Thursday, August 31, 2006

LockMart wins Orion

A team led by Lockheed Martin has been selected by NASA to design, develop, and test the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), now named Orion. LM was selected over a team headed by Boeing and Northrop Grumman.

COMMENT: It will no doubt trouble a lot of people that LM's last spaceship development project for NASA, the X-33, was an unmitigated disaster. On the other hand, Boeing botched its highest-profile space project, the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA), so badly the Pentagon took it away and gave it to LM. Northrop Grumman's flagship space program is the NPOESS environemntal satellite system, which has been a mess as well. So there was no opportunity to select a large American spacecraft builder with a pristine record of recent success. (LM's team includes Orbital Sciences, a smaller company that does have an almost spotless record for the last decade. Maybe it'll rub off. An innovative entry, T-space, which included the SpaceShipOne builders, quit the competition early, saying it was scared off by the sheer magnitude of the NASA bureaucracy and the mass of reports and documentation required to deal with it.)

Of the companies that built human spaceflight vehicles for the US, none exists anymore.
The record goes like this:
1970s: Space Shuttle: Rockwell International (sold to Boeing)
1960s: Apollo: North American (merged into Rockwell and hence to Boeing)
1960s: Gemini: McDonnell (merged into Boeing)
1960s: Mercury: McDonnell

Let's hope LM gets it right. This is NASA's big bet for decades to come. I wish the agency and the company all possible success.

Conservation Heroes: Shep and Scarface

One of the great success stories in animal conservation is the costly, difficult, and ultimately successful effort to rescue the black-footed ferret, not just from endangered status, but from what was generally considered extinction. This article tells a good story of that effort and pays tribute to two unlikely heroes: Shep, the Wyoming ranch dog who dragged home a black-footed ferret on September 25, 1981: and Scarface, the last wild ferret to be captured, who may have personlly saved the species by fathering the first two litters born in captivity.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Shuttling back and forth

The space shuttle Atlantis, which was in the process of being rolled back to the Vehicle Assembly Building as protection from Tropical Storm Ernesto, has reversed course and is on its way back to the pad. As it's no simple thing to turn around and re-prepare a Shuttle on the pad, presumably NASA has decided the weather danger is minimal. This would be very good news for the agency, because the Shuttle's launch windows are so tight and so crowded with other considerations like Soyuz launches that it would be easy for a delay to cascade into next year.

Fingers crossed....

Friday, August 25, 2006

Plutonians not taking demotion well

NASAWatch has posted an email announcement making the rounds at JPL. It seems the High Coucil of Plutonian States is not pleased that the inhabitants of the "third rock from the sun" have demoted their world.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Pluto Demoted

The IAU has made up its mind. Instead of adding planets to the solar system (see earlier post) it will subtract one. Pluto, ruled out of planetary status by its overlapping orbit with Neptune, will join a class called "dwarf planets."

COMMENT: Alas, nine-planet system, we knew you well. Think of the textbook corrections alone that need to be done. Still, it was long past time that someone had officially defined what a planet is.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Hobbit Wars

The latest round has been fired in the hottest scientific debate of the 21st century (so far, anyway): whether a distinct species of human lived on the Indonesian island of Flores. The only full skeleton and skull found so far, dubbed LB1, represents "a developmentally abnormal individual, being microcephalic," according to Dr. Robert Eckhardt of Penn State.

COMMENT: Expect another round of rebuttals, based in part on indications that fragmentary skeletons of other individuals show similar adult size. I still think the "pro-species" side has the best of it, but the technical nature of the debate has surpassed my ability as an interested amateur to keep up with it all. This is not likely to be settled until (and unless) more adult skulls emerge from the site.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Oldest Animal on Earth

This item updates a fascinating story I mentioned in my new book Shadows of Existence. It was always presumed the great whales lived to be quite old for mammals, maybe 60 or 70 years, but 200+? The question was raised when bowhead whales were killed legally by aboriginal people of the Arctic and found to have stone harpoon points, out of use for over a century, embedded in them. Analysis of amino acid ratios in the preserved eyes of some of these whales indicate, according to Jeffrey Bada of Scripps Institute, that "About 5 percent of the population is over a hundred years old and in some cases 160 to 180 years old." One male may have been over 200. Bada said we don't know if bowheads are unique or if studies of other whale species may indicate similar longevity.

