Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Hidden Black Holes

The August 1 issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters reports a new class of "hidden" Black Holes. These Active Galactic Nuclei give off jets of radiation, but are surrounded by dust so that no light reaches us. Only X-ray spacecraft like Swift and Suzaku were able to detect them. Hidden AGN's could make up 20 percent of the X-ray background.

AGN's have appeared as different types of objects depending upon viewing angle. Their central Black Holes give off twin jets of radiation. When one of the jets points toward us, the galaxy is called a blazar. From a slightly different angle they appear as quasars. Seen edge-on they appear as radio galaxies. Every galaxy yet found contains at its centre a massive Black Hole.

Since every galaxy contains one, it is painfully obvious that Black Holes were there first. The Big Bang created countless billions of singularities in a variety of sizes. They formed the seeds of clusters, galaxies and even smaller structures. Small Black Holes gathered around the big ones, forming haloes of dark mass. Many times these dark mass particles collided with gas in a galaxy's disk. These collisions triggered the formation of stars and solar systems. Our own solar system would not have formed without Black Holes.

In conclusion, Black Holes are not the monsters that people make them out to be. Our life could not have evolved without them. They are close by, even in our planet, so quiet that we barely notice their presence. It is best to say, Black Holes are friends!

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Monday, July 30, 2007

ALOHA to the Moon

Jim Benson's company built the engines for Spaceship One. At the ILO conference in Silicon Valley, Benson showed us this video of a planned Moon mission. His Spacedev company has a record of delivering things on time and on cost. Rhetorically he asked, "Why not buy from Spacedev instead of re-inventing the wheel?"

Private industry has long believed they can send things into Space cheaper than NASA. Like Hubble, the International Lunar Observatory will eventually need servicing. Spacedev has conceived a mission that would service ILO and incidentally put people back on the Moon. While NASA estimates 100 billion for their Moon plan, Spacedev estimates their cost at less than 3 billion US.

Benson's plan links technology already being developed. Bigelow Spacehab modules would be prepositioned between Earth and Moon. A crew would shuttle from Earth in the orbital version of Benson's Dreamchaser. Upon reaching lunar orbit, 4 astronauts would descend to the Moon in Lunar Human Access (ALOHA) chairs. What a ride that would be! These open vehicles would be much simpler than the Lunar Surface Access Module NASA is designing. The crew would stay in Spacehab modules already landed on the Moon.

One drawback of this plan is the large number of launches. A failure or delay in just one vehicle could scrub the whole mission. For this reason Scott Horowitz and NASA prefer sending as much as possible in one big rocket. Despite this, Benson's plan is so cool that it should be developed in parallel.

As you know, advanced spacesuits are being developed for the Moon. Most Moon plans assume 150 kg for the mass of a crewmember. That assumes spacesuits weighing as much as the 83 kg Apollo suits. If your suit and backpack weigh 23 kg you have saved 1/3 of payload mass. Hire one of us 50 kg astronauts and you have saved HALF the mass per crewmember. Using lighter suits leads to enormous savings in weight, fuel and dollars.

As reported here, NASA's plan for the Moon is moving forward. In parallel, other Space programmes are working toward the same goal. Private industry is more open to innovations (like a lighter spacesuit) that can eventually be used by NASA. By using new ideas, we can all reach the Moon. Riding one of those ALOHA chairs would be worth the trip!

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Sunday, July 29, 2007

Lunar Observatory

Not long ago talk about a changing speed of light was verboten. "Dark energy" was to be the new paradigm for physics. The flagship of astrophysics was to be a Joint Dark Energy Mission (JDEM) for which the leading concept was Supernova Acceleration Probe. SNAP was to be a 2-meter infrared telescope at the Earth-Sun L2 point, whose mission was to discover more "dark energy." DE was going to create new missions, careers, prizes and loot for big science.

Steinn Siggurdson has been chronicling the slow sinking of NASA's astrophysics program. One trouble is that NASA already is sending an infrared instrument to L2. The huge cost of James Webb Space Telescope is increasing every day, leaving little room for another similiar mission. With no NASA center supporting it, things are looking bad for "dark energy."

