Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Where In The Heliosphere Are The Asteroids Today?

Follow this link (here) to a very cool current plot of all the minor bodies of the inner Solar System, updated daily. It's a crowded region of space.

The Asteroid Belt looks incredibly dense. It's interesting to see the Jovian Trojan Asteroids plotted as well.

What's most relevant to us puny Earthlings are all those objects with orbits of 1.3 AU and closer --- all appropriately displayed in red.


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Sunday, March 26, 2006

US Government To Join SpaceX In Investigation Of Falcon Failure Before Next Launch Attempt.

SpaceX's Elon Musk commendably is posting information early, often, and with as much detail as possible about the crash of the Falcon 1 launcher. His March 25, 2006, update message on the company's website states that SpaceX and the US government will do a joint investigation and report on the cause of the accident. (Here.)

Musk suggests the next flight won't occur until after the investigation is complete, he hopes within six months.
"Our plan at this point is to analyze data and debris to be certain that the above preliminary analysis is correct and then isolate and address all possible causes for the fuel leak. In addition, we will do another ground up systems review of the entire vehicle to flush out any other potential issues.

I cannot predict exactly when the next flight will take place, as that depends on the findings of this investigation and ensuring that our next customer is comfortable that all reasonable steps have been taken to ensure reliability. However, I would hope that the next launch occurs in less than six months." (Emphasis added.)
The company's plan sounds reasonable and a bit familiar. When shuttle failed there was a government investigation and the shuttle did not fly again until the investigation completed its findings. Here's hoping SpaceX doesn't get too much grief for being too cautious.


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Falcon Failure Probably Due To Fuel Leak.

Investigation now suggests that a fuel leak doomed the Falcon launch not the insulating blanket. (Here.)



Friday, March 24, 2006

Curses! Failed Again!

Unfortunately SpaceX's attempt to launch its Falcon 1 failed today. The reason is not yet determined but a likely culprit appears to be a insulating blanket that was supposed to tear off the rocket during liftoff but apparently didn't. The blanket was a makeshift fix used to prevent the excessive loss of LOX encountered in SpaceX's two aborted launches last year.
"To keep the liquid oxygen from warming up and naturally boiling away while the rocket sat on its tropical launch pad before launch, a "thermal coat" had been wrapped around the first stage. Problems running out of liquid oxygen on the remote island have bedeviled SpaceX over the past few months.

'A glaring deficiency that we had in the November and December attempts was the fact that we were basically boiling LOX at an unacceptably high rate. It is hard to get LOX on the island. So what we did was put a blanket scheme together to cover the first stage LOX tank,' Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX vice president of business development, told reporters during Friday's countdown.

'It is held to the rocket by Velcro and and we've got lanyards that hold it down to the ground. So basically the lanyards will pull a zipper as the vehicle lifts up, a Velcro zipper, and that LOX tank insulation will stay on the ground as the vehicle flies through it.'"

Foam on the shuttle and an insulating blanket on the Falcon. What is it with thermal protection of fuel tanks that causes such problems with launchers?

We wish SpaceX success in the future and hope it will be able to launch its next mission from Vandenberg on schedule in three to six months.


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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Who's Going To The Moon? Diamandis Says Count Him In.

When President George W. Bush announced his Vision for Space Exploration and gave NASA the goal of returning to the moon to stay, he invited other countries to participate.
"The vision I outline today is a journey, not a race, and I call on other nations to join us on this journey, in a spirit of cooperation and friendship."
(Here.) Other countries who have talked about going to the Moon include Russia, China, and India.

The governments of Earth might not be racing each other to the moon but there is somebody who is racing them. Last night at San Diego's Aerospace Museum, Dr. Peter Diamandis told a rapt audience of about 60 that his personal goal is to "finance his own mission and walk on the Moon in 10 years."

If anybody can do it Diamandis can.

Diamandis didn't come to San Diego to announce a plan to fly to the Moon. He revealed that personal dream during the Q and A that followed his talk. He was invited by the museum to speak about what he's done to help create a revolution in spaceflight. (Here.)

