Recover, Reuse, Relaunch

Yesterday the SpaceX venture reached a new milestone:  the company took a used rocket that it had recovered from a prior mission, relaunched it into space, deposited a customer’s satellite into orbit, and landed the rocket on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean so it can be used again, and again, and again.

falcon-9-dscovr-launchAs I’ve written before, private, commercial ventures like SpaceX are making significant progress in making space flight a common, everyday option.  Yesterday’s flight was a key development in that effort, because a significant part of the cost of space flight has been rockets that are designed, built, and used only once.  That single-use approach might have been viable back in the ’60s, when government funding was plentiful and the United States was on a national quest to be the first country to land a man on the Moon, but it’s simply not sustainable or feasible in our modern world of massive budget deficits and competing national priorities.  It’s also an approach that commercial space concerns could never afford.  That’s why SpaceX has been focused on developing technology that allows those expensive rockets to be reused.

No one should take away from the mighty, ground-breaking accomplishments of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and space shuttle programs, and there remains a key role for governments in space exploration.  Governments will always have more resources than businesses do, and the need for scientific exploration, and the technological developments that seem to inevitably accompany it, will often fall to governmental entities like NASA.  But profit-making entities and capitalist risk-takers are adept at building on the foundation the government has laid and figuring out how to make things affordable and, not incidentally, profitable.

If tourist trips to the Moon and settlements on Mars are in our future — and I hope they are, because I still hold out hope that I might see a glorious Earthrise from the Moon some day — commercial concerns inevitably will play a huge role.  SpaceX’s reusable rocket technology is another important step forward toward a future in which the “final frontier” becomes a much more accessible place.

Treasure-Hunting Around Mars

Those of us who’ve been waiting patiently — for years, and years, and years — for the United States to get back into the manned space exploration mode have always thought that perhaps crass commercialism might be the impetus.  If governments aren’t spurred by noble thoughts of advancing into the final frontier and exploring for the benefit of all mankind, maybe they’ll be motivated by cold hard cash.  With a compelling case for a serious financial return from exploration, modern governments might — like the European nations exploring the western hemisphere during the 1400s and 1500s — be willing to commission a few ships, set sail, and see what they can find.

We’re about to get an answer to that question, because in a few years NASA will be launching a mission to a solitary asteroid orbiting between Mars and Jupiter that — all on its own — would seem to make space exploration fiscally worthwhile.

1200x600The asteroid, called 16 Psyche, is about the size of Massachusetts and has been battered by meteor strikes.  It’s composed primarily of nickel and iron.  The vast quantities of metal on the asteroid is a kind of treasure trove that causes NASA to say that 16 Psyche is worth about 10,000 quadrillion dollars.  How big is a quadrillion?  Well, apparently there are about one quadrillion ants on planet Earth.  Multiply that mind-boggling number by 10,000, and you get the value of 16 Psyche.  Even Bill Gates would be impressed by that sum.

Of course, we might not want to cart all of that metal back to Earth, because that would be pretty expensive.  We might decide that the treasure trove would be better used to build settlements on Mars, or to manufacture space stations or space craft, or for any of countless potential uses of metal in space.  And it’s all out there waiting for the first intrepid country, or group of countries, that is willing to go out and get it.

So — why not get back into space, already?  We’ve twiddled our thumbs long enough, and you can tell that private enterprise is starting to look pretty seriously at space as an investment and development opportunity.  In fact, some people are arguing that, with private enterprise leading the way, we could be back on the Moon, permanently, in four years, and then moving on to other planets in the solar system thereafter.  Who knows?  Maybe a President who talks about “the art of the deal” couldn’t resist trying to lay claim to a titanic treasure.

With all of the bad things happening in the world these days, it would be nice to turn our eyes skyward.  I wouldn’t mind a little greed for $10,000 quadrillion if that’s what it takes to motivate us to get back into space to stay.

To Mars, And Beyond

This week, Elon Musk of SpaceX announced his plans for getting humanity to Mars.  The plans involve massive rockets, trips by 100 passengers every 26 months, and deliveries of supplies and housing — all with an ultimate goal of establishing an independent, self-sustaining colony on the Red Planet.

mars-colonial-bThere’s still a lot of details in Musk’s ambitious plans to be filled in — like figuring out how in the heck the massive rocket is going to paid for, and how they are going to get materials sufficient to keep 100 people alive for months on a planet that is basically a cold desert.  Critics think the Musk plans, in their current form, are implausible.  They almost certainly are, of course.  The key point, though, is that somebody is actually thinking about how to accomplish passenger space travel and is doing something about it.

