Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Moonbase Alpha Game - Coming July 6th

On July 6th, NASA is unveiling Moonbase Alpha, a brand-new (and presumably free) multi-player video game. Looks awesome!

Check out the trailer:

Voyager 2 - 12,000 days and counting

Yesterday, Voyager 2 hit an incredible milestone: 12,000 days of continuous operation (Voyager 2 will celebrate its 33rd birthday -- er, launchday -- on August 20th).

Voyager 2 is currently about 9 billion miles from the Sun... or about 12.8 light-hours. That makes it the second most distant man-made object ever... eclipsed only by its twin spacecraft, Voyager 1, currently about 11 billion miles from the Sun.

Fighting the Space Junk

Here's some good news: President Obama's new space policies include a new emphasis on cleaning up space junk.

As we pointed out a while back, it's starting to get crowded up there. After 50 years in space, we've left quite a horde of decommissioned satellites, jettisoned modules and miscellaneous debris floating in orbit (and you might recall China's decision to blow up a satellite back in 2007, turning one big piece of space junk into thousands of tiny pieces of space junk). And even though space is still very empty (the diagram above is obviously not to scale), the presence of this garbage is still a major hazard. It's especially difficult to track the small pieces, and you never know when something might come careening toward the International Space Station, for instance -- puncturing some vital piece of equipment, or perhaps the spacesuit of an unlucky astronaut on a spacewalk. Satellites, of course, are equally vulnerable to interference from space debris.

So let's hope they can work it out. Clean-up will be a tall order, but prevention is a good first step.

Check out another illustration of the space junk problem here.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Invading Carp Threatens the Great Lakes

The New York Times reports that the non-native Asian Carp have made it past a protective barrier and could be on their way to invading the Great Lakes.

When organisms are introduced into a new habitat where they have no natural predators, they can do serious damage -- the population can grow uncontrollably and they can push out native species. Kudzu, which was introduced to the United States from Japan in 1876, is now considered a pest weed, growing out of control throughout the Southeast and expanding every year. And in Hawaii, where nights used to be quiet, an infestation of non-native tree frogs is filling the forests with a maddening noise (and since there are no natural predators for the frogs, there are a lot more voices in the chorus).

So what's the big deal if Asian Carp get into the Great Lakes? Well, not only would they interrupt the natural balance of the food chain, and threaten other species... they also have a very curious habit, one that looks like it might be a little bit of a nuisance:

Check out this CBS report on the invasion.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Music Scene

It's a little off-topic, but this video is sublime:

The Webb Telescope's Future Home

Physorg explains why L2, the second Lagrangian Point, is a great place to park the James Webb Space Telescope.

The Webb Telescope will be launched in the summer of 2014 and will be positioned about 1.5 million kilometers from the Earth, far beyond the orbit of the Moon. This means that, unlike the Hubble Telescope, it will never be serviceable in space. So we better get it right while it's still on the ground!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

ISS Crew Photographs Aurora Australis

Check out this photo of the aurora australis (southern lights), taken in late May by the Expedition 23 crew on board the International Space Station. According to NASA, this event was most likely caused by a coronal mass ejection from the Sun on May 24th.

Read more about it here.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Happy Summer Solstice!

Today is the Northern Hemisphere's Summer Solstice, which means it's the longest day of the year. Woohoo!

In celebration of the solstice, take a look at this great little clip from Carl Sagan's Cosmos, which describes the Greek mathematician Eratosthenes' calculation of the circumference of the Earth some 2,200 years ago. The summer solstice played a key role in Eratosthenes' discovery:

Homemade Weather Balloon Photographs Earth from 24 Miles High!

Check out this incredible video from cinematographer Colin Rich:

Pacific Star II from Colin Rich on Vimeo.

This is right around the altitude where Felix Baumgarter will jump for his supersonic freefall later this summer.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Weekend Fun - Galaxy Crash!

Since there probably won't be any updates over the weekend, I thought I'd leave you with this little gem: GALAXY CRASH!

