Tag Archives: space exploration

Russia plans to withdraw from the International Space Station

Although it hasn’t been officially confirmed, the news from Russian media is likely to be true, announcing the end of a partnership between Russia, the United States, and the rest of the International Space Station (ISS) partners.

The ISS has long been a symbol of international collaboration.

The ISS was launched in 1998 by Russian and US space agencies, and to this day, is one of the most impressive and fruitful scientific projects. It’s also a rare case of partnership between Russia and the US, a partnership that seemed to work even as relations between the two countries deteriorated.

The ISS has been continuously occupied for over 20 years, but it was set to retire in 2024. The US Senate recently approved an extension to 2030, and it’s not impossible for it to be extended even more. But Russia, it seems, has had enough.

State media cited a senior government official as saying that Russia will withdraw from the ISS by 2025.

“We need a technical inspection at the station to avoid any risks in the event of an emergency,” Borisov’s office told the state-run TASS news agency.  “We will make a decision based on the results and honestly notify our partners,” it added.

This likely has a lot to do with Russia’s recent partnership announcement with China. The two countries have reportedly reached an agreement to build a lunar station together, in a move that is speculated to have as much to do with politics as it does with science.

Russia was apparently furious with the US, which focuses on the moon and among its primary objectives, aims to land the first woman and a person of color on the Moon. Last year, Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin dismissed the project as sort of space NATO, and rejected participation in the project:

“With the lunar project,” Rogozin told the Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda in July, “we are observing the departure of our American partners from the principles of cooperation and mutual support that developed during cooperation on the ISS. They see their program not as international, but similar to NATO,” he added. “We are not interested in participating in such a project.”

Russia has previously turned down offers to join NASA’s plans to develop the Gateway, a small space station orbiting the Moon. Instead, Russia, whose space program has fallen behind in recent years due to underfunding and corruption scandals, teamed up with China, which is eager to emerge as a space power, after not being a partner for the ISS.

Citing an unnamed industry source, Interfax also reported that Russia is planning to launch a new space station that would cost around $6 billion. Details on that are still scarce for the moment.

Water Found on the Moon’s Sunlit Surface

Using the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) NASA researchers have made a stunning discovery regarding the Moon, finding that water is present on the natural satellite’s dayside, as well as its colder nightside. Hydrogen traces had previously been found at the lunar south pole, which experiences near-constant sunlight, but researchers did not believe this was related to water molecules.

This illustration highlights the Moon’s Clavius Crater with an illustration depicting water trapped in the lunar soil there, along with an image of NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) that found sunlit lunar water. (Credits: NASA)
This illustration highlights the Moon’s Clavius Crater with an illustration depicting water trapped in the lunar soil there, along with an image of NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) that found sunlit lunar water. (Credits: NASA)

At a virtual press conference researchers Paul Hertz, Astrophysics Division director at NASA Headquarters, Washington, Jacob Bleacher, chief exploration scientist for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, Casey Honniball, a postdoctoral fellow at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, and Naseem Rangwala, project scientist for the SOFIA mission, NASA’s Ames Research Center, Silicon Valley, California, discussed the findings with journalists from across the globe.

“We had indications that H2O – the familiar water we know – might be present on the sunlit side of the Moon,” says Hertz.  “Now we know it is there. This discovery challenges our understanding of the lunar surface and raises intriguing questions about resources relevant for deep space exploration.”

The team’s results could change our fundamental understanding of Earth’s largest natural satellite, and also how water forms and survives in the depths of space.

The findings are significant as previously NASA had believed that water could only be found on the Moon’s nightside and in deep cavernous craters, where it may be hard to reach. Scientists had believed that water of the sunlit side of the Moon would be boiled away as a result of the lack of atmosphere and from constant exposure to the sun.

Casey Honniball offers two possible explanations as to how this water found itself at the lunar south pole; suggesting that it could have been delivered by solar winds, or by micrometeorite impacts.

If the later is the case it could relate to two possible mechanisms. Not only could micrometeorites deliver water to the surface, but the heat from these impacts could also fuse together two hydroxyl molecules, thus creating a water molecule. If this is the case, the water is likely to be sealed within tiny glass beads, about the size of a pencil tip created by the immense heat of impact.

If the water is locked up in these glass beads, they would provide an excellent protective measure to prevent water from being lost to space or evaporating as a result of the Moon’s harsh conditions.

Scientists using NASA’s telescope on an airplane, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, discovered water on a sunlit surface of the Moon for the first time. SOFIA is a modified Boeing 747SP aircraft that allows astronomers to study the solar system and beyond in ways that are not possible with ground-based telescopes. Molecular water, H2O, was found in Clavius Crater, one of the largest craters visible from Earth in the Moon’s southern hemisphere. This discovery indicates that water may be distributed across the lunar surface, and not limited to cold, shadowed places.
Credits: NASA/Ames Research Center

How Much Water Have NASA Found?

Previous measurements of hydrogen signals from the moon’s sunlit side had been associated with hydroxyl molecules, which at a 3-micron scale at which observations were performed, is indistinguishable from water. SOFIA’s observation was conducted at an improved 6-micron resolution, thus allowing astronomers to confirm the presence of water.

“Prior to the SOFIA observations, we knew there was some kind of hydration,” says Honniball, the lead author who published the results from her graduate thesis work at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa in Honolulu. “But we didn’t know how much, if any, was actually water molecules – like we drink every day – or something more like drain cleaner.

“Water has a distinct chemical fingerprint at 6 microns that hydroxyl does not have.”

Naseem Rangwala points out the amounts of water found, equivalent to roughly a 12oz bottle of water in a cubic meter, is extremely spread out.

Whilst the observations are only of the Moon’s surface, if the water is contained in glass beads then it is expected that these beads could find their way deeper beneath the lunar surface.

SOFIA will now conduct follow-up observations looking for water in additional sunlit locations and during different lunar phases to learn more about how the water is produced, stored, and moved across the Moon. 


SOFIA is the world’s largest airborne observatory, a modified 747 that cruises high in the Earth’s stratosphere. From an altitude of 38,000 — 40,000 feet SOFIA’s onboard 2.7-meter (106-inch) reflecting telescope is able to capture a clear view of the Universe and objects in the solar system in the infrared spectrum, untroubled by the obscuring effect of 99% of the atmosphere’s water vapour. It is this unobscured view that has allowed it to capture data that led to this astounding new discovery about water on the Moon.

SOFIA-- here seen soaring over the snow-covered Sierra Nevada mountains with its telescope door open during a test flight--has allowed NASA to make a major new moon discovery. SOFIA is a modified Boeing 747SP aircraft. (NASA/Jim Ross)
SOFIA– here seen soaring over the snow-covered Sierra Nevada mountains with its telescope door open during a test flight–has allowed NASA to make a major new moon discovery. SOFIA is a modified Boeing 747SP aircraft. (NASA/Jim Ross)

SOFIA’s main purpose is to observe the Universe in the infrared spectrum, spotting objects and events that aren’t observable in visible light. The fact that it is mounted aboard a modified 747 means it can make observations from any point on Earth, a feature that has made it particularly useful for spotting transient events. This includes eclipse–like occurrences of Pluto, Titan–a moon of Saturn, and MU69–a Kuiper belt object also known as Arrokoth, which earned the nickname the ‘space snowman’ due to its bowling pin-like shape.

What is astounding about SOFIA’s observation is that it was made during a test of the telescope as the renovated 747 flew over the Nevada Desert on its way back to its home base in California. The telescope itself isn’t usually used to view relatively bright objects such as the Moon. Instead, it would usually be used to observed dim objects such as black holes, star clusters, and distant galaxies.

“It was, in fact, the first time SOFIA has looked at the Moon, and we weren’t even completely sure if we would get reliable data, but questions about the Moon’s water compelled us to try,” says Rangwala, SOFIA’s project scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “It’s incredible that this discovery came out of what was essentially a test, and now that we know we can do this, we’re planning more flights to do more observations.”

Water, Water, Everywhere. But is there a drop to drink?

This new discovery contributes to NASA’s efforts to learn about more about the Moon, in the process supporting its goal of deep space exploration. The big question is how accessible is this water and can it be used by a future mission?

In this multi-temporal illumination map of the lunar south pole, where the team has discovered the telltale fingerprint of water molecules. Shackleton crater (19 km diameter) is in the centre, the south pole is located approximately at 9 o’clock on its rim. The map was created from images from the camera aboard the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Credits: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

The researchers are clear that answering many of these remaining questions will require getting down to the surface of the Moon The data collected by SOFIA will be of use to these surface mission, particularly for the future NASA mission  Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER). VIPER will take to the surface of the Moon to create a water resource map of its surface, which can then be used by future missions.

