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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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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Update on Mars (Possible) Impact
Some new (old) observations were found, and now the chances of a Mars impact have risen to 4%. Full story here. Note how the approach moved from the 'outside' of Mars to the 'inside' of Mars with the new information. Compare the pictures before and after the new data. Also, note the change in scale at the bottom.
7:13 pm est

COTS in Trouble?
The Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) effort is in trouble according to this Hobbyspace post. I'd heard that the Congressional language impacted the re-awarding of the Rocketplane portion of the services, but didn't know it affected the other portion which SpaceX was working on. The Space News article confirms that my understanding was correct. More discussion here at Space Politics.
7:03 pm est

Friday, December 28, 2007

Not what I Expected, but cool Anyway
Earth at Twilight is yesterday's Astronomy Picture of the Day. I expected a picture taken from a Mars Rover, since, when viewed this way, Earth is always at twilight.
8:44 am est

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Must be some Conflict
According to a recent press release, NASA will delay the Mars Scout mission originally scheduled for 2011 until 2013. The cause given is an "organizational conflict of interest" discovered between the competitors and the judging committee. Wow. Someone really messed up. I've been in a situation like that, where there is the potential for some sort of conflict, and all you do is make sure that EVERYONE is aware of the potential conflict. The only thing that makes sense to me is that everyone involved was aware of the conflict and thought it was OK, then some bigger manager spotted it and didn't think it was OK. It's also possible that, in an effort to save money for later efforts, this conflict took on new importance.

Of course, the idea of delaying a project to save money is a a beltway legend.
10:42 am est

Monday, December 24, 2007

Innovative way to Introduce a Bid
Jeff Foust's The Space Review has grown into quite a diverse publication. I've written five or so articles for it, but some heavy-hitters in space journalism have done so as well. The archives are full of lots of good reads. Last week (no publication this week), two Space Systems Loral engineers sketched out a COTS proposal which is likely to be their bid in the new round of selection given Rocketplane Kistler's dropout.

The concept itself is interesting. They propose using an unguided module to transfer supplies to the space station, relying on the launch vehicle's guidance system to hold it steady after launch. Approach to the space station is handled by a space tug (built by Space Systems/Loral of course), which docks with the cargo canister and pulls it away from the launcher, then delivers it to the station. Simplifying the cargo canister drives the cost of each copy down, and the space tug can be used for 15 years. Earlier proposals I made about orbital supply depots included a tug with each launch, but the intermodal approach could work just as well. I think the concept is a good one.
12:15 pm est

Awesome Show!
Last night, the moon and Mars came quite close together. In some parts of the US, the moon actually occulted (covered) Mars. I snapped some pictures, but they came out horribly. The image to the right is a Starry Night version. As a point of interest, Mars didn't even appear on the screen at normal magnification. I had to zoom in for the software to resolve the moon and Mars separately.

The full-sized version shows Mars much clearer. Click on the picture to see it.
7:35 am est

Sunday, December 23, 2007

New Space Object Term?
The recently-discovered object that may strike Mars in January is classified a Near Earth Object (NEO) because of the (relatively) close approach to Earth that aided in its discovery. I'm curious whether we need a new term describing Near Mars Objects. I propose the term NEMO, despite the thoughts of orange and white striped fish it invokes. It could be read as a NEar Mars Object or a Near Earth/Mars Object.
7:01 am est

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Design Decisions and Their cost
I saw the current 'hot' design for Altair earlier in the week in this article. It's counter to some of the original images shown (at this posting, the Wikipedia article above includes the original design), and the decisions made in recent reviews bring up some interesting points. I didn't originally comment on the design because it was a single source, but yesterday, I found these images on an official NASA site, so I guess they're closer to legit.

The original design was much like the Apollo Lunar Module, only bigger. The spacecraft landed in a descent stage, which then served as a launch pad for the ascent stage. The new design appears to include a lot of habitable space in the descent stage, which is left behind at liftoff. This is a great idea for lunar base build-up, because each mission leaves additional living space behind. It also comes close to a Mars Direct idea of leaving habitation space behind on Mars, though in Mars Direct, the whole habitat is left behind and the crew returns in a separate ship.

Splitting the ascent and descent stages in this way minimizes the amount of propellant needed to get back to lunar orbit. It has the side effect, however, of decreasing the amount of contribution an Altair ascent stage could make to other missions. For example, if an asteroid mission were to be run using the Orion craft and this new Altair upper stage, the engine on the Altair could not provide much 'kick' compared to the original design.

