Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Should Families Be Trained For Space?

With all of the problems that could go wrong in space, nothing is more serious, more threatening towards human settlement in the cosmos than humans themselves.

Despite intense training physically and mentally, long term isolation may be more than most humans can bare, with irritation, boredom or the "need to breed" causing unnecessary conflict to arise. Usually frequent contact with ones family, alongside of random gifts are enough to keep a person in check mentally, but it may be unreasonable to expect someone to remain sane while separated from kin for years.

One way to resolve this issue would be to enlist families of future colonists to travel alongside their loved ones in order to not only reduce stress, but also help settle foreign worlds. Despite the fact that raising a families millions of miles away from Earth may sound risky (especially if parents have young children), the experience may serve to inform our race whether or not we will be able to call hostile worlds our own.

Some organizations seem to have envisioned colonists raising their families off world, most notably on the red planet. 4Frontiers, a company dedicated towards colonizing the Moon, Mars and eventually the asteroids themselves seems to have envisioned this concept which they frequently portray in their stories of kids growing up on the Martian landscape.

Raising a family off world may prove to be more difficult than on Earth, with the hazards of space, technology and supplies being major hurdles to overcome. But families seem to have a stronger group bond than strangers which may enable humanity to overcome many of the problems of isolation, enabling us to call distant worlds like Mars our own.

Life Imitates Star Trek: NASA Pursues Life Scanner

With scientists attempting to build technology to locate life on other worlds, they may be constructing a useful device to locate lost future travelers hiking on foreign soils.

(Red Orbit) NASA-funded researchers are refining a tool that could not only check for the faintest traces of life's molecular building blocks on Mars, but could also determine whether they have been produced by anything alive. [...]

"Urey will be able to detect key molecules associated with life at a sensitivity roughly a million times greater than previous instrumentation," said Dr. Jeffrey Bada of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. Bada is the principal investigator for an international team of scientists and engineers working on various components of the device.

Despite the fact it may be a century before we find any signs of life on Mars (although we may have settled the planet by then), this life scanner could prove to be quite useful not only on planets, but for detecting life aboard dying space craft as well (an advanced version for rescuers that is).

NASA Finally Considers Inflatable Space Bases

(Hat Tip: Space Scan)

Despite the fact that Bigelow Aerospace is already developing inflatable lunar bases (not to mention space stations), NASA seems to have caught the vision that perhaps its easier, cheaper and (hopefully) safer to inflate our lunar homes rather than haul them pre-assembled on the Moon.

(Physorg.com) "Inflatables can be used as connectors or tunnels between crew quarters and can provide radiation shelter if covered with lunar regolith (soil)," said Chris Moore, Exploration Technology Development Program program executive at NASA Headquarters.

As a starting point, ILC Dover has delivered a 12-foot (3.65 meter) diameter inflatable structure made of multilayer fabric to Langley for ground-based evaluation of emerging technologies such as flexible structural health monitoring systems, self-healing materials and radiation protective materials. Attached to the structure is a smaller inflatable structure that serves as a demonstration airlock. Both are essentially pressurized cylinders, connected by an airtight door.

Although they may look very "goofy," inflatable space bases may prove to be more useful than their metallic and glass cousins. With the ever present danger of space rocks raining down from above, an inflatable space base may prove to be more expendable and easier to replace than the previous vision of a lunar base.

Despite being less glamorous than glass and steel, inflatable space bases may help lower the overall cost to settle human colonies off world. With cheaper access to space, we may one day find our decendents grumbling how boring it is living off world inside an inflatable habitat and wishing for the opportunity to settle back on our home planet.

Video: Is Virgin Galatic Becoming Profitable?

(Hat Tip: Space Pragmatism)

Despite receiving more than its fair share of spot light in the private space industry, Virgin Galactic seems to be doing fairly well despite the fact that its market is quickly becoming filled with competitors.

While other space tourism companies remain silent on how many customers they have, Virgin Galactic does not feel shy revealing how many space tourism clients they have signed up.

(MSNBC) At present, Virgin Galactic has $20 million in deposits, said Will Whitehorn, the company’s president. "We just surpassed the 200-customer level in terms of people who have actually made a financial commitment, put their money down and signed their contracts," Whitehorn said.

Space travel registrations on the Virgin Galactic Web site number about 82,000 expressions of interest, Whitehorn said. "Those registrations are genuine...with quite a number prepared to sign in the next three or four years. But they do want to see a finished spaceship before they are prepared to commit. I don't blame them for that. We're hoping to have a working spaceship that's actually commencing spaceflight in its test mode by the middle of 2008."