“Water is a valuable resource, for both scientific purposes and for use by our explorers,” explains Bleacher. “If we can use the resources at the Moon, then we can carry less water and more equipment to help enable new scientific discoveries.”

If water can be mined from the Moon, it could fulfil a variety of use, including the synthesis of oxygen for astronauts, and even the creation of fuel. Understanding what form the water is in is key to understanding how to extract it.

“Finding water that is easier to reach is important to us,” says Bleacher. “If it is locked up in glass beads it may take more energy to retrieve than if it locked up in the soil.” That means NASA will be looking to discover what state the water is in.

All this comes ahead of NASA’s 2024 Artemis program which will see the first woman and the next man sent to the lunar surface. This will be in preparation for NASA’s next major goal, human exploration of Mars, which could begin as early as the 2030s.

In addition to these practical applications for future space exploration, a deeper understanding of the Moon enables astronomers, cosmologists, and astrophysicists to piece together a better picture of the broader history of the inner solar system and the possibility of water existing deeper in space.


It isn't hyperbole to say, the survival of our species may depend on a sucessful method of preventing an asteroid impact. (Robert Lea)

Playing Asteroids is No Game: Humanity’s Future Could Depend on Diverting Asteroid Impacts

Earth is surrounded by thousands of Near-Earth Objects, a few of these are potentially hazardous, and fewer still which are classified as planet killers. An impact from the latter carries implications as severe the name suggests. Clearly, we need a method of diverting such objects. In fact, it isn’t hyperbole to say, the survival of our species may depend on it. 

News stories about massive objects skirting close to Earth are pretty common in the media, as a timely example, in April news organisations across the globe reported a mile-wide asteroid passing with just 3.9 miles of our planet. Fortunately, the rock identified as (52768) 1998 OR2, posed no real impact threat. 

 (52768) 1998 OR2 passed within 3.9 miles of Earth last month. A near miss, but it no-means the only NEO out there. @AreciboRadar/Twitter/PA
(52768) 1998 OR2 passed within 3.9 miles of Earth last month. A near miss, but it no-means the only NEO out there. @AreciboRadar/Twitter/PA

Yet, our planet is scarred with the evidence of previous collisions with such objects. The most frequently thought of example is the impact that wiped out the dinosaurs 66-million-years-ago, the scale of which can be seen by examining the Chicxulub crater centred on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. 

The dinosaur destroying asteroid is estimated to have been around 10–15 km in width, but the crater it created was 150 km in diameter and the debris in threw into the atmosphere blacked out the Sun for months as well as triggering massive tidal waves which battered the entire continent of America and other deadly secondary effects. 

Even looking beyond the surface of our own planet, the Moon’s geology is strongly shaped by a history of asteroid impacts, as are the faces of other planets in the solar system.

 Animation depicts a mapping of the positions of known near-Earth objects The animation depicts a mapping of the positions of known near-Earth objects (NEOs) at points in time over the past 20 years and finishes with a map of all known asteroids as of January 2018. Asteroid search teams supported by NASA’s NEO Observations Program have found over 95 per cent of near-Earth asteroids currently known. There are now over 18,000 known NEOs and the discovery rate averages about 40 per week.  (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Animation depicts a mapping of the positions of known near-Earth objects The animation depicts a mapping of the positions of known near-Earth objects (NEOs) at points in time over the past 20 years and finishes with a map of all known asteroids as of January 2018. Asteroid search teams supported by NASA’s NEO Observations Program have found over 95 per cent of near-Earth asteroids currently known. There are now over 18,000 known NEOs and the discovery rate averages about 40 per week. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The truth is the Earth exists within the vicinity of thousands of Near Earth Objects (NEOs), many of which carry the risk of colliding with our planet. If one of these asteroids — referred to as Potentially Hazardous Objects (PHOs) —did strike our planet, it could cause devastating effects including massive property and infrastructure damage, as well as significant loss of life. Within the population of PHOs is a smaller population of objects which could, much like the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs and 75% of all other animal life, trigger a major extinction event. 

It should be abundantly clear that developing a method of mitigating the impact of one of these objects by knocking off its collision course is imperative. Asteroid mitigation has been identified as one of NASA’s ‘Space Technology Grand Challenges’ — problems that require cutting -edge scientific solutions.  Indeed, many other institutions across the globe are working on their own mitigation strategies, each of which comes with its own unique pros and cons.

Should the possibility of an asteroid impact arise, the governments of Earth will be faced with a stark choice. Depending on a number of factors and characteristics they will have to choose between an instantaneous approach or a more gradual method .

Some of these methods and their potential successes and failures are listed below, starting with the more extreme, blunt solutions to asteroid mitigation.

The direct approach

There is probably nothing that constitutes ‘direct approach’ more than tossing a nuclear explosion at a problem. Thus, it may come as no surprise that many research hours have been devoted to devising a scheme in which an asteroid can be diverted with the aid of a nuclear weapon. 

The stark truth of the matter is, if the NEO is spotted on a collision course with Earth with less than 10 years warning, direct intercept with such a device may well be our only hope of diversion. Further to this, these ‘short lead time’ encounters are currently the most likely probable scenarios involving Earth and an encounter with a PHO. 

(NEOSheild 2/ EU Horizons)

Hitting an asteroid with a nuclear weapon obviously provides mitigation by imparting energy to the object to divert it, even if only slightly. Another way of doing this is by slamming the PHO with another object. Instead of imparting nuclear energy, this kinetic impactor is a spacecraft that hits the PHO at a high velocity transferring momentum to it changing its velocity and hopefully diverting its course. 

Interestingly, this method requires the use of a reconnaissance craft to first map the characteristics of the PHO, such as its orbit, size, shape and rotation, even its chemical make-up so that the impact can be perfectly calibrated. One kinetic impactor system currently being researched is the NEOShield-2, which involves the reconnaissance craft launching together with the impactor. The two craft, initially stacked together, will separate with the reconnaissance craft hopefully reaching the asteroid first, and the impactor following through when details are collected.

In March last year, NASA unveiled early plans for a ‘best of both worlds’ mission that unites a kinetic impactor and nuclear device for the purpose of asteroid diversion. The Hypervelocity Asteroid Intercept Vehicle (HAIV) mission craft consists of a fore-body kinetic impactor which smashes into the asteroid, and an aft-body which when deposits a nuclear charge. The beauty of this arrangement is that if the impactor can create a crater in the asteroid, the nuclear blast will occur beneath the surface of the NEO, imparting more energy than a glancing blow could. 

An artist's interpretation of how the  Hypervelocity Asteroid Intercept Vehicle (HAIV) will divert an asteroid (EADS)
An artist’s interpretation of how the Hypervelocity Asteroid Intercept Vehicle (HAIV) will divert an asteroid (EADS)

Both of these missions are still at least ten years from reaching a viable testing-stage. And there is another, deeper problem.

The danger of any direct impact mission is that it could fragment the asteroid in question, especially as some asteroids are merely a loose conglomeration of smaller bodies. This could result in Earth being bombarded with a multitude of meteors — each causing untold destruction. Even worse, if the NEO in question has a core of pure iron, even a nuclear device/ kinetic impactor double-punch is unlikely to divert it.

This is the case if we have little notification of an asteroid’s impact — less than ten years, what if space agencies are granted more time to divert the PHO? 

Diverting asteroids — the gentle way

Methods that require a long lead time tend to be more gentle than short-lead time techniques, and interestingly, also tend to exploit our understanding of physics and energy way beyond that of kinetic energy alone. 

Perhaps the most well-known long-lead-time diversion method involves using gravitational energy to alter the orbit of a NEO. It’s also the most ‘gentle’ of even the long-lead-time methods, not even requiring contact with the asteroid. 

A gravity tractor slowly influences the orbit of a NEO. It is a method that requires a long-lead-time. (NASA)

The idea is to place a spacecraft in orbit alongside a PHO over a period of many years or even decades. The gravitational influence of the gravity tractor gradually pulls the asteroid off course, thus preventing a close encounter with the earth. The gravity tractor method would work on asteroids of all compositions, and shapes, even if they are collections of smaller bodies, loosely gravitationally bound. There is a limit to the size of an asteroid that could be gravitationally pulled, however, making this a technique that is unlikely to tug a planet killer.

The theory behind gravity tractors is so robust and the control it allows is so precise, that it has even been suggested that the method could be used to place asteroids in positions where they could be beneficial for humanity — allowing them to be used for research or even commercial purposes. 

