But I want to get one of those dramatic glowing tables!
Archive for the ‘The Moon’ category
Welcome to The Martian Chronicles and the 152nd edition of the Carnival of Space! As always, we’ve got a great bunch of space-related posts from across the blogosphere, ranging from life on Mars to the age of the universe to Science Ninjas!
I’ll get things started with a pair of posts from right here at The Martian Chronicles. A couple weeks ago I went on a cool geology field trip in the El Paso/Carlsbad area along with a whole bunch of other martian and terrestrial geologists. Among other things, we learned that printed Mars panoramas make good raincoats, that graduate students are ideal for menial labor like counting hundreds of thousands of layers of rock, and that ancient reefs have a surprising amount to teach us about stratigraphy on Mars. Check out my summaries of Day 1 and Day 2 of the field trip! Day three is coming soon, with lots of pretty pictures of Carlsbad Caverns!
Speaking of rocks and Mars, Paul Scott Anderson at Planetaria has a post about another Mars meteorite that might have evidence of life! He includes a few very nice electron microscope images of the meteorite for your consideration. Personally, I’m not convinced, but I’m also not an expert on this corner of Mars science. Take a look for yourself!
Ian O’Neill at Discovery News also has been thinking about martian microbes, and whether germs from Earth might have hitched a ride on our rovers, set up camp on Mars and wiped out the locals. It would sure be disappointing if we discover life on Mars only to learn that someone at JPL forgot to wash their hands! Of course, there are also those who think we should stop bothering with all this planetary protection business and deliberately seed Mars with Earth life. What do you think?
While we’re on the topic of our potentially infectious little rovers, Stuart Atkinson has some beautiful pictures from the Opportunity rover. Oppy is slowly making her way across the Meridiani Plains, and has a tantalizing view of the distant hills that are her ultimate destination. As Stu says, “The far horizon is calling…“
But this is the Carnival of Space, not the Carnival of Rocks and Bugs and Rovers, so let’s get on to the more “spacey” stuff! I’m a big fan of stuff, and so is Steve Nerlich at Cheap Astronomy! This week they have a great podcast about “stuff” in space and the surprisingly limited number of shapes in which it can be found.
While we’re on the topic of stuff and its various shapes, I should point out that radar is a great way to find out the shape of stuff in space like asteroids. If you’ve ever seen one of the “images” of an asteroid taken by a telescope like Arecibo and wondered how a radar antenna can be used to take a picture, then wonder no longer! Just take a look at Emily Lakdawalla’s post about radar imaging and all your questions will be answered.
If radar images are not your cup of tea, then maybe you’d prefer to learn about an old-school optical telescope: the Radcliffe 1.9 meter telescope. Markus shares the joy of handling the massive old wrought iron telescope in this post at Supernova Condensate.
Not a fan of old school ‘scopes? Well, perhaps I can interest you in some futuristic Hypertelescopes? Next Big Future also has some cool posts about even more far-out ideas like Dyson Swarms and Dyson bubbles and “statites” – structures that hover above a star by balancing its gravitational force with its radiation pressure.
We’re a long way from that level of engineering, but solar sail technologies are getting more advanced. Centauri Dreams has a post about the Japanese IKAROS mission: an interplanetary solar sail that also uses its sail as a solar panel to generate electricity! I hadn’t heard of this mission, but it sounds really cool!
Whether you’re talking about star-enveloping Dyson spheres or relatively simpler missions, you have to wonder what drives exploration, particularly since big steps forward like the Apollo program come so rarely. Well, 21st Century waves talks about the idea that what we’re really dealing with is a chaotic system in this post on how complexity drives exploration.
Of course, sometimes it’s just the brilliance of one person that makes the difference, and lights the path forward, and Robert Goddard is a great example. Over at Music of the Spheres, there’s a great post about Goddard that takes a look as some of his earliest thoughts on space and also some of his inventions, which are now available online thanks to Google Patents.
Weird Sciences contributed three posts this week: First up, some thoughts on why Stephen Hawking is wrong about aliens and the threat they pose. Also, some thoughts on the implications of self-replicating machines. And third, visualizing the fourth spatial dimension.
Speaking of weird, what does Weird Warp have for us this week? Why it’s a nice, informative (and actually not very weird!) post all about the ins and outs of comets, everyone’s favorite icy visitors to the inner solar system.
