Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Mars One Moves Ahead

Mars One has cut the number of potential future Martian colonists from over 200,000 applicants to 1,058 who will continue in the selection process.

The group plans to start peopling Mars in 2023.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Another Glitch At ISS

Russian cosmonauts performed a spacewalk at ISS Friday to install a HD Earth observation camera for a private company. They installed it, but mission control detected a problem, so they uninstalled it and brought it back inside.

Another spacewalk will be required to re-install it later on.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Mars Race?

Might China decide to show it's a super power by putting people on Mars?  If China announced such an intention, would the U. S. feel obliged to take up the challenge?

The Moon Race was the result of a specific historical situation.  Essentially, Kennedy and Khrushchev implicitly agreed to compete in space in an attempt to avoid World War III.  It's not clear when, if ever, China and America would reach such a crossroads, and it's not clear a race to Mars would make sense if they did.  There will be other ways to assert super power status, and other reasons to go to Mars.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Lunar Sample Return

China is planning to launch a mission designed to return samples from the Moon in 2017.

If successful, China will join the US and the USSR as only the third nation to accomplish that feat.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Points Of Eternal Light

There are mountain peaks and ridges in the polar regions of the Moon that are so high they are in sunlight 70% of the time.  Some places even receive virtually constant solar radiation.  When lower elevations are black through the long lunar nights, such places are islands of light, seemingly their own realms.

Such "points of eternal light" will likely play major roles in the colonization and economic development of the Moon.  Solar arrays positioned in those areas could provide a steady stream of power to operations below.  PELs may also establish the legal structure for handling property rights that governs the initial phase of Solar System expansion.  By being the first pieces of ET real estate with intrinsic economic value, how they are handled legally could set a precedent that will be applied to other worlds.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Repair Completed

Astronauts successfully completed repair of the ISS cooling system yesterday, performing the task in two spacewalks instead of the scheduled three.

Another plus-- there were no major problems with the spacesuits this time.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Phobos Flyby

The European Space Agency's Mars Express probe will soon pass within 28 miles of the Martian moon Phobos.  Unfortunately, the encounter will be too fast and too close to get good photos from a probe designed to study Mars, but by studying the gravitational effect Phobos has on the craft's orbit, scientists can learn more about the tiny moon's mass.

There are indications, in fact, that huge caverns exist under the surface of Phobos.  If that's accurate, such a cavern may be the ideal place for the first human base in the Martian system, as the surrounding rock would protect astronauts from harmful radiation.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Artistic Mercury

The International Astronomical Union, the governing authority about such things, has decreed that surface features on the planet Mercury will be named after creative people-- musicians, painters, sculptors, writers, etc.

Among those honored in the latest group are Alexander Calder, Truman Capote, and John Lennon.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Another Spacesuit Issue

NASA has delayed the second spacewalk to repair the ISS cooling system for one day because of a problem with water in one spacesuit.  This comes after a July spacewalk in which a helmet started to fill with water.

NASA says the issue is minor and does not expect another delay.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Curiosity's Wheels

NASA is preparing to check the six wheels of its Curiosity rover.  The rough surface of Mars might be taking a toll.

If a problem is found, Curiosity might be routed over softer, sandier ground.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Apollo 8

Tomorrow marks the 45th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 8, the first time humans voyaged to another world.

None of the crew ever set foot on the Moon, however.  Apollo 8 was the last spaceflight for Frank Borman, and the only one for William Anders.  The third crewmember, James Lovell, went on to command Apollo 13.

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were backup crew on Apollo 8, along with Fred Haise.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Avoiding Drowning In Space

In preparation for the three spacewalks to fix the cooling system on ISS, NASA is improvising an anti-drowning system in the spacesuits.  During the latest spacewalk, the helmet of one astronaut began to fill with water, so NASA is inserting a tube connected to the oxygen supply into the helmet that will allow astronauts to suck in oxygen if water rises into the helmet.

The space agency is now acknowledging an urgency in fixing the cooling system.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

ISS Spacewalks

NASA has scheduled three spacewalks, including one Christmas Day, to fix the cooling system problem on ISS.  The Christmas Day excursion may or may not suggest more urgency than NASA has admitted so far.

The spacewalks will be the first since an astronaut's helmet started filling with water during a spacewalk earlier this year.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


Geologists studying canyons and ravines on Earth are suggesting some of them may have been cut quickly by huge floods rather than slowly by the steady pressure of powerful rivers.

They also see similar landforms on Mars and suggest that they were cut by megafloods early in Martian history.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Yulu Roving

China's lunar rover Yulu is already moving across the surface, exploring the Bay of Rainbows.

The most interesting scientific instrument carried by Yulu, or Jade Rabbit, may be a ground penetrating radar that should examination of structures up to 300 feet down.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Geysers On Europa

Recently discovered water vapor in geysers erupting from Jupiter's moon Europa may suggest a quick way to search for life there.

If the geysers throw up water from the presumed ocean under Europa's icy surface, scientists speculate, they may also throw up organic material from possible life in that ocean.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

China On The Moon

China's Chang'e 3 probe has successfully landed on the Moon, making China only the third nation, after the U. S. and the now defunct Soviet Union, to accomplish that feat.  It's also the first soft lunar landing since a Soviet probe in 1976.

Chang'3 also carried a rover, which should soon be exploring the lunar surface.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Dating Saturn's Rings

A new study suggests Saturn's legendary rings formed shortly after the planet itself.  Researchers used data from the Cassini spacecraft to determine the amount of dust in the rings, which are mostly water ice.  By comparing that amount with the rate dust would have arrived in the area, they determined the rings cannot be a recent development, as some argue.

In fact, they set the age of the rings at about 4.4 billion (Earth) years.  They also say the rings include interstellar dust, which is intriguing in its own right.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Cooling ISS

NASA is dealing with a malfunction in the cooling system of ISS.  Some non-essential systems have been turned off to aid the situation.

The space agency is so far saying the problem is manageable, and that the six crewmembers are in no immediate danger.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Streaking On Mars

No, not that kind of streaking.

Streaks appear running down slopes on Mars, in the mid-latitude and now in the equatorial regions.   They appear seasonally, in the warmest parts of the Martian year.  Some scientists think the streaks are caused by flowing salt water-- salt water stays liquid at lower temperatures than fresh water-- or brine.

If it is water, it suggests there's a lot more water near the surface than previously thought.  That would alter the picture for possible past life on Mars, extant life, and possible future human colonization.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Ancient Martian Lakebed

According to data gathered by Curiosity, it is roving across what was once a lakebed.  Further, the data suggests the water in that lake may have been drinkable by humans, if humans had been around.  In fact, the lake would have existed well before multicellular life developed on Earth.

The case for a habitable early Mars is fairly strong, and seems to strengthen as we go.  But was it inhabited?  Did life ever begin on Mars?  If Curiosity finds fossils in the sediment layers of Mount Sharp, a new epoch in human history will open up.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Going To Mars

A new study of the radiation risks to astronauts on an 860-day round trip mission to Mars, including 500 days on the planet's surface, suggests those risks are manageable.  This study is not the final word on the subject, of course, but it is encouraging to advocates of manned missions into deep space.

Another factor: Radiation is dangerous to humans because it can cause cancer.  If the treatment of cancer advances over the next several years to the point that at least most cancers have become manageable diseases, as some experts project, a higher risk of cancer by the time we are ready to send people to Mars might become acceptable.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

China In Lunar Orbit

China's Moon probe, Chang'e 3, has successfully entered lunar orbit about 60 miles above the surface.

Chang'e 3 is scheduled to make a soft landing on the Moon and deploy a rover.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Huge Exoplanet Found

Astronomers have discovered a world 11 times more massive than Jupiter.  It's also young-- only 13 million years old and still radiating heat from its formation.

The real kicker, though, is that it's 650 times more distant from its parent star than Earth is from the Sun.  How such a huge world formed way out there is a mystery.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Exoplanet Water

Researchers using the Hubble Space Telescope have found trace amounts of water in the atmospheres of five exoplanets.

All five are so-called hot Jupiters, so none is a good candidate for being an abode of life, but demonstrating the ability to detect water in the atmosphere of an exoplanet is a step forward in the search for life.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

SpaceX Success

SpaceX has successfully launched its Falcon 9 rocket on a commercial mission, putting a communications satellite into orbit.

The launch was delayed a few days because a computer had detected a problem with one of the rocket engines.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Lunar Ring

The Japanese construction firm Shimizu is suggesting building a 250-mile wide ring of solar panels around the lunar equator to harness solar energy as the main power source of an advanced human civilization.

Shimizu is known for coming up with such big ideas; it's a way to publicize the firm.  Collecting solar energy in space and beaming it into the electric power grid, however, is an option to power an advanced society over the long term.

Monday, December 2, 2013


Only a small fragment of what could have been the magnificent Comet ISON seems to have survived its intense close encounter with the Sun last week, according observations made with two NASA space telescopes-- and that fragment is fading rapidly.

Astronomers like to proclaim "the comet of the century."  They're often wrong.  ISON probably should have been a no-brainer.  A snowball grazing the Sun likely has a snowball's chance in hell of coming out the other side.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

China's First Moon Mission

China launched its first mission intended to land on the Moon today.

It includes Yulu, or Jade Rabbit, a rover.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Falcon 9 Launch Delayed

The Thursday commercial launch of SpaceX's Falcon 9 was delayed when a computer detected a problem with engine pressure.

SpaceX will likely try to launch again in a few days.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Hot Time For ISON

Comet ISON passed within about 700,000 miles of the surface of the Sun yesterday, and seems to have broken up under the extreme heat and gravitational stress.

It is possible that a fragment may have held course.  Astronomers are watching.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Inspiration Mars

Dennis Tito is discovering that sending two people around Mars with a five year lead is tougher than he'd thought.  Inspiration Mars was supposed to be a wholly private enterprise, but now Tito is saying the project probably can't be done without NASA participation.

So far, NASA is holding back.  One wonders, frankly, whether Mr. Tito wasn't pursuing a strategy not to fly this mission without NASA carrying most of the water all along.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Short On Curiosity

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity suffered an electrical short recently that led engineers to temporarily shut down the science part of the mission.

