SpaceX’s Dragon: The Dawn of a New Age for Space Exploration?

SpaceX's Falcon 9 carries the Dragon capsule to orbit (NASA TV)

SpaceX's Falcon 9 carries the Dragon capsule to orbit (NASA TV)

This morning, at 12:44 a.m. PDT, a rocket was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 40. It wasn’t the biggest of rockets; it wasn’t carrying a particularly exciting payload, either. But it may well represent a crossroads in spaceflight history.

Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, saw a perfect launch of its Falcon 9 rocket. Sporting nine Merlin engines — engines designed and built in-house — the rocket blasted off exactly as planned even though the first launch attempt on Saturday was scrubbed. The “failed” attempt — that was aborted automatically in the last second due to a faulty valve in number 5 engine — was actually a success unto itself; a means of ensuring the launch abort systems were working as they should.

But Saturday is a distant memory as, at right at this moment, there’s an unmanned spacecraft chasing after the International Space Station set for a historic orbital rendezvous in three days time. The Falcon 9 operated as it should and so has the Dragon capsule. So far.

Assuming everything else goes to plan, what does this mission mean for the future of spaceflight?

This is no silver bullet to solve all our spaceflight woes, but it could be the start of something a little bit special. Elon Musk, Internet entrepraneur and SpaceX CEO, has no qualms about thinking big. His enthusiasm for space exploration is infectious and his eye for applying a business model to rocket science is, so far, genius. In a world driven by politics and money, he’s found a way of tying the two together to give the noble effort of pushing mankind’s frontiers an accelerated start. He’s eying Mars. If SpaceX can build rockets and spaceships, perhaps companies, governments and institutions will buy his company’s services to travel through interplanetary space.

Does this mean Mars “taxi rides” are in our future? Perhaps.

But spaceflight history is littered with failed start-ups, accidents and expense, so time will only tell how far SpaceX and other private spaceflight companies can push mankind’s exploration envelope.

I can’t help but be enthusiastic for Musk’s endeavour, however. Remember Sept. 28, 2008, when SpaceX became the first company to launch its own rocket into orbit? That was only four short years ago.

It may be too early to get excited over seeing the Dragon docked to the ISS, but the importance of such an event shouldn’t be ignored. Once SpaceX proves it can be done, this could be a paradigm shift. Space exploration could be driven by enterprise and exploration, potentially transforming us into a multi-planetary species.

Listen to the “Which Way, LA” show hosted by Warren Olney where we discuss SpaceX and commercial space.

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Could Kepler Detect Borg Cubes? Why Not.

That's no sunspot.

"That's no sunspot."

Assuming Star Trek‘s Borg Collective went into overdrive and decided to build a huge cube a few thousand miles wide, then yes, the exoplanet-hunting Kepler space telescope should be able to spot it. But how could Kepler distinguish a cube from a nice spherical exoplanet?

With the help of Ray Villard over at Discovery News, he did some digging and found a paper dating back to 2005 — long before Kepler was launched. However, researcher Luc Arnold, of the Observatoire de Haute-Provence in Paris, did have the space telescope in mind when he studied what it would take to distinguish different hypothetical shapes as they passed in front of his theoretical stars.

The big assumption when looking for exoplanets that drift between distant stars and the Earth — events known as “transits” — is that the only shape these detectable exoplanets come in are spheres. Obvious really.

As a world passes in front of its parent star, a circular shadow will form. However, from Earth, we’d detect a slight dimming of the star’s “light curve” during the transit, allowing astronomers to deduce the exoplanet’s orbital period and size.

The transit method has been used to confirm the presence of hundreds of exoplanets so far, and Kepler has found over 1,200 additional exoplanet candidates. But say if astronomers paid closer attention to the shape of the received light curve; spherical objects have a distinct signature, but say if something looked different in the transiting “planet’s” light curve? Well, it could mean that something non-spherical has passed in front of a star. And what does that mean? Well, that would be a pretty convincing argument for the presence of a huge planet-sized artificial structure orbiting another star. Artifical structure = super-advanced alien civilization.

