What’s NASA’s Biggest Accomplishment of 2009? It’s Still Here.

A space station in the movie '2001: A Space Odyssey.' It's hard to believe that by 2015 we might not have any space station (the sci-fi writers in the 20th century didn't see that coming).
A space station in the movie '2001: A Space Odyssey.' It's hard to believe that by 2015 we might not have any manned outpost in orbit (sci-fi writers never saw that coming).

I was only half joking when I tweeted, “Vote for your favorite NASA accomplishment in 2009: http://bit.ly/83xWlJ [x] Still existing.” I was referring to a vote that is being held over on iTWire, where they’ve listed an array of NASA endeavors and then asked their readers to pick their favorite mission/discovery.

To be honest, I wouldn’t have a clue about how to choose between a Mercury flyby, precision-bombing of the Moon or detection Martian methane; all endeavors have enormous merit and each have vastly improved our knowledge of the Universe. Each is as profound as the other. But it’s not the vote of a 3 page list of NASA achievements that I found myself most uneasy with, it’s the fact that none of these achievements can make the future of the world’s premier space agency any more secure, especially when we are talking about orbiting U.S. astronauts.

There’s a strange dichotomy of opinion: NASA is globally renowned and respected for carrying out outstanding science, and yet it is constantly lambasted (often unfairly) for its spaceflight ineptitude.

Shuttle Out. Space Station Out?

The catalyst to NASA’s human spaceflight problems is of course the retirement of the shuttle next year. We’ve seen it coming for a long time and yet the “5-year gap” hasn’t budged, in fact, it’s become a lot bigger. This gap is the number of years between the shuttle being retired and the proposed completion of NASA’s next launch system, Constellation. To fill this gap, the U.S. must use the Russian Soyuz vehicle at a premium rate. One can only imagine the diplomatic fun NASA has in store for the next few years.

And why should NASA maintain its human spaceflight program anyway? You remember the International Space Station (ISS), right? Well, it’s a good idea to have access to the biggest space station ever constructed in Earth-orbit after spending billions to build the thing. Unfortunately, the very foundations of the ISS are looking a little shaky.

Here we are with the world’s most expensive real estate zooming over our heads, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has just told the White House that the U.S. taxpayer is getting a raw deal from International Space Station (ISS) science. This obviously doesn’t sound good for the ISS’ future beyond 2015. (That is, if you can still comprehend that the space station is still slated for decommissioning in five years time.)

Slight-Of-Hand Rocketry

I only have a general idea about what information the GAO has access to, but I know that the ISS is doing continuous science in microgravity to better our understanding about how we operate in space and use instrumentation that have a huge advantage over ground-based techniques. Unfortunately, NASA is a political entity and politicians are eying the space station with more than a little skepticism. As pointed out by Greg Fish over at Weird Things, wasn’t the ISS supposed to the stepping stone to the Moon… or even Mars by now? Not so long ago I remember intense excitement for how the ISS was going to change the world. Shockingly, now I sometimes hear people say: “we have a space station?!”

To make matters worse, the shuttle replacement is underfunded and behind schedule and the shadow of doubt over Constellation is becoming blacker than a moonless night. NASA triumphantly launched the Ares I-X, only for the celebrations to be quenched by critics (including ex-Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin calling it “slight-of-hand rocketry“) pointing out that the Ares test launch was a publicity stunt at best. At worst, the space agency was conning the American public into thinking progress was being made.

Whether NASA makes any kind of Constellation progress or continues to perform outstanding science on the ISS, it seems that there is a widening disconnect between NASA science and the perception of what NASA is trying to do. Many argue that NASA is just really bad at communicating science to a public audience, but I would say that the agency is doing more than ever to communicate their stuff. Also, NASA does an awful lot more than just getting astronauts into space — their robotic missions, observatories, space telescopes and research are breaking new ground every day. So why the huge question mark hanging over NASA’s human spaceflight plans?

