Tag: Space exploration

SpaceX Returns

I’m in transit but thought I’d put up a quick post about Space X successfully launching a rocket, having it deploy satellites, then return to the Earth. You can see a truncated video below:

It looks like something out of a sci-fi movie.

This isn’t just cool; the economic potential is huge. This could cut the cost of putting things into orbit by tens of millions. In just my field, this could mean more space telescopes for the same funds. In other fields, you’re talking about affordable space tourism, cheap satellite, maybe even an economic way to clear out space debris.

Science Monday: The Martian

I have not read the book (yet) or seen the movie (yet), but I thought this interview with the author was intruiging:

Weir gets into one of the big reasons I support the space program and wish we had one that was ten times bigger. As long as the human race is confined to this planet, we are vulnerable. A single event can render us extinct or at least destroy our civilization. I’ve long thought we should build a vault of human knowledge so that, in the event of a survivable catastrophe, civilization could eventually be rebuilt. But the ultimate “civilization insurance” would be space colonization.

That’s decades away. As Weir notes, the big problem is getting things into orbit, which remains hideously expensive. But I also love his approach to this problem: let industry figure out how to get cargo into orbit cheaply (with NASA funding cutting edge research). That might mean new rocket tech, that might mean magnetic slingshots, that might mean a space elevator.

The solar system, if not the universe, is there for the taking. Do we dare do it? The difference between doing it and not doing it may very well be the long-term survival of humanity.

New Horizons is Alive and Well

The last time we did a flyby of a planet, I was in high school. It was 1989 — Bush the Elder was President — and we had a TV on in my physics class showing us a live feed from NASA of the Voyager 2 flyby of Neptune. I was enthralled … everyone was. Here was a world we had only glimpsed through a telescope and now it was so close you could touch it.

(I could say something about that inspired me to enter astronomy but that would be a lie. I liked astronomy but it never occurred to me to do it for a living until my junior year of college.)

I felt some of that excitement last night as we awaited the signal from New Horizons that would indicate a successful flyby. And today we have some stunning images coming down. Here is Charon, Pluto’s moon, that was a dot even for the Hubble Space Telescope:


You can read some of the details of the picture over at Bad Astronomy.

It’s impossible for me to express how much I love this … all of it. I love the fiddly engineering and amazing work that go into planning a mission. I love the facilities down at Goddard where they do every test imaginable on the hardware of upcoming missions. I love watching the rockets leap from the pad on a pillar of fire. I love the seemingly impossible task of sending a probe over a nine-year three-billion-mile mission and having it still work. I love the technical jargon as the Mission Operations Center monitors the spacecraft (a lot of which I now understand, having worked for a NASA mission). I love the excitement space aficionados and even hardened astronomers feel as the images come down and reveal a distant and mysterious world. It is all exciting and wonderful and thrilling and inspiring.

Here’a closeup of that heart-shaped region of Pluto.


Pluto has vast mountains of ice, canyons miles deep, a surface that was repaved within the last hundred million years by some process we can only guess at right now. In a few hours, New Horizons gathered data that will keep scientists busy for years and may change our understanding of the Kuiper Belt.

I’ve said this before about our space program: this is the way to waste taxpayer money. You want to talk to me about American exceptionalism? This is American exceptionalism. America is defined by many things but our exploration of space has to be our country’s greatest achievement. We’ve sent probes to every planet; we’ve put men on the moon; we’ve glimpsed the fires of creation through space telescopes. No other nation can match us. Russia sorta could for a while (and right now, they’re embarrassingly the only means of getting astronauts into space). Europe sorta can in their European way. India and China are trying to get things going. But when you really break it down, we are the country of space. We are the explorers. We are the pioneers. And this a commitment we should be devoting more resources to, not less.

Last year, the Houston Chronicle ran a great series about the foundering of our space policy. The big problem I see is that no President has been really committed to it. They come up with their pet projects — a mission to Mars, an asteroid capture, a return to the Moon — and that gets vaguely funded only to have another pet project to take its place when the presidency changes hands. What we need is a more realistic long-term strategy, something NASA can commit to for the next twenty years or more. NASA’s focus should be astrophysics, identifying potentially dangerous asteroids, continuing to explore the Solar System with unmanned probes and, most importantly, trying to devise cheaper ways of getting people and cargo into space. The last part is the only way human exploration of space will ever be feasible.

