NASA’s Asteroid Mission: Scary but Useful

Things have been moving fast for NASA in recent weeks, culminating in President Obama’s inspiring speech at Kennedy Space Center on Thursday. I haven’t commented on the new direction for the US space agency’s direction thus far as I’ve needed some time to digest the ramifications of these plans. But generally, I’m positive about the scrapping of the moon goal in favor of a manned asteroid mission (by 2025) and Mars some time around 2035.

But it hasn’t been easy, especially after the Ares I-X test launch in October 2009.

The Ares I-X was the first new NASA manned vehicle my generation has seen take to the skies (I was only one year old when the first of the shuttle fleet launched, beginning nearly 30 years of low-Earth orbit operations, so that doesn’t count). Despite criticism that this test flight was nothing more than old tech dressed up as a sleek “new” rocket, I was thrilled to see it launch.

The end product didn’t matter on that day. Sure, we’ve been to the Moon before, but it just seemed like the best plan on the table. I was inspired, I felt excited about our future in space. Seeing how astronauts live and work on the lunar surface, using it as a stepping stone for further planetary exploration (i.e. Mars) seemed… sensible. Expensive, but sensible

But the overriding sentiment behind Obama’s new plans was that we’ve been there before, why waste billions on going back? Continuing with the bloated Constellation Program would have used up funds it didn’t have. Cost overruns and missed deadlines were already compiling.

So, the White House took on the recommendations of experts and decided to go for something far riskier than a “simple” moon hop. Things going to plan and on schedule, in the year 2025 we’ll see a team of astronauts launch for a much smaller and far more distant target than the moon.

The asteroid plan has many benefits, the key being that we need to study these potentially devastating chunks of rock up close. Should one be heading in the direction of Earth, it would be really nice to have the technological ability to deal with it. A manned mission may be necessary to send to a hazardous near-Earth asteroid. Think Armageddon but with less nukes, no Bruce Willis, but more science and planning. Besides, if a rock the size of a city is out there, heading right at us, I’m hopeful we’ll have more than 18 days to deal with the thing.

My Discovery News colleague Ray Villard agrees:

“A several month-long human round trip to an asteroid will test the sea legs of astronauts for interplanetary journeys. And, asteroids are something we have to take very seriously in coming up with an Earth defense strategy, so that we don’t wind up going extinct like the dinosaurs.”

Possibly even more exciting than the asteroid plan is what — according to Obama — will happen ten years after that: a manned mission to Mars. I can’t overemphasize my enthusiasm for a mission to the Red Planet; that will be a leap for mankind like no other. Granted, there is plenty of criticism flying around that we need to live on the moon first before we attempt to land on Mars, but looking at the new plan, we won’t be actually landing on Mars any time soon. A 2030′s mission to Mars will most likely be a flyby, or if we’re really lucky, an orbital manned mission.

And that’s why going to an asteroid will be a good first step. Spending months cramped inside a spaceship with a handful of crewmates will likely be one of the biggest challenges facing man in space, so popping over to a near-Earth asteroid first is a good idea. A Mars trip could take over a year (depending on the mission). Now, this is where technological development sure would help.

If NASA can plough dedicated funds into new technologies, new life support and propulsion systems can be developed. Those two things will really help astronauts get places quicker (avoiding boredom) and live longer (avoiding… death). For the “living longer” part, there appears to be genuine drive to increase the life of the space station and do more impressive science on it. As it’s our only manned outpost, perhaps we’ll be able to use it for what it’s designed for.

There are a lot of unknowns still, and Obama’s Thursday speech certainly wasn’t NASA’s silver bullet, but it’s a start. Allocating serious funding for space technology development whilst setting the space program’s sights on going where no human has been before will surely boost enthusiasm for space exploration. In fact, I’d argue that this is exactly what NASA should be doing.

Although I was dazzled by the Ares I-X, I can see that continuing with Constellation would have been a flawed decision. Launching a manned mission to explore an interplanetary threat sounds risky, but considering that asteroids are the single biggest cosmic threat to civilization, it sure would be useful to know we have the technology to send astronauts to asteroids, perhaps even dealing with a potential threat in the near future.

About these ads

Moon Water, Confirmed

moon-water

The biggest factor hanging over human settlement of other worlds is the question of water. We need it to drink, we need it to cultivate food, we need it for fuel (indeed, we need it for the first lunar microbrewery); pretty much every human activity requires water. Supplies of water could be ferried from Earth to the Moon, but that would be prohibitively expensive and ultimately futile. For us to live on the Moon or further afield, H2O needs to already be there.

