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!

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Welcome To My Lava Tube, Premium Lunar Condo Living*

This 65-metre-wide hole in the lunar surface extends at least 80 metres down and could be an opening into a larger lunar cave (Image: ISAS/JAXA/Junichi Haruyama et al.)

Let’s face it, us soft and squidgy humans don’t react particularly well to radiation, the vacuum of space or hypervelocity meteoroids. This being the case, how do we ever hope to settle on other worlds, particularly worlds with dust for a backyard and a sky flooded in radiation from the Solar System’s biggest nuclear reactor (the Sun)? To put it mildly, it’s not going to be easy. In fact, exploring and settling on other celestial bodies will the the biggest challenge us terrestrials will face in the next century.

So we start thinking locally, we start thinking “familiar”; where could we build a habitat that’s a stone’s throw from Earth, where we can do a full-scale practical test of our colonizing skills but be only a couple of days from home?

The Moon is that world and we are currently stumbling our way toward that goal. In fact, it is (currently) one of NASA’s main priorities, to get man back to the Moon by 2020 (although the Augustine Commission report was released today and presents many more options for the future of NASA). Once we do eventually get back to the Moon, our lunar explorers will use man made habitats, but what about longer, more permanent settlements?

We’re going deeper underground

In-situ mining of materials for building habitats and using the landscape to protect settlers isn’t a new idea, but we are beginning to acquire better observations of the Earth’s only natural satellite. And now, observations from the Japanese Kaguya spacecraft (that was deliberately crashed into the lunar surface in June) have been used to scout out a possible location for a future permanent habitat.

Cavemen 2.0 (NASA)

Cavemen 2.0 (NASA)

It may be hard to believe, but the Moon was once a very hot body, where molten rock began to cool shortly after formation. This molten rock eventually solidified, but in doing so, lava burrowed out long channels known as sinuous rilles. These rilles are a sure sign that lava once flowed there. However, scientists have known for some time that beneath these rilles, lava tubes may also hide. The lava tubes formed when the remaining molten rock flowed away, leaving an encrusted layer of rock surrounding a closed network of tunnels.

A lava tube with a view

However, this is the first time a hole in the roof of one of these lava tubes has been found. This hole, for obvious reasons, has been dubbed “a skylight,” and Junichi Haruyama and the SELENE/Kaguya team have been working hard to seek out such features. Their hard work has just paid off.

This is the first time that anybody’s actually identified a skylight in a possible [lunar] lava tube,” said Carolyn van der Bogert, a co-investigator on the team from University of Münster in Germany, of the discovery in a region of the Moon’s near side in Marius Hills.

The skylight measures 65 metres wide and it is thought to extend 80 metres deep. The hole is right in the middle of a rille, indicative of the presence of a lava tube 370 metres across. It is currently unknown whether the skylight allows access to the lava tube (access may be blocked by rubble or solidified magma), but there is the tantalizing possibility that this hole could be used by astronauts to access an underground cave.

Anti-radiation living

Basalt is an extremely good material for radiation protection. It’s free real estate ready to be exploited and modified for human use,” said Penny Boston of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro. It’s not exactly a leap of the imagination that locations like the Marius Hills skylight could become very valuable regions when space agencies and potential lunar companies need a permanent foothold on the Moon.

A scene from the movie "Moon" with Sam Rockwell

Until we are able to set foot back on the Moon’s surface, we must rely on robotic explorers to do the reconnaissance work (indeed, that is the main priority for NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, a satellite capable of snapping images 10× sharper than this Kaguya picture), but the fact remains, features like this are very appealing to help protect us humans from the ravages of space.

Bored of the Moon? Set up home in a Martian divot!

Speaking of extraterrestrial housing options, Mars has some trendy sinkholes that might be a little more spacious than your average lunar lava tube

*Technically, it would be a “condo“; anyone living in the lava tube would own the space inside, they wouldn’t own the lava tube itself. We all know that no one can “own” the Moon don’t we? You can throw away that “Congratulations! You’re Now The Proud Owner Of One Acre Of Lunar Real Estate!” certificate, it’s about as valid as those “I Need Your Bank Account Details To Deposit $1 Million” Nigerian royalty emails.

Source: New Scientist. With a special thanks to @foundonmars for the tip!

Prof. Brian Cox Accidentally REVEALS the TRUTH About the LHC!!!!

