Thursday, February 28, 2013

Life On Mars Today?

Some scientists believe Mars could be habitable right now-- by microbes, true, but still life beyond Earth.

They point to evidence that briny water may still flow on Mars on a seasonal basis, creating possible oases for life.  They also compare Mars to some of the most inhospitable places on Earth and note life survives there, sometimes using strategies that could also work on Mars.  Plus, some argue the chemical composition of Martian soil may in fact have blocked the tests for life performed by the Viking landers of the 1970s, leading scientists, potentially, down the wrong path.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Interplanetary Spaceships

There's increasing talk of humans flying into deep space.  Dennis Tito apparently proposes sending two people around Mars in a Dragon capsule.  SpaceX talks about using a modified Dragon-- or perhaps tethering two Dragons together-- to settle Mars.  The Obama administration wants to send a crew on a months long trip to an asteroid in the Orion capsule.

Let's get real.  An interplanetary spaceship that will support a crew for months or years will have to be something the size of ISS or larger.  That's the only way to get back a crew that is physically and emotionally healthy.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Canadians Flying High

Two Canadian tourism companies that specialize in providing clients exotic vacations are now offering trips into space aboard XCOR's Lynx spacecraft.

Lynx is still in the test flight phase, but XCOR plans commercial high altitude flights later this year, and full-blown commercial suborbital flights to the edge of space-- as many as four flights per day-- starting in 2014.  XCOR is competing with Virgin Galactic to be the first to fly paying passengers on such an adventure.

The Canadian companies just started offering the flights February 1, but so far business has been good.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Space Review

The Space Review is a website that features essays, articles, and opinion pieces about space policy and other topics related to space.  Jeff Foust, TSR's creator and operator, wasn't sure a website devoted to longer, largely serious, and sometimes technical pieces would work, but that was ten years ago, and TSR is still going strong.

TSR is a home for ideas and discussion-- almost always civil, substantive discussion, which makes it a rare bird in today's media mix.  It's well worth your time to have a look or two.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Tito To Mars?

According to reports, millionaire Dennis Tito and his Inspiration Mars Foundation will announce a plan this week to send two people on a 501-day trip around Mars, possibly in a modified SpaceX Dragon capsule launched by a Falcon Heavy rocket.  The crew would neither land on Mars nor go into Martian orbit-- the ship would simply loop around Mars and come back to Earth.  Launch target for the flight is January, 2018.

Tito, of course, was the first paying space tourist on ISS.

Five hundred days in a tiny capsule with one other person, of course, would be wildly different from Tito's eight-day experience on the comparatively spacious station.  The "plan," indeed, seems a bit more like a publicity grab.  We will see.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Painting Asteroids

One way to deflect dangerous asteroids into safe orbits is to paint them, according to scientist Dave Hylands.

Hylands proposes painting an asteroid and letting the Sun do the rest.  Energy from the Sun would heat the paint, exciting protons.  Those prorons would then radiate into space, producing a gentle push on the asteroid.  Over time, that push would change the orbit.  It's called the Yahofsky effect, after the Russian physicist who worked it out years ago.

NASA is working with Hylands to develop the idea.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Wicked Fast Stars

Astronomers have found six sunlike stars traveling through the Milky Way at about two million miles an hour.  That's fast enough to eventually escape the galaxy's gravitational pull completely.

The stars are just emerging from the center of the galaxy, where a huge black hole runs things.  Astronomers theorize the stars were originally parts of binary systems near the center, and the black hole swallowed the other stars in the systems, ejecting these at stupendous speeds.  The center of our galaxy is still something of a mystery because huge amounts of dust there obscures astronomers' view.  By studying these stars racing out, astronomers hope to get a better idea of the kinds of stars that occupy the center.

Just a wild thought-- an extremely advanced civilization could possibly put huge settlements in orbit around such wicked fast stars, using them to bridge intergalactic space.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


Scientists at the University of Hawaii are developing an eight telescope system, to be based in that state, to provide early warning of dangerous asteroids approaching Earth.  The system is called ATLAS.

ATLAS, which will also search for deep sky objects from dwarf planets to supernovvae, will be able to give a one-week warning a 50-meter rock is on the way, and a three-week warning for a 150-meter body.  That's not much, but it might allow the evacuation of a city.

It's a start.  ATLAS should be operational by 2016.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Meteor Waves

The shock waves caused by the meteor ripping through the atmosphere over Russia last weekend were picked up by detectors halfway around the world.  The detectors were originally deployed to pick up nuclear blasts in the atmosphere.