The personal spaceflight revolution started for Diamandis in 1992 when he gave up on NASA because he "figured out that the government wasn't going to make it possible for me to go to space." It was then that he started looking for a way to do it himself.

Probably Diamandis's most significant contribution to the cause of personal spaceflight was the X Prize. Since Burt Rutan's team won the prize by sending their own piloted spaceship into suborbital space, things are looking up for private space travelers. Rutan is building commercial spaceships for Virgin Galactic to take paying passengers into space. Other companies building their own ships include Rocketplane and PlanetSpace. (Here.)

Besides being responsible for midwifing the birth of the new suborbital space tourism industry, Diamandis, through his X-Prize Foundation, is trying to push innovation in space technology. The annual X-Prize Cup in New Mexico will be offering millions of dollars in prizes. Among the competitions will be a Lunar Lander Challenger, which will have rocketeers simulating a takeoff and landing from the surface of the moon. By 2010 Diamandis intends for the X-Prize Cup to have rocketeers flying into space and vieing for prizes for maximum altitude, fastest turnaround between flights, point to point flights, and number of passengers.

Another of his space ventures is the Rocket Racing League, which he described as grand prix style racing but with rocketplanes. Ten rockets, built by XCOR Aerospace, another private space company, will race each other by flying in their own virtual tracks a mile in the sky.

The rocket racers will carry enough LOX/kerosene fuel for a 4 minute burn followed by 10 minutes of glide. Each 60 to 90 minute race will include 4 to 6 pit stops. XCOR recently demonstrated that racing pit stops are feasible by refueling a rocket tank with 250 pounds of LOX fuel in 50 seconds.

Presently the Rocket Racing League is culling through the applications of hundreds of teams to find the 10 teams who will compete.

While the President's vision for space exploration invites cooperation Diamandis's vision seems to rely on competition. The X-Prize was a competition. The X-Prize Cup and the Rocket Racing League are both based on competition. The United States made it to the moon because it was competing with the Soviet Union. The Russians weren't up to the competition and the US stopped its lunar missions. Diamandis seems to be on to something. People will do extraordinary things to be the winner.


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Monday, March 20, 2006

What's A Government Space Program For?

A government space program, like war, is the continuation of policy by other means. For the US space program the policy is to project the reach and influence of America's government into the Solar System. A government space program is an analog to the military on Earth. And just like the military, it's of the government, by the government, and for the government.

How does the US government project its reach and influence into the Solar System when the Outer Space Treaty bars any assertion of national sovereignty over other worlds?

It does so by sustaining a permanent American presence in space. Its preferred permanent presence is a government presence because it has more control over it than it would over private citizens.

It projects its reach and influence into the Solar System by developing spacecraft owned by the government for government astronauts to fly on. The government's space program, much like the Navy and Air Force is not about giving rides to private citizens. Nor is it about hitching a ride on private transportation. A government space program is about makings sure the government has its own ships to fly its own people into space or the people it chooses to take.

It projects its reach and influence into the Solar System by sending spacecraft out to explore. Every US crewed or robotic spacecraft that goes to another world expands America's influence both on Earth and in space. Here on Earth successful exploration missions help to make the US the go-to country for science and exploration in space. Successful missions to other worlds create little American outposts on other worlds. Having our own ships elsewhere in the solar system is similar to showing the flag here on Earth. It tells other countries that we are free to operate in space and we can.

To be influential in space the US government's space program doesn't need to be very innovative. Its competitors in space are other governments. For now, as long as the US program is about as good as the programs of other countries, which it is, it will be doing its job. There is no compelling reason in the current political climate requiring the US government's space program to be signifantly better than the programs of other countries. When such a reason arises, that's when the government program will look to innovate.

Finally, what a government space program is not for is flying lots of private citizens into space, settling space, or making lots of money. Those are the functions of the private sector. The government's functions are to regulate those activities and have a presence in space when private space ventures advance enough to start sending lots of people offworld.