(Note the clever use of CAPS and excessive exclamation marks in the title. It speaks volumes.)

I guess this confirms I was wrong. Consider this an apology to all the crackpots, doomsayers, cranks and Walter Wagner. I’m sorry I got it all… so… wrong.

While out on the town in London, Bad Astronomer Phil Plait pulled Prof. Brian Cox out of a pub and subjected him to some intense interrogation. Obviously caught with his guard down, Cox folded under the pressure and briefly told the world what we can expect when the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) recommences experiments in November. Wow, just… wow.

This made me giggle. Looks like TAM London was a tonne of fun, hopefully next time I can go.

But for now, sorry Walter, you’re still wrong.

The Ares I-X Rollout

The Ares I-X rollout from the Kennedy Space Center's Vehicle Assembly Building (from NASA TV)

The Ares I-X rollout from the Kennedy Space Center's Vehicle Assembly Building (from NASA TV)

The Ares I-X rollout began a little after 1:30 am EDT on Tuesday morning at Kennedy Space Center as planned. NASA TV was running the event live, and it was great to see the long, slender test rocket slowly edge along the crawlerway to begin its overnight journey to launchpad 39B.

Despite the pessimism surrounding the Constellation Program, I for one am very excited to see the Ares I-X blast off. It will be a sight to remember.

Ares I-X: The Beginning And The End For Constellation?

ares-1-x

The 327 ft tall Ares I-X is currently waiting inside Kennedy Space Center’s Vehicle Assembly Building for its delayed 4.2 mile rollout to the launchpad. Originally scheduled for Monday, the rollout was postponed by 24 hours when engineers spotted a nitrogen gas leak on Oct. 14th. It would appear the problem has been rectified and we can look forward to seeing the tallest rocket on the planet roll out to Pad 39B by Tuesday morning.

Unfortunately, the Ares I-X test flight is generating little excitement, even though NASA is heralding the scheduled Oct. 27th launch as “the First Flight of a New Era.” When there’s talk that the Constellation Program might be scrapped all together to allow for a cheaper alternative, there’s little wonder that even the most excited space flight enthusiasts are looking at the slender white frame of the Ares I-X thinking, will this be the only launch of the Constellation Program?

This negativity isn’t unfounded either. As we await the final report from the Augustine Commission (to be delivered to the White House later this week), one of the conclusions could be that Constellation is more hassle for NASA to complete rather than to scrap.

In this case Ares I-X will have become a very expensive firework.

Although it is unlikely the White House will decide on a course of action before Oct. 27th, I can’t help but think the outcome of Constellation would have been decided before the Ares I-X has even blasted off. No matter how well the four-stage test rocket performs during its 28 mile-high suborbital flight, the project could still be shelved.

But what if there are several options for NASA as the Commission Report summary suggests? Could the Ares I-X launch be the decision maker?

The Oct. 27th launch will be an amazing event in itself (and I’m dead excited to see that monster thunder into the skies), and unless an overlooked technical problem rears its ugly head, we’ll see the test launch of a brand new rocket system. What’s not awesome about that? If the Ares I-X blasts off perfectly, and the Ares design is proven to be free from vibrations and other design flaws, could a proof of concept sway the decision in favour of keeping Constellation in development? Possibly.

Regardless of the conclusions to come out of the Augustine Commission, the launch of Ares I-X will mark a crossroads for manned spaceflight. History will be written, but will history favour the Constellation Program? I don’t think I could place a bet either way.

Source: Orlando Sentinel

First Images of LCROSS Centaur Impact Plume Released

The lunar dust plume as seen 15 seconds after Centaur impact. The size of the plume was approximately 6-8 km wide at this time (NASA)

The lunar dust plume as seen 15 seconds after Centaur impact. The size of the plume was approximately 6-8 km wide at this time (NASA)

Rising a mile high and up to 5 miles wide, the impact plume of the spent Centaur rocket was observed by the NASA LCROSS shepherding probe before it travelled through the cloud of dust and crashed 4 minutes later.

The lack of an observed dust plume has been the cause of much confusion to people who watched the events unfold in the early hours of October 9th. NASA publicised the impact event as if it was going to be an explosion of dust (and possibly ice), observable from telescopes on Earth. To say the mission finale was a disappointment is an understatement.

