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Two Apollo astronauts say manned missions to Mars should be next July 16, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Nasa, Space, The Future.
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Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, has an op-ed in today’s Washington Post. In it, he says that instead of concentrating on putting people back on the Moon, we should be trying to set up a permanent colony on Mars.

He says another race to the moon is a dead end: “While the lunar surface can be used to develop advanced technologies, it is a poor location for homesteading. The moon is a lifeless, barren world, its stark desolation matched by its hostility to all living things. And replaying the glory days of Apollo will not advance the cause of American space leadership or inspire the support and enthusiasm of the public and the next generation of space explorers.”

In support of manned missions to Mars, he says: “Climate change on a vast scale has reshaped Mars. With Earth in the throes of its own climate evolution, human outposts on Mars could be a virtual laboratory to study these vast planetary changes. And the best way to study Mars is with the two hands, eyes and ears of a geologist, first at a moon orbiting Mars and then on the Red Planet’s surface.”

At the same time, astronaut Mike Collins, command module pilot for Apollo 11, (who remained in the part of the craft that orbited the moon while the others walked on the surface) released a series of questions and answers on the Nasa website.

In it, Mr Collins also speaks out for at least one mission to Mars, if not to establish a permanent colony.

In answer to the question of what next, he says: “I hope Mars. It was my favourite planet as a kid and still is. As celestial bodies go, the moon is not a particularly interesting place, but Mars is. It is the closest thing to a sister planet that we have found so far. I worry that at NASA’s creeping pace, with the emphasis on returning to the moon, Mars may be receding into the distance. That’s about all I have to say.”

It’s encouraging to see the big guys coming out and speaking their minds in support of sending people to Mars. I hope they still have the influence they deserve.

During the Apollo era humanity was looking forward to a future of space exploration and human expansion into the solar system and beyond.

The day before the Apollo capsule splashed down into the Pacific Ocean, Buzz radioed: “We feel that this stands as a symbol of the insatiable curiosity of all mankind to explore the unknown.”

Now, that vision seems to have faded away. On one hand, robotic exploration has advanced in giant leaps (to borrow a phrase). On the other, no human has gone further than a few hundred miles away from Earth since the Apollo missions. The Moon is an average of about 239,000 miles away.

Maybe Buzz has a good point. A permanent colony on Mars would be able to carry out experiments and maybe missions of its own, given time. I’ve recently begun to think that robotic exploration of Europa, Titan and Enceladus should be the priority, but Buzz’s article has me thinking again about Mars.

After all, we’re still a one-world species. All the eggs, one big blue basket.

I’ll leave you with this. Most people think of the pre-launch countdown as “ten, nine, eight…” but did you know it actually begins 43 hours before liftoff? Read the breakdown in this article from nasa.gov.

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Kepler reaches its destination, time travel and the Overview Effect May 15, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Animals, Astronomy, Nasa, Space, Uncategorized.
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The Kepler space telescope is trailing Earth in its orbit, and has begun scanning its small patch of sky for twinkling stars. It will be a long time before the telescope finds any extra-solar planets, because it relies on planets crossing between Kepler and their stars, causing the stars to dim. To ensure it really is a planet and not some other phenomenon or glitch, it has to watch for several regular transitions. Of course, each planet will cross its star once a year, so these periodic dimmings are few and far between. This means it will be years before the existence of extra-solar planets is confirmed. In other words, the sooner we get started the better. See my previous blog post with professor Mike Thompson for more information.

The new Star Trek movie apparently has some time travel in it. I haven’t seen it yet, and am generally wary of movies that use time travel as a plot device. However, there is a very interesting article about some of the false presumptions of time travel at the Discover website. The article answers a lot of questions that I’d had, and things that I’d puzzled over. Check it out!

Here‘s a good article about one man’s plans to examine the Overview Effect, the feeling of oneness that astronauts get when seeing the Earth from space. Apparently, this happens pretty regularly. I heard one Apollo astronaut (I forget which one) mention the feeling in the terrific documentary In the Shadow of the Moon, but I didn’t know it was such a common phenomenon.