This should go hand-in-hand with supporting private space programs and commercial exploitation of space. What I’d really like to see is a bunch of billionaires get together, pool their funds, and set a course for the next few decades of private space flight, with NASA committed to supporting them.

But that’s tomorrow. Today, enjoy the amazing pictures of a distant world coming down from New Horizons. And thank your stars that you’re part of a species smart enough to think of this and a country rich enough and daring enough to pull it off.

(Post Scriptum: I said this on Twitter, but will mention it here. I sometimes get asked what I think about Pluto no longer being a planet. My opinion is this: call it what you want.

I understand why the change was made. If Pluto is a planet, that means Eris, Haumea, Ceres and Makemake have to be planets, to be consistent. And it means that, in a few decades, we might have identified hundreds of planets. Pluto is very different from the other planets and much more like the vast sea of Kuiper Belt objects that probably lurks out there. This doesn’t take away from Clyde Tombaugh’s achievement. On the contrary, he discovered something even more amazing than Planet X.

But … I really don’t think it would have killed us to just call Pluto a planet for historical reasons. Consistency is, after all, the hobgoblin of small minds. And Pluto doesn’t care what you call it.)

Science Sunday: New Horizons Back Online

Well, that was a bit nervous-making:

NASA’s New Horizons mission is returning to normal science operations after a July 4 anomaly and remains on track for its July 14 flyby of Pluto.

The investigation into the anomaly that caused New Horizons to enter “safe mode” on July 4 has concluded that no hardware or software fault occurred on the spacecraft. The underlying cause of the incident was a hard-to-detect timing flaw in the spacecraft command sequence that occurred during an operation to prepare for the close flyby. No similar operations are planned for the remainder of the Pluto encounter.

I was bit worried when I heard New Horizons had gone into safe mode, but not terribly. Spacecraft almost always have a “safe mode” they can go into in case of an unexpected error. It’s basically a standby that keeps all the instruments and hardware from potentially being damaged while the ground teams figure out what has happened. In this case, it seems like the software didn’t quite time right (which happens; spacecrafts is complicated). So we’re back in business.

Safe modes are a bit nerve-wracking. But they’re not as nerve-wracking as silence. Thankfully, we appear to be back on track for a great flyby.

Science Sunday: Philae Revives

Great news from ESA:

Rosetta’s lander Philae has woken up after seven months in hibernation on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

The signals were received at ESA’s European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt at 22:28 CEST on 13 June. More than 300 data packets have been analysed by the teams at the Lander Control Center at the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

“Philae is doing very well: It has an operating temperature of -35ºC and has 24 Watts available,” explains DLR Philae Project Manager Dr. Stephan Ulamec. “The lander is ready for operations.”

For 85 seconds Philae “spoke” with its team on ground, via Rosetta, in the first contact since going into hibernation in November.

When analysing the status data it became clear that Philae also must have been awake earlier: “We have also received historical data – so far, however, the lander had not been able to contact us earlier.”

Now the scientists are waiting for the next contact. There are still more than 8000 data packets in Philae’s mass memory which will give the DLR team information on what happened to the lander in the past few days on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Philae shut down on 15 November 2014 at 1:15 CET after being in operation on the comet for about 60 hours. Since 12 March 2015 the communication unit on orbiter Rosetta was turned on to listen out for the lander.

You may remember Philae as the spacecraft that descended to the comet and landed on the surface. The thought was that it landed at an angle in a crater and it’s solar panels were not well-illuminated. It did some experiments before running out of power but there was always hope that, as it got closer to the sun, the increased sunlight would be enough to revive it.

It looks, tentatively, like that’s happening. If so, it’s gravy on the lovely roast that has been Rosetta’s mission. We’ve already gotten tons of awesome data and breath-taking images. Now we’re might get even more.

Welcome back, Philae.

Curiosity Lands!

First go here to learn all about how NASA planned to land Curiosity on Mars. Then check out this picture Curiosity sent immediately after they fucking did it:

Let’s keep our fingers crossed that everything continues to function as the probe powers up and gets to work. As I’ve said before on NASA, this is the way to waste taxpayer money.

update : Mars Orbiter caught Curiosity as she parachuted down:



At 07:44 UTC, May 22, 2012, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket thundered into space, carrying the Dragon capsule into orbit.

