Category Archives: space

Eric in space

Well, Eric in The Space Review, not actually in Low Earth Orbit or anything. Eric Choi provided one of the non-fiction essays in Rocket Science. It was titled ‘Making Mars A Nicer Place, in Fiction… and Fact’. A shortened version of Eric’s essay has just been published on The Space Review website. You can find it here. You can also find Eric’s ‘Introducing the author’ piece on this blog here.

Source: NASA


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Bootprints on Mars

There has been a long-running disagreement among those involved in space science over which are better at exploring the Solar System: robots or human beings. The former, obviously, despite their huge price tags, are cheaper. But humans are far more flexible and effective. And now that Curiosity is on Mars, the robot proponents are going to feel pretty smug for a while.

The problem is that there’s a bigger picture to take into consideration. Yes, we could populate the other planets with robots and learn some fascinating and important science. But that still keeps us tied to this planet, and we’re in very real danger of making our home world untenable. It’s not the pioneer spirit that demands we start sending people to visit and settle the other worlds and moons of the Solar System, it’s survival. And we’re not going to get anywhere close to a position to do that if we keep on sending out robots.

True, at present our technology isn’t quite up to a crewed Mars mission. We could build the rockets and get what we need into orbit, we could send it on a transfer orbit, we could even land it on the Martian surface. But we don’t know yet how to effectively keep the human payload alive during the months-long journey through interplanetary space. And then there’s the cost. Curiosity cost $2.5 billion. A crewed mission would cost quadrillions, and require the sort of long-term investment and political will no government would ever countenance. And, to be honest, given that cost, the mission would have to be something special…

Source: NASA

Which is not that difficult to achieve. Most mission profiles would require a stay of months on Mars, perhaps even a couple of years. The Red Planet is not the Moon. It’s not a three-day flight, spend as long as you can on the surface, and then head straight for home. The orbits of the Earth and Mars, and the millions of kilometres between the two which increase and decrease due to those orbital paths, mean departures from each planet have to be carefully scheduled. An conjunction-class mission would launch when Mars is on the other side of the Sun to Earth, would require between 250 and 300 days for journey there, and give a stay time on Mars on 60 to 90 days. A opposition-class mission, however, which would launch while the two planets are close, would take 450 days to travel there and give a stay time of up to 500 days. The conjunction-class mission requires less energy than the opposition-class mission.

Keeping the crew alive in interplanetary space for almost a year is not something we really know how to do yet. There have been experiments with Controlled Ecological Life Support Systems, but a Closed Ecological Life Support Systems is beyond us. Because a year in space without resupply either requires huge amounts of supplies, or near-perfect recycling. And every kilogram of those supplies is going to cost well beyond its actual price because it needs to be lifted out of Earth’s gravity well and taken along to Mars. Even in situ replenishment on the Martian surface might prove too difficult, so the mission will need some sort of CELSS which can operate for the full length of the mission.

I freely admit I would be delighted to see a human being on Mars during my lifetime. But, realistically, I don’t expect it to happen. It wouldn’t surprise me if it took until the middle of next century before we got further than the Moon. At present, the only way we’re going to get there is via our imaginations. Which is pretty sad, when you think about it.


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Red Stars in Orbit

Shenzhou-9 landed safely on 29 June, bringing back to Earth three taikonauts, including the first female one. The taikonauts had spent thirteen days aboard Tiangong-1, the Chinese space station. The name means “Heavenly Palace”, which I must admit is a more poetic name than “International Space Station”. China plans to send up another module to their space station in 2013, and then further modules over several years. The finished space station will be smaller than the ISS, perhaps similar in size to the US Skylab of the 1970s.

While the US tries desperately hard to create some sort of libertarian commercial space capability, the Chinese are just cracking on with an ambitious government space programme. You can’t help but wonder if they’d been doing this thirty years ago, they’d have put a taikonaut on Mars by now.

