Archive for the ‘Space’ category

Afraid Of Global Warming? Don’t Be.

September 3, 2009

Be Afraid of the Sun. Be Very Afraid

150 years ago this week something very interesting happened, up there, in the sky. Except for telegraph operators on the east coast, most people in the US did not know, or care, until the sky lit up in the evening.  It was very pretty.

On Sept. 2, 1859, at the telegraph office at No. 31 State Street in Boston at 9:30 a.m., the operators’ lines were overflowing with current, so they unplugged the batteries connected to their machines, and kept working using just the electricity coursing through the air.

In the wee hours of that night, the most brilliant auroras ever recorded had broken out across the skies of the Earth. People in Havana and Florida reported seeing them. The New York Times ran a 3,000 word feature recording the colorful event in purple prose.

“With this a beautiful tint of pink finally mingled. The clouds of this color were most abundant to the northeast and northwest of the zenith,” the Times wrote. “There they shot across one another, intermingling and deepening until the sky was painfully lurid. There was no figure the imagination could not find portrayed by these instantaneous flashes.”

It must have been cool.

If it happened today, most all of the world’s – all certainly this country’s – communications would shut down. The vast majority of the hardware we use to run civilizations today would be fried. Permanently. You may expect your TV, PC and even phone to not work. But your stove, if it is less that say, 10 years old, has a chip in it. Fried. Your car, if it’s not an antique, has one also.  Several of them, in fact.  So don’t expect it to start.  And your alarm system at work?  As Tony Soprano would say, fugeddaboudit.  That’s okay.  Tony’s much more interested in the bank.  Oh yes, the back-up battery there will work, but not the alarm that’s wired to the communications grid.

Civilization would come back alright, should such an event occur tomorrow.  None of this is stuff that we can’t rebuild or replace (or do without, mind you).  But the effort would be slow, costly and probably uncomfortable. Some who otherwise might live, will die.

Late last year, the National Academies of Science put out a report on severe space weather events. If a storm even approaching 1859 levels were to happen again, they concluded the damage could range upwards of a $1 trillion, largely because of disruptions to the electrical grid.

What’s interesting to contemplate is that the solar storm that triggered the events of Sept 2, 1859 was not a singular event.  Solar storms – solar flares that strike the earth – happen several times a year.  Only the magnitude of this particular storm was unusual, and that’s only because mankind has not known how to – or even to – look for such things for very long.  Solar storms are not conjecture based on models and derived hypotheses based on scant data.  Indeed, they are a fact of nature.


So Is It A Planet?

August 24, 2009

And Why Not???

Pluto From New Horizons

Pluto From New Horizons

From CNN on-line:

It was three years ago Monday that the International Astronomical Union demoted Pluto from a planet to a dwarf planet, a decision that made jaws drop around the world.

An outcry followed, textbooks had to be rewritten, long-held beliefs were shattered, and many people felt our cosmic neighborhood just didn’t seem the same with eight — instead of nine –planets in the solar system.

Well, even though I was working on the New Horizons Mission to Pluto at the time, my jaw didn’t exactly drop. The debate had been going on for awhile. Besides. It’s just nomenclature. As it was, ever since Arthur C. Clarke pointed out that Europa was every bit as interesting as Jupiter, astronomically speaking, many of us had sort of realized early on that there was more to the Solar System than just planets, comets and asteroids.

Not that planets were downgraded, mind you. It was more like everything else was upgraded in importance. The icing on that particular cake was that astronomers began to realize that even the planets were more varied than originally supposed. There weren’t just two kinds; rocky like the Earth and gaseous-giants like Jupiter. It seems better now to recognize that Uranus and Neptune might be yet a third class – with interiors that are much different than the others, and with unique formation-histories to boot. The discovery of large ice-balls in the outer solar system, of which Pluto is  the earliest known (and probably best) example, is merely the last step in that march.

So, planet or no, Pluto is going to be a great place to visit.  Too long a commute to live there, however.

In The Dictionary Under “Complete Waste”

July 14, 2009

The International Space Station

Although it may happen that they keep it up until 2020, NASA wants to decommission the ISS earlier, in 2016.  Oddly, this is not news.  The ISS has been pretty much a useless endeavour ever since it was downsized to approximate a large tin can in the late ’80s, and has cost the U.S. taxpayers something like $100 billon (yes, billion with a b).

Perhaps I should not hold back so much and say how I really feel.  From

Despite nearing completion after more than a decade of construction, and recently announcing some upcoming improvements to accompany its full crew of six astronauts, NASA plans to de-orbit the International Space Station in 2016. Meaning the station will have spent more time under construction than completed.

With the space shuttle being decommissioned and the Ares is doubt, it was inevitable.  This is what happens when the goal is politics, instead of exploration and science.

