I Love You NASA, But…


I was just reading a release on the progress of NASA’s New Horizons mission. It was sent toward Pluto back when Pluto was still a planet. It gets there this summer.

New Horizons is still over 100 million miles out, but closing fast. Low-res images of two of Pluto’s four moons are coming in. It’s an amazing achievement.

But why?

Actually, I know why. Space technology creates many well paying jobs. It’s a political landmine to cut.

Unfortunately, there is almost no practical payoff to space. All the good discoveries happened decades ago. I’ve been hearing about pharmaceuticals and metallurgy in space for the last forty years! Don’t hold your breath.

i19_025588I don’t know what they do on the International Space Station on a daily basis, but it’s the modern version of a ham radio operator’s basement from the sixties. And, it’s expensive.

What we need is to better explore Earth. We need to understand and leverage the natural power around us. There is untapped energy in tides and ocean currents. There is great heat at the center of the Earth.

The same types of skills NASA employs for space are needed for Earth! Only the mission need be changed.

Could harnessing heat from the Earth’s core be any more difficult that sending a mission to Pluto?

This is a pipe dream. I don’t see it happening. I wish it would.

There are so many bright and wonderfully talented people at NASA. Their accomplishments are way beyond mind boggling. They’re just solving the wrong problems.

It’s Just Not Practical

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.

The Explosion On The Moon

moon impact frames

NASA scientists have just seen the largest explosion on the Moon since they started looking for them eight years ago! At 4th magnitude brightness, an explosion earlier today (UTC) would have been visible to the naked eye.

It’s obvious the Moon has been pelted with meteorites and other space junk over the uncounted millenium. Most of us think of those events in the past, not present. That’s wrong.

More objects hit the Earth than Moon because of our much greater size and gravity. Most burn up in our atmosphere. The Moon has no atmosphere. Anything plunging to its surface will make it down intact.

Ron Suggs, an analyst at the Marshall Space Flight Center, was the first to notice the impact in a digital video recorded by one of the monitoring program’s 14-inch telescopes. “It jumped right out at me, it was so bright,” he recalls.

The 40 kg meteoroid measuring 0.3 to 0.4 meters wide hit the Moon traveling 56,000 mph. The resulting explosion packed as much punch as 5 tons of TNT.

For the metrically challenged, that around 90 pounds and a foot wide. In other words, a good sized rock. NASA will now look closely at the impact site, hoping to see a new crater 50 or 60 feet across.

At the same time the Moon was getting hit, an ‘all-sky’ camera in Ontario noted a cluster a deep-penetrating atmospheric hits here on Earth. The paths line up. They are all most likely from the same source.

IDL TIFF fileThat’s not unexpected. Meteor showers, like Perseids or Orionids, which never make it to the Earth’s surface, often hit the Moon too. The image on the left shows impacts from the last eight yeas.

This is another impediment to sending men back to the Moon. Space is incredibly perilous.

Here’s What’s Happening With Kepler


NASA has all sorts of payloads in orbit. Most are low profile research projects, usually monitoring Earth from above. That’s not Kepler.

The Kepler Space Telescope orbits the Sun, just like we do. Its $600,000,000 mission is finding habitable distant planets! It is among NASA’s highest profile missions.

Here’s a typical Kepler discovery:

NASA’s Kepler mission has discovered a new planetary system that is home to the smallest planet yet found around a star like our sun, approximately 210 light-years away in the constellation Lyra.

Kepler has broken. The telescope is fine, but Kepler has lost its ability to steadily point a tiny piece of space. These are long exposures. Perfectly still is required.

As designed, stability is provided by reaction wheels. They’re motor driven flywheels which position the spacecraft gyroscopically. Kepler needs three. Only two of the four on-board are working.

Unlike Hubble, Kepler can’t be serviced by astronauts. The Shuttle is gone. Kepler’s heliocentric orbit makes it unreachable anyway.

