Archive for the ‘The Moon’ category

To the Moon! Zoom, Bang!

October 7, 2009


As I write this, there is a NASA spacecraft on an unstoppable collision course with the moon.

Early on Friday morning it will impact a crater near the moon’s south pole at 9000 km/hr, causing an explosion that will excavate 350 tons of lunar rocks, blasting them up into space and leaving a 66 foot-wide crater.

Of course, this is all intentional. The LCROSS mission will use the upper stage of the rocket that launched the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to the moon as a missile to blast the possibly ice-bearing crater Cabeus in much the same way that the Deep Impact mission blasted a hole in comet 9P/Temple. The hope is that the ejecta from the LCROSS impact will reveal that the crater does indeed contain ice.

In addition to the “shepherd” spacecraft that will follow the big Centaur stage to its explosive death, snapping pictures all the while, scientists all over the world will be watching the moon with their own telescopes. In fact, even large (12 in or 30 cm) amateur telescopes may be able to see the impact!

Even if you don’t have a big telescope to peer through, NASA TV will be covering the impact. The impact is planned to occur on Oct 9, 2009 at 11:31:30 UTC (04:31:30 am PDT), and NASA TV coverage will begin at 10:15 UTC (03:15 am PDT).

Stay tuned! It promises to be a blast! (Sorry, the pun had to be made.)

A Detailed Look at Water on the Moon

September 27, 2009

It looks like Emily Lakdawalla at the Planetary Society blog has beat me to the punch! After the big announcement that three separate groups have found evidence of water on the moon, she dove in, read the papers and has a series of posts with all of the details of their findings. Well worth a read!

Part 1: There’s Water on the Moon!

Part 2: The Murkier Part of the Story

Part 3 isn’t posted yet, but will be soon. And if you’re interested in space exploration news, you should probably just follow the Planetary Society blog.

Water on the Moon

September 24, 2009


In case you haven’t heard yet, there is quite the buzz building about three separate results that indicate that there is water on the lunar surface. There isn’t much: moon rocks returned by Apollo are pretty darn dry, but it’s still an exciting result, and it means that future missions might be able to extract water for drinking and rocket fuel. I was especially surprised to hear that the water is not just in the frigid craters at the moon’s poles that never see the light of day. Instead, it is found over large portions of the surface! The other surprise is that one of the data sets used to make this discovery is about 10 years old!

Reach more about it in this AP article or this one at

NASA Then and Now

July 20, 2009

as11-40-5877HR - footprint - smaller 72

Forty years ago today, the world watched as Apollo 11 landed on the surface of the moon. All day today, I have been reading accounts from people who witnessed the landing. They have almost unanimously expressed the awe and wonder of seeing human being set foot upon the surface of another world. But another common thread is that of disappointment. The Apollo program achieved great things in its time, but then after only six landings, the program was over. The world lost interest and NASA lost its direction.

Granted, in the 40 years since Apollo 11, NASA has achieved great things, but never again did it top the headlines in every country. It is estimated that one fifth of the world’s population watched the Apollo 11 landing. That grip on the world’s hearts and minds is gone.

The NASA that I grew up with and now work with is very different from the one that got us to the moon in less than ten years. To my generation, the Space Shuttle is the symbol of human spaceflight, and while it is a beautiful and complex engineering marvel, it is also dangerous, expensive, and incapable of leaving low Earth orbit. Even its name, “Shuttle” suggests that what it does is routine and uninteresting. Right now there are thirteen astronauts and cosmonauts orbiting the planet in the shuttle and the space station. That’s more than all of the Apollo astronauts who set foot upon the moon, all at once! And yet most people (myself included) would have trouble naming one of them.


NASA has aged. The average age of its workforce is almost 50. It has become a world-class bureaucracy with crippling fear of risk. You can’t walk down the hall of a NASA building without being accosted by signs warning about slippery floors and on-the-job accidents. Now, I’m all for minimizing injuries, but those signs also reflect a change in the fundamental culture of NASA.

Remember, the first thing that happened in the Apollo program was the tragic Apollo 1 fire that killed Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. The modern NASA would have shut the program down for years and possibly for good, convened investigation boards, and written long reports recommending all the new requirements that must be satisfied to fly again. The Apollo-era NASA just redesigned the spacecraft, pressed forward, and two years later Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were walking on the moon.


