Thursday, January 31, 2013


NASA is planning to launch the largest solar sail yet in late 2014 using a Falcon 9 rocket.  The project is called Sunjammer.  The sail will be folded down to about the size of a dishrag, weighing 70 pounds, in the rocket, then deploy to cover an area of about one-third of an acre in space.

Solar sails work much like ships' sails, except the wind they capture is the solar wind that constantly blows out from the Sun.  The acceleration achieved with a solar sail is tiny, but because it is constant, over time solar sails can reach incredible speeds.  They are also maneuverable, and need to carry no propulsion unit or fuel.  Sunjammer is a technology demonstration project which, if successful, will open the way to a whole new class of science missions because solar sails will be able to reach orbits chemical rockets cannot.

Sunjammer will also carry the ashes of Gene and Majel Roddenberry into space.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Lunar Government

A new idea is floating around that may yet gather significant support.  The first lunar government, some argue, should be formed before anyone is actually living on the Moon.

The theory is that such a prospective government could participate in lunar development from the very beginning, representing the interests of the Moon and its initial colonists.  A constitution could be adopted early on, so that when colonists began arriving on their new home, the government would already be up and running.

It's an interesting approach, and would force early consideration of lunar sovereignty, property rights beyond Earth, etc.  Such a government shouldn't be formed too far in advance of actual settlement, but the idea has potential.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Tweaking The Habitable Zone

A new study makes slight adjustments in the definition of the habitable zone around a star-- the area where liquid water, and therefore possibly life, could exist on the surface of a planet.  The adjustments,while small, do tend to exclude some exoplanets previously thought to be within their stars' zones, while a few exoplanets previously thought outside their zones are now inside.

Oddly, under the new definition, Earth is on the inner edge of the Sun's habitable zone.  Given that life has existed uninterruptedly on Earth for over three billion years, and postulating that the habitable zone likely changes over the lifetime of a star, perhaps the new definition needs further tweaking.

Of course, the results of the study will only help astronomers decide where they might look for life.  The actual range of life in the cosmos may well be quite different.

Monday, January 28, 2013

TV Commercial

NewSpace may be filtering into mainstream consciousness.  Siemens is running a television commercial touting its software by highlighting the role the software played in launching SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket that lifted the Dragon cargo capsule to ISS.

It's probably a positive sign for our future in space that Siemens' ad people assume many people will know about SpaceX and that most of them will see Siemens' association with it as a good thing.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

NASA's Black Week

It's an oddity of history that all three major tragedies of NASA's human spaceflight efforts-- the Apollo 1 training fire that killed three astronauts, and the Challenger and Columbia accidents that killed seven each-- all occurred within one calendar week.  There is no factor connecting all three events that could explain the timing.  Whether humans want to believe it or not, coincidences do happen.

The tragedies created turning points.  The Apollo 1 fire led to an overhaul of the innards of the Apollo command module and a much more capable spaceship.  Challenger marked the high point in the frequency of space shuttle launches.  After that, NASA acknowledged the shuttle could not be the space truck sold to Congress, and Columbia led to the end of the shuttle program.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Space Property Rights

We now have two companies, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, planning to begin mining asteroids for private profit shortly.  Neither company, however, owns the mining rights to those flying mountains.  No one does.

Similarly, there are companies, like Inteerorbital Systems, looking at colonizing the Moon for private profits, using lunar resources to do it, but they don't own the rights to those resources.  No one does.  Nor is it clear that profits made in space could legally be "brought back" to Earth.

Capital likely will never flow strongly into an area where the law is so murky-- there are simply too many other places to deploy capital that are perfectly safe from a legal standpoint.  To really begin to develop space economically, commercial space law must be developed.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

North Korean Rockets

Other nations have feared North Korea's space program was little more than a cover to allow that nation to develop ICBMs.  Now, Pyongyang has gone a good part of  the way towards confirming those fears.

North Korea has announced it will soon conduct its third nuclear test.  Further, it announced its long-range rockets could carry a nuclear bomb, and could reach the western United States.

Presumably, the announcements are part of some bigger strategy, but the Dear Leader is playing a very dangerrous game.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Lights! Cameras! Action!

The National Space Society is going into the movie production business, at least for a little bit.  NSS is starting a project to produce a movie that will show how important moving into space is to the United States and to the world.  In one sense, of course, the movie will be propagandistic, but that needn't be a bad thing.  The Nazis and Communists gave propaganda a bad name by simply spreading lies.  NSS has a legitimate, fascinating, positive case to make.

