Tag Archives: exploration

Osiris-Rex and Bennu

Osiris-Rex_Bennu

You might be mistaken for thinking Osiris-Rex and Bennu are the names of two rather exotic dogs. No.

Bennu is a 1,500 foot wide space rock, which circles the Sun at around 60,000 mph. OSIRIS-REx is the space probe which aims to catch the near-Earth asteroid in 2018 and return samples back to Earth in 2023. NASA is scheduled to launch OSIRIS-REx from aboard an Atlas V rocket on September 8, 2016, from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Follow NASA’s asteroid mission here.

In case you were wondering, as is NASA’s wont, OSIRIS-REx is of course a convoluted acronym for the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer spacecraft.

From the Guardian:

At Cape Canaveral air force station on the Florida coast stands an Atlas V rocket bearing the Osiris-Rex probe, Nasa’s first hope to smash-and-grab material from a speeding asteroid and bring it safely back to Earth.

The size of a transit van, the two-tonne spacecraft is set to blast off Thursday night on a seven-year mission to a 500m-wide ball of rubble called Bennu, which circles the sun at more than 100,000km per hour.

The probe is the third of Nasa’s ambitious New Frontiers missions. It follows on the heels of the New Horizons spacecraft, which last year beamed home stunning images from Pluto, and the Juno spacecraft, which arrived at Jupiter in July.

In returning a pile of asteroid to Earth, scientists hope to learn more about the source of water in the solar system and the origins of organic molecules from which life first arose. But getting their hands on pristine asteroid will also give researchers fresh clues about how to mine the bodies for valuable materials, and defend against wayward space rocks that may one day threaten our planet.

The mission has a title that is unwieldy even for the US space agency. Osiris-Rex stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security-Regolith Explorer. “It is a mouthful,” said Ed Beshore, deputy principal investigator on the mission at Arizona State University. “But the name really does speak to our principal mission objectives.”

Bennu orbits the sun on a similar path to Earth. Classified as a “potentially hazardous asteroid”, it swings close to the Earth – in cosmic terms, at least – once every six years. The nearest encounter scientists can predict is slated for 2135, when the coal-black space rock will hurtle between Earth and the moon at a distance of 300,000km.

One major question the mission will ask is how sunlight affects the orbits of asteroids. As they spin close to the sun asteroids are constantly heating up and cooling down. The heat the asteroid re-emits to space provides a minuscule thrust which over time can alter its course. But the effect is hard to quantify. “Often when we look at asteroids that may be a hazard to Earth, the limiting factor in predicting the orbit is this process called the Yarkovsky effect,” said Beshore. “We’d like to understand that and measure it much more precisely when we’re at Bennu and in doing so improve our predictive accuracy for other asteroids that may represent a future threat to Earth.”

Osiris-Rex aims to catch up with Bennu in August 2018 and spend two years mapping the surface. When mission scientists find a good spot, it will swoop down, blast the asteroid with a powerful jet of nitrogen, and collect dislodged material with a robotic arm. Once the material is safely aboard, the spacecraft will retreat and later send it home in a capsule due to land via parachute in the Utah desert in 2023.

Read the whole story here.

Image: Artist concept of OSIRIS-REx probe traveling to near-Earth asteroid Bennu on a sample return mission. Courtesy: NASA.

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What Keeps NASA Going?

Apollo 17 Commander Gene Cernan on lunar rover

Apollo astronaut Eugene Cernan is the last human to have set foot on a world other than Earth. It’s been 44 years since he last stepped off the moon. In fact, in 1972 he drove around using the lunar rover and found time to scribble his daughter’s initials on the dusty lunar surface. So, other than forays to the International Space Station (ISS) and trips to service the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) NASA has kept humans firmly rooted to the homeland.

Of course, in the intervening decades the space agency has not rested on its laurels. NASA has sent probes and robots all over the Solar System and beyond: Voyager to the gas giants and on to interstellar space,  Dawn to visit asteroids; Rosetta (in concert with the European Space Agency) to visit a comet; SOHO and its countless cousins to keep an eye on our home star; Galileo and Pioneer to Jupiter; countless spacecraft including Curiosity Rover to Mars; Messenger to map Mercury; Magellan to probe the clouds of Venus; Cassini to survey Saturn and its fascinating moons; and of course, New Horizons to Pluto and beyond.

Spiral galaxies together with irregular galaxies make up approximately 60% of the galaxies in the local Universe. However, despite their prevalence, each spiral galaxy is unique — like snowflakes, no two are alike. This is demonstrated by the striking face-on spiral galaxy NGC 6814, whose luminous nucleus and spectacular sweeping arms, rippled with an intricate pattern of dark dust, are captured in this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image. NGC 6814 has an extremely bright nucleus, a telltale sign that the galaxy is a Seyfert galaxy. These galaxies have very active centres that can emit strong bursts of radiation. The luminous heart of NGC 6814 is a highly variable source of X-ray radiation, causing scientists to suspect that it hosts a supermassive black hole with a mass about 18 million times that of the Sun. As NGC 6814 is a very active galaxy, many regions of ionised gas are studded along  its spiral arms. In these large clouds of gas, a burst of star formation has recently taken place, forging the brilliant blue stars that are visible scattered throughout the galaxy.

Our mechanical human proxies reach out a little farther each day to learn more about our universe and our place in it. Exploration and discovery is part of our human DNA; it’s what we do. NASA is our vehicle. So, it’s good to see what NASA is planning. The agency just funded eight advanced-technology programs that officials believe may help transform space exploration. The grants are part of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. The most interesting, perhaps, are a program to evaluate inducing hibernation in Mars-bound astronauts, and an assessment of directed energy propulsion for interstellar travel.

Our science and technology becomes more and more like science fiction each day.

Read more about NIAC programs here.

Image 1: Apollo 17 mission commander Eugene A. Cernan makes a short checkout of the Lunar Roving Vehicle during the early part of the first Apollo 17 extravehicular activity at the Taurus-Littrow landing site. Courtesy: NASA.

Image 2: Hubble Spies a Spiral Snowflake, galaxy NGC 6814. Courtesy: NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

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The Case For Planet Nine

Planet_nine_artistic-impression

First, let me say that Pluto should never have been downgraded to the status of “dwarf planet”. The recent (and ongoing) discoveries by NASA’s New Horizons probe show Pluto’s full, planetary glory: kilometer high mountains, flowing glaciers, atmospheric haze, organic compounds, complex and colorful landforms. So, in my mind Pluto still remains as the ninth planet in our beautiful solar system.

However, many astronomers have moved on and are getting excited over the possibility of a new Planet Nine. The evidence for its existence is mounting and comes mostly from models that infer the presence of a massive object far-beyond Pluto, which is influencing the orbits of asteroids and even some of the outer planets.

From Scientific American:

The hunt is on to find “Planet Nine”—a large undiscovered world, perhaps 10 times as massive as Earth and four times its size—that scientists think could be lurking in the outer solar system. After Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown, two planetary scientists from the California Institute of Technology, presented evidence for its existence this January, other teams have searched for further proof by analyzing archived images and proposing new observations to find it with the world’s largest telescopes.

Just this month, evidence from the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn helped close in on the missing planet. Many experts suspect that within as little as a year someone will spot the unseen world, which would be a monumental discovery that changes the way we view our solar system and our place in the cosmos. “Evidence is mounting that something unusual is out there—there’s a story that’s hard to explain with just the standard picture,” says David Gerdes, a cosmologist at the University of Michigan who never expected to find himself working on Planet Nine. He is just one of many scientists who leapt at the chance to prove—or disprove—the team’s careful calculations.

Batygin and Brown made the case for Planet Nine’s existence based on its gravitational effect on several Kuiper Belt objects—icy bodies that circle the sun beyond Neptune’s orbit. Theoretically, though, its gravity should also tug slightly on the planets.* With this in mind, Agnès Fienga at the Côte d’Azur Observatory in France and her colleagues checked whether a theoretical model (one that they have been perfecting for over a decade) with the new addition of Planet Nine could better explain slight perturbations seen in Saturn’s orbit as observed by Cassini.* Without it, the other seven planets in the solar system, 200 asteroids and five of the most massive Kuiper Belt objects cannot perfectly account for it.* The missing puzzle piece might just be a ninth planet.