CNSA, the China National Space Administration, clearly has ambitions, which is more than can be said for the US Administration, or indeed the ESA or Roscosmos. True, a number of private sector firms in the US have proposed expansive plans – SpaceX wants to go to Mars, Planetary Resources wants to mine near-Earth asteroids… But I’ve yet to be convinced that the profit motive is a powerful enough driver for the exploration and exploitation of the Solar System. In these days of “shareholder expectation management”, the only true motivation for business is generating sufficient EBITDA to keep investors and shareholders happy so they continue to keep the whole financial house of cards propped up. None of this money is going toward anything socially, technologically or scientifically useful. It requires government intervention for that to happen. Like in the Apollo programme; and the pre-Glasnost Soyuz programme; and the CNSA’s current Shenzhou launches.

Space is not the Wild West, it is not the Final Frontier. It may well be the future of the human race, given our present willingness to destroy our biosphere in the name of an economic system which plainly doesn’t work and is unsustainable. Sadly, there’s no running away from the mess we’re making. We can’t simply chuck our worldly goods into a Conestoga wagon and head out into the wild blue yonder. Space isn’t a survivable environment – technological assistance is an absolute necessity. Even on the shores of Earth, so to speak, in LEO, the safest off-Earth place in the universe – if you fall, you land on Earth; plus, you have the Earth’s magnetosphere to protect you from all the nasty radiation – even in LEO, it’s a constant battle to stay in place and survive. The ISS was originally intended to deorbit in 2016, though it’s likely it will last much longer. All those billions of dollars spent on something that won’t even last twenty years…

What’s needed is a steady and regular programme of small steps which will take us out to the other planets in the Solar System. A monolithic government agency is the only way this will happen. People may baulk at the cost… forgetting that the US put twelve men on the Moon for a cost of approximately $10 per year per taxpayers over a decade. How can that not be a useful and noble way to spend tax revenue? Instead, western nations would sooner spend trillions on military adventurism. How is that justifiable?

It seems to me the Chinese have got their priorities right. And if it’s a taikonaut who first lands on Mars, then don’t be surprised if you see me cheering along and waving the Wǔ Xīng Hóng Qí.


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Guest post: When A Ray of Sunshine Hits Home, Bill Patterson

I want to thank Ian Sales twice. First, for accepting ‘A Ray of Sunshine’ for his critically acclaimed anthology Rocket Science. Secondly, for extending an invitation for a guest blog post in Rocket Science News. I appreciate this, for ‘A Ray of Sunshine’ dealt with radiation in space. But that ray of sunshine occasionally hits home, and it can be disastrous.

Source: NASA

Let’s back up a bit. The Sun is a gigantic unshielded fusion reactor. All kinds of fusion debris comes blasting out of the Sun. Visible light, of course, and radiation throughout the spectrum. Atomic debris of all kinds, from iron ions down to electrons, makes up the solar wind that fills our solar system out to the heliopause, nearly 100 AU from the Sun. The Earth’s atmosphere is pretty good at stopping the debris from reaching the surface. It also filters out the ionizing radiation from the X-ray and gamma bands. But there’s some energy that gets straight through to us on the surface.

Hans Christian Ørsted demonstrated that electrical flow generates a magnetic field. On the Sun, titanic flows of charged plasma flow throughout the convective layer. Those flows generate magnetic fields. Because the Sun rotates faster at the equator than at its poles, the fields will get tangled up with each other. Energy compresses these tangles closer together, along with the trapped plasma. Then, ignition. A solar flare is born.

With the force of petatons of TNT, the magnetic lines of force realign and smooth out. A bubble of magnetic energy is pinched off and hurled off the Sun, never to return. Ionized matter is dragged along with the magnetic field, like leaves behind a car. This is the Coronal Mass Ejection, or CME, that so worries space weather experts.

Earth, fortunately, has a magnetic field of its own. It extends out into space like an enormous teardrop, with the tail pointing away from the Sun. It acts as a buffer to most of the solar wind, guiding ionized particles away from the surface. On Earth, we measure a constant magnetic field, pointed roughly towards true north.

