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Here's the latest on space, and my opinions on it...
This is the legacy site, with blog entries from November, 2004 through June, 2011.
Updates after June 9, 2011 can be found at

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Monday, February 28, 2005

The Space Show and an Interesting Idea
I was a guest on The Space Show last night. I think that things went well. Dr. Space will have some copies of SWN to give away, so listen in for your chance in the coming weeks. The archive is already up, and you can listen to it by going here.

A commenter (tor?) at Transterrestrial Musings pointed the way to an interesting website from Mitsubishi Industries in Japan. The idea they propose is using solar power satellites to beam microwave energy to the surface as a power source for small electronic devices. The concept, I assume, is that this type of application will make people more at ease with the idea, and work out some kinks in the plan for later scale-up to (unrealistic, by what I've seen) city-sized power stations. It sounds interesting in theory, and I need to run some numbers, but my first thoughts are: the power density will require a relatively large antenna, that the power would be very easy to steal, and that it would only work outdoors, since buildings would block the microwaves. Any thoughts out there?
9:18 pm est

Sunday, February 27, 2005

A Place of Honor
Word is out that SpaceShipOne is on its way to the National Air and Space Museum. This article talks about the craft going into the "Milestones of Flight" Gallery, as well it should. In the article, however, it's discussed how SS1 will join the Wright Flyer in that gallery. The Wright Flyer is currently in its own gallery, called The Invention of the Aerial Age, meaning that the only spot open (without major shifting of other exhibits, such as the Bell X-1 and the Spirit of St. Louis) is the centerpiece spot, originally held by the Wright Flyer. Quite a place of honor, and I look forward to seeing it there, as it's the first major new addition to the main museum since I've lived in the area.

Quite a valid place for it to go, in my mind.
8:11 am est

Friday, February 25, 2005

Amazing Saturn Photography and Another Nuclear-Powered Craft Submits its EIS
This article at Spaceflight Now got me thinking about the incredible pointing requirements that Cassini has in order to return some of these images. According to this website, the field of view of the camera is only 0.35 degrees. Think of looking through a soda straw. Now, imagine pointing that soda straw at something about 400 km in diameter 1,250,000 km away in light only 1% as bright as sunlight is here on Earth. Despite all this, this sort of image is just part of the background noise of living in the 21st century, like Rand says.

Whoa. I work with this kind of thing all the time, but every now and then the precision of it all blows me away.

In other news, the New Horizons mission published its draft Environmental Impact Statement today. This two-hundred page document is required for all missions, but has a special importance because of the 10.9kg of Plutonium on board that will power the craft. The paper includes a brief history of previous plutonium-laden launches, including a snippet on a mission I'd always heard about without any details. It turns out that Nimbus 1B was the satellite launched with a nuclear power source on 18 May 1968. The rocket was destroyed by range safety, but the nuclear power source was recovered and re-used.
6:43 pm est

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

In Other News and Images
Here's an update on Kistler Aerospace. Looks like a revived Alternate Access to the Space Station program may help out. Of course, SpaceX must be considered a competitor, as well.

Some great images out there from Saturn. This site is constantly updated with the most-recently downloaded 500 raw images. Of course, with these being raw images, you get the occasional "thumb over the lens" shot, and can also see flaws in the imaging system. (when you look at pictures of Saturn's clouds, there are small circles that don't appear in dark-background images)

Spirit and Opportunity have taken some self portraits. It's really impressive to me seeing the difference in dust coatings of the solar arrays. My gut reaction was "How is Spirit getting any power?"
6:12 am est

Delta IV and its use in the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE)
Aviation Week has an article here discussing the possible roles of a Delta IV heavy lifter and some of its derivatives in the VSE. Discussed are the variants for the medium version that could carry the Crewed Exploration Vehicle (CEV), as well as some "big boy" upgrades that would make the booster unrecognizable from its current form, but provide the kind of lifting power that the Saturn V gave us during the race to the moon. The astronaut office is quoted with something I can only hope is taken out of context:
The Astronaut Office at the Johnson Space Center is not keen on any of these options (AW&ST June 14, 2004, p. 15). The astronauts have taken a position that "human rating should be designed in, not appended on." The Office is calling for an order of magnitude reduction in the risk of fatalities on ascent, and has expressed concern that an EELV--be it Delta or Atlas--may not be safe enough even with upgrades.

"Even with extensive modifications, the EELVs may never achieve a meaningfully higher success rate," the Astronaut Office assessment stated.

Upgrading EELVs "could potentially be as costly as building a new human-rated booster," said the Astronaut Office paper, and still "would place excessive burden on abort mechanisms to save the crew."