Decisions made now have long-ranging consequences...
3:16 pm est

Mars to get Whacked?
Some news is spooling up on a potential asteroid impact with Mars. Unfortunately, observational geometry between the moon and the asteroid is getting bad right now, so it will be a while before we get any more observations to get a better estimation of the impact odds. NASA just put out a news release about it, and the JPL NEO website has a page with some additional information and graphics.

One thing I note is that this image shows Mars as being pretty close to the center of the large uncertainty in the trajectory. This motion graphic changes the scale as the image as the approach takes place.

It's possible that some precovery images (pictures taken of areas of sky where the asteroid was, but no one noticed in the past) will come out and give us some better idea where the asteroid will go. These images are usually the source of rapidly-changing odds in asteroid impact predictions.

One of the interesting dimensions for me is that, if this impact happens, we will have witnessed two major impacts (remember the comet impacting Jupiter in 1994?) in less than 15 years. I'll be curious to see if there are any adjustments to our statistical chances of having an impact on Earth with this information.

There's also interest in whether our missions will either be able to see it (from orbit) or be damaged by it (if they're on the ground). Word I've seen so far says that Spirit and Opportunity will be OK (the odds of their being near the impact are significantly smaller than 1 in 75). This article describes the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter having a 'ringside seat' to the impact. While it could definitely show the aftermath, the odds are that it won't be able to see the impact itself without maneuvering out of its current orbit. If it's even possible to get to the right orbit to image the hit, the decision has to be balanced with other concerns, such as fuel aboard and other science objectives.

This is something to keep an eye on.

Update: More complete article from U of A here. According to it, they're counting on getting images after the impact if it happens.
5:32 am est

Friday, December 21, 2007

Grinch Steals Apophis Competition Results
I have an entry in The Planetary Society's Apophis Mission Design Competition, so as the originally-posted date of mid-December came and went for announcing the results, I started getting antsy. Through email communication, I found out that they've delayed the announcement and will update the website after the holidays.
4:22 pm est

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Smaller Asteroids, Bigger Booms
Remember Tanguska, the 1908 explosion that nearly altered the course of human history? Well, according to Sandia National Labs, the blast was likely caused by a smaller asteroid than most people thought. That's bad because it was a BIG explosion, and smaller asteroids are more numerous than larger asteroids. We gotta keep our eye on these things!
5:15 pm est

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Missing Mass and Magnetometer reports how the asteroid belt only has 10% the mass that models predict it should. The current thought is that the late heavy bombardment (can't help but think of middle school gym class when I hear that term) was caused by Jupiter and Saturn launching the rest of the former asteroids into the inner solar system.

The shock to me was that the Dawn spacecraft doesn't have a magnetometer. That instrument has been on almost all interplanetary craft. As I thought about it, though, there may be something about the ion drive Dawn uses that precludes the use of a magnetometer, though other missions I've worked on simply calibrate the magnetometer for the spacecraft's magnetic environment. Maybe the constant exposure to the magnetic field caused by the engine would corrupt magnetometer data.
5:18 am est

Man Conquers CGI
This looks like an interesting endeavor, and the number of people involved in the project is intriguing as well. Apparently, a relatively small group of people are making a movie illustrating the Collier's Magazine articles "Man will Conquer Space Soon." There are teaser trailers for the project, but I didn't see how they hope to release it. Direct-to-DVD is likely, but I would really love to see the stuff on the big screen.

The Bad Astronomer thinks that the movie might make him a little sad because of the promise that didn't come to be, and some of his commenters are sad because of the use of "Man" and "Conquers" in the title of the piece. To me the fanciful depiction of large-winged aircraft landing on Mars and the political/social situation (assuming it's a government project) that would drive exploration of the Moon and Mars without a clear payoff puts it far enough into the realm of fantasy that I'm OK with it. I'll see it for the eye candy. The third teaser does show solar power satellites, which become economically feasible using lunar materials. I'm curious how long the project has been going on, and whether the solar power satellite part was added near the end?
5:09 am est

Monday, December 17, 2007

Oh THAT kind of Mission
If you don't have Google Alerts for issues you're interested in, you should. Once you do a Google News search for anything (for example: Mars mission), you can enter your email address and get informed any time news comes up about your recently-searched topic. I have a news alert for "Mars mission" and was quite suprised when I received an email linking me to an article called Clinton says her supporters "not on a suicide mission". Luckily, the words driving the link are highlighted in the sample text. The "mission" comes from the headline. The Mars part? From the byline: Le Mars, Iowa.

