The private spaceflight company SpaceX has done it again, and this latest achievement is an important one.
We space writers are very familiar with Elon Musk’s human spaceflight dreams that can be encapsulated in his well-known goal to “make humanity multi-planetary,” starting with a Mars settlement. And today, that goal took another step closer to reality.
I’ve been following Musk’s rocket adventures ever since his early days of exploding single-engine rockets in the South Pacific. Back then, Musk was a “dreamer” and more than a little eccentric. His eccentricities are well documented, but the world’s best known billionaire-entrepreneur is a dreamer no more. The first successful flight of a Falcon 1 happened on Sept. 28, 2008. (You can read my 2008 Space Lifestyle Magazine article on that topic, page 36) A little over a decade later, the Falcon 1 has rapidly evolved into the reusable Falcon 9 workhorse and the Falcon Heavy and, with key partnerships with NASA and companies that need to get stuff into orbit cheaply, SpaceX has developed the human-rated Dragon spacecraft to ultimately get astronauts to the space station, and beyond.
After proving itself in the cargo-delivery arena, the Dragon has now won its human-spaceflight wings: an (uncrewed) Crew Dragon is now attached to the International Space Station’s Harmony module and the outpost’s astronauts have entered the vehicle.
Building a commercially-viable space infrastructure is paramount if humanity is to truly become multi-planetary, and through partnerships between private business and government contracts, today’s achievement is proof that this model can work.
Too often, governments lack the long-term vision for human space exploration, instead plowing money into bloated, politically motivated, and ultimately doomed federally-funded projects. SpaceX may be an exhausting company to work for, but its ultimate mission is crystal clear. It’s not a satellite-launching company, it’s just doing that to build funds to do the Next Big Thing. Dragon’s autonomous berthing with the space station is That Big Thing that will drive more investment into getting stuff beyond Earth orbit.
Musk’s interim target — before getting humans to Mars — is the moon, to create a permanently-crewed lunar base. How that will shape up remains to be seen, but if there’s one thing I’ve learnt from following his dreams of getting into space on a reusable spaceflight infrastructure, it’s don’t bet against SpaceX and Elon Musk’s “eccentricities.”
The U.S. media is currently saturated with hot takes, histories, weird facts, “how to’s” and weather reports around the Great American Eclipse that will glide across the continent on Monday (yes, THIS Monday, it’s finally here). But, today, one news report stood out from the crowd:
On reading the NBC News report (that was penned by an unknown Reuters writer), it is as tone deaf as the headline.
“American employers will see at least $694 million in missing output for the roughly 20 minutes that outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas estimates workers will take out of their workday on Monday to stretch their legs, head outside the office and gaze at the nearly two-and-a-half minute eclipse,” they write.
“Stretch their legs” for a “two-and-a-half minute eclipse,” — wow, what a waste of time. Worse than that, “[m]any people may take even longer to set up their telescopes or special viewing glasses, or simply take off for the day.” Unbelievable. Those skiving freeloaders.
How dare they take some time to step away from their computer screens to take a little time to gaze in awe at the most beautiful and rare natural celestial event to occur on our planet.
How dare they put pressure on the U.S. economy by bleeding hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue from the monstrous multi-trillion dollar consumerist machine.
How dare they be moved to tears as the moon completely blocks the sun, an event that has caused fear, suspicion, omen, wonderment, joy, inspiration, excitement and unadulterated passion throughout the history of our species.
How dare th— oh wait a minute. The lede appears to be buried:
“Compared to the amount of wages being paid to an employee over a course of a year, it is very small,” Challenger said. “It’s not going to show up in any type of macroeconomic data.”
So what you’re staying is, $700 million won’t even show up as a blip in economic analyses? Tell me more.
“It also pales when compared with the myriad other distractions in the modern workplace, such as March Madness, Cyber Monday, and the Monday after the Super Bowl,” they write. Well, whatdoyouknow, the Super Bowl is a distraction too? Those monsters.
So what you’re saying is, this isn’t really news. As a science news producer, I completely understand the pressures to keep up with the news cycle and finding fresh takes on tired stories (and let’s face it, 2017 has seen its fair share of eclipse articles). But for this particular angle, I think I would have most likely relegated the “lost” revenue to a footnote in a more informative and less clickbaity piece.
