Virgin Galactic to Fly Suborbital Flights from… Scotland?

virgin-galactic-girl

Despite the fact the UK is effectively frozen out of participating in any kind of human spaceflight activity (we can blame Maggie Thatcher for that particular stroke of genius when she masterminded the 1986 Outer Space Act), it would appear Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic, has been meeting with the UK’s science minister Lord Drayson to investigate the possibility of establishing a spaceport at Lossiemouth RAF airbase in Scotland.

Central to Galactic’s argument for the Lossiemouth airbase is the fact that the fledgling space tourism business could directly account for 2,000 new jobs in the area. The space industry already supports 68,000 jobs in the UK and contributes £2.4bn to the gross domestic product, so the spaceport would only increase investment and interest in national space endeavours.

This move is supported by Andy Green, chief exec of the software company Logica who is chairing the “Space Innovation and Growth Team” due to report to Drayson in January on ways to stimulate the British space industry. Only a few days ago, Green wrote to Drayson, pushing for a UK space agency and a national space program.

The space sector has grown 9% a year over the past decade, more than three times faster than the economy as a whole. –Jenny Davey, TimesOnline.co.uk

If this plan bares fruit for Richard Branson’s spaceflight dreams, Lossiemouth could become the third international location for Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo combo to take off from. Currently, the New Mexico spaceport is under construction and Branson also plans to fly fee-paying tourists (at $200,000 a pop) through the aurora from Kiruna, Sweden.

Source: Times Online. Thanks to Dr. Lucy Rogers for the tip!

About these ads

“Astronaut needed for experimental flight to Titan…”

The Reliant Robin Space Shuttle from the BBC's Top Gear.

A better chance of making it to Saturn: The Reliant Robin Space Shuttle from the BBCs Top Gear.

An ad on Craigslist has just appeared: Astronaut Needed (Northern Alberta). Sign me up!

Oh, hold on…

Astronaut needed for experimental flight to Titan. I have been working on this project now for near 40 years and am afraid I’m no longer fit enough to go. My secret space craft is the result of my professional experience and imagination while serving the U.S. military in advanced aeronautics as a scientist. The craft harnesses a revolutionary propulsion system and its fuselage is fabricated with the most advanced material. While considerably safe, I am certain you will make it safely to Titan but there will not be enough fuel to get home. This is for someone unique that has always wanted to see the universe first-hand and has perhaps a terminal view on life here at home. Here’s your shot at romantic history.” –Mad Rocket Scientist from Canada (emphasis added by me).

I was almost convinced I had a stab at flying to the Saturnian moon. What put me off? The fact that there won’t be enough fuel to get me back to Earth? Or was it the fact that I’m not stark raving mad? Nope, it turns out I’m too tall. “[The applicant] must be no taller than 5’10 and relatively slim.” Curses.

Thank goodness the spaceship is “…is largely cpu controlled,” I was getting worried that this ad was sounding a little too reckless…

Wow.

Thanks to @absolutspacegrl for the heads up!

Triton’s Ice Won’t Mix

Triton_sm

Triton, Neptune’s largest moon, hasn’t been studied in detail since Voyager 2 did a flyby in 1989. That was until a team headed by Will Grundy, a Lowell Observatory planetary scientist, did a 10-year study into the distribution of the moon’s ices.

Soon to be published in the journal Icarus, the team has found that concentrations of nitrogen and carbon monoxide mix together and form a covering of ice on the Neptune-facing side of Triton. This is in contrast to the methane content of the atmosphere. For some reason, methane is concentrated on the non-facing Neptune hemisphere of the moon. It appears that methane doesn’t like to mix with the other volatile ices.

This is in stark contrast to the non-volatile ices, such as water and carbon dioxide. Both appear to have a homogeneous distribution, regardless of phase or geographical location.

These are incredible observations of a moon that was once a Kuiper Belt Object. However, the infrared analysis carried out on Triton could be a test-run before observations are carried out on other, more exotic, targets.

