“Under My Watch, NASA Will Inspire the World Again” – Barack Obama

And you know what? I believe him.

Obama vows to make NASA a priority (NASA/AP)

Obama vows to make NASA a priority (NASA/AP)

In only three days, the USA will take to the polls and vote in their next president. Presently, Sen. Barack Obama (Democrat) is holding the lead in the opinion polls, in front of Sen. John McCain (Republican). Opinion polls, although indicative of the current mood of voters, are by no means fool-proof, this election could go either way.

This is the first US election I have been in the country for, and from what I’ve seen and heard from both leading candidates have been worrying yet significant. It is no secret that the US is suffering every “crisis” in the book (housing crisis, credit crisis, economic crisis, health care crisis…), but the one election issue that is key in my mind is the growing space exploration crisis. Whilst this may be low on the list of national priorities at the moment, the next few years will be critical to the international balance of space exploration dominance for decades to come. The next few years, if unchecked, could be the most challenging period NASA has ever faced.

The US space agency needs to be nurtured and led by a strong president and vice-president who understands the position of building a powerful position in space exploration. In my view, there’s only two men up to the task
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The Pessimism About Modern Space Flight

Epic fail? I think not (<a href='http://current.com/items/89164753_epic_fail_rocket_carrying_three_satellites_crashes_into_pacific_ocean'>current.com</a>)

Epic fail? I think not (credit: current.com, edit: Ian O'Neill)

On September 28th, Elon Musk proved he wasn’t a dreamer and blasted the world’s first commercial rocket — Falcon 1 — into Earth orbit. SpaceX have put their previous launch failures behind them, rightfully filing them under “learning curve.”

The team at NASA’s Phoenix Mars mission control have started to switch off instrumentation on the robotic lander after five months of astounding science (even after surviving the “7-minutes of terror” on May 25th, finding proof of water, overcoming technical issues and multiplying our understanding of the chemistry on an alien planet). Plus the armada of satellites orbiting the Red Planet. Oh yes, and those crazy rovers that just keep on rollin’.

The New Horizons Pluto mission has just passed its 1000th day on the epic journey to Pluto, Charon and the Kuiper Belt. The Cassini probe is still doing its mission orbiting Saturn (since 1997). Oh, and the European Venus Express doing its quiet cruise around Earth’s evil twin planet.

The International Space Station is still going strong, proving on every day that passes that humans can live in space (no matter how difficult it is, we can do it, months at a time — but we need to work harder at zero-G plumbing!). Other nations are pushing into space too; China carried out its first spacewalk in September, India blasted its first lunar mission into space last week and the Japanese lunar orbiter just broke the bad news that there ain’t no ice in them thar craters

…lest not forget the robust Russian Soyuz space vehicle, having just reached its 100th flight!
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Universe Today Banned from Digg.com

Universe Today has been banned from Digg

Universe Today? Banned??

The Universe Today website has been banned from the social bookmarking site Digg.com. This might come as a surprise to many as the Universe Today is a great source of space, astronomy, science and educational news. Why would such a great resource be banned from a site that is based on community participation?

UT has been captained for many years by its founder and publisher Fraser Cain – I remember first signing up to the UT newsletter in 2001 – and the whole aim of the site is to reach out to Internet users, distributing the best space-based news a website can bring. Surely this is the type of site Digg would want to be promoting? Apparently not.
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One-Way Mission to Mars: Top 5 Items to Pack

No return trip for Mars colonists. Image credit: NASA, Design: Ian O'Neill

No return trip for Mars colonists. Image credit: NASA, Design: Ian O'Neill

Imagine: You have been selected as one of the first six people to go to Mars and your sole mission is to set up a manned outpost on the Red Planet. Forget the science, forget the long-term goal to spread humanity amongst the planets, your one and only task is to survive. If you live long enough to put your boot print in the Martian regolith, or long enough to eat your first meal, sleep to see your second sol or celebrate your proto-colony’s first home cooked meal, it’s a bonus. You have to survive long enough to give mankind a foothold to begin living on Mars.

A long trek on Mars deserves some refreshments... (NASA)

A long trek on Mars deserves some refreshments... (NASA)

Assuming you and your five crew have set up camp. You’ve landed next to all the basic supplies you’ll need for the next few years, plus the equipment to build a sustainable settlement. The pressure of making it through the first day is off. You have a routine, and everyone appears to be doing well. How will you fill your time? No doubt simply living will fill all your waking hours, but humans being humans, you’ll want to make your experience unique, you’ll want to have some fun. Whether it’s taking some time to think about Earth and your family, or it’s taking a hike up the nearest mesa to claim the early Mars World Record of “climbing the highest, ever.”

