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Space Race

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45 and Counting.

“When I look back over the time that’s elapsed since 1969, I wonder what we’re doing. I remember the dreams of NASA, and they were too the dreams of a nation: Huge space stations, mighty rockets plying the solar system, bases and colonies on the Moon, Mars, and asteroids…Instead, we let those small-minded human traits flourish. We’ve let politics, greed, bureaucracy, and short-sightedness rule our actions, and we’ve let them trap us here on the surface of our planet.”

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.”

E.T. Burn in Hell!!

“You see, the Bible makes it clear that Adam’s sin affected the whole universe. This means that any aliens would also be affected by Adam’s sin, but because they are not Adam’s descendants, they can’t have salvation,’ he explained. ‘Jesus did not become the “GodKlingon” or the “GodMartian”! Only descendants of Adam can be saved. God’s Son remains the ‘Godman’ as our Savior.'”

And here’s your counterpoint: Creationist Ken Buck argues that space exploration is a boondoggle because aliens are going to Hell anyway. “Ham argued that ‘secularists are desperate to find life in outer space’ as a part of their ‘rebellion against God in a desperate attempt to supposedly prove evolution.'”

Erm, yeah. I would hope the John Olver rule is in effect if and when this fellow is inevitably queried about his views on television, against Bill Nye or Neil DeGrasse Tyson or somesuch.

I Can See Your House From Here.


“The High Definition Earth Viewing experiment consists of four cameras strapped to the ISS’s hull and are all pointed toward the Earth. Occasional blackouts when switching between cameras can occur and the dark side of the Earth is, well, dark, but you still get some pretty stunning views.”

Who knows what will happen in 2020 — for now, the scientists (if not the politicians) are saying that “the relationship between NASA and Roscosmos is good, it is healthy.” In any event, NASA has set up a 24-hour live-feed from the ISS. Hopefully, it will help keep things in perspective down here.

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.’

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