Luckily, the short turned out to be a relatively minor issue, and science operations have resumed.

Monday, November 25, 2013


The Great Red Spot of Jupiter is a huge storm, or vortex, that has endured for centuries, baffling scientists trying to explain its longevity.  A new computer simulation study suggests part of the answer is the vertical flow of energy within a vortex.

Physicists have tended to focus on horizontal energy flows in vortices, but the systems may be renewed by pulling new energy in vertically.  The theory could also help explain vortices in Earth's oceans and even star formation.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Sun Grazing ISON

Comet ISON is whipping around the Sun this weekend, entering the tenuous solar atmosphere and-- hopefully--just missing the surface.  Astronomers are unsure whether ISON will survive the heat and gravitational forces of such a close approach.

We will know shortly.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Comet ISON

Astronomers like to try to predict the next great comet.  Such comets can be among Nature's most spectacular displays, so it's only human to want to be associated with that splendor in some way.

Comet ISON is the current candidate for greatness.  So far it hasn't quite matched the billing, but there are months of long winter nights ahead.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Dream Chaser Test Flight

The Dream Chaser spacecraft successfully completed its first unmanned test flight Saturday, but not without some drama.

Dropped from a helicopter at 12,000 feet, Dream Chaser glided to a perfect runway touchdown.  One of the landing gear failed to deploy, however, and the craft skidded off the runway.  Damage to the vehicle was minimal.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Ballooning To Near Space

A new company, World View Enterprises, is about to offer balloon rides to an altitude of 19 miles inside specially designed capsules.  That's high enough to experience the curvature of Earth and the blackness of space.

Tickets are $75,000 each.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Defending The Planet

Last week, astronauts and cosmonauts urged the UN to push forward with plans to defend Earth from collisions with asteroids and comets.

Astronomers estimate there are a million bodies that could cause catastrophic damage, but to date we've only found 1 percent of them.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Early Water

A new study suggests water came to Earth soon after the planet was formed, as opposed to after the Late Heavy Bombardment period.  That would mean the pounding Earth took during the LBH did not destroy the water already present.

The study also suggests organics arrived on Earth at a very early time.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Inter Orbital Success

Inter Orbital Systems, a New Space firm out of Mojave, California, has successfully completed test firings of its new rocket engine.  The engine has basically the same oomph as a rocket using liquid oxygen as a fuel, but uses a fuel based on, of all things, turpentine.  While LOX has to be stored in a supercold state, the turpentine can be held in a rocket tank virtually indefinitely.

IOS plans to begin satellite launches next year, and has already sold out the first two manifests.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Orion On Track

NASA's next manned spaceship, Orion, is on track to make its first test flight next September.

The flight, which will be unmanned, will fly Orion about 3,600 miles away from Earth before coming back, to approximate the speed of reentry from a lunar voyage and test the ship's heat shield.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Grasshopper Retired

SpaceX has retired its experimental rocket, Grasshopper, that helped the company develop and demonstrate a vertical landing capability.  The focus will now shift to the Falcon 9-R, which the company will use to further develop the capability in conditions more like those of an actual space mission.

SpaceX is keeping Grasshopper for now, but its final home could easily be a museum.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Defining Habitable Zones

A super-Earth NASA said last April orbited within its star's habitable zone may in fact lie just outside it, the agency now says.

Defining habitable zones is proving more complex than previously thought.  A world's distance from its star is only one facter.  Other factors include the makeup of the planetary atmosphere and the behavior of the star.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Martian Meteorites

If life began on Mars and migrated to Earth, it had to have some way to get here.  Maybe it did.

The Curiosity rover, by studying the amount of the inert gas argon in Martian rocks, has clinched the case that some meteorites on Earth do in fact come from Mars.  The argon in those meteorites matches that in the atmosphere of early Mars.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Why Space?

Supporters of the space program have always had to defend their position.  Opponents, not so much.  That might be changing.

Until recently, space exploration was the exclusive province of government.  Now, however, we are on the verge of a new era that will see private efforts pushing out the space frontier.  As they will be using private money, they won't need to defend their positions in the same way.  That could result in a fundamental shift in how society sees moving into space.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Spitzer's Second Act

NASA's Spitzer infrared telescope was designed to study big stuff, like stellar nurseries and the centers of galaxies, where infrared can penetrate gas and dust that optical light cannot.  Now, however, after ten years of service, it's also studying exoplanets.

Some worlds are brighter in infrared.  Spitzer can also better estimate a planet's size, and even reveal facts about an exoplanet's atmosphere.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Mercury And The Moon

Sean Solomon, principal investigator of NASA's Messenger probe to Mercury, argues that studying small, rocky, aurless Mercury could help explain the origin of Earth's Moon.

Currently, scientists think a huge body slammed into Earth, and the Moon formed from the debris, but that theory seems at best incomplete.  Solomon points out that no one believes Mercury formed that way, yet Mercury and the Moon have several common traits.  Focusing on those traits might yield a broader theory of rocky world evolution.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

India To Mars

India is set to launch its first mission to Mars.  So far, only the U. S., Russia, and the European Space Agency have flown successful missions to the Red Planet.

The Indian probe will photograph the Martian surface and look for methane in the Martian atmosphere.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Another Grasshopper Record

On October 7, SpaceX's experimental Grasshopper rocket set another record, reaching an altitude of 2440 feet before essentially retracing its flight bottom first and safely landing back on its launch pad.

The company believes the way to truly open space is to cut launch costs, and the way to do that is to create reusable rockets.  Grasshopper is bringing implementation of that strategy closer.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Naiad Rediscovered

The tiny moon of Neptune, Naiad, hadn't been seen since its discovery by Voyager 2 in 1989.  Recently, however, it was rediscovered by researchers using images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2004.

The researchers say the orbit of Naiad changed in that fifteen years.  They also discovered an even smaller Neptunian moon.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Scott Carpenter

Scott Carpenter, one of the original Mercury astronauts, passed away yesterday.  He was 88.  Carpenter flew only one space mission before leaving NASA, but he went on to explore another huge frontier-- the deep ocean.

Now, only one of the Mercury Seven is still with us.  John Glenn is 92.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Recognizing Apollo Nomenclature

When Apollo astronauts went to the Moon, they named certain features on the lunar surface as navigation aids.  The International Astronomical Union, however, is the body that officially names features on other worlds, and it never adopted the Apollo names.

Two Apollo lunar astronauts, James Lovell and William Anders, want the IAU to recognize at least some of the Apollo place names.  They point out that for centuries explorers have been granted the ability to name places associaed with them.  The next IAU meeting might be interesting.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Alien Signals In DNA?

Scientists are exploring a wealth of ways an alien civilization might make itself known to us.  One of the most imaginative would be to plant obviously deliberately arranged sequences in human DNA.  That would guarantee humans would not find the evidence until we had developed the technological sophistication to read the DNA code.  Scientists believe large chunks of that code is unnecessary, so presumably a message inserted there would not affect individuals.

Such a scheme would seem to require an alien visitation of Earth to physically introduce the message.  It would also seem to require an intimate familiarity with the DNA code.  If that code is unique to life on Earth, gaining such familiarity may mean aliens were here for a very long time.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Shaping Sylvia

A team of both amateur and professional astronomers have determined that the 168-mile wide asteroid 87 Sylvia  is irregularly shaped.  They did so by observing Sylvia as it occulted a star.

They also found that Romulus, a 15-mile wide asteroid that orbits Sylvia, is dumbbell shaped.

Monday, October 7, 2013

To Mars, Quickly

One big problem with sending humans to Mars is the time such a mission would take using chemical rockets-- well over a year, at least, and possibly three years, depending on how much time was spent actually on the surface of Mars.  During such a mission, astronauts would be exposed to the dangers of radiation, which causes cancer and genetic damage, and prolonged weightlessness, which can destroy muscle and bone.

So, NASA is looking for ways to shorten mission times, and it may have found one.  A team at the University of Washington is developing a fusion powered rocket that could fly between Earth and Mars in about 90 days.  All the physics and engineering of such a rocket are already well understood, and the team is working on building test models.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Maven Still A 'Go'

NASA's Maven probe to study the evolution of the atmosphere of Mars will go forward regardless of the government shutdown.  Launch is scheduled for next month.

NASA has determined Maven can go ahead because it will also serve as a communications relay linking the rovers on Mars to Earth, qualifying the probe as "essential."

Friday, October 4, 2013

Space Race

NBC and Virgin Galactic are teaming with reality television king Mark Burnett to develop a new reality show.  It's to be called :"Space Rsce."

In the show, people will compete for a ticket to ride VG's SpaceShipTwo to the edge of space.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Martian Supervolcanoes?

And you thought Olympus Mons is big.

A new study postulates that several explosive supervolcanoes erupted multiple times during the first billion years of Martian history.  Such events could have destroyed the atmosphere of early Mars, and could possibly have thrown rocks containing life to the early Earth-- and possibly to other places, as well.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Mapping Exoplanets

Scientists have produced the first crude map of a planet orbiting another star.

Using data from both the Kepler planet hunting probe and the Spitzer infrared telescope, they have determined that Kepler 7b, a hot Jupiter that whizzes around its star in five Earth days, has clouds in its leading hemisphere and clear skies in the trailing.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

NASA At 55

Today marks the 55th anniversary of the creation of NASA.  President Eisenhower, responding to early Soviet space achievements and unwilling to leave the American counter to the military, argued for the creation of a civilian space agency.

So, is NASA celebrating?  If so, it's a small, intimate affair.  Only about 600 of over 18,000 NASA employees are at work today because of the government shutdown.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Asteroid Disposition

NASA is currently looking at capturing a tiny asteroid and placing it in a stable orbit around the Moon, where it could be visited repeatedly by humans.

Such an asteroid would not become a permanent neighbor, however.  After a century or so, NASA is considering deliberately crashing the thing into the lunar surface.  Of course, by then, residents of the Moon might have something to say about that.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Shutdown Consequences

According to a report NASA has submitted to the Office of Management and Budget, if there is a shutdown of the federal government, fewer than 600 of the space agency's 18,000 employees will remain on the job.

