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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.

Discussions on global warming and manned space flight, Sahara solar power July 9, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Climate Change, Technology, The Future.
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Two interesting discussions to point out today.
First, RealClimate has a brief article about the G8 countries agreeing to try to avoid anything more than two degrees of global warming. The comments vary from hopeful to sceptical and all the way out to cynical.
Second, space scientist Wes Huntress posted an article on The Space Review giving advice about the future of manned space exploration. It’s well worth a read, and the discussion in the comments section is enlightening.
The debate surrounding the future of manned spaceflight is an tricky one, especially as robotic technology gets cheaper and more powerful (see this awesome photo). I would love to see humans land on Mars in my lifetime, but I have a hard time coming up with rational arguments for sending them. Personally, I think we should be looking at the moons of Saturn and Jupiter (specifically Europa, Titan and Enceladus) for signs of life. These would be robotic missions, and I would hate to see them postponed in favour of human missions.
Is human space exploration only considered because of its public appeal, or its space-cowboy, Apollo-era sense of adventure? Is there anything wrong with that? I’d like to see your arguments for human spaceflight if you’ve got any.

There could be some good news coming for supporters of solar power: an article at the Economist says a meeting will take place on July 13 to drum up support for enormous solar power stations to be built in the Sahara. The meeting will be hosted by Munich Re, which has invited 20 other big companies including Siemens and Deutsche Bank.
It would be a hugely expensive project, but would aim to supply %15 of Europe’s power in 2050 as well as most of North Africa’s.

I hadn’t thought about power as a potential export from Africa before. Could generating and exporting power boost the economies of developing nations?

Finally, check out this story about blind people learning to “see” with echolocation! I had no idea!

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.

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.

Fusion power, new battery technology, and shadow-life March 16, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Biology, Technology, The Future, The Internet.
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There’s a great story in New Scientist this week discussing other forms of life on Earth. There have been a few stories recently speculating on the possibility of extraterrestrial life existing among us unbeknownst to us. I’m not talking about ufo conspiracy theories, I’m talking about microscopic life whose ancestors were carried in on meteorites after life had already begun on Earth.

New Scientist writer Bob Holmes introduces two other possibilities. The first he dubs shadow-life, which is life that began independently from that which came to dominate the planet. If life got going spontaneously once here, why wouldn’t it have happened again? This would be life of terrestrial origin, yet unrelated to most other life on the planet. Also, Holmes predicts that life will soon be created in a laboratory entirely artificially. For a gallery of what shadow life may look like, click here. You can read more about looking for shadow life here.

People have been talking about fusion power (in theory a source of limitless, clean energy) for a long, long time. Scientists have also been saying that fusion power is only fifty years away for a long, long time. However, it might be closer to becoming reality than a lot of people think. Read this very exciting article from The Times Online for more. The comments are good too. I wonder how much of this is journalistic hype and how much is real science.

New battery technology is promising for practical electric cars, among other things. One of the problems with batteries is their charging time. This new technology would charge cell phones in seconds and cars in minutes. Read about it more at New Scientist and The Economist.

Here‘s an interesting piece of information. The idea for linking computers to share information (ie the internet) originally came from Tim Berners-Lee, who was working at CERN in the eighties, planning the Large Hadron Collider. I had no idea that the two were connected.

The Telegraph has a bizarre story of an old Korean man who claims the fish in his backyard pond have human faces. You can decide for yourself.

Finally, a friend of mine sent me this BBC article just before my 28th birthday. Thanks Jane…guess it’s all downhill from here…

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.

Now you see it… February 22, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Technology, The Future, The Internet.
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There are still some things that humans can do better than computers. According to Vernor Vinge of San Diego State University, we should enjoy it while it lasts. I dug up this very interesting if somewhat bleak paper about technological singularity, and I recommend you give it a read.

Anyway, about what we do better. If you’ve got some time on your hands and feel like helping out, go on over to the Galaxy Zoo and classify some galaxies. Humans are still way better than computers at processing images according to their content, which is why search engines can only sort images based on tags (ie strings of characters) attached to them. Wait, maybe not.

So, after The Sloan Digital Sky Survey photographed a quarter million galaxies, it needs your help to classify them all. Galaxy Zoo will show you a picture of a galaxy and ask you some basic questions about it. Most of the pics are blurry smudges but some of them are startlingly beautiful.

If you’re in the mood for something a little more social, head down to gwap.com. Gwap stands for Games With A Purpose, and the idea is that by playing these (addictive) games you’re helping search engines clarify their results by classifying music and identifying the contents of images. I don’t know if I subscribe to their emphatic statement that “By playing our games, you’re training computers to solve problems for humans all over the world,” but the games are fun and you get to feel like you’re working when you’re actually playing.

While we’re on the topic of helpful websites, if you haven’t checked out FreeRice, you should.

Satellites Collide February 17, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Space, The Future.
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Two satellites collided in low Earth orbit last week, prompting worries about the likelihood of other space collisions as the number of orbiting satellites grows.
There are a lot of bits and pieces floating around up there, and they are all moving at incredible speeds. For example, a while ago the space shuttle suffered a half-inch crater in its windscreen from nothing more than a paint chip. This paint chip was travelling at more than twenty thousand miles an hour.
What worries me is this: The two satellites exploded into two clouds of debris that orbit the Earth, gradually becoming rings. Now it’s much more likely for another satellite to travel through one of those rings and be hit by shrapnel big enough and fast enough to destroy the satellite, leading to a new ring of debris and increasing the chances of collision even more. This is called a cascade effect, in which a single event can lead to an accelerating chain of other events, with huge consequences. Imagine dropping a single grain of sand on a sand dune. It hits two grains, they hit four grains, and on and on until you have a sizeable landslide. It’s that kind of thing. The more garbage you have up there, the harder it will be for satellites to avoid becoming clouds of garbage themselves. This could have severe consequences, considering how much of our communications technology relies on satellite relays. Let alone the risk for big guys like the Hubble Telescope or the International Space Station.
The New Scientist talks about it in this good article.

Finally fans of informed speculation should check out this website. It’s a collection of intellectuals and experts from various fields answering the question “What will change everything?”
Especially check out George Dyson’s article on interstellar viruses.

So long for now.