When Sturgeon Attack

Boaters on Florida's Suwannee River are facing an unusual danger: jumping sturgeon. The Gulf sturgeon, which can be two and a half meters long, has an odd habit of jumping clear out of the water for unclear reasons. In the last year, five collisions have occurred when sturgeon opted to jump just as a boat or personal watercraft was passing. One knocked a man unconscious: another smashed the windshield of a boat. State biologists blame it on coincidence, aided by the increase in humans using the waterway and a growing sturgeon population.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

More from Conference on Small Satellites

On Day 3 of the 20th annual conference, papers were presented on a variety of technologies, not all strictly related to small satellites, and on university satellites programs. The university group is very impressive: science projects have come a long way from dissecting frogs. University of Central Florida, for example, is equipping a microsat with a new kind of telescoping gravity-gradient boom which will stabilize the satellite precisely enough to allow for imaging.
ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain rejected the idea of basing "small" on mass alone and outlined what he called a "light satellite" approach, based on flexibility of requirements, constrained cost, and acceptance of risk, which will sometimes, though not always, lead to a smaller spacecraft. He cited ESA's SMART-1 lunar probe as an example.
Overall, this year's conference included a greater variety of papers than ever, everything from broad examinations of what a small satellite is good for to extremely technical topics like a thermal control switch design and even a DARPA-funded project to allow accurate navigation anywhere in the solar system by using X-ray pulsars as reference points. Launch and launch opportunities remained a central concern, and in some cases a very sore point for experimenters who had depended for decades on Space Shuttle "GAS Can" opportunities. The "smallsat community" showed it was a vibrant, growing assembly of entrepreneurs, professors, students, large corporations, governments, and even international associations.
Happy 20th Birthday!

Pluto is still a planet, but...

A new IAU proposal on planets (see earlier item) basically calls something a planet if it is in orbit around a star (while not being a star) and massive enough to attain a spherical shape due to its own gravity. This will be voted on next week. It would create 12 known planets in our solar system, with more possible.

NASA administrator Griffin addresses smallsat conference

Leonard David of report on NASA Administrator Mike Griffin's speech (which I missed) to the 20th AIAA/USU Conference on Small Satellites.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Conference on Small Satellites, Day 2


This morning, Kris Winkler and I presented our paper, “Microspacecraft and the Vision for Space Exploration.” It was very well received. We owe major thanks to our employer, Booz Allen Hamilton, for sponsoring our efforts. (The paper, it must be noted, does not reflect the company's positions, only those of the authors).

Other highlights:
General Lance Lord (ret.) , formerly Commander, Air Force Space Command, said, “There are small satellites, but no small missions.”
According to Gen. Lord, this is the point at which to shape the future: small satellites are increasingly accepted, and the pace of change in space is accelerating. Smallsats are best for high-risk R&D, testing and training of space professionals, and some military applications.
Smallsat promoters have to answer the big questions of the near future: how can smallsats help deter enemies? How can they help the individual warfighter? How can they make force applications more precise? If we can answer these questions, resources to develop small space systems will follow.
He stressed the importance of a good concept of operations established between the satellite provider and the warfighter before war begins. This was done with GPS before the shooting started in the first Gulf War. The same idea applied to civilian applications.
In response to a question on what the space industry will look like in 15 years, he said that, if we stay the current course, it will be a future of incremental improvements, not transformation.

The man who provided Lord’s introduction was Utah Congressman Rob Bishop. I had a chance to ask him whether the proposed $2B supplemental for NASA was likely to pass. He said, “no,” but he thought it was important and was willing to fight for it.

