Sunday, December 30, 2007
Update on Mars (Possible) Impact
7:13 pm est
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
the new data. Also, note the change in scale at the bottom.
COTS in Trouble?
7:03 pm est
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.
Friday, December 28, 2007
Not what I Expected, but cool Anyway
8:44 am est
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Must be some Conflict
10:42 am est
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.
Monday, December 24, 2007
Innovative way to Introduce a Bid
12:15 pm est
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
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.
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
7:35 am est
The full-sized version shows Mars much clearer. Click on the picture to see it.
Sunday, December 23, 2007
New Space Object Term?
7:01 am est
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
Saturday, December 22, 2007
Design Decisions and Their cost
3:16 pm est
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...
Mars to get Whacked?
5:32 am est
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
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
This is something to keep an eye on.
More complete article from U of A here
. According to it, they're counting on getting images after the impact if it happens.
Friday, December 21, 2007
Grinch Steals Apophis Competition Results
4:22 pm est
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.
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
Smaller Asteroids, Bigger Booms
5:15 pm est
, 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!
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
Missing Mass and Magnetometer
5:18 am est
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
Man Conquers CGI
5:09 am est
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?
Monday, December 17, 2007
Oh THAT kind of Mission
7:10 pm est
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.
Saturday, December 15, 2007
Forgoing the Obvious
6:53 am est
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
A Lander by any Other Name
6:30 am est
the name of the lunar module planned for returns to the moon, and I kind of like their thinking. They chose Altair
(Wikipedia article...it 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.
Friday, December 14, 2007
More Big Meteor Stuff
6:25 pm est
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.
Thursday, December 13, 2007
(After a long Hiatus) NASA Starts Planning Next Mars Mission
7:06 pm est
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.
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
Gimpy Wheel (once again) an Asset
5:10 am est
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...
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Lots of Issues, no Solutions Mentioned
5:07 am est
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
Things are Still Cookin' at SpaceX
5:01 am est
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?
Sunday, December 9, 2007
Looks like he did the Math
3:47 pm est
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
Saturday, December 8, 2007
Surprised this hasn't Gotten more play
5:47 am est
, 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?
Friday, December 7, 2007
Looks like a good idea
7:01 pm est
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!
Thursday, December 6, 2007
Dilbert does Space
5:14 am est
Speaking of space being a shock in 'normal' culture. Dilbert
's company is building a moon shuttle this week. Check the archives.
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
The Planetary Society
4:50 am est
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
Tuesday, December 4, 2007
Lights Around my Neighborhood
5:49 pm est
Ever wonder why you don't hear much about astronomy in the DC area? Here
is a reason.
Monday, December 3, 2007
5:11 pm est
A GAO Report
, examining the Ares I booster under development to take people into orbit after the space shuttle is retired, has this interesting
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
Saturday, December 1, 2007
9:03 pm est
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.
Entrepreneur of the Year
7:21 am est
! He's juggling three companies and three children. SpaceX
is the company closest related to this website, though the others are pretty cool, too.
Beauty Close to Home
7:01 am est
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.
YouTube, Mars and Presidential Politics
6:55 am est
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?"
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.