Monday’s eclipse will do untold good to this nation. The U.S. is going through a tumultuous stage in its young history, to put it mildly. This nation needs perspective to overcome the ineptitude, anti-science rhetoric and messages of segregation coming from its government; it needs an event that will be enjoyed by everyone, not just a fortunate subsection of society or the elite. The eclipse will inspire millions of people to look up (safely!) and ponder why is it that our planet’s only natural satellite can exactly fit into the disk of the sun.
Astronomy is an accessible gateway to the sciences and the eclipse will inspire, catalyzing many young minds to consider a future in STEM fields of study. This will enrich society in a myriad of ways and the economic gains from events such as Monday’s eclipse will make “$700 million” look like a piss in a swimming pool.
So, you know what? I’m glad this eclipse will “cost” the U.S. $700 million — I see it as an accidental investment in the future of this nation, a healthy nation that will hopefully put the antiscience stance of its current leaders behind it.
NASA’s Cassini mission sure has a knack for putting stuff into perspective — and this most recent view from Saturn orbit is no different. That dot in the center of the image isn’t a dud pixel in Cassini’s camera CCD. That’s us. All of us. Everyone.
To quote Carl Sagan:
“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives…”
Sagan wrote that passage in his book “Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space” when reflecting on the famous “Pale Blue Dot” image that was beamed back to Earth by NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft in 1990. That’s when the mission returned a profound view of our planet from a distance of 3.7 billion miles (or 40.5AU) as it was traveling through the solar system’s hinterlands, on its way to interstellar space. Since then, there’s been many versions of pale blue dots snapped by the armada of robotic missions around the solar system and Cassini has looked back at us on several occasions from its orbital perch.
Now, just before Cassini begins the final leg of its Saturnian odyssey, it has again spied Earth through a gap between the gas giant’s A ring (top) and F ring (bottom). In a cropped and enhanced version, our moon is even visible! The image is composed of many observations captured on April 12, stitched together as a mosaic when Saturn was 870 million miles (roughly 9.4AU) from Earth.
On April 20 (Friday), Cassini will make its final flyby of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, using its gravity to fling itself through Saturn’s ring plane (on April 26) between the innermost ring and the planet’s cloudy upper atmosphere, revealing a view that we’ve never before seen. For 22 orbits, Cassini will dive into this uncharted region, possibly revealing new things about Saturn’s evolution, what material its rings contain and incredibly intimate views of its atmosphere.
This daring maneuver will signal the beginning of the end for this historic mission, however. On Sept. 15, Cassini will be intentionally steered into Saturn’s atmosphere to burn up as a human-made meteor. It is low in fuel, so NASA wants to avoid the spacecraft from crashing into and contaminating one of Saturn’s potentially life-giving moons — Titan or Enceladus.
So, appreciate every image that is captured by Cassini over the coming weeks. The pictures will be like nothing we’ve seen before of the ringed gas giant, creating a very bittersweet phase of the spacecraft’s profound mission to Saturn.
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!
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.
As you know, I’m highly dubious about this “Project M” that has just surfaced on the intertoobs (I strongly suspect it’s a hoax). But doubts aside, I kept looking at that android throwing stones on the lunar surface thinking I’d seen that guy somewhere before. At first, I thought C3PO from Star Wars… but no! It’s this guy:
I think Futurama’s Bender would do a fine job exploring the moon.
OK, so I have little idea about this project because there’s not much information circulating, but I hope it’s not real.
It looks like NASA’s Johnson Space Center is heading up a robotic mission to the Moon. No big surprises there as that plan is pretty much in alignment with the “Flexible Path” for the future of space exploration for the U.S. space agency. Also, now the Constellation Program has bitten the dust, we’re not going to see man return to the Moon any time soon.
So what’s the answer? Send a robot that looks like a human to the Moon instead!
Project M is a JSC Engineering Directorate led mission to put a lander on the moon with a robot within a 1,000 days starting Jan 1., 2010. “M” has significance in two ways. First, it is the Roman numeral for 1,000. And “M” is the first letter for “Moon”.