Ever since the Apollo lunar landings when samples of rock were transported to Earth we’ve been searching for the mere hint of this life-giving molecule. There have been indications that the lunar regolith may indeed contain trace amounts of the stuff, but on the whole, scientific endeavour has yet to return evidence of any large supply of water that could sustain a colony.

Until today.

Up until now, scientists haven’t been able to seriously entertain the thought of water on or near the surface of the Moon, apart from in the depths of the darkest impact craters. However, data from the recently deceased Indian Chandrayaan-1 mission has supported data taken by the Cassini probe (when it flew past the Moon in 1999 on its way to Saturn) and NASA’s Deep Impact probe (which made several infrared observations of the lunar surface during Earth-Moon flybys on its way to the 2010 rendezvous with Comet 103P/Hartley 2). Both Cassini and Deep Impact found the signature of water and hydroxyl, and now, a NASA instrument on board Chandrayaan-1 reinforces these earlier findings.

The NASA-built Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3) on board the Indian satellite detected wavelengths of light reflected off the surface that indicated hydrogen and oxygen molecules. This is convincing evidence that water is either at, or near, the lunar surface. As with the previous measurements, the water signal gets stronger nearer the lunar poles.

So what does this mean for the future of manned space exploration? Although water has been detected, this doesn’t mean there are huge icy lakes for us to pitch a Moon base and pump out the water. In actuality, the signal indicates water, but there is less water than what is found in the sand of the Earth’s deserts (you can pack away the drinking straws now).

It’s still pretty damn dry, drier than anything we have here. But we’ve found this dynamic, ongoing process and the moon was supposedly dead,” University of Maryland senior research scientist Jessica Sunshine told Discovery News. “This is a real paradigm shift.”

If there are widespread water deposits (despite the low concentrations), even in regions constantly bathed in sunlight, there is huge potential for water deposits in those mysterious, frozen craters. Interestingly, these measurements indicate that the water may not have just been deposited there by comets; the interaction between the solar wind and the existing lunar mineralogy could be a mechanism by which lunar ice is constantly being formed.

Every place on the moon, at some point during the lunar day, though not necessarily at all times, has water and OH [hydroxyl],” Sunshine said.

We may see self-sufficient lunar colonies yet. But the saying “getting blood out of a stone” should probably be replaced with “getting water out of the lunar regolith”

Next up is NASA’s LCROSS mission that is scheduled to impact a crater in the south pole on October 9th. Analysis from the impact plume will supplement this positive Chandrayaan-1 result, hopefully revealing yet more water in this frozen region.

Sources: Discovery News, Space.com, Times.co.uk

Welcome to my Sinkhole, Premium Martian Real Estate

A sinkhole in Tractus Fossae, created by tectonic activity (HiRISE/NASA)

A sinkhole in Tractus Fossae, created by tectonic activity (HiRISE/NASA)

It might not look like much from space, but this depression in the Martian landscape might be considered to be a priceless feature when viewed by future Mars colonists.

In December 2008, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) flew silently over the Tharsis bulge, the location of a series of ancient volcanoes. The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) captured what appears to be a deep hole. This kind of feature has been seen before, like a Martian pore, deep and foreboding. Usually these sinkholes aren’t as deep as they look, but they are deeper than the surrounding landscape. They are also similar to their terrestrial counterparts in that they have very steep sides (unlike the gentle, eroded slopes of crater rims) and they are caused by a lack of material below. On Earth, sinkholes often form due to water flowing beneath, removing material, causing the overlying rock/soil to slump, forming a sudden hole. In the example above, the sinkhole (or “collapse pit”) was caused by tectonic activity. In this case, it is likely that the material dropped into a void left over by magma-filled dykes (lava tubes from old volcanoes).

A stretched and image processed version of the sinkhole; the bottom of the hole is visible (HiRISE/NASA)

A stretched and image processed version of the sinkhole; the bottom of the hole is visible (HiRISE/NASA)

The result is a hole with very steep sides. It has been suggested that these sink holes may be useful to future Mars colonists, as they can use the natural feature for shelter. On Mars, humans would be subject to an increased dosage of radiation (due to the tenuous Martian atmosphere and lack of a global magnetic field), so it is preferable to find any form of natural shelter to build your habitat. The depth of this kind of sinkhole will afford some protection, and drilling into the cavern side would be even better. Perhaps even put a dome over the top? No need to build walls around your building then. Also, there’s the interesting–if a little frightening–prospect of accessing underground lava tubes. Therefore, colonists won’t need to dig very far to create a subterranean habitat with all the radiation protection they’ll ever need (the insulation would also be impressive).