When a CME sweeps by Earth, many different effects occur. The blast of charged particles affect satellites, sleet through astronauts, and drill down around the poles, sparking aurorae. The Van Allen belts get pumped full of ions, and the upper atmosphere changes under the onslaught, ruining radio communications.

Then there’s the flare’s magnetic energy. It is much stronger than the magnetic field of Earth, and penetrates all the way to the surface. We humans don’t perceive anything, but if you’re an electrical conductor, the story is far different.

A truly amazing amount of infrastructure has been built in the developed countries. Water mains, electrical generation and distributions systems, oil and natural gas lines, railroads–all of these are very long stretches of metal. When the flare’s magnetic bubble sweeps by, it induces an electrical current in those long stretches of conductor. Even though most flares generate at most a hundred nanoTesla of magnetic energy on Earth, over the course of hundreds of kilometers, some truly impressive voltages can be induced. If utility operators are not prepared for these spurious currents, they risk destruction of parts of their infrastructure.

On September 1st 1859, English astronomer Richard C. Carrington witnessed a solar flare in broad daylight. This event has been ranked as one of the most powerful solar flare witnessed in the modern era. Telegraph operators were either shocked unconscious, others were able to run their equipment solely on these geomagnetic induced currents. The magnetometers of the time measured the magnetic deviation on the order of 1500 nanoTesla.

On March 13th 1989, the province of Quebec was plunged into darkness for nearly twelve hours when geomagnetic induced currents damaged transformers and line conditioners in several areas. Photos of the damage show the cores of transformers with the laminations bent away from each other by the force of geomagnetic induced eddy currents. In New Jersey, the Salem nuclear power plant’s power conditioning equipment suffered damage when DC currents of thousands of volts and hundreds of amperes entered the system from both the transmission lines as well as the grounding piles.

The 1989 event was the result of an X15 solar flare. And that’s not even the strongest one recorded. On November 4th 2003, an X28 flare occurred, but luckily it erupted when it was on the western limb of the Sun, and the CME missed Earth.

Today’s world is more complex and interconnected than the world of 1859 or even 1989. Not only are we ever more dependent on computers with their finicky power requirements, but we are invisibly, and often unknowingly, bound to satellite services that can be disrupted by powerful solar flares. Would you want to be on an unpiloted plane that just lost its GPS signal?

The current Solar Cycle 24 peaks in 2013. We have been fortunate so far in that this cycle appears to be less stormy than Cycle 23 or 22. It only takes one large flare, pointed at Earth, to push a bubble of plasma and magnetic energy our way. When that happens, a Ray of Sunshine will hit home. The main question is, will we be ready?

Bill Patterson is the author of ‘A Ray of Sunshine’, one of the non-fiction articles in Rocket Science.

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Here Be Dragons?

Now that SpaceX’s Dragon capsule has successfully delivered supplies to the International Space Station, does that mean the future lies with the commercial space sector? Well, I’m not convinced. There’s certainly plenty to exploit out there in the Solar System, from the minerals in asteroids to the hydrocarbons in comets to Helium-3 on the lunar surface, and so on. The returns are potentially huge. But so is the capital investment required. And no twenty-first century corporation, focused primarily on managing shareholder expectations, is going to sink billions of dollars or euros into a project that may or may not give a return on investment for decades.

Source: National Geographic

There is no cheap way to get into space, and no cheap way to remain there. At present, the vast budgets required are justified by the science – because the immediate benefits of science are incalculable, but the nature of scientific enterprise means there’s always a golden egg just over the horizon. The only organisations with pockets deep enough, and that will take a long-term view, are public agencies. People cavil at the cost, and rue the opportunity costs – conveniently forgetting that in terms of individual contribution, the price is insignificant, and that saving money in one place rarely means it will be spent where it’s most needed. The Apollo programme, for example, cost $25 billion between 1962 and 1972, or $2.5 billion per year. Given a population of around 190 million over that period, and assuming approximately half paid taxes… that’s about $13 per taxpayer per year. People spend more than that per year on bubblegum.

