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Space Race

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Forget the Ground Floor.

“‘I think in parallel to full space elevators, partial space elevators are definitely worth exploring more,’ says space engineer Stephen Cohen…Today’s materials aren’t strong enough to support a huge, full space elevator to those heights, the McGill University study argues. Instead, a much smaller elevator looks less far-fetched. ‘We could view it as the first building blocks of a [full] space elevator,’ says study co-author Pamela Woo of McGill University.”

Also in space news, National Geographic makes the case for a “partial” space elevator, whereby ground launches would go into low-earth orbit to drop off their payloads. (See also this New Statesman article from August 2012.) “A space elevator untethered to Earth, with both of its ends hanging in space, might cut the costs of space travel to high orbit by 40 percent, researchers report.”

A World of Worlds.

“‘This is the largest windfall of planets — not exoplanet candidates, mind you, but actually validated exoplanets — that’s ever been announced at one time,’ Douglas Hudgins, exoplanet exploration program scientist at NASA’s Astrophysics Division in Washington, told reporters today.”

NASA announces 715 new planets found by the Kepler telescope, and that’s only from the first two years of data. “About 94 percent of the new alien worlds are smaller than Neptune, researchers said, further bolstering earlier Kepler observations that suggested the Milky Way galaxy abounds with rocky planets like Earth…four of the worlds are less than 2.5 times the size of Earth and reside in the ‘habitable zone,’ that just-right range of distances that could allow liquid water to exist on their surfaces.”

Pouring Down All Over Mars.

“So, how does water flow in the frigid Martian temperatures that are present, even in the summer months? Researchers think that there may be a naturally-occurring anti-freeze in the water, caused by the high-iron content…the water and ferric iron flowed together as part of a brine.”

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.”

Farewell, Europa.

“The ASRG program was created to help extend the life of the remaining Pu-238 supply. It uses a Stirling engine to generate electricity at four times the efficiency of a regular RTG. This means more missions to these harsh places using less Plutonium. While NASA has started to generate Pu-238 again, it won’t be ready to use until 2019, and even then the Department of Energy will only produce about 1kg – 1.5kg per year. The New Horizons mission to Pluto used about 11kg, which would take anywhere from 7 – 11 years to generate under the current plan.”

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.”

Explorers on the Moon.

“The next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.” A belated happy 44th anniversary to the Apollo 11 crew, the first without Neil Armstrong. Speaking of which, it’s now been over 40 years since man walked on the moon — ’bout time to go back, dontchathink? (Spiffy Tintin image via LinkMachineGo.)

A Home Next Door in Centauri Bb.

“The triple star system of Alpha Centauri is only 4.3 light-years — about 25 trillion miles — away. The possibility of an earth-like world orbiting our nearest neighbor has been a kind of holy grail of astronomy —- and something taken for granted by countless SciFi authors.”

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.”

The Future is Off-World.

“In the next generation or two—say the next 30 to 60 years—there will be an irreversible human migration to a permanent space colony. Some people will tell you that this new colony will be on the moon, or an asteroid—in my opinion asteroids are a great place to go, but mostly for mining. I think the location is likely to be Mars.”

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.

The Other Space Program.

‘The mission is ongoing,’ Air Force Maj. Eric Badger, a spokesman for the X-37B program, told SPACE.com. ‘As with previous missions, the actual duration will depend on test objectives, on-orbit vehicle performance and conditions at the landing facility.’” From the the bottom of the ocean to low-earth orbit: The Air Force’s classified X-37B space drone enters its third month in space. “The X-37B looks a bit like a miniature space shuttle. The vehicle is 29 feet (8.8 meters) long and 15 feet (4.5 m) wide, with a payload bay about the size of a pickup truck bed.”

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.”

The Sky Will Fall.

“‘I would call this a tiny asteroid,’ Chodas said. ‘This is the largest recorded event since the Tunguska explosion in 1908.’” I’ve been meaning to write about this all week: On the same day that asteroid 2012 DA14 passed closer to Earth than many of our satellites, a meteor explodes in the atmosphere over Chelyabinsk, injuring close to 1500 people. “The object vaporized roughly 15 miles above the surface of the Earth…The force of the explosion measured between 300 and 500 kilotons, equivalent to a modern nuclear bomb.”

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!”

The Worlds Next Door.

“‘We thought we would have to search vast distances to find an Earth-like planet. Now we realize another Earth is probably in our own backyard, waiting to be spotted,’ said Harvard astronomer and lead author Courtney Dressing.”

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.”

Sail on, Sunjammer.

