Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Comet ISON

Astronomers like to try to predict the next great comet.  Such comets can be among Nature's most spectacular displays, so it's only human to want to be associated with that splendor in some way.

Comet ISON is the current candidate for greatness.  So far it hasn't quite matched the billing, but there are months of long winter nights ahead.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Dream Chaser Test Flight

The Dream Chaser spacecraft successfully completed its first unmanned test flight Saturday, but not without some drama.

Dropped from a helicopter at 12,000 feet, Dream Chaser glided to a perfect runway touchdown.  One of the landing gear failed to deploy, however, and the craft skidded off the runway.  Damage to the vehicle was minimal.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Ballooning To Near Space

A new company, World View Enterprises, is about to offer balloon rides to an altitude of 19 miles inside specially designed capsules.  That's high enough to experience the curvature of Earth and the blackness of space.

Tickets are $75,000 each.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Defending The Planet

Last week, astronauts and cosmonauts urged the UN to push forward with plans to defend Earth from collisions with asteroids and comets.

Astronomers estimate there are a million bodies that could cause catastrophic damage, but to date we've only found 1 percent of them.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Early Water

A new study suggests water came to Earth soon after the planet was formed, as opposed to after the Late Heavy Bombardment period.  That would mean the pounding Earth took during the LBH did not destroy the water already present.

The study also suggests organics arrived on Earth at a very early time.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Inter Orbital Success

Inter Orbital Systems, a New Space firm out of Mojave, California, has successfully completed test firings of its new rocket engine.  The engine has basically the same oomph as a rocket using liquid oxygen as a fuel, but uses a fuel based on, of all things, turpentine.  While LOX has to be stored in a supercold state, the turpentine can be held in a rocket tank virtually indefinitely.

IOS plans to begin satellite launches next year, and has already sold out the first two manifests.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Orion On Track

NASA's next manned spaceship, Orion, is on track to make its first test flight next September.

The flight, which will be unmanned, will fly Orion about 3,600 miles away from Earth before coming back, to approximate the speed of reentry from a lunar voyage and test the ship's heat shield.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Grasshopper Retired

SpaceX has retired its experimental rocket, Grasshopper, that helped the company develop and demonstrate a vertical landing capability.  The focus will now shift to the Falcon 9-R, which the company will use to further develop the capability in conditions more like those of an actual space mission.

SpaceX is keeping Grasshopper for now, but its final home could easily be a museum.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Defining Habitable Zones

A super-Earth NASA said last April orbited within its star's habitable zone may in fact lie just outside it, the agency now says.

Defining habitable zones is proving more complex than previously thought.  A world's distance from its star is only one facter.  Other factors include the makeup of the planetary atmosphere and the behavior of the star.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Martian Meteorites

If life began on Mars and migrated to Earth, it had to have some way to get here.  Maybe it did.

The Curiosity rover, by studying the amount of the inert gas argon in Martian rocks, has clinched the case that some meteorites on Earth do in fact come from Mars.  The argon in those meteorites matches that in the atmosphere of early Mars.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Why Space?

Supporters of the space program have always had to defend their position.  Opponents, not so much.  That might be changing.

Until recently, space exploration was the exclusive province of government.  Now, however, we are on the verge of a new era that will see private efforts pushing out the space frontier.  As they will be using private money, they won't need to defend their positions in the same way.  That could result in a fundamental shift in how society sees moving into space.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Spitzer's Second Act

NASA's Spitzer infrared telescope was designed to study big stuff, like stellar nurseries and the centers of galaxies, where infrared can penetrate gas and dust that optical light cannot.  Now, however, after ten years of service, it's also studying exoplanets.

Some worlds are brighter in infrared.  Spitzer can also better estimate a planet's size, and even reveal facts about an exoplanet's atmosphere.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Mercury And The Moon

Sean Solomon, principal investigator of NASA's Messenger probe to Mercury, argues that studying small, rocky, aurless Mercury could help explain the origin of Earth's Moon.

Currently, scientists think a huge body slammed into Earth, and the Moon formed from the debris, but that theory seems at best incomplete.  Solomon points out that no one believes Mercury formed that way, yet Mercury and the Moon have several common traits.  Focusing on those traits might yield a broader theory of rocky world evolution.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

India To Mars

India is set to launch its first mission to Mars.  So far, only the U. S., Russia, and the European Space Agency have flown successful missions to the Red Planet.

