Sunday, May 29, 2005

NASA On Mars: We'll Get There, When We Get There.

When Burt Rutan gave his press conference back when he was winning the X-Prize he promised that the private space program would pass NASA on its way to the planets. Well, NASA has released its preliminary roadmaps for exploring the solar system. (Click here) Burt's prediction has a chance of coming true. To understand why, let's look at the roadmap to Mars. (Click here.)

NASA plans to explore Mars in 4 phases. The value of the President's Space Vision Thing is evident in the plan. The ultimate goal of the roadmap is to send humans to Mars. The robotic missions and other tasks are all directed to fulfilling that goal. That's the theme, anyway. The reality is a whole 'nother thing. Here's a key quote from the executive summary:

The development of the Vision for Space Exploration has added a new dimension to a
vibrant and highly successful Mars exploration program. The existing scientific
objectives of Mars exploration can be seen in light of a long-range future that will
ultimately lead to human exploration of the planet, fulfilling a centuries-old dream of humankind. The goals of the present robotic Mars exploration program are well aligned with the needs of future human exploration and will enable the nation to make well-informed decisions regarding human mission capabilities, costs, risks, and priorities.

In other words NASA is saying is they've already got this really great robot exploration program that they fully intend to continue for as long as they can. They'll share the data they were going to obtain anyway with the human exploration program for use sometime in the distant future after every possibility permutation, risk, and cost has been examined and debated.

How are they going to help the manned program?

New areas of emphasis should be added to the program, including:
• Precursor measurements to characterize and assess Mars’ environment to ensure
• Technologies responsive to the more demanding needs of human travel
• Engineering infrastructure required for human safety and mission success
Human exploration of the Moon can provide important opportunities to verify and
validate systems and processes for human Mars exploration.

In other words, NASA will tweak their planned robotic program here and there in deference to the Space Vision Thing. In the meantime, NASA will continue to send robots to Mars and do some Lunar exploration.

When does NASA propose to send humans to Mars?

Within a few decades, we will be prepared to undertake an integrated robotic and human exploration program for detailed study of the planet Mars, leading to a new understanding of the evolution of the solar system and the development and evolution of life.

The "few decades" of the executive summary translates in Phase IV to this in 2035:

• Initiate human missions to Mars
• Explore Mars with a unified robotic and human system

That's right: 2035!

So there it is. NASA is in no hurry to put human footprints in the red sands of Mars. They don't even plan to initiate human missions to Mars until 2035. Initiating missions is not the same as sending a mission on that date. It means, the manned Mars program begins in 2035. That's 3 decades from now, 1 score and 10, the big Three Oh, 30 years.

There's got to be a faster way. Anyone? Anyone?


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The Sound Of Voyager I Saying Goodbye To The Heliosphere

Last December Voyager I began its exit from The Heliosphere. Its instruments recorded its encounter with the termination shock and sent them to Earth. You can hear what it sounded like, along with other cool sounds of space, by clicking here.



The Few, The Busy, The Settlers.

A recent story on (click here) claims that DNA studies have shown the Americas were settled over 10,000 years ago by only 70 people. Estimates of pre-Columbian populations in the Americas vary widely from a low of 500,000 to a high of 54 million (click here) and are almost impossible to verify.

Whatever the number may have been what can't be disputed is that the Americas were home to a wide range of human societies and civilizations that stretched from the farthest north to the farthest south when Columbus first landed here. And if the DNA study is correct, it all started with just 70 people.

The lesson for space colonization is the power of reproduction over time means it won't take many people to successfully settle another planet so long as they are able to keep busy doing what comes naturally.


Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Looking For Distant Earths In All The Right Places.

In the past 10 years we have gone from not knowing if any other sun in our galaxy had planets to confirming the existence of 144 planets outside our solar system. In about two years, NASA will launch the Kepler telescope on a four-year mission to look for Earth-like planets around 170,000 stars. (Click here for Kepler website.) It won't be an easy task, but showing her pride, Kepler's Deputy Project Engineer Nagin Cox, of JPL, told an audience in San Diego that "JPL does hard stuff."

Cox was in San Diego to speak at the Aerospace Museum as part of its mysteries of aviation series. (Click here for museum website.) The mystery Cox talked about was "are there other Earths in our galaxy?"

