R2-D2 On The Moon? Why Not!

"R2, where are you?" On the moon... Credit: NASA/Corbis/Ian O'Neill/Discovery News

“R2, where are you?” On the moon… Credit: NASA/Corbis/Ian O’Neill/Discovery News

Sometimes, all it takes is the slightest of hints before I start Photoshopping stuff on the Moon that shouldn’t be there.

We’ve seen the Banff crasher squirrel steal Buzz Aldrin’s thunder.

We’ve seen the Sarlacc monster gobble up the LCROSS booster.

(Meanwhile, on Mars, something odd happened to rover Spirit.)

And now! We have R2-D2 trundling across the lunar surface as the perfect Moon rover design for dodging levitating Moon dust. Don’t ask me, it’s SCIENCE!

(Note: The inspiration for R2-D2 was not my idea, blame Astronomy Now’s Keith Cooper for that stroke of genius. But the ‘shopping is totally my doing. I have a lot of time on my hands, apparently.)

Read more: Why R2-D2 Would be the PERFECT Moon Rover

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The White House Approves NASA’s ‘James Bond’ Asteroid Bagging Mission

Screengrab from the NASA "Asteroid Retrieval and Utilization Mission" animation (NASA LaRC/JSC)

Screengrab from the NASA “Asteroid Retrieval and Utilization Mission” animation (NASA LaRC/JSC)

It’s been a looooong time since I last updated Astroengine.com, so first off, apologies for that. But today seems as good a time as any to crank up the ‘engine’s servers as the White House has rubber-stamped a manned NASA mission to an asteroid! However, this isn’t what the President originally had in mind in 2009 when he mandated the US space agency with the task of getting astronauts to an asteroid by the mid-2020′s.

In a twist, it turns out that NASA will be basing their manned asteroid jaunt on a 2011 Keck Institute study. To cut a long story short (you can read the long story in my Discovery News article on the topic: “NASA to Hunt Down and Capture an Asteroid“), NASA will launch an unmanned spacecraft to hunt down a small space rock specimen, “lasso” it (although “bagging” it would be more accurate) and drag the wild asteroid to park it at the Earth-moon Lagrangian point, L2. Then we can treat it like a fast food store; we can fly to and from, chipping off pieces of space rock, return samples to Earth and do, well, SCIENCE!

Great? Great.

Overall, this robotic capture/manned exoplration of an asteroid saves cash and “optimizes” the science that can be done. It also lowers the risk associated with a long-duration mission into deep space. By snaring an asteroid in its natural habitat and dragging it back to the Earth-moon system, we avoid astronauts having to spend months in deep space. The EML2 point is only days away.

But when watching the exciting NASA video after the news broke today, I kept thinking…

asteroid-grab2

But that wasn’t the only thing I was thinking. I was also thinking: what’s the point? It’s flashy and patriotic, but where’s the meat?

The human component of this asteroid mission has now been demoted to second fiddle. Sure, it will utilize NASA’s brand new Orion spacecraft and be one of the first launches of the Space Launch System (SLS), but what will it achieve? Astronauts will fly beyond Moon orbit, dock with the stationary space rock and retrieve samples as they please, but why bother with astronauts at all?

It is hoped that the robotic asteroid bagging spacecraft could launch by 2017 and, assuming a few years to steer the asteroid to EML2, a human mission would almost certainly be ready by the mid-2020s. But by that time, sufficiently advanced robotics would be available for unmanned sample retrieval. Heck, as telepresence technology matures, the EML2 point will be well within the scope for a live feed — light-time between Earth and the EML2 point will only be a few seconds, perhaps a little more if communications need to be relayed around the Moon. Robotics could be controlled live by a “virtual astronaut” on Earth — we probably have this capability right now.

The most exciting thing for me is the robotic component of asteroid capture. The advances in asteroid rendezvous and trajectory modification techniques will be cool, although scaling the asteroid bagging technique up (for large asteroids that could actually cause damage should they hit Earth) would be a challenge (to put it mildly). At a push, it may even be of use to a theoretical future asteroid mining industry. The rationale is that if we can understand the composition of a small asteroid, we can hope to learn more about its larger cousins.

The human element seems to be an afterthought and purely a political objective. There will undoubtedly be advancements in life support and docking technologies, but it will only be a mild taster for the far grander (original) NASA plan to send a team of astronauts into deep space to study an asteroid far away from the Earth-Moon system. The argument will be “an asteroid is a stepping stone to Mars” — sadly, by watering down the human element in an already questionable asteroid mission, it’s hard to see the next step for a long-duration spaceflight to Mars.

From this logic, we may as well just keep sending robots. But that wasn’t the point, was it?

Take a look at the video and decide for yourself:

Shhhhh… Do You Hear That? That’s The Sound Of The World Not Ending

Perfect solstice sunrise by @STONEHENGE (Stonehenge UK)

‘Perfect solstice sunrise’ by @STONEHENGE (Stonehenge UK on Twitter)

Now, call your friends, grab a beer and celebrate the end of the Maya Long Count calendar’s 13th b’ak’tun and the winter solstice. (Sorry doomsayers, I will not be giving you a reference for your post-doomsday interview, you did a crappy job of the Apocalypse.)

Also, send your congratulations to my sister, Colette! IT’S HER 30TH BIRTHDAY! Congrats Sis!!