A less ‘contactless’ version of the gravity tractor approach, involves using an actual physical tether to divert the asteroid to a higher orbit. The tethered object would be smaller than the NEO and could either be a spacecraft launched from earth, or another NEO. The concept behind this method is that attaching the larger body to a smaller one changes the centre of mass of the body and thus adjusts its orbit. 

One potential drawback of the system is that is likely to require some pretty intensive surface operations, especially if the tether is to be attached to two NEOs. It also carries the risk of the tether becoming tangled, meaning before any operation was undertaken the motion of the PHO would have to be known precisely.

Though the message is clear if the paint method is going to work, researchers may want to consider a more even coating. (Robert Lea)

One of the most ‘out there’ ideas to divert an asteroid on course to strike the Earth involves spraying a thin layer of powdered paint on one side of an asteroid and allowing radiation from the Sun to alter the asteroid’s orbital path. The paint coating changes the amount of radiation reflected by the asteroid’s surface. This leads to unequal heating within the body, and thermal particles being ejected more strongly on one-side than the other. As a result, a strong net force is created which over the course of several years can shift the asteroid’s orbit. 

Again, these methods which are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of mitigation strategies, are still very much in the developmental phase, and moving them into the test stages could be a matter of some urgency. 

It’s a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’

“An asteroid collision would be something against which we have no defence… This is not science fiction; it is guaranteed by the laws of physics and probability.” 

— Stephen Hawking, Brief Answers to Big Questions, [2018].

If 2020 teaches humanity nothing else it should impart the lesson that we are simply not ready to deal with some of the hazards that nature can and will throw at us. If the strategies put in place to deal with a potential pandemic strike us as slap-shot, underwhelming and inadequate, the provisions taken thus far to prevent an asteroid strike fall considerably short of even this. 

The only real hope we have of diverting a PHO as things currently stand is spotting it well in advance and getting a satisfactorily long-lead time. But still, there is very little in the way of infrastructure in place to deal with such an eventuality.

Just as historians may one day look back at the MERS and SARS outbreaks as stark warnings of a coronavirus pandemic that governments around the world failed to take heed of, so too they may consider the close brush with 99942 Apophis as a warning to prepare for asteroid incursion.

The NEO with a diameter of 370 meters caused concern in December 2004 when observations indicated there was a 2.7% chance that on a future sweep past our planet in April 2029, it would strike the planet. Estimations changed between 2004 and 2006, first appearing that 99942 Apophis would miss both the Earth and the Moon, with the possibility that during the 2029 encounter it would pass through a gravitational keyhole, that would result in it impacting the planet in 2036. 

Fortunately, by 2008 it had been determined that the asteroid would both miss the Earth and the 1km gravitational keyhole that would shift it onto a collision course in 2036. As it currently stands, 99942 Apophis has a 1 in 150,000 chance of colliding with our planet in 2068. Pretty slim. But, unfortunately, 99942 Apophis is hardly the only PHO out there, and there are many that we have yet to discover. 

The trail in the key over Russia left by the Chelyabinsk Meteor. ( Alex Alishevskikh/ CCbySA2.0)

The Chelyabinsk meteor provides a stark example of such an unknown object. The object with a 20-meter diameter entered Earth’s atmosphere over Russia on 15th February 2013. Due to its high velocity and shallow entry angle, the meteor broke apart in an airburst at around 30 km over the Chelyabinsk Oblast. The energy it released was so potent that the airburst was brighter than the Sun, and could be seen from a distance of 62 miles away.

Over 1,500 people were injured as a result of the blast. 

Should it have actually hit the surface of our planet, impacting in a region with a population of 3.5 million people, it would have been the equivalent of the detonation of around 500 kilotonnes of TNT — around 33 times the energy released by the detonation of the atomic bomb that devastated Hiroshima. 

We had literally no idea it was there. We still don’t know where it came from.

The real key to asteroid mitigation is increased investment in space science and infrastructure. Developing mitigation strategies isn’t enough, as Chelyabinsk shows, we need to also focus on detection methods.

Hopefully, this is a lesson that won’t be learned in hindsight, because as Hawking predicted in his final work shortly before his death in 2018, this is inevitable. And as estimates made using Earth’s history as a guide, collisions with an object of the size of 99942 Apophis occur roughly once every 80,000 years. That means we are currently well-overdue. 

Sources and Further Reading 

Sugimoto. Y, Radice. G, Ceriotti. M, et al, Hazardous Near-Earth asteroid mitigation campaign planning based on uncertain information on fundamental asteroid characteristics, Acta Astronautica, [2014]

Foster. C, Bellerose. J, Mauro. D, et al, Mission concepts and operations for asteroid mitigation involving multiple gravity tractors, Acta Astronautica, [2013]

Lu. E, The Project B612 Concept, ARC, [2012]

Dearborn. D, 21st Century Steam for Asteroid Mitigation, ARC, [2012]

Spitale. J. N, Asteroid Hazard Mitigation Using the Yarkovsky Effect, Science, [2012]

Belton. M. J. S, Morgan T. H, Samarasinha N. H, Yeomans D. K, Mitigation of Hazardous Comets and Asteroids, Cambridge University Press. 

Hawking. S, Brief Answers to Big Questions, Hodder & Stoughton, [2018].

Kinetic impactor
The principle of the kinetic impactor mitigation method is that the NEO or Asteroid is deflected following an impact…www.neoshield.eu

NASA – National Aeronautics and Space Administration
By providing strategic guidance, the Strategic Integration (SI) Office in collaboration with Stakeholders from the…www.nasa.gov

An Innovative Solution to NASA’s NEO Impact Threat Mitigation
An Innovative Solution to NASA’s NEO Impact Threat Mitigation Grand Challenge and Flight Validation Mission…www.nasa.gov

Why the SpaceX satellite fleet could spell major headaches for astronomers

In 2015, the world got understandably excited as SpaceX mastermind Elon Musk announced the launch of a new satellite fleet that would give the world faster and cheaper internet. But as the first few satellites were launched, it made a lot of astronomers unhappy.

The constellation, which so far consists of 60 satellites but is set to be expanded to 12,000, add more clutter and significantly reduce our view of the cosmos, potentially dealing an important blow to many, many space surveys.

Screenshot taken from a video shot by Marco Langbroek with a group of SpaceX Starlink satellites passing over the Netherlands on May 24, 2019.

When the first satellites were launched, the event was tracked all around the world. Astronomer Marco Langbroek noted on his blog a calculation of where the satellites would be orbiting. He set up his camera and patiently waited, but not for long: he quickly observed a string of bright dots flying across the sky. The satellites were so bright that they were even visible to the naked eye in certain instances prompting some people to UFO sightings.

Sure enough, their brightness has diminished partly as they stabilized into orbit, but for astronomers, this was a clear message: observations are bound to get more difficult, and there’s going to be a lot more objects in the way.

To get a sense of the current situation, there are currently 2,100 active satellites orbiting our planet. If 12,000 are added by SpaceX alone, it would add an unprecedented level of visual clutter for astronomers — and SpaceX is just one of the companies who want to put internet satellites into orbit.

“People were making extrapolations that if many of the satellites in these new mega-constellations had that kind of steady brightness, then in 20 years or less, for a good part of the night anywhere in the world, the human eye would see more satellites than stars,” Bill Keel, an astronomer at the University of Alabama, told AFP.

Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics also adds that at least during some parts of the year, things will get a bit more problematic for astronomers.

“So, it’ll certainly be dramatic in the night sky if you’re far away from the city and you have a nice, dark area; and it’ll definitely cause problems for some kinds of professional astronomical observation.”

SpaceX’s declared goal is a lofty one:  to provide broadband internet connectivity to underserved areas of the planet and offer cheaper, more reliable service to all the world. The cashflow received from this venture would help the company advance its Mars flight plans, helping mankind achieve its space exploration dreams. Yet at the same time, this is placing a hurdle in the way of astronomers.

If there’s anything we can learn from this story, is that things are most often complex, and even with good intentions, planetary-scale projects can have important side-effects which need to be accounted for.

Steam Power Might Help in Space Exploration



A vast array of gas fuels have been used in the launching and transportation of spacecraft with liquid hydrogen and oxygen among them. Other spacecraft rely heavily on solar power to sustain their functionality once they have entered outer space. But now steam-powered vessels are being developed, and they are working efficiently as well.

People have been experimenting with this sort of technology since 1698, some decades before the American Revolution. Steam power has allowed humanity to run various modes of transportation such as steam locomotives and steamboats which were perfected and propagated in the early 1800s. In the century prior to the car and the plane, steam power revolutionized the way people traveled.

