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.