This morning’s launch went very smoothly. After achieving orbit, the uncrewed Dragon craft decoupled from the rocket and successfully deployed its solar panels, a key milestone in the mission. When that happened, the cheering from the SpaceX team could be heard in the webcast background, which was delightful.

Video here. Skip ahead to minute 56 when the solar panels deploy and cheer goes up from the Space X crowd. I must admit, a huge grin broke out on my face too. There is just something so wonderful and heroic and impossible about space travel that I can’t help but be moved.

On Friday, the Dragon capsule will meet with the space station. If it maneuvers well, it will dock and then return to Earth. And if the mission is a success, it will mean that, ten years after its foundation, SpaceX is exceeding NASA in its ability to support the space station.

I love this. You combine this with last month’s ambitious announcement of an effort to mine the asteroids and the private space industry is really starting to take off, no pun intended. It’s the perfect intersection of economics, science and ambition.

More of this!

Blast from the Future


I’ve been scratching my head for a long time, trying to figure out why NASA hasn’t been taking the idea of preventing asteroid impacts more seriously.

So I’m pretty chuffed that the European Space Agency is looking into saving our collective skins. They’ve being studying the feasibility of a mission to test methods of asteroid impact mitigation, including a very very cool space mission they’ve dubbed Don Quijote (first proposed in 2002, and may launch sometime after 2020). It’s actually two separate spacecraft: one to impact a small near-Earth asteroid, and another to monitor the event carefully to see what happens, including how much the orbit of the asteroid was changed.

ESA and European science are surging at the moment while we’re cutting about 10% of NASA and 25% of astrophysics. But something like Don Quijote is actually one of the things even space skeptics like Gregg Easterbrook admit NASA should be doing. The likelihood that we will get hit by an asteroid large enough to destroy our civilization is very low. But the cost of such an event would be incalculable. Let’s call it a quadrillion dollars (1000 trillion). Preventing a one-in-a-million asteroid hit would then be worth about a billion. That’s not counting for the loss of life, history, culture and Elvis recordings.

And this is the best way to do deflect asteroids. Well, no, not really. The really best way would be to chuck Rosie O’Donnell at it. But some people would regard that as inhumane (to the asteroid), so Don Quijote is the next best thing. And the idea is so simple and so fucking cool that you almost have to do it, whether there’s an asteroid coming at us or not. Even a small impact on an asteroid, if done early enough, could deflect it well out of harm’s way. Or, if you like, maybe into some other planet’s way. I don’t like the way Mercury’s been looking at us lately.

Of course, it’s just a study right now. And, unfortunately, it’s likely to remain that way. Despite Plait’s enthusiasm, ESA has never taken on something this big and they have a tendency to make big plans, drink lots of coffee, spend a lot of money and ultimately do nothing (see Hermes, Columbus, everything else). But maybe this will spur some activity in Washington. An asteroid stopper would be a much more useful and practical mission than a voyage to Mars. And are we really going to let the Euro-weenies save the Earth? Bruce Willis wouldn’t stand for it.

Ad Astra

This is going to be a bit of a long rambling post. But it’s on a subject close to me personally and professionally.

As most of you know, I’m a professional star-gazer and a lifelong fan of space exploration. And right now, the state of space is in flux.

On Friday, the shuttle Atlantis blasted off for the 135th and final shuttle mission. The Space Shuttle has had a long and somewhat checkered history. On the one hand, it has cost billions of dollars and 14 lives. On the other, it has enabled the construction of a space station, the launch and repair of spacecraft that have vastly expanded our understanding of the universe and has fired the imaginations of millions. I remember watching the early launches and landings in elementary school and the thrill they gave us. STS-41-C, when Challenger captured and repair Solar Max, fascinated me. And I remember standing in a cold March morning, watching STS-109’s dawn launch from the VIP seats. It lit up the landscape right as the sun rose, arced through a cloud and thundered over the Atlantic. It was a spectacle that warranted near-biblical metaphors. As I’ve said many times, that is the way to waste taxpayer money.