Myopic Politics

Well, getting man into space is dangerous, it’s expensive and it’s long-term. All of which are not good for the political nature of NASA. In 2004, President Bush made the gargantuan promise that the US would make it back to the Moon by 2020 (and Mars soon after). This sounds great, but there was no money. Bush had made a political decision based on his term in office, he had also made it after the Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy when seven astronauts lost their lives. Back then, NASA needed direction more than ever, especially as the shuttle fleet was grounded.

Although the shuttle missions recommenced and NASA got back to leading space station construction, by 2009 Bush’s “Vision” has become nothing more than a pipe dream. The money that was promised never materialized and it is now up to President Obama to get NASA’s human spaceflight plans back on its feet. But the damage has been done and the U.S. has an ailing economy and lumped with an overpriced Constellation Program. Changes need to be made.

The Augustine Commission has done something to identify the options, but the final decision comes down to what Obama and the new NASA Administrator Charles Bolden can hash out.

Commercial Rocketeers

Personally, I don’t see the Constellation Program getting off the starting blocks. But I don’t think this is due to any kind of technical or design issue, it will be purely political. Funds are tight, Constellation is too expensive. Sadly, adding insult to injury, the ISS is also in the firing line.

So now the responsibility for U.S. participation in the ISS falls on the shoulders of the burgeoning private spaceflight sector, which in itself could be a revolution in the making. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a real commercial answer to the human spaceflight problem? Using companies like SpaceX to ferry astronauts to-and-from the ISS makes a lot more sense than NASA doing the same job for way more money.

But again, I have that nagging feeling about a genuine disconnect between the public and the importance of spaceflight. Not only can human spaceflight advance human experience, it can boost our economy, education and technology. Last time I looked, those were very political sectors, it’s just unfortunate that politicians and many voters will never understand the correlation.

Actually, Obama Hasn’t Decided on the Future of NASA

You may be forgiven for thinking that President Obama had decided on the future of NASA’s human spaceflight plans yesterday, but in an official (note: official) statement from the White House today, Obama says that he has made no such decision.

Quoting “knowledgeable” (yet anonymous) sources, Science Magazine’s ScienceInsider blog said:

The president chose the new direction for the U.S. human space flight program Wednesday at a White House meeting with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, according to officials familiar with the discussion. NASA would receive an additional $1 billion in 2011 both to get the new launcher on track and to bolster the agency’s fleet of robotic Earth-monitoring spacecraft.

In a nutshell, NASA would get an additional $1 billion in funding and start work on a new (yet undetermined) heavy-lift launch system. Good news for NASA, but not-so-good news for the Ares I (and possibly Ares V, although the larger rocket wasn’t mentioned). Also, this magical silver bullet of a “new” launch vehicle would be ready for blast-off in 2018.

However, Space Flight Now has just reported that the White House hasn’t made a decision yet:

NASA and White House officials claim such reports are mere speculation, but they are providing no information on when a decision could be announced. The administration will file its fiscal year 2011 budget request in February.

Still mulling over the findings from the Augustine Commission report, Obama and Bolden have yet to arrive at an agreement as to how to progress with NASA’s human spaceflight plans. It’s now very clear that ex-President Bush’s bold “Vision for Space Exploration” was lacking a little thing called money, and the commission’s findings indicated that NASA needs an extra $3 billion in funding to keep the agency’s human spaceflight plans alive.

Although these anonymous sources are no doubt credible, it’s wise to wait until the final word from the White House is known before saying “bye-bye” to Ares.

Via: @SpaceFlightNow

Star Birth Dominates Energy Production in Ultra-Luminous Galaxies

Artists impression of an ultra-luminous galaxy heating the surrounding dust (JAXA/ISAS/LIRA)
Artists impression of an ultra-luminous galaxy heating the surrounding dust (JAXA/ISAS/LIRA)

In the early 1980’s, NASA’s Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) detected a number of unknown objects lurking in the depths of the cosmos.