Musk isn’t the only one who is thinking about space.  SpaceX has shown that there is commercial value in space, and Jeff Bezos, the multi-billionaire founder of Amazon, has his own space development company with plans to launch satellites . . . and ultimately, people who would colonize the solar system.  NASA, too, is proceeding with Mars mission planning.

We seem to be on the cusp of a tipping point, where talk about colonizing Mars is moving from the dreams and visions of science fiction writers to fundraising, timetables, and engineering reality.  In my view, it’s about time.  Whereas Musk thinks we need a colony on Mars to protect our species from extinction through a cataclysmic event on Earth, I think we need to get a toehold in space to change our Earthbound perspectives, broaden our horizons, and reintroduce an explorer’s mentality to our world.

It’s good to see internet billionaires using some of their cash to open new worlds and opportunities to humanity.   We may not know what’s out there, yet, but let’s find out!

Because We’re Special

the-martian-matt-damonScientists are now finding evidence that there are a lot of apparently habitable planets out there, in a temperate zone in relation to their suns, where water is likely to form.

So why in the world (pun intended) aren’t we hearing or seeing signs of alien life when we point our radio telescopes at other star systems?  Our ability to search for evidence of life elsewhere has developed to the point where the lack of any contact has to be considered in any scientific theory about how life develops — and scientists are, in fact, doing just that.

The new theories posit that the world — our world — in fact played a key role.  They envision a “Gaian Bottleneck”: a kind of choke point that most alien life doesn’t survive.  While early, microbial life forms may have developed on those wet, rocky planets scientists are identifying just about everywhere, more complex life forms require planets with weather systems and atmospheric that are relatively stable.  The Gaian Bottleneck posits that such stability is lacking on many planets, and that changes in temperature or atmosphere killed off the alien life when it was in its fragile, early stages and unable to defend itself through evolution.  Thus, both Venus and Mars may have had early life forms, but the developmental arc of those planets — toward a high-pressure hot house on Venus, and a frigid, barren desert on Mars — killed them off.

Earth, though, somehow threaded the needle.  So, we’re special.

Of course, Earth’s example means some planets make it past any Gaian Bottleneck, so there may be advanced life out there — just not as much as you might think.

All Alone

I’ve been reading The Martian by Andy Weir   Made into an Oscar-nominated movie that I haven’t yet seen, the book tells the story of Mark Watney, an astronaut on a Mars expedition who is injured and lost in a blistering sandstorm and presumed dead by his crewmates.  They leave because the sandstorm threatens to wreck their exit vehicle and their ability to get home, and Watney then finds himself abandoned on Mars, with no means of communicating with Earth.

The book’s careful recounting of Watney’s efforts to use the remnants of the expedition supplies to create water, grow food, and stay alive long enough to be rescued — and later, the discovery of NASA that he is still alive and the efforts to get him home before he starves — is riveting.  I can’t attest to the engineering and practical science involved in Watney’s development of soil capable of growing potatoes or his cannibalization of rovers to create a vehicle capable of a long-distance journey, but they have the ring of authenticity, and you can’t help but applaud his ingenuity.

the-martian-matt-damonAll of this occurs, though, against the backdrop of a bigger human drama:  a person left all alone on an alien planet, with no means of communicating to fellow members of his species, and always on the ragged edge of death from starvation or the hostile Martian environment. How would any person cope with such absolute solitude?  Watney establishes a journal to maintain a conversation of sorts, and he goes through the music, book, and TV selections left behind by his former crewmates — and pays the price by enduring disco music and the complete episodes of Three’s Company.   But even the syncopated efforts of the Bee Gees and feeble comedic antics of Jack Tripper and his roommates Chrissy and Janet, and the human interaction they reflect, are preferable to complete isolation.  In effect, the journal, the songs, and the TV shows are Watney’s version of Wilson, the volleyball who became Tom Hanks’ only companion on Cast Away.

Watney’s got a great sense of humor and a never say die mentality that allows him to deal with his predicament, but as you read the book you can’t help but wonder how you would deal with total abandonment on a desolate, alien planet — assuming, of course, that you had the botanical and engineering training that would allow you to survive using the same steps Watney followed.  After the initial zeal for trying to survive, how would you react after weeks and weeks of drudgery, with no actual communication or direct human interaction of any kind?  It’s hard to imagine that even good TV, music, and reading material could fill that void and allow you to maintain the positive attitude that would be essential to survival.  Most of us, I suspect, would just stop caring and give up.