The modern NASA is also lacking direction. At an event celebrating the Apollo 11 anniversary at Cornell this weekend, Peter Thomas, a research scientist in the astronomy department suggested that Apollo’s success was because President Kennedy gave a concrete goal with a concrete deadline: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” Michael Collins had similar comments in the documentary ‘In The Shadow of the Moon’. In comparison, the modern goals are nebulous and vague and frankly not very inspiring even for space enthusiasts. From the Vision for Space Exploration put forward in 2004, “The fundamental goal of this vision is to advance U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program.”

Right now, the future of human space exploration by NASA is uncertain. The shuttle will only fly seven more times. It will complete the International Space Station, and then it will be retired. Without the shuttle, the United States will be forced to hitch a ride on Russian rockets to get to the space station. In recent years, the Constellation program, aimed at a return to the moon with Apollo-like rockets, has been the focus of post-shuttle human spaceflight at NASA, but the program has had some political and engineering problems.


Comparison of past, present and future NASA launch vehicles. Saturn V (left), Space Shuttle (left center), Ares I (Right center), Ares V (Right).

The Obama administration has ordered a comprehensive review of NASA’s human spaceflight efforts by a panel of astronauts and experts from aerospace and academia. This committee is busy studying the Constellation program as well as all of the alternatives on the table. Their report is expected by the end of next month, and although technically only advisory in nature, will likely determine the future of human spaceflight at NASA.

This review may be just the opportunity that NASA needs. It is a chance to put NASA back on track with a concrete set of goals that will excite the world again. The committee is seeking input from citizens, so I encourage you to leave a comment or question at their site and play a role in determining the future of NASA. Where do I think NASA should be setting its sights? Well, I’ve written enough tonight. That’s a topic for another post later this week!

Carnival of Space #112: Apollo’s 40th Anniversary!

July 20, 2009

Today is the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing! I will have more to say about this later, but for now, let me direct you to this week’s Carnival of Space over at ‘Out of the Cradle’. There are also some great sites celebrating this anniversary, including: NASA (duh), “We Choose the Moon“, a very cool site that shows the events of the mission and lots of other info in realtime, with sci-fi authors giving their thoughts, and of course twitter is all a-tweet about it.

LRO Images of Apollo Landing Sites!

July 17, 2009

Just in time for the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) team have released images of the Apollo landing sites. These pictures show the lower half of the Lunar Module (LM), the scientific instruments left on the surface, and even the tracks where the astronauts walked! Awesome. Of course, the moon hoax believers will not be convinced by this photographic evidence that humans have walked on the face of the moon, but for the rest of us, these pictures are awesome! And LRO isn’t in it’s primary orbit yet! Eventually he’ll have pictures with twice this resolution.

See more images and learn more about them at the NASA press release. And Bad Astronomy has a rather enthusiastic post about them too.


Review: Moon

July 13, 2009

Click for Trailer

Last night I went to see “Moon“, starring Sam Rockwell.  It was excellent, both as a fascinating sci-fi story and for its relatively accurate science. The premise is that, in the near future, the moon is being mined for Helium-3 to fuel fusion power plants back on Earth. Sam Bell (played by Rockwell) is an astronaut just finishing up a 3-year stint on an isolated mining base on the far side of the moon with only the robot Gerty (Kevin Spacey) to keep him company.

Things get interesting when Sam crashes his rover and wakes up back in the base, face to face with a younger version of himself. The two struggle to figure out what is going on in a race against time with a “support crew” on the way to get the base back in working order.

