Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Geysers Of Enceladus

Saturn's moon Enceladus is known for its geysers that spew water vapor and other materials miles into space.  A new study finds the strength of those eruptions are related to when they occur in Enceladus' orbit.

When Enceladus is farthest from Saturn, the eruptions are most powerful; when closest, they are weakest.  Scientists explain the situation by noting Enceladus is constantly being stressed-- but at constantly varying rates, depending on orbitial position-- by the gravitational tugs of Saturn and another moon, Dione.  It's that varying stress that leads to the varying eruptions.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Running Rovers From Orbit

Last week, an astronaut aboard ISS successfully operated a rover at NASA's Ames Research Center in California.  It was the second such test of concept.

Developing that capability would be an important new tool in planetary exploration, allowing astronauts in orbit, or from nearby space, to operate robots on the Moon, Mars, and eventually other worlds.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Europan DNA

Many scientists believe the most likely place to find extant life in the Solar System beyond Earth is inside Jupiter's moon, Europa.  A water ocean is thought to exist under the moon's ice shell, and that ocean could support life.

The technology needed to plumb that ocean is currently being developed.  One among many scientific instruments under development is a DNA sequencer.  If life is found inside Europa and can be sampled, the sequencer could tell us whether that life had the same DNA as Earthly life or another type entirely.  Either answer would be remarkable.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Asteroid Ideas

NASA has received 400 proposals this summer suggesting ways to capture asteroids and move them into lunar orbit, as well as how to detect asteroids that might pose a danger to Earth and what we could do to avoid a collision.  The proposals have come from all over the world, at NASA's invitation, and from non-profits, international organizations, and private companies.

NASA plans a gathering in September at which it will address the proposals.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

MRO Spots Curiosity

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has imaged the Curiosity rover on the surface on Mars.  It can also see Curiosity's tracks in the soil.

Those conspiracy theorist types who'll want to argue Curiosity is in fact exploring Arizona will have a slightly tougher time.

Friday, July 26, 2013

3-D Printing Rockets

NASA recently ran a test, manufacturing rocket components using 3-D printing technology and comparing their performance to components built in the traditional way.  The test showed the 3-D printed components worked just as well.

NASA is optimistic the new technology can be a big boost to space operations by lowering costs and by allowing the manifacture of parts in space.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Getting Down To Cases

NASA is going ahead with the final phase of its Commercial Crew Program, which will pick one or more private spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from ISS.  The first flight is scheduled for 2017.

The problem is that NASA needs $800 million a year for the interim years to meet that 2017 date, and Congress has never come close to giving this program that much money.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Curiosity On The Move

NASA's Curiosity rover took its longest drive on Mars yet last Sunday, covering 329 feet-- more than double its previous record.  NASA expects the new record to fall, however, when mission controllers allow Curiosity to navigate itself later on.

Curiosity is now on a five-mile journey to its prime science target, the three-mile high Mount Sharp.  The trek to the mountain is expected to take a year or more.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

CST-100 On Display

Boeing opened its new private spacecraft, the CST-100, to NASA and the media yesterday.  Two astronauts in pressure spacesuits were strapped into the pilots' seats of the capsule.  Their assignment was to evaluate the interior design of the ship from the crew's perspective.

The CST-100 is designed to ferry humans to and from ISS, and eventually to and from private space stations.  Boeing plans the first orbital test flight of the craft for 2016.

Monday, July 22, 2013


Sixty-six years ago this month, according to some, an alien spacecraft-- or two-- crashed in the desert outside Roswell, New Mexico.  Put another way, we are now roughly the same time period removed from that alleged crash as Apollo 11 was from the first heavier-than-air flight at Kitty Hawk.  An awful lot can happen in 66 years.

We know vastly more about space travel, the universe, and the odds of other intelligent life in the universe now than we did in 1947.  Space travel is now a fact, and interstellar travel is almost certainly possible.  The universe could well be teeming with life.  That may or may not increase the odds for technology-producing intelligence, but the universe produced one such species-- us-- so others are perfectly possible.