Now, in the 21st century, it is revolutionizing the way in which man, via probing instruments, explores the cosmos. The private company Honeybee Robotics, responsible for robotics being employed in fields including medical and militaristic, has developed WINE (World Is Not Enough). The project has received funding from NASA under its Small Business Technology Transfer program.

The spacecraft is intended to be capable of drilling into an asteroid’s surface, collecting water, and using it to generate steam to propel it toward its next destination. Late in 2018, WINE’s abilities were put to the test in a vacuum tank filled with simulated asteroid soil. The prototype mined water from the soil and used it to generate steam to propel it. Its drilling capabilities have also been proven in an artificial environment. To heat the water, WINE would use solar panels or a small radioisotopic decay unit.

“We could potentially use this technology to hop on the moon, Ceres, Europa, Titan, Pluto, the poles of Mercury, asteroids — anywhere there is water and sufficiently low gravity,” The University of Central Florida’s planetary researcher Phil Metzger stated.

Without having to carry a large amount of fuel and assumably having unlimited resources for acquiring its energy, WINE and its future successors might be able to continue their missions indefinitely. Similar technology might even be employed in transporting human space travelers.

Man who thinks “God created heavens and Earth” to oversee US space program

In yet another controversial decision, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to reinstate the National Space Council, an agency that oversees the US space program. The council will be chaired by vice president Mike Pence, who among other things, believes evolution isn’t real, God created the Earth, and smoking doesn’t kill.

A new old council

Vice President Mike Pence in Tokyo, Japan, Tuesday, April 19, 2017. (Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen)

The resurrection of the council has been in works ever since Trump won the election (and was discussed during his campaign), though it wasn’t clear who would head the council. Now, it’s been announced that Mike Pence will fill that chair. Pence is a staunch creationist whose statements have often placed him in direct opposition to the science community and NASA.

“Basically this will be Pence’s eyes and ears into our government’s actions in space, whether it’s NASA or the Pentagon,” Phil Larson, a former space policy advisor for the Obama administration, tells The Verge.

In theory, this could be a welcome move, helping to speed up some of the bureaucratic aspects of space policy, but it could also be yet another layer of bureaucracy, slowing things down even more.

“It could help break some of the log jams we’ve seen, instead of muddling through space policy right now,” says Larson. “But it will only work that way if space is a high priority for Pence.”

There’s also the matter of setting the future direction for NASA’s space exploration projects. There are two schools of thought regarding the future. The “old” school of thought believes NASA should control all aspects related to its projects, giving off more expensive contracts to government contractors, and everything overseen by NASA directly. The “new” school proposes that the agency focuses more on public-private contracts. This is a more hands-off approach and would see companies like SpaceX and Boeing play a more integral role, which would significantly reduce the costs and development time for NASA, but minimize NASA’s control and is generally regarded as a high-risk-high-reward approach. It’s not clear which way the new council will lean, but since it was basically handed to Pence on a silver platter, his input will almost certainly be decisive.

Which brings us to Pence himself.

The wolf guarding the henhouse

It’s truly disheartening to see politics interfere with science. After all, one can only feel that politics should be left to politicians, and science should be left to scientists. Alas, while the first is generally true, the second seems to be under attack. After Scott Pruitt, one of the most anti-environment people in the US was named chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, Mike Pence overseeing all things space is also a sign of the US moving backward rather than forward. Why? Well for starters, Pence is anti-science.

  • Thinks God created the heavens and the Earth.

In an interview with Chris Matthews from MSNBC, Pence stated that God created everything — this in a context where he was trying to say he’s pro-science.

MATTHEWS: You want to educate the American people about science and its relevance today. Do you believe in evolution, sir?

PENCE: I — do I believe in evolution? I embrace the view that God created the heavens and the earth, the seas and all that’s in them.

Matthews tried to lend him a helping hand, but Pence strongly refuted it.

MATTHEWS: I think you believe in evolution but you‘re afraid to say so because your conservative constituency might find that offensive.

PENCE: No, I‘ve said to you, Chris, I believe with all my heart that God created the heavens and the earth, the seas and all that is in them.

  • Evolution isn’t real

Of course, this stems from the first idea, but it deserves its own mention. Since at least 2002, when he spoke in Congress and asked to teach “other theories” to evolution, Pence has fought to take evolution out of the science books and replace it with one can only assume is the theory of God.

“I think, in our schools, we should teach all of the facts about all of these controversial areas and let our students, let our children and our children‘s children decide based upon the facts and the science,” Pence said in the same interview, probably unaware of the fact that this argument was said by many during Darwin’s time. Time has passed, and we are now the “children’s children” — the science has spoken overwhelmingly clear on this one and today, evolution is the core of biological research.

  • Climate change isn’t real

Of course, no one in Trump’s administration is allowed to think otherwise of climate change. Seriously, the only person who seems to accept the scientific certainty that is climate change seems to be (ironically) former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson. Pence is no exception.

“I think the science is very mixed on the subject of global warming,” Pence has stated more than once.

This, this statement right here, is why science and politics shouldn’t interfere. The science is not very mixed. With a consensus varying between 97% and 100%, with tens of thousands of peer-reviewed studies documenting man-made climate change, the science is as clear as it gets. Global warming is happening, and we are causing it. It’s just as well established as smoking being bad for you. Speaking of that…

  • Smoking doesn’t kill

In all honesty — and treating Pence more fairly than he ever treated science — we have to admit that he did say that smoking isn’t good for you. We’ll give him that. But in one of his Congressional campaigns, he says “Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill.” Tobacco kills an estimated 6 million people each year, ten percent through second-hand smoking. The WHO estimates that half of the people who smoke will eventually die of tobacco-related conditions.

  • Abortion-inducing drugs are very dangerous

In 2013, as a governor, he signed a bill that imposed new restrictions on abortion clinics — the same type of restrictions the U.S. Supreme Court smacked down last month, as PopSci points out. Not only is the statement not correct, but the pill in this case — mifepristone — has safely been in use for 35 years, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends it not only for abortions, but also to treat miscarriages. Pence has had one of the most extreme anti-abortion positions in global politics.

  • A disdain for women rights

This isn’t a scientific position, yet we can’t help but wonder what Pence’s leadership will mean for the women working in NASA and space exploration. Aside from his anti-abortion efforts, Pence has often shown a disdain for women rights, not in the least opting for a male-only team. Pence is also vehemently against homosexual rights, classifying them as a sign of “societal collapse.” Does this mean capable women and homosexuals will be discriminated in NASA? We don’t know yet.

In all fairness, Pence is not the most anti-scientific member in the Trump administration — though we’re not sure if this is a positive on Pence’s side or rather a negative on the administration. Pence has had a more moderate position on other scientific aspects and has described science as “an exploration of demonstrable fact” which is a pretty nice definition. He also stated that he “accepts the scientific method” — though given his positions on evolution and climate change, we can only take that as a false statement.

This is why space armor is becoming more important

The European Space Agency recently shared this image of a tiny, 10-cm object that can wreak havoc in even the strongest space armor we have.

ESA space debris studies, an impact sample. This is the kind of damage even a small projectile can cause. Image credits: ESA.

There is a growing concern regarding the sheer number of random objects in outer space, be they natural or man-made. Needless to say, all these objects pose a great risk to spacecraft, because they typically travel at extremely high velocities. For instance, an object just 10 cm across would inflict catastrophic damage and potentially cause the disintegration of the target. This happens due to the extremely high velocities at which they travel, which can reach 15 km/s for space debris and 72 km/s for meteoroids. Just so you can make an idea, bullets almost never go above 400 meters per second, so debris travels about 37 times faster than a bullet.

Even extremely small objects can have a major impact. Recently, the ISS’ Cupola — the dreamy vantage point which astronauts use to take amazing pictures — was chipped by a paint flake or small metal fragment no bigger than a few thousandths of a millimetre across. The problem is not only the impact itself but also that the speed of these rogue objects causes additional shockwaves which further the damage. The ESA explains:

“Beyond 4 km/s (depending on the materials), an impact will lead to a complete break­up and melting of the projectile, and an ejection of crater material to a depth of typically 2–5 times the diameter of the projectile. In hypervelocity impacts, the projectile velocity exceeds the speed of sound within the target material. The resulting shockwave that propagates across the material is reflected by the surfaces of the target, and reverses its direction of travel. The superimposition of progressing and reflected waves can lead to local stress levels that exceed the material’s strength, thus causing cracks and/or the separation of spalls at significant velocities.”

This was caused by “possibly a paint flake or small metal fragment no bigger than a few thousandths of a millimetre across,” writes the ESA.