Arnold tested his theory that all manner of shapes could be detected by Kepler, assuming the transiting structure was on the scale of a few thousand miles wide. In this case, Arnold was testing his hypothesis to see whether we could detect an advanced civilization’s “shadow play.” Perhaps, rather than beaming messages by radio waves, an advanced civilization might want to signal their presence — SETI style — by blocking their sun’s light with vast sheets of lightweight material. As the shape passes in front of the star, the slight dimming of starlight would reveal an artificial presence in orbit.

By putting a series of these shapes into orbit, the aliens could create a kind of interstellar Morse code.

Of course, this is a rather “out there” idea, but I find it fascinating that Kepler could detect an alien artifact orbiting a star tens or hundreds of light-years away. Although this research is only considering orbital “billboards,” I quite like the idea that Kepler might also be able to detect a large structure like… I don’t know… a big Borg mothership. Having advanced warning of the presence of an aggressive alien race sitting on our cosmic doorstep — especially ones of the variety that like to assimilate — would be pretty handy.

Publication: Transit Lightcurve Signatures of Artificial Objects, L. Arnold, 2005. arXiv:astro-ph/0503580v1

The Ultimate Paternity Test: Are We Martian?

"Dad?" A scene from War of the Worlds.

This rather outlandish, sci-fi notion comes straight from the fertile minds of researchers from MIT, the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University who are proposing a biology experiment that could be sent on a future Mars surface mission. If their hypothesis is proven, we wouldn’t only have an answer for the age old question: Are we alone? but we’d also have an answer for the not-so-age-old question: Did life from Mars spawn life on Earth?

The idea goes like this: countless tons of material from Mars has landed on Earth. We know this to be true; meteorites have been discovered on Earth that originate from the Red Planet. These rocks were blasted from the Martian surface after eons of asteroid impacts, and the rocks then drifted to Earth.

If there was once life on Mars — a concept that isn’t that far-fetched, considering Mars used to boast liquid water in abundance on its surface — then perhaps some tiny organisms (not dislike the hardy cyanobacteria that is thought to have been one of the earliest forms of life to evolve on our planet) hitched a ride on these rocks. If some of these organisms survived the harsh conditions during transit from Mars to Earth and made it though the searing heat as the meteorite fell through our atmosphere, then perhaps (perhaps!) that is what sparked life on Earth.

You may have heard a few variations of this mechanism, it is of course the “panspermia” hypothesis. Panspermia assumes that life isn’t exclusive to just one rocky body like Earth, perhaps life has the ability to hop from one planet to the next, helped on its way by asteroid impacts. Not only that, but perhaps (perhaps!) tiny microorganisms could drift, encased in interstellar dust, akin to pollen drifting in the wind, seeding distant star systems.

Naturally, when considering the distance between the planets (let alone the light-years between the stars!), one might be a little skeptical of panspermia. But it certainly would help us understand how life first appeared on Earth. After all, it’s not as if the solar system has a natural quarantine system in place — if Mars had (or has) bacteria on its surface, perhaps they have been spread to Earth, like an interplanetary flu bug. Also, as experiments are showing us, microorganisms have an uncanny ability to survive in space for extended periods of time.

So, according to my esteemed Discovery News colleague Ray Villard, the MIT team led by Christopher Carr and Maria Zuber and Gary Ruvkun, a molecular biologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University, are proposing to build an instrument to send to Mars. But this instrument won’t be looking for signs of life, it will be testing the hypothetical Martian DNA and RNA. Should this interplanetary paternity test prove positive, proving a relationship between Earth Brand™ Life and Mars Brand™ Life, then this could be proof of some extraterrestrial cross-pollination.

Although this is complete conjecture at this time, as there is no proof that life has ever existed on Mars (despite what research in dodgy research journals tell us), it is certainly an interesting idea that would not only test the hypothesis of panspermia, but also give us a clue about the potential human colonization of Mars.