Presentations on the use of multiple payload mounting and ejection systems came from Jeffrey Roddish of NASA Goddard and Mike Marlow of the USAF’s SMC/Det 12, who manages the STP/SIV standardization initiative. Gene Katz of CISSP (General Dynamics C4 organization) provided an introduction to the use of information assurance (IA) principles in space systems, emphasizing how strictly DoD was insisting they be applied in military space systems and how system designers “need to be paranoid” about information threats.
Mark Wilkinson of the Space Dynamics Laboratory discussed what a purely tactical satellite reconnaissance system, as opposed to current ones oriented toward strategic reconnaissance, would look like. Principles offered included more on-board processing, direct downlink to mobile, simple ground terminals, and a focus on speed over detail.
Alex De Silva of Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) presented the results of experiments by SSTL on studying the reflection of GPS and other GNSS signals from the Earth’s surface. SSTL has determined that this “free” resource provides accurate ocean surface data (wind speed and direction and wave height) information on the moisture content and height of land formations. Experiments to measure the thickness of sea ice by this method are still ongoing.

Monday, August 14, 2006

2006 Conference on Small Satellites

Microspacecraft have always been one of my pet topics of interest. I am presenting a paper (co-written with Kris Winkler) on microspacecraft and NASA's Vision for Space Exploration at the 2006 AIAA/USU Conference on Small Satellites in Logan, UT. I'll post some highlights each day.

Day 1 (8/14/06)
Due largely to road construction delays, missed NASA Administrator Mike Griffin’s speech. Arrived in time for his Q and A.
The Q and A reported here is NOT verbatim, except where quote marks so indicate: they are as close as I can come to an accurate account, with some paraphrasing, written down shortly after the exchange.

Q: What is NASA doing about the S&T workforce?
A: This is not just a problem for NASA, but government-wide. I worry about it a lot, and we’re working on it, but it’s a government-wide problem.

Q (From Gil Moore, Project Starshine): I used to be able to tell students that, before they graduated in four years, they would be able to get their payload in space on a GAS can [Space Shuttle Getaway Special]. Now there is nothing they can use. Is NASA doing anything about it?
A: This isn’t NASA’s job. If universities want to work with the entrepreneurial community and get rides on their rockets, that’s great, but brokering those launches is not NASA’s job.

Q: Do you think the current NASA organization is right for the new missions, or does it need to be reorganized?
A: “If I thought it needed to be reorganized, I would reorganize it.”
We have made some changes, and now we have the four directorates, and I think that’s the right setup. We have decoupled the center directors from being program directors. We have the center directors as administrators responsible for the academic quality of their centers, but not for the programs. That’s how we did it in the Apollo days, and it worked pretty well, so I went back to it. It’s possible for an organization to be so confused that it gets in its own way, but I’ve never believed that an organization’s wiring diagram determines how effective it is. What determines how effective it is is the people.

Q: Who in NASA will perform future small satellite missions? We hear a lot in the media about Ames getting involved, especially for lunar missions. Will it be a center, or will it be based on mission?
A: We run them now as a competition, and I think that works pretty well. If an AO [NOTE: not sure of this term’s meaning] wants to get with an industry team, or a center, and they win the competition, then that’s who does it. I don’t try to steer those competitions in any direction.
I do need to get Ames back in the space business. We spend our budget the way Congress mandates it, and 16/17 of my budget is for space, but four of my ten centers, so 40% of the centers, are not in space. I’m devoting 40 percent of my centers to one seventeenth of my budget. That’s not workable...I need to get Ames and Langley and Glenn back in the space business.

Q: The greatest impediment to small satellite use is the high cost of launch. We can use Cubesats on Russian launchers, but we would rather launch in the United States and avoid the ITAR problems. What can NASA due to help?
A: Launch costs have always been the greatest impediment to doing anything in space. I hope the entrepreneurs can help us on this. I’ve bet a half-billion dollars over the next four years that they can do this. [NOTE: reference is to the Crew and Cargo Transportation Partners program for the ISS]. NASA is not able to solve this. NASA’s budget is completely taken up by things this Administration, prior administrations, and this Congress and past Congresses have mandated. We have no budget for this. I’d like to make investments in technology to reduce launch costs, but it’s not going to happen.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Americans don't understand evolution

A study of 34 nations (the US, Europe, and Japan) by Michigan State Univeristy reports that Americans rank near the bottom in understanding genetics, biology, and especially evolution. An increasing percentage of American adults are unsure about evolution (the percentages of those who fully accept it and completely reject it are both dropping). It's not just a matter of religious beliefs, but a poor grasp of biology in general that contributes to the increasing confusion. This article from has a good sampling of the conflicting views over the causes and consequences of this situation.

