Archive for the ‘Space Exploration’ Category

Planets With Atmospheres: Almost Available?

26-Apr-18 03:00 pm EDT Leave a comment



Frontier staff have recently been heard hinting that planet atmospheres could be gradually rolled into players’ Elite Dangerous Experience soon!


or me, a veteran Elite CMDR who has been playing various versions of the game since its introduction in 1983 (yes — I am that old) being able to interact with planets regardless of whether they have an atmosphere or not is simply a basic feature.  Although the initial release of Elite back in 1983 offered only single-planet star systems where the “planet” was really just a line-art circle (whose surface would result in the loss of your Cobra Mk III craft if you ran into it), Elite II and Elite II: Frontier both enabled you to take off from partially-terraformed moon Merlin in the Ross 154 star system.  There, one could see the reddish sky and the eerie gas giant Aster dominating the skyline from the tarmac of the local starport with the lights of a nearby domed city also in-view.  Elite Dangerous has taken us back in some respects to an earlier time when such extravagances as being blasted to dust for not requesting tower clearance prior to liftoff from said planet-bound starport was but a glint in David Braben’s eye.  (Braben is, of course, the mastermind behind the Elite franchise as well as the original programmer.)

CMDR ObsidianAnt who runs an extremely popular running commentary on Elite Dangerous shares with us in his latest YT-cast a preview of what might (and should) be coming throughout 2018 and perhaps 2019 by merging the view of an Asp Explorer spaceframe with a short demo of worlds created using a tool called Space Engine, available for download here.  ObsidianAnt says that Space Engine and Elite Dangerous are “two very different pieces of software” in his video, but perhaps not being a software developer himself he’s missing some background.  Whatever code is used as the basis for Space Engine, I’m extremely skeptical at the outset that the two titles (the other being Elite Dangerous) can’t be integrated.  True, there are numerous tasks associated with software integration methodology, but speaking as a systems developer (my own strength) I’ve been tasked with taking two “very different” pieces of software and experienced some degree of success in getting the job done several times in my career.  Superficially, I’m not seeing any architectural issues or other seemingly insurmountable challenges.  Frontier Developments has a very capable team of software engineers, obviously — and it would be something just short of unimaginable to say a 3rd-party product like Space Engine can’t be made to work with Elite.

Of course, one must keep in mind the console platforms which might introduce challenges I could, in fact, not imagine.  But on the PC, it’s unlikely to my mind the effects we’re seeing in Space Engine can’t be successfully migrated to Elite Dangerous.  At the very least having a perusal of the Space Engine source could cultivate stronger implementations of atmospheres on the worlds of Elite Dangerous.

If you have a different take on this subject, please chime in with a comment below.

And regardless of the timeliness of new feature intros to the game — kudos to Frontier Developments, creators of Elite Dangerous, for creating a truly immersive and enjoyable spaceflight sim.  We’re all on the edge of our seats waiting for that next “big thing” to come out….we know you won’t let us down!

Novas, Aliens and Dates — Oh My!

18-Mar-18 07:52 pm EDT Leave a comment

Taken from the Elite Dangerous Wiki images, here we see the LMC and SMC as they appear within the Universal Cartographics galaxy map as it appears in Elite Dangerous.

veryone has been talking about it — where are the Thargoids?  Are the Guardians still around somewhere (in hiding?), and why is the galaxy so static?  In reality, a recent Cornell University study suggests our best observations predict a rate of ~35 to ~75 novas annually.  There stands a very good chance that the Thargoid homeworld could be located in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) — a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way that is quite evident in the galactic map.  One proposal for transiting human ships to the LMC could involve a megaship similar to the ICS Indra, equipped with an intergalactic hyperdrive (available only to large capital ships) and transiting docked player and NPC vessels to/from the LMC according to a schedule.  And why have we not encountered more alien civilizations yet?  Not all would need to be spacefaring after all — some could even involve the introduction of Dyson spheres or have still other motives for not exploring the surrounding galaxy very far.  Could these ideas for system-managed dynamic content be somehow integrated into the game universe created for Elite Dangerous?


Astronomical Events

It’s likely that stars in “the bubble” (core systems) would have to be exempted for obvious reasons.  Systems close to Sol going nova would pose a meaningful contradiction to the known history both of our own galaxy in reality and the scripted timeline for Elite (c. 2050-3404[-3410?]).  However, having a star explode in-game would not only provide a spectacular event for players to watch, it could stir things up in some areas of the galaxy — especially those with Thargoid bases or fledgling human colonies, for example.  And it would serve to add a whole new dimension to gameplay if a system like Betelgeuse had humans in it who noticed the death throes of such a huge star and had to escape either by jumping away or hitting supercruise in order to stay ahead of the large, destructive shock-wave that will surely chew up the last 2 planets in that star system.

Using Megaships to Transport CMDRs Inter-Galactically


The Wells-class Carier Ship (Source: Elite Dangerous Wiki)

I doubt we’re likely to see Frontier trying to model the Andromeda Galaxy anytime soon, much less provide the capability to transfer CMDRs there.  Or anywhere else in the Local Group, for that matter.  However, the Milky Way extends a halo of disconnected (and largely dark) matter around the outer rim systems for quite some distance (~30,000 ly, I believe I’d heard) and then there’s largely empty space until the much-abbreviated halo around the LMC gets encountered at ~150,000 ly from Sol.  Although the Thargoids could originate elsewhere, it seems likely the LMC is the logical place to start looking based on how their activity has spread near to human-controlled space.  And given that large jumps have been achieved with capital ships featuring docked CMDRs in the past, one thinks it only logical to rely on the superior ability of capital megaships to spearhead such an exploration effort.

After all: one won’t win any conflict with the Thargoids simply by defending human space and hoping they go away at some future date.  What if they chose not to?


MCQ_IA_111It is my belief that aliens are likely to be more common than simply having one species occupy all of the Milky Way galaxy at a time.  And it seems that with the ever-expanding exoplanet index revealing the likelihood of Earth-like worlds (not to mention the atmospheres of such worlds being catalogued by the James Webb Space Telescope or JWST set for launch no later than early 2019) will present us with irrefutable evidence concerning the likely existence of sentient species elsewhere in this galaxy soon.  Should not additional alien civilizations be introduced to the galaxy now — while there is still time for fantasy species to be included?

Of course, one could argue a sentient alien civilization was destroyed in the Elite timeline already with the founding of the Galactic Empire on Capital (Achenar 6D) in ~2250 CE.  This it itself could suggest others both in the Milky Way galaxy, the LMC and elsewhere beyond (though it’s not clear of what practical benefit there’d by to an attempt at contact from species too far away to be otherwise involved in the game).

The Update vs. Scheduled Events

I’d propose that adding some of the aforementioned concepts to create a more “living galaxy” could be done most simply via scheduled events that occur outside the PowerPlay update (which occurs in North America on Thursday mornings).  Players interested in using a jump to the LMC could assemble at a predetermined location (perhps a “checkpoint”?) and dock their ship prior to the announced jump time.  At the appointed time, an intergalactic hyperspace jump would occur and after a few moments cause arrival at a set of coordinates in the outer sectors of the LMC.  From here, CMDRs would disengage from the mother ship and return when the schedule announced a forcast return to the core systems in the Milky Way.  Costs would be associated with financing the jump and an early Galactic Goal might involve the creation of a starport at the arrival point in the LMC.  Here, humanity would manage its beachhead

Comments and questions on the content presented here are welcome regardless of brevity.  But my goal would to be to present the discourse to Frontier via their forms or through the public network services (Twitter, Reddit, etc.).  Thanks for your participation!

Exoplanet Ross 128b an Earthlike World?

06-Feb-18 04:23 pm EST Leave a comment

erlin has just been discovered!  (For those of you who are familiar with the Elite universe….Ross 128 is the system which is host to the Merlin colony, an earth-like world which actually is a moon of the gas giant Aster in the game.)  The similarity of Merlin and this discovery might be astonishing!  I certainly hope the folks at Frontier are paying attention to this news item.


Artist’s conception of what the exoplanet Ross 128b might look like on the surface.  (Source:



Sol 752a Published to MSLoGE

18-Sep-14 08:35 pm EDT Leave a comment
Mount Sharp (Aeolis Mons) within Gale Crater, Mars

Mount Sharp (Aeolis Mons) within Gale Crater, Mars. Image taken: September 17, 2014 (Sol 752)


ols 751 through 753 this week promise some exciting new imagery from Curiosity.  Already published to the Google Earth archive is the latest telemetry from Sol 752 (taken yesterday) which will be used to create a further upload (I’m separating the presentations into two files for this event; one called 752a, the other, 752b).  These will illustrate further a detailed look at the geography of the region now being called simply ‘the Amargosa Valley’.

According to Curiosity Rover scientist Lauren Edgar:

“A short ~30 m drive on Sol 753 should put Curiosity in a good position at the Pahrump Hills. Sol 754 will consist of 2 hours of untargeted remote sensing, including ChemCam calibration activities to prepare for the Pahrump investigation, and a Navcam movie to monitor the atmosphere.”

Edgar promises further science mission plans for the Pahrump Hills region and beyond will be known very soon.

Curiosity Team Grilled on NASA’s Mars Vision

12-Sep-14 11:52 am EDT Leave a comment

esterday, we again saw numerous spending questions about the value behind #Curiosity and other endeavours by #NASA concerning space exploration.  These were prevalent amongst the media’s questions during a Curiosity Update event sponsored by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (#JPL).

Dr. Robert Zubrin speaking at NASA in 2008.

Dr. Robert Zubrin speaking at NASA in 2008.

Earlier this month, similar frustration could be heard reverberating from the Mars Society’s Dr. Robert Zubrin, who (ensconced atop his pulpit at NASA’s Ames Research Centre) aggressively critiqued the high-profile US department for vacillating on its exploration objectives throughout the solar system.  Zubrin and others see an inefficient, navel-gazing, visionless bureaucracy requiring a refocusing of goals and research to end years of wasted money and energy spent on justifying bad programs.  Instead, what seems to be happening is the very same political institutions responsible for funding US space exploration are simply cutting an inefficient image-conscious government department without addressing the real problem behind invested dollars being well-spent.

