Courtesy AAxanderrOf course, by “the skies,” I mean “space.” And by “eyes,” I mean “money.” “China” means “China,” though.
So, by “China sets its money on space,” I mean that China has announced its intentions to court that sweet maiden (or charming lad) we call space. (Also, it turns out that I like space travel/dating analogies quit a bit.)
China, already one of only three countries to send a human to space (after Mother Russia and the United States of Awesmerica), has big plans to expand its space program in coming years. While the US is cutting back its program, China intends to launch manned vessels, freighters, and space stations in just the next five years. (Space stations, plural, seems kind of strange to me, but that’s what the article said.)
China’s space program is run by the country’s military, which freaks some folks out, but China claims that the venture is purely scientific, and, being one of the big boy countries, it’s eager to make its own contributions to space exploration. Also, and this is a rough translation from the original Chinese, it has all this money, and the cool kids all have (or had) sweet space programs, so ….
Despite the impressive goals and Chinas recent rapid progress in space exploration, spokespeople acknowledge that China has a lot of work yet to do to get to the level of Russia’s and the USA’s space programs, seeing as how those institutions have a 50-year head start. So if you’re feeling defensive or jealous, you can keep that in mind.
But are you feeling defensive or jealous? Or are you just excited that more people will be going to space, and more science will be happening up there?
Courtesy NASAVoyager 1, an unmanned NASA space probe is nearing the outer edge of our solar system and will soon enter the vast, unknown region known as interstellar space. The crossover will remove the spacecraft from the influence of solar winds (from our Sun), into a relatively empty expanse of cold space influenced mostly by countering pressures created by supernovae, collapsed stars that died in immense catastrophic explosions. Voyager 1's primary mission, when it was launched 34 years ago on September 5, 1977, was to visit and photograph the giant gas planets in our solar system. It accomplished that goal and sent back spectacular images of the planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Right now Voyager 1 is about 11 billion miles from the sun, its cameras switched off, and poised for the next stage of its journey. The edge of the heliosphere is estimated to be somewhere between 10-14 billion miles from the Sun, so the probe could crossover anytime soon. NASA's Voyager program included two probes sent out with data gathering instruments and cultural souvenirs from the inhabitants of planet Earth, just in case they somehow got intercepted by some extraterrestrial lifeforms. Voyager 2, although launched two weeks before , trails some 2 billion miles behind Voyager 1, and will cross the boundary after its twin. You can read (and hear) more about it at the NPR website.
Courtesy NASANot a real dragon, of course. I mean, that would be awesome—just picture it, trying to fly around up there, starting things on fire and eating up all the astronaut food—but actual non-alien monsters in space never work out the way you would hope.
Don’t believe me? I present to you exhibits A and B: Jason X and Leprechaun 4: Leprechaun in Space. Jason and Leprechaun were really out of place up there. Sure, they did a lot of damage, but so did I on Labor Day weekend. It’s just a lot of confusion and flailing—nothing to get very excited about.
No, the dragon I’m referring to perhaps is something to get excited about. It depends on what sort of things get you worked up, but seeing as how this dragon, or Dragon, is a spaceship, I think I can put some good money on somebody out there getting excited. A spaceship!
We clever humans have made plenty of spaceships, but what’s special about Dragon is that it’s the first commercially-built and –operated spacecraft to be recovered from orbit. About a year ago, the private company SpaceX launched the Dragon craft into orbit around the planet, and safely brought it back down a few hours later. Dragon was unmanned on that launch, but the vessel is constructed so that it could carry up to seven human passengers into orbit (its pressurized cabin space—where humans would have to be—is about 350 cubic feet, and it has an additional 490 cubic feet of unpressurized cargo space.)
Given the success of the test launch, Dragon is on its way to another first: docking with the International Space Station. Never before has a commercial spacecraft rendezvoused with the ISS. This is like … like a billionaire’s son going on a date with the president’s daughter. (Not the current president’s daughters, though. They’re too young to be dating.)
Before this billionaire gets to take out the First Daughter, however, it has to complete safety checks and a flyby of the ISS (like making sure the kid is dressed appropriately, doesn’t smell of cognac, and doesn’t crash into the Whitehouse’s garage door). Assuming everything checks out ok, the ISS will use its huge robotic arm to grapple the Dragon, and connect it to one of its modules, where the dragon can unload its cargo. Sort of like the president’s daughter using her giant, cybernetic arm to … actually, let’s abandon this analogy. The point is that for the first time a ship that doesn’t belong to the US or Russian government (or any government) will hook up with the ISS, ushering in a new era of Earth to orbit transportation, etc.
