have saved untold lives, and natural resource satellites can help lift regions and nations out of poverty.  Space probes and telescopes have given humanity a completely new universe.  Life could well be abundant throughout the cosmos, intelligent life elsewhere is perhaps more than possible, and the ways of Creation are mind-boggling.  Men have walked on the Moon, and humanity is poised to go deeper into space.

There has been a price to be paid, of course.  Transforming economies create new industries, but they also destroy old ones.  National space programs have spent hundreds of billions of dollars over decades that many argue could have been better spent elsewhere.  And lives have been lost.  Not many by battlefield standards, or compared to terrorist attacks or highway accidents, but lives have been lost.

On balance, the push into space has been a positive for mankind, and we're just getting started.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Christmas Star

Every year about this time, television weathercasters "track" Santa on his travels.  Almost as predictably, astronomers will appear on television trying to explain what the Star of Bethlehem, which guided the three wise men to the baby Jesus, may have been.

It's an odd quest.  The point of the Christmas Story is that the Star was special, unique, even supernatural.  In that case, astronomers, then and now, would be at a loss to explain it.  Further, the story we have of Jesus' birth that references a star was written, as far as scholars can tell, decades after Calgary.  There was also a literary tradition in that culture at that time to associate the birth of a major personage with some spectacular natural event-- an earthquake, an eclipse, the appearance of a comet.  Or, the appearance of a giant, beautiful guide star that stood over a small town.

So, will science ever be able to explain the Christmas Star?  That's very much open to question.  Did such a star actually exist, or did a devout Gospel writer, looking back on the life of his Savior, feel inspired to provide that life with an appropriate beginning?  We may never know.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Establishing Infrastructure

Before the space tourism industry can really take off, infrastructure to support its growth must be established, and that doesn't simply refer to physical facilities.  Legal and financial structures also have to be built up.  For example, there is currently no industry-wide health standards for determining who can fly into space.  That will evolve over time, but it's also important to have something in place in the early days.

Insurance across a range of actions, from launch to space operations to return to Earth, is also important.  No industry and no company can successfully function without insurance against whatever disasters might befall it.  Safety standards, either industry generated or government imposed, will also be important.  There is a lot of quiet work to do before private rockets can regularly roar to life.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Sailing To The Stars

NASA is working to perfect solar sail technology, which would allow ships to move throughout the Solar System and beyond without the use of rockets.

The basic concept is simple, similar to moving across water by letting the wind fill a sail to push the boat along.  There is a solar wind of energetic particles constantly streaming away from the Sun.  A large enough sail could capture enough of that energy to push a spacecraft along.  It would be slow going at first, but the speed would build steadily, perhaps over years, until it reached extreme levels.

Nor is the Solar System the limit.  Within twenty years, NASA expects to have the technology to send a small unmanned probe on an interstellar mission.  That sail wouldn't ride on the solar wind, however-- at least not all the way.  NASA would build a huge, powerful energy beam emitter.  That emitter would stay nearby, but the energy beam it shot out, perhaps a laser, would be focused on the sail of the probe, pushing it to its target star.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Ending Apollo

Forty years ago this week, Apollo 17, the last Apollo lunar mission, came home.  Congress and President Nixon, in their wisfom, had cancelled three more Apollo missions, and plans for a lunar base and manned missions to Mars were shelved.  Instead, the nation got the space shuttle--  a magnificent vehicle, but one that never had a chance to match its hype.

Soon after Apollo 17 came home, the nation was engulfed in the Watergate scandals, and it could be argued the American manned space program has lacked a firm goal since.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Tau Ceti Planetary System?

Tau Ceti is a star slightly smaller than the Sun and only 11.9 light years distant.  It is among the nearest stars to Earth, and bright enough to be seen with the naked human eye.  Now, a team of astronomers thinks Tau Ceti might have a planetary system of at least five worlds, with one of those orbiting in the star's habitable zone, meaning that planet might possibly support life as we know it.

All five of the possible exoplanets need to be confirmed, but three of them look very solid.  If Tau Ceti does have planets--especially one that may support life-- it may well be an early target for human interstellar expeditions.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Grail Gone

The twin Grail spacecraft, which spent almost a year mapping the Moon's gravitational field in unprecedented detail, were deliberately slammed into a lunar mountain yesterday.  Their fuel was nearly gone, and NASA wanted to make certain they did not crash into any historic areas, like the Apollo landing sites.