Mankind was very lucky this past century.  Two major meteor events have occurred over Russia-- Tunguska in 1908, and Chelyabrinsk days ago.  Had either happened at a critical point in the Cold War, or had a similar body exploded over a major city, it could have sparked a nuclear exchange.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Dark Matter Possibly Detected

The existence and nature of dark matter have stumped physicists for a while now.  It cannot be seen (hence the "dark"); it's existence can only be inferred through the effect its gravity has on the stuff we can see.  By that measure, there may be as much as six times the amount of dark matter in the universe as there is ordinary matter.  Of course, that predominance would make dark matter the ordinary matter, but let's not get into that.

A scientific paper to be published in about two weeks may finally present evidence that dark matter has been detected.  Speculation has it that the key is annihilation.  When two dark matter particles come into contact, they annihilate each other in an explosion that produces electrons and positrons.  Electrons are everywhere, but positrons are not.  So, if we detect an over abundance of positrons, we might have evidence of dark matter.  The upcoming paper might report just such a detection.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

UN Ponders Planetary Defense

A committee under United Nations auspices has been looking at how to deal with possible asteroid impacts on Earth for several years.  The group, dubbed Action Team 14, is currently meeting in Vienna, so the timing of the Russian fireball could prove useful in underscoring the seriousness of the group's work.

AT 14 is charged with gathering data to properly analyze the threat, working out plans that would allow detection and deflection of dangerous bodies, and developing response plans to put in place if an asteroid strikes.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Asteroid Over Russia

A small asteroid exploded in the air above a small town in Russia this morning, causing powerful shock waves that blew out windows over a wide area, and destroyed a few buildings.  Several hundred people were injured, mostly by flying glass shards.  Some of those were seriously injured.

It's not clear whether the Russian asteroid was connected in any way to the larger asteroid giving Earth a close shave this afternoon.  Taken together, however, the two events might get the attention of world leaders, persuading them to start a planetary defense program.  Earth is one of the larger targets in a shooting gallery.  The longer we fail to defend the planet, the longer everything that has ever been accomplished by humans, and everything that could be accomplished, is at risk.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Retiring On Mars

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, not only wants his company to have a big part in the colonization of Mars-- he personally wants to retire on the Red Planet.

Given Musk's wealth and track record, such a retirement cannot be absolutely ruled out, but it's much more likely that SpaceX will achieve its founder's goal.  After all, when the settlement of Mars begins-- and that's really nowhere on the horizon yet-- the first few decades will be demanding and dangerous for the settlers.  They will be living on a frontier.  Help from Earth, except for communicating with Earth, will be months or years away.  The settlement's margin of survival will be extremely thin.  Mars will be no place to retire.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Making Fortunes In Space

Deep Space Industries issued a press release yesterday estimating the value of the small asteroid whizzing past Earth this week at $195 billion.

That figure is based on the type of asteroid it is and assumes certain quantities of water ice, iron, precious metals, etc.  DSI plans to send tiny probes to such asteroids to determine exactly what resources each asteroid contains.  Once that is established, a value can be placed on the body, and mining operations can be considered.  That's when the real fun will begin.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Asian Space Race

The contest for political leadership in Asia now includes a space race among the powers.  So far, China is ahead in manned spaceflight and probably overall, but Japan clearly leads in deep space exploration.  India is moving up quickly, however, and South Korea is taking advantage of its technology base to build satellites, and perhaps soon, its own launchers.

Iran is in Asia, too, of course, but its not clear whether the Iranians see themselves as an Asian power, a regional power focused on the Middle East, or as something else entirely.  Nor are the actual capability and intentions of Iran's space effort completely clear.  North Korea has a space program, as well, but few outside Pyongyang seem to consider that nation a real candidate for Asian leadership.

Space capability is only one factor in the contest, however, as the current dispute between China and Japan over a group of small islands shows.  Still, the competition among those nations may turn out to be a positive for humanity's future in space.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Predicting Supernova Explosions

Stars going supernova are among the most powerful events in nature.  Light from such a blast can be seen completely across the universe.  Now, astronomers believe it might someday be possible to predict when a star might blow.

They studied a star that went supernova in 2010 and discovered that 40 days before the main event, a much smaller explosion occurred.  They think such smaller blasts could be tips that the supernova event is imminent.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Curiosity Making Progress

First, Curiosity successfully drilled a hole in a rock on Mars.  Now, it has successfully collected samples from the interior of a rock on Mars.  The next step is analyzing that sample in Curiosity's own mini-lab.

That analysis will take a few days, but it will complete the most complicated series of maneuvers ever attempted by a robot on another world.  Curiosity is off to a good start.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Curiosity Drilling On Mars

NASA's Curiosity rover has begun drilling into rocks on Mars.  The first attempt at drilling seems to have been a complete success.