Finally, you’ve got to see this slideshow on the National Geographic website featuring glow-in-the-dark animals.

Classified Atlantis mission nearly ends in disaster, hopes shattered for Alcubierre “warp drive” April 5, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Cybernetics, Nasa, Space, The Future.
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www.spaceflightnow.com tells a dramatic story of when NASA almost lost space shuttle Atlantis on a “blacked out” mission to bring a top-secret spy satellite to orbit. So, a piece of insulating foam fell off the shuttle’s external fuel tank and took huge chunks out of the ceramic tiles that make up the shuttle’s black underbelly. These tiles protect the shuttle from the heat of re-entry. Remember Columbia? This was before that.

So the astronauts on board took a look at the underside (with the Canadarm maybe?) once they’d reached orbit and saw the catastrophic damage. However, because of the secret nature of the mission, they could only send back low-resolution video. People on the ground couldn’t make out the broken tiles, and ordered them to continue and land as normal…read the story. It’s really good. I found it via Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog for Discover magazine.

In other news, an article on www.technologyreview.com shattered the hopes of hard-core space-travel fans everywhere by claiming that the Alcubierre warp drive might not work after all.
Although there has been no evidence whatsoever that matter can travel faster than light, the physicist Miguel Alcubierre proposed a means of travel where the space in front of a ship is compressed while the space behind it is stretched. The ship wouldn’t be travelling faster than the speed of light compared to “local” space (ie “flat” space within the “warped” bubble), it could go from one point to another faster than the time it would take light to travel in a line through “flat” space.

One of the interesting side effects would be that people on the ship wouldn’t feel the acceleration because the ship wouldn’t actually be moving in the conventional sense. Also, the clocks on the ship would run at the same speed as the clocks on an observer’s wall. Normally something travelling at (or near) the speed of light would experience time dilation, in which a traveller might experience one year of time while the observer would experience five, etc. etc.

One question that I haven’t seen answered though (maybe because the explanation would be way over my liberal-arts head) is this: Even if space could be compressed and stretched like this, wouldn’t the ship eventually have to travel the distance through “flat” space one way or another? Wouldn’t the ship just end up back at its starting point when the space around it snapped back to its “flat” state? To actually land on (or even communicate with) a planet the ship (or its broadcasts) would have to cross the space between it and the planet, no matter how compressed or twisted that space would be. Follow me?

Regardless, the article says it would actually be impossible for a number of reasons. Too bad…although supposedly creating a bubble of warped space around a spaceship would take as much power as would be produced if all of Jupiter was converted to energy. That’s a little beyond our meagre fossil-fuel methods these days.

There’s a story on the National Geographic website about a robot controlled only by the power of human thought. Pretty neat, but I ask you this: Aren’t all machines controlled by human thought? I guess this demonstration just cuts out the middle man.

According to the North Korean media, they have successfully put a satellite in orbit, which is now transmitting revolutionary songs. Other countries are sceptical, and the claim has not been independently confirmed. Some think it was a cover for a long-range missile test. Read about it here.

Whoops! Scratch that. Satellite failure. Two stages of the rocket and its payload crashed into the Pacific Ocean (BBC used the term “landed,” which I think might be a little generous). Thanks for breaking the news, Twitter!

Finally, take a look at some of these great space photos! There’s a beautiful one of the ISS as seen from shuttle Discovery‘s window.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, gigantic space artefacts, and some news-in-brief March 28, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Science Fiction, Space, The Future.
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I’m derailing from science FACT to science FICTION for today’s post.

Before I begin, here’s some quick Mars news. A Rhode Island PhD student is finding evidence of a mineral that could explain the presence of both methane and minerals thought to be produced by reaction with water. There was a lot of hype when plumes of methane were discovered on Mars, as methane is produced on Earth primarily as a by-product of life. Read more here.