With the private sector gaining respect in the media, private space flights should help "whet the appetite" for the cosmos, helping to make space a reality for the general population.

Virgin Galactic is offering rides to the final frontier for around $200,000, and they have released a video highlighting why that money would be better spent in the heavens than on earth.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Can Bigelow Aerospace Bring Us To The Stars?

Bigelow Aerospace, known for their unique approach towards orbital space stations may have concrete plans for establishing lunar colonies on a world all too familiar to the space industry.

(Cosmic Log) But by 2012, the focus could start shifting from low Earth orbit, or LEO, farther out into space. One of the key places in Bigelow's plan is a point about 200,000 miles (323,000 kilometers) out from Earth in the moon's direction, where the pulls of terrestrial and lunar gravity balance each other.

Bigelow would turn that region of space, called L1, into a construction zone. Inflatable modules would be linked up with propulsion/power systems and support structures, and then the completed base would be lowered down to the moon's surface, all in one piece.

Once the moon base has been set down, dirt would be piled on top, using a technique that Bigelow plans to start testing later this year at his Las Vegas headquarters. The moon dirt, more technically known as regolith, would serve to shield the base's occupants from the harsh radiation hitting the lunar surface.

If Bigelow can successfully launch, assemble, transport and land their inflatable colonies on the Moon by 2010, this will be a significant achievement for not only the private space sector, but humanity as a whole.

Although some will simply brush this off as another lunar attempt, many people have to realize that previously it took an entire nation (backed by billions of dollars) in order to land someone on the moon over 50 years ago.

For a company this size to accomplish a similar goal (at a fraction of the cost) is not merely incredible, but unparalleled.

Note: If Bigelow is able to do this, would this put NASA's Vision for Space Exploration out of business, along with make the International Space Station irrelevant?

Is It Man Or Machine? Michael Laine Enlightens

(Hat Tip: LiftPort, Plus video below)

It seems no matter who you talk to within the space community you will generally find two arguments for going into space--one side is all about science revealing our place in the Universe (via robots) while the other is about populating the Universe (via humans) and charting our own destiny.

Michael Laine from LiftPort seems to have answered this question after being interviewed by Radio Open Source (listen to the audio over here)

Well, one of the things that is at the heart of the man verses robotics question is [...] Is it moon verses Mars? Is it man verses robotics?

It doesn't have to be a one verses the other. [...] If you've got--and thats Elon's goal, and thats my goal, thats everybody in the space communities goal--if you have cheap reliable safe access to space, it doesn't have to be one or against the other.

[W]hat we're looking to do is [...] get [a] better bang for your buck so you don't have to choose.

Humanity owes a huge debt to our robots who have definitely increased our knowledge of the cosmos (not to mention locating valuable resources and notable hazards, all the while snapping beautiful photos).

However, if humanity simply uses robots to explore the universe then our space program will continue to lose interest among the youth which can easily result in its early demise. Adding humans to the mix may not only prove to be quite productive, but actually encourage the public to invest more (or at least justify the expense) into space.

After all, since when was the last time a robot convinced you of the value of exploring the final frontier?

(Video Hat Tip: NASA Watch)

Detecting Radiation In All The Wrong Places

With all of the potential for our race for exploring, colonizing and conquering future worlds, the biggest show stopper to our activities is radiation. Unless our race discovers a unique way to combat this threat, we may find ourselves living underground like the mole people.

Fortunately it seems a scientist is taking this research seriously and is developing a radiation detection device to warn astronauts when it is unsafe to stroll outside.

(SpaceRef.com) Pisacane, along with other faculty and midshipmen of the USNA, is developing a radiation detection and assessment system, called a microdosimeter, in partnership with NSBRI. The instrument will measure radiation doses on the cellular level and help determine regulatory dose limits for scientific and medical purposes.

"In space, we can't predict when radiation events occur nor their severity, so it's crucial to develop a rugged, light-weight, portable system that can make real-time measurements of radiation environments," said Pisacane, R.A. Heinlein Professor of Aerospace Engineering in USNA's Aerospace Engineering Department. "Spacesuits and spacecrafts integrated with microdosimeter sensors can help assess risk, provide warning at the onset of enhanced radiation so astronauts can take protective action, and help crews determine safe locations during these periods."

Although both the Moon and Mars lack a global magnetic field, their fields have enough strength to provide certain zones of protection, respectively.

Unless humanity can figure out a way to create an artificial magnetic field for a planet (or enhance the world's current field), humanity may have to resort to living within shielded biospheres indefinitely.

