Listen, people of Earth: Everything’s going to be fine. All we have to do is survive another century or two without self-destructing as a species. Then we’ll get off this rock, spread throughout space, and everything will be all right.
If this is not your idea of “optimism,” then you are not Stephen Hawking. The esteemed physicist garnered headlines, and some eye-rolls, after telling Big Think last week that humanity needs to leave the Earth in the future or face extinction.
He’s not knocking climate scientists’ attempts to figure things out on Earth–he’s just thinking long term. “There have been a number of times in the past when our survival has been touch-and-go,” explains Hawking at Big Think, mentioning the Cuban Missile Crisis, and “the frequency of such occasions is likely to increase in the future…. Our population and our use of the finite resources of the planet earth are growing exponentially along with our technical ability to change the environment for good or ill,” while “our genetic code still caries our selfish and aggressive instincts” [The Atlantic].
Combined with Hawking’s statement earlier this year that it might be dangerous to contact aliens because they could come and wipe us out, the physicist’s latest warning makes it feel like he’s increasingly a member of the gloom-and-doom crowd. But not so. He’s just the kind of person who thinks on the long, long term.
Let’s jump back to another publicly engaged scientist: Carl Sagan’s message in Cosmos that the stars await… if we don’t destroy ourselves.
Usually, a hitch encountered while fixing an air conditioner doesn’t make the news–except when that AC orbits 220 miles above the earth, requires astronaut mechanics, and remains inoperable after the sixth longest spacewalk in history.
Last week, we discussed a broken ammonia cooling loop–one of two keeping the International Space Station air-conditioned and habitable. Though the second loop is keeping the six astronauts aboard comfortable, they prefer to be more than mishap away from a 500 degree Fahrenheit temperature difference across their orbiting laboratory. Now, following Saturday’s eight-hour spacewalk, the cooling loop is closer to repair but will require two additional walks. The next will occur no earlier than Wednesday, a NASA press release says.
On Saturday, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe took the world’s closest pictures of the 80- by 50-mile-wide asteroid known as 21 Lutetia. Though the Lutetia visit is just a stop on the way to Rosetta’s real destination–a 2014 visit to the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko–Saturday’s pictures document the closest visit to this big asteroid, the largest we’ve ever visited with a spacecraft.
We’ve known about Lutetia for quite a while: since 1852, according to Sky and Telescope. In November of that year, Hermann Goldschmidt spotted the space rock from his Paris balcony. The asteroid is now around 280 million miles from the Sun. From only 2,000 miles away, Rosetta got a much closer look at Lutetia, whipping around it at about 10 miles per second (30,000 miles per hour) as its OSIRIS camera snapped pictures recording details down to a few dozen meters.
“The fly-by has been a spectacular success with Rosetta performing fautlessly,” ESA said in a statement. “Just 24 hours ago, Lutetia was a distant stranger. Now, thanks to Rosetta, it has become a close friend.” [AFP]
The Falcon 9 rocket blasted away from its Florida launch pad this afternoon, marking a major victory for the private space company SpaceX. The company, founded by the daring entrepreneur Elon Musk, hopes to build space taxis for NASA that can ferry cargo and crew to the International Space Station.
As we reported earlier today, Musk downplayed expectations for the test launch. But judging from the company’s live webcast, the procedure appeared to go remarkably well. Three minutes after liftoff the two stages of the rocket separated and the second stage’s engines ignited; nine minutes after liftoff the rocket achieved Earth orbit.
SpaceX verified that the rocket reached orbit, but hasn’t released any further information yet (stay tuned for details). If all continued to go as planned, SpaceX engineers are now studying the dummy version of the crew module, called the Dragon Spacecraft, that went up with the rocket and is now orbiting the planet. The plan called for Dragon to make several orbits and then reenter the Earth’s atmosphere and splash down in the Pacific Ocean, where SpaceX could retrieve it for study.
Today’s successful launch also gives a boost to President Obama’s proposal to let private space companies take over the routine tasks of space flight, allowing NASA to set its sights higher–a plan that has been met with considerable opposition. Following the Falcon 9’s launch, NASA administrator Charles Bolden praised the company in a statement:
“Congratulations to Space X on today’s launch of its Falcon 9 launch vehicle. Space X’s accomplishment is an important milestone in the commercial transportation effort and puts the company a step closer to providing cargo services to the International Space Station.” [NASA]
80beats: Today: The First Test Launch of the SpaceX Astronaut Taxi
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The scene is set at Cape Canaveral: Atop the two-stage Falcon 9 rocket sits a dummy of the Dragon Spacecraft capsule that could one day taxi cargo and astronauts to and from the International Space Station. This will be the first launch of the the rocket, built by the privately-owned company SpaceX and funded in part by a $1.6 billion contract with NASA. The Falcon 9 should take off between 11 this morning and 3 in the afternoon (eastern daylight time), though the company has reserved a second launch window for tomorrow. Currently, a live feed of the launch pad shows the rocket primed to go, but announces a launch delay of unknown duration.
