Space New for Dec 2017: President Trump directs NASA to return to the Moon. No Plan, no Timetable and No Money!

To celebrate the 45th anniversary of the final Apollo mission to land on the Moon President Trump has announced (11 Dec 2017) that he is directing NASA to return American astronauts to the Moon before continuing on to Mars and ‘to many Worlds beyond’. Vice-President Pence, the head of the Council of Astronautics stood proudly beside his boss as did Harrison Schmidt, a member of Apollo 17 and one of the last two men to set foot on the Moon along with Buzz Aldren, the second man on the Moon. See image below.

Donald Trump proudly shows that he can sign his name just like Big People do (Credit: Chip Samodoevilla, Getty)

Now I have published several posts (22 Feb 2017 and 19 July 2017) recommending exactly this strategy. At present NASA is nearing completion of two major space systems that could easily be employed in an updated version of the Apollo missions. The Space Launch System (SLS), which is scheduled for its first unmanned launch next year, could serve as the main launch vehicle as the Saturn V rocket did. At the same time the Orion capsule, also scheduled for a test flight next year, would take the place of the Apollo Command and Service modules. See images below.

Space Launch System (right) and Orion crew Capsule (Credit: NASA)

That would mean that the only major system required to achieve President Trump’s goal is a lander module, that is an updated version of the Lunar Module or LM, a task that could be completed in 4-6 years given adequate support! My support for this strategy comes from the fact we will soon have much of the equipment necessary and it would actually allow NASA to do something after 40 years of, let’s be honest stagnation.

But here’s the problem; we’ve been through this before, many times now. A new President will come into office; directs NASA toward a completely different goal from his predecessor and does not even bother to try to get the funding necessary from Congress.

Ronald Reagan ordered NASA to build a Space Station (I did some preliminary design work on that by the by) but never funded it. George H.W. Bush told NASA to go to Mars instead but again, no bucks no Buck Rogers. Bill Clinton was less ambitious, he went back to Reagan’s Space Station idea, got some other nations, especially Russia involved and managed to get the International Space Station built! After that George W. Bush decided it was time for us to go back to the Moon so NASA came up with the Constellation Program from which came the initial designs for the SLS and Orion capsule. But President Obama thought the cost of Constellation was too high so he instructed NASA to use a mission to an asteroid as a stepping-stone to an eventual Mars Mission.

Think of all of the billions of dollars that have been wasted going back and forth from one plan to another. Maybe if two Presidents in a row stuck to the same plan NASA might actually have gotten somewhere. And that’s my concern; with all of Trump’s problems what are the chances that he’ll be able to support, or even care about his space vision at all. And then the next President will just scrap all the work done on going back to the Moon for whatever his or her vision is.


Meanwhile however NASA continues to show how it can perform miracles even without adequate funding. Scientists at NASA’s Ames research facility in Sunnyvale California have collaborated with their neighbors Google to use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to review the massive amounts of data gathered by the Kepler Space Telescope.

Now, in case you’ve forgotten, the Kepler satellite (see image below) was designed to observe thousands of stars looking for slight dips in their brightness that could be caused by planets. The stars that Kepler detected as possibly having planets were then examined more closely by ground-based telescopes to confirm the existence of planets. To date Kepler has examined 150,000 stars found over 3,000 confirmed planets orbiting other stars.

Kepler Space Telescope (Credit NASA)

But the scientists managing the Kepler mission were convinced that more planets could be hidden inside the Kepler data so they teamed with AI engineers at Google to use machine learning to review the Kepler data and they’ve already found a big one.

Two days ago, 14 Dec2017, NASA announced that the star Kepler-90 possesses a solar system of eight planets, a number equal to our own solar system. Now Kepler-90 is a star similar to our Sun at a distance of about 2,500 light years and the Kepler satellite had already discovered several planets orbiting around. How many the researchers weren’t certain so they used the data from Kepler-90 as some that would be reexamined by Google’s AI and the computer learned how to sift through the observations to find eight planets. The image below shows an artist’s impression of what Kepler-90’s family of planets could look like.

