Category Archives: Space

How’d you like a one-way ticket to Mars?


Sounds kind of like a threat, doesn’t it? Sort of like Ralph Kramden’s “To the moon, Alice!” (I’ve always marveled that such a wildly popular show could have sought to derive humor from wife-beating. Was it misogyny? Or, seeing as how Alice was the smart one, was it a way of further degrading Ralph? Were the show’s writers saying this is what you should expect from blue-collar guys like him? It just seemed a problem on so many levels, not least being the fact that it wasn’t funny.)

Slatest brings my attention to this interview with Gerard ‘t Hooft, talking about a proposal — which he supports — to send colonists to Mars to stay. As in, no return trip. But that’s not the kicker. The kicker is that the venture would be funded by the reality TV show about the “first Martians.”

Apparently, the idea has been around for awhile, but I didn’t know about it until I saw this interview. Here’s a story from last year:

The Dutch startup Mars One is counting on reality television to fund a highly ambitious trip to colonize the red planet.

The company hopes to establish the first human colony on Mars in 2023. (That’s 10 years before NASA hopes to reach Mars.) It plans to send four explorers on a one-way trip, with new teams following every two years.

That’s right—the Mars One colonists should expect to remain there for the rest of their lives, though the project website notes, “this is no way excludes the possibility of a return flight at some point in the future.” The settlers will have to hope that once Mars is sufficiently populated and developed, it will be “much easier to build the returning rocket there.” How comforting.

Still, even with the simplified logistics of a one-way trip, the Mars One project will still carry a hefty price tag—an estimated $6 billion for the initial four astronauts. To raise the cash, Mars One co-founder Bas Lansdorp plans on “creating the biggest media event ever.”

“To attract sponsors, we will create appealing media content around the selection of the astronauts, the training, unmanned missions and other topics,” said Lansdorp in an interview with Gizmag. “This should convince sponsors and investors to participate with the promise of an even bigger exposure later: we expect that almost every person on Earth will witness the landing of the first astronauts on Mars.”…

And this is from the website of the outfit proposing to do this:

Mars One is a not-for-profit organization that will take humanity to Mars in 2023, to establish the foundation of a permanent settlement from which we will prosper, learn, and grow. Before the first crew lands, Mars One will have established a habitable, sustainable settlement designed to receive astronauts every two years. To accomplish this, Mars One has developed a precise, realistic plan based entirely upon existing technologies. It is both economically and logistically feasible, in motion through the integration of existing suppliers and experts in space exploration.
We invite you to participate in this journey, by sharing our vision with your friends, by supporting our effort and, perhaps, by becoming the next Mars astronaut yourself.

Personally, I can’t imagine anything more depressing than spending the rest of my life in a tiny pod, or in a spacesuit, on a planet devoid of life. Never to see my family again — from the ones I now know to grandchildren yet unborn. Never to take in a breath of fresh, natural air or watch the seasons change. Having to take extreme care at all times just to keep living a life that would be grim at best.

And yet, 40,000 people have applied so far. Dr. ‘t Hooft (who to this ignorant Anglocentrist seems to have gone ahead and adopted a Martian surname) says this in the interview:

Everyone is now being asked about their motivation, and thousands of replies have already been collected.

Oh, I hope they’re doing a more extensive psychological evaluation than that. The results of an exhaustive study of people who would raise their hands for this should be fascinating.

So there’s something we can DO about asteroids?


Last week, we saw quite an array of celestial events. First, lightning struck St. Peter’s Basilica only hours after the Pope shocked the world by announcing his retirement, suggesting that Someone preferred to keep such decisions to Himself.

Then, on the same day that we smugly expected an asteroid that we knew would come closer than some man-made satellites, but miss us, a smaller one that we weren’t anticipating didn’t. Miss us, I mean. It put on a light show and did spectacular damage in Siberia, injuring more than a thousand people. (Apparently, meteors hate Siberia more than tornadoes hate trailer parks.)

It’s like the heavens were mocking us and our belief that we have a handle on things.