While we’re back on the subject of “things that are in the inner solar system”, let’s take a look at Astroblogger Ian Musgrave’s post about how to use the moon to find stuff in the night sky. Ian even provides some scripts for the free programs Celestia and Stellarium!
Once you have rounded up your friends and family and taken them on a tour of the night sky using the moon as your guide, you’re bound to start getting pelted with questions. Luckily, “We are all in the gutter” has started a new “how do we know” feature. Their first post in the series is an answer to the question: “How do we know how old the universe is?” Do you have other “how do we know”-type questions? Contact the “We are all in the gutter” folks and get your answer!
Our penultimate post is from Steinn Sigurdsson, who reports on the unfortunate incident of the Nuclear Compton Telescope: a balloon-borne telescope that crashed in Australia during an attempted launch earlier this week. Condolences for those on the telescope team; it’s painful to watch so much work fall apart at its culmination.
And finally, on a (much) lighter note, what you’ve all been waiting for. Toothpaste ingredients! Which of course, logically, lead us to discover Amanda Bauer’s secret alter ego: the Science Ninja. This post makes me wish that a) all products had ingredient lists like the one on that toothpaste, and b) that I, too, was a science ninja.
Update: one late addition to the carnival! Nancy Atkinson at Universe Today is working on a series of posts entitled “13 Things that Saved Apollo 13“. The main article has link to the rest of the articles. Very interesting stuff!
Update 2: One more latebreaking addition! Out of the Cradle has a nice review of the book “The Big Splat, or How the Moon Came to Be”.
Phew! Well, that does it for this week’s Carnival of Space! It’s been a wild ride, as always. Thanks again to Fraser for letting me host, and thanks to all the space bloggers who contributed!
The internet has been a whirlwind of wailing and gnashing of teeth, interspersed with the occasional optimistic or guarded response, as space advocates respond to Obama’s fiscal year 2011 budget request for NASA. In case you haven’t heard, the main points of the FY2011 budget are nicely summarized in this overview document:
Increase of $6.0 billion over 5-years (FY 2011-15) compared to the FY 2010 Budget, for a total of $100 billion over five years.
Significant and sustained investments in:
- Transformative technology development and flagship technology demonstrations to pursue new approaches to space exploration
- Robotic precursor missions to multiple destinations in the solar system
- Research and development on heavy-lift and propulsion technologies
- U.S. commercial spaceflight capabilities
- Future launch capabilities, including work on modernizing Kennedy Space Center after the
retirement of the Shuttle
- Extension and increased utilization of the International Space Station
- Cross-cutting technology development aimed at improving NASA, other government, and
commercial space capabilities
- Accelerating the next wave of Climate change research and observations spacecraft
- NextGen and green aviation
- Education, including focus on STEM
Cancellation of the Constellation program; and $600 million in FY 2011 to ensure the safe
retirement of the Space Shuttle upon completion of the current manifest.
It’s that last point that has many people upset. Constellation was the ongoing program to build the huge Ares 1 and Ares V rockets to replace the shuttle and return humans to the moon. The program was initiated by the previous administration, but then consistently underfunded. Last year, a blue-ribbon panel of aerospace experts – the “Augustine Commission” – was called in to assess the direction of NASA’s human spaceflight program, and they found that the Constellation program was “on an unsustainable trajectory” and that NASA was “pursuing goals that do not match the allocated resources”.
Given the Augustine Commission’s report, it’s not surprising that Constellation was canceled, but plenty of people are not happy about it. Unsurprisingly, particularly angry are those who were directly involved in the program and their representatives in congress. I don’t blame them for being upset, and they have every right to complain, but I think that the decision to cancel Constellation was probably the right one.
Don’t get me wrong, I liked the Constellation program. The test-launch last year of the Ares-1X dummy rocket was spectacular, and when I was in NASA Academy in 2006, I got to see some of the early behind-the-scenes work being done. It would have been great to see towering NASA rockets sending our astronauts to the space station and back to the moon. But between the inevitable delays in such a massive project, and the funds falling short of those needed to stay on target, the program really was becoming unsustainable. And worse than that, the delays compounded a serious problem in public interest. It’s hard enough to get people interested in a program designed to repeat what was done 40 years ago with Apollo. Good luck maintaining interest if that program gets drawn out indefinitely due to delays.