How is Project M different from past NASA projects?
No prime contractors.
Just use the best engineers in the world to get the job done on time.
There will be full press on this… including embedded media, full multimedia and social networking. Can you say “The Apprentice goes to Space?”
When will Project M begin? Next month? Next year? No, Project M has been “go” since Monday, November 9th.
But “M” is the first letter of “Missing the Point” too, but that hasn’t been mentioned.
The enthusiasm for a robotic mission to the lunar surface sounds fine and dandy, and it’s to be expected, but if they really intend to send a bipedal robotic man to the Moon within 1000 days, then NASA hasn’t learnt anything from the Constellation debacle. This smells like a publicity stunt with little to no direction and it would be a shame if serious funding is being put into it.
Could the bipedal robot just be a metaphor for the project? Possibly, but I’d have to question the common sense in doing that too.
Also, where’s the incentive (indeed urgency) to create a Manhattan Project-style group of engineers to rush this project to completion within 3 years? If the members of Project M think they can avoid the cumbersome red tape and cost overruns that NASA and its contractors have faced in the past, then great, but I don’t think that’s a reality for such an ambitious project that lacks direction.
Sure, there’s funding being ploughed into humanoid robot technology — such as the “Robonaut” that is being developed by JSC engineers and the car maker GM — but the real-world application of androids (robots designed to look and act like a human) is that they can assist human operators. Bipedal androids such as the one depicted in this promo video would be exploring (read: “picking up stones”) space by themselves. There are no humans working along side them and therefore no real reason to create them in the inefficient form of a human.
The human body isn’t exactly an optimized one for space exploration. The next robotic missions to the Moon and Mars will be rovers, with wheels, because guess what? That makes more sense than revolutionizing android technology, sending it to the Moon within 1000 days, only for it to fall over and not be able to stand back up. (I’m sure Project M would counter this argument and say that the technology would have matured to such an extent that the android would be able to stand up again, but why let it fall over at all?) The center of gravity needs to be low for stability and no matter how big you make a robot’s feet, it’s simply not going to be able to explore as efficiently as a wheeled or multi-legged all-terrain vehicle.
I do admit, I’m terrible with names, but I never forget a face. In this case, the face I didn’t forget was a little moon orbiting Saturn (it’s the one that looks like the Death Star from Star Wars). However, after seeing this photo, I doubt I’ll ever forget Tethys’ name again.
In a photo snapped by the awesome Cassini Equinox mission back in November, the little moon with characteristic impact crater carved into its crust can be seen to be drifting behind Titan. Tethys only disappears for 18 minutes behind Titan’s thick atmosphere, but it was enough to ignite my interest in the icy world.
It’s strange how a simple photograph and perfect timing can ignite the imagination, as I doubt “just another moon shot” would have the same effect. No, this is a moon drifting in front of another moon as seen by a veteran spaceship orbiting the second largest planet in the solar system millions of miles away. Sometimes words are insufficient to describe the enormity of what we are doing in space.
So, sod the words and look at this, you won’t be disappointed:
Let’s face it, us soft and squidgy humans don’t react particularly well to radiation, the vacuum of space or hypervelocity meteoroids. This being the case, how do we ever hope to settle on other worlds, particularly worlds with dust for a backyard and a sky flooded in radiation from the Solar System’s biggest nuclear reactor (the Sun)? To put it mildly, it’s not going to be easy. In fact, exploring and settling on other celestial bodies will the the biggest challenge us terrestrials will face in the next century.
So we start thinking locally, we start thinking “familiar”; where could we build a habitat that’s a stone’s throw from Earth, where we can do a full-scale practical test of our colonizing skills but be only a couple of days from home?
The Moon is that world and we are currently stumbling our way toward that goal. In fact, it is (currently) one of NASA’s main priorities, to get man back to the Moon by 2020 (although the Augustine Commission report was released today and presents many more options for the future of NASA). Once we do eventually get back to the Moon, our lunar explorers will use man made habitats, but what about longer, more permanent settlements?