On a side note, a few of us appeared on the #TWISmageddon 21 hour marathon to talk about the end of the world (or lack thereof), science and the human propensity for believing the Mayan doomsday bunkum. Thanks to Kiki Sanford, Justin Jackson, Scott Lewis, Blair Bazdarich, Nicole Gugliucci and Andy Ihnatko for a terrific Google+ Hangout. Who knew doomsday would be so much fun! (We start at about 1hr 45mins into the Hangout.)

EDIT: Is John Cusack skiing? He’d better be — that’s what he told me during the premier of “2012″ in 2009! More: “What Will John Cusack be Doing on Dec. 21, 2012? Skiing.

“Skiing” he told me. Skiing.

Read more: No Doomsday! The Quick Reference Guide (Discovery News)

Put the Weather Balloon Back In The Box

Really? Sushi and beer "in space"? What's next?

Really? Sushi and beer "in space"? What's next?

What the hell is going on with this weather balloon craze? It seems that everything from beer to sushi is being sent “into space” these days. There’s only one problem… weather balloons don’t go into space!

Launching random crap into the stratosphere may be fun and give some companies a fleeting marketing opportunity, but please, quit it. Weather balloons should be used for… um, I dunno… high altitude research. And for high school/university students’ learning opportunities/science outreach. Oh, and Roswell conspiracy theories. But that’s it.

Just because you have a small camera with a gazillion megapixels, a credit card and a GPS tracker, the logic of buying a huge balloon and filling it with helium, strapping your camera to it and then running across the countryside to retrieve the wreckage seems silly. Sure, you get some nice video of cloud tops from an altitude of 20 miles, but you’re not the first to do this!

Having said all that, if you do feel compelled to create yet another YouTube video of a weather balloon launch, knock yourself out. But please, please, please don’t include the word “space” in the title, even the BBC gets confused (apparently, that weather balloon-launched Lego man went “into orbit”!). Space starts above 62 miles (known as the Kármán line). Weather balloons can make it to around 25 miles before popping. By no stretch of the imagination can balloons make it into “space.”

Also, weather balloons don’t take stuff on a “suborbital flight.” That’s about as “suborbital” as me taking a flight to Vegas.

Gripe over.

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

What Happened to Mars Rover Spirit?

“A big rusty transporter came over the hill and the Jawas sold it for scrap metal…” — Paul Quinn

NASA is giving Mars rover Spirit one more month to signal that she’s still alive before search operations are scaled back and attention shifted to her sister rover Opportunity. Unfortunately, the prognosis isn’t good. It’s been a little over a year since Spirit last communicated and it’s looking increasingly likely she’s succumbed to a lack of energy and freezing conditions on the Martian surface.

But… something else might have happened.

“A big rusty transporter came over the hill and the Jawas sold it for scrap metal…” — Paul Quinn (via Facebook)

It’s not as if it hasn’t happened before, in a galaxy far, far away…

Credits: Main Mars vista with Spirit superimposed: NASA. Jawa sandcrawler and Jawa figures: LucasArts. Edit: Ian O’Neill/Astroengine.com. Inspiration: My mate Paul Quinn!

It’s Official: “2012″ Sucked

Just in case you didn’t know, Roland Emmerich’s 2012 wasn’t the best of movies.

Actually, from a science perspective, it sucked.

It sucked in so many ways that I can’t be bothered to list why it sucked (so have a read of my Discovery News review instead).

Now, I’m happy to announce that NASA agrees with me. They think 2012 sucked so much, they’ve branded it the most “scientifically flawed of its genre.”

Donald Yeomans, head of NASA’s Near-Earth Asteroid Rendezvous mission, agrees with what I’ve been saying all along (especially since all that “Institute for Human Continuity” bullshit hit the internet). He said at the Pasadena Jet Propulsion Laboratory meeting:

“The film makers took advantage of public worries about the so-called end of the world as apparently predicted by the Mayans of Central America, whose calendar ends on December 21, 2012. [NASA] is getting so many questions from people terrified that the world is going to end in 2012 that we have had to put up a special website to challenge the myths. We have never had to do this before.”

Even though NASA agreed that Bruce Willis’ Armageddon was bad, it couldn’t compete with the scientific atrocities 2012 inflicted on its audience. The killer neutrinos, planetary alignment, crustal shift, geomagnetic reversal and super-duper-massive tsunamis proved too much. 2012 has even toppled The Core as worst sci-fi science movie. Now that is impressive.

But what does it all mean? Apart from us science snobs having a chuckle on our blogs, I doubt it will make the blind bit of difference. Why? This is why:

“On the opening weekend of 2012, the movie pulled in 65 million in U.S. ticket sales and an additional $160 million internationally, easily covering the $200+ million budget.

Movies aren’t about scientific accuracy, and it would seem that the hype behind 2012 can stand alone as the biggest moneymaker of all.

Fear sells, science doesn’t. The subject of doomsday will always be a blockbuster. Unfortunately, through the miscommunication of science, fear is usually the end-product.”

– “2012″ Sells Tickets, Sells-Out Science

Oh well, you can’t win ‘em all. Now, have a laugh:

Thanks to @mars_stu and @RogerHighfield for the inspiration.

EDIT: An earlier version of this blog post stated that the Science and Entertainment Exchange was involved with NASA’s decision to make 2012 “most scientifically flawed” movie in its list. I have received an email from the Exchange’s director that this is not the case. I have therefore edited any mention of the Exchange from the blog (even though my source, the Adelaide Now, still references the Exchange).