The new budget places a strong emphasis on commercial spaceflight, relying on launch vehicles developed by private companies to send US astronauts to the space station. No doubt about it, this is a risky move. No private space company currently has a rocket or spacecraft capable of doing this. But they’re getting close. Space-X said today that they will be capable of sending astronauts to the ISS two to three years after receiving a NASA contract to do so, and for a price of ~$20 million per seat – significantly cheaper than the $50 million price tag of a flight on a Russian Soyuz rocket.
Even if these estimates are somewhat optimistic, it seems likely that commercial providers will be able to send astronauts to the ISS far sooner than Ares 1 would have been able to, and they’ll do it much cheaper. Yes, their cargo capacity will be much smaller, but cheaper launches could lead to more frequent launches, and that leads to a healthy commercial space industry. This change in the way of doing things, although painful for many right now, could have huge positive implications for the future of space exploration if commercial space “takes off”. Bigelow Aerospace and Space X have both mentioned lunar or even Mars missions on the horizon. Healthy commercial space (and therefore lower launch costs) could also lead to more-practical space-based solar power.
Some people have complained that the jobs created by commercial space companies would be nothing compared to those lost due to the cancellation of Constellation, but I think this is a case of short-term thinking. Yes, right now probably more people will lose jobs from constellation than will be able to gain jobs from space companies, but what we’re witnessing might well be the creation of a new industry. In the long run, the job growth could be huge.
Most of the discussion today has been about the Constellation cancellation, but the rest of the budget is extremely exciting. I’m very happy to see that more money will be spent on developing game-changing technologies, such as the VASIMR engine which could reduce the duration of a crewed mission to Mars from years to months. I’m also really excited about the proposed “precursor missions”. These would be missions similar to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter designed specifically to lead the way for human missions to the moon, asteroids, Mars or elsewhere. I was also excited to see the provision for production of new plutonium, which is crucial to power missions to the outer solar system. Whether or not you agree with the decisions regarding human spaceflight, there’s no denying that this budget is great for science.
My main complaint about this budget is that it is somewhat vague on the development of heavy-lift capabilites, and that it does not spell out what the new destinations for human spaceflight will be. It’s clear that the plans presented are based heavily upon the “flexible path” option described by the Augustine Commission, but I’d like to see a series of destinations spelled out if that is the case. It’s probably premature for that, but concrete goals and deadlines would make a lot of people more comfortable.
I was skeptical of this budget at first but the more I think about it the more it makes sense. And even if you don’t like it, what were the alternatives? It was clear that even with increased funding, Constellation would leave a huge gap in access to the space station. And with the current budget crisis, it would have been hard to justify $3 billion per year for a program that wouldn’t accomplish what we wanted very quickly. So the administration took a different approach, increasing NASA’s budget modestly and redirecting human spaceflight funds to commercial providers. This could provide cheaper access to space sooner than Constellation, and meanwhile NASA’s great engineers and scientists can focus on R&D for the next-generation technologies that will lead beyond low Earth orbit. Meanwhile, robotic science will be extremely strong under this new budget, teaching us amazing things about the solar system and the universe.
I’m not the only one who is optimistic about the budget. The Planetary Society has weighed in and they are thrilled with it. So is Buzz Aldrin. Norm Augustine is also supportive, and Phil Plait weighed in in favor of the budget and particularly its emphasis on science. Of course, the real question is what will happen in congress. As I said, many people involved in Constellation are furious about the decision, and their representatives in congress will put up one heck of a fight to keep things from changing.
In the end though, I suspect something very similar to the proposed budget will be passed, and despite the naysayers, I think that’s going to be a good thing for NASA and a great thing for science and space exploration.
Update: NASA administrator Charlie Bolden’s remarks from today are available here. He spells out the changes being made and makes a compelling case for them.
I’m splitting day 3 into two posts because there were so many interesting sessions. Stay tuned for the second post about astrobiology and society. But for now, Venus and the moon!
I started the day off at the Venus session. One of the first talks I heard was by Cedric Gillman about the history of water on Venus. He suggested a very thick primordial H2O atmosphere with a surface pressure of 300 bars, eventually escaping until just 15 bars of O2 were left. That oxygen then was absorbed as it reacted with the rocks. Gillman cautioned that Venus’ evolution shows that you can have a very hostile environments but still have water and oxygen in the atmosphere; something that we should keep in mind when looking for “habitable” exoplanets.
