Saturday, December 31, 2005

Buy Doom 3 on Your Cell Phone--Put a Bolt on a Spaceship

In fact, buy Doom 3, Quake 4 or Doom RPG on your cell phone and put three bolts on a new Armadillo Aerospace test spacecraft.

The Armadillo Aerospace all-volunteer group was at the 2005 X-Prixe Cup , demonstrating some of their new VTOL equipment and updating their die-hard fans as to when the ship might sail. Although there's no spaceship yet.

Armadillo Aerospace is the brainchild of John Carmack, the inventor of Doom and Quake and generally regarded as a world class computer programmer. The team competed for the X-Prize but suffered from having a truly original design that required more development time than the much simpler tow-lift and hybrid rocket glider built by Burt Rutan and named SpaceShipOne.
(Not that I'm saying that was easy.)

Carmack said on the AA Web site if you buy a copy of any of the aforementioned games, "a bolt goes on a vehicle." He also said the company remains a viable business model and is continuing its development of an actual spacecraft, albeit slowly.
He also said, if you have several million dollars to invest feel free to give him a call and he'll speed up the timetable...

Interstellar probe Bound for Uncharted Space

If NASA's Insterstellar Probe ever gets off the ground, it will signal a new age of space travel, even as commercial space travel is being born.

The idea is to launch a probe equiped with a giant solar sail and set course for the Space beyond the confines of our Solar System. In all it will travel about 400 AU. The edge of our Solar System, or heliopause, ends at around 150 AU. Five times faster than the Voyager 1 probe, the Interstellar Probe will travel more than 200 AU in just 15 years.

(If you don't know an AU is an Astronomical Unit--or the distance from the Sun to the Earth, about 93 million miles.)

It will be the first craft to pass completely outside the influence of our Sun, completely outside our Solar System and it will mark a Human Milestone unlike any that have come before it...

Robotic Lunar Base by 2025?

If JAXA has its way, Japan will supply robots to work a mining colony attached to the lunar base NASA wants to build by 2025.

Part of its "JAXA Vision 2025" plan for the future, it proposes taking technologies currently being successfully produced in Japan, like robotics and automobile design, and adapting them for use on the lunar surface.

At this point the NASA space fleet is grounded meaning it can't even finish the International Space Station much less focus on building anything on the surface of the Moon. And it seems the JAXA plan for a robotic colony really depends on NASA building a base there; Both space programs having been intertwined for decades, they rely on the successes of the other, so without one, no need for the other.

Since the Japan Aerospace eXploration Agency budget is about $1.1 billion (US) compared to NASA's nearly $11 billion, it makes sense that they are looking only to supply the robots, equipment and help with construction of the base, not do the whole job themselves...

Friday, December 30, 2005

Lunar Explosions are Big News--Again

In case you've been comatose, recently a 12-centimeter wide meteoroid, most likely a "Taurid", smashed into the lunar surface kicking up a small cloud of dust and debris visible to anyone looking through a telescope in the right place at the right time.

The story made every Space news outlet--from Blogger to CNN to Space.com--it was the biggest news all week.

Too bad it's not all that amazing. Or even noteworthy.

Amateur astronomers have been witnessing lunar strikes for years. During the Leonid meteor storms of 1999 and 2001 astronomers around the globe photographed nearly a half-dozen lunar strikes alone. In fact, imaging lunar strikes was so common people stopped doing it simply because nobody really cared anymore; they'd already seen it.

Of course interest in lunar activity has changed now that the most powerful nations in the world are planning permanent colonies there. The United States, China, European Union, Russia and Japan all have long-term plans for lunar bases. Everything from an international observatory to a mining operation are in the works, with big money riding on the outcome.

Understanding the nature of lunar impacts with meteoroids has ceased to become of interest only to astronomers, especially since one day the lunar surface is liable to be someone's backyard...

The Planetary Society Still Aims for Solar Sail Success

All things being equal, The Planetary Society , a non-profit, non-governmental organization with more than 100,000 members, has just as much chance of successfully launching and deploying the first solar sail spacecraft as NASA does of successfully returning the shuttle to orbit.
Yes, that's a good chance.

Its Cosmos 1 solar sail, while unsuccessful, was still declared one of the most innovative ideas of 2005 by The New York Times. The probe, a suborbital, two-bladed test spacecraft was launched atop a Volna rocket on June 21, 2005 from the submarine Borisoglebsk of the Russian Northern Fleet. The first stage of the rocket failed to fire properly and the vehicle, plus cargo, crashed into the sea.
Society members say they won't fly with Volna again, but they will continue with their mission to launch the first solar sail.

Currently the society is seeking a corporate or private sponsor to fund the $4 million price tag for a new solar sail. It remains to be seen where that money will come from, but one thing is certain, these people are not going to give up without a fight....

Home Biogas Plants in Nepal Latest Innovation

For those of you keeping up with my weekly column at The Space Ace, here is the first of my on-going series on Ashden Awards for Sustainable Energy winners.
The Ashden Awards go to those who find innovative forms of sustainable energy resources. They believe finding a way for everyone to have access to a permanent and unimpeded energy supply is key to eliminating global poverty. We think they're right.

The idea of free energy for everyone may sound like a dream, but ironically, the answer does not involve anything more technical than a fart.
More commonly called: Biogas.

The Biogas Sector Partnership in Nepal is an Ashden Finalist. The company is currently building and selling home biogas plants which operate on just about any kind of dung, human or cow being most widely used. These plants cost about 24,000 rupees ($550 US) to install and pay for themselves in about two years, providing free cooking gas and eliminating the need to buy or gather firewood.
It is estimated two million homes in Nepal can make use of the biogas systems.

Free--Sustainable--Energy.

And the dried waste is used to fertilize crops....in fact it's not right to call it waste any more because nothing is wasted.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Koizumi Sets Shining Example

Last week, Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi demonstrated the new eight-wheeled electric sedan developed by researchers at Tokyo's Keio University in cooperation with a national auto-maker and governmental entities.

Although not expected on the market for a few more years, the Eliica takes about 10 hours to charge and has a top speed of about 250 mph, in the right driving conditions.
(Japanese speakers, click here.)

The car will do 0-60 in about four seconds, utilizing a 100hp motor in each of its eight wheels and carries a price tag of more than $200,000.

Although it is not expected to become available in the commercial market, it does prove that what we don't like about electric cars (long charge times, slow speeds, very little horsepower) can be overcome when there is a desire to make it happen.

Now, if we can just get US President George Bush to drive a VW microbus with a diesel engine powered by used fryer grease, we might see some radical changes in the US auto industry...

Feds Prepare 120-Page "Rule Book" for Future Space Tourists

If you enjoy reading footnotes to the US tax code as prepared by the IRS, then you're gonna love the new 120 page rule book for space tourists prepared by the Federal Aviation Administration.
It's not actually a rule book--more like a list of precautionary statements and advisements intended to make certain the customer understands exactly how much risk is involved in a space launch.

Attention Everyone: Space travel may be hazardous to your health.

The Bush administration has promised to remain out of the business of forcing rules and regulations on the burgeoning space tourism industry, so long as nobody gets killed, or seriously injured. If that were to happen, then the FAA would step in with safety regulations for everything from the launch pad itself to what kind of seatbelts they use inside and how many different languages the tourist should be required to learn before lift-off.

As the bureaucratic nightmare grows, a coalition of space enthusiasts has formed to prevent it from becoming an impassable quagmire.

SpaceShip One designer Burt Rutan has stated previously FAA regulations nearly derailed his project and at the very least caused expensive delays which in his opinion did not serve to increase the safety of the craft.

In my opinion, when it comes to spaceship safety, I'd rather listen to the engineers who built the ship than the Congressmen who legislate the rules that govern how they are permitted to make money...