This type of long-term, detailed analysis would be equally valuable for small icy planets like Pluto, Eris, and Makemake, all of which are similar to Triton in having volatile ices like methane and nitrogen on their surfaces,” said Grundy. “We have been monitoring Pluto’s spectrum in parallel with that of Triton, but Eris and Makemake are quite a bit fainter. It is hard to get time on large telescopes to monitor them year after year. We expect that Lowell Observatory’s Discovery Channel Telescope will play a valuable role in this type of research when it comes on line.”

Source: Space Disco, Discovery Channel (yeah, I’m referencing myself), Lowell Observatory

Want a Little Doom for Supper?

It can mean only one thing: John Cusack is revisiting his Con Air days.

It can mean only one thing: John Cusack is revisiting his Con Air days.

Tonight, our screens are being hijacked by Armageddon for two minutes between 10:45-11pm EDT, 9:45-10pm CDT, 8:45-9pm MDT and 10:45-11pm PDT.

No, Jon & Kate aren’t going to be screaming at each other (why do people find that pair interesting anyway?), the 2012 movie teaser campaign will go up a notch after Sony decided it would be awesome if they throw even more money at this over-hyped End Of The World advertising campaign. 2012 will, quite literally, be spewing its CGI glory across the majority of TV stations.

Although it’s probably pretty obvious by now that 2012 is a marketing opportunity rather than anything that might really happen, even after 18 months since my original No Doomsday in 2012 article, I still receive countless emails about the subject. Some emails are angry (how dare I give scientific reasons why Planet X is bunk!), others are weird, but the majority are from people who have a genuine concern that they (and their family) might not live past Dec. 21st, 2012.

So for those of you who think there might be an ounce of truth in the doomsday claims you see on the ‘net, or the ones depicted in tonight’s 2012 trailer, to borrow the advice from Alan Boyle at Cosmic Log:

DON’T PANIC!

And why shouldn’t you panic? The simplest reason not to panic is that ancient civilizations (like the Maya) have never, ever predicted anything with any degree of accuracy (and no, just because they apparently had good astronomy skills does not mean they did a good Nostradamus impression). Quite simply, time is a one-way street, you can never foretell anything before it happens. It is a physical impossibility.

If you still don’t believe me and think that the cosmos has marked us for death on Dec. 21st 2012, check out my other articles on the subject: Could Planet X make an appearance? No, nope, no way, nah. What about a solar-fried Earth? Balls, bullshitgrapefruit? Geomagnetic shift? Don’t even go there!

Still in doubt? Please, just read through EVERYTHING listed on Astroengine.com and the Universe Today about the topic.

Still buying doomsday crackpot literature? Well, I give up, you obviously want to see the world end. In this case, you might need professional help.

So, in short, ignore the 2012 viral campaign, but enjoy the movie for what it is, a disaster movie (and nothing more sinister). Will I be watching the movie? Hell yes, I want to be one of the first to review it!

Thanks to @_Kaden_ for the heads-up about tonight’s trailer…

Moon Water, Confirmed

moon-water

The biggest factor hanging over human settlement of other worlds is the question of water. We need it to drink, we need it to cultivate food, we need it for fuel (indeed, we need it for the first lunar microbrewery); pretty much every human activity requires water. Supplies of water could be ferried from Earth to the Moon, but that would be prohibitively expensive and ultimately futile. For us to live on the Moon or further afield, H2O needs to already be there.

Ever since the Apollo lunar landings when samples of rock were transported to Earth we’ve been searching for the mere hint of this life-giving molecule. There have been indications that the lunar regolith may indeed contain trace amounts of the stuff, but on the whole, scientific endeavour has yet to return evidence of any large supply of water that could sustain a colony.

Until today.

Up until now, scientists haven’t been able to seriously entertain the thought of water on or near the surface of the Moon, apart from in the depths of the darkest impact craters. However, data from the recently deceased Indian Chandrayaan-1 mission has supported data taken by the Cassini probe (when it flew past the Moon in 1999 on its way to Saturn) and NASA’s Deep Impact probe (which made several infrared observations of the lunar surface during Earth-Moon flybys on its way to the 2010 rendezvous with Comet 103P/Hartley 2). Both Cassini and Deep Impact found the signature of water and hydroxyl, and now, a NASA instrument on board Chandrayaan-1 reinforces these earlier findings.

