Saturday, August 31, 2013

Bruce Murray

Space exploration pioneer Bruce Murray died Thursday after a long illness.  He was 81.

Murray served as director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory from 1976 to 1982.  Even with the extraordinary successes of that period-- the Viking probes to Mars and the Voyagers to the outer planets-- the future of planetary exploration was in question.  Murray was one of those who successfully argued for that future.  Towards securing that future, he co-founded, along with Carl Sagan and Louis Friedman, The Planetary Society in 1979.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Moon Water

A new study of the mineralogy of the Moon suggests a huge amount of water may exist deep underground.

Far from the utterly dry Moon of Apollo, we now think the Moon has enough water to support colonization and an industry producing rocket fuel by recombining the hydrogen and oxygen in water.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Earthly Martians?

The idea that life originated on Mars and migrated to Earth has been around for a while now, in varying degrees of seriousness.  A new study supports the idea with some details.

The study notes that boron and molybdenum would have been important facilitators of the development of life, but they were rare on early Earth and abundant on Mars.  It also notes that RNA, the genetic code of life before the development of DNA, doesn't do well in water, which is where Earthly life supposedly arose.  RNA would have done much better in the dry land areas of Mars.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Mars One Shortfall

Mars One, the foundation trying to establish a human colony on Mars beginning in 2023, is falling far short in the number of people applying to become colonusts.  With the August 31 deadline looming, there are 165,000 applicants, not the projected 1 million.

Still, 165,000 is a large number, and Mars One intends to continue with the project.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Cosmic Billiards

The rock that exploded over Russia last winter may have also encountered other celestial bodies.

Examining the fragments of the meteor that reached Earth, scientists found evidence of surface heating prior to the last plunge into Earth's atmosphere, suggesting either a prior collision with another small body or a close encounter with a larger body.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Sleeping To Mars

NASA scientists are looking at ways to put astronauts in a state akin to hibernation for the long trip to Mars.  They argue doing so could make the trip less stressful on the crew both emotionally and psychologically, as well as lowering costs and technology requirements for the mission.

The study is still in its early days, but researchers think they may have something in 20 to 30 years.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Spitzer's Tenth

NASA's Spitzer Telescope was launched ten years ago today.

Spitzer sees the infrared universe amd has made discoveries both inside the Solar System and in the realm of galaxies, helping to unveil a whole new universe.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Neil Armstrong Remembered

Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of the death of Neil Armstrong, commander of Apollo 11 and first human to set foot on another world.  Armstrong died of complications following heart surgery.

Armstrong is remembered as a test pilot's test pilot, an extremely cool operator in pressure situations, which is largely why he got Apollo 11.  He's also remembered as a quiet, solid Midwesterner who made time for people and refused to cash in on his enormous fame and place in history.  If we are looking for role models, we could do much worse than Neil Armstrong.

Friday, August 23, 2013

China Rising

China is hosting a major international conference on the future of manned spaceflight in September.  China joined with the UN to organize the conference.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of China's first manned spaceflight, and the nation seems focused on becoming a major player in that area.

Thursday, August 22, 2013


Astronauts have reported seeing strange things in space since the Mercury progrram-- and UFOlogists often insist NASA is covering up the really good stuff.  This week, an astronaut aboard ISS actually got video of a "UFO" in space.

NASA says the object is the cap of a Russian antenna.  The cap has drifted away and is now space junk.  We'll see if there are any dissenting opinions.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Speedy Lava World

Astronomers using Kepler data have discovered an Earth-sized exoplanet that orbits its star in only 8.5 hours, making Mercury an absolute slowpoke.  Because the planet is so close to its star, surface temperatures there are incredibly hot, so astronomers think that surface is covered in lava.

This is a young system-- only 750 million years old-- so the world's fate may be uncertain.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Testing Dream Chaser

Sierra Nevada Corporation's Dream Chaser manned spacecraft recently passed an important test of its landing systems, bringing it one step closer to flying astronauts.

Unlike the SpaceX Dragon and Boeing's CST-100, both capsules that will land under parachute, Dream Chaser will land on a runway, like the space shuttle did.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Curiosity Captures Deimos And Phobos

NASA's rover Curiosity turned its camera skyward recently to record the two tiny Martian moons, Deimos and Phobos, as they moved quickly through the heavens.

Both Deimos and Phobos are thought to be asteroids captured by Mars' gravity.  One of them may also see the first human landing in the Martian system.  A possible exploration strategy would be to establish a manned base on one of the moons and use that base as the final staging area for the first trip to the surface of Mars.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Dragon On Track

SpaceX's Dragon capsule took another step towards carrying astronauts last week when the program passed a major design review by NASA engineers and private industry experts.

SpaceX now has the green light to build a man-rated spaceflight system made up of the upgraded Dragon capsule and the company's Falcon 9 launcher.  The first manned flight of Dragon could come as early as 2017.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Area 51

The U. S. Government has finally officially acknowledged it has a "secret" base in the high desert of Nevada, in a place known as Area 51, where it tests classified, high performance aircraft.

Of course, even though the base has never been on any public maps, it hasn't been secret for years.  UFO researchers have made Area 51 famous, an icon of late twentieth century pop culture.  Satellites have imaged the base, as have individuals using long range cameras from nearby mountains.  The issue has not been whether the base exists, but what goes on there.  Some UFOlogiss claim alien technology is tested there, perhaps with the help of live aliens.  The government denies that.  Of course, the government would deny that.....

Friday, August 16, 2013

Chelyabrinsk Plume

NASA was able to track from space the dust plume from the big meteor that exploded over Chelyabrinsk, Russia, last February.