The Sunjammer mission – the name is borrowed from an Arthur C. Clarke short story about an interplanetary yacht race — will unfurl a solar sail that dwarfs those that have thus far been tested in space. Where NanoSail-D’s diminutive sail measured just 100 square feet and Japan’s IKAROS measures something like 2,000 square feet, Sunjammer’s sail possesses a total surface area of nearly 13,000 square feet. Yet collapsed it weighs just 70 pounds and takes up about as much space as a dishwasher, making it easy to stow in the secondary payload bay of a rocket headed to low Earth orbit.

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.”

The Columbian Hills.

“The astronauts’ namesakes are situated within the Red Planet’s Gusev crater, about two miles away from where the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit landed in 2004. And they were, for the rover and its earthly audience, the most striking feature on the observable Martian surface.”

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.”

Warp Speed…at a Price.

“‘Remember, nothing locally exceeds the speed of light, but space can expand and contract at any speed,’ White told io9. ‘However, space-time is really stiff, so to create the expansion and contraction effect in a useful manner in order for us to reach interstellar destinations in reasonable time periods would require a lot of energy.’”

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.’”

A Passage to Tharsis.

“‘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.

Going Up, Sir?

If we are to use the death of the old generation of explorers to spur on a revival in the idea for this generation, let’s also learn from their mistakes. Don’t follow a paradigm which results in 0.0000003 per cent of the planet making it out of orbit; create a new one, which lets this massive achievement change the lives of many, rather than a lucky (or foolhardy) few.

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.

The Eagle has Landed.

It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.

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.

Finds Along the Frontier.


In a teleconference, Kaltenegger said that the planet is at the warm edge of its star’s habitable zone, as if ‘standing next to a bonfire.’ That means the planet would require a lot of cloud cover — which reflects starlight — to keep the surface cool enough to prevent any water from boiling, she said.

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.’

For the Long Haul.


Look back 100 years. If you could have had James Clerk Maxwell and Guglielmo Marconi and Albert Einstein sit around a lunch table in the early 1900s, they would have had all the math necessary to create an iPhone. But there’s nothing that they could have done to characterize the integrated circuits, the satellites, the communication links or the Internet, to draw a plan that would have led them to an iPhone until Apple introduced it 100 years later. That’s how I see where we are with 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.

Back to the Future?


Douglas Cooke, associate administrator of NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, told reporters the Orion concept, described by former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin as ‘Apollo on steroids,’ is the most capable spacecraft currently on the drawing board for meeting the Obama administration’s ‘flexible path’ approach to deep space exploration.

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.

Surly Bonds, Slipped.


“‘My plane flew right past the shuttle!’ she posted on Twitter, along with the photos, under the name @Stefmara.” By way of a friend, and as also seen at Cryptonaut, a New Jersey woman captures the final flight of the Endeavor from her window seat.

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.)

Silence will Fall.


‘There is a huge irony,’ said SETI Director Jill Tarter, ‘that a time when we discover so many planets to look at, we don’t have the operating funds to listen.’ SETI senior astronomer Seth Shostak compared the project’s suspension to ‘the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria being put into dry dock.’…This is about exploration, and we want to keep the thing operational. It’s no good to have it sit idle.

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.‘”

50 Years Ago, Our Journey Began.


What beauty. I saw clouds and their light shadows on the distant dear earth…The water looked like darkish, slightly gleaming spots…When I watched the horizon, I saw the abrupt, contrasting transition from the earth’s light-colored surface to the absolutely black sky. I enjoyed the rich color spectrum of the earth. It is surrounded by a light blue aureole that gradually darkens, becoming turquiose, dark blue, violet, and finally coal black.

Fifty years ago this week, Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first, however briefly, to leave the cradle and get off-world. May there be many more.

Death of a Cosmonaut.

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.’

Strapped to the Rocket.


There is no shortage of proposals for radically innovative space launch schemes that, if they worked, would get us across the valley to other hilltops considerably higher than the one we are standing on now–high enough to bring the cost and risk of space launch down to the point where fundamentally new things could begin happening in outer space. But we are not making any serious effort as a society to cross those valleys. It is not clear why.

In Slate, sci-fi author and technophile Neal Stephenson discourses on what rockets tell us about innovation and the course of technology over time. “The phenomena of path dependence and lock-in can be illustrated with many examples, but one of the most vivid is the gear we use to launch things into space.

A Hand-Up for the Earthless.

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.)

The Challenge Remains.

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.

25 years after a dark day in January, the Challenger is remembered. [Pictures.]

Update: As Dangerous Meta reminds me, yesterday was the 44th Anniversary of the Apollo 1 tragedy, and Tuesday will be the 8th anniversary of Columbia’s fall. This is just a terrible week for slipping the surly bonds and getting off-world.

V’Ger Sails On.

“‘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.

Dark Side of the Moon.


Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice. These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

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.

Marshes of the Moon.

‘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?

One Hundred Years of Solitude.

[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.

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