Although this scenario might be a little far-fetched, and probably only suitable for an established human presence on Mars (after all, the numerous valleys would probably suffice for most permanent habitats drilled into cliff faces), it does go to show that the current missions in orbit around Mars are doing a great job at seeking out some possible housing solutions for our future Mars settlers…

Source: HiRISE, Marspedia

When the Space Hotel’s a Rockin’…

Guest article by Greg Fish (blog: world of weird things)

zz_space_hotel

You can’t go on vacation any more without your video camera, especially if you’re going some place spectacular and exciting. When the new wave of space tourists soars into orbit, they’re going to come back with some spectacular home movies. Some of them may be a lot steamier than others because there’s bound to be a couple just itching to be the first humans to have sex in space and capture it on high definition video to bolster their claim to fame. Yes, sex in space in inevitable and the moment people finally get a little privacy and a little room in which to play (something that’s missing on today’s space missions), it’s going to happen.

But before you rush to reinvent the Kama Sutra in 360 degree freedom, a few tips for you aspiring 60+ mile high club members…
Continue reading

The Space Exploration Crisis

President-elect Barack Obama has some big challenges to confront when he takes office in January. Let's hope it's not to the detriment to the US space agency

President-elect Barack Obama has some big challenges to confront when he takes office in January. Let's hope it's not to the detriment to the US space agency

When you look up on a starry night, what do you see?

Do you see a Universe with endless potential and resources for mankind to discover? Or, do you see an unnecessary challenge; too expensive, too risky and too pointless to consider wasting billions of tax-payers dollars on?

Right now, President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team is pondering the future of US manned spaceflight, and I’m sure they are addressing each of the above questions in turn. There has always been an unhealthy mix of politics and spin when it comes to the way NASA is funded, and while it would appear NASA’s future is confronted with a flood of budget cuts and red tape, the Obama administration will want to put a positive light on whatever direction they choose.

However, it will be hard to justify a funding cut (and therefore a delay) of the Constellation Program. We already have a “5-year gap” between Shuttle decommissioning and proposed Ares launch (2010-2015), if this block on US-administered manned spaceflight is extended, the damage inflicted on NASA will be irreversible. However, I doubt we’d ever be able to measure the permanent damage caused to mankind.
Continue reading

The Link Between Beer and the Colonization of Space

A Japanese brewery has successfully produced 100 litres of Space Beer. Hurrah!

The beer won’t actually be consumed in space (which seems a shame somehow), but it was made totally from barley grown on the International Space Station. For a lucky few, 60 people will get to sample the beer in Tokyo next month. So, what can they expect?

Alas, there won’t be much difference between the Sapporo Brewery’s 100% space barley brew when compared with a terrestrial grain as there is no measured difference in the DNA of barley grown in space when compared with barley grown on Earth. Therefore I doubt there will be any “eureka!” moment for the alcoholic beverage industry and therefore no immediate plans to launch a micro(gravity)brewery into orbit…
Continue reading

Interview with World of Weird Things: Colonizing Space, at a Profit

A manned outpost, could be a reality if the business opportunities are there.

A manned outpost, could be a reality if the business opportunities are there.

This morning I had a thought-provoking interview with Greg Fish, owner and writer for the superb website World of Weird Things. Greg wanted to get my insight to the world of commercial spaceflight and future colonization of other worlds, writing up a brilliant article called Colonizing Space, At A Profit based on my interview.

We examined the benefits mankind can reap from the exploration of space, but the responsibility of doing so is not exclusive to NASA or any other government-funded agency. The future of spaceflight rests in the hands of entrepreneurs, enthusiasts, and primarily, businessmen. Manned exploration of the Moon, Mars and the asteroid belt could open a new frontier of mineral exploitation, in turn opening a new era for mankind. It may be our best hope in the long-run to survive as a race.

We could be on the verge of a Solar System-wide “gold rush”, it just depends who will be the first to have the vision for such an endeavour.

If you were the company to build the first colony on Mars, the planet is all yours for the taking,” – quote from Colonizing Space, At A Profit, on World of Weird Things

Thank you Greg for wanting to speak with me, and for preparing a very inspiring interview! Be sure to check out World of Weird Things, there are some very interesting articles and essays, delving into a huge array of topics, each written with a high degree of thought and intellect. A firm favourite on my reading list.