Maintaining the safety of personnel and the effectiveness of equipment will be the agency's priorities.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Perchorates And Organics

Perchorates are compounds of salts and oxygen, and are abundant in Martian soil.  A new study suggests they might be hindering the search for life on Mars.

NASA's rover Curiosity heats soil samples to look for organic compounds and possible life.  However, when perchorates are heated the oxygen is released, and oxygen destroys some forms of life.  So, when Curiosity detects organics and possible life in the soil, there may in fact be more there than is detected.

Friday, September 27, 2013

A Two Percent Solution

Analysis of soil samples gathered by the Curiosity rover indicates roughly 2 percent by weight of Martian soil is water.  Scientists believe that ratio will probably hold planetwide.

If it does, that would be a big plus for the human exploration and settlement of Mars.  Humans could meet their water needs by extracting water from the soil.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Earth And Io

A new study argues the very early Earth may have been similar to Jupiter's moon Io, which is currently the most volcanically active body in the Solar System.

Before cooling down and having plate tectonics kick in, the study says Earth released its internal heat through immense and prolonged volcanic eruptions.  Such an environment wouldn't seem a likely incubator for life, but the study argues the release of huge amounts of physical and chemical energy from rock into water would actually have encouraged the creation of life.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

More Evidence Of Martian Water

NASA's Curiosity rover has found veins cut through sandstone rock on Mars.  Scientists are confident the cutting agent was flowing liquid water.

It's simply the latest bit of evidence strengthening the case that ancient Mars had substantial amounts of liquid water on the surface.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

North Korean Rocketry

North Korea may have tested a large rocket in late August, according to analysts who studied satellite images of the launch site taken days apart, before and after the alleged event.

From that evidence, analysts say the rocket could have been a space launcher-- or it could have been a test of a long range ballistic missile.

Monday, September 23, 2013

A Younger Moon

New analyses of lunar rocks suggest the Moon was formed 100 million years later than thought, or roughly 4.45 billion years ago.

Current theory holds that the Moon was created as a result of a Mars-sized body slamming into the young Earth, throwing material into space that coalesced into the Moon.  In fact, there is geologic evidence that Earth suffered a major catastrophe about 4.4 billion years ago.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Deciphering Black Holes

Physicists once thought it was impossible to learn what was inside black holes because that stuff is essentially cut off from the rest of the universe.  Radiation, though, does seep out of black holes, and that radiation carries information about the interior.

A new sttudy of how to secure information using quantam principles to encrypt keys that controls access to information also suggests it's at least theoretically possible to use the mathematics of quantam physics and information theory to probe the interiors of black holes.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The End Of Earth

A new study says Earth will be uninhabitable in 1.75 billion years.  The Sun is growing bigger and hotter, it says, and will eventually boil away Earth's water reserves.

At that far future time, the study says Mars will be habitable.  Of course, a starfaring civilization around before that end time could also intervene in the natural run of things to preserve its home world.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Deep Impact Finished

NASA has formally declared its Deep Impact mission over after failing for months to reestablish contact with the spacecraft.

The probe, launched in 2005, encountered two comets and sent an impactor into the first, helping to shape our current understanding of those bodies.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Mars Water

Martiian probes, especially NASA's Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity rovers, have virtually clinched the case for substantial amounts of water on Mars in the past.  It's possible there was more than one wet era.

Water over some long period, in rivers, lakes, and possibly an ocean, increases the odds that life could have arisen on Mars.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Cygnus On Its Way

Orbital Sciences successfully launched its Cygnus cargo ship atop its Antares rocket this morning.  Cygnus is headed to ISS.

It was also the first launch to ISS from NASA's Wallops Island site in Virginia.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

3552 Don Quixote

Astronomers have discovered the near-Earth asteroid 3552 Don Quixote is in fact a comet with about as much water as Lake Tahoe.  The Quixote water, of course, is in the form of ice.

That much water might make Don Quixote an early exploration target.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Exomoons And Life

A new study suggests exomoons are unlikely to support life because moons likely don't come big enough to have their own magnetic fields, and strong magnetic fields are important as they shield life on the surface of a world from deadly cosmic radiation.

That said, some of the best candidates for life beyond Earth in the Solar System are Jupiter's Europa and Saturn's Titan and Enceladus.  All moons.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Extinctions And Asteroids

One theory holds that life originated somewhere in space and came to Earth.  Another theory suggests asteroids crashing into Earth have changed the course of life on Earth.

The most famous such incident is the impact that likely wiped out the dinosaurs, opening the way for the rise of mammals.  There seems to be correlations between other mass extinctions in the fossil record and major impact events, as well-- also between such impacts and climate change.  Scientists are now looking at trace elements of chemicals in ancient rock fragments to try to support the theory.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Voyager I

Voyager I has left the Solar System, according to NASA, becoming the first human spacecraft to reach interstellar space.

Designed to perform flybys of the gas giants, Voyager I has continued to function for more than thirty years.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

LADEE Doing Fine

NASA's LADEE lunar probe, launched from Virginia last week, is checking out A-OK as it spirals out to the Moon.

LADEE will investigate the wispy lunar atmosphere and lunar dust.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Long Drive For Curiiosity

NASA's Curiosity rover made its longest single day drive yet last week, covering 404 feet.

Mission planners used the camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to help plot the course Curiosity followed.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Sutter's Mill Meteorite And Life

A meteor fell to Earth April 22, 2012, near Sutter's Mill, California, thus becoming a meteorite.  Scientists studying fragments of the meteorite have found traces of organic compounds.

In itself, that's not terribly unusual; organics have been associated with space rocks many times.  This time, however, the particular compounds found could hold other organics together.  That would be a big step forward in the creation of life.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Virgin Galactic Close

Officials at Virgin Galactic have said recently they plan to commence commercial flight operations by mid-year 2014.

That's dependent on the success of the test flight program, of course.  So far, so good on that.  VG is looking at 20 test flights, two of which have been successfully completed.  If all goes well, however, fewer test flights might suffice.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Star Trek

Today marks the 47th anniversary of  the debut of "Star Trek" on NBC.  It was not a huge rating success, but it attracted a core of fans that refused to let the show die.  There have been an animated series, four spinoff series. and 12 feature films, so far.

All in all, when canceling the original series after three seasons, NBC likely goofed.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Virgin Galactic Moves Ahead

Virgin Galactic has successfully completed its second powered test flight of SpaceShipTwo.  The vehicle reached an altitude of 65,000 feet.

VG is on track to begin commercial flights in 2014.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Finding Life

Fifty years ago, Frank Drake wrote an equation aimed at estimating the number of technological civilizations existing at any one time in the galaxy.  It has become the foundational equation of SETI.

Now, Sara Seager of MIT has written an equation estimating the odds of finding life-- any life-- on a planet orbiting an M-class star, the most common type of star in the galaxy.  Advances made the last twenty years in finding exoplanets, and advances on the horizon, she argues, makes such a calculation reasonable.  Seager says there's a remote chance of finding life elsewhere within a decade.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Minotaur V

Orbital Science's Minotaur V launcher is set for a dramatic debut Friday evening, lifting NASA's LADEE mission to the Moon.  LADEE is tasked to study lunar dust and the virtually non-existent lunar atmosphere.

LADEE will also be the first lunar mission launched from NASA's Wallops Island, Virginia, site.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Missing The Night

As the human population is increasingly concentrated in huge cities-- and even megacities--  we are losing contact with the wonders of the night sky, wonders that helped fuel and organize our mythology, wonders that helped us navigate the globe of Earth, and wonders that gave us a first inkling of infinity.

The night lights of modern cities washes those wonders out of the sky.  Astronomers have been opposing light pollution for years, with limited success.  Unless things change, we will be poorer as a species.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Uranus Trojan Asteroid Found

Astronomers have found a Trojan asteroid of the planet Uranus.

A Trojan asteroid orbits the Sun in the same orbit as a planet, only sixty degrees ahead of or behind the planet.  Earth has Trojans, as do Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Hot Times On A Blue World

There's a big blue world 63 light years away, but it's not a candidate to support life.

In fact, the world is a so-called hot Jupiter orbiting its star at such close range that the surface temperature is roughly 1700 degrees.  That's hot enough that it rains molten glass there, which is what gives the exoplanet the blue tint.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Bruce Murray

Space exploration pioneer Bruce Murray died Thursday after a long illness.  He was 81.

Murray served as director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory from 1976 to 1982.  Even with the extraordinary successes of that period-- the Viking probes to Mars and the Voyagers to the outer planets-- the future of planetary exploration was in question.  Murray was one of those who successfully argued for that future.  Towards securing that future, he co-founded, along with Carl Sagan and Louis Friedman, The Planetary Society in 1979.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Moon Water

A new study of the mineralogy of the Moon suggests a huge amount of water may exist deep underground.

Far from the utterly dry Moon of Apollo, we now think the Moon has enough water to support colonization and an industry producing rocket fuel by recombining the hydrogen and oxygen in water.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Earthly Martians?

The idea that life originated on Mars and migrated to Earth has been around for a while now, in varying degrees of seriousness.  A new study supports the idea with some details.

The study notes that boron and molybdenum would have been important facilitators of the development of life, but they were rare on early Earth and abundant on Mars.  It also notes that RNA, the genetic code of life before the development of DNA, doesn't do well in water, which is where Earthly life supposedly arose.  RNA would have done much better in the dry land areas of Mars.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Mars One Shortfall

Mars One, the foundation trying to establish a human colony on Mars beginning in 2023, is falling far short in the number of people applying to become colonusts.  With the August 31 deadline looming, there are 165,000 applicants, not the projected 1 million.

Still, 165,000 is a large number, and Mars One intends to continue with the project.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Cosmic Billiards

The rock that exploded over Russia last winter may have also encountered other celestial bodies.

Examining the fragments of the meteor that reached Earth, scientists found evidence of surface heating prior to the last plunge into Earth's atmosphere, suggesting either a prior collision with another small body or a close encounter with a larger body.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Sleeping To Mars

NASA scientists are looking at ways to put astronauts in a state akin to hibernation for the long trip to Mars.  They argue doing so could make the trip less stressful on the crew both emotionally and psychologically, as well as lowering costs and technology requirements for the mission.