Artist’s Impression of Kepler-90 Solar System (Credit: NASA)

With this early success behind them the Kepler-Google team will surely go on to discover thousands of more planets orbiting other stars and many of those planets could be a home to who knows what forms of life. This is a lesson to be learned about America’s scientists. Even when the politicians bicker about and underfund science, they keep finding ways to make amazing discoveries.


Space New for October 2017.

Space X is once again heading our space news for the month. On October 11th the privately owned space corporation successfully reused one of its Falcon 9 first stage booster rockets for the third time . The rocket that put the Echo Star 105/SES-11 satellite into orbit had been used previously back on February the 19th to launch Space X’s Dragon resupply capsule on a mission to the International Space Station.

That launch back in February had been Space X’s first launch from NASA’s historic pad 39A, the same pad that had seen so many of the Apollo and Space Shuttle take offs. This was also Space X’s second successful launch in three days demonstrating the company’s increasing skill and competence in the task of launching payloads into space. The image below shows the liftoff of Space X’s Falcon 9.

Launch of Space X’s Falcon 9 (Credit: Space X)

Both of the first stages used in this week’s missions landed intact on Space X’s recovery barge. In fact Space X has now recovered their first stage boosters 18 times making the feat seem almost routine. By making both the recovery and reuse of their boosters routine Space X hopes to reduce the cost of getting into space, dollars per kilo to orbit, enough to greatly increase the amount of cargo going into space. This is something business types call ‘Economies of Scale’ which will help to drive down the cost of space travel even further.

One last word about Space X. Next year the company, along with their rival Boeing, is scheduled to begin test flights of their manned orbital capsules. According to NASA’s commercial crew program each company will perform one unmanned test flight to be followed by a manned flight late next year. Those flights will be the first time in seven years that astronauts will fly into orbit from American soil.

Another space event that got a bit of news play involved the close approach by the asteroid 2012 TC4. The asteroid, which is estimated to be about 30 meters across, came within 43,000 kilometers of Earth on the night of 12 October. Now 43,000 km may sound like a long way off but in terms of the solar system it’s a near miss. It is in fact only a little more than a tenth of the distance to the Moon. The image below shows a NASA illustration of what 2012 TC4 looked like as it passed by Earth.

Illustration of Asteroid 2012TC4 passing Earth (Credit: NASA)

In fact since 2012 TC4 was coming so close NASA decided to use the encounter as the first test of their ‘Planetary Defense System’. A system which one day may be used to deflect, or if necessary destroy, an asteroid on a collision course with our planet.

This initial test simply used NASA’s network of observatories to keep a closer watch on the asteroid’s trajectory as it went by. In 2024 however, NASA hopes to arrange a mission to actually alter the course of an asteroid. Not one on a collision course but another close encounter like 2012 TC4.

The mission is being called DART and the target is actually a pair of asteroids called Didymos that are bound together by their mutual gravity. The test will involve slamming a space probe into the smaller (~150m) asteroid in order to see how its orbit around its larger (800m) companion is effected. From the results of the experiment NASA hopes to learn just how much push would be needed to alter an asteroid’s course enough to prevent a collision in the future. The long term goal would be protect the Earth from disasters such as the one that killed off the dinosaurs.

One final item before I leave. Last month (13Sept17) I wrote a post about the final days of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft before it plunged into the atmosphere of the planet Saturn. Now the Jet Propulsion Labouratory (JPL) and NASA have released some of the details of the doomed space probe’s final minutes. According to JPL Cassini ‘put up a fight’ and fired it thrusters for 91 seconds trying desperately to keep its antenna pointed toward Earth and transmitted data until the last second.

By greatly exceeding its designer’s expectations it’s as if Cassini had acquired something of a personality, a determination to carry out its mission to the end. And it’s not just Cassini. The Voyager probes are still sending us information on interstellar space after more than 40 years and the Lost Horizon spacecraft is now preparing for a flyby of a Kuiper belt object. It’s almost as if these interplanetary explorers are becoming the first mechanical heroes.

