In the early hours of Sunday morning (Pacific Time), a Russian cosmonaut, NASA astronaut and a European Space Agency astronaut returned to Earth after a 6-month stay on the International Space Station (ISS). Oleg Kononenko, Don Pettit and Andre Kuipers landed safely on the Kazakhstan steppes after the Soyuz TMA-03M spacecraft fired its soft landing rockets, blasting a cloud of dust into the air. But before touchdown and after the violence of reentry, NASA photographer Bill Ingalls was able to photograph this beautiful aerial view of the Soyuz and deployed parachute above the clouds. What a ride that must have been.
Apophis is a 300 meter wide asteroid that caused a stir back in 2004. When NASA discovered the near-Earth asteroid (or NEO), it appeared to be tumbling in our direction Armageddon-style and the initial odds for a 2029 impact were 1-in-37. Understandably, people got scared, the media went nuts and astrophysicists were suddenly very interested in space rock deflection techniques.
It’s important to note that NASA didn’t just pull these numbers out of a hat; the space agency has been tracking Apophis intently since its discovery, plotted its position and projected its location to a very high degree of precision. The more we watch Apophis, the more the world’s scientists are convinced that the asteroid poses a very tiny risk to life on Earth. In fact, giving anything a 1-in-250,000 chance of happening is more of a courtesy than a ‘risk.’ Granted, we’re talking about a global catastrophe should Apophis hit, but would you ever bet on those kinds of odds?
Apparently, the Russian space agency thinks it’s more of a game of Russian Roulette than NASA thinks.
“I don’t remember exactly, but it seems to me it could hit the Earth by 2032,” said Anatoly Perminov, the head of Roscosmos, on December 30, 2009. “People’s lives are at stake. We should pay several hundred million dollars and build a system that would allow to prevent a collision, rather than sit and wait for it to happen and kill hundreds of thousands of people.”
Wait a minute. Does Perminov know something NASA doesn’t? Is he even referring to Apophis? You know, the same asteroid NASA has calculated that has a cat in hell’s chance of causing bother in 2036? And what’s this about the year 2032?
Just for the record, Perminov is indeed referring to Apophis, but he got the date wrong (Apophis does not make a flyby in 2032). Perminov also puts a price on saving hundreds of thousands of people… “several hundred million dollars” should do it, apparently.
On the one hand I’m impressed that Roscosmos is calling for some kind of anti-asteroid shield, but on the other, Perminov’s concern is terribly misplaced (and potentially damaging). His statement sounds as if he’s only just heard about Apophis and then thrown into a press conference unprepared, then asked what he’s going to do about this impending doom. Naturally, in that situation he would have blurted out the first thing that popped into his head: We need to save the world! However, this isn’t the first time he’d heard about Apophis.
Boris Shustov, the director of the Institute of Astronomy under the Russian Academy of Sciences, tried to repair the damage pointing out that Perminov was just using Apophis as a “symbolic example, there are many other dangerous objects we know little about.”
However, saving the world from a theoretical “dangerous object” that may or may not hit us for the next few hundred/thousand/million years is less likely to get funding that an imminent 2032… sorry, 2036 impact.
Although Perminov might sound reasonable in asking for asteroid deflection funding, using sensationalist means to try to leverage funding only serves to make the same funding hard to come by.
In the AGU 2009 meeting in San Fransisco last month, ex-Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart outlined his organization’s plans to deflect an asteroid should it pose a threat to Earth. The B612 Foundation points out that there is a ~2% chance of Earth being involved with an “unacceptable” collision in the next century (not by Apophis, but by another undiscovered asteroid), but Schweickart and his colleagues want to emphasize urgency, not panic.
An infrastructure needs to be put in place to deal with asteroid deflection, but this goal will only be hindered by unwarranted alarm by the likes of Perminov. Asteroid detection and deflection will be two critical skills mankind will need to develop for the long-term survival of life on Earth, but the head of Roscosmos is running the risk of making the issue sound more like a crazed rant than anything of substance.
Besides, when Perminov says, “Everything will be done according to the laws of physics,” perhaps he shouldn’t be in charge of messing around with the orbits of NEOs after all…
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.
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.
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.
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.
When I first saw this image, I didn’t think too much of it. After all, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen a volcanic plume racing through the atmosphere. However, this picture is awesome on so many levels.