The study is still in its early days, but researchers think they may have something in 20 to 30 years.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Spitzer's Tenth

NASA's Spitzer Telescope was launched ten years ago today.

Spitzer sees the infrared universe amd has made discoveries both inside the Solar System and in the realm of galaxies, helping to unveil a whole new universe.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Neil Armstrong Remembered

Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of the death of Neil Armstrong, commander of Apollo 11 and first human to set foot on another world.  Armstrong died of complications following heart surgery.

Armstrong is remembered as a test pilot's test pilot, an extremely cool operator in pressure situations, which is largely why he got Apollo 11.  He's also remembered as a quiet, solid Midwesterner who made time for people and refused to cash in on his enormous fame and place in history.  If we are looking for role models, we could do much worse than Neil Armstrong.

Friday, August 23, 2013

China Rising

China is hosting a major international conference on the future of manned spaceflight in September.  China joined with the UN to organize the conference.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of China's first manned spaceflight, and the nation seems focused on becoming a major player in that area.

Thursday, August 22, 2013


Astronauts have reported seeing strange things in space since the Mercury progrram-- and UFOlogists often insist NASA is covering up the really good stuff.  This week, an astronaut aboard ISS actually got video of a "UFO" in space.

NASA says the object is the cap of a Russian antenna.  The cap has drifted away and is now space junk.  We'll see if there are any dissenting opinions.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Speedy Lava World

Astronomers using Kepler data have discovered an Earth-sized exoplanet that orbits its star in only 8.5 hours, making Mercury an absolute slowpoke.  Because the planet is so close to its star, surface temperatures there are incredibly hot, so astronomers think that surface is covered in lava.

This is a young system-- only 750 million years old-- so the world's fate may be uncertain.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Testing Dream Chaser

Sierra Nevada Corporation's Dream Chaser manned spacecraft recently passed an important test of its landing systems, bringing it one step closer to flying astronauts.

Unlike the SpaceX Dragon and Boeing's CST-100, both capsules that will land under parachute, Dream Chaser will land on a runway, like the space shuttle did.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Curiosity Captures Deimos And Phobos

NASA's rover Curiosity turned its camera skyward recently to record the two tiny Martian moons, Deimos and Phobos, as they moved quickly through the heavens.

Both Deimos and Phobos are thought to be asteroids captured by Mars' gravity.  One of them may also see the first human landing in the Martian system.  A possible exploration strategy would be to establish a manned base on one of the moons and use that base as the final staging area for the first trip to the surface of Mars.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Dragon On Track

SpaceX's Dragon capsule took another step towards carrying astronauts last week when the program passed a major design review by NASA engineers and private industry experts.

SpaceX now has the green light to build a man-rated spaceflight system made up of the upgraded Dragon capsule and the company's Falcon 9 launcher.  The first manned flight of Dragon could come as early as 2017.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Area 51

The U. S. Government has finally officially acknowledged it has a "secret" base in the high desert of Nevada, in a place known as Area 51, where it tests classified, high performance aircraft.

Of course, even though the base has never been on any public maps, it hasn't been secret for years.  UFO researchers have made Area 51 famous, an icon of late twentieth century pop culture.  Satellites have imaged the base, as have individuals using long range cameras from nearby mountains.  The issue has not been whether the base exists, but what goes on there.  Some UFOlogiss claim alien technology is tested there, perhaps with the help of live aliens.  The government denies that.  Of course, the government would deny that.....

Friday, August 16, 2013

Chelyabrinsk Plume

NASA was able to track from space the dust plume from the big meteor that exploded over Chelyabrinsk, Russia, last February.

The plume eventually encircled the Earth, and could still be followed three months after the event.  That said, the density of the dust in the plume was never as high as that from a major volcanic eruption on Earth.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Hunting Dyson Spheres

A Dyson sphere-- a concept developed by physicist Freeman Dyson-- would be an incredible feat of engineering and construction.  A civilization would build a Dyson sphere around its solar system in order to harvest all the energy put out by its sun.

Exoplanet hunter Geoff Marcy and his team are now looking for Dyson spheres.  Advances made to discover planets around other stars make such a search possible.  Finding even one such object would open a new age for mankind.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Moon Or Mars?

Should the next goal of human spaceflight be building a base on the Moon, as a stepping stone to Mars, or should we aim directly at Mars?  The debate continues.

If the ultimate point is "simply" to explore Mars, then going there directly makes some sense.  However, lunar advocates often present a wider vision.  Not only would settling the Moon develop technologies for Mars, but it would allow us to bring ET resources into the human economy, allowing us to build a society with the wealth to tackle poverty, climate change, pollution.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

ISS After 2020

There is considerable discussion about whether ISS should continue to be operated after 2020.  Many of the 15 nations that built the station have had economic problems recently and may decide they can't afford to support the current proposal to extend ISS' operational lifetime to 2028.

NASA argues that without such an extension a manned flight to Mars any time soon will be impossible.  Compiling the necessary medical data base and getting the necessary experience with closed-loop life support systems require using ISS well beyond 2020, the agency says.

If ISS is abandoned in 2020, the plan now is to de-orbi it.  However, things could be moving rapidly in commercial space by then.  A fully functional space station already in orbit that its owners no longer want could be seen as an interesting investment by the right consortium.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Lori Garver

According to a National Space Society press release, Lori Garver is leaving NASA after four years as the agency's deputy administrator.

Before NASA, Garver served for nine years as executive director of NSS, and had a big hand in molding it into the effective space advocacy organization it is today.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Girls Build Mars Rover

Camille and Genevieve Beatty enjoy building robots with their dad, Robert.  Their latest project was to build a scaled down version of NASA's Mars rover, Spirit, for a New York City science museum.

Visitors to the museum will be able to drive the rover across a simulated Mars landscape.

Camille is 13, and Genevieve is 11.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Perseid Shower

Every year about this time the Earth passes through a cloud of dust in space that is associated with Comet Swift-Tuttle.  When dust particles enter the Earth's atmosphere they burn up, in this case creating the Perseid meteor shower, so named because the streaking meteors seem to come from the constellaion Perseus.

The Perseid shower is regularly one of the brightest meteor showers of the year, and at times it can be spectacular.  This year, the peak of the shower is expected to be the nights of August 11/12 and 12/13.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Simming Mars In Hawaii

A four-month long mock Mars mission comes to an end next week.  A crew of seven has been living inside a habitat module situated on a barren volcanic field 8,000 feet above sea level on Mauna Loa.  The site was chosen to simulate a Martian landscape, and the crew lived and worked as they might on Mars, even donning simulated spacesuits to explore outside.

Such exercises are principally used to try to anticipate psychological and interpersonal problems that might arise on an actual mission.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Exploring Europa

Even though NASA has no plans at the moment to send a probe to Jupiter's moon, Europa, it has had a team of scientists work out the instruments such a probe should carry.  They include an imager, a chemical analyzer, a radiation meter, and a drill capable of boring four inches into solid ice.

Scientists believe Europa has a huge ocean inside its icy shell that could support life.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Solar Cycles

The Sun goes through an 11-year cycle of activity, from relatively quiet times with few sunspots, for example, to peaks of activity.

We are approaching such a solar maximum right now.  Within a few months, astrophysicists expect to see the crescendo, when the Sun's magnetic field actually flips its polarity before continuing on its merry way.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Building True Spaceships

NASA isn't concerned solely with the next program; it also tries to develop technologies that would be necessary decades or more in the future.

To that end, the agency is working now on conceptual designs for space stations in deep space, manned interplanetary craft, and even manned interstellar ships.  Such stations and ships would be assembled in space and designed for space.  They would never be on a planet during their working time periods.  They would be true spaceships.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Mars One Progress Report

So far, 78,000 people have applied to Mars One to become among the first colonists of Mars.  Fifty of those gathered in Washington, D. C., yesterday to hear Bas Lansdorp, co-founder and CEO of Mars One.  Robert Zubrin, president of The Mars Society, also addressed the group via teleconference.

How many of those 78,000 would actually go on a one-way trip to Mars is an open question, of course, but the project is garnering publicity in the meantime.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Curiosity At One (Earth) Year

A year ago this weekend, after successfully negotiating seven minutes of terror going from orbit to the surface, NASA's Curiosity rover landed on Mars.

Since then, Curiosity has been a huge success.  It has already accomplished a major part of its mission, providing data strongly suggesting that early Mars could have supported life.  Curiosity is now on its way to its main science objective, Mount Sharp, where scientists hope to learn even more about early Mars.

Friday, August 2, 2013

SLS On Track

NASA's huge Space Launch System rocket has passed a key design review, clearing the way for the actual building of hardware.

SLS, which would eventually be the most powerful rocket ever built, is tasked with throwing NASA astronauts into deep space-- to the Moon, asteroids, and eventually to Mars.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Imaging Exoplanets

Astronomers have directly imaged the smallest exoplanet yet.  Smallest, but still not small.  GJ 504b is four times more massive than Jupiter.  It's also farther from its parent star than Pluto is from the Sun.  Such a huge world so far out is still a challenge to explain with current planetary formation models.

The technology to directly image exoplanets using huge ground-based research telescopes is steadily improving.  The big prize, of course, is directly imaging a world similar to Earth orbiting in its star's habitable zone.  That should be possible in a decade or two.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Geysers Of Enceladus

Saturn's moon Enceladus is known for its geysers that spew water vapor and other materials miles into space.  A new study finds the strength of those eruptions are related to when they occur in Enceladus' orbit.

When Enceladus is farthest from Saturn, the eruptions are most powerful; when closest, they are weakest.  Scientists explain the situation by noting Enceladus is constantly being stressed-- but at constantly varying rates, depending on orbitial position-- by the gravitational tugs of Saturn and another moon, Dione.  It's that varying stress that leads to the varying eruptions.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Running Rovers From Orbit

Last week, an astronaut aboard ISS successfully operated a rover at NASA's Ames Research Center in California.  It was the second such test of concept.

Developing that capability would be an important new tool in planetary exploration, allowing astronauts in orbit, or from nearby space, to operate robots on the Moon, Mars, and eventually other worlds.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Europan DNA

Many scientists believe the most likely place to find extant life in the Solar System beyond Earth is inside Jupiter's moon, Europa.  A water ocean is thought to exist under the moon's ice shell, and that ocean could support life.