Building A Better Spacesuit

One of the few things keeping the human body from freezing, burning and drying to death is the "ever lovable" spacesuit. Despite the benefit they provide towards astronauts, the suits themselves are quite bulky, making it less comfortable to actually work on the lunar surface.

One researcher is going about to change all of this, by giving these suits a complete makeover.

(Red Orbit) "I can't tell you how many times I watched the astronauts fall down on the lunar videos," she joked. "Obviously, it isn't meant to be funny. But it's difficult for them to get up with the survival pack on their back and those bulky suits. We're hoping our new research projects will lead to a streamlined space suit that makes it easy to navigate the terrain." [...]

"For one thing, it's clear that the placement of the life support pack is too high on the astronaut," Scott-Pandorf said. "Possible redesign ideas are to alter the pack to fit the front and back of the space suit evenly or create a pack that attaches closer to the waist, which would lower the astronaut's center of gravity. It's the same idea as if you were balancing on a surf board bending your knees and staying low. This lowers your center of mass and allows you more stability."

After watching the videos is fairly obvious that NASA's spacesuits were designed more to do a job (i.e. keep the astronauts alive) than to actually be comfortable.

With the private sector becoming more serious about transporting humans into space, comfortable spacesuits will increasingly be apart of the menu (as space tourists would probably enjoy the Moon more on their feet than on their face).

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Is Outer Space Really Our Salvation?

If an observer were to dip their head inside the space industry, one would notice the rush to settle humanity either on the Moon, Mars or upon future space stations orbiting Earth. There seems to be a mass movement dedicated towards ensuring that our species establishes a "beta home" elsewhere, just in case we are wiped out from either an asteroid or a biological and/or nuclear war.

But if we were even able to settle on other terrestrial bodies tomorrow, would our species be able to survive without Earth?

Unlike the other worlds that orbit our star, Earth lies in what many scientists regard as the habitable zone. Within this region of space, a planet hosting a friendly atmosphere can have liquid waters gracing its surface, an important feature enabling complex ecosystems to survive (let alone thrive).

Other worlds such as Mars lie outside of this zone, and despite showing signs of harboring liquid water within its soils, it lacks the sufficient temperature to maintain water in this state upon its surface. Although some argue that aggressive terraforming could alter Mars into a second Earth, it would take at least a thousand years (if not longer) to transform this barren world, not to mention trillions of dollars.

Unlike most other rocky bodies in the solar system, Earth also boasts a magnetosphere, a key ingredient required for living organisms as cosmic radiation is not known to be healthy. Although both the Moon and Mars each maintain an active magnetosphere, neither are strong enough to cover their entire worlds, respectively.

Even though Mercury and Jupiter's moon Ganymede boast a global magnetosphere, both are either too close or too far away from the sun to host vibrant environments for plants and animals, at least in the near future.

Unlike Earth, most (if not all) of the worlds and moons that orbit the Sun do not harbor soils that are generally friendly towards plant life. Although Mars is often regarded by many as humanities second home, its soil may be too toxic for growing plants upon it directly.

Despite the fact that our lunar neighbor shows some promise (however small), it lacks large bodies of water necessary to support life on that airless body.

Even if humanity were able to transport millions of people upon the Moon and Mars, and yet lose Earth, our species would probably face the cold reality of extinction. Establishing colonies upon other worlds is no guarantee towards our survival abroad, as colonies would still be dependent upon Earth for tons of fertile soil for growing grain (as well as animals for meat) in the near and distant future.

Whether by cosmic chance or divine will, Earth is the oasis of the solar system, the only world capable of supporting life without the need of biospheres (something we still have not perfected). Earth is the "only Eden" that humanity has, whether we like it or not. Outer space is an opportunity for our species, one that can drastically improve life upon our home world whether it be through energy, communication, agriculture or medicine.

But space (with all of its resources) could never replace our world, and if our species can not take care of our Earthen cradle, then there is no guarantee that will be fit enough to survive on a second world.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Are Carbon Nanotubes Self Healing?

One of the basic building blocks of a space elevator are carbon nanotubes (or CNT). Despite their promise of making the space elevator feasible, unless the CNT ribbon can be repaired, space elevators may enjoy a short lifespan due to radiation from the Sun, micrometeorites, and wear and tear from climbers traveling up and down the ribbon.

But it seems as if some scientists have discovered unique feature of carbon nanotubes, which may help extend the CNT ribbon's warranty.