It looks like the author found a Boeing representative who's thinking (even acknowledging corporate bias):
Boeing is fully aware of the astronaut concerns, says Jim Harvey, who heads Boeing Launch Services development and is leading Delta IV exploration studies. "Instead of a human-rated rocket, Boeing is talking about a 'human-compatible' launch vehicle," Harvey said. And that approach, coupled with CEV escape designed in from the start, he said, would make the whole system human-rated.

I hate to bring up history, but the first booster to fly with people that had man-rating "built-in" was the Saturn IB that launched Apollo 7 on its flight to test Apollo systems. Until then, converted ICBMs such as Atlas and Titan II, launched our astronauts into space. Those boosters had man-rating "added in", not "built-in"!

There may be more ranting later.
5:38 am est

Monday, February 21, 2005

The idea of a frozen ocean just under Mars' surface is one of the most exciting announcements made recently about The Red Planet. Hopefully, Mars Express will be able to confirm this theory if it doesn't bash itself with its own antenna when it deploys.
8:39 pm est

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Insight into the Launch Windows's Astronotes (page down to the February 19th entry) has some detail on the kinds of things NASA's keeping in mind in scheduling shuttle flights. Be sure to note the beginnings of schedule pressure slipping in again:
NASA is hoping to get the first two shuttle missions off the ground, if possible, by then. That could free the agency to resume construction flights to the International Space Station later this year.

That's important because the agency faces a tight schedule to get in the 25 to 30 flights necessary to complete construction of the orbiting lab. President Bush has ordered the agency to finish that work and retire the space shuttles by 2010 as part of the new Vision for Space Exploration.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for the end of the shuttle era and the beginning of something else. The problem I see is that a lot of people are saying "Retire the shuttle in 2010, after the station is complete" instead of saying "Retire the shuttle when the station is complete." Given that we're talking about 25-30 flights to complete the station, with 5.5 years to do it, there has to be between 4-6 flights a year in that period to meet that number of flights. Now, some guy named Gehman recommended a flight rate of about 4 per year.
7:06 pm est

Friday, February 18, 2005

Space Tourism Regulation Realities
Over at Space Daily, someone's a little edgy about what the FAA will do with its new authority in regulating space tourism. It boils down to this: the FAA has put out their draft guidelines, and while they repeatedly stress that they want feedback from the community, some aren't happy with the document. The two areas of concern mentioned here are
For example, the guidelines propose requiring every passenger to "provide his or her medical history to a physician experienced or trained in the concepts of aerospace medicine."

If the doctor has further questions, the guidelines also propose that he or she require the passenger to undergo a physical examination.
Another suggested guideline - under the guise of making sure future passengers will be fully informed of the risks of spaceflight - proposes that a launch company not only provide information about its own safety record, but also submit "the safety record of all launch and re-entry vehicles that have carried one or more persons on board, including both U.S. government and private-sector vehicles."

First, I don't have a problem with peole who are going to fly in space for a short period of time submitting to a physical, or having such a physical done beforehand. There's a standard one today for pilots called the FAA aeromedical exam. Considering that people who fly in space today have to train for months before they fly, a physical should not be too great a requirement.

Second, the article describes the need to describe safety issues of all space flights as "incredibly odious and unreasonable." I disagree. Considering the amount of heat some sort of accident would generate, I think that any company would be proud to showcase the amount of information they gave their customers. Besides, compiling safety information is something for an industry group, which any self-respecting industry has with an office in Washington DC. After each flight, a company can send the data to the group who'd update a web page with the relevant data. Then, customers (and concerned Congresspeople) can check the safety record of the industry in real time.
8:16 pm est

"Mars Life" Renounced...Soundly
Got a tersely-worded email from NASA, and the news his hitting all the other major sources as well. No one from NASA is claiming that they found strong evidence of existing life on Mars:
News reports on February 16, 2005, that NASA scientists from Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., have found strong evidence that life may exist on Mars are incorrect.

NASA does not have any observational data from any current Mars missions that supports this claim. The work by the scientists mentioned in the reports cannot be used to directly infer anything about life on Mars, but may help formulate the strategy for how to search for martian life. Their research concerns extreme environments on Earth as analogs of possible environments on Mars. No research paper has been submitted by them to any scientific journal asserting martian life.
All I can think of is an article I read (don't remember where, or I'd link it) that said finding life on Mars would be like finding a cure for cancer. It'd be a wonderful thing, but a whole lot of funding would go away...
7:42 pm est

Reviews Coming in
Huntsville Times reviewer Dr. Arthur Smith read SWN and reviewed it on Sunday, 13 February. The review text can be found here for a short period of time (probably until the 27th of February). I have a copy of the full text in a less transient form if anyone is interested. While he points out problems with the book, such as some of the claims seeming dated, I consider the review positive overall. Here's the concluding paragraph:
Recent developments are noted in the epilogue, and the author has set up an active blog at to stay up to date. Read this book if you're looking for a good summary of where we are, and where we're going, in space.
I'll take one moment to discuss two issues brought up in the review, one because someone at work already asked me about it and another because I want to talk about it.

