Ares I First Stage Test Set For August 25th (Video)

The completed Ares I first stage five-segment solid rocket booster in Promontory, Utah on July 21st (NASA/ATK/RedOrbit)
The completed Ares I first stage five-segment solid rocket booster in Promontory, Utah on July 21st (NASA/ATK/RedOrbit)

Development of the Constellation Program pushes ahead with the announcement that the first stage motor of the Ares I crew launch vehicle will be fired in the Utah desert on August 25th. The Ares I five-segment first stage booster is based on the design of the shuttle’s four-segment booster, but it will deliver a far meatier 3.6 million pounds of thrust. A single shuttle booster delivers 2.8 million pounds of thrust (but remember, there are two of them attached to the shuttle at lift-off).

Naturally, the ATK/NASA Utah test will be a huge event, a major milestone towards the construction and assembly of the rocket that will carry the Orion spaceship into orbit. This is in addition to the continuing developments of Orion.

So, to promote the event ATK has released this snazzy movie-style trailer ahead of this historic rocket test, and to be honest, I’m impressed:

Although Constellation is hitting wave upon wave of setbacks and criticism, it seems the tests are pushing ahead, and we are beginning to see the physical embodiment of the Ares I/Orion combo take shape.

Source: Fox Business

Space Enthusiasm, NSS Style: “NASA Isn’t Important to the President”

The National Space Society has done great work in the realms of space science outreach and project funding, and to be honest, I’m behind any non-profit that whips up enthusiasm and furthers mankind’s efforts in space. They are outspoken critics of space policy and NASA, which is usually pretty fair.

However, the NSS blog has dropped a few clangers of late, making me question whether they are on the right track.

Previously on the NSS blog, described in a misguided (yet well-made and undoubtedly enthusiastic) video, that by magically revisiting the Apollo era, the US can begin re-industrializing and build rockets. What happens then? A million jobs are created! Wow, why didn’t the NSS think of this years ago? Actually, as Greg Fish points out of Weird Things, snazzy videos and a triumphant call for factories to build stuff is a little naive at best.

Then there was the case of the publication of the draft Unified Space Vision headed by Buzz Aldrin that was picked up by New Scientist, only for the post to be hastily pulled from the NSS blog when it started to get all the wrong kinds of press (the draft letter was here, but now it’s not).

And today? Well, read this, a bizarre take from Karen Shea:

Assume that President Obama doesn’t care about NASA. When there was a talk of a missile gap [during the Cold War] NASA was important to show our technical prowess in a non-threatening way. NASA hasn’t been important to the President since. Presidents want NASA to demonstrate America’s technological leadership and not kill any one, that seems to be about it.

It is time for NASA to grow up and take responsibility for its self and its accomplishments, and do so within a flat budget. Don’t expect to see Apollo level funding again. Don’t expect a President with 2 wars going on, a third one possibly on the horizon, the worst economic crisis in the last 80 years, and a health care crisis to worry about NASA.

Barrak [sic] Obama put NASA in the able hands of Charlie Bolden and Lori Garver so he wouldn’t have to care about NASA and could simply make speeches about the wonderful things NASA is accomplishing during his administration.

Yey! Go US spaceflight! Woohoo! Doesn’t that make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside?

It’s one thing to criticise NASA and US space policy, but this is incredibly defeatist for an organization that should be working harder to promote the importance and shape the future of NASA science. Come on NSS! I’d happily see more enthusiastic videos about how a new spaceflight industry will save the economy (even if it’s unrealistic) rather than read someone’s depressing, and frankly limited, opinion that Barack Obama (note the correct spelling) doesn’t give a toss about NASA.

[ UPDATE: The site has now been updated with the correct spelling of the President’s name, but here’s the original post (thanks to Keith at NASAWatch and ]

This blog post was picked up by, and Keith Cowling makes an interesting observation:

Ouch, this is rather gloomy and depressing talk from the National Space Society’s official blog given that two of its former Executive Directors are at NASA – one being Deputy Adminstrator and the other being Chief of Staff – and hold opposite, hopeful views of what lies ahead for NASA. It is also odd that the webmaster of this blog does not even bother to spell the President’s name correctly.

NASA is an easy target for critics, and the agency certainly has its problems, but I think this is a surprising cheap shot from a blog of the biggest US space advocacy non-profits.

I’d have a read of the blog ASAP, it might vanish soon…


I See Mars Faces… Everywhere

The two suspect shapes spotted by Mars conspiracy theorists. Exhibit 1: The Egyptian statue. Exhibit 2: ??