So Fienga and her colleagues compared the updated model, which placed Planet Nine at various points in its hypothetical orbit, with the data. They found a sweet spot—with Planet Nine 600 astronomical units (about 90 billion kilometers) away toward the constellation Cetus—that can explain Saturn’s orbit quite well.* Although Fienga is not yet convinced that she has found the culprit for the planet’s odd movements, most outside experts are blown away.* “It’s a brilliant analysis,” says Greg Laughlin, an astronomer at Lick Observatory, who was not involved in the study. “It’s completely amazing that they were able to do that so quickly.” Gerdes agrees: “That’s a beautiful paper.”

The good news does not end there. If Planet Nine is located toward the constellation Cetus, then it could be picked up by the Dark Energy Survey, a Southern Hemisphere observation project designed to probe the acceleration of the universe. “It turns out fortuitously that the favored region from Cassini’s data is smack dab in the middle of our survey footprint,” says Gerdes, who is working on the cosmology survey.* “We could not have designed our survey any better.” Although the survey was not planned to search for solar system objects, Gerdes has discovered some (including one of the icy objects that led Batygin and Brown to conclude Planet Nine exists in the first place).

Read the entire article here.

Image: Artist’s impression of Planet Nine as an ice giant eclipsing the central Milky Way, with a star-like Sun in the distance. Neptune’s orbit is shown as a small ellipse around the Sun. Courtesy: Tomruen, nagualdesign / Wikipedia. Creative Commons.

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To Another Year

Let me put aside humanity’s destructive failings for a moment, with the onset of a New Year, to celebrate one of our most fundamental positive traits: our need to know — how things work, how and why we’re here, and if we’re alone. We are destined to explore, discover and learn more about ourselves and our surroundings. I hope and trust that 2016 will bring us yet more knowledge (and more really cool images). We are fortunate indeed.

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Image: New Horizons scientists false color image of Pluto. Image data collected by the spacecraft’s Ralph/MVIC color camera on July 14, 2015 from a range of 22,000 miles. Courtesy: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.

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Image: Highest-resolution image from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft shows huge blocks of Pluto’s water-ice crust jammed together in the informally named al-Idrisi mountains. The mountains end abruptly at the shoreline of the informally named Sputnik Planum, where the soft, nitrogen-rich ices of the plain form a nearly level surface, broken only by the fine trace work of striking, cellular boundaries. Courtesy: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.

 

 

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Passion, Persistence and Pluto

New Horizons Pluto Flyby

Alliterations aside this is a great story of how passion, persistence and persuasiveness can make a real impact. This is especially significant when you look at the triumphant climax to NASA’s unlikely New Horizons mission to Pluto. Over 20 years in the making and fraught with budget cuts and political infighting — NASA is known for its bureaucracy — the mission reached its zenith last week. While thanks go to the many hundreds engineers and scientists involved from its inception, the mission would not have succeeded without the vision and determination of one person — Alan Stern.

In a music track called “Over the Sea” by the 1980s (and 90s) band Information Society there is a sample of Star Trek’s Captain Kirk saying,

“In every revolution there is one man with a vision.”

How appropriate.

From Smithsonian

On July 14 at approximately 8 a.m. Eastern time, a half-ton NASA spacecraft that has been racing across the solar system for nine and a half years will finally catch up with tiny Pluto, at three billion miles from the Sun the most distant object that anyone or anything from Earth has ever visited. Invisible to the naked eye, Pluto wasn’t even discovered until 1930, and has been regarded as our solar system’s oddball ever since, completely different from the rocky planets close to the Sun, Earth included, and equally unlike the outer gas giants. This quirky and mysterious little world will swing into dramatic view as the New Horizons spacecraft makes its closest approach, just 6,000 miles away, and onboard cameras snap thousands of photographs. Other instruments will gauge Pluto’s topography, surface and atmospheric chemistry, temperature, magnetic field and more. New Horizons will also take a hard look at Pluto’s five known moons, including Charon, the largest. It might even find other moons, and maybe a ring or two.
It was barely 20 years ago when scientists first learned that Pluto, far from alone at the edge of the solar system, was just one in a vast swarm of small frozen bodies in wide, wide orbit around the Sun, like a ring of debris left at the outskirts of a construction zone. That insight, among others, has propelled the New Horizons mission. Understand Pluto and how it fits in with those remnant bodies, scientists say, and you can better understand the formation and evolution of the solar system itself.
If all goes well, “encounter day,” as the New Horizons team calls it, will be a cork-popping celebration of tremendous scientific and engineering prowess—it’s no small feat to fling a collection of precision instruments through the frigid void at speeds up to 47,000 miles an hour to rendezvous nearly a decade later with an icy sphere about half as wide as the United States is broad. The day will also be a sweet vindication for the leader of the mission, Alan Stern. A 57-year-old astronomer, aeronautical engineer, would-be astronaut and self-described “rabble-rouser,” Stern has spent the better part of his career fighting to get Pluto the attention he thinks it deserves. He began pushing NASA to approve a Pluto mission nearly a quarter of a century ago, then watched in frustration as the agency gave the green light to one Pluto probe after another, only to later cancel them. “It was incredibly frustrating,” he says, “like watching Lucy yank the football away from Charlie Brown, over and over.” Finally, Stern recruited other scientists and influential senators to join his lobbying effort, and because underdog Pluto has long been a favorite of children, proponents of the mission savvily enlisted kids to write to Congress, urging that funding for the spacecraft be approved.
New Horizons mission control is headquartered at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory near Baltimore, where Stern and several dozen other Plutonians will be installed for weeks around the big July event, but I caught up with Stern late last year in Boulder at the Southwest Research Institute, where he is an associate vice president for research and development. A picture window in his impressive office looks out onto the Rockies, where he often goes to hike and unwind. Trim and athletic at 5-foot-4, he’s also a runner, a sport he pursues with the exactitude of, well, a rocket scientist. He has calculated his stride rate, and says (only half-joking) that he’d be world-class if only his legs were longer. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that he is a polarizing figure in the planetary science community; his single-minded pursuit of Pluto has annoyed some colleagues. So has his passionate defense of Pluto in the years since astronomy officials famously demoted it to a “dwarf planet,” giving it the bum’s rush out of the exclusive solar system club, now limited to the eight biggies.
The timing of that insult, which is how Stern and other jilted Pluto-lovers see it, could not have been more dramatic, coming in August 2006, just months after New Horizons had rocketed into space from Cape Canaveral. What makes Pluto’s demotion even more painfully ironic to Stern is that some of the groundbreaking scientific discoveries that he had predicted greatly strengthened his opponents’ arguments, all while opening the door to a new age of planetary science. In fact, Stern himself used the term “dwarf planet” as early as the 1990s.
The wealthy astronomer Percival Lowell, widely known for insisting there were artificial canals on Mars, first started searching for Pluto at his private observatory in Arizona in 1905. Careful study of planetary orbits had suggested that Neptune was not the only object out there exerting a gravitational tug on Uranus, and Lowell set out to find what he dubbed “Planet X.” He died without success, but a young man named Clyde Tombaugh, who had a passion for astronomy though no college education, arrived at the observatory and picked up the search in 1929. After 7,000 hours staring at some 90 million star images, he caught sight of a new planet on his photographic plates in February 1930. The name Pluto, the Roman god of the underworld, was suggested by an 11-year-old British girl named Venetia Burney, who had been discussing the discovery with her grandfather. The name was unanimously adopted by the Lowell Observatory staff in part because the first two letters are Percival Lowell’s initials.
Pluto’s solitary nature baffled scientists for decades. Shouldn’t there be other, similar objects out beyond Neptune? Why did the solar system appear to run out of material so abruptly? “It seemed just weird that the outer solar system would be so empty, while the inner solar system was filled with planets and asteroids,” recalls David Jewitt, a planetary scientist at UCLA. Throughout the decades various astronomers proposed that there were smaller bodies out there, yet unseen. Comets that periodically sweep in to light up the night sky, they speculated, probably hailed from a belt or disk of debris at the solar system’s outer reaches.
Stern, in a paper published in 1991 in the journal Icarus, argued not only that the belt existed, but also that it contained things as big as Pluto. They were simply too far away, and too dim, to be easily seen. His reasoning: Neptune’s moon Triton is a near-twin of Pluto, and probably orbited the Sun before it was captured by Neptune’s gravity. Uranus has a drastically tilted axis of rotation, probably due to a collision eons ago with a Pluto-size object. That made three Pluto-like objects at least, which suggested to Stern there had to be more. The number of planets in the solar system would someday need to be revised upward, he thought. There were probably hundreds, with the majority, including Pluto, best assigned to a subcategory of “dwarf planets.”
Just a year later, the first object (other than Pluto and Charon) was discovered in that faraway region, called the Kuiper Belt after the Dutch-born astronomer Gerard Kuiper. Found by Jewitt and his colleague, Jane Luu, it’s only about 100 miles across, while Pluto spans 1,430 miles. A decade later, Caltech astronomers Mike Brown and Chad Trujillo discovered an object about half the size of Pluto, large enough to be spherical, which they named Quaoar (pronounced “kwa-war” and named for the creator god in the mythology of the pre-Columbian Tongva people native to the Los Angeles basin). It was followed in quick succession by Haumea, and in 2005, Brown’s group found Eris, about the same size as Pluto and also spherical.
Planetary scientists have spotted many hundreds of smaller Kuiper Belt Objects; there could be as many as ten billion that are a mile across or more. Stern will take a more accurate census of their sizes with the cameras on New Horizons. His simple idea is to map and measure Pluto’s and Charon’s craters, which are signs of collisions with other Kuiper Belt Objects and thus serve as a representative sample. When Pluto is closest to the Sun, frozen surface material evaporates into a temporary atmosphere, some of which escapes into space. This “escape erosion” can erase older craters, so Pluto will provide a recent census. Charon, without this erosion, will offer a record that spans cosmic history. In one leading theory, the original, much denser Kuiper Belt would have formed dozens of planets as big or bigger than Earth, but the orbital changes of Jupiter and Saturn flung most of the building blocks away before that could happen, nipping planet formation in the bud.
By the time New Horizons launched at Cape Canaveral on January 19, 2006, it had become difficult to argue that Pluto was materially different from many of its Kuiper Belt neighbors. Curiously, no strict definition of “planet” existed at the time, so some scientists argued that there should be a size cutoff, to avoid making the list of planets too long. If you called Pluto and the other relatively small bodies something else, you’d be left with a nice tidy eight planets—Mercury through Neptune. In 2000, Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, had famously chosen the latter option, leaving Pluto out of a solar system exhibit.
Then, with New Horizons less than 15 percent of the way to Pluto, members of the International Astronomical Union, responsible for naming and classifying celestial objects, voted at a meeting in Prague to make that arrangement official. Pluto and the others were now to be known as dwarf planets, which, in contrast to Stern’s original meaning, were not planets. They were an entirely different sort of beast. Because he discovered Eris, Caltech’s Brown is sometimes blamed for the demotion. He has said he would have been fine with either outcome, but he did title his 2010 memoir How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming.
“It’s embarrassing,” recalls Stern, who wasn’t in Prague for the vote. “It’s wrong scientifically and it’s wrong pedagogically.” He said the same sort of things publicly at the time, in language that’s unusually blunt in the world of science. Among the dumbest arguments for demoting Pluto and the others, Stern noted, was the idea that having 20 or more planets would be somehow inconvenient. Also ridiculous, he says, is the notion that a dwarf planet isn’t really a planet. “Is a dwarf evergreen not an evergreen?” he asks.
Stern’s barely concealed contempt for what he considers foolishness of the bureaucratic and scientific varieties hasn’t always endeared him to colleagues. One astronomer I asked about Stern replied, “My mother taught me that if you can’t say anything nice about someone, don’t say anything.” Another said, “His last name is ‘Stern.’ That tells you all you need to know.”
DeGrasse Tyson, for his part, offers measured praise: “When it comes to everything from rousing public sentiment in support of astronomy to advocating space science missions to defending Pluto, Alan Stern is always there.”
Stern also inspires less reserved admiration. “Alan is incredibly creative and incredibly energetic,” says Richard Binzel, an MIT planetary scientist who has known Stern since their graduate-school days. “I don’t know where he gets it.”
Read the entire article here.