First, as part of NASA’s Earth Observatory program, an astronaut in the International Space Station was fortunate to get the timing just right to witness Russia’s Sarychev Peak volcano in the Kuril Islands explode, blasting a huge plume of ash and smoke high into the atmosphere. Second, the conditions on the ground must have been very still, allowing such a huge vertical structure to reach so high. And thirdly, the image captures two amazing features: a condensing cloud of vapour at its peak (the white, smooth cloud) and a shock wave that pushed all the surrounding cloud away from the eruption.
Let’s face it, Soyuz is getting old. It’s not that the spaceships themselves are getting rickety, there have been many incarnations, but the original Soyuz design was first conceived in 1966, so the Russian space agency (Roscosmos) is feeling it’s about time for a change. Soyuz has carried out the most manned missions into space out of any other space flight system (over 100 since the 1960s), so Russia has every right to be proud of its achievements.
So what system does Roscosmos want to replace Soyuz with? Perhaps a bigger version of Soyuz? Perhaps a revolutionary winged spaceplane? Nope. They are currently looking at plans for a Soyuz-esque capsule that will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere much like before. But due to political pressure (spawning the need to move Roscosmos’ operations out of Kazakhstan), engineers must find a way to land the return vehicle in a minuscule area. Measuring only 2×5 km (yes, that’s a tight 10 km2), the landing strip will be as unforgiving as the new method to land the descent vehicle.
There will be no parachutes and no wings; the new concept will use a rocket-powered landing system alone, creating the first ever rocket-powered Earth-lander. If you thought that was a rather extreme design specification, you might be surprised to hear that engineers want to start firing these landing thrusters when the descent module is only 600-800 metres from the ground… Continue reading “The Russian Rocket-Powered Lander. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?”
According to results from a Russian biology experiment on the International Space Station (ISS), a mosquito has survived the rigours of space for 18 months. However, this little winged insect didn’t do it inside the comfort of the ISS, he did it outside, in a small can.
The mosquito study is intended to see how the insect copes with being exposed to damaging cosmic rays and the extreme variations in temperature, in the build-up to a possible Russian manned mission to Mars. According to a Russian media source, the future Mars cosmonauts are already training for the mission in a forest outside Moscow… Continue reading “Mosquito Survives in Space for 18 Months”
A Japanese brewery has successfully produced 100 litres of Space Beer.Hurrah!
The beer won’t actually be consumed in space (which seems a shame somehow), but it was made totally from barley grown on the International Space Station. For a lucky few, 60 people will get to sample the beer in Tokyo next month. So, what can they expect?
Alas, there won’t be much difference between the Sapporo Brewery’s 100% space barley brew when compared with a terrestrial grain as there is no measured difference in the DNA of barley grown in space when compared with barley grown on Earth. Therefore I doubt there will be any “eureka!” moment for the alcoholic beverage industry and therefore no immediate plans to launch a micro(gravity)brewery into orbit…
This is another step in the direction of a reduced dependence on Earth for the supply of food. If a Japanese brewery can produce 100 litres of beer from ingredients grown in space, we’ve made an important leap into the production of other consumables from ingredients grown in space. Imagine what this means for the future of mankind when we begin setting up colonies on the Moon and, eventually (in my lifetime I hope!) on Mars. The vision of cultivating food on other planets becomes one step closer to reality.
This is one of the International Space Station’s key strengths. It is a long-term scientific mission to assess man’s adaptability to a space-based environment. Growing barley in space is therefore not a commercial venture (Sapporo is not selling any of the Space Beer it produces, although the company will most certainly profit from some good exposure in the media), it is a critical step in our space-faring ability. Add this success to the recent installation of the urine recycling system added as part of the STS-126 shuttle mission to the ISS and you can see that we are beginning to cut the umbilical cord that prevents long-term manned space travel.
Hopefully, within 20 years, these techniques will have been perfected, allowing mankind to begin work on other planets, ultimately setting up self-sustaining colonies throughout the Solar System.
And all this excitement from the production of a small quantity of Space Beer…
Whether you are surprised by this news or not, it is a big development for the future of NASA. An internal email within the space agency has instructed staff to begin preliminary planning for a feasibility study into extending the life of the Space Shuttle fleet until 2015. This isn’t a one year extension, this isn’t just one extra flight, this is a full five year extension beyond the scheduled decommissioning date set by NASA.
This email, although downplayed by NASA sources, appears to show a U-turn in the political climate behind the agency’s closed doors. So what prompted the decision to commence a feasibility study? Could the Shuttle be safely flown after 2010? Continue reading “The Shuttle Could Fly Beyond 2010”