During my search for material for last week’s Wide Angle: Mars Roving on Discovery, I was looking for images snapped by the Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) Spirit and Opportunity. During my trawl around Google Images, I managed to find a high-resolution picture of the rocky outcrop on the side of Victoria Crater when Opportunity was imaging the area in 2006.

I’ve always loved these Victoria images; you can easily see layering in the exposed rock and boulders strewn below. In fact, this could be a black and white picture of the Utah desert, or a wide angle view of the Grand Canyon. But no, this is Mars; lifeless Mars.

Or is it?

One version of the Opportunity image can be found on a conspiracy website, where a ‘study’ has been carried out. And guess what they found?

Oh yes, apparently a Martian civilization worshiped the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, carving a statue more commonly associated with pyramids into the crater wall (“Exhibit A” in the image above). Also, there’s a curiously shaped multi-layer disk on the ground — obviously some kind of alien artifact (“Exhibit B”).


Normally I’d ignore something like this, but I thought I’d have a little fun one evening (because my evenings simply aren’t exciting enough, it seems). Inspired by Phil Plait’s visions of Miss Piggy in a Mars mesa last week, I wanted to test myself and go on a pareidolia hunt of my own, armed with the Victoria crater pic, my imagination and questionable eyesight.

The human brain is a strange old thing at times, creating recognizable features out of random, inanimate objects, and that is exactly what some people use as “proof” of their nutty theory or visions of the second coming. People see Jesus in burnt toast, Michael Jackson in cloud formations and, in this case, ancient Egyptian statues carved into crater rims on Mars.

So have a look at this, I impressed myself (note the outstanding use of Photoshop):

Mars faces:

What I discovered in this single NASA Mars image:

A: Exhibit A – the Egyptian statue.
B: Exhibit B – some other artifact.
C: Admiral "It’s a trap!" Ackbar from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.
D: Audry II, the blood-drinking plant from Little Shop of Horrors.
E: Jabba the Hutt, or an angry toad.
F: A gorilla’s head (kinda).
G: Can’t remember what I saw in this… but it’s kinda alien looking… right?
H: Insane-looking face. Could be the Mad Hatter?
I: Weird-looking Picasso face.
J: The alien from Predator.
K: Human head.
L: Another Egyptian statue, head part.
M: Humanoid skull!

I’ve even got a full-resolution version in case you can’t see the fruits of my imagination (all 4MB of it). But who cares if you can’t see Jabba, Ackbar, skulls or statues? That’s not the point; most conspiracy sites skew the facts to convince the reader to believe their false claims anyway. Hmmm… I’m quite good at this, perhaps I should start my own ‘Mars Faces’ conspiracy, only including characters from Star Warshmmm.

I’m personally most impressed with the “humanoid skull” (M), “Admiral Ackbar” (C) and the “insane face” (H). Obviously the ancient Martian civilization were a part of the Empire (not so far, far away), carried out sacrifices on humanoids (bones now littering the plains), worshipped Egyptian kings and had killer rock sculpting skills. Obviously.

Want more Mars faces? We have some puzzles on the subject over at Discovery Space! What are the odds…

NASA Tests Orion Shock Absorbers, Probably a Good Idea

During an earlier test, the Orion parachutes failed to open as planned, face-planting the capsule into the desert (NASA)

Although there are doubts about Constellation, and NASA recently announced a “plan B” launch option for a return trip to the Moon, Orion development continues as planned. Next up is the development of the Orion shock absorbers, intended to take the sting out of the return capsule’s landing.

Tests are currently being carried out at the Landing and Impact Research Facility in NASA’s Langley Research Center on the seat pallet that will protect the Orion astronauts’ from the shock of touch-down. It is hoped Orion will be a land-anywhere capsule, including land and water. In fact, I am a little bit excited about the planned landing spot in the Pacific Ocean, not far from Catalina Island, off the Los Angeles coastline. That’s just down the road and a small swim from me!

To test the pallet and its “energy-absorbing struts,” the 20,000-pound test article is dropped 18 feet onto a crushable honeycomb material designed to simulate different landing surfaces. —Aviation Week

The seat shock absorbers won’t only be used for landing, it is hoped they will mitigate much of the launch vibration effects caused by the Ares I crew launch vehicle. These tests are a result of studies of how much vibration crew members can take before it becomes difficult to read instrumentation displays and react to situations during launch.

*Image from a previous Orion test drop when the parachutes did not open correctly, forcing an upside-down hard landing. Speech bubbles added by me.