Just click on "Applet" on the left side of the page to open up a new window and start simulating your own galactic collisions. You can adjust the galaxies' relative orientation, their mass differential, the number of stars, etc. And you can drag your mouse on the screen to look at the collision from any angle!

Galaxies occasionally collide -- in fact, astronomers predict that our own Milky Way galaxy will collide with our neighbor, The Andromeda Galaxy (M31), some 3 billion years from now. But because the distances between the stars in each galaxy are so vast, the chances of star systems actually crashing into each other are much smaller than you might think.

Check out this animation of galaxies colliding (around the 6 minute mark), from Carl Sagan's COSMOS:

Congress Turns Up the Heat on NASA

It's getting heated up on the hill.

NASA missed a deadline to provide Congress with an updated budget (containing additional details relating to President Obama's plan for the future of manned spaceflight), so now the oversight panel is insisting that NASA administrator Charles Bolden produce "all materials NASA relied upon in formulating its proposal." Yikes.

Meanwhile, the engineers building the Orion capsule are still in limbo, not knowing whether they'll be building the craft to original specifications, or a stripped-down model for use as a lifeboat from the space station. And of course there's always the possibility that the capsule could be scrapped altogether.

As I've said before, the Obama plan could be a good idea. But right now, no one has enough information to make that call. And irritating Congress is not a great way to get your plan approved.

Tour of the Mars500 "Spacecraft"

Diego Urbina, Italian crew member of the Mars500 project, gives us a brief tour of the facilities:

Diego and his crew mates are locked up in this mock spacecraft for 520 days. The project will study the effects of long-term isolation on astronauts on a voyage to Mars.

New HBO Documentary - GASLAND

I caught director Josh Fox on Morning Joe this morning promoting his new HBO documentary, GASLAND -- a look at the environmentally unsound method of natural gas extraction known as hydraulic fracturing. The film will premiere on HBO Monday night, June 21st at 9PM. Take a look at the trailer (or read the synopsis):

Natural gas has been billed by its advocates as the cleaner, safer alternative to oil. But just like BP's uplifting "Beyond Petroleum" commercials (which irritated me even before the Gulf Oil Spill), it seems that the unsafe practices are once again hidden behind a thin varnish of trendy spokespeople, hip visuals and breezy music:

Increasing natural gas production as a means to going green has always seemed to me like a stop-gap measure anyway... what is the point of restructuring our energy economy to transition to another fossil fuel? Even if it is more abundant and somewhat cleaner than oil, it just doesn't make much sense to me, because fossil fuel resources are inherently finite, which means eventually we will have to make another change. It's understandable that people are anxious about making big changes in our energy economy, but to me it's sort of like taking off a band-aid: it hurts less if you do it all at once.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

IKAROS video

For those of you who want a better sense of the IKAROS Solar Sail spacecraft, check out this excellent video from JAXA (unfortunately, no subtitles):

A Boon for Ground-Based Optical Telescopes

Ground-based optical telescopes have special problem: atmospheric turbulence distorts images.

Historically, the solution to this problem has been to take the telescope above the turbulence. At first this meant building telescopes high up on mountains, where seeing is better. And when the technology became available, we also put telescopes in space.

But now, adaptive optics are making it easier to make clear observations from the ground. The Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) in Arizona has just installed a brand new system, which is expected to yield images up to 10 times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope.

That's great news, because it's very difficult, and sometimes impossible, to update hardware on a space telescope (there will be no more repair missions to Hubble, and the James Webb Telescope, which will be situated at the second Lagrangian point approximately 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, will never be serviceable in space). And of course, you can build much larger telescopes when they don't have to be taken up into space on a rocket.

I can't wait to see these new images!

At right, the Large Binocular Telescope on Mount Graham in Arizona.

Living in the Future, part 5 - Watson's Jeopardy! Debut

Scientists at IBM have developed Watson, a computer capable of interpreting questions in "natural language" ... complete with context clues and the nuances of everyday speech. Watson will get a chance to compete on Jeopardy! sometime as early as Fall. But "he" is already tearing up the competition in practice rounds.

