Weekly Space Hangout - 31 Oct 2014

On this episode of the Weekly Space Hangout, I join Fraser and the crew to talk about the unfolding SpaceShipTwo tragedy and the loss of Orbital's Antares rocket.  Also, a couple of happier stories...

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Monthly News Roundup - October 2014

The Monthly News Roundup is a podcast that reviews this month's news in astronomy and space science.  It's aimed at the general public, so give it a listen and see what's new!

In this episode of the Monthly News Roundup, astronomy pushes the boundaries of exploration both on Earth and in space.  A chance encounter yields dividends and new observations deepen a cosmic mystery.

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Interstellar - Is it just science fiction?

I used to get really excited about upcoming sci-fi movie previews (because I'm a nerd) until I watched the preview for Apollo 18.

But first some background to this tragedy of a film:

(Image Credit: By Apollo 16 astronauts (NASA Apollo 16 photograph AS16-3021) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons) Pictured here is the lunar farside, sometimes called the "dark" side of the moon, which, by the way, is a complete misnomer because it is illuminated by the sun just as often as the side facing Earth. We call it the "dark" side of the moon because we fear the dark much like we fear the unknown and it makes for great horror-film-esque movies like Apollo 18.

(Image Credit: By Apollo 16 astronauts (NASA Apollo 16 photograph AS16-3021) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Pictured here is the lunar farside, sometimes called the "dark" side of the moon, which, by the way, is a complete misnomer because it is illuminated by the sun just as often as the side facing Earth. We call it the "dark" side of the moon because we fear the dark much like we fear the unknown and it makes for great horror-film-esque movies like Apollo 18.

I loooove Apollo 13 - now there's a movie about the tenacity of the human spirit during the golden era of space exploration (I cry every time I watch it during the moment when the re-entry capsule re-emerges from the atmosphere). I personally believe that this movie singlehandedly inspired many a young American to go into the STEM fields.

Flash forward to Apollo 18 - the preview started out in such a way that reminded me of Apollo 13 so I naturally got really excited. But then it turns horrible horror-film-esque as they discover aliens on the moon. And this bugs me in two ways. First off, it's completely unrealistic; we've explored the moon thoroughly and there are no aliens there. Second, one of my biggest pet peeves is when Hollywood chooses to exploit our fears of the unknown, specifically space, but in a completely irrational way. 

There are so many better things to be afraid of in space then aliens on the moon. My personal biggest fear of space is its vastness.

In the words of the wise Bones:

Space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence.
— Leonard H. "Bones" McCoy, Star Trek 2009

There's a reason it's called space - even if we had nothing but time, with the current rocket technology we wouldn't even be able to make it to the nearest star.  Proxima Centauri, the closest star to Earth, is 4.24 light years away and we're nowhere near to traveling at the speed of light. And this is fundamentally lonely for the human race.

But we like to dream big, so science fiction movies love to depict easy interstellar warp travel. All too often, the technology the Captain Kirks or Han Solos of the fictional universe use to travel between star systems is a pure product of our imagination. What would happen if we consulted scientists in the production of the movies - do we have any idea how to actually travel between stars in a human lifetime, or does this topic remain solidly in the realm of science fiction

I think I've found a movie that might lean towards the science aspect of science fiction...

Flash forward to earlier this month when I saw my first preview to the movie Interstellar:

Don't get me wrong; I love Matthew McConaughey and Christopher Nolan to death, but I believe the true draw of this new film will be its ability to hit upon our worst fears. Just watch the preview - it gave me shivers:

This film comes at a really vital crossroads in human history. I think it's a pretty safe bet to assert that we're coming to believe that as a species, we're fundamentally altering our planet's climate in an irreversible fashion. And this is a horrible realization, but we have no idea yet how bad it will get. It looks like Matthew McConaughey's character really hits upon these effects of global climate change; he's a farmer who's struggling under these new conditions of famine and terrible weather events. It looks vaguely reminiscent of the dust bowl. 

