Stories tagged Earth and Space Science

Oct
10
2007

Industrial sites for sale?: According to some futurists, the moon could be the creation site and launching pad of missions to Mars. Robots would use materials found on the moon to make the spacecraft and then be able to blast off faster and cheaper from the moon's smaller gravitational pull. (Photo from NASA)
Industrial sites for sale?: According to some futurists, the moon could be the creation site and launching pad of missions to Mars. Robots would use materials found on the moon to make the spacecraft and then be able to blast off faster and cheaper from the moon's smaller gravitational pull. (Photo from NASA)
It looks like our moon could someday be rezoned for industrial use.

That’s what those involved in space exploration learned at a recent conference. For economic and efficiency reasons, robots would lead a team of manufacturers based on the moon building the spacecraft that would go to Mars.

Those attending the Space & Missile Defense Conference in Huntsville, Ala., learned that a Mars spaceship might be too large to build and launch from Earth. The ideal situation would be to have a team of robots based on the moon doing most of the work in building the craft.

Robots would be needed because the construction work would be too cumbersome for humans to do while wearing spacesuits. Researchers are also investigating ways to process moon soils into metals, such as aluminum, iron and titanium, which would then be used to build the spacecraft.

And due to the moon’s weaker gravitational pull, it will 20 times cheaper to launch Mars missions from the moon than from Earth.

While this all sounds pretty futuristic, aeronautic and space manufacturers are already designing and building the next generation of U.S. spacecrafts, the Ares I and Ares V, which will replace the current fleet of space shuttles. The Ares I will shuttle astronauts in and out of space. The larger Ares V will be used to transport heavier cargos.

What do you think about using the moon as a factory? Share your thoughts here with other Science Buzz readers.

Oct
06
2007

Another race to the moon

Chang'e 1: China lunar probe
Chang'e 1: China lunar probe
United States, India, China, and Japan have each announced high-profile plans to send humans back to the moon for the first time since Apollo 17 landed there in 1972.

United States on moon by 2020

NASA has a 2020 deadline for returning Americans to the moon. China would like to beat that. At a recent meeting, NASA administrator Michael Griffin said,

"I personally believe that China will be back on the moon before we are,''

China's ambitious space program

Luo Ge, Vice Administrator, China National Space Administration, at the 22nd National Space Symposium (NSS) outlined China's agenda in space.

Generally speaking, in the coming five to eight years we will be launching about 100 satellites. Next year, the country's first lunar orbiter/fly mission is to fly. By 2012, China space planners will be landing a rover on the Moon surface. Based on success in the manned mission area, China intends to establish an orbiting space lab by 2015. In 2017, that country's lunar exploration plans call for robotic lunar sample return missions. China will also consider the possibility of manned mission to the Moon. Space.com

Next step, China's moon probe, Chang'e 1

Chang'e 1 will be outfitted with a stereo camera system to chart the lunar surface, an altimeter to measure the distance between the spacecraft and the lunar surface, a gamma/X-ray spectrometer to study the overall composition and radioactive components of the Moon, a microwave radiometer to map the thickness of the lunar regolith, and a system of space environment monitors to collect data on the solar wind and near-lunar region. Click here to read more about Chang'e 1.

Oct
05
2007

Hot spot: The south pole of Neptune is warmer than the rest of the planet, at least right now, because its orbit is so large and slow. That portion of the planet has summer for 40 years. (Photo courtesy of NASA)
Hot spot: The south pole of Neptune is warmer than the rest of the planet, at least right now, because its orbit is so large and slow. That portion of the planet has summer for 40 years. (Photo courtesy of NASA)
Here on Earth, our coldest spots are on the poles. But go to Neptune and you’re singing a whole new tune.

Scientists have found that one of the coldest planets in our solar system has an unusual hot spot: its south pole. But don’t break out the sunscreen, swimsuits and sunglasses too fast.

Temperatures at Neptune’s south pole are about 18 degrees warmer than any other part of the planet, but the average temperature on the planet is 320 degrees below zero. And you thought Minnesota winters are harsh. An international team of astronmers just announced their temperature findings from the planet.

So why the difference?

Neptune’s south pole has been receiving summer sunlight for about 40 years. It’s mostly a function of how slow seasons change in a planet orbiting so far from the sun.

The planet is 2.8 billion miles from the sun. One Neptune year -- the time that it takes to make one complete orbit of the sun – is about 165 Earth years. Currently it’s south pole is in position for the perpetual sunshine, but that will all change in another 80 years or so, when the pole is in its winter position.

The frigid temperatures are the result of the Neptune getting just 1/900th the amount of sunlight that hits the Earth. So you probably can leave the sunscreen at home if you ever head that way.