Speaking of which, I thought I’d pass on this interesting piece that I saw in The Guardian from ex-astronaut Rusty Schweickart. He said that we need to know more about these smaller asteroids, and that we can, if we invest in new telescope technology. But the most surprising thing he said was that if we spot these rogue rocks early enough, we can actually do something to keep them from hitting us. Excerpts:

Spaceship Earth just took two celestial shots across its bow as, first, a meteor struck Russia, showering the Chelyabinsk region with fragments and reportedly injuring several hundred people, and second, as Asteroid 2012 DA14 whizzed past on 15 February. Traditionally, a torpedo across the bow is fired as a warning to change one’s behavior – and this coincidence of events should be a warning to humanity that meteors are not always as benign as “shooting stars” and that the next asteroid might not miss! Will we, the crew of SS Earth heed this warning?…

Nevertheless, the Earth is hit by one of these relatively small DA14-sized asteroids about once every 300 years, on average. And “small” is far, far from insignificant. The DA14-like asteroid that hit Earth in 1908 did so in a remote region of Siberia, where the explosion (the equivalent of about 250 Hiroshima nuclear bombs going off at one time) destroyed over 800 square miles of the countryside. This disaster zone, superimposed on any city in the world, would have wiped it and all its residents from the face of the Earth. I refer you, as a graphic reminder of the power of such explosions, to the post-facto Hiroshima bomb pictures readily found online.

The second way to view DA14 is to realize that, until just about a year ago, it was one of about 1 million similarly sized, near-Earth asteroids, which we know are out there, statistically, but that we haven’t yet seen. Consequently, until we find them in our telescopes, we are like sitting ducks in a shooting gallery with nothing more than luck to prevent a disaster. Regrettably, the Earth-based telescopes we’ve been using to discover and track these objects have, practically speaking, reached their limitations for finding the vast majority of these cosmic torpedoes.

Why do we care about finding them if there’s nothing we can do about it? Because, unknown to most people, is that if we have adequate early warning, our current space technology is sufficiently advanced to deflect these asteroids. For smaller impacts, even a last-minute warning of several days could enable a local evacuation and save many lives.

Deflection, however, will generally require several decades of warning. Fortunately, due to the relatively pure nature of space dynamics, forecasting an asteroid impact 100 years in advance is possible once its orbit is well known. The sine qua non, therefore, is finding them…

He goes on to make a pitch for the Sentinel telescope. He’s involved with a nonprofit that wants to build this thing and save the planet. Which is good of him.

What he does not to, to my frustration, is explain his claim that we can deflect these things. However, Stuart Clark, also writing in The Guardian, answers my question:

“There are three ways to deflect a dangerous asteroid: the gently pull, the swift kick and nuking it,” says Fitzsimmons. Which method is best depends on the asteroid’s size, composition, orbit, and crucially, how much warning we get. Typically, warning times of a decade or so would be required.

With plenty of warning, the gentle pull may be all that is needed. In this scenario, you send the heaviest spacecraft you can launch to “hover” close to the dangerous asteroid. The tiny gravitational pull that the spacecraft produces on the asteroid then adds up over many years to shift it off collision course. It’s a concept known as the gravity tractor.

The swift kick actually involves a collision. You hit the asteroid with a heavy spacecraft that instantaneously changes its orbit. The more warning you have, the smaller the kick you need to give it. Observations can quickly show whether the method has worked or whether another kick is needed.

Finally, if things are desperate, nuke it. This can provide the biggest kick of all. But don’t shatter the asteroid. The last thing you want to do is break it up. That turns a cannonball into buck shot without significantly changing its orbit.

Instead, a nearby nuclear explosion would evaporate the surface layers of the asteroid. As the vaporised rock jets into space, the asteroid would be pushed in the opposite direction.

But — correct me if I’m wrong — in order for us to do any of that, our space program needs to be more advanced than it is now. The gentle pull, anyway. To be able to intercept an asteroid decades away from us in time to gradually pull it off course sounds to me well beyond our current technology. Seems that we might want to step up our game a bit. As Clark quotes Larry Niven as saying, “The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space programme.”

Here’s hoping the scientists did their sums right

2012 DA14

A portion of the graphic in today’s WSJ.

I’d hate to find out they were a bit off, in the wrong direction.

There was a graphic this morning in The Wall Street Journal blithely informing me that an asteroid is going to pass very close to the Earth on Feb. 15. How close? Like, way, way closer than the moon (less than 10 percent of that distance). In fact, closer than some of our geosynchronous satellites. In fact, it may even take out a satellite or two.

Oh, and get this — this 45-meter-wide, 130,000-metric-ton chunk of trouble passes by the Earth about once a year. And… it’s passing close enough to us this time that its path is likely to be changed significantly by our gravity. Which means, who knows how close or how far it will be in the future.

