Space News for March 2018.

It’s been a quiet month as far as space exploration is concerned. The most interesting news items are actually updates of earlier stories but are rather important in the long term.

The first item I’d like to discuss concerns astronaut Scott Kelly and the continuing research into the medical effects of his yearlong mission to the International Space Station (ISS). You may have heard reports that because of his time in space Scott Kelly and his twin brother Mark Kelly were no longer identical that being in space had actually changed Scott’s DNA!! The image below shows Scott and Mark together, Mark is the one with the mustache.

Scott Kelly (left) with his Brother Mark (Credit:

Well that’s not quite true. In fact a very important phrase ‘the expression of’ was left out of some news stories. Now what exactly does that mean? Well, our DNA can ‘express itself’ differently under different environmental conditions.

For example, if you eat a huge amount of food and drink a lot of beer your DNA will express itself by producing a lot of fat cells to store all those calories and you will become obese. On the other hand, if you eat right and exercise you DNA will express itself by producing muscle cells and you will stay trim and fit. Same DNA, it just expresses itself differently depending on what environmental conditions its exposed to.

What the latest medical tests have revealed is that the change in the expression of Scott’s DNA has amounted to about 7%. That’s quite a lot actually but about the same as the results that had been published earlier and within the range of normal variance for DNA expression. Click on the link below to be taken to NASA’s official announcement of the results of Scot Kelly’s medical tests.

Before I go on to another subject, Scott Kelly also made some news this week by giving an interview in which he voiced his opinions of America’s space program and its future. The big takeaway from the interview was Scott’s criticism of NASA’s continued low budgets and the increased competition from China. Scott’s warns; “I think that China will overtake the US in the space business–If we allow them to.”

Scott is also concerned about the Trump administration’s recent plans to cut all funding to the ISS starting in 2025 despite the fact that the station’s expected working life takes it to 2028. Kelly is more hopeful when it comes to the scheduled test launches later this year of both Space X’s and Boeing’s space capsules. The first tests this year will be unmanned but hopefully starting next year NASA will no longer be dependent on the Russian’s in order to get our astronauts into space.

And speaking of NASA and the Trump administration the other news this month is that the space agency has continued with its plans to design, build and launch into deep space a Lunar Orbiter Platform called Gateway. The idea behind Gateway is to establish a small space station either in lunar orbit or an orbit around both the Earth and Moon. This station will give NASA experience in operating in deep space as well as a place to carry out solar and astrophysical experiments. The image below shows an image of the planned Gateway station.

Design Illustration of Lunar Gateway Station (Credit:

The problem is, take a guess, money! Since Trump has directed NASA to a goal of returning astronauts to the surface of the Moon and then on to Mars where’s the money for Gateway. Once again it seems that NASA just can’t seem to set a clear goal for itself and get the funding necessary to achieve it.

NASA has been without a permanent Chief Administrator since Trump took office and just last week the agency’s interim administrator retired leaving NASA without any real boss. Without leadership from congress and the white house America’s space program will continue to founder without direction.

On a somewhat brighter note, NASA is at least making plans for the outside chance that the Earth will be struck by the asteroid Bennu on 21Sept in the year 2135. According to the best estimate the 500-meter in diameter space rock has a 1 in 2,700 chance of colliding with our planet on that day.

Right now the NASA probe Osiris-REx is on its way to Bennu on a mission that includes taking a sample of the asteroid and returning it to Earth. As a part of this mission NASA should get a better idea of Bennu’s orbit and therefore a better idea of whether Bennu is a future danger to Earth.

Should that prove to be the case NASA is developing a concept it calls the ‘Hypervelocity Asteroid Mitigation Mission for Emergency Response’ or HAMMER. Depending on just how big Bennu is HAMMER will impact on the asteroid to nudge it into a safe orbit or carry a nuclear bomb to destroy it. The image below shows the asteroid Bennu compared to a couple of more familiar objects.

The Asteroid Bennu (Credit:

Now where have I heard all that before? In a sense NASA is simply using Bennu as an example of a potentially dangerous asteroid to design a mission around. Based on the first part of this post I wonder whether or not by 2135 it will be a Chinese spacecraft that ends up protecting us from Bennu?

Space News for February 2017

Several times now I’ve written a post concerning recent news items dealing with what’s going on in humanity’s exploration of space. I’ve usually titled them ‘This Week in Space’ but I haven’t been doing them every week so what I’m gonna do is make it an official MONTHLY thing.

You may have heard about the first item I’d like to cover. It concerns the ongoing medical examination of NASA astronaut Scott Kelly after his one year assignment to the International Space Station and the comparison to his twin brother astronaut Mark Kelly. Ever since his return to Earth last March Scott has been subjected to perhaps the most extensive set of physical, mental and genetic testing ever conducted on a person.

A similar set of tests are also being carried out on Mark, who flew four shuttle missions but is now retired and who remained here on Earth during Scott’s year long mission. The comparison between the two sets of tests will give scientists their best ever look into the long term effects of living in a zero ‘g’ environment.

While the results are still coming in and being analyzed, some interesting differences have been noted. Perhaps the most troubling for the future of human spaceflight is the detection of reduced bone growth in Scott during the second half of his mission. His loss of bone strength has been noted before in other astronauts but the comparison between Scott and Mark’s bone tissue gives scientists their best measurement of just how much of a difference living in space makes.

Shortly after Scott returned to Earth one group of researchers noted a slight reduction in cognitive ability, the ability to think quickly and clearly. The scientists noted that the change was insignificant and should not effect a journey to Mars or another long duration mission.

Meanwhile genetic testing of the twin astronauts revealed that hundreds of genetic mutations had developed in their respective RNA sequences. The question is whether the increased number of mutations is due to different genes being activated in a space environment, a ‘Space Gene’ NASA officials called it, or are the differences due to the increased amount of radiation Scott received during his year in space.

NASA’s twin study of Scott and Mark Kelly is ongoing and we’re certain to learn more about the effects of weightlessness on the human body. I’m hoping that in another 10-15 years there will be another study of the medical effects of a low, that is lunar, gravity environment.

Another bit of NASA news concerns the initial design study for a possible lander probe mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. As I sure you know, astronomers are rather certain that beneath Europa’s icy surface is an ocean of liquid water and liquid water means a good chance for life.

NASA is already in the process of developing an Europa flyby spacecraft that is intended to orbit Jupiter in such a fashion that it swings by Europa 45 or more times. Well an Europa lander would then be the next step logical in our search for life on that icy world. Below is an artists idea of what the Europa lander could look like.

Conceptual Drawing of Europa Lander

And if you’d like to read more about the Europa lander from click on the link below.

Finally a bit of fun. Astronaut Andreas Mogensen of the European Space Agency (ESA) recently spent six months on the International Space Station (ISS) studying Red Sprites and Blue Jets. These phenomenon are basically forms of lightning produced in thunderstorms that go up into space rather than down to the Earth. Doctor Mogensen has produced a little video describing and showing some of his results and rather than trying to explain further I think I’ll just insert a link to the YOUTUBE video and let him talk. Enjoy!

I hope that works!