The next two Venus talks described using two complementary laser-based techniques on a lander mission. Shiv Sharma showed that Raman spectroscopy, which uses laser pulses to characterize the molecules in a target, would work under Venus-like conditions for a variety of rock types. In the following talk, Sam Clegg showed that Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS), which analyzes the elements in a sample by zapping it with a laser and collecting the spectrum emitted by the resulting plasma, would also work under Venus conditions. Sam is my main contact on the ChemCam team and allows me to use his laser lab for some of my work, so it was cool to see some of the other LIBS work that he does.
Both Raman and LIBS are great for Venus because they are fast, capable of remotely analyzing a sample in seconds. When your probe is only going to live for an hour in the crushing pressure and deadly heat of Venus, every second counts, and these techniques could be extremely useful.
The final Venus talk that I heard was a status report on the Japanese Venus climate orbiter. They unveiled its new name: Akatsuki, which means “dawn” in Japanese, specifically the time of the morning when Venus is just visible as the morning star. Akatsuki is going through final thermal vacuum tests in January and will launch some time in 2010.
Later that day, I stopped by the lunar dust session to hear a talk by Bonnie Cooper about the toxicity of lunar dust and implications for astronauts. Chronic exposure to dust on earth can cause serious problems, especially to the lungs, but I was surprised to hears some of the other effects. My lack of biology knowledge is probably getting this partly wrong, but Cooper said that very small dust particles can actually enter the tissue around small blood vessels and prevent them from expanding when the body needs them to do so! Not good!
Crushed quartz is quite nasty stuff on earth and Cooper said that there was reason to believe that moon dust might be even more reactive because of its jagged surface, the many fresh fractures in the grains caused by micro-meteorites, and because of solar wind protons. All of these things result in unbonded ions known as free-radicals, which are very reactive and cause damage to the body. Dust loses its danger somewhat when it is exposed to air and all the free radicals are neutralized, but Cooper said that their experiments show this takes several hours. They are working on doing experiments with actual lunar samples and lunar soil simulant to find the exact effects of dust inhalation, but it sounds like this is a significant problem that human explorers will have to face.
Finally, at the end of the day there were a couple of talks about the detection of water on the moon with the Moon Mineralogy Mapper on Chandrayaan. The most interesting one, given by Roger Clark, showed that the initial water detection actually underestimated the depth of the water absorption feature because it didn’t correct for an overall slope in the background of the spectrum. With that correction, the mapped water extends to all latitudes. There is still a stronger signature near the poles, but that is superimposed on much more complex variation with geology. There are craters that appear to be digging up material with a stronger water band, but other fresh craters dig up less water-rich debris. He also said that he was cautiously optimistic that they had detected some hematite, an iron oxide responsible for Mars’ rusty color, but said that scattered light in the instrument made it difficult to tell for sure. Clark concluded, saying that he didn’t think that the variation of the band strength observed during the lunar day represented a change in the actual amount of water, but rather was due to the viewing geometry.
I started off day 2 of AGU at a couple of lunar talks showing off data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Unfortunately, I missed the early sessions about the high-res cameras, but the bright side was that I learned abount some instruments I was less familiar with. First was the Lunar Orbital Laser Altimeter – LOLA. A similar instrument on Mars Global Surveyor, MOLA, revolutionized our view of Mars. The MOLA map has become the standard to which all other mars maps are registered, and LOLA is going to do even better for the moon. LOLA works by sending five laser pulses in a pattern similar to the spots on the “five” side of a die. The spacecraft then recieves the reflected laser light and determines the distance to the surface, and therefore the topography. The advantage of having five spots is that it also gives astoundingly good measurements of the slopes.
After the LOLA talks, I heard about the results from the cosmic ray detector, CRaTER, on LRO. Apparently right now is a good time to observe cosmic rays because the sun is not very active. The current weak solar wind pressure allows more cosmic rays into the inner solar system! Understanding the radiation environment is important for sending hardware and people to the moon. One significant result that the CRaTER team reported was that even though the moon blocks cosmic rays as you get close to it, the total radiation increases because rays that hit the surface send up showers of secondary radiation. There is also no evidence that the amount of radiation on the moon decreases when Earth’s magnetosphere tail points toward the moon, as some people had suggested.
After that, I headed over to listen to Mars talks. Serina Diniega gave a nice presentation about her discovery of active gullies forming on dunes in the southern hemisphere. She showed evidence of several dune gullies for which there are “before and after” images showing noticeable changes. Serina suggested that frost accumulating in the upper alcoves of the gullies could trigger the changes, which would be consistent with the observation that most changes happened in southern winter. A related talk by Colin Dundas showed similar results, with HiRISE observations revealing fresh gullies on pole-facing slopes in the southern hemisphere.
