Along with all the jokes about the meteor that streaked over Siberia last week, there has been some useful re-orientation of thought about the demonstrated need for better detection tools:
For decades, scientists have been on the lookout for killer objects from outer space that could devastate the planet. But warnings that they lacked the tools to detect the most serious threats were largely ignored, even as skeptics mocked the worriers as Chicken Littles.
No more. The meteor that rattled Siberia on Friday, injuring hundreds of people and traumatizing thousands, has suddenly brought new life to efforts to deploy adequate detection tools, in particular a space telescope that would scan the solar system for dangers.
A group of young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who helped build thriving companies like eBay, Google and Facebook has already put millions of dollars into the effort and saw Friday’s shock wave as a turning point in raising hundreds of millions more.
“Wouldn’t it be silly if we got wiped out because we weren’t looking?” said Edward Lu, a former NASA astronaut and Google executive who leads the detection effort. “This is a wake-up call from space. We’ve got to pay attention to what’s out there.”
Astronomers know of no asteroids or comets that pose a major threat to the planet. But NASA estimates that fewer than 10 percent of the big dangers have been discovered.
At sp!ked, Patrick West notes an under-observed anniversary:
It is a fine testament to NASA’s Apollo programme that of all the world-shaking events in living memory, men landing on the moon is the only one that doesn’t involve death. As Andrew Smith, author of Moon Dust (2006), notes, everyone remembers where they were when John F Kennedy was assassinated, Princess Diana died, or on 9/11. Most people, if they were alive at the time, also vividly recall when a man first walked on the moon on 20 July 1969.
Few, however, will remember what they were doing when the last man walked on the moon. That was 40 years ago today.
As he fired up the engines of Apollo 17‘s Lunar Module, Gene Cernan, the last man on the moon, delivered a final message to the world: ‘America’s challenge has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And as we leave the moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return with peace and hope for all mankind.’ On this date, many of us lament that we haven’t gone back to the moon. Others won’t, citing the vast expense of this Cold War sideshow, equivalent to roughly $130 billion in today’s money.
We certainly aren’t likely to return to the moon in such cynical and pessimistic times, of Mayan prophecies, omens of economic stagnation and environmental catastrophe, Frankie Boyle misanthropy and books called Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Shit?. In other words, everything the Apollo programme didn’t represent. America’s race to the moon may have been partly a means of getting one over the Soviets, but it also embodied the spirit of adventure and progress, as encapsulated by Neil Armstrong’s first words from the moon.
At The Register, Brid-Aine Parnell reports on the mostly successful cargo delivery round-trip by SpaceX’s Dragon capsule:
The reusable cargoship dropped into the ocean yesterday evening around 250 miles off the coast of Mexico after resupplying the ISS and its crew. The Dragon was ferried to a port near Los Angeles where it will be prepped for its return to SpaceX’s test facility in Texas.
Some of the cargo brought back by the capsule is due to be returned to NASA in the next couple of days, including research samples from the station’s microgravity environment. The ship delivered 882 pounds of gear to the ISS, including scientific research and crew supplies. It returned with nearly twice that weight of stuff.
The mission was only a part-success, as the secondary objective was to launch a satellite for Orbcomm, but due to a malfunctioning engine in the launch phase, the satellite could not be placed in the correct orbit and was lost. Orbcomm is sticking with SpaceX for two more satellite launches in spite of this initial failure.
Zach Rosenberg reports on the next big thing we can expect from SpaceX:
Launcher developer SpaceX has promised a new engine for a new rocket, larger than the Falcon 9 that NASA expects to become a mainstay of its Earth orbit operations.
Elon Musk, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who successfully parlayed the fortune he earned founding PayPal into launch systems developer SpaceX, said the new engine would not be based on the 160,000lb-thrust (712kN) Merlin 1 series that powers Falcon 9.
Musk said the new rocket, which he calls MCT, will be “several times” as powerful as the 1 Merlin series, and won’t use Merlin’s RP-1 fuel. Beyond adding that it will have “a very big core size”, he declined to elaborate, promising more details in “between one and three years”.
Musk declined to say what ‘MCT’ stands for, and declined to answer further questions on the project.
In his weekly column at Vice, Warren Ellis “celebrates” the end of the Space Shuttle era:
…and here, dearly beloved, down here in the deep valley of expectations – over whose sides The Future slides like a slab-avalanche of flaming diarrhoea – is where we sit and look up overhead to see the grand dame of the Promised World Of Tomorrow being toured around like an incontinent dowager getting a last viewing from the relatives before being locked away in the old people’s home to drown in her own piss. And not one of us, dearly beloved, not one of us points up at that thing, that Space Shuttle, and calls it out for what it really is: NASA’s crucifix pendant.
Five cosmonauts died in the Russian space programme. A programme of largely unsteerable launch vehicles made to much the same standard as tractors and fuelled with terrifying muck that you’d think was too good to spray on scorpions. The American Space Shuttle alone killed 14. That’s what everyone’s been applauding, by the way – a flying death box that killed 14 people, seven of whom died for the noble and future-facing cause of a good media window.