We’re going deeper underground
In-situ mining of materials for building habitats and using the landscape to protect settlers isn’t a new idea, but we are beginning to acquire better observations of the Earth’s only natural satellite. And now, observations from the Japanese Kaguya spacecraft (that was deliberately crashed into the lunar surface in June) have been used to scout out a possible location for a future permanent habitat.
It may be hard to believe, but the Moon was once a very hot body, where molten rock began to cool shortly after formation. This molten rock eventually solidified, but in doing so, lava burrowed out long channels known as sinuous rilles. These rilles are a sure sign that lava once flowed there. However, scientists have known for some time that beneath these rilles, lava tubes may also hide. The lava tubes formed when the remaining molten rock flowed away, leaving an encrusted layer of rock surrounding a closed network of tunnels.
A lava tube with a view
However, this is the first time a hole in the roof of one of these lava tubes has been found. This hole, for obvious reasons, has been dubbed “a skylight,” and Junichi Haruyama and the SELENE/Kaguya team have been working hard to seek out such features. Their hard work has just paid off.
“This is the first time that anybody’s actually identified a skylight in a possible [lunar] lava tube,” said Carolyn van der Bogert, a co-investigator on the team from University of Münster in Germany, of the discovery in a region of the Moon’s near side in Marius Hills.
The skylight measures 65 metres wide and it is thought to extend 80 metres deep. The hole is right in the middle of a rille, indicative of the presence of a lava tube 370 metres across. It is currently unknown whether the skylight allows access to the lava tube (access may be blocked by rubble or solidified magma), but there is the tantalizing possibility that this hole could be used by astronauts to access an underground cave.
“Basalt is an extremely good material for radiation protection. It’s free real estate ready to be exploited and modified for human use,” said Penny Boston of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro. It’s not exactly a leap of the imagination that locations like the Marius Hills skylight could become very valuable regions when space agencies and potential lunar companies need a permanent foothold on the Moon.
Until we are able to set foot back on the Moon’s surface, we must rely on robotic explorers to do the reconnaissance work (indeed, that is the main priority for NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, a satellite capable of snapping images 10× sharper than this Kaguya picture), but the fact remains, features like this are very appealing to help protect us humans from the ravages of space.
Bored of the Moon? Set up home in a Martian divot!
*Technically, it would be a “condo“; anyone living in the lava tube would own the space inside, they wouldn’t own the lava tube itself. We all know that no one can “own” the Moon don’t we? You can throw away that “Congratulations! You’re Now The Proud Owner Of One Acre Of Lunar Real Estate!” certificate, it’s about as valid as those “I Need Your Bank Account Details To Deposit $1 Million” Nigerian royalty emails.
Rising a mile high and up to 5 miles wide, the impact plume of the spent Centaur rocket was observed by the NASA LCROSS shepherding probe before it travelled through the cloud of dust and crashed 4 minutes later.
The lack of an observed dust plume has been the cause of much confusion to people who watched the events unfold in the early hours of October 9th. NASA publicised the impact event as if it was going to be an explosion of dust (and possibly ice), observable from telescopes on Earth. To say the mission finale was a disappointment is an understatement.
Following the impact, NASA responded by saying that although infrared images proved the Centaur crashed on target (and a 20 meter-wide crater was created), the lack of an accompanying plume could mean that the mass hit the side of a crater (therefore blasting debris at an angle), or it hit a region devoid of dust and water ice, or the plume was simply less obvious than expected. Now that NASA has released new images of the impact, it would appear the latter may be the case; the plume was just less spectacular than the promo videos depicted.
Nine instruments on board LCROSS captured impact sequence, but until now it was unknown whether an impact plume occurred. Now NASA has confirmed that an impact flash, plume and crater were all generated.
“There is a clear indication of a plume of vapor and fine debris,” said Anthony Colaprete, LCROSS principal investigator. “Within the range of model predictions we made, the ejecta brightness appears to be at the low end of our predictions and this may be a clue to the properties of the material the Centaur impacted.”
So the number-crunching continues as we wait to find out whether water was contained within that plume. However, judging by the faint cloud of ejecta, I’m thinking dreams of a H2O reservoir in Cabeus crater might be short lived.