First, related to this quote:
Hill, an aerospace engineer, attacks several "myths" and misconceptions that may have weakened our enthusiasm for space travel. Astronauts really are human beings. Heavy-lift rockets like the Saturn V are not essential. Space hardware isn't inherently more complicated than anything else. Humans and robots aren't competitors; they can and should work together in space.
I'd like to clarify the comment about spaceflight hardware not being complicated. What I meant to get across in the book was that, while space travel does have unique challenges that we don't face when we build equipment on Earth today, the reason it seems so much more complicated is because of how rarely we do it. Imagine how expensive and how much time would be spent on each unit if VCRs were built in batches of 10 over a period of 15 years.

Second, on this one:
Beyond our current efforts in space close to Earth, Hill suggests a specific range of new destinations - high Earth orbit, the moon, asteroids and (where his biases show slightly) Mars.
In the book, I went out of my way to state that I have a bias in favor of Mars exploration. I think that most people have some sort of bias when they write, and the simple act of stating where that bias lies as part of the writing can create a much more believable, worthwhile piece. Of course this discussion fades into the idea of media bias, which is a discussion for another day, or maybe even another blog.
6:31 am est

Mars Life Talk Heats up
Looks like it's a race to publish (or debate) the latest details of findings on possible existing life on Mars. This article talks about Dr. Carol Stoker's upcoming paper relating to methane as an indicator of life. The methane is now widely known, with multiple possible sources. Dr. Stoker appears to have additional details based on her research on Earth-based life. In the meantime, this article describes an expected debate at the first Mars Express Science Conference where Vittorio Formisano (no title is given) will announce his discovery of formaldehyde, which he claims to be even a stronger indicator for life. Apparently, the spectral indicators (dark bands in a rainbow-like plot created by the instrument aboard Mars Express upon which the claim is based) for fromaldehyde are so close together that they're right at the resolution capability for the instrument, which makes others cautious. This announcement is mentioned as a possibility in the epilogue of Space: What Now?
6:25 am est

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

A Little Crow for Dinner
In an email from CfA related to this posting points out that the star in question was part of a binary system. The primary partner got caught on a close approach, slinging this star away.

Oh well.
8:36 pm est

Monday, February 14, 2005

Life(?) on Mars, Safety on Mars, Plotting Spacecraft and NEOs has an interesting article on some unique images taken by Spirit and Opportunity. The images show features which, if they were appeared repeatedly, could indicate either current or fossilized life. Some of them are explained by contact between instruments and the rock in question. Others...not so much.

The National Research Council was asked to study the concerns that a crewed mission to Mars would have to face, and it lead to their study titled Safe on Mars. Here is part II of an article summarizing their findings, which contains a link to part I of the article.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) maintains a website that allows you to plot the position of Near Earth Objects over time. I was drawn to it by their real-time (and adjustable time) projection of where Deep Impact is on its way to hit its comet target.
9:09 pm est

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Gravitational Slingshot Misunderstanding
According to this article a star has been discovered that is moving fast enough to leave our galaxy. Cool. The mechanism for this happening, however goes against my understanding of such things:
This incredible speed likely resulted from a close encounter with the Milky Way's central black hole, which flung the star outward like a stone from a slingshot.

Assuming that there is one supermassive black hole in the center of our galaxy, such a "slingshot" isn't possible. Let's take a smaller-scale example, a probe to our sun. If launched from Earth to a close-approach with our sun, it's true that the probe would be moving very fast by the time it reached its closest point to the sun. That's normal eliptical motion of one body orbiting another. Assuming no thrusting at the closest point to the sun, and no other encounters with planets orbiting our sun, the probe would remain in an orbit the same shape as the one it started in. This doesn't rule out the probe leaving the solar system, but it would have to have the energy to do so before its close approach to our home star. The only way a probe could leave our solar system is through an encounter with a planet orbiting our sun, such as Jupiter. In that encounter, the probe picks up speed relative to the sun in its Jovian swing-by, and races out of the solar system.

Translating to this case, this wandering star may very well have passed by the black hole in the center of our galaxy, but it also must have swung by another black hole (or perhaps a very large star) that orbits the center of our galaxy.