China Moon Mission Moves Forward

China's aggressive pursuit of space technology took another step forward this week with the official announcement that their Chang'e 1 lunar orbiter has entered production and is still on track to launch in 2007.
Following a successful launch, the craft will carry two taikonauts around the Moon and return them safely to Earth. A feat accomplished so far, only by the Russians and Americans.

This is China's first effort to reach the moon. Earlier launches of the Shenzhou spacecraft were proof of concept for the Chinese technology, based in no small part on the wildly successful, and ultra-reliable, Soyuz spacecraft developed and still in use by the Russians.

China's space program was started in 1968 with the immediate goal of putting two astronauts in orbit by 1973. Unfortunately, a national economic crisis forced the cancellation of the entire program in 1972. Twenty years later the Chinese government started again, with the same goal of putting men in orbit. This was achieved with Shenzhou 5 in 2003, following four successful test launches of Shenzhou craft.

Although the Chinese government has remained tight-lipped about future spaceship plans, it is widely believed the Shenzhou 8 craft will become the permanent version of the Shenzhou craft, and the standard design for the Chinese space fleet.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

ESA Vega Motor Checks Out A-Ok

The new Vega launch system being perfected by the European Space Agency aims to capture a piece of the growing small-satellite delivery market, expected to grow ten-fold in as many years.
A recent successful test firing of the Vega's Zefiro 9 third-stage solid rocket motor is further proof of the concept.

While it's true the small satellite market will most likely grow exponentially in the coming years, it remains to be seen who will service all these launches.
Elon Musk believes his Falcon rockets are the best answer, and if he ever gets one up there, he might be proved true.

The recent Student Space Exploration and Technology Initiative (SSETI) mission SSETI Express proved the Internet can be used to help a band of amateurs act as an efficient "ground control" base for space missions. This may lead them to an orbiting probe and eventually a student-led Moon mission.

So, the problem of how to keep small space probes functioning once they are up there has been solved. But who will get them up there in the first place--that's still an open-ended question.

Galileo to Give GPS a Run for its Money

The British-built GIOVE-A telecommunications satellite was successfully launched and deployed today, and is now fully operational.
This is the first of a 30-satellite system called Galileo, the ESA's answer to the Global Positioning System used by the United States, considered the best locator technology available. It's been a joint program, undertaken by several EU countries, which will offer a positioning system that will reach into the high northern latitudes and be interoperable with GPS and Glonass, which is used by the Russians.

The network is expected to be completed by 2010 at a cost of around $2.2 billion. US concerns it might become useful to terrorists were not enough to force the project off track, and now the new civilian operated system will end Europe's reliance on the US military-controlled GPS system, while providing a much higher degree of accuracy to users.

Record-Setting Flight Attempt to Launch From Kennedy

Renowned adventurer and multiple aviation world record holder Steve Fossett will attempt to add yet another record to his already impressive list of accomplishments.

Having already completed a record-setting first with the solo around-the-world flight in March of 2005 while piloting the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer, Fossett will attempt to improve upon that record in what is being billed as the "Ultimate Flight." Again piloting the GlobalFlyer solo, Fossett will attempt to travel 26,084 miles, taking off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, circumnavigating the globe once and continuing on to land across the Atlantic Ocean at Kent International airport in England.

This flight would be the longest for any kind of aircraft in history, solo or otherwise. The record would best his own solo record, as well as the previous airplane distance record in the Voyager aircraft, which was designed by Scaled Composites founder and CEO Burt Rutan, and piloted by Dick Rutan and Jeanna Yeager. It would also exceed the overall aircraft record set by the Breitling Orbiter 3 balloon in 1999.

This feat alone would warrant notice here at SpaceBlog Alpha purely for its aeronautical achievements and enduring spirit, but that only tells half of the story. As you may know, Scaled Composites is a joint owner of The Spaceship Company, partnered with Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic to begin offering commercial space flights in 2008. These amazingly gifted engineers at Scaled Composites led by the irrepressible Rutan, coupled with the flamboyant and adventurous Branson, have made the Virgin Galactic endeavour a very real and fascinating development in the history of space exploration.

Chandra X-Ray Observatory Lifts Veil on the Universe

The Chandra X-Ray Observatory has been providing unprecedented imagery of distant unuversal hot spots since its launch in 1999. X-Ray telescopes allow observation of many galactic and universal features that would not be possible otherwise, and the images Chandra makes are twenty-five times sharper than the previous best X-Ray telescope.

Chandra's unique and powerful prespective of the universe has challenged many long-held beliefs in the scientific community. For instance, Chandra was recently able to use its unique abilities to peer through the heretofore impenatrable clouds of gas and dust to observe peculiar features about the supermassive black hole - known as Sagittarius A* - which resides at the center of our Milky Way galaxy. The telescope recorded addtional evidence of a group of massive stars which had formed at a surprisingly close distance (less than a light year away) from this black hole.

Scientists previously thought the formation of stars this close to a black hole's event horizon to be impossible, and prior limited infrared evidence of these stars around the Sagittarius A* black hole caused much disussion and disagreement about their origin. With Chandra's X-Ray's seeing more clearly into this galactic center, scientist are now convinced that the evidince clearly indicates the massive stars were born there, which apparently rewrites some of the commonly accepted rules of both black holes and star formation.

The Chandra X-Ray Observatory website has a tremendous amount of resources to draw upon if you are interested in knowing more. In addition to the already mentioned images, there are loads of special features and displays, educational materials suitable for formal or informal setting, and lots of additional information about the amazing Chandra.

Australian Plasma Engine Inventor Expounds on the HDLT

Previously on SpaceBlog Alpha, we reported on an exciting new plasma engine concept being researched by the European Space Agency(ESA), and their work with the Helicon Double Layer Thruster(HDLT) technology as a basis for this continuing development.

In a recent interview with Universe Today, HDLT inventor Dr. Christine Charles of the Australian National University(ANU) gives some insight into the HDLT itself and speaks of potential applications for this type of technology. She also provides some background on the direction the research has taken - such as the story behind their collaboration with the ESA- and hints at what to expect in the future. Check out the full transcript of the interview here, or download the audio in mp3 format.

Highlights include:
-Even at this early stage of development, plasma engine technology shows extraordinary promise as a superior method for spaceship propulsion.
-The fuel efficiency for this type of propulsion would be a tremendous improvement over ion engines and other conventional means.
-The inherent design simplicity would increase safety and reliability over current technologies by several magnitudes.
-A major improvement in scalability over ion engines will allow for larger launch craft and greater speed as the technology matures, allowing for quicker and more direct flights to places such as Mars.

We will definitely stay dialed in to both the ANU and ESA teams for future developments of this ground-breaking plasma propulsion technology, and of course keep you updated on the latest as it happens.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Candle Wax New Rocket Fuel

It's not a new idea, but candle wax could become a substitute for expensive rocket fuel. With so many start-up space launch companies all searching for a low cost alternative to "business as usual" one of them is bound to take a cue from NASA. For a change...

Since 2003 scientists at NASA Ames Research Center have been studying the use of regular household paraffin, candle wax, as a substitute rocket fuel. Using pure oxygen gas blown across its burning surface, the stuff burns white-hot.
In essence, it's a non-polluting hybrid rocket motor alternative to the half-dozen or so current rocket fuel technologies used by NASA.

Of course, even NASA, as slow and lumbering as it may seem at times, is really looking forward to the day rockets carry no fuel at all, and trips to the edge of the Solar System are mundane.

Martian Rovers Worth Every Penny

There is no doubt the robotic rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, are well worth the cost to build, launch and operate them, simultaneously, on the surface of Mars. In fact, meant to last a mere 90 days they have outlasted their design specifications by about two years.

Check out this Space.com page devoted to the Red Planet Rovers.

Although in fairness, their endurance has been a stroke of luck. Scientists expected dust to collect on solar panels and eventually render both craft useless. But atmospheric conditions, specifically rampaging dust devils that have been swirling across the surface, have also been regularly cleaning those dirty panels, giving both craft a nightly recharge.

