Stories tagged space

Feb
19
2013

Asteroid: A number of public and private researchers are keeping tabs on the asteroids and other space objects that could hit Earth.
Asteroid: A number of public and private researchers are keeping tabs on the asteroids and other space objects that could hit Earth.Courtesy NASA/JPL
Last week could have been called "Chicken Little Week" with the near miss of Earth by an asteroid and and the dazzling, but havoc-producing meteor crossing through the Russian skies. Have you taken off your safety helmet yet?

While it takes an extraordinary week like that to make most of us think about the dangers looming out in space, there are researchers dedicated to tracking the dangerous projectiles in space. Here's a great report on public and private research groups keeping track of the random traffic in the skies.

Interestingly, they claim that we only really spot about 10 percent of the miscellaneous space stuff that could collide with Earth. And, they're not just settling for trying to pinpoint where the problems are. They're trying to figure out ways to deflect or break-up potentially damaging space threats. Taking it one step higher, some are even investigating ways to mine key minerals from these threats to Earth.

Jan
23
2013

Rolling, rolling, rolling: Tomorrow marks the 10-year anniversary of the landing of NASA's Mars rover Opportunity. It's still taking pictures and collecting data on the Red Planet.
Rolling, rolling, rolling: Tomorrow marks the 10-year anniversary of the landing of NASA's Mars rover Opportunity. It's still taking pictures and collecting data on the Red Planet.Courtesy NASA
Can we expect to get more than 10 years out of our cars today? At best, they get listed as a "late model" vehicle in some classified ads. So how about our space cars?

This week the Mars rover Opportunity is marking its tenth year of rolling around the Red Planet. Not too shabby for something that was designed for just a quick three-month life span. It's partner rover, Spirit, seized up and got permanently stuck in sand three years ago. And now both vehicles are being overshadowed by Curiosity, the high-tech rover that just landed on Mars five months ago.

Like any older vehicle, Opportunity has its quirks. It gets around mostly in reverse these days because one of the front wheels doesn't turn well. Its robot arm needs some extra coaxing from operators to get jobs done. But it's still collecting samples and data. It total, it's logged 22 miles across the Martian terrain. Not too shabby for a late model rover.

Here's a link to NASA's webpage of photos and information that Opportunity has collected over the years.

Jan
08
2013

More Earths on the horizon?: Who knows how many potential new Earths are out there circling other stars in the Milky Way?
More Earths on the horizon?: Who knows how many potential new Earths are out there circling other stars in the Milky Way?Courtesy NASA
We like to think of our home planet – Earth – as a pretty unique place. It's the only planet in our solar system capable of sustaining life. We look through telescopes and to see exotic looking planets of various sizes and shapes. But we're the one and only Earth, right?

A new census of planets in the Milky Way galaxy shakes up that thinking. New data collected by NASA's Kepler spacecraft pegs one in six stars in the Milky Way of having planets that are the same size as Earth. That one-sixth fraction translates into an estimate of about 17 billion planets that are the same approximate size as our home.

So we're not as exclusive as might like to think. But the exclusivity meters edges back toward us when you factor in the Goldilocks zone – a distance from the host star that's not too hot nor too cold to sustain life. So far, extended research on the new-found planets has identified only four Earth-sized planets that could possibly reside in a Goldilocks zone. The Kepler project has identified a total of 2,740 potential new planets with more research ongoing.

Who knows all the things that the new year will hold? But scientists looking to the skies are anxiously awaiting the appearance of a newly discovered comet which could be brighter than the moon. Predictions are that Comet ISON will be visible without the aid binoculars or telescope from early November to early January 2014. The comet will also pass fairly close, astronomically speaking, to Mars this year, giving the Mars rover something else to look at. Read more about Comet ISON here.

Got a spare two minutes? Watch this amazing composite photography made by NASA of Earth at night.

Jul
11
2012

What does the future hold in store, Arthur?
What does the future hold in store, Arthur?Courtesy Mamyjomarash
Oh, hey there, Buzzketeers! Do you know what day it is today? That's right: it's Wednesday! It's also July 11, and twenty-nine years ago today, one JGordon burst screaming from his mother's thoracic cavity, covered in gore and bits of sternum. He would go on to grow a beard, to grow taller and weaker than any other member of his family, and to learn about childbirth from the movie Alien. And also to use the Internet.

Who could have predicted any of that? Sure, my mother and father consulted the stars, the entrails of guinea pigs, and their massive probability crunching computer (which runs on star dust and rodent entrails, coincidentally), and they predicted some things correctly. Their son would never have a tail. Their son would have an older brother. Their son would likely be male, if he wasn't female. Their son would accidentally staple a Kleenex to his finger in 7th grade. But how could they have guessed the rest? Could anyone have?