In the meantime, corporate America (and commercial interests elsewhere) have begun to step into the sacred ground once reserved for NASA.  Cancellation of the Constellation project happened in tandem with the government refocusing its spending on backing commercial exploration, no doubt because of NASA’s inability to get the job done soon enough to put America first in a second emerging space race.  But NASA still has missions all over the solar system to manage and maintain — and its not clear where the money will come from if the larger issues affecting it aren’t addressed.

In the end, maybe a few heads have to roll.  And there will be consequences; but the only alternative is continuing to stand idly by and watch an organization that once led humanity to the surface of the moon fade from relevance entirely.

Canada-Wide Report on Alien Sightings “Unscientific”, Say Critics

01-Sep-14 06:28 pm EDT Leave a comment

he CBC article begins “Do you believe”?  That’s a good question, say some critics of the report — which have been downplaying the report since its publication earlier this month (August 2014) on major Canadian news networks (via Canadian Press, which authored the original article).  Even the report’s author, Chris Rutkowski, was reported as saying his group’s work doesn’t provide absolute proof about the existence of extra-terrestrials.  Then again, how could it?  Even if beings from other worlds were a part of our daily-lives the report is weak on methodology, heavy on adjectives and absent use beyond a talisman around which advocacy groups can rally.

New report compiles 25 years of UFO sightings in Canada

Read more:

                                              — CTV News (Video)

As one who’s had this issue close to his heart all his life (out of interest in the exploration of environs beyond our own planet), I find little of interest for me other than the story of how the data was determined.  What initially caught my eye was the apparent sudden drop in the number of UFO sightings — a fact corroborated online to some degree, anecdotally.  (Perhaps this is one of the reasons the report’s data reflects a drop?)  But there’s no definition listed in the report for what the differences are between a “explained sighting”, “probable sighting”, “insufficient evidence”, or “unexplained”.  The report’s grammar seems to imply these definitions exist somewhere and are well-known; but there’s no terms of reference, footnotes or other citations of whom or what defines these beyond the group’s own apparently subjective (and unpublished/unreferenced) definitions.

And boy is it particularly interesting to see the talking heads of our modern media lap this stuff up and talk about it as if it was the latest press release from NASA!  A local radio station here in Ottawa (CFRA) actually had a segment devoted to so-called experts at one point debating the causes of the report’s monolithic and sudden drop in UFO sightings between 2012 and 2013.  The data itself was taken for granted, without so much as a breath questioning its validity.

According to Ed Barker, (Ret.) former Producer of the Manitoba Planetarium, who in his career spent years as the lead UFOlogist at the centre, says these kinds of spikes and dips in sightings data occur frequently.  “These variances in the data occur all the time”, says Barker, and one can’t get too excited about a single year-anomaly.  Certainly, CFRA’s analysis, citing the emergence of smart phone technology somehow making sightings less likely suddenly in 2012-13 seemed, to me, to be a theory without either scientific analysis or subjective arguments in support.  (Smart phones have been around considerably longer without any reflected impact on the trends cited in the report or anecdotally in reports I could find online.)

The Canadian Government hasn’t been particularly helpful in recent years, with virtually all money to even tracking airborne phenomena evaporating.  Nowadays, if a person makes a sighting report to police — say the RCMP — they actually end up simply forwarding it to Rutkowski’s group.  Even were such referrals to non-profit civilian groups the normal practice only part of the time, surely the public’s expectation would be that there’d be a few pennies to rub together in the annual budget to keep programs tracking such data afloat.

One could even think it begs the question: why would the Canadian government leave it to a group making unscientific, anecdotal publications to track such data?  Unless perhaps….that it made criticism of the whole UFO phenomenon itself so easy.  Now, questions to the government on the subject of UFOs become less-palatable for any reputable journalist.

…if you believe.

Google Earth Serves as News Platform for the NASA/JPL Curiosity Rover

29-Aug-14 11:53 pm EDT Leave a comment

MSL on Google Earth


SL, or (simply) the “Curiosity Rover” is being watched differently today than yesterday thanks to a new tool: Google Earth.  The premiere GIS technology offering from Google is now helping NASA’s JPL answer questions about what the latest rover on the red planet is up to by displaying information about the path the rover has taken, its projected path, where it has stopped, when, for how long and it has been up to while otherwise seemingly halted.  Thus the tool is serving not only as a tracking tool, but a news platform about curiosity.

There needs to be (for now) user-led updates to a file hosted on “The Ross Report”; the personal blog of The AppRefactory Inc. President, but there’s always room for improvement.

To find out more, visit the dedicated blog page for the project here and keep checking back for updates, every Martian Sol!

NASA: ⅔ of Earth’s Ice Cap Now Gone!

28-Aug-14 08:35 am EDT Leave a comment

lthough headed for a low, but not the usual “record low” year of ice loss, NASA has now been able to assemble the available evidence and state definitively that our tiny, blue planet is in the final stages of losing the northern arctic ice cap completely.  A video released on this morning shows Dr. Thomas Wagner of NASA HQ, Washington, DC discussion various aspects of the NASA’s ARISE mission and the means by which the supporting data was acquired.


The report is of serious concern, of course.  But I find it pretty remarkable just how incredibly fast the artic ice cap has, first, disintegrated and then virtually melted away.  The only good news in the piece was that the shrinkage this year isn’t a record low….but that doesn’t mean the overall trend (being year-over-year record loss) has terminally halted.  My guess would be that it could be an indicator things might have started to slow down slightly — but it’s too little, too late as far as the arctic ice cap is concerned.

Next, I suspect we’ll be hearing about he subarctic cap disappearing completely.  And…I now wonder if any of it will be left by 2020!

More Planets Anyone?

27-Nov-13 12:34 pm EST Leave a comment

Infographic showing how the Kepler space telescope could continue searching for planets despite two busted reaction wheels. Credit: NASA Ames/W Stenzel (Read more…)


epler may be getting set for a resurrection of its planet-finding mission in other star systems, according to Universe Today. The space telescope whose primary mission to was catalogue planets around stars in our galaxy, visible in a particular part of the night sky was abruptly cut short this past summer when two of the wheels responsible for orienting the satellite failed, leaving its attitude control system crippled along with its primary mission.  These technical issues have also left Kepler vulnerable to budget cuts in the forthcoming 2014 budget debate which has already been the subject of a high-stakes game of political brinksmanship between U.S. lawmakers who decide how much money NASA and, ultimately, Kepler get.

A view of Kepler's search area as seen from Earth. Credit: Carter Roberts / Eastbay Astronomical Society

A view of Kepler’s search area as seen from Earth. Credit: Carter Roberts / Eastbay Astronomical Society

Of course, while Kepler and other planet-finding missions continue with their discoveries (even if hobbled by issues of one kind or another), one question often asked about them is “where are they?”  I use a program called “Celestia” to get my answer to that question and over the past couple of years have acquired quite a bit of data pertaining to these “exoplanets” (as they’re called) and other astronomical phenomena whose coordinates and other data can be input into the application to generate a celestial map.

If you’re interested in using the data I’ve got , you can download the library from one of two sources:

How A UFO Story Is “Killed” by Politicians

17-Aug-13 01:13 am EDT 1 comment

o you ever get the feeling that the Government (either of Canada or the United States) might not be totally forthcoming on the question “has Earth been visited by an alien civilization yet?”  Well a recent event off Canada’s Atlantic coast (Newfoundland) gives some cause for you being suspicious, if it makes any difference to you.

After reading this, I checked some statistics and learned that a full 93% of respondents to one CBC poll indicated that they were sure aliens existed elsewhere in the universe and, of those, another 70%+ were confident Earth had already been visited.  (Interestingly, Stanton Friedman; a Canadian nuclear physicist who’s been on something of a UFO information crusade for the past 40+ years also made the point in a recent interview that most people believe they are in the minority believing in the existence of aliens and encounters here on Earth.)

With the recent acknowledgement of the U.S. concerning the existence of Area 51 and the discovery of planets smaller than Earth in star systems less than 500 light years away from this world — I’m starting to think a larger announcement might not be too far off in the future.  At least now there’s some reason to feel confident governments will come clean with what they know; not because of any sudden resurgence of faith in democracy by politicians or bureaucrats previously hell-bent on secrecy…but simply because they’ll have no choice.

Vials of Apollo 11 moon dust found in storage – MSNBC

25-May-13 11:04 am EDT Leave a comment


oney, where did you put that jar of lunar orthoclase I was saving?"

This is definitely not the kind of thing one would expect to get lost.  While the article claims all the vials are accounted for – I wonder whether someone might not have recorded a volume of rock "consumed" by testing and simply skimmed a little for themselves….

New Space Race: Pros & Cons

02-May-13 02:48 pm EDT Leave a comment

have to disagree with myself it looks like. (Maybe that doesn’t happen often enough!) But only recently has the “big picture” being pursued by the Obama administration started to become evident. And, I hate to admit it; it might not have gone so well if details of what must surely have been a deliberate strategy been announced at the beginning: let the private sector pave the way to space exploration.

The Ross Report

What this "spurning" by NASA entailed, we’ll probably never know.  But it’s not hard to speculate that NASA might find another space race with its old cold-war adversary useful.  What’s not useful is the inevitable adversarial attitude that occurs politically being exacerbated by a new space race.  So – is a space race good or bad?

Overall, I think we should probably be spending appreciably on extraterrestrial research because, overall, there appears to be plenty of evidence that the technological advances which result invariably imrpove the condition of humanity, and our understanding of the universe.  Too often, politicians come along and dogged by those who think the world’s problems will be solved organically by kind-hearted human beings spending on feeding the poor and healing the world’s sick with the…

View original post 231 more words

Moon + Saturn = Awesome Pic!!!

08-Apr-13 12:43 am EDT Leave a comment
Categories: Space Exploration


12-Feb-13 01:09 pm EST Leave a comment

his is the kind of thing I like to see from NASA!  The caption reads ” Hollywood couldn’t have done it any better”… and I for one couldn’t agree more.