If it did hit us someday, it would mean a collision packing the energy of 120 Hiroshima bombs. Of course, a bigger asteroid would be worse. 2012 DA14 is actually one of the “smallest of known asteroids,” according to the graphic in the paper this morning.

I think it’s really time we got serious again about manned space flight, don’t you?

One small step: Remembering Neil Armstrong

These cartoons from Robert Ariail and Bill Day remind me that I neglected to post about our loss of Neil Armstrong over the weekend.

In part, that was because I knew so little about him. Other astronauts — some of them, anyway — had such large personas by comparison. John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Gordon Cooper, Pete Conrad, for instance. What we didn’t know about those guys before was added and amplified by The Right Stuff. Yet Wolfe only had one vivid anecdote in his book that I recall about Armstrong — and it was about what a neutral, bland, machine-like personality he had:

The subtext of that anecdote, of course, was that Armstrong was no Chuck Yeager.

“… scarcely a line or a feature in his face that you could remember” seemed to describe this hero of the space race. I always sort of assumed he was chosen for his very anonymity, making him an American Everyman. It bugged me a bit at the time that after military pilots had paved the way into space up to that point, a civilian got to take the big First Step — it hardly seemed fair. But even in that, he was generic — he saved NASA from having to pick between Navy, Air Force and Marines for the big honor.

Then there was his name, evoking Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy.

But finally, the fact that he was so anonymous, that (officially) anyway he was just chosen because he was the guy in line who had built up the requisite experience, emphasized the great thing about NASA — to a communitarian, anyway. It was always about the team (if you doubt it, go watch “Apollo 13” again), from the glory boys atop the rockets to the geeks in Mission Control to the lowliest worker on an assembly line making the humblest part of the capsule. Stretched just a bit, the team included all Americans (at the very least, we paid for the trip), and ultimately all humanity.

He was the first, but the rest of us took that step with him.

Would Mr. Sulu lie to us about space exploration? No way!

Kurt Rebello, who graduated from Radford High School with Burl Burlingame and me, brings my attention via Facebook to the above photo from George Takei, which comes with this caption:

The first image has now been received from Curiosity on Mars.

You may think this is some sort of gag, but hey: This is Mr. Sulu. Could he possibly mislead us on anything having to do with space exploration?

That would not be logical, captain.

On the one hand Jupiter, on the other Venus

Rick Stilwell, a.k.a. @RickCaffeinated, shared this last evening:

Explanation: It was visible around the world. The sunset conjunction of Jupiter and Venus was visible last week almost no matter where you lived on Earth. Anyone on the planet with a clear western horizon at sunset could see them. This week the two are still notable, even though Jupiter has sunk below the brighter Venus. And if you look higher in the sky you can see Mars as well. Pictured above, a creative photographer traveled away from the town lights of SzubinPoland to image a near closest approach of the two planets almost a week ago. The bright planets were separated only by three degrees and his daughter striking a humorous pose. A faint red sunset still glowed in the background. Although this conjunction is drawing to a close, another conjunction between Venus and Jupiter will occur next May.

That’s Jupiter on the left, Venus on the right.

Very cool.

Godspeed, John Glenn! Trying to remember the time when we KNEW that we could do ANYthing

Time now flies to the point that it’s achieved escape velocity.

Today, it is 50 years since my 3rd-grade class was herded into the auditorium to watch John Glenn take off in Friendship 7 to orbit the Earth.

And look how far we’ve come… today, Glenn marks the anniversary by chatting with American astronauts who are … visiting our moon colony? landing on Mars? pushing to the outer edges of the solar system?… no, merely orbiting the Earth in a space station. And not a cool, elegantly-revolving-wheel space station like in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but something that looks like a cross between a bunch of tin cans fitted together and the kind of  TV antenna we used to have affixed to our houses in 1962.

So, in other words, we haven’t come very far at all. In fact, looking at our sad, tentative little foothold in space, we haven’t moved at all. In fact, we’ve regressed.

Sure, it was primitive to seal an astronaut into that little nonaerodynamic capsule like “Spam in a can” and throw it into space, but today we don’t even have a functioning capsule. The United States doesn’t have a single spacecraft of any kind in service. Remember the terrible Russkies whom we feared dropping atom bombs on us from Sputnik like rocks from a highway overpass? We have to hitch rides with them now.

