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.

Everything Had To Go Right… And Didn’t

The probe has come to rest alongside a large boulder. It is blocked from the Sun. Its solar cells, hoping for eight hours of daylight, only get one and a half.

Philae will work for a few days, then run out of juice.


I am heavily invested in Rosetta and Philae, the orbiter/lander combo at Comet 67/P. It was the focus of my recent trip to NASA JPL and our recent show on Slooh.com. I did lots of show prep.

Everything went right with Philae until it didn’t. It’s ending will deprive science of much of the data they’d hoped for.

Philae was released by Rosetta and dropped toward the comet. The word ESA used was “ballistic.” With nearly zero gravity the 200’ish pound Philae weighed around a gram. The drop took seven hours.

It hit the comet’s surface at walking speed, but the ice screws didn’t grip and its harpoons didn’t deploy.

The harpoons did not fire and Philae appeared to be rotating after the first touchdown, which indicated that it had lifted from the surface again.

Stephan Ulamec, Philae manager at the DLR German Aerospace Center, reported that it touched the surface at 15:34, 17:25 and 17:32 GMT (comet time – it takes over 28 minutes for the signal to reach Earth, via Rosetta). The information was provided by several of the scientific instruments, including the ROMAP magnetic field analyser, the MUPUS thermal mapper, and the sensors in the landing gear that were pushed in on the first impact.

The first touchdown was inside the predicted landing ellipse, confirmed using the lander’s downwards-looking ROLIS descent camera in combination with the orbiter’s OSIRIS images to match features.

But then the lander lifted from the surface again – for 1 hour 50 minutes. During that time, it travelled about 1 km at a speed of 38 cm/s. It then made a smaller second hop, travelling at about 3 cm/s, and landing in its final resting place seven minutes later. ESA news release

The probe has come to rest alongside a large boulder. It is blocked from the Sun. Its solar cells, hoping for eight hours of daylight, only get one and a half.

Philae will work for a few days, then run out of juice. It’s a lander, not a rover.

In the meantime there’s concern deploying some of its instruments could bounce Philae again. No one knows where. At the moment even scientists aren’t even sure where on the comet Philae sits.

There will be good science from this mission, but not as much as hoped for. Space continues to be a supremely challenging pursuit. It is still much too dangerous and expensive to include humans. It always will be that way.

I’m Studying Up On Mars


Tomorrow will be busy for me. We’ve got two slooh.com shows about the close encounter between Comet Siding Spring and Mars.

I host, surrounded by cometary experts. I still have to know the science.

This is an unprecedented event. We’ve never seen a comet get so close to a planet.

That worries NASA.

Actually, let me modify that. Their worry is later.

First, cards on the table. NASA is always interested in ‘visitors’ to our part of the solar system. But there’s a lot more buzz for Comet Siding Spring C/2013 A1. It will come close to Mars and to billions of dollars of hardware circling Mars, plus rovers on-the-ground.

Comet-Siding-Spring-Trajectory-Mars-br2Siding Spring is speeding in from the Oort Cloud, a theorized mass of billions of comets 100,000 times farther from the Sun than we are. It will zip by Mars at a closing speed 35 miles per second–186,000 mph.

The comet misses Mars. We’ve all got that, right?

Later, Mars passes through the debris field left in the comet’s wake. Scientists expect some fragments will be drawn toward the planet where we have satellites and stuff.

NASA’s official “Best Estimate” says the particles miss. Their conservative estimate says 90-100 minutes after the closest approach a stream of small debris will come, then quickly go.

Our satellites all had their orbits disrupted, putting them on the far side of Mars when this happens.

T-0 is officially called the “time of the particle fluence center.”

NASA is praying one or more of the rovers will take a photo or two of the comet brightly shining through the Martian atmosphere. That’s pretty damn cool. It will likely happen and will surely include a part of the rover, lest we forget whodunit.

We’ll also get images from whatever sensors can be turned around on satellites.

I’m not sure how much of this is actually advancing science and how much is showing off. An opportunity and challenge like this shouldn’t be squandered, but this is more photo-op than anything. After all, we’re landing on a comet next month!

Everything is now set. It’s too late for change to matter. Any debris that hits the Red Planet was jettisoned off the comet years ago.

Distance and time are very different in space. You can’t think in minutes and seconds or inches and feet. Our best orbital predictions say C/2013 A1 won’t be back for around a million years.

Rosetta Sounds Like A Movie Plot, But This Is Real

Where is Rosetta

Five hundred million kilometers from Earth a comet is streaking toward the Sun. No worries. Not a threat to us.

