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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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Saturday, May 29, 2010

That's no Asteroid...that's Space Debris!
Looks like "asteroid" 2010 KQ, which flew past Earth relatively closely on May 21st, is actually a rocket body, left over from a space mission in the past. Unfortunately, not even NASA says which one. Apparently, the spectral characteristics of the object made people think it wasn't natural. Also, it's orbit is such that it would likely hit Earth's atmosphere (with no effect to us on the ground) relatively in the next couple decades.

A quick check using the visualizer linked above has the previous close approach in 1981. The problem is, there were no interplanetary launches that year. The close approach before that was in 1952, and interplanetary probes were pretty rare back then. Hmmm.

Monday Update: Venera 9? According to the more accurate Horizons ephemeris generator, a previous close approach this object made to Earth was in April of 1975. Venera 9 launched in June of that year, and about the only way one of its upper stages would work as this object would be if the "Upper stage and escape stages" listed in the Wikipedia article led to some sort of atypical departure from Earth orbit. There's another close approach listed in 1991, but no launches near that timeframe.
7:55 pm est

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Infrared Wisdom
The WISE mission is one of my favorite recent space flights. The infrared survey of the entire sky, revealing brown dwarfs and other distant objects is very cool, but I think its enduring legacy will be its contributions to our understanding of Near Earth Objects (NEOs). An early dataset is in (be sure to watch the video), and it's already discovered several new NEOs. Because of the characteristics of the spacecraft sensor (viewing in four wavelengths of infrared light), it will also be able to determine the makeup of some of the asteroids as well.

This spacecraft is also unique because it has an expendable in the form of hydrogen to cool the sensor. Once that coolant runs out, the mission will likely be over. I haven't heard of any other missions this spacecraft could do, but I'm sure there's someone working on a proposal.
9:01 pm est

Monday, May 24, 2010

Distant Spacecraft Post-Mortem
The Phoenix Lander went silent after a successful mission. After the Martian winter in its hemisphere, the team was curious whether they'd hear from the spacecraft again. The lander was programmed to transmit a beacon if it woke up from a deep sleep, but there were so many variables about whether the electronics would survive, would it be destroyed in the frost that covered it, etc. A signal was a long shot. Well, the team has a partial answer, in that images of the scene, taken by MRO, show a lack of solar panels. That would be a serious problem.
6:30 pm est

Shuttle History
Here is a series of guest lectures at MIT about the space shuttle. I'm only part way through the one on the DoD and the shuttle, but it's got a lot of good info.
4:30 pm est

Friday, May 21, 2010

Another Mission to Nowhere?
No, I'm not referring to how some people describe Obama's new space policy, I'm referring to the upcoming 500+ days in isolation that 6 people are volunteering for. Supposedly, this type of exercise will show us what kind of psychological effects a crew on the way to Mars will have to endure. I don't think the situations are that compatible. A group of people who volunteer for this type of experiment is going to be quite different than a group going to Mars. The reception this group gets when they come out of their 'trip' will be quite different than the group who returns from Mars. The Mars team will have their 7-month trips punctuated by 550 days on the surface of an unexplored world, perhaps revolutionizing our understanding of planetary science. In the meantime, anything that goes wrong during the ground-based experiment will likely make big news.
4:28 pm est

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Great MInds?
In a Space News article, Lori Garver is quoted as saying the asteroid 1999 AO10 would be a good candidate for an asteroid mission in 2025. Earlier, I suggested the asteroid 2008 ST. The velocity requirements appear to be about the same, though AO10 seems to be a little bigger based on absolute magnitude and the AO10 close-approach seems to be a little closer.
7:18 pm est

Flagship Tech Demo Information Posted
Well, this list has some promising items in it:
  • Section 3: FTD 1 - Advanced In-Space Propulsion Demonstration Response Details (pdf)
  • Section 4: FTD 2 - In-Space Propellant Transfer and Storage Demonstration (pdf)
  • Section 5: FTD 3 - Inflatable ISS Mission Module Demonstration (pdf)
  • Section 6: FTD 4 - Aero-Assist Demonstration (pdf)
  • Section 7: AR&D Demonstration Vehicle (pdf)
  • Section 8: Closed Loop Environmental Control System (pdf)
  • Section 9: Innovative Architectures (pdf)
Though I do wish there was a mention of in-situ propellant generation.

I opened the in-space propellant transfer document, and was a little disheartened by this:
The timetable planned for this flagship mission would be within the next five years. As such, technology ideas must be very well anchored in previous relevant ground or flight environments (Technology Readiness Levels 5-6), as little time will be allocated to the further maturation of the technology other than preparing it for integration into the flight vehicle. Mid-level Technology Readiness Level (TRL) ideas will need to be advanced to flight ready status within the next one to two years. Opportunities for flying lesser mature technologies may be possible on a second mission approximately five years after the first mission, and should be identified as such.
So a technology (space propellant depots) has been essentially ignored for decades of activity, and suddenly they're interested only in items at a TRL of 5? I suppose that Bigelow has a leg up in inflatable ISS mission modules, and Chang-Diaz has some on the in-space propulsion demo, but I think the TRL requirement is picking winners a little early. I think I'd rather see some smaller demos with the best-demonstrated method being declared the winner for the flagship tech demo.