So first of all, I'm excited that this film will work with our fears of climate change and give people an idea of what reality may become.

(Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures and Paramount Pictures. )

(Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures and Paramount Pictures. )

But what I really want to touch on is something I saw in the preview once Matthew McConaughey and crew leave Earth. They appear to travel through some sort of warp bubble (see the image to the right). Nolan did his homework, because warp bubble travel is something real scientists are studying right now!

What? Let's be real. What's actually going on here?

It's about time for a short lesson in Einstein's General Relativity.

There is an absolute cosmic speed limit - relativity dictates that no object can travel faster then the speed of light at 300,000 km/s. The implications for space travel are that even with the fastest rocket imaginable to date (Project Orion is a rocket powered by nuclear explosions that can travel up to 5% of the speed of light; note that Project Orion is distinct from the Orion Capsule, which NASA is currently developing), it would still take roughly 85 years to arrive at the nearest star system (Proxima Centauri). And this is an issue for those among us who would like to travel between stars in a timespan shorter than the average human lifetime. [In comparison, Voyager 1 is the current fastest manmade object, and it would take 80,000 years for it to arrive at Proxima Centauri. But it's not even going the right way....]

Given the incredible amount of money and resources that go into designing even the current non-relativistic generation of rockets, it seems unlikely that the current government or investors in the private rocket companies would throw money at a rocket like Project Orion. Because even if we could make it to Proxima Centauri, stars in the galaxy are like ______________________ fill in the blank, I can't even think of a good metaphor that captures the scale of this problem (stars are farther apart than 4400x the orbit of Neptune); there’s so much space between them, this wouldn't be practical to enable our vision of galaxy-wide travel. 

So we need some technology that can send us from point A to point B in a warp-like fashion. If you’re unfamiliar with the notion of warp, you could turn to both Star Trek or Einstein’s 1916 paper “The Foundations of the Generalised Theory of Relativity”. The notion here is that the only way to get around the cosmic speed limit is to bend the fabric of space-time itself. It turns out the sci-fi notion of warp travel is not entirely fiction. The Alcubierre drive, first proposed in 1994, is a theoretical spaceship that could travel faster than light by expanding space behind it while it contracts space ahead. It creates a warp bubble in which it travels at speeds slower than light, but by bending the fabric of space-time, from an outside observer’s point of view, it is traveling faster than light. 

Here are some plots of the varying geometries of warp bubble that could be produced by an Alcubierre drive and a source of negative energy. (Image Credit: Dr. Harold White, NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Here are some plots of the varying geometries of warp bubble that could be produced by an Alcubierre drive and a source of negative energy.

(Image Credit: Dr. Harold White, NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

This idea of a warp bubble is being investigated further by Dr. White’s team at NASA Eagleworks - inside Johnson Space Center. This project is classified, but it's been revealed that the team is running physical experiments related to the concept of a warp bubble.

Sounds great, let’s send the plans to NASA. Of course the problem is that this type of warp drive demands some sort of exotic matter with negative mass that has yet to be discovered. But the point is that a warp drive is not entirely founded in fiction (although the name was first coined by the original Star Trek). And if science’s wonderful partnership with industry has shown us anything, it is the concept of an existence-proof.

The notion of existence-proof being that once something is proven to be possible, science will work together to find a way to make it a reality. Already, scientists have modified Alcubierre's initial idea of a warp bubble to one with geometries that require less negative energy; in theory, this new geometry is far more realistic and could be produced using the Casimir effect with parallel conducting plates.

Here's Buzz Aldrin on the moon, posing to allow Neil Armstrong to take a selfie using Aldrin's visor. (Image Credit: NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Here's Buzz Aldrin on the moon, posing to allow Neil Armstrong to take a selfie using Aldrin's visor.