(ScienceDaily) The Rice University-led study offers the first explanation of how such tiny cylinders of carbon, no wider than a strand of DNA, can be so resilient: tiny "blemishes" crawl over the skin of damaged tubes, sewing up larger holes as they go.

"The shape and direction of this imperfection does not change and it never gets any larger," said Professor Boris Yakobson, the study's lead investigator. "We were amazed by it, but upon further study we found a good explanation. The atomic irregularity acts as a kind of safety valve, allowing the nanotube to release excess energy, in much the way that a valve allows steam to escape from a kettle."

If scientists can further exploit this trait, CNT'S could be engineered to last for decades before needing a "tune up." The space elevator's current weakness lies along the lines of actually repairing damage to the ribbon, which needs to be seriously addressed in order to avoid the whole structure from collapsing due to the elements as well as friction from the climbers.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Is The Moon A Beta Test For Mars?

Before our race decides to muster the courage to populate our solar system, we need to figure out our current strengths and weaknesses, as well as threats to colonizing a world.

Although Mars remains an attractive target for a new home, we may need to test our skills on a much closer body.

(Physorg.com) On the Moon, astronauts can develop and test techniques for building habitats, harvesting resources and operating machinery in low gravity, high vacuum, harsh radiation, pervasive dust and fantastic extremes of temperature—an environment whose prolonged combination is simply impossible to duplicate on Earth. What they learn will be useful not only on the Moon, but also essential for preparations in going to Mars.

Despite its awe and wonder, we must all realize that space is a very hostile environment, one where the slightest mistake could lead towards ones end within seconds. Even with all of our vast technology, humans are still very much dependent upon Earth for survival, as we have yet to develop a self sustaining biosphere.

Mars may inspire the masses, but it will be the Moon that proves whether or not our species has what it takes to survive off-world, let alone thrive millions of miles away from our home planet.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

New Mexico Spaceport Executive Has Died

(Hat Tip: Space Fellowship)

One of the men who helped pioneer commercial spaceports in New Mexico (which probably influenced other states and countries to construct similar ones) has passed away recently.

(Spaceport America) Governor Bill Richardson released the following statement today on the death of Lonnie Sumpter, executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority:

"Lonnie was a true public servant and dedicated the last 15 years of his life to building a new space industry in New Mexico," said Governor Bill Richardson. "As executive director of the NM Spaceport Authority he was a pioneer in his profession and a valued member of my Administration."

Sumpter will definitely be greatly missed by space enthusiasts within his state, as his vision helped spark the private space industry and convinced not only individuals, but government officials of its worth.

My prayers and thoughts are with Sumpter's family, friends and coworkers.

Merging Man With Machine Via Exoskeletons?

New technology may enable humans to interact with machines in ways only dreamed of by science fiction writers. Although built for people suffering from impaired nervous systems, this technology could open up a whole new frontier merging man with machine.

(Space Daily) A robotic exoskeleton controlled by the wearer's own nervous system could help users regain limb function, which is encouraging news for people with partial nervous system impairment, say University of Michigan researchers. The ankle exoskeleton developed at U-M was worn by healthy subjects to measure how the device affected ankle function. [...]

In the U-M device, electrodes were attached to the wearer's leg and those electrical signals received from the brain were translated into movement by the exoskeleton.

"The (artificial) muscles are pneumatic. When the computer gets the electrical signal from the (wearer's) muscle, it increases the air pressure into the artificial muscle on the brace," Ferris said. "Essentially the artificial muscle contracts with the person's muscle."

Although this technology has the potential of turning into something along the lines of Gundam Wing, this technology could easily be used for future astronauts not only in space, but also on the Moon and Mars. Exoskeletons could enable humans to easily mine planets, moons and asteroids, not to mention pilot a star ship by mere thought.

More Evidence Of Martian Underground Water

Martian scientists are getting excited with more evidence showing that Mars may have liquid water flowing underneath its surface.

(New Scientist Space) Water may have once flowed several kilometres beneath the surface of Mars in underground piping, according to new images of pipe-like fractures in bedrock taken by the most powerful camera in orbit around Mars. [...]

"These deeper underground areas may have been an oasis for any sort of biologic activity that may have been occurring," says Chris Okubo, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, US.

Some scientists think that Mars may hold oceans beneath its surface. If so, locating these underground reservoirs will definitely be key towards conquering the red planet as water can provide not only life, but fuel (via hydrogen) as well.

Is The UAE Setting Up A Spaceport?

Their are rumors that the United Arab Emirates (aka the UAE) may be partnering with Virgin Galactic in order to establish spaceport on Arabian soil.