Cox is just coming off a stint as part of the Mars Rover team. In that job she helped to answer the question whether liquid water ever flowed on the surface of Mars. The Rovers answered that question with a resounding "yes!" Now Cox is moving on to an even greater mystery.

The search for extra-solar planets is just beginning. The first such planet was discovered revolving around a neutron star in 1992. To date, the search for planets outside our solar system has relied on a technique called "radial velocity." That technique measures the wobble of a star caused by the presence of a planet.

Radial velocity is good for detecting large gas giants. It's not so good at detecting smaller rocky planets like Earth, Mars and Venus. Kepler will use a new technique to search for those planets, called the "transit method." It will look at stars to detect the slight dimming to the face of the star caused when a planet passes in front of it. In essence, Kepler will be looking for spots on distant stars to detect small planets.

This is no easy task. For example, Earth casts a shadow on the sun that makes a circle covering only 0.01 percent of the sun's surface. When you combine this small shadow with the fact that other stars have sunspots, just like our sun does, it's easy to recognize the difficulty of Kepler's mission.

Kepler will have a 100 megapixel camera for its mission. It will have to stare at its targets continuously to determine what is a sunspot and what might be a planet. To provide the best vantage with the least interference from the Earth for viewing the distant stars, Kepler will be launched into an orbit that trails the Earth on its voyage around the sun.

When Kepler detects a likely candidate its data will be shared with other astronomers to do the follow up work to confirm whether a planet exists. Kepler's job is a census mission. It will try to detect a statistically significant number of objects to help determine the frequency of Earth like planets around other stars. Kepler's instruments will be precise enough to detect whether the planet is within the so-called Goldilocks Zone of the other star where liquid water could exist -- about 1 A.U., or the distance of Earth's orbit, for a sun like ours.

Cox is optimistic about her new mission. Today, we know that 144 planets circle around other stars in our galaxy, a fact that was mere speculation before 1992. She told her San Diego audience that 6 years from now we will know whether there are other Earths in our galaxy.

We won't know whether these other Earths can sustain life. All we will know is whether there are planets like Earth orbiting other stars in the zone where liquid water could exist. In searching for life here in the Heliosphere, we have adopted the strategy of following the water. Kepler is taking that strategy beyond the solar system to look for places where water could exist and life could find a home.

Are we alone in the universe? Stay tuned.


Sunday, May 22, 2005

Photos Of JPL Open House: Nukes Are Good.

A man and his nuke. This JPL employee is leaning on a Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator. An RTG, as it's called, generates electricity from the heat created by the decay of its plutonium fuel. (Click here for facts about RTGs in space.) RTGs have been used safely and successfully in many robotic missions as well as in Apollo missions RTGs are not able to generate large amounts of electricity so NASA is developing a nuclear reactor for future space missions. Nuclear power is necessary if we are to make any progress in exploring the solar system. Missions to the outer reaches of the solar system cannot rely on solar power because the sun's light is too feeble in deep space. Human missions to the moon and beyond will also depend on nuclear power. Although current plans for a base on the moon assume solar power, we cannot realistically rely on solar power on the moon because of that pesky 14 day-long night. A nuclear power generator would provide a more stable power source during the long and cold lunar night. Human missions to Mars and beyond could be shortened tremendously with the use of nuclear propulsion, in place of the chemical rockets we rely on today. The other photos in today's set show examples of NASA's successful use of nuclear power in space and some of their plans for future uses. Posted by Hello


This is a desk-top model of perhaps the most successful RTG powered spaceships to date, Voyagers 1 and 2. These ships were launched in 1977 and are still operating, thanks to their nuclear power plants. In their 28 years of flight the ships passed Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. The ships are presently approaching the outer limit of the Heliosphere. They are likely to become the first ships to enter interstellar space in the next 10-20 years. (Click here for details of their mission.) Their RTGs can power them until 2020 to 2025. Budgets might end their mission before then, however. Although they only require about $4 million per year to operate, the Voyagers' continued funding is in doubt. Posted by Hello