After a few more Mars talks, I headed back to the moon to hear about LCROSS. I caught the tail end of a talk about the Lyman-alpha Mapping Project (LAMP) on LRO. This instrument uses the light emitted by hydrogen in stars to illuminate the dark craters on the moon, which is a really cool idea. Interestingly, the permanently shadowed craters look “dark”, implying that they contain something (ice) that absorbs UV light. LAMP also saw the plume kicked up by the LCROSS impact, and detected hydrogen emission, as well as, oddly enough, mercury (Hg) emission. Apparently, Mercury is volatile enough that over geologic time it also gets concentrated in shadowed craters. Future astronauts drinking the moon’s water will have to watch out for mercury poisoning!
Tony Calprete gave a nice overview of the LCROSS mission. He explained that the reason the plume wasn’t visible from earth was because they ended up selecting a crater that was known to have hydrogen, since LRO was going to be positioned to get good observations from orbit. He showed some of the spectra recorded by various instruments, which had evidence for all sorts of good stuff, including H2O, CO2, methane (CH4), SO2, ammonia (NH3), H2S, and even a couple of mystery lines that some people on the team think might be gold! (There’s gold in them thar hills?)
A second LCROSS talk by Peter Schulz focused on the cratering process. The most interesting aspect was the effect of a hollow projectile (such as the big empty centaur rocket used as the LCROSS impactor) on the plume behavior. It turns out a hollow projectile causes the crater ejecta to form a higher plume that spreads out less. He also pointed out that the reason the LCROSS impact did not look like the Deep Impact plume was because deep impact was a very high speed impact into a low-gravity object with a solid projectile, while LCROSS was a slow hollow impactor hitting a body with significant gravity.
Stay tuned for the Day 3 post, which will include some particularly interesting sessions about Venus and astrobiology and society!
Ever wonder how astronauts on the moon are going to avoid deadly space radiation? One option is to live in caves, and luckily the Kaguya team has found one! Read more about it in my article over at Universe Today.
What happens when humans expand to the planets, but then the planets try to assert their independence? It’s a common science fiction storyline, and the central focus of Earthlight.
Earthlight is one of Arthur C Clarke’s earlier novels, originating as a short story in 1941 and published as a novel in 1955. It is set at an astronomical observatory on the moon. There is war brewing between Earth and the other planets and Earth’s moon is both the front line and the cause for the conflict. Huge amounts of valuable metals are discovered on the moon, and the “Federation” of planets want these resources, while the Earth doesn’t want to share.
This is a pretty simple story, which was written primarily as an excuse for Clarke to describe in loving detail what it would be like to live on the surface of the moon, and what weapons and war in the future would be like. The characters are not particularly interesting and are mostly interchangeable. There are no female characters, and although there are some women described as working at the observatory, for the most part women are present only as distant lovers for the main characters to visit at the lunar colony or send patronizing letters to back on Earth.
Earthlight makes up for its lack of compelling characters with some great descriptions of science as it was known in 1955. There are lakes of dust on the moon, hardy moon-dwelling plants, and galaxies that are still called “island universes”. The largest telescope ever created is the “giant” three hundred inch telescope on the moon, and nobody knows what causes a supernova. The computers are fed punch-card tape, and morse code is used to communicate. It was also fascinating to hear Clarke describe the futuristic weapons used in the climactic battle. A modern reader would think nothing of monochromatic beams of light narrowly focused and used to cause damage. Lasers are nothing new to us, but they weren’t invented when Clarke tried to describe them here! Some of the other weapons described are still out of our reach, though somewhat similar technologies are being developed by DARPA. (Warning: spoilers at that link!)
Bottom line, Earthlight is a fun, short novel with uninteresting characters but great, though dated, science. Much of the fun in reading it, for me, was in seeing how much has changed in science and technology and also how much Clarke got right. If you don’t know much about science, this book is probably even cooler, but will give you some old-fashioned ideas about the moon and astronomy. There is also, in true Clarke fashion, a good deal of semi-optimistic pondering about the future of mankind, as well as a scene involving an emergency suit-less spacewalk that anyone who has watched/read 2001: A Space Odyssey will find familiar.
[PS – Remember to keep voting for my article about the striking similarities between the Mars Science Laboratory and James Bond!]