When Glenn made his flight, anything and everything seemed possible — and because it seemed so, it was so. We were going to the moon, even though many technical barriers remained to doing so. We weren’t entirely sure when we started that it could be done, but we were going to do it. And we did. And then we pulled back to Glenn-like riding around the block. And then we even quit doing that.

No one could possibly have predicted, 50 years ago, that we would be so earthbound now. It was impossible to conceive. Back then, Robert Heinlein assumed we would have made two expeditions to Mars by the end of the century (even with a third World War delaying us), and that was totally doable. Of course we would! If we could go to the moon in a decade, surely we could make it to Mars in four!

But today, people make fun of Newt Gingrich for even talking about it. And between the left and its preference for social programs and the right with its not wanting government to do anything, it’s hard even to remember a time when we knew, for a fact, that we could do it all. And did it.

Now, we’re all about what we can’t do, or don’t want to do, which amounts to much the same thing.

It’s just not as exciting to be an earthling now as it was that day 50 years ago.

Is that the right term for a planet of small stature?

From NASA site: "A Hubble Space Telescope image of Pluto and its moons. Charon is the largest moon close to Pluto. The other three bright dots are smaller moons discovered in 2005 and 2011." Apparently, we still don't have a close-up.

Well, that was exciting. (Ralph Hightower will like this; he’s into space stuff.) I just got a reply from the Hubble via Twitter.

Having seen this:

Astronomers using @NASA_Hubblediscover another moon orbiting dwarf planet #Pluto

… I naturally asked, “Does that make it a planet again?” I had read right past the “dwarf planet” reference, because I didn’t know what that was.

@NASA_Hubble wrote back to me, “Not quite,” and urged me to “See Resolutions 5A and 6A.” Which I did. To share:

The IAU therefore resolves that planets and other bodies in our Solar System, except
satellites, be defined into three distinct categories in the following way:
(1) A “planet”
is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for
its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium
(nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.
(2) A “dwarf planet” is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient
mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic
equilibrium (nearly round) shape
, (c) has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit, and
(d) is not a satellite.
(3) All other objects
, except satellites, orbiting the Sun shall be referred to collectively as
“Small Solar-System Bodies”.
IAU Resolution: Pluto
The IAU further resolves:
Pluto is a “dwarf planet” by the above definition and is recognized as the prototype of a new
category of trans-Neptunian objects.

RESOLUTION 5AThe IAU therefore resolves that planets and other bodies in our Solar System, exceptsatellites, be defined into three distinct categories in the following way:(1) A “planet”1is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass forits self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium(nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.(2) A “dwarf planet” is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficientmass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostaticequilibrium (nearly round) shape2, (c) has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit, and(d) is not a satellite.(3) All other objects3, except satellites, orbiting the Sun shall be referred to collectively as“Small Solar-System Bodies”.IAU Resolution: PlutoRESOLUTION 6AThe IAU further resolves:Pluto is a “dwarf planet” by the above definition and is recognized as the prototype of a new category of trans-Neptunian objects.1

Well, that’s better than nothing. Not that we’ve always given actual human dwarfs much respect on this planet, but I suppose being some kind of planet is better than nothing. WAY better than being just a “trans-Neptunian object.”

Next, they’ll be dropping bombs on us like rocks from a highway overpass

No, this is not a reference to the report that terrorists are now planning to board planes with surgically-implanted bombs — although we can talk about that if you’d like.

I was just facetiously invoking Tom Wolfe’s characterization of the hysteria in this country when Sputnik went up. I don’t think any politician actually said “the Soviets would send up space platforms from which they could drop nuclear bombs at will, like rocks from a highway overpass,” but I enjoyed Wolfe’s hyperbolic description of the concerns of House Speaker John McCormack.

Anyway, I thought of that when I realized that the Russians are about to have the monopoly on space travel:

The last U.S. space shuttle is scheduled to blast off Friday. After that, the U.S. and other nations will rely on vintage Russian spacecraft to ferry their astronauts to the $100 billion station. Russia will hold a monopoly over manned spaceflight, and tensions already are rising. The Russians are in the process of nearly tripling the cost of using their Soyuz crew capsules for transport to the orbiting base, and other countries have little choice but to pay up.

“We are not in a very comfortable situation, and when I say uncomfortable, that is a euphemism,” said Jean-Jacques Dordain, director general of the European Space Agency, one of five international agencies that jointly manage the orbiting laboratory. “We made a collective mistake.”