Source: Aviation Week

Solar Cycle Prediction: “None of Our Models Were Totally Correct”


Predicting space weather is not for the faint-hearted. Although the Sun appears to have a predictable and regular cycle of activity, the details are a lot more complex. So complex in fact, that the world’s greatest research institutions have to use the most powerful supercomputers on the planet to simulate the most basic of solar dynamics. Once we have a handle on how the Sun’s interior is driven, we can start making predictions about how the solar surface may look and act in the future. Space weather prediction requires a sophisticated understanding of the Sun, but even the best models are flawed.

Today, another solar cycle prediction has been released by the guys that brought us the “$2 trillion-worth of global damage if a solar storm hits us” valuation earlier this month. According to NOAA scientists sponsored by NASA, Solar Cycle 24 will peak in May 2013 with a below-average number of sunspots.

If our prediction is correct, Solar Cycle 24 will have a peak sunspot number of 90, the lowest of any cycle since 1928 when Solar Cycle 16 peaked at 78,” says Doug Biesecker of the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center.

Although this may be considered to be a “weak” solar maximum, the Sun still has the potential to generate some impressive flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs). Although I doubt we’ll see the record-breaking flares we saw in 2003 (pictured top), we might be hit by some impressive solar storms and auroral activity will certainly increase in Polar Regions. But just because the Sun will be more active, it doesn’t mean we will be struck by any big CMEs; space is a big place, we’d be (un)lucky to be staring directly down the solar flare barrel.

So, we have a new prediction and the solar models have been modified accordingly, but it is hard to understand why such tight constraints are being put on the time of solar maximum peak (one month in 2013) and the number of sunspots expected (90, or thereabouts). Yes, sunspot activity is increasing, but we are still seeing high-latitude sunspots from the previous cycle (Solar Cycle 23) pop up every now and again. This is normal, an overlap in cycles do occur, yet it surprises me that any definitive figures are being placed on a solar maximum that may or may not peak four years from now.

Ah, I see, it's obvious Solar Cycle 24 will look like that... is it really? (NOAA/NASA)
Tenuous link: Are you really happy with that prediction? (NOAA/NASA)

We are able to look at the history of sunspot number and we can see the cycles wax and wane, and we can pick out a cycle that most resembles the one we are going through now, but that doesn’t mean that particular cycle will happen this time around. Statistically-speaking, there’s a higher chance of a similar-looking cycle from the past happening in this 24th cycle, but predictions based on this premise are iffy to say the least.

Also, solar models are far from being complete, and many aspects of the physics behind the Sun’s internal dynamics are a mystery. The Sun really is acting strange, which is fascinating for solar physicists.

It turns out that none of our models were totally correct,” says Dean Pesnell of the Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA’s lead representative on the panel. “The sun is behaving in an unexpected and very interesting way.”

Personally, I think we should concentrate less on predicting when or how the next solar maximum presents itself. Solar models are not going to suddenly predict the nature of the solar cycle any more than we can predict terrestrial weather systems more than a few days in advance.

Using the atmospheric weather analogy, we know the seasons cycle as the year goes on, but there is no way we can say with any degree of certainty when the hottest day of the year is going to be, or which week will yield the most rain.

The same goes for our Sun. It is vastly complex and chaotic, a system we are only just beginning to understand. We need more observatories and more solar missions with advanced optics and spectrometers (and therefore a huge injection of funding, something solar physicists have always struggled without). Even then, I strongly doubt we’ll be able to predict exactly when the peak of the solar cycle is going to occur.

That said, space weather prediction is a very important science, but long-term forecasts don’t seem to be working, why keep on releasing new forecasts when the old one was based on the same physics anyway? Predicting an inactive, active or mediocre solar maximum only seems to cause alarm (although it is a great means to keep solar physics in the headlines, which is no bad thing in my books).

I suppose if you make enough predictions, eventually one will be correct in four years time. Perhaps there will be a peak of 90 sunspots by May 2013, who knows?

If you’re blindfolded, spun around and armed with an infinite supply of darts, you’ll eventually hit the board. Hell, you’ll probably even hit the bullseye

Source: NASA, special thanks to Jamie Rich for bringing this subject to my attention!

Space or Pizza?

This is an unlikely comparison if I ever saw one. According to ex-NASA Administer Mike Griffin, the US spends more money on pizza in a year than it does on the US space agency. If you thought that was funny, the best has yet to come…


…polls have concluded that most US citizens believe NASA receives 24% of the annual $3 trillion federal budget. In actuality, NASA receives… wait for it… less than 1% ($18 billion).

Now stand up, and stop rolling around on the floor laughing hysterically. No wonder people get so pissed with NASA when they think 24% of the national annual budget is invested into the exploration of space! No guys, 1%. Is that really too much to pay for the advancement of science, exploration, technology and human ingenuity? Fancy donating few percent of your annual pizza budget to NASA?

