Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Hoffel Memo

The FBI put its public records online in 2011, and since then over a million viewers have accessed something known as the Hoffel Memo.

The memo, written by agent Guy Hoffel, does not deal with organized crime, the JFK assassination, or KGB penetration of the U. S. Government.  Written in 1950, it describes a report the FBI had received of three flying saucers and a total of nine small aliens on the ground in New Mexico.  The FBI says there's no evidence connecting that report to the Roswell Incident, which could possibly suggest two separate alien landings in New Mexico were reported in roughly the same time frame.

The FBI says it never investigated the report.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Meteorite From Mercury?

A green meteorite found in Morocco in 2010 might hail from Mercury, a new study suggests.  If so, the rock would be the first identified as being from the innermost planet.

The study dates the meteorite at 4.56 billion years old, which puts it in the early days of Solar System formation.  Data from the Messenger spacecraft now orbiting Mercury has also allowed the study to conclude the chemical composition of the meteorite is similar to that of Mercury.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Working Solo At Mars

Next month, for most of the month, the Sun will be between Earth and Mars, blocking radio communications between the two worlds.  That means NASA's rovers and orbiters will be on their own for a while.

They won't simply shut down, however.  NASA is sending a month's worth of commands to keep them busy.  The rovers will not move during the period, but they will still be doing science.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Type Iax Supernova

Astronomers have discovered a new type of supernova.  A Type Ia occurs when a white dwarf, pulling material from a companion star, reaches a limit and blows itself apart.  In Type Iax supernovae, however, the explosion is much smaller; the white dwarf may even survive the blast.  Astronomers don't yet understand exactly it works.

Type I supernovae, by the way, are detonations and destructions of stars many times more massive than the Sun.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Wet Dragon

Dragon has successfully splashed down in the Pacific.

SpaceX has now flown two consecutive successful cargo trips to ISS.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Ice Spikes On Europa?

Astronomers know that the equatorial region of Jupiter's moon Europa is warmer than other areas of that moon, but they don't know why.  A recent theory is that the equatorial regions contain ice spikes.

Such formations-- which are what you'd imagine from the name-- can occur naturally where the angle of sunlight is just right, as it is along Europa's equator.  The theory is that sunlight is constantly bouncing from spike to spike to spike, being kept in that area and warming it up.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

East Coast Fireball

Friday night, people along the U. S. east coast from North Carolina northward observed an extremely bright meteor-- a fireball-- streaking overhead.  It was bright enough to be seen above the lights of Manhattan, and was reported as far west as Ohio.  NASA estimates the meteor was boulder-sized.

Not to beat a dead horse, but the fireball over the most densely populated part of the United States is yet one more reminder that we need to get serious about planetary defense.  A devastating asteroid impact is the one natural disaster that humans could potentially prevent within the next few decades.  Moves in that direction are beginning, but the fact is we are in a race, and we know neither the speed of the competition nor how close we might be to the finish line.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Crashing Into An Asteroid

NASA and ESA are working together on a mission that would crash a spacecraft into an asteroid.  The mission, to launch in 2019 and reach the asteroid in 2022, will analyze the composition of the body, but the main objective will be trying to deflect the asteroid into a slightly different orbit-- an early test of a possible planetary defense capability.

The target asteroid is, in fact, a binary system that is not a threat to Earth.  Such gravitationally bound asteroids are not uncommon.  The impactor spacecraft would hit the smaller of the two, as it would be easier to move.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Bezos And Apollo

Billionaire Jeff Bezos is interested in space.  The longtime CEO of also owns Blue Origin, a NewSpace company trying to develop private, manned, orbital spacecraft.

Another Bezos passion is the Apollo program.  For some time he has been leading an effort to locate the rocket engines that lifted Apollo 11 towards the Moon on the floor of the Atlantic and raise them.  Recently, Bezos' team brought one engine up from the depths.  Of course, dozens of rocket engines litter the ocean floor outside Cape Kennedy, so it's not certain Bezos got exactly what he wanted, but his team will keep working on a precise identification.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Congress And Asteroids

Congress held a hearing yesterday on the threat to Earth posed by asteroid collisions, and on what we can do to prevent them.

Russia, after experiencing both the 1908 Tunguska and this year's Chelyabrinsk mid-air explosions, is also looking at establishing a planetary defense program.

