Sunday, July 16, 2017

LAST BASTION of HOPE


"I can't put a date on humans on Mars," chief of human spaceflight at NASA said in 2015 speaking at the Humans to Mars summit. He was referring to the budget they receive and how the 2% just budgetary increases (for inflation) haven’t allowed NASA the surface systems available for Mars. But that was 2015. Surely the 2016 election fixed that? Not so far. During a propulsion meeting of the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics in July of 2017, William H. Gerstenmaier, NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Directorate  acknowledged that the agency doesn't really have the funding it needs to reach Mars.


For the last five years or so, NASA has sold the public on a Journey to Mars, a grand voyage by which the agency will land humans on the red planet during the 2030s. With just budgetary increases for inflation, the agency said, it had the resources for humanity's next great step, to land crews safely on Mars, and to bring them home. The agency's new rocket, the Space Launch System, and spacecraft, Orion, were sold by NASA administrator Charles Bolden as the vehicles that would get the job done.

The expectation was that although the Trump administration would be shutting down several areas of analysis – you know because Climate Change is a hoax, extra monies would be going into the Mars & Moon programs/space exploration. Apparently not. Great, so we aren’t going to fix the problems of maybe not breathing in the future, BUT we also aren’t going to get off this planet if the funding doesn’t increase. Pardon me, but we’re screwed!

Last Bastion of hope -

Of course, there is another option, SpaceX. Well, and any of the other private space organizations – Blue Horizon, United Alliance, and its looking like we might be able to add MoonExpress to the list, we shall see. The reusability of SpaceX will certainly help the cost, but we are the number one space faring nation in the world; it speaks volumes as to American Pride. We like to shout we’re number one, but apparently don’t want to put our money where our mouth is! It would seem that Vice President Mike Pence has been rather insistent about increasing commercial partnerships at NASA AND that is a plus. If instead of our sending the space-crafts, we could support both monetarily and with our rover and orbiters, especially the robot that builds lading pads! – “The truth is that American business is on the cutting edge of space technology," according to VP Pence.


Thursday, July 6, 2017

DOOMSDAY AVOIDANCE – NASA has a plan of attack


NASA is putting its technology where much of ours fears lie. Taking off sometime in 2024, the idea is to have a satellite slam into an approaching asteroid. NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft, the plan is to have it deliberately crash into an asteroid (using all sorts of sophisticated equipment to aid in this – onboard navigation software, a special onboard camera…) The DART spacecraft will be utilizing NASA’s Evolutionary Xenon Thruster – Commercial (known for short as the NEXT-C). Developed at the Glen Research Center located in Cleveland Ohio, NEXT-C offers electric propulsion which enables DART to have a wider launch window and results in decreasing the cost of the launch vehicle as well. 

I want to state simply and seriously that THERE IS NO POSSIBILITY THAT THIS IMPACT COULD RESULT IN CREATING A HAZARD FOR EARTH.


The purpose is to demonstrate asteroid deflection – a technique for planetary defense. ALSO taking part in the entire demonstration is AIM – an ESA spacecraft that will arrive at the chosen asteroid many months before DART’s planned impact. FYI- the chosen asteroid for impact is Didymos’ small companion, ‘Didymoon’, or so it has been nick-named. Expected to be observed is a change in the orbit of this moonlet around its parent though before the fateful impact, observation of the binary asteroid (first such observation ever) with high-resolution imagery of the surfaces as well as measurements, densities and shape(s).

The AIM spacecraft will monitor the impact/planned collision (from a safe distance) and measure the momentum transfer, resulting plume and ejected material and more. AIM will also deploy its little buddy, MASKOT-2 (Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout) which is expected to characterize Didymoon before, during, and after the impact. AIM will also be the first spacecraft to demonstrate interplanetary optical communications. (Meaning : communication at a distance using light to carry information. It can be performed visually or by using electronic devices.)

Didymos, the parent-larger asteroid, is a binary asteroid. Binary asteroid just means it is a system of two asteroids. You may recall that many years ago it passed the Earth, rather closely I might add, and was then found to be both the size of a stadium AND to have a small moon approximately 230 feet across orbiting it.

Yes it is smart to check this plan out on a smaller asteroid and yes perhaps then we can use this plan on a larger and threatening asteroid. 

Composition of an asteroid, distance from Earth and other characteristics make up the many areas to look at. DART may not offer a solution for all of them but certainly some. Unfortunately we also need to develop a method for a much larger & closer asteroid coming from, for instance, the Sun’s direction.

Still, this is an awesome project/mission and 2024 is on my calendar!


Monday, June 26, 2017

Man Made Northern Lights will light up the coast!! 