Check out this great Times Magazine article, or compete against Watson here!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

IKAROS Solar Sail is Deployed!

A small separation camera has detached from IKAROS and has taken a picture of the entire craft with sail unfurled. Check it out:

Read the JAXA press release here.

Unlike Earth-bound vehicles, spacecraft don't have to keep their engines going to keep moving. And since propellant is very expensive to lift into space, engineers work out clever ways to economize, so they can do a lot with a little (check out this great article on extending the Cassini mission). Conventional rockets get a lot of acceleration all at once, but as soon as the engine is turned off, they just cruise through space at a constant rate, more or less.

The solar sail is sort of like the tortoise racing the hare. It starts off very slow, with the photons bouncing off the sail and creating a small amount of thrust. But that thrust is constant, so over time the craft continues to accelerate. It can pick up incredible speed and, if it is demonstrated to be successful, could significantly reduce the time it takes to reach neighboring worlds. And for farther destinations, the craft could reach higher speeds.

I'd love to see this technology catch on. So let's hope IKAROS has got the right stuff.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Information Sharing in the Search for Exoplanets

Scientists working on the Kepler Space Telescope team were scheduled to release a new list of candidate exoplanetary systems today. But for now, they will be withholding a significant portion of that data, to be kept for their own analysis (the team cites scheduling issues and logistics for the delayed release). The New York Times asks, who owns the data in the search for exoplanets?

There is an inherent tension between the competitive side of discovery and the need for cooperation and information sharing in the scientific world. And in this case, there are questions of fairness (to the project team and to astronomers at large), and transparency: how much information does the public have a right to access, if the mission is financed with tax dollars? And when should the information be made available?

Hayabusa Is Back!

The Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa returned Sunday after a 6 billion kilometer round-trip voyage to asteroid 25143 Itokawa. Welcome home!

Take a look at this fantastic footage from Hayabusa's re-entry:

As we mentioned a few days ago, the plan was for Hayabusa to land on Itokawa, fire a projectile to dislodge samples from the asteroid, collect them and return them to the Earth. The mission has been plagued with problems, but the clever folks at JAXA seem to have overcome most of these serious issues (because of a malfunction with the projectile, it remains to be seen whether the samples were actually collected on Itokawa).

The ship broke up on re-entry travelling over 7 miles per second, ejecting a small capsule (presumably carrying the samples) capable of surviving the fiery decent into the Australian wilderness. Let's hope the prize is inside!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Searching for Life on Io

Physorg offers this piece on the chances of finding life on Io.

If life were to exist on Io, the organisms would have to be extremophiles. Io is bombarded by high levels of radiation from Jupiter, so it would be virtually impossible for anything to survive on the surface. The life would probably be found in the moon's numerous lava tubes, where they would be protected from the radiation. And since we know life on Earth exists even in similarly inhospitable environments, it's reasonable to suspect life on Io might be equally hearty.

It's also unclear whether there is sufficient water that could act as a solvent for biological processes, but as astrobiologist Dirk Schulze-Makuch suggests, the organisms could use some sort of sulfur compound instead of water, as Io is rich in the element. According to Dr. Schulze-Makuch, hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide or perhaps even sulfuric acid might be able to do the job.

In any case, the search for life on Io would be an extraordinarily complex endeavor, as any lander would have to endure extreme conditions. So don't hold your breath for a mission there anytime soon. And in any case, I think we've got a better chance finding something on Europa or Titan. But Io is still an intriguing destination, and we shouldn't rule out further investigation just yet.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

IKAROS Solar Sail Success

JAXA has announced that the IKAROS Solar Sail has deployed as planned, and will now get underway harnessing the power of the solar wind. Stay tuned for updates.

Comets May Have Come From Other Stars

 New computer modeling suggests that up to 90% of the comets in our Solar System may have formed around other stars.

The comets, which astronomers believe populate the Oort Cloud about 1 light-year from the Sun, would have been captured in the early days of the Solar System's formation, when the Sun was much closer to its sibling stars in the stellar nursery.