At the time, these IRAS objects stirred speculation in the press. Were the infrared signals being emitted by comets inside the Solar System? Or were they failed stars (brown dwarfs) lurking beyond the orbit of Pluto? The latter theory spawned the idea that the hunt for Planet X was back on (stoking the smoldering conspiracy embers of the flawed doomsday theory that Nibiru is coming to get us). Alas, it was neither, these intense infrared signals were coming from much, much further away.

It turned out that the infrared emissions were being generated by galaxies that, bizarrely, had little optical signal. Although a high proportion of them were known to be interacting galaxies (i.e. they were colliding with other galaxies), the exact energy mechanism driving their emissions was not known.

Ultra-luminous galaxies have the luminocity of a trillion Suns, whereas our galaxy has the luminosity of a pedestrian ten billion Suns. Obviously, ultra-luminous galaxies are different animals to the Milky Way, but a galaxy is a galaxy and the energy sources are similar whether they are ultra-luminous or not. It would appear that the only difference is how active the galaxy is.

The first obvious energy source in a galaxy is star formation; the more stars that are forming, the brighter the galaxy. Secondly — as with our galaxy — the central supermassive black hole’s accretion rate contributes to the galaxy’s energy budget; the more matter being accreted by the black hole, the more energy is being generated (and therefore the brighter the galaxy).

So, when observing these ultra-luminous galaxies, surely it should be an easy task to work out where all this energy is coming from? Actually, this isn’t the case, astronomers are having a difficult job in understanding the nature of IRAS galaxies and the reason for this comes from the source of the infrared emissions. Galactic dust is being heated by the energy source, but this dust obscures the source of this heating (it is opaque to optical wavelengths).

Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) researcher Guido Risaliti and his team have been analyzing Spitzer data to try to characterize the infrared emissions from 71 ultra-luminous galaxies. Using a “dust emission diagnostic technique,” the team have deduced that approximately 70% of the galaxies have active nuclei (i.e. their supermassive black holes have high accretion rates). Although most of the galactic nuclei are active, it is star formation that dominates the energy production in two-thirds of the galaxies. Also, these account for the highest fraction of the brightest galaxies.

This is a significant finding as it demonstrates how a galaxy reacts when it interacts with another galaxy. It would appear that the black hole in the core of the galactic bulge is kick-started during the massive gravitational interaction, boosting energy output as it eats more matter. The interaction also boosts star birth and this energy source becomes a dominant factor. Both energy sources heat up interstellar dust, making the galaxy glow in infrared wavelengths while optical light is masked.

Source: SAO (Harvard)

Ares I-X: Will This Be The Only Launch Of Constellation?

The Ares I-X and space shuttle Atlantis, ready to launch (NASA)
The Ares I-X and space shuttle Atlantis, ready to launch (NASA)

This is possibly the most confusing image I have seen since I started writing about human space flight. In the foreground, we have the brand new Ares I crew launch test vehicle for the Constellation Program (a.k.a. the Ares I-X), and in the background we have space shuttle Atlantis awaiting its scheduled Nov. 16th STS-129 launch. Is this going to be a historic scene of the past and future generations of U.S. manned space flight? Or is this going to be an example of how to waste a lot of money very quickly in one launch?

The world should be bubbling over with excitement that we are about to see a brand new launch system take to the skies on Tuesday at 8am EDT (albeit on a suborbital path) but it’s not, as hanging over the Constellation Program is the decision to come from the White House after the Augustine Commission report was released on Thursday. No one expected good news for the Ares I rocket, and nothing much has changed. NASA is developing the wrong rocket for the wrong destination (i.e. the Moon).

AresIX_patch02.svg

On the one hand, I want to see the Constellation Program become the trailblazer of manned spaceflight, but on the other hand I’m concerned that the program is too flawed and too expensive (pretty much in agreement with the Commission). Perhaps a cheaper, more efficient alternative can be implemented to solve our current space exploration woes? NASA definitely needs the support of commercial spaceflight, perhaps a focus on stimulating the commercial sector should take an even higher priority than space station resupply contracts?

