Friday, February 28, 2014

Another Martian Meteorite Controversy

Researchers have found tiny structures in another meteorite from Mars, suggesting the possibility of microbial life on the Red Planet.  Nobody is saying this new discovery proves life, but placed in the broad context of a wet early Mars, it is one more piece of a mosaic.

The first such discovery was the Allen Hills meteorite controversy in 1996.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Exoplanets Galore

NASA has announced confirmation of 715 new worlds detected by its Kepler spacecraft, bringing the total number of confirmed exoplanets to something approaching 1,800.

Most of the announced worlds are only slightly larger than Earth.  This batch covered only the first two years of the Kepler mission.  Astronomers expect to confirm several hundred more in the second two years of Kepler observations, including some Earth-like worlds in the habitable zones of their parent stars.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Venus Option

Mars is seen by virtually everyone as the target for mankind's first interplanetary voyage.  Mars has the possibility of life, after all-- either extinct or extant.  Mars also has an incredible surface where humans can land, explore, and live.

Venus has neither the real possibility of life nor a ready surface.  However, if our first interplanetary voyage will not involve a landing on the planet, Venus has some things to recommend it.  First, when a trip would be undertaken, Venus would be closer to Earth than Mars ever is, making for a shorter mission.  Second, solar power could be used more easily at Venus.  Third, the major science to be done at Venus is the study of its atmosphere, which could be pushed forward by a properly equipped manned spacecraft in the area.

NASA is focused on Mars, but a private effort to Venus?  Who knows?

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Legs For Falcon 9

The next launch of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket will feature landing legs attached to the first stage.

The rocket won't soft land after doing its main job, but the plan is for future rockets to do so, allowing them to be re-used and thus cutting the cost of space operations.  The next launch will test the flight characteristics of the rocket with legs.

Monday, February 24, 2014

New Lunar Crater

Last September, a rock between 2 and 4.5 feet across slammed into the Moon at about 36,000 miles an hour, NASA revealed yesterday.  The impact created a crater 131 feet across.

The event was visible with the naked human eye from Earth.  Light created by the impact lasted eight seconds.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Backwards On Mars

NASA knew the Martian surface is rough, but it seems to be taking a bigger toll on Curiosity's six steel wheels than expected.  So, last week, controllers drove the rover backwards for a stretch in an attempt to relieve some of the stress.

The rover might be driven backwards periodically on the way to Mount Sharp, which it should reach in June.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Musk Gets Heinlein

The National Space Society is presenting Elon Musk its Robert A. Heinlein Award for his work as a space entrepreneur.

Musk founded and directs Space-X, which is making progress towards its goal of creating reusable spacecraft and launchers in order to drastically reduce the cost of space operations.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Biological Bottleneck

Settling the Moon will involve many factors, but the key will be whether humans can procreate and have their fetuses develop normally in low gravity states.  We have evidence that other mammalian fetuses do not develop properly in microgravity.

If lunar gravity is enough to support normal fetal development and birth,  we'll be off to the races.  If not, settling space will have to take a different tack.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Russian Blast Plus One Year

A year ago, a space rock came undetected out of the glare of the Sun and exploded over Russia, injuring over 1,000 people.  It could have been much worse.

The event has spurred the UN, NASA, and others to take planetary defense more seriously.  Hopefully, that momentum will be maintained.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Setting Ground Rules

Robert Bigelow of Bigelow Aerospace is calling for clear rules-- maybe even a new treaty-- to lay out exactly what rights private enterprise will have on the Moon.

The protection of property, patent, and intellectual rights, guarantees that profits go to the producer of those profits, and access to a powerful court system are all necessary for the creation of a vibrant lunar economy.

Monday, February 17, 2014

NSS Takes On NEOs

The National Space Society is calling for increased attention to be paid to Near-Earth Objects in order to find dangerous ones before they find us.

NSS is also calling on space faring nations to add one percent to their space budgets and put that money toward planetary defense.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Asteroid 2005 EM26

Asteroid 2005 EM26 will make a close pass of Earth Monday.  There's no danger of a collision, which is good because the thing is the size of three football fields.

This encounter comes a year after two close approaches occurred the same day, including the unexpected one that exploded over Russia.

Saturday, February 15, 2014


UNSEALED: ALIEN FILES is another television documentary series focused on the UFO phenomenon, this one on Destination America.  Watching a few episodes suggests this series takes a darker, more alarmist view of the subject-- even to the point of questioning whether some world leaders are in fact aliens out to destroy humanity.

