Posts Tagged ‘spaceflight’

Whenever I hear the word enormity used to describe how gi-freakin-normous something is, I always willfully misinterpret it to mean an act of extreme evil or extreme wickedness.  Now before you start screaming prescriptivist and throwing Kleenexes drenched in the snot of sociolinguistics at me — I’m not being a prescriptivist.  Of course people have the right to use enormity that way.  It is certainly the trend for that word and it probably will be within my generation that almost everyone forgets its original meaning.  I just so like the meaning of extreme wickedness that I want to be able to use it to mean that without being misinterpreted.  And a lot of people only know that word to mean gigantic.

So I was listening to a promo video (below) by Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic.  Branson opens up with this line:

 “Astronauts of the past 45 years have all returned to Earth struggling to convey the enormity of what they have discovered and with their perceptions clearly changed.”

And quite frankly, the sinister music blends with my interpretation of enormity far better.  Astronauts have all returned overwhelmed by the vast wickedness they encountered in space.  Awesome!  I totally wanna go now.  Actually, I’ve always wanted to go and probably would go even if I was told I had a 50/50 chance of making it back alive, so enormity just ups the thrill level.

This T-shirt just cracked me up:

Finders Keepers

Of course, it actually could have been this way. I think the US even had a defacto assumption that the moon was ours. This is very much not the case. With the recent Japanese and Chinese probes to the moon, the upcoming German probe, and rumors of more probes and missions to the moon, there are many claimants. There was a Moon Treaty that was supposed to hand control of all heavenly bodies over to the international community (that is, the UN). However, this useless piece of paper was only ratified by the likes of Mexico, France, India, Chile, Australia, and the Phillipines (and several other small countries), none of which have a manned space program.

The moon is potentially a gold mine (or rather, a helium-3 mine). What it is not, is a waste of time. If we ever do manned exploration of other worlds, a lunar base would be a great base of operations. For one, it’s good practice. For another, the lower lunar gravity could allow people to reside there longer with slightly reduced health effects while still providing an easy base to launch from. Of course, the moon has its dangers. NASA is planning a new lunar base on the lunar pole, where danger from solar radiation is diminished while still allowing for energy gathering from solar arrays.

It will be interesting to see how things turn out on the moon. Will there be borders and bases manned by robots and people from many different countries? Or will we see international cooperation as we have seen with the space station? At this point, it’s anyone’s guess.

Mars, Phobos, or Deimos?

Posted: 8 November 2007 in Uncategorized
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Which will be the newest extraterrestrial body humans will set foot on? (Aside from the moon, of course.) According to Pascal Lee of the Mars Institute, “[Phobos and Deimos] are the most accessible planetary bodies in our solar system.” New Scientist has a report on the conference at Ames Research Center on Wednesday where ideas were thrown around for the human exploration of Mars. Astronauts could set foot on one of them within a decade. So cool.

Phobos and Deimos are similar in nature to C-type asteroids. Phobos is porous and has an extremely low orbit, subjecting it to tidal forces. These forces will eventually cause it to either break up or crash into Mars (in about 30-80 million years). In the meantime, it would make an excellent base of operations for a manned mission to Mars. Escaping the gravity of Phobos or Deimos would be much less difficult than escaping that of Mars.

One of the biggest problems with such a venture according to the New Scientist article is dust. With such a weak gravitational field, Phobos could have as much as 5 meters of dust accumulated on its surface. Also, a long journey like this would expose astronauts to too much radiation, giving them a 5% chance of dying of radiation poisoning (above the 3% NASA allows). But wouldn’t it be cool, to stand there on that dusty rock, a mere 6000 miles above Mars, looking at that giant red orb in the sky?

There is a somewhat rare opportunity for people in the US and southern Canada over the next two days. The space shuttle Discovery just undocked from the International Space Station and is currently drifting just in front of it. It will be passing nearly overhead just before dawn, the best time for viewing. As the space station comes into the sunlight while the Earth below is still in darkness, the solar panels reflect the light and it stands out brighter than most stars in the sky. Both the ISS and Discovery will be visible to the naked eye. In fact, the ISS is four times brighter than the brightest star in the sky and about equal in brightness to the planet Jupiter.