It will be some time before we have any successor to the Shuttle. Three administrations in a row have bumbled around with their “plans”. And while private industry is gearing up to take over many launch duties, exploration remains on hold. I was born in 1972, the year of the last moon mission. I never dreamed that incompetent bumbling, political hackery and a singular lack of vision would keep us from fulfilling the promise that Apollo delivered. Yet here we are, in 2011, and the stars are further away than they were on the day I was born.

As disappointing as our manned space flight has been, however, NASA’s science programs have been as stunning a success. Voyagers 1 and 2 continue to send back data from the edge of our solar system with 33 years and 10 billion miles on their odometers. The Spirit rover, designed to explore Mars for 90 days, instead explored it for 2000. Hubble, now a grizzled veteran of 21 summers and 100,000 orbits, has changed almost every branch of astrophysics. NASA has launched or been partners in over 30 space telescopes, almost all of which have been spectacularly successful. (Take it from an insider: the builders know what’s on the line and engineer the hell out of their satellites. They are built to succeed).

Now how can I, a conservative-libertarian, support such things? Well, I have a personal stake, of course: I’ve had the privilege of working on and analyzing data from several space missions. But fundamentally, it comes down to my belief that basic science, pure science, is one of the few things government should be doing. de Tocqueville put in best in Democracy in America.

If those who are called on to direct the affairs of nations in our time can clearly and in good time understand these new tendencies which will soon be irresistible, they will see that, granted enlightenment and liberty, people living in a democratic age are quite certain to bring the industrial side of science to perfection anyhow and that henceforth the whole energy of organized society should be directed to the support of higher studies and the fostering of a passion for pure science.

Nowadays the need is to keep men interested in theory. They will look after the practical side of things for themselves. So, instead of perpetually concentrating attention on the minute examination of secondary effects, it is good to distract it therefrom sometimes and lift it to contemplation of first causes.

Applications are for the private sector; exploration needs the occasional boost from the public.

I can’t find the quote but de Tocqueville also worried that Americans, being so imminently practical, would not indulge themselves in great monuments and achievements for the ages. NASA, both in exploration and investigation, crushes that fear. Apollo was a greater achievement than all the wonders of the world put together. If humans ever do escape this planet and make themselves almost immune from extinction, it will be the greatest achievement in the history of history. Our satellites have found hundreds of new worlds and looked back to the dawn of the universe itself. Aristotle would be green with envy.

I bring this up, of course, because the House just unveiled their budget proposal for NASA, which cuts 10% of NASA science and ends JWST — NASA’s next big science mission. I have mixed feeling about this. JWST is massively over-budget and has had a myriad of technical problems, which has been hurting other missions. On the other hand, it would be an incredible mission if it took place and its backers insist the big problems are behind them. And the current proposal doesn’t move the money to other missions; it just makes it disappear.

As someone who supports steep budget cuts, I’m constantly looking for things to kill. And I’m glad the GOP is taking on ethanol, our bloated transportation budget and, just maybe, our outsized defense budget and entitlements. But basic science is one of the few things we should prioritize and one of the few things that was not run up in the recent budget explosion. I recently saw a talk from a NASA higher up. With the expected cuts, we will, by the end of the decade, have entire regions of the electromagnetic spectrum that are as invisible to us as they were to cave men. A flat level of funding for 2012, with JWST continuation contingent on a top-to-bottom review of the program, would hold the line on the budget without hurting the future and darkening our electronic eyes, perhaps forever.

(Space science has its practical side, as well. Any time you are talking space science — from detector technology to control systems — you’re talking about things that have practical, frequently military uses. One instrument I’ve seen uses a holographic glass technology used for the Heads Up Display of fighter aircraft. Science is one of the few government endeavors that actually has an economic multiplier, although how great it is — estimates range from 2 to 10 — is debatable.)

The GOP talks a lot about American exceptionalism. As an insider, I can tell you that there are few fields where America is more exceptional than astrophysics. In terms of degrees granted, papers published, missions launched and discoveries made, we eclipse the rest of the world combined. Around the globe, America is astronomy. Can we not find a way to keep our budget under control without sacrificing that?

Feel free to blast me in the comments if you think that I’m just pleading for my own slice of the federal pie. But I’m trying to be as objective as possible. Even before this became my life — and who knows if it will be for much longer — I loved this stuff. As I said — this is the way to waste taxpayer money.