Oct
02
2007

Sputnik 1 starts space race 50 years ago


Sputnik 1: Oct. 4, 1957
The "Sputnik crisis" was a turning point of the Cold War that began on October 4, 1957 when the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik 1 satellite. With its intercontinental ballistic missile, the R-7 Semyorka, Russia was first out of the starting blocks in the space race.

The "simplest satellite"

Called PS-1, for "Prosteishiy Sputnik" — the Simplest Satellite, Sputnik 1 weighing just 184 pounds, was built in less than three months. Soviet designers built a pressurized sphere of polished aluminum alloy with two radio transmitters and four antennas.

Sergey Korolyov

Sergey Korolyov, both visionary scientist and iron-willed manager, pressed the Kremlin to let him launch a satellite. The reaction of the world so impressed Khrushchev that he pressed Korolyov to do it again. Working round-the-clock, Korolyov and his team built another spacecraft in less than a month. On Nov. 3, they launched Sputnik 2, which weighed 1,118 pounds. It carried the world's first living payload, a mongrel dog named Laika, in its tiny pressurized cabin.

Sputnik creates initiatives in science and math

The Sputnik crisis spurred a whole chain of U.S. initiatives, including NASA, NSF, DARPA, and even the "New Math".

The finish line - stepping on the Moon

Russia continued its lead in the space race with a moon probe, a photo of the far side of the Moon, a human in orbit, a woman in orbit, extra-vehicular activity, landing a probe on another planet (Venus), and the first space station. The United States captured the biggest prize, though, putting a human on the Moon (July 20, 1969).

Sep
25
2007

Skylights to possible Mars caves

NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft has discovered entrances to seven possible caves on the slopes of a Martian volcano.

Hot spots

Mars "caves": Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/USGS
Mars "caves": Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/USGS
Using infrared imaging, the holes showed up as bright "hot spots" in photos taken during the cold of night (see right hand photo). In daytime shots they were colder than their surroundings (middle photo). The left photo uses the visable spectrum. This possible cave skylight informally called "Annie," has a diameter about double the length of a football field.

Seven Sisters

Seven Sisters
Seven Sisters
The discovered holes, dubbed "Seven Sisters," are at some of the highest altitudes on the planet, on a volcano named Arsia Mons near Mars' tallest mountain.

What are they?

A report of the discovery of the possible cave skylights by Cushing and his co-authors was published online recently by the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

The new report proposes that the deep holes on Arsia Mons probably formed as underground stresses around the volcano caused spreading and faults that opened spaces beneath the surface. Some of the holes are in line with strings of bowl-shaped pits where surface material has apparently collapsed to fill the gap created by a linear fault. NASA.gov.

Sep
25
2007

Explore the universe

Google Sky
Google Sky
Want to explore the universe? With views of 100 million stars and 200 million galaxies, Google Sky lets you be a virtual space traveler with just a few clicks of a mouse.

Download Google Earth

To get started on your own outer-space adventure, download the most recent version of Google Earth software. Select "Switch to Sky" under the "view" menu or click on the icon that I show with a red arrow.

You might need a guide

The Universe is a big place so you might get lost. For help, the column on the left offer lots of guided tours. Try the sightseeing link under places. The screen capture shows what I found by selecting "Supernovae and Exotic Stars" under the layers section. PCworld has created a file of Google Sky Placemarks. Download it and open it with Google Earth. In the left column, in the Places box, click the (+) next to "Spectacular Sights in Google Sky". These are like bookmarks (or stick pins) that take you to some fantastic places. One (A Dramatic Outburst - V838Mon) has a time line slider so you can see how the event changed over several years.

Have fun

Google sky incorporates high-resolution images from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, the Space Telescope Science Institute, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and the Digital Sky Survey Consortium into a fun, interactive learning tool. I hope you can check it out (high speed internet required).

Sep
20
2007

The Arecibo Observatory with the Angel Ramos Visitor Center in the foreground: Image courtesy of the NAIC - Arecibo Observatory, a facility of the NSF.
The Arecibo Observatory with the Angel Ramos Visitor Center in the foreground: Image courtesy of the NAIC - Arecibo Observatory, a facility of the NSF.
What’s the coolest radio telescope (sorry Green Bank) and the largest single-aperture telescope on Earth? What radio scope has been featured in a James Bond movie? And a Jodie Foster movie? And collects data for the [email protected] project?

Arecibo.