It's a start.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Oceans A-Plenty

New computer modeling suggests that every rocky world like Earth will sport an ocean of water early on its history.  That's because such woulds are built by smaller bodies sticking together, and those bodies generally have high water content.  Later cometary impacts could also bring water, but the model does not require that water to have oceans.

This is clearly good news for those hunting alien life.  Of course, oceans can be lost, as in the cases of both Venus and Mars.  On the other hand, both Jupiter's large moon Europa and Saturn's small moon Enceladus-- neither of which is a rocky world in Earth's mold-- seem to have oceans that could possibly support life.  Every step forward in our understanding of the universe seems to strengthen the case that life is abundant throughout the cosmos.

Monday, March 18, 2013


Curiosity's discovery that Mars was once habitable has brought up again the implicattions for humans of life on Mars.  Most scientists assume that if the life is simple microbes, most people won't have a problem with assimilating the find.  Indeed, there's probably very little chance anything more complex than a microbe will be found there.

However, if we find a fully articulated, beautifully preserved fossil of Something. all bets as to the human reaction are off.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

More Moons For Pluto?

So far, astronomers have found five moons orbiting Pluto, including one nearly as big as Pluto itself.  A recent study using computer simulations, however, suggests ten or more additional tiny moons may in fact be orbiting Pluto.

The study is of more than academic interest.  NASA's New Horizons probe is on its way to Pluto, to arrive in July, 2015.  A swarm of moons unaccounted for in the mission flight plan could pose dangers to the probe.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Grasshopper Flies Again

Grasshopper, the experimental rocket of SpaceX designed to develop the technology that will allow rocket stages to be landed safely and reused, lifted 263 feet into the air and landed safely on its launch pad March 7.  It is the highest altitude Grasshopper has yet reached.

SpaceX believes the key to lowering the cost of reaching orbit is developing reusable launchers.  Grasshopper is making a good start in that direction.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Studying Exoplanets

Astronomers are beginning to find ways to study other solar systems and their planets in detail.  For example, there's a system 130 light years away that has at least four huge planets-- all much bigger than Jupiter-- that looks to have an asteroid belt and perhaps an Oort cloud.  There may also be smaller worlds close to the young star.

One of the big planets is bright enough and far enough away from the star to allow astronomers to image it directly and analyze the chemical makeup of its atmosphere, which contains, among other components, water.

The next generation of Earth-based telescope will be able to study even smaller, dimmer exoplanets.  It will be a fascinating next few decades.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Higgs-Boson Confirmed

This has been a week for big announcements.  NASA announced all the stuff of life exists on Mars.  The Catholic Church announced a new pope-- the first born in the New World.  And physicisits announced they have confirmed discovery of the Higgs-Boson-- the so-called God Particle.

Higgs-Boson is thought to be critical in the creation of matter, and its confirmation is a key advance for cosmology.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Big News From Mars

Yesterday, NASA announced that analysis of soil samples collected by its Curiosity rover show that all the chemical building blocks for life as we know it exist on Mars.  It's a stupendous discovery.  Coupled with a powerful case for a warmer, wetter Mars in the past, the potential for finding life beyond Earth has never been higher.

The next big governing question may be: Does life arise easily when all the basics are present, or is it the result of a serendipidous process?

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Plumbing Europa's Ocean

In a new study, researchers argue they have shown there is interaction between the ocean of water inside Jupiter's moon Europa and the moon's ice shell.  So, a future probe will be able to study the composition of the ocean water by analyzing surface samples.  The study also finds Europan ocean water is salty, much like Earth's.

Of course, to search for life in that ocean will likely still require submersibles to sail the depths-- unless part of the interaction involves throwing dead whatzits onto the surface.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Extending Messenger

Scientists wanting to extend the mission of NASA's Messenger probe, the first spaceeecraft to orbit Mercury and a mission that has shaped our current understanding of the innermost planet, will have to contend not only with the demands of spaceflight, but with the stark complexities of Washington politics, as well.

