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.

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.

On Gingrich’s Moon Base Plan (and Why It Won’t Happen)

A base on the Moon? That would be awesome! But it can't be done for profit... yet (ESA).

A base on the Moon? That would be awesome! But it can't be done for profit... yet (ESA).

For more on this topic, you can listen to me chat with BBC 5live’s Dotun Adebayo (from “Up All Night” on Jan. 28 — at 1hr 26mins into the show) and check out the Al Jazeera article (“Gingrich promises US ‘moon base’ by 2020“) I was interviewed for.

In case you haven’t heard, one of the Republican presidential candidate hopefuls, Newt Gingrich, has stellar plans for the U.S. in space. Should he make it though the GOP primaries and beat President Obama in this year’s presidential elections and make it to a second second term in office, the United States of America is going back to the Moon! *applause* *cheers* *ticker tape raining down on Times Square*

“By the end of my second term, we will have the first permanent base on the moon and it will be American!” Gingrich declared on Wednesday when he was outlining his plans for NASA and the U.S. space industry during his Florida GOP campaign.

A lot of what Gingrich said seemed to make sense — less NASA bureaucracy, more commercial investment, space prizes — but the one thing the majority of the media fixated on is the “Moon base” thing.

Generally speaking, any promises made during a presidential campaign, let alone a GOP presidential candidate primary, should be taken with a big pinch of salt. Gingrich, who has been hammered by bad press and negative ad campaigns by opponent Mitt Romney, decided to go “all in” during his Space Coast speeches in the hope of persuading Florida — a key swing state — that he was their man to reinvigorate the state’s major industry.

But it looks like his promises have gone a little too far.

Sending men to the moon during the Apollo era cost the U.S. $170 billion (in today’s money). This cost encompassed the development of manned space flight technology — from the massive Saturn V rockets to the Lunar Modules. But to set up a Moon base (an American Moon base no less) the costs of developing the technology, building the base, creation of a Earth-Moon transportation infrastructure and maintaining lunar assets for many years would spiral into hundreds of billions of dollars.

But it’s OK, NASA wouldn’t be expected to pick up the bill, which is fortunate as the U.S. space agency’s budget stands at less than $18 billion (for 2012). In 1966, 60 percent of NASA’s entire budget was pumped into the Apollo Program, so if that were to happen again, NASA science would be a thing of the past.

Using incentives, Gingrich’s plan is to heavily involve private industry. 10 percent of NASA’s budget will be set aside for industrial “prizes” — presumably X PRIZE-like programs. Also, the lunar surface would be a “free-for-all” — corporations would dig in, mine and pillage the lunar surface for its treasures. And then there’s science! Don’t forget the science! SCIENCE will be done, because science is all kinds of awesome.

But there’s a juicy fly in the ointment that Gingrich appears to be ignoring: Where’s the incentive?

As we’ve already established, spaceflight is really, really expensive. Setting up a Moon base would be really, really, really expensive. The International Space Station (ISS) took international collaboration to build and maintain (not forgetting that NASA can’t even access this huge chunk of orbiting real estate without asking Russia for a hand), so whether or not you think $100 billion is a lot of dough for an orbiting outpost, “hundreds of billions” seems like a reasonable estimate for a Moon base. NASA simply can’t “go it alone” to set up an American base, it would need to be an international collaboration, or there would need to be a huge investment made by U.S. commercial interests.

Now, I’m no businessman, so I might be wrong, but companies like to see a return on their investments, right?

We could see similar deals between NASA and private space companies to courier people and cargo into space (like the COTS program that invigorates partnerships like the one between NASA and SpaceX), but again, we’d need to see significant investment by a government agency: NASA. How to get out of this government-funded loop? Let companies profit from the Moon’s resources — there must be gazillions of dollars to be made from that, right?


You’ll hear many people discuss Helium-3 with huge enthusiasm, which is found in abundance on the lunar surface. Helium-3 is the much-touted fuel for fusion power plants. Fusion power is the world’s cleanest, most abundant energy resource; whoever controls the supply of Helium-3 from the surface of the moon could stand to make trillions!

Oh… wait. Fusion power plants? Yeah, we haven’t invented them yet.

What about using the Moon as a massive resource of precious metals? After all, the moon is made from the same stuff Earth is made of, gold and platinum should be hiding in that Moon rock. Why not set up vast strip mines and refineries? Hell, it would be far easier to extract raw materials and refine them in-situ on the Moon than mining asteroids.

But once again, there’s a big problem; it would cost far more to extract, refine and transport the material back to Earth (let alone the huge health & safety/insurance concerns with flying the stuff back to Earth, reentering tons of materials over populated regions) than the profit a company could stand to make from such an operation.

So, in summary, to build a Moon base it would cost a lot of money. In the current political and financial climate, there isn’t a cat in hell’s chance of seeing a U.S. government agency like NASA footing the bill. Private investment would need to be found. But companies don’t like risking tens (to hundreds) of billions of dollars unless they can see some potential for profit. A Moon base, for now, is not an investment.