NASA is not optimistic.

with the failure of a second reaction wheel, it’s unlikely that the spacecraft will be able to return to the high pointing accuracy that enables its high-precision photometry. However, no decision has been made to end data collection.

Kepler had successfully completed its primary three-and-a-half year mission and entered an extended mission phase in November 2012.

Even if data collection were to end, the mission has substantial quantities of data on the ground yet to be fully analyzed, and the string of scientific discoveries is expected to continue for years to come.

It’s just a shame to lose the hardware. The hope is always they run forever. Not this time.

Where’d The Satellite Go?

Why haven’t we heard that kind of answer and additional specificity from NASA or the Air Force? What exactly did we think was protecting us against the Soviets during the Cold War?

Since it happened after midnight, aka Geoff primetime, I tweeted and posted to Facebook details of the demise of the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite. This is the kind of nerdy pursuit I embrace. It was pretty obvious UARS would succumb to gravity and friction around midnight. NASA said so.

#UARS Update: Re-entry expected between 11:45 pm EDT today and 12:45 am EDT Saturday. go.nasa.gov/rb6tR1

Around 3:00 AM NASA added:

We can now confirm that #UARS is down! Debris fell to Earth between 11:23 p.m. EDT Friday, Sept. 23, and 1:09 a.m. EDT Sept. 24.

And then:

#UARS Update: Satellite confirmed to have penetrated the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean. Precise time & location not yet known

The screencap at the upper right corner of this entry is worth clicking. It’s the latest Google screen for the search “uars.” Obviously lots of people think they know where this 6.5 ton bus sized went. Can they all be wrong?

This morning at 11:23 AM NASA posted to their website:

NASA’s decommissioned Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite fell back to Earth between 11:23 p.m. EDT Friday, Sept. 23 and 1:09 a.m. EDT Sept. 24. The Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California said the satellite entered the atmosphere over the North Pacific Ocean, off the west coast of the United States. The precise re-entry time and location of any debris impacts are still being determined. NASA is not aware of any reports of injury or property damage.

I find all of this very scary. Aren’t we supposed to have a sophisticated anti-missile defense system in place? Aren’t we supposed to be able to localize “incoming?”

This wasn’t some random blip from a crazy despot. We were expecting UARS. We knew where to look… and were looking. And yet we only know where UARS went if “sort of” counts as knowing.

Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics said the spacecraft entered the atmosphere around 12:15 a.m. EDT over the coast of Washington. He said much of the debris likely fell over the Pacific Ocean, with some making it to Canada over northern Alberta and perhaps as far as the Hudson Bay – Seth Borenstein, Associate Press

Why haven’t we heard that kind of answer and additional specificity from NASA or the Air Force? What exactly did we think was protecting us against the Soviets during the Cold War?

This lack of knowledge is very disappointing. Actually it’s scary.

Moon Video That’s Even Better Than The Eclipse

I have never seen the Moon like this–never seen its motion so beautifully presented.

I stumbled upon the video at the bottom of this entry earlier tonight. I was already committed to talking about the lunar eclipse. No way to work this in without a great deal of explanation. I’ll share it on the blog.

Here’s the background (read as much as you want or scroll down to the video player–the video’s still cool):

The Moon always keeps the same face to us, but not exactly the same face. Because of the tilt and shape of its orbit, we see the Moon from slightly different angles over the course of a month. When a month is compressed into 12 seconds, as it is in this animation, our changing view of the Moon makes it look like it’s wobbling. This wobble is called libration.

The word comes from the Latin for “balance scale” (as does the name of the zodiac constellation Libra) and refers to the way such a scale tips up and down on alternating sides. The sub-Earth point gives the amount of libration in longitude and latitude. The sub-Earth point is also the apparent center of the Moon’s disk and the location on the Moon where the Earth is directly overhead.

The Moon is subject to other motions as well. It appears to roll back and forth around the sub-Earth point. The roll angle is given by the position angle of the axis, which is the angle of the Moon’s north pole relative to celestial north. The Moon also approaches and recedes from us, appearing to grow and shrink. The two extremes, called perigee (near) and apogee (far), differ by more than 10%.