Astronomers should not despair of the Vision. As with many problems, the solution is staring us in the face every night. The Moon is a providential location for observatories. For radio astronomy, the lunar farside is shielded from Earth's radio racket. For interferometers and gravity wave experiments, putting instruments on the Moon avoids the problems of formation flying. For deep surveys, placing a telescope on the lunar South Pole allows one sector of sky to be watched for indefinite periods of time. All this can be done for surprisingly little cost.

In California's Silicon Valley, campuses with names like Google and Cisco line the roads like theatre marquees. Friday representatives of some of these companies attended a meeting of the International Lunar Observatory Association. ILO would be a 2-meter multi-wavelength telescope on the lunar South Pole. With the same mirror diameter as SNAP, it could search for supernovae and many other phenomena. Surveys in many areas of the spectrum would create a database that astronomers could mine for years. ILO would be launched on a Russian Dniepr booster, using technology demonstrated by the Cubesat program.

ILO could be built within 2 years of getting funding. Cost would be barely a tenth of SNAP, about 35-50 million US. This project is inexpensive enough to be financed by wealthy individuals. The William Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea was funded this way. Bill Gates Telescope, anyone? Sergei Brin Telescope? Observations from ILO would be available to the world via the web.

An International Lunar Observatory is an inexpensive project that would benefit all humanity. See the figure in the clunky old-fashioned spacesuit? Like Hubble, a telescope on the Moon will need to be serviced by humans. Tomorrow we'll see how that may be done.

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Saturday, July 28, 2007


The NewSpace conference is presented each year by the Space Frontier Foundation. Rocketplane Kistler brought this simple mockup of their cockpit. There is one set of rudder pedals therefore only one pilot. Their vehicle is based upon a Learjet 25, the only Lear certified for single-pilot operation. Rocketplane Kistler and Elon Musk's SpaceX are the main competitors for NASA's COTS contract. COTS will hopefully lead to private vehicles resupplying ISS, leaving NASA to explore further outward.

This week brought news of a tragic explosion at Scaled Composites, builders of Spaceship One. The accident killed three employees and seriously injured three others. No word yet on whether this will delay development of Spaceship Two. Virgin Galactic, Benson Aerospace, Rocketplane Kistler and others are all working on suborbital vehicles to take you into Space.

This week the Liftport Group hosts the latest Carnival of Space!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Energy From Space to Your Car

The concept of Solar Power Satellites has been around at least since Dr. Peter Glaser in 1968. Sunlight in Space is 8 times more intense than at Earth's surface. If large solar arrays were built in geosynchronous orbit, the energy could be beamed to Earth via lasers or microwaves. So far the idea has been considered impractical because of cost. With the rising cost of energy, SPS has been gaining attention again.

As with many new technologies, the military may take the lead. To power all their gear, infantrymen use the equivalent of one AA battery per hour. Many lives have been lost delivering fuel convoys to soldiers, not to mention USS Cole. The National Security Space Office (NSSO) is counducting a serious study of SPS. They are looking for breakthrough ideas.

The NewSpace2007 conference in Washington was presented by the Space Frontier Foundation, which has been studying SPS for years. Saturday at the conference I had opportunity to talk with USAF Col. (select) Coyote Smith, chief of the NSSO's future concepts division. He has been leading an online forum soliciting ideas. Col. Smith envisioned kilometer-wide collector fields located outside major cities. He hopes to have a SPS system online by 2050. (He likes the spacesuit too.)

I was able to point out that if someone in 1907 had lectured about the future of energy it would have been about coal and oil. Yet in 2005, out of the limelight, someone had already written E=mc^2. 40 years later we had atomic reactors and an atomic bomb used in combat. First we must go beyond dead ends like "dark energy." The power of free thinking will lead to technological surprises.

If in 40 years we have tiny Black Holes in the laboratory, their energy could be tapped. Even nuclear fusion converts only 0.7% of fuel into energy. A Black Hole can convert matter into radiation with 2 orders of magnitude greater efficiency, approaching total conversion. The food that a human eats in a year could provide all the electricity needs of the United States! Any sort of mass could be used for fuel, even old AOL disks and issues of National Geographic.

Solar Power satellites have not been deployed because of the immense construction costs. An SPS constellation powering the US would require 30-40 satellites, each with kilometers of solar arrays. Note how much trouble it has been constructing one space station in low Earth orbit. Black Hole energy would require just one satellite without all those solar panels! The power of thought is far greater than anything humans have imagined.