To see when the space station will pass overhead, check out the NASA Skywatch website. You can also use the most excellent real-time satellite tracking website, I mentioned this website before, and it continues to impress me. You can create prediction maps for up to 5 days in advance, showing exactly where it will pass near you. Tomorrow morning at 6:12am, Pittsburgh will have a very nice, nearly overhead view of the ISS and Discovery.

Discovery lands Wednesday around midday, so your chances for viewing are limited to Tuesday and Wednesday (Nov 6th & 7th).

I caught Randy Pausch on Oprah yesterday (and yes, a dying CMU professor IS the one of the few things that will make me endure watching Oprah). His last lecture focused on the importance of childhood dreams and he mentioned the landing of men on the moon as a pretty fundamental motivator. Heck, it inspires me still and I wasn’t even alive. So I especially love it when NASA gets kids involved in the space program (I’ll return to this after a brief rant). Too much today, launches of the shuttle, the existence of the International Space Station, and probes sent to other planets are just routinely ignored or sidelined by the mainstream press. Discovery launched today carrying the Harmony module to the ISS and it got about 3 seconds on the Today show.  The result? People think the space program is totally useless. It doesn’t help when Nobel laureates like Stephen Weinberg call the space station an “orbital turkey” that “has produced nothing of scientific value.” That brings to three the number of Giant Turds with Nobel Prizes (joining James Watson the Racist and Al Gore the Murky-Green Fraud). For a nice rebuttal of the Weinberg gibberish, there is this article from adAstra that mirrors the point by Randy Pausch a bit.

Anyhow, returning from my rant. NASA has announced a contest for school kids to name a place for the Cassini probe to point. Cassini is currently in the Saturn system. It recently left Iapetus, which I indicated looks like the Death Star. Currently it is focusing on Saturn’s moon Titan and will be doing some close flybys of it over the next few months. For students to participate the contest, they need to write a 500-800 word essay on why Cassini should look at one of four possible targets on November 30, 2007. So if you know a kid in grades 5-12, let them know.

Four Targets:

  1. Mimas (a moon) coming out from behind Saturn
  2. Saturn’s rings and a lot of moons
  3. Prometheus (another moon) and the F-ring (Prometheus seems to actually steal matter from the ring)
  4. Tethys (yet another moon) and its Odysseus impact basin

Discovery and Harmony

Posted: 21 October 2007 in Uncategorized
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The shuttle Discovery is set to launch Tuesday to bring the Harmony module to the International Space Station (ISS).  The Harmony module, named by US school kids, is a connector that will bring together the various international components of the space station.  Specifically, it will connect the US Destiny Lab, the ESA’s (European Space Agency) Columbus module and Japan’s Kibo module.  The Italian-built Harmony module has been sitting in drydock since 2003, where it underwent pre-flight preparation.

Discovery ready for launch

Space money

Posted: 10 October 2007 in Uncategorized
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Quasi Universal Intergalactic DenominationWell, this ain’t no Federation baby. Unlike the world of Star Trek, where money isn’t much of an issue for your average Star Fleet officer, money is an issue in our world. And soon to be off our world, as well. In one of those bizarre, possibly pointless moves, some scientists have created a currency fit for space. Paper bills and metal coins just won’t work. If a metal coin develops a jagged edge, that could be deadly in space. Plus, ever try counting dimes in a spacesuit while the Galactic Burger King drive-thru guy looks at you impatiently? Never again, says I!

The Solution

Rather than using paper, which isn’t durable, or metal, which isn’t safe, or credit cards, which have magnetic strips that may interfere with certain electronics (or be destroyed by the solar wind), scientists have settled on using polytetrafluoroethylene, aka teflon. This currency was developed by a group funded by Travelex, a currency exchange firm. The name is a bit grandiose and nauseating at the same time: QUIDs. Quasi Universal Intergalactic Denomination. A single QUID will be worth about $12.50 US (£6.25, 8.68). So despite being a bit of a pun, it’s also just plain overstretching. Intergalactic? Not unless we develop FTL (faster than light) drives sometime this eon.