The NASA-built Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3) on board the Indian satellite detected wavelengths of light reflected off the surface that indicated hydrogen and oxygen molecules. This is convincing evidence that water is either at, or near, the lunar surface. As with the previous measurements, the water signal gets stronger nearer the lunar poles.

So what does this mean for the future of manned space exploration? Although water has been detected, this doesn’t mean there are huge icy lakes for us to pitch a Moon base and pump out the water. In actuality, the signal indicates water, but there is less water than what is found in the sand of the Earth’s deserts (you can pack away the drinking straws now).

It’s still pretty damn dry, drier than anything we have here. But we’ve found this dynamic, ongoing process and the moon was supposedly dead,” University of Maryland senior research scientist Jessica Sunshine told Discovery News. “This is a real paradigm shift.”

If there are widespread water deposits (despite the low concentrations), even in regions constantly bathed in sunlight, there is huge potential for water deposits in those mysterious, frozen craters. Interestingly, these measurements indicate that the water may not have just been deposited there by comets; the interaction between the solar wind and the existing lunar mineralogy could be a mechanism by which lunar ice is constantly being formed.

Every place on the moon, at some point during the lunar day, though not necessarily at all times, has water and OH [hydroxyl],” Sunshine said.

We may see self-sufficient lunar colonies yet. But the saying “getting blood out of a stone” should probably be replaced with “getting water out of the lunar regolith”

Next up is NASA’s LCROSS mission that is scheduled to impact a crater in the south pole on October 9th. Analysis from the impact plume will supplement this positive Chandrayaan-1 result, hopefully revealing yet more water in this frozen region.

Sources: Discovery News, Space.com, Times.co.uk

War of the Worlds Google Doodle Celebrates H.G. Wells’ Birthday

hgwells09

Today is H.G. Wells’ birthday! And I must admit, the Google logo is pretty cool. A UFO and a couple of tripods (with more in the distance) rampaging through the sleepy rural village of Horsell in Surrey is depicted. This relates to last week’s Google Doodle of crop circles and tweeted map reference to the same village near the town of Woking where H.G. Wells lived and wrote the famous War of the Worlds novel.

In my first post about the doodle, I followed the trail as far as H.G. Wells’ birthday, although last week it wasn’t Wells’ birthday. But the clues were there for something to happen today and it has. Even the logo’s filename is unambiguous: “hgwells09.gif”

So no puzzle this time, just a celebration of a legendary writer who imagined the first ever sci-fi Martian invasion in Surrey. If there’s a deeper puzzle behind this doodle, I don’t see it.

Happy 143rd birthday H.G.!

UPDATE: Google has confirmed the above, but mentions nothing about the War of the Worlds arcade game. It looks like there may have been too much lateral thinking going on that night…

Station Fire Now Threatens Stony Ridge Observatory

sro2

Over these last few days, the Internet was abuzz with news about the Station Fire threatening the world-famous Mount Wilson Observatory. In case you don’t know what the observatory is famous for, Edwin Hubble used the 100″ Hooker Telescope to deduce that the Universe is expanding. So, yes, it’s an important site that needed to be defended for as long as was physically possible. Also, an array of telecommunications towers share the Mt. Wilson summit, so there was a lot at stake.

So far so good. The Station Fire is gradually coming under control, even though it still spreads east through the San Gabriel Mountains (and I can still smell smoke through my open office window). We’re not out of the woods, but at least the observatory is safe for now and fire crews are making great headway.

But hold on. What about Stony Ridge Observatory?

Stony Ridge Observatory?

Stony Ridge Observatory

Stony Ridge Observatory

Yes, there’s another observatory at stake. Not as famous as Mt. Wilson, but Stony Ridge is in jeopardy, if not more so. Stony Ridge is currently inside the Station Fire perimeter, five miles north of Mt. Wilson, and nobody knows if it’s been hit by the fires.