Categories: Space Exploration

CNN Embeds Overly-Harsh Critique in Unfortunate Image Caption

24-Aug-11 11:08 am EDT Leave a comment


bviously, nobody’s perfect — and perhaps nobody is better aware of this than the editorial team with, as an article concerning an off-course ISS resupply freighter illustrates this morning:


Naturally, comments subsequently have been less than flattering to CNN, which well into an hour following the article’s initial publication still has failed to correct the apparent mis-print…

Guess that tells us not only how carefully CNN edits its content — but how much they bother to consult their readers’ comments on the articles they publish!

End of Final Shuttle Mission Yields Bitter Commentary

21-Jul-11 09:47 pm EDT 2 comments
This unprecedented view of the space shuttle Atlantis, appearing like a bean sprout against clouds and city lights, on its way home, was photographed by the Expedition 28 crew of the International Space Station. Airglow over Earth can be seen in the background. (Courtesy:

ox News has gained plenty of notoriety for injecting inflammatory rhetoric into its news coverage in recent years, but after seeing this recent video on the heels of watching coverage of Atlantis’ return to Earth at the end of the final shuttle mission, it seems the aim here is to turn the event into yet another political football.  The claim being that, unlike Kennedy, Obama is ending manned spaceflight in the U.S. to save money.  But, as is almost always the case where Fox commentary is concerned, there’s really more to the story.

What the authors of hundreds of Twitter messages that seem to be absorbing Fox’s take have missed is that the move is part of a larger plan to share the glory of (and hopes of profit in) with commercial entities.  Already it’s hoped that by the end of 2011 and certainly during 2012, unmanned commercial flights will take on resupply missions to the space station, with manned flights by the end of 2013.  An 18-24 month pause in manned spaceflight doesn’t seem like “an end” of any sort to me…

Still, one needs to concede that were the U.S. not sinking into a financial abyss at the moment, there’d likely not be any particular will to end shuttle flights during the hand-off to commercial enterprise; regardless of the arguments about how NASA’s presence in the open market would have made commercial manned spaceflight much less viable.  But SpaceX has already demonstrated that, flying an unmanned empty capsule aboard its Falcon 9 rocket, it and other companies are today much closer to having the capability to take over from NASA because of the decision to take it to the private sector.  NASA provided funding for some of SpaceX’s efforts as it is doing for 4 other companies which stand close to getting their own spacecraft off the ground.

In fact, I’ve seen a similar move before by government agencies with respect to privatization of previous government monopolies.  At the dawn of the Internet era, there was only a single ISP in Winnipeg, Manitoba (my home city).  A fellow named Bill Reid who directed the University of Manitoba’s (U of M) Computer Services department made a decision to take the Internet private.  Why wasn’t business doing this on its own?  Well MBNet (the ISP’s name) was offering dial-up access for free to students of the U of M and for an extremely low rate (base annual fee of $25 per account¹) which made private ISP service all but unviable.  But when MBNet kicked all its users off (or almost all) one fateful day, companies like Magic Online Services (later purchased by TotalNet of Montreal) stood ready that very day to offer service to the public.

At the time, there were those that saw MBNet’s move as being unfair – many were forced to make significant changes to their networking services in a very short period of time.  But at some point, stepping back was surely the right thing to do lest Winnipeg and even the province of Manitoba more generally make competition in the Internet services market a game played strictly by very large companies.  (Indeed, the market’ has largely gone that way in any event, but it’s quite possible the current situation would have been much worse.)  And I see the same being true for a much broader set of reasons where NASA is concerned.

Time will tell, of course — but at the very least Obama and the NASA administration shouldn’t be faulted for this effort.  The U.S. is experiencing a serious financial crisis and there’s little doubt even from the decision’s detractors that the private sector can ultimately do spaceflight more cost-effectively.  And at this point in history, surely that’s enough reason to make it a private concern…particularly when there exists a real possibility the U.S. won’t be able to afford manned missions on its own if steps aren’t taken to redress the crippling U.S. deficit.  Steps exactly like this one.  Indeed, one could well argue that this move will preserve manned spaceflight in the years ahead; and that not privatizing manned missions to space would threaten the continued ability of the U.S. to undertake such challenges.  Perhaps even threaten the existence of NASA as an agency of manned exploration anywhere but in historical texts.

Hopefully in the long run, those on Twitter who’ve thus far spared the time to barely read the lead into neocon-authored editorials will eventually find time to hear the full story.  Of course, there are a few other obstacles that stand in the way of that: the realization that a previous Republican administration deregulated the financial services sector and started a war with 2 countries creating a situation where decisions like this were inevitable.  And I’m not sure that message will ever get the kind of reception necessary for Twitter-bound hecklers to cease their de facto campaign of complaints re #nasa.

But the taste of the last shuttle’s return to Earth would sure be less bitter for it if they did.

¹ An original document containing MBNet’s fee structure was located while doing research from this story.  Based on my memory of extensive prior MBNet usage, I can testify its authenticity.

Dragon To Rise In Shadow of Orion

24-May-10 05:17 pm EDT 1 comment
May 28 Falcon 9  •  Dragon
Launch window: 1500-1900 GMT (11 a.m.-3 p.m. EDT)
Launch site: SLC-40, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will make its maiden launch on a demonstration mission. The mission will carry the qualification unit for SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, which the company plans to fly on resupply missions to the International Space Station. Delayed from Nov. 29, Feb. 9, March 3, March 8, March 22, April 12, May 8, May 11 and May 23. [May 19]
Above is an excerpt from’s launch schedule & tracking website; citing the May 28, 2010 launch of the first Falcon 9 / Dragon vehicle at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, USA.

o, it’s not the title to another World of Warcraft extension.  It’s actually the most likely candidate to replace the space shuttle — and it’s scheduled to lift of from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on Wednesday, following three weeks of weather-related and shuttle-related delays.

This launch is actually sort of a big deal.  In April, President Obama cancelled the Constellation vehicle project which would have seen NASA pursue its traditional role of manufacturing the hardware and providing all mission management personnel entirely.  (Full details about Constellation available via Wikipedia.)  But as was also the norm for the veteran space agency, costs were starting to rise during development of the Orion return vehicle programme and NASA’s long-term ambition of moving beyond the International Space Station (ISS) to the Moon and Mars started do look as vulnerable to cuts from Congress as the Shuttle programme had been.  Dates somewhere between 2015 and 2016 just to get the programme operational also didn’t seem realistic.  Yet completion of the space station coupled with the imminent retirement of the aging Space Shuttle fleet meant that a new vehicle would need to be ready to do the things NASA wanted to do before the end of the next decade.

Cancelling Constellation was controversial.  Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society voiced harsh criticism of the presidential directive to terminate Constellation:

“Under the Obama plan, NASA will spend $100 billion on human spaceflight over the next 10 years in order to accomplish nothing.”

“Obama called for sending a crew to a near Earth asteroid by 2025. … Had Obama not canceled the Ares 5, we could have used it to perform an asteroid mission by 2016. But the President, while calling for such a flight, actually is terminating the programs that would make it possible.”

While it’s true that there is currently no commercially-tendered solution to deliver a crew to the asteroid belt, it’s not clear whether the Ares 5 rocket was really the vehicle to do that job properly.  Delivering a crew to the belt is one thing; doing that plus doing meaningful science once there is quite another and some believe that a different and, as yet, undeveloped vehicle would be needed for that job.

The first step in getting there is the launch of Falcon 9 & Dragon this week.  Though this launch is unmanned, the next launch (currently scheduled for mid-July) won’t be.  NASA is providing the launch facilities for these commercial missions and, if they go well, SpaceX — the company which designed and built the Falcon 9 and Dragon — will inevitably take on the role of being the company primarily responsible for delivering cargo & personnel to ISS.  SpaceX and at least one other US-based company have the ability to compete for contracts to carry people and equipment to Earth orbit and possibly even the moon.  And with commercial involvement, perhaps NASA’s ambitions can be realized even sooner than would otherwise have been possible with NASA going it alone.

At least….that’s the hope of the Obama administration.  And, with no other options currently planned, the hopes of those of us interested in furthered manned space exploration too.

Categories: Space Exploration

Aliens Visit Cleveland?

02-Apr-10 10:27 pm EDT Leave a comment
March 13: MSNBC’s Alex Witt talks to a man who claims that a UFO has been spotted in Cleveland for ten straight nights.

obin Williams probably said it best during last week’s guest appearance on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. As he awoke from recent open-heart surgery to replace a faulty aortic valve, Williams, while still disoriented, asked where he was. "Cleveland," someone answered. After a moment, he had a follow-up; "Why?"

Pretty amazing it’s been there for 10 nights straight, presumably either disappearing during the day and returning or being obscured by daytime light.  I assume MUFON has done their homework and determined it’s not actually a nova or some other astronomical phenomenon (which could be quickly determined by noting whether the object remains in the same part of the sky at all times or if it moves with the Earth’s rotation).  The probing journalism of MSNBC failed to put this question to the MUFON spokesperson.

Will keep a proverbial eye on this one for any other developments; so stay tuned!

Categories: Space Exploration

CBC News – Montreal – Fireball seen over Montreal

09-Jan-10 03:27 am EST Leave a comment

I could be wrong abou this…but either I heard this same story recently from another source or this wasn’t the only rock to fall out of the sky recently near a big city….

Not to be alarmist or anything, but (as the article says) visible meteors falling and being seen over large cities is rare, as is their being large enough to exhbit a "fireball" appearance.  Add that rare coincidence to it happening over two Canadian cities in quick succession, and it becomes rare enough to put one to wondering if there aren’t a lot more rocks falling out of the sky where it isn’t as populated.

Although it’s supposed to be over now, Earth is experiencing the Quadrantids meteor shower.  It was scheduled to peak between January 3rd and 4th with up to 40 meteors visible per hour in the northern hemisphere.  Although the shower was created by the destruction of a mini-planet (a relatively small chunk of rock which orbits the Sun) over 500 years ago, there shouldn’t be any exceptionally large chunks falling; nor should there really be that many from this shower left as the debris field is said to be pretty narrow.

Anyway, here’s hoping somone hasn’t screwed up and missed something that needs to be worried about.  At the very least I don’t want my weekend cut short!