Enceladus Is All Wet

June 25, 2009

…And Is A Moon of Saturn

Geysers on Enceladus

Geysers on Enceladus

Arrggg! So much news today! But the most interesting (unless you’re a real Michael Jackson fan) is from a paper published in the British journal Nature, by Frank Postberg of the University of Heidelberg.

The Cassini spacecraft has found what may be the strongest evidence yet that Saturn’s tiny moon Enceladus has an ocean beneath its icy surface. If the liquid water finding is confirmed, it would suggest that the moon may be one of the most promising places in the solar system to search for signs of past or present extraterrestrial life.

This is significant.

Tiger Stripes Indicate Organics

Saturns Moon Enceladus

You see, there are three ingredients necessary for life; an energy source, a good mix of organic chemicals (both of which Cassini has found on Enceladus already), and water.  Liquid water.

Researchers in Europe detected salt particles in the volcanic vapour-and-ice jets that shoot hundreds of kilometres (miles) into space, the strongest evidence to date of a liquid ocean under the moon’s icy crust.

If Jupiter’s moon Europa also has oceans below its frozen surface, the number of places in the solar system with the potential to harbor life is starting to look distinctly greater than 1.

Cassini has been circling Saturn since 2004.

Close. Very, Very Close

June 14, 2009

1.9 Seconds To Blast-Off

Every so often NASA has to pull the plug at the last second.   Literally.  Nancy Atkinson:

Holy Moly! Not to wish anything like this for Saturday’s launch, but I came across this video of the STS-68 launch attempt in 1994 that was aborted at the very last second. Watching it is enough to make your heart stop. Everyone involved must have experienced a tremendous rush followed by extreme let-down! The main engines had lit, but were shut down 1.9 seconds before liftoff when on-board computers detected higher than acceptable readings in a sensor monitoring the discharge temperature of the high pressure oxidizer turbopump in main engine #3. In the history of the shuttle program, five launch attempts were aborted under five seconds from the planned launch. STS-68 came the closest to hauling the mail before being aborted.

Amazing video.  NASA points to the “Hydrogen venting system” as the cause of the shutdown.

NASA and the Budget

June 9, 2009

A Spending Increase It’s Not


In a move that reflects the uncertainty surrounding NASA’s current strategy for replacing the space shuttle and returning astronauts to the Moon by 2020, House appropriators slashed by 16 percent the space agency’s $4 billion request for manned space exploration in 2010.

The proposed legislation, marked up June 4 by the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, trims $483 million overall from U.S. President Barack Obama’s $18.7 billion budget request for NASA next year. The $670 million cut to the 2010 manned exploration request would leave $3.21 billion, which is less than is available for the effort this year.

Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), the subcommittee’s chairman, described the move as a “time-out” in the budget process as the White House awaits the findings of a 10-member panel tasked by the White House to reassess NASA’s post-shuttle exploration plans.

It’s funny how then candidate Obama’s proposals for NASA looked so much better last fall.

During the Democratic primaries, he planned to cut into the Constellation program to pay for increased educational spending. Yet by the general election he had reversed himself and promised increased funding to close the gap between shuttle retirement in 2010 and Constellation’s arrival in 2015. Does this change represent a true change of heart and the beginning of a commitment to our future in space, or an opportunistic campaign tactic to appeal to voters along Florida’s important space coast? That remains to be seen.

And it’s not exactly what the Obama administration told NASA just a month ago.

NASA officials said Thursday that the Obama administration will increase funding for the US space agency by five percent in 2010 and will conduct a review of its programme for manned space flight.

The $18.7-billion budget represents a $903.6-million increase over 2009 and includes money given to NASA under President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus plan.

That, was then. This however, is not.

Hubble Repair Mission Launch

May 11, 2009

Monday, May 11, 2009, 2:01 EDT

This will be the 5th and final Hubble repair mission.

With two non-functioning cameras, the orbiting telescope is all but blind now.  NASA engineers readily admit that they’re going for broke with this ambitious mission, which will replace those cameras and upgrade a host of other sub-systems on the 19 year old observatory. Says Tariq Malik at

If all goes well, the astronauts will leave Hubble’s vision and science capability more powerful than ever before by the end of the 11-day mission. Atlantis is also carrying a set of IMAX 3-D cameras to document Hubble’s last service call for a film slated to be released in spring 2010.

To see live coverage on your PC, go here for information or here for a live feed.

HST was designed to last a minimum of 15 years in space, but it was hoped that with well timed servicing missions it would be up there for 25. With this mission, the telescope should easily be able to last that long. Getting to this point has been sometimes problematic.

NASA canceled an Atlantis mission to extend Hubble’s operational life in January 2004 because the trip was considered too risky in the wake of the 2003 Columbia tragedy that killed seven astronauts. But public pressure and the development of safer shuttle technology led the U.S. space agency to reconsider.

As I type this, the weather report for launch could not be better.