Image: New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, CO, celebrates with New Horizons Flight Controllers after they received confirmation from the spacecraft that it had successfully completed the flyby of Pluto, Tuesday, July 14, 2015 in the Mission Operations Center (MOC) of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), Laurel, Maryland. Public domain.
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Europa Here We Come

NASA-Europa

With the the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Philae lander firmly rooted to a comet, NASA’s Dawn probe orbiting dwarf planet Ceres and its New Horizon’s spacecraft hurtling towards Pluto and Charon it would seem that we are doing lots of extraterrestrial exploration lately. Well, this is exciting, but for arm-chair explorers like myself this is still not enough. So, three cheers to NASA for giving a recent thumbs up to their next great mission — Europa Multi Flyby — to Jupiter’s moon, Europa.

Development is a go! But we’ll have to wait until the mid-2020s for lift-off. And, better yet, ESA has a mission to Europa planned for launch in 2022. Can’t wait — it looks spectacular.

From ars technica:

Get ready, we’re going to Europa! NASA’s plan to send a spacecraft to explore Jupiter’s moon just passed a major hurdle. The mission, planned for the 2020s, now has NASA’s official stamp of approval and was given the green light to move from concept phase to development phase.

Formerly known as Europa Clipper, the mission will temporarily be referred to as the Europa Multi Flyby Mission until it is given an official name. The current mission plan would include 45 separate flybys around the moon while orbiting Jupiter every two weeks. “We are taking an exciting step from concept to mission in our quest to find signs of life beyond Earth,” John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a press release.

Since Galileo first turned a spyglass up to the skies and discovered the Jovian moon, Europa has been a world of intrigue. In the 1970s, we received our first look at Europa through the eyes of Pioneer 10 and 11, followed closely by the twin Voyager satellites in the 1980s. Their images provided the first detailed view of the Solar System’s smoothest body. These photos also delivered evidence that the moon might be harboring a subsurface ocean. In the mid 1990s, the Galileo spacecraft gave us the best view to-date of Europa’s surface.

“Observations of Europa have provided us with tantalizing clues over the last two decades, and the time has come to seek answers to one of humanity’s most profound questions,” Grunsfeld said. “Mainly, is there life beyond Earth?”

Sending a probe to explore Jupiter’s icy companion will help scientists in the search for this life. If Europa can support microbial life, other glacial moons such as Enceladus might as well.

Water, chemistry, and energy are three components essential to the presence of life. Liquid water is present throughout the Solar System, but so far the only world known to support life is Earth. Scientists think that if we follow the water, we may find evidence of life beyond Earth.

However, water alone will not support life; the right combination of ingredients is key. This mission to Europa will explore the moon’s potential habitability as opposed to outright looking for life.

When we set out to explore new worlds, we do it in phases. First we flyby, then we send robotic landers, and then we send people. This three-step process is how we, as humans, have explored the Moon and how we are partly through the process of exploring Mars.

The flyby of Europa will be a preliminary mission with four objectives: explore the ice shell and subsurface ocean; determine the composition, distribution, and chemistry of various compounds and how they relate to the ocean composition; map surface features and determine if there is current geologic activity; characterize sites to determine where a future lander might safely touch down.

Europa, at 3,100 kilometers wide (1,900 miles), is the sixth largest moon in the Solar System. It has a 15 to 30 kilometer (9 to 18 mile) thick icy outer crust that covers a salty subsurface ocean. If that ocean is in contact with Europa’s rocky mantle, a number of complex chemical reactions are possible. Scientists think that hydrothermal vents lurk on the seafloor, and, just like the vents here on Earth, they could support life.

The Galileo orbiter taught us most of what we know about Europa through 12 flybys of the icy moon. The new mission is scheduled to conduct approximately 45 flybys over a 2.5-year period, providing even more insight into the moon’s habitability.

Read the article here.

Image: Europa. Europa is Jupiter’s sixth-closest moon, and the sixth-largest moon in the Solar System. Courtesy of NASA.

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Hello Pluto

Pluto-New-Horizons-14Jul2015

Today NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft reached the (dwarf) planet Pluto and its five moons. After a 9.5 year voyage covering around 3 billion miles, the refrigerator-sized probe has finally reached its icy target. Unfortunately, New Horizons is traveling so quickly it will not enter orbit around Pluto but continue its 30,000 mph trek into interstellar space. The images, and science, that the craft will stream back to Earth over the coming months should be spectacular.

