Saturday, April 30, 2011

Dragon to Mars?

According to Ken Bowersox, Elon Musk has long wanted Mars. Musk supposedly started SpaceX after inquiring about launch prices and finding they were too high. This video advertises how the Dragon spacecraft only requires a launch escape system to be human-rated. The innovative LES dispenses with the escape tower seen from Mercury to Apollo in favour of side-mounted rockets. Since these don't have to be jettisoned, there are abort options all the way to orbit.

If the LES engines are not used for escape, they can be used for landing! The last part of the video shows Dragon landing on a planet that can only be Mars. A habitat and some sort of return vehicle appear to be prepositioned at the landing site. Dragon would be cramped quarters for an 8-month journey. Possibly it would make the voyage attached to some sort of habitat module. The hab would have to be well-stoked with supplies and shielded from the radiation of deep space. Dragon is designed with a heat shield tough enough to survive a return from the Moon. This video is a fascinating glimpse into SpaceX future plans.

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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Morpheus Hover Test

30 second video: Tethered hover test of the Morpheus lunar lander prototype at Johnson Space Center on April 27, about 3:30 PM.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Hot Enough 2

McDonald Observatory in Texas on April 17. The big dome is the 9.2 meter Hobby-Eberly telescope. Suffering from its own drought, Texas is experiencing scattered wildfires from East to West. The Rockhouse fire covers 202,000 acres. Eighteen separate fires together cover about 1 million acres. At this writing, McDonald Observatory seems to have escaped danger.

Observatories tend to be built on isolated mountaintops, which can be prime locations for fires. In August 2009 an arson fire came within 500 meters of California's famous Mount Wilson Observatory. The Station Fire did consume two firefighters and about 160,000 acres. In May 2007, Griffith Park Above the Fire, another California fire came very close to Los Angeles' Griffith Observatory. In January 2003 a brushfire devastated Australia's Mount Stromlo observatory, wiping out 6 of the telescopes. Mount Stromlo is still rebuilding.

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Friday, April 22, 2011

Hot Enough?

London at 7:30 AM on April 22. We are always concerned with Earth's climate, even before royal weddings. After another freezing Winter, England and Wales suffered the driest March in more than a century. (Texas is also undergoing drought.) With yesterday's temperature of 26C, London is having its hottest April on record. We all remember stories of biblical plagues. At first the Pharoahs denied there were plagues at all, then they said the plagues were not a result of their actions. Finally the Pharoahs were forced to let the people free. When will the people be free?


Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Morpheus Fires!

Tuesday afternoon at JSC I witnessed a hot-fire test of the Morpheus lunar lander prototype. This is about as close as JSC employees can get. Johnson Space Center is not normally a rocket site. JSC designed the Space Shuttles, trains astronauts, and is home to Mission Control. It is a convenient tourist destination for the entire middle of the USA. We in Houston naturally think that JSC deserves a Shuttle for display.


Monday, April 18, 2011

Catching Some Gamma Rays

Gamma ray burster GRB 110328A as imaged by the SWIFT spacecraft. GRB's occur suddenly and briefly, often in places of the sky where nothing was seen before. SWIFT was specifically designed to catch GRB's on the fly, focusing on them immediately after they occur. Curiously, this GRB, which was first seen March 28, has lasted for days. Gamma radiation has repeatedly flared then faded. article Scientists are not sure why this gamma ray burst is so long-lasting. They think that its power source must be a massive Black Hole.

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Friday, April 15, 2011

Through Gravity's Lens

Hubble photo of the gravitational lens in cluster Abell 383. The curving arcs are galaxies behind Abell, their images bent by gravity. This cluster has far more mass than is visible. Abell 383 would also be a good place to seek massive Black Holes.

Monday night attendees at the Humans in Space Symposium were treated to a showing of the Hubble IMAX 3-D movie at Houston's Museum of Natural Science. The film was introduced by astrophysicist, former astronaut and Hubble repairman Dr, John Grunsfeld. (The very next night HMNS was site of a Tweetup celebrating Yuri's night.)

A galaxy newly found by Hubble and the Swift telescope has been found to have formed only 950 million years after the Big Bang. Astronomers used our Keck 2 telescope atop Mauna Kea to determine the galaxy's redshift. Stars within this galaxy appear to be 750 milllion years old, meaning they were formed when the Universe was only 200 million years old. story. Old theories of star formation can not explain how they could have formed when the Universe was so young. The cores of these stars may have formed around primordial Black Holes.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Webb: When First We Practice to Deceive

Just last November we heard that the James Webb Space Telescope was at least 1.5 billion over it's 5 billion budget. At the time it needed an immediate 500 million to meet a launch date of 2016. What a Tangled Webb We Weave. At the beginning of this week we learned that LISA and IXO, two surviving mission concepts from NASA's Beyond Einstein program, would lose all funding due to the mounting costs of JWST. WFIRST, formerly JDEM/SNAP/DESTINY, an ill-starred attempt to quantify "dark energy," was deferred indefinitely. Monday April 11, in testimony before a US Senate committee, Charlie Bolden said NASA doesn't want any extra funds for JWST. He implied that the telescope will not fly until at least 2018. Once we had a goal to reach the Moon in this decade, but Bolden and his boss seem willing to let the Moon slip away too.