Arecibo is an amazingly awesome project that has a history of discoveries since its construction in 1963. In 1964 scientists using it determined Mercury’s rotation was 59 days, not 88 days as previously thought. The telescope helped prove that neutron stars exist. It aided scientists in discovering the first binary pulsar. It aided scientists in finding the first extrasolar planets. It is able to track asteroids with enough precision to determine which ones might impact the Earth. And, back during more paranoid times, the telescope was used to look for Soviet Union radar installations by detecting their signals bouncing off of the Moon. The telescope also beamed into space a radio message in 1974 towards star cluster M13. The telescope also studies space weather (specifically the impact of solar flares on satellite and cell phones) and climate change. The telescope has a visitor center (Angel Ramos Visitor Center) attached that brings in more than 100,000 visitors a year.

Recently, the National Science Foundation, a long time funder for the telescope and its various scientific programs, has told Arecibo that it will need to close if it cannot find $4 million, or half the $8 million annual operating budget. In part, the idea is to free up funds for other, new, projects. This all makes total sense to me, but I am somehow emotionally attached to this thing, having never been there (its in Puerto Rico), but having written a report on it when I was in 5th grade.

Just last week, however, Cornell University’s National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center held a meeting, “Frontiers of Astronomy with The World’s Largest Radio Telescope,” with astronomers from around the world to discuss plans for future research using Arecibo over the next 5 to 15 years. Hopefully, this meeting will lead to securing the funding needed to keep the telescope operational.

Below is part of a report commissioned by NSF, charging a Senior Review Committee with the task of examining the Division of Astronomical Sciences portfolio of facilities and with the goal of redistributing roughly $30 million of annual spending. There’s a lot of stuff in the section below, and I’ve tried to hyperlink as much as possible so you can learn more. Again, I think NSF is making total sense, but man, change is hard...I’m going to miss Arecibo.

The Senior Review Committee (SR) recognizes the significant and unique scientific contributions that the Arecibo Observatory has made to astronomy and astrophysics and it congratulates National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC) and Cornell on operating the facility so effectively. The current scientific program set out for Arecibo involving a combination of survey work and competed, smaller observing programs is very strong and is already producing important discoveries. The SR endorses its future discovery potential and archival value. Roughly 200 scientists from all around the world are working with the three Arecibo L-Band Feed Array surveys, all three of which promise important scientific results.

However, the committee was not persuaded of the primacy of the science program beyond the end of the decade and found that the case for long term support at the present level was not as strong as that for other facilities. Much of the survey work will be completed by 2010 when the current NAIC contract expires and the proposed extensions to higher Galactic latitude do not seem as likely as the current surveys to have a large scientific impact. The SR was advised that the minimum feasible operating cost for Arecibo is $8M, even when it is largely working in survey mode. Therefore, invoking Principle 1, [Principal 1 - Optimizing the Science. The prime criterion, when making difficult choices between operating existing facilities and investing in new ones, is maximizing the integrated science impact for the overall US financial investment] the SR recommends a decrease in Division of Astronomical Sciences (AST) support for Arecibo to $8M (plus the $2M from Division of Atmospheric Sciences over the next three years. Roughly 20 percent of the observing time should be set aside for individual (non-survey) proposals in order to retain some discovery potential. This should permit a reduction in the scientific and observing support staff and a discontinuation of the future instrumentation program without compromising the main science program. Thereafter, the SR recommends that NAIC plan either to close Arecibo or to operate it with a much smaller AST budget. This will require that NAIC seek sufficient external funding to continue to operate it fully. This support might be coupled to Arecibo’s status as one of the most important and visible high technology enterprises in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. An alternative possibility is to seek one or more foreign partners. This could have appeal to countries that wish to build up a capability in radio astronomy or communications technology. The SR recommends closure after 2011 if the necessary support is not forthcoming. It recommends that operation of the Angel Ramos Visitor Center continue, consistent with Principle 3. [Principal 3 - The Public Dividend. Public awareness of astronomical discoveries, the observatories that produce them, and the personnel who are responsible for them, are a critical part of the current AST program that must be maintained.]

If Arecibo is kept operating beyond 2011, it is expected that this will only be a limited term extension, pending the deliberations of the next decadal survey. In any case, Arecibo’s longer term future depends upon progress with the Square Kilometer Array which will be fully steerable, have ten times the collecting area, will access more of the sky to higher frequency and will have the angular resolution of an interferometer, leaving Arecibo as a niche telescope. This raises the important question of the cost of decommissioning the telescope, which could be prohibitively large. The committee concluded that there were no reliable de-commissioning estimates and recommends that AST engage an independent study to advise on the viability and cost of decommissioning the telescope. Obtaining this information is a pre-requisite to long term planning.

(Oh. And I hope that something else out there is tracking asteroids. That whole monitoring them for Earth impact seems important to me.)