Check out more on the New Horizon’s mission here.

Image: Pluto as imaged by New Horizons, last image prior to its closest approach on July 14, 2015. Images courtesy of NASA.

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Tormented… For Things Remote

Would that our troubled species could put aside its pettiness and look to the stars. We are meant to seek, to explore, to discover, to learn…

If you do nothing else today, watch this video and envision our future. It’s compelling, gorgeous and achievable.

Visit the filmmaker’s website here.

Video: Wanderers, a short film. Courtesy of Erik Wernquist. Words by the Carl Sagan.

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Philae: The Little Lander That Could

Farewell_Philae_-_narrow-angle_view_large

What audacity! A ten year journey, covering 4 billion miles.

On November 12, 2014 at 16:03 UTC, the Rosetta spacecraft delivered the Philae probe to land on a comet; a comet the size of New York’s Manhattan Island, speeding through our solar system at 34,000 miles per hour. What utter audacity!

The team of scientists, engineers, and theoreticians at the European Space Agency (ESA), and its partners, pulled off an awe-inspiring, remarkable and historic feat; a feat that ranks with the other pinnacles of human endeavor and exploration. It shows what our fledgling species can truly achieve.

Sadly, our species is flawed, capable of such terrible atrocities to ourselves and to our planet. And yet, triumphant stories like this one — the search for fundamental understanding through science —  must give us all some continued hope.

Exploration. Inspiration. Daring. Risk. Execution. Discovery. Audacity!

From the Guardian:

These could be the dying hours of Philae, the device the size of a washing machine which travelled 4bn miles to hitch a ride on a comet. Philae is the “lander” which on Wednesday sprung from the craft that had carried it into deep, dark space, bounced a couple of times on the comet’s surface, and eventually found itself lodged in the shadows, starved of the sunlight its solar batteries needed to live. Yesterday, the scientists who had been planning this voyage for the past quarter-century sat and waited for word from their little explorer, hoping against hope that it still had enough energy to reveal its discoveries.

If Philae expires on the hard, rocky surface of Comet 67P the sadness will be felt far beyond mission control in Darmstadt, Germany. Indeed, it may be felt there least of all: those who have dedicated their working lives to this project pronounced it a success, regardless of a landing that didn’t quite go to plan (Philae’s anchor harpoons didn’t fire, so with gravity feeble there was nothing to keep the machine anchored to the original, optimal landing site). They were delighted to have got there at all and thrilled at Philae’s early work. Up to 90% of the science they planned to carry out has been done. As one scientist put it, “We’ve already got fantastic data.”

Those who lacked their expertise couldn’t help feel a pang all the same. The human instinct to anthropomorphise does not confine itself to cute animals, as anyone who has seen the film Wall-E can testify. If Pixar could make us well up for a waste-disposing robot, it’s little wonder the European Space Agency has had us empathising with a lander ejected from its “mothership”, identifiable only by its “spindly leg”. In those nervous hours, many will have been rooting for Philae, imagining it on that cold, hard surface yearning for sunlight, its beeps of data slowly petering out as its strength faded.

 But that barely accounts for the fascination this adventure has stirred. Part of it is simple, a break from the torments down here on earth. You don’t have to go as far as Christopher Nolan film Interstellar, which fantasises about leaving our broken, ravaged planet and starting somewhere else – to enjoy a rare respite from our earthly woes. For a few merciful days, the news has featured a story remote from the bloodshed of Islamic State and Ukraine, from the pain of child abuse and poverty. Even those who don’t dream of escaping this planet can relish the escapism.

But the comet landing has provided more than a diversion: it’s been an antidote too. For this has been a story of human cooperation in a world of conflict. The narrow version of this point focuses on this as a European success story. When our daily news sees “Europe” only as the source of unwanted migrants or maddening regulation, Philae has offered an alternative vision; that Germany, Italy, France, Britain and others can achieve far more together than they could ever dream of alone. The geopolitical experts so often speak of the global pivot to Asia, the rise of the Bric nations and the like – but this extraordinary voyage has proved that Europe is not dead yet.

Even that, as I say, is to view it too narrowly. The US, through Nasa, is involved as well. And note the language attached to the hardware: the Rosetta satellite, the Ptolemy measuring instrument, the Osiris on-board camera, Philea itself – all imagery drawn from ancient Egypt. The spacecraft was named after the Rosetta stone, the discovery that unlocked hieroglyphics, as if to suggest a similar, if not greater, ambition: to decode the secrets of the universe. By evoking humankind’s ancient past, this is presented as a mission of the entire human race. There will be no flag planting on Comet 67P. As the Open University’s Jessica Hughes puts it, Philea, Rosetta and the rest “have become distant representatives of our shared, earthly heritage”.

That fits because this is how we experience such a moment: as a human triumph. When we marvel at the numbers – a probe has travelled for 10 years, crossed those 4bn miles, landed on a comet speeding at 34,000mph and done so within two minutes of its planned arrival – we marvel at what our species is capable of. I can barely get past the communication: that Darmstadt is able to contact an object 300 million miles away, sending instructions, receiving pictures. I can’t get phone reception in my kitchen, yet the ESA can be in touch with a robot that lies far beyond Mars. Like watching Usain Bolt run or hearing Maria Callas sing, we find joy and exhilaration in the outer limits of human excellence.

And of course we feel awe. What Interstellar prompts us to feel artificially – making us gasp at the confected scale and digitally assisted magnitude – Philae gives us for real. It is the stretch of time and place, glimpsing somewhere so far away it is as out of reach as ancient Egypt.

All that is before you reckon with the voyage’s scholarly purpose. “We are on the cutting edge of science,” they say, and of course they are. They are probing the deepest mysteries, including the riddle of how life began. (One theory suggests a comet brought water to a previously arid Earth.) What the authors of the Book of Genesis understood is that this question of origins is intimately bound up with the question of purpose. From the dawn of human time, to ask “How did we get here?” has been to ask “Why are we here?”

It’s why contemplation of the cosmic so soon reverts to the spiritual. Interstellar, like 2001: A Space Odyssey before it, is no different. It’s why one of the most powerful moments of Ronald Reagan’s presidency came when he paid tribute to the astronauts killed in the Challenger disaster. They had, he said, “slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God”.

Not that you have to believe in such things to share the romance. Secularists, especially on the left, used to have a faith of their own. They believed that humanity was proceeding along an inexorable path of progress, that the world was getting better and better with each generation. The slaughter of the past century robbed them – us – of that once-certain conviction. Yet every now and again comes an unambiguous advance, what one ESA scientist called “A big step for human civilisation”. Even if we never hear from Philae again, we can delight in that.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Philae lander, detached from the Rosetta spacecraft, on its solitary journey towards the surface of comet P67. Courtesy of ESA.

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The (Space) Explorers Club

clangers

Thirteen private companies recently met in New York city to present their plans and ideas for their commercial space operations. Ranging from space tourism to private exploration of the Moon and asteroid mining the companies gathered at the Explorers Club to herald a new phase of human exploration.

From Technology Review:

It was a rare meeting of minds. Representatives from 13 commercial space companies gathered on May 1 at a place dedicated to going where few have gone before: the Explorers Club in New York.

Amid the mansions and high-end apartment buildings just off Central Park, executives from space-tourism companies, rocket-making startups, and even a business that hopes to make money by mining asteroids for useful materials showed off displays and gave presentations.

The Explorers Club event provided a snapshot of what may be a new industry in the making. In an era when NASA no longer operates manned space missions and government funding for unmanned missions is tight, a host of startups—most funded by space enthusiasts with very deep pockets—have stepped up in hope of filling the gap. In the past few years, several have proved themselves. Elon Musk’s SpaceX, for example, delivers cargo to the International Space Station for NASA. Both Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and rocket-plane builder XCOR Aerospace plan to perform demonstrations this year that will help catapult commercial spaceflight from the fringe into the mainstream.

The advancements being made by space companies could matter to more than the few who can afford tickets to space. SpaceX has already shaken incumbents in the $190 billion satellite launch industry by offering cheaper rides into space for communications, mapping, and research satellites.