This leaking thing, paraded across America to joy and applause from a people who don’t even see the lie to them that it represents, will have no eventual museum information board explaining that the Shuttle was the first and only crewed American space vehicle to have no launch escape system. That a limited bailout system was added only after Challenger exploded. There will be no guides reciting the story of how Shuttle killed human spaceflight in America. Also, of course, there will be no large plaque proclaiming that This Isn’t The Real Story.
The Shuttle was sold on the lie that it was the Future, when it was no such thing and never intended for that purpose. It was a domestic political tool for the most part. But it’s also a great object lesson.
As we all know, Star Trek‘s faster-than-light warp engines were mere plot devices, not actual ones. There’s no way to travel faster than light, so even our great-grandkids won’t be tripping off to distant (or even nearby) star systems. But wait … NASA’s Harold White looks poised to become the latest hero of the “we wanna go faster than light” brigade:
A top NASA boffin has outlined ongoing lab experiments at the space agency aimed at first steps towards the building of a warp-drive spacecraft theoretically capable of travelling at 10 times the speed of light.
The latest developments at the “Eagleworks” super-advanced space drive lab at NASA’s Johnson Space Center were outlined by NASA physicist Harold White at a conference on Friday. The Eagleworks lab was set up at the end of last year to look into such concepts as the Quantum Vacuum Plasma Thruster and also so-called “warp drives” along the lines proposed by Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre in the 1990s.
[. . .]
Unfortunately, subsequent investigation appeared to show that while the warp drive might work it would be unfeasibly power hungry: it would require a minimum amount of energy equivalent to completely annihilating the mass of the planet Jupiter.
However White and his NASA Eagleworks colleagues say that’s not necessarily so: it’s all down to the shape of the ring. An improved doughnut design, as opposed to a flat ring, would get the requirement down to something more like just annihilating the Voyager One probe craft.
Voyager masses in the region of 800kg, so by our calculations one would still need a lump of antimatter (or other reasonably compact super power source) which — if it were mishandled — would explode with a force of some 17,000 megatons, equivalent to several global nuclear wars all in one (or 600-odd Tunguska meteor strikes etc). This would inconveniently take humanity’s current atom labs billions of years to make, and there would be other practical issues (see our previous antimatter-bomb analysis here, and then there’d be the exoto-doughnut to fabricate etc).
No, it’s not what you think at all:
On March 16, 1966, Armstrong and future Apollo 15 moonwalker David R. Scott became the first human beings to dock an orbiting spacecraft with an independently launched satellite, the Agena. (As proofs-of-concept go, this one has been more important to spaceflight than the moon landings.) The procedure proved surprisingly unchallenging; when the Gemini capsule nosed into place, Armstrong blurted out, “It’s really a smoothie!” The Gemini-Agena combo — mankind’s first “space station” — moved out of radio contact with mission control 28 minutes later. When it came back in range after another 15, Armstrong’s first words were, “We have serious problems here.” A wiring problem had left one of the attitude thrusters on Gemini stuck in the “on” position — firing continuously and causing an increasing left roll. Unsure what was causing the problem, Armstrong made the snap decision to separate from the Agena. But the problem was on their side, and without the Agena’s inertia, the Gemini craft began to spin even faster.
Press accounts said the pair were spinning at about one revolution per second. Senior mission controller Chris Kraft has since noted that their peak rotation was actually 550 degrees a second. Only a trained test pilot could make good decisions while whirling around in freefall 90 times a minute — and Armstrong justified the use of test pilots in space for all time by using Gemini’s re-entry thrusters to dampen the roll and save himself and Scott. By rule, the use of those thrusters meant the mission had to be aborted early. Armstrong and Scott suffered tense hours as they waited to see if they would splash down short of their Pacific landing zone, on the soil of Communist China.
Armstrong was rueful about the abort, which cost Scott the chance to make a spacewalk and cut short the experiment with Agena. But NASA was impressed. One of the agency’s main concerns before the moon missions was that astronauts trying to set down the lunar module would refuse to abort the landing, even if they ran too short on fuel to leave the moon. Armstrong, alone among astronauts of the time, had established a record of outstanding sanity in the face of an emergency. He would probably like to be remembered for that — for making the right choice, a pilot’s choice — at least as much as for the trail he left in the dust of the moon.
sp!ked reposted an older article by James Woudhuysen on the long-term importance of space exploration and the stay-at-home attitudes that oppose further development of the “final frontier”:
One thing unites the critics of lunar exploration. Forty years after man first landed on the moon — on 20 July 1969 — they share a disdain for the grandeur of extra-terrestrial endeavour; for the scale of human ambition involved; for the very idea that human beings should climb into space, as up a mountain, ‘because it is there’.