In other news, Toyota has announced it will be road testing a plug-in hybrid version of my Prius. Such a car could get at least 100 MPG, more if you only drive short distances. Plug-ins and battery cars can get their power from solar, wind or geothermal plants without any petroleum in the loop. Your 21st century economy could be clean and all-electric.

Tommaso Dorigo has an excellent post on Black Hole production.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Hungry Black Holes

Nearby galaxy clusters CL 0542-4100 and CL 0848.6+4453 imaged by the Chandra X-ray Observatory. Low energy X-rays are in red, intermediate energy in green, and high energy in blue. A study in the July 20 issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters indicates that Black Holes in older clusters are 20 times more active than those in younger clusters. The early Universe was dominated by energetic quasars and Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN). As they matured and their fuel was used up, these objects evolved into galaxies like our Milky Way.

The Big Bang created billions upon billion of Black Holes. Because the speed of light was higher, primordial Black Holes formed in a variety of sizes. The big ones formed the seeds of clusters and galaxies. Our galaxy formed around a Black Hole like the whirlpool around a drain. Supermassive Black Holes don't die, they just fade away.

Tiny Black Holes could exist within planets, even Earth. This one is too tiny to suck us up, but the tiny amount it does eat keeps Earth's core warm. This heat causes earthquakes, volcanoes and the formation of islands. The Black Hole also powers the magnetic field that protects us from the radiation of space. Our planet and life would not exist if not for a Black Hole.

Speaking of hunger, the Monterey Bay region has been invaded by 2-meter jumbo squid that munch on the local fish population. Previously jumbo squid were only found in warmer Pacific waters. Their appearance near the Central California coast may be a result of Earth's changing climate. Earlier this month in Tasmania, a rare giant squid measuring 8 metres washed ashore near the town of Strahan. When Earth's climate changes the species adapt, a squid pro quo.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

You Belong In a Museum

INDIANA JONES: That belongs in a museum!

VILLAIN: So do you!

There is more to see at the National Air and Space Museum than one could possibly include photos of. The original Apollo 11 spacecraft carried the first astronauts to lunar orbit and back. These Apollo capsules returned in such good shape that there was talk of refurbishing and sending them back in Space. If that were done, the Shuttle would not have been the first reusable spacecraft. NASA chose this shape for their new Orion spacecraft.

The rocket-powered X-15 was launched from a carrier aircraft and flew to 62 miles, like Spaceship One decades later. Today they share the same Milestones of Flight hall. Benson Aerospace is adapting a straight-wing design for their Dreamchaser spacecraft. Straight wings mean less lift and a higher landing speed, but create far less drag than delta wings. X-15 flightsuits were silver too.

On February 20, 1962 Friendship 7 carried John Glenn on America's first orbital flight. Who can forget the RIGHT STUFF movie when the astronaut candidates first stride out in their shining suits? These spacecraft were so small that Mercury astronauts could be no more than 5' 10". Japan has so much interest in Space that we can expect great things from them. Who wants their picture next?

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Friday, July 20, 2007

National Air and Space Museum

Today July 20 is very a special day, anniversary of the first Moon landing. A scientist was invited to display the spacesuit at America's NATIONAL AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM in Washington. It is an enormous unexpected honour to be in the same hall with Apollo 11 and Spaceship One. There are enough things to see here to keep a little girl busy all day, and enough photos to fill a week of blog posts.

Above is a recreation of the historic day in 1969. (This lunar module hasn't been to the Moon either.) The camera doesn't show the crowds taking photographs. A scientist never expects to be surrounded by more cameras than Jessica Biel. It is about time that our generation got excited about going to the Moon. This time women will go too!

There are children out there, nearly two generations who have never seen people walk on the Moon. Even many of their teachers were born after 1969, and have no memory to pass on to students. Many don't even know what a spacesuit is for, but they all think it looks cool. Why should our generation be deprived of the Moon?

Below is the main hall with the X-1 and Spirit of St. Louis. Lindbergh had private investors believing in him too, and Yeager wore a primitive counter-pressure suit. There is an almost instinctive attraction to the spacesuit. From the accents I heard today, people from every part of the world are fascinated by Space. We simply can not let down the many people who believe in us.

