On the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, Phil Plait wonders what the hell happened to the Dream of Space in America. “Venturing into space is not just something we can do. It’s something we must do.”
Via io9, Scientists at NASA’s JPL find the strongest evidence of currently extant water on Mars yet. “We still don’t have a smoking gun for existence of water…Although we’re not sure how this process would take place without water.”
Where do bad folks go when they die? They don’t go to heaven where the angels fly. Mars? Hrm…well, maybe. Curiosity finds the remnants of what appears to be an ancient Martian lake in Yellowknife Bay, part of Gale Crater. Unfortunately, “[e]ven if there were fossils in the mudstone, Curiosity doesn’t have the right kind of equipment to see them. That job will be left to the Mars rover set to launch in 2020.”
Of late, astronomers have been finding new planets all the time, including one right in our cosmic backyard. Still, these two seem special: NASA has found two of the most Earth-like planets yet in Kepler 62f and Kepler 62e, 1200 light years away.
“The Kepler 62 system resembles our own solar system, which also has two habitable planets: Earth and Mars, which once had water and would still be habitable today if it were more massive and had been able to hang onto its primordial atmosphere.”
James Fallows speaks with Space Adventures co-founder Eric Anderson on the coming age of space colonization. “One key to making all this happen is that we need to use the resources of space to help us colonize space…The near-Earth asteroids, which are very, very close to the Earth, are filled with resources that would be useful for people wanting to go to Mars, or anywhere else in the solar system. They contain precious resources like water, rocket fuel, strategic metals.”
Along the same lines, and from last June, a Dutch company called Mars One has a very specific timetable in place for Mars colonization. “Lansdorp plans to send another couple of adventurous astronauts to join the colony every two years, but the idea is that no one gets a return journey. This is a permanent base, a Plymouth Rock in an entirely new world that will begin the long, slow and painstaking process of terraforming it.” The first four colonists, set to leave Earth in 2023, will be chosen this year.
Update: So far, it seems, the Mars One project has received 40,000 applications.
An auspicious site for New Rome: Seven hills on Mars are named after the fallen astronauts of Columbia. “Spirit would go on to spend several years exploring the Columbia Hills until, struggling in the Martian soil, it would finally cease to function in 2010. Which — striving and striving, until you can strive no more — seems an appropriate tribute to seven people who gave their lives so that the rest of us might forge ahead.”
“Under the agency’s procedures, the box should not have been opened without knowledge of a NASA scientist who is responsible for guarding Mars against contamination from Earth. But Planetary Protection Officer Catharine Conley wasn’t consulted. ‘They shouldn’t have done it without telling me,’ she said. ‘It is not responsible for us not to follow our own rules.’“
It seems NASA’s Curiosity may have inadvertently brought Terran microbes along with it, which could become hugely significant if the robot encounters water, in which case they become either the potential seeds of new life on Mars and/or the 21st-century equivalent of the smallpox blanket. Er…oops.
Meanwhile, while we’re bringing life to Mars, Jupiter may have once again protected us from a Deep Impact/Melancholia-like disaster. “This is the third time since 2009 amateur astronomers have witnessed an impact flash on Jupiter. The massive gas giant, which exerts considerable gravitational pull, is something of a cosmic whipping boy in our solar system, regularly shielding inner planets like Earth from potential collisions.” So, if you’re keeping score at home, that’s Jupiter 3, Bruce Willis 1.
By way of Eric of Kestrel’s Nest, our radio telescopes find signs of life on Mars…us. Hey, at least the system works. Although, does anyone else have a problem with UNC-Chapel Hill calling their robotic telescope network SKYNET? Inviting calamity, I say.
Moreover, just today scientists announced the discovery of two Earth-sized planets — Kepler 20e and Kepler 20f. “‘For the first time, we’ve crossed the threshold of finding Earth-size worlds,’ Torres says. ‘The next step is having an Earth-size planet in the habitable zone.’” And apparently Kepler 20f may have once had water, not unlike a planet closer to home…
“This is the single most bullet-proof observation that I can think of that we’ve made this entire mission regarding the liquid water.” Something to consider if we don’t manage to tackle global warming by 2006 — the prior existence of water on Mars is further confirmed through a trail of gypsum left within an ancient rock. “Both the chemistry and the structure ‘just scream water,’ Squyres added.“
And, on a grander scale, astronomers have begun to uncover supermassive black holes (no, not those ones) at the centers of galaxies. These are “the biggest, baddest black holes yet found in the universe, abyssal yawns 10 times the size of our solar system into which billions of Suns have vanished like a guilty thought.” In other words, plenty of room for Maximillian Schell to get lost in there…Tread carefully.