Also, the Outer Space Treaty forbids any nation from “owning” any portion of the Moon — so sending U.S. companies to mine the Moon could be a pretty awkward scenario. This alone invalidates the “American Moon base” idea if it was being used for anything other than science purposes. Seeing a mining operation pop up in the Sea of Tranquility would be like BP building a refinery in the Antarctic. Sure, it can be done, but the international fallout would be horrendous (another factor that might dissuade corporate investment in the first place).

The modern world’s economy is based on growth, profit and the politics they motivate. Making money from space, in the near term, doesn’t involve bases on the Moon. Profit and growth can be found in government contracts and investment in cheap space launch alternatives. Space tourism, in the near-term, is also showing some promise. These areas of growth focus on basic space infrastructure — simply blasting stuff into orbit is a difficult and expensive task, private enterprise is currently innovating to fulfill this need. And they are doing it for profit.

A few decades from now, when our planet finally has a viable, sustainable infrastructure in space, talk of Moon bases and company profits may make more sense. But talk of building a base (let alone a Moon colony) when we don’t even have the rockets or spacecraft to get us there, is a bit like saying I’m moving to Hawaii, but there’s no aircraft or boats to get me there and… oh, by the way… I have to ship the bricks of my house to the middle of the Pacific Ocean so I can actually build a house when I get there.

Try selling that profit-making scheme to the CEO of Home Depot.

For more on this topic, you can listen to me chat with BBC 5live’s Dotun Adebayo (from “Up All Night” on Jan. 28 — at 1hr 26mins into the show) and check out the Al Jazeera article (“Gingrich promises US ‘moon base’ by 2020“) I was interviewed for.

The Funky Craters of Mars

A menagerie of strange divots (NASA/HiRISE/Univ. of Arizona)

A menagerie of strange divots (NASA/HiRISE/Univ. of Arizona)

As 2011 draws to a close, it’s time to reflect on my absenteeism from Astroengine. But it’s not my fault, I’ve been typing like a madman for these guys.

But that’s enough excuses, 2012 promises to be a huge year for space, and if I get my time management skills back up to scratch, there will be a whole lot more of the blogging thing going on over here too. So to kick things off I thought I’d share a cool slide show I’ve been working on for Discovery News with Ari Espinoza of the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) — the awesome camera currently orbiting Mars aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

With the help of Ari, we managed to collect some weird-looking Mars craters (for the hell of it) and create a slide show with some of the strangest. Below are a few of my favorites, but be sure to check out the full slide show for more oddities!

Some Galaxies Die Young… Others Recycle

Some galaxies undergo a rapid star formation phase, losing stellar gases to intergalactic space, others choose to recycle, thereby extending their star forming lifespans.

Some galaxies undergo a rapid star formation phase, losing stellar gases to intergalactic space, others choose to recycle, thereby extending their star forming lifespans (NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI))

It sounds like an over-hyped public service announcement: If you don’t recycle, you’ll die a premature death.

But in the case of galaxies, according to three new Science papers based on Hubble Space Telescope data, this is a reality. Should a galaxy “go green,” reusing waste stellar gas contained within huge halos situated outside their visible disks, they will fuel future star-birth cycles, prolonging their lifespans.

Sadly for “starburst” galaxies — galaxies that undergo rapid star generation over very short time periods — they care little for recycling, resulting in an untimely death.

Using data from Hubble’s Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS), three teams studied 40 galaxies (including the Milky Way) and discovered vast halos of waste stellar gases. Contained within these spherical reservoirs — extending up to 450,000 light-years from their bright disks of stars — light elements such as hydrogen and helium were found to be laced with heavier elements like carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and neon. There’s only one place these heavy elements could have come from: fusion processes in the cores of stars and supernovae.

Interestingly, the quantity of heavy elements contained within the newly-discovered halos is similar to what is contained in the interstellar gases within the galaxies themselves.

“There’s as much heavy elements out in the halos of the galaxies as there is in their interstellar medium, that is what shocked us.” said Jason Tumlinson, an astronomer for the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md., in an interview for my Discovery News article “Galaxies That Don’t Recycle Live Hard, Die Young.”

But these heavy elements are stored in halos outside the galaxies; how the heck did it get there?

According to the researchers, powerful stellar winds jetting into intergalactic space have been observed, transporting the heavy elements with them. But there’s a catch. If the outflow is too strong, waste stellar gases are ejected from the galaxies completely. Unfortunately for one sub-set of galaxies, powerful stellar outflows come naturally.

Starburst galaxies rapidly generate stars, ejecting speedy streams of stellar waste gas. Some of these streams have been clocked traveling at 2 million miles per hour, escaping from the galaxy forever. In the case of a starbust galaxy, a “recycling halo” cannot be re-supplied — future star birth is therefore killed off.

“We found the James Dean or Amy Winehouse of that population, you know, the galaxies that lived fast and died young,” Tumlinson pointed out. “(Todd) Tripp’s team studied that in their paper.”