The wealth of data being provided by the rovers is enough to keep reporters writing, and researchers arguing, for years. And it's just the tip of the ice berg. The rovers show no sign of stopping, although Opportunity has a bad arm, the data stream has been uninterrupted.
And soon two more landers will join the search for information, and an orbiting probe will provide a data relay station to get us that information faster.

But perhaps the greatest contribution from the plucky roving-duo is the knowledge that despite a string of failures, yes, in fact, we can go to Mars and we can have success there.

Satellites Aid in Tsunami Recovery

A joint effort between European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Union has lead to the use of advanced satellite technology through the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security initiatives, to help Indonesia, Thailand and other tsunami ravaged areas rebuild following the disaster of 2004.
Some parts of the program, specifically RESPOND, were operational within 48 hours of the devastation, providing up-to-the-minute images of what was happening in places nobody had access to.
Using RESPOND global resources entire villages now covered with a foot or more of mud, can be reclaimed, inch by inch. Streets can be cleared and foundations recovered. Lives can begin again sooner because we have the ability to look down from space and resolve images impossible to see from the ground.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Tsunami 2004: The World Remembers; 300,000 Dead

The holidays are no time for despair and devastation, but it sometimes happens that way regardless.
As the world reflects on the disaster that was the Tsunami of December 26, 2004, others are working hard to prevent a tragedy of its magnitude from ever happening again.

National Geographic reports an early warning system for the Indian Ocean area is beginning to take shape. Scientists from more than two dozen nations in the region (including India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Australia) are participating in a project using a system of buoys as an early-warning of tsunami events. A more permanent system is still under development.

The Indo Tsunami Web site tracks the progress of the development of a Regional Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System for the Indian Ocean. They have links to several major international organizations devoted to reducing the destructive power of a tsunami and many other natural disasters.

The National Weather Service operates two tsunami early-warning systems for the U.S. West Coast and Pacific Ocean regions, although some claim it's still not enough.

The destructive power of Nature can be overwhelming, but when we have fair notice an event is coming we can prepare for the worst, protect property and most importantly, save lives.

What is Blue Origin's Big Secret?

Jeff Bezos revolutionized online shopping when he created Amazon.com. Next year he plans to begin testing a new top-secret spaceship designed to launch and land vertically, more like Buck Rogers than NASA.
His new company Blue Origin offers scant details about its project, its ship or anything at all for that matter, but the facts speak for themselves: He's already invested about $25 million in the project, so it's definitely not a joke.

It won't be a secret for much longer either. According to FAA documents, they plan to begin test launches in late 2006 from the 165, ,000 acre ranch outside Van Horn, Texas, Bezos bought earlier this year. He's promised it will be the site of a future spaceport, rocket design and testing facility and headquarters for Blue Origin.

The Blue Origin Web site tells the world two things: They are committed to "an enduring human presence in space" and they're "actively hiring."

Sunday, December 25, 2005

2005 to Last One Second Longer

Certainly most everyone is familiar with the leap year concept. It's where we get those strange but entertaining February 29th's every four years or thereabouts, intended to make our 365 day calendar match more closely the roughly 365.25 days it actually takes for the Earth to rotate around the sun. And by the way, the next leap year will occur in 2008.

An occurence you may not be aware of however is the leap second. It is a correction made to the Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) to bring it into closer alignment with astronomical time. Plainly speaking, this is to make clocks on Earth synchronize as closely as possible with the planet's rotation. And it so happens that there is an entire organization devoted to coordinating all of this synchronization, the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service, or IERS.

The first leap second in seven years will occur on this coming New Year's Eve, 2005. All atomic clocks will be ordered to read 23:59:60 before rolling over to 00:00:00 to begin January 1st, 2006. Do not be alarmed though, this will not require the setting forward of your clocks, unless you happen to have an atomic clock set up in your basement...

AIDS Researcher: Vaccine Just an Effort Away

It's Christmas for a vast majority of Americans. Even as some in this country wonder where they will sleep, what they will eat and what they will have to do to get those things, others are happily gorging themselves on turkey, mashed potatoes and pie.
If you happen to be in the mood to feel even more guilty for the holidays, check out these very refreshing words from a noted AIDS Researcher: The HIV vaccine will be created when drug companies figure out how to make money from it.

Dr. Edmund Tramont, US chief of AIDS research, said in a deposition for a recent employment lawsuit obtained by the Associated Press, drug companies have no incentive to create a vaccine for HIV. Tramont said he believes one will ultimately be created, however it will be a government institution that does it and not a drug company. Once the difficult work of finding the vaccine has been done, the drug companies will step-in and mass produce the product to meet market demand.

In response to a CNN story about Tramont's comments, Ken Johnson, senior VP of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), said the statement was unfair and that private drug company researchers were aggressively pursuing at least "15 potential vaccines" today.

According to the PhRMA Web site 82 new AIDS medicines are currently in development.

Tramont is standing by his comments, adding that vaccine development is flawed, not just for AIDS drugs, but for everything in the pipeline, due to the pursuit of higher profit margins.

The International AIDS Vaccines Initiative, a not-for-profit group seeking a vaccine, said 30 potential vaccine candidates are currently being tested (mostly on a small scale) in 19 countries, but said most are based on the same scientific principles and therefore might fail as a batch if the science is wrong.

Space exploration seems a paltry endeavor in comparison to saving lives---but both seemingly suffer from an industrial complex designed only to make profits, not better lives for everyone.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

MSNBC Looks on Back on the Year in Space 2005

We didn't write it, but we'll bring it to you anyway: Here's a nifty little guide to the biggest Space events in 2005 from Alan Boyle, science editor for MSNBC.
My only complaint is that 2005 is not yet over. What if Martians land on the White House lawn Tuesday? You laugh, but anything could happen.

Anyway, it's incredible to think of the number of milestones crossed in the past year alone, and even more so to imagine what lies ahead.
And we'll be here to bring it to you...one way or another...

SpaceBlog Alpha Team

Just in Time for the Holidays: Christmas Tree Cluster in Space

Around 3,000 light years from Earth in the constellation Monoceros the Unicorn is a brightly lit cloud of nebular material stretched across space like an ornamental Christmas tree.
Astronomers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, working with the Spitzer Space Telescope recently shot the best-ever photos of the celestial phenomenon. Amateur astronomers call it the "Christmas Tree" cluster because it appears as a miniature triangular Christmas tree-like image in their small telescopes.
The Spitzer cameras allow for vibrant images of ribbons of glowing dust stretching out and between the newborn stars, producing spectacular views the likes of which have never been seen before....

Cassini Doubles as Astronomical Observatory

NASA's Cassini spacecraft snapped an excellent image of the Carina Nebula which is nearly 200 light years across and 8,000 light years away.
The Cassini-Huygens joint NASA/ESA space probe has been hugely successful, both in its exploration by remote probe (Huygens) to Titan and for it's continued observation and study of Saturn, it's rings and 34 known moons.
This is the fourth NASA probe to Saturn, after Pioneer 11 in 1979, Voyager 1 in 1980 and Voyager 2 in 1981. Those were all brief fly-bys however. This is a four year study and promises to yield more data than all previous missions combined, by a factor of ten.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Japanese and Other Scientists Plan Space-Age Spacesuit

In an effort to expand their participation in the burgeoning international Space industry, scientists working at Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) are setting their sights on re-designing the spacesuit.
They hope to use new materials to make the suits less bulky and more maneuverable, while increasing their ability to withstand radiation, extreme heat and cold and generally better protect the astronauts who wear them.
As well as increasing its participation in international projects, Japan has plans to launch its own astronauts and build and operate a lunar base by 2025 so the new suit would also serve their own needs.
But they are not alone in taking a second look at the bulky spacesuits now being used.
Research scientists working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are working on plans for a synthetic spray-on "second skin"-type suit, that would utilize embedded electronics, communications equipment and possibly some form of mobility enhancement.
If successful the new suits will allow the wearer to remain inside for a week or possibly more, and weight one-fifth as much as the current design.