Those who want to make money in space and go to space themselves will have to build their own ships and find their own financing. Some have gotten that message by now. That's why suborbital entrepreneurs are creating a market for what they want to do, raising the money however they can, and building their own ships. (Here & here.) The suborbital entrepreneurs are showing the way to a future where ordinary people live, work, and travel in space.


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Saturday, March 18, 2006

Halliburton Does It On Earth; Why Not In Space Too?

The writer over at the "space4peace" blog claims the mission of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is to look for minerals on Mars in order to
"... set[] up the infrastructure to make it possible in the future to have the industry go in and reap major profit from mining operations. The Halliburton Corporation is today creating a drilling mechanism to do Mars mining. Once NASA has successfully created the ability the [sic] mine the skies the entire operation will be privatized."

Apparently that's a bad thing.

The bogeyman of Halliburton is often trotted out by the left as it tries to scare the American people. But what would be so bad about turning over parts of human space exploration to Halliburton? Here's how its subsidiary, KBR, turned a desert wasteland in Kuwait into a thriving US military base at the drop of a hat.
"A good example is Camp Arifjan, a U.S. Army base about 90 minutes southwest of Kuwait City. Six months ago, this was nothing but a small collection of buildings that was supposed to be a training base. On Oct. 11 -- the day Congress gave President Bush authority to wage war on Iraq -- someone in the Pentagon picked up a phone and told KBR it had nine weeks to turn Arifjan into a full-blown Army base for 7,000 people. The job went to Robert (Butch) Gatlin, a wizened 59-year-old Tennessean who served 32 years in the Army Corps of Engineers before coming to perform the same work, at much greater pay, for KBR.

''When we got here, there was no power or water,'' Gatlin said as we stepped from the air-conditioned trailer that is KBR's Arifjan headquarters into the blinding desert sun. Within about 72 hours of the Pentagon's call, Gatlin had a handful of KBR specialists -- electricians, carpenters, plumbers -- on planes headed here. Most of the rest were hired locally. ''I had a thousand people working here in 24 hours,'' he said. ''The Army can't do that.''

KBR essentially took an entire Army base out of containers and made it rise in the middle of the Kuwaiti desert two days ahead of schedule: air-conditioned tents complete with 110-volt outlets for the soldiers' boom boxes, male and female shower blocks, kitchens, a laundry, Pepsi machines, a Nautilus-equipped health club with an aerobics room (''Latin Dance Thurs & Sat!''), a rec center with video games and a stack of Monopoly sets, a Baskin-Robbins and a Subway sandwich shop."
(Dan Baum,

Expertise like that could be useful to the space settlers of the future seeking to exploit the resources of the solar system. And what would the space4peaceniks think of this theory (here) that oil shale is beneath the surface of Mars creating the Red Planet's atmospheric methane? Oooo, scary.


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Hat tip to Curmudgeons Corner for finding the space4peace post.


Humans: We're Just Better.

The success of the Mars Rovers and the recent successful arrival of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter leads some to argue that sending humans to explore space is not necessary. Columnist Fred Reed writing in the Washington Times is the most recent advocate of that view. (Here.) He concludes that robots do science well and since the public can now participate in space exploration via the internet, we need not send humans to other planets.

The debate between robots and humans in space is a false dichotomy. It's another example of the tyranny of either-or thinking.

First, robots do science well but humans and robots together do science better. Despite all the advances we've seen in computer and robotic technology, humans are still better. Here's a visual example of the superiority of astronauts over robots.

These first two photos were taken by Neil Armstrong on the Apollo 11 mission.

(Photos credit: NASA, and links here and here.)

They show a crater about 60 meters from the landing site and a view of the landing site. Armstrong took the photos when he disappeared for about 3 minutes. Remember that number: 3 minutes.

To the left is a photo taken by the Mars Rover, Spirit. (Photo credit, NASA/JPL, and link here.) It's a panorama taken about 100 meters from the landing site. It was taken about a month after the rover left its lander.

