“Project M”? Let’s Not.

Doing for NASA what Star Wars did for sci-fi, send C3PO to the Moon! Huh?

Doing for NASA what Star Wars did for sci-fi, send C3PO to the Moon! Huh?

OK, so I have little idea about this project because there’s not much information circulating, but I hope it’s not real.

It looks like NASA’s Johnson Space Center is heading up a robotic mission to the Moon. No big surprises there as that plan is pretty much in alignment with the “Flexible Path” for the future of space exploration for the U.S. space agency. Also, now the Constellation Program has bitten the dust, we’re not going to see man return to the Moon any time soon.

So what’s the answer? Send a robot that looks like a human to the Moon instead!

As I said, there’s little information about “Project M” apart from what’s been posted on AmericaSpace:

Project M is a JSC Engineering Directorate led mission to put a lander on the moon with a robot within a 1,000 days starting Jan 1., 2010. “M” has significance in two ways. First, it is the Roman numeral for 1,000. And “M” is the first letter for “Moon”.

How is Project M different from past NASA projects?

  • No prime contractors.
  • No roadblocks.
  • Just use the best engineers in the world to get the job done on time.

There will be full press on this… including embedded media, full multimedia and social networking. Can you say “The Apprentice goes to Space?”

When will Project M begin? Next month? Next year? No, Project M has been “go” since Monday, November 9th.

But “M” is the first letter of “Missing the Point” too, but that hasn’t been mentioned.

The enthusiasm for a robotic mission to the lunar surface sounds fine and dandy, and it’s to be expected, but if they really intend to send a bipedal robotic man to the Moon within 1000 days, then NASA hasn’t learnt anything from the Constellation debacle. This smells like a publicity stunt with little to no direction and it would be a shame if serious funding is being put into it.

Could the bipedal robot just be a metaphor for the project? Possibly, but I’d have to question the common sense in doing that too.

Also, where’s the incentive (indeed urgency) to create a Manhattan Project-style group of engineers to rush this project to completion within 3 years? If the members of Project M think they can avoid the cumbersome red tape and cost overruns that NASA and its contractors have faced in the past, then great, but I don’t think that’s a reality for such an ambitious project that lacks direction.

Sure, there’s funding being ploughed into humanoid robot technology — such as the “Robonaut” that is being developed by JSC engineers and the car maker GM — but the real-world application of androids (robots designed to look and act like a human) is that they can assist human operators. Bipedal androids such as the one depicted in this promo video would be exploring (read: “picking up stones”) space by themselves. There are no humans working along side them and therefore no real reason to create them in the inefficient form of a human.

The human body isn’t exactly an optimized one for space exploration. The next robotic missions to the Moon and Mars will be rovers, with wheels, because guess what? That makes more sense than revolutionizing android technology, sending it to the Moon within 1000 days, only for it to fall over and not be able to stand back up. (I’m sure Project M would counter this argument and say that the technology would have matured to such an extent that the android would be able to stand up again, but why let it fall over at all?) The center of gravity needs to be low for stability and no matter how big you make a robot’s feet, it’s simply not going to be able to explore as efficiently as a wheeled or multi-legged all-terrain vehicle.

So, in short, I see this video as about as valuable as the ad-drawing Moon rover video. And we all know what I thought about that nonsense.

Source: NASAWatch, Universe Today

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P/2010 A2 Was An Asteroid Collision (Says Hubble)

What you see here is something mankind has never seen before, the aftermath of an asteroid collision. This conclusion comes after the Hubble Space Telescope was commanded to take a closer look at a strange comet-like object pottering around in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

The truth is we’re still struggling to understand what this means,” said David Jewitt, a planetary physicist from UCLA. “It’s most likely the result of a recent collision between two asteroids.”

After P/2010 A2 was discovered in January, Jewitt managed to get observation time on Hubble to get a closer look of what was thought could be a rare asteroid-comet hybrid.

In the image, the object named P/2010 A2 has a very obvious “X” on its surface shaped pattern in its tale, possibly the location where a smaller body slammed into it at high speed. The result of this hyper-velocity impact produced a lot of debris and scientists think the comet-like tail being swept back by the pressure of the solar wind is dust and outgassing volatiles (like subliming water ice).

Although this kind of event has never been observed before, over the lifetime of the evolving solar system, events like this occur on a regular basis, in fact asteroid collisions have shaped the asteroid belt. Interestingly, it is thought this impact was caused by a collision of a “Flora family” asteroid, a type of object that may have wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. (Don’t worry, this collision won’t affect Earth in any way, the dinosaur thing is simply an interesting connection!)

What an incredible discovery, it’s fortunate that we have Hubble’s excellent eyesight to peer deep into the asteroid belt…

Sources: Reuters, Discovery News

Mars Rover Spirit Becomes “Mars Base Spirit”

Sorry Spirit, you're not coming home (see the full xkcd comic strip).

Sorry Spirit, you're not coming home (see the full xkcd comic strip).