At present, Low Earth Orbit is desirable real estate, but it is difficult and expensive to reach. Should any company find a cost-effective way of putting hardware into LEO, they will have customers lining up at their door. Commercial satellites are expensive to build, and expensive to put in place, but they make money. Lots of money. Indeed, the services they offer can even be pre-sold to offset the development costs. SpaceX, however, has said it plans to go further. Planetary Resources Inc also intends to move beyond LEO.

The problem is that space is not the Wild West. Back in the day, you spent your savings on your wagon and supplies, and lit out into the great yonder. Once you’d found a suitable spot, you settled down and became self-sufficient. You can’t be self-sufficient in space. LEO is about as safe as it gets in space, and even then living there is an ongoing cost; and an expensive one at that.

I’m not convinced the commercial exploitation of space, given present and foreseeable technology, is possible. I don’t think corporations would even find such projects desirable or sustainable. It needs government, or supra-governmental, involvement. It needs a redistribution of resources and capital that is politically anathema in today’s neoliberal economies. Given the prizes that could be won, it seems to me self-defeating to put our all our hopes in the private sector, which can only chip away ineffectually at the low-hanging fruit.


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Rocket Science fiction or Rocket Science fact?

Last week, a group of billionaires unveiled plans to mine near-Earth asteroids for water and minerals. Planetary Resources, Inc. was founded by Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X Prize Foundation, and Eric Anderson, co-founder of space tourism company Space Adventures, with investors including director James Cameron, and Larry Page and Eric Schmidt of Google. On April 24, at a press conference in Seattle, USA, Planetary Resources said it aims to dig up metals such as ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium and platinum from asteroids; and also water, which it will then sell as spacecraft fuel.

Initially, Planetary Resources plans to throw the first privately-owned space telescope into Low Earth Orbit, which they will use to spot likely targets for mining. By adding propulsion to a space telescope, they will then be able to send it on an intercept mission. They also plan to hunt asteroids further afield.

All this will be familiar if you’ve read Iain Cairn’s story, ‘Conquistadors’, in Rocket Science. That too deals with a private company – in Iain’s story, a Mexican mining corporation – which sends a mission to mine a near-Earth asteroid.

The only question is: which story in Rocket Science will be the next one to turn from science fiction into science fact?


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The end of an age is not the end of a narrative

Today Atlantis undocks from the International Space Station and begins its journey home. It is the last of the Space Shuttles and it will never fly again. There are those who have declared that Atlantis’ retirement means the end of the Space Age. But no more Space Shuttle doesn’t mean no more humans in space. Soyuz is still flying, as is Shenzhou. And SpaceX’s Dragon will be ferrying people to the ISS soon. As, no doubt, will other commercial spacecraft.

In actual fact, the retirement of the Shuttle opens up a great opportunity, one NASA has already stated it intends to exploit. Their next spacecraft, the MPCV, will not be limited to LEO, but capable of trips to the Moon, or even further – such as the Plymouth Rock mission. Assuming Congress don’t kill it, there are some exciting times ahead for crewed space exploration.

Of course, there’s always robotic space exploration. That’s ongoing. Today the space probe Dawn sent back photographs of Vesta, the second largest asteroid in the Asteroid Belt. It is 1.5 AU, or some 224,400,000 kilometres, from Earth. It has taken Dawn nearly four years to reach Vesta, and once it has finished studying the asteroid, it will move onto the dwarf planet Ceres.

Science fiction tends to focus on space exploration as performed by humans – or rather, in which humans perform the exploration in situ. But robotic space exploration provides just as many story opportunities. And it involves people too – they just don’t get to leave the Earth. It may not sound as exciting as taking “one small step” but it doesn’t invalidate it as a choice of subject. True, finding a suitably dramatic story might require a much more finely-tuned control of the material – or rather, the pay-off will likely be less impressive in a bells-and-whistles sort of way – but why is that bad thing?

The anthology is called Rocket Science. I expect some stories to feature rockets. But they don’t necessarily have to carry astronauts, cosmonauts, taikonauts, vyomanauts, etc. They could be carrying space probes.

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