However, space tourism also looks set to become significantly cheaper. “People don’t have to actually go up for it to impact them,” says David Mindell, an MIT professor of aeronautics and astronautics and a specialist in the history of engineering. “At $200,000 you’ll have a lot more ‘space people’ running around, and over time that could have a big impact.” One direct result, says Mindell, may be increased public support for human spaceflight, especially “when everyone knows someone who’s been into space.”

Along with reporters, Explorer Club members, and members of the public who had paid the $75 to $150 entry fee, several former NASA astronauts were in attendance to lend their endorsements—including the MC for the evening, Michael López-Alegría, veteran of the space shuttle and the ISS. Also on hand, highlighting the changing times with his very presence, was the world’s first second-generation astronaut, Richard Garriott. Garriott’s father flew missions on Skylab and the space shuttle in the 1970s and 1980s, respectively. However, Garriott paid his own way to the International Space Station in 2008 as a private citizen.

The evening was a whirlwind of activity, with customer testimonials and rapid-fire displays of rocket launches, spacecraft in orbit, and space ships under construction and being tested. It all painted a picture of an industry on the move, with multiple companies offering services from suborbital experiences and research opportunities to flights to Earth orbit and beyond.

The event also offered a glimpse at the plans of several key players.

Lauren De Niro Pipher, head of astronaut relations at Virgin Galactic, revealed that the company’s founder plans to fly with his family aboard the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo rocket plane in November or December of this year. The flight will launch the company’s suborbital spaceflight business, for which De Niro Pipher said more than 700 customers have so far put down deposits on tickets costing $200,000 to $250,000.

The director of business development for Blue Origin, Bretton Alexander, announced his company’s intention to begin test flights of its first full-scale vehicle within the next year. “We have not publicly started selling rides in space as others have,” said Alexander during his question-and-answer session. “But that is our plan to do that, and we look forward to doing that, hopefully soon.”

Blue Origin is perhaps the most secretive of the commercial spaceflight companies, typically revealing little of its progress toward the services it plans to offer: suborbital manned spaceflight and, later, orbital flight. Like Virgin, it was founded by a wealthy entrepreneur, in this case Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. The company, which is headquartered in Kent, Washington, has so far conducted at least one supersonic test flight and a test of its escape rocket system, both at its West Texas test center.

Also on hand was the head of Planetary Resources, Chris Lewicki, a former spacecraft engineer and manager for Mars programs at NASA. He showed off a prototype of his company’s Arkyd 100, an asteroid-hunting space telescope the size of a toaster oven. If all goes according to plan, a fleet of Arkyd 100s will first scan the skies from Earth orbit in search of nearby asteroids that might be rich in mineral wealth and water, to be visited by the next generation of Arkyd probes. Water is potentially valuable for future space-based enterprises as rocket fuel (split into its constituent elements of hydrogen and oxygen) and for use in life support systems. Planetary Resources plans to “launch early, launch often,” Lewicki told me after his presentation. To that end, the company is building a series of CubeSat-size spacecraft dubbed Arkyd 3s, to be launched from the International Space Station by the end of this year.

Andrew Antonio, experience manager at a relatively new company, World View Enterprises, showed a computer-generated video of his company’s planned balloon flights to the edge of space. A manned capsule will ascend to 100,000 feet, or about 20 miles up, from which the curvature of Earth and the black sky of space are visible. At $75,000 per ticket (reduced to $65,000 for Explorers Club members), the flight will be more affordable than competing rocket-powered suborbital experiences but won’t go as high. Antonio said his company plans to launch a small test vehicle “in about a month.”

XCOR’s director of payload sales and operations, Khaki Rodway, showed video clips of the company’s Lynx suborbital rocket plane coming together in Mojave, California, as well as a profile of an XCOR spaceflight customer. Hangared just down the flight line at the same air and space port where Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is undergoing flight testing, the Lynx offers seating for one paying customer per flight at $95,000. XCOR hopes the Lynx will begin flying by the end of this year.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Still from the Clangers TV show. Courtesy of BBC / Smallfilms.

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NASA’s 30-Year Roadmap

NASA-logoWhile NASA vacillates over any planned manned missions back to the Moon or to the Red Planet, the agency continues to think ahead. Despite perennial budget constraints and severe cuts NASA still has some fascinating plans for unmanned exploration of our solar system and beyond to the very horizon of the visible universe.

In its latest 30 year roadmap, NASA maps out its long-term goals, which include examining the atmospheres of exoplanets, determining the structure of neutron stars and tracing the history of galactic formation.

Download the NASA roadmap directly from NASA here.

From Technology Review:

The past 30 years has seen a revolution in astronomy and our understanding of the Universe. That’s thanks in large part to a relatively small number of orbiting observatories that have changed the way we view our cosmos.

These observatories have contributed observations from every part of the electromagnetic spectrum, from NASA’s Compton Gamma Ray Observatory at the very high energy end to HALCA, a Japanese 8-metre radio telescope at the low energy end.  Then there is the Hubble Space Telescope in the visible part of the spectrum, arguably the greatest telescope in history.

It’s fair to say that these  observatories have had a profound effect not just on science , but on the history of humankind.

So an interesting question is: what next?  Today, we find out, at least as far as NASA is concerned, with the publication of the organisation’s roadmap for astrophysics over the next 30 years. The future space missions identified in this document will have a profound influence on the future of astronomy but also on the way imaging technology develops in general.

So what has NASA got up its sleeve? To start off with, it says its goal in astrophysics is to answer three questions: Are we alone? How did we get here? And how does our universe work?

So let’s start with the first question. Perhaps the most important discovery in astronomy in recent years is that the Milky Way is littered with planets, many of which must have conditions ripe for life. So it’s no surprise that NASA aims first to understand the range of planets that exist and the types of planetary systems they form.

The James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble’s successor due for launch in 2018, will study the atmospheres of exoplanets, along with the Large UV Optical IR (LUVOIR) Surveyor due for launch in the 2020s. Together, these telescopes may produce results just as spectacular as Hubble’s.

To complement the Kepler mission, which has found numerous warm planets orbiting all kinds of stars, NASA is also planning the WFIRST-AFTA mission which will look for cold, free-floating planets using gravitational lensing. That’s currently scheduled for launch in the mid 2020s.

Beyond that, NASA hopes to build an ExoEarth Mapper mission that combines the observations from several large optical space telescopes to produce the first resolved images of other Earths. “For the first time, we will identify continents and oceans—and perhaps the signatures of life—on distant worlds,” says the report.

To tackle the second question—how did we get here?—NASA hopes to trace the origins of the first stars, star clusters and galaxies, again using JWST, LUVOIR and WFIRST-AXA. “These missions will also directly trace the history of galaxies and intergalactic gas through cosmic time, peering nearly 14 billion years into the past,” it says.

And to understand how the universe works, NASA hopes to observe the most extreme events in the universe, by peering inside neutron stars, observing the collisions of black holes and even watching the first nanoseconds of time. Part of this will involve an entirely new way to observe the universe using gravitational waves (as long as today’s Earth-based gravitational wave detectors finally spot something of interest).

The technology challenges in all this will be immense. NASA needs everything from bigger, lighter optics and extremely high contrast imaging devices to smart materials and micro-thrusters with unprecedented positioning accuracy.

One thing NASA’s roadmap doesn’t mention though is money and management—the two thorniest issues in the space business. The likelihood is that NASA will not have to sweat too hard for the funds it needs to carry out these missions. Much more likely is that any sleep lost will be over the type of poor management and oversight that has brought many a multibillion dollar mission to its knees.

Read the entire article here.

Image: NASA logo. Courtesy of NASA / Wikipedia.

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One Way Ticket to Mars

You would be rightfully mistaken for thinking this might be a lonesome bus trip to Mars, Pennsylvania or to the North American headquarters of Mars, purveyors of many things chocolaty including M&Ms, Mars Bars and Snickers, in New Jersey. This one way ticket is further afield, to the Red Planet, and comes from a company known as Mars One — estimated time of departure, 2023.

From the Guardian:

A few months before he died, Carl Sagan recorded a message of hope to would-be Mars explorers, telling them: “Whatever the reason you’re on Mars is, I’m glad you’re there. And I wish I was with you.”

On Monday, 17 years after the pioneering astronomer set out his hopeful vision of the future in 1996, a company from the Netherlands is proposing to turn Sagan’s dreams of reaching Mars into reality. The company, Mars One, plans to send four astronauts on a trip to the Red Planet to set up a human colony in 2023. But there are a couple of serious snags.