As far as space missions go, you couldn’t find a better epic tale than that of Mars Expedition Rover Spirit. Designed to last 3 months, roved for six years; lost the use of a wheel, turned it into a nifty trench-digging tool; nearly died, came back to life; had memory problems, shrugged them off… the list could go on for ever. However, it’s now official, this is one challenge the little wheeled warrior couldn’t beat; she’s stuck in the sand and there’s nowhere to go.

Mars Rover Spirit is now “Mars Base Spirit.”

Naturally when NASA broke the news that Spirit was going to remain stuck in a hole in Gusev crater for the rest of her days, we weren’t surprised, but everyone was sad. That little robot has captivated the world with all her escapades, and although she’s a machine, we’ve all personified Spirit. She’s the little rover that could.

And she‘s a girl, obviously.

But wait! Spirit is not dead quite yet. Spirit will hopefully become a stationary science probe if she makes it through winter (but that’s a big “if”). Once the Sun dips closer to the horizon during the winter months, less sunlight will hit the rover’s solar panels. Depending on how much energy Spirit has in reserves and how much dust coats the panels (making them less efficient at collecting the dwindling light), we could be looking at the end of the mission all together. Assuming she makes it through till spring, it’s conceivable that Spirit can be used as a weather outpost and, intriguingly, a tracking beacon to measure Mars’ wobble. The tiny wobble could lead scientists to understand the interior of the planet.

“We think we can actually determine whether the core of Mars is liquid or molten,” said Cornell University’s Steve Squyres, the lead scientist of the Mars rover program. “There’s compelling evidence that Mars once had a pretty powerful internally generated magnetic field and that probably required a core of iron that was liquid.”

If Spirit can make it through the winter and help NASA understand the interior of Mars, that would be the icing on the cake. Although Spirit may not be dominating the surface of Mars like her sister rover Opportunity (who’s notched up over 12 km so far and still going strong), perhaps she can dominate the interior of Mars by remaining stationary in the sand.

Could P/2010 A2 be the First Ever Observation of an Asteroid Collision?

Something rather bizarre was observed in the asteroid belt on January 6. Ray Villard at Discovery News has just posted an exciting article about the discovery of a comet… but it’s not your average, run-of-the-mill kinda comet. This comet appears to orbit the Sun, embedded in the asteroid belt.

Comets don’t usually do that, they tend to have elliptical and inclined orbits, orbits that carry them close to the Sun (when they start to heat up, creating an attractive cometary tail as volatile ices sublimate into space, producing a dusty vapor). They are then flung back out into the furthest reaches of the Solar System where the heating stops and the comet tail disappears until the next solar approach.

But P/2010 A2 — discovered by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) sky survey — has a circular orbit and it still appears to be venting something into space.

P/2010 A2 (LINEAR): A comet or asteroid debris? (Spacewatch/U of Arizona)

There is the possibility that it is a member of a very exclusive bunch of objects known as main belt comets (MBCs). MBCs are confused asteroid/comet hybrids that appear to spontaneously vent vapor and dust into space and yet stay confined to the asteroid belt. But, if P/2010 A2 is confirmed to be one of these, it will only be the fifth such object to be discovered.

So what else could it be? If the potential discovery of an MBC doesn’t excite you enough, it could be something else entirely: the dust produced by a hyper-velocity impact between two asteroids. If this is the case, it would be the first ever observation of an asteroid impact in the Solar System.

The asteroid belt isn’t the same asteroid belt you might see in science fiction; although there are countless rocky bodies in our asteroid belt, it is rare that these rocky bodies encounter each other. Space is very big, and although the density of asteroids in this region might be considered to be “high”, this is space we’re talking about, you can fly a spaceship through the region without having to worry that you’ll bump into something. The average distance between asteroids is huge, making it a very rare occurrence any two should hit. But given enough asteroids, and enough time, eventually asteroid collisions do happen. And in the case of P/2010 A2, we might have been lucky.

Asteroid collisions: Rare, but possible.

Asteroid collisions: Rare, but possible.

The chatter between comet/asteroid experts is increasing, and on one message board posting, Javier Licandro (Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, Spain) reports observing a secondary asteroid traveling with the cloud-like P/2010 A2.

The asteroid moves in the same direction and at the same rate as the comet,” reports Licandro on The Minor Planet Mailing List. “In addition, the P/2010 A2 (LINEAR) image does not show any central condensation and looks like a ‘dust swarm’.”

A short lived event, such as a collision, may have produced the observed dust ejecta.”

Therefore, this ‘comet’ may actually be the debris that was ejected after a collision between two asteroids. Although these are preliminary findings and it’s going to take some serious observing time to understand the true nature of P/2010 A2, it’s exciting to think that we may just have observed an incredibly rare event, 250 million miles away.

Source: Discovery News

Tethys Plays Hide and Seek with Cassini

Which planet does Tethys orbit again?

I do admit, I’m terrible with names, but I never forget a face. In this case, the face I didn’t forget was a little moon orbiting Saturn (it’s the one that looks like the Death Star from Star Wars). However, after seeing this photo, I doubt I’ll ever forget Tethys’ name again.