I have no special preference for size, thrust during lift-off, or the traverse across vast distances. The development of the integrated circuit in the late 1950s, so important to the Apollo programme, was a tribute to miniaturisation rather than to high energy or physical scale. No, my admiration for both Saturn boosters and tiny electronics grows from a respect for open-ended curiosity, for human achievement, and for taking risks. With space travel, a lot of bravery was also at stake. And with both space and the development of semiconductors, there is much teamwork to celebrate — teamwork that, in the case of Apollo, involved not just three astronauts, but the efforts of hundreds of thousands of people.
[. . .]
From Buzz Aldrin, an official statement on the death of Neil Armstrong:
I am deeply saddened by the passing of my good friend, and space exploration companion, Neil Armstrong today. As Neil, Mike Collins and I trained together for our historic Apollo 11 Mission, we understood the many technical challenges we faced, as well as the importance and profound implications of this historic journey. We will now always be connected as the crew of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, yet for the many millions who witnessed that remarkable achievement for humankind, we were not alone.
Whenever I look at the moon I am reminded of that precious moment, over four decades ago, when Neil and I stood on the desolate, barren, yet beautiful, Sea of Tranquility, looking back at our brilliant blue planet Earth suspended in the darkness of space, I realized that even though we were farther away from earth than two humans had ever been, we were not alone. Virtually the entire world took that memorable journey with us. I know I am joined by many millions of others from around the world in mourning the passing of a true American hero and the best pilot I ever knew. My friend Neil took the small step but giant leap that changed the world and will forever be remembered as a historic moment in human history.
Even copyright-free NASA footage can be taken down for copyright infringement. Brid-Aine Parnell at The Register explains the fast-trigger-finger-goof:
YouTube was a bit keen in the prosecution of copyright laws during NASA’s victorious Curiosity rover landing yesterday morning, booting the first video excerpt of the livestream off its site for infringing a news service.
NASA’s video coverage and pics are actually generally copyright-free, which made the overzealous bot takedown even more ironic as it pulled the video from the space agency’s channel for infringing on the rights of Scripps Local News.
The problem, which took a few hours to fix, was flagged by online magazine Motherboard, which spotted a message on the video declaring: “This video contains content from Scripps Local News, who has blocked it on copyright grounds”.
Brid-Aine Parnell at The Register on today’s successful rendezvous with the ISS:
Elon Musk’s SpaceX has just made history with the first ever commercial cargoship to be captured by the International Space Station’s robotic arm.
Image from NASA TV
Flying above northwestern Australia, flight engineer Don Pettit aboard the ISS reached out with the Canadarm and grabbed the Dragon at 9.56am EDT, 14.56 GMT.
Reg staff are not sure if astronauts are given cheesy lines to say at these big moments, but Pettit had a great one ready.
“Looks like we’ve got a dragon by the tail,” he announced to Mission Control Centre in Houston.
“Looks like this sim went really well, we’re ready to turn it around and do it for real,” he joked.
Lewis Page at The Register on the successful Dragon fly-by of the ISS:
It’s another moment of truth for upstart space startup SpaceX as once again the company attempts to do something that has only ever been accomplished to date by major government space agencies: docking one spacecraft to another in orbit and transferring cargo.
Having launched its new Dragon spacecraft on Tuesday — on only its second flight — SpaceX is now seeking to bring the ship to a docking with the International Space Station on Friday. Many boxes must be ticked before this can happen, however: but today the first was checked off as the Dragon made a close pass within 1.5 miles of the station, and ‘nauts aboard the orbiting outpost confirmed that their remote-control console was able to command the new ship. This was done by ordering the Dragon to illuminate its strobe lights as it flew by the Station.
In fact the station’s crew — the Dragon tests were handled by André Kuipers of the ESA and NASA’s Don Pettit — couldn’t see that the lights were on owing to bright sunlight illuminating the still quite distant Dragon. However telemetry confirmed that the capsule had received the radio command from the ISS and activated its lights, and viewers of NASA TV were treated to video of the Dragon as it gradually overhauled the station from beneath, passing above South Africa and the Indian Ocean as it did so.
Brid-Aine Parnell reports on today’s launch of the SpaceX Dragon:
History is just days away from being made as SpaceX’ Dragon cargoship finally blasted off successfully on its Falcon 9 rocket this morning on its way to a rendezvous with the International Space Station.
Elon Musk’s private space firm has had a number of setbacks with the latest test flight of the Dragon, delaying again and again to make sure the software that will put it within spitting distance of the ISS was working properly. And just when it seemed there was no stopping the takeoff last Saturday, the computer held the ship on the ground.
The engines were already firing when the computer “saw a parameter it didn’t like” and aborted the trip. SpaceX engineers later replaced a faulty pressure valve.
However this morning at 08:44 UK time (03:44 US Eastern) there were no problems and the Falcon 9 rocket lifted off on schedule to place the Dragon capsule into an orbit which will carry it to a rendezvous with the station on Friday if all goes to plan.
The first hurdle in the commercial company’s maiden berthing with the ISS has been jumped, with the Dragon out of Earth’s atmosphere, but there’s still a lot to prove before Houston will give the go to attempt a docking.