The technology needed to plumb that ocean is currently being developed.  One among many scientific instruments under development is a DNA sequencer.  If life is found inside Europa and can be sampled, the sequencer could tell us whether that life had the same DNA as Earthly life or another type entirely.  Either answer would be remarkable.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Asteroid Ideas

NASA has received 400 proposals this summer suggesting ways to capture asteroids and move them into lunar orbit, as well as how to detect asteroids that might pose a danger to Earth and what we could do to avoid a collision.  The proposals have come from all over the world, at NASA's invitation, and from non-profits, international organizations, and private companies.

NASA plans a gathering in September at which it will address the proposals.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

MRO Spots Curiosity

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has imaged the Curiosity rover on the surface on Mars.  It can also see Curiosity's tracks in the soil.

Those conspiracy theorist types who'll want to argue Curiosity is in fact exploring Arizona will have a slightly tougher time.

Friday, July 26, 2013

3-D Printing Rockets

NASA recently ran a test, manufacturing rocket components using 3-D printing technology and comparing their performance to components built in the traditional way.  The test showed the 3-D printed components worked just as well.

NASA is optimistic the new technology can be a big boost to space operations by lowering costs and by allowing the manifacture of parts in space.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Getting Down To Cases

NASA is going ahead with the final phase of its Commercial Crew Program, which will pick one or more private spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from ISS.  The first flight is scheduled for 2017.

The problem is that NASA needs $800 million a year for the interim years to meet that 2017 date, and Congress has never come close to giving this program that much money.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Curiosity On The Move

NASA's Curiosity rover took its longest drive on Mars yet last Sunday, covering 329 feet-- more than double its previous record.  NASA expects the new record to fall, however, when mission controllers allow Curiosity to navigate itself later on.

Curiosity is now on a five-mile journey to its prime science target, the three-mile high Mount Sharp.  The trek to the mountain is expected to take a year or more.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

CST-100 On Display

Boeing opened its new private spacecraft, the CST-100, to NASA and the media yesterday.  Two astronauts in pressure spacesuits were strapped into the pilots' seats of the capsule.  Their assignment was to evaluate the interior design of the ship from the crew's perspective.

The CST-100 is designed to ferry humans to and from ISS, and eventually to and from private space stations.  Boeing plans the first orbital test flight of the craft for 2016.

Monday, July 22, 2013


Sixty-six years ago this month, according to some, an alien spacecraft-- or two-- crashed in the desert outside Roswell, New Mexico.  Put another way, we are now roughly the same time period removed from that alleged crash as Apollo 11 was from the first heavier-than-air flight at Kitty Hawk.  An awful lot can happen in 66 years.

We know vastly more about space travel, the universe, and the odds of other intelligent life in the universe now than we did in 1947.  Space travel is now a fact, and interstellar travel is almost certainly possible.  The universe could well be teeming with life.  That may or may not increase the odds for technology-producing intelligence, but the universe produced one such species-- us-- so others are perfectly possible.

Do the advances made over the past six decades make the Roswell story more plausible?  Broadly, yes.  However, to prove a specific event actually happened requires specific evidence.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Rolling The Dice

NASA is funding 12 innovative technology development efforts at $100,000 each for Phase I studies.  The projects cover a range of possibilities, from advanced space propulsiom systems to a method for keeping astronauts asleep for extended periods during deep space missions.

All the projects might not pan out, but if some do, they will represent fundamental breakthroughs in space exploration and development.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Apollo 11 Plus 44

Todaxy is the 44th annivversary of the first manned landing on the Moon, and the first since the passing of Apollo 11's commander, Neil Armstrong.  Happily, the other two crew members, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins, are still with us.

The 1960s were marked by assassinations, wars, great power rivalry, and civil unrest.  All those things have precedents going back deep into human history.  The one unprecedented event of the decade saw humans leave their home world and land on another.  A thousand years from now, if society doesn't collapse in the meantime, that decade will be remembered for one event-- the flight of Apollo 11.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Defining Early Mars... Again

A new study that compares the current Martian atmosphere revealed by the instruments of the Curiosity rover to the early atmosphere samples found trapped within Martian meteorites found on Earth finds that Mars lost most of its atmosphere very early on, possibly as much as four billion years ago.

Exactly how that meshes with the "warmer, wetter" early Mars theory is unclear.  Perhaps Mars was a dying world even as conditions conducive to life were developing,

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Skylon On Track

Thanks to financial support from both the UK Government and the European Space Agency, the huge Skylon space plane, at 276 feet long, with its revolutionary SABRE engine is on track for its first test flight in 2020.

Skylon, which is being developed by British aerospace firm Reaction Engines, Ltd., will be a single-stage-to-orbit craft that can carry both cargo and humans into space.  If successful, it would be a major step forward in truly opening space.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Possible Ocean On Early Mars

A new study using the high resolution camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that's able to resolve objects only ten inches across-- think about that-- has identified what seems to be the location of the delta of a large river that could have flowed into an ocean early in Mars history.

Scientists have suspected for a while that a huge water ocean once dominated the northern hemisphere of Mars.  If further work on the supposed delta supports the study, it could be the best direct evidence yet of such an ocean.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Spacewalk Cut Short

NASA cut short a spacewalk outside ISS today when an astronaut reported water in his helmet.

NASA says no astronaut was in any danger.  That may be, but if you were a spacewalking astronaut and you started getting water in your nose, you might have a slightly different take.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Long March Rockets

China is expanding its family of Long March rockets as it increases the capability of its space program.

Long March 5, which suffered a test failure last month, and Long March 7 will be the powerful workhorses for China's big move into space.  LM 7 will carry cargo to the nation's large space station, to be constructed around 2020, while the even more powerful LM 5 will launch the components of that station.  LM 5 will also be able to launch substantial payloads to the Moon.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

On To Mount Sharp

NASA's Curiosity rover has begun the trek to its primary scientific objective, Mount Sharp.  The five mile journey could take a year or more.

Scientists identified Mount Sharp as a place to go because images show it was built layer by layer.  By examining the layers up close with Curiosity, they expect to be able to learn the early history of that area of Mars.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Rating Kepler

Even if NASA's Kepler spacecraft can't continue its planet hunting mission, it has achieved its primary mission objective-- to determine the frequency of Earth-like worlds in the galaxy, a team member says.

The margin for error would be greater than desired, he said, but the basic picture will be clear.  Kepler has been offline since suffering reaction wheel failures.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Apollo National Park?

A bill has been introduced in Congress that would make the Apollo lunar landing sites protected U. S. national park territory.

Under international law, those sites are not owned by the United States-- nations are prohibited from claiming sovereignty over all or parts of celestial bodies, which is why Apollo astronauts didn't claim the Moon as American territory when they planted the flag-- so how non- U.S. territory could be U. S. national parks is unclear.  Congress probably has better things to do than open another optional can of worms.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Searching For Old Martians

NASA's next Mars rover, scheduled for launch in 2020, will search for evidence of past Martian life, not extant life.

Scientists involved with the project argue technology is not yet advanced enough to allow a reasonable search for current life.  The better bet, they say, is to search for fossils in rocks, since we know Mars was once much more hospitable to life than it is today.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Leaping Grasshopper

SpaceX's experimental rocket, Grasshopper, rose over 1,000 feet before executing a safe landing in its latest test flight.

The flight set an altitude record for the program, and new precision sensors helped guide the landing.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Cutting Costs With CAT

A new engine, the CubeSat Ambipolar Thruster, could allow fleets of tiny, inexpensive probes to roam the Solar System, thus slashing the cost of unmanned space exploration.  CAT works on the same principle as ion engines that are already used in deep space missions, but on a much smaller scale.  Powered by solar panels, CAT's fuel could be as simple as water.

CAT would allow extremely small probes to undertake a variety of missions cheaply.  Perhaps the most intriguing would be a mission to search for life on Jupiter's moon Europa for only $1 million.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Defining Exploration

Over the latest few centuries, physical exploration meant people risking life and limb sailing the oceans in wooden ships, or trekking into the wilderness, or encountering new societies, or dogsledding to the poles.  Recently, it has also meant flying into space, even landing on the Moon.

Today, the teams of scientists and engineers who operate the fleet of probes and rovers at Mars, Cassini at Saturn, and other space missions see themselves as space explorers.  Staying in Pasadena, California, of course, is not the same as enduring a winter in the Rockies, or a hurricane on the high seas, or a caravan across the Sahara.  Still, the teams have a point.  They are increasing our understanding of the cosmos by directing missions that reach beyond Earth.  It is the intellectualization of exploration.  Will that have the same influence on the general public as tales and testimonies of courageous explorers performing great deeds?  We will see.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Hopefully Reviving Kepler

NASA's planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft has been out of commission for a while due to the failure of two of its four reaction wheels.  Reaction wheels keep a probe precisely oriented in space.  Three are necessary for the system to work.

Engineers at NASA have been working on ways to bring one if not both of the balky wheels back into service, and they will begin trying to do that later this month.  If they succeed, Kepler can continue planet hunting, but if the wheels are truly gone, Kepler might be given a less demanding mission.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Life And Mars

There is an inherent tenson between searching for life on Mars and protecting the Martian atmosphere from contanimation by Earthly microbes that hitched a ride to the Red Planet.  If we go to those places on Mars most likely to harbor life, the risk of contanimation is higher precisely because Earthly life could survive in those areas.  If we stay away from such spots, however, the chances of finding Martian life likely decrease.

So, it's a balancing act.  The strategy used so far has been to send sterilized machines to the planet.  Sterilized, but possibly not completely without tiny, live passengers.  When human explorers reach Mars, bringing along all the bacteria that live within our bodies, our strategy for keeping them away from a possible Martian ecosphere will need to be much more sophisticated.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Rover Astronomy

NASA's Curiosity rover is designed to focus on Mars, but last week it showed some versatility.  Pointing its camera straight up, it tracked the Martian moon Phobos across the sky.

