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

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Phoenix is Alive! Just in Time for Halloween

Steve the Cat celebrates Halloween on the Phoenix Mars Lander (NASA/SteveTheCat.com)
Steve the Cat celebrates Halloween on the Phoenix Mars Lander (NASA/SteveTheCat.com)

After an uncertain couple of days, NASA has regained contact with the ailing Mars lander. Yesterday, scientists announced they were having difficulty communicating with Phoenix after the on board electronics were switched into “safe mode” on Tuesday. It seems likely that the robot was switched into this low-energy state due to the increasingly cold weather — plus a Sun-blocking dust storm — triggering a low-power fault.

Although scientists were concerned they may not regain communications with the lander, they were able get in touch with Phoenix late on Thursday during a two hour period when the lander’s electronics were powered up. Now scientists know that Phoenix will automatically reboot itself every 19 hours, and then power up again for two hours to carry out very limited science duties.

NASA was able to transmit commands via NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter which passed overhead during this two-hour period of opportunity. This goes to show how little solar energy is being collected from the meagre sunlight as Mars enters winter (the Sun is very low on the Martian horizon, and it will soon drop out of sight, sealing the fate of Phoenix).

However, before Phoenix succumbs to a low energy coma, NASA is trying to get as many science activities out of it before it is frozen solid.

It also seems fitting that the highly successful NASA mission should come back from the brink of death on Halloween. So, “Happy Halloween Phoenix!” We all hope you last a few more weeks…

Source: AP

Has Phoenix… Died?

Could this be the end of Phoenix? (NASA/JPL)
The end of the line? (NASA/JPL)

Late on Tuesday, NASA’s Phoenix Mars lander entered “safe mode.”

Before this, NASA scientists were working to conserve power by shutting down non-critical systems. By powering down instrumentation such as the heaters that warm Phoenix’s robotic arm, valuable energy was hoped to be saved, perhaps giving the lander some extra time to carry out its final experiments before complete loss of sunlight as Mars’ northern hemisphere enters winter. But it seems that a possible dust storm and the falling temperatures (down to -96°C) may have caused a low-power fault, triggering the precautionary safe-mode.

Although scientists were optimistic about communicating with its on board systems, to send commands to bring Phoenix back online, it seems time (and energy) has run out…
Continue reading “Has Phoenix… Died?”

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!
Continue reading “The Pessimism About Modern Space Flight”

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!).
Continue reading “Is the Armadillo Vertical-Lift Spaceship a Viable Tourist Route?”

GOCE is Suffering Major Delays, But Should be Dominating Space by February

No, it isn't sci-fi. It's the Porche of orbital engineering (GOCE/ESA)
No, it isn't sci-fi. It's the Porche of orbital engineering (GOCE/ESA)

The European Space Agency’s Gravity field and state-steady Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) should be in space by now. In fact it should have been launched back on September 10th, but it wasn’t to be. After the spacecraft (which has a striking resemblance to something a little more sci-fi… like a star destroyer) had been sealed into the payload bay of the Rockot launch vehicle at Plesetsk cosmodrome 800 km from Moscow, I assumed that was it, we wouldn’t be seeing GOCE ever again. But there was a glitch in the guidance and navigation subsystem of the Breeze KM third stage, thus postponing GOCE’s big day. GOCE was cracked open from its rocket powered cocoon to await a Rockot oil change.

Now it seems the delays are mounting up for this amazing experiment and a launch doesn’t seem possible until February at the earliest…
Continue reading “GOCE is Suffering Major Delays, But Should be Dominating Space by February”

IBEX Will Spread its Wings Today

Probably one of the coolest missions designed to study the termination shock (the region of space where the solar wind and interstellar medium interact) located a little under 100 AU from the Sun, will be launched today (Sunday). The Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) will be carried into space on board a Pegasus rocket installed under a L-1011 carrier aircraft from the Reagan Test Site at Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific (about 2500 miles from Hawaii in the direction of Australia). Out of interest, the aircraft will take off from the same region that SpaceX use to send their Falcon 1 rocket (and first ever commercial orbital vehicle) into space…
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Chinese Shenzhou-7 Spaceship Imaged by Microsatellite

Shenzhou-7 imaged by the BX-1 small monitoring satellite six minutes after it was released from the main ship (Xinhua Photo)
Shenzhou-7 imaged by the BX-1 small monitoring satellite six minutes after it was released from the main ship (Xinhua Photo)

On September 27th (Saturday), two hours after Zhai Zhigang completed China’s first ever space walk, the Shenzhou-7 spaceship launched a mini-monitoring satellite to orbit its mothership. Although it might have been a better idea to launch BX-1 before Zhai started his EVA (thereby stemming some of the accusations that China had faked the whole event), the images BX-1 returned were pretty impressive. According to state-run news sources, the BX-1 has taken over 1,000 images, the first one was taken only six seconds after being released…
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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…
Continue reading “Bubbles, Reflections and Space Walks… Did China Really Fake It?”

Writing for Los Angeles Family Magazine – New Science Column!

The October 2008 edition of LA Family Magazine, where my new space column features!
The October 2008 edition of LA Family Magazine, where my new space column features!

So what does Astroengine.com and Denise Richards have in common? Well, usually not a lot, but today my writing appears in the October 2008 edition of LA Family Magazine with Denise Richards featuring in the leading article. Admittedly, there’s 36 pages separating Denise from me, so the link is a little tenuous, but great nonetheless!

I was asked to become a regular columnist in this leading parenting magazine in an effort to communicate space science topics to parents and their kids. And what better way to begin than by writing about flying to the Moon!

After writing a very popular article about “How Long Does it Take to get to the Moon?” for the Universe Today, I thought this was a good place to start. The next article will tackle a bigger project, a trip to Mars…

Have a look at this month’s edition of Los Angeles Family Magazine and have a read of “Hey, Kids! Want to Go to the Moon?” (page 54)