This movie is what more science fiction movies should be like. It is rare for this more serious, thought-provoking, and less explosion-oriented side of sci-fi to make it to the big screen (or the small one for that matter). Director Duncan Jones hits the nail on the head:

In my mind, the golden age of SF cinema was the ‘70s, early ‘80s, when films like Silent Running, Alien, Blade Runner and Outland told human stories in future environments. I’ve always wanted to make a film that felt like it could fit into that canon.
There are unquestionably less of those kind of sci-fi films these days. I don’t know why. I have a theory though: I think over the last couple of decades filmmakers have allowed themselves to become a bit embarrassed by SF’s philosophical side. It’s OK to “geek out” at the cool effects and “oooh” and “ahh” at amazing vistas, but we’re never supposed to take it too seriously. We’ve allowed ourselves to be convinced that SF should be frivolous, for teenage boys. We’re told that the old films, the Outlands and Silent Runnings, were too plaintive, too whiney.
I think that’s ridiculous. People who appreciate science fiction want the best for the world, but they understand that there is an education to be had by investigating the worst of what might happen. That’s why Blade Runner was so brilliant; it used the future to make us look at basic human qualities from a fresh perspective. Empathy. Humanity. How do you define these things? I wanted to address those questions.

Before I launch into a spoiler-laden look at the science in the film, I want to encourage you to go watch it for yourself. Unlike the vacuous effects-laden sci-fi that is so easy to watch and then forget, I find myself still mulling over “Moon”, revisiting the haunting and thought-provoking future that it portrays so simply but effectively.  Unfortunately as an independent film it had a limited release, but if you can find a theater near you that is playing it, it is well worth watching. And with the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing coming up next week, there couldn’t be a more fitting time to revisit the Moon.

Now, how good was the science? Surprisingly good! (And I’m not the only one who thinks so!) Read on for spoilers and the few places where the science goes wrong…


The movie starts off with Sam running on a treadmill in the lunar base. This is good and bad. The good is that it is very accurate to show a lunar astronaut having to exercise quite a lot to stay in shape. Under 1/6th the Earth’s gravity, muscle and bone loss would be serious problems, so lunar workers would have to stick to a strict workout regimen to stay in shape, expecially if they had been up there for three years and were about to head back to Earth.

Unfortunately, this first scene on the treadmill makes it abundantly clear that the gravity inside the lunar base is one g. Sam is running normally, with nothing obviously holding him down to simulate Earth gravity. In fact, throughout the whole movie, they make no attempt to hide the fact that the gravity inside the base is Earth gravity. This makes sense on a purely pragmatic level: it would be very costly and complicated to film a movie with simulated low gravity, and this movie just didn’t have the budget to do that. It also doesn’t really change the story at all, so from a storytelling standpoint it is also unnecessary.

The base itself is suitably futuristic looking, although I think they made it a little bit too large and austere to be realistic. Lots of blank white wall paneling and room to walk around. I suspect real lunar bases will be quite a bit more crowded, and no wall space will be wasted. But this is really a nitpick; I think they chose the base design as a deliberate throwback to 70s sci-fi films (especially 2001 and Star Wars), and to accentuate the sterility and loneliness of Sam’s position.


I really liked that Gerty the robot was not very anthropomorphized. He is essentially several robot arms and a big clunky case hanging from the ceiling. He has a small screen that displays emoticons and a camera with a dilating pupil. Of course, as a character he was very interesting, and his limited emotional expressions added some subtle comic relief to the film.

Ok, so what about this Helium-3 business? It’s actually good science! The lunar soil is chock full of this light isotope of helium because it is constantly bobmarded by helium nuclei in the solar wind. Helium-3 is important because it is one of the easiest fuels to use to sustain nuclear fusion. Alas, the Earth doesn’t have much of it. This gives a plausible reason for a company to be mining the lunar soil: if Helium-3 can be harnessed to power the world, whoever controls the supply would get mighty rich as long as they can keep the costs of production down.

The press kit for “Moon” has more information about Helium-3 mining if you’re curious. (Yes, they actually did their homework for this movie!)

Ok, now what about the cloning? Well, my biology training consists of 9th grade, and some assorted books about evolution that I have read since, so I am less qualified to comment on this scientifically. I think it’s plausible that human cloning will occur on the same timescale as building bases on the moon. What’s less plausible is having hundreds of rows of ready-to-resuscitate adult clones in cold storage.

Also, as the movie progresses, it is clear that the older version of Sam is rapidly degrading as he reaches the end of his 3 year mission. I don’t know how plausible it is to hard-wire self destruction into a living organism. But again, it may not be that far out there. I know that a big part of modern cancer research is searching for ways to trigger the cells’ self-destruct mechanisms. Maybe that could be induced for the whole body…


The trickiest part is the implanted memories. Each clone wakes up with identical memories, presumably taken from the “original” Sam Bell many years ago. As far as I know, we have nowhere near enough understanding of how human memory works to pre-load memories like that.