Oh I know that’s kind of silly. Or is it, after all who knows what our space probes will be like a hundred years from now. Cassini’s final image, transmitted to Earth even as the probe was falling into Saturn’s atmosphere is below.

Cassini’s Final image (Credit: NASA-JPL)





Space News for August 2017

There were some interesting news stories related to the exploration of space over the last month reaching from right here on Earth to the very limits of the observable Universe. I’ll start with some news that is both shocking and saddening about the legacy of the first man to walk on the Moon, Neil Armstrong.

In Armstrong’s hometown of Wapakoneta, Ohio there is the Neil Armstrong Air and Space museum. The museum was built by the State of Ohio as a place to honor Armstrong’s achievements and display for the public some of artifacts and tributes that were bestowed on the astronaut during his career. I’ve been there, it’s a wonderful little museum where you can learn about, or remember as the case may be, the early days of space exploration. I highly recommend it if you’re anywhere near northwestern Ohio.

Now on the night of Friday the 31st of July the museum was broken into and robbed by what authorities believe were three or four men. A number of exhibits were stolen including rare medals and coins but the most valuable item that was taken was a solid gold miniature model of the Lunar Module Eagle presented to Armstrong upon his return to Earth after his Moon landing.

Local police hope to recover the stolen items but right now they have no idea who the burglars were. The scariest thing is that the gold LM model could be melted down for the gold so that no one would ever know what it once was. Anyway it’s a sorry comment on our time that money and greed should in any degree tarnish the legacy of the greatest achievement in human history. The photo below shows Michael Collins’s model of the stolen LM replica.

LEM Replica (Credit: Nick Welsh)

My second story concerns our picture of the entire observable Universe and how much we’ve learned about it. A new study called the ‘Dark Energy Survey’ (DES) has released some very detailed results of the structure and distribution of matter in the Universe along with how the structure and distribution have changed over the past seven billion years.

The DES team employed a technique called gravitational lensing, a phenomenon first predicted in Einstein’s General Theory where the light from a distant object can be bent by the gravitational field of a closer object. This technique can be used to measure the mass of the closer object by how much it bends the light of the distant object. Using this technique 26 million galaxies, that’s right 26 million galaxies, had their mass measured allowing a map to be made of the mass distribution in a large section of the Universe, see photo below.

Mass Distribution in the Universe (Credit: Chihway Chang, DES Collaboration)

In previous posts (25Sept16 and 3Dec16) I have mentioned the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), the leftover heat of the Big Bang which gives us a ‘baby picture’ of our Universe about 380,000 years after the Big Bang. So with the addition of the new DES study we can now test our theoretical models of cosmic evolution. In other words, taking the CMB measurements as the initial conditions do our models give us the kind of Universe we see in the DES?

It turns out that the simplest model; known as Lambda-Cold Dark Matter (λ-CDM) is still an excellent fit. In the model the Dark Energy accelerating the expansion of the Universe is just a constant term (Einstein used the Greek letter λ in his equations) and the Dark Matter we can measure only by its gravity it composed of heavy particles of some kind.

This is a rather strange state of affairs. We don’t know what 95% of the Universe is (Dark Energy, Dark Matter) but when it comes to predicting how it behaves we’re spot on!

Finally, you may have heard that NASA has a job opening for a new Planetary Protection Officer. No, we’re not talking about fighting off the aliens, at least not with a ray gun. NASA has had a Planetary Protection Officer ever since the days of Apollo when there was a very real concern that Lunar microbes might be able to hitch a ride to Earth with our astronauts.

Today most of the Planetary Protection Officer’s job actually deals with protecting other planets, such as making certain that Earth bacteria don’t use one of our Mars Rovers to contaminate the planet before we can discover whether or not life originated there. (Imagine the first astronauts on Mars discover life!!!! Oh wait; it’s just a staphylococcus infection.)