What a human took 3 minutes to find and photograph, a robot took 30 days.

Humanity's robots are doing great science and exploration throughout the Solar System. But humans could do much more. Let's send both, shall we?


UPDATE: We first heard this comparison made by a fellow panelist in a discussion on Mars exploration here in San Diego. He was then, and still is, a scientist on the Mars robotic missions.

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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Happy Pi Day To One And All.

Today is 3.14. And before somebody flames us for not realizing that other countries write their dates backwards, for instance Europe, where there would be no Pi day because 3.14 is written 14.3, Happy Pi Day to them too. Pi day is for everybody. Enjoy the day. (Here.)


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The Future Of The Best Ground Transportation System.

When the hurricanes hit Louisiana the people who were left behind were those who didn't have their own transportation out of the city. When the hurricanes hit Texas, people got out early, but the highways were jammed for miles slowing down the evacuation.

There are a few lessons of the disastrous hurricane season last year that don't get talked about much.

First, people who rely on public transportation are at the mercy of others. Under ordinary circumstances that might mean nothing more than inconvenient schedules. But when disaster strikes, having to rely on public transportation could be fatal.

Second, people who have their own cars are empowered in a disaster because they can rely on themselves to get out of town and out of danger. People should own cars.

Third, the priority for public spending on transportation remains roads. In normal times more roads are needed to increase capacity. In disasters more roads are needed so that people who need to leave town to get out of danger can do so.

Another way to go is to increase the capacity of current roads. This story about research on intelligent automobiles looks like a promising technology for improving highway capacity and safety at the same time. (Here.)


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Sunday, March 12, 2006

House Republican Study Committee Proposes Canceling Moon-Mars Initiative Once Again.

The ever more influential conservative Republican Study Committee introduced a proposed budget bill in the House recently. (Here.) As it did before, the RSC took aim at human exploration of space.

The RSC's proposed budget eliminates the Moon-Mars initiative. This is the RSC's summary of their proposal:
Cancel NASA’s Moon/Mars Exploration Initiative and Retire the Space Shuttle After Completion of the International Space Station. In 2004, the President announced a new initiative to explore the Moon and Mars with the goal of returning humans to the Moon by 2020. NASA currently intends to use the savings from phasing out the space shuttle in 2012 to fund this program. However, the proposed transition will take six more years, costing taxpayers money on administrative and program expenses associated with simultaneously operating both programs. This proposal would cancel the new mission and would retire the space shuttle after completion of the International Space Station. A similar proposal was included in the original budget resolution (H.Con.Res. 67) passed by the House of Representatives in 1995.
(PDF here, scroll to p. 15.)

The proposal seeks to save money on human space flight by not funding two different missions at the same time. Moreover, the proposal does not postpone the new mission, it cancels it.

This is just nonsense. Rather than scrapping the space shuttle now and focusing the money on developing America's next generation of space vehicles sooner rather than later, the RSC proposes the opposite. Stick with the old system that barely flies and is headed to scrap heap and get rid of the new systems.

We are especially pained by this because we tend to share the politics of the RSC. Yet fiscal conservatism can be shortsighted and foolish at times. It certainly is here. Human space exploration survived the RSC's assault last year. Since then Tom DeLay lost his leadership post, the President's influence waned even more than it had during his disastrous 2005, and there is a growing revolt by Congressional Republicans against the President's fiscal policies. It will be interesting to see how this all shakes out.

If we're lucky the Vision will keep its funding and servicing the ISS will fall to the private sector. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison suggested just that in remarks the other day as one of the options available to the US for finishing the ISS.
"The current plan is to terminate space shuttle flights in 2010. Our legislation initially prohibited a gap between the end of shuttle flights and the start of CEV operations."

"In the end, we compromised with a statement of policy that the US should maintain an uninterrupted capability for human space flight, and required NASA to inform the Congress, at least a year before the last scheduled shuttle flight, if a gap [between shuttle retirement and CEV flight] appeared likely and what steps they would take to fill it."