It’s counterintuitive, but big objects aren’t really as problematic as small objects. Larger objects can be tracked and studied and perhaps avoid — or at the very least, we can prepare for it. But smaller objects are virtually untraceable and can be quite surprising, striking out of nowhere. According to NASA, there are millions of pieces of debris or ‘space junk’ orbiting Earth. Recently the ESA shared its latest figures according to which there are around 5,000 objects larger than 1 meter in orbit, 20,000 larger than 10cm, and 750,000 larger than 1cm. All these pose a risk for all spacecraft, which is why researchers are trying to develop better and safer armor. Notably, the ESA is working on Whipple shields with aluminium and Nextel–Kevlar bumper layers.

Whipple shields are quite clever in their approach. They consist of a relatively thin outer bumper spaced some distance from the main spacecraft wall. This will cause a bumper which is not expected to stop the particle or even remove most of its energy, but rather to break it and disperse its energy, dividing the original particle into many fragments, spread across a greater surface. Intermediate fabric layers further slow the cloud particles. The original particle energy is spread more thinly over a larger wall area, which is more likely to withstand it. Nowadays, Whipple shields have reached a stage of maturity, so they’ll likely be incorporated into the next generation of spacecraft — potentially even SpaceX shuttles.

A 7.5 mm-diameter aluminium bullet was shot at 7 km/s towards the same ‘stuffed Whipple shield’ design used to protect the ATV and the other International Space Station manned modules. Image credits: ESA.

Future research will try to further our understanding of such impacts, because the risks get higher every day. If we want to start exploring Mars or other areas of the solar system, or even if we just want to secure Earth’s orbit for future spacecraft, armor is key. With every piece of spacecraft and satellite we launch. the risks get higher.

Wall-Less Hall drives poised to unlock space colonization

French scientist working with Hall thrusters — an advanced type of engine that harnesses a stream of plasma to generate forward momentum — have recently figured out a way to optimize these drives, allowing them to run on a staggering (wait for it) 100 million times less fuel than conventional chemical rockets. Their work has been published in Applied Physics Letters.

6 kW Hall-effect thruster in operation at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Image via wikipedia

They work just like regular ion thrusters, blasting a stream of charged ions from an anode ( + charge) to a cathode ( – charge). They are pulled by magnetism towards the back of the ship and then pushed by magnetic repulsion out of the ship, propelling the craft forwards. The technology isn’t new: such engines have been in operation since 1971, and are now routinely employed on satellites and space probes to adjust their orbit when needed. They are ideal for space use, and scientists plan to use them to get humans to Mars…there’s only one small problem: the lifespan of current Hall thrusters clocks in at a maximum of 10,000 operational hours, way too short for any space exploration mission.

This is because, unlike traditional ion drives, Hall thrusters do not have a physical cathode: they utilize a magnetic field and a trapped electron cloud that serve as a hollow, “virtual” cathode. A charged ion stream is produced by injecting xenon, these heavier atoms capable of passing unimpeded through the magnetic field and are subsequently neutralized. This creates a relatively low-pressure discharge, but in the void of space it’s powerful enough to provide thrust in the opposite direction of the flow of ions.

And this is the Achilles’s heel of the drive: the components that make up the anode, virtual cathode and electron cloud. This container, the discharge channel wall, is constantly being bombarded by high-energy ions, wearing it down so much that the part requires constant repairs or even replacing to allow the drive to function.

So, researchers from the French National Center for Scientific Research, presumably with a roar of “for science!” took the wall out of the device altogether:

“An effective approach to avoid the interaction between the plasma and the discharge channel wall is to move the ionisation and acceleration regions outside the cavity, which is an unconventional design named a Wall-Less Hall Thruster,” said lead researcher, Julien Vaudolon.

The two prototypes of the Wall-Less Hall thruster.
Image via sciencealert

It’s not all roses however, as Esther Inglis Arkell explains for Gizmodo:

“The red anode should be lined up on the wall emitting xenon. Instead, it’s in the magnetic field, allowing electrons to glom onto it, reducing performance,” she says, referring to the device on the left in the above image, which was a total failure.

“The new design [on the right] makes the small change, which allows the anode to keep clear of the field. This one seems to work.”

Since the engine uses so little fuel compared to chemical drives, it frees up a lot of room in spacecrafts — meaning more cargo can be transported, or more passengers.

This frees up valuable space that we need for the long-run, deep space missions required to transport people and supplies to other planets, such as Mars. All that remains is for scientists to measure how much this approach extends the operational lifespan of the Hall thrusters, since at least 50.000 hours reliability is required to reach the red planet.

42 years ago today, Apollo 17 lifted off from the moon. Human beings haven’t travelled beyond low Earth orbit ever since

It’s a glorious reminder, but a sad day as well. It’s been 42 years since humans have been on the moon… or anywhere else beyond low orbit for that matter.

Apollo 17 was the final mission of the United States’ Apollo lunar landing program, and was the sixth and last landing of humans on the Moon. It left the Moon on December 15 and returned to Earth on December 19 after an approximately 12-day mission. The mission left behind it a Gravimetric experiment and several other scientific instruments… and since then, humanity has never stepped foot on our satellite.

The Apollo 17 Roving vehicle. Image via Wiki Commons.

I’m not saying we have to go back to the Moon – it’s pretty clear that with today’s technology, it would be more than doable. I mean if you think about it, they sent shuttles to the Moon using computers with less processing power than your smartphone has now – so no one is saying that we can’t send people to the Moon. The problem is that it’s been over 4 decades since we’ve sent humans outside of orbit, somewhere where it really matters. Today, the benefits of sending a crew to the Moon wouldn’t be spectacular. We’ve already seen some things there, and there is little else which we can do at the moment. But what about a bigger destination ?

The most plausible place to approach would seem Mars, and there are already plans for that. NASA is already preparing for a mission to Mars in the near future and they are already working on an engine to do that. Setting foot on Mars would be indeed a monumental achievement, and would yield valuable scientific results. Hopefully, a new dawn of space exploration is nearing.


Space research more than pays for itself, but lack of inspiration raises questions

In light of recent NASA budget cuts, a lot of politicians, citizens and, frankly mostly non-science folks, reflect that money should be funneled to other more, immediate goals: education, health, fighting unemployment etc. The rhetoric goes by the familiar terms that there isn’t any reason for man to venture outside the planet, until he at least settles his affairs in his own backyard. This is an example of projecting an individual perspective, however, onto a situation that concerns mankind as a whole – this sort of abstractions have always been difficult to touch by the lay man, who is inadvertently concerned with the well being of his own self, that of his family, all at present day or in the immediate future.

The space race of the past century, turned today in a space collaboration, has not only touched the hearts of millions and has inspired a world ever dominated by technology to actually get involved with science (the number of science students proportionately increased dramatically since the very first space missions, peaking during the Apollo era), but has also proved to be extremely economically sustainable. According to Ashley Dale, of University of Bristol, for every US$1 put into US space agency, its citizens get US$10 as payback; in Japan and the European Union that amount is more than US$3.

Where is this money coming from? Well, from the booming private space industry of course. Thanks to inventions spun out of space era research, today we’re all experiencing the benefits that come with weather forecasting, satellite television and communications, disaster relief, traffic management, agricultural and water management, and global positioning system (GPS). All of these just to name a few.  Besides this, the space industry is what tens of thousands of employees all over the world call home; an industry that falls back into the economy some $300 billion each year.

The average annual expenditure of NASA during the Apollo Era was US$23 billion in today’s money, while NASA’s average spend in the last decade was US$17 billion. While the investments made then brought tremendous advancements in satellite communications and, of course, the infamous Apollo missions that eventually landed twelve astronauts on the moon, recent events at NASA have failed to deliver the same glory. Of course, the technological leap since the Apollo missions in the late ’60s and ’70s has been tremendous. We’ve since seen the completion of the International Space Station and the landing of three rovers on the planet Mars, the last of which, the Curiosity Rover, has already made startling discoveries on Mars: traces of organic matter, better atmospheric readings and geological surveys etc.

It’s just that, people –  the general public – were guided to think that today we should have reached heights that are proportionally equal to the glory of the Apollo heyday – landing a man on Mars for instance, settling colonies on the moon. Personally, I believe there could have been a strong chance for this to happen if the same momentum, funding and spirit from the space race would have continued until present day. It’s enough to take a look at the graph from below to understand how people’s inspiration to seek for stars changes: a dramatic rise during Apollo, and a steady downward curve during the passive, more or less devoid of extremely significant events (for the general public), leading to this day.


How the “Apollo Buzz” affected education in the US.