Categories: Space Exploration

Talking about YouTube – Who’s More Pro-Science, Republicans or Democrats? – Neil deGrasse Tyson

03-Oct-09 06:55 pm EDT Leave a comment

 Strangely enough, what Dr. Tyson is saying here is quite true…although to my ear it comes off sounding a touch pro-Republican.  While the end result is, as he says, that Republicans end up tending to be more funding-friendly to NASA and other types of high-profile/high-priority research, the motives tend to be different (I believe) from those who see the merits of such funding as being more than making the United States look great and/or powerful.  The gains are in helping to better our understanding of the universe and insodoing address the world’s problems rather merely winning political capital either domestically or internaionally… 


YouTube – Who’s More Pro-Science, Republicans or Democrats? – Neil deGrasse Tyson

Categories: Space Exploration

Mars Today

31-Mar-09 10:13 pm EDT Leave a comment
Tracking your favorite Mars Rover was never so easy!

A few months back I was wondering what the status of the Mars Rovers were.  We hadn’t heard from them in a while….or rather the media was still being infatuated with its latest darling, Barack Obama. So I took a look around on the Internet to see what I could find.  The answer was: surprisingly little!

Well of course, there was plenty from a historical perspective, but if you wanted to find out what the rovers were up to last week or what they’d be tasked doing next – it wasn’t at all easy to find out.  NASA’s own Mars Rover website was fixated on educating school children about the project; so there wasn’t much in the way of “adult” content.  That may have been due in part to the fact that when I’d started to look for info on the rovers, they were still operating in a kind of “grey mode” – placed in that state to protect them from the elements of the harsh Martian winter.  Not much would be going on during this phase, since they’d just be sitting there save maybe for periodically uplinking to the Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter (MRO) to say “we’re alive”.  Even such abbreviated contact would be interrupted by a Mars-Sun-Earth alignment (where Earth and Mars are on exactly opposite sides of the sun) because no relay satellites yet exist to broker communications during such an event.

Above are captures of Adobe Flash elements on the NASA Mars Rover site, which depict the environment immediately around each rover in real time.

Things have improved considerably since.  The most significant development was the release of Google Earth 5.0, which added geological survey data for the planet Mars to the other two operational modes; Earth and Sky (which serves as a low-end planetarium app for your PC).  Of particular interest with the Mars feature was updated tracking of the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity.  Unfortunately, I quickly discovered the data was a little more dated than Google let on.  To Google’s credit, however, the service is supported by university students rather than dedicated staff responsible for updates.

So where do you go if you want information up to the current ‘Sol” (Martian day)? There are weekly digests one can review from the JPL website.  Reading them independently without the context presented by Google Earth 5.0, I found them both dry and difficult to follow.  But once famaliarized with the rover’s activity, it makes a lot more sense.  Suddently terms like “Home Plate” and “Victoria Crater” mean something more than literally an abstract place name on a far away planet that people never visit.  Plus when you look at some of the key sites using the panoramic view options, you can even examine some of the science being conducted for yourself.

It remains unclear exactly how realistic the Mars feature is within Google Earth 5.0.  When in Earth mode, there’s an option to show the sunlit face of the world.  This feature works in Mars mode too, but it’s not clear whether the software is converting between Mars & Earth time, and showing the sunlit surface of Mars per the current Earth time correctly.  Even so – keeping occasionally informed about the Mars rovers while the media scarcely takes interest has become a lot easier.

UPDATE (2-Apr-2009): By comparing the "Time on Mars" graphic on the NASA Mars Rover site with the sunlit surface indicated on Mars using the Google Earth 5.0 application, it now appears that Google Earth accurately depicts the current sunlight surface of Mars at any given time.

Categories: Space Exploration

Odds of Alien Life’s Discovery in Next Decade Takes Sharp Turn North

26-Jun-08 11:35 pm EDT Leave a comment

All of us – for perhaps as long ago as 30,000 years (or longer) have been waiting for an answer to that question: are we alone.  This week, we seem to be edging tantalizingly close to a final answer to that question, which is leaning heavily in the direction of "no, there are others".

Above is an image of the galaxy NGC-1300, some 69 million light-years (ly) away.  It’s a "barred-spiral" class galaxy, of the same type as our own.  (Some readers may need to be reminded that our Sun and its planets are part of such a larger construct, which is made of trillions of stars both smaller and larger than our own Sun, each star ringed with planets – some rock, gas or both.)

Early in the week, it was astronomers and cosmologists at MIT and other renowned institutions of higher learning revealed that the ongoing survey of nearby stars is starting to show evidence of smaller, rocky bodies approaching the size of Earth (or Venus which is 0.98 the mass and gravity of Earth – take your pick) have been located in our galactic neighborhood. 

By Thursday evening (EDT), there was more news that seemed to be upping the odds of finding alien life in the near-term.  The Phoenix Lander, recently landed on Mars, to the jubilation of folks at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), had completed and transmitted back to Earth a series of soil analyses which indicated that the soil – at least that at the Martian arctic circle – very likely had all the basic elements required for plant life commonly found here on Earth.  Particularly interesting was the discovery of that key ingredient – water, late last week:

So with it seeming to be just a matter of time before scientists find a rocky, Earth-sized rock in a neighboring star’s "green-zone" coupled with the discovery of Martian soil inundated with water and nutrients that favour plant growth: I think it’s probably a safe bet that there is, indeed must be life elsewhere in the universe somewhere.  So-called "intelligent" life – or animal-like life that pursues tools and technology like us might yet be a rarity.  At the very least, the news seems to favour a future for humanity involving colonization of the galaxy with humans, provided we don’t blast our civilization off the face of the Earth first.

* This is a great article which discusses (in relatively plain English) the processes and toils behind the search for Earth-sized planets around nearby stars.  The Internet is home to all kinds of lists of discovered planets around neighboring stars, although I’m still waiting for someone to point me in the direction of a Java-based (or using some like-minded technology) 3-D map of stars out to 100ly, 500ly, and 1000ly.  Would build such a thing myself using Microsoft’s Direct3D API if I had time; might even take up the project when I’m on vacation this summer….

Categories: Space Exploration

DVICE: Astronomers find ‘Super-Earths’ orbiting another sun

20-Jun-08 12:28 am EDT Leave a comment

I’d wondered when this was gonna happen. Of course, as usual, the "fluff" media out there didn’t quite get it right.  Calling a chunk of rock 4 times larger than Earth orbiting (actually careens around) its parent star in 20 days  with absolutely no atmospheric analysis beyond refined guesswork doesn’t really qualify a planet as a "Super-Earth". But finding objects that small around stars other than our own Sun is one pretty remarkable achievement.  The "glare" or "halo" that surrounds a star – even ones relatively close by, like Barnard’s Star (@ 5.98 light-years [or ly] from Earth), Alpha Centauri (the nearest @ 4.2 ly), or 61 Cygni (@ 11.36 ly) – prevents anyone from directly observing objects within the star system.  This leaves scientists to deduce the existence and properties of planetary phenomena using gravitationally-derived data, such as the "wobble" observed when viewing the target star with a powerful telescope, which is actually the result of objects affecting the transmission of light and small variance in the star’s position over time.

In the years ahead, NASA plans to launch an array of space telescopes in order to obtain observations so detailed that Earth-sized planets and smaller will become readily visible for the very first time in human history.  At that point, we may indeed finally get an answer to the burning question that’s been asked since our species first realized there was such a thing as outer space: are we alone?  Now that we can detect planets around nearby stars, increasingly that question is becoming: "how alone are we?"  With so many planets, the probability that another Earth-like planet has evolved at some point in the past several billion years with life on it seems certain.  But such a planet might not be close.  Even if it is, there are many other questions to consider – did intelligent life evolve, did it evolve before us or are inhabitants less evolved?  What kinds of life are there in our stellar neighborhood?  We already know some of our stellar neighbors are much older than the Sun and if life did evolve on planets around those stars, it could easily play host to a civilization much older than ours…

It seems that finding another Earth-like planet will answer one question at the expense of getting a whole lot more.  Here’s hoping it does, anyway.

Categories: Space Exploration

NASA’s Dirty Little Secret: No Access to Space, 2011-2015

22-Oct-07 12:26 am EDT Leave a comment
Artist’s depiction of the Ares I and Aries V rockets.
       — Source: NASA.

It isn’t about any jealous, diaper-sporting astronauts tangled up in a crazy love triangle.  NASA’s real dirty secret is the seldom-cited fact that with the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2010, NASA, for the second time in its history, will loose the ability to send humans into space.  And this time, it might well be for a lot longer than people think.

Currently, the plan, as it’s disclosed to the media, says the Shuttle’s replacement – the Ares I booster – will undergo test flights starting in April 2009 with a presumed ready-to-launch date of early 2015.  This date is almost a full year later than the originally-planned date of 2014 and follows NASA’s administrator, Michael Griffin, took up his post back in 2005 calling a 4-5 year gap in America’s manned access to space "unacceptable".  And yet, it seems very clear that NASA will be relying on one of its chief rivals in space exploration, Russia, for access to the International Space Station (ISS) during this period if plans remain as they are.

To find out why this is happening, one need look no further than the U.S. congress which has been notorious for cutting the agency’s budgets on an annual basis, making it difficult to make plans or stick to them according to any kind of timeline.  Even more frustrating for fans of manned space exploration is more recent news suggesting a further delay to 2015 or later for Ares to finally lift off.

Having already lost two Shuttles to accidents over the spacecraft’s lifetime, there’s simply no chance of extending the lifetime of the orbiters to keep NASA space-bourne.  But could Griffin realize his dream of accelerating the Ares program to at least keep NASA in the game of manned exploration?  This past month, the U.S. Senate voted to increase NASA’s budget by $1 billion amidst the threat of a presidential veto, an apparent contradiction of President Bush’s earlier speeches about "challenging" NASA to reach for Mars as its next goal (apparently without any extra money).  Perhaps even more confusing was the reaction from Griffin’s office, whose spokesperson released a statement saying discussion of funding above the money already budgeted was "inappropriate".  The careful wording suggested that Griffin may be playing a delicate political game of not trying to sound critical of the President while obviously hoping for much needed additional funding.  The Senate can override the President’s veto in this case, and it’s promising to do so – suggesting more money could be on the way by mid-next year.  And, obviously, no comment from NASA on specifically what this money would do to timetable for either Ares or the Shuttle’s retirement.