To quote Ray:

This could give us pause about sending humans to a germ-laden alien world. It would be an ironic twist on the H.G. Wells classic 1898 novel “The War of the Worlds,” where invading Martians succumb to the common cold from Earth microbes.

See, Wells’ Martian warriors should have done genome testing first.

Astroengine Gets Quoted in National Geographic

The December 2010 edition of National Geographic

The December 2010 edition of National Geographic

A couple of months ago I was contacted by National Geographic magazine notifying me that one of their writers had quoted me in an article for their December issue. Pretty cool, I thought. But then I forgot all about it.

Then, I received a note from the ever watchful Bill Hudson (@2012hoax) telling me Astroengine had been printed on page 99. I quickly scurried over to the National Geographic website to find, sure enough, I was there too: on page 3 of the online article “Star Struck.”

The following morning, I received a complementary copy of the December edition so I could see Astroengine in print for the first time.

National Geographic’s special feature takes a fascinating tour of the Milky Way and when discussing metal-poor stars in the outermost reaches of our galaxy, the article quotes the title of the Astroengine post “Life is Grim on the Galactic Rim.” Obviously they like my rhyming skills.

Thank you National Geographic!

I’ve been told I can write a blog with an excerpt from the superb article written by Ken Croswell, so that’ll be coming right up!

I think I need to blog more…

Dead On Arrival: Necropanspermia Spawned Life on Earth?

Are those Martian fossils in meteorite ALH84001? (NASA)

Are those Martian fossils in meteorite ALH84001? (NASA)

Panspermia” is a hypothesis that life is transferred from planet-to-planet and star system-to-star system through some interplanetary or interstellar means.

But for panspermia to work, this life needs to be sufficiently protected — and, um, kept alive — from the worst the universe can throw at it (such as radiation, cold and vacuum). Alas, when considering interstellar hops, the timescales are likely too long (i.e. millions of years) and said life will be dead on arrival.

We know that Earth Brand™ life is a pretty hardy thing. After all, we’ve tortured terrestrial microbes and mosquito larvae in the vacuum of space to see if they’d pop. Sure enough, when brought back to terra firma the various creatures wriggled and squirmed as if nothing had happened. But these experiments in orbit were carried out over the course of months or years. While this might be suitable for interplanetary transfers, it would take millions of years for an extraterrestrial interloper to traverse even a modest interstellar gap.

Any hitchhikers that were alive on a stellar wind-blown particle will be toast (or, more accurately: freeze-dried, pulverized, mashed-up, DNA-shredded mess) on reaching their exotic destination eons later.

What good are tiny alien fossils when the panspermia model is supposed to seed other worlds with life… that’s actually alive?

Enter a new incarnation of pansermia: “Necropanspermia.”

Conceived by Paul Wesson, of Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics in Canada, necropanspermia is the transfer of the information of life to new worlds, wriggling extraterrestrial bacterium not required.

Assuming alien microbial life has made the trip across interstellar space, died and then fossilized, Wesson reckons the information contained within the long-dead microbe could be used as some kind of template by a hospitable world to use and grow new life. (It’s not quite zombie science, but it’s hard not to say “reanimated alien corpse.”)

Wesson even goes so far to suggest ET’s microbial remains can be “resurrected.”

“Resurrection may, however, be possible.” Wesson concludes in his Space Science Reviews paper. “Certain micro-organisms possess remarkably effective enzyme systems that can repair a multitude of strand breaks.”

Hypothesizing about various forms of panspermia may seem more like a philosophical argument, but Wesson suggests that we might be able to find evidence for necropanspermia if we collect some dust samples from the outermost reaches of the solar system, far enough away from Earth’s biological pollution.

Alas, as the Hayabusa asteroid mission has proven, capturing dust from anywhere in space isn’t easy.