Do the advances made over the past six decades make the Roswell story more plausible?  Broadly, yes.  However, to prove a specific event actually happened requires specific evidence.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Rolling The Dice

NASA is funding 12 innovative technology development efforts at $100,000 each for Phase I studies.  The projects cover a range of possibilities, from advanced space propulsiom systems to a method for keeping astronauts asleep for extended periods during deep space missions.

All the projects might not pan out, but if some do, they will represent fundamental breakthroughs in space exploration and development.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Apollo 11 Plus 44

Todaxy is the 44th annivversary of the first manned landing on the Moon, and the first since the passing of Apollo 11's commander, Neil Armstrong.  Happily, the other two crew members, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins, are still with us.

The 1960s were marked by assassinations, wars, great power rivalry, and civil unrest.  All those things have precedents going back deep into human history.  The one unprecedented event of the decade saw humans leave their home world and land on another.  A thousand years from now, if society doesn't collapse in the meantime, that decade will be remembered for one event-- the flight of Apollo 11.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Defining Early Mars... Again

A new study that compares the current Martian atmosphere revealed by the instruments of the Curiosity rover to the early atmosphere samples found trapped within Martian meteorites found on Earth finds that Mars lost most of its atmosphere very early on, possibly as much as four billion years ago.

Exactly how that meshes with the "warmer, wetter" early Mars theory is unclear.  Perhaps Mars was a dying world even as conditions conducive to life were developing,

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Skylon On Track

Thanks to financial support from both the UK Government and the European Space Agency, the huge Skylon space plane, at 276 feet long, with its revolutionary SABRE engine is on track for its first test flight in 2020.

Skylon, which is being developed by British aerospace firm Reaction Engines, Ltd., will be a single-stage-to-orbit craft that can carry both cargo and humans into space.  If successful, it would be a major step forward in truly opening space.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Possible Ocean On Early Mars

A new study using the high resolution camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that's able to resolve objects only ten inches across-- think about that-- has identified what seems to be the location of the delta of a large river that could have flowed into an ocean early in Mars history.

Scientists have suspected for a while that a huge water ocean once dominated the northern hemisphere of Mars.  If further work on the supposed delta supports the study, it could be the best direct evidence yet of such an ocean.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Spacewalk Cut Short

NASA cut short a spacewalk outside ISS today when an astronaut reported water in his helmet.

NASA says no astronaut was in any danger.  That may be, but if you were a spacewalking astronaut and you started getting water in your nose, you might have a slightly different take.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Long March Rockets

China is expanding its family of Long March rockets as it increases the capability of its space program.

Long March 5, which suffered a test failure last month, and Long March 7 will be the powerful workhorses for China's big move into space.  LM 7 will carry cargo to the nation's large space station, to be constructed around 2020, while the even more powerful LM 5 will launch the components of that station.  LM 5 will also be able to launch substantial payloads to the Moon.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

On To Mount Sharp

NASA's Curiosity rover has begun the trek to its primary scientific objective, Mount Sharp.  The five mile journey could take a year or more.

Scientists identified Mount Sharp as a place to go because images show it was built layer by layer.  By examining the layers up close with Curiosity, they expect to be able to learn the early history of that area of Mars.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Rating Kepler

Even if NASA's Kepler spacecraft can't continue its planet hunting mission, it has achieved its primary mission objective-- to determine the frequency of Earth-like worlds in the galaxy, a team member says.

The margin for error would be greater than desired, he said, but the basic picture will be clear.  Kepler has been offline since suffering reaction wheel failures.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Apollo National Park?

A bill has been introduced in Congress that would make the Apollo lunar landing sites protected U. S. national park territory.

Under international law, those sites are not owned by the United States-- nations are prohibited from claiming sovereignty over all or parts of celestial bodies, which is why Apollo astronauts didn't claim the Moon as American territory when they planted the flag-- so how non- U.S. territory could be U. S. national parks is unclear.  Congress probably has better things to do than open another optional can of worms.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Searching For Old Martians

NASA's next Mars rover, scheduled for launch in 2020, will search for evidence of past Martian life, not extant life.