The crash site was named for the late Sally Ride, who led a student project connected to the mission until her death.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Chang'e 2 Encounters Toutatis

Chang'e 2 is the second spacecraft sent to the Moon by China, but it has become much more than that.  After successfully completing its lunar mission, it was sent out to the Earth-Sun L2 point, where the gravitational influences of the Earth and the Sun balance, to test China's ability to operate in deep space.  That, too, was a success.  Then, China set the probe on a course to rendezvous with the asteroid Toutatis.  According to the official Chinese news agency, the probe accomplished that last week, flying within two miles of the asteroid.

The travels of Chang'e 2 reveal an extremely confident and sophisticated Chinese space capability.  China is doing things early on that the United States and the Soviet Union took years to try.  Of course, that's part of the point.  Americans and Soviets worked out how to operate in space, and now China, and other nations as well as private groups, are executing.  That said, the flight of Chang'e 2 is a remarkable achievement.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

End Of The World?

According to some, the world will end this week.  They base that dreary prediction on a particular interpretation of Mayan cosmology.  Even though most Mayan scholars say the calendar on which the prediction is based calls for the end of one cycle and the beginning of a new cycle, not the end of the physical world, the gloomier take has gained some traction in American culture.

So much traction, in fact, that NASA has felt the need to announce everything will be fine.  The interesting question is why some people would accept the vague prediction of a Stone Age level society of a limited universe instead of the extraordinary, complex cosmos, brimming with possibilities, that modern science has revealed.  That would seem to highlight a monumental failure of the American education system.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Possible Europa Mission

NASA is looking at a possible probe to Jupiter's ice-covered moon, Europa.  The mission concept currently being studied calls for a probe to be put into orbit around Jupiter such that it does dozens of fly bys of Europa-- some as close as 15 miles above the surface.  The mission could be launched in the 2020-2022 time period, and take six years to reach Jupiter.

Scientists think there is a huge ocean under Europa's ice shell that might harbor life.  The proposed mission would measure the thickness of the ice shell, confirm, or not, the existence of the ocean, and search for possible landing sites for future missions.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Big River On Titan

Cassini's radar has imaged a large river on Saturn's huge and fascinating moon, Titan.  The river flows some 250 miles and empties into the largest lake yet found on Titan, which covers an area that is five times larger than the area covered by Lake Superior.

Of course, lakes and rivers on Titan are not filled with liquid water.  On that frigid world, water freezes as hard as rock.  Instead, the liquids in that super-cold environment are ethane and methane.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

North Korea Tries Again

The regime running North Korea seems intent on ignoring the protests of much of the rest of the world regarding its rocket launches.  Pyongyang insists it is pursuing developing a space program for purely peaceful reasons.  Many other governments, however, see the space program simply as a cover to allow North Korea to build bigger and better rockets that could be used as ICBMs to threaten other nations.

The latest North Korean launch occurred yesterday.

North Korea is one of the poorest nations on Earth.  Its citizens, except for those in a small ruling class, are often hungry.  For such a nation to pursue a space program seems both strange and irresponsible to many.  For such a nation to pursue technology it can both sell for money and use to increase its influence, as Pyongyang does with its rocket expertise, seems to make more sense.  The problem is that's a dangerous game, and North Korea is not a trusted member of the international community.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

2012 XE54

Asteroid 2012 XE54 was discovered by astronomers just two days ago.  At 120 feet long, if it collided with Earth the damage caused could be comparable to the devastation caused by the Tunguska event of 1904.  Today, 2012 XE54 flew past Earth at a distance of only 140,000 miles-- a close shave in cosmic terms.  It could come even closer in future passes.

This is simply the latest in a string of cases this year that make the case for planetary defense against possible asteroid or comet strikes.  Hopefully, it won't take a disaster to get world leaders to act.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Patrick Moore Dies

British astronomer Sir Patrick Moore died Sunday evening, according to the BBC.  He was 89.

Moore was a tireless popularizer of astronomy, writing more than 70 books on the subject, and hosting a BBC television series.  The Sky At Night began in 1957 and ran literally the rest of his life, airing a final episode the night he died.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Limiting The Theory Of Everything

Japanese scientists, usimg the Ikaros spacecraft to study gamma ray bursts, may be putting limits on any possible Theory Of Everything, the ultimate goal of theoretical physics.

Gamma ray bursts are some of the most energetic events in the universe.  Physicists think they're the result of a star collapsing into a neutron star, or the collision of two neutron stars.  The energy produced is enough to propel photons to nearly the speed of light, and studying those photons can give physicists data about the realm of high energy physics that can be used to test some aspects of cosmological models.  It's early days in the research, but so far the Standard Model seems to be holding up.  Physicists ultimately want to combine the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics into one coherent theory.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Brown Dwarf Planets

Brown dwarves are almost stars-- bodies not quite dense enough and massive enough to ignite and sustain nuclear reactions.  Astronomers have therefore assumed they wouldn't have planets.