Sep
15
2007

Red alert: Based on what they've seen at the star V 391, astronomers say there is a possibility that Earth could survive a red giant phase expansion of our Sun. (Photo courtesy of NASA)
Red alert: Based on what they've seen at the star V 391, astronomers say there is a possibility that Earth could survive a red giant phase expansion of our Sun. (Photo courtesy of NASA)
Not that any of us reading this have to really worry about this personally, but there’s new evidence that the Earth could be able to survive should our Sun start to balloon into a red giant. That’s estimated to happen in a few billion years.

Astronomers have found a planet in a similar position as Earth’s relative to its star that continues to exist as the star has become a red giant. The star in question, V 391, was much like our Sun, but as it aged, its core ran out of hydrogen. That triggered a reaction where it began to burn helium and its outer surface expanded out about 100 times wider. It’s believed the same thing will happen to our Sun in about 5 billion years.

The planet in question has about three times the mass of Jupiter and orbits V 391 at about the same distance as Mars is from our Sun. However, the red giant action of V 391 is considered highly unusual and may be just representative of 2 percent of the red giant actions that happen to stars. Astronomers are continuing to watch what’s happening there, but say that it’s too small of a data sample to project what will happen to Earth when the Sun go to a red giant phase. The common thinking is Mercury and Venus will be vaporized in a red giant transition of the Sun while Earth would be on the borderline of the safety zone.

Sep
15
2007

Money for the moon: You can win up to $25 million if you're the first person in the next five years to successfully get a roving craft to the moon and send data back to Earth. Good luck! (Photo courtesy of NASA)
Money for the moon: You can win up to $25 million if you're the first person in the next five years to successfully get a roving craft to the moon and send data back to Earth. Good luck! (Photo courtesy of NASA)
Looking for a good science fair project and wanting to make a little cash on the side at the same time? Then check this out.

The X Prize Foundation in connection with Google has announced it will give $25 million to the first successful entity to land a rover on the moon and send back electronic data back to Earth.

The foundation is the same group that back in 2004 challenged private aerospace efforts to pilot a craft into the threshold of space.

So here’s exactly what you need to do to get $20 million:
• Get your rover to the moon.
• Have it travel at least 500 meters across the moon’s surface.
• Send back high-resolution video, photos or other data.

For an additional $5 million bonus prize, you need to:
• Have the rover cover 5,000 meters of moon surface
• Send back images of man-made artifacts on the moon, such as lunar craft from the Apollo missions.

The full values of the prizes will be available until Dec. 31, 2012, or when some group successfully completes the tasks. Then the reward drops to $15 million for the next couple years.

Full details on the contest are available at www.xprize.org.

Sep
10
2007

Iapetus: This Cassini spacecraft view shows how the bright and dark regions on Iapetus fit together like the seams of a baseball.  Image courtesy NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.
Iapetus: This Cassini spacecraft view shows how the bright and dark regions on Iapetus fit together like the seams of a baseball. Image courtesy NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.
There are copies of Science News in my area of cube-land here at the Science Museum by the box of interoffice envelopes. The cover of the August 18 issue caught my attention – “Oddball Iapetus”. The title of the cover story is even better, “Idiosyncratic Iapetus”. Nice alliteration.

And, yeah, Iapetus is weird. Beyond the fact that in Greek mythology, Iapetus is the Titan son of Uranus and a moon of Saturn (you’d think that Iapetus would be a moon of Uranus) it is oddly colored and oddly shaped.

The moon is two-toned, and the reason for this is not exactly known. The darker surface might have been caused by any number of things – it could have even come from one of Saturn’s other moons. Some theorize that micrometer impacts on the moon Phoebe or Titan knocked the material loose and it was then swept up by Iapetus. Or perhaps when the cosmic collision that created the moon Hyperion occurred it produced debris that ended up covering part of Iapetus. Or if not from another source, the odd color could originate from within Iapetus, brought to the surface by meteor impact and/or cryovolcanism.

Iapetus is shaped sort of like a walnut, and even has an equatorial ridge that heightens the impression. Portions of this ridge rise more than 12 miles over the surrounding area. This shape is not totally unusual, but it is usually attributed to moons or planets that have a rapid rotation – but Iapetus has a very slow rotation (one rotation every 79 days) so how did this odd shape come about in this instance? The current theory is that at one point during Iapetus’ life, it had a much faster rotation, and about the same time it began to slow down its crust cooled and thickened, preserving the shape from its youth to today. (I am vastly simplifying things – for a complete account of how this is possible check out this article.)

AND what is way-copasetic and that I didn’t know until I started writing this blog, was that the Cassini spacecraft performs its closest flyby of its entire mission of Iapetus, TODAY, passing by about 1,000 miles of the moon – the closest any spacecraft has come to Iapetus. Read more about that here.