Scientists involved with the project argue technology is not yet advanced enough to allow a reasonable search for current life.  The better bet, they say, is to search for fossils in rocks, since we know Mars was once much more hospitable to life than it is today.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Leaping Grasshopper

SpaceX's experimental rocket, Grasshopper, rose over 1,000 feet before executing a safe landing in its latest test flight.

The flight set an altitude record for the program, and new precision sensors helped guide the landing.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Cutting Costs With CAT

A new engine, the CubeSat Ambipolar Thruster, could allow fleets of tiny, inexpensive probes to roam the Solar System, thus slashing the cost of unmanned space exploration.  CAT works on the same principle as ion engines that are already used in deep space missions, but on a much smaller scale.  Powered by solar panels, CAT's fuel could be as simple as water.

CAT would allow extremely small probes to undertake a variety of missions cheaply.  Perhaps the most intriguing would be a mission to search for life on Jupiter's moon Europa for only $1 million.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Defining Exploration

Over the latest few centuries, physical exploration meant people risking life and limb sailing the oceans in wooden ships, or trekking into the wilderness, or encountering new societies, or dogsledding to the poles.  Recently, it has also meant flying into space, even landing on the Moon.

Today, the teams of scientists and engineers who operate the fleet of probes and rovers at Mars, Cassini at Saturn, and other space missions see themselves as space explorers.  Staying in Pasadena, California, of course, is not the same as enduring a winter in the Rockies, or a hurricane on the high seas, or a caravan across the Sahara.  Still, the teams have a point.  They are increasing our understanding of the cosmos by directing missions that reach beyond Earth.  It is the intellectualization of exploration.  Will that have the same influence on the general public as tales and testimonies of courageous explorers performing great deeds?  We will see.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Hopefully Reviving Kepler

NASA's planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft has been out of commission for a while due to the failure of two of its four reaction wheels.  Reaction wheels keep a probe precisely oriented in space.  Three are necessary for the system to work.

Engineers at NASA have been working on ways to bring one if not both of the balky wheels back into service, and they will begin trying to do that later this month.  If they succeed, Kepler can continue planet hunting, but if the wheels are truly gone, Kepler might be given a less demanding mission.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Life And Mars

There is an inherent tenson between searching for life on Mars and protecting the Martian atmosphere from contanimation by Earthly microbes that hitched a ride to the Red Planet.  If we go to those places on Mars most likely to harbor life, the risk of contanimation is higher precisely because Earthly life could survive in those areas.  If we stay away from such spots, however, the chances of finding Martian life likely decrease.

So, it's a balancing act.  The strategy used so far has been to send sterilized machines to the planet.  Sterilized, but possibly not completely without tiny, live passengers.  When human explorers reach Mars, bringing along all the bacteria that live within our bodies, our strategy for keeping them away from a possible Martian ecosphere will need to be much more sophisticated.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Rover Astronomy

NASA's Curiosity rover is designed to focus on Mars, but last week it showed some versatility.  Pointing its camera straight up, it tracked the Martian moon Phobos across the sky.

Phobos is the larger of Mars' two tiny moons, and a possible location for a manned station before a humans actually land on Mars.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Russian Rockets

The Russians have lost another rocket shortly after launch, extending an unfortunate string of such failures.

The tocket involved was not the model that delivers manned Soyuz capsules to orbit, but to the extent this ongoing problem calls into question Russia's quality control and conniitment to the highest possible standards, NASA astronauts riding in Soyuz might have to be reconsidered at some point.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Sixty Billion Shots

A new study suggests there could be as many as 60 billion planets that could support life orbiting red dwarf stars in the Milky Way alone.  That's about double previous estimates.

Of course, such a number strongly suggests that life is common throughout the universe.  Since red dwarf stars are the most common stars in the galaxy, it also suggests that if humanity masters interstellar travel we will have plenty of inviting places to settle.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Finding Near-Earth Objects

Astronomers recently discovered the 10,000th near-Earth object, an asteroid that poses no threat to our planet.

It's a good start, but astronomers say they need to find ten times that number before they can be reasonably sure they've found all the ones that could do real damage to Earth.  They estimate that there are perhaps one million near-Earth objects in total, but the vast majority of those are too small to do us harm.