The Oort Cloud is thought to lie roughly 50,000 astronomical units from the Sun (an astronomical unit, or AU, is the average distance from the Earth to the Sun -- about 93,000,000 miles or 150,000,000 km). That makes it more than 1,000 times farther away than Pluto, a member of the Kuiper Belt.

Life of Titan, continued.

The New Scientist discusses the search for unambiguous evidence of life on Titan, and reminds us that only a lander (like the proposed Titan Mare Explorer) can really provide us with enough information to make that call.

As we mentioned last Thursday, observations of unusual chemistry on Titan have led to speculation that methane-based life could be consuming acetylene and hydrogen at the surface. But those results are far from conclusive.

Hayabusa Returns to Earth Sunday!

Japan's Hayabusa spacecraft will rocket back to Earth on Sunday after a 7 year mission that makes it the first spacecraft to land on a celestial object (other than the Moon) and return home. JAXA hopes that the probe is carrying samples from the asteroid 25143 Itokawa.

In 2006, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Stardust spacecraft returned to Earth after collecting samples from the coma of the comet Wild 2. But in that case, the spacecraft never touched down on the comet.

NASA scientists have gone to Australia to study the reentry of Hayabusa as it careens into that atmosphere at over 7 miles per second.

The Young Moons of Saturn

New computer models suggest that five of Saturn's small moons -- Atlas, Janus, Pandora, Prometheus, and Epimetheus -- are much younger than previously thought, formed as recently as 10 million years ago.

According to Physorg:
Until now most scientists believed the tiny ring moons [...] orbiting the planet just inside or just outside the planet’s rings were formed at the beginning of the solar system some 4.5 billion years ago and were captured by Saturn’s gravity. One problem with this theory is that the tiny moonlets, some of which are under 50 kilometers across, should have been destroyed by comets over time.

If the ring moons had formed at the beginning of the solar system they ought to be similar in density to asteroids, but the data gathered by Cassini shows the density of the moons is under one gram per cubic centimeter, which is far less than asteroid rock. This suggests they did not condense from a primordial disk of dust and gas at all.

The computer models now suggest that the moons were formed by accretion of rock and ice from Saturn's ring system. And since this process is still active today, new moons may be in the cards for the future. So we've got that to look forward to.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Falcon 9 Launch

I went to Montauk for a long weekend and wasn't able to do any work while I was there (or I should say, I was decidedly against doing work while I was there!). So a few stories slipped through the cracks in my absence.

The big news we missed was the first Falcon 9 launch! The SpaceX rocket lifted off Friday at 2:45 eastern and successfully reached orbit shortly thereafter.

The Falcon 9 is designed to carry the Dragon capsule, which will be used for resupply missions to the International Space Station and is eventually intended to carry up to seven astronauts into low-Earth orbit. The Falcon 9 is also the vehicle of choice for Bigelow Aerospace's upcoming inflatable space station.

In spite of the controversy surrounding the Obama plan for the future of NASA, this really is an exciting time for manned commercial spaceflight. If you're like me, you've grown up hoping that you might live to see the day that regular, non-millionaire passengers might be able to fly in space. And even though that might still be a long way off, these are important first steps.

Send your Face to Space

NASA is giving you the chance to send your face into space!

Go here to have your name and/or picture flown on one of the last two shuttle missions. It's fun and free.

At right, the Golden Record sent aboard the Voyager spacecraft, carrying sounds and images from Earth to the stars.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Inflatable Space Station

Hotel tycoon Robert T. Bigelow is building an inflatable space station. This is a must-read.

In just four years, Bigelow wants to launch the first inflatable space station into orbit (unmanned test modules have been in orbit since 2007). By 2016, another space station will be launched, with a combined capacity of 36 people (six times the number of astronauts currently residing on the International Space Station).

Weight has always been a major hurdle in space travel. Each additional pound on a space vehicle today costs thousands of dollars, and of course there are limits to how large and powerful we can build our rockets. Recently the solution has been to design separate vehicles for carrying astronauts and supplies into space, like the Ares I and Ares V plan for Constellation. Orbital fueling stations have also been envisioned to reduce the payload of manned launch vehicles.