Another ship that used RTGs for power was the Galileo. (I have no idea why the full-size model on display at JPL was clad in black leather. It does look cool, though.) Galileo was was sent to explore Jupiter and its moons in 1989. It arrived at Jupiter in 1995. For the next 8 years it explored the gas planet and its moons. One of its discoveries was evidence of an ocean under the ice on Europa. Galileo's mission came to an end in 2003, when it was directed to fly into Jupiter, where it was crushed by the atmosphere. (Click here for more details of the mission.) Posted by Hello


Full-size model of the Mars Science Laboratory rover scheduled for launch in 2009. This rover is often described as SUV-size. In reality, it is appears to be about the size of a car. The Mars Science Laboratory's mission will be to test the rocks and ground of Mars for signs of life. Its mission is designed to last for 2 years. The rover's size, instrumentation, and its mission duration require a power source more powerful than solar panels. The rover is expected to be powered by an RTG. When asked about the power source, a JPL employee explaining the Mars Science Laboratory at the open house was reluctant to discuss it. He first said on microphone to the crowd that solar power could be used, but when challenged about that he turned off the microphone and spoke privately, one to one, about the possibility of using nuclear power. (Click here for more details on the mission.) Posted by Hello


Scale model of the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter, now scheduled for launch in 2017. JIMO, as it's called, is about 200 feet long. The panels in the center of the ship are not for solar power, they are heat radiators for the nuclear power plant located at the nose of the ship. The thrusters and science assembly are at the stern. JIMO's uranium-fueled nuclear power plant will create electricity through a nuclear reaction, much like conventional reactors on Earth. It will provide all power for the ship, including the electric-ion propulsion system. This differs from nuclear powered robotic missions to date, which have used RTGs for ship's power and standard chemical rockets for propulsion. The reactor is being developed by NASA in a program called Project Prometheus. (Click here for more details.) Posted by Hello


Rear view of JIMO showing close up of the thrusters and the science module. (Photo Credit, Gerry Williams, Posted by Hello


Full size model of the Project Prometheus reactor. (Photo Credit, Gerry Williams.) Posted by Hello


Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Photos Of JPL Open House: Bots, Bots And More Bots.

This cool looking little rock climber is the Steep Terrain Access Robot or STAR. It's a concept robot for use in future missions on rough and steep terrain where less agile humans and robots cannot explore. Today's photo set is of robots of the future, robots about to be sent to Mars, and robots in use today.  Posted by Hello


The little Sample Return Rover is pictured here. The rover is used to test an advanced control system. Currently, it can take up to 3 days and multiple commands for a robotic rover to approach and examine a rock. The SRR's system requires only one command. The rover is also able to move its legs and wheels to crouch down and stand up. This changes the rover's center of mass and will help it travel over rough terrain. Posted by Hello


This is a 1/2 size model of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, scheduled for launch this year. The orbiter will arrive at Mars in March of 2006 and for the next 8 months it will fly in and out of the upper reaches of the red planet's atmosphere 580 times to slow itself down to a circular orbit. This is a proven method for slowing down craft at Mars. The carbon dioxide atmosphere of Mars is 100 times thinner than Earth's nitrogen/oxygen air but the orbiter still must enter the atmosphere at a precise angle or risk burning up or flying past the planet. Posted by Hello


This is a full scale mockup of the camera which will be on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The camera will be able to resolve objects the size of a dinner table, a vast improvement over current cameras which can resolve school-bus size objects. Posted by Hello


This is a full-size model of the Phoenix lander which will be sent to Mars to look for evidence of life. Scheduled to launch in 2007, it is the first of the so-called Mars Scout missions. Phoenix will land in the north polar region in May 2008 and operate until the winter, when the extreme cold will force its shutdown. The lander will have a robotic arm for digging up ground samples to a depth of 2 feet or so, below where the UV has sterilized the ground. The lander's instruments onboard will analyze the ground samples for evidence of organic molecules. Posted by Hello


This is a 1/4 scale model of the Mars Global Surveyor. In orbit around Mars since 1997, the craft has completed 25,000 science orbits and taken over 187,000 images with its Mars Orbiter Camera, which is controlled right here in San Diego by Malin Space Science Systems. The mission's findings include determining that Mars has localized magnetic fields rather than a planet-wide field, weather and temperature mapping, and photographic evidence suggestive of recent water flow. Gullible true believers still think the so-called face on Mars is real but the Mars Orbital Camera proved it's a natural formation. Taxpayer money well spent. Posted by Hello


Monday, May 16, 2005

Photos Of JPL Open House: Control Rooms And Factory Floors.