With the Space Shuttle nearing its end, NASA unveils the prototype for their new deep space exploration vehicle, Lockheed’s Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), and, well, it’s a throwback alright. “As currently envisioned, the MPCV would support four astronauts on short-duration flights of less than 21 days. For longer missions to asteroids or even Mars, the capsules would dock with a larger spacecraft of some sort that would provide more room for the crew while in transit.” “Of some sort”? So far at least, I am underwhelmed.
Only one more launch left after this one: That final mission, STS-135, will return July 20th, thus ending — only for now, hopefully — manned space flight at NASA, exactly forty-two years after the moon landing. (Unless, of course, we somehow get our act together.)
“We’ve grown used to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us. But for twenty-five years the United States space program has been doing just that. We’ve grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we’ve only just begun. We’re still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers.“
Ok, first off, the administration official who uttered the last sentence should be filed away next to Mr. Left of the Left and Ms. Pajamas as people who should no longer speak for the White House in any capacity whatsoever. Full stop, end of story. Putting my speechwriter cap on for a second: In most any political situation, ridiculing the dreams of an entire generation does not make for particularly good messaging.
Anyway, anonymous WH official aside, NASA administrator Charles Bolden sounded a better note about all this: “We’re not abandoning anything. We’re probably on a new course but human space flight is in our DNA. We are not abandoning human space flight by any stretch of the imagination. We have companies telling us they’re excited to get humans off this planet and into orbit. I think we’re going to get there and perhaps quicker than we would have done before.“
And, to be clear, the administration’s NASA budget increases the agency’s funding by $6 billion over the next five years. The new budget ups research and development spending into cheaper heavy launch mechanisms, emphasizes more robotic exploration missions and observational experiments into climate change, extends the life of the ISS (although, with only five more shuttle missions remaining, other nations will have to help service it), and works to promote the various commercial space enterprises moving along right now.
All of this is well and good, but it would be nice to see some recognition of the civic importance of manned space flight by this administration. In their words, NASA is scrapping Constellation on account of it being “over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation due to a failure to invest in critical new technologies.” And, given that we still had a lot of the expenditures before us, I suppose now was as good a time as any to kill the program if it’s not the right direction to go in.
That being said, how many more times are we going to do this? We keep stopping and starting and stopping and starting our post-Shuttle plans for space, so that now, after five final shuttle missions this coming year, we will longer have the capability anymore as a nation to send men and women into orbit. “If implemented, the NASA a few years from now would be fundamentally different from NASA today. The space agency would no longer operate its own spacecraft, but essentially buy tickets for its astronauts.” Forty-one years after we first reached the moon, that’s just plain sad.
Ultimately, the central finding of the Augustine commission’s final report, released this past October after extensive study of NASA’s current situation, is a sound one: “The U.S. human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory. It is perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources.” In other words, we’ve been trying to talk the talk without walking the walk. If we’re going to get serious about manned space flight, we need to stop piecemealing NASA and start making manned exploration a funding priority.
In total, the agency is slated to get $100 billion over the next five years. To put that number in perspective, that’s less than a fifth of our defense budget for 2011 alone, and that’s going by the most conservative numbers around — NASA’s five-year budget could be closer to a tenth of next year’s defense spending. (For its part, the Augustine commission set a price tag of $3 billion a year to get serious about manned exploration.)
If we had put anywhere near that kind of money into exploration and R&D over the years, would we now be in this position, where we face the Hobson’s choice of replicating expensive 50-year-old launch tech or being completely grounded as a nation? The lack of thinking about our long-term priorities sometimes is staggering to me. I’ve said this before, but I still believe it holds true: Short of possibly genomic research and advances in AI, nothing we do right now will matter more centuries or millennia hence than establishing a presence off-world…if we even have that long. Not to get all Jor-El up in here, but we really have to start getting serious about this.
“Although that panel suggested a $3 billion boost to NASA’s $18.7-billion-a-year budget in order to take a firm next step in human space flight, Obama’s support for a $1 billion bump next year represents a major coup for the agency given the ballooning deficit and the continuing recession. And NASA just won a $1 billion boost from Congress for 2010 in a bill signed by the president.” By way of another friend, President Obama backs increased funding for NASA’s new heavy launcher. “The president’s decision to go with the second option is a major departure from his 2010 budget plan, which called for a 5% increase in 2010–the boost just approved by Congress–but then remaining flat through 2014.“
Good, although I do wish he’d gone the full $3 billion. In the great scheme of things, not much we do is of larger importance than manned space flight. And 10,000 years from now, people aren’t going to remember or much care how many Joint Strike Fighters we built in the Twenty-Tens. But they will know whether or not we took significant steps to leave the cradle and move off-world.