Happy Holidays ISS; Expedition 12 Crew Awaits Santa Claus

The current crew of the International Space Station will unpack a cargo ship full of holiday cheer Christmas morning, compliments of the Russians, who still possess the only means of transport between Earth and the orbiting hostel.
The Progress 20 spacecraft, loaded with fresh water, fuel, food and other assorted supplies, is currently poised to begin docking procedures at ISS. In all, the expendable spacecraft will deliver almost 6,000 pounds of cargo.
As Progress 20 begins it's docking procedures, the ISS crew is hurriedly stowing garbage aboard Progress 19, currently docked at the Zvesda service module. When it's full, this ship will be jettisoned and eventually burn up in Earth's atmosphere.
Expedition 12 crewmates Bill McArthur and Valery Tokarev enjoyed smoked turkey, green beans and cranberry-apple desert for Thanksgiving and are anticipating a treasure-trove of goodies for Christmas.

"The Real Space Cowboys" Pen Non-Fiction Tome

Wernher von Braun's former colleague, and founder of Space Camp, Ed Buckbee and one of the original seven Mercury astronauts, Wally Schirra, have written a new book called "The Real Space Cowboys" detailing, among other things, the early days of NASA and the US Space Program as well as experiences working directly with von Braun.
Schirra was the only astronaut to fly in all three spacecraft: Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. He was also apparently quite the practical joker among the astronaut corp.

Recently, Buckbee, who is credited with influencing more than 500,000 students and teachers from 70 countries with his various Space-themed educational programs, granted an enlightening interview to Dr. David Livingston at The Space Show. An audio file of the entire interview is available here.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Hubble Finds Rings and Moons Around Uranus

If you have not thought about Uranus in a while, perhaps it's time you should. SETI scientists working with the Hubble Space Telescope, have spotted two additional rings and more than a dozen tiny new moons circling the mysterious blue world at the edge of our Solar System.
Scientists believe the newly discovered dust rings are being supplied with material by meteoroid collisions with an outer satellite now called Mab. This dust continues to spiral in and away from Uranus proper, slowly diminishing the ring itself until a new collision sends more material hurtling skyward. They believe the small moons will inevitably collide with each over the course of the next million years or so, creating more orbiting dust and debris.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

India Approves Launch of Satellite Fleet

In the next few years, India will add seven satellites to its orbiting fleet of space probes. Most of these satellites provide communications services, weather tracking and topographical cartography for rural areas.
India has been a space-faring nation for decades and has a long history of successful missions. It established the Indian Space Research Organisation in 1962, designed and uses its own launch system, and recently completed the first launch of two satellites from a single, locally built rocket.
India has also begun reaching out to other countries, such as Venezuela and Russia, in an effort to build future space partnerships. Following the 2004 Tsunami, ISRO officials pointed out flaws in space-based earthquake detection services, and began actively working to improve detection and tracking.
India is not stopping at Earth-orbit, however. ISRO officials announced plans for the Chandrayan-1 mission in August 2003. Expected to launch sometime in 2008, the Chandrayan-1 spacecraft will sit in lunar polar orbit, take detailed surface photos in multiple spectrums, and study lunar soil composition for specific elements. It's also likely the probe will carry scientific instruments from other interested parties.
ISRO officials claim the Chandrayan-1 is merely the first small step in what they believe will become a full-fledged study of various bodies in our Solar System using Indian built probes, landers and rovers...

SpaceShipOne Goes to Pluto

Famed aeronautical engineer Burt Rutan let slip a secret about the New Horizons Spacecraft headed to Pluto: It's carrying a piece of SpaceShipOne with it.
Granted it's not a very big piece, most likely a small chunk of carbon fiber, but symbolically, it's quite an honor. The actual SpaceShipOne is hanging in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on public display in Washington D.C.
SpaceShipOne is the first privately built sub-orbital craft, flew the first privately funded human spaceflight and was the winner of the 2004 $10 million X-Prize.
It is also the inspiration for SpaceShipTwo, a 20-passenger craft based on SSO design specifications, the first five of which will become the initial fleet for Virgin Galactic, expected to begin daily sub-orbital space flights in late 2008 or early 2009.

Spitzer Spies DNA Ingredients Light-Years From Earth

Spitzer Space Telescope has found traces of acetylene and hydrogen cyanide, building blocks of human proteins and DNA, swirling in huge, ultra-hot rings of dust circling a star 375 light-years from Earth.
These are precursors to the building blocks of life, not signs of life, and are found even in our own Solar System, at places such as Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. The Cassini-Huygens space probe discovered the moon boasts an impressive amount of organic chemistry.

The Spitzer discovery proves these elements are not unique to our Solar System. Unfortunately it does not prove the existence of life beyond our planet. It also remains to be seen how this dust is interacting within the confines of its solar system: whether it is condensing onto the rocky inner planets, the way scientists theorize it happened here.

NASA Stardust to Return Comet Samples Soon

NASA's comet sample return spacecraft, Stardust, is scheduled to land in the Utah Test and Training Range on January 15. Stardust was launched in 1999 on a 2.8 billion mile round trip to collect soil samples from Comet Wild 2.
NASA's previous attempt to collect a return sample from the Genesis Spacecraft ended in disaster when the probe crashed into the desert rather than being plucked from mid-air by helicopter as was planned.
Unlike Genesis however, the Stardust probe is releasing a return capsule designed to hit the Earth, albeit after being slowed by parachutes. Interstellar dust and samples of material ejected from Comet Wild 2, collected during the Stardust mission, are housed in a shielded portion of the probe, protected from the rigors of the re-entry.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Falcon 1 Update - Not a Structural Failure After All

As we posted previously, the Falcon 1 maiden flight that was scheduled to liftoff yesterday was again scrubbed just before launch due to technical difficulties. The problem at the time was apparently with the first stage fuel tank. But, according to SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk, the problem was not structural in nature, as was originally thought.
While initially counting down under the threat of wind gusts above the rocket's rated 24 knots, the crew felt confident that they still had a good chance to get a launch in due to the generous 8 hour flight window this time around. As it turned out, though the winds eventually did cause the countdown to be placed on hold, this alone was not enough to keep the Falcon 1 grounded and scrub the launch.
It seems that during the hold period, while following procedures to drain the fuel tanks and attempt to wait out the winds, an electricalfault within a pressure valve in the first stage fuel tank caused an excess vacuum, leading to a partial collapse of the tank itself.

Thus while the problem first manifested itself as structural failure, Musk made it clear that the cause of the structural damage was an electrical failure, and not due to a structural design fault. It is not simply a matter of semantics, either. On the contrary, this is an all-important distinction indeed. While the delays and glitches are somewhat problematic - and certainly frustrating - an electrical gremlin is a world away from an inherent structural failure. Furthermore, it seems that no other collateral damage was sustained by the rocket, though of course a more thorough analysis will be forthcoming in the days ahead.
As of this writing, the earliest Falcon 1 could make another attempt is near the end of January 2006. Here's hoping the third time's is indeed a charm, and of course we'll be keeping you posted...

What is the Rocketplane?