Contestants are set to enter the mock-up of a Mars mission spaceship, in order to test their psychological reactions to being cooped up with each other with nothing to do for months on end. It looks like hell but I would have liked to try it out. I imagine it would be fun for about three hours. We’ll see how they do!

I just got a bunch of books in the mail as part of my birthday Amazon.com shopping spree…among them are hardcover editions of one of my favourite SF works of all time, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars are about the gradual human colonisation of the Red Planet. They do a very good, thorough job of speculation on all aspects of the epic undertaking. It’s very convincing. Also, with a launch date of 2026, it may even coincide closely with our first actual manned journey to Mars (a guy can hope, can’t he? Bush suggested it in 2004, but then again, he said a lot of things). However, like most science fiction that takes place in the achievable future, the book will probably become more inaccurate as it approaches and passes its speculated date of occurrence. 2001: A Space Odyssey is perhaps the best example of this. Dr. David Scott, the seventh man to walk on the moon, said in 2002 that he didn’t think we’d get to Mars for hundreds of years.

I wonder how Robinson would have changed the science in his books, had he known what we do now about Mars.

Another book I received in the mail today was Eon by Greg Bear. It’s about an asteroid that flies into our solar system and contains a chamber that is infinitely long. That’s all I know. It looks intriguing, and my test of opening to a random page and reading the first paragraph was fruitful. There are a LOT of SF books about some huge artefact that arrives or is found, and how people discover what ancient civilisation built it and what its story is etc., etc. Some of them are highly acclaimed works by some of the best authors in the genre…some aren’t. Just to name a few:

Ringworld, Larry Niven, 1970
Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke, 1973
Eon, Greg Bear, 1985
Helix, Eric Brown, 2007

Finally, let me leave you with this creepy photo of a cannibal frog.

Inteview with Professor Mike Thompson on Kepler and astroseismology March 23, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Astronomy, Nasa, Space.
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There has been a lot of talk about the Kepler space telescope and its mission to find Earth-like planets outside the solar system. Its lesser-known but perhaps more important mission, however, is to collect information about the internal sonic vibrations of stars (expressed as small, periodic variations in emitted light) in order to learn about their evolution and structure.
I interviewed Professor Mike Thompson of the University of Sheffield, who will be analysing the information sent back by Kepler for this purpose.
Mike Thompson is a professor of applied mathematics and solar physics, and head of the school of mathematics and statistics at Sheffield University. He studies astroseismology and helioseismology, in other words the vibrations of a star. He also studies solar physics, stellar structure and evolution, and astrophysical fluid dynamics.

Can you tell me about what you are doing for this mission?

My own scientific interest actually is in terms of the stars themselves rather than the planets that are going around them. I use a technique called astroseismology. Many stars oscillate because of the presence of sound waves that are travelling inside them. These sound waves, if they have the right frequency and wavelength, will actually set up certain resonant oscillations of the star. We measure these frequencies at which stars vibrate by making careful observations of the variations of their light. We can use those frequencies, combining many of them, to measure how temperature varies inside the star, what its composition is, even how fast it’s rotating inside.

A good analogy would be of an organ pipe. And organ pipe of a given length will only sound certain notes. If you measured the frequency of those notes or listened to them you would be able to tell something about the structure of that organ pipe. How long it is or what it’s made of, combined with something about the composition of the gas inside it or the composition of the gas. We’re doing similar things with stars.

What sort of practical applications could we see coming from the information that you’re going to analyze?

I think the main practical benefit of learning about stars is what it tells us about our own sun. One of the things we want to understand better is how the magnetic activity cycles work. So in the case of the sun the magnetic activity cycle manifests itself as a sunspot cycle and that’s connected with highly energetic and potentially damaging explosive events (such as flares and coronal mass ejections). These things come out in ways we don’t fully understand and can’t yet predict at the earth and can have serious impacts on our technological society, on communications satellites, on our power grids and so on.

Are there health implications for these coronal mass ejections?