In a photo snapped by the awesome Cassini Equinox mission back in November, the little moon with characteristic impact crater carved into its crust can be seen to be drifting behind Titan. Tethys only disappears for 18 minutes behind Titan’s thick atmosphere, but it was enough to ignite my interest in the icy world.

It’s strange how a simple photograph and perfect timing can ignite the imagination, as I doubt “just another moon shot” would have the same effect. No, this is a moon drifting in front of another moon as seen by a veteran spaceship orbiting the second largest planet in the solar system millions of miles away. Sometimes words are insufficient to describe the enormity of what we are doing in space.

So, sod the words and look at this, you won’t be disappointed:

And 18 minutes later:


Source and full-res images: NASA, Discovery News

How are Black Holes Used in the Movies?

Source: Graph Jam

I mean, is the spaghettification of John Cusack using awesome 2012 doomsday graphics too much to ask? Instead of an improbable alien spacecraft appearing over the White House, why not use a black hole, producing so much tidal shear that it rips the building apart brick-by brick? Oh, and then have all the matter being sucked into the black hole accelerate to relativistic velocities, creating an X-ray belching accretion disk, lighting up the solar system with our planet’s regurgitated mass-energy? Movie audiences will have a total doomgasm over that!

Or we could just use it as a nifty time travel device.

*I just saw this on Graph Jam, had a giggle. More sci-fi black holes please!

Warning, Over-Hyped Title Alert: But It’s A Frackin’ SUPERNOVA!

I’m not kidding, last week was a huge mess of a supernova doomsday circus. It was like whispering “there’s a bomb under your chair” to the person next to you in a crowded theater and then watching the resulting flood of people slam into the fire escape. It was internet chaos. And there was no stopping it.

I am of course talking about the first, great doomsday scare of 2010: T Pyxidis.

Luckily for me, the first headline I saw was in the UK’s Telegraph that read “Earth ‘to be wiped out’ by supernova explosion.” Uh oh, that title sounds rather definite. Immediately, the bullshit sensor in my brain was tripped so I stopped flicking through the embarrassing excuse for a UK newspaper and had a read.

According to the article, some star (that I can’t pronounce) was “set to self-destruct” (as a big hairy supernova), a little over 3,000 light years away. Global chaos will therefore ensue. The ozone layer will be stripped away… and the Earth will be “wiped out.” (I still can’t work out how the Earth will be “wiped out.”)

I’m only picking on the Telegraph.co.uk as my skepticism knives were already sharpened after a series of idiotic woo-fueled articles (here, here and here) the website has played host to in recent months, but they weren’t the only news outlet to go batshit crazy with the “WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE” angle.

But who was really to blame for this mess? After all, the media was just the messenger, they must have gotten their lead from somewhere. Ah yes, the scientists… what did those guys really say?

You can find out how I got to the bottom of the science behind the hype in my Discovery News article “Will Earth ‘Be Wiped Out’ by a Supernova?” but cutting to the chase, it turns out that the scientists may have been a little hasty in their attempt to make international headlines.

As my mate Phil Plait mentions in his excellent write up (about my write up) of the T Pyxidis debacle on Bad Astronomy, this isn’t just a simple case of media hype, a lot of the blame should lay with Edward Sion et al. from Villanova University in Philadelphia.

Sure, some of the numbers didn’t add up (mistakes happen), but issuing a press release with a huge wad of inaccurate doom wrapped inside is pretty irresponsible. Have a read for yourself:

An interesting, if a bit scary, speculative sidelight is that if a Type Ia supernova explosion occurs within [that distance] of Earth, then the gamma radiation emitted by the supernova would fry the Earth, dumping as much gamma radiation (~100,000 erg/square centimeter) into our planet [sic], which is equivalent to the gamma ray input of 1000 solar flares simultaneously. –Excerpt from the Villanova press release, “THE LONG OVERDUE RECURRENT NOVA T PYXIDIS: SOON TO BE A TYPE Ia SUPERNOVA?”

“…fry the Earth”? Come on, that’s not even an accurate scientific term about what would happen if we were hit by a surge of gamma-rays. What’s wrong with saying “…the Earth would be at the receiving end of a Death Ray”? If you’re going to do the job of the tabloid press, hyping up your own research before the tabloid press has even read the release, you may as well be accurate.

And speaking of accuracy, my colleague Ray Villard was at the AAS and confirmed that Sion’s numbers were out by a factor of 10. “A supernova would have to be 10 times closer [to Earth] to do the damage described,” Ray said.

Although I was tough on the Telegraph in my Discovery News article (let’s face it, with an inaccurate and inflammatory title like that, they had it coming), in this case I think the main issue lies with Sion and co.

Why over-hype your research to get attention, when the research was interesting enough without declaring doomsday? By me even writing about the subject again, I think I just answered my own question.

But on a plus point, at least everyone knows what T Pyxidis is now…