The plume eventually encircled the Earth, and could still be followed three months after the event.  That said, the density of the dust in the plume was never as high as that from a major volcanic eruption on Earth.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Hunting Dyson Spheres

A Dyson sphere-- a concept developed by physicist Freeman Dyson-- would be an incredible feat of engineering and construction.  A civilization would build a Dyson sphere around its solar system in order to harvest all the energy put out by its sun.

Exoplanet hunter Geoff Marcy and his team are now looking for Dyson spheres.  Advances made to discover planets around other stars make such a search possible.  Finding even one such object would open a new age for mankind.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Moon Or Mars?

Should the next goal of human spaceflight be building a base on the Moon, as a stepping stone to Mars, or should we aim directly at Mars?  The debate continues.

If the ultimate point is "simply" to explore Mars, then going there directly makes some sense.  However, lunar advocates often present a wider vision.  Not only would settling the Moon develop technologies for Mars, but it would allow us to bring ET resources into the human economy, allowing us to build a society with the wealth to tackle poverty, climate change, pollution.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

ISS After 2020

There is considerable discussion about whether ISS should continue to be operated after 2020.  Many of the 15 nations that built the station have had economic problems recently and may decide they can't afford to support the current proposal to extend ISS' operational lifetime to 2028.

NASA argues that without such an extension a manned flight to Mars any time soon will be impossible.  Compiling the necessary medical data base and getting the necessary experience with closed-loop life support systems require using ISS well beyond 2020, the agency says.

If ISS is abandoned in 2020, the plan now is to de-orbi it.  However, things could be moving rapidly in commercial space by then.  A fully functional space station already in orbit that its owners no longer want could be seen as an interesting investment by the right consortium.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Lori Garver

According to a National Space Society press release, Lori Garver is leaving NASA after four years as the agency's deputy administrator.

Before NASA, Garver served for nine years as executive director of NSS, and had a big hand in molding it into the effective space advocacy organization it is today.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Girls Build Mars Rover

Camille and Genevieve Beatty enjoy building robots with their dad, Robert.  Their latest project was to build a scaled down version of NASA's Mars rover, Spirit, for a New York City science museum.

Visitors to the museum will be able to drive the rover across a simulated Mars landscape.

Camille is 13, and Genevieve is 11.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Perseid Shower

Every year about this time the Earth passes through a cloud of dust in space that is associated with Comet Swift-Tuttle.  When dust particles enter the Earth's atmosphere they burn up, in this case creating the Perseid meteor shower, so named because the streaking meteors seem to come from the constellaion Perseus.

The Perseid shower is regularly one of the brightest meteor showers of the year, and at times it can be spectacular.  This year, the peak of the shower is expected to be the nights of August 11/12 and 12/13.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Simming Mars In Hawaii

A four-month long mock Mars mission comes to an end next week.  A crew of seven has been living inside a habitat module situated on a barren volcanic field 8,000 feet above sea level on Mauna Loa.  The site was chosen to simulate a Martian landscape, and the crew lived and worked as they might on Mars, even donning simulated spacesuits to explore outside.

Such exercises are principally used to try to anticipate psychological and interpersonal problems that might arise on an actual mission.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Exploring Europa

Even though NASA has no plans at the moment to send a probe to Jupiter's moon, Europa, it has had a team of scientists work out the instruments such a probe should carry.  They include an imager, a chemical analyzer, a radiation meter, and a drill capable of boring four inches into solid ice.

Scientists believe Europa has a huge ocean inside its icy shell that could support life.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Solar Cycles

The Sun goes through an 11-year cycle of activity, from relatively quiet times with few sunspots, for example, to peaks of activity.

We are approaching such a solar maximum right now.  Within a few months, astrophysicists expect to see the crescendo, when the Sun's magnetic field actually flips its polarity before continuing on its merry way.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Building True Spaceships

NASA isn't concerned solely with the next program; it also tries to develop technologies that would be necessary decades or more in the future.

To that end, the agency is working now on conceptual designs for space stations in deep space, manned interplanetary craft, and even manned interstellar ships.  Such stations and ships would be assembled in space and designed for space.  They would never be on a planet during their working time periods.  They would be true spaceships.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Mars One Progress Report

So far, 78,000 people have applied to Mars One to become among the first colonists of Mars.  Fifty of those gathered in Washington, D. C., yesterday to hear Bas Lansdorp, co-founder and CEO of Mars One.  Robert Zubrin, president of The Mars Society, also addressed the group via teleconference.

How many of those 78,000 would actually go on a one-way trip to Mars is an open question, of course, but the project is garnering publicity in the meantime.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Curiosity At One (Earth) Year

A year ago this weekend, after successfully negotiating seven minutes of terror going from orbit to the surface, NASA's Curiosity rover landed on Mars.

Since then, Curiosity has been a huge success.  It has already accomplished a major part of its mission, providing data strongly suggesting that early Mars could have supported life.  Curiosity is now on its way to its main science objective, Mount Sharp, where scientists hope to learn even more about early Mars.

Friday, August 2, 2013

SLS On Track

NASA's huge Space Launch System rocket has passed a key design review, clearing the way for the actual building of hardware.

SLS, which would eventually be the most powerful rocket ever built, is tasked with throwing NASA astronauts into deep space-- to the Moon, asteroids, and eventually to Mars.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Imaging Exoplanets

Astronomers have directly imaged the smallest exoplanet yet.  Smallest, but still not small.  GJ 504b is four times more massive than Jupiter.  It's also farther from its parent star than Pluto is from the Sun.  Such a huge world so far out is still a challenge to explain with current planetary formation models.

The technology to directly image exoplanets using huge ground-based research telescopes is steadily improving.  The big prize, of course, is directly imaging a world similar to Earth orbiting in its star's habitable zone.  That should be possible in a decade or two.