(ArabianBusiness.com) Richard Branson, the British founder of Virgin and its myriad of business units, is a frequent visitor to the UAE and is rumoured to be in discussions to make it a hub for commercial space travel.

Bahrain is also being considered, according to a report in Arabian Business magazine.

The first location for Virgin Galactic will be the Mojave Spaceport in the Californian desert, but this is expected to be used primarily for space tourism.

According to the article, the UAE is already partnering with Space Adventures who is building the country a spaceport estimated to be worth $265 million. Why the UAE would need two spaceports is anybodies guess.

Either way, it is good to see another middle easter nation (after Israel) begin to take the final frontier seriously, (not to mention peacefully) and hopefully other countries in the region will begin to follow suit.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

NASA Not Fond Of Space Elevators?

After listening to a podcast from The Space Show, Ted Semon has discovered that NASA is not that all interested in space elevators.

(Space Elevator Blog) I was surprised to learn that NASA is NOT interested in the Beam Power Competition to power a Space Elevator, nor are they interested in the Tether competition to build a Space Elevator. Ken put it quite bluntly: "NASA's not interested in Space Elevators...", at least not as far as the Centennial Challenges are concerned. NASA is looking at the results / winners / new technologies developed out of the Beam Power competition for Lunar exploration purposes and they are looking at the Tether competition for fundamental materials research.

Despite my surprise over this revelation, one thing us space elevator fans have to remember is that this new form of transportation has yet to prove itself to the space community and the world as a whole.

NASA should be thanked for actually helping to pioneer this idea by providing seed money via X-Prize Cup style, but we should probably be more thankful that the private sector (i.e. LiftPort, Black Line Ascension) is seriously attempting to construct one.

Note: Is it me or is Black Line Ascension's website down?

Will Purple Space Potato's Put Hair On Your Chest?

Maybe, but whether or not this cosmic vegetable will make you slightly hairy, one thing is for sure: they seem to taste better than their Earth grown cousins.

(Xinhau) The new type of sweet potato, developed from seeds that mutated in outer space, has a much deeper purple color than previous generations, according to the Haikou Purple Orchid Co. Ltd., the grower, in China's southernmost Hainan Province.

Named Purple Orchid 3, the "space" potatoes are of normal size and not much different from ordinary potatoes in sweetness and fragrance, but taste more glutinous, said company manager Chang Lingen. [...]

Since purple is believed to represent nobility and romance, restaurants in the booming city of Shanghai have started offering a range of culinary delights featuring the new purple sweet potatoes, as a warm-up promotion for Valentine's Day, which couples in China often celebrate by eating out.

Although these seeds were ripened on Earth, China is pioneering a new frontier in space farming. Since most soils off world may not be suitable for growing grain, harvesting these crops in space may prove quite beneficial.

Of course no one yet knows the full side effects of eating these foods (aside from the taste factor), but they may provide a delicious alternative towards dry processed meals all to familiar to military and NASA personal.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Will French Ideas Kill The European Space Race?

(Hat Tip: Space Pragmatism)

With China, India, and NASA getting serious about returning humanity to the Moon (and beyond), France is trying to motivate its European neighbors to collaborate their efforts lest they be left behind in the space race.

(Space.com) Among the 50 proposals:

  • Sanctions should be imposed on any European government that does not give preference to European launch vehicles for its government civil and military satellites.

  • France should begin preparing nuclear-powered satellites to permit deep-space exploration, using expertise at the French Atomic Energy Commission and in French industry.

  • Europe's heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket should be made capable of launching astronauts within five years.

Although it's good to see France rounding up the Europe to take the space race seriously, penalizing nations for outsourcing their launch vehicles would probably do more to split the group than unify it.

What makes the alt.space industry great is the ability to choose where to do business from (e.g. Space Adventures, and American company launches from Russia).

If France tries to impose some sort of weird embargo on outside competition, they may be stuck with an undeveloped and expensive space industry that no one wants to ride in.

Inflatable Habitats For Space Colonies?

(Hat Tip: Lifeboat Foundation Blog)

Constructing a space colony on the Moon and Mars will not only be quite expensive, but tedious as we have to haul all of the materials and tools to another world.

But what if we could simply instead "inflate" a space habitat, similar to what Bigelow Aerospace has done with the space station? That is something two scientists are trying to figure out.

