Weatherdem's Weblog

Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy


Space-Related News: Bigelow Aerospace & One-Way Mars Missions?

Six new countries have signed memoranda of understanding with Bigelow Aerospace.  Bigelow is one of the leading private contenders to get private space modules launched and used by humans.  They already have two test modules in Earth orbit and are working on a bigger version to be launched in the next couple of years.  NASA has a role in space, I think, but so do private entities.

Could plans for one-way Mars trips be the thing that finally spurs us to being human exploration and colonization of the planet?  That’s what Earth scientist Dirk Schulze-Makuch and physicist Paul Davies argue in a new article in the Journal of Cosmology.  I think our species needs to colonize other bodies if we are to survive on galactic time-scales.  I’m unsure whether one-way trips are the way to kick that process off, but am open to the idea.

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Apophis & Antoher Successful Private Rocket Launch

Scientists have continued to refine the asteroid Apophis‘ future trajectory.  Their most recent calculations show a decreasing probability of a potential strike by Apophis on Earth in 2036.  Previous work had already discounted any strike in 2029.  The recent announcement holds some interesting language:

“Updated computational techniques and newly available data indicate the probability of an Earth encounter on April 13, 2036, for Apophis has dropped from one-in-45,000 to about four-in-a million.”

So the probability decreased from 1-in-45,000 to 1-in-250,000.  Notice how much unlikelier the chance seems when the world million is used.


Private entry into space comes closer to reality every day.  Progress is measured by relatively short-lived but attention-driven events like rocket launches.  A reusable private rocket test was successful last week.  Colorado had numerous connections to the launch, with launch services provided by UP Aerospace of Denver, CO and the program directed by Advanced Programs at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company in Littleton, CO.

New Mexico is trying to secure its place in space history with the world’s first purpose-driven spaceport, currently under construction.  Lockheed Martin has already has three successful test launches from Spaceport America.  Hopefully there are many more to follow.

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Biofuels Pilot Facility Opens In Southwest Colorado

From a press release:

Gov. Bill Ritter today hailed the grand opening of the Coyote Gulch algae-to-biofuels pilot facility in southwest Colorado, a first-of-its-kind project by Solix Biofuels Inc. and Southern Ute Alternative Energy.

“Congratulations to Solix and the Southern Utes for this innovative addition to Colorado’s New Energy Economy,” Gov. Ritter said. “This project is an important step forward as Colorado continues to lead America and the world toward a new energy future. As a spinoff from Colorado State University, Solix is clearly demonstrating the potential of the New Energy Economy ecosystem, from spurring groundbreaking research to creating jobs to increasing our energy independence.”

The Coyote Gulch Demonstration Facility is expected to produce the equivalent of 3,000 gallons per acre per year of algal oil by late 2009. The facility is located on two acres of Southern Ute tribal land. The company, which also operates in Fort Collins, has 50 employees, and about 10 of them will work full time at the Coyote Gulch plant.

“This facility illustrates why Colorado is leading the nation in the manufacturing, production and research of energy efficiency and renewable energy,” Gov. Ritter said. “It’s another example of how all of Colorado benefits when we work together – industry, government, universities and residents”

Founded in 2006, Solix develops low-cost scalable photo-bioreactors where algae grows inside plastic bags in place of open-pond conditions. The goal is to create a commercially viable biofuel that will help solve climate change and petroleum scarcity without competing with global food supply.

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NASA’s Lunar Reconnaisance Orbiter and Opportunity Rover Update – 5/26/09

With NASA’s ambitious Hubble repair mission behind us, it is time to take note of the next major mission to launch and mark an important milestone.  NASA’s Lunar Reconnaisance Orbiter remains on track for its June 17th launch.  The LRO will substantially add to NASA’s knowledge of lunar polar conditions. notes the following mission goals:

Using a suite of seven instruments, LRO will help identify safe landing sites for future human explorers, locate potential resources, characterize the radiation environment and test new technology.  The probe’s instruments will also allow scientists to explore the moon’s deepest craters, look beneath its surface for clues to the location of water ice, and identify and explore both permanently lit and permanently shadowed regions.

Joining the LRO in June will be the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite. Its mission is to impact the moon in a crater. The resulting plume of lunar material will be studied by the LRO, Earth-based instruments and possibly the Hubble Space Telescope for possible water ice, as well as other chemical compounds.