There are arguments for and against Constellation, and I haven’t worked out where I stand yet. However, I totally support Norm Augustine’s comments that NASA shouldn’t be “running a trucking service” in low-Earth orbit. That job should be left to commercial spaceflight companies. NASA should be pushing into new frontiers with the most technologically advanced spaceship they can develop.

So, back to this photo. Never before has the term “bitter sweet” been so applicable. I just hope we see a perfect launch on Tuesday, but it may well be the only flight of Constellation (so be sure to wake up early, just in case).

Image source: NASA

First Images of LCROSS Centaur Impact Plume Released

The lunar dust plume as seen 15 seconds after Centaur impact. The size of the plume was approximately 6-8 km wide at this time (NASA)
The lunar dust plume as seen 15 seconds after Centaur impact. The size of the plume was approximately 6-8 km wide at this time (NASA)

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.

Source: NASA, LA Times. A special thanks to @jamerz3294 for the tip!

Did NASA “Bomb” the Moon? Kinda

NASA possesses Weapons of Moon Destruction, obviously.

There’s been a lot of criticism concerning the media’s ability to report science recently. After all, what is “good” science reporting? The tabloid press is well known for hyping up scientific endeavour, and although some news outlets deliberately fill their columns with hyperbole, it doesn’t necessarily mean the science is being misrepresented, it just means the column in question is making a mountain out of a molehill.

Take Friday morning’s NASA LCROSS impact with the Moon. Those of us that were following the action on the various news outlets and online feeds were astonished by the sheer amount of fear, misinformation, disinformation and general weirdness that was being banded about. To be honest, I was shocked.

[I actually have a theory about one of the reasons why LCROSS was a particular target for many conspiracy wingnuts and doomsday woo, but I’ll save that for another article I’ll be writing shortly.]

Although a lot of the stuff was total silliness (i.e. the Moon feels pain, LCROSS might knock the Moon off it’s axis, many moonpeople might die etc. etc.), many worried individuals were concerned by the reports from the mainstream press. Let’s have a look at one of the claims being disseminated by a wide variety of news outlets in the run-up to, and the days following, LCROSS: The Moon was being “bombed” by NASA.

Did NASA “bomb” the Moon or not?

A huge number of people have a problem with the word “bomb” when connected with the LCROSS mission (I’m not fond of the description either). Could this one word be indicative of bad journalism? For the scientifically-minded, “bomb” doesn’t sound very scientific and would rather use “impactor.” For the non-specialist, “bomb” conjures thoughts of war, violence and Al Qaeda.

Is it just creative writing? Is it an inaccurate term? Is it wrong? First off, let’s look at the definition of “a bomb.”

bomb. n. An explosive weapon detonated by impact, proximity to an object, a timing mechanism, or other means.

The LCROSS Centaur was certainly not manufactured as a conventional weapon (as in, it didn’t carry explosives and couldn’t “detonate”), but just by its mass, could it cause an explosion like a bomb? In the case of the above definition, I’m referring to the “or other means” part.

Energy is energy

The Centaur was empty of propellent when it was sent careening toward the lunar south pole, but it still had a mass of 2366 kg (the size of an SUV). At the time of impact, it was travelling at a velocity of 2.5 km/s (2500 m/s). From this information alone, we can calculate the kinetic energy of Centaur at the moment it slammed into the lunar surface.

Ekinetic = 1/2 mv2 = 1/2 × 2366 (kg) × 25002 (m/s) = 7.4×109 Joules

This is the total energy the Centaur had when it was speeding toward the Moon, and according to basic physics energy is always conserved. So, when the Centaur ate Moon dust, where did this energy go?

We know energy wasn’t lost through the production of sound waves, as there’s no atmosphere on the Moon — In space, no one can hear your rocket go *bang* (although seismic waves would have been generated, propagating through the Moon’s surface). Also, lots of chunks of rock (from the surface) and shards of metal (from the Centaur) would have been ejected from the crater, each piece carrying a little piece of that kinetic energy away from the impact (much like very high-energy shrapnel). A lot of rock was displaced too, creating a crater 20 meters in diameter and 3 meters deep. Much of the kinetic energy will have also been converted to heat and light (the “flash” of the impact was captured by the LCROSS infrared camera).

