Tiny cube to tackle space debris

I nifty idea is under development at the Surrey Space Centre in the UK: a little cube that attaches to dead satellites or other space junk, deploys a sail, and drags them out of orbit faster than they would on their own. It’s very much like a parachute that deploys to slow down a dragster faster than it would on its own.

It’s also written up here.

CubeSail. Photograph: EADS/Astrium/Surrey Space Centre

Obama drops moon mission funding from NASA

US President Barack Obama is planning to axe the NASA funding for Constellation, the space program that would see NASA return to the Moon by 2020. They’ll put development plans for the shuttle replacement into the hands of private industry.

This is bad news.

I’ve waffled on many times in this blog about the apparent short-term wisdom but long-term foolishness of abandoning (or putting at great risk) research like this. I know that times are tough, and money is needed elsewhere. And US space funding has roller-coastered over the decades.

But this is important for the future. It was important enough that Obama made it a campaign pledge, as did John McCain. It’s important because we can’t even imagine today what might be discovered by scientists who don’t have to make profits. Here are a few historical reasons that represent only the spinoffs of the space program, to say nothing of actual space exploration:

Under the Space Act of 1958, NASA has had a mandate to share all the information it has gained with the public. Here are a few of the practical applications that have resulted from technologies and information learned by space scientists:

  • CAT scans
  • MRIs
  • Kidney dialysis machines
  • Heart defibrillator technology
  • Remote robotic surgery
  • Artificial heart pump technology
  • Physical therapy machines
  • Positron emission tomography
  • Microwave receivers used in scans for breast cancer
  • Cardiac angiography
  • Monitoring neutron activity in the brain
  • Cleaning techniques for hospital operating rooms
  • Portable x-ray technology for neonatal offices and 3rd world countries
  • Freeze-dried food
  • Water purification filters
  • ATM technology
  • Pay at the Pump satellite technology
  • Athletic shoe manufacturing technique
  • Insulation barriers for autos
  • Image-processing software for crash-testing automobiles
  • Holographic testing of communications antennas
  • Low-noise receivers
  • Cordless tools
  • A computer language used by businesses such as car repair shops, Kodak, hand-held computers, express mail
  • Aerial reconnaissance and Earth resources mapping
  • Airport baggage scanners
  • Distinction between natural space objects and satellites/warheads/rockets for defense
  • Satellite monitors for nuclear detonations
  • Hazardous gas sensors
  • Precision navigation
  • Clock synchronization
  • Ballistic missile guidance
  • Secure communications
  • Study of ozone depletion
  • Climate change studies
  • Monitoring of Earth-based storms such as hurricanes
  • Solar collectors
  • Fusion reactors
  • Space-age fabrics for divers, swimmers, hazardous material workers, and others
  • Teflon-coated fiberglass for roofing material
  • Lightweight breathing system used by firefighters
  • Atomic oxygen facility for removing unwanted material from 19th century paintings
  • FDA-adopted food safety program that has reduced salmonella cases by a factor of 2
  • Multispectral imaging methods used to read ancient Roman manuscripts buried by Mt. Vesuvius

But if you don’t want to bother, America, feel free to drop it. China will happily step in.

Kepler: lookin’ good

Cluster of stars in Keplers sight

Cluster of stars in Kepler’s sight

Remember Kepler? It’s NASA’s mission to look for planets that we believe might be candidates for sustaining life. It launched in March. In mid-May all of the checks and calibrations were done and it started looking in earnest.

So far the satellite is operating well and the data it’s collecting are, apparently, very good:

The data are of very high quality and the scientists are very pleased with the precision of the data. Hundreds of eclipsing binaries and variable stars were seen in this data.

Herschel and Planck: the ESA looks for the early years of the Universe

Just over 3 hours from the time I write this, the European Space Agency will launch two satellites. Both will study the early stages of the universe. Watch itlive at this link, or follow them on Twitter.

What will they do?

  • Herschel will carry an infrared telescope. That means it won’t capture visual-spectrum images like Hubble has. What it will catch, in frequencies and detail never before achieved, is information about early star and planet formation. Because its sensitivity is so high, and because radiated heat is infrared, the satellite has an elaborate cryogenic system to keep it super-cool.
  • Planck won’t take visual images either: it’ll measure, in great detail, the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation (that is, the radiation left over from just after the Big Bang).

Each will do lots of other things, too. Read the links.

Ariane 5 enclosing Herschel and Planck

Expecting big things from an upgraded Hubble telescope

The Hubble telescope has already brought us many amazing images from space. Today the shuttle Atlantis will launch on a mission to improve and upgrade the telescope. Who knows what other pictures it could show us?

From the BBC:

Expect “shock and awe in science” from a repaired and upgraded Hubble Space Telescope.

If all goes completely to plan on Hubble Servicing Mission 4, the orbiting observatory will be reborn as the most productive telescope in history, with even greater powers to probe the Universe’s deep history and help cosmologists make sense of one of their biggest problems – “dark energy”.

Over five long days of well rehearsed but exhausting work on Hubble, the astronauts on the shuttle Atlantis have the task of installing a new panoramic camera and a latest-generation spectrograph.