While there is less chance today of our going to sleep “by the light of a communist moon” (as LBJ warned), I still find this development disturbing.

I miss the halcyon days when this country did exciting stuff in space (and the Shuttle, essentially a space bus driving around the block, never quite qualified). I’m ready for Mars.

How porky can stimulus be, if Clyburn’s not getting his bridge?

There's a certain irony — not necessarily a contradiction, but irony — in the fact that Republicans are pinning their opposition to the ginormous stimulus bill the House passed yesterday on allegations that it's just a bunch of pork for Democrats' home districts…

… while the favorite public works proposal of the third most-powerful Democrat in the House is NOT included.

Yes, I get it that Jim Clyburn says it's not for a lack of political will to fund it, but rather a matter of those pesky environmentalists tying it up with a lawsuit. He maintains that if it weren't for the blasted tree-huggers, he'd have gotten the span between Lone Star and Rimini funded.

But it's still ironic. If this project that he has wanted so badly for so long can't make it into an unprecedented, extraordinary $3.2 billion infusion of federal funds into South Carolina, it's probably missed its best chance ever.

As for what IS in the $819 billion extravaganza, I have not audited it to see whether it's pork or not. It does occur to me that just about anything that would meet the standards of what the stimulus is supposed to be — extra spending, on stuff the federal government would not normally spend on, "shovel-ready" and labor-intensive — it would probably be something that someone could legitimately call "pork" if they are so inclined. Think about it: What IS pork? Generally, it means something spent in some elected representative's district that would not meet normal standards of being a national spending priority (or state priority, when we're talking pork on that level of government). Well, presumably if it were something that had been determined to be a national priority, it would have been funded already.

Bottom line, I don't know what the percentage of overlap between the two sets (good stimulus projects on the one hand, "pork" on the other) would be — say, 80 or 90 percent, just to venture a wild guess? — but it seems like there would be very strong correlation.

Or am I missing something?

Anyway, I made that point to a colleague earlier today, and he said, "Yeah, well what about this mandate that NASA spend on fighting global warming — that's not a job-producer." I said, "well, it would probably mean jobs for the engineers and techno-geeks required to implement it." He said, "but NASA already has engineers." And I said, "Yes, but if what I was reading in The Economist this morning is correct, a lot of them would otherwise be losing their jobs because Obama doesn't want to follow through on the Bush goals of going back to the Moon and on to Mars." That's gotta mean some latter-day Werner von Brauns joining the unemployment lines. (Which is a whole nother debate I may raise in a separate post.)

I don't know; we're probably both right. Which means Democrats can say this is a great stimulus bill, and Republicans say it's a bunch of pork, and nobody be lying…

NOW they’re goin’ to messin’

OK, the Chinese can steal our manufacturing capacity, and maybe we’ll stand by in the hope of selling that vast market what few products we still make. And they can buy weapons technology from our supposed friends, rattling it at Taiwan, and we’ll content ourselves with sending a carrier into the strait now and then. And if they want to massacre their own people and try to keep it a secret, maybe there’s little we can do — our resources may be vast, but they are finite, and we’re kind of tied up fighting tyranny elsewhere. We even let them get away with violating the Monroe Doctrine by forming strategic alliances in our own backyard.

But now they’re really tromping all over our turf: As this story reports, they’re firming up their plans to go stake a claim on the moon:

China will begin an effort to send astronauts to the moon in about 2017, with a landing some time after that, official media said Wednesday, citing a senior official of the lunar probe program.
The moon landing would cap a lunar program begun in 2004 with the launch of a probe. In October, China launched its second manned space flight, a successful five-day mission.

JFK and the nation he led would never have stood still for this, and neither should we. If we’re not willing to go back and be there waiting for them, we should still try to defend our claim somehow. What with its being fictional, I don’t think the Larkin Decision applies here. We got there first.

Now that I’m done with the chest-thumping, I should point out (for the benefit of the irony-deprived) that I don’t think any of that stuff in the first paragraph is OK. I am being somewhat facetious. But we are pretty much standing by and letting it happen, and when you total it all up, it’s a disturbing picture. And the moon-landing business just adds to it. We who have done it long ago may snort at the Chinese doing something that is SO last century, but they understand what we understood in the ’60s — such an achievement would have great symbolic value in terms of how the world views them.

And that has enormous value to them in their determined bid to make this the Chinese Century. React to this as you will.