This day has been exciting beyond all expectation, Thanks to all the nice people met today. Thanks to the NASM staff and Michael Belfiore for suggesting and arranging this. Be sure to read Michael's new book Rocketeers.

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

New Moon

On May 30 our Cassini spacecraft observed S/2004 S7, the 60th known satellite of Saturn. This moon is approximately 2 km across and orbits 1.76 million km from Saturn. This orbit is between those of moons Mehone and Pallene, which were also discovered by Cassini. The Rings contain countless undiscovered objects, some of which are big enough to be called moons.

Photo below was taken June 5. The moon Pan leaves big wakes in the Encke Gap. The Gap's boundaries mark inner and outer Lagrangian points in the Pan-Saturn system. Particles within this gap are drawn into Pan's gravitational field. Presence of this moon maintains the Encke gap. Since the Rings contain thousands of such gaps, there are many more large undiscovered objects out there.

To the right moon Prometheus leaves big gaps in the F Ring. Prometheus and Pandora are called shepherd moons because they appear to hold F Ring in place. At one time the Rings were thought to exist inside a mathematical "Roche Limit." Outside this limit moons could exist, and inside they would break up tidally to form Ring fragments. Prometheus has a density of barely 0.27 g/cc, barely 1/4 that of liquid water. It is odd that objects with a density less than liquid exist inside the Roche Limit, within which liquid objects are not supposed to exist at all.

As seen here, Prometheus leaves big gaps in the F Ring, causing particles to spiral toward the moon. No one is sure about the nature of this interaction, but it is like that of a magnetic field. Presence of a magnetic field from a tiny moon would be indication of a singularity. If Prometheus' 10^17 kg mass contained a 10^11 kg singularity, the moon would not collapse. Presence of a singularity would hold Prometheus together despite being within Roche's Limit. The singularity would rotate within Prometheus, powering a magnetic field.

Today we have discovered 60 moons of Saturn. This solar system contains hindreds of unexplored worlds, many of which could be home to life. This photo could contain dozens of Black Holes. There is far more in the Universe than meets the eye.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Icy River Styx

Pluto and its moon Charon imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope. An article in this week’s Astrophysical Journal reports that water issues from Charon’s interior into Space. Our Gemini North Telescope atop Mauna Kea found spectra of ammonia hydrates and water. These spectra point to cryovulcanism within Charon. Liquid water exists inside this distant moon and is escaping into Space.

Pluto was king of the underworld, and Charon was the ferryman carrying souls across the River Styx. At one time Pluto was considered the outermost planet. Now we know that Pluto and Charon mark the beginning of a Kuiper Belt containing hundreds of objects. Some of these objects are bigger than Pluto itself, causing its demotion to a minor planet. Other Kuiper Belt objects could also contain liquid water.

Previously the Cassini spacecraft observed water erupting from the Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The explanation for Enceladus has been tidal forces, even though that moon is too distant from Saturn for tides to be a factor. In the case of Charon, the old idea of “radioactive decay” has been exhumed. As far as is known there are almost no radioactive elements in the outer Solar System.

The Big Bang created billions of tiny Black Holes. They could have formed the seeds of clusters, galaxies and even smaller objects. When our solar system was just a cloud of gas, these tiny Black Holes seeded the planets and even some moons. These singularities are too tiny to swallow everything up, but they generate heat to warm planetary interiors.

Liquid water within Charon is direct evidence of internal heat. The most likely heat source for Charon, Enceladus and outer solar system bodies is a tiny Black Hole. Heat from these objects could support life, even in interstellar Space. Kuiper Belt objects and even brown dwarfs are potential homes of extraterrestrial life.

The new Carnival of Space is out with posts about the Solar System and beyond!

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The MIT Suit

Dr. Dava Newman's team at MIT has done some fascinating work on counter-pressure suits funded by NASA's Institute of Advanced Concepts. At the ICES conference July 9-12 in Chicago, they (and everyone else) were surprised to see someone else show up with a completed suit. Perhaps as a reaction, Monday they released photos of their suit mockup. That is not a pressurised helmet, but it looks cool. There is no air line and no backpack; she must be very hot in there. They envision this suit being ready in 10 years.

