Stories tagged space

Feb
03
2012

Why is that spaceship covered in flamethrowers?!: Oh. Maybe they're rockets.
Why is that spaceship covered in flamethrowers?!: Oh. Maybe they're rockets.Courtesy SpaceX
With the closure of NASA’s flamethrower program, flamethrower enthusiasts have expressed concern that America would fall behind the rest of the world in flamethrower exploration, and that it would ultimately be a loss to flamethrowers and humanity in general.

Fortunately, government and private industry partnerships have continued to pursue flamethrower development, and, as it happens, a prominent company in this field, FlamethrowerX, has just recently begun testing what looks to be a pretty sweet flamethrower.

Oh … man, I just realized something. I re-read those last two paragraphs, and it seems like I made multiple typos. I don’t believe in editing electronic documents (frankly, I find it to be egregious JGordon on JGordon censorship, and it makes me sick), so I’ll just walk you through the last couple sentences.

Where I wrote “flamethrower” at the beginning of this article, I meant to type “space shuttle.” And immediately after the first comma, where it says “flamethrower,” it’s actually supposed to read “space.” Near the end of that same sentence, the term “flamethrower appears two more times, and it should read “space” and “science,” respectively.

Now, in the second paragraph, you might have noticed that I wrote “pursue flamethrower development”—of course I meant to say that they’re pursuing “spaceflight development.” And when I wrote “FlamethrowerX,” I should have written “SpaceX,” because SpaceX is actually the name of the company I was referring to.

Finally, when I referred to “a pretty sweet flamethrower,” I really meant “a pretty sweet flamethrower.” Unless I meant, “rocket.” Making the flamethrower/rocket distinction can be pretty tricky sometimes.

See, SpaceX has already developed a huge rocket, called “Falcon 9,” which can propel a cargo capsule (the “Dragon capsule”) into orbit. When the Dragon capsule returns to Earth, it has to do so the old-fashioned way; straight up falling like some stupid rock in a parachute. I mean it works fine and everything—it was good enough for the Apollo astronauts returning from the moon—but what if you wanted a soft landing on, say, the moon or mars, where there aren’t convenient oceans there to catch you? Well, shucks, in that case you’d probs want some pretty sweet rockets (or flamethrowers?) on your capsule.

That’s what SpaceX is testing. They have developed a rocket for the capsule (each capsule would have 8 rockets) that will allow it to land gently and with “pinpoint accuracy” on Earth and other potential destinations. These “SuperDraco” rockets would serve another purpose as well: they could function as a launch abort system for the capsule. If something were to go dangerously wrong with a payload rocket (like the Falcon 9) while it was launching a capsule full of astronauts into space, the SuperDraco rockets could fire with enough force to cause the capsule to safely separate from the larger rocket. And the whole system would be reusable, too. Pretty slick.

And, for scrolling all the way through this nonsense about flamethrowers, here’s a video of the rocket test for you, complete with sweet canned rock and roll:

(It looks kind of like a totally awesome flamethrower, doesn’t it? Although I suppose you wouldn’t really want a flamethrower that would crush you to pieces, and send you flying into the upper atmosphere. Or would you?)

Wired just posted a gallery of imagined (or even proposed) space stations over the last hundred years. Kind of cool.

Also, as a little bonus link, here's how the International Space Station compares to some space ships from science fiction. Keep in mind, of course, that most of the ISS's area consists of solar panels, not holodecks or viper bays. Can't have it all, I guess.

Jan
04
2012

A lonely space-bot searches for its brother: We all know what that's like, don't we?
A lonely space-bot searches for its brother: We all know what that's like, don't we?Courtesy NASA
Man, I had this dream last night that my brother and I had each taken a long trip, and at the end of the trips we met up and floated around the sky while singing to each other about our feelings. What a strange dream. I think it means that I’m afraid of death. That’s what my dream analysis book says anyway, just like it says for every dream.

On an unrelated note, one of NASA’s latest experiments, the “GRAIL mission,” is ticking away smoothly.

If, like me, you assumed that the GRAIL mission was a lot like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, I’m afraid you’re about to be sorely disappointed. “GRAIL,” in fact, stands for “Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory,” so you shouldn’t expect any bullwhips or crusty old knights. No, the GRAIL mission will be carried out by the two identical satellites that just reunited in orbit around the moon, after a slow trip from Earth (Apollo program vessels made it to the moon in just three days, but the GRAIL satellites sort of took a scenic route that required less energy to get to the moon, but a lot more time—between three and four months.)