Stony Ridge Observatory is a single 30-inch Newtonian-Cassegrain telescope housed inside a dome. It is a site that was built and is maintained by amateur astronomers, and back in 1963, it was the 8th biggest telescope in California. Currently, the observatory is used for outreach activities and follow-up observation campaigns. It’s also accredited with a number of asteroid discoveries.

Unfortunately, Stony Ridge probably won’t see the aerial fire fighting we saw at Mt. Wilson. Ground crews have made attempts to approach the site, but access to the observatory was blocked by mountain debris on the road. In short, there is no word about the status of the observatory and there are no plans to mount a huge fire fighting effort.

When housing, communication masts and larger observatories are threatened by fire, resources are committed, but for an observatory the size of Stony Ridge, it’s the sad case of waiting for the fire to burn its course and then assess the damage after the fact.

For Stony Ridge Observatory fire updates, see the temporary fire updates page.

Source: Sky & Telescope via @buffalodavid.

Fires Hit Summit of Mount Wilson [Update]

mt-wilson-fire2

Update (14:07 PDT): Mount Wilson’s server has now gone offline it seems. The webpage with fire updates stopped functioning a little before 14:00 PDT and the Towercam is no longer sending images to the mirror website. The last image was taken at 13:49 PDT. Although we were warned this may happen due to power outages to the observatory, this is the first time it’s been offline since the start of the fires.

13:25 PDT: In a bad turn of events, the Station Fire reached the summit of Mount Wilson, coming within feet of the observatory buildings. It seems possible that this fire may be due to secondary effects from the Station Fire (i.e. airborne embers). Watch the unfolding events via the KTLA helicopter.

The 150ft Solar Tower and the 100″ Hooker Observatory are both under siege from the smoke and fire. Fortunately, the fires aren’t as active as they have been, possibly due to increased humidity in the region, but this is obviously a concern. However, fire crews appear to be controlling the blaze so far. According to @CalFireNews, fire crews are in the area protecting the structures:

*Station IC* There are between 5-8 Engines providing Structure protection for Mount Wilson. — CalFireNews

In case you cannot access the Solar Tower’s Towercam, check the mirror site.

My thoughts are with the fire crews bravely fighting the fires around the observatory.

Updates pending…

Fire Fighters Step Down From Mt. Wilson, But Flare-ups Still Threaten Observatory [Update]

A morning view from Mt. Wilson Observatory. Lots of smoke, but the fires seem to have calmed (©UCLA)

A morning view from Mt. Wilson Observatory. Lots of smoke, but the fires seem to have calmed (©UCLA)

Update (Aug. 31st, 15:00 PDT): The situation has taken a turn for the worse it appears. Ground crews have been pulled off Mt. Wilson and the fire is approaching the observatory rapidly. The fire will now be fought from the air. The Towercam is no longer accessible (although it is probably overloaded with traffic):

Monday, 31 Aug 09, 2:46 pm PDT – CHARA Array operator PJ Goldfinger reported that at about 2:00 pm she monitored an LA County Sheriffs Department transmission advising a pullout from Red Box, the major staging area near the mountain. I just spoke with Sherry Roman, Public Affairs Officer of the Angeles National Forest. She could give no updates as to the status of the fire in the Mount Wilson vicinity except that the USFS still considers that passage of fire across Mount Wilson is imminent and will be fought aerially rather than with ground personnel. Once the fire is through the area, they can assess the damage by air after the event before they can send in ground personnel. She also confirmed what PJ’s monitoring implied, that firefighters have been removed from Red Box.

This roller coaster has taken a dip downward. Mt. Wilson Observatory.

August 31st, 10:00 PDT: Well, last night was a rather dramatic night for the Mount Wilson Observatory. During the seemingly relentless charge of flames pushing dangerously close to the summit, news came in that it was very likely the Station Fire would arrive at the observatory some time last night. However, due to the brave efforts of fire crews who camped out on Mt. Wilson through the night, the observatory and telecommunication masts look like they’ve been saved, for now.