Three months to build & plan a launch – sound incredible? Sound hard to believe? Sound Rockets…


Sounding rockets are the vessel for some pretty cool things. A Sounding Rocket handles things for educational purposes or tests or just scientific instruments into space along a parabolic trajectory. The time spent in space is usually quite brief – from 5 to 20 minutes and usually at lower speeds to allow for accuracy. Actually Sounding rockets are especially helpful as some altitudes are just too low for satellites but provide a platform that is just right for the Sounding rocket.  For at least 45 years the Sounding Rocket Program has given us critical scientific, technical, and educational contributions and as a result is one of the most varied and cost-effective flight programs at NASA.
However it is sometimes these lower altitudes that make finding a proper launch window tricky. Take the launch NASA Wallops has been scheduled now for a total of ~8-9 times and that amount is quickly growing. The launch requires, especially in this particular case, a clear sky but also can’t have too great of a wind.
What is this launch? Well first let me tell you why if you live on the Eastern Seaboard (USA) up to New York, you need to watch the skies the night of the launch. It really is going to be quite awesome. The science studies of this particular mission relate to the ionosphere and auroras. Interested yet? 
The flight is a two-stage Terrier-Improved Malemute sounding rocket. While it flies it will release into the ionosphere about ten small canisters maybe the size of a soda can. The cans will be released about 5 minutes from the launch time – actually between 4 and 5.5 minutes, and will form vapor tracers to allow researchers on the ground to visually track particle motions in space. 
Now this won’t be a long lasting event. The total flight time expected is only ~10 minutes. The rest would rely on the winds and other outside variables. However NASA ground cameras will be picking up the event from both Wallops and Duck, NC.

Barium, Strontium, and Cupric-Oxide are the contents of the cans and are not harmful so suggest no hazard to the residents – so just enjoy the show.
To be honest, when I first learned of this launch I read how it was to study an aurora and thought ‘don’t we know all there is to know about Auroras?’ – Well, okay, my first thought was cool I want to see this but my second thought was: aren’t auroras created up in the magnetosphere from charged particles in the solar wind (basically just electrons & protons)? I seemed to recall that the resulting ionization/excitation of the atmospheric contents results in bands of varying colors (depending on the elements involved). It usually occurs at the poles but occasionally a geomagnetic storm might enlarge the ‘auroral oval’. I’ll admit most of this portion is from memory and one of my high school science class’ but point being I didn’t think there was anything to learn.
Seems scientists are hoping to track gas particle movements within the clouds they create and test some imaging technologies. So, the answer is yes, and no. Yes we understand most that there is to know of auroras but also this experiment is also to look into some aurora imaging technologies. And besides…it’s bound to look really cool!

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Head to Space; heads come back!

 (Photo Credit: Junji Morokuma, Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University)


If I were to take this story and run with it there are so many directions I might go. Funny thing is, everyone would say I’d stopped writing hard science fiction and gone for fantasy.

Still – this topic caught me off guard and so I had to share it with you!

 

So here goes with just the facts…

In January of 2015 some planarian (planarian refers to the genus) flatworms were placed in tubes which contained half water and the other half, air. (generally planarians are marine though some are terrestrial) The flatworms were launched to the ISS, thanks to SpaceX, but with some slight changes to them. Half of the flatworms had parts of their body sliced off. That is not a big a problem as one might think as flatworms do usually have the capacity to regenerate their bodies. 

An equal group of planarian flatworms with the same disabilities enacted were left here on Earth.

Fast forward to six weeks later (the worms were returned in 5 weeks but…) and while there were other results, the coolest or oddest result – depends how you look at things, was that one of the worms that had been decapitated had yes, regenerated his head but on each end. In other words yes his head had been removed and in 5 short weeks he had grown two more to replace it. AND when those two heads were then sliced off, both grew again indicating that the enhanced regeneration was permanent. 

 

Other changes? The space-worms now underwent some odd sort of fission where the split their bodies in two which would make each one create another identical worm. Another change of interest? As previously mentioned, flatworms or planarians are mostly marine – either salt or fresh water. The space-traveling flatworms when put in spring water post space became partially paralyzed/immobile and it took about two hours before they returned to normal.

The worms that stayed home did not undergo any similar changes.

Granted finding the double-headed mutation was kinda cool, but the point of the study was to see if the worm’s regeneration patterns were changed in space.

There are many tests I would plan next and I am sure that they have. Such as now send up something that doesn’t regenerate under the same circumstances (amputated heads etc.) and see what happens? Do they now regenerate (that might be a neat side effect!) or does whatever special trait they have - get changed/more intense perhaps?

You see where I’m going right? This takes on an almost comic book origin story…or the beginning of a fantastic journey!