But an inflatable module should reduce the launch costs considerably, as it would most likely weigh less than it's rigid counterpart and require a smaller rocket to boost it into orbit. And as Bigelow hopes, this could be a major boost for the private space industry, reducing costs across the board.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Speculating on Titanian Life

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory reports that new discoveries on the chemistry of Titan could be sign of an exotic form of life.

Mark Allen, principal investigator with the NASA Astrobiology Institute Titan team, is quick to point out that the observed phenomena could very well have a non-biological explanation, and that we should be careful not to jump to conclusions. But some astrobiologists are saying that the findings -- involving the unexplained disappearance of hydrogen and a lack of acetylene at the surface -- could be caused by a microbial methane-based life form consuming the hydrogen for respiration (or something like it) and acetylene for food.

Since Titan is so cold, life there is unlikely to be water-based. But if some sort of liquid is required for life processes, methane might be an adequate substitute, as the Saturnian moon is known to have liquid hydrocarbons on the surface.

Though inconclusive, these results are tantalizing, and it's clear that Titan well deserves more study.

Pictured above, an artist's rendering of the surface of Titan, with a liquid hydrocarbon lake in the foreground.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Saturn Wins the Reader's Poll!

With 57 votes cast out of 238, Saturn wins the reader's poll for favorite planet! Congratulations, Saturn.

Mars came in 2nd place with 49 votes, followed by Jupiter with 42 votes. Neptune and Venus were virtually tied with 31 and 30 votes, respectively. Uranus and Mercury got very little love.

Thanks to everyone for participating. And for all you Saturn lovers out there, make sure you check out this great article from the New York Times on the Cassini mission.

And take a look at the stunning full-size version of the picture above.

Luna Ring Power Plant

The Shimizu Corporation, a Japanese construction firm, has drawn up plans for building an enormous, equatorial solar power plant on the Moon!

Of course, no word on when this could become a reality. Start-up costs would be enormous, and who knows if Shimizu will even be around by the time this is actually feasible. But it's always nice to see concepts for the future development of space. And harvesting power from the Moon, in one form or another, could be closer than we think. But I'm not holding my breath.

Read more about the Shimizu Luna Ring here.

Sky Watching in June

Physorg has provided a sky watcher's guide for June.

If you have a telescope or even binoculars of appropriate strength, there are a few astonishing sights waiting for you in the night sky... incidentally, all discovered by Galileo Galilei in the 1600s. Be sure to check out:

1. The moons of Jupiter - called the Galilean satellites (after their discoverer), the four big moons of Jupiter are visible with a telescope or some binoculars. It will look something like the picture to the right.

2. The rings of Saturn - may be hard to see with binoculars, but most telescopes (20x magnification or better) will be able to resolve the rings. (A reader points out that the rings are very difficult to see at present, since they are currently titled only 1.7° from our perspective).

3. The mountains on the Moon - look around the edges if it's a full moon, since that's where the mountains are rising perpendicular to your point of view, and where the Sun casts the longest shadows.

Of course, these images won't be as brilliant as the photographs from Hubble or robotic missions to the planets. But there's something awesome about receiving the light from these objects in real time. There's nothing between you and the planets except the vast emptiness of space. And if your telescope is set up on a tripod, you'll see that the Moon and the planets will move out of your field of view very quickly, as a result of the Earth's rotation.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Forensic Astronomy!

Donald Olson, a physicist from Texas State University, is a forensic astronomer. He studies references to celestial events in works of art and literature.

Check out this interview with Dr. Olson in which he describes the process of investigating the meteor painted by Frederic Edwin Church (pictured) and described by Walt Whitman in his poem "Year of Meteors, 1859 '60."


NASA has unveiled its new toy: the 747-based SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) telescope.

While it may seem unusual to have a telescope hanging out the side of a jet, it actually has its advantages. Flying at altitudes between 41,000 and 45,000 feet, the airplane is able to get above most of the water vapor in the atmosphere, meaning the telescope can soak up infrared radiation that is unavailable to ground-based telescopes. It's also capable of flying anywhere in the world to photograph phenomena, and since it comes down for a landing after each observation, the telescope can be easily modified and replaced as new technology becomes available (unlike space telescopes, which require expensive manned space missions for hardware replacement).