Alright, so what’s next? Most likely we’ll see a paradigm shift, both in terms of power and scope. While NASA and ESA will still remain powerful players in the space scene for years to come, the Indian and Chinese programs are quick to follow and, if we’re to judge by their rapid industrialization and economic growth, may actually lead the way for man’s next big leaps among the stars. Hollywood is quick to show American astronauts touching base on Mars or maneuvering spacecraft through hyperspace. Movies aside, the astronauts of tomorrow will most likely be of much varied colours and allegiances.

Also, it may be safe to assume that the great impetus to achieve grand missions for mankind will be spearheaded by private corporations, and not by government programs, which in recent years have proven to be slow, rigid and prone to bureaucracy. Some believe it’s possible for humanity to establish a permanent manned base on Mars by 2100; the same people usually believe that such a move would not be about going higher than ever before, a chivalrous adventure for glory – it would be about survival. Reaching Mars by that time means providing humanity with a much needed second planet, one we could terraform (Mars hasa 24.6 hour day, fertile soil, a CO2 rich atmosphere, and an abundance of water). It’s worth remembering that we already use 1.5 Earths…

*update: the initial draft stated twenty-four astronauts landed on the moon; this has been duly corrected to  twelve. 

Ed Lu, Chairman of the B612 Foundation, shows the telescope of a model of the Sentinel Space Telescope during a news conference in San Francisco, Thursday, June 28, 2012. The group of ex-NASA astronauts and scientists on Thursday announced they plan to launch a privately-funded space telescope to search for small asteroids that may pose a danger to Earth. Photo: Paul Sakuma / AP

First private space telescope is set to safeguard humanity from asteroid threats

Ed Lu, Chairman of the B612 Foundation, shows the telescope of a model of the Sentinel Space Telescope during a news conference in San Francisco, Thursday, June 28, 2012. The group of ex-NASA astronauts and scientists on Thursday announced they plan to launch a privately-funded space telescope to search for small asteroids that may pose a danger to Earth. Photo: Paul Sakuma / AP

Ed Lu, Chairman of the B612 Foundation, shows the telescope of a model of the Sentinel Space Telescope during a news conference in San Francisco, Thursday, June 28, 2012. The group of ex-NASA astronauts and scientists on Thursday announced they plan to launch a privately-funded space telescope to search for small asteroids that may pose a danger to Earth. Photo: Paul Sakuma / AP

There are millions of asteroids currently residing in our Solar System, of which some 500 thousand orbit in the inner solar system, where our planet also lies. Space agencies in the world have only mapped so far a mere 1% of these. Clearly, an asteroid impact with Earth poses a serious and realistic threat to humanity, and based on this the B612 Foundation was founded and its most ambitious project to date spurred. Thus, the B612 Foundation unveiled its plans to build, launch, and operate the first privately funded deep space mission, dubbed SENTINEL, a space telescope to be placed in orbit around the Sun, ranging up to 170 million miles from Earth, for a mission of discovery and mapping.

“During its 5.5-year mission survey time, Sentinel will discover and track half a million Near Earth Asteroids, creating a dynamic map that will provide the blueprint for future exploration of our Solar System, while protecting the future of humanity on Earth,” said Ed Lu, Space Shuttle, Soyuz, and Space Station Astronaut, now Chairman and CEO of the B612 Foundation.

The B612 Foundation is working with Ball Aerospace, Boulder, CO, which has designed and will be building the Sentinel Infrared (IR) Space Telescope with the same expert team that developed the Spitzer and Kepler Space Telescopes. The telescope is expected to include a 20-inch diameter mirror and scan the entire night half of the sky every 26 days to identify every moving object with repeated observations in subsequent months. Data collected by the telescope will be relayed back to Earth where asteroid orbits can be precisely deducted using specialized software. The asteroid map will be shared with universities and governmental space agencies, alike.

While Sentinel’s primary goal is that of mapping asteroids to predict potential threatening scenarios, its mission could also pose an economic benefit. There are currently trillions of dollars worth of valuable material present in asteroids in our solar system, and identifying those which are the most rich and easy to reach by an expedition could prove to be highly important in the future.

“The B612 Sentinel mission extends the emerging commercial spaceflight industry into deep space – a first that will pave the way for many other ventures,” said the former Director of NASA Ames Research Center Dr. Scott Hubbard, B612 Foundation Program Architect and Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford University. “Mapping the presence of thousands of near earth objects will create a new scientific database and greatly enhance our stewardship of the planet.”

B612 Foundation via Next Big Future

China space station

China completes first manned space docking with Tiangong-1

Liu Yang, China's first female astronaut, waves during a departure ceremony at Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, Gansu province, June 16, 2012. (c) JASON LEE / REUTERS

Liu Yang, China's first female astronaut, waves during a departure ceremony at Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, Gansu province, June 16, 2012. (c) JASON LEE / REUTERS

This Monday, China took a historic step forward after the nation’s manned spacecraft Shenzhou-9 successfully docked the Tiangong 1 space station test platform. This marks the first time a Chinese mission crew docks with a space platform. Also, another unprecedented event occurred – the first ever female Chinese astronaut to travel in space.

The Shenzhou-9 capsule was launched Saturday from  Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center located in northwestern area of China. The docking took place two days later; the whole process was remote-controlled and took only a few minutes. The team of Chinese astronauts are slated to stay at the station for 10 days, time in which various experiments will be conducted as well as a manual docking with Tiangong 1.

Tiangong 1 is a actually a test platform, a vessel which China intends on testing its capabilities of building and launching a full-featured space station of its own, one with a permanent mission crew, like the International Space Station. The upcoming Chinese station will consist of three modules and will weigh 60 tones, dimensions similar to Russia’s past Mir space station, which operated until 2001. It’s expected to be fully completed by 2020.

China space station

China space station

The political message the nation wants to send is clear – China is now a space exploration power, joining the US and Russia. Many concerning voices have arisen, however, in the wake of the successful docking and previously when space station plans were made public. Some officials have expressed their concern regarding China’s actual intentions, fearing they might be military in nature. Liu Weimin, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said China’s activities are all intended “for peaceful purposes.” He said China was ready and eager to embrace “international cooperation.”

That might be correct, since the nation wasn’t allowed to participate in the development or manned missions to the International Space Station. Taking into account China’s huge national ego and sense of pride, this was a natural move from behalf of the nation. Besides the space station, China has other big space exploration plans like manned missions to  moon, Mars exploration and eventual entry into the commercial launch of satellites.


SpaceX rocket mission canceled with less than a second to go

It doesn’t only happen in the movies: the launch of the SpaceX Falcon rocket, destined to hit the International Space Station and the history books was delayed, when there was less than a second to go.

The SpaceX Falcon Rocket

Like any dramatic James Bond movie, the clock showed 3 seconds, then 2 seconds, then 1 and then… Cancel everything! However, instead of saving the world, this cancellation saved the mission from becoming a failure. Scheduled for Saturday morning, everything had been running smoothly, from an engine test at the end of April, which described the engine system as ‘rock solid’ to Elon Musk tweeting right before the launch.

All five of the shuttle’s engines were working, but one of them showed abnormally high pressure, eventually leading to a point where the onboard emergency systems took over and aborted the launch — with just 0.5 seconds remaining on the clock. A brief yet conclusive statement from SpaceX explained that a pressure valve was to blame for the high pressure, and repairs are underway. If this is indeed the only problem, then it will be likely solved in a matter of days.

Despite this setback, if the repair works out properly and the weather conditions are favorable, SpaceX will try another launch, on Tuesday morning. Getting the Falcon 9 in the air is only the start of this particular mission though, as the real challenge will be to dock the rocket’s capsule with the International Space Station, so it can deliver its cargo.

If everything goes according to plan, then SpaceX will become the first private company to send a shuttle to the ISS, marking the beginning of a new era in space exploration. ZME Science would like to wish all the people working on the project good luck – we have every bit of faith in this project.


NASA turns to engineering crowd source for Mars mission in 2018

MarsNASA is equivalent to innovation and cutting edge technology, and this was made possible by the creative flow of whole generations of brilliant scientists. The same philosophy is in place today, as well, and even though the agency has been faced with drastic budget cuts in the past few years, it has kept an open mind and still hasn’t abandoned aiming ambitiously high. Last Friday, NASA took an interesting decision – it announced that engineers and scientists could now submit entries in which they express their ideas, projects and patents designed for a mission to Mars in 2018, as well as other long term missions.

The best papers, which can be submitted online, will be selected and chosen for keynotes at the  Concepts and Approaches for Mars Exploration conference, organized in June, at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas. NASA hopes the new approach of seeking input from outsiders will generate good ideas and help maintain technical skills in the U.S., the agency said. The deadline is May 10 and the final decision will be announced sometime in August.