If you could take 5 things to Mars with you (ignoring the essentials like water, food, toothbrush, socks, iPod), what would they be? Assuming cost and weight isn’t an obstacle (I’ll be a billionaire and I’ve chartered a SpaceX Falcon 9 Heavy just to transport “personal items”) here’s my top five luxury items I’d take to Mars with me…
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Is the Armadillo Vertical-Lift Spaceship a Viable Tourist Route?

The Armadillo Aerospace Spacebubble concept... mmm, no wings then? (Armadillo Aerospace)

The Armadillo Aerospace Spacebubble concept... mmm, no wings then? (Armadillo Aerospace)

This reminds me of a hilarious Billy Connolly stand-up routine commenting on the perceived safety of passenger aircraft:

Connolly imitates the safety presentation before take-off:
In the highly unlikely event of loss of power in all four engines, then in all probability, we’ll go into the ground like a f***ing dart.

We’d be obliged if you’d wear your life jacket on the way down, this will do you no good at all, but when archiologists find you in 200 years, they’ll think there was a river here!

- Billy Connolly on flying (1990) – video not for minors, Billy is known for his “colourful” language!

So with that in mind, let’s consider the Armadillo Aerospace space tourism concept (pictured above). Call me old fashioned, but I’m a little worried about spaceships without wings. Yes, I know we are always sending rockets into space, delivering crew and cargo to the space station. The Soyuz vehicle doesn’t have wings and the cone-like re-entry capsule so many other space vehicles are based on are reliable modes of transport. But there’s something about the “controlled ascent” Armadillo design that makes me a little uneasy (give me a “ballistic ascent” any day!).
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Will the Real Walter Wagner Please Stand Up (and Put the Geiger Counter Down)

Wagner discovers tiles of uranium-filled death (MSNBC)

Wagner discovers tiles of uranium-filled death (MSNBC)

After chatting with Walter Wagner (the guy who filed the LHC “Doomsday Suit” in an Hawaiian court… only for it to be thrown out last month) on Paranormal Radio in July, I was left a little unsatisfied.

By the July 28th radio show, I’d only written about the LHC lawsuit a couple of times and had little time to prepare for the discussion. However, after only a few minutes of digging for some background information Wagner I’d unearthed a couple of things. For one he had previously attempted to sue the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at Brookhaven National Laboratory in 2000. This attempt had failed on the basis that Wagner’s “evidence” that the RHIC could create strangelets (that will spawn the end of the world) and black holes (spawning… well… the end of the world) was too flimsy to warrant any serious investigation. Then I uncovered something a little unsettling: Wagner had a rather unhealthy scrape with the law. At the time I didn’t want to follow this up, as I was going on air in 30 minutes, the RHIC lawsuit was enough for the time being.

Today, another piece has been added to the puzzle of what drives Walter Wagner. Over at the hilariously named “The Physics Anti-Crackpot Blog” there’s a link to an article chronicling Wagner’s Geiger counter crusade against radioactive tiles (oh yes!). I’ll leave it for you to read, it is both entertaining and unsettling.

Wagner believes he is a public safety crusader, and I doubt we’ll hear the last of him (besides superheroes love the attention, whether it is good or bad).

Why does Mr. Wagner hate the LHC? Well, the short and simple answer — ironically, this is the short and simple answer — is that Mr. Wagner and a lot of other people who like physics but don’t really understand it as well as they think they do have latched onto the notion that the LHC will spontaneously generate black holes, which will destroy the Earth. – Excerpt from Return of the Radiation Man (Standing on the Shoulders of Giant Midgets)

Source: The Physics Anti-Crackpot Blog

Mars Science Laboratory Sky Crane: Cool or Crazy?

The Mars Science Laboratory rover is gently lowered to the Martian surface... we hope (NASA)

The Mars Science Laboratory rover is gently lowered to the Martian surface... we hope (NASA)

The next NASA rover mission to the Red Planet will be the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) set for a 2009 launch. This mission will incorporate the biggest rover ever to be sent to the Martian surface, the MSL is the size of a small car and it will carry out a vast number of experiments in the hope of finding evidence for life (again).* This ambitious mission has a big price tag of $1.9 billion, so NASA will want to avoid any chance of “doing a Beagle” and ripping Mars a new impact crater.**

So, with this unprecedented mission comes an unprecedented way of lowering it to the Martian surface. Sure, you have your obligatory drogue parachute, you even have a few rocket bursts to soften the touch-down (along the lines of this year’s Phoenix powered landing), but the MSL will also have a “sky crane” to help it out (in a not-so-dissimilar way to the lowering of the descending Mars Exploration Rovers in 2004, only more awesome).