RocketPlane Ltd, Inc. has its money on a suped-up jet capable of sub-orbital flights, launched from Spaceport Oklahoma, which boasts the third largest runway in North America at 13,502 ft.
Although not well-known as a hub of Space-related activity, Oklahoma has been aggressively seeking space technology companies since before the creation of the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority in 1999.
Rocketplane Ltd, Inc. has done quite a bit to secure its place at Spaceport Oklahoma, including qualifying for heavy tax incentives of up to 60 percent for investors, and promoting the spaceport's use to other launch companies. To date, more than a dozen space tech companies have expressed an interest in using the Oklahoma facility and infrastructure, once it's completed.
The Rocketplane XP itself is a fairly straightforward spacecraft. It's based on a conventional jet design with a delta wing and V-tail, powered to space by a time-tested, LOC kerosene fueled Rocketdyne RS-88 engine de-rated to 36,000 lbs of thrust to increase life expectancy.
The ship will use conventional thrusters to lift itself to 22,000 feet, the pilot fires up the rocket and propels the craft to about 62 miles altitude before bringing it down for a horizontal landing. Time elapsed: about 45 minutes.
Tickets are expect to range from $150,000 to $200,000 when they go on sale, but Rocketplane officials are not saying when that will be, but most likely some time before flights are expected to begin in late 2007...

Win a Free Trip to Space--If You Can Wait

Last November, MSN announced the eminent arrival of two online skills games awarding free tickets to space aboard newly formed space tourism outfits, but neither of them is up and running. Yet.
The Spaceshot.com site claims to be under construction and the Virgin Galactic Quest site lets you sign-up, but then says you'll be alerted when they are ready to launch. No date offered.
Rocketplane Limited Inc. is providing the service offered by Spaceshot.com and, of course, Virgin Galactic will be providing its own flight services.
Rocketplane executives are sticking to their claim they will have commercial sub-orbital space flights by 2007. They paint a very pretty picture at their Web site, true. But no real hardware has been built, and the Oklahoma Spaceport is still not much more than a plot of land.
Compared to Virgin Galactic, using licensed SpaceShipOne technology which underwent more than two years of flight testing before three successful 'space shots' and the X-Prize.
It hardly seems like a fair race, especially in the unpredictable world of rocket science.

Astronomers Needed for Supernova Search

Ohio State University scientists are hoping backyard astronomers around the globe will join their search for exploding stars inside and outside the Milky Way. The effort is to find these supernova events and simultaneously search underground detectors for neutrino bursts.
Detectors found dozens of the sub-atomic particles following the discovery of Supernova 1987a, leading to the current theory that finding supernova in the sky will mark detection of neutrinos in underground detectors.
The discovery and understanding of neutrinos could lead to scientific instruments which will unlock some of the most baffling mysteries of our universe: Neutrinos are unimpeded by mass, meaning they can pass right through a star's corona, right through anything, straight to the center of our galaxy. In the future neutrinos may become the basis for a completely new set of scientific tools.
But what will most the help the effort today is finding these supernova events and notifying the scientists so they can check the detectors.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Falcon 1 Launch Scrubbed Again

Concerns over wind speed in excess of the rated 24 knots initially forced the coundownt to be held at T-minus 15 minutes, but there remainded ample time within the 8 hour window to have a successful lanuch. If only it were that simple.
A structural issue has been uncovered with the first stage, forcing a scrub of this latest attempt to get Falcon 1 in the air. This structural problem will need to be repaired, and it is still too early to speculate on a new launch schedule, which will have to wait until at least after the New Year.
While it is somewhat disheartening to be reporting another scrubbed launch attempt for Falcon 1, remember this _is_ rocket science, folks. Delays such as this are the norm rather than the exception, and we will keep cheering the SpaceX team on and reporting here for you.

Hollywood A-List Funding Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic is promising sub-orbital trips to space beginning in 2008 for $200,000 a ticket. More than 150 have already paid the full price in advance, and who these future space tourists are might surprise you.
Victoria Principal is apparently a space fanatic, and will be among the 100 "founders" on the very first Virgin Galactic flights.
Morgan Freeman also paid the $216,000 (tax included) fare to be one of the first. Sigourney Weaver. William Shatner. Even Paris Hilton, though there's already an abundant vacuum in space....
It's no secret America's uber-rich are driving the recent development of numerous space tourism outfits. It remains to be seen if this will lead to more advanced space transport systems, an orbiting Denny's or little more than another ultra-exclusive retreat for the rich.

Falcon 1 On Schedule for Liftoff at 2PM EST

The Falcon 1 rocket has passed prelaunch checkout and is on track to liftoff from its pad on Kawajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. This launch has an eight hour flight window, which is about twice that of the failed November 26th attempt, so there appears to be more room for error in the case of some game-time difficulties, such as the slight concern for high winds at launch time.
We will have another update for you soon, with any luck announcing a successful maiden launch of this revolutionary rocket.

G4 Network New Home for "Star Trek"

G4 Network, still trying to make a name for itself as the television channel for gamers, has added two sci-fi favorites to next year's lineup: Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation.
The Trek franchise has inspired for than 70 video game titles across multiple platforms and both attract viewers in the G4 demographic, males 18-34 years old.
Contract details, including syndication fees, are not yet available.

International UFO Museum Founder Dies in Roswell

Former Army Lt. Walter Haut, 83, of Roswell, New Mexico, died Thursday. Haut, who co-founded the International UFO Museum in Roswell, with Glenn Dennis and Max Littell, was the person responsible for typing the 1947 press release announcing the capture of a UFO on a ranch about five miles west of town.
Although Haut never claimed to see the UFO himself, he was a believer. Of course, given what we now know about the Air Force Project MOGUL, everyone involved can be forgiven for mistaking what they found for a crashed alien spacecraft.
The same can't be said for the people who perpetuate this mistake by merging fantasy and reality, facts with fiction.
Of course, if somebody has a crashed alien spaceship they would like to produce as proof I am wrong, please feel free to do so...

Sunday, December 18, 2005

NAZI Space Plans Best Described as Delusional

Anyone familiar with the History Channel knows they have a flare for proving even the most laughable historical claims have some kernel of truth. So it is with their special on Weird Weapons, which last week talked about the NAZI plans for dominance in space.
True, some NAZI money (and countless lives in the form of slave labor) went to elaborate dreams of space stations, space planes and intercontinental ballistic missiles. But it's also true those plans amounted to not much more than smoke and mirrors.
Sure, they drew up plans for a single-stage-to-orbit craft, but it's still a dream more than 60 years later. They also made plans for a steam powered space station...
Need I say more?

The V-2 Rocket was by far their greatest contribution to the advancement of Space technology, and continues to play a crucial role in exploration.
But to say NAZI space plans were anything more than self-indulgent flights of fancy is to re-write historical fact.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Shuttle Atlantis in Danger of Being Mothballed!

In the face of impending budgetary cutbacks, lawmakers say the Shuttle Atlantis may be permanently grounded. Given the fleet is due to be retired by 2010, this means Atlantis would never see Space again.
According to a letter sent by lawmakers to President George Bush, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget , the group responsible for administrating Bush's budget, will short NASA $3 to $6 billion dollars in the 2007-2010 budget years. More than enough to force the elimination of all future Atlantis flights.
NASA said it needs 19 more shuttle flights to fulfill its obligation to the International Space Station, at a cost of nearly $22 billion. That's about $3 to $6 billion more than is being allotted, lawmakers say.
In response, an OMB representative said Bush actually increased the NASA budget by 15 percent, but would provide more details.
A NASA cutback seems odd, considering the Bush vision for the Moon, Mars and beyond, but anything is possible.

SpaceDev Dreamchaser: Not Just a Dream for Long

SpaceDev, the Poway, California based company responsible for designing and building hybrid propulsion systems, micro and nano satellites and assorted spacecraft accessories, also has its eye on building and then flying a vehicle to and from the International Space Station.
Called Dreamchaser it's a six-passenger spaceplane utilizes lifting body dynamics and is based on the 10-passenger HL-20 personnel Launch System developed by NASA Langley. SpaceDev made the announcement in November and has been busily working on preliminary design specifications and plans multiple manned sub-orbital missions by 2008, and multiple orbital mission by 2010.