Curiosity will drill into rocks to learn about their internal compositions.  Scientists are especially looking for evidence in the rocks of the history of water on the surface of the planet.  A case is building for a warmer, wetter Mars at points in the past.  That, in turn, would argue for the possibility of life on Mars at some point.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Finding Asteroids

Scientists estimate there are 20,000 asteroids in the Solar System 100 meters across or larger.  So far, we've discovered about 8,000.  Further, at the historical rate of discovery, a new study says finding and characterizing the material makeup of the rest will take about two more centuries.  Given the damage an asteroid strike could do to Earth, that length of time is worrisome.

Of course, with the increased use of constantly improving technology and techniques, that historical rate will be bettered.  Still, the study calls for an increased emphasis on finding them, including deployment of a space-based telescope dedicated to the purpose.

Asteroids are not simply dangerous, however-- nor simply scientifically interesting.  They also contain vast quantities of precious matals, water ice, and other valuable materials that could support human expansion beyond Earth, and even economic development on Earth.  Two private companies, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, are planning to go asteroid hunting for profit.  That would also increase the discovery rate.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Earths Out The Wazoo

A new study suggests there may be as many as 4.5 billion Earth-like worlds in the Milky Way galaxy.  The study's conclusion rests on an analysis of data from the Kepler planet hunting mission and an appreciation of the fact that red dwarf stars could have Earth-like planets capable of supporting life in their systems.  Red dwarves account for about 75 percent of all stars in the galaxy.

If the conclusion is correct, it virtually clinches the case for life beyond Earth, and strengthens the possibility that other civilizations exist.  It also means that if humanity, or another species based on Earth-like worlds, masters interstellar travel, it should be able to spread throughout the galaxy fairly efficiently.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Caravan, Not Voyage

Water is key to mankind settling the Solar System.  It can be used as water, or broken down into hydrogen and oxygen, it can provide fuel for rockets and air to breathe.

We now know water ice exists throughout the Solar System, from Mercury and Mars all the way into comets in the Oort Cloud.  The largest ocean under the Sun may exist under the water ice shell of Jupiter's moon Europa, not on Earth.

Finding water won't be a problem.  As we move out, we will likely move from water to water, like desert caravans move from oasis to oasis.  The proper analogy of an interplanetary spaceship, then, may be less the sailing ship and more the camel.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Asterooid 2012DA14

Later this month, another smal asteroid will whiz past Earth at close range.  Asteroid 2012DA14 is only about 40 meters across, but at closest approach to Earth it will be inside the orbits of some artificial satellites.  That's a hair breadth miss in cosmic terms.

This will be the latest in a string of near misses over the past year or so.  That's mostly because we now have the capability to detect such events.  The next step should be to develop the capability to deflect dangerous bodies away from Earth before we lose a city, or worse.  We'll see if the leadership of the world is up to that challenge.  So far, the inaction on what would be an extremely modest international effort is not reassuring.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Heated Exomoons

Moons in orbit around planets can be heated by the gravitational tug of that planet.  Jupiter's Europa and Saturn's Enceladus are posible abodes of life because the giant planets' gravity is constantly pulling on the moons as they move along their orbits.  That pull interacts with the orbital speed to stretch and reshape the interior of the moons, creating friction and heat.

Heat radiating from such moons makes those moons visibly brighter-- so much so, in fact, that such moons orbiting exoplanets might be easier to see than the exoplanets themselves.  Further, as possibly in the cases of Europa and Enceladus, such heating could create oases of life well outside the so-called habitable zone of a star.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Building A Lunar Base

The European Space Agency is partnering with the engineering firm building Spaceport America in New Mexico to explore using 3D printing technology to construct a lunar base.

The projected base would be a four-person outpost located in the Moon's southern polar region, where water ice and perpetual sunlight are both available.  The structure would be centered on an inflatable module, but then the 3D printing technology would be used to process lunar regolith into material that would be used for building out the base, including covering the habitat areas with layers of dirt to provide radiation protection for the crew.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Columbia Plus Ten

Ten years ago today, as the space shuttle Columbia was re-entering the atmosphere on its way home, it broke apart in the sky above central Texas, killing all seven astronauts aboard.  The subsequent accident investigation showed that Columbia and the crew were doomed from launch.  A piece of the rocket hit the orbiter soon after liftoff, damaging some heat shield tiles.  During re-entry, as the heat built around the orbiter, that weakness allowed the skin of the shuttle to be breached, and Columbia was torn apart.

The accident not only cost seven lives, but led directly to the end of the shuttle program.