Scott Horowitz promised that NASA will issure RFP's for a next generation suit this Summer and make a decision in 2008. NASA wants a single suit system for Low Earth Orbit Access, EVA and planetary EVA's. Current thinking envisions a soft pressure garment with removable outer layers. Like the Shuttle, that system could be in use for 25 years. If a better suit takes 10 years to develop. that may be too late. Dr. Newman's work is valuable and could use more funding.

This Friday July 20 is the anniversary of the first Moon landing. That day you will see a counter-pressure suit displayed in a setting far more suited to working lunar hardware.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Chicago Highlights

Looking South toward Museum Park from 94th floor of the John Hancock Center. The building has 100 floors and views of 4 States. If you don't want to pay the admission price, visit the bar on the 96th floor and buy a drink. The best view of all is from the ladies room.

Across the street at the Westin Hostel July 9-12 was the 37th International Conference of Environmental Systems (ICES). Attending were representatives of Hamilton-Sundstrand (the shuttle EMU suit), David Clark Company (the orange pumpkin suit), experts in life support and especially spacesuits. Talks covered everything from suborbital spacecraft to Mars habitats. Private Space companies, you needed to be here.

Monday morning's opening talk was by Dr. Michael Gernhardt of NASA, who has also flown in Space 4 times. He showed results of astronauts being eaten alive by the Mark III spacesuit. Most of the talks seemed to favour rear entry, allowing suits to be docked outside in a "suitlock." Studies at the University of Colorado showed favoured a flexible inner layer and removable armour. These are features of the advanced suit seen July 4.

Tuesday saw a presentation by Dr. Dava Newman's team at MIT. They have managed to complete a suit leg made of rubber strips and test it on humans. Unfortunately, the strips tend to slip off and expose the subjects to vacuum. Hint: Buy materiel in sheets. Their funding came from the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts, which sadly has been terminated. Many promising ideas, like a liquid air backpack, are languishing for lack of funding.

Wednesday night was the banquet and social with Scott Horowitz. Private industry and government are very serious about going to the Moon and Mars. Most current designs resemble the I-suit, You're Going Out in That? Building spacesuits is difficult and very, very expensive. Only one party showed up with a full suit. (Well, I didn't know what else to wear.)

You heard it here first: Very soon NASA will issue a formal Request for Proposals for the next-generation suit. They are expected to make a decision in Summer '008. The new suit system will be used for journeys to other worlds lasting until the 2030's. Our hosts Hamilton Sundstrand and David Clark will fight very hard to keep a piece of the action. Hopefully the counter-pressure technology will help make future astronauts safer.

Rockets, pyramids, tall buildings and spacesuits all symbolise the human desire to reach the sky.

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Friday, July 13, 2007

Ares Rising

Scott Horowitz, head of NASA's Exploration Systems Directorate, just announced his resignation for family reasons. He was responsible for developing the Constellation architecture for the Moon, Mars and Beyond. He is a former F-15 pilot and 4-time astronaut. Previously Dr. Horowitz worked at ATK Thiokol, where he championed the use of solid rocket boosters for manned spacecraft. Lunar crews will ascend in a vehicle launched by an ATK booster, then mate with a lunar lander launched by two ATK boosters.

Wednesday night in Chicago this blogger had opportunity to talk with (Doc) Horowitz at length. (More about that meeting soon.) His talk made one more confident that we will reach the Moon. Some of his points:

Ares I is on schedule for test flights in 2009. It will ascend from Launch Complex 39 in between shuttle flights. He expects an initial operating capability for Ares/Orion in first quarter 2015. Ares I will be a big rocket, 263 feet high.

Ares V will be huge. It will carry 270,000 pounds into low Earth orbit, even more than Saturn V. Launching payloads on one big rocket has a smaller chance of failure than assembling many little rockets. The payload may have a diameter up to 10 meters. This capacity opens up many possibilities for Mars and Beyond. (Astronomers, think of the telescopes you could put into Space.)

Astronauts who have done the best at long-duration flights tend to be couch potatoes who rarely exercise. We athletic types have the hardest time adjusting to microgravity. Having worn G-suits as a pilot, he loves the idea of a counter-pressure spacesuit.