SpaceX’s ultimate goals for this test, as described on the company’s website: “launch and separate from Falcon 9, orbit Earth, transmit telemetry, receive commands, demonstrate orbital maneuvering and thermal control, re-enter atmosphere, and recover Dragon spacecraft.” This is a pretty big wish list, since many first launches have failed, including several of SpaceX’s own early attempts with the Falcon 9’s predecessor, the smaller Falcon 1 rocket. So SpaceX company founder Elon Musk hedged his bets when asked what he expected from the Falcon 9’s debut launch.
All aboard for fake Mars!
Earlier today, a six-man crew battened down the hatches on an 1,800-square-foot module for 520 days of isolation as they pretend to go to Mars and back again. The Mars-500 project, run by the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems (IBMP) and funded in part by the European Space Agency, hopes to test the psychological mettle required for such a journey.
“See you in 520 days!” shouted Russia’s Sukhrob Kamolov as he was sealed inside the simulator at around 1000 GMT. [Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty]
The trip will have three stages, including the trip to and from Mars and a simulated landing and planet exploration.
Psychologists said the simulation can be even more demanding that a real flight because the crew won’t experience any of the euphoria or dangers of actual space travel. They have also warned that months of space travel would push the team to the limits of endurance as they grow increasingly tired of each other. [AP]
These boys are all dressed up with no place to go.
Two weeks from today, a team—made of three Russians, two Europeans, and one Chinese (with a Russian as an alternate)—will begin the longest trip to nowhere any of them has ever taken. These men will be locked in isolation for 520 days to simulate what astronauts would endure on a trip to Mars, part of a project called Mars500. It follows a 105-day test that the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems (IBMP) ran last year.
“The biggest risk of such an isolation is psychological,” said researcher Alexander Suvorov who is leading the experiment at the IBMP. “Of course relations between the crew will not always be harmonious, some will get on with others, others will not. But the priority is to be able to carry out tasks in spite of this” [AFP].
The Orion capsule is dead; long live the Orion capsule. Yesterday in the New Mexico desert, NASA successfully completed a test of the resurrected craft’s launch-abort system. Rockets blasting with 500,000 pounds of thrust carried it more than a mile into the sky before releasing it for a parachute-aided descent back to the Earth.
The launch-abort system is designed to pull the astronauts and the Orion capsule away from the launch pad in the event of a problem such as fire. It is also designed to catapult them away from the rocket if an emergency occurs during the climb to orbit [The Denver Post].
Orion, however, may never need this launch-abort system. The craft was originally intended to be the crew capsule in the Constellation program, riding into space atop heavy-lift rockets and ferrying astronauts back to the moon or to Mars. Like the rest of Constellation it was left out of President Obama‘s January budget.
Battered, drained of fuel, and travel-weary, Japan’s asteroid-sampler is almost home. The Hayabusa, which the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launched in 2003, is scheduled to drop its sample canister in the Australian outback in June. But, the project leaders warn, there’s still a chance than the beleaguered sojourner won’t make it. And even if it does successfully return to Earth, it’s possible that the sample capsule may not contain extraterrestrial rock.
Hayabusa spent three months exploring the Itokawa asteroid in late 2005, even making an unplanned landing on the asteroid’s surface. The probe spent up to a half-hour on Itokawa, making it the first spacecraft to lift off from an asteroid [Space.com]. The craft also took 1,600 pictures and more than 100,000 infrared images.
If you wanted dangerous, you got it.
One week ago today, in response to heavy criticism for killing the Constellation program begun under his predecessor, President Obama presented his revised vision for NASA: To build a new heavy lift spacecraft that will go beyond low Earth orbit and land on an asteroid by around 2025. This goal is far more ambitious than going back to the moon. Space experts say such a voyage could take several months longer than a journey to the moon and entail far greater dangers. “It is really the hardest thing we can do,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said [AP].
NASA doesn’t know which of the nearby asteroids it might pick for a visit, but the main candidates are around 5 million miles from Earth. The moon, by contrast, is a little less than a quarter-million miles away. The asteroids are about a quarter-mile across; the moon is more than 2,000 miles in diameter. And a trip to an asteroid could take 200 days, as opposed to the Apollo 11 lunar round-trip, which required little more than a week. That means NASA may have to devise new radiation shields and life-support systems for the asteroid-bound astronauts.