The satellites arrived at the moon on different days (the 31st and the 1st), but now that they’re back in the same neighborhood they’re going to be traveling around the moon together at about 35 miles above the surface. As they move, they’ll be transmitting radio signals to each other, which will allow them to precisely calculate the distances between them. As one or the other of the satellites flies over an area of the moon with greater or lesser gravity, the distance between the satellites will change slightly.

Because tiny differences in gravity are determined by the interior composition of an object in space*, these satellites will tell us more about the inside of the moon, and how it formed. And because the moon originally came from Earth, we’ll learn more about the formation of our planet from this mission as well.

*More mass means more gravity, so the satellites will be able to detect not only visible features on the moon, like hills and craters, but underground structures as well. Moons and planets after all, aren’t totally uniform inside—they’re less like giant marshmallows than giant scoops of rocky road ice cream.

The things that happen in space … amiright? Crazy!

Dec
30
2011

A Chinese carrier rocket: Apparently in the process of transforming into or from a giant robot.
A Chinese carrier rocket: Apparently in the process of transforming into or from a giant robot.Courtesy AAxanderr
Of 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?

Dec
22
2011

This is not real: But it will be. This is an artist's rendering of the Dragon spacecraft delivering cargo to the ISS. (Dragon is the little winged cylinder and truncated cone.)
This is not real: But it will be. This is an artist's rendering of the Dragon spacecraft delivering cargo to the ISS. (Dragon is the little winged cylinder and truncated cone.)Courtesy NASA
Not 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?

Dec
21
2011

A helpless astronaut is attacked by robospheres: Or not. But I don't believe for a second that Red, Blue, and Orange aren't thinking about it.
A helpless astronaut is attacked by robospheres: Or not. But I don't believe for a second that Red, Blue, and Orange aren't thinking about it.Courtesy NASA
History 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.

Dec
20
2011

The largest aircraft ever flown!: Imagine the image title being said in an old-timey announcer voice. And then imagine that it's real, because it is. Or it will be, in about five years.
The largest aircraft ever flown!: Imagine the image title being said in an old-timey announcer voice. And then imagine that it's real, because it is. Or it will be, in about five years.Courtesy Stratolaunch Systems
Billionaire 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.)

Jun
24
2011

A star is born: Artist conception of a protostar
A star is born: Artist conception of a protostarCourtesy NASA/Caltech
Scientists have been studying a newly-forming star that’s blasting incredibly hot and gigantic pulses of water from its poles. The extreme temperature at work (180,000 degrees F.) means the water isn’t in liquid form but rather a super-hot concoction of unfused hydrogen and oxygen atoms. As the jet streams shoot into space away from the star’s accretion disk and outer gas cloud, they cool and the atoms interact with dust and each other, and water molecules form as ice.

The protostar, known as L1448-MM, is 750 light years from Earth, and located in the sky near the Pleiades star cluser. Using the European Space Agency’s,Herschel infrared orbiting telescope astronomers are able to measure the elements making up the baby star, and its bizarre behavior. Each powerful jet pulsating from the center of the star shoots “the equivalent of a hundred million times the water flowing through the Amazon River every second”, at a speed of about 120,000 miles per hour. More incredible is the fact that each “pulse” is estimated to last for about a year! Merely a flash of time in cosmic terms.

Each pulse produces shockwave in the surrounding space. Scientists are uncertain of how long the pulsing phase continues during a star’s birth. It could be anywhere from 1 to 10 million years. But astronomers think “water” fountains like that detected on L1448-MM are a common occurrence in the creation of stars, and that our own Sun went through the same process as it was forming.

SOURCE and LINKS
Physorg.com story
European Space Agency
Star formation info
More about L1448-MM

MPCV GTA
MPCV GTACourtesy Lockheed Martin/NASA
Work on the heat shield and thermal protection backshell of the new Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) ground test article, or GTA, was completed recently in preparation for environmental testing. This image is of the MPCV at the Lockheed Martin Vertical Test Facility in Colorado. The MPCV will undergo rigorous testing to confirm its ability to safely fly astronauts through all the harsh environments of deep space exploration missions.

A major eruption on the Sun on June 7 sent high-energy particles spewing into space. They are expected to reach Earth on the night of Wednesday June 8 (Minnesota time). Astronomers are predicting a major aurora event, with the Northern Lights visible overhead as far south as Milwaukee, and possibly visible on the northern horizon as far south a southern Indiana and Washington DC! For Buzzers in the northern US / southern Canada, if the sky is clear tonight, go out, find a dark place away from city lights, face north and look up. No telescopes or other fancy equipment needed. You can even try to photograph them (use a long exposure, no flash, and set the camera on something steady.) If you get any photos, post them here in the comments.

For more info, and up-to-the-minute predictions, visit the Aurora Forecast page.