Earthlings, being curious people, thought we’d send a mission to this comet to find out what it’s made of. Theoretically, comets are a direct link to the universe just after the Big Bang.

Rosetta_mission_selfie_at_16_kmCatching a comet is no easy feat. Its speed is greatly affected by proximity to the Sun–so, constantly changing. Our comet is doing around 38,000 mph today. The instant we arrive we need to be doing exactly the same speed as the comet. Seriously, at that instant exactly.

To get to Comet 67P/CG “Rosetta” will travel over 6,500,000,000 kilometers. That’s on purpose. By swinging through the Earth’s gravitational field a few times engineers were able to stretch precious fuel.

Rosetta is now orbiting Comet 67P/CG at around 10 miles, a little higher than commercial jets fly.

Getting to the comet wasn’t enough. How about we land on it? It’s the 21st Century equivalent of climbing from your horse onto an out-of-control stagecoach!

Rosetta_OSIRIS_NAC_comet_67P_20140803_1The comet is weirdly shaped, moving and spinning. It’s sublimating ice, so we see gas jets spewing out. More than likely the comet’s path from moment-to-moment is irregular. There is nearly zero gravity to prevent a landing spacecraft from just bouncing right off.

November 12 a small instrument package will be jettisoned from Rosetta. Rockets pushing toward the surface will hold it in place as harpoons try to get a grip. “Philae” will set up shop for scientific experiments and transmit results to Rosetta which will relay it back to Earth.

I have no doubt this will work.

What NASA and the European Space Agency have done here is nothing short of incredible. It’s much more than most people imagine can be done today. I wish this kind of engineering heft was also available for some of the Earth’s seemingly insurmountable problems.

Rosetta Reaches The Comet

I have mixed emotions about this sort of project. We spent a boatload of money and untold brain power solving a problem through science, math and engineering. An incredible achievement.

But, aren’t there more pressing practical problems on Earth which would have benefited from this kind of massive effort?


Comet_on_3_August_2014_fullwidth (1)

As this blog entry goes out a spacecraft has reached a comet. That’s never been done before.

Rosetta launched in 2004 and will arrive at comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on 6 August. It will be the first mission in history to rendezvous with a comet, escort it as it orbits the Sun, and deploy a lander to its surface. Rosetta is an ESA mission with contributions from its member states and NASA.

ESA is the European Space Agency. They’re running the show.

I have mixed emotions about this sort of project. We spent a boatload of money and untold brain power solving a problem through science, math and engineering. An incredible achievement.

But, aren’t there more pressing practical problems on Earth which would have benefited from this kind of massive effort?

Rosetta, still around 60 miles away from 67P, is transmitting incredibly detailed photos of the weirdly shaped comet. Some have compared the shape to a duck. Potato shaped objects are much more common.

Was it once two separate entities that somehow fused? Does it contain pristine samples from the dawn of the universe 13.77 billion years ago? There are sure to be surprises.

After orbiting this tiny space chunk (about 2 1/4 by 2 1/2 miles though quite irregular) for a while Rosetta will move to an orbit of 30 miles, then 15 miles. Finally, probably in November, a capsule will be deployed from Rosetta to the comet’s surface.

Is this money well spent? It’s certainly splashy science… amazing science. I wish there was a well defined practical payoff.

Incredible Engineering: Rosetta Wakes Up

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?

Working In Microgravity


A couple of the astronauts aboard the International Space Station took a walk outside today. Dangerous work. As New York Magazine reports:

An Italian astronaut, Luca Parmitano, nearly drowned during the station’s last spacewalk in July after water began pooling in her helmet.

This time they were outside removing a 780 pound pump. That’s 780 pounds on Earth. In microgravity it hardly has any weight at all.

Please, don’t stop reading now.

Weight doesn’t really matter!

Microgravity makes it easier for the astronauts to move something, but that object still exerts force. Force is important. If your hand gets smashed by a hammer, it’s not the hammer’s weight that does the damage. It’s the force!

A little math coming up, but I’ll explain. Don’t panic.

The formula for force is F = ma, or force equals mass times acceleration. See what’s not there? Weight.

What is there is “mass.” Even in microgravity the pump’s mass is unchanged.

So, this pump that currently won’t register on a scale can smash your bones to bits! And, of course, with microgravity it’s easier to get the pump moving.

The astronauts will be back out in a few days to replace the bad pump with a spare. It’s another spacewalk fraught with peril and danger. Extremely physical work performed by major league nerds.

If you’ve read my blog any length of time you know I’m not a big supporter of the manned space program. However, that doesn’t stop me from appreciating how difficult and dangerous work in orbit is.

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.