Posts Tagged ‘National Aeronautics and Space Administration’


Keeping NASA’s Planetary Discoveries In Perspective

Thursday, February 27th, 2014


The headlines are breathless and shouted. “NASA’s Kepler Mission Announces a Planet Bonanza, 715 New Worlds.”

Big deal? Maybe it is. Likely it isn’t.

The Kepler mission points an orbiting telescope at a small slice of the sky. Day-after-day it watches the light from the stars in that slice, looking for variations in intensity.

When a planet crosses in front of its star as viewed by an observer, the event is called a transit. Transits by terrestrial planets produce a small change in a star’s brightness of about 1/10,000 (100 parts per million, ppm), lasting for 1 to 16 hours. This change must be periodic if it is caused by a planet. In addition, all transits produced by the same planet must be of the same change in brightness and last the same amount of time, thus providing a highly repeatable signal and robust detection method. – NASA

The planets aren’t actually being seen. That’s why the image at the top of this entry is an artist’s conception, not a photo. Kepler is instead looking for a predictable dimming as planets pass between the stars and Earth.

The rest is speculation! We have no idea what the planets are made of or conditions on their surface.

NASA looks for planets in the ‘habitable zone.’ That doesn’t mean they’re habitable! These objects are incredibly far away. Our data is thin.

NASA readily admits what is doesn’t know, but since that’s not the glamorous part of the release we seldom hear it.

One of these new habitable zone planets, called Kepler-296f, orbits a star half the size and 5 percent as bright as our sun. Kepler-296f is twice the size of Earth, but scientists do not know whether the planet is a gaseous world, with a thick hydrogen-helium envelope, or it is a water world surrounded by a deep ocean.

Even the Earth, the benchmark for habitable planets, is only ‘habitable’ over a small portion of its surface. We can’t live in the ocean, or tall mountaintops, or where it’s too hot or cold, or too dry or wet. We’re picky eaters in the world of habitation!

So, what does the Kepler mission and these discoveries mean to us? From a practical standpoint, little. Maybe nothing!

These planets are too far to ever consider visiting. Our lives won’t change. We’ll learn enough to solidify some theories, no more.

Kepler is an amazing engineering accomplishment. That’s indisputable. It has taken complex planetary theories and made them observable. No small trick. Just don’t expect an exoplanet photo or financial payoff soon… or ever.

Incredible Engineering: Rosetta Wakes Up

Monday, January 20th, 2014

Comet_approach_node_full_imageNothing is impossible. I say that without fear of contradiction because of what the European Space Agency and NASA have been doing for the last decade. It’s the Rosetta mission.

Rosetta’s job is to monitor a comet, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, by placing an orbiter around it and a lander on it! It will do this as the comet races toward the inner Solar System.

Rosetta_trajectory_English[1]As you might imagine, catching a comet isn’t easy. Rosetta was launched in 2004 and has made three Earth passes, plus one trip around Mars, all to gain speed and set-up its rendezvous.

To conserve power while coasting through space, Rosetta’s been ‘sleeping.’ Here’s how they list it on the mission timeline.

July 2011 Aphelion/Enter Hibernation

Rosetta_approaching_its_ultimate_destination_Comet_67P_Churyumov-Gerasimenko_node_full_imageAphelion means its furthest point from the Sun. Hibernation… you get that.

Today Rosetta gets its wake-up call! It needs to start processing data. It needs to prepare for its May meet-up with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

This is another unbelievably complex and intricate engineering challenge that should be impossible. What could possibly be more difficult than this?

It’s Just Not Practical

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

800px-STS-134_International_Space_Station_after_undockingPeople talk about travel to distant planets and space exploration. It’s so heroic. So romantic.

It’s not going to happen.

No, really. No one alive today will ever live on, or travel to, another planet. Sorry.

The challenges are astounding. Earthlings aren’t readily adaptable to living off planet. We can’t even live on most of the Earth!

At 10,000 feet above sea level our breathing is already labored. We can’t live very far below ground either.

We can’t live in the sea. We can’t live where it’s too hot or cold. We can’t live where it’s too dry or too wet.

This comes to mind because the International Space Station is experiencing plumbing problems.

Earlier Wednesday, the pump module on one of the space station’s two external cooling loops automatically shut down when it reached pre-set temperature limits. These loops circulate ammonia outside the station to keep both internal and external equipment cool. The flight control teams worked to get the cooling loop back up and running, and they suspect a flow control valve actually inside the pump module itself might not be functioning correctly. – NASA

800px-8_July_2011_ElektronKeeping the temperature constant is integral to astronauts living up there. There are currently six aboard.