Firstly, when on Mars their bodies will have to adapt to surface gravity that is 38% of that on Earth. It is thought that this would cause such a total physiological change in their bone density, muscle strength and circulation that voyagers would no longer be able to survive in Earth’s conditions. Secondly, and directly related to the first, they will have to say goodbye to all their family and friends, as the deal doesn’t include a return ticket.

The Mars One website states that a return “cannot be anticipated nor expected”. To return, they would need a fully assembled and fuelled rocket capable of escaping the gravitational field of Mars, on-board life support systems capable of up to a seven-month voyage and the capacity either to dock with a space station orbiting Earth or perform a safe re-entry and landing.

“Not one of these is a small endeavour” the site notes, requiring “substantial technical capacity, weight and cost”.

Nevertheless, the project has already had 10,000 applicants, according to the company’s medical director, Norbert Kraft. When the official search is launched on Monday at the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York, they expect tens of thousands more hopefuls to put their names forward.

Kraft told the Guardian that the applicants so far ranged in age from 18 to at least 62 and, though they include women, they tended to be men.

The reasons they gave for wanting to go were varied, he said. One of three examples Kraft forwarded by email to the Guardian cited Sagan.

An American woman called Cynthia, who gave her age as 32, told the company that it was a “childhood imagining” of hers to go to Mars. She described a trip her mother had taken her on in the early 1990s to a lecture at the University of Wisconsin.

In a communication to Mars One, she said the lecturer had been Sagan and she had asked him if he thought humans would land on Mars in her lifetime. Cynthia said: “He in turn asked me if I wanted to be trapped in a ‘tin can spacecraft’ for the two years it would take to get there. I told him yes, he smiled, and told me in all seriousness, that yes, he absolutely believed that humans would reach Mars in my lifetime.”

She told the project: “When I first heard about the Mars One project I thought, this is my chance – that childhood dream could become a reality. I could be one of the pioneers, building the first settlement on Mars and teaching people back home that there are still uncharted territories that humans can reach for.”

The prime attributes Mars One is looking for in astronaut-settlers is resilience, adaptability, curiosity, ability to trust and resourcefulness, according to Kraft. They must also be over 18.

Professor Gerard ‘t Hooft, winner of the Nobel prize for theoretical physics in 1999 and lecturer of theoretical physics at the University of Utrecht, Holland, is an ambassador for the project. ‘T Hooft admits there are unknown health risks. The radiation is “of quite a different nature” than anything that has been tested on Earth, he told the BBC.

Founded in 2010 by Bas Lansdorp, an engineer, Mars One says it has developed a realistic road map and financing plan for the project based on existing technologies and that the mission is perfectly feasible. The website states that the basic elements required for life are already present on the planet. For instance, water can be extracted from ice in the soil and Mars has sources of nitrogen, the primary element in the air we breathe. The colony will be powered by specially adapted solar panels, it says.

In March, Mars One said it had signed a contract with the American firm Paragon Space Development Corporation to take the first steps in developing the life support system and spacesuits fit for the mission.

The project will cost a reported $6bn (£4bn), a sum Lansdorp has said he hopes will be met partly by selling broadcasting rights. “The revenue garnered by the London Olympics was almost enough to finance a mission to Mars,” Lansdorp said, in an interview with ABC News in March.

Another ambassador to the project is Paul Römer, the co-creator of Big Brother, one of the first reality TV shows and one of the most successful.

On the website, Römer gave an indication of how the broadcasting of the project might proceed: “This mission to Mars can be the biggest media event in the world,” said Römer. “Reality meets talent show with no ending and the whole world watching. Now there’s a good pitch!”

The aim is to establish a permanent human colony, according to the company’s website. The first team would land on the surface of Mars in 2023 to begin constructing the colony, with a team of four astronauts every two years after that.

The project is not without its sceptics, however, and concerns have been raised about how astronauts might get to the surface and establish a colony with all the life support and other requirements needed. There were also concerns over the health implications for the applicants.

Dr Veronica Bray, from the University of Arizona’s lunar and planetary laboratory, told BBC News that Earth was protected from solar winds by a strong magnetic field, without which it would be difficult to survive. The Martian surface is very hostile to life. There is no liquid water, the atmospheric pressure is “practically a vacuum”, radiation levels are higher and temperatures vary wildly. High radiation levels can lead to increased cancer risk, a lowered immune system and possibly infertility, she said.

To minimise radiation, the project team will cover the domes they plan to build with several metres of soil, which the colonists will have to dig up.

The mission hopes to inspire generations to “believe that all things are possible, that anything can be achieved” much like the Apollo moon landings.

“Mars One believes it is not only possible, but imperative that we establish a permanent settlement on Mars in order to accelerate our understanding of the formation of the solar system, the origins of life, and of equal importance, our place in the universe” it says.

Read the entire article following the jump.

Image: Panoramic View From ‘Rocknest’ Position of Curiosity Mars Rover. Courtesy of JPL / NASA.

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Off World Living

Will humanity ever transcend gravity to become a space-faring race? A simple napkin-based calculation will give you the answer.

From Scientific American:

Optimistic visions of a human future in space seem to have given way to a confusing mix of possibilities, maybes, ifs, and buts. It’s not just the fault of governments and space agencies, basic physics is in part the culprit. Hoisting mass away from Earth is tremendously difficult, and thus far in fifty years we’ve barely managed a total the equivalent of a large oil-tanker. But there’s hope.

Back in the 1970?s the physicist Gerard O’Neill and his students investigated concepts of vast orbital structures capable of sustaining entire human populations. It was the tail end of the Apollo era, and despite the looming specter of budget restrictions and terrestrial pessimism there was still a sense of what might be, what could be, and what was truly within reach.

The result was a series of blueprints for habitats that solved all manner of problems for space life, from artificial gravity (spin up giant cylinders), to atmospheres, and radiation (let the atmosphere shield you). They’re pretty amazing, and they’ve remained perhaps one of the most optimistic visions of a future where we expand beyond the Earth.

But there’s a lurking problem, and it comes down to basic physics. It is awfully hard to move stuff from the surface of our planet into orbit or beyond. O’Neill knew this, as does anyone else who’s thought of grand space schemes. The solution is to ‘live of the land’, extracting raw materials from either the Moon with its shallower gravity well, or by processing asteroids. To get to that point though we’d still have to loft an awful lot of stuff into space – the basic tools and infrastructure have to start somewhere.

And there’s the rub. To put it into perspective I took a look at the amount of ‘stuff’ we’ve managed to get off Earth in the past 50-60 years. It’s actually pretty hard to evaluate, lots of the mass we send up comes back down in short order – either as spent rocket stages or as short-lived low-altitude satellites. But we can still get a feel for it.

To start with, a lower limit on the mass hoisted to space is the present day artificial satellite population. Altogether there are in excess of about 3,000 satellites up there, plus vast amounts of small debris. Current estimates suggest this amounts to a total of around 6,000 metric tons. The biggest single structure is the International Space Station, currently coming in at about 450 metric tons (about 992,000 lb for reference).

These numbers don’t reflect launch mass – the total of a rocket + payload + fuel. To put that into context, a fully loaded Saturn V was about 2,000 metric tons, but most of that was fuel.

When the Space Shuttle flew it amounted to about 115 metric tons (Shuttle + payload) making it into low-Earth orbit. Since there were 135 launches of the Shuttle that amounts to a total hoisted mass of about 15,000 metric tons over a 30 year period.

Read the entire article after the jump.

Image: A pair of O’Neill cylinders. NASA ID number AC75-1085. Courtesy of NASA / Wikipedia.

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Mars: 2030

Dennis Tito, the world’s first space tourist, would like to send a private space mission to Mars in 2018. He has pots of money and has founded a non-profit to gather partners and donors to get the mission off the ground. NASA has other plans. The U.S. space agency is tasked by the current administration to plan a human mission to Mars for the mid-2030s. However, due to budgetary issues, fiscal cliffs, and possible debt and deficit reduction, nobody believes it will actually happen. Though, many in NASA and lay-explorers at heart continue to hope.