COMMENT: While a growing number of Christians (like myself) believe the Genesis timeline is an analogy and not a literal account of creation, even those determined to oppose such thinking need to understand that evolution through natural selection is a dominant scientific paradigm. Even if you think it's false, you have to understand it in order to work anywhere in the life sciences or understand the thoughts of those who do.

What IS a planet, anyway?

Astronomers are trying anew to define exactly what should qualify as a planet and how many of them inhabit our solar system. The discovery of a large "borderline" object past Pluto (officially known as 2003 UB313, but better known as Xena) has brought new attention to the fact that Pluto is pretty borderline itself. The topic will be the headliner at the 12-day International Astonomical Union conference now beginning in Prague.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Studying Fossils in Unprecedented Detail

OK, we can't bring fossil creatures back to life. But we can study them with a new and astonishing level of precision, thanks to an international team's pioneering work with high-powered X-rays and computer imaging systems. Synchrotron-radiation X-ray tomography was developed on embryos of two worm-like animals: fossils 500 million years old and less than one millimeter in size. These were imaged in such detail that scientists could map previously invisible anatomical features to those of animal lineages we know today.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

New type of volcano found

This post reminds us how much there still is to learn about our planet. Japanese scientists report an entirely new type of small seafloor volcano, one not tied to plate boundaries or "hot spots" which are the sources of all previsouly known volcanos on Earth.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

RIP: Dr. James A. Van Allen

A sad day for space…

In my own experience, Van Allen was wonderfully approachable to two authors he had never heard of. When Erika Lishock and I began writing The First Space Race, I called him out of the blue. He was happy to answer all our queries, sat for a day-long interview, corrected a draft of the book, and wrote a Forward as well as a laudatory letter that we will always treasure.


Matt Bille

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

BOOK OF THE MONTH: Singing Whales and Flying Squid

Singing Whales and Flying Squid: The Discovery of Marine Life by Richard Ellis (Lyons Press, 2006)

In some ways, this book feels more like two short books with some overlap. The first book is a history of marine exploration, with emphasis on marine biology. The second focuses more on how fragile and endangered marine life is. Both halves are good, but in a work of 288 pages (with some of that given over to illustrations and references), they leave the reader wanting more of both subjects.

What is here is first-rate. Ellis is a good writer, able to explain fairly technical concepts in friendly language, and very knowledgeable of his subjects. His excellent drawings and paintings bring his subjects to life. Even the reader well-versed in marine literature will learn something: one eye-opener, for example, is how the old stories of swordfish attacking whales turned out to be true, although the reasons for such pointless (or pointed, from the whale's point of view) attacks are still a complete mystery. Ellis does not focus just on the charismatic animals: he gives the clearest explanation of the bottom of the ocean food web that I have read in a popular book.

Not surprisingly, there are sections in here on Ellis' favorite creatures, the giant squid and the cetaceans. I had hoped for a bit more on the beaked whales, particularly the Species A and Species B mysteries. (I hope Richard will do another new book entirely about what's recently been learned, and being learned, about whales and dolphins.) The first underwater video of the giant squid, which was released only after the text was written, changed some of our assumptions about this animal, and Ellis deals with this in a note added at the front of the book.

Of interest to cryptozoologists, Ellis notes that the bizarre seven-meter "elbow squid" has not been formally described, despite several videos, because there is no holotype in hand. Ellis opts not to visit the subject of "sea serpents," which he has done in other books, and tosses off cryptozoology with a single (and misstated) aside. In a note on negative evidence, he says cryptozoologists point out that "because no one has ever seen a sasquatch doesn't mean there aren't any." The actual problem is quite different: many people believe they have seen sasquatches. The sentence would have been accurate if written "because no one has brought in hard evidence of sasquatch..."

Overall, this is a very valuable book, something which will draw more people in to the splendor of the oceans while painlessly introducing the science. I think it's clear that is precisely Ellis' purpose, and he accomplishes it in exemplary fashion.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Modern Technology Reveals Ancient Writing

In a fascinating news bite from the world of archaeology, X-rays have been used to recover hitherto unknown writings by Archimedes - erased from the paper by a misguided monk who wrote prayers over the original text. The energy beams reveal traces of iron left from the original ink when it was erased in the 10th century.