At this point, I don’t think [the observatory] suffered any serious damage. We’ll probably get some flare-ups or threatening flame activity, but we don’t think it’s going to be a major problem,” Inspector Edward Osorio of the Los Angeles County Fire Department said this morning.

Aggressive brush clearance and fire retardant appear to have helped, slowing the advance of the flames. However, the observatory and critical communications equipment are not out of the woods quite yet. The threat of flare-ups could still pose an issue. Another cause for concern is the fact that fire crews have been ordered away from the observatory earlier this morning, possibly to relocate north of the fire, the direction it appears to be heading.

Monday, 31 Aug 09, 7:50 am PDT – At 6:25 this morning, fire crews were instructed to withdraw from Mount Wilson. Larry Webster and Dave Jurasevich left the mountain with them. I have just spoken with Larry and Dave when they reached the bottom of the Angeles Crest Hwy in La Canada, and they report minimal fire activity in the immediate vicinity of Mount Wilson. It is not clear why the withdrawal decision was made nor whether or not the fire crews will return. Those fire fighters joined other crews deployed at the Red Box turnoff to Mount Wilson, five miles from the Observatory. So, they are still within close proximity for redeployment. Thus, the good news is that the fire in the Observatory’s vicinity seems to have diminished. The bad news is that there are no fire fighters presently on the scene.Mt. Wilson Observatory.

The Station Fire has claimed the lives of two fire fighters and caused nearly $8 million of damage. The fire is now 85,000 acres in size and continuing to spread in hot, dry conditions. Here in the San Fernando Valley, west of the Station Fire, the air is full with the smell of smoke and numerous poor air quality warnings have been issued.

Source: LA Times, Mt. Wilson

Fire Fighters Will Defend Mount Wilson Observatory Overnight [Update]

The view looking west from Mt. Wilson Observatory at 8:17pm PST (Aug. 30th)

The view looking west from Mt. Wilson Observatory at 8:17pm PST (Aug. 30th)

Update: Monday, August 31st, 05:45 PDT: In the early hours of Monday morning, it would appear the situation atop Mt. Wilson remains the same. The Towercam is showing smoke and fires to the West of the summit, but there is no further breaking news from the Observatory:

Monday, 31 Aug 09, 4:50 am PDT – No reports from the mountain yet this morning. Towercam shows new fire encroachment. The Inciweb update is eight hours old – 42,500 acres, 2,575 personnel – and two fire fighters lost.Mt. Wilson Observatory

Sunday, August 30th, 20:30 PDT: According to the Mt. Wilson Observatory fire updates, fire crews have decided to remain at the summit of Mt. Wilson to fight the Station Fire blaze overnight. There were concerns this evening that the conditions would be too treacherous for the fire fighters to remain behind, but it would appear this has changed.

Sunday, 30 Aug 09, 8:07 pm PDT – A critical aspect to the survivability of the Observatory should the fire sweep across it is whether or not fire fighters will be on site during such an event. The U.S. Forest Service continually assesses the danger to fire fighters in any scenario and will withdraw fire crews in situations that are particularly precarious. Such an evaluation took place on Mount Wilson in the last half hour with the decision for the fire crews to remain in place tonight. That’s very good news.Mt. Wilson Observatory

But the fire continues and Mike Brown, an astronomer who lives near (but doesn’t work at) Mt. Wilson, tweeted his eye witness account of his view of the fire: “Holy smokes; massive glowing plume tonight just west of Mt. Wilson is scarier than last nights 50 ft flames. #stationfire.”

Unfortunately, in another location, two fire fighters have tragically lost their lives fighting a blaze in Acton. According to reports from @CalFireNews and the LA Times the fire fighters were involved in an accident where their vehicle apparently rolled over a mountainside. The accident happened during a period of intense fire fighting.

This is a horrific reminder that hundreds of brave men and women are currently out there battling against hellish heat and poisonous air. My thoughts are with the lost fire fighters families and the fire fighters that continue to push on through the night atop Mt. Wilson and the areas hit hard by the Station Fire.

Updates pending…