From Technology Review:

In August, NASA used a series of precise and daring maneuvers to put a one-ton robotic rover named Curiosity on Mars. A capsule containing the rover parachuted through the Martian atmosphere and then unfurled a “sky crane” that lowered Curiosity safely into place. It was a thrilling moment: here were people communicating with a large and sophisticated piece of equipment 150 million miles away as it began to carry out experiments that should enhance our understanding of whether the planet has or has ever had life. So when I visited NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston a few days later, I expected to find people still basking in the afterglow. To be sure, the Houston center, where astronauts get directions from Mission Control, didn’t play the leading role in Curiosity. That project was centered at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which Caltech manages for NASA in Pasadena. Nonetheless, the landing had been a remarkable event for the entire U.S. space program. And yet I found that Mars wasn’t an entirely happy subject in Houston—especially among people who believe that humans, not only robots, should be exploring there.

In his long but narrow office in the main building of the sprawling Houston center, Bret Drake has compiled an outline explaining how six astronauts could be sent on six-month flights to Mars and what they would do there for a year and a half before their six-month flights home. Drake, 51, has been thinking about this since 1988, when he began working on what he calls the “exploration beyond low Earth orbit dream.” Back then, he expected that people would return to the moon in 2004 and be on the brink of traveling to Mars by now. That prospect soon got ruled out, but Drake pressed on: in the late 1990s he was crafting plans for human Mars missions that could take place around 2018. Today the official goal is for it to happen in the 2030s, but funding cuts have inhibited NASA’s ability to develop many of the technologies that would be required. In fact, progress was halted entirely in 2008 when Congress, in an effort to impose frugality on NASA, prohibited it from using any money to further the human exploration of Mars. “Mars was a four-letter dirty word,” laments Drake, who is deputy chief architect for NASA’s human spaceflight architecture team. Even though that rule was rescinded after a year, Drake knows NASA could perpetually remain 20 years away from a manned Mars mission.

If putting men on the moon signified the extraordinary things that technology made possible in the middle of the 20th century, sending humans to Mars would be the 21st-century version. The flight would be much more arduous and isolating for the astronauts: whereas the Apollo crews who went to the moon were never more than three days from home and could still make out its familiar features, a Mars crew would see Earth shrink into just one of billions of twinkles in space. Once they landed, the astronauts would have to survive in a freezing, windswept world with unbreathable air and 38 percent of Earth’s gravity. But if Drake is right, we can make this journey happen. He and other NASA engineers know what will be required, from a landing vehicle that could get humans through the Martian atmosphere to systems for feeding them, sheltering them, and shuttling them around once they’re there.

The problem facing Drake and other advocates for human exploration of Mars is that the benefits are mostly intangible. Some of the justifications that have been floated—including the idea that people should colonize the planet to improve humanity’s odds of survival—don’t stand up to an economic analysis. Until we have actually tried to keep people alive there, permanent human settlements on Mars will remain a figment of science fiction.

A better argument is that exploring Mars might have scientific benefits, because basic questions about the planet remain unanswered. “We know Mars was once wet and warm,” Drake says. “So did life ever arise there? If so, is it any different than life here on Earth? Where did it all go? What happened to Mars? Why did it become so cold and dry? How can we learn from that and what it may mean for Earth?” But right now Curiosity is exploring these very questions, firing lasers at rocks to determine their composition and hunting for signs of microbial life. Because of such robotic missions, our knowledge of Mars has improved so much in the past 15 years that it’s become harder to make the case for sending humans. People are far more adaptable and ingenious than robots and surely would find things drones can’t, but sending them would jack up the cost of a mission exponentially. “There’s just no real way to justify human exploration solely on the basis of science,” says Cynthia Phillips, a senior research scientist at the SETI Institute, which hunts for evidence of life elsewhere in the universe. “For the cost of sending one human to Mars, you could send an entire flotilla of robots.”

And yet human exploration of Mars has a powerful allure. No planet in our solar system is more like Earth. Our neighbor has rhythms we recognize as our own, with days slightly longer than 24 hours and polar ice caps that grow in the winter and shrink in the summer. Human explorers on Mars would profoundly expand the boundaries of human experience—providing, in the minds of many space advocates, an immeasurable benefit beyond science. “There have always been explorers in our society,” says Phillips. “If space exploration is only robots, you lose something, and you lose something really valuable.”

The Apollo Hangover

Mars was proposed as a place to explore even before the space program existed. In the 1950s, scientists such as Wernher von Braun (who had developed Nazi Germany’s combat rockets and later oversaw work on missiles and rockets for the United States) argued in magazines and on TV that as space became mankind’s next frontier, Mars would be an obvious point of interest. “Will man ever go to Mars?” von Braun wrote in Collier’s magazine in 1954. “I am sure he will—but it will be a century or more before he’s ready.”

Read the entire article after the jump.

Image: Artist’s conception of the Mars Excursion Module (MEM) proposed in a NASA Study in 1964. Courtesy of Dixon, Franklin P. Proceeding of the Symposium on Manned Planetary Missions: 1963/1964, Aeronutronic Divison of Philco Corp.

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Your Tax Dollars at Work

Naysayers would say that government, and hence taxpayer dollars, should not be used to fund science initiatives. After all academia and business seem to do a fairly good job of discovery and innovation without a helping hand pilfering from the public purse. And, without a doubt, and money aside, government funded projects do raise a number of thorny questions: On what should our hard-earned income tax be spent? Who decides on the priorities? How is progress to be measured? Do taxpayers get any benefit in return? After many of us cringe at the thought of an unelected bureaucrat or a committee of such spending millions if not billions of our dollars. Why not just spend the money on fixing our national potholes?

But despite our many human flaws and foibles we are at heart explorers. We seek to know more about ourselves, our world and our universe. Those who seek answers to fundamental questions of consciousness, aging, and life are pioneers in this quest to expand our domain of understanding and knowledge. These answers increasingly aid our daily lives through continuous improvement in medical science, and innovation in materials science. And, our collective lives are enriched as we increasingly learn more about the how and the why of our and our universe’s existence.

So, some of our dollars have gone towards big science at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) beneath Switzerland looking for constituents of matter, the wild laser experiment at the National Ignition Facility designed to enable controlled fusion reactions, and the Curiosity rover exploring Mars. Yet more of our dollars have gone to research and development into enhanced radar, graphene for next generation circuitry, online courseware, stress in coral reefs, sensors to aid the elderly, ultra-high speed internet for emergency response, erosion mitigation, self-cleaning surfaces, flexible solar panels.

Now comes word that the U.S. government wants to spend $3 billion dollars — over 10 years — on building a comprehensive map of the human brain. The media has dubbed this the “connectome” following similar efforts to map our human DNA, the genome. While this is the type of big science that may yield tangible results and benefits only decades from now, it ignites the passion and curiosity of our children to continue to seek and to find answers. So, this is good news for science and the explorer who lurks within us all.

From ars technica:

Over the weekend, The New York Times reported that the Obama administration is preparing to launch biology into its first big project post-genome: mapping the activity and processes that power the human brain. The initial report suggested that the project would get roughly $3 billion dollars over 10 years to fund projects that would provide an unprecedented understanding of how the brain operates.

But the report was remarkably short on the scientific details of what the studies would actually accomplish or where the money would actually go. To get a better sense, we talked with Brown University’s John Donoghue, who is one of the academic researchers who has been helping to provide the rationale and direction for the project. Although he couldn’t speak for the administration’s plans, he did describe the outlines of what’s being proposed and why, and he provided a glimpse into what he sees as the project’s benefits.

What are we talking about doing?

We’ve already made great progress in understanding the behavior of individual neurons, and scientists have done some excellent work in studying small populations of them. On the other end of the spectrum, decades of anatomical studies have provided us with a good picture of how different regions of the brain are connected. “There’s a big gap in our knowledge because we don’t know the intermediate scale,” Donaghue told Ars. The goal, he said, “is not a wiring diagram—it’s a functional map, an understanding.”

This would involve a combination of things, including looking at how larger populations of neurons within a single structure coordinate their activity, as well as trying to get a better understanding of how different structures within the brain coordinate their activity. What scale of neuron will we need to study? Donaghue answered that question with one of his own: “At what point does the emergent property come out?” Things like memory and consciousness emerge from the actions of lots of neurons, and we need to capture enough of those to understand the processes that let them emerge. Right now, we don’t really know what that level is. It’s certainly “above 10,” according to Donaghue. “I don’t think we need to study every neuron,” he said. Beyond that, part of the project will focus on what Donaghue called “the big question”—what emerges in the brain at these various scales?”

