A little flurry of space-related headlines have blown into my RSS Zeitgeist:
- Next Big Future has screengrabs from (and links to) two reports from the University of Texas looking at the practicality of human exploration beyond Low Earth Orbit before the end of the decade. Lagrange Point habitat, anyone?
- Astrobotic Technology Inc have their eyes on the Google Lunar X Prize, and have signed up with commercial space outfit SpaceX to launch their probe, possibly as soon as December 2013
- Also at Next Big Future (via Tobias Buckell; I must have missed this one bobbing along in the newsriver), Bigelow Aerospace expands its production plant by 185,000 square feet, with plans to expand the current workforce to around ten times the size
- The Space Fence project (previously) is down from three contractors to two, but work now begins on the preliminary systems designs and prototypes (I figure if the projects are only at this stage, my suspicions about the promo images being somewhat speculative are confirmed; not saying they represent an impossibility, but that they’re not images of an existing and functional installation)
- Once Space Fence has spotted a chunk or orbital crud, what then? The Japanese Space Agency proposes using a pre-space technology for scooping them up out of harm’s way: a kilometers-wide fishing net.
Stay tuned for further developments… 🙂
A new analysis of NASA data to be published today has something interesting and unexpected to say about the Moon [via MetaFilter]:
“It’s really wet,” said Anthony Colaprete, co-author of one of the Science papers and a space scientist at NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. He and his colleagues estimate that 5.6% of the total mass of the targeted lunar crater’s soil consists of water ice. In other words, 2,200 pounds of moon dirt would yield a dozen gallons of water.
The presence of water doesn’t make it more likely that there ever was life on the moon, as the location studied is among the coldest in the solar system. But the large quantity boosts the case for a manned lunar base from which to launch other interplanetary adventures. Water is crucial because its components, hydrogen and oxygen, are key ingredients for rocket fuel. Oxygen can also be extracted from water to make breathable air.
I’ll bet there’s more than a few handfuls of far-sighted space-business types adding that data to their long-term planning dossiers. Orbitals first, lunar base second, and from there the solar system’s your oyster…
… or alternatively, the world’s super-rich can decamp to the water-rich Moon while the rest of us fight over the limited amount of it available to us down at this end of the gravity well. There’s at least one novel in that idea, I reckon.
Joseph Shoer of Quantum Rocketry doesn’t post all that often, but every now and again he puts out a gem. Here he is imagining what you’d need to do to put together a robotic mission to explore Europa, the Jovian moon that’s mostly ocean with a thick icy crust, complete with little diagrams of what the modules might look like:
As Jupiter rises overhead, its tides will pull apart the two sides of the ice fracture. The IFE will be suspended in the middle as the crack opens, with nothing below it until the ocean 1-10 km down! At this point, the IFE will drop its deflated cushions and begin to deploy a smaller penetrator vehicle from its underside. The penetrator is a small, two-stage vehicle with two instrument packages, a hard-shell body, and a data line connecting it to the IFE’s main bus.
Pure hard-SF space geekery of the best type. As Shoer points out, manned missions to Europa are pretty much a non-starter; even if we could get people there, the radiation would roast them pretty quickly. But throw some transhuman moravec explorers into the mix, and you’ve got the start of a great story…
Sending humans into space is an admirable civilisational goal, but is the expense of nation-state funded projects justifiable? Britain’s Astronomer Royal Martin Rees would argue that it’s not:
“The moon landings were an important impetus to technology but you have to ask the question, what is the case for sending people back into space?” said Rees. “I think that the practical case gets weaker and weaker with every advance in robotics and miniaturisation. It’s hard to see any particular reason or purpose in going back to the moon or indeed sending people into space at all.”
Speaking to Cambridge Ideas, Rees remained enthusiastic about manned space travel, but thought it would be rather different in style from what we have seen before.
“I hope indeed that some people now living will walk on Mars, but I think they will do this with the same motive as those who climb Everest or the pioneer explorers,” he said.
“I think the future for manned space exploration will be a cut-price, high-risk programme – perhaps even partly privately funded – which would be an adventure, more than anything practical,” he said.
Not everyone agrees, of course – including the Obama administration, China, India and the European Space Agency. But I think Rees has a point, in that nation-states aren’t going to provide the main thrust of such projects in the long run, at least not in the West; they’re too risk-averse to pull it off within budget. Commerce will be the driving force, if there is one… as suggested in Jason Stoddard’s Winning Mars, perhaps.
Seeing as how SpaceX managed to pull off the first commercial rocket launch to reach orbit over the weekend, I figure we’re allowed to get a bit excited about space again… it’s a welcome distraction from the World Cup, if nothing else. It might have been even more of a distraction to our antipodean friends, some of whom spotted weird lights in the sky that may (or may not) have been parts of the Falcon 9 falling back to Earth [via SlashDot].
But who can we trust to tell us the truth of it, hmmm? After all, the Chinese have a history of telling porkies about their space program, and hell knows the Cold War space race was all about giving the people the story you wanted them to believe… it might be fun to work as a spin doctor for a multinational space company.
Speaking of the Cold War, did you know that Venera, the Russian mission to Venus, was the first to send back photographic images from another planet? If any nation-state or corporation is taking a poll on where we should send space probes next, my vote goes for Titan – it’d be fun to find out if those atmospheric anomalies are actually the signal of methane-based microbial life that they appear to be…