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.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Mars One Taking Applications

The Mars One Project will soon begin taking applications for its first Martian colonists.  Already, interest in the slots has been heavy.  Mars One intends to begin the settlement of Mars in 2023 by sending a four person crew to the Red Planet on a one-way trip.  The project is to be funded by various revenue streams, but the main one seems to be fees gained by a reality style television series that will follow the project from the selection of the first candidate colonists all the way through the early days of the first settlement.

OPINION:  I'm sorry, but as of now, I see the Mars One effort as a publicity stunt.  Perhaps the people involved are sincere and committed-- and perhaps they will even succeed.  I hope they do; their success would usher in a potentially remarkable new era in human history.  However, I think they are vastly underestimating the complexity, difficulty, and enormity of the task they've set for themselves.  We don't yet even know yet all the factors involved in living on Mars.  Sending people out with no way back under such circumstances is morally questionable at best.  Basing funding partly on the ongoing success of a television show also seems strange.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Saturn's Ring Rain

A new study finds that water ice particles regularly erode from Saturn's legendary rings, make their way to the planet, and fall into the atmosphere, producing a kind of rain over particular areas of Saturn.

The process seems not to be controlled simply by gravity.  Rather, the eroded particles travel along lines of magnetic force governed by Saturn's magnetic field.  The process does not involve much water, but it is a mechanism by which the ring system can evolve over time.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Comet Won't Hit Mars

NASA had thought that Comet Siding Spring, discovered in January, had a fair chance of slamming into Mars next year.  New calculations, however, say the chance of a collision is remote.

The comet will still come close to Mars, though-- perhaps 66,000 miles close-- so NASA can still try to observe it from relatively close range using the assets it has studying Mars.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Hawking Reiterates

Last week, Stephen Hawking again argued colonizimg space is essential for the long term survival of humanity-- and the not so long term.  He said that unless we move into space, humanity will not last another thousand years.

Climate collapse, war, and asteroid strikes are among the risks to survival as long as humans confine ourselves to Earth.  We need to put our eggs in more than one basket, Hawking and others contend, first on other worlds, and eventually around other stars.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Mars And Back In 30 Days

Researchers at the University of Washington at Seattle are pursuing a rocket design that would open the Solar System to human exploration within reasonable flight times-- including round trips to Mars in as few as 30 days.

Engineers and science fiction authors have known for decades that the key to interplanetary travel is developing nuclear fusion rockets.  The team at UW is working on precisely that, and making progress.  The design relies on powerful magnetic fields that would squeeze tiny amounts of fuel into a state where nuclear fusion occurs, producing vast amounts of energy and driving exhaust out of the rocket at extremely high speeds.

The system could allow round trips to Mars in the 30- to 90-day range, which would lessen many of the problems associated with deep space travel.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Pyongyang's Rockets

North Korea is threatening to attack the U. S. with nuclear-tipped rockets, turning American cities into "seas of fire."  U. S. intelligence, however, is confident Pyongyang has no rocket capable of doing that.  Indeed, the North Korean rocket development program has been marked almost entirely by launch failures.

Of course, American intelligence has also been sure right along that North Korea had no nuclear bombs that would fit on a rocket.  That's almost certainly correct, but over the past couple of days doubts seem to have arisen.  If Pyongyang has deliverable nuclear bombs, South Korea and Japan could be in real danger.

The two technologies that could make mankind the master of the Solar System-- rockets and nuclear energy-- could be used to create a bloodbath.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Asteroid Vs. The Moon

The new NASA budget seeks $105 million to start an effort to bring a small asteroid into lunar orbit, where it would be visited by astronauts-- sort of bringing the mountain to Mohammed.  It's a creative approach that has value for planetary defense, space commercialization, and building a space infrastructure.  What it won't necessarily do is get humans deeper into space than they've ever been.

Some members of Congress, however, argue that the next goal for NASA manned spaceflight should be the establishment of a lunar base by 2022, saying settling the Moon is key to moving out into the Solar System.  That's a strong argument.

Why not bring private enterprise into a comprehensive effort to move out, and do both?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Hollywood's Obsession

Hollywood seems obsessed-- for now-- with stories set in post-apocalyptic Earths where humanity is struggling to survive.  The cause of the disaster is often an alien invasion.

Of course, aliens bent on making Earth their own would have no need to mount a military-style invasion.  Redirecting an asteroid or two to collide with Earth would end all human resistance before it began.  Or, if They wanted the place intact, introducing a virus that would wipe out humanity would be relatively simple.  Those storylines, however, leave little room for Tom Cruise to play hero.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Gauging The Cost Of Vigilance

One scientist studying the risk of asteroids striking Earth is arguing against increased government funding to find more of them.  He points out that NASA estimates we have already found 90 percent of the big ones that could do catastrophic damage, so the ones we'd likely find with increased funding would be smaller ones that don't pose much danger, anyway.