The longer a Space project takes to fly, the more costs mount. JWST was originally estimated to cost about 1 billion, but will cost over 6.5 billion. When a "dark energy" mission was first proposed, it was also to cost less than a billion. It is common in government to low-ball the cost estimates to get a project started. WFIRST would take at least 7 years to develop after JWST launches, so the dream of a "dark energy" mission slips again to after the year 2025.

The hypothesis of an accelerating universe is based entirely on the redshifts of Type Ia supernovae. The cosmic microwave background, dating from only 380,000 years after the Big Bang, tells us nothing about acceleration. Redshifts are roughly equal to v/c, an objects velocity divided by the speed of light. A child could figure out what hundreds of physicists have overlooked: the universe is not accelerating, but light has been slowing down. Long before any "dark energy" mission flies, there will be evidence of a real "c change" in Physics.


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Yuri's Day and Night

Happy April 12! This is also the 150th anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, the start of America's Civil Way. The 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's flight (and the 30th year since the first Shuttle flight) seems much more positive. We are at the Humans in Space Symposium at Houston's Galleria. Monday morning we heard from Skylab 1 astronaut Joe Kerwin. Last night was a showing of the Hubble 3D IMAX movie at Houston's Museum of Narural Science hosted by John Grunsfeld. More Yuri's Night celebrations will be held worldwide!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

End of Beyond Einstein?

With a hat tip to Steinn Sigurdsson and Kea, last week saw stories that both the Laser Interferometry Space Antenna (LISA) and an International X-Ray Observatory (IXO) were to lose funding. For years this blog been chronicling NASA's Beyond Einstein program and the effect of "dark energy." The writer attended an Observing Dark Energy Workshop and the Beyond Einstein conference in Stanford during 2004, and the 2006 HEAD meeting in San Francisco, where Principal Investigator Harvey Tanenbaum described the planned X-Ray mission. In 2007 a scientist argued before the National Research Council that emphasis on DE would be bad for science.

LISA was a plan to send 3 spacecraft in formation to detect hypothetical gravity waves. IXO evolved from CON-X, a Space-based X-Ray observatory. These were considered first priorities in the Beyond Einstein program, yet in 2007 were pushed out of line in favour of a Joint Dark Energy Mission (JDEM). In August 2010 JDEM was itself replaced by WFIRST, which would seek extrasolar planets and look for DE on the way. November brought news that the entire astrophysics budget would be eaten by cost overruns on the James Webb Space Telescope.

The WFIRST Progress Report lists as its third goal, "Supernovae as a probe of the expansion history." No explicit mention of "dark energy," which many doubt even exists. The DE advocates are reduced to sub-committee advisors in this Powerpoint plan. WFIRST is described by Steinn as "a hack of a powerpoint presentation no one else had seen." There is reason to doubt that JDEM, WFIRST or anything similar will ever fly.

Is this the end of Beyond Einstein? No by a long shot! These missions would be expensive and not launch until years in the future. The case for existence of gravitational waves is questionable--the LIGO experiment has not detected any. The evidence for "dark energy" is even shakier; the redshifts of Type Ia supernovae can be explained by GM=tc^3 and a changing speed of light. The real advances may have been accomplished with little more than pen and paper.

The local conditions of Special Relativity, which do not allow for gravity, can be linked with the curved Space/Time of General Relativity. The solution can explain much about the Universe--its size, expansion rate and whether that expansion will stop or reverse. A bit of math can explain the non-linear increase of supernova redshifts, the cosmic horizon problem, the "flatness" problem, even the 4.507034% proportion of baryons. Long before the expensive Space missions would have launched, we may already be Beyond Einstein.

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Friday, April 08, 2011

Virgin in San Francisco

Thursday April 7, to help celebrate the opening of a new Virgin terminal at SFO, SpaceShipTwo arrived in San Francisco carried by its WhiteKnightTwo aircraft. The aerial footage is from a Virgin A-320 that flew in company. Among the celebrities on the Airbus were Richard Branson and Buzz Aldrin. This event was intended to foreshadow the day when commercial spacecraft will leave from airports.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Morpheus Test

3:40 video of coworkers at JSC doing a cold-flow test on the Morpheus lunar lander prototype. Liquid nitrogen is run through the fuel system to check for leaks without using explosive fuel. We also used nitrogen in Building 31 to protect lunar samples from the environment. NASA's mysterious Project M investigated sending a Robonaut to the Moon within 1000 days of a go-ahead. M has morphed into Morpheus, a prototype lunar lander built in partnership with Armadillo Aerospace. Who says we don't have fun in Houston?


Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Falcon Heavy

Today SpaceX formally announced development of the Falcon Heavy. Outwardly it looks like three of the human-rated Falcon 9 strapped together. With 27 Merlin engines in the lower stages, Falcon Heavy is designed to complete its mission even if multiple engines fail. Inside it has propellant-crossfeed capability, so when the boosters separate the inner stage will have nearly full tanks. Falcon is Heavy enough to launch small spacecraft to Mars.

The launcher will lift a surprisingly large 53 metric tons to Low Earth Orbit. The Space Shuttle can carry only about 28 tons. If Falcon were much heavier, it would compete with NASA's undefined heavy lift launcher. Washington is still arguing whether their booster should launch 70 or 130 tons. According to their website, "SpaceX agrees with the need to develop a vehicle of that class as the best way to conduct a large number of human missions to Mars." Meanwhile they have plans for an advanced engine that will take the place of 9 Merlins, and still larger Falcon X and Falcon XX. If the US government dithers, private industry may lead the way to the planets.


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