Yes! Sit back and let your mind-holes be cracked wide open by black and white footage of Arthur C. Clarke taking a break from writing about ape frenzies to tell us about how things would be. Now that we can compare "would be" with "are be," it's pretty uncanny.

Here A-Clarke essentially predicts LOLCats:

And here Wart tells us how much we will like Facebook:

And here ACC shows us how much we will be into nehru collars in a couple years:

(I guess he also has some things to say about private spaceflight, nanotech materials, and other stuff.)

Man oh man! If only Sir Arthur was around today to tell me what the next 29 years have in store! Super strong robotic arms, maybe?

May
24
2012

So it's true?: Not necessarily the moon thing. The other part.
So it's true?: Not necessarily the moon thing. The other part.Courtesy Thomas Fowler and OZinOH
What does that title even mean?! I don’t know! Yakov Smirnoff stopped making jokes when I was a baby!

In Russia, phone dials you! In Russia, self-tanner applies you! In Russia, wife buys you! They’re all just meaningless words without the code!

Could it be that Russia has plans to establish a permanent base on the moon? Could that be? I mean, on one hand, my conception of Russia is more or less summed up by an imagined scene in which an old woman and a bear fight over a wilted cabbage. The old lady has a broom … but the bear wants the cabbage too! Does that sound like a space-colonizing nation?

Then again, the mighty USA has been hitching rides into space on Russian rockets for a while now, since we apparently decided that spaceships weren’t something we wanted to buy.

So who knows? Maybe Russia will put a permanent base on the moon. (Or maybe China or Japan will.) Maybe the US will go to an asteroid or to Mars. Maybe, in Russia, asteroid will go to you. Or maybe it’s all just astronaut pillow talk.

May
04
2012

Do you want my advice, guys?: You should go get some asteroids.
Do you want my advice, guys?: You should go get some asteroids.Courtesy Blue Marble
It isn’t good to confuse great-grandparents. For one, they’re often dead, and confusing them involves meddling in forces that are best be left alone. Or, in the case that they aren’t dead, they’ve had a busy life parenting, grand-parenting, and great-grand-parenting, and they deserve a little more from you than a bunch of confusing jibber-jabber about meteorites, or whatever you just said.

So if your great-grandparents are still alive (not dead), please do them a favor, and just make something up as you pretend to read the rest of this post out loud to them. Their side of the 20th century probably did not equip them for this sort of thing:

Asteroid mining! After thousands of years of scratching through the dirt, wearing our finger bones to stumps in near-futile attempts to uncover the shiniest bits of gravel, humanity will finally ascend to the stars, and scratch through the dirt of asteroids in the noble effort to find the shiniest astro-gravel. And it will make us richer than our wildest dreams!

Or it will make the billionaires behind the project as rich as their everyday dreams.

Here’s the story: a bunch of billionaires and their spunky sidekick, James Cameron (who is a film director, and worth only about 700 million dollars—practically destitute), looked out over their Earth and wept, because there was nowhere left to conquer. It was maybe the worst Unicorn Polo Sunday ever. But then James Cameron, lying on his back after slipping on a banana peel (that’s sort of his role in the group), looked up at the sky and said, “Hey, gang! I have an idea! Maybe there’s more up there for us!”

Well, the members of the Billionaires’ Club would like to say that they took lil’ Jim’s suggestion there and then, but, frankly, they had heard a lot of nonsense out of his pinched little mouth over the years, and they had long ago learned to tune him out. (Xenomorph this, Titanic that, look at my submarine, what about another killer robot, what has my ex wife done that’s so special?—they had heard it all before.)

But at some point Cameron’s seemingly childish remark filtered its way through the buzz of billionaire preoccupations (stocking up on mansion wax, plans to swim Scrooge McDuck style through gold coins, and which would be the best ocean to buy) and lodged itself in the billionaires’ minds, where it incubated, hatched, and chewed its way deeper into their brain tissue.

And thus Planetary Resources was born. With a group of billionaires behind it (including Larry Page, CEO of Google, power of earth; Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, power of fire; Charles Simonyi, Microsoft guy, power of water; and Ross Perot Junior, son of diminutive former presidential candidate, power of heart) and James Cameron as an advisor (because he has made at least two movies about space, and has been in a submarine), Planetary Resources plans to scan thousands of near-Earth asteroids for precious metals and water, and then send robotic probes to pull the asteroids into a convenient location, and then smash them up for their goods.