SOFIA's predecessor, the Kuiper Airborne Observatory, flew for 20 years and is credited with the discovery of Uranus' rings and Pluto's atmosphere. Let's hope SOFIA has an equally illustrious career.

Ancient Martian Climate Mysteries

Mars is by far the most clement of neighboring worlds: much colder than the Earth, but at its warmest reaching temperatures a human could withstand (that is, if the atmosphere weren't intolerably thin). Aside from some of the distant moons of Jupiter and Saturn (Europa and Titan, most notably), which present us with new destinations in the search for life, Mars has always been the natural place to look. It's rocky, and not insufferably hot like Mercury or Venus. And between the water ice caps and ancient river valleys, astronomers have long thought that Mars may have been much warmer in the past... a place that could have been a perfect hatchery for life.

But was it really warm? As Physorg explains, we still don't know. There are a few obstacles that stand in the way of a warm-Mars hypothesis. For one thing, Mars is much farther away from the Sun than Earth (about 50% farther away). We also know that the Sun has grown much brighter over time, which means Mars would have received much less heat in the distant past. And since it has only about 11% the mass of Earth, the greenhouse effect that keeps Earth and Venus warm doesn't work nearly as well for Mars.

But not to fear, SETI enthusiasts: as we pointed out a few days ago, the search for life on Mars continues, regardless of what we might discover about Mars' ancient climate.

Thoughts at the End of an Era

The New York Times reports that the last solid-fuel boosters for the space shuttle have arrived at Kennedy Space Center. We're nearing the end of the line.

The history of the space shuttle has been complicated, as we've mentioned before. In spite of its successes, it never lived up to its hype, and it locked us into low-earth orbit missions for almost 30 years. So there should be a sense of renewal and excitement at the prospect of moving on to bigger and better things (namely, sending astronauts into deep space, beyond the Moon).

But that sense is missing as we retire the shuttle and wait for a new vehicle that hasn't even been built yet. President Bush's plan for the future of NASA left a five year gap between the retirement of the space shuttle and launch of the first manned Ares I. And now President Obama's plan, regardless of its merits, has added to the uncertainty of our future in manned spaceflight. Granted, the timeline of the development gap has been dictated to some degree by the shuttle fleet's advanced age -- no one wants to see another space shuttle disaster, especially if the cause were to be a result of the shuttle's wear and tear. But if the Apollo program tells us anything, we know that that gap probably could have been shortened considerably if the funding had been there.

When I talk to my non-space enthusiast friends, few of them realize that we are now facing a gap of several years between the retirement of the shuttle and the next manned American launch vehicle. And the thought of hitching a ride with the Russians in the meantime conjures images of shoddily built spacecraft and risky operations... a perception that is, presumably, left over from the final rickety days of the MIR space station.

But what should worry us about riding with the Russians is not the quality of their spacecraft, but rather a dependence on a country with which we have an uneasy relationship at best. Our space programs have coordinated fairly well since the 1990s, but there's always the possibility that wider political tensions will scuttle the partnership. We will depend on them for transport to the largely US-funded International Space Station, so they've sort of got us over a barrel.

Unfortunately this predicament was, unimaginably, not anticipated. Not until the Columbia disaster (23 years after STS-1) did we seriously consider the fact that the shuttle would have to be retired eventually, and that a new program was needed. And NASA funding has been such that two manned programs cannot exist simultaneously.

So let's hope that this will be a lesson for the future. The general public will always be insufficiently educated about the space program, so the government just cannot rely on popular enthusiasm alone. It's a tall order given the funds involved, but Congress has to be courageous in its appropriations if we're to maintain our leadership in space, and not leave ourselves vulnerable to the shifting winds of global politics. Development of any program takes years, which means short-sighted plans simply won't do. And as we've seen recently with the opposition to President Obama's plan, the public will only take notice when it's too late.