It's a crime to enter the control room of the Spaceflight Operations Facility of Jet Propulsion Laboratory without authorization. Fortunately for us it's not a crime to observe it and take photos. Check out the photos of the control room and other critical facilities at JPL taken during the open house on May 15, 2005.  Posted by Hello


A view from the hallway into the Spaceflight Operations Facility. Several employees were on duty during the open house but there was not much activity apparent. The wallscreen at the far end of the room showed the flight information for both Mars rovers. Posted by Hello


A view from the balcony of JPL's Spaceflight Operations Facility. This is the room where JPL controls the spacecraft in flight. The facility can control 36 craft per year and is staffed 24/7. The facility is connected to the Deep Space Network which has large antenna in North America, Australia, and Europe. JPL takes the data from this array and is able to navigate spacecraft on their missions. The DSN is also able to characterize the surfaces of other planets to find landing spots and to detect what objects in space are made of through radiometrics. The dark wallscreen on the far right showed the flight information for the Deep Impact probe, which is on its way to rendezvous with a comet later this year. The screen third from the right showed flight information for all current missions. Posted by Hello


View from the catwalk of the Spacecraft Fabrication Building at JPL. This is where the machinists build the parts that go into the spacecraft. Posted by Hello


A JPL employee walks along a row of machinist's work stations in the Spacecraft Fabrication Building. Posted by Hello


This is a typical machinist's work station in the Spacecraft Fabrication Buildling. Posted by Hello


Second-floor view of the Spacecraft Assembly Room at JPL. The room is a very large clean room where spacecraft are prepared for their missions. The ceiling is about 3 to 4 stories high. The rectangles in the floor appeared to be vents. Unfortunately, JPL was not assembling any spacecraft during the open house so the room was empty. The size of the room was impressive enough by itself. Posted by Hello


Another view of the of the Spacecraft Assembly Room. The "person" in the blue suit is a mannequin. Posted by Hello


Sunday, May 15, 2005

Photos of JPL Open House: Mars Exploration Rovers

The author strikes a pose in front of a Mars panorama at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's open house on May 15, 2005. (Photo credit to Gerry Williams,, friend and fellow member of the San Diego Mars Society.) The facility was open to the public over the weekend. The lab had displays of its rovers and past and proposed orbiters and landers. Most areas were open for viewing and JPL employees were on hand to answer questions and explain things. The open house is one of the coolest thing a space geek like myself can do. Over the next several days, this site will be publishing some of the photos I took on my visit. Today's photo subject: the Mars Exploration Rovers. Enjoy. Posted by Hello


Mark Adler of JPL talks about the rover rolling next to him. Notice the rover's right-middle wheel climbing over a rock. The rover's wheels exert as much torque as a Hummer H5. Governor Schwarzenneger would be proud! The pictured rover was able to move at its maximum speed of 2 inches per second on the flat surface of the patio. On Mars, the rover is not always able to move at that speed due to the terrain. Movement on Mars often entails the rover moving one revolution of its wheels, stopping to take a navigation photograph, moving another revolution, and so on. Posted by Hello


Close-up photograph of a full-size model Mars Exploration Rover on display at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's open house on May 15, 2005. The two rovers on Mars, Spirit and Opportunity, have been successful beyond all expectations outlasting their 3 month missions by a year and still operating. In the background another rover is seen moving around the patio. Posted by Hello


One of the two full-size Mars Exploration Rovers in the Mars yard at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The Mars yard is an enclosed room built to mimic the terrain on Mars. The yard is used by JPL to test procedures for helping Spirit and Opportunity navigate on Mars. The pictured rover appears to have just left a thick sandy area in the enclosure. JPL is searching for a way to instruct the rover Opportunity escape a sand trap on Mars. Do the tracks in the sand at the Mars yard signal a successful maneuver to come on Mars soon? Posted by Hello


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