What with all this heat, light and shrapnel, the Centaur impact sure is sounding like an exploding bomb. If you convert the 7.4×109 Joules into units more synonymous with weaponry, we find that the energy released during the Centaur impact was the equivalent of 1.8 tonnes of TNT exploding. That’s the size of a small bunker-busting bomb.

What’s more, kinetic weapons are a well-known method to take out orbiting satellites, so this concept isn’t a new one.

As much as it pains me, using an inflammatory statement like “NASA Bombed The Moon” is a correct analysis of the effects of the Centaur dead-weight hitting the Moon. However, the press milked “the Moon bombing” way beyond what I’d consider to be reasonable, taking full advantage of the violent connotations associated with this incredible NASA mission to probe for water on the Moon.

I think that people are apprehensive about it because it seems violent or crude, but it’s very economical.” –Tony Colaprete, principal investigator for LCROSS (Feb. 2008)

What REALLY Happened to the LCROSS Centaur?

<conspiracy mode>

In the early hours of Friday morning at 4:31am, the spent Centaur rocket from the NASA LCROSS mission slammed into the surface of the south pole of the moon. What was the point in that?

Well, NASA was hoping that the tumbling chunk of metal the size of a small bus would kick up a huge plume of dust. Following 4 minutes behind was the shepherding LCROSS spacecraft, also on a kamikaze dive, hoping to drop through the plume, sensitive instruments ready to analyse the dust for water.

I know what you’re thinking: what right does NASA have to BOMB the Moon? They have NO RIGHT AT ALL!!

It turns out that they are actually waging a top secret war against the population of peaceful extraterrestrials that live on the far side of the Moon. This “experiment” was in fact a reckless attack against a superior alien civilization, intended to strike fear into the hearts of the aliens.

If you were to believe the NASA promo video of the event, this should have been spectacular, vast quantities of lunar regolith blasting into space… it should have been akin to the biggest Fourth of July firework detonating. This “shock and awe” tactic is typical of the US space agency. The huge mass of the Centaur (a little under 2400kg), combined with its break-neck speed (1.5 miles per second) should have unleashed the equivalent energy of a tonne of TNT exploding. However, what NASA didn’t tell us was that Centaur was also carrying plutonium, so the explosion should have been a LOT bigger, easily visible to the naked eye.

But what did we see? Nothing. What did NASA see? Nothing. So what happened? Well, the answer to that is a little more compelling than what NASA is telling us.

Yes, they can show us images of a meagre “flash” as the Centaur hit inside a lunar crater, but I don’t think Centaur hit the Moon at all… the Centaur rocket was swallowed by the Moon.

Don’t believe me? Moments before impact, NASA’s lunar satellite — the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) — was approaching the location and it took this photo. What you see here will shock you. It will astound you. And what’s more, it’s REAL.

Aliens DO live on the Moon, and they were prepared for the NASA bombing…

lcross-conspiracy

</conspiracy mode>

I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist. In the run-up to the LCROSS impact, the sheer amount of crazy conspiracy theories hit fever-pitch (I blogged about it on Space Disco 2 hours before impact). Some of my favourite theories involved alien civilizations on the lunar surface, plutonium on LCROSS (to destroy the Moon), the “fact” that it was all just a publicity stunt and the LCROSS mission didn’t exist at all… and the strange theory that the Moon feels pain.

Yawn.

A polite message to the conspiracy theorists: Come on people, stop making stuff up and understand the real science. You might find reality more interesting than your twisted fantasies.

Image: The Sarlacc pit monster from Star Wars, Copernicus lunar crater and the LCROSS Centaur rocket. Photoshopping: Me.

Oops… I really geeked out this time, didn’t I.

@Astroengine Got CNN’d (and other epic things)

cnn-banner

I’ve been pondering a word that could describe today.