NSS also plans to include the public in the project, both in fundraising and in guiding the content of the movie.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Fireflies And Dragonflies

Deep Space Industries conducted its first news conference today, unveilinng its plans to tap asteroid wealth.  Starting in 2015, a fleet of tiny probes called Fireflies will be sent to many asteroids to conduct initial surveys.  Starting in 2016, larger probes called Dragonflies will fly sample return missioms.

DSI also announced it has a patent on something called a MicroGravity Foundry, which will process the raw resoirce in asteroids into usable metals.  Those metals will then be used to build things in space-- first, communication satellites, then huge solar power satellites, and finally space colonies.

It's a magnificent vision, but having visions is easier than creating reality/

Monday, January 21, 2013

Deep Space Industries

A new company, Deep Space Industries, is planning its first major public event for tomorrow.  DSI plans to make its money by mining asteroids.  It also claims to have developed a process for manufacturing in space.

DSI is the second company to announce its intention to mine asteroids recently.  Planetary Resources did so a few months ago.  One obstacle to such plans might be legal.  Right now, no one has any valid legal claim to any asteroid, so it's not clear any company can simply go start mining them.  Presumably, DSI, PR, and others are working on that.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Aldrin At 83

Today is former astronaut Buzz Aldrin's birthday.  He is 83.  Aldrin flew two space missions.  The first was Gemini 12, the last flight in the Gemini program.  The mission for which he will always be remembered, however, is Apollo 11, during which Aldrin and Neil Armstrong became the first humans on the Moon.

Aldrin, who became an astronaut in 1963, was also one of the fathers of NASA's space rendezvous and docking procedures, which were critical to the success of Apollo.

Since leaving NASA, Aldrin has been a consistent and creative advocate of space settlement.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Exo-Asteroid Belts

Astronomers have found evidence of extensive asteroid belts around the stars Vega and Fomalhaut, two of the brightest stars in the night sky.  Vega, in fact, is second in brightness only to Sirius.

The belts also have gaps in them.  Astronomers think those gaps could indicate multiple planets could exist in each system.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Clinching The Deal... Maybe

Space news is not a staple of the CBS network evening news broadcast, but this week that broadcast reported that NASA's Curiosity rover was finding "saturated soil." thus strengthening the case for a warmer, wetter Mars in the past.

Various lines of evidence point to such a Mars.  This discovery would be one more strong piece of evidence.  We may be getting close to clinching the deal.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Columbia Plus Ten

Ten years ago today, the space shuttle Columbia launched on its final, disastrous mission.  That flight became the beginning of the end of the shuttle program.  Within months, the Bush administration decided to retire the shuttle and begin a new manned space program that would take astronauts back to the Moon, and eventually, on to Mars.

That new program was scrapped by the Obama administration, which instead wants to build the infrastructure that will support deep space human voyages in the decades ahead.

American manned spaceflight policy changed completely with a fireball over Texas.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

NASA Meets Bigelow

NASA has agreed to buy one of Bigelow Aerospace's inflatable modules and attach it to ISS as a demonstration technology project.  The deal is set to be announced tomorrow in North Las Vegas, Nevada, home of BA's corporate headquarters.

The module will likely be attached to ISS in about two years.  If it performs as envisioned, BA's plans for space stations and lunar habitats based on inflatable modules-- modules that are folded for launch on slender rockets and inflate once they're in space-- might, figuratinely and literally, really take off.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Man Hours In Space

Space stations have exploded the number of yearly man hours in space-- that is the point in building them-- but the number of manned space launches peaked in 1985, the year before the Challenger accident.  After that, NASA flew fewer shuttle missions per year, and the Russians didn't take up the slack.

With the advent of commercial human spaceflight on the horizon, that record should soon be shattered, but it tells us how little real progress humanity has made conquering space in the past quarter century.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

No Death Star

The White House has rejected a petition signed by 35,000 citizens that called on the U. S. to build a death star.  The pettition argued such a project would create millions of new jobs and enhance U. S. national security.

The White House countered that not only would such a hugely expensive effort completely destroy the budget, but that it's not U. S. policy to blow up planets.

Now that that's settled, perhaps we can get on to establishing serious space policy.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Kepler's Count Still Rising

This week, NASA announced new results of the ongoing work of Kepler, its planet hunting spacecraft.  The announcement declared Kepler had found 461 more possible exoplanets.  Further, four of them are less than twice the size of Earth and orbit within their stars' habitable zones, making them strong possibilities as abodes of life.