That's the trouble with series television-- the need to fill airtime is constantly there.  Too often for the credibility of the effort, that pressure produces silly stuff.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Yutu Still Around

China announced its lunar rover, Yutu, dead after failing to make contact with it after a long, brutally cold lunar night.  After the announcement, however, contact was made.

Engineers are working to bring Yutu fully back.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The UN And Planetary Defense

The United Nations has established a working group to coordinate efforts to protect Earth from asteroid and comet strikes.

The first task of the group will be to establish the actual level of risk, but it's also charged with developing ways to deflect dangerous bodies, and with planning responses to strikes.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Charles Darwin

Today would have been Charles Darwin's 205th birthday.  His theory of evolution is one of the pillars of modern science.

It's good to keep Darwin in mind.  We have made mind boggling progress across a broad front of disciplines since his day.  Clearly, a technological civilization can arise with stunning speed.  That's good news for ET hunters.  The question is whether such civilizations sustain themselves over some long term.  If they do, part of the reason probably involves a move into space.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Martian Water Still Elusive

Studying images of streaks that run down slopes on Mars during warmer periods, scientists are trying to establish that running water exists today on Mars, at least under certain circumstances.  So far, however, they haven't been able to close the deal.

The streaks could be the result of running water, or brine, but they could also be caused by something else.  Settling the matter may have to wait for the next generation of Mars probe.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Success By 2040?

Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute says we may well find intelligent alien life by 2040.

Shosttak notes that data from Kepler suggest that Earth-like worlds are abundant in the galaxy, and that by 2040 SETI could have surveyed one million star systems.   He thinks that could be enough to find neighbors.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Look Homeward, Rover

The Curiosity rover recently took its first images of the Earth and its Moon in the Martian sky.  Both seem to be simply bright stars, as Mars appears in our sky.

Since the Earth-Moon system is inside Mars' orbit, however, a capable telescope on Mars will show the Earth and Moon going through phases, just as Mercury and Venus do from Earth.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Shatner On Mars Rock

William Shatner, the legendary Captain Kirk in "Star Trek," twittered NASA recently about a rock that seemed to simply appear in an image taken by Curiosity.  Shatner asked if there are Martian rock throwers.

NASA can't explain the sudden appearance of the rock quite yet, but doubts there are rock throwers.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

New Martian Crater

NASA has released images taken by its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that show a new crater on Mars.  It cannot be more than about three years old.  The crater is about 100 feet across, has a prominent ray system, and material from the impact that blasted the crater was thrown at least nine miles away.

Mars is consistently hit by small objects, but the craters created are rarely as large as this one.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Polaris Brightening

Polaris has been the North Star for thousands of years, but for the past few centuries it's been getting brighter.

Astronomers have known for roughly one century that Polaris is a Cepheid variable.  It pulses in brightness over a cycle.  Using both current and historical data, however, a team has determined that Polaris is brighter now than it was centuries ago, and that it continues to brighten.  So do other Cepheids.  Since Cepheids are used to determine distances in the universe based on their reliability, understanding the unexpected brightening is important.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

LADEE Extended

The mission of NASA's LADEE spacecraft, which studies lunar dust, has been extended another 28 days.  During that time it will drop into an extremely low lunar orbit to get even better data.

Understanding the characteristics and behavior of lunar dust will be crucial to planning future operations on the Moon.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Big Moons And Life

Scientists have held our big moon is crucial to life on Earth because its gravity helps stabilize the Earth's axial tilt, thus producing stable climates over long periods.

A new study based on computer simulations, however, suggests planets like Earth would be relatively stable even without a big moon.  That's good news in the quest to find life elsewhere.

Sunday, February 2, 2014


Yesterday marked the eleventh anniversary of the morning space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry.  It not only cost seven lives, but it also marked the beginning of the end of the shuttle era.

Today, we are on the verge of the commercial era of manned spaceflight.  That era will begin with suborbital flights, perhaps later this year, but companies are already looking at orbital excursions to space hotels, and even at trips to the Moon.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

H2 Aliens

H2, the History Channel's sister network, seems to run lots of UFO and space alien programming.

While there may be a very few stories in that area that merit further scrutiny, the demands of television to put something on regularly has led H2 to air lots of silly stuff.  Doing so finally weakens whatever legitimate case for the alien visitation of Earth that there may be.