Read more about necropanspermia in my Discovery News article “Life on Earth Spawned by Dead Alien Microbes?

Holographic Universe: Fermilab to Probe Smallest Space-Time Scales

Conceptual design of the Fermilab holometer (Fermilab)

Conceptual design of the Fermilab holometer (Fermilab)

During the hunt for the predicted ripples in space-time — known as gravitational waves — physicists stumbled across a rather puzzling phenomenon. Last year, I reported about the findings of scientists using the GEO600 experiment in Germany. Although the hi-tech piece of kit hadn’t turned up evidence for the gravitational waves it was seeking, it did turn up a lot of noise.

Before we can understand what this “noise” is, we need to understand how equipment designed to look for the space-time ripples caused by collisions between black holes and supernova explosions.

Gravitational wave detectors are incredibly sensitive to the tiniest change in distance. For example, the GEO600 experiment can detect a fluctuation of an atomic radius over a distance from the Earth to the Sun. This is achieved by firing a laser down a 600 meter long tube where it is split, reflected and directed into an interferometer. The interferometer can detect the tiny phase shifts in the two beams of light predicted to occur should a gravitational wave pass through our local volume of space. This wave is theorized to slightly change the distance between physical objects. Should GEO600 detect a phase change, it could be indicative of a slight change in distance, thus the passage of a gravitational wave.

While looking out for a gravitational wave signal, scientists at GEO600 noticed something bizarre. There was inexplicable static in the results they were gathering. After canceling out all artificial sources of the noise, they called in the help of Fermilab’s Craig Hogan to see if his expertise of the quantum world help shed light on this anomalous noise. His response was as baffling as it was mind-blowing. “It looks like GEO600 is being buffeted by the microscopic quantum convulsions of space-time,” Hogan said.

Come again?

The signal being detected by GEO600 isn’t a noise source that’s been overlooked, Hogan believes GEO600 is seeing quantum fluctuations in the fabric of space-time itself. This is where things start to get a little freaky.

According to Einstein’s view on the universe, space-time should be smooth and continuous. However, this view may need to be modified as space-time may be composed of quantum “points” if Hogan’s theory is correct. At its finest scale, we should be able to probe down the “Planck length” which measures 10-35 meters. But the GEO600 experiment detected noise at scales of less than 10-15 meters.

As it turns out, Hogan thinks that noise at these scales are caused by a holographic projection from the horizon of our universe. A good analogy is to think about how an image becomes more and more blurry or pixelated the more you zoom in on it. The projection starts off at Planck scale lengths at the Universe’s event horizon, but its projection becomes blurry in our local space-time. This hypothesis comes out of black hole research where the information that falls into a black hole is “encoded” in the black hole’s event horizon. For the holographic universe to hold true, information must be encoded in the outermost reaches of the Universe and it is projected into our 3 dimensional world.

But how can this hypothesis be tested? We need to boost the resolution of a gravitational wave detector-type of kit. Enter the “Holometer.”

Currently under construction in Fermilab, the Holometer (meaning holographic interferometer) will delve deep into this quantum realm at smaller scales than the GEO600 experiment. If Hogan’s idea is correct, the Holometer should detect this quantum noise in the fabric of space-time, throwing our whole perception of the Universe into a spin.

For more on this intriguing experiment, read the Symmety Magazine article “Hogan’s holometer: Testing the hypothesis of a holographic universe.”

“Shades of Ignorance” by CraftLass (Interview)

In this very special (and long overdue) post, I had the great fortune to catch up with singer/song writer CraftLass who wrote a very cool song about science, ignorance and the general state of society. I am particularly honored as CraftLass was inspired by my blog (amongst others) when she wrote this wonderfully catchy tune. As you can tell by the link below, she has a huge talent — follow her (yep, she’s one of my favorite tweeps) and hopefully you’ll get the chance to see her perform live. I’m hoping I’ll make it to New York soon so I can do just that.