It is all we can do, we being a dysfunctional international consortium of governments that runs the space station, to keep a handful of scientists safely in orbit 257′ish miles up.

Going to a planet is much, much more complicated. Farther away–distance and time. More hostile environment. We’re nowhere near ready to solve these problems.

Up on the ISS there’s hope a cooling solution will be found. Since this is an external problem, repairing it will probably require a trip, or two, or more, outside.

As amazing as astronauts making repairs on their space station while in orbit is, going to a distant planet is orders of magnitude more difficult and more expensive.

It’s just not practical and it never will be.

Do We Still Need NASA?

Sunday, September 18th, 2011

I’ve just watched a few videos on the site. They have, by far, the most amazing animation expertise in the public — comparable to Hollywood. The animations supplement technical feats as complex as anything humans have ever attempted.

We have a spaceship to orbit and map asteroids. Think of all the problems which must be solved just to make that one mission happen out in the void of space! There are other missions. Some are more challenging. None are easy.

But why? What are we getting out of the deal?

As much as NASA’s work is impressive it often seems without purpose… at least to me. This is pure science. The payoff will only be felt in academia. It takes a lot of money to make that happen. We just don’t have it.

Is this the kind of employment stimulus the Republicans object to? They’d be right. That’s what NASA is. It employs a lot of people and supports a decent chunk of America’s aerospace industry, but it doesn’t make anything!

NASA’s budget this year is $19,000,000,000.

If we’re going to fund NASA its bright minds and technical expertise need to be used to solve real world problems. If not, it’s spending we can’t afford.

The Thirty Foot Asteroid That Headed Toward Earth Unnoticed!

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

bolide3.jpgSpace is a dirty place. There’s all sorts of interstellar junk flying around at breakneck speed. In our solar system Jupiter, the largest planet with the strongest gravity, gets hit most often.

Still, in terms relative to the age of our planet, the Earth gets hit all the time. Just the random dust and specks burning out in the upper reaches of our atmosphere add a few hundred million pounds of additional mass to Earth every day!

Sometimes the incoming rocks are large.

We don’t see much evidence because water and weather gradually heal our wounds. The pock marked surface of the atmosphere free Moon gives a more realistic impression of what really happens.

I mention this because a reasonably significant rock came pretty close to hitting the Earth a few weeks ago. I’m only hearing about it now–and I’m usually pretty up on these things.

Here’s NASA’s dispassionate reporting:

On October 8, 2009 about 03:00 Greenwich time, an atmospheric fireball blast was observed and recorded over an island region of Indonesia. The blast is thought to be due to the atmospheric entry of a small asteroid about 10 meters in diameter that, due to atmospheric pressure, detonated in the atmosphere with an energy of about 50 kilotons (the equivalent of 100,000 pounds of TNT explosives).

The Jakarta Globe said the explosion was loud enough that, “Locals at first thought it was an earthquake and ran out of their homes in panic.”

Well, yeah. A hundred thousand pounds of TNT would make quite a rumble.

No one saw this bad boy coming. Not NASA. Not the Air Force. Surprise! It was the size of a small house and we had no warning at all.

What little we do know of this incident comes because we monitor atmospheric noise while searching for nuclear tests. Again, it’s a surprise to me, but there is a network of “infrasound stations” associated with the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization and they pinned it down.

In writing about this incident NASA scientists mention “an average impact velocity for NEAs of 20.3 km/s.” In other words, near Earth asteroids hit the Earth’s atmosphere at around 45,000 mph! That’s New York to Los Angeles in under four minutes!

Bottom line, those scary movies where asteroids plunge to Earth causing death and destruction… maybe they’re more science and less fiction than we think.

On The Pad And On My Mind

Monday, May 11th, 2009


Earlier I’d been watching the voluminous coverage of today’s shuttle launch on With the launch just minutes away I’ve switched to C-SPAN3.

C-SPAN3? Really? They need three? Actually, today they could seriously use C-SPAN HD. I’d like to watch the shuttle launch in HD.

I just switched to Discovery Science HD which is covering the launch, but without C-SPAN’s unblinking eye. I don’t want to see studio coverage.

Countdown. Engines. Liftoff. OMFG. This is what HD is for.

There are cameras everywhere nowadays. I watched unmanned cameras as the service structure was moved away from Atlantis pre-launch. Now with the shuttle racing skyward there’s a camera on the vehicle itself.