The most noticed monthly variation in the Moon’s appearance is the cycle of phases, caused by the changing angle of the Sun as the Moon orbits the Earth. The cycle begins with the waxing (growing) crescent Moon visible in the west just after sunset. By first quarter, the Moon is high in the sky at sunset and sets around midnight. The full Moon rises at sunset and is high in the sky at midnight. The third quarter Moon is often surprisingly conspicuous in the daylit western sky long after sunrise.

The video is actually an animation with one frame per hour. I have never seen the Moon like this–never seen its motion so beautifully presented.

[jwplayer mediaid=”10610″]

video courtesy: Goddard Space Flight Center

We’ve Been Sending Men To Space For Fifty Years

It was a different time. The cold war was well underway. No love was lost between us and the Soviet Union. We were obviously behind–far behind.

I can’t believe I missed this. I report science on FoxCT and didn’t even notice today was the 50th anniversary of America’s first man in space, Alan Shepard. He went a little under 200 miles downrange–a disappointment. The Russians had already launched and recovered Yuri Gagarin from an orbital flight.

It was a different time. The cold war was well underway. No love was lost between us and the Soviet Union. We were obviously behind–far behind.

Shepard was “Spam in a can,” more passenger than pilot. He was still a hero.

We picked up a new catchphrase that day: “A-OK.” I thought it was Shepard who’d said it. Wrong.

In reporting the Freedom 7 flight, the press attributed the term to Astronaut Shepard, and indeed NASA News Release 1-61-99, May 5, 1961, has Shepard report “A.OK” shortly after impact. A replay of the flight voice communications tape disclosed that Shepard himself did not use the term. It was Col. John A. “Shorty” Powers who reported Shepard’s condition as “A.OK” in a description of the flight. Tecwyn Roberts of STG and Capt. Henry E. Clements of the Air Force had used “A.OK” frequently in reports written more than four months before the Shepard flight.” – NASA history project

Shepard was a naval aviator “Right Stuff” guy who stayed on with NASA after Project Mercury going to the Moon with the Apollo program. He later ran NASA’s Astronaut Office. He died in 1998.

There was excitement over the space program back then. Not so today.

I’m In A Sea Of Cubicles

Helaine said she enjoyed it though she wasn’t sure she understood it. That’s actually fine. Lots of science stories are complex.

I am sitting deep in a sea of cubicle. There are random voices and keyboard clicks. People are moving around with puropse… well, at least they’re giving off the purpose vibe. Like me they might just be here to hide for a while.

I don’t yet have a desk of my own. That means I’m hanging in the weather area which is ‘on-set’ and where Rachel is working. I’m giving her a little space.

I have been issued a cellphone and laptop. There are systems to learn to get company mail and put my stories in the rundown. That will come with time.

I did my first science report today, a look at the WISE satellite. NASA just release around a million and a half WISE photos.

Helaine said she enjoyed it though she wasn’t sure she understood it. That’s actually fine. Lots of science stories are complex. I just want to make them approachable. I don’t expect to explain interplanteary physics in an instant.

A lot of people here have asked me if I was happy to be here? Mostly they already knew the answer. They just wanted to be reassured their read of their own life was correct.

Global Warming Skeptic

The problem is, the more I understand, the less I am willing to buy into the Global Warming theories. That’s especially true of the global scale models used in the forecast, and the shortcuts they have to take.

I am a non-believe in the James Hansen Goddard ISS/NASA theories concerning global warming. They receive lots of press, and Hansen is an excellent advocate.

I interviewed him in his little office at Columbia University in Morningside Heights around 20 years ago. He made a good case, accompanied by graphs and charts and his famous colored dice.

I tried to explain forcings and chaos with colored dice. One die represented normal climate for 1951-1980, with equal chances for warm, average and cool seasons. The other die was