This blogger is deeply thankful and appreciative to Dr. Horowitz. Best wishes for his future career. There are many openings for NASA astronauts in the private Space industry.


Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Most Distant Galaxies Yet Found

Using the 10-meter Keck telescope on Mauna Kea, astronomers will shortly report the most distant galaxies yet detected. They were detectable only by gravitational lensing from a foreground galaxy. These 6 galaxies were fully formed only 500 million years after the Big Bang. At this time they were already forming stars. Present theories of galaxy formation can not explain the formation of galaxies so early.

Every galaxy yet found contains at its centre a massive Black Hole. Galaxies formed around these objects like whirlpools around a drain. Primordial Black Holes have been predicted by Stephen Hawking and many physicists. A Universe of evidence tells us that supermassive Black Holes are primordial, formed shortly after the Big Bang.

PBH's are predicted to have formed from quantum fluctuations shortly after the Big Bang. Their size would be limited by a "horizon distance," that light could travel in a given time. Previously it was thought that the speed of light would cause any PBH's to be tiny. Discovery of galaxies fully formed soon after the Big Bang is still more evidence of a changing speed of light.

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Monday, July 09, 2007

787 Rollout

Boeing's new 787 had its big rollout Sunday. It is always a thrill seeing new aerospace technology make its debut. Being "green" can be very good for business. Boeing had the option of building a super-size plane like the Airbus A-380. For a time Boeing considered building a faster airliner, the Sonic Cruiser. Finally they focused their limited R&D funds on the 787, an advanced plane which uses less fuel. They have sold over SIX HUNDRED 787's for a price of 250 million US per copy. Airlines want 787's so badly that Boeing can't keep up with the orders.

With all the troubles and delays of the A-380, Airbus will not have a competitor to the 787 until at least 2014 or sometime after the ORION spacecraft is in orbit. The 787 technology has already been applied to the new fuel-saving 747-8. Next Boeing will introduce a thrifty replacement for the 737, and make Google-sized money replacing a thousand 737's as they wear out. (That used to be a secret, and you read it here first.) The biggest competition to the 737 replacement will not come from Airbus, but from upcoming manufacturer like Canada's Bombardier and Brazil's Embraer. Having built smaller commuter aircraft, they are eager for a slice of the market.

July 20 is a special day in history and this blog has something planned in a very special place. (No, not the Moon.) A blogger learns the hard way not to announce where she is until after she has been there, or at least after getting through immigration. After all the trials, being amid history is a special thrill. This is a wonderful time to be alive.

UPDATE: Due to a continuing disagreement with engine-maker General Electric, the competing Airbus A-350 has been delayed yet again. Already the A-350 is at least 5 years behind the Boeing 787. Perhaps EADS will have better luck with the commercial spacecraft.

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Sunday, July 08, 2007

From an ESO Press Release: "Using a robotic telescope at the ESO La Silla Observatory, astronomers have for the first time measured the velocity of the explosions known as gamma-ray bursts. The material is travelling at the extraordinary speed of more than 99.999% of the velocity of light, the maximum speed limit in the Universe."

Gamma Ray Bursts occur in distant galaxies and are among the most powerful explosions in the Universe, exceeding even supernovae in power. Their nature has been a mystery because they are transient and difficult to observe. The SWIFT spacecraft catches GRB's Bursting Out All Over, allowing instruments to focus quickly upon them as they burst. The 0.6 meter REM telescope (pictured) looked at two bursts 9.3 and 11.5 bilion light years away.

The immense energy of these events is difficult to explain with current theories. Only a massive Black Hole could produce energies like this. Black Holes could be ubiquitous in the Universe, within stars and even smaller objects. The presence of Black Holes barely 2 billion years after the Big Bang is one more indicator of a changing speed of light. It is easy to teach 99.999% of the present speed of light if your local speed of light is higher.

Matter travelling at this speed has a Lorentz factor of 400. If your starship could travel this fast, you would see a light year go by in less than a day. Even at smaller fractions of c, travel to other solar systems is possible within a few years. Interstellar travel is closer than most people think. If GRB's can accelerate this fast, perhaps spaceships can.