I drew a blank.

It’s a very hard day to sum up in one word. In fact, this entire week has been something of a unique one. From a space point of view, it’s been busy, largely due to the endless supply of space science research spewing from the American Astronomical Society’s Division of Planetary Sciences meeting in Puerto Rico.

However, last night (and early this morning) is what topped it all off. The NASA LCROSS mission slammed into the lunar south pole at 4:31am (PDT) and I was there tweeting away, keeping abreast of all the juicy LCROSS news. That was until Time Warner Cable decided to pull the plug on my internet connection 10 minutes before the main event (I’m certain they did it deliberately, it’s the only explanation). Panic-stricken — and really peeved that I’d spent the whole night excited to see the glorious end to this Moon mission, only to be foiled by my ISP — I checked the TV, and it was working, plus a local channel was covering the event. Phew.

As it turned out, there wasn’t much to see. Oh well.

Anyway, on waking up this morning, I was shocked to find my inbox was stuffed full of Twitter follow messages and notes of congratulations from my team at Discovery News. CNN had picked me, with four heavy-hitters on Twitter as their #FollowFriday. But it wasn’t an ordinary #FollowFriday, the guys at CNN Technology posted this #FollowFriday on their site!

Editor’s note: In this new weekly feature, we highlight five recommended Twitter feeds about a hot topic in the news. Today’s list focuses on space-related tweets and NASA’s plan to crash two spacecraft on the moon Friday in a search for water in lunar soil.CNN Tech

So despite my internet woes, CNN had chosen me (@astroengine) with @BadAstronomer, @Astro_Mike, @LCROSS_NASA and @NASA_AMES. So I was in the company of an entire NASA facility (Ames), a NASA mission that had just hours before slammed into the Moon (LCROSS), the first astronaut to tweet from space (Mike Massimino) and the one, and only, Phil “The Bad Astronomer” Plait.

Wow.

They also added this very flattering description of @astroengine:

4. astroengine — Astroengine is the Twitter name of Ian O’Neill, a British-born physicist with a long resume and a healthy sense of humor. It’s also the name of his blog, which gathers articles and posts on such light-reading topics as quantum mechanics, solar physics, relativity, cosmology, space flight science and “some of the more bizarre theories that drive our universe.”

Number of followers: more than 1,700

Sample tweet: “Europa, Jupiter’s Moon, Could Support Complex Life http://bit.ly/3n6iKL (I, for one, welcome our alien Jellyfish Overlords)”

So, I’d like to take this opportunity to say “hello” to my hundreds of new followers!

And did I think of a word that describes today? Actually, I think I just did:

Epic.

Where Are The Protests Now?

Where's the protest?
Where's the protest?

In a discussion I seem to keep having these days when I mention that human spaceflight is actually a valuable endeavour for a nation, I’m usually met with a look of incongruity. Then the question: What has space exploration ever done for us?

I used to get a little angry about this question (of course space exploration is important!) but in actuality, I have to explain the answer because it isn’t necessarily obvious. By pushing into space, a nation can enrich its technology, improve education, boost employment in skilled areas, thereby improving the economy and generally improving a nation’s standing in the world. That’s the eco-friendly version. There are other applications such as military prowess, strategic advantage and business potential. Unfortunately, doing bold things in space requires money, and to get money you need to convince the government that it’s worth spending money on. Last time I looked, there’s no Space Race 2 going on, so we can’t rely on politics to see the necessity of space flight.

However, the US has invested billions of dollars in the exploration of space, and although NASA is a money-hungry entity, it produces results and has shaped the world as we know it. Granted, the US space agency was built on Cold War ideals and was hinged around the sole purpose of beating the Soviets to the Moon, but modern NASA is still relevant, if not more so.

Rockets and healthcare

From space, and back to Earth with a bump.