It's a reasonable argument, if, perhaps, a bit too intellectual.  Yes, while the danger posed by asteroid collision is real, it's also unlikely that such an event will cause any loss of human life in the foreseeable future.  That said, however, the Chelyabrinsk fireball explosion resulted in over a thousand people injured by flying glass.  It's only luck that none of those was fatal.  And yes, better building codes would help, but if you argue the danger is not enough to justify increased funding to find these rocks, it's hard to argue the danger does warrant toughening building codes around the world, which would increase the costs of construction, maintenance, and retrofitting.

Establishing an observation program to find potentially dangerous asteroids would not be costly.  The only real cost would come if we found a body we needed to deflect.  At that point, the cost of a deflection mission would be far less than the cost of allowing nature to take its course.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Maybe Not Mercury, After All

The greenish meteorite recently found in Morocco that some scientists say came from Mercury may not be from that tiny planet after all, other scientists caution.

The main issue is the rock's age.  At 4.5 billion years old, some scientists question whether any rock from that early epoch could have survived the heavy bombardment that swept through the inner Solar System after that.  Further tests may determine the rock's origin.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Glide Test For SpaceShipTwo

Virgin Galactic is moving ahead with its test flight schedule.  Last week, VG successfully conducted a flight test of SpaceShipTwo, dropping it from a WhiteKnightTwo mother ship and gliding it to a safe landing.

It was an unpowered flight, but separate test firings of SpaceShipTwo's eventual rocket motor are also going well.  VG plans powered test flights of SpaceShipTwo later this year.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Hydrogen Peroxide On Europa

A new study finds hydrogen peroxide exists broadly across a wide area of the icy surface of Jupiter's moon, Europa.  Further, the peroxide seems to be in heavier concentrations on the leading hemisphere of Europa, which is nearly pure water ice, than in the trailing hemisphere, where the ice tends to be mixed with sulphur and other elements.

The widespread presence of hydrogen peroxide is important because it could increase the potential for life in the ocean under Europa's shell of ice.  If the peroxide reaches the ocean and mixes with organic compounds there, it could be an energy source for life.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Deep Space By Design

Deep Space Industries, a new asteroid mining company, is also starting a retail arm shortly.  To be called "Deep Space By Design," the store chain will offer space-themed clothing and other space-related products.

DSBD is no doubt designed to serve a dual purpose.  One purpose would be to bring space into the public square in a new way, reaching people who may not have thought much about space before.  The second purpose is clearly financial.  Making money from asteroid mining might be years away, so having a successful retail operation would give the company a revenue stream in the meantime.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Oldest Supernova

The Hubble Space Telescope has imaged the oldest, and therefore most distant, supernova yet found.  The big explosion occurred more than 10 billion years ago.

Astronomers say it was a Type 1a supernova, and one of several things they want to learn is whether that type blast was of the same order of magnitude then as they are now.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Dark Matter Possbly Found

In a news conference to be held today, NASA is expected to announce the possible detection of dark matter, the elusive, mysterious stuff that makes up most of the universe.

The detection, if confirmed, was made by the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, whuch has been attached to the outside of ISS for nearly two years.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Maybe Skylab II

As Skylab, the first U. S. space station, was based on an upper stage of a Saturn V, a NASA study suggests using the upper stage of the giant new launcher the agency is currently developing as the basis of a  deep space manned outpost.  Such an outpost would have the volume of a typical two-story house and support a crew of four.  It would also be able to safely store food for months or even years.

Such outposts would also be relatively inexpensive, as they would come off the same assembly line that builds the rockets that would launch them into space.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Viking Reconsidered

The first attempt to find life on Mars was carried out by the Viking landers in the 1970s.  Viking conducted three tests, positive results from any of which would have strongly suggested life, according to scientists before the misson.  In fact, positive results were obtained, but the science community, perhaps reasonably, backed away from making the big call, arguing strange soil chemistry on Mars could have produced the results.

Since then, scientists have learned much more about Martian soil.  The Phoenix Lander a few years ago dug into Mars and found perchlorates in the soil.  Curiosity has recently found the same.  It turns out that perchlorates, a form of salt, could have skewed the Viking results, but it also strengthens the case for possible life when linked to water, as they are on Mars.

So, did Viking find life nearly forty years ago?  We might know later this century.