Monday, June 30, 2014

Cassini At Saturn

The Cassini spacecraft has been exploring Saturn, its rings, and its moons for ten years now.

It's been a remarkable decade.  We've learned much more about Saturn in those years than we had during the whole of human history previously.  We're seeing the true complexity of its vast and beautiful ring system.  And now we know that two of Saturn's moons, Titan and Enceladus, are legitimate candidates to harbor life.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Angara Delayed

The first launch of Russia's new Angara rocket was delayed this week when computers detected a problem.

Angara is the first new rocket developed by Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Orion Progressing

NASA is currently testing the parachute system that will deploy during re-entry of its Orion capsule.  A test drop of the capsule last week went well.

Orion's first spaceflight, which well be unmanned, is scheduled for December.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Gliese 832c

Gliese 832c is a super Earth five times more massive than our world.  It is only 16 light years away.  It orbits its red dwarf host star in only 36 days, but that puts it in the tiny star's habitable zone, which means it's a possible home of life.

Some astronomers speculate it may be more of a super Venus, but Gliese 832c will certainly get further study.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Google Buys Skybox

Google announced recently it is acquiring Skybox, the satellite imaging company.  Skybox images will be used to further strengthen Google Maps.

It also, of course, puts another business behemoth in the space arena.  The kind of capital a Google could deploy in space could change everything.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Balloon Test Successful

World View is a company planning to take tourists and researchers to the edge of space under a high altitude balloon, and the latest test flight was a resounding success, establishing a new world record at 120,000 feet.

WV plans to begin commercial operations in 2016.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Magic Island

Cassini's radar beams bouncing off the surface of a huge sea on Saturn's moon Titan found what seemed to be an island that appears and disappears.

It could be several small islands, not one big one.  Or in could be huge bubbles, or waves in the methane sea.  It is, at present, a mystery the Cassini team has dubbed "Magic Island."

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Protoplanetary Chemistry

One way to set lower limits on the existence of life in the universe, a new study argues, is to look at the chemistry of protoplanetary discs.

If such discs contain prebiotic molecules that might wind up in the atmospheres of planets that form out of those discs, the possibility of life arising in that system might be increased.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Stiff Arteries

Astronauts may enjoy weightlessness, but physicians have long known extended periods in microgravity is hard on the human body.  A new study suggests such extended stays may stiffen arteries, which could increase the chances for high blood pressure and other problems.

More work needs to be done, but the study reminds us how difficult and dangerous spaceflight is.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Cassini At Titan

Cassini will fly within about 2,300 miles of Saturn's huge moon Titan today.

Team scientists will use the flyby to study Titan's atmosphere and surface.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Lunar Palace 1

China recently completed a 105-day test of technologies for a space station and a possible lunar base.  The project was called Lunar Palace 1.

China demonstrated in the project one of the most advanced closed loop life support systems in the world.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Arizona Embraces Space

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer will sign a bill into law tomorrow that will encourage commercial space companies to operate in the Grand Canyon state.

Arizona thus joins several other states that are actively supporting the growing space industry.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Charon's Ocean

Researchers are suggesting Pluto's largest moon, Charon, may once have had a subsurface liquid water ocean, like Saturn's Enceladus and Jupiter's Europa.  They speculate that if Charon's orbit around Pluto was once more eccentric than it is now gravitational interaction between the two bodies would have created friction within Charon, thus heat, and thus, possibly, liquid water.  That same interaction would have eventually circularized Charon's orbit, freezing the little world solid.

The New Horizons spacecraft arrives at Pluto next summer, and should provide new data about Charon.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Virgin Galactic Is Close

Establishing a commercial spaceline has been tough, but Virgin Galactic is on the brink.

Negotiating the regulatory environment within which VG will operate is largely completed, as is VG's part of Spaceport America in New Mexico.  Only a few scheduled test flights remain, and a second carrier aircraft and spacecraft are already under construction.  Commercial flights could still commence yet this year.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Full Moon

Many people will see a full moon tonight, on Friday the 13th.  It will be the last Friday the 13th full moon until August, 2049.

So, this one could be historic.  After something around four billion years, this could be the last Friday the 13th full moon in which the Moon will be uninhabited.  That's an extraordinary thought.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

McKay On Life

Chris McKay argues scientists should develop a list of factors that would be necessary for life as we begin the serious study of exoplanets.

He said his favorite candidate for life now is Kepler 186f, a mega-Earth in its star's habitable zone.  If oxygen is found in significant quantity in that atmosphere, he says, that would clinch the case for life.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Climate Changw And Life

Stars brighten as they age.  That means the Sun was dimmer and cooler when life arose on Earth.  It's also a fact that life would not have survived on Earth under a brightening Sun had not climate change moderated that heating.

It's been a balancing act for billions of years.  That might argue that alien civilizations are rare.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Alien Civilizations

When meeting aliens is discussed, the underlying assumption often seems to be that all alien civilizations will be the same.  That assumption is sloppy.

If we meet one spacefaring ET, there will likely be a few more such civilizations.  There will also be dozens, or hundreds, or thousands more that do not have spaceflight.  Each will be unique.

Just something to keep in mind.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Red Dwarfs And Life

We now know red dwarf stars have planetary systems.  A new study suggests, however, that such planets might not be good candidates to harbor life.

In order to be in the habitable zone of a red dwarf, a planet would have to orbit very close to the star, which would expose that world to extremely powerful solar flares and intense radiation.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Arsia Mons

Arsia Mons is a ten-mile high shield volcano on Mars.  New research suggests its also a possible abode of life.

The volcano erupted about 210 million years ago, researchers say, when Mars was covered by water ice glaciers.  The reasoning is basic: If you have water, an energy source, organic stuff, and enough time, life may arise.

Friday, June 6, 2014

NRC Endorses Lunar Return

The National Research Council is releasing a report to Congress regarding the future of human spaceflight that endorses a return to the Moon as the next major step out.

The report calls humans on Mars the "horizon goal," but argues a lunar return is important in the shorter term, not least because other nations have expressed interest in an international lunar base program.  Such an effort could lay the organizational groundwork for an international Mars program.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

2014 HQ 124

Asteroid 2014 HQ 124 is about 1,100 feet across and will fly by Earth at something around 750,000 miles this weekend.

Even with its size, the asteroid was only discovered two months ago.  Were it to hit Earth, it would pack the power of a hydrogen bomb.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Kapetyn b

Kapetyn b is a super Earth only 13.5 light years away.  It's also in the habitable zone of its red dwarf parent star.

Astronomers put the age of Kapetyn b at 11.5 billion years-- just 2 billion years younger than the universe itself-- making it the oldest world capable of supporting life yet found.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Mega Earth

Astronomers have found a rocky world 17 times as massive as Earth.  Labeled Kepler-10c, they're calling it a "mega Earth."

Kepler-10c is not likely to support life as it orbits too close to its star, but it seems to be very old, suggesting rocky worlds could have formed early on.  That would have implications for life.

Monday, June 2, 2014


A new study finds a relationship between the metallicity of a star-- that is, the amount of metals a star contains-- and the size of its planets.  The higher the percentage of metals, the larger the planets.

Astronomers, by the way, count as metals all elements except hydrogen and helium.