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Science meets Hollywood NASA's goes futuristic for its Mars rover concept vehicle


NASA has now availed itself of the cool futuristic designs we had always expected but never got. For around 40 years now we have been the recipients of data coming to us from the Red Planet. Our unmanned rovers have looked like blocks of machines, miniaturized and a camera on a stick. OK, not quite so bad, but they have been what they needed to be and weren’t made for some intergalactic beauty contest; But not so our extraterrestrial machine designed for the (coming closer & closer) future. 

It has a little bit of the Batman mobile look from the recent films. The design has six wheels and a futuristic exterior design with a minimalistic interior design that screams ‘you’re not in Kansas anymore’. The Mars concept vehicle is 11 feet tall, 24 feet long and 13 feet wide – certainly an imposing size.

Well there is a reason why the design for the manned rover looks like something we’d expect in the future – the design for the giant rover was made by the Parker brothers, Shanon and Marc. If that sounds familiar at all it is because the twosome’s movie fame. They ‘made their mark’ designing the futuristic motorcycles in Tron. The best part, Shanon admits part of the design was just to make it cool.

Now the inside seats 4 and drives like an SUV. They even have a lab in the back.

 

Now this vehicle won't go to Mars. It’s meant for an earthbound mission to educate future scientists about the red planet.


Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Climate Change & the Doomsday seed vault


It boggles the mind and attacks the part of the brain that recognizes irony.

The Doomsday seed vault, located in the Arctic Circle in Norway, has been impacted by Climate Change. The melting of the permafrost flooded the tunnel entrance. Thankfully no seeds were lost and currently researchers are looking into making the vault more secure & self-sufficient.

The Doomsday seed vault was started in 2008 & holds more than 20 million seeds. Originally seeds were held at the Nordic Gene Bank (since 1984) in an abandoned coal mine at Svalbad. Also saving seeds were the Southern Africa Development Community but both the Nordic and African collections were transferred to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault Facility on January first 2008 when the Nordic Gene Bank and NordGen were integrated. The Doomsday vault contains samples from approximately one-third of the world's most important food crop varieties.


Its physical design is 390 feet into a sandstone mountain on Spitzbergen Island. The site has robust security systems and the seeds are packed in three layers of foil packets that are heat sealed to exclude moisture.

The facility is managed by the Nordic Genetic Resource Center, and there is no permanent staff on-site.

The reason for selecting this site: Spitsbergen, was because it lacked tectonic activity and had permafrost, which would aid in its preservation. It was thought that the 430 ft above sea level will keep the site dry even if the ice caps melt. Locally mined coal gives the power for the refrigeration units that cool the seeds to the internationally recommended standard of −18 ° but if the equipment fails, at least several weeks will elapse before the facility rises to the surrounding sandstone bedrock's temperature of −3 °C

It is expected that some of the seeds will last for 100s of years but that some grains could last even longer, like a thousand years.

Just some thoughts. First this seed bank assumes several things; that whatever Doomsday scenario affected us, we can get to the Arctic circle, also that there is still Sun/an Ozone layer, and the Earth was not completely flooded. Still, I’ve updated my go bag for emergencies to include directions…just in case!

 

Friday, May 12, 2017

Loki – not Thor’s adopted brother, the lava lake on Io


It sounds almost SciFi, but it isn’t. Io is the most volcanically active of the known solar system. If I were writing a SciFi novel I might describe it as follows;

‘Swells of lava extending farther than the eye could see - across the wide expanse of Loki Patera, a massive lake on this moon Io. The brightness caused by the lava seeming to shift from the glowing eyes of a predator to during the times the crust solidifies, the darkness of impending doom.’


A study was completed by researchers at UCBerkeley which reviewed images taken from Io on March 8th, 2015 just as Jupiter’s icy moon Europa passed in front of its volcanic one. This allowed the astronomers to capture differences in heat radiating from the volcanoes on Io because of the small amount of sunlight reflected by the surface of Europa in infrared wavelengths.

The size of the lake? 220 kilometers in diameter (126 miles). And its named after Thor’s adoptive brother, or the Norse god.

 

I will never cease to be amazed at the sort of things the scientists can advise us of. Such as the temperature. Lake Loki Patera varies from 270 degrees kelvin (that’s 26 in Fahrenheit) to 330 kelvins (134 in Fahrenheit). When taking notice of these temperatures, the next discovery was the overturn. What is Overturn? Overturn is something and thickens, falling into the liquid beneath it. This in turn causes a wave of hot magma to rise up and spread across the surface of the lake. So periodically the temperature varies as does the light given off by the lava lake.

Unfortunately the teaching moment ends there and all must wait until the next alignment with Europa. Of course that isn’t until 2021.