“Shades of Ignorance” by CraftLass (streaming audio)

“Shades” is just one of many songs CraftLass has written and performed, so be sure to listen to all her work and buy her album, you won’t be disappointed (I’m a big fan).

Q: Mainly, what was your inspiration behind writing the song?

A: There were a few involved in this one, all inspired by reading. The main thrust of the song came from reading your blog as well as a few others like Bad Astronomy and marveling at the comments from people who truly believe in everything that has little to no evidence while refusing to believe what can actually be proven or at least has plenty of evidence that anyone is free to look at.

I think some people are convinced that the job of scientists, no matter the field, is to hide truth when it’s exactly the opposite. This annoys me to no end, especially when it actually hurts people, as in the case of people who hurt innocent children educationally by wanting creationism taught in the science classroom, or physically by refusing to immunize them because other people with a lack of credentials just happen to be effective communicators.

I guess I’d like to try to level the playing field on that one, communicate truths in a format that most people can understand and enjoy, since the other side tends to have “cool” celebrities popularizing their ideas. As much as I hate the sway pop culture has, it’s important to fight fire with fire.

The other big inspiration was the way people in America embraced politicians like George W. Bush and Sarah Palin, I’m very politically aware and very independent (not a Democrat), these two and a few others make me sick because they are poster children of smart people who CHOOSE ignorance, willfully.

Leaders should be elected for having the brains and open-mindedness to make real decisions for themselves based on actual facts and Bush, in particular, was elected for being stubborn to the point of harm for not only this nation but the whole world. Elected for the exact quality that is worst in a leader. I’ve been trying to convey my feelings on that for many years and it just seemed to fit into the theme as I was working on this song. “Stubborn is not the same as strong,” is a line I’m particularly proud of since so many people seem to confuse the two.

Q: How has it been received (particularly when performing at a live venue)?

A: I’m astounded at the reception! It’s consistently one of the first songs that people come up to talk to me about. I’m lucky that I live in a pretty highly educated part of the country (the NYC metro area) and quite a few people have said it’s a message they hadn’t been able to put into words, which is extremely gratifying.

It also makes people dance, and I think that when people dance and start singing along the message sinks deeper, so I’m hoping it might somehow reach further into the public to the very people it’s about, perhaps inspire them to question blind beliefs. At some point I would like to record a full-band version to increase that effect!

The other cool thing has been the number of closet science geeks it’s brought out, people who come up to me and say it’s great to see someone wear her love for the subject proudly, makes them feel like it’s okay to love it, too. If more people were honest with themselves (including me) we would probably have a lot less of the brain drain effect in STEM. (It also doesn’t hurt that I’m a cute and social chick with a guitar, not exactly the old stereotype of science geek. LOL.)

Q: What are your thoughts on science communication in general (i.e. is it handled well by the media)?

A: Well, there are so many levels of media right now, we’re pretty lucky. Mass media has been pretty terrible at science communication for most of my life, at least, they tend to prefer stories of failure than anything that goes right, so many areas of science end up looking rather useless (this is particularly true when it comes to NASA and CERN for some reason) and you’ll never hear about the coolest things in traditional media other than the NY Times science section (which has now been gutted, anyway).

On the other hand, the fact that Discovery now has many channels and even created the Science Channel to air more science shows and competitors keeps springing up proves that people have been hungry to learn more than what the networks are willing to give them. These companies are filling the void pretty nicely with good introductions to many areas.

I get most of my science news from the internet, though, as it is the only place to find up-to-the-minute news and deeper information. The problem there is you really have to wade through a lot of garbage to find the good nuggets and read a lot of too-dry-for-non-scientists pieces to find ones that can engage and help someone self-educated like I am. There are quite a few modern-day Carl Sagans out there, though, who can communicate science beautifully, and it’s a very good thing they can publish whether or not they have backing from a major organization. The next thing we need is more clearly defined resources to match the audience with the scientist or writer.

Q: Are you a regular reader of science blogs?