While he may have called emergence “the big question,” it quickly became clear he had a number of big questions in mind. Neural activity clearly encodes information, and we can record it, but we don’t always understand the code well enough to understand the meaning of our recordings. When I asked Donaghue about this, he said, “This is it! One of the big goals is cracking the code.”

Donaghue was enthused about the idea that the different aspects of the project would feed into each other. “They go hand in hand,” he said. “As we gain more functional information, it’ll inform the connectional map and vice versa.” In the same way, knowing more about neural coding will help us interpret the activity we see, while more detailed recordings of neural activity will make it easier to infer the code.

As we build on these feedbacks to understand more complex examples of the brain’s emergent behaviors, the big picture will emerge. Donaghue hoped that the work will ultimately provide “a way of understanding how you turn thought into action, how you perceive, the nature of the mind, cognition.”

How will we actually do this?

Perception and the nature of the mind have bothered scientists and philosophers for centuries—why should we think we can tackle them now? Donaghue cited three fields that had given him and his collaborators cause for optimism: nanotechnology, synthetic biology, and optical tracers. We’ve now reached the point where, thanks to advances in nanotechnology, we’re able to produce much larger arrays of electrodes with fine control over their shape, allowing us to monitor much larger populations of neurons at the same time. On a larger scale, chemical tracers can now register the activity of large populations of neurons through flashes of fluorescence, giving us a way of monitoring huge populations of cells. And Donaghue suggested that it might be possible to use synthetic biology to translate neural activity into a permanent record of a cell’s activity (perhaps stored in DNA itself) for later retrieval.

Right now, in Donaghue’s view, the problem is that the people developing these technologies and the neuroscience community aren’t talking enough. Biologists don’t know enough about the tools already out there, and the materials scientists aren’t getting feedback from them on ways to make their tools more useful.

Since the problem is understanding the activity of the brain at the level of large populations of neurons, the goal will be to develop the tools needed to do so and to make sure they are widely adopted by the bioscience community. Each of these approaches is limited in various ways, so it will be important to use all of them and to continue the technology development.

Assuming the information can be recorded, it will generate huge amounts of data, which will need to be shared in order to have the intended impact. And we’ll need to be able to perform pattern recognition across these vast datasets in order to identify correlations in activity among different populations of neurons. So there will be a heavy computational component as well.

Read the entire article following the jump.

Image: White matter fiber architecture of the human brain. Courtesy of the Human Connectome Project.

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Distance to Europa: $2 billion and 14 years

Europa is Jupiter’s gravitationally tortured moon. It has liquid oceans underneath an icy surface. This makes Europa a very interesting target for future missions to the solar system — missions looking for life beyond our planet. Unfortunately, NASA’s planned mission has yet to be funded. But should the agency (and taxpayers) come up with the estimated $2 billion to fund a spacecraft, we could well have a probe circling Europa by 2027.

From the Guardian:

Nasa scientists have drawn up plans for a mission that could look for life on Europa, a moon of Jupiter that is covered in vast oceans of water under a thick layer of ice.

The Europa Clipper would be the first dedicated mission to the waterworld moon, if it gets approval for funding from Nasa. The project is set to cost $2bn.

“On Earth, everywhere where there’s liquid water, we find life,” said Robert Pappalardo, a senior research scientist at Nasa’s jet propulsion laboratory in California, who led the design of the Europa Clipper.

“The search for life in our solar system somewhat equates to the search for liquid water. When we ask the question where are the water worlds, we have to look to the outer solar system because there are oceans beneath the icy shells of the moons.”

Jupiter’s biggest moons such as Ganymede, Callisto and Europa are too far from the sun to gain much warmth from it, but have liquid oceans beneath their blankets of ice because the moons are squeezed and warmed up as they orbit the planet.

“We generally focus down on Europa as the most promising in terms of potential habitability because of its relatively thick ice shell, an ocean that is in contact with rock below, and that it’s probably geologically active today,” Pappalardo said at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston.

In addition, because Europa is bombarded by extreme levels of radiation, the moon is likely to be covered in oxidants at its surface. These molecules are created when water is ripped apart by energetic radiation and could be used by lifeforms as a type of fuel.

For several years scientists have been considering plans for a spacecraft that could orbit Europa, but this turned out to be too expensive for Nasa’s budgets. Over the past year Pappalardo has worked with colleagues at the applied physics lab at Johns Hopkins University to come up with the Europa Clipper.

The spacecraft would orbit Jupiter and make several flybys of Europa, in the same way that the successful Cassini probe did for Saturn’s moon Titan.

“That way we can get effectively global coverage of Europa – not quite as good as an orbiter but not bad for half the cost . We have a validated cost of $2bn over the lifetime of the mission, excluding the launch,” Pappalardo said.

A probe could be readied in time for launch around 2021 and would take between three to six years to arrive at Europa, depending on the rockets used.

Read the entire article after the jump.

Image: Complex and beautiful patterns adorn the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa, as seen in this color image intended to approximate how the satellite might appear to the human eye. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk.

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National Geographic Hits 125

Chances are that if you don’t have some ancient National Geographic magazines hidden in a box in your attic, then you know someone who does. If not, it’s time to see what you have been missing all these years. National Geographic celebrates 125 years in 2013, and what better way to do this than to look back through some of its glorious photographic archives.

See more classic images after the jump.

Image: 1964, Tanzania: a touching moment between the primatologist and National Geographic grantee Jane Goodall and a young chimpanzee called Flint at Tanzania’s Gombe Stream reserve. Courtesy of Guardian / National Geographic.

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Integrated Space Plan

The Integrated Space Plan is a 100 year vision of space exploration as envisioned over 20 years ago. It is a beautiful and intricate timeline covering the period 1983 to 2100. The timeline was developed in 1989 by Ronald M. Jones at Rockwell International, using long range planning data from NASA, the National Space Policy Directive and other Western space agencies.

While optimistic the plan nonetheless outlined unmanned rover exploration on Mars (done), a comet sample return mission (done), and an orbiter around Mercury (done). Over the longer-term the plan foresaw “human expansion into the inner solar system” by 2018, with “triplanetary, earth-moon-mars infrastructure” in place by 2023, “small martian settlements” followed in 2060, and “Venus terraforming operations” in 2080. The plan concludes with “human interstellar travel” sometime after the year 2100. So, perhaps there is hope for humans beyond this Pale Blue Dot after all.

More below on this fascinating diagram and how it was re-discovered from Sean Ragan over at Make Magazine. A detailed and large download of the plan follows: Integrated Space Plan.

From Make:

I first encountered this amazing infographic hanging on a professor’s office wall when I was visiting law schools back in 1999. I’ve been trying, off and on, to run down my own copy ever since. It’s been one of those back-burner projects that I’ll poke at when it comes to mind, every now and again, but until quite recently all my leads had come up dry. All I really knew about the poster was that it had been created in the 80s by analysts at Rockwell International and that it was called the “Integrated Space Plan.”

About a month ago, all the little threads I’d been pulling on suddenly unraveled, and I was able to connect with a generous donor willing to entrust an original copy of the poster to me long enough to have it scanned at high resolution. It’s a large document, at 28 x 45?, but fortunately it’s monochrome, and reproduces well using 1-bit color at 600dpi, so even uncompressed bitmaps come in at under 5MB.

Read the entire article following the jump.

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Curiosity: August 5, 2012, 10:31 PM Pacific Time

This is the time when NASA’s latest foray into space reaches its zenith — the upcoming landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars. At this time NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission plans to deliver the nearly 2,000-pound, car-size robot rover to the surface of Mars. Curiosity will then embark on two years of exploration on the Red Planet.

For mission scientists and science buffs alike Curiosity’s descent and landing will be a major event. And, for the first time NASA will have a visual feed beamed back direct from the spacecraft (but only available after the event). The highly complex and fully automated landing has been dubbed “the Seven Minutes of Terror” by NASA engineers. Named for the time lag of signals from Curiosity to reach Earth due to the immense distance, mission scientists (and the rest of us) will not know whether Curiosity successfully descended and landed until a full 7 minutes after the fact.

For more on Curiosity and this special event visit NASA’s Jet Propulsion MSL site, here.

Image: This artist’s concept features NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars’ past or present ability to sustain microbial life. Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

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