(Physorg.com) In a recent article submitted to arXiv.org [3], Bolonkin and Cathcart have designed an inflatable, translucent dome that can heat its interior to comfortable temperatures using only the weak sunlight of high latitudes. While many details remain to be worked out, the essential concept is sound. To improve the energy efficiency of the structure, they propose adding multiple insulating layers, aluminum-coated shutters, and a fine electrical network to sense damage to the structure. The dome would be supported entirely by the pressure of the air inside, which can be adjusted to compensate for the added buoyancy caused by high winds.

The principle advantages of this design are the low weight and flexibility of the material. If only a few people at a time need shelter, an enclosure the size of a small house would weigh only about 65 kg, or as much as a person. This is light enough even for a space mission, and setting up would be as easy as turning on an air pump. For large colonies, enough membrane to enclose 200 hectares would weigh only 145 tons. The interior would be warm and sheltered, a safe environment for the construction of more traditional buildings and gardens.

The idea behind this is ingenious, as it would provide an inexpensive way for colonies to be established until more rigid domes could be built.

Despite the fact that space rocks raining down on the Moon as well as Mars may make living on the surface "slightly hazardous," these inflatable domes could make re-building a damaged space colony simple and affordable.

Camping Out On The Red Planet

It looks like the Mars Express has produced hiking or "camping" maps of the red planet, highlighting the various elevation paths of the Iani Chaos region.

(Red Orbit) Scientists using data from the HRSC experiment onboard ESA's Mars Express spacecraft have produced the first 'hiker's maps' of Mars. Giving detailed height contours and names of geological features in the Iani Chaos region, the maps could become a standard reference for future Martian research.

The maps are known as topographic maps because they use contour lines to show the heights of the landscape.

The contour lines are superimposed upon high-resolution images of Mars, taken by the High-Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) onboard Mars Express. On Earth, such maps are used by hikers and planning authorities.

Creating maps like these give Mars a more "Earthen feel" and perhaps make it more appealing as a future home rather than a distant world. (for more maps, click here)

Note: Maps like these remind me of those Crazy4Mars stories (via 4Frontiers) which center around several families living on the red planet.

Update: Added photo and link towards more maps.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Video: Interplanetary Travel Via Magnetic Sails?

(Hat Tip: Centauri Dreams)

It looks as if another (theoretical) space transportation device has emerged on the scene. Similar to its Solar Sail cousin, the magnetic sails may prove to be a more conventional way to travel between planetary systems.

(Mini-Magnetospheric Plasma Propulsion) Mini-Magnetospheric Plasma Propulsion (M2P2) is an advanced plasma propulsion system that will enable spacecraft to attain unprecedented speeds, with minimal energy and mass requirements. It will create a large scale magnetic bubble around the spacecraft to ride the solar winds, and accelerate the spacecraft to unprecedented speeds.

One advantage of a magnetic sail (verses a solar sail) would be the ability to launch from either a planet's magnetosphere or the solar wind, enabling it to actually "return" from its previous voyage.

A magnetic sail would also not have to venture towards the sun on its maiden flight, which would not only save time and energy, but may reduce the health risk via cosmic radiation.

Note: To watch video (via QuickTime) simply click on the image below.

Should There Be An X-Prize For Biospheres?

With all of the focus of NASA's Centennial Challenges on space elevators, lunar landers and oxygen rock extractors, we may have forgotten one critical "challenge" that needs to be overcome--biospheres.

(Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies) we have yet to create a closed ecosystem that can support human life for the long term. This revelation seems strange at first, but it's true. We can send men to the moon, but we can't sustain an artificial ecosystem. The fact that we haven’t been able to do so needs to be taken much more seriously. The Earth's natural biosphere is still the only functioning one we have; all our eggs are currently residing in one basket.

It's time to revive the biosphere projects of the early 1990s. Given the private sector’s recent enthusiasm to develop space tourism technologies, perhaps another X Prize is in order.

The sad fact of this matter is that there has never been a successful closed system biosphere. Without a way of developing a closed biosphere, humanity will indefinitely become dependent upon Earth for survival. Basic necessities such as veggies and meat (via animals) will have to be imported, thus limiting our survival scope within Earth's range, let alone outside of our star system.

A biosphere competition (in baby steps) may be the key towards developing these critical habitats, indicating that our species has "the right stuff" to live off world, and beyond.

China Revisiting The Moon With A Rover?

With the Americans and Europeans exploring the Martian surface via Spirit and Opportunity, it looks like China has decided to do something similar on the moon.

(Earth Times) Thirteen domestic designers have vied to design for the moon rover to be used in China's Chang'e I Moon Orbiting Project.

The remote-controlled moon rover shall be used to perform experiments and send data back to the earth following the moon orbiting project, said Ouyang Ziyuan, moon probe program chief scientist.