Regardless of whether or not there’s any flexibility in the timetable, there’s still the question as to whether changes in budgets or timelines of other NASA projects is practical, or whether such changes could threaten or further delay other critical objectives for NASA over the long term.  The design of the Ares and Orion vehicles aren’t just to simply replace the Shuttle, but to give NASA the capability to have modularity and capability to ultimately land missions to the moon and Mars.  Without nice paved airports on the Martian surface, a Shuttle-like vehicle wouldn’t be very practical and using an Apollo-like approach for missions that will carry people to other planets in the solar system certainly makes sense.  Yet in order to keep those goals in focus, certain projects that contribute to the goal of manned exploration to other planets in the solar system are also key and their delay in favour of getting a vehicle back into orbit could amount to saving a few months early at the expense of having a mission to Mars delayed for months or even years again later.  This begs the question; should NASA worry about not having a manned spacecraft capability for a few years?

Griffin, speaking back in 2005, said he thought that when NASA experienced the same kind of gap in capability at the end of the Apollo missions, it suffered greatly and allowed its competitors gain valuable ground in the space race.

"The six-year gap between the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz mission and the 1981 debut of the shuttle damaged both the U.S. space program and the nation…I don’t want to do it again.”

— Michael Griffin, NASA Administrator, NASA Chief Pushes for Shuttle’s Replacement,, May 13, 2005.

Time will tell if Griffin can deliver what he wants for his agency and for his astronauts who may ye find themselves in the unemployment office along with a good deal of other NASA support staff struggling to transition from Shuttle technology to the older (and newer) Apollo-era technology.  Five years is a long time to be out of the manned space exploration business and, without political will, that’s what’s in store for NASA and the people it ultimately serves.  Most surprising of all is that this remains NASA’s dirty little secret – and it’s one that needs to get more press if it’s to be avoided.  But with the agency timid about ruffling the feathers of the President by speaking out on the subject of inadequate funding and a volatile President who talks the talk about space exploration, but neither delivers cash nor tolerates the slightest complaint from civil servants – it all adds up to a situation where the public might not become aware of the fall of the space agency until the President has left office.

Categories: Space Exploration

New Space Race: Pros & Cons

03-Sep-07 01:36 pm EDT 3 comments

What this "spurning" by NASA entailed, we’ll probably never know.  But it’s not hard to speculate that NASA might find another space race with its old cold-war adversary useful.  What’s not useful is the inevitable adversarial attitude that occurs politically being exacerbated by a new space race.  So – is a space race good or bad?

Overall, I think we should probably be spending appreciably on extraterrestrial research because, overall, there appears to be plenty of evidence that the technological advances which result invariably imrpove the condition of humanity, and our understanding of the universe.  Too often, politicians come along and dogged by those who think the world’s problems will be solved organically by kind-hearted human beings spending on feeding the poor and healing the world’s sick with the technology we’ve managed to amass already, cut spacefaring budgets year after year.  As any NASA administrator since the Apollo missions will tell you – it’s an uphill battle, filled with pyrric victories to get any funding at all for space exploration as it is.

A space race can help solve that problem.  Unfortunately, harnessing the nationalism and fears of a few million Americans will help get Orion launched and a moon-based settled.  It would be preferably that human beings were more naturally curious about their universe – enough to have the vision to see the benefits of space exploration on its own merit.  But it would also be nice if our civilization was a peace-loving sort so all those billiions (or is it trillions) being spent on weapons and defence were spent on healing the sick and feeding the hungry.  Sadly – that’s not what humanity is about, so in a select few cases there’s but one inevitable conclusion: the ends can justify the means.

The lessons learned and other achievements made getting to Mars can help solve these other problems and perhaps contribute to peace by giving us a perspective that’s larger than our own little world.  At least that’s the hope – and why should that hope by any more or less valid than that for peace on earth, feeding the hungry or healing the sick in any case?

Categories: Space Exploration

What is it with NASA & Mars anyway?

03-Sep-07 01:19 pm EDT Leave a comment

The title of the above article should be "How a third of all Mars probes die"….what is it with NASA & Mars, anwway?  If it’s not hurtling probes into the Martian atmosphere causing them to burn up due to a mistake between metric and imperial measure (the Americans really need to finally go metric like everybody else), then it’s an engineer, or a team of them, that cause some fatal accident.

Oh I know – it’s hard work.  Believe me – as a software developer, I’m only too conscious of the ease with which one can issue commands to a machine with unintended effects.  But by the time you spend $377 million getting the thing developed, launched and in-orbit – you’d hope processes would exist to eliminate these kinds of little accidents.  Especially when there are so many of them that have happened previously.

Add to this that such problems don’t seem to plague the JPL when running probes out to Jupiter or Saturn…and it just makes Mars seem all the more mysterious.  I mean, imagine if Cassini suddenly went silent just after launching its Huygens probe down to the moon Titan.

Maybe it’s the number of probes being sent to Mars.  After all we haven’t filled Jupiter’s sky with "the Jupeiter Surveyor" and "Ganemeade rovers"…not yet anyway.  Mars is inevitably one of the most studied planets (next to Earth) in the solar system.  It invites more probes becaause – well – we’re more interested in it.  But even so, one can’t help but wonder why Mars is such an accident-prone place.

One more question that got left unanswered by the article: wasn’t the now dead Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) being used to help communicate with the rovers on the surface?  There was mention in another, earlier related article that the newer Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter (MRO) was used to try to take long-distance images of the failing MGS but failed.  Will MRO take on MGS’s duties in NASA’s deep space network?  Will there be any impact on the other missions to the red planet?

These questions weren’t addressed in either article…despite otherwise decent coverage from ABC’s website.

Categories: Space Exploration

Google Earth Looks Skyward

26-Aug-07 04:36 pm EDT Leave a comment

Google’s latest expansion of its Google Earth mapping utility reverses the orientation of the application so that instead of looking down at the earth, the user finds themselves looking up at the sky.

Google Earth is quite the utility indeed, although not a very good replacement for some of the more popular planetarium software packages (like Starry Night), which may be the fancy of the backyard astronomer.  But though the environment of Google Earth, the sky itself becomes the new landscape, against which an index of data from a variety of sources has been made available, including the Hubble Space Telescope and its more powerful Earth-based cousins.

But how easy is it to find stuff and/or explore the known universe?  Well, I’m fortunate – as a child I was part of a youth organization called the "Manitoba Astronomy Club" (which, to my dismay is still in action with an estimated 20 members, yet still has no website!).  And that childhood enthusiasm for astronomy left me with a basic familiarity with the constellations of the sky and a fair bit of other errata about telescopes and astronomical phenomenon.  Without this, I suspect the astronomy neophyte might find themselves thoroughly lost.  By default, the star names aren’t event displayed, although selecting the appropriate layer in the left-hand pane fixes this.

Antares (a Sco) and nearby
objects magnified, courtesy
DSS Consortium via
Google Sky.

Details about Antares
appear when the user clicks
on the star – prompting the
appearance of the familiar
Google "info bubble".

So with the constellations displayed, finding the more familiar stars is pretty easy.  And perhaps the neatest feature is the ability to "zoom in" to those areas of the sky where a telescope of higher power has taken more detailed images.  By way of an example, I’ve included some screenshots of a randomly-selected area of the sky from last night; all listed at the right.  As you can see, Antares features prominently – since it’s the main subject of the example.  And to find out anything known about the star (including references to external websites), the familiar Google "information bubble" appears when the user clicks on the star with basic information and links to more detailed info.

And to add to this review, I thought I’d cover the "search" feature.  Back in the early days of Google Earth (and, for that matter, "Google Maps" – its web-based cousin), searches for places outside of the United States didn’t necessarily yield useful information, nor did the interface move to anything close to the desired target.  I couldn’t count the number of times I typed in "Ottawa" with some additional keywords trying to pull up a map of the city I live in – only to pull in Ottawa, Ohio rather than Ottawa, Illinois.

Of course, those issues were dealt with and there’s a much more natural query processing system associated with Google Maps.  When it comes to stars, fortunately astronomers tend to not re-name stars with the same names over and over again (as we do with cities and towns on Earth).  So, the searching seems to work well if you know the name of a stellar or galactic target.  To examine how well this worked, I went to the California and Carnegie Planet Search website, where a catalog of stars known to have planets around them are listed.  I picked as my target "HD 69830" – a star 41 light years from Earth (relatively close), with at least 3 planets ranging between 5 and 20 Earth masses in size (the outermost of these is orbiting in the star’s habitable zone or "green belt").And, voilà, the star was instantly matched in the search list, and Google Sky automatically panned away from Antares and centred on my target star.

Sadly, this is not the result for the moon or planets.  For these, Google has introduced a rather confusing system intended to track the position of planets and the moon in the sky on specific dates.  You’ll notice a "slider" control toward the top of the images (just to the left of the familiar "compass" gadget).  This operates in a fashion roughly analogous to Microsoft Word’s margin and tab controls.  Moving these around results in a kind of smear of both planets and stars for the start and end dates denoted by the position of these sliders.  And the search doesn’t seem to locate a particular planet or moon – regardless of the date set using the slider.  So finding these objects is a little troublesome at the moment.

Finally, there are still as yet a number of key, desirable features for an index of this kind still not yet available:

  • it’s not yet possible to add data about stars, which might be absent, yet acquirable from other websites – extending the advantages of community-based contributions about stellar phenomenon the way Google Earth has traditionally done,
  • there’s no horizon, nor any obvious way (I could find) to specify my own location on the Earth’s sruface to get an idea what the sky looks like right now, and
  • there’s no way to index the view of the sky (planets, moon, sun) to the current time, although there’s strangely a prompt in a properties window which allows one to specify a time zone – as if there were features dependant on this information, which there don’t yet seem to be.

These features will likely be made available in future versions, but it would have been good to have them available before the launch of the product.  It’s puzzling why this wasn’t forthcoming prior to release of the product.  But even as-is, it still offers the trappings of a tool which will ultimately prove very useful for indexing discoveries made about our galaxy and the surrounding universe – which will particularly be useful when trying to get data bout exoplanets and perhaps data from the terrestrial planet finder (launched early next decade) into the hands of the general public in a way that relates that information to the sky above.

Categories: Space Exploration

First Possible Extra-Terrestrial Biosphere (so-called “Earth-like” planet) Found!!!

