The MSL is Too Expensive? Who Cares! We’re Searching For Life!

$2.2 billion eggs. One basket. The MSL "Skycrane" lowers the 850kg rover to the Martian surface (NASA)

$2.2 billion eggs. One basket. The MSL Skycrane lowers the 850kg rover to the Martian surface (NASA)

Don’t get me wrong, I am incredibly excited about any planetary mission, no matter how much it costs. However, there is something about the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) that makes me uneasy. The project may be delayed (the MSL is scheduled for a 2011 launch) and it may be costing more than NASA projected, but it’s not these factors I’m worried about.

The MSL is built on a “bigger and better” mentality; it dwarfs both of the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, plus it is packing a rather impressive suite of 10 complex scientific instruments to carry out an unprecedented campaign in the Martian dirt. Oh, and did I mention it will be powered by radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), a complete departure from the tried and tested solar panelled rovers? Oh hold on, as the MSL weighs nearly a tonne, a brand new method of landing the thing is required (simply parachuting, air bag bouncing or rocket thruster powered landings are now passé). The “Skycrane” that looks like one of those hoverboards from Back to the Future II has been invented to gently lower the MSL (pictured above).

Still, I’m not too concerned, NASA has proven itself countless times at overcoming technological challenges. That’s why NASA is there, to research and develop new technologies and science. But what if the MSL has gone too far? What if the technology is too untried and untested? Unfortunately, it looks like the recent turn of events have taken even the MSL program manager by surprise
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Can SpaceX Benefit from NASA’s Share of the Economic Stimulus Package?

The Falcon 9/Dragon launch configuration for crew transport. Note the launch escape rocket added to the Dragon capsule nose cone (SpaceX)

The Falcon 9/Dragon launch configuration for crew transport. Note the launch escape rocket added to the Dragon capsule nose cone (SpaceX)

Over the weekend, I discussed the pros and cons of a recent article written by Mars Society President Robert Zubrin. In his discussion for a Washington D.C. political website, he outlined his thoughts on how to enrich the US economy. One of the points raised was the argument that a manned mission to Mars would have a huge economic impact on the USA; creating jobs, invigorating science education and boosting national well being. This is a worthy argument that, in principal, holds a lot of merit. After all, the Apollo Program in the 1960’s had a lasting effect on the US, creating jobs in the aerospace industry, bolstering the economy and creating a generation of highly skilled scientists and engineers.

So why not do Apollo 2.0? Send man to Mars as a measure to recreate the economic benefits generated by the Space Race against the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, no modern government would sensibly invest in such a plan. There is no political incentive to do so (well, no acute incentive that requires the US to “beat” a competing superpower in the race to strategically dominate space).

But what if the recent economic $800+ billion stimulus package could be used to stimulate another, burgeoning sector of space flight, that has both political and financial merit?

Elon Musk’s SpaceX is asking the same question. Could NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contracts get a boost in funding, accelerating a commercial answer to the looming 5-year gap in US manned spaceflight? This is where SpaceX needs your help…
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Can a Mission to Mars Stimulate the Economy?

Could a NASA manned mission to Mars really stimulate the economy? (Mars Society/Ian O'Neill)

Could a NASA manned mission to Mars really stimulate the economy? (Mars Society/Ian O'Neill)

When times get tough, the world needs visionaries.

Visionaries find solutions, they invent systems and invoke change. One such figure in current events with a weight of 300 million people on his shoulders, is the new US President Barack Obama. His entire political campaign is based on bringing change to the USA (and the world), making him the most prominent political figure out there. Is he a visionary? Some would argue that he is, others would say that history will decide that point. I’m on the fence as to whether Obama will find historic solutions to these seemingly insurmountable global crises. But the thing I admire about the new US President is that he is a strong leader, and sometimes, that is all a country needs to pull itself from the precipice and back to prosperity.