Hey, the computer did exactly what I told it to do.
7:10 pm est

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Forgoing the Obvious
Here's an example of potentially wasted effort. NASA is developing an energy storage system for the moon that works as a fuel cell in a full cycle (forward and reverse). Where fuel cells take hydrogen and oxygen and turn them into water, this system uses solar power to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. It would do this during the lunar day, with sun on the solar array. At night, the hydrogen and oxygen would be turned back into water, generating electricity. Then the cycle would repeat.

I have no doubt that this sytem could be made to work. The concept is relatively straightforward, and while hydrogen is a very leaky gas, it should be possible to seal it up for this purpose. My concern is that this system will be very heavy for the amount of energy storage required, and that it will only be 40% as efficient on Mars, because the solar flux there is 40% of what it is here near Earth.

What do I see as the obvious answer? Nuclear fission power. It can be made very robust, it launches cold (minimally radioactive), and once started it can ALWAYS produce power with a minimum of moving parts. This power source doesn't rely on the sun, either, making it useful throughout the solar system.

In a perfect world, a trade study would have been done early on, with the pros and cons of each power system (along with others...I'm sure there are more ideas out there, like solar dynamic power) honestly debated. After that study, research would begin on the primary source (using nearly all available funds), with low-level work on perhaps one promising backup. It's possible that this approach is going on, but the article doesn't cover it.
6:53 am est

A Lander by any Other Name
NASA announced the name of the lunar module planned for returns to the moon, and I kind of like their thinking. They chose Altair (Wikipedia appears to have some old information, like the craft running on cryogenic propellants on both stages. Last I heard, the descent stage was going to be cryogenic and the ascent stage would be storable). The news article explains that Altair is the brightest star in the constellation Aquila, the eagle. Eagle, get it? Like "The Eagle has landed." The program logo (shown in the Wikipedia article) evokes the memory of missions past.

I guess another argument could be made that they named it after an old computer, though the logo wouldn't make as much sense.
6:30 am est

Friday, December 14, 2007

More Big Meteor Stuff
There's been some discussion that an asteroid impacted North America thousands of years ago, destabilizing large creatures such as mammoths as well as some early human societies. Here is an article about a new angle of research. In it, people have discovered magnetic projectiles embedded in mammoth tusks and bison skeletons. Indications are that the bison survived the event, because there's growth over the projectile.

This is a very interesting approach, and there's the potential that a lot of other discoveries will be made. One thing that strikes me as odd is the gyrations they go through at the end of the article to try and make the timelines fit. I think the simpler solution is multiple impacts.
6:25 pm est

Thursday, December 13, 2007

(After a long Hiatus) NASA Starts Planning Next Mars Mission
I think we've gotten a bit spoiled over the last 10 years or so, with at least one spacecraft flying to Mars every 26 months. Each time there was a good planetary alignment, something was on its way from Earth to Mars. Not everything worked, to be sure, but we learned a lot. Now, on the Mars website, there's an entry after the Mars Science Laboratory that says "After 2009." 2009 is when MSL flies, and that mission is well underway in its development now. Apparently, nothing is underway for 2011 or 2012 (since the window is every 26 months, sometimes missions are 3 calendar years apart). Here is some discussion as to why. Apparently, there's another effort to return a sample from Mars (don't remember the first? It burned a lot of paper in the late 90's, and was possibly going to fly in 2005), but that mission will be so expensive that it may take all the funding away from a mission that could fly before it. This potential isn't specifically mentioned in the article, but because there's no mission specified for the launch window after MSL, I'd say a missed window is likely.