The Merry Pranksters Of Mars

The rover Opportunity has been on Mars for years. It’s been sitting patiently on the rim of Emdeavour Crater, and every few days it takes a picture of its campsite. Then, a few weeks ago, something startling happened — a weird-looking rock suddenly appeared in the field of view, where it hadn’t been before.

The rock doesn’t look like anything from the nearby area, or any other rock Opportunity has seen. Instead, it looks like a French pastry, with jam in the center and thick frosting around the edge. Scientists are analyzing it, but . . . how the hell did it get there?

The scientists have two theories — a nearby impact flung the rock into the picture, or it was “flicked” out of the ground by Opportunity‘s wheels. Neither theory is very satisfying, and neither makes much sense. The only bit of debris thrown into the frame by a nearby impact is a large, unusual rock? And how did a rock of that size and shape get “flicked” by Opportunity‘s wheels, without any other sign of the landscape being disturbed?

The fact that the scientists have come up with only two boring theories just shows a lack of imagination. There are lots of potential explanations for the mysterious appearance of a weird rock on an alien planet. If you’re a conspiracy theorist, this confirms that Opportunity isn’t on Mars at all, but is parked in some dusty studio in Burbank where a studio technician inadvertently dropped a doughnut. If you’re a sci-fi fan, this shows there really is intelligent life on Mars that decided to have some fun with us, so they placed a weird rock in the picture frame and now are sitting back, laughing hysterically at the puzzlement on Earth. Perhaps they’ve watched TV broadcasts showing cops eating doughnuts and are trying to tell us to send some up to the Red Planet. Maybe a secretive scientist has developed a teleportation device and is using the Martian doughnut delivery as part of a marketing plan. Maybe there really is such a thing as magic. Or perhaps future humans have conquered the laws of time and space, and it is one of them who is pulling the prank.

Keep your eye on this story: I’m betting that, in a few weeks, scientists will announce that a steaming Starbuck’s grande latte cup has appeared next to the doughnut.

Red Planet, White Rock, Deep Meaning

NASA’s Curiosity rover has once again excited scientists with some provocative discoveries about Mars.

Curiosity drove over a Martian rock and broke it open, exposing a dazzling white exterior.  The striking ivory color indicates the presence of hydrated minerals in the rock.  As any person who walks around with a water bottle knows, “hydration” requires water, and hydrated minerals are those that are formed when water is found.  Curiosity also has detected clay-type minerals in a different rock — another clue suggesting the presence of water at some point.  These discoveries are part of a growing body of evidence that running water once existed on this part of the surface of Mars.

On Earth, water seems to have been a crucial building block in whatever process, or outside force, first created life.  If water flowed on the Red Planet, the odds are increased that life once existed there — and may exist there still.  Although the surface of Mars is now a dusty red desert, it is possible that water and ice remain in rock formations deep below the Martian surface.  If so, life may be found there, because studies on Earth indicate that life, once established, is remarkably hardy.  The expedition to drill into a lake buried beneath a two-mile thick sheet of ice in Antartica, for example, recently uncovered life forms even in that dark, desolate, and inhospitable location.  Why should life on Mars be any less tenacious?

I’m of the Star Trek generation.  I believe that looking for — and especially finding — life beyond the confines of our home planet is a good way to get squabbling humans to recognize that their differences are minor and not worthy of much attention in the grand scheme of things.  We need to move beyond a mindset that focuses exclusively on our own fleeting creature comforts and recognize that we live in but one tiny, wayward corner of an unimaginably vast universe.  It’s been 40 years since humans walked on the Moon.  When will we take the next step, to Mars and beyond, to see whether life in fact may be found elsewhere?

The Importance Of Sleep

How important is it that we get a 40 winks at night?  A recent study of “astronauts” who were on a simulated mission to Mars gives us some guidance on that question.

Mars is far away, and a trip there would require astronauts to be cooped up aboard their spaceship for months, without natural day-night cycles.  The Mars500 project sought to test what the effect of such an extended time in space might be, so it selected astronauts using standard criteria, isolated them, and communicated with them solely through time lagged communications that approximated the delay in communications between Earth and a spaceship on its way to Mars.  During the 17-month simulation, tests of the astronauts were conducted — and the results now being published show how crucial sleep patterns and the daylight cycle really are.