Following the impact, NASA responded by saying that although infrared images proved the Centaur crashed on target (and a 20 meter-wide crater was created), the lack of an accompanying plume could mean that the mass hit the side of a crater (therefore blasting debris at an angle), or it hit a region devoid of dust and water ice, or the plume was simply less obvious than expected. Now that NASA has released new images of the impact, it would appear the latter may be the case; the plume was just less spectacular than the promo videos depicted.

Nine instruments on board LCROSS captured impact sequence, but until now it was unknown whether an impact plume occurred. Now NASA has confirmed that an impact flash, plume and crater were all generated.

There is a clear indication of a plume of vapor and fine debris,” said Anthony Colaprete, LCROSS principal investigator. “Within the range of model predictions we made, the ejecta brightness appears to be at the low end of our predictions and this may be a clue to the properties of the material the Centaur impacted.”

So the number-crunching continues as we wait to find out whether water was contained within that plume. However, judging by the faint cloud of ejecta, I’m thinking dreams of a H2O reservoir in Cabeus crater might be short lived.

Source: NASA, LA Times. A special thanks to @jamerz3294 for the tip!

Rolling (Mars) Stone

The 6 meter-wide boulder as imaged by HiRISE (to supersize the pic, click on it - 9MB)

The 6 meter-wide boulder as imaged by HiRISE (to supersize the pic, click on it - 9MB)

It may only be a large rock, but images like this drive home the significance of the HiRISE instrument on board NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter; it enables us to see recent geological activity on a planet we often view as being “dead.”

This boulder (approximately 6 meters-wide) had come to a stop at the bottom of the sloping wall of an impact crater. The path the boulder took is obvious as it left a series of prints in the Martian regolith as it bounced and rolled. The darker material that appears to have flowed around the rock is relatively fresh dry dust and sand that has also been dislodged from the top of the slope, falling as an avalanche, settling as a dark streak. As time goes on, the streak will age and blend in with the surrounding regolith.

It is suspected that seismic activity or a weather event (such as a dust devil) may have triggered the avalanche. As for the boulder, it looks like it rolled down the slope before the sand/dust avalanche, so it may have originated from the same destabilization event, or it happened earlier. As the source of the streak and boulder appear to originate from the same location, I suspect the former might be the case.

Regardless, it goes to show Mars is still active, and the MRO is in the perfect location to capture the Red Planet proving that fact.

Source: HiRISE

Late to the Doomsday Party: NASA Denounces 2012

nemesis

As we have probably all guessed by now, the Institute for Human Continuity is a viral campaign designed to generate a huge buzz around the upcoming November 13th movie called 2012.

Ever since I started writing about 2012 (way back in May 2008 with “No Doomsday in 2012“), I’ve been inundated with emails, tweets, comments, even phone calls about the 2012 doomsday phenomena. These messages have ranged from mild curiosity to outright panic. I’ve also had many crackpots trying to convince me that my scientific reasoning is not valid (which it is).

There’s also been a few bonuses, including guest appearances on the outstanding “Apocalypse” episode of Penn & Teller: Bullshit! and most recently, the upcoming Discovery Channel documentary on the same subject.

However, in the run-up to a perfectly timed movie about the “Mayan prophesy,” Sony Pictures kick-started the mother of all viral campaigns in January. The movie 2012 will be a huge event, but basing an entire marketing ploy on fear and disinformation left a lot to be desired. So for the last 10 months, I’ve been busy writing not so much about the bad science being used in these wacky 2012 theories (check out my 2008 “No Doomsday in 2012” series for the science), but about the various advertising campaigns for the movie.

However, up until this point, there’s been little official comment from NASA about all the nonsense that has been stirred up. This seems surprising as most doomsday theories involve butchered astronomical objects, surely the US space agency should take a stance on the whole matter?

Now, NASA astrobiologist Dr David Morrison has gone on the record to say the 2012 doomsday theories are bunk. It turns out that Dr Morrison has also been flooded with messages from people worried that all the hype might be real.

Interestingly, in response to accusations that Sony Pictures’ viral campaign was irresponsible, Sony’s publicity director said, “It is very clear that this site is connected to a fictional movie. This can readily be seen in the logos on the site.”

However, in January when the Institute for Human Continuity went live, indications that the site had anything to do with a fictional movie could only be found if you dug very deep into the well-polished Flash website depicting Planet X causing death and destruction on Earth. I don’t recall any logos.

In an attempt to allay any doomsday phobia in the run-up to November (and for the next 3 years), Dr Morrison has issued a nice guide about every reason why you shouldn’t be concerned about 2012 (and that it’s just a movie).