I watched a series of fascinating videos of the protests that went on in Washington D.C. on September 12th concerning President Obama’s healthcare reform plans. The Tea Party (not Twinnings, or Boston… some other tea party that didn’t have a lot of tea) exploded to life to the sound of tens of thousands of voices protesting “socialist” healthcare. Apparently, a nationalized healthcare system is a bad thing. The arguments against Obama’s plan seem rather outlandish to me, and a hardcore group of protesters (not all the protesters, just a few apparently missing a sanity gene) accused the US President of being a “communist,” “socialist,” “Marxist” and (most shockingly) a “Nazi.”

So, here we are, with a field-full of rabid protesters that have been whipped up into a frenzy by the media, special interest groups and political antagonizers. These geniuses see a nationalized healthcare system as a socialist agenda. Of course, this means communism is just down the garden path. Last time I looked, the UK wasn’t a communist state, and although the British National Health Service (NHS) isn’t perfect, it’s a damn sight better than the US health insurance insanity.

The point I’m trying to make is that tens of thousands of people descended on the US capital to protest a healthcare bill that actually seems quite sensible. Unfortunately, this huge group believe this bill is actually a government conspiracy intended to dupe the public, bankrupt the country and control the nation.

NASA losses

Now let’s wind back the clock to last year, when it was announced NASA would be shedding thousands of jobs when the space shuttle is retired. More recently, a task group was formed to discuss NASA’s options considering its budget isn’t going to grow any time soon — unfortunately, Bush’s “Vision for Space Exploration” can’t be done because the Constellation Program will cost too much. Now the Augustine Commission has set out some plans that may curtail NASA’s big projects, possibly even cancelling Constellation.

To top all this off, there is a 5-year gap (minimum) between the shuttle being retired and Constellation taking over (if that even happens), that means there will be at least 5 years the US will have without a manned launch vehicle. Yes, the US has gone through this before (between the end of the Apollo Program in 1970 and the Shuttle Program in 1982), but this time we could lose access to the space station, a $100 billion project the US is heavily invested in.

Fortunately, US companies are seeing business opportunities in space, so given enough funding, start-ups like SpaceX could start ferrying NASA astronauts into LEO sooner rather than later. There are also other nations involved in the space station and they can give us a lift into space. Unfortunately, apart from the Shuttle, there’s only one other spacecraft that’s human-rated in the world. That’s Soyuz.

Russian Roulette

Soyuz is great, it’s a sturdy vehicle and it’s received little complaint from the astronauts and cosmonauts that have been ferried around in it (well, most of the time). The Russian space agency will basically be offering NASA taxi rides into space so the US can still use the International Space Station.

The cost? $50 million per seat.

Wow, what a bargain. The space shuttle costs the best part of a billion dollars to launch every time. Compare that with $50 million, it almost seems as if this 5-year gap is a good thing. It might save NASA some money!

However, in the process of retiring the shuttle, skilled US jobs will be lost. Even the transition from the shuttle program to Constellation will cause a re-shuffle of NASA employees. Last year, Senator Bill Nelson pointed out that shedding jobs from the US space agency, only to rely on a Russian launch vehicle, will have the effect of generating jobs in Russia. This might seem like an over-exaggeration, but it may indirectly be the case.

The added concern is that the $50 million value per Soyuz seat could increase. After all, US-Russia relations aren’t exactly toasty, the Russian space agency could set its own price for taxi rides to the space station. NASA money will be spent, not on advancing US spaceflight capabilities, but on another nation’s spaceflight capabilities. Sure, NASA and Roscosmos are co-operating now, but both are government-backed entities and that co-operation could turn south during the next East-West political upset.

Conclusion

In summary, until US spaceflight companies develop human-rated space vehicles, or until the Constellation Project (or equivalent) is finished, the US will be wholly dependent on Russia for human spaceflight. NASA will be paying a premium rate for that privilege.

So when I see thousands of individuals crowding on Capitol Hill, angrily protesting about the idiotic belief that the President of the USA is on the verge of creating a communist state, I think about NASA and the fact that the US space agency has been forced to pay for seats on board a spaceship maintained by an ex-communist state the US government is having problems with.

Where are the protests now?

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