So far, Dreamchaser only exists on paper, but given SpaceDev's track record (and record profits), it seems only a matter of time until NASA astronauts are hitching rides to the ISS from them.
After all, these are the same people who designed and built the hybrid rocket motor for what might soon become their closest competitor in the space launch business: Scaled Composites, SpaceShipOne.

Falcon 1 on Target for December 19th Launch

SpaceX is back on track for their historic first launch with Falcon 1, "the worlds lowest cost rocket to orbit." Falcon 1 looks like a go for December 19th, carrying a payload for DARPA and the US Air Force.
Private companies such as this carrying payloads into space for the heavy hitters in the space technology arena is become more of a reality. SpaceX alone has numerous launches already contracted in the coming few years, and others are joining the mix as we speak.
This ground-breaking venture is a harbinger of things to come in the changing face of space exploration, and we are excited to be witnessing this event.
We are anticipating this launch with bated breath indeed, thus will be bringing you continuing coverage here at SpaceBlog Alpha, so check back often.

Friday, December 16, 2005

MESSENGER Spacecraft Heads for Venus Fly-by

NASA's MESSENGER Spacecraft successfully fired the last of its 17 thrusters, the largest, putting it on track for a fly-by of Venus in October 2006.
After two close encounters with Venus, MESSENGER is expected to slide around Mercury in 2011, becoming the first satellite to study the innermost planet from orbit.
Despite a previously successful NASA mission to Mercury, little is known about its composition or formation. In fact, less than half of its surface has been imaged at all.
Mariner 10 was the first spacecraft to use a dual-planet gravity-assist maneuver and the first and still only craft to visit the hellish little rock. It was also the first probe to scout two planets in a single mission, Venus and Mercury.
Just about everything we know about Mercury comes from the Mariner 10 mission, including the possibility of ice-filled craters at its north pole.

MESSENGER will expand our knowledge of Mercury, answer questions about the formation of the Solar System, and finally provide us with a complete set of photos of our littlest neighbor.

Will the Patriot Act Matter in Space?

Even as the US Congress bats specifics of the Patriot Act around, trying to determine just how many rights the average US citizen is allowed, others on Earth are wondering, will it even matter in a few years?

Space Frontier Foundation Executive Director Jeff Krukin published an article in the Winter 2005 edition of Ad Astra entitled, "Space: A Moral Vacuum". In it, Krukin wonders how the advancement of humankind into Space will affect human civilization. He asks, will humans living on the lunar surface care about what happens on the Earth? What about humans living on stations circling Jupiter, or asteroid mining colonies?

Good questions that can only be answered with time. But the more we think about how to handle the situations that might arise, the better prepared we will be for those strange things that do arise.

California Solar Initiative: The Way of the Future

Union workers prevented California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state legislators from passing the California Solar Initiative by demanding exorbitantly high wages for solar panel installers. Luckily, Schwarzenegger was able to by-pass the greed-mongers by handing the ball to the California Public Utilities Commission.
State energy regulators announced Tuesday, a plan to offer $3 billion in consumer rebates over the next 11 years. They plan to produce 3,000 megawatts of energy using solar panels on rooftops of 1 million homes and businesses.
If it works, which is only a matter of politics not science, the state could become one of the top three renewable energy markets in the world, along with Germany and Japan.
NorCal Solar (Northern California Solar Energy Association) has been promoting the use of California's abundant sunshine for energy production since 1976. The state once had an aggressive stance on the use of solar power, but has long since abandoned earlier goals in response to budgetary constraints.
Obviously, the fiscally conservative Schwarzenegger believes solar is not only good for the environment, but good for everyone's wallet too. The plan also puts the world's fifth largest economy back on the world stage.

Latest From Spirit Rover

Spirit's broken robotic arm has some functionality now, thanks to those enterprising NASA JPL engineers. Apparently a soldiered wire has broken loose, causing some loss of motion in the robotic arm, but it retains use of its cache of scientific instruments. Engineers plan to lay the arm at the base, sticking out like a probe so it can bring all scientific tools to bear as needed.
Originally intended to last only 90-Earth days (Sols), Spirit and its twin rover, Opportunity, have far outlasted even the wildest dreams of everyone involved, and continue to explore and send back reams of scientific data.
In fact both rovers recently celebrated their first anniversary of exploration; one Martian year on the surface (two Earth years.)
Check out a year's worth of "Month in Review" mission photo logs and be inspired...

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Silver Dart Flies Again, This Time To Space

Despite the fact their first Spacecraft design, the Canadian Arrow, has yet to leave the ground, Canada's London, Ontario based firm PlanetSpace unveiled designs for a new orbital Spaceplane they are calling the Silver Dart.
In a story at CNN.com, PlanetSpace CEO Geoff Sheerin called the new eight-person craft the "DC-3 of the Space industry". Bold talk considering no actual flight test data is available, much less a full-size working model.
At least the name has a pedigree: In 1909, "Silver Dart" was the name of the first aircraft to demonstrate powered flight in Canada. The frail and spindly looking craft took to the skies directly from the ice.

Once built, the new Silver Dart will be lofted vertically atop a stack of Canadian Arrow engines, cruise to orbit, return to earth horizontally, utilizing lifting-body techniques and land like an airplane. Working since the beginning of the X-Prize contest, the Canadian Arrow team has chosen a launch location, and is ready to begin some equipment tests, but doesn't expect to begin actual flights to Space until 2008 at the earliest.
In fact, a number of former X-prize contenders still plan to build and launch Spacecraft of their own, in an effort to provide regular Space access to what they believe will be a multitude of paying customers.

Indonesia Seeks Space Launch Center

Following the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, nations in the surrounding areas, indeed any place with an ocean coastline, began to think they needed an early warning system. The best way for them to do that is to watch the Earth from above.
Small satellites can provided communications, weather data and real-time information that can save lives, all for a reasonable price. Whoever can provide the fastest means for making that happen stands to make a tidy sum of money, to boot.

Indonesia has long touted the benefits of its many isolated, sparsely populated tropical islands as potential space launch sites. The area is home to a small floating launch facility but now the country has serious interest in building something on land. Surprise! Russia's Air Launch Aerospace Corp. intends to spend about $120 million to build for them a small satellite launch center on the tiny island of Biak, in West Papua.
The Russians make no secret of their belief the space launch industry is about to explode in growth, with more than 100 commercial launches of small satellites expected for the next dozen years, at least.
Some have said the market is already too competitive for Indonesia to break in, but they are undaunted. Their National Institute of Aeronautics and Space also believe the market has barely begun and is pushing ahead with plans for a satellite program of its own.

US Price of Gasoline Hovers Above $2, Still No Push For Renewable Energy Sources

Only Ohio has an average price less than $2 per gallon for regular unleaded. They pay just $1.99.
Even in the face of this fact, not to mention declining sales, forced plant closures and massive layoffs industry-wide, the 2006 Ford Explorer will achieve just 15mpg in the city and 21 mpg on the highway. This might seem an improvement, until you consider in 1908 the Ford Model T was getting 13 mpg in the city and 21 mpg on the highway. Sure, it didn't have power windows and door locks, a jammin' stereo system and heated seats, but in terms of basic performance, you could get no further in one than in the other. Although they have different size fuel tanks and reliability issues, a gallon of gas got you no further one hundred years ago than it does today.
The whole point of a car is to get you from point A to point B. In one hundred years we are not much better at doing it, we just have more style as its being done.
This information was presented in the "Raw Data" section of the Jan. 2006 issue of Playboy. Hopefully it will inspire an entire generation of impressionable young boys into leaving behind the fossil fuel dinosaurs their great-great-grandad drove in favor for something with sleeker lines and better efficiency

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Mars Journal: Free to Everyone!

Nothing says "World Peace" quite like shared scientific knowledge. Open-source is the wave of the future because our global society is now dependent on global cooperation.