Thursday, July 05, 2007


This strange creature, nicknamed the Octosquid, was captured last week off the Big Island's Keahole Point. It has eight tentacles and an octopus head, but with a squidlike mantle. It was caught in a pipeline belonging to the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii. The pipeline, 3000 feet deep, gathers deep sea water for the Scienceand Technology Park in Kailua-Kona. The ocean floor is mysterious as the surface of the Moon. At that depth live many strange life forms humans know nothing about.


The Mission

Now the journey begins. In building a spacesuit, it is best to learn from the experience of our astronaut crews. When dealing with people who have already been to Space, the customer is always right. Here are some spacesuit requirements from an agency that loves Powerpoint.

For this set of outcomes, a counter-pressure suit has inherent advantages. It minimises mass and volume while maximising mobility. Tests have shown that current "soft suits" can not provide adequate mobility when pressurised. Regarding quick-donning, preliminary tests verify that an astronaut can quickly dress herself, thank you. For future upgrades, design flexibility and modularity are built into the system.

"Return scenarios from the lunar surface could require up to 120 hours of unpressurized survival." The original Lunar Module was built of very fragile materiels and depressurisation was a real danger. 55 hours and 53 minutes hours into flight Apollo 13 suffered an explosion in an oxygen tank. All power and oxygen was lost in the Command Module. By improvising and using the LEM as a lifeboat, the crew barely survived until splashdown at 142:54 hours. If their suits had 120 hour duration they would have needed only to lower their visors.

Humans can't last 120 hours without drinking. You can survive 5 days without food, but we wouldn't want you at the controls of a spaceship. Current spacesuits have a plastic drink bag stuffed into the helmet. During Apollo 16's walks on the Moon, the bags of orange juice burst inside the astronauts' helmets. Yuck! It must have made them wonder about the rest of their suit. One bag of juice will not last 120 hours.

120-hour capability will be available as an option. Another hole can be built into the helmet for a feeding tube from the backpack. The tube is electrically heated to prevent freezing. A pinch valve allows the astronaut to drink at will. A nutritious smoothie-like drink provides liquid and food needs in an emergency. (This blogger prefers chocolate.) Canisters of the stuff can be stored in the spacecraft for easy replacement.

The other end poses a challenge. The infamous "astronaut diaper" can simply not cut it. Can you imagine sharing a sealed spacesuit with 5 days of waste? Without revealing any proprietary information, having a suit fit closely to the skin may be the only way to solve this problem. Only a counter-pressure suit can meet this important requirement.

"Suit system must be able to accommodate various functions (i.e. reconfiguration) without necessarily requiring doffing of entire system." Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions included both lunar surface EVA's and zero-G EVA's on the return home. Especially on long missions, a crewmember will need both capabilities. In that 120-hour situation, she may need to change from EVA to Earth return configuration without without opening the suit. As Darnell of Colony Worlds so kindly notes, the suit can be customized to fit different needs, even inflight. A compact, flexible inner layer makes this possible.

"Minimize dust in crew habitable space...Maintaining suit system performance." That abrasive lunar regolith gets into everything. NASA wants to leave the dusty portions of the suit behind and still have a spacesuit to return home. This requires that the outer EVA layers be removable. Previous "hard suits" require that you bring back to Earth the heavy shell, dust, germs and that Alien attached to your suit.

For these reasons and others, this technology is the best way to meet NASA requirements. It may be the only way. We owe our crews the safest and best equipment possible. Many tests lie ahead. The spacesuit is beginning a long and challenging journey.

Other interesting Space news in the new Carnival Of Space!

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Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Have Spacesuit, Will Travel

Happy July 4! This is a prototype, the most advanced spacesuit design ever built. Compared to present-day suits it is inherently lighter, safer, more flexible and comfortable. The proven principle of mechanical counter-pressure, rather than the tenuous pressure of air, protects wearers from the vacuum of Space. 60 years ago Chuck Yeager and pilots of the X-1 wore primitive suits based upon this same principle. During the 1960's more suits were built which unfortunately no longer exist. After years of experiments and enough funding to build an aircraft, this system is decades more advanced.

The skintight inner garment is a sandwich of stretchable materiels that zip on like a flightsuit. It is suitable for suborbital and Low Earth Orbit Access, like the "pumpkin suits" used today. Upon exposure to vacuum, the proprietary materiel automatically tightens to compensate. Unlike present-day soft suits, there is no loss of flexibility. The prototype is covered in silver rubber for visibility.