Yes, there certainly are. If an astronaut is in space when one of these things goes off then they could get seriously fried. People have looked at the occurrence of these against the times when the manned Apollo missions were up in space. The Apollo astronauts were quite fortunate. There were some big explosive events that went on and very fortunately there were no Apollo missions up there at the time. But if we want to send manned missions to Mars which of course is now being talked about, then those astronauts are going to be in space for a considerable period of time.

At the moment one of the very big concerns for those of us who study solar variability is the high likelihood that there would be events that would happen during that time which would actually be fatal to the astronauts involved. So how do you develop technologies, perhaps using magnetic fields around the spacecraft, to protect humans in space?

An artificial magnetosphere would actually deflect these particles away. The alternative would be to have large amounts of lead around you, but of course the expense of getting that mass into space is absolutely prohibitive.

How often do these coronal mass ejections occur?

They happen quite frequently. At the height of the solar cycle there could be one a day of these going off, but most of them aren’t coming towards us. But occasionally you get one of these guys and it comes in full face on at the earth, and then it shakes the Earth’s magnetosphere and causes interesting and very exciting aurora displays. They can knock out power lines.

These coronal mass ejections will take a few days to get from the sun to the Earth, whereas light takes eight minutes. Nonetheless, you don’t get much warning. So, better understanding of the sun, better understanding of what the precursors are for predicting these things would be very valuable.

That’s all for today. He gave me some interesting info about Kepler which I will save for a later post.
Purely by coincidence, New Scientist had an alarming article about the disastrous potential consequences of coronal mass ejections in this week’s issue. Read about it here, with an interesting comment here.

Also, take a look at these amazing robot fish!

Video conference with International Space Station crew March 20, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Nasa, Space, The Future.
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Four members of the International Space Station crew answered questions from the press in a live video conference this evening.

Answering questions were flight engineers Koichi Wakata and Yury Lonchakov from Japan and Russia, Commander Mike Fincke and STS 119 mission specialist Sandy Magnus, both from the USA.

Several of the questions were about the threat of space debris and the recent evacuation of the crew into the Soyuz space capsule/escape pod. If you hadn’t heard, there were two (relative) near-misses with pieces of space debris last week.

Fincke said “Yuri is the commander of the Soyuz spacecraft. Had we had to close the hatch and go, we would have.”

“Just goes to show that things are getting more and more busy up here.”

The Russian escape capsule is ready to go at a moment’s notice, and there are plans for another Soyuz capsule to attach to the station as a second escape pod.

When asked about preparations for longer space journeys such as to the moon or Mars, Fincke said that one of the most important things to keep morale up is contact with the ground. He said, “It’s tough to be away from friends, family, and all those excellent things.”

He also mentioned that shuttle Discovery will be bringing back samples of the crew’s bodily fluids (yes, including pee-pee) to be examined by scientists, to see how the human body changes over long periods of time in space.

Commander Fincke said he hopes humans do try to explore further into space in the near future. He said, “I’d like to see us in the near future go back to the moon and on to Mars.” He said he would like to eventually see humans explore further into the solar system.

Wakata spoke about his plans to don traditional Japanese clothing to see how it moves in space. PR stunt? Real science? Maybe it doesn’t matter (it’s not like anyone has a problem with national pride in space). He said that all he’s learning right now is like “drinking water from a fire hose.” He said “I’m still learning a lot here but I am enjoying every moment.”

Sandy Magnus commented that if we plan on going back to the moon there will need to be some basic nuts-and-bolts changes to the organisation of the mission. She said “To go to the moon we would need to split up some of the planning differently because of the distance.” Specifically, the crew will need to take over more of the technical specialisation and the ground would need to do more of the strategising jobs.

Sandy has a very interesting blog about life onboard the ISS, which includes tidbits about her experiments in cooking.

Commander Fincke finished by saying that the ISS is a symbol of what humans can do when we work together constructively instead of destructively.