"In my view, the options they might have at that point, if necessary, could include extending shuttle flights beyond 2010, utilizing crew launch capabilities that might be developed by the private sector, or establishing agreements for the use of international partner crew launch capabilities."

"The NASA Authorization Act endorses and encourages the private sector involvement in space station crew and cargo support, and I am pleased to see NASA moving forward in its efforts to help spur that development."
(Here, emphasis added.)

Extending shuttle flights beyond 2010 would be risky and a huge waste of time and money. And for what? Not for exploring other worlds but merely to finish building a space station.

We rely on the Russians for ISS flights now. Continuing to rely on foreign governments is not much of an option given the current political climate that prevents even an ally from taking over management of certain port terminals in the United States. Nativism is metastasizing in the USA if even the diversity pimps in the Democratic Party are jumping on the America first bandwagon.

The better option is to leave the exploration missions alone and to get serious about developing private sector alternatives for lower Earth orbit. If talk alone could launch spacecraft there'd be fleets of ships in space now launched by the boasts of private space advocates. The time is now for the private space sector to match its rhetoric with deeds. This country needs their help.


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Thursday, March 09, 2006

Those SciFi Actors Moonlighting On 24.

We finally got around to watching this week's two-episode showing of 24. It was sad to see Edgar go. He was such a vulnerable guy working in a high-risk occupation. It's sadder to see somebody like him die than it would be to see a field agent go. They get paid the bucks to take the risks that Edgar didn't.

An online article said Edgar's being killed off showed that anything can happen on 24. Presumably next week Jack Bauer, who really does take all the risks and who barely avoids death every week will die soon. Right, that'll happen for sure. Then again, maybe not everything is possible on the show.

This week's episodes were a big improvement. The producers are really pushing the incompetence of the President to the maximum. And now that he's got his equally incompetent and equally weird Vice-President by his side, we can look forward to even more stupid decisions coming from the Western White House. Watching the two of them plan emergency operations was like watching a couple of kids playing army. Scary and weird.

But the best thing about the show now is that it is littered with actors from favorite scifi and horror movies.

There's Ray Wise, as the Vice-President, who was great as the possessed and tormented serial killer in Twin Peaks and who played a thug in Robocop.

Next is Peter Weller, Robocop himself, who also played Buckaroo Banzai in fabulously oddball movie The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension.

Sean Astin is in the mix too, the great and loyal hobbit from the LOTR trilogy. Astin deserved an award for his work in that series.

The most recent addition is the one and only C. Thomas Howell, star of countless straight to video scifi movies, and also star of the best War of the Worlds movie made last year. Speilberg's version with Tom Cruise was crap. Just plain crap lacking any justification for its having been made. The version with Howell, however, is worthy and Howell is a much better lead than Cruise ever could hope to be. It's called H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds. Check out its IMDB webpage here.

And finally, there's Jack Bauer himself. Keifer Sutherland has appeared in science fiction, notably Dark City, where he busted out with an odd Peter Lorre-like portrayal of a scientist forced to work for aliens experimenting on humans.

The casting honchos on 24 deserve a big round of thank-yous for putting these actors together.


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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

That Is One Giant Orbiter Approaching Mars.

In May 2005 we went to the open house at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and snapped this photo of a one-half size model of the Mars Reconaissance Orbiter. (Here.) That is one big robotic orbiter.

The Fourth Millenium website has posted an illustration that shows how much bigger the MRO is than its sibling satellites already orbiting Mars. (Here.)

You can learn more about the MRO by browsing JPL's webpage (here) and reading their PDF fact sheet for the press (here).

The MRO will be approaching Mars in two days and NASA TV will be covering it live. (Here.) Upcoming events include an MRO Pre-arrival news briefing at 9 am Pacific on March 10th. The big show, Mars Orbit Insertion, will happen from 1:30 to 2:45 pm Pacific time later the same day.

Let's wish the big guy luck on his arrival at Mars. And here's hoping for lots of clear bandwidth on the 10th.


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