What we do is huge, and we do it for chump change – less than the annual market for pizza,” Griffin said earlier in the week during a New York presentation to aerospace businessmen. The annual US market for pizza is $27 billion.

$27 billion? Wow.

I’ve always liked Griffin. He was a pretty strong leader of NASA and he’s a tireless manned space exploration advocate. He was also instrumental in the creation of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS), thus stimulating the private sector to start pushing into space, carrying out NASA contracts to the International Space Station.

When the NASA budget is being dwarfed by the annual sales of a product consisting of a doughy base and three toppings, I can’t help but think commercial space options are the way forward…


Introducing Little SDO

The Solar Dynamics Observatory (NASA)

Playing on our love for WALL-E, our amazement for the Pixar Lamp and some great animation, Chris Smith, an employee at NASA Goddard Flight Center, has given the upcoming Solar Dynamics Observatory a personality.

Apart from obviously having too much time on his hands, Smith is a very talented guy (as all NASA employees are) and is showing that, once again, the space agency is doing a fantastic job of reaching out to the public.

As proven by the efforts of the Phoenix Mars Lander team in 2008, communication goes a long way and by harnessing social media, NASA can make its missions household names. Phoenix was tweeting, blogging and podcasting to its hearts content for five months, from touchdown to frozen death; it was Big Brother for robots living on Mars.

Now most NASA missions have Twitter feeds and devoted blogs, ensuring everyone’s interest is piqued. It also helps to have a Twitter feed talking in first-person, giving these brave rovers, landers, orbiters and probes a much needed personality.

So now, Chris Smith has done something very cool with the SDO; he’s given it an animated personality in a short animation reminiscent of a movie teaser for an upcoming Disney-Pixar feature film. Behold, the Little SDO:

It’s a really fun little piece,” says Wade Sisler, a television producer for NASA. “And we’re hoping to use it as a way of waking some kids and folks up to solar science.”

And so NASA should, I like it! It’s going to get people interested in a comparatively small mission, and let’s face it, the satellite lacks character (the boxy 4-eyed robot doesn’t do much for me). However, now that Smith has added squeaky solar panel wings, and blinking “eyes” (without changing the design of the craft at all), he’s boosted the SDO’s likeability. Suddenly I care for the little guy. I hope he doesn’t get hit by a solar flare.

Due for launch in October, the SDO will be inserted into a geosynchronous orbit above New Mexico, gathering data from the Sun, so solar physicists can better understand space weather. The cool thing is that with those four eyes, the SDO will capture high-definition images of the Sun continuously.

It might not have the dazzle of the Phoenix Mars Lander, but it has a personality and people will love him (I await the Twitter feed).

Learn more about the Solar Dynamics Observatory »

Source: Wired Science

Not “Serenity”, Not “Colbert”… Node 3 Will Be Named “Tranquility”

Node 3 will be called Tranquility (NASA)

Deciding against the popular vote, NASA has made up its mind and gone in a completely different direction (who would have guessed?). The new addition to the International Space Station, will be named “Tranquility” (in honour of the 40th anniversary of the first manned base on the Moon this July), ignoring the clear winner in the “please help us name Node 3” competition. Obviously concerned about the role Stephen Colbert’s celebrity status had securing so many votes, the space agency looked as if they might go for one of the official suggestions, the second place “Serenity”.

This didn’t happen either.

They decided to go with a more suitable public suggestion, about half-way down the top ten chart. Tranquility will join similar nodes called Unity and Harmony, sounding more and more like the components of a Japanese Zen garden every day.

But there is a consolation prize for the award-winning presenter and comedian, the new running machine will be called the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill (or COLBERT), proving once again that a lot of effort goes into NASA’s acronyms…

For more, check out the news on »

Getting to the Moon More Expensive than Bailing Out AIG?

I’m sure it’s more expensive than bailing me out of my student loan too…

The top stage of the Ares V carries the Altair Lunar Lander on its way to the Moon (NASA)
The top stage of the Ares V carries the Altair Lunar Lander on its way to the Moon (NASA)

In an article written by a columnist in the Orlando Sentinel, NASA’s Constellation Program is compared with the government bail out of AIG. Where’s the correlation? No, I don’t see it either. NASA has its problems (some of the problems are very big problems), but when you begin comparing the woes of a space agency with an ailing financial corporation, you’re not only off target, you’re not quite understanding the true value of space exploration…
Continue reading “Getting to the Moon More Expensive than Bailing Out AIG?”