David A. Paige, The Mars Journal chief editor, wrote a nice little editorial explaining what the journal is and why it is needed. But essentially, the group seeks to unite what Paige calls the "four groups in the Mars community" or put more simply, scientists, students, media and the general public. Paige also notes, the planet currently has three orbiting probes and two surface probes providing data, with many more in development. Since a permanent human settlement on Mars seems only a matter of time, getting a head start on collating and organizing this information could prove essential to its success.

Their first paper has a title only a planetary scientist's mother could love: "The sedimentary rocks of Sinus Meridiani: Five key observations from data acquired by the Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey orbiters." Written by Kenneth S. Edgett, published Nov. 02, 2005. It offers stunning insight into the fact, despite the success and longevity of the Martian rover, Opportunity, it has covered less than 1 percent of a very large, exposed layer of sedimentary rock.
Sedimentary rock is an exciting place for geologists to look on Earth. Fossils, records of topographical formation, all sorts of cool stuff lurks in those layers. Eventually scientists will know what secrets those rocks yield. And when they do, you will be able to read about it in The Mars Journal.

And on SpaceBlog Alpha!

Florida Trying to Keep Up With New Mexico in Spaceport Development

Florida legislators today lamented the loss of the new Virgin Galactic spaceport to New Mexico. Calling future development deals "Florida's to lose" state Sen. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, really hit the nail on the head.
It's unclear what the officials plan to do about it, although some have promised to make swift changes. Past efforts at preventing the hemorrhaging of jobs from NASA have proved unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson knew a good thing he saw it: The state is paying the $225 million spaceport building costs and giving Virgin Galactic a 20-year lease. They anticipate thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in further investment in the burgeoning space launch industry.

New Mexico is already host to the X-Prize Cup and the future Rocket Racing League Finals.

ESA Designing New Spaceship Engine: Helicon Double Layer Thruster

The European Space Agency hasn't expressed much interest in NASA's Crew Exploration Vehicle, perhaps because it's building something much, much better.
Today they announced the principle of the plasma double layer has been confirmed, meaning they can excite plasma, make it move faster, for about the same amount of energy as they need to excite gas molecules in an ion engine. It's called the Helicon Double Layer Thruster and it will revolutionize Space travel. Basically, they can now build Spacecraft that go much faster, but use about the same amount of fuel.
Plasma, the fourth state of matter, is a highly charged, superheated gas, with unusual properties. It occurs in abundance around the universe, but not so much here on Earth.
Although that may change now that we have a good use for it...

Hayabusa Return Delayed 3 Years; Now Scheduled for 2010

Hayabusa, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) probe to asteroid Itokawa, needs some time, approximately three years, for a reboot to save the probe and whatever samples it may or may not have on board. Its return to Earth is now scheduled for 2010. Scientists have managed to restore many capabilities of the damaged probe already and the delay will allow them time to fully restore control.
Despite indications from recent reports the probe failed to collect soil samples of asteroid material it had many successes including landing twice , collecting reams of data and taking some astounding photographs.
Perhaps its greatest contribution is in increasing our knowledge of asteroid composition for exploration, commercial value and planetary defense.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

International Space Station Celebrates Holiday in Style

Christmas comes but once a year, on Earth and in Space.
The crew of the International Space Station, permanently manned for more than five years now, will celebrate the holiday with a decent meal and a good night's sleep.
Christmas in Space is nothing new for NASA astronauts. Since 1968 they have devised ways to celebrate with Yuletide carols, turkey dinners and even a gift exchange or two.
Just one more sign of humanity making itself comfortable in a vacuum.

Proposed Neptune Mission Would "Go Large"

The Voyager craft had a spectacular flyby of Neptune in 1989, capturing stunning images of Neptune's moon Triton as well.

In what would be only the second visit in history to the planet Neptune, a US based research group is apparently proposing to go large this time...

There are numerous technical hurdles to overcome(check out the small white paper PDF download on item 6), and it's no guarantee the mission will get off the ground. The project's main purpose at this early stage is to explore the technical feasibility of such a mission.

The plan calls for two expendable probes to be launched from a larger "mother ship" to the surface of Neptune. However, the really tricky part of the plan is to actually put a lander on the moon Triton.

A proposed timetable would launch in 2016, with a flyby of Jupiter in 2020 to collect data and gather speed. The probes would be launched to Neptune from the "mother ship" in 2029, and finally the proposed touchdown of the main lander craft on the surface of Triton in 2033.

This is an exciting and technically challenging mission that should help define the way we approach large-scale space exploration missions. It will surely bring more insight to the running debate over the evolution of Heavy Launch Vehicles and their alternatives.

Sedna: One More Reason for New Horizons (and CalTech)

Sedna is the name of the Inuit goddess of the Seas, and the coldest, most distant object yet discovered in our Solar System. Orbiting the Sun between the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud, it itself is a mystery begging to be solved even as it answered a lingering question about Pluto's actual classification: Not a planet, just the largest Kuiper Belt Object yet discovered. With emphasis on yet.
You can read the technical discovery announcement from Michael E. Brown (CalTech), Chadwick Trujillo (Gemini Observatory) and David Rabinowitz (Yale University) here, if you are so inclined, or a less technical description here.
Discoveries such as this increase the possible destinations for future Space travelers. As it turns out, we won't need Warp Drives to explore hundreds of new worlds. There are hundreds of new worlds in our own backyard...

Astronomers Discover "Buffy" in Kuiper Belt

Astronomers have shed more light on the outer edges of our Solar System. Teams working in Canada, France and the U.S. have found a Kuiper Belt Object which moves in an almost circular orbit at a steady 50 AU (astronomical unit) but inclined at a 45 degree angle from everything else.
The Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope Corporation is a non-profit group that operates a 3.6 meter telescope atop a dormant Hawaiian volcano. They posted the announcement at their Web site earlier today, along with really cool graphics that depict Buffy's orbit in comparison to the rest of the known Solar System. There's even a nice moving telescope image of Buffy as it moves across a portion of the sky.
Why Buffy has such a nearly perfectly circular orbit is just one of the mysteries scientists hope the New Horizon probe will help them solve.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Falcon 1 Maiden Flight Set; Precautions Taken

Possibly ushering in what could be called the Golden Age of Space Travel, the Falcon 1, privately owned and operated, partially reusable rocket, is scheduled to lift-off from the Kwajalein Atoll carrying aloft the Air Force Academy's cadet-built FalconSat 2 on Dec. 19.
The November maiden flight was scrubbed at the last minute due to a lack of liquid oxygen caused by an open valve. SpaceX owner Elon Musk said this time they have enough of the super-cooled oxidizer on-hand for several launch attempts.
If successful, SpaceX would decrease the cost of placing a satellite in orbit by a significant factor. Exactly how much, only time will tell...but it'll still be cheaper than hiring NASA.

What is the Kuiper Belt?

The Kuiper Belt is a very large ring of debris that encircles our Solar System, beyond the orbit of Neptune. Pluto is considered chief among these because we found it first, before we discovered the belt. The objects in the belt range in size from mere fragments to larger, possibly even moon-sized objects. Right now scientists believe there are at least 70,000 KBO (Kuiper Belt Objects) larger than 100 km. These objects are believed to be left over from the beginning of the Solar System and will provide clues to how our system formed.
The Belt itself stretches from 30 AU (Astronomical Units--distance from the Sun to the Earth) to 50 AU, and although not much is known about it or the composition of the objects within astronomers have discovered at least one large, ice-covered world about half the size of Pluto. Imaged by Hubble, it's named Quaoar and is greater in volume than all the asteroids combined.
And once scientists have a handle on the Kuiper Belt, maybe they can get started on the Oort Cloud which possibly contains a trillion lurking comets...