The Indian probe will photograph the Martian surface and look for methane in the Martian atmosphere.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Another Grasshopper Record

On October 7, SpaceX's experimental Grasshopper rocket set another record, reaching an altitude of 2440 feet before essentially retracing its flight bottom first and safely landing back on its launch pad.

The company believes the way to truly open space is to cut launch costs, and the way to do that is to create reusable rockets.  Grasshopper is bringing implementation of that strategy closer.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Naiad Rediscovered

The tiny moon of Neptune, Naiad, hadn't been seen since its discovery by Voyager 2 in 1989.  Recently, however, it was rediscovered by researchers using images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2004.

The researchers say the orbit of Naiad changed in that fifteen years.  They also discovered an even smaller Neptunian moon.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Scott Carpenter

Scott Carpenter, one of the original Mercury astronauts, passed away yesterday.  He was 88.  Carpenter flew only one space mission before leaving NASA, but he went on to explore another huge frontier-- the deep ocean.

Now, only one of the Mercury Seven is still with us.  John Glenn is 92.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Recognizing Apollo Nomenclature

When Apollo astronauts went to the Moon, they named certain features on the lunar surface as navigation aids.  The International Astronomical Union, however, is the body that officially names features on other worlds, and it never adopted the Apollo names.

Two Apollo lunar astronauts, James Lovell and William Anders, want the IAU to recognize at least some of the Apollo place names.  They point out that for centuries explorers have been granted the ability to name places associaed with them.  The next IAU meeting might be interesting.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Alien Signals In DNA?

Scientists are exploring a wealth of ways an alien civilization might make itself known to us.  One of the most imaginative would be to plant obviously deliberately arranged sequences in human DNA.  That would guarantee humans would not find the evidence until we had developed the technological sophistication to read the DNA code.  Scientists believe large chunks of that code is unnecessary, so presumably a message inserted there would not affect individuals.

Such a scheme would seem to require an alien visitation of Earth to physically introduce the message.  It would also seem to require an intimate familiarity with the DNA code.  If that code is unique to life on Earth, gaining such familiarity may mean aliens were here for a very long time.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Shaping Sylvia

A team of both amateur and professional astronomers have determined that the 168-mile wide asteroid 87 Sylvia  is irregularly shaped.  They did so by observing Sylvia as it occulted a star.

They also found that Romulus, a 15-mile wide asteroid that orbits Sylvia, is dumbbell shaped.

Monday, October 7, 2013

To Mars, Quickly

One big problem with sending humans to Mars is the time such a mission would take using chemical rockets-- well over a year, at least, and possibly three years, depending on how much time was spent actually on the surface of Mars.  During such a mission, astronauts would be exposed to the dangers of radiation, which causes cancer and genetic damage, and prolonged weightlessness, which can destroy muscle and bone.

So, NASA is looking for ways to shorten mission times, and it may have found one.  A team at the University of Washington is developing a fusion powered rocket that could fly between Earth and Mars in about 90 days.  All the physics and engineering of such a rocket are already well understood, and the team is working on building test models.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Maven Still A 'Go'

NASA's Maven probe to study the evolution of the atmosphere of Mars will go forward regardless of the government shutdown.  Launch is scheduled for next month.

NASA has determined Maven can go ahead because it will also serve as a communications relay linking the rovers on Mars to Earth, qualifying the probe as "essential."

Friday, October 4, 2013

Space Race

NBC and Virgin Galactic are teaming with reality television king Mark Burnett to develop a new reality show.  It's to be called :"Space Rsce."

In the show, people will compete for a ticket to ride VG's SpaceShipTwo to the edge of space.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Martian Supervolcanoes?

And you thought Olympus Mons is big.

A new study postulates that several explosive supervolcanoes erupted multiple times during the first billion years of Martian history.  Such events could have destroyed the atmosphere of early Mars, and could possibly have thrown rocks containing life to the early Earth-- and possibly to other places, as well.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Mapping Exoplanets

Scientists have produced the first crude map of a planet orbiting another star.

Using data from both the Kepler planet hunting probe and the Spitzer infrared telescope, they have determined that Kepler 7b, a hot Jupiter that whizzes around its star in five Earth days, has clouds in its leading hemisphere and clear skies in the trailing.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

NASA At 55

Today marks the 55th anniversary of the creation of NASA.  President Eisenhower, responding to early Soviet space achievements and unwilling to leave the American counter to the military, argued for the creation of a civilian space agency.

So, is NASA celebrating?  If so, it's a small, intimate affair.  Only about 600 of over 18,000 NASA employees are at work today because of the government shutdown.