An influx of new talent and ideas might generate some spectacular ideas, and at least some of the brightest scientific minds in the world will certainly enlist. Although the project has just been publicized, I’m confident some interesting ideas will be brought to the table, despite the rather short time frame.

“Exploring worlds other than our own is inherently a shared endeavor,” NASA chief scientist Waleed Abdalati said. “The people of Earth looking to other planets and beyond is not something that’s the purview of just one nation.”

NASA is most interested in a robotic mission to Mars in 2018. Every fifteen years, Mars and Earth are at their shortest distance from one another, a window of opportunity for launches that shouldn’t be missed, considering the great fuel and economic saving. So far, the only big constraint prospective scientists and engineers looking to enter a paper face is cost. For 2013, the administration recently cut the Mars exploration program funding by 21% to ~$1.2 billion.

The main objective remains the same  – finding evidence of life on Mars, or debunk the claim forever. Currently, the lead mission is the Mars Science Laboratory’s rover Curiosity, which is expected to land on August 6.  Next year, NASA will launch the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution orbiter, a probe to understand the Red Planet’s atmosphere.

The Caenorhabditis elegans or C. elegans common ground worm.

Worms show that Mars colonization is possible

There are numerous challenges that come with outer Earth colonization of distant planets like Mars, or our neighboring moon, and one of the major issues scientists have addressed is reproduction. Part of a  recently published study, scientists have tracked the development of worm cultures in space in an experiment designed to study how micro-gravity and radiation has affected them.

Back in 2006, researchers blasted off to the ISS 4,000 specimens of Caenorhabditis elegans (C elegans), a soil-living worm used extensively in various researchers through out the years. Until recently, 12 generation of the nematode have been successfully bred, passing from egg to adulthood, which reproduced very much in the same way like on Earth.

The Caenorhabditis elegans  or C. elegans common ground worm.

The Caenorhabditis elegans or C. elegans common ground worm.

Remarkably enough, C elegans is very much similar to humans. Alright, let me explain. It has 20,000 protein-coding genes, more or less the same amount as humans, which also roughly possess the same functions as ours. Two thousand of these genes have a role in promoting muscle function and 50 to 60 per cent of these have very obvious human counterparts. In 1998, the creature commonly found in the soil of your backyard was the first multi-celullar being to have its genome completely sequenced.

“We have been able to show that worms can grow and reproduce in space for long enough to reach another planet, and that we can remotely monitor their health,” study lead author Nathaniel Szewczyk, of the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, said in a statement.

“As a result, C. elegans is a cost-effective option for discovering and studying the biological effects of deep space missions,” Szewczyk added. “Ultimately, we are now in a position to be able to remotely grow and study an animal on another planet.”

The worms were bred using a compact automated culturing system that can be monitored remotely, which transferred a subset of worms to fresh food every month, filming the worms’ progress as they went. Since the results were monitored in real time directly from Earth, it spared scientists the nerves which would’ve been tensed to oblivion resulting from data solely dependent on a sample re-entry.

The researchers conclude that C. elegans shows that man could survive as an interplaneteray species, and provides invaluable data for further research regarding radiation exposure and muscle atrofiation, the most pressing issues at hand as far as manned space exploration is concerned.

“While it may seem surprising, many of the biological changes that happen during spaceflight affect astronauts and worms, and in the same way,” Szewczyk said.

C. elegans has gone farther away than any worm on Earth, and its journey is far from over. Considering the success of this study, the researchers are considering sending a batch as far as on to the Mars surface. This would provide genuine readings of just how dangerous the high radiation levels found in deep space, and on the Red Planet’s surface, are to animal life. We’re still waiting for some results from the cephalopods  study on the ISS, where baby squids were brought into space for experiments.

“Worms allow us to detect changes in growth, development, reproduction and behavior in response to environmental conditions such as toxins or in response to deep space missions,” Szewczyk said. “Given the high failure rate of Mars missions, use of worms allows us to safely and relatively cheaply test spacecraft systems prior to manned missions.”

The researchers’ results were published in a recent edition of the Royal Society journal.

image credit

Mars Curiosity Rover

Watch the Mars rover launch LIVE this Saturday [video stream]

Mars Curiosity Rover

On November 26, after countless delays, budget overruns and buckets of sweat, humankind’s most capable machine of landing on and traveling through the red planet will finally touch base and launch towards its ambitious destination. The Curiosity rover‘s lift off is currently scheduled for 10:02 a.m. EST, this Saturday.

Also known as the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), the Curiosity rover will travel on board an Atlas 5 rocket. The project, filled with over-budget spending, made NASA spill out $2.5 billion out of its pockets during the decade long operation. The rover is equipped with a plutonium battery and so should have ample power to keep rolling for more than a decade.

“MSL is an incredibly important flagship mission for this agency… as important as Hubble,” observed Doug McCuistion, Nasa’s Mars exploration program director.

The rover is scheduled to land on Mars’ Gale Crater sometime around August, 2012, after which it will soon commence its mission of gathering and analyzing samples, in search for organic chemistry and evidence of whether Mars could ever have hosted life. Tomorrow’s event is certainly a milestone for NASA, and human space exploration history, and you can also be a part of it. Fortunately, the Curiosity rover launch will be covered by numerous media outlets, and NASA has been kind enough to offer a live stream for web users. Connect to this page at the launch hour and hit play on the stream below.

image credit

A future space capsule, currently developed by Lockheed Martin for NASA, which might be used to carry astronauts to the International Space Station, the moon or even distant asteroids. (c) AMNHD. Finnin

The past and future of space exploration at the ‘Beyond Planet Earth’ exhibit

The Vostok capsule, in which Yuri Gagarin embarked on April 12, 1961 to become the first person in space. (c) AMNH\R. Mickens

The Vostok capsule, in which Yuri Gagarin embarked on April 12, 1961 to become the first person in space. 

This year, mankind celebrated 50 years of space exploration since Yuri Gagarin‘s pioneering flight around Earth’s orbit, however the American Museum of Natural History  is more concerned to set its eyes towards future, once with the opening of its new “Beyond Planet Earth” exhibit, which features tomorrow’s space age wonders, as well as relics from the old space programs.

Colonies on the Moon? Man on Mars? Life on Europa? These are all concepts man has been dreaming about from the very first flight off the ground, when the sky stopped being the limit, and mankind shot for the stars. With this in mind, the exhibit in Manhattan’s Natural History Museum is far from being just a space-junk gallery – it’s a fountain of inspiration.

A future space capsule, currently developed by Lockheed Martin for NASA, which might be used to carry astronauts to the International Space Station, the moon or even distant asteroids. (c) AMNH\D. Finnin

A future space capsule, currently developed by Lockheed Martin for NASA, which might be used to carry astronauts to the International Space Station, the moon or even distant asteroids. 

A prototype for a helmet designed to be worn by Russian cosmonauts on the moon. The Russian lunar program was shortly decommissioned, however, after 1969.

A prototype for a helmet designed to be worn by Russian cosmonauts on the moon. The Russian lunar program was shortly decommissioned, however, after 1969.

Visitors can walk through variously themed rooms, like those touching the point of lunar colonies, near-Earth asteroids, visits to Mars, and Jupiter’s moon, Europa, which offer thought for thought and insight on how these projects might became within human reach. You’ll be amazed on what kind of amazing odd-balls ideas are on display, as well, like the “lunar elevator”, which if ever put to use would employ 28,000 miles of cable to ferry lunar materials to a docking station for eventual transport to Earth.

A re-installment of the crucial moment in 2009, when astronaut John Grunsfeld installed the new Wide Field Camera 3, the device that currently captures many of Hubble’s most amazing images. (c) AMNH\R. Mickens

A re-installment of the crucial moment in 2009, when astronaut John Grunsfeld installed the new Wide Field Camera 3, the device that currently captures many of Hubble’s most amazing images. 

A lunar base model on display at the exhibit. (photo credit unknown)

A lunar base model on display at the exhibit.

Of course, although the exhibit is concerned about the future, the past has its own special and rightful place. There are full-scale, gee-whiz models of Sputnik (the first man-made satellite), the Apollo lunar module and the Hubble Space Telescope.

“Humanity’s fascination with space travel is, at its core, part of our larger instinct to explore the natural world,” said Ellen V. Futter, president of the American Museum of Natural History. “This year, with groundbreaking discoveries of hundreds of exoplanets and the upcoming launch of the most scientifically advanced Mars rover to date, has already ushered us into the next phase of space exploration.”

Beyond Planet Earth visitors can play with an interactive consoles, which transports the user into a veritable super Mars explorer which can fly around Mars and zoom in on cavernous craters, massive volcanoes, and vast valleys.