“That paper used a galaxy that is known as a ‘post-star burst galaxy’ and its spectrum showed that it had a very robust star burst (phase),” he continued. “It was one of those live fast, die young galaxies.”

Although fascinating, one idea struck me the hardest. On asking Tumlinson to speculate on how galactic recycling of stellar material may impact us, he said:

“Your body is 70 percent water and every water molecule has an oxygen atom in it. The theorists say the recycling time (in the Milky Way’s halo) is approximately a billion years, so that means — potentially — that some of the material (oxygen) inside your body has cycled in and out of the galaxy ten times in the history of the galaxy. At least once, maybe up to ten times.”

As Carl Sagan famously said: “We’re made of star stuff;” perhaps this should be rephrased to: “We’re made of recycled star stuff.”


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

Screaming Exoplanets: Detecting Alien Magnetospheres

Exoplanets may reveal their location through radio emissions (NASA)

Exoplanets may reveal their location through radio emissions (NASA)

In 2009, I wrote about a fascinating idea: in the hunt for “Earth-like” exoplanets, perhaps we could detect the radio emissions from a distant world possessing a magnetosphere. This basically builds on the premise that planets in the solar system, including Earth, generate electromagnetic waves as space plasma interacts with their magnetospheres. In short, with the right equipment, could we “hear” the aurorae on extra-solar planets?

In the research I reviewed, the US Naval Research Laboratory scientist concluded that he believed it was possible, but the radio telescopes we have in operation aren’t sensitive enough to detect the crackle of distant aurorae. According to a new study presented at the RAS National Astronomy Meeting in Llandudno, Wales, on Monday, this feat may soon become a reality, not for “Earth-like” worlds but for “Jupiter-like” worlds.

“This is the first study to predict the radio emissions by exoplanetary systems similar to those we find at Jupiter or Saturn,” said Jonathan Nichols of the University of Leicester. “At both planets, we see radio waves associated with auroras generated by interactions with ionised gas escaping from the volcanic moons, Io and Enceladus. Our study shows that we could detect emissions from radio auroras from Jupiter-like systems orbiting at distances as far out as Pluto.”

Rather than looking for the magnetospheres of Earth-like worlds — thereby finding exoplanets that have a protective magnetosphere that could nurture alien life — Nichols is focusing on larger, Jupiter-like worlds that orbit their host stars from a distance. This is basically another tool in the exoplanet-hunters’ toolbox.

Over 500 exoplanets have been confirmed to exist around other stars, and another 1,200 plus exoplanetary candidates have been cataloged by the Kepler Space Telescope. The majority of the confirmed exoplanets were spotted using the “transit method” (when the exoplanet passes in front of its host star, thereby dimming its light for astronomers to detect) and the “wobble method” (when the exoplanet gravitationally tugs on its parent star, creating a very slight shift in the star’s position for astronomers to detect), but only exoplanets with short orbital periods have been spotted so far.

The more distant the exoplanet from its host star, the longer its orbital period. To get a positive detection, it’s easy to spot an exoplanet with an orbital period of days, weeks, months, or a couple of years, but what of the exoplanets with orbits similar to Jupiter (12 years), Saturn (30 years) or even Pluto (248 years!)? If we are looking for exoplanets with extreme orbits like Pluto’s, it would be several generations-worth of observations before we’d even get a hint that a world lives there.

“Jupiter and Saturn take 12 and 30 years respectively to orbit the Sun, so you would have to be incredibly lucky or look for a very long time to spot them by a transit or a wobble,” said Nichols.

By assessing how the radio emissions for a Jupiter-like exoplanet respond to its rotation rate, the quantity of material falling into the gas giant from an orbiting moon (akin Enceladus’ plumes of water ice and dust being channeled onto the gas giant) and the exoplanet’s orbital distance, Nichols has been able to identify the characteristics of a possible target star. The hypothetical, “aurora-active” exoplanet would be located between 1 to 50 AU from an ultraviolet-bright star and it would need to have a fast spin for the resulting magnetospheric activity to be detectable at a distance of 150 light-years from Earth.

What’s more, the brand new LOw Frequency ARray (LOFAR) radio telescope should be sensitive enough to detect aurorae on Jupiter-like exoplanets, even though the exoplanets themselves are invisible to other detection methods. Nice.

As we’re talking about exoplanets, magnetospheres and listening for radio signals, let’s throw in some alien-hunting for good measure: “In our Solar System, we have a stable system with outer gas giants and inner terrestrial planets, like Earth, where life has been able to evolve. Being able to detect Jupiter-like planets may help us find planetary systems like our own, with other planets that are capable of supporting life,” Nichols added.

Although Nichols isn’t talking about directly detecting habitable alien worlds (just that the detection of Jupiter-like exoplanets could reveal Solar System-like star systems), I think back to the 2009 research that discusses the direct detection of habitable worlds using this method: Aliens, if you’re out there, you can be as quiet as you like (to avoid predators), but the screaming radio emissions from your habitable planet’s magnetosphere will give away your location…