I’m looking forward to the successful launch of LRO and LCROSS.

The Opportunity Rover on Mars passed a phenomenal milestone recently: it has traveled more than 10 miles to date over 5 years of operations!  That’s not bad for a rover that was designed to travel 1km over 1 year of operation.  I’ll say this for NASA: they like things to be spectacular.  Either spectacular successes or spectacular failures seem to be the result of missions – manned and unmanned.

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Quick Hit: Hubble Spotted Planet Back in 1998

The Hubble Space Telescope was the first instrument to capture HR 8799b – an exosolar planet revolving around its parent star – back in 1998.   Due to the difficulty of the technique involved to detect the planet in the Hubble data, the planet was first announced by two other teams of planet hunters. Astronomers knew of the planet’s existence from images taken with the Keck and Gemini North telescopes in 2007 and 2008.  The new technique, using Hubble data, could unveil plenty of new exosolar planets.  There are over 10 years’ of Hubble data archived, after all.  200 stars have been examined by Hubble using the same technique as the one that ‘found’ HR 8799b.  I would be willing to bet that at least one additional exosolar planet is lurking in that archive, which is only one good reason to maintain that dataset.

It’s worth noting that NASA recently launched the Kepler Space Telescope.  It’s goal is to identify Earth-sized planets, not monsters like HR 8799b.

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Quick Hit: ISS Solar Wings Getting Unpacked

Shuttle Discovery’s astronauts are in the midst of a two-day project to unload and unpack the last truss segment and last set of solar arrays at the International Space Station.

I didn’t know until now that these solar arrays were actually the first constructed for the station.  They’ve been tested repeatedly on Earth prior to their packing and launch for this flight.  Hopefully their installation and deployment are done without incident.

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United Launch Alliance Contracted for Four NASA Missions

There’s new science news that’s good for Colorado: United Launch Alliance has been chosen by NASA to launch four missions through 2014.  The deal is worth about $600 million to the Colorado economy.  According to a NASA press release:

The launches will be from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. The four payloads are the Radiation Belt Storm Probes mission, the Magnetospheric Multiscale mission, and the Tracking and Data Relay Satellites K and L, or TDRS-K and TDRS-L, missions.

Planned for launch in 2011, the NASA Radiation Belt Storm Probes mission uses two almost identical spacecraft built by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. For two years, the twin probes will study the radiation belts surrounding Earth to improve our understanding of how the sun’s changing energy flow affects them.

Two new Tracking and Data Relay satellites will be launched, TDRS-K and TDRS-L, to replenish the NASA communications relay network that provides voice, data, video and telemetry links between spacecraft below geosynchronous orbit and the ground. Among the major users of the relay network are the International Space Station and NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. The launches are planned for 2012 and 2013.

The Magnetospheric Multiscale mission is a NASA space physics research effort to discover the fundamental plasma physics processes of magnetic reconnection that occurs when energy emanating from the sun’s solar wind interacts with the Earth’s magnetic field. Four identical satellites will be launched together in a stacked configuration. They will fly in an elliptical orbit around Earth. The Magnetospheric Multiscale Project is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., under a contract with the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. The launch is planned for 2014.

This is the kind of benefit that science can bring to a state.  Each mission will be launched aboard a ULA Atlas V rocket.  Such an undertaking requires a great deal of intensive scientific support – to build and support the vehicles.  Colorado benefits greatly from having institutions of higher education in place to produce the scientists and engineers necessary for these mission launches.  Colorado futher benefits from having a large footprint of aerospace-related companies.  Those companies employ folks who are very well paid, benefiting their local and state governments.  Kudos to NASA and ULA for partnering on these vehicles.  Kudos to Colorado for attracting and keeping companies like ULA.

Cross-posted at SquareState.

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Quick Hit: Discovery Launch Postponed

This is slightly older news, but the shuttle Discovery’s launch that was set for Wednesday has been posponed due to a hydrogen gas leak.  The new launch date has been set for Monday the 16th.  Discovery is slated to deliver the last truss segment and the last set of solar panels to the International Space Station.  A replacement part to the urination recycling unit delivered in November is also supposed to go up.  The solar panels and urination system will allow the ISS crew to grow from 3 to 6 persons.


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