As I understand it, the plan was originally to do three launches—the initial one, where Dragon was shot into orbit, and then recovered; a second one that would include a flyby of the ISS and a test of Dragon’s onboard systems, and then finally the launch that would have it connect with the ISS. However, it looks like NASA and SpaceX have decided to combine the second and third missions. Dragon will be launched on February 7, 2012, and if the flyby and system tests go well, it will dock with the ISS on the same trip. It will not be carrying any passengers on that launch, but—assuming everything goes well—that’s in the plans for future flights. And there will be future flights. In fact, NASA has a $1.6 billion contract with SpaceX, requiring SpaceX to provide them with at least 12 resupply flights to the ISS.
Any thoughts, Buzzketeers? What about commercial spaceflight? What about commercial spaceflight replacing government-run spaceflight? And how do you feel about dragons?
Courtesy NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)Hey look! Somebody made a snow angel in outer space! How appropriate and wonderful it should occur during this festive holiday season. This remarkable image was captured by the Hubble Telescope, and actually shows a star-making region of our Milky Way galaxy some 2000 light-years away in the direction of the constellation Cygnus. It’s a nebula (known as Sharples 2-106) that contains massive clouds of gas spreading across several light-years of space. The imagined perception of images (religious or otherwise) in nature or in ordinary, everyday objects isn’t something new. The Ancient Greeks called it simulacra and there’s even a scientific explanation for the phenomena . Still, it’s a pretty dang cool-looking celestial image, apropos for the season, and another item to add to the list.
Courtesy NASAHistory has shown us time and time again that careless exploration of backronyms can be a dangerous mistake. Think of Sir Isaac Newton, who had a mild stroke while constructing his theory of Green Round Apples Veer Inward To Dang. Or consider the vicious beating Roald Dahl received after founding his youth literacy and mentoring program, Real Everyday Adults Delivering Intelligence Not Gum. Constructing an acronym to fit an already decided upon word or phrase is a process fraught with the threat of physical harm (or, at the very least, mild embarrassment).
Thank goodness for the ironically straightforwardly acronymed NASA and MIT, who are braving the field of wild, retroactively applied acronyms so the rest of us don’t have to.
NASA’s and MIT’s current research in the field centers on its SPHERES project. SPHERES stands for “Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites.” Or perhaps it’s the other way around. For the time being, NASA is attempting to sneak up on the principles of causation by pretending that it was a coincidence.
In addition to stressing linguistic credibility to the extent that its breaking point may become clear, the SPHERES project has a physical component with secondary objectives. SPHERES is actually composed of three separate robots, each about the size and shape of a bowling ball (get it?! “SPHERES”?!) The robots will be taken to the International Space Station, where they’ll just kind of float around together.
Or, I guess, they won’t just be floating around. I mean, if you’re in space and not tied down, you’ll float around. But if you, like the SPHERES robots, have your own onboard power supply (AA batteries), navigation and propulsion system (CO2 jets), and computer system, you can do a lot more than just float. The SPHERES robots will practice flying around the ISS in tightly controlled formation with each other.
I suppose it doesn’t sound all that tricky—after all, dumb ol’ birds can fly in formation, and they’re dumb. But, then again, birds have evolved for millions of years to do that sort of thing, and being in space—where there really isn’t a true “up” or “down”—presents its own challenges. These simple little robots have to coordinate with each other and their surroundings perfectly to stay in formation. And once they (that is, the people that make and program the robots) get the hang of that, there are some pretty slick applications for objects in space that can automatically stay in perfect formation.
For one, it should make the processes of servicing, re-supplying, reconfiguring, and upgrading the ISS and other space systems easier, because these things all involve two or more extremely expensive floating objects that need to be oriented just right to get a job done and avoid smashing each other up while doing it.
Also, it turns out that a formation of itty-bitty satellites (sort of like the SPHERES spheres) can do some of the work of a much bigger, more expensive satellite. For example, instead of using a satellite telescope that relies on one huge mirror, a formation of lots of small satellites could gather bits of light that could be put together into an image. That way, if one small satellite was damaged, it wouldn’t wreck the whole project. Also, the formation of satellites could potentially be larger than a single mirror (or mirror array on one satellite).
And then there’s also the notion that each astronaut could have his or her own fleet of tiny floating robots. They could be used to feed and clean the astronauts, and, of course, fight for their amusement.*
Here’s a video of the a recent (recent-ish—it’s from 2009) test run of the spheres. Watch as they do what they do best:
And here’s MIT’s SPHERES website, where they delve more into the motivations of the SPHERES project (but not so much into the acronym issue.)
For more pictures of the spheres floating in the ISS, scroll to the bottom of this page.
*This paragraph contains no NASA endorsed ideas. It just seems to me like the obvious thing to do.
Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. PyleNASA announced this week the discovery of two Earth-sized planets orbiting a star 1000 light-years away in the constellation Lyra. The star system, called Kepler 20, is orbited by five planets. The two planets of interest, named Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f, are the first exoplanets their size to be discovered around another star resembling our own.
Francois Fressin, the lead author of the study which appears in the journal Nature, said the Kepler mission's main goal is to discover Earth-sized planets located in the habitable zone of other star systems. "This discovery demonstrates for the first time that Earth-size planets exist around other stars, and that we are able to detect them,” Fressin said.
Kepler 20e is slightly smaller than Venus, while Kepler-20f is slightly larger than Earth. The exoplanets' host star is smaller than the Sun and a bit cooler in temperature, however, the orbits of Kepler-20e and 20f are closer to their star than Mercury is to our sun, which makes them far too hot to support liquid water and too inhospitable to support life.
But the discovery is a big step in the three-and-a-half year Kepler mission, which uses ground-based telescopes and space telescopes to search out possible planet candidates.
This cool timelapse of Comet Lovejoy rising in the morning skies over Western Australia was created by Colin Legg. The comet's dust tail and secondary plasma tail can be seen rising out of the treetops in the lower right of the frame. You can see more of Legg's meteorological videos on his Vimeo link below.
Courtesy NASA/Carla CioffiAs a brand new year approaches, It's the time for making year-end lists, so here's Space.com's contribution for 2011. Russia's TMA-03M Soyuz spacecraft (pictured at right) blasted off just today - December 21 - with three astronauts aboard and headed for the International Space Station. It wasn't included in this year's list. Cool photo nonetheless.
Courtesy Stratolaunch SystemsBillionaire and Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen, was always told that the sky was the limit.
Oh, and how those words chafed at him. They chafed and they chafed, until one day Allen finally pushed his nay-saying assistant into the koi pond and shouted, “’The sky’s the limit’? I’ll show you limits!” And on that day he founded Stratolaunch Systems, a company that would create a plane that would help propel a craft beyond the sky, to space!
And those people who still argued that space is part of the sky, depending on your definition? Allen had them frozen in carbonite and turned into coffee tables for his vast mansion. (The assistant eventually crawled out of the koi pond, but he kept his mouth shut after that, because he had already spent a summer encased in carbonite, and didn’t intend to repeat it.)
All of that may be true. But the parts that are certainly true are those directly concerning billionaire Paul Allen’s plan to build a gigantic plane that will carry a space rocket high into the atmosphere (about 6 miles up), where the rocket can more easily launch itself into orbit. And, by “gigantic,” I mean that the plane will have a wingspan of 385 feet, and a total weight of 1.2 million pounds.
This is an interesting thing because, a) a rocket-carrying plane has seemed like a good idea for a while, but has never been tried on this scale; and b) with the end of NASA’s shuttle program, we’re going to be looking for new (and hopefully cheaper) ways to get people and equipment into space. Private companies like Stratolaunch Systems and its partner on this project, SpaceX, will likely be a big part of the solution.
(SpaceX was founded by Elon Musk, one of the folks behind paypal. There’s also Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic company, and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. So Paul Allen’s motivation could also have been that he didn’t want to be the only eccentric billionaire without his own spaceflight company. Which is understandable.)
While this plane/rocket system won’t be able carry quite as much cargo into space as other rockets, the Stratolaunch plane has other advantages. (Together, the plane and the rocket weigh more than one and a half million points, and they’re using repurposed engines from 747 jets, so they think the payload limit should be around 13,500 pounds.) For one, it doesn’t require a complicated and stationary launch pad, meaning that launch costs should be lower, and the process of getting the rocket launched will be more flexible—if weather isn’t cooperating at the launch site, the plane can be flown somewhere else (with a 12,000-foot runway) and sent up there. Also, once a rocket is released, the plane can just turn around, land, and be fitted for another launch by the next day. So, you know, if you have a lot of stuff to get up into space, and not so much time, maybe this is yer bird.
But what’s the point? For that, let’s go back to “interesting thing b).” Aside from every billionaire’s dream of having a spaceship, Allen and co. expect the very costly project to be profitable (eventually). NASA may be done with the shuttle program, but they aren’t done with their work in space—currently astronauts rely on Russian launches to get into space, but contracts with companies like Allen’s could give them some more options.
And, of course, who isn’t interested in space?
The Stratolaunch system could be tossing rockets into space as soon as 2016. It'll start with unmanned rockets, but assuming that those launches prove to be safe and reliable, they hope to move to launching manned spacecraft. (And check out Stratolaunch's site for more on the launch system.)