Ouyang didn't disclose when China's first circumlunar exploration satellite, Chang'e I, would be launched this year, he was quoted as saying Saturday by the Beijing Morning Post.

Placing a rover on the moon would not only improve China's global reputation (after the ASAT test), but also enhance our understanding of our lunar neighbor. A moon rover could also help us re-examine the lunar environment, and hopefully map the area in greater detail.

China has already dedicated a significant portion of its resources towards conquering space, probably more than most nations on this planet.

Penal Solar Colonies, Anyone?

(Inspired by SpaceBlog Alpha)

Roses are red, and violets are blue, but if we go to space, we need a prison, or two? Despite all of the glorious wonders of visiting the worlds that dot our star system, one regrettable custom we will need to duplicate on other worlds are prisons.

Space is not for the faint of heart, and with the dangers of radiation and asteroids already facing future colonists, adding violent offenders to the list may make living off world less desirable.

With the recent case of a solar citizen attempting to kidnap and possibly murder a rival, future explorers may want to consider off site penal colonies as a way to maintain order in an already dangerous universe.

Penal colonies are nothing new to our species, something Australia can easily testify about. Australia was distant enough to prevent ex-cons from returning, yet within reach for the British empire. But where would future Earth, Luna Maria, and Martian citizens place their space prisoners at? On undesirable locations of course!

Located less than 60 million kilometers (or 36 million miles) from the Sun's surface, Mercury makes an excellent spot for a penal colony. With temperatures approaching 427o Celsius, those imprisoned on the surface (or below it) would be highly motivated to remain within their protective biosphere.

Although this planetary Alcatraz could be quite useful for a few centuries, sooner or later this world is bound to become "desirable," which may result in its eventual colonization as a civilized world.

Another possible (an perhaps favorable) location for a prison world would be inside an asteroid. Although our solar system is filled with many valuable asteroids, most of these space rocks are made up of a Carbonaceous material which holds little value for miners and explores.

Since these asteroids generally lie near the outer rims of the asteroid belt, their isolation away from planetary systems could serve as useful prisons to house our most dangerous minds.

Despite being a more extreme choice, carving out jail cells on a enormous comets (called Centaurs) could possibly serve humanities interest as well. Many of these large comets do not enter within the inner solar system and their isolation away from major systems may make them prime locations for future colonists, especially for residents of lunar gas giants.

Although an on site prison might be cheaper, the chance of prison breaks and escapes alone might put any nearby habitation on edge. A penal colony may serve a communities long term interest by not only deterring other crimes, but also protecting the colony from immediate acts of vengeance.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

FedEx Will Deliver On The Moon?

Despite the fact that my default team lost (since the Colts took out the Patriots) one of my favorite parts of the super bowl was this commercial.

Despite the humor of it all, wouldn't it be great if outer space was this boring?

Note: This by far was perhaps the funnest super bowl commercial that aired.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Titan's Weather Could Be Worth Billions

Saturn's most mysterious moon may have a weather system that is potentially worth billions of dollars! Many scientists suspect that Titan's clouds may rain down methane from on high, which would probably explain the existence of those methane lakes that dot the northern pole.

(Saturn Today) A giant cloud half the size of the United States has been imaged on Saturn’s moon Titan by the Cassini spacecraft. The cloud may be responsible for the material that fills the lakes discovered last year by Cassini's radar instrument. [...]

These findings reinforce the idea that methane rains down onto the surface to form lakes, and then evaporates to form clouds. Scientists compare this methane cycle to the hydrological cycle on Earth, dubbing it 'methane-ologic cycle'.

Ground-based observations show this Titan cloud system comes and goes with the seasons. A season on Titan lasts approximately seven Earth years. Based on the global circulation models, it seems that such cloud activity can last about 25 Earth years before almost vanishing for four to five years, and then appearing again for 25 years.

Some scientists think that during the seasonal change that the clouds may reappear on in the south pole, although we will have to wait for a Cassini flyby to confirm that theory.

Although Titan lies almost a billion miles away from Earth, it certainly has not lost the attention of astronomers and may become an OPEC in the solar system as methane could be the fuel to take us beyond Saturn, helping us to colonize not only Uranus, but Neptune and Pluto as well.

Israel Preparing For Space Warfare?

This is probably in response to Iran's desire to become a space power, which isn't too surprising giving the regimes historical doubts regarding the holocaust. (note: which is absurd if you ask me)

(Jerusalem Post) From a purely operational perspective, [Israel Air Force chief Maj.-Gen. Eliezer] Shkedy added, Israel needed to become fully autonomous in its space industry and develop its own capabilities. While not relating to China's motivations for destroying its satellite in the fashion that it did, Shkedy said the message "cannot be ignored."