Phobos is the larger of Mars' two tiny moons, and a possible location for a manned station before a humans actually land on Mars.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Russian Rockets

The Russians have lost another rocket shortly after launch, extending an unfortunate string of such failures.

The tocket involved was not the model that delivers manned Soyuz capsules to orbit, but to the extent this ongoing problem calls into question Russia's quality control and conniitment to the highest possible standards, NASA astronauts riding in Soyuz might have to be reconsidered at some point.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Sixty Billion Shots

A new study suggests there could be as many as 60 billion planets that could support life orbiting red dwarf stars in the Milky Way alone.  That's about double previous estimates.

Of course, such a number strongly suggests that life is common throughout the universe.  Since red dwarf stars are the most common stars in the galaxy, it also suggests that if humanity masters interstellar travel we will have plenty of inviting places to settle.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Finding Near-Earth Objects

Astronomers recently discovered the 10,000th near-Earth object, an asteroid that poses no threat to our planet.

It's a good start, but astronomers say they need to find ten times that number before they can be reasonably sure they've found all the ones that could do real damage to Earth.  They estimate that there are perhaps one million near-Earth objects in total, but the vast majority of those are too small to do us harm.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Branson Joins Planetary Resources

Sir Richard Branson, chairman of the Virgin Group and the power behind Virgin Galactic, has joined the core group of investors of Planetary Resources, the company planning to mine asteroids for water and other natural resources.

Branson is the latest billionaire to get involved with PR, which plans to launch its first asteroid hunting mission next year.  With luck, those billionaires will help lead humanity into a new economic era of plenty.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Shuttle Runway

The nearly three mile lomg runway at Kennedy Space Center that space shuttles used to use in landings may be used again.

NASA is turning the runway over to the State of Florida, which in turn plans to use it to attract commercial space ventures to the Space Coast.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Japanese Space Robot

Japan will soon be sending a small talking robot to ISS.  This particular robot is designed to carry on conversations, only in Japanese, read the emotions of its human interlocutor, etc., but it can only interact with one man, who will also be flying to ISS later this year.

Whatever the limitations of this first model, Japan argues this effort will be the beginning of a human-robot partnership that will be essential in deep space missions.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

PayPal Galactic

With the announcement of a new initiative called PayPal Galactic, PayPal is beginnung the process of thinking through how people who are living in space for extended periods will maintain control of their finances.

The company acknowledges the problem is a dexade or more away, but argues it's not too soon to begin planning to handle it.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Shenzhou 10 Home

China's Shenzhou 10 and its crew of three landed safely today, ending a successful 15-day mission.  All the main goals of the mission seem to have been met, extending Chinese space capabilities.

Shenzhou 10 thus extends a remarkable human record.  Objectively, spaceflight is perhaps the most dangerous, unforgiving activity humans do, and lives have been lost during launch and re-entry into the atmosphere.  Yet, after more than fifty years of human spaceflight, in various spacecraft, no one has died in space.  That's an incredible testament to what educated, dedicated men and women can achieve.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Possible Life Triple Play

Gliese 667C is a smaller, dimmer star than the Sun, part of a triple star system 22 light years away.  It is, therefore, fairly ordinary-- except it may host life.

Astronomers have found three super Earths orbiting within the star's habitable zone.  That's three potential places for life to have arisen around a single small star.

Monday, June 24, 2013

China To The Moon

China, according to reports, is planning to launch its first rover to the Moon later this year.  A second rover mission will follow.

China also plans a sample return mission from the Moon before 2020.  All this in preparation, some China watchers say, to an attempted Chinese manned lunar landing in the 2020s.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Choke Points

Theorists argue relatively few civilizations will ever reach the stars because most will fail to successfully navigate through certain choke points-- overpopulation, environmental degradation, economic collapse, thermonuclear war, and others.  There are probably some we haven't even considered yet.

Human civilization is now confrontuing several of those.  An aggressive move into space to tap new resources, use new gravitational regimes, develop the technology base, deepen our understanding of physics and biology and other disciplines, and greatly, quickly expand the human economy could produce a vastly more wealthy society.  That, in turn, would provide more options to policymakers as some of those choke points loom.  The development of a private sector space industry holds promise for expanding the economy and creating those options, but whether humanity will ultimately reach the stars is still an open question.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Lone Signal

A new website allows anyone to write a nessage that will be beamed via radio signal to a nearby star.  It's called Lone Signal.  The first message is free, but subsequent ones will cost you.

Of course, the Lone Signal folks have no more idea where ET is than anybody else, but they intend to target nearby stars that scientists say could support life.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Pount-To-Point Travel

A few European firms are looking at entering the human suborbital flight arena, though none are as far along as American companies like Virgin Galactic and XCOR.  One, Swiss Space Systems, is also taking a different approach.

S3 is developing a manned suborbital system, but it intends to focus on serving the research market, not space tourism.  It also wants to develop point-to-point travel on Earth, allowing people to fly anywhere on Earth within an hour.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Ganymede Lander

The European Space Agency is planning a mission to explore Jupiter's large ice-coated moons Callisto, Europa, and Ganymede, and Russia is planning a mission to put a lander on Ganymede.  Talks are now underway to see if those missions can be combined, or at least cooperate with each other.

Joining the two together would be expected to save money, and it could also increase the science return.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Andromeda's Black Holes

The Andromeda Galaxy is the most distant object regularly visible to the naked human eye, at roughly two million loght years away.  Now, using the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, astronomers have found 26 new black holes in Andromeda, bringing the total so far discovered there to 35.

Like many, if not most, galaxies, Andromeda has a supermassive black hole at its center, so astronomers have expected to find many, smaller black holes there, too.  Those found so far are probably only the beginning.

Monday, June 17, 2013

New Astronauts

NASA has selected eight new astronauts-- four men and four women.  They will be added to the 49 already in the astronaut corps.

Witth any luck, some or all of this new class will fly deep space exploration missions-- to an asteroid, to the  Moon, or possibly even to Mars.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Valentina Tereshkova

Fifty years ago today, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova launched into space, becoming the first woman in space.  It was her only mission.

The early Soviet human spaceflight program emphasized firsts-- first man, first woman, first two man crew, first three man crew-- to score political propaganda points.  It came at a cost, however.  By doing such missions for political reasons instead of focusing on the step-by-step development of spaceflight capability, the Soviets lost their lead in manned space sooner than they might have.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

503 More

NASA's Kepler planet hunting spacecraft is currently out of commission, but by going over data already collected scientists have found 503 more possible exoplanets, bringing Kepler's total to well over three thousand.  Some of the new finds orbit within their star's habitable zones.

Scientists say they have enough data to go through to continue making discoveries for two more years.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Plastic As Radiation Shield

One of the major remaining problems in seriously planning deep space human missions is protecting the crews from radiation.  Plastic, coupled with reducing flight times, might do the job.

Lab experiments have shown that plastic is good at blocking harmful radiation, and now NASA has data from its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter that plastic is a good shield in deep space, too.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Double Star Life

New work suggests that planets orbiting double stars might have a small edge when it comes to supporting life.

It seems that closely matched stars that orbit each other in between 10 and 30 days tend to cancel out each other's solar winds of deadly radiation, thus making rocky planets in the system's habitable zone more likely to develop life.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Fusion Rockets

NASA is looking at various propulsion technologies that would drastically cut flight times for human missions to the planets.  Perhaps the most promising of those is a rocket powered by nuclear fusion.  Such a rocket could take humans to Mars in one month, or to Saturn in two.

Of course, we can't yet build fusion reactors even on Earth, but NASA is hopeful a fusion rocket research program could lead to breakthroughs.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Shengzhou 10

China launched its fifth manned space mission earlier today.  Shengzhou 10 has a three person crew and was launched atop the most powerful yet used for a Chinese manned flight.

Shengzhou 10 is scheduled to last 15 days and include two dockings with the Tiangong 1 space station module-- one automatic and one manual-- as China continues to develop the capabilities needed for more challenging future missions.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Armstrong's Words

There is still research into and debate about exactly what Neil Armstrong said as his first words while standing on the Moon-- as if that were consequential.  Did he say one small step "for a man," or "for man?"  The most recent analysis of the transmission suggests he got the "a" in there, but his Midwestern American accent had him slurring words a bit.

It's amazing what some people will fuss and fight over.

Sunday, June 9, 2013


A team of scientists is proposing to build a huge telescope-- twice as large as the current biggest on Earth-- to search for the heat signatures of advanced technological civilizations out to about 70 light years away.  They reasonn that such civilizations use huge amounts of energy and therefore generate prodigious quantities of waste heat.  That heat could be observed by a sufficiently telescope.  The team calls the telescope Colossus.

Estimated cost of Colossus is $1 billion, and it could be built in five years.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Opportunity Still Producing

Lately, most of the attention given to NASA's Mars rovers has gone to the big new kid on the planet, Curiosity.  However, the older, smaller Opportunity is also still producing.

In fact, Opportunity has recently made what could be its biggest discovery yet.  It has found clay that formed in interaction with low pH water-- essentially, water we could drink.  That's another strong piece of evidence that Mars was habitable within its first bilion years.  So far, there's no firm evidence of Martian life, but if life ever arose on Mars, it could have had a nice long run.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Creating Life

Scientists have long theorized that comets brought water, and perhaps the precursors of life, to the early Earth.  A new study, however, suggests comets may have had even more to do with the creation of life.

The study finds that the impact of a comet on Earth releases energy that transitions simple molecules into a higher state of complexity.  That complexity can lead to life.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Oceans Everywhere?

Scientists using Cassini data see similarities between Saturn's moons Enceladus and Dione.  They see similar ridge structures on both worlds, and while Dione lacks the dramatic geysers of Enceladus, Cassini has detected wisps coming out of Dione.  So, they're wondering-- if Enceladus has an ocean of water inside its ice shell, might Dione?

Indeed, some are beginning to speculate that subsurface water oceans may be common features of small worlds in the outer Solar System-- from some of the moons of the giant planets to Pluto to even the giant asteroid Ceres.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Life Around Dwarfs

Scientists have concluded that while it's possible that white dwarf stars and brown dwarf failed stars could host life-bearing planets since they do radiate heat, it's extremely unlikely.  The heat they give off is feeble, declines over time, and could be in the form of lethal radiation at times.  There are also gravitational tide issues since the planet would need to be so close to the dwarf.