24-Apr-07 11:37 pm EDT Leave a comment

This artists rendering released by European
Southern Observatory, shows the planetary
system around the red dwarf Gliese 581.
(AP Photo/ESO)

You’d think it wouldn’t have been a story so ried in the news in a way….but there it was; perhaps the ninth or even tenth story cited on this evening’s "National" news (see  Why they keep trying to call these new theoretical worlds they’re looking for (and now may have found) "Earth-like" baffles me completely.  No world; with or without phenomena that could be described as ‘life’ on its surface is likely to resemble Earth in any way.  But that isn’t to say today’s discovery doesn’t deserve one getting pretty excited over the latest extra-solar planet discovered by astronomers.  It would well be that our species has found a planet, Earth-sized, and with its very own biosphere – unbelievably close to Earth (in astronomical terms).

They keep finding smaller and smaller planets using the method used to detect planets around other stars: the so-called "gravity-wobble" which causes fluctuations in the stellar glare from planets orbiting their parent stars.  This new planet, named "Gliese 581 c", is 1.5 Earth’s mass and – this is the big kicker – a planetary mean temperature between 0 and 40°C!  Earth’s planet-wide mean temperature is closing on 7°C (normally 5; but thanks to global warming not anymore).  That means that we’re looking at a world with a dim, red-dwarf star (later in its life span than ours, if memory serves) and an extremely good candidate for holding onto an atmsophere comprised of compounds like nitrogen, argon and, most important, oxygen.  Water wouldn’t be a big surprise if those elements were about either since hydrogen is the most common element of all and, combined with oxygen, wel…you get the idea.

The parent star, Gleise 581, is about 20 light-years (ly) from earth.  The next-nearest star system to ours is the binary star-system commonly referred to as Alpha Centauri at just 4.3 ly.  Within 20 ly, there are less than a couple dozen star systems; so should this prove to be a life-bearing world, we’re also likely to find a galaxy teeming with life….perhaps as common as at least one stable biosphere for every 15 or 16 stellar systems!

And if life is that common, intelligent life – that answer to the final question: "are we alone" has a much greater likelikhood of being answered the way the vast majority of us hope (and in our hearts already can feel): "most definitely not!"

Categories: Space Exploration

So Many Planets, So Little Budget

21-Jan-07 02:31 am EST Leave a comment

As is virtually always the case where scientific research is concerned, one has to decide on what to spend the always-to-small research budget.  So how, I asked myself, do they decide to spend cash on relatively large projects for searching for searching for life in the universe (only because I’m interested on the subject).  My own research lead me to the work of an astrobiologist named Margaret (Maggie) Turnbull; the namesake of asteroid 7863 Turnbull.  In November 2003, she produced a paper which included a list of preferred targets for the Terrestrial Planet Finder project.

Of course, it all seems real simple when a professional of the caliber of Turnbull explains it.  The criteria for selecting candidate stars for Earth-like planets are:

  • have fractional parallax uncertainties less than 5%,
    (Despite some background in astronomy, I’m afraid I had to look this first item up to be sure.  From my dabbling in the area of 3D programming using Microsoft’s DirectX API, I’ve learned that parallax is the measure of the relative, perceived change of two points from a fixed point of observation.  But this is also used in the field of astronomy as a component in measuring the distance between Earth and other astronomical bodies in the sky.  Of course, there is a degree of uncertainty in calculating such distances on an astronomical scale; caused by a variety of factors, including the gravitational pull of undiscovered objects between here and the target point.  Presumably, surveying stars with lower uncertainties will eliminate the likelihood of mistakenly surveying star systems where a planet "false positive" has occurred, since it would ultimately prove a waste of time.)
  • are on the main sequence,
    ("Main sequence" stars are those which are stable; with limited flare activity, not undergoing sudden, explosive changes in output radiation or size – stars which are in their prime, burning hydrogen instead of being mature, toward the end of their lives, burning heavier metals.)
    Radius Mass Luminosity Temperature
    R/R M/M L/L K
    O2 16 158 2,000,000 54,000
    O5 14 58 800,000 46,000
    B0 5.7 16 16,000 29,000
    B5 3.7 5.4 750 15,200
    A0 2.3 2.6 63 9,600
    A5 1.8 1.9 24 8,700
    F0 1.5 1.6 9.0 7,200
    F5 1.2 1.35 4.0 6,400
    G0 1.05 1.08 1.45 6,000
    G2 1.0 1.0 1.0 5,700
    G5 0.98 0.95 0.70 5,500
    K0 0.89 0.83 0.36 5,150
    K5 0.75 0.62 0.18 4,450
    M0 0.64 0.47 0.075 3,850
    M5 0.36 0.25 0.013 3,200
    M8 0.15 0.10 0.0008 2,500
    M9.5 0.10 0.08 0.0001 1,900
  • have B-V color consistent with F, G and K stars,
    (Another element in the search for life is thought to be stars capable of supporting a ring or "habitable" zone.  Stars which are too large or too small & burn too cold or which are too large or small & burn too hot are not good candidates for finding life.  Stars, like or close enough to our sun, which is known to have such a habitable zone & burn at the right temperature & can have planets at just the right distance are good candidates for finding life.  Stars are categorized into classes, labeled alphabetically.  The table, right, expresses these classes and a few of their respective characteristics.)
  • are older than ~2 billion years,
    (Life, like any great souffle, takes time to "cook up" properly.  If the main parent star has only been stable, burning hydrogen for a few million years, the likelihood mother nature has had enough time to ignite life in a puddle of amino-acid-rich primordial goo isn’t great.)
  • are not variable,
    (Variable stars can be technically "main sequence", but yet have other circumstances making them too unstable to have any likelihood of planets with life.  Such circumstances can include changing – sometimes explosively changing – surface area or volume, exhibit flares or other mass ejections, or have unusual sunspot activity.)
  • have metallicities of at least half solar ([Fe/H] > -0.3),
    (Here I had to make a bit of a semi-educated guess.  Metallicity is, as the name suggests, an expression of the star’s metallic composition – essentially what elements are present in the star’s structure.  As a star’s gravity causes nuclear fusion of hydrogen during its earlier stages, the product of the process is, invariably, heavier elements – like Helium, initially – then heavier and heavier elements the older the star gets.  It stands to reason that the earlier point of how old a star is comes into effect here – but that some stars burn longer or shorter than others.  As an indicator of whether the star is at a stage in its life span to support life-harbouring planets, one measures it metallicity to be at least half that of the Sun.)
  • are thin disk members, and
    ("Thin disk" appears to refer to star placement in a galaxy.  Our Milky Way galaxy is a barred-spiral-class galaxy¹ which means there’s a difference in the structure of the galaxy across its "length".  In other words, viewed "edge-on", the galaxy has a depth which is variable at the centre versus the extremities where matter depth is "thinner".  Stars in this latter part of the galaxy are likely thought better candidates for finding life because radiation and other extremes of environment can be experience in stellar neighborhoods of increasing density – such as that toward the centre or core of the galaxy.  For one thing, more stars would equal more stellar explosions like supernovae which, over time, would eradicate any life that had been sparked.)

    A composite image of our Milky Way Galaxy, taken from Earth at two locations;
    one in the United States, the other in Australia, to create a 360°, panoramic view.
    Because of our solar system’s position in the galaxy, the photo appears to be taken "edge-on",
    in the midst of the galactic plane – maybe just slightly lower than absolute centre.

  • and have no known stellar companions closer than 10 arcseconds.
    (Finally, the ideal is to have star systems like ours with a single star so as not to complicate or narrow the "habitable" ring in which life can occur.  Adding stellar companions like brown dwarves or super-gas-giants that exhibit extreme radiation or other stars that compromise planets which would otherwise evolve life erodes the chance of that life occurring.  An arcsecond is the measure of an angle, expressed in a subset of degrees.  A degree is comprised of 60 arcminutes, which – in turn – is comprised of 60 arcseconds.  A degree, thus, is comprised of 3600 arcseconds.)

The above list is in no way an expression of where life can occur.  Life has been found in environments on Earth – for example, living in clouds of sulfur at the bottom of our oceans next to volcanoes – thought at one point to be completely uninhabitable.  So the "rules" for where life can occur are at this point still a big unknown.  But one must prioritize research for reasons outlined at the beginning of this article – and the best reasons are arrived at using the available data.  At this point, it’s safe to say we’re looking for life derived from compounds that are carbon-based, for example.  We simply have no other examples of life upon which to draw any other likelihood for its existence, after all.  We also have established some parameters about how much heat and radiation any carbon-based life can exist in to get these metrics established.

One wonders if we’ll find something or anything at all like us out there.  Given the criteria, I wouldn’t be surprised if/when life is found that there are some parallels we can draw with ourselves as a species.

¹ Until recently, scientists thought our galaxy’s structure was simply a spiral.  In many popular television shows (mostly sci-fi), the Milky Way galaxy is still referred to or depicted as a standard spiral galaxy.

Categories: Space Exploration

209 Planets Found…and Counting

21-Jan-07 01:05 am EST Leave a comment

Extrasolar Planets – In English

— The Manitoba Planetarium’s Star Theatre; 
my first full-time workplace

There’s something very seductive about wondering what other worlds are like. Particularly now that we know they really exist.  I can remember my first full-time job – at the Manitoba Planetarium.  My job was working as a Summer Observing Program Coordinator (a job I did pretty well, for a 14-year-old if I do say so myself – albeit with the supervision and assistance of others who’d done that job and more for years).  But that imagination about what other worlds might be like was further nurtured working in that environment; with people who’s job was to produce education and information programs for the public and foster interest in the field of astronomy.

I held the job for just 3 months; it was a summer job only, unfortunately.  But my interest in astornomy never died; nor in space exploration.  At the time, I was disappointed to learn that although the popular media seemed to assume planets existed around other stars, the scientific fact had yet to establish this.  The best information of the day (summer 1984, to be exact) was that planets existed only in our own solar system; and for all we know other star systems had clouds of dust or gas around them.

It would be 11 more years before the very first extra-solar planet would be discovered – a huge "gas giant" that was very nearly a star in its own right.  Only it didn’t have enough mass & gravity to start a fusion reaction at the core – the process that causes a star to ignite.  In journals that published and studied the work of the scientists who made the discovery seemed to doubt, even then, whether this discovery really indicated that planets comparable in any way to those we know exist in our own solar system existed elsewhere.