One crew member went from a 24-hour day cycle to a 25-hour day cycle, which meant he was awake and asleep at odd hours in comparison to the rest of his crew mates — and therefore became isolated.  Other crew members began to sleep more and more, and yet another crew member became chronically sleep-deprived and struggled with performance tests as a result.  In short, if a real mission to Mars were underway, sleep issues — and their resulting mental health impact — would have been a significant problem for crew performance and cohesion.  Researchers will be looking at whether a lighting scheme that better approximates our normal daylight-night rhythms might help.

Anyone who has done much travel — or watched Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannson in Lost in Translation — knows how tough the effects of jet lag can be.  Imagine if you had to deal with sleep deprivation for months, stuck with the same people in an unchanging environment, without ever seeing daylight.

Now, get some sleep!

The Hedgehogs Of Phobos, And Some Thoughts On Robotics

If NASA scientists get their way, we’ll soon be exploring the Martian moon Phobos using small, hedgehog-like robots.

Phobos is tiny — more of an asteroid than the Moon we see in the evening sky — and very rugged.  It’s a low-gravity environment, though, which means it’s an attractive candidate for a mission where materials are gathered and then actually physically returned to Earth for testing and analysis.  The tests would allow us to determine whether Phobos is, in fact, a wandering asteroid captured by Mars’ gravity, or whether it is part of Mars that broke off long ago.  Either answer would help us better understand the solar system and how it developed.

But how to explore such a small, low-gravity object and figure out where to do the gathering?  Wheel-oriented devices tend to lose traction and spin uncontrollably under such conditions.  So, scientists and engineers are developing a spiky device, like a hedgehog, that could precisely navigate the surface of Phobos by spinning, hopping, and tumbling.  The hedgehog — will it be called Sonic? — would serve as a scout, gathering data that would allow for a follow-up mission.

Robotics is an interesting field, because it combines cutting-edge technological advances with creative problem-solving.  With robots, you aren’t wedded to standard forms.  If a wheeled device doesn’t work under the circumstances, you can try some other form that might work better.  It might be a spiky hedgehog, or a spinning disk, or something else.  The design freedom that robotic engineers have must be liberating, and challenging — and probably fun, too!

Old sci-fi fans are waiting for the day when every household has a humanoid robot to do the boring chores.  That day may be far off, but the reality is that we all are using robotic technology more and more frequently — in cars, in household appliances, and in factories.  I recently saw a mainstream, prime- time TV commercial for a robotic vacuum cleaner.  I don’t know how it’s selling, but maybe the days of robotic members of the family aren’t that far off, after all.

Curiosity, On The (Martian) Ground

NASA announced today that the Martian rover, Curiosity, has successfully landed on the Red Planet.  In an amazing display of engineering, Curiosity roared through the Martian atmosphere, undertook a series of maneuvers to slow itself down, and then landed safely in the Gale Crater, near Mars’ equator.

The rover’s touchdown on Mars is just another triumph for America’s unmanned space program.  We have probes, satellites, robots, and landers operating all across the solar system — and for the first time in human history just outside of it, too.

Curiosity‘s mission will be a long, and interesting, one that will last for at least two years.  The rover is the largest device NASA has yet landed on Mars and is powered with a long-lasting plutonium battery.  It will navigate the Martian surface, scan the Martian soil for signs of water, climb a Martian mountain, and collect samples to test for organic compounds, and pulverize rocks with a laser.  And, because this is the social media age, Curiosity of course has its own Twitter feed.  The rover therefore also has made history by sending the first Tweet from the surface of Mars.  It said: “I’m safely on the surface of Mars. GALE CRATER I AM IN YOU!!!”

Worst Space Mission Name Ever (II)

The travails of the hapless Russian space probe Phobos-Grunt continue.  In addition to being saddled with the worst space mission name ever, its mission has been beset by bugs and failures.

Since its launch last month, Phobos-Grunt has been circling the globe, largely incommunicado.  With two brief exceptions, stations on Earth have been unable to exchange signals with the satellite, and the European Space Agency has stopped trying.  Because no communication has occurred, Phobos-Grunt was not able to reach its intended orbit or fire the rockets necessary to send it on its trip to Mars and the Mars moon Phobos.  Now the opportunity to reach Mars has passed, Phobos-Grunt’s orbit is unstable and decaying, and its likely fate is to come crashing back to Earth.

I’m not suggesting that all of the bad things that happened to Phobos-Grunt happened because it was cursed with an awful, uninspired name.  However, I suggest that when the Russians are planning their next mission, they give some very careful thought to selecting a more uplifting name.