GOCE launch approved for today: getting the details on gravity

The Russian State Commission has given the green light for the launch, in just a couple of hours, of a sophisticated satellite to investigate the Earth’s gravitational field. The Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE), a European Space Agency (ESA) project is to be launched today at 15:21 CET.

GOCE data will let us accurately measure sea-levels and ocean circulation, which are affected by climate change. So what? you say.

Well, we all know the Earth (like all objects with mass) results in gravity. However, the effect of gravity depends on the amounts of mass involved and on the distance away from the mass. Although it’s usually sufficient to think of the Earth as a big round ball, it is in fact neither a perfect sphere on macro (a big sphere in space) nor micro (hills and valleys and seabeds) levels. Neither is its mass distributed uniformly around the globe nor through the layers of its interior. Thus, gravity varies around the surface of the globe.

If we want to get down to the nitty-gritty of the dynamic processes taking place on Earth’s surface and in its interior – sea level changes due to climate change, seismic activity, etc – we need the nitty-gritty detail of how gravity varies around the world. An accurate gravity map – called a geoid – thus becomes an important thing to understand.

Check here for the main GOCE site.

The GOCE Ion Propulsion Assembly being prepared for testing in QinetiQ's thermal vacuum chamber

NASA’s Kepler mission to look for other planets capable of sustaining life

Tomorrow evening (US eastern time) is the earliest window in which NASA’s Kepler mission may launch. This is very exciting because Kepler’s main mission is to locate planets that are similar, and in similar positions, to our own. Planets like Earth are the ones where we’d be most likely to find life as we know it.

Nearly all of the planets we’ve spotted that are located outside our own Solar System have so far been gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn. They’re easy to spot, though, because they’re big and hot. Kepler will find smaller, rockier, Earth-like planets.

Photometer Being Lowered onto Kepler Spacecraft

There’s a huge amount of really fascinating science, from the general to the detailed, on the mission page. Here are some excerpts I really like.

How will Kepler look for extrasolar planets? By looking at stars, and watching for signs that something has moved across the front of them:

The Kepler spacecraft…will orbit our own Sun, trailing behind Earth in its orbit, and stay pointed at Cygnus starfield for 3.5 years to watch for drops in brightness that happen when an orbiting planet crosses (transits) in front of the star. Cygnus was chosen because it has a very rich starfield and is in an area of sky where the Sun will not get in the way of the spacecraft’s view for its entire orbit.

How does a transit tell us that there’s a planet there?

Transits by terrestrial planets produce a small change in a star’s brightness of about 1/10,000 (100 parts per million, ppm), lasting for 2 to 16 hours. This change must be absolutely periodic if it is caused by a planet. In addition, all transits produced by the same planet must be of the same change in brightness and last the same amount of time, thus providing a highly repeatable signal and robust detection method.

Once detected, the planet’s orbital size can be calculated from the period (how long it takes the planet to orbit once around the star) and the mass of the star using Kepler’s Third Law of planetary motion. The size of the planet is found from the depth of the transit (how much the brightness of the star drops) and the size of the star. From the orbital size and the temperature of the star, the planet’s characteristic temperature can be calculated. From this the question of whether or not the planet is habitable (not necessarily inhabited) can be answered.

What else will Kepler do?

The scientific objective of the Kepler Mission is to explore the structure and diversity of planetary systems. This is achieved by surveying a large sample of stars to:

  1. Determine the percentage of terrestrial and larger planets there are in or near the habitable zone of a wide variety of stars;
  2. Determine the distribution of sizes and shapes of the orbits of these planets;
  3. Estimate how many planets there are in multiple-star systems;
  4. Determine the variety of orbit sizes and planet reflectivities, sizes, masses and densities of short-period giant planets;
  5. Identify additional members of each discovered planetary system using other techniques; and
  6. Determine the properties of those stars that harbor planetary systems.

This is a really exciting mission to undertake during the International Year of Astronomy.

British space agency proposes mission to study Moon interior through dart probes

From the UK Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills:

A possible UK-led Moon mission involving ‘penetrator’ darts that would impact into the Moon’s surface will be the focus of a technical study to ascertain its feasibility, the British National Space Centre (BNSC) announced today (5 December 2008).

Known as MoonLITE (Moon Lightweight Interior and Telecom Experiment), the unmanned mission aims to place a satellite in orbit around the Moon and deploy four penetrators to deliver scientific instruments below the surface of the Moon.

The satellite orbiter would then act as a telecommunications station between the surface network and the Earth, relaying information to the Earth during the penetrators’ one year life on the strength and frequency of Moonquakes and the thickness of the crust and core. It might also determine whether organic material or water is present in the polar regions.

NASA will support the study in order to establish its potential contribution to the science and technology of the mission.

Okay, with recent Mars missions, the Moon may not seem so cool anymore. But the idea of a satellite firing giant space darts into it is WAY cool.

xkcd: The universe, top to bottom, on a log scale

It’s always brilliant, but I really like today’s cartoon. There’s very little cooler than a logarithmic scale, to be honest.

Hey, look: it’s Ford Prefect.

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