To date, Earth’s scientists have discovered several dozen (209 to be exact) planets around nearby stars.  There’s now sufficient evidence to predict that there are, very likely, much smaller – Earth-sized objects around at least some of those stars.  Various groups have taken to already calculating the "habitable" zone around these stars and trying to identify whether the gas giants discovered fall inside those zones and, thus, could have a possibility of life-bearing moons.  One German website I dsicovered this weekend (cited at the start of this article) summarizes this information for many of the extra-solar planets discovered.  It also hypothesizes about what might be found there someday; although in a fashion consistent with currently available data.

In the next four or five years, NASA is expected to launch its "Terrestrial Planet Finder" array.  This array of orbital telescopes (and other equipment) will be specifically tasked with doing a survey of nearby stars for smaller, Earth-sized planets, capable of supporting life.  Of course, the main question all this research is aimed at answering is the age old "Are we alone?"  When such smaller bodies can be observed, will there be technologically advanced civilizaitons discovered also?

I couldn’t have imagined that such discoveries could be made in my lifetime because, at the time I worked at the Planetarium, I’d thought we’d have to wait until our propulsion technology advanced to a point where we could send probes there.  Since such discoveries would require a revolutionary understanding about such things as particle physics and gravity, coupled with enough time for that resarch to result in meaningful technology being produced for probes or vessels to travel the distance between stars in my lifetime – well suffice it to say I’d expected it to take centuries to answer the question.

It’s encouraging to think that it might not be.  I still don’t expect we’ll be able to necessarily communicate with alien species in my lifetime as is the norm in such fictions as Star Trek or other sci-fi movies.  But the question – are we alone? – seems to be on the brink of having some kind of answer, perhaps expressed only as a liklihood.

A particularly exciting notion – one childhood fantasy, at last, realized. 

Categories: Space Exploration

Imagine How the World Would Change…..

05-Jan-06 07:53 pm EST Leave a comment

Imagine if, say, tomorrow….a group of scientists were to appear on the news claiming to have found a way to travel faster than light.  Or imagine a country launching a probe to test some new, previously super-secret technolgoy to do the same.  I remember how the world held its breath several years ago when a pair of scientists jumped the gun and held a news conference claiming to have fusion at near room-temperature.

And I wonder if it might happen again – ‘cept this time for real.

If we’re very lucky, maybe that day isn’t so far off:



Then again….I can’t say I’m holding my breath.  But it’s fun to imagine…..

Categories: Space Exploration

Explore the Galaxy for Free, From Your Desktop!

30-Aug-05 11:15 pm EDT Leave a comment
Stumbled into this piece of astronomy-like software over the weekend.  Called "Partview", the UI is a little cumbersome if you’re not an astronomy buff (like me) but there’s a whole crapload of features with this app.  It lets you fly around both our galaxy and beyond if you donwload & install the right datasets.  Check the site out for all the info – worth a look if you’ve got an hour or so to download and read through the documentation (which is very thorough).
NOTE: Some big names were behind the development of this Open-Source project:
  • NCSA (yes, the folks who brought us "NCSA Mosaic" which was the first popular web browser available on the Internet
  • NASA
  • many other big-name research and academic organizations
Categories: Space Exploration

Ever wonder what defines a planetary North Pole?

15-Jul-05 01:27 pm EDT 1 comment
I’ve always wondered what might "define" the north pole on worlds other than earth, where it’s sort of a convention.  In the study of electromagnetism, one learns that "north" is defined by that point from which magnetic lines of force originate.  Fair enough; but Mars, for example, has a non-existent (or very, very weak) EM field…what then?
The answer….


North Pole
This is about the geographic meaning of "North Pole." For the cities, see North Pole, Alaska and North Pole, New York.

A North Pole is the northernmost point on any planet. There are various ways of defining a planet’s North Pole. Earth‘s Pole, however it is defined, lies in the Arctic Ocean.

Defining North Poles in astronomy

Astronomers define the north "geographic" pole of a planet or other object in the solar system by the planetary pole that is in the same ecliptic hemisphere as the Earth’s north pole. More accurately, «The north pole is that pole of rotation that lies on the north side of the invariable plane of the solar system» [1] ( This means some objects will have directions of rotation opposite the "normal" (i.e., not counter-clockwise as seen from above the north pole). Another frequently used definition uses the right-hand rule to define the north pole: it is then the pole around which the object rotates counterclockwise [2] ( When using the first definition (the IAU‘s), an object’s axial tilt will always be 90° or less, but its rotation period may be negative (retrograde rotation); when using the second definition, axial tilts may be greater than 90° but rotation periods will always be positive.

For the magnetic poles, their names are decided upon by the direction that their field lines emerge or enter the planet’s crust. If they enter the same way as they do for Earth at the north pole, we call this the planet’s north magnetic pole.

Some bodies in the solar system, including Saturn‘s moon Hyperion and the asteroid 4179 Toutatis, lack a geographic north pole. They rotate chaotically because of their irregular shape and gravitational influences from nearby planets and moons.

The projection of a planet’s north geographic pole onto the celestial sphere gives its north celestial pole.

In the particular (but frequent) case of synchronous satellites, four more poles can be defined. They are the near, far, leading, and trailing poles. Take Io for example; this moon of Jupiter rotates synchronously, so its orientation with respect to Jupiter stays constant. There will be a single, unmoving point of its surface where Jupiter is at the zenith, exactly overhead —this is the near pole, also called the sub- or pro-Jovian point. At the antipode of this point is the far pole, where Jupiter lies at the nadir. There will also be a single unmoving point which is furthest along Io’s orbit (best defined as the point most removed from the plane formed by the north-south and near-far axes, on the leading side) —this is the leading pole. At its antipode lies the trailing pole. Io can thus be divided into north and south hemispheres, into pro- and anti-Jovian hemispheres, and into leading and trailing hemispheres. Note that these poles are mean poles because the points are not, strictly speaking, unmoving: there is constant jiggling about the mean orientation, because Io’s orbit is slightly eccentric and the gravity of the other moons disturbs it regularly.

Defining the North Pole of Earth

The North Pole, the northernmost point on the Earth, can be defined in four different ways. Only the first two definitions are commonly used. However it is defined, the North Pole lies in the Arctic Ocean.

  1. The Geographic North Pole, also known as True North, is approximately the northern point at which the Earth’s axis of rotation meets the surface. (see next section)
  2. The Magnetic North Pole is the northern point at which the geomagnetic field points vertically, i.e. the dip is 90°.
  3. The Geomagnetic North Pole is the northern pole of the Earth’s geomagnetic field’s dipole moment.
  4. The Northern Pole of Inaccessibility is defined as the point in the Arctic farthest from any coastline, and is at 84°03′ N 174°51′ W ( Similar poles exist in the Pacific and Indian oceans, and there is a dry land pole of inaccessibility in the Antarctic.

Geographic North Pole

The Geographic North Pole, also known as True North, is close to the northern point at which the Earth’s axis of rotation meets the surface. Geographic North defines latitude 90° North. In whichever direction you travel from here, you are always heading south. The pole is located in the Arctic Ocean, which at this point has a depth of 4087 metres (13,410 feet). Classically (19’th century) this pole was exactly where people believed the pole of rotation met the Earth’s surface, but soon astronomers noticed a small apparent variation of latitude as determined for a fixed point on Earth by observing stars. This variation had a period of about 435 days and the periodic part of it is now called the Chandler wobble after its discoverer. It is desirable to tie the system of Earth coordinates (latitude, longitude, and elevations or orography) to fixed landforms. Of course, given continental drift and the rising and falling of land due to volcanos, erosion and so on, there is no system in which all geographic features are fixed. Yet the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service and the International Astronomical Union have defined a framework called the International Terrestrial Reference System that does an admirable job. The North pole of this system now defines geographic North and it does not quite coincide with the rotation axis. Also see polar motion.

On the basis of the sector principle, Canada claims its sovereignty to extend all the way to the Geographic North Pole. There is no land at this location, which is usually covered by sea ice. The theory under which Canada has claimed sovereignty to the North Pole is controversial as there are in fact 770 km of ocean between the pole and Canada’s northernmost point, and several nations, most notably the United States, have challenged the notion that the North Pole does not lie in international waters.

The first expedition to the pole is generally accepted to have been made by Navy engineer Robert Edwin Peary and his employee, African-American Matthew Henson and four Inuit men (Ootah, Seegloo, Egingway, and Ooqueah) on April 6, 1909. Polar historians believe that Peary honestly thought he had reached the pole. However a 1996 analysis of a newly-discovered copy of Peary’s record indicates that Peary must have been in fact 20 nautical miles (40 km) short of the Pole.

The first undisputed sight of the pole was in 1926 by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his American sponsor Lincoln Ellsworth from the airship Norge, designed and piloted by the Italian Umberto Nobile, in a flight from Svalbard to Alaska.

On May 3, 1952 U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Joseph O. Fletcher and Lieutenant William P. Benedict landed a plane at the geographic North Pole. Flying with them was scientist Albert P. Crary.

The United States navy submarine USS Nautilus (SSN-571) crossed the North Pole on August 3, 1958, and on March 17, 1959, the USS Skate (SSN-578) surfaced at the pole, becoming the first naval vessel to reach it.

Ralph Plaisted made the first confirmed surface conquest of the North Pole on April 19, 1968.

The Soviet nuclear-powered icebreaker Arktika on August 17, 1977, completed the first surface vessel journey to the pole.

On April 6, 1992 Robert Schumann became the youngest person to visit the north pole.

In popular mythology, Santa Claus resides at the geographic North Pole. Canada Post has assigned postal code H0H 0H0 to the North Pole.

Magnetic North

Magnetic North is one of several locations on the Earth‘s surface known as the "North Pole". Its definition, as the point where the geomagnetic field points vertically downwards, i.e. the dip is 90°, was proposed in 1600 by Sir William Gilbert, a courtier of Queen Elizabeth I, and is still used. It should not be confused with the less frequently used Geomagnetic North Pole. Magnetic North is the place to which all magnetic compasses point, although since the pole marked "N" on a bar magnet points north, and only opposite magnetic poles are attracted to each other, the Earth’s magnetic north is actually a south magnetic pole.