For a moment as the shuttle lifted off the pad I thought I saw something fall off. Two tragedies has turned me into an uneasy watcher. As it is NASA has prepped a second shuttle should a rescue be necessary.

I have written often in the past how the shuttle program is an overpriced waste. I continue to feel that way. However, that doesn’t remove the awe that comes with watching something the size of an office building get propelled into space.

Sully Was The Right Guy To Fly

Thursday, January 15th, 2009

sully.jpgI have been doing a little searching for info on “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot in today’s US Airways Hudson River splashdown. This is the guy you want flying your plane.

From, Sullengerger’s website:

Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger, III is a captain for a major U.S. airline with over 40 years of flying experience.

A former U.S. Air Force (USAF) fighter pilot, he has served as an instructor and Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) safety chairman, accident investigator and national technical committee member. He has participated in several USAF and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) accident investigations. His ALPA safety work led to the development of a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Advisory Circular.

Working with National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) scientists, he coauthored a paper on error inducing contexts in aviation. He was instrumental in the development and implementation of the Crew Resource Management (CRM) course used at his airline and has taught the course to hundreds of his colleagues.

Sully is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy (B.S.), Purdue University (M.S.) and the University of Northern Colorado (M.A.). He was a speaker on two panels at the High Reliability Organizations (HRO) 2007 International Conference in Deauville, France May 29-31, 2007. He has just been named a Visiting Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley.

Quotes That Keep On Giving

Thursday, September 4th, 2008

Blogger’s note: As I re-read all of this, Abe Katz did take my words in their proper context. The blogger noted below is the one who twisted them to his purpose. Life goes on.

Abe Katz of the New Haven Register (and others including the Bristol Press) interviewed me a few days ago about the oncoming winter. The Climate Prediction Center has issued their somewhat broad projections.

“I hate this,” Fox protested. “There is no skill in making these predictions.”

OK–maybe that’s a little over-the-top, but there’s little benefit to the average person who lives day-to-day and not on a seasonal basis. Later in the article I talked about sunspots and the suspicion of a casual relationship between them and the Earth’s temperature.

Fox said he is intrigued by a possible link between solar activity and weather. Sunspot activity, believed to be caused by incredibly strong magnetic fields, peaked in about 2000, and has been in decline since then, into what is called a Maunder minimum.

Activity should be rising again. Space weather gurus at NASA expect another sunspot peak between 2010 and 2015.

Unfortunately, the relationship between solar activity and weather remains obscure.

“No one knows what one has to do with the other,” Fox said.

I later wrote Abe asking, “Am I that negative?” I thought I came off a little surly… and with all due respect, Abe has written this article before in years past. My answers are always fairly similar. I’m not a big long term guy.

This afternoon I got word my quote had been picked up in a blog.

Case in point: Geoff Fox, a meteorologist with WTNH-TV in Connecticut, stated in an interview with The Bristol Press, that “he is intrigued by a possible link between solar activity and weather.” Then, Fox went on to say, “No one knows what one has to do with the other.”

So, I wonder how Mr. Fox would answer the question, “What if the Sun went out tomorrow? Would that affect the weather?” or “What if the Sun started burning hotter by millions of degrees? Would that affect weather?” Most kids in kindergarten would probably say yes to both questions!

Save your breath. I have already called him an ass.

Thanks for taking an out-of-context quote and bringing it further out-of-context. The fact that I do not support Al Gore’s theories (I had the honor of being invited to see him present it at the White House and left unconvinced) doesn’t make you less of an ass for not finding the source of the quote and asking it be put in perspective.

Within context, I brought up sunspots because I do believe there is a possible cause/effect relationship between them and the Earth’s temperature. As far as I know there is nothing other than anecdotal evidence connecting them and no quantification of the relative importance of sunspots in global climatology.

I believe I’m relatively easy to find. You probably owed it to those who read this to seek me out before typing.

Geoff Fox

Whether my comment is published is up to the blog’s owner.

Scary Thoughts About Space From Gregg Easterbrook

Monday, June 9th, 2008

“The Sky is Falling,” is an article about the threat to Earth by natural space objects. It’s in the current issue of the Atlantic Magazine; a magazine held in higher esteem than its circulation numbers would imply.

The author is Gregg Easterbrook, who writes and lectures about lots of subjects and is especially well known for his sports writing. In this piece he talks about Dallas Abbot’s discovery – the Earth gets significantly ‘hit’ by comets and asteroids much more often than anyone thought.