The helmet is adapted from a Russian design. A neck seal isolates the pressurised helmet from the rest of the suit. There are integral heating and defogging elements, and an interface with existing aircraft oxygen systems. The boots and gloves can have independent oxygen lines. A counter-pressure glove is under development. LED readouts are built directly into the forearms, which are reconfigurable to various functions and controls.

For EVA and planetary exploration, the suit can be armoured. The outer pieces on the chest and arms are made of composite materiels that are stronger than steel. The manufacturer guarantees the materiel to 250 degrees fahrenheit, or the highest likely to be encountered in Space. As on present spacecraft, multiple aluminised layers insulate the wearer from extreme cold. The outer armour can be quickly changed to adapt for different environments. When lunar explorers are ready to return home, the outer layers and all that yucky lunar regolith can be left behind on the Moon.

The torso also interfaces with a Portable Life Support System. Because the suit is easy to move in, the wearer consumes barely half the oxygen used in a present-day suit. The cooling requirements are minimal, removing the need for a Liquid Cooling Garment. This can result in reducing the volume of a PLSS by at least 50%, with the same capabilities. (The old PLSS has controls on the chest, with labels printed in reverse because the spacewalker needs a mirror on his arm to see them.)

Even if you managed to make a hole in this suit, there would be no decompression because pressure comes directly from the materiel. In the case of small holes, there would be swelling of the skin directly beneath the hole until blood clotting filled the gap. The wearer just gets a small zit. In addition to being lighter and more comfortable, suits built to this design will be inherently safer than old-fashioned suits.

This system is a force-multiplier for all aspects of human spaceflight. Orion missions will require up to 6 EVA suits. Because there will be no airlock, if one needs to go out the entire crew must suit up and depressurise the ship. Using 10-pound rather than 310-pound suits can save thousand of pounds and million of dollars. Since old Moon suits weigh 165 pounds, this system doubles the weight of people that can be landed. Hatchways and interior spaces can be made smaller. A wearable spacecraft opens new possibilities for travel to and from orbit, eventually removing the need for pressurised hulls.

NASA has issued requirements for a next-generation suit system. They want a single suit system for LEA, EVA and planetary EVA's. In case of an Apollo 13, they want crew to survive 120 hours in the suit with the visor down. They want crewmembers able to dress themselves. Current suits can not fulfill these requirements. You're Going Out In That? It may be unrealistic to expect NASA to buy this suit, but hopefully contractors will take interest in the technology.

The primary purpose of this project is safety of crews. The suit is not yet ready for Space, but is worn to investigate comfort and flexibility. Individual parts need to be tested in vacuum conditions before the suit is worn in flight. No doubt changes will be made as a result of testing, and you will hear more on this blog. After wearing the suit continuously for 12 hours, one can report that it is very comfortable and really cool!


Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Unveiling July 4

Looking for something to do before that next conference? July 7 is the 100th birthday of Robert Heinlein and the Heinlein Centennial celebration in Kansas City, USA. Heinlein fans coming out to speak include NASA's Michael Griffin, Peter Diamandis, and Spaceship One pilot Brian Binnie. Heinlein wrote many classic titles, including "Have Spacesuit Will Travel."

Things have been busy but very exciting. As was originally planned, the technology will be unveiled here July 4. It was shown to a select technical crowd over the weekend and they unversally loved it. The most common adjective was "beautiful." Next it will be shown to much harder audiences. One look will tell you that this is a huge advance over anything in existence.

If anyone wishes to know how it works, just think about cosmology. Expansion is indistinguishable from the forward flow of time, R = ct. The Universe can't expand at an infinite rate, or even at the same rate c forever. A counter-pressure from gravity prevents it from expanding uncontrollably, GM = tc^3.

Unlike "dark energy" this science has applications that can protect human lives and save NASA lots of money. (Even if DE exists, it would be spread so thinly through Space that it has no conceivable use.) This science has already solved the "Faint Young Sun" paradox of Earth's climate. It has saved NASA hundreds of millions by making DE probes unnecessary, therefore earning the jealousy of a few scientists. The new system will make human spaceflight safer and far more comfortable.
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