Source: Telegraph. Special thanks to Fraser Cain at the Universe Today for pointing me to David Morrison’s publication.

“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!

Did NASA “Bomb” the Moon? Kinda

NASA possesses Weapons of Moon Destruction, obviously.

There’s been a lot of criticism concerning the media’s ability to report science recently. After all, what is “good” science reporting? The tabloid press is well known for hyping up scientific endeavour, and although some news outlets deliberately fill their columns with hyperbole, it doesn’t necessarily mean the science is being misrepresented, it just means the column in question is making a mountain out of a molehill.

Take Friday morning’s NASA LCROSS impact with the Moon. Those of us that were following the action on the various news outlets and online feeds were astonished by the sheer amount of fear, misinformation, disinformation and general weirdness that was being banded about. To be honest, I was shocked.

[I actually have a theory about one of the reasons why LCROSS was a particular target for many conspiracy wingnuts and doomsday woo, but I'll save that for another article I'll be writing shortly.]

Although a lot of the stuff was total silliness (i.e. the Moon feels pain, LCROSS might knock the Moon off it’s axis, many moonpeople might die etc. etc.), many worried individuals were concerned by the reports from the mainstream press. Let’s have a look at one of the claims being disseminated by a wide variety of news outlets in the run-up to, and the days following, LCROSS: The Moon was being “bombed” by NASA.

Did NASA “bomb” the Moon or not?

A huge number of people have a problem with the word “bomb” when connected with the LCROSS mission (I’m not fond of the description either). Could this one word be indicative of bad journalism? For the scientifically-minded, “bomb” doesn’t sound very scientific and would rather use “impactor.” For the non-specialist, “bomb” conjures thoughts of war, violence and Al Qaeda.

Is it just creative writing? Is it an inaccurate term? Is it wrong? First off, let’s look at the definition of “a bomb.”

bomb. n. An explosive weapon detonated by impact, proximity to an object, a timing mechanism, or other means.

The LCROSS Centaur was certainly not manufactured as a conventional weapon (as in, it didn’t carry explosives and couldn’t “detonate”), but just by its mass, could it cause an explosion like a bomb? In the case of the above definition, I’m referring to the “or other means” part.

Energy is energy

The Centaur was empty of propellent when it was sent careening toward the lunar south pole, but it still had a mass of 2366 kg (the size of an SUV). At the time of impact, it was travelling at a velocity of 2.5 km/s (2500 m/s). From this information alone, we can calculate the kinetic energy of Centaur at the moment it slammed into the lunar surface.

Ekinetic = 1/2 mv2 = 1/2 × 2366 (kg) × 25002 (m/s) = 7.4×109 Joules

This is the total energy the Centaur had when it was speeding toward the Moon, and according to basic physics energy is always conserved. So, when the Centaur ate Moon dust, where did this energy go?

We know energy wasn’t lost through the production of sound waves, as there’s no atmosphere on the Moon — In space, no one can hear your rocket go *bang* (although seismic waves would have been generated, propagating through the Moon’s surface). Also, lots of chunks of rock (from the surface) and shards of metal (from the Centaur) would have been ejected from the crater, each piece carrying a little piece of that kinetic energy away from the impact (much like very high-energy shrapnel). A lot of rock was displaced too, creating a crater 20 meters in diameter and 3 meters deep. Much of the kinetic energy will have also been converted to heat and light (the “flash” of the impact was captured by the LCROSS infrared camera).

What with all this heat, light and shrapnel, the Centaur impact sure is sounding like an exploding bomb. If you convert the 7.4×109 Joules into units more synonymous with weaponry, we find that the energy released during the Centaur impact was the equivalent of 1.8 tonnes of TNT exploding. That’s the size of a small bunker-busting bomb.

What’s more, kinetic weapons are a well-known method to take out orbiting satellites, so this concept isn’t a new one.

As much as it pains me, using an inflammatory statement like “NASA Bombed The Moon” is a correct analysis of the effects of the Centaur dead-weight hitting the Moon. However, the press milked “the Moon bombing” way beyond what I’d consider to be reasonable, taking full advantage of the violent connotations associated with this incredible NASA mission to probe for water on the Moon.

I think that people are apprehensive about it because it seems violent or crude, but it’s very economical.” –Tony Colaprete, principal investigator for LCROSS (Feb. 2008)