She (Dallas Abbot) began searching for underwater craters caused by impacts rather than by other forces, such as volcanoes. What she has found is spine-chilling: evidence that several enormous asteroids or comets have slammed into our planet quite recently, in geologic terms. If Abbott is right, then you may be here today, reading this magazine, only because by sheer chance those objects struck the ocean rather than land.

Easterbrook’s response: task NASA with this responsibility, replacing its now outmoded and valueless manned space program¹.

Here’s a 10 minute lecture on the subject from Easterbook. Very interesting.

¹ – Easterbrook and I agree on this wholeheartedly, but not on Global Warming, where I remain skeptical.

Something Isn’t Right In Space

Friday, February 15th, 2008

Back in January I wrote about the US spy satellite that will soon come crashing to the Earth. Sure, it’s got all sorts of scary chemistry (specifically hydrazine) on board, but there’s nothing to worry about, right?

Last week most of the experts were poo pooing the danger this satellite’s fiery reentry would bring. Satellites… even big satellites… come down all the time. That’s what they said until Thursday.

All of a sudden we want to shoot this school bus sized piece of space junk down. Shades of Bruce Willis!

From the Chicago Tribune:

Speaking to reporters, Marine Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff , and James Jeffrey, the deputy national security adviser, said the Navy’s window of opportunity to strike the satellite before it enters the Earth’s atmosphere begins in the next three or four days. Cartwright said the window would likely remain open for seven or eight days.

If the satellite is not intercepted, it is expected to enter the atmosphere in late February or early March.

“This has no aerodynamic properties,” Cartwright said of the satellite. “Once it hits the atmosphere, it tumbles, it breaks apart. It is very unpredictable and next to impossible to engage. So what we’re trying to do here is catch it just prior to the last minute, so it’s absolutely low as possible, outside the atmosphere, so that the debris comes down as quickly as possible.”

A satellite is one lone object. Shoot it down and you get thousands, maybe tens of thousands of tiny objects, all unguided and some likely to remain in orbit for a long time. At orbital speed, even a small object with little mass is destructive.

Back in 1996, after the space shuttle had shifted its course to avoid a dead satellite, the New York times published this:

Dr. Donald J. Kessler, NASA’s senior scientist for orbital debris studies at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, said in an interview that space junk was a growing problem threatening the safety of spacecraft and astronauts. The Air Force tracks more than 7,000 pieces of debris larger than a baseball, including old rocket parts, outmoded satellites, discarded tools, remnants of explosions, and other odds and ends moving in orbit at more than 17,000 miles per hour. And researchers estimate there are more than 150,000 smaller objects that also pose a danger of collision.

“It’s common for space shuttles to show evidence of frequent hits, but nothing catastrophic has happened,” Dr. Kessler said. “We are now getting good international cooperation to control space debris, but it will continue to be a problem for a long time and we have to take precautions.”

Illustrating how real the problem is, Dr. Kessler said astronauts servicing the Hubble Space Telescope found a half-inch hole punched through its main antenna. And after a flight of the shuttle Columbia last October, engineers found a similar-sized crater in a cargo bay door caused by the impact of a tiny piece of solder, he said.

Here’s the operative sentence: “We are now getting good international cooperation to control space debris.” In other words, space debris is bad and everyone should stop creating it.

In fact, last January, after the Chinese blasted one of their own satellites out of orbit, the US Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva said:

…the January 11 event created hundreds of pieces of large orbital debris, the majority of which will stay in orbit for more than 100 years. A much larger number of smaller, but still hazardous, pieces of debris were also created.

The United States is concerned about the increased risk to human spaceflight and space infrastructure as a result of this action, a risk that is shared by all space-faring nations. The United States and many other nations have satellites in space in conformity with international agreements that provide for their national security, and foreign policy and economic interests.

So what the hell is going on? Why would we jeopardize our low Earth orbiting fleet (which doesn’t include most weather, communications and TV satellites, but does include the International Space Station, Space Shuttle, GPS, mapping and spy satellites) in an act we’ve already condemned when executed by others?

Is there something that vile or that secret in this spy satellite? Are we looking for a little target practice to show everyone we’re every bit as capable as the Chinese? I don’t know.

My “educated amateur” space knowledge says, something doesn’t seem right… something doesn’t smell right… something doesn’t add up.

There are missing pieces to this story I neither possess nor understand. I sure hope someone else does, and they are free to speak.