Beyond Planet Earth visitors can play with an interactive console, which transports the user into a veritable super Mars explorer which can fly around Mars and zoom in on cavernous craters, massive volcanoes, and vast valleys.

Welcome to Mars!

Welcome to Mars!

Despite NASA recently shut down its shuttle program, and the ever-thinning space exploration budget, museum officials are confident that space exploration is far from over. On the contrary, we’re heading towards a new golden space age. Space colonization is inevitable, said Michael Novacek, senior vice president and provost for the museum. “This exhibit is meant to feed that conviction,” he said. It offers up “plausible if expensive” ways to get there.

The exhibit not only promises to be entertaining, but highly interactive as well. In the Mars exploration dedicated room, for instance, visitors may engage in an interactive “game” to transform Mars from a frozen, thin-aired environment into an Earth-like planet, a process typically referred to as terraforming. Maybe the most amazing exhibit by far, however, is the exoplanets hall, where a stunning holographic representation of planets from distant corners of the Milky Way will be on display.

A dummy "astronaut" wearing the Biosuit, the next generation of space suits.

A dummy “astronaut” wearing the Biosuit, the next generation of space suits.

‘Beyond Planet Earth’ began this week and is set to run for another week, until Sunday, November 27. The American Museum of Natural History is located in  Central Park West at 79th Street, New York. So, NYC ZME Science readers, what do you think of the exhibit? Have you visited it yet? Do, please, share some thoughts.


Unmanned Russian cargo ship heads towards ISS

If the Americans and NASA are having some issues regarding their space program at the moment, the Russians are doing just fine; recently an unmanned Russian Progress cargo ship loaded with 2.9 tons of supplies and equipment traveled and docked the International Space Station without any notable incidents or accidents.

“Capture. We have indicator mode,” cosmonaut Sergei Volkov, noted, while monitoring the automated approach from the Zvezda command module.

Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa was right by Volkov’s side, ready to help and assist in any way possible if necessary. But everything went fine and smooth.

“Progress 45 is secured and we’re looking forward to getting the hatches open and seeing what kind of goodies are loaded on there shortly,” Expedition 29 commander Mike Fossum radioed mission control in Houston.

The response came quickly.

“Sounds great. Nicely done up there,” a flight controller replied.

The carried supplies were quite consistent: 1,653 pounds of propellant, 110 pounds of oxygen, 926 pounds of water, and 3,108 pounds of dry cargo.

After this successful launch that faced no problems, Russian engineers seem prepared to take on the Soyuz launch, which proved to be quite problematic.

After the accident during the launch of a Progress cargo vehicle a couple of months ago, there’s been some uncertainty in the program,” Fossum said. “We’ve gone through a lot of work, the teams around the world, mostly in Russia, of course, have been involved with investigating the accident, trying to determine the root cause. We’re very happy that a couple of days ago they had the first launch, successful launch, of the Soyuz rocket with the Progress cargo vehicle riding on top. The launch was flawless.”.

All in all, everybody was absolutely thrilled to see this step done – it’s a breath of air space exploration badly needed in these dire and troubled times.

This was a huge step, this is a really huge step. This helps clear the rocket of any underlying problems and so the next Soyuz crew has already gone to Baikonur and are preparing to join us up here in just a couple of weeks.”

NASA is studying different techniques for corralling particles and transporting them via laser light to instruments on rovers and orbiting spacecraft. (c) Dr. Paul Stysley

Beam me up Scotty – NASA researches tractor beam technology

NASA is studying different techniques for corralling particles and transporting them via laser light to instruments on rovers and orbiting spacecraft. (c) Dr. Paul Stysley

NASA is studying different techniques for corralling particles and transporting them via laser light to instruments on rovers and orbiting spacecraft. (c) Dr. Paul Stysley

Trekkies might rejoice at the news that NASA has recently decided to fund a research group employed to study how tractor beam technology might become applicable in space exploration missions. The agency has awarded a $100,000 initial grant to a team of reserachers who will study  three experimental techniques involving capturing small-particle samples with lasers.

“Though a mainstay in science fiction, and Star Trek in particular, laser-based trapping isn’t fanciful or beyond current technological know-how,” says Paul Stysley, part of the team researching tractor beam possibilities.

“The original thought was that we could use tractor beams for cleaning up orbital debris. But to pull something that huge would be almost impossible – at least now. That’s when it bubbled up that perhaps we could use the same approach for sample collection.”

ser experts (from left to right) Barry Coyle, Paul Stysley, and Demetrios Poulios have won NASA funding to study advanced technologies for collecting extraterrestrial particle samples. (c) NASA

ser experts (from left to right) Barry Coyle, Paul Stysley, and Demetrios Poulios have won NASA funding to study advanced technologies for collecting extraterrestrial particle samples. (c) NASA

One of the three studied techniques involved using what’s called ‘optical tweezers’. This method uses two counter-propagating beams of light, which outputs a ring-like geometry capable of pulling particles inside the dark core of the overlapping beams. Changing the intensity of one beam heats air around trapped particles and can cause them to travel toward a probe, however for this to work the technique requires an atmosphere. Not a problem if applied to Mars missions, though.

Rovers employed so far on the surface of Mars using a drill to probe samples or soil, however this requires a lot of time and the drill is constantly subjected to wear, and thus malfunctioning. A laser could prove to be a more interesting alternative – pointed towards various minerals, it would zap them and use its tractor beam to bring in the particles to the probe for analysis. Laser beams shot through the atmosphere could also provide valuable information on how gases change in response to day-night cycles on Mars.

For deep space missions, where the medium is vacuum, the researchers are considering a technique that employs optical solenoid beams, whose intensity peaks spiral around the axis of propagation, creating a force that pulls particles back along the entire beam of light. The main advantage with this method is that solenoid beams are capable of pulling in material from far away, which would be useful for satellites orbiting high above a comet or asteroid.

The third technique involves a Bessel beam and, so far, only exists in theoretical status, as of yet to be demonstrated in the lab. Bessel beams generate rings of light unto a contact surface, unlike a regular laser which casts a simple dot. These rings are thought to induce electric and magnetic fields in the path of an object, enough to trap and transport particle samples.

“We want to make sure we thoroughly understand these methods. We have hope that one of these will work for our purposes,” says team member Barry Coyle.

“We’re at the starting gate on this. This is a new application that no one has claimed yet.”


Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle at the water landing test at NASA Langley's Hydro Impact Basin. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

Orion spacecraft mock-up tests successfully for Pacific landing

Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle at the water landing test at NASA Langley's Hydro Impact Basin. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle at the water landing test at NASA Langley's Hydro Impact Basin. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

Yesterday NASA tested a 18,000 pound mock-up of the ambitious Orion spacecraft in a water basin, to simulate how it would handle a Pacific Ocean landing in moderate sea conditions. The spacecraft is slated for space exploration programs and is capable of carrying four astronauts for as much as 21 days.

The scientist at NASA’s Langley Research Center used a basin, resembling a very large pool (15 feet long and 90 feet wide), in which they dropped the capsule at a speed of 22 mph. A mega splash soon followed, before it eventually hit the net without rolling – the most important thing the engineers were hoping for. This is just one test in a long series of trials meant to ensure the Orion capsule doesn’t fall apart on impact.

“We want to make sure the spacecraft stays intact when it does hit, and of course at the same time, you want to keep the astronauts safe,” said Bowman, who is NASA Langley Research Center’s Orion SPLASH project manager.

While Orion still doesn’t have a clear purpose, the spacecraft can be easily deployed into low orbit to service the International Space Station, however it’s been design to suit more ambitious goals like landing on an asteroid. The Orion project is actually the space legacy left behind by former president George W. Bush, who wanted to put astronauts back on the moon. NASA gave Lockheed Martin of Bethesda, Md., a $7.5 billion contract in 2006 to build it.

The NASA engineers were not satisfied just to see the capsule bomb shell a pool. Instead, they looked for measuring absolutely every parameter that might be involved in the impact with the Pacific Ocean, like speed, angle of approach and the capsule’s angle, while also performing a safety test to see how Orion behaves with just two out of the three parachutes working. While this particular mock-up tested in Hampton, Virginia lacked the seats and internal instruments present in the real model, future tests will include more accurate details.

Lockheed Martin officials claim that the Orion spacecraft is extremely advanced, capable of complex space exploration missions, however there’s no chance it could be used for something like a Mars mission.

“The ultimate destination is still getting to Mars, but we’re a ways off from that,” said Dave Bowles, director of exploration and space operations at Langley. “There are some very technical challenges going on that duration type of a mission.”