I really liked the logic behind the clones though. If a company could create clones, pre-trained and ready to work, it would make a lot more sense to use them than to continually train and launch new astronauts to the base. And then once the clone is reaching the limits of human psychological endurance, just dispose of it and revive a new one. Morally shady? Yes.  But then, what are giant corporations good for if not cutting moral corners to increase profits?

Another science problem that I noticed was that, at one point in the movie, Sam drives his rover away from the base to escape the signal jamming that has been preventing him from communicating with the relay satellite to Earth. Finally, he looks up into the sky to see the gibbous Earth hanging overhead. It’s a powerful image for an emotional scene, but unless his base was very close the edge of the far side of the moon, he would have had to drive a very long way to see this sight. I guess we are never told specifically where the base is, but it seemed implied that it was smack dab on the opposite side. If that’s the case, this view is not consistent with the amount of driving that Sam did. It is an accurate view of what one might see if they did drive around far enough to see the Earth though.


Finally, young Sam escapes the base by launching himself in the same container used to launch the Helium-3 capsule. Now, the problem here is that inanimate capsules can probably withstand a hell of a lot more g-forces than a human, and he didn’t even have a very good cushion to use during acceleration. It’s likely that he would have been killed by the g-forces. But then, even this isn’t too big a deal, because he admits that this is a problem in the movie. And given that he’s about to be killed by corporation goons, his choice to risk the launch and possibly survive to live for a few years on Earth makes sense.

So as you can see, most of my science qualms are nitpicks. This movie really did a great job with the science, partially because they clearly did their homework, but also because it doesn’t resort to ridiculous circumstances in lieu of plot. The plot is about the characters. It is gripping and fascinating with no need to invoke space-time warping or brain-sucking aliens or anything like that.

All in all, Moon is a great science fiction movie, with a great story and some excellent acting. And as a bonus, the science ain’t bad either. Definitely check it out if you get the chance.

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter: at the Moon and Returning Data!

July 4, 2009
One of the first images of the lunar surface from LROC. The camera has a high enough resolution to see the equipment left at the Apollo landing sites, and those are some of the top priority targets once LRO reaches its primary mission orbit.

One of the first images of the lunar surface from LROC. The camera has a high enough resolution to see the equipment left at the Apollo landing sites, and those are some of the top priority targets once LRO reaches its primary mission orbit.

I was completely delinquent about reporting this due to the craziness that was my June, but the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter launched on June 18 and has arrived at the moon and is already returning data. As a Mars scientist that is amazing to me. If it were a Mars probe, there would be ~7 months between launch and orbital insertion, but with the moon, it only takes a few days. Last I heard they are still refining the orbit, but the pictures from LROC, the high resolution camera (similar to the HiRISE camera orbiting Mars) are spectacular, and they will only get better. And remember, since LRO is at the moon rather than at Mars, it is going to be blasting data back to earth through a firehose rather than a straw. Many hundreds of gigabits per day! I think this mission is going to do a lot to bring the Moon back into the spotlight.

Fly me to the moon

May 4, 2009


My adviser Jim Bell has a guest post up over at the Planetary Society blog about the upcoming Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission. LRO will be able to take pictures of the lunar surface at 50 centimeters per pixel, and will return 20 Terabytes of data! That’s more than 100 times more data than any other planetary mission! So, go take a look at what Jim thinks that sort of data volume and resolution will mean for lunar science.

The Ares Launch Vehicles: How We’re Going Back to the Moon

April 22, 2009

I just came across this excellent video describing the Ares rockets that will be replacing the shuttle and taking us back to the moon (and possibly to near-Earth asteroids and Mars). I can’t seem to get it to embed, but here’s the link, and a blurb:

“Imagine a rocket the size of a small skyscraper. Now imagine shooting it into the air with so much force that it goes from zero to a thousand miles an hour in less than a minute. What kind of engines can generate that much thrust? And why is that rocket built in stages? Go inside Marshall Space Flight Center to meet members of the Ares Rocket team who can answer those questions and more.”


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