Surprise meteor, Hubble service mission update and China’s lunar probe March 2, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Astronomy, Nasa, Space.
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Woah! What the hell was that? A totally unexpected asteroid sped by on Monday between the Earth and the Moon. It’s travelling at twenty kilometres per second and is between 60 and 100 metres wide. Apparently that’s nothing new, and a lot of asteroids zip by unnoticed. I find that a little unnerving.
The difference between an asteroid and a comet (like the comet Lulin that passed by last week) is in their appearance. Comets have a visible tail (or coma) and asteroids do not. A comet’s tail is water vapour and dust particles that have blown off the body of the comet as it gets close to the sun.
A meteoroid is smaller than an asteroid (and according to the official definition, bigger than an atom). It becomes a meteor when it enters a planet’s atmosphere and becomes visible as a bright streak. Any material from a meteor that makes it to the ground becomes a meteorite.

In other news it looks like the upcoming service mission to the Hubble space telescope will get the go-ahead after all. After the recent satellite collision there had to be some weighing of the risks. If the mission succeeds it would make the Hubble much more powerful and extend its life considerably.

Finally, China’s Chang 1 lunar satellite concluded its mission of mapping the surface of the moon by slamming into the moon in a “controlled collision.” Although it only became the third country to send a person into space recently, it looks like China is pursuing its space program ambitiously, with plans for a space station and manned lunar mission in the works as well.

The Oldest Words, Bulletproof Goo and Lunar Robots February 26, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Nasa, Space, Technology, The Future.
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Researchers at the University of Reading have used a computer model to chart the rate of change in the meaning of words, with some interesting results.
It seems like the model basically maps the evolutionary tree of its sample words as they change in meaning and cross into other languages.
According to the model, the words “squeeze,” “guts,” and “dirty” are all headed to extinction comparatively soon. Also, verbs tend to change more quickly than other word types.
They found that the more commonly a word has been used, the more slowly it has changed over time. Some of the oldest words could be dozens of millennia old.
A good quote: Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at the University, said “Here’s a sound that has been connected to a meaning – and it’s a mostly arbitrary connection – yet that sound has persisted for those tens of thousands of years.”
The BBC has a very interesting article on this. It’s well worth a read.

Also from the BBC comes a report of an exhibition of (probably not all) the Ministry of Defence’s new toys for the field. Included in the exhibit is a bright-orange goo that is stretchy and malleable like Silly Putty, but becomes hard in response to an impact and disperses the force safely. There’s a video of a man in a suit hitting a happy soldier’s goo-wrapped finger with a hammer.

Finally, here’s a press release from Astrobiotic Technology explaining how autonomous robots could prepare the lunar surface for a permanent outpost.
Resupply ships would have to land close to the outpost for efficiency’s sake, but without an atmosphere the grit sprayed off the ground from the rocket could be damaging to the building. The article weighs two options: building a berm around the landing site and constructing a permanent hard-surfaced landing pad.

Space Fish Update February 25, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Animals, Space, Technology, What?.
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A small post to let you know that the National Geographic website has the first ever video footage of the incredible and improbable barreleye fish.

Also, check out this amazing photo from Bad Astronomy of a heat shield material test at Space X. The material here will help protect Space X’s Dragon Capsule during reentry. That’s the Space-X Dragon capsule, not these Dragon Capsules. Don’t mistake the two.

More later.

Slow day for science… February 23, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Animals, Astronomy, Nasa, Space.
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Not much in the news today, except a couple of obviously fake photos of a giant snake. Why is this news?

A shuttle mission to the International Space Station has been postponed not due to the risks posed by whirling shards of space debris, but instead because of worries over some of Discovery’s gas valves.

Thankfully, the Kepler mission is still on track!

I spoke with a gentleman from the Sheffield Astronomical Association who said I might be able to tag along for a viewing of Comet Lulin this weekend. Woohoo!

Oh, and Scientific American has more from Alan Boss of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on the likelihood of Earth-like planets existing outside the solar system. He’s got some encouraging (and a mind-boggling) numbers.

That is all.