So far our galactic adventures have included landing men on the moon, taking pretty pictures of Saturn, and roaming the surface of Mars. So what’s next on NASA’s to-do list? Perhaps snagging an asteroid to keep in our own backyard.
Researchers from the Keck Institute for Space Studies proposed a plan [pdf] in April to bring an asteroid into the moon’s orbit so astronauts can study it up close. How big an asteroid are we talking? Researchers said the sweet spot would be right around 500 tons and 20 feet in diameter—big enough to locate but small enough to transport. After finding such an asteroid, researchers want to send a robotic spacecraft to bag and drag the asteroid into the moon’s orbit. The asteroid would in effect become the moon’s own mini moon. The round-trip journey could take up to a decade, which would give NASA enough time to set up a manned mission to the asteroid to study it up close and personal. So far NASA has not turned the proposal down.
Neil Armstrong, the astronaut who took a giant leap for mankind, died on Saturday at the age of 82. Reserved and shy, Armstrong always insisted that he wasn’t a hero despite some fairly heroic acts.
The unflappable commander of Apollo 11, he braved a mission that he thought had only 50-50 odds of landing on the Moon, and a decent chance of never returning home. And when he realized that the original lunar landing site was untenable, he took over from the computer to manually find a new site and set down—while fuel supplies ticked away. After returning to Earth, Armstrong’s natural reserve didn’t stop him from reaching out and sharing his experience, even after he retired from NASA to teach at the University of Cincinnati.
In the wee hours after midnight on Monday, the Mars Science Laboratory, known to its many admirers as “Curiosity,” touched down on Mars—and ever since, photos have been trickling in from the Red Planet.
This image isn’t just a great shot of Curiosity’s shadow; it also shows us the rover’s goal: Mount Sharp, that great big mountain in the middle of Gale Crater. Curiosity will trundle up to the mountain and probe its strata to uncover the past and present Martian environment.
Ever wondered how the Tiangong-1 module of China’s in-progress space station measures up to, say, the International Space Station? Over at the astronomy blog Supernova Condensate, molecular astrophysicist Invader Xan has created an infographic comparing the sizes of various spacefaring vessels. It’s fun to see how different ships stack up next to each other, like the British spaceplane Skylon versus the U.S.’s recently retired spaceplane (i.e., the Space Shuttle). And Invader Xan also made a bonus image to demonstrate how our past may compare to the future, where no man has gone before.
[via Boing Boing]
In the search for life beyond our planet, astrophysicists and astronomers are usually the starring characters. Through SETI, they are listening for transmissions from aliens, and through telescopes like Kepler and research in arid regions of Earth they are studying what it might take for life to arise elsewhere. But those scientists are themselves being studied: by anthropologists. Wired has a thoughtful interview with Kathryn Denning, an anthropologist who specializes in understanding how people think about space exploration and alien life. Here’s one choice tidbit, in which she describes what she thinks of one common story of first contact: a signal from intelligent life electrifies humanity, which subsequently settles its differences and unites under a common banner.
Denning: One way to read that, in the most general sense, is that it’s a narrative that makes us feel better.
Artist’s rendering of AVIATR flying on Titan.
Saturn’s moon Titan is a lot like Earth: it has rain, seasons, volcanoes, and maybe even life. Well, it’s not exactly like Earth: the rain is liquid methane, the volcanoes spew ice, and any life would be based on methane. But still, it’s an interesting and relatively Earth-like place, considering the other planets and moons in our solar system. And University of Idaho physicist Jason Barnes says he has a perfect way to explore this moon: with a flying drone.
Why use a flying machine rather than the rovers that worked so well on Mars? With 1/7 the gravity but 4 times the atmospheric density of Earth, flying through Titan is 28 times easier than on our own planet. In fact, it’s the easiest place to fly in our entire solar system. Drones on Titan can be heavier while requiring less fuel. With these facts in hand, University of Idaho physicist Jason Barnes has proposed AVIATR, otherwise known as the Aerial Vehicle for In-situ and Airborne Titan Reconnaissance.
Humankind’s experience visiting worlds beyond our own begins and ends with the dozen Apollo astronauts who skipped about on tiny swaths of the moon. But that doesn’t mean we can’t experiment with how and where we might visit (or live) on the extreme surfaces of other worlds. A few studies out recently are doing just that.
Radiation? Big deal
Our planet provides a protective shield from the most damaging radiation produced by the sun—a shield not available on the moon or Mars. It’s a hazard for any human leaving the planet, and it’s a hazard for plants, too.
However, a new study of the Chernobyl area in the Ukraine, site of the famous nuclear accident, is actually raising hopes for space farming.
Even 25 years after the catastrophic nuclear accident at Chernobyl, the area around the site harbors radioactive soil. But researchers working there have found that oil-rich flax plants can adapt and flourish in that fouled environment with few problems. Exactly how the flax adapted remains unclear, but what is clear is that two generations of flax plants have taken root and thrived there, and that could have big implications for growing plants aboard spacecraft or on other planets at some point in the future. [Popular Science]
NanoSail-D, phone home.
On December 6, NASA launched its Fast, Affordable, Science and Technology Satellite (FASTSAT), which, among other cargo, carried the test craft NanoSail-D. No bigger than a breadbox, NanoSail-D was supposed to blast free from FASTSAT and spend three days floating free before spreading a 100-square-foot solar sail—what would be NASA’s first successful solar sail project. But while all signs initially indicated the 8-pound box succeeded in ejecting from the satellite, now NASA is not so sure. The agency is having trouble communicating with NanoSail-D, and its whereabouts are unknown.
“We have not been able to locate or make contact with NanoSail-D,” says Kim Newton of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The sail was scheduled to unfurl on 9 December, but NASA reports that the deployment of the sail cannot be confirmed, and it is not clear whether the sail was successfully ejected into space. [New Scientist]
This summer, Japan’s golden solar sail unfurled in space, becoming the first successful mission to sail on the physical pressure of the sun’s radiation. Its success led dreamers like Planetary Society director Bill Nye to envision a future of machines pushed forward by the pressure of lasers to explore the cosmos. And now, down here on Earth, researchers say they have demonstrated one of the key principles needed to realize such a vision: a “lightfoil” that uses light to create lift.
The lightfoil described in Nature Photonics is only micrometers in scale, but lead researcher Grover Swartzlander argues that it shows scientists can create and control optical lift. It operates on the property of refraction–how glass bends light.
Optical lift is different from the aerodynamic lift created by an airfoil. A plane flies because air flowing more slowly under its wing exerts more pressure than the faster-moving air flowing above. But in a lightfoil, the lift is created inside the object as the beam shines through. The shape of the transparent lightfoil causes light to be refracted differently depending on where it goes through, which causes a corresponding bending of the beam’s momentum that creates lift. [Science News]
This neat trick could potentially be used to steer a spacecraft, the researchers say.