A new study of a dusty disk around a brown dwarf 400 light years away, however, suggests Earth-sized planets are possible.  Given the size of a good proportion of the dust grains in the disk, astronomers think they will evventually coalesce into worlds similar to Earth.

As brown dwarves do not shine by nuclear reactions but dimly glow by gravitational contraction, it's unlikely any such worlds would harbor life.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Golden Spike

Golden Spike is a new company offering manned flights to the Moon-- including landing on the Moon-- starting in 2020.  Each flight will cost $1.5 billion.  The company is targeing nations, corporations, and individuals in its marketing efforts, and claims to already have some real interest.

The GS CEO is Alan Stern, a veteran NASA executive.  Stern, however, is more closely associated with unmanned planetary probe missions, such as the New Horizons probe currently on its way to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, than he is with manned spaceflight.  So far, he seems more scientist/administrator than visionary businessman.  Whether he is the person to make such an audacious business venture work remains to be seen.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Forty Years Ago

On this date forty years ago, Apollo 17 left for the Moon in a spectacular night launch.  It was the last Apollo lunar mission.  As Apollo 17 commander, Eugene Cernan became the last Apollo astronaut to stand on the lunar surface, and he remains the latest human to do so.  Cernan has often remarked that he never dreamed he would hold that second distinction for so long.

Indeed, there are no firm plans for anyone to take that distinction away from him any time soon.  Russia and China have anounced their intentions to land people on the Moon, but they're both still many years away from doing so.  Various nations have expressed interest in joining an international program to build a lunar base, but that doesn't seem to have gotten past the talking stage so far.  Private efforts to put humans back on the Moon are underway, as well, but their timetables are extremely soft.

So, Cernan could well remain the most recent human to stand on the Moon fairly deep into the twenty-first century.  There are grounds to speculate, however, that the next person on the Moon will be the first of a steady stream.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Followng Up On Curiosity

NASA has announced it plans to launch another rover to Mars in 2020, and many in the science community are already pushing for it to be at least the sample gathering and caching part of a sample return effort.  Ultimately, they argue, to search for life on Mars, we need to get likely soil and rock samples into the state-of-the-art labs on Earth.

NASA is still defining both the rover and its mission.  It will likely be based on Curiosity's design, however, which would presumably mean something like the same complex landing procedure that successfully put Curiosity in Gale Crater. That might be a mistake.  It worked once, but trying it again may be pressing our luck.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Deep Space Station Project Questioned

NASA has been working on a plan to put a manned space station into deep space for months.  The fact that NASA was willing to confirm such a plan existed led to speculation that the Obama administration had already approved the plan and was waiting until after the election to announce it.  Now, however, an unnamed senior administration official denies the White House supports such a project, according to

Of course, we're talking about Washington politics.  Officials who will not allow themselves to be identified on non-sensitive, non-national security matters hardly encourage confidence.  Remember, too, that Washington is currently in a huge public debate about, among other things, cutting federal spending.  This would not be a good time to push what could be painted as an expensive new space project.

We know NASA has been working on such a plan.  We know NASA made no determined effort to keep it secret, or to deny it.  We know the project would advance Mr. Obama's announced plan for human spaceflight.  So, will President Obama support it?   We'll see.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Curiosity's Big News

NASA announced today that Curiosity has found complex chemistry in the soil of Mars, but no life, and no organics.  Curiosity also found water in the soil, plus carbon compounds.  Carbon and water are essential to life as we know it.

Whether the announced discovery is "for the history books" or not, as a mission scientist said it would be last month, probably depends on future developments.  If it turns out Mars has never been home to more than interesting chemistry, this discovery might be footnote material.  However, if it leads us to life on Mars, either extinct or extant, then that scientist will have been proven correct.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Huge Black Hole Discovered

Astronomers have found the largest black hole yet in a small galaxy far, far away.  The object is 17 million solar masses, and its width is 11 times the orbit of Neptune.  It is huge.

It also contains 14 percent of the total mass of the galaxy in which it resides.  That figure for black holes in galaxies is usually 0.1 percent.  So, this black hole is one of an emerging class in which a black hole contains a significant percentage of the mass of the host galaxy.  Physicists don't understand yet how that happens, but explaining it is clearly important in working out a general theory of galaxy formation.