Now if you think Planetary Protection Officer sounds like a fun job, well nine-year-old Jack Davis of New Jersey thought so to. He applied for the job in a hand written note which includes as a qualification “My sister thinks I’m an alien”. Anyway, Jack got a nice reply from NASA’s Director of Planetary Science Doctor James Green telling him to study hard and one day he can work for NASA. Hopefully one day he will.


Space News for July 2017

The biggest news in space exploration this month has to come from the Juno spacecraft now in orbit around the planet Jupiter. Last Wednesday night Juno made a close approach to Jupiter flying only 3500 kilometers above the planet’s ‘Great Red Spot’ and giving scientists their best look ever at this mysterious object. See the amazing picture below.

Great Red Spot (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Jason Major)

The Great Red Spot was first discovered by the British Scientist Robert Hooke around 1650 and has been studied now for over 350 years. Despite all those years of observation the spot’s exact nature is still being debated.

The most popular explanation for the Great Red Spot is that it is a powerful storm, a hurricane larger than the Earth. In fact hurricanes here on Earth can last a very long time so long as they stay over water, only losing their strength when they pass over land.

Still 350 years is a very long time for a storm to last and hurricanes move with the wind patterns while the Great Red Spot appears to be in the same place it was when Hooke first saw it. To me the storm model cannot be a complete description.

Another theory is that the Great Red Spot is something like Jupiter’s version of a volcano, a massive upwelling of gas from deep within the planet. Like the Mona Kea volcano on Hawaii’s big island something inside Jupiter could be continuously erupting and forming the Red Spot around it.

To me it seems that a combination of the two models may be the best solution but in any case hopefully all the data we get back from Juno will give us a greater insight into the nature of The Great Red Spot. If you’d like to read more about Juno, and see some breathtaking images the link below will take you to NASA’s Juno site.

Another interesting space news item concerned an experiment by Chinese scientists to teleport a photon, a particle of light, from Earth’s surface to a satellite in orbit. Team leader Ji-Gang Ren of the Department of modern physics at the University of Science and Technology of China along with his colleagues sent the teleported particles from a ground station in Nagari Tibet to the Micius satellite in an orbit 500km above the Earth’s surface. Although not the first successful teleportation experiment this is by far the greatest distance a particle has been teleported.

Recent experiments in teleportation use the phenomenon of ‘Quantum Entanglement’ in order to teleport not so much the actual particle as all the information about it, it’s quantum state in technical terms. For the photons used in the Chinese experiment this information was the polarization of the photons. (I’ll discuss quantum entanglement in another post quite soon)

Now it’s going to be a long time before we are able to transmit the quantum states of Kirk, Spock and Bones so that they can be reassembled on the planet’s surface. However the polarization of a photon can be used as either a 1 or a 0 for the purposes of digitizing information. This is the physics behind the idea of quantum computing that’s getting a lot of talk nowadays.

If you’d like to read more about the Chinese teleportation experiment click on the link below to go to an MIT Technology Review article on it.

One last item of space news before I go. This past week NASA has kinda, sorta finally admitted that with their current level of funding there is no real chance of a manned mission to Mars by the official target date of 2033. This is hardly a surprise, a manned mission will be hugely expensive and NASA really hasn’t even begun to develop the systems needed.

If you’ve been reading my posts on the subject (Feb 22, 2017) you know that I advocate a return to the Moon with the systems we are currently developing. The Space Launch System and Orion space capsule that will soon be available are perfect for Lunar missions, all that’s needed is a lander module which could be ready in 5-6 years. NASA is not likely to get a large increase in funding anytime soon and really needs to commit itself to a realistic program for manned space exploration!

Space News for June 2017

It seems as if every time I decide to write an update on new events happening in our exploration of space SpaceX corporation has to get a mention. Every month it seems like Elon Musk and his engineers are achieving some new goal toward increasing humanity’s access to outer space.