While such systems may not be the place to look for native life, they might serve as outposts for any star-hopping civilizations that might be out and about.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Smallest Stars

Scientists have finally calculated the smallest a true star can be.  The lower limit turns out to be a diameter 8.7 percent of the Sun's radius.

That fits nucely in nature.  Observationally, it falls between red dwarf stars and brown dwarves, which are failed stars.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Stronger Case For Lunar Water

Using data from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter accumulated over years, scientists are strengthening the case that water ice exists in permanently shadowed areas in the south polar region of the Moon.

Previous estimates have put significant amounts of water on the Moon, which would be a huge boon to lunar settlement.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Cutting Launch Costs

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, says his company plans to cut the cost of accessing space partly by reducing the cost of a rocket's first stage.  He argues a big part of the overall cost of a rocket is the first stage, so cutting that will reduce launch prices.  The company's experimental Grasshopper program aims to develop reusable first stages.

Musk also said that he founded SpaceX with the ultimate goal of planting a human colony on Mars, and that remains the ultimate goal.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Mars Rat

The Curiosity rover has done some wonderful work on Mars already, and it's still going strong,  Among its achievements is providing data strongly suggesting Mars could have supported life billions of years ago.  If that is confirmed-- and especially if Martian fossils are found-- it will be one of the truly great scientific discoveries.

So, what is the Internet going wild over?  An image taken by Curiosity in which some people claim to see a rat, or a squirrel, on the surface of Mars.  Proponents of this view say its either a real Martian or a rodent NASA secretly delivered to Mars to see how long it survived.

The attention that claim is received is in fact an indictment of the American educational system-- insofar as the craze is American based-- and especially of the understanding of science.  That's not only unfortunate, but dangerous.  Modern society is increasingly based on science and technology.  To make good public policy decisions, the electorate needs a basic grasp of science and the universe we inhabit.  A large percentage of people seem to lack that grasp.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Participatory Space Exploration

Planetary Resources has announced it will allow private individuals to buy time on one of its space telescopes.  The person will be able to control the scope, which is scheduled for launch next year.

The project, which is being pursued in conjunction with The Planetary Society, is designed to increase the interest of the general public in space exploration by bringing average people inside an actual mission.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

1998 QE2

Asteroid 1998 QE2, a rock 1.7 miles across, will pass within 3.6 million miles of Earth tomorrow.  NASA says there's no chance of a collision tomorrow, or for the next two centuries.

That's good to know.  A body that size would cause horrendous damage if it slammed into Earth, perhaps throwing back civilization by centuries.  This event is another reminder, therefore, of the need to pursue planetary defense.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013


Kim Stanley Robinson's newest hard science fiction novel, 2312, takes the reader on a tour of the Solar System as it exists that momentous year.  It describes a collapsing society on Earth, a rising human civilization on Mars, and city-states all over the System.

The strength of the book is the description of the wonderful engineering achievements that allowed humanity to live in and travel throughout the Solar System.  The plot involves some murky politics that stay murky to the end for me.  Also unclear is how humanity achieved the breakout into space if Earth's society and economy had been in decline since roughly our time.  Maybe I missed something.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Brown Dwarf Planets

Brown dwarfs are failed stars-- bodies not quite massive enough to sustain nuclear reactions-- but they still might have planets orbiting them.  Researchers are proposing to use NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope to find such worlds, especially Mars-sized ones.

Mars-sized objects seem to be important.  In current planetary formation theory, Mars-sized bodies banging around the early Solar System formed the larger planets, so some researchers think finding such things orbiting brown dwarfs could be an indicator of planets still to be found.

Since brown dwarfs do give off heat, it's also possible that a planet in an extremely tight orbit could support native life.  Alternatively, such a world could also be a good outpost for a star-hopping civilization.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Understanding Lunar Resources

A new study suggests that perhaps as many as twenty five percent of large lunar impact craters still contain material from the asteroid that created them.  That would make understanding the origin of the Moon more complicated for scientists, but it would also make the Moon an even richer resource for the support of future human space operations.

It's also possible that pieces of the very early Earth, blown away from the planet by the titanic collisions of the young Solar System, could be found on the Moon.   Such pieces could even preserve evidence of the beginning of life on Earth, long since lost to us by the intervening geologic activity of our home world.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

New Planck Data

Europe's Planck spacecraft has completed the earliest map of the univerese to date-- one only 370,000 years after the Big Bang.

Scientists are thrilled with the new data.  They say it gives them a chance to answer some questions they couldn't even approach before.  Answering those questions, they say, could lead to a whole new physics.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Plotting The Way Out

At NASA's request, Robert Bigelow of Bigelow Aerospace has contacted several other companies in the aerospace industry to gauge interest in the establishment of a largely private lunar base.  He found the interest is definitely there.

NASA's concept is that the agency and private firms could co-develop technologies useful for both a lunar base and deep space exploration.  Private efforts could then take the lead in building a lunar base while NASA pushed deeper into space, going to asteroids, and eventually to Mars.

It's a rational, extremely promising way forward.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

NewSpace Age

The NewSpace industry seems on the verge of finally becoming an industry.  Both Virgin Galactic and XCOR plan major test flights for their respective manned spacecraft-- SpaceShipTwo and Lynx-- that could lead to the commencement of commercial operations shortly thereafter.  Both companies have already sold hundreds of tickets.  Companies are also offering a range of products, from suborbital hops to lunar voyages, and even lunar landings.

Industry execs say its also becoming easier to secure funding and attract private investors as business plans firm up.

The next few years could be quite something.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Which Way To Mars?

The House committee that oversees NASA has begun to debate whether to back NASA's current proposal to bring a small asteroid into lunar orbit and send astronauts to explore it, or to build a manned lunar base.  Both are seen by their proponents as the next step towards developing the capability to go to Mars.

Why not do both?  The asteroid mission is a one-shot deal, whereas establishing a lunar base would be an ongoing exploration project.  An asteroid mission could be folded into the larger program.  To really open up space, we must get beyond the notion that NASA can only do one manned program at a time.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Drilling Again

Curiosity has drilled its second hole into the surface of Mars, creating a perfectly round hole in a natural setting-- a clear sign of possible intelligence.

Curiosity is looking for possible signs of life beneath the surface, where life would be shielded from the deadly radiation at the surface.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Saving Ourselves

Former astronaut and current associate administrator of NASA John Grunsfield hopes the rise of space tourism will lead to more concern for Earth's environment as more and more people see the home world from the perspective of space.

Grunsfield, who flew on five shuttle missions, says Earth has changed markedly since the early days of manned spaceflight-- and not particularly in good ways.  As pictures of Earth from space helped push the environmental movement decades ago, he hopes more people from various walks of life getting access to space will lead to greater concern over Earth's future-- and our own.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Opportunity Breaks American Distance Record

The Opportunity rover recently broke the U. S. record for distance driven on another world, at just over 22 miles.  The previous record was held by the moon buggy used by Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmidt on Apollo 17.  The international record is held by the Soviet Union's 1973 Lunokhod 2 moon rover at 23 miles.  Opportunity still has a shot at that.

The time scale is instructive.  Cernan and Schmidt spent about three days on the Moon when their buggy set the record.  Opportunity took nine years on Mars to beat it.  If we want speed and efficiency in space exploration, as remarkable as Opportunity has been, there's a case to be made for sending humans.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Dream Chaser

Sierra Nevada Corporation's Dream Chaser spacecraft has arrived at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in California to begin testing.

Dream Chaser, which will carry up to seven people and land on a runway, is designed to ferry astronauts to and from low Earth orbit.

Friday, May 17, 2013

New Lunar Crater

A rock about a foot wide slammed into the Moon March 17, blowing a crater some 65 feet wide.  NASA estimates it was traveling at roughly 56,000 miles an hour.  Of course, the new crater is a minnow by lunar standards, but the flash of the impact was bright enough to have been visible from Earth by the unaided human eye.

Also on March 17, several fireballs burned up in Earth's atmosphere, so the lunar impactor may have been part of a larger swarm.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Mars Orbiting Space Telescope

NASA has acquired two high quality space telescopes meant to fly in now-cancelled spy satellites, and the agency is trying to decide how to use them.  One proposal for one of them is to build the Mars Orbiting Space Telescope.

MOST would be versatile.  It would not only provide unprecedented views of the surface of Mars-- helping NASA choose a site for the first manned base, for example-- but it would also allow closer study of asteroids in the Main Belt, as well as of the outer planets and their major moons, than is possible from Earth.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Lovell Joins Golden Spike

Former astronaut James Lovell is joining the board of advisors of Golden Spike, the company planning to sell lunar landing flights to countries, corporations, and individuals starting around 2020.

Lovell never landed on the Moon, but he was part of two legendary lunar missions.  Apollo 8 was the first human mission to reach beyond Earth orbit, and Apollo 13, under Lovell's command, looped around the Moon as it tried to get safely home after an onboard explosion.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


Forty years ago today, Skylab, America's first space station, was launched.  After a shaky start due to intense vibrations during launch that left Skylab virtually uninhabitable, some brilliant improvisation by NASA and the first crew of astronauts to reach the station saved the project.

Skylab hosted three missions of increasing duration-- 28, 59, and 84 days-- thus proving humans humans could work in space for extended periods.

Monday, May 13, 2013

ET's Waste Heat

So far, our efforts at finding technological civilizations among the stars have focused largely on searching for intelligent radio signals and virtual twins of Earth.  There are other approaches to pursue, however.

One such approach rests on the fact of physics that a civilization based on advanced technology will produce copious amounts of waste heat.  That heat will present itself as infrared radiation.  Unless that signature is masked in some way, the infrrared radiation would be detectable by our largest telescopes from a reasonable distance.  Such a finding around a Sun-like star, added to radio signals, for example, would make a powerful case for ET.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Spacewalk Underway

As this is being written, two astronauts are outside ISS looking for the source of an ammonia leak in the space station's coolant system.  The leak was only discovered a few days ago.

One of the spacewalkers, Tom Marshburn, will have a busy weekend.  He will return to Earth Monday evening.