All these possible worlds still have to be confirmed, but astronomers are confident that 90 percent will turn out to be real.  That would push the number of exoplaanets discovered to well over 1,000.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Getting Closer

The Kepler spacecraft may have found the most Earth-like world yet.  Though not yet confirmed, the exoplanet orbits a star similar to the Sun within that star's habitable zone, which means it could support liquid water on the surface, and, therefore, possibly life.

The world, assuming it does exist as more than a mathematical glitch, is 1.5 times as large as Earth.  Nailing down its existence, or non-existence, is clearly a priority.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Hubble Until 2018

The Hubble Space Telescope is still going strong after 23 years in orbit, and NASA plans to keep using it as long as it continues to function well.  Hopefully, that will be at least until 2018.

NASA's next generation space tekescope, rhe James Webb, named for an early NASA chief, is scheduled for launch in 2018.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Reaching Solar Max

Astronomers have observed some exceptionally powerful solar flares recently.  That's not surprising, as the Sun should reach the peak in its 11-year activity cycle later this year.  It is worrisome, however.  Modern society is dependent upon information exchange networks that rely on electricity.  A powerful solar electromagnetic event that happened to be aimed at Earth could disrupt such networks for days, weeks, or longer, throwing us back a century or two, at least.  When American politicians talk about rebuilding the nation's infrastructure, they generally include upgrading the electric power grid, and they should.  We are currently dancing along a very dangerous edge.

Luckily, astronomers think this year's solar max will be relatively weak, so we may have another few years to get our grid together.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Capturing An Asteroid

NASA is looking at a plan that would send an unmanned probe to a small asteroid, capture it, and guide it into orbit around the Moon.  It would then be used as a target for practicing techniques necessary for deep space manned missions, as well as for the deailed study of an asteroid, including how its natural resources might be extracted.

The idea is still in the very earliest stages of development, and all asteroids are not the same, but the concept certainly has potential.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Creating Controversy

Humans will argue about virtually anything.  A case in point is a new BBC documentary that says Neil Armstrong had decided upon his immortal "One small step,,," quotation before Apollo 11 launched.  Armstrong, who passed away last year, had always said it was not a spontaneous quote, that largely because of media interest he understood his first words after stepping onto the lunar surface would be noteworthy, so he thought about what he might say before the mission, but he didn't finally decide until on the way to the Moon.  The documentary, on the other hand, quotes Armstrong's brother as saying the astronaut told him what the line would be before leaving Earth.

The different versions have caused a bit of a stir in the space community.  If Armstrong had claimed the line was a burst of eloquence that came to him as he stood on the surface while the BBC uncovered evidence to the contrary, that would've been one thing-- maybe no more than a quirk set against the accomplishment of Apollo 11, but one thing.  Armstrong never claimed that, however.  The BBC may simply have exposed the uncertain nature of human memory.

Friday, January 4, 2013

New Mars Find

A meteorite found in Morrocco in 2011 has been shown to come from Mars, and it opens a window to Mars' climatic history.

A new study finds a much higher water content in this meteorite than in other meteorites from Mars.  It is also older-- 2.1 billion years to 1.3 billion.  In chemical composition, it's similar to rocks that have been studied using NASA's Mars rovers.  Researchers think the rock was originally on the surface of Mars and blown into space by a volcanic eruption.  The high water content is more evidence that at some point in the past Mars was warmer and wetter than it is today.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Planets Abound

A new study suggests there may be 100 billion or even 200 billion planets in the Milky Way.  That averages out to a planet or two per star.

The sttudy looked at the system of an M-type dwarf star; about 75 percent of all stars in the galaxy are small, cool M dwarves.  The Kepler planet hunting spacecraft has discovered perhaps five planets in that system.  Extrapolating those numbers out, and doing some other fancy figuring, gives a huge number of worlds in our galaxy.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Earth Nearest Sun Today

Earth is as close to the Sun today as it will be all year.  That doesn't seem right to those of us in the northern hemisphere, where ir's winter and likely cold, but it's all about the tilt of Earth's polar axis.  Currently, the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the Sun, so the Sun's energy is spread  over a wider area.  It's less concentrated, therefore weaker per square measurement, and thus the area the energy covers is colder.

In the southern hemisphere, by contrast, the tilt now is towards the Sun, so when Earth is closest to the Sun, it's summrtime in Sydney.