(Image Credit: NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The bottom line is that we're currently experiencing a technological explosion. On the fourth of October 1957 (57 years ago), Sputnik 1 became the first manmade object in orbit. 57 years later, we've populated Earth orbit with spy satellites, amazing orbital telescopes, a freaking space station for people to live in orbit, we've visited the moon, sent probes to every planet (New Horizons will get to Pluto (the dwarf planet) on July 14, 2015), driven around Mars with robots, and even sent probes out of our solar system! If you had told scientists 60 years ago that we would accomplish all this, would they have believed you?

So although right now it seems extremely difficult to travel between star systems, who's to say what will happen in the next couple of decades?

It’s easy to cast scientists and engineers as labcoat-wearing, chalk-wielding, fun-hating old white dudes. But many of us are die-hard nerds at heart. And I believe that one day one of these nerds will make their beloved Star-Wars universe a reality.

A not so long time from now, in this universe.

(Image Credit: Wormhole travel as envisioned by Les Bossinas for NASA)

(Image Credit: Wormhole travel as envisioned by Les Bossinas for NASA)



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Weekly Space Hangout - 17 Oct 2014

On this episode of the Weekly Space Hangout, I join Fraser Cain to chat about the upcoming observations of Comet Siding Spring, a new target for New Horizons, and much more.  Check it out!

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Weekly Space Hangout - 10 Oct 2014

On this episode of the Weekly Space Hangout, I join Fraser Cain and the crew to talk about the origin of water on the Moon, the groundbreaking of the Thirty Meter Telescope, and much more.  Check it out!

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Weekly Space Hangout - 3 Oct 2014

Missed the latest episode of the Weekly Space Hangout?  Check it out below! I join Fraser Cain and the crew to discuss the latest images from Rosetta, NASA's new spaceflight headache, and much more!

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Monthly News Roundup - September 2014

The Monthly News Roundup is a podcast that reviews this month's news in astronomy and space science.  It's aimed at the general public, so give it a listen and see what's new!

In this episode of the Monthly News Roundup, Mars is getting crowded! A big announcement from NASA and an even bigger black hole.  Is Earth no longer the only world with plate tectonics?

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Weekly Space Hangout - 19 Sept 2014

Missed this week's episode of the Weekly Space Hangout?  Then you missed out on hearing about possible new evidence of dark matter, the Rosetta mission's landing site, citizen science, and much more!

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NASA's plan to find asteroids is falling short

The orbits of all currently-known near-Earth asteroids larger than the 140-meter limit set by the US Congress.  (Image credit: NASA/JPL)

Our solar system is chock full of asteroids - millions of them.  While most are contained within the asteroid belt that lies between Mars and Jupiter, these rocks can be found pretty much anywhere in the solar system.  Many scientists believe that the majority of asteroids are composed of material left over from the formation of the solar system, so they represent an exciting opportunity to understand our history.  NASA's OSIRIS-Rex mission to collect a sample of one of these bodies and return it to Earth will launch in 2016 and the agency has also targeted exploring an asteroid as the next step for our human spaceflight program.  But, some of these asteroids could also pose a risk to the Earth and a new report released this week concludes that NASA is not doing enough to find them.

The US Congress has charged the agency with finding at least 90% of near-Earth asteroids over 140 meters by 2020, but NASA's own inspector general charges that they are not on track to complete this task.  Among the factors he cites are insufficient personnel, insufficient funding, and a lack of a specific plan.  This, after NASA has already increased its asteroid-hunting budget tenfold to $40 million per year.

While we are detecting more and more asteroids, few of them are the dangerous, large ones.  (Image credit: NASA/JPL)

Finding near-Earth asteroids is not an easy task by any stretch.  Although large enough to cause considerable damage here on Earth, a 140-meter asteroid is tiny in the vastness of space.  Compared to objects like stars and planets, asteroids appear to be moving very quickly across the sky and their irregular shape and often-dark surfaces means that their brightness is very low and often unpredictable.  The smaller you go, the tougher the job gets: NASA has already found over 90% of asteroids larger than a kilometer in size.