Friday, May 10, 2013

ISS Coolant Leak

Ammonia has been detected leaking from the coolant system of one of the solar power arrays of ISS.  NASA says the crew is in no danger, but engineers are still working on what caused the leak and what to do about it.

The crew has already been twittering that it will perform an emergency spacewalk Saturday to attempt to repair the leak, but NASA management has said no final decision has been made.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Mount Sharp

The main target of NASA's Curiosity rover has always been Mount Sharp, a three mile high mountain in the middle of Gale Crater.  Scientists theorized Sharp had been built over time by sedimentary layering, and examining those layers up close could tell a lot about Mars' geological history.

A new study, however, suggests Sharp was not shaped by layering-- which would involve water-- but by wind whistling down the crater walls.  When Curiosity reaches the mountain its investigations will be able to determine which theory is correct.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Farming On Mars

Key to humans exploring and settling Mars will be the ability to grow food on the Red Planet, and NASA is working on that.

It's a real challenge.  The surface of Mars receives only half the energy from sunlight that Earth does, and far more dangerous radiation.  Martian gravity and atmospheric pressure are also much lower.  None of that is good for raising crops.  NASA, therefore, is looking at constructing greenhouses on Mars, complete with their own atmospheres, radiation shielding, and artificial lighting.

The agency is planning to send people to Mars in the 2030s.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Close Call

Last year, we now know, NASA's Fermi Gamma Ray Space Telescope barely missed colliding with a defunct Soviet-era spy satellite, now simply a huge piece of space junk.  Fermi, which is used to study the most powerful explosions in the universe, had to be maneuvered to avoid the collision.  Had there been a full on crash, which was where things were heading, Fermi would have been destroyed.

This near-incident is the latest reminder that space junk in low Earth orbit is a serious and growing problem.  Spacefaring nations are beginning to focus on that, but no plan of action has been adopted yet.  Hopefully, that will be done before a real disaster occurs.

Monday, May 6, 2013

No Smoking Gun

Some UFO researchers have argued a tiny, oddly shaped skeleton found in South America is the final, definitive proof that alians have visited Earth.

Well, no.

Examination of the skeleton has turned up nothing unearthly so far.  The DNA extracted from the bones is human, and researchers have no reason to believe they are dealing with anything except the remains of a badly deformed human child.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Humans 2 Mars

The second annual Humans 2 Mars Summit will take place this week at George Washington University in Washington, D. C.  The conference will bring togeher experts from NASA, academia, and the private business sector to focus on necessary advances that will allow humans to get to and survive on Mars sooner rather than later.

While such meetings are important, perhaps more effort should be expended putting a manned Mars program in the context of a broader policy push to develop science and technology and to expand the human economy.  Apollo showed that exploration for exploration's sake is not politically sustainable.  The goal should not simply be to put people on Mars.  The goal should be to establish a permanent human presence on Mars, and that goal can only be achieved any time soon if the Mars program is but one aspect of an overall drive to strengthen the human economy by aggressively pursuing advances in science and technology.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Broadening Habitability

MIT astronomer Sara Seager argues we shouldn't get too focused on finding nearly duplicate Earths when searching for alien life.  She says life could exist outside of a star's habitability zone given the right local environment.  Enough greenhouse gases in a planetary atmosphere, for example, could maintain a surface temperature warm enough to support life even if the planet orbited well beyond that star's calculated habitability zone.  She counsels scientists to keep an open mind on where life might be found.

Indeed, in our own Solar System, two of the stronger possibilities for alien life are Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Enceladus, both of which are well outside the Sun's putative habitability zone, which extends not far beyond Mars.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

A Hole On ISS

Asttonauts have discovered a small hole in one of the solar panels that power ISS.  NASA thinks the hole was made by a micrometeoroid.

It's unclear when the hole was made since it caused no damage, but the discovery is a reminder of the space junk problem.  If this hole was made by a naturally occurring bit of rock, it could have easily been caused by a bit of manmade debris-- and that debris could have hit a more vital area of the space station.  ISS has the ability to dodge larger bits, but the long term solution is to cut the amount of debris in orbit.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Kepler Troubles

One of the three reaction wheels that are needed to keep NASA's Kepler planet-hunting spacecraft properly oriented in space seems to be failing.  Engineers caution it might fail soon, and there doesn't seem to be anything they can do about it.

In that case, Kepler could not continue to function as it has, and the project team is exploring other ways to use the spacecraft.  There is a backlog of data not yet thoroughly analyzed, however, so, whatever happens, Kepler discoveries will continue for a while longer.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Hurricane On Saturn

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has taken remarkable images of a huge hurricane at Saturn's north pole.  The eye of the storm is 20 times larger than the eyes of large hurricanes on Earth, and the strongest winds are roaring at 330 miles an hour.

Cassini first spotted the monster in 2004, but that was during winter in Saturn's northern hemisphere, so the polar region was relatively dark.  With Saturn slipping into northern spring, and with Cassini in a more polar orbit, scientists are beginning to see the storm in its full glory.  The hurricane also sits wthin a mysterious hexagonal structure in the atmosphere, a structure with seemingly straight sides and sharp corners-- one of the oddest things yet found in the Solar System.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Vurgin Galactic Hits Milestone

This morning, Virgin Galactic successfully completed the first powered test flight of SpaceShipTwo.  After being released from its mother ship at altitude, the craft's rocket engine was ignited and burned for 16 seconds.  VG says everything went as planned.

VG plans several more powered test flights before commencing commercial service.  Over 500 people have already signed up for suborbital trips to the edge of space at $200,000 a pop.  If all continues to go well, those flights could begin yet this year.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Life On Mars

Many scientists argue that if we want to conduct a serious search for life on Mars anytime soon we need to send human explorers.  Robots are simply not up to the task, they say, and won't be for a long time.

Mars One intends to put humans on Mars by 2023, but the project also intends to site its colony well away from the most likely places to look for Martian life, so as not to contaminate potential native life with Earthly microbes.  Nor is searching for life a major goal of the project, which seems a wasted opportunity.  Hopefully, if Mars One succeeds, its priorities will change.

Friday, April 26, 2013

NASA's Budget

Scientists, space advocates, and a few members of Congress are protesting the 2014 NASA budget proposed by the Obama administration, which cuts $268 million from the planetary science program.  Scientists argue the budget as proposed essentially stops Solar System exploration.  The budget does not fund a probe to Jupiter's moon Europa, which could support life in an ocean of water under its icy surface, and it could stop funding for Cassini at Saturn and Messenger at Mercury while those two probes are still producing good data.

The Obama administration cites sequestration and the overall government deficit problem as the reasons for the cut.  The fact is, however, budget deficits are driven by the structure of huge entitlement programs coupled with the aging of the American population, not by a few percent of NASA's budget, which is itself well less than one percent of the overall federal budget.

This sort of argument is nearly an annual occurrence with proposed budgets for NASA, and often enough Congress ends up restoring at least some funding.  Stay tuned.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Planetary Resources Annouunces Test Flights

Asteroid mining company Planetary Resources has announced it will fly tiny cubesats in Earth orbit next year to test technologies to be used in the scout probes that will assay asteroids to determine their natural resources.

PR plans to send its first scout to an asteroid in 2015.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Grasshopper's Highest Leap Yet

SpaceX's experimental rocket Grasshopper flew to 820 feet Friday, three times its previous best, before successfully landing back at the launch site.  The flight lasted one minute.

SpaceX is using Grasshopper to develop a capability to fly launchers to a controlled landing rather than ditching each one in the ocean.  The company argues rocket reusability is the key to lowering the cost of access to space.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Hubble At 23

This week marks 23 years of groundbreaking astronomy for the Hubble Space Telescope.  After a rocky start that required a dramatic repair mission by shuttle astronauts, Hubble has been a remarkable success, changing science's view of the universe, and helping to bring the public a new appreciation of the complexity and beauty of Creation.

Hubble is still going strong, too-- still helping to push out the boundaries of human knowledge.  In a few years, funding and fuel will run out on Hubble, but, for a while longer, it should continue to produce world class data.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Antares Success

Orbital Science's new Antares rocket made a successful first flight yesterday, launching from the Wallops site in Virginia.  It was an important flight because OSC has a $1.9 billion contract with NASA to resupply ISS that is dependent upon Antares.  OSC, a Virginia corporation, hopes to launch from Wallops every three to six months.

Antares is a two-stage rocket designed to deliver OSC's cargo capsule, Cygnus, to ISS.  The maiden flight of Cygnus is slated for later this year.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Exoplanet Atmospheres

With the number of exoplanets well into the hundreds and headed into the thousands in short order, and with the discovery of worlds increasingly similar to Earth occurring at a quickening pace, scientists are looking at the next step in the search for other life in the universe.

That next step is the detailed study of exoplanet atmospheres.  Teasing out the chemical makeup of an atmosphere can reveal the likelihood of life there.  Carbon dioxide or/and oxygen present, for example, would be interesting.  Of course, the existence of complex compounds created on Earth only by industrial processes would be close to a deal clincher.

Some examination of exoplanet atmospheres can be done with the largest Earth-based telescopes, but the real work might have to wait for the next generation of observing spacecraft.

Friday, April 19, 2013

More Life Possbilities

Kepler data has revealed three more exoplanets that are reasonable possibilities for being homes to life.  All three are super-Earths-- that is, worlds slightly larger than our own.  Two orbit the same star, while the third orbits an unrelated star.  Both stars are slightly smaller than our Sun, and all three planets orbit within the habitable zone of their parent star.

Scientists think at least two of the planets are water worlds, so spacefaring civilizations based there are unlikely.  Researchers are confident, however, that they are closing in on finding a world very similar to Earth.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Examining Exoplanets

Astronomers are beginning to develop techniques to allow them to directly study exoplanets using large, Earth-based telescopes.  For example. a system 128 light years away has four worlds, all more massive than Jupiter and extremely hot, that astronomers are studying.  All four are different one from the other, surprising astronomers by the chemical makeup of each atmosphere.

The techniques and technology are even starting to allow astronomers to infer cloud cover and cloud patterns on planets around other stars-- a remarkable feat that would have seemed impossible just a few years ago.