Marsbound

We Earthlings have always been curious about our neighbor, Mars.  It’s appropriate, therefore, that the latest robot sent to explore the Red Planet is called Curiosity.

Curiosity, which blasted off from Cape Canaveral yesterday, is the largest, best-equipped robot ever to be sent to another planet.  Its mission will feature a number of significant advances in space exploration technology, including new systems that will allow the Curiosity to parachute to the Martian surface and land with great precision.  And the robot rover itself is exceptionally cool.  It is huge by rover standards, and it basically is a geological laboratory on wheels that will be able to photograph, laser, sift and test the Martian surface.  It also has a fully functioning weather station that will record temperature, wind, and humidity.  (Watch for apps that will let you get the daily Martian forecast!)

It will take Curiosity months to get to Mars.  After it lands, it will spend two full years rolling around the Martian surface, attempting to answer questions about whether Mars has been, or is now, capable of sustaining basic life forms.

As an American, I’m always proud of our NASA space exploration missions and the ground-breaking (literally, in the case of Curiosity) technological advances that they feature.  It’s nice to know that our engineering and space exploration systems work, even if our political systems don’t.

Worst Space Mission Name Ever

We’re used to aspirational, almost lyrical names for space missions.  Names like Voyager, Pioneer, Mariner, and Galileo evoke the wonder of exploration and discovery.

That’s why the latest space mission to make the news is such a clinker.  It’s a Russian effort, and it’s called Phobos-Grunt.  That’s right:  Phobos-Grunt.  Not quite in the same league, is it?

It turns out that “grunt” is the Russian word for soil, so the mission name is functional:  the plan is for the Russian probe to travel to the Martian moon Phobos, grab some soil, and return.  Unfortunately, “grunt” doesn’t exactly have great connotations in English.  Any word that conjures images of straining, probably overweight guys working on a loading dock isn’t calculated to inspire.  I suppose it’s better than Phobos-Belch, and other body sound options, but that’s about it.

Unfortunately for the Russians, after the Phobos-Grunt probe was launched, it seems to have shut down.  According to the first article linked above, it’s not responding to signals to leave orbit and start on its journey to Mars.  Could it have died of embarrassment?

Sowing Earthlife

Those who are intrigued by the possibility of extraterrestrial life may be interested in a study that indicates that Earth itself could have been the source of life on other planets and moons in our solar system.

The study looked at the dispersion of debris from asteroid impacts on the Earth’s surface.  It found that such debris is far more likely to reach Mars, or even Jupiter and Saturn and their moons, than was previously thought.  If such debris contained small life forms, they therefore could have reached other places that are capable of sustaining life.  Of course, any microbes and other organisms on the debris would have to be hardy enough to survive years of travel through space, exposure to radiation, the fall to the surface of another planet, and the different atmospheres and living conditions on those planets — but we know that there are organisms that can survive such conditions, and we also know that life is tenacious and is found in even the most hostile and extreme climates on Earth.

We won’t know, of course, whether this scenario could actually have produced life elsewhere until we find such life and test it.  If we do find such life, however, it will give new meaning to the phrase “Mother Earth.”

 

Inching Closer To Proof Of Extraterrestrial Life

If you follow science news, you regularly see reports on scientists who are looking for proof of the existence of extraterrestial life.  The latest story is a report on the examination of geological formations on Mars.  Scientists are finding minerals and geological formations at one particular Martian site that are very similar to minerals and geological formations found at a site on Earth that contains evidence of life forms that existed 3.5 billion years ago.  The similarity of the sites causes scientists to believe that the same kinds of life forms may have existed on Mars billions of years ago. 

With the development of increasingly refined extraterrestrial telescopes, other forms of radiation detection and imaging technology, highly sophisticated exploration satellites, and robotic equipment that can land on other planets and conduct experiments, we are moving slowly but steadily closer to finding conclusive proof of past or present extraterrestial life.  It may be in the form of fossils found on some now-desolate planet, or the identification actual living creatures that live in the liquid seas found on the moons of  Saturn and Jupiter, or in some other form — but the day of that ultimate discovery seems to be drawing nearer.

The question to ponder is, how will mankind react to such a discovery?  Will it affect religious doctrine and philosphical discourse?  Will it cause people to realize that the differences between peoples of different countries are not so great after all?  Or will people who are otherwise absorbed in their daily lives even care?