"Battle in space is on our agenda, whether we want it there or not. We need to understand how we develop and protect our space assets at the relevant time. Within five to 10 years this will sadly be very relevant. There may be those who would seek to harm our forces in space, as they would our forces on land and at sea. We could face this reality in a high-intensity conflict in the future," Shkedy said.

With Israel taking steps to defend its space in space (note: no pun intended), other nations will be forced to take similar measures in order to simply stay where they are in the world hierarchy.

Although their will always be a potential for us wiping ourselves off the face of the Earth, a benefit to this military space race could be greater investment in space technology, and perhaps a re-prioritizing of space in general. This will hopefully result in us actually visiting the worlds we see through our telescope, instead of talking about them from afar.

Searching For Martian Life In All The Right Places

Despite the fact that the red planet's soil may be toxic towards life, scientists intend upon sending a robot towards the northern pole of Mars.

(MSNBC) Scientists are scrambling to find an alternative landing site for a long-armed robot set to launch this summer on a mission to dig into Mars' icy north pole to search for signs of primitive life. [...]

Scientists scouring images of the Martian arctic have narrowed options down to three possible candidates for where the spacecraft can safely touch down. They have until March to choose a destination.

The three sites are clustered around the north pole, which is believed to have a huge amount of ice just below the surface. A site dubbed Green Valley is located within a shallow valley and looks the most secure, Smith said.

It is doubtful that this robot will discover anything within a few yards beneath the surface as the soil has taken a serious beating from cosmic radiation (enough to kill life as we know it).

However this robot's little adventure in the north should provide a useful map of icy ponds, which will be quite useful when pondering where to set up shop on this distant world.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Gathering Of The Space Elevator Geeks Begins

(Hat Tip: Space Elevator Blog)

(Note: I'm a space elevator geek, so no hard feelings here.)

Bryan Laubscher of Black Line Ascension is calling for space elevator fans, engineers, scientists and warm bodies to gather in New Mexico to discuss the future of human space transportation.

(Space Elevator Reference) So as of the present date, the Space Exploration 2007 Conference (SpEx 2007) with its imbedded 2nd Space Elevator Workshop will be held in Albuquerque, NM from March 25 – 28, 2007. The philosophy of SpEx 2007 is to be a relatively inexpensive, moderate-sized, space conference accommodating a broad range of topics and presenters. Principle among the aims of the conference is to bring together diverse people with varying backgrounds and interests. The synergy and "cross-fertilization" that is possible at such a gathering is profound. [...]

One of the highlights of this year's workshop is the Global Space Elevator Roadmap working session in which a roadmap outline will be developed with the community's input.

A roadmap will be good for the general space elevator community, although LiftPort has already publicly revealed theirs, with Brad Edwards from Black Line Ascension hinting at a space elevator around 2029.

Hopefully gathering of space elevator fans and pros should help encourage everyone in the field, as well as help each other come up with creative ways for promoting this idea within our respective regions.

Unlike our rocket cousins, the space elevator community is still fairly small, and has many hurdles to overcome before it can be taken seriously by the "myspace generation."

Note: More info about this can be found at the Space Engineering and Science Institute.

Is China Predicting A Military Space Race?

Despite their best intentions, it almost seems as if the Asian space power has come to realize that militarizing space may come sooner than we all thought.

(The Seattle Times) Yao Yunzhu, a senior colonel in the People's Liberation Army, brought up China's recent successful test of an anti-satellite weapon during a World Economic Forum dinner Thursday focusing on North Korea.

"My wish is we really want to keep space as a peaceful place for human beings," she said, adding that China would like all countries to agree that space should be used only for peaceful purposes.

"But personally, I'm pessimistic about it," said Yao, 52, who directs the Asia-Pacific Office at the Academy of Military Science in Beijing. "My prediction: Outer space is going to be weaponized in our lifetime."

With House Republicans already calling for a greater military presence in the heavens above us in response to China's ASAT test, Yao's prophecy of nations arming the heavens may come to pass after all.

Although many people will point out that placing weapons in space will encourage the destruction of our species, the opposite may actually hold true. If it were not for the cold war, America would have never launched men to the moon, let alone satellites to enhance global communication.

A new cold war, however unpleasant, may spur our species to increase our investment within our space programs, encouraging us to actually leave our Earthen cradle and explore the solar playground around us.