First Reused Dragon Capsule Docking at ISS (Credit NASA)

This month SpaceX has not only launched its 11th resupply mission to the International Space Station. Not only successfully landed the rocket’s first stage for the 11th time. But the pressurized Dragon capsule that was launched and is now docked at the ISS is itself a reused capsule from SpaceX’s fourth resupply mission back in 2014. This means that only the rocket’s second stage was lost in the mission, a degree of reuse not achieved since the Space Shuttle. Progress, progress.

The nation of India has also achieved a milestone in the past week with the first launch of its new heavy GSLV Mark III rocket, see picture below. The GLSV Mark III is the Asian nation’s attempt to catch up to the space big shots in the growing space industry and India even plans on using the rocket to begin manned launches starting in 2024!

India’s New GSLV Mark III Rocket (Credit BBC)

There is also some tantalizing news from NASA’s Curiosity Rover which is still exploring Gale Crater on the Martian surface. Now NASA’s three rovers; Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity have already found a considerable amount of evidence that Mars once possessed large bodies of water that could have supported life 3.1 to 3.8 billion years ago. Recently however Curiosity has been able to show that the lake that once filled Gale Crater had different levels of oxygen at different depths, a type of environment similar to lakes on Earth and providing multiple opportunities for many forms of life.

Sedimentary Rock on Mars in Gale Crater (Credit NASA)

Before you get too excited it is likely that these conditions occurred naturally on Earth and life evolved to fit those conditions but it is still strong evidence that conditions favourable to life existed on Mars some 3 billion years ago.

But to my mind the big news in space exploration is NASA’s announcement of a spacecraft that will be sent much closer to the Sun than any probe has ever gone. The Parker Solar Probe is named for Doctor Eugene Parker who named and studied the solar wind starting in the 1950s. The spacecraft is expected to come as close as 6 million kilometers to the Sun, even dipping inside the Sun’s ‘Atmosphere’ which is called the corona.

Mission Patch for the Parker Solar Probe (Credit NASA)

As a comparison the Earth orbits about 150 million kilometers from the Sun and even Mercury, the nearest planet maintains a distance of 60 million kilometers. That means Parker will come ten times closer to the Sun than boiling hot Mercury!

Getting so close to the Sun means that the Parker Solar Probe is going to require special protection for it’s vital instruments and equipment. This is provided by an 11.5cm thick shield made of carbon composite materials. This shield will allow Parker to survive temperatures as high as 1400 degrees Celsius.

The Parker Solar Probe will be launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center between 31July and 19 August of 2018. This timing is especially critical because the probe’s mission includes seven, count’em seven flybys of Venus to use the planet’s gravity to alter the spacecraft’s obit bringing it ever closer to the Sun. Unfortunately that many gravity boosts are going to take seven years to accomplish so this is going to be a long mission.

If you’d like to read more about the Parker Solar Probe, and keep track of the mission as I plan on doing, click on the link below to go to the official NASA site for the mission.

That’s Space news for this month. Till next time.

Space News for May 2017

I guess the big news in space for this month is NASA’s decision that the Exploratory Mission 1 (EM1) will be unmanned as was originally planned. NASA had been asked by President Trump to consider the possibility of adding a crew to the first launch of the long awaited Space Launch System (SLS) along with the Orion spacecraft.

Space Launch System (Credit NASA)

In the end NASA decided to stick to the original mission plan in part because of the added costs in preparing the spacecraft for a crew (Estimated at between 600 and 900 million). Just as importantly however, was NASA’s desire to push the spacecraft to its limits on this first mission, something they did not feel comfortable doing with a live crew. In announcing their decision NASA also stated that the schedule for the EM1 mission will slip into early 2019!

This delay means that the scheduled first manned launch of the SLS/Orion will now take place no earlier that mid 2021 and you can expect that date to slip as well. If you’d like to read NASA’s official announcement click on the link below.

This decision by NASA means that the return of manned launches to Kennedy Space Center will now undoubtedly be by a commercial space company, either Space X’s Dragon capsule of Boeing’s Starliner. Both of these two companies hope to begin manned missions to the International Space Station  (ISS) late next year but you can expect one or both to slip into 2019.