Those unfamiliar with Technology Readiness Levels can find a refresher here.
7:06 pm est

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

30 Years Since Mt. St. Helens, With a Space Link
I was 12 years old when Mt St Helens erupted. I'd heard stories of the USGS Geologist who remained a scientist and professional to the end, David Johnston, but hadn't read about him until today. USGS Geologist isn't usually a high-risk field, but David's call of "Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!" Was his last transmission, and his body was never found.

On the space side of this, here is a series of images showing how the area around Mt St Helens has changed over the years since. The sequence of images were taken by various Landsat spacecraft.
4:01 pm est

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Hearing Bytes
The hearing ran long. I listened to the first hour, then caught snippets...a thunderstorm interfered with satellite reception. If I heard Administrator Bolden correctly, he said that putting humans into space was NASA's primary activity and all others were secondary (update: after finding the video of the hearing, the statement in question with some lead-in is at index 69:00), which struck me as a pretty amazing statement. He did say that human spaceflight was the only thing unique to NASA, and that other government agencies could do the other parts. I'll be curious to see how the chips fall in this fight, and while I'm hopeful, I'm not confident of a positive outcome.

Archived Webcast (208 minutes!) here. Along with written testimony.
7:40 pm est

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Big Names in a Senate Hearing
Tomorrow's Senate Hearing on The Future of Human Spaceflight has some serious horsepower. Included are:
  • John Holdren, Science Advisor
  • Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator
  • Norm Augustine, Chair of the panel who reviewed spaceflight and got this whole thing started
  • Neil Armstrong, some guy who walked on the moon
  • Gene Cernan, some other guy who walked on the moon.
Jeff Foust has more commentary and lots of discussion in the comments section.
7:28 pm est

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Stumbling Block to Space Future Showing Between the Lines
One thing noted in recent SpaceX updates (May 6th was the top one when I posted this, and it is the post in question) is the fact that they're awaiting the Eastern Test Range's approval of their flight termination system. Range operations is a major hole in any sort of plan to ramp up launch rates. While ranges used to handle several launches per month (I have some paper documentation around for flights out of the Western Range, but nothing on ETR. A quick search didn't turn up anything online. Email me if you have a good source link), the current launch rate has atrophied range turnaround time to months per flight. Missions are processed in parallel, but there are several tests required at each step. Commercial launch providers are going to have on the order of 100 flights total per year to decrease costs enough to make a difference, but can the Range support it?

More discussion on the approval process here.
7:53 pm est

Friday, May 7, 2010

SpaceX Stompin' into Orbit
In a new update from SpaceX, Elon shows off some pictures of President Obama at the Falcon 9 launch site at Cape Canaveral. Near the bottom, however, is a video of some of the Dragon capsule's thrusters. The rhythm of the test reminded me of my favorite live group, Stomp:

Here is the video from SpaceX (couldn't embed it).

For good or bad, a lot is riding on the Falcon 9 flight. Best of luck, SpaceX!
4:50 pm est

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Two Interviews
Elon Musk discusses how the recent focus on commercial providers (at least partially unfairly) cranks up the pressure on SpaceX and their upcoming launch. His point is that Lockheed and Boeing have working boosters already that could be used as launchers, yet everyone is focusing on Falcon 9.

Bob Zubrin talks about his opinion on the new space plan with his usual flair. He and I have discussed fuel depots (I'm a fan of depots, while he's a bigger fan of heavy lift) and have agreed to disagree. I hadn't heard that the VASIMR engine is meant to be the means by which the new plan proposes going to an asteroid, and need to investigate it more. His discussions about John Holdren's motivations near the end of the interview are troubling, if true.
7:51 pm est

Monday, May 3, 2010

Glenn Reynolds, Call Your Office
There's an interesting case in space law playing out in Geosynchronous orbit. A communications satellite is out of contact with ground control and is drifting towards others. The problem is that the satellite is functioning fine, except for the fact that it can't be controlled from the ground. Its communications payloads (for TV, voice, or whatever) are waiting for a signal to relay back to Earth, and any satellite that shares those frequencies will have to deal with it. I'm not sure what they can do to adapt to the new situation.

I'm impressed that they think the satellite can hold lock on Earth until July or August! After it loses Earth lock, the solar arrays will turn away from the sun and it will eventually die.

Update/hat tip: I read this post at Rand's place earlier, and borrowed his post title for mine. He has some good discussion about a company (name TBD...again) that could help in this situation.
4:24 pm est

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Life! In Three-Inch Tall Letters and Other Forms
While some recent claims of life discovered on Mars were overblown, the methods for detecting life from space (which unfortunately don't draw the headlines) are constantly being refined. To do so, we use the only planet certain to have life on it, Earth. Note I just said life...intelligence is a matter up for further debate.
5:35 am est

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