In these days of sequestration, budget cuts, and battles over taxes, extending a space mission won't be any politician's priority.  However, as Washington movers and shakers know all too well, there is government waste, and then there is government waste.  Some waste is so obvious it's almost funny.  Some so-called pork barrel projects seem simply bizarre.  Another kind of waste, however, would be spending years and hundreds of millions of dollars to put a spacecraft in orbit around Mercury and shutting down the mission while the spacecraft is still functioning and producing quality data.  That, too, would be bizarre.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Space Debris Casualty

Debris from the 2007 Chinese anti-satellite test seems to have collided with a Russian satellite, knocking it off its axis and slowing its spin.  Fortunately, the satellite seems to remain substantially intact. and is small in any case, so the collision likely won't add much to the debris problem.

Of course, it could have been much worse.  A collision destroying a larger satellite would create more debris, possibly triggering a cascade of future collisions.  A collision with ISS could cost lives.  This incident is another reminder that the orbital debris problem must be addressed soon.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Methuselah Star

There is a star whizzing through our galaxy that astronomers believe started out in a dwarf galaxy gobbled up by the Milky Way.  That's not the Methuselah Star's main claim to fame, however.  Early studies put the star's age at 16 billion years.  That's fine-- except the current best, most sophisticated estimate of the age of the universe has the Big Bang banging 13.8 billion years ago.

New, more detailed study of the star has dropped its age at the lower end of an age range to 13.7 billion years, but the high end is still well over 14 billion years.  Further refinement is necessary.  Either this star's age must be shown to fit within our current conception of the cosmos, or that conception, including much of what we think we know about extreme high energy physics, will have to change.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Curiosity Troubles

Exploring Mars is tough, even for a robot.  Last week, the Curiosity rover suffered a computer glitch that had the computer put itself into safe mode.  NASA engineers believe the rover may have been struck by a cosmic ray, which messed with its software.  The management team switched Curiosity to its backup computer system, and the situation was improving.  Unfortunately, the Sun fired a solar flare at Mars on Tuesday, so Curiosity is again on hold until the flare passes.

NASA is confident Curiosity will get back to exploring soon.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Married Couple To Mars?

Dennis Tito is considering using a married couple as the two-person crew in his proposed 501-day flight looping around Mars.  He reasons that a married couple would already have a deep commitment to each other and accustomed to being in intimate situations together.  He also argues that having a man and a woman in the crew would allow all children to identify with someone of their gender.

It's an interesting approach to an interesting concept.  We'll see how far the project gets in reality.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Rocket Rattling

North Korea has announced it may no longer recognize the armistice it has with the United States.  Since no peace treaty was ever signed after the Korean War, the two nations have been at war in a legal, technical sense all this time, but the armistice stopped the bloodshed.

Of course, the North Korean military poses no threat to America, though it could do horrendous damage to South Korea.  Pyongyang, however, does have both nuclear and rocket technology-- despite the efforts of at least three successive American administrations to curb or stop both programs.  A primitive nuclear warhead atop a simple North Korean ICBM could wipe out an American city.  That possibility is precisely the reason many nations have been wary of the North's space program-- they saw it as a cover for the development of ballistic missile technology.

The regime in Pyongyang would not survive a missile attack on the United States.  Presumably, it understands that.  If it doesn't, however, the damage in human terms from such an attack could be horrific.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Another Warning

A comet discoverd last year could slam into Mars next year, astronomers say.  They haven't observed the comet long enough yet to get an exact fix on its orbit, but, for now, the possinility of a collision is real.

We watched a comet collide with Jupiter twenty years ago.  We have ample evidence of close calls for Earth-- some of it dramatic, even stunning.  We see craters all over the Solar System, mute testimony of titanic impacts.  The case for a planetary defense system only gets stronger.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Dragon Docks

Despite a problem with one rocket engine during ascent, SpaceX's Falcon 9 launcher successfully put the company's Dragon spacecraft into orbit Friday, and the cargo ship has now successfully docked with ISS for the third time without a failure-- an impressive record for a new company.

Dragon is delivering 1200 pounds of supplies to ISS this time, but in perhaps two or three years it could be delivering astronauts.

Friday, March 1, 2013

SpaceX Launches Again

This morning, SpaceX seemed to chalk up another successful launch of its Falcon 9 rocket, lifting a Dragon cargo capsule on its way to ISS.

It would be the third straight successful Dragon mission to ISS, beginning to build a record of reliability for SpaceX technology.