Because of sequestration and other budget cuts, NASA is forced to cancel its advanced spacecraft power program, threatening future missions past the asteroid belt. “ASRGs had been under development by NASA for over a decade, and had been planned for use by 2016 in the next low-cost planetary exploration missions…Because of the limited cost cap imposed on these missions, they’re now essentially limited to the inner solar system. Missions with bigger budgets that could afford regular RTGs will be bottlenecked by the production rate of Plutonium to maybe once or twice per decade. Goodbye, outer planets.”
Hey neighbor: Astronomers find an Earth-like planet just next door in Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to our sun. “Indeed, Alpha Centauri Bb is the first planet with an earth-like mass ever found orbiting a sun-like star.” That being said, prospects for life — or colonization — seem, for the time being, remote. “Unfortunately for any hope of finding life on this world, it orbits only about four million miles away…This would make Alpha Centauri B more than twenty times larger in the planet’s sky than the sun is here on earth…and more than 500 times brighter and hotter.”
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.
Well, at least one branch of our government is well-funded enough to take on these sorts of projects, I guess. Too bad the research is classified and likely highly iffy. Consider, similarly, the two “other” Hubbles found lying around in a Pentagon warehouse last year. “[S]top and think about this for a moment. The Department of Defense has the kind of funding needed — hundred of millions to billions of dollars, presumably — to build not one, but two, Hubble-like optical telescopes and then never use them.”
Consider this a wake-up call. This is one more reason why we need to invest in our space program — because, right now, we are playing chicken with the universe. That deadly asteroid might not hit tomorrow, or even in 2106. But the danger is real. As author Larry Niven put it, “the dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space program. And if we become extinct because we don’t have a space program, it’ll serve us right!”
Data from Kepler’s Space Telescope suggests that an estimated 6% of red dwarf stars have planets in the habitable zone, meaning, statistically, we are basically surrounded by inhabitable worlds. “Our Sun is surrounded by a swarm of red dwarf stars. About 75 percent of the closest stars are red dwarfs.”
Popular Science previews the flight of NASA’s Sunjammer, set for launch in 2014. “The destination for Sunjammer is the Earth-Sun Lagrange Point 1, a gravitationally stable spot way out there between us and our nearest star…Sunjammer will be carrying the cremated remains of various individuals, including Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and his wife Majel Barrett Roddenberry.”
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.”
Just re-reading The Forever War at the moment, so this seems very apropos. io9 looks into the recent possible breakthrough on a functioning warp drive. “Mathematically, the field equations predict that this is possible, but it remains to be seen if we could ever reduce this to practice.“
Of course, while mathematicians might have gotten around the “ridiculous amounts of energy required” problem, there’s now the new issue of ridiculous amounts of energy expended — in a lethal frontward cone. “When the Alcubierre-driven ship decelerates from superluminal speed, the particles its bubble has gathered are released in energetic outbursts. In the case of forward-facing particles the outburst can be very energetic — enough to destroy anyone at the destination directly in front of the ship. ‘Any people at the destination,’ the team’s paper concludes, ‘would be gamma ray and high energy particle blasted into oblivion due to the extreme blueshifts for [forward] region particles.’”
“‘The ticket price needs to be low enough that most people in advanced countries, in their mid-forties or something like that, could put together enough money to make the trip,’ he said, comparing the purchase to buying a house in California.”
If you’d prefer to stay within system instead, SpaceX founder Elon Musk sets the cost of a one-way ticket to Mars at $500,000. “‘Some money has to be spent on establishing a base on Mars. It’s about getting the basic fundamentals in place,’ Musk said. ‘That was true of the English colonies [in the Americas]; it took a significant expense to get things started. But once there are regular Mars flights, you can get the cost down to half a million dollars for someone to move to Mars. Then I think there are enough people who would buy that to have it be a reasonable business case.” Start saving up, y’all — Get there before the religious zealots, er, Pilgrims, move in. Update: More details on Musk’s proposal.
In the wake of Neil Armstrong’s passing, The New Statesman‘s Alex Hern makes the case for moving in the direction of a space elevator. The political argument aside, serious forays into space are clearly hindered by the prohibitive costs of leaving orbit more than anything else. If we are going to get serious about this, a space elevator is a technology that’s worth looking into. Right now, only Japan is on the case.
Commander Neil Armstrong, the pioneer who took the first step on extra-terrestrial soil and towards our ultimate destiny, 1930-2012. “The important achievement of Apollo was demonstrating that humanity is not forever chained to this planet…our opportunities are unlimited.“
Gliese 581g, meet HD85512b. Among the 50 new planets astronomers announced on Monday is a “Super-Earth” that lies within the inhabitable zone and could hold water. “The new super-Earth is 3.5 times the mass of Earth.“
And, how are we going to get there, you ask? While DARPA works its mojo, NASA announces its most recent plans for a successor to the Shuttle: A new Space Launch System. “Administration officials said the new rocket system…would be the most formidable launch system deployed since the Saturn V…The new rocket coupled with a deep-space crew capsule already under development should enable an un-crewed test flight of the exploration system in 2017 and a crewed test flight by 2021, officials said.” If history is any guide, you’ll probably want to tack a few years on to those dates.