A: Yes, well, when I have the time. Ironically, singing and writing about science has been tearing me away more than I’d like! I try to read at least a few articles every day over coffee, and every so often I’ll just devour everything I’ve missed on a site. I also research what I’m writing, so I’ll search the blogosphere for interesting facts and tidbits on whatever subject I’m working on (right now my obsession is Spirit as I have a song about her half-done, so I’m reading every post I can find).

A couple of lines for “Bake Sale for NASA” were inspired directly by a post by Wayne Hale (one of my favorite blog writers) about NASA satellites saving the American wheat crop, a story I had never known and found absolutely brilliant. My most consistent blogs include NASA blogs, Discovery News, Bad Astronomy, World of Weird Things, Noisy Astronomer, the Skylogs at Astronomy.FM, and, of course, Astroengine.

Q: What surprises you most about some of the comments you read on science blogs?

A: The way that so many people apparently seek out these blogs simply to rant against them. I like to read opposing viewpoints but I don’t understand the amount of time and energy people put into pure hatred. If you are so annoyed by what you are reading why don’t you read other websites? There are millions!

I’m also stunned that people can read the same things I read and just dismiss them. Learning is a lifelong experience and discoveries are constantly made that change what we know, why be so stubborn in clinging to old information and ways of thinking? Living in a time where there is so much exploration and so many ways to disseminate what is learned means we need to stop believing in belief itself and open up our minds to endless possibilities. That should be a cause for celebration rather than anger, and far too many people are in the latter category.

Compex Magnetic Eruption Witnessed by Solar Observatories

Solar Dynamics Observatory view of the solar disk shortly after eruption (NASA).

This morning, at 08:55 UT, NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) detected a C3-class flare erupt inside a sunspot cluster. 100,000 kilometers away, deep within the solar atmosphere (the corona), an extended magnetic field filled with cool plasma forming a dark ribbon across the face of the sun (a feature known as a “filament”) erupted at the exact same time.

It seems very likely that both events were connected after a powerful shock wave produced by the flare destabilized the filament, causing the eruption.

A second solar observatory, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), then spotted a huge coronal mass ejection (CME) blast into space, straight in the direction of Earth. Solar physicists have calculated that this magnetic bubble filled with energetic particles should hit Earth on August 3, so look out for some intense aurorae, a solar storm is on its way…

For more on this impressive solar eruption, read my Discovery News article, “Incoming! The Sun Unleashes CME at Earth

Strasbourg July Lightning

A bolt of lightning strikes over Strasbourg, France (Ian O'Neill)

A bolt of lightning strikes over Strasbourg, France (Ian O'Neill)

As you may have noticed, things have been rather quiet on Astroengine of late. This is partly due to my pan-European trek and my work on Discovery News, but mainly due to my horrid affliction of procrastination. Hence why I’m late in posting this pretty awesome picture of a lightning bolt blasting across the French skies.

What was I doing in France? Well, I was asked to do a lecture all about asteroid mining and space commercialization at this year’s Space Studies Program 2010 (SSP10) at the International Space University (ISU) in Strasbourg earlier this month.

It was an incredible experience and I got to meet some incredible people. Hoping to get a blog post up about the whole thing some time over the coming days, but for now, I’ll leave you with this picture of the storm that hit Strasbourg while I was there. For the full set, check out my Posterous gallery.

Hayabusa Re-Entry Video: Spacecraft Destruction at its Best

There’s not a lot to add to this video, it’s too awesome.

It was captured by NASA’s converted DC-8 jet that was flying over Australia when the Japanese Hayabusa spacecraft broke up during re-entry. I’ll let the video do the rest of the talking:

Oh yes, and that little dot ahead of the falling debris? That’s the sample return capsule before it was found int he Outback safely. Thank goodness its parachute worked (presumably).

For more spacecraft demolition awesomeness, read “NASA Aircraft Videos Hayabusa Re-Entry