Speaking of Space X just a couple of days ago Elon Musk’s company successfully launched the fourth satellite in the Inmarsat series. Inmarsat is a network of satellites built by Boeing to provide broadband connections for aircraft, ships at sea and mobile land users. This was Space X’s second successful launch in as many weeks but the notable fact about this launch was that Space X did not try to recover the rocket’s first stage! The Inmarsat satellite is so massive that the Falcon 9 rocket needed every bit of fuel to put it into orbit leaving nothing left for a recovery.

Inmarsat Satellite (Credit Boeing)

This says something of the sophistication of Space X’s technology that a mission where they do not recover the rocket is newsworthy.

In other news the Cassini spacecraft has continued to send back breathtaking images of the planet Saturn and it’s rings. Nothing really dramatic has happened to Cassini I just love those pictures!

Saturn-Mosaic (Credit NASA)

Also there was a bit of amusing news coming from the ISS as astronauts got to enjoy eating some fresh vegetables courtesy of crew member Peggy Whitson. Astronaut Whitson has harvested the first crop of Chinese Cabbage grown in the microgravity of space. This is the fifth vegetable to be grown aboard the ISS and more are planned in the future.

Cabbage in Space (Credit NASA)

These first attempts at farming in space may just be experiments to see what is and what isn’t possible but in the long run our ability to produce food on the Moon or Mars or wherever will determine if humanity actually has a future in space.





Space News for March2017

The past couple of weeks have seen several interesting news items related to manned space flight so I thought today would be a good day to catch up on Space News.

First off last week both Space X corp and the Russians succeeded in launching resupply missions to the International Space Station (ISS) with Space X also successfully landing the first stage of their Falcon rocket after it had placed the Dragon capsule into orbit. These resupply missions are becoming routine and that’s a good thing! It means we are finally building the infrastructure the space which will enable us to concentrate on new missions going further into space.

Speaking of going further into space, Space X announced last week that they are preparing a mission to take two paying customers out to, but not landing on, the Moon. This mission has tentatively scheduled for late next year (2018). Along with NASA’s announcement last month that the first mission of their Space Launch System / Orion spacecraft might now be manned (see my post of 22Feb for that news) this means that there could be two independent missions to Lunar orbit next year (actually I bet they’ll both end up in 2019 but still that’s progress!) If you’d like to read Space X’s official announcement click on the link below.

Now, for the fashion conscious among us (certainly not me) there was a press release for a company called StemRad based in Israel. StemRad already has a reputation for designing and manufacturing radiation protective gear for workers in nuclear power plants now they’re working on gear for astronauts. StemRad called the press release to show off the new radiation vest that they had developed and which they called the AstroRad. The vest is intended to protect human tissue from the effects of the radiation encountered on deep space missions such as to the Moon or Mars. NASA will be testing the vest on their planned Lunar missions.

The vests are form fitting and tailor made for each astronaut. The picture below shows the vests being worn by two of StemRad’s employees.

StemRad’s Radiation Vests

If you’d like to read more about the AstroRad vest click on the link below.

Finally the space company Blue Origen released an animation of how their soon to be completed Glenn rocket will be recovered after launching a payload into orbit. The critics are all saying that it looks awfully familiar and that Space X doesn’t need animations since they have actual footage of them landing one of their rockets! Still, more companies competing against each other should help bring down the cost of space travel. If you’d like to see the animation click on the link below.

Before I go I have an announcement of my own to make! If you look over at the right hand side of the page you’ll see that I have now started a bookmarks section where I will be providing links to other web sites devoted to Science and Science Fiction. Even better you’ll see that this blog has been chosen by Feedspot Blog Directory as one of their Top 100 science blogs. In fact Science and Science Fiction debuted at #73 on their list which includes such well known sites as Scientific American, Discover Magazine, National Geographic and Popular Science. O’k they’re all in the single digits while I’m 73 but still it’s cool just being on the same list! And remember, this blog is only 6 months old!