While we wait, here’s another interesting cosmic find to ponder: Astronomers have found an honest-to-goodness twin-sunned Tatooine in Kepler 16b, 200 light years away. “‘This is an example of another planetary system, a completely different type that no one’s ever seen before,’ Doyle said. ‘That’s why people are making a big deal out of this.’“
From the folks who brought you the Internet, DARPA announces the 100-Year Starship Study, offering $500,000 in seed money to whomever comes up with the best plan for developing the technology needed for interstellar travel. “To stimulate discussion on the research possibilities, DARPA officials will hold a symposium that brings together astrophysicists, engineers and even sci-fi writers so they can brainstorm what it would take to make this starship enterprise a success.“
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.)
Another casualty of the lousy economy and the budget crises (in this case, California’s) SETI’s Allen Telescope Array goes dark. “‘We have the radio antennae up, but we can’t run them without operating funds,’ he added. ‘Honestly, if everybody contributed just 3 extra cents on their 1040 tax forms, we could find out if we have cosmic company.‘”
“Starman tells the story of a friendship between two cosmonauts, Vladimir Komarov and Soviet hero Yuri Gagarin, the first human to reach outer space…In 1957, both men were assigned to the same Earth-orbiting mission, and both knew the space capsule was not safe to fly. Komarov told friends he knew he would probably die. But he wouldn’t back out because he didn’t want Gagarin to die. Gagarin would have been his replacement.“
By way of LinkMachineGo, NPR’s Robert Krulwich tells the tale of the sad and unnecessary death of cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov. “As he heads to his doom, U.S. listening posts in Turkey hear him crying in rage, ‘cursing the people who had put him inside a botched spaceship.’“
“The time to put our most vulnerable and our most needy in space is now. We can’t keep running from this problem, hoping it will go away. They have as much of a right to live in dignity and urinate in a specially designed suit built to withstand incredible heat and cold while protecting the body from violent and sudden changes in air pressure as anyone else.“
Their timing isn’t great, but The Onion strikes comedy gold again: The Money We Waste On NASA’s Space Program Would Be Better Spent On Space Programs For The Poor. “I’m not talking about a handout, I’m talking about a hand up — up 20,000 miles into space, where our nation’s most desperate and destitute can gaze down on this big blue marble ball of clouds and dreams and be inspired to lift themselves out of poverty.” (FWIW, my response to the space-is-wasted-money argument, when made seriously, is here.)
“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.“
“‘Needless to say, none of us expected it was going to be operating for so long,’ said Krimigis, now 72. ‘We were all praying to get to Neptune [in 1989]. But after that? Who thought we could be with this 33 years [after launch]?’“
Though it’s past 11 billion miles, it’s feeling very still (after all, no more solar wind)…
By way of a friend, and as the spacecraft reaches the outer edge of the solar system, the Baltimore Sun checks in on Voyager 1 and its makers. “Voyager was the pinnacle of his career, said Ness, now 77. “There is never going to be a mission in anybody’s lifetime, now living, that is ever going to get these observations in hand. So it’s once in a lifetime.“
In a fascinating remnant of alternate history, Letters of Note unearths Nixon’s Safire-penned speech on the (possible) failure of Apollo 11. “Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.”
“‘It’s really wet,’ said Anthony Colaprete, co-author of one of the Science papers and a space scientist at NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. He and his colleagues estimate that 5.6% of the total mass of the targeted lunar crater’s soil consists of water ice. In other words, 2,200 pounds of moon dirt would yield a dozen gallons of water.“
In keeping with recent studies, NASA is set to announce that there appears to be quite a lot of water on the moon, which would greatly facilitate setting up shop there. Alas, “the U.S. likely won’t be involved in manned voyages to the moon anytime soon…But other countries are gearing up. China has pledged to land astronauts on the moon by 2025, and India has plans to do the same by 2020. Japan wants to establish an unmanned moon base in a decade.” And, hey, why go to the moon when you can spend a decade in Afghanistan?
“[W]e are entering an increasingly dangerous period of our history. Our population and our use of the finite resources of planet Earth are growing exponentially, along with our technical ability to change the environment for good or ill. But our genetic code still carries the selfish and aggressive instincts that were of survival advantage in the past. It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand or million. Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain inward-looking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space. We have made remarkable progress in the last hundred years, but if we want to continue beyond the next hundred years, our future is in space.“
Once again, Professor Stephen Hawking makes the case for manned exploration, sooner rather than later — as in living off-world within the next century. In other words, we need to get busy living, or get busy dying.
Congratulations to Space X on their successful Falcon-9 launch last Friday. “After Friday’s successful test launch — unusual for a maiden voyage — SpaceX plans to send a fully operational rocket and capsule into orbit this summer, and one to the ISS next year.”
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.