New Horizons Probe to Visit Pluto

The New Horizons probe to Pluto is set to launch in January 2006. Taking advantage of a Jupiter slingshot effect provided by this launch window will allow the probe to arrive at Pluto as early as 2015.
The probe will study Pluto and it's moon Charon, as well as two new smaller moons recently discovered by the Hubble Space Telespope.
Since Pluto is the only known planet in our solar system that has not been visited by a spacecraft from Earth, scientists are excited about this opportnity to study Pltuo and other Kuiper belt objects, and to "bring Pluto into the family."

Email SpaceBlog Alpha

In addition to using the comments feature on individual posts, you can now email the SpaceBlog Alpha crew directly using the new link on the sidebar.

Got something on your mind? We'd love to hear from you. So drop us a line!

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Mars Global Surveyor Sends Snapshots Home to Earth

Space News Blog has a nice list of recently released photos of some very cool Martian surface features compliments of NASA's Mars Global Surveyor.
This is the eighth year of successful operation for the little satellite, the longest for any Martian probe ever launched by anyone. The lengthy stay has provided planetary scientists with reams of weather pattern data, surface mapping and even snapshots of tracks left behind by the Martian rovers, Spirit and Opportunity.
The NASA site provides an archive of photos, plus a nifty little feature that lets you track the satellite as it orbits the Red Planet.

The prolonged success of the Mars Global Surveyor is a complete 180 degree turn from the series of Mars mission failures suffered by NASA previously: Mars Climate Orbiter, Mars Polar Lander and a pair of DS-2 probes were all lost en-route or crashed on the surface, providing little or no data. In fact, more multi-national probes to Mars have been lost than to any other planet in our Solar System.
Of course, that may have something to do with the fact more probes are sent to Mars than anywhere else...

NASA and Warp Drives: The Future is Coming

If you have a hankering to know what's keeping us from building Spacecraft that travel faster than the speed of light (approximately186,000 miles per second) why not start with NASA. In fact, they have a whole list of current theories, plausibility models and real science taking place right now to solve the problem. Check it out here.

But be warned, it's a whole trickier than it looks on television, and it involves doing things that just a few short years were considered impossible by physicists worldwide.
Of course, 10 years ago few people knew what e-mail was, SpaceShipOne wasn't even on the drawing board and cell phones weighed more than an unabridged dictionary. So, who knows what tomorrow may bring...

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Scientists Studying Lunar Sunrise Storms

The truly amazing thing about Space is this: Just when you think you have something figured out, it turns out you were wrong and the thing is nothing you thought it was originally.
Case in point, something strange has been happening on the surface of the Moon at every lunar sunrise, and scientists are just now beginning to understand what's causing them.
Apollo 17 astronauts deposited a small scientific package on the Moon's surface before returning home. Called LEAM (Lunar Ejecta and Meteorites) the project was designed to determine how much Moon dust was expelled from the surface every time it was struck by a meteorite.
The experiment only recorded 620 hours of nighttime readings and 150 hours of daylight readings before it was shut down, but scientists are still trying to decipher what all the data means.
Basically, here's the gist: A lunar night lasts about two weeks. When the sun finally begins to rise, it actually changes the electrostatic charge of the dust which coats the entire surface causing a sort of "storm" or ridge of atmospheric disturbance, stretching from the lunar north pole to its south pole. Astronauts orbiting the Moon reported seeing these strange discharges, what they called a "horizon glow", as did NASA's Surveyor spacecraft.

Scientists now believe the electrostatically charged Moon dust hovers just above the surface, perhaps shooting skyward in eerily beautiful fountains, just before sunrise or sunset.
Of course nobody will know for sure until some future colonist snaps a digital picture of one out his kitchen window and e-mails it back home to her folks in Wisconsin.
Then it'll be a fact.

Russians Want International Support to Build Kliper

The head of the European Space Agency announced Friday the group is still pursuing a plan to join forces with Russia to build the new Kliper spacecraft. A final decision on whether the two will work together will be made in June. ESA voted last week not to spend $59 million on a trial Kliper project over the next two years. Instead they will wait until June before deciding whether to be more involved further down the line.
The Russians have said they can and will fund the Kliper on their own, but that international cooperation would get the ship built sooner.
Already the ESA and Russia have partnered on the Galileo Satellite Navigation System designed to compete with the US Global Positioning System. The first Galileo launch is expected this month aboard a Soyuz rocket.
Interest in international cooperation on future Space transport systems has increased in light of recent failures with NASA's shuttle fleet.

What is the Kliper?

The Russian Kliper is a next-generation Spacecraft designed to replace the stalwart Soyuz craft currently in use. The Soyuz is one of only two spacecraft currently space-worthy, the other is the Chinese built Shenzhou.
The Russian Kliper has endured several design revisions in the last decade. It began as a scaled down version of the scuttled Russian Buran shuttle project. Currently, specifications call for a stubby-winged re-usable lifting-body design with the potential to serve many needs: short tourist trips to low Earth orbit, servicing the International Space Station and eventually, missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond. The basic model has a maximum mission duration of five days with a full crew and payload. It will carry two pilots, four passengers and 500 kg of cargo for a launch mass of around 15 tons.
The Russians believe the Kliper, despite its 10 billion ruble price tag, will rival NASA's yet-to-be-built Crew Exploration Vehicle, preventing them from falling behind in the Space race.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Virgin Galactic to Announce New Mexico Spaceport Plans

New Mexico is not due to break ground on its new Space Port until January 2006, but it already has a half dozen customers lined up to use the facilities.
Billionaire Richard Branson is expected to announce next week that his Virgin Galactic space tourism company will use the New Mexico facility near Upham.
Starchaser, Up Aerospace, the annual X-Prize Cup and Rocket Racing League finals also plan to use the base.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is apparently confident great rewards will come to those who endorse the exploration and development of Space technologies.
Of course, so do the governors of California (1 spaceport), Wisconsin (1 spaceport) and Florida (two private and one governmental spaceport)...

Win a Free 2006 Space Calendar (But Not From Us!)

Universe Today publisher Fraser Cain is giving away a free 2006 Year in Space calendar to one lucky entrant. He said you only have until 8 p.m. PST Sunday to send him an e-mail. He'll draw one entry, announce the winner and delete the rest.
Good luck!

NASA Looks to the Private Sector

On Tuedsay, NASA began soliciting proposals from private sector aerospace firms, seeking a cargo delivery solution to supplement and eventually replace the aging and beleagured space shuttle fleet. This news came on the same day as a separate announcement from NASA head Michael Griffin, detailing the grim budgetary situation his Administration faces, and the need to scale back some current and future programs as a result. Clearly NASA's hand is being forced, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Certainly not for Space Exploration Technologies(SpaceX)...

SpaceX is a private firm which manufactures "the world’s first fully reusable launch vehicles." These latest developments would apparently open the door for SpaceX to have a realistic shot at competing with the until now seemingly untouchable contracting giants such as Lockheed and Boeing in delievering launch vehicles to NASA. This is a revolutionary devolopment in the USA's policy on space exploration, and hopefully is a hint of things to come.

Orbiting Fuel Depot on NASA Wish List

NASA administrator Mike Griffin recently floated the idea of someone (not NASA) building an orbiting fuel depot for anyone making a trip to the Moon, Mars or beyond.
It sounds like something out of the pages of Heavy Metal, parking your starcruiser at the pump while some guy in a spacesuit squeegees your windows, but this is no joke. Whoever figures out how could make a fortune selling fuel to customers from at least three of the greatest nations on Earth: USA, Russia and China.
Griffin estimates a floating fuel station would allow them to carry about 10,000 pounds less fuel than they do now, meaning much more cargo room for equipment, crew or whatever.
This is only the latest in a long list of things Griffin hopes some private company will develop so they can use. He has repeatedly said, he hopes someone comes up with a better Spaceship design so NASA can simply buy it instead of designing and building their own, and this seems like a logical path for NASA to follow: why build it yourself when you can just rent it from someone else for less?