Do any of these rocks pose a risk to Earth?  Happily, the answer is no.  That doesn't mean that no rocks will hit the Earth, we're stuck everyday hundreds of times, but these objects are small enough that they will simply burn up in our atmosphere as shooting stars.  NASA classifies the risk posed by asteroids on a scale of 0-10, where 0 is no chance of collision or the object too small to matter and 10 is an event certain to happen that will destroy civilization on Earth.  Every object currently classified is a 0.  We've never found an object with a rating higher than 1 and all of those objects were eventually reduced to a 0 once we understood their size and trajectory better.

So, what will NASA do in response to this report?  In a statement released regarding the report, John Grunsfeld, the agency's associate administrator for science, concurred with some of the report's conclusions and emphasized that they would be taking steps to remedy them as quickly as possible.  Until they do, we will just have to hope that an important one doesn't escape our detection!

You can read the full report here.

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Two developments in commercial spaceflight this week

NASA plans to turn to private companies for crew transport.  (Image credit: NASA)

NASA plans to turn to private companies for crew transport.  (Image credit: NASA)

With tensions between Russia and the West remaining high, NASA is moving ahead with plans to find a homegrown method for delivering astronauts to Earth orbit.  The agency's own Orion capsule, designed to transport crews to asteroids, the Moon, and beyond is still years from completion, so in the interim it will be up to commercial enterprises to be our taxis.  A field that barely existed ten years ago is now burgeoning and this week NASA declared Boeing and SpaceX the early winners.

Turning over low-Earth orbit transportation to private industry will also allow NASA to focus on an even more ambitious mission – sending humans to Mars.
— NASA Administrator Charles Bolden

To be clear, the announcement of new contracts totaling about $6.8 billion are for crew transport.  NASA's existing contracts for cargo with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences will remain intact as both companies' systems continue to perform admirably.  With this decision, NASA is committing up to $4.2 billion to Boeing's CST-100 capsule and $2.6 billion to SpaceX's Dragon.  Each agreement includes at least one crewed test flight to the International Space Station, with the option for up to six additional flights if things check out.  Flights could begin as early as 2017.

Importantly, these are not exclusive contracts.  This means that both Boeing and SpaceX are free to sell rides to space to any interested party (well, almost any...).  Just like with most other products and services, volume equals efficiency, and NASA knows that every private spaceflight conducted lowers costs for everyone.

While NASA works to diversify our launch options to low-Earth orbit, there remains more or less only one choice for sending spacecraft beyond Earth: the Atlas V rocket.  This launch vehicle is built by the United Launch Alliance, a corporate partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.  The problem is, a key component of the Atlas V, its RD-180 engine, is built solely by a Russian company.  Since the Atlas V is also used to launch military and reconnaissance satellites, recent events have revealed this dependency as a strategic weakness for the United States.  So it made sense this week when ULA announced that they planned to begin a program aimed at sourcing this part domestically.  What was perhaps a bit more surprising was with whom they contracted: Blue Origin.  Never heard of them? You wouldn't be alone - Blue Origin has never flown a rocket to space.  In fact, the company is probably most famous for its founder: Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos.

In addition to these improvements to the Atlas V, American launch capabilities could be soon bolstered if the Air Force approves SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket for use with military payloads.  Right now, this vehicle is used solely for civilian purposes: launching commercial satellites and delivering cargo to the ISS.  As SpaceX's crew-delivery programs advances in the next few years, the Falcon 9 will need to become rated safe enough for human flight.  When this happens, it will be difficult for the Air Force to deny the company much longer.

Whether it's for commercial, explorative, or military purposes, competition in the space of launch vehicles and spacecraft is a great thing for all involved.  As long as a focus on safety remains front-and-center, competition is sure to have many positive outcomes in cost, flexibility, and capability.

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