The orientation of magnetic fields of planets can flip over. The Earth’s poles have done this repeatedly throughout history, and 500,000 years ago, the south magnetic pole was at the North Pole. It is thought that this occurs when the circulation of liquid nickel/iron in the Earth’s outer core is disrupted and then reestablishes itself in the opposite direction. It is not known what causes these disruptions.

The first expedition to reach this pole was led by James Clark Ross, who found it at Cape Adelaide on the Boothia Peninsula on June 1, 1831. Roald Amundsen found Magnetic North in a slightly different location in 1903. The third observation of Magnetic North was by Canadian government scientists Paul Serson and Jack Clark, of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, who found the pole at Allen Lake on Prince of Wales Island. The Canadian government has made several measurements since, which show that Magnetic North is continually moving northwest. Its location (in 2003) is 78°18′ North, 104° West, near Ellef Ringness Island, one of the Queen Elizabeth Islands, in Canada. During the 20th century it has moved 1100 km, and since 1970 its rate of motion has accelerated from 9 km/a to 41 km/a (20012003 average; see also Polar drift). If it maintains its present speed and direction it will reach Siberia in about 50 years, but it is expected to veer from its present course and slow down.

This movement is on top of a daily or diurnal variation in which Magnetic North describes a rough ellipse, with a maximum deviation of 80 km from its mean position. This effect is due to disturbances of the geomagnetic field by the sun. A line drawn from one magnetic pole to the other does not go through the centre of the Earth, it actually misses it by about 530 km.

The angular difference between Magnetic North and true North varies with location, and is called the magnetic declination.

Geomagnetic North Pole

The Geomagnetic North Pole is the pole of the Earth‘s geomagnetic field closest to true north. The first-order approximation of the Earth’s magnetic field is that of a single magnetic dipole (like a bar magnet), tilted about 11° with respect to Earth’s rotation axis and centered at the Earth’s core. The residuals form the nondipole field. The Geomagnetic poles are the places where the axis of this dipole intersects the Earth’s surface. Because the dipole approximation is far from a perfect fit to the Earth’s magnetic field, the magnetic field is not quite vertical at the geomagnetic poles. The locations of true vertical field orientation are the magnetic poles, and these are about 30 degrees of longitude away from the geomagnetic poles.

Like the Magnetic North Pole, the geomagnetic north pole is a south magnetic pole, because it attracts the north pole of a bar magnet. It is the centre of the region in the magnetosphere in which the Aurora Borealis can be seen. Its present location is 78°30′ North, 69° West, near Thule in Greenland. The first voyage to this pole was by David Hempleman-Adams in 1992.

The Northern Pole of Inaccessibility

The Northern Pole of Inaccessibility, located at 84°03′ north, 174°51′ west, is the point farthest from any northern coastline, about 1100 km from the nearest coast. It is a geographic construct, not an actual physical phenomenon. It was first reached by Sir Hubert Wilkins, who flew by aircraft in 1927; in 1958 a Russian icebreaker reached this point.

Territorial claims to the North Pole

Until 1999, the North Pole had been considered international territory. However, as the polar ice has begun to recede at a rate higher than expected (see global warming), several countries have made moves to claim the water or seabed at the Pole. Russia made her first claim in 2001, claiming Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater mountain ridge underneath the Pole, as a natural extension of Siberia. This claim was contested by Norway, Canada, the United States and Denmark in 2004. Denmark’s territory of Greenland has the nearest coastline to the North Pole, and Denmark argues that the Lomonosov Ridge is in fact an extension of Greenland. The potential value of the North Pole and the area around resides in any possible potential oil and gas below the underlying sea-bed, the exploration for which in the near future might become more feasible after the opening of the North-West Passage.

See also

External Links

This entry is from Wikipedia, the leading user-contributed encyclopedia. It may not have been

Categories: Space Exploration

Oh no! Mars Rover “Opportunity” Gets Stuck…

29-Apr-05 05:31 pm EDT Leave a comment

Right on the heels of a recent NOVA documentary, focussing on the Mars rover missions, this item from concerning a huge problem for the Opportunity rover – it’s got its wheels stuck in a Martian sand dune.

The rover and its sister (called Spirit) have survived well-past their expected lifetime – now approaching the 1-year mark since their deployment.  While it would be a shame to lose either of them now, they’ve done very, very well to get as far as they did and have contributed phenomenally toward bettering our understanding of the Mars environment.

The Opportunity team is optimistic they’ll eventually be able to extract the craft from its lodging in the soil and proceed with further experiments in the weeks ahead.

Categories: Space Exploration

Text Message 37 Geminorum!

06-Apr-05 09:01 pm EDT Leave a comment

Canada’s Discovery Channel is holding a contest – and the winner gets to send a message that could be mankind’s first message to an alien civilization.  Astronomers and Cosmologists recently named the nearby yellow dwarf star (like our Sun) 37 Geminorum as being the most likely star system within 100 light-yeras (l.y.) to have planets capable of supporting life similar to Earth.  Although they’re not certain a blue-green world like ours exists there, a decision has been made to send a message to the star system in hopes of finding out within the next 114 or so years.

Categories: Space Exploration

Mars Rovers Still “At It” After 14 Months of Continuous Operation

05-Apr-05 08:02 pm EDT Leave a comment

They’re still at it, according to NASA: engineers are struck with awe as exploration efforts continue way, way past their scheduled time, according to a NASA newsletter recieved today:


Guy Webster (818) 354-6278

Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.   


Dolores Beasley (202) 358-1753

NASA Headquarters, Washington


News Release: 2005-055                                                                        April 5, 2005


Durable Mars Rovers Sent Into Third Overtime Period


NASA has approved up to 18 more months of operations for Spirit and Opportunity, the twin Mars rovers that have already surprised engineers and scientists by continuing active exploration for more than 14 months.


"The rovers have proven their value with major discoveries about ancient watery environments on Mars that might have harbored life," said Dr. Ghassem Asrar, deputy associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. "We are extending their mission through September 2006 to take advantage of having such capable resources still healthy and in an excellent position to continue their adventures."


The rovers have already completed 11 months of extensions on top of their successful three-month prime missions. "We now have to make long-term plans for the vehicles because they may be around for quite a while," said Jim Erickson, rover project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.


Erickson cautioned though, "Either mission could end tomorrow with a random part failure. With the rovers already performing well beyond their original design lifetimes, having a part wear out and disable a rover is a distinct possibility at any time. But right now, both rovers are in amazingly good shape. We’re going to work them hard to get as much benefit from them as we can, for as long as they are capable of producing worthwhile science results."


"Spirit and Opportunity are approaching targets that a year ago seemed well out of reach," said Doug McCuistion, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. "Their successes strengthen NASA’s commitment to a vision with the ambitious targets of returning samples from Mars and sending human explorers to Mars."


Opportunity is within a few football fields’ length of a region called "Etched Terrain," where scientists hope to find rocks exposed by gentle wind erosion rather than by disruptive cratering impacts, and rocks from a different time in Mars’ history than any examined so far. "This is a journey into the unknown, to something completely new," said Dr. Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., principal investigator for the rovers’ science instruments.


To reach the Etched Terrain, rover planners have been pushing the rover fast. Opportunity has overtaken Spirit in total distance driven. It has rolled more than 4.9 kilometers (3 miles) — eight times the original goal. On March 20, Opportunity also set a new martian record of 220 meters (722 feet) in a single day’s drive. Drive-distance estimates can vary by a few percent. The long drives take advantage of crossing a plain so smooth it’s "like an East Coast beach," said JPL’s Jeff Favretto, mission manager on the Opportunity shift in recent weeks. Also, Opportunity’s solar panels, though now dustier than Spirit’s, still generate enough power to allow driving for more than three hours on some days.


Spirit is in much rougher terrain than Opportunity, climbing a rocky slope toward the top of "Husband Hill." However, with a boost in power from wind cleaning its solar panels on March 9 and with its formerly balky right-front wheel now working normally, Spirit made some longer one-day drives last week than it had for months. "We’ve doubled our power," said JPL’s Emily Eelkema, mission manager. "It has given us extra hours of operations every day, so we can drive longer and we’ve used more time for observations."


The jump in power output has taken some urgency out of Spirit’s southward climb. With Mars now beginning southern-hemisphere spring, the Sun is farther south in the sky each day. If not for panel-cleaning, Spirit might be facing the prospect of becoming critically short of power if still on the north-facing slope by early June.


"We still want to get to the summit of Husband Hill and then head down into the ‘Inner Basin’ on the other side," Squyres said. "But now we have more flexibility in how we carry out the plan. Before, it was climb or die." Cresting the hill is now not as crucial for solar energy, but it still offers allures of potential exposures of rock layers not yet examined, plus a vista of surrounding terrain. In orbital images, the Inner Basin farther south appears to have terracing that hints of layered rock.


Both rovers do have some signs of wear and exposure. Spirit’s rock abrasion tool shows indications that its grinding teeth might be worn away after exposing the interiors of five times more rock targets than its design goal of three rocks. Researchers probably won’t know the extent of wear until Spirit’s next rock-grinding attempt, which may be weeks away. Also, troubleshooting continues for determining whether Opportunity’s miniature thermal emission spectrometer is still usable despite tests indicating a problem last month. All other instruments on both rovers are still working normally.


JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, has managed NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover project since it began in 2000. Images and additional information about the rovers and their discoveries are available on the Internet at and .





Categories: Space Exploration

NASA Queues Space Shuttle for Retirement

04-Apr-05 10:12 pm EDT 2 comments

Yikes!  Areport on the Discovery website today suggests the space shuttles are going to be retired by 2010, the deadline for completion of the International Space Station (ISS).  One assumes that this means NASA will need another fleet of shuttles to carry payloads to and from the space station, but the next phase of manned spaceflight for NASA involves a return to the moon.  Could they be thinking of landing shuttles on the moon following construction of an appropriate facility?  Or are we talking about going back to old-style rockets to ferry personnel and equipment to space?

Looks as if there might be some interesting times ahead for NASA….the US Congress never seems eager to approve money for space exploration these days.

Categories: Space Exploration
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