Also, note that the article discusses international cooperation. The last time one of these missions was discussed, that meant the US send a lander to Mars, launched the samples to Mars orbit, then the return capsule got picked up by a European spacecraft for the return to Earth. That strikes me as an awkward arrangement. I'm much more in favor of simply getting a ride from the international partner, or having them perhaps landing a mission-aiding rover near our sample gatherer. In the second case, they'd be instrumental in making the mission BETTER, but not in making it HAPPEN.
7:06 pm est

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Gimpy Wheel (once again) an Asset
The Mars rover Spirit has made another discovery due to the fact that it's dragging one wheel. Earlier, the wheel dug into some salt deposits that no one really expected. This time, the wheel exposed some pure silica (basically glass) with titanium mixed in. These elements and compounts are frequently found near hot springs on Earth, and this discovery has been called Spirit's "most significant"

Is it too late to add something that constantly drags behind our next Mars rover, the Mars Science Laboratory? Maybe they could call it the MDS (Mars Dragging Stick). Of course, it would have to be made of something cool like carbon fiber, have tens of millions of dollars of sensors on the end, and delay the launch until the next window...
5:10 am est

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Lots of Issues, no Solutions Mentioned
Sunday's Washington Post had an article about how the human body gets worse at fighting viruses and bacteria in space, while the bacteria get better at what they do. There's a lot of talk about how more research is needed (fairly typical for such an article), but no mention about the possibility of generating artificial gravity (the rotational method is the easiest mentioned in the article, using the spent upper stage as a counterweight) on such a mission.
5:07 am est

Things are Still Cookin' at SpaceX
The latest update from Elon Musk came out yesterday. From the first test firing of the Falcon 9 (with one engine), through testing of the Merlin 1C and the critical design review (CDR) for their Commercial Orbital Transport System (COTS) contract in their new building, they've got a lot going on.

I wonder how they're handling selection and training for Dragon crews?
5:01 am est

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Looks like he did the Math
In this article, Dr. Wes Huntress, former NASA guy and now a bigwig at The Planetary Society says that asteroids are a good middle ground step between the moon and Mars. In it, he's quoted as mentioning mission lengths of six months to a year, which is good. Sprint missions (varying length, usually around 100 days or so) have been a common topic recently, and they're very rare or very costly in propellant. Full description here.
3:47 pm est

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Surprised this hasn't Gotten more play
GOES 12, America's East Coast weather satellite, is experiencing some problems. It's not a huge deal, because GOES 10 is providing imaging in the meantime, and GOES 13 is available as a spare, but since when has lack of a big deal prevented something from being big news?
5:47 am est

Friday, December 7, 2007

Looks like a good idea
There's a group calling for a Science Debate in leadup to the 2008 presidential election. I attended one of these for 2000, on its way to the general election. Neither candidate showed up, so there's easy debate about how important it was, but I think the topic is underdone. There's a petition!
7:01 pm est

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Dilbert does Space
Speaking of space being a shock in 'normal' culture. Dilbert's company is building a moon shuttle this week. Check the archives.
5:14 am est

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Sailin' Again
The Planetary Society has restarted their Cosmos project. The first one suffered from a launch failure. The letter from the executive director is a couple weeks old, but this is still exciting stuff.
4:50 am est

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Lights Around my Neighborhood
Ever wonder why you don't hear much about astronomy in the DC area? Here is a reason.
5:49 pm est

Monday, December 3, 2007

What's Left?
A GAO Report, examining the Ares I booster under development to take people into orbit after the space shuttle is retired, has this interesting observation:
Technology and hardware development knowledge gaps: Three major elements of the Ares I system—first stage, upper stage, and the upper stage engine—pose significant development challenges.
The first stage, second stage and second stage engine covers most of the booster. It might have been a shorter list if they'd listed what didn't have difficulties.
5:11 pm est

Saturday, December 1, 2007

First Light
Got an early Christmas gift via email today, 200 minutes of Slooh viewing time. I took my first image of Mars (of course) and you can see it here. I hope to do some NEO observing as well.
9:03 pm est

Entrepreneur of the Year
Elon Musk! He's juggling three companies and three children. SpaceX is the company closest related to this website, though the others are pretty cool, too.
7:21 am est

Beauty Close to Home
Greg Redfern, a Solar System Ambassador and contributor to WTOP's column The Space Place, sent out a picture showing one of our beautiful recent sunrises. It will be pictured on the right for the week. Click for a larger version.
7:01 am est

YouTube, Mars and Presidential Politics
Looks like The Mars Society had a moment in the sun at the Republican Debate this week. A member submitted a video asking candidates whether they'd be willing to "take a pledge on behalf of the Mars Society of sending an American to the surface of Mars by 2020?" Luckily, the questioner gave them an out, with "If not, what is your vision for human space exploration?" Jeff Foust has some commentary, and others are chiming in. I did as well. The bottom line to me is that space is not perceived by the majority of the public (or the news media) as a major issue. This question probably fell into the "something harmless and different" category, and its slick production helped as well.
6:55 am est

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