Wednesday, March 29, 2006

NASA: Dawn revived, CEV contract delayed

NASA has made two major decisions this week. The Dawn mission to study two of the largest asteroids has been revived after an earlier cancellation. After the scientific world complained loudly following NASA's cancellation of the mission for technical and fiscal reasons, NASA rexamined it and found the technical issues were close enough to solution that the mission should be completed. Dawn will launch in summer 2007.

Also, NASA delayed awarding the next stage contracts for the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), extending the Phase 1 study contracts to Lockheed Martin and the Boeing/Northrop team from March 31 to August 31. One of the Phase 1 contractors will be selected as the Phase 2 prime contractor to design, develop, test, evaluate and produce the CEV.

Friday, March 24, 2006

A Unique Quirk of Nature

A puzzling animal which looks like a very slender canine with short grayish-brown hair has been hanging around a Tyco Electronics plant in North Carolina. The big-eared creature, according to biologists who looked at photographs, is probably a red fox with a rare genetic condition known as Sampson. Such an animal lacks the outer coat of guard hairs and has only the dense, soft, underfur. Authorities say the animal appears to be healthy, so they intend to just let it be.

Obituary: Addwaita the tortoise

What may be the oldest known vertebrate in history has died in a zoo in India. Addwaita, an Aldabra giant tortoise, was brought to India before the American Revolution and is estimated to have been 250 years old at the time of his death. The tortoise's name in Bengali means "the one and only." He certainly was.

Success for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has returned the first test images from the most powerful cameras yet sent to the Red Planet. It marks another milestone in the search for new knowledge, and possibly life, on our distant companion world.

Falcon 1 Rocket Suffers Setback

The partly reusable Falcon 1, the first vehicle in a stable of low-cost rockets funded by Internet billionaire Elon Musk, failed on its first flight today.
It's hardly unusual for the first flight of a new booster to fail, and Musk's company, SpaceX, has the resources and will to continue. SpaceX vice president Gwynn Shotwell told reporters the causes were not clear yet. The vehicle failed about one minute into powered flight. She said, "Clearly this is a setback but we're in this for the long haul."

Comment: I know Gwynn Shotwell and have met the very enthusiastic Musk. I have no doubt they and their team will press on. The Falcon series could drastically lower the cost of access to orbit, and it's a worthy endeavor. Three more launches are already scheduled. Best of luck, my friends.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

NASA launches science microsats

The STS5 mission, using a constellation of three 25-kg microsatellites, is NASA's latest successful science launch. The satellites will provide new knowledge of the Earth's magentic field. For some science missions, multiple small satellites are better than a single large one, since they can take measurements from (in this case) three orbits simultaneously. As NASA's science budget gets squeezed (see previous posts), there will no doubt be more interest in the use of small, relatively inexpensive satellites or groups of satellites for science missions.

NOTE: By a happy coincidence, the author just received word that a paper on this topic has been accepted for the AIAA/USU Conference on Small Satellites ( "Microspacecraft and the Vision for Space Exploration," by Matt Bille and Kris Winkler, will be presented at the August 2006 conference in Utah.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Book Review: Riding Rockets

Three-time Shuttle astronaut Mike Mullane has produced a unique memoir of his time with NASA. The book offers more than any previous memoir (and frankly, more than most of us want to know) about the nasty problems associated with weightlessness and human waste disposal. Beyond that quirk, the book has a lot to offer. Mullane explains, in you-are-there prose, the experience of space flight and the physical and emotional strains of launch scrubs. He also does a nice job of introducing us to the personalities of his class of astronauts (the "Thirty-Five New Guys") and describing the interactions between people who were both loyal comrades and intense competitors. Indeed, some of the writing is so good that it makes me wonder what went wrong in Mullane's first book, the novel Red Sky, which was frankly a painful experience to read.
An interesting sidelight is Mullane's relationship to physicist Judith Resnik, who died on the Challenger. The married Mullane frankly admits to feeling an attraction to her and is glad he never acted on it, but the way he describes their interaction gives the impression that it was all up to him: there's a hint of the old fighter-pilot ego in his description of events. Speaking of fighter pilots, Mullane's description of what astronauts did with their supersonic T-38 trainers will curl the hair of readers who like to think of astronauts as sensible people. You may not always like Riding Rockets, but you won't be able to put it down.

Matt Bille

Commemoration of a Space Milestone

80 years ago, on March 16, 1926, American physicist Robert H. Goddard launched the first liquid-fueled rocket from a farm in Massachusetts. It weighed 4.7 kg and reached an altitude of approximately 12 meters. That might not seem like a very auspicious beginning, but it was the rocketry equivalent of the 12-second flight the Wright Brothers had made in 1903. Goddard lived long enough to develop more advanced rockets and examine the German V-2, which he always thought he could have bettered if the U.S. had given him adequate funding.

Oddly, I can't find a darn thing on any NASA sites about this important anniversary.

We salute you, Dr. Goddard.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter makes it into orbit

NASA's $450M Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter made a "right on the money" entry into Martian orbit on Friday. The craft's two-year mission is to examine Mars for possbile environments that might house life and to explore find landing spots for future astronauts.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Water on Saturn's Moon

NASA reported its Cassini spacecraft found evidence of what appear to be geysers of liquid water erupting from subterranean Saturn's moon Enceladus. Carolyn Porco of the Cassini team said, "We realize that this is a radical conclusion -- that we may have evidence for liquid water within a body so small and so cold. However, if we are right, we have significantly broadened the diversity of solar system environments where we might possibly have conditions suitable for living organisms."

Rediscovered - After 11 Million Years

A rat-like animal described as a new species from Laos last year isn't new at all. It's been hiding - for 11 million years. That's how old the latest known fossil from its family is. George Schaller of the WCS notes, ""It shows you it's well worth looking around in this world, still, to see what's out there."

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

World's Weirdest Crustacean?

This newly described species from the Pacific may merit that title. After all, what looks like a lobster covered with blond hair? Well, this critter does. It's not hair, of course, but a kind of hairlike filament. Still, the animal looks like it came either from a mad scientist's DNA lab or from another planet entirely.

There are more things in heaven and earth....

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Not a Good Day for Earth

Two items from the BBC today don't provide a very cheery note for scientists. The first article (click on title link above) concerns a warning that climate change, the effect of aircraft exhaust, and other factors could seriously degrade astronomers' ability to study the heavens with Earth-based optical telescopes in just a few decades.
The second item:
reports on a study indicating Antarctica is losing about 150 square km of ice to the ocean every year. There are uncertainties in the data, as with any complex phenomenon (for example, some parts of the ice sheet, based on other studies, are actually getting thicker) but the University of Colorado scientists involved are certain the net effect on the continent is a significant loss of ice.

COMMENT: There is a lot we don't know about climate change, including how much is due to human activity vs. normal swings in the Earth's temperatures. However, these reports point out the need to minimize the activity we can control, since it amounts, in essence, to an uncontrolled experiment on the planet we inhabit.

(Thanks to my colleague Kris Winkler for pointing out these articles.)