Why? For a few reasons. Partly because it’s awesome, and you need to be super rich to do it, and they’re exactly that rich. But also because lots of these asteroids are full of precious, useful metals—billions and billions of dollars worth in even small asteroids. And asteroids with lots of ice in them could basically be turned into gas stations for spaceships. Water is pretty easily split into hydrogen and oxygen, which we can use for rocket fuel, and having fuel waiting in space is way, way, way cheaper than bringing it there from Earth. So making fuel available in space could potentially lower the cost of exploring our solar system quite a bit.

The plan is to launch a fleet of (relatively) cheap asteroid-scanning telescopes some time in the next two or three years to identify near-Earth objects that both contain enough valuable materials, and are near enough to Earth (the hope being that they would be as easy or easier to reach than the moon). In the next decade, or somewhere in that neighborhood anyway, larger spacecraft would be launched that could capture the asteroids. Harvested materials could then be processed in space, or sent back to the planet. All operations would be unmanned, as having human pilots or minors would make everything significantly more expensive and risky.

In the week or so since the Planetary Resources made their announcement, it seems like most of the professional reactions I’ve read have treated the plan pretty seriously—while it requires a large investment, it’s not unrealistic.

I have to admit, it’s kind of an exciting plan. And it will keep the billionaires occupied for a little bit, which is good. Because we all know what happens when a billionaire gets bored.

(It didn’t make sense to me either. You think your great-grandparents are going to get it?)

Feb
10
2012

I'm not complaining: But astronaut ice cream is old news. I need new gifts all the time.
I'm not complaining: But astronaut ice cream is old news. I need new gifts all the time.Courtesy Raiden256
I like to think of myself as a fair man.

With this in mind, I try to live my life under two basic philosophies: an eye for an eye, and you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Sometimes I mix and match those ideas, but the essential thing is that my life is a series of reciprocated acts of scratching and eye gouging, and I think I’m better off for it. So, to make sure I’m being fair, I often find myself asking, “What have you ever done for me?”

Like, hey, Mom, what have you ever done for me? Birth? Well that was probably an accident. And what have you done for me lately?

Oh, hello, stranger. You want me to call the police? Maybe, but what have you ever done for me? Because from where I stand, all I think you’ve ever done for me is ruin my walk with your crying, and I’m on a 450-minute calling plan. I need those minutes for prank phone calling the animal shelter.

Why, sure, doctor, I’d love to pay you. But what have you ever done for me? You took that worm out of my eyeball? That’s pretty good, but I don’t know if it’s $2500 good. Here’s $37.25, and let’s call it square.

And so on. It works out pretty well, I think. Obviously it best applies to direct interactions, but I believe it’s reasonable to apply it to all things, which is why I spend most of my free time making lists of things (e.g. pineapples, leather, Gorbachev, Roman numerals, NASA, whispering, stickiness, shoe, minty, etc.) and then examining just what each item has done for me, so that I can better understand the balance of our relationship. As you may have guessed, I’m currently on “NASA.”

And so … NASA: what has it ever done for me?

My initial thought was, “very little.” I mean, it’s not that I don’t appreciate space ships and moon men, and all that. It has all been very inspiring. But, NASA, what have you done for me lately? I’ve never been given the chance to take a crack at microgravity, or to punch someone wearing a spacesuit in the stomach while wearing a spacesuit myself. Those are the kinds of things that could pull NASA up from the eye-plucking category into the back-scratching category, but they just haven’t happened.

Well, imagine my surprise when I saw this: NASA’s “Spinoff” page. Spinoff is basically NASA’s way of saying, “here’s what we’ve done for you, you ungrateful little punk.” I don’t like being spoken to that way, even when I’m the one who invented the less than cordial paraphrasing, but they and I have a point. Spinoff is about all the ways that NASA science makes it into the lives of norms—not just inventions like Tang (which, as it happens, NASA didn’t actually invent), but technologies that directly impact our everyday lives, and that create thousands of jobs and billions of dollars. It’s difficult to fully quantify the benefits from NASA tech, but NASA estimates that technologies featured in Spinoff since the year 2000 have saved about 12,000 lives, and extended or enhanced 86 million more; that efficiency engineering developments have saved companies about $6.2 billion; that NASA partners have created about 9,200 jobs; and that agency partner companies have generated $1.2 billion in revenue with the help of NASA technology.

I’m not going to list individual developments here because there are just tons of them, and because I’m super lazy, but they range from more aerodynamic semi-trucks, to better fire-extinguishing systems, to advances in energy efficiency, to … well, right, tons of stuff. But I would highly recommend taking a look at NASA’s 2011 Spinoff book, which can be found (free) in PDF form here. It’s over 200 pages, but it’s an entertaining and informative skim (or an informative read, I guess, but what has reading ever done for me?)

Check it out—it’s pretty interesting, and it should help you avoid a lengthy, crushing comeback when you ask NASA what it’s done for you lately. (That can be very embarrassing.)