So, the Obama-backed $800+ billion economic stimulus package is currently pumping through the system to eventually be divvied up and sent to areas of the economy that need to be reinvigorated. In principal, it’s a good idea. But what if it fails? Unfortunately there’s an awful lot more riding on Obama’s shoulders than 300 million hopes; $800 billion of their taxes will be keeping the new President awake until the early hours. If this all goes right, Barack Obama will go down as one of history’s visionaries; if it all goes wrong… well, let’s just not go there for the time being

There will be critics of any economic bailout, and others who think there are better options. Robert Zubrin, founder and President of the Mars Society, has come forward with his suggestions to aid economic recovery…
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The Essential Selection for Space Exploration (Music)

The Astroengine Live Top 10 Space Tunes

Disco balls at Spundae, Hollywood in December 2006 (© Ian O'Neill)

Often when writing about space, I like to listen to music. Unfortunately, my brain is terrible at multitasking, so any music with vocals slows me down. However, trance music doesn’t seem to hurt my thinking-typing skills (probably due to minimal vocal tracks), so on go the headphones as I get lost in a mix of space and sound.

If you are a listener of my radio show Astroengine Live, you may be forgiven in thinking that it is based more on the music selection than my opinions on the current state of manned space flight! So I’ve decided to pair up trance and space to compile my favourite space-based tracks of all time (mainly trance and electro, but with some surprises thrown in).

Here’s Astroengine Live’s Top 10 Space Tunes, or the Essential Selection for Space Exploration
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If There’s an Alien Race Living on our Doorstep, Why Can’t We Hear Them?

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An alien civilization could be transmitting, but we can't hear them (© Steve Swayne via Flickr)

As I was watching Battlestar Galactica last night, I was thinking about the lack of alien civilizations in the show. To be honest, I tire easily of humanoid alien beings with curiously shaped heads synonymous with Star Trek et al., so I’m loving the fact a far-off human colony created their own evil race, the Cylons. So far, so good, I’m getting sucked into BSG (will it be as good as, or even better than Bablyon 5? That has yet to be seen, but it looks promising).

These thoughts took me back to an Astroengine article I wrote in November with my usual gripe about our obsession for looking under rocks on Mars (The Search For Life, What’s the Point?). I reached the conclusion that I’d much rather be pottering around in an empty cosmos, devoid of life, than bumping into an angry neighbour who wants to probe/assimilate/hybridize me. Science fiction musings I know, but it isn’t that far from some of the conclusions that could arrive from using the famous Drake equation that underpins our incessant search for intelligent extraterrestrial life.

Today, I was referred to some research addressing the Fermi Paradox, although we haven’t heard from our extra-terrestrial neighbours yet, doesn’t mean they’re not transmitting. The galaxy could be teeming with intelligent aliens, but we just can’t hear them
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When the Space Hotel’s a Rockin’…

Guest article by Greg Fish (blog: world of weird things)

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You can’t go on vacation any more without your video camera, especially if you’re going some place spectacular and exciting. When the new wave of space tourists soars into orbit, they’re going to come back with some spectacular home movies. Some of them may be a lot steamier than others because there’s bound to be a couple just itching to be the first humans to have sex in space and capture it on high definition video to bolster their claim to fame. Yes, sex in space in inevitable and the moment people finally get a little privacy and a little room in which to play (something that’s missing on today’s space missions), it’s going to happen.

But before you rush to reinvent the Kama Sutra in 360 degree freedom, a few tips for you aspiring 60+ mile high club members…
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2012 Fear = Money: Sony Pictures Cashes In

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Another day, another inbox with three emails asking me about what this 2012 “thing” is all about.

Another two from concerned (but now relieved) readers and one (from late last night) calling me a fudging idiot (edit the italicized word). I had no idea that my 2012 articles on the Universe Today (and the growing number on Astroengine) would evoke such a spirited and sustained barrage of hate/love/relief mail. I’m a scientist, first and foremost, I’m not used to this kind of attention.

Seriously though, this 2012 insanity needs to calm down. Admittedly, telling “believers” there is nothing to fear about the Mayan calendar coming to the end (or the hopelessly flawed Bible Code is nonsense) is a bit like waving a red cloth in front of a pissed off bull, and any hope that we wont be barraged by doomsday hysteria in 2012 is a lost cause (in my opinion). But mainstream media really needs to lay off the scaremongering tactics.

I can deal with the crackpots, greedy authors, pseudo-science liars, misinformed and weak-minded “YouTube Scientists” spreading prophecies of doomsday, linking ancient prophecy (that has a non-existent prediction:proof ratio by the way) with modern science. But when Sony Pictures jump on the 2012 juggernaut, I think we can forget about having any sanity in the run-up to December 21st 2012.

Enter the Institute for Human Continuity, a Sony Pictures viral campaign…
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