Besides being a load of hype, there could be an actual application for this currency. If Virgin Galactic gets off the ground (or one of the other contenders), and space tourism becomes a real thing, these chips will come in handy. And I propose we nickname them chips. How sci-fi that would be.

Dawn liftoff

Posted: 28 September 2007 in Uncategorized
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NASA’s image of the day is the Dawn spacecraft launching via a Delta II rocket. It’s heading to two asteroids: Ceres (actually a dwarf planet) and Vesta. The journey will take several years. In March 2009, Dawn will slingshot around Mars to arrive at Vesta in September of 2011, where it will stay for about seven months. After that it will head to the dwarf planet Ceres, a journey of three more years, arriving in February of 2015. Five months later, the primary mission will end.

The Dawn spacecraft will be using an ion propulsion system. This allows the spacecraft to travel with much less weight. An electrical charge is used to accelerate Xenon atoms at rates 10 times faster than chemical fuels. Because the force it takes to accelerate something depends on its mass (F = ma), the lighter (less massive) a spacecraft is, the less it takes to move it. Petroleum is heavy, so using it for a spacecraft really doesn’t work very well, but it is used for launch vehicles like the Delta II rocket. The petroleum used is known as RP-1 (Refined Petroleum) and is mixed with liquid oxygen. The ion propulsion drive is fuel efficient but not exactly speedy. No one is going to brag about 0 to 60 mph in 4 days. The bonus is, the spacecraft only uses 10 ounces of fuel per day at full burn. At that rate, Dawn can go about 1500 days, but it won’t need to be at full burn every day.


Dawn launch - courtesy NASA.

New X Prize cooler than ever

Posted: 13 September 2007 in Uncategorized
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Buzz has been building over the past few days about what will be the next X Prize. If you don’t know what the first X Prize was all about, skip down a bit. The new Google Lunar X Prize was announced today. The prize purse is $20 million for the grand prize winner, $5 million to a second place winner and $5 million split amongst several bonus prizes. The goal is a soft-landing on the moon with a robotic craft which then must signal back to Earth. The rover must roam around for at least 500m before sending the “Mooncast”.



Posted: 12 September 2007 in Uncategorized
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Dawn on the launchpad awaiting the September 26th launch.The Dawn spacecraft is currently sitting on the launchpad at Cape Canaveral, where it will wait until September 26th for launch. NASA always chooses these vague, optimistic names for spacecraft. The Mars rovers have names like Spirit and Opportunity or old probes with names like Voyager and Pioneer. Of course there are the dreadfully functional names like Mars Polar Lander. And of course, the odd barbarian always finds his way into the crowd: Viking. But I think that Dawn is named well. Here we have a spacecraft that is actually going to the asteroid belt and examine the asteroid Vesta and the dwarf planet (ala Pluto) Ceres. Of course, Ceres is a smidge smaller than Pluto having a radius of 475 km versus Pluto’s 1153 km. The great thing about asteroids, though, is that their escape velocity is relatively minor. Ceres is only 1.2 km/s, or about 4320 km/h (2685 mph). This is nothing when you consider the escape velocity of Mars is 18,097 km/s (11,247 mph). The bonus here is that spacecraft going to Ceres expend less fuel in their approach (slowing down) and less fuel on take-off.

Dawn will only be orbiting these bodies, not landing on them. Dawn’s mission is to study the formation of these two objects, but I think the longterm effects are much more important. For one, it will give us experience in working with the asteroid belt. Many sci-fi writers have speculated that the asteroid belt will be a great place for space stations and mining operations. If Dawn finds the right things, it could spur further exploration of the asteroid belt. Maybe one day my great grandchildren will visit the space mining museum on 243 Ida (below) and spend the night at the bed and breakfast on its moon Dactyl (the speck on the right).

The asteroid 243 Ida and its moon Dactyl.  NASA image: public domain.