To be honest, I’m as enthusiastic about this plan as I was when I found out that Phoenix would use a jetpack after freefalling the height of two Empire State Buildings (i.e. “are you mad??“)… but then again, what would I know? It looks like the powered landing worked out pretty well for Phoenix…
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Universal Death and Impossible Physics… In the Same Box!

The box from Amazon.com cannot contain the awesomeness inside...

The box from Amazon.com cannot contain the awesomeness inside...

Today marks a significant day in the history of my bookshelf.

Having moved to the US from the UK, leaving the bulk of my proto-library collection back in my Bristol hometown, I only transported my most prized science and university textbooks. Alas, I had to leave my treasured collection of Patrick Moore books, my guide to the Universe and several hefty quantum physics texts in storage, bringing the bare minimum across the pond.

Books are important to me, and I have big dreams about having a room filled with them; one of those in-house libraries filled with knowledge and history. But five books hardly constitute a library… heck, they barely fill a rucksack. So action needed to be taken… I needed to turn this proto-bookshelf into a source of reference!

I have a bookshelf. Check.
I have an office. Check.
I have an Amazon.com account. Check.
I have a credit card (it’s strained, but you can’t put a price on knowledge, right?). Check!

So I went shopping and brought Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Impossible (of which I have been promising myself most of the year) and succumbed to Phil Plait’s Death from the Skies! (with a book title like that, you have to obey the calling). Can’t wait to put a crease down the spines of both books, but I am keen to read Dr Plait’s account of how dangerous the Universe can be. Having done battle with the 2012 doomsayers, I need to read a book with a good, scientific rundown of how the world might end – and not fighting against the pseudo-scientific claims about Planet X and those pesky Anunnaki. The world is going to end some time, so look at the facts behind the claims and find out yourself.

The praise from Mythbuster Adam Savage for Death from the Skies pretty much sums it all up, I can’t wait to review the book myself:

Phil Plait has done it again. He brings his unique and funny voice of reason and sanity to bear on making sense of a deadly universe. If things worked the way I wanted them to, any reporter about to do another “sensational” story on deadly meteors would consult this volume and BANG! Common sense would find it’s way into the news. How strange would THAT world be? On his blog and in his books, Plait is an important source of sanity and critical thinking, with just the right sense of wonder, reminding us that the universe is an amazing enough place without having to make crap up about it.” – Adam Savage, from Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters.

For more on his big box of death, check out Phil’s Bad Astronomy blog

Saturn’s Hexagonal North Pole: What is Causing It?

Infrared observations of the south pole of Saturn as taken by the Cassini mission in 2007 and 2008 (NASA)

Infrared observations of the south pole of Saturn as taken by the Cassini mission in 2007 and 2008 (NASA)

The mystery of Saturn’s hexagonal shape embedded in its violent north polar cyclone just became more intriguing.

NASA’s Cassini probe has been orbiting the ringed gas giant for four years and has just returned some of the most detailed images of the planet’s stormy atmosphere to date. The south pole has been mapped and the north polar region has been imaged in near-infrared wavelengths. The north pole is currently facing away from the Sun, so by observing the atmosphere in these wavelengths, Cassini scientists can see Saturn’s cloud formations silhouette against the background glow of the gas giant’s internal heat. This provides the perfect opportunity to see the hexagon in unprecedented detail.

So what is generating this mysterious six-sided shape?
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Bubbles, Reflections and Space Walks… Did China Really Fake It?

Tracks of seven objects during Chinese space walk. Red tracks are the visual 'start' and 'finish' of the objects, blue tracks are lines drawn back to possible origin. Object number and time in video included. Scene frozen at 26 seconds into video when object 1 is seen (CCTV)

Tracks of seven objects during Chinese space walk. Red tracks are the visual 'start' and 'finish' of the objects, blue tracks are lines drawn back to possible origin. Object number and time in video included. Scene frozen at 26 seconds into video when object 1 is seen (CCTV)

China successfully launched three taikonauts into Earth orbit and, on September 27th, the first Chinese national (41 year old fighter pilot Zhai Zhigang) walked in space. The space walk lasted a total of 15 minutes, enough time to retrieve some solid lubricant from the outer hull of the Shenzhou-7 module and to give the brand new “Feitian” space suit a trial run. The launch, orbital insertion, space walk, re-entry and landing were all executed perfectly, securing China as only the third nation to successfully carry out an extra-vehicular activity (EVA).

It can therefore be expected, as with space flight achievements by the US and Russia before, there will be some conspiracy theories out there…
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