Maybe there are some other assumptions, such as two co-orbiting black holes at the center of our galaxy, or a simplification to make the news release more understandable, but such assumptions are not mentioned.

Looking at the source, this is pretty much just a reprint of a Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics press release. I've put in a request for clarification with the CfA, and hope to receive one. Any response will be published here. (Oooh, I'm going out on a big limb here...may have to admit that I was wrong...cue the spooky music)
6:27 am est

Friday, February 11, 2005

Correct, but Incomplete Reporting
Here is an article entitled "Earth To Mars in a Month With Painted Solar Sail". Based on the discussion of beamed energy from Earth boiling paint off a solar sail, the article states that it's possible to get from Earth to Mars in 30 days. While this is a true statement, any propulsion system can get a payload from Earth to Mars in 30 days. (Assuming that it already has the capability to travel beyond Earth orbit) The key is how much payload can be delivered. A chemical rocket stage can travel that far, that fast with almost no payload, and that's likely the size of payload that this sail system could carry until huge power beams exist. The article discusses the huge systems, but doesn't relate payload sizes.
6:57 pm est

Congressional Shuffle, Wild Spacewalks
It’s being widely reported in space circles the subcommittee that used to handle NASA funding, the HUD, VA and Independent Agencies subcommittee, has been disbanded. For a while, it was thought that NASA was going to move to the Energy subcommittee, but apparently some senators had concerns that NASA wouldn’t fare well in competition with nuclear programs. Now, it looks like NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) will settle into the newly-expanded Science, State, Justice and Commerce subcommittee. Many are touting this move as a good thing, preventing NASA from having to fight for its budget against veterans and the homeless. I’ll wait and see. It’s true that a “space program vs. homeless children” fight can get emotional, but a “space program vs. other science priorities” fight may be something new altogether. Perhaps a fight NASA’s not ready for. Jeff Foust has more details here.

Looks like the spacewalk incident is gaining some volume. In it, the recent ISS spacewalk took place while the space station was occasionally firing its thrusters. This wouldn’t be a problem except for the fact that it looks like the ISS inhabitants strayed close to at least one thruster when it was firing. Now, these thrusters are not typically that strong, but the concern is over their toxic byproducts. Hydrazine (fuel) and nitrogen tetroxide (oxidizer), the propellants used in the thrusters, are both extremely toxic, and any imbalance in how the thruster fires could leave residue of one or the other in the exhaust plume. If that plume got onto a spacesuit, and that spacesuit was worn inside, (likely to happen, since our spacewalker would eventually have to return to base) the inside of the station would be contaminated. This contamination should be manageable, but is something that should be avoided by keeping spacewalkers away from thrusters.
6:58 am est

Tuesday, February 8, 2005

New Mars Book
Glory be to Mars is a recently-announced third book of a Mars trilogy. The author, Thomas W. Cronin, has put out a book every two years, starting with As it is on Mars, and following that up with Give us This Mars. I enjoyed both books, though the first one suffered from some editing problems (like I'm one to talk on that topic!). I'm happy to see that a revised second edition of As it is on Mars is coming out in April.

(Note: Technical problems prevented me from posting the 6:22 item last night)
6:31 pm est

What Does a new Budget Smell Like?
The proposed 2006 Federal Budget was released on Monday. NASA (pdf file) received additional funding this year, though not as much as was hoped for. Given the fact that other agencies are taking cuts, that will make the space agency a target as deliberations take place in congress. Another interesting year ahead...

Also, Jim Oberg wrote an article for The Space Review entitled What does a sick “space safety culture” smell like?. In it, he chronicles an event he witnessed in 1985, where some simple oversights ruined an Air Force experiment by pointing a space shuttle orbiter in the wrong direction. While no one was hurt in this incident, he claims (and I agree) that it showed a creeping overconfidence that foreshaddowed the doom of Challenger seven months later.
6:22 pm est

Sunday, February 6, 2005

2004 MN4 Viewing/Volvo and Space
A recent article talks about how visible 2004 MN4 (the asteroid that, for a while, was looking like it may hit Earth. Discussed here) will be. I proposed such a viewing opportunity in this essay, based on more of a gut feeling after looking at the graphics. One reader pointed me to this interesting website, saying that I was incorrect. The site lists a bunch of rare astronomical events, and I'll note that the it has been updated to reflect the same opinion as the article. I'm glad to see that someone who knows more than me agrees that it will be something worth seeing! I have a pact with someone in the office that we'll travel to see it.

Looking forward to seeing the feedback on the Volvo contest. After a superbowl ad runs, they're opening up a giveaway for a ride on Virgin Galactic's spacecraft. I'm sure that mainstream media will be surprised by the interest level.
7:06 am est

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