My recent space-related postings have been - well - upbeat! In that I believe 2015 was by far our best year exploring the cosmos. By far. And prospects for 2016 are superb.
Now, let’s dive into some of those amazing prospects… and then remind ourselves and our neighbors that the sick, sick gloom merchants out there - (you cynics know who you are) - will not drag us down to pessimism and despair. We are a superb civilization… as human civilizations go… with incredible potential.
All we have to do, to flourish, is snap out of this funk and realize what we are. We are amazing.
== Cool endeavors! ==
First off, congratulations SpaceX for successful launch of a major communications satellite to GEO. Big league credibility. And almost sticking the barge landing was not same-old. Landing a first stage that had just flung a heavy cargo toward GEO is exceptionally challenging. Every one of these is historic.
And helps us toward bolder things. Example: Space Based Solar Power SBSP is a way the United States can take leadership—in space, on energy, on climate change. I’ve known folks innovating and exploring these concepts for decades and vital arguments rage on. Indeed, we all have to root for land-based sustainables to continue their amazing improvements in cost and efficiency… and yet, we’d be fools not to invest also in farther-“out” approaches. Indeed, lately some of my friends havemade some real headway in showing SBSP to be increasingly plausible as a future tool set for becoming an even more spectacular civilization.
Aiming to attract more companies to headquarter in their small country, Luxembourg has passed a law protecting ownership rights of companies based there that extract stuff from asteroids. The United States has already made similar moves. Last year, President Obama signed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Actinto law. This recognizes the right of U.S. citizens to own asteroid resources they obtain. The Space Treaty still bans ownership of the asteroids themselves. But you can profit from what you extract.
With the Hubble Space Telescope aging, many hopes ride upon the 2018 launch of the James Webb Telescope, a vastly ambitious and potentially powerful endeavor that will flagship an array of marvelous observatories that you built, with half a percent of your taxes.
Now read about WFirst, a planned infrared telescope whose capabilities will be awesome! Only when you look at an artists-rendering of WFirst, do you get a bit of déjà vu?
Unmentioned in this otherwise fine article is the reason why WFirst looks so much like Hubble! Because it is the first of two “new Hubbles” that were donated to NASA by one of the US intelligence agencies, when their reserve inventory of spy satellites became obsolete. And yes, clearly they come from the same “family” of spacecraft… and for the obvious reasons. (Does kind-of imply that Hubble itself was a “beard” for a spy satellite program, all along, ah well.) Sure this gift was a good thing! But it also gave NASA a real headache, coming up with an extra half a billion dollars, in order to refit these multi-billion dollar gifts for scientific use. What a world.
Solve this easily. Vote this year to make America science friendly again. Nothing makes our choice more starkly clear than the War on Science.
Oh. Lockheed is now doing design work on the proposed Cis-Lunar work station, to orbit the Moon and allow studies of both lunar and asteroidal samples, both manned and in autonomous modes. This is the right focus and the right goal.
Sure, not all new space ventures get off the ground. Escape Dynamics sought to do “external propulsion” using microwave beams to propel a spaceplane to orbit. The theory is very promising. But that apparently wasn’t enough. Well, well. This idea will not go away.
== What have we learned recently? ==
What a universe! A vividly clear, edge-on view of a proto-planetary disk cloud around a young star has raised a real puzzler. While clearly in the process of forming a new planetary system, this belt of dust - looking like a ‘flying saucer’ - seems to be far colder than our models say it should be.
Astronomers already know about two sizes of black holes: stellar-mass black holes, formed after the gigantic explosions of very massive stars; and supermassive black holes (SMBH) often found at the centers of galaxies. Now there are signs of an intermediate size BH near the giant at our galactic center. Interesting piece. Even if it is Fox News… reporting on science.
Stephen Wolfram dabbles dazzlingly into Black Holes and General Relativity. I am privileged to know a fair number of people who are way, way smarter than me.
The most luminous galaxy in the Universe - a so-called obscured quasar 12.4 billion light-years away - is so violently turbulent that it may eventually jettison its entire supply of star-forming gas, according to new observations with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA).
That star, 1800 ly from us, that has experienced a flickering 20% dimming recently roused speculation about “alien megastructures. While the astronomers studying it only mentioned it as a lesser possibility, attention sure has been drawn to its behavior, which is unlike any other F-type main sequence star. Now the fact that it is relatively close by led a researcher to check photos back to 1890, finding the decline goes that far back, making the “giant comets” explanation seem to decline in probability. So far, SETI dishes haven’t picked up anything suspicious. But the attention speaks well of our civilization, at least some of whose members haven’t forgotten how to be fascinated.
In Spanish… an article about SETI and the crazy offshoot that wants to send “messages” to ETI. Including comments by yours truly. Chime in if the Spanish article is good… or bad.
A fascinating article describing what we’ve recently learned about the size, shape and stellar types of the four major spiral arms that make up our Milky Way Galaxy.
Could we spot the signatures of large volcanic eruptions in the light-curves from earth-like exoplanets?
== Within our own Solar System ==
In the not-too-distant future, we may sail over the dry surfaces of Venus! NASA’s Landsail Rover could launch in 2023 . The 400 lb “Zephyr” rover has a rigid vertical wing covered with solar sails, and high-temperature electronics designed to withstand the scorching temperatures on the Venusian surface, says lead scientist (and fellow science fiction author) Geoffrey Landis.
NASA’S New Horizons probe sends back gorgeous photos of the frozen canyons of Pluto’s north pole region.
What did we leave behind on the moon? See this Lunar Artifacts Map, created by Steve Pestana from NASA data.
Spores in Space! Researchers placed Antarctic deep-rock fungi in 1.4 cm wide cells on a space station platform called EXPOSE-E, which simulated Mars and extreme space conditions. A large fraction of the spores came active after a year of exposure.
After a just-completed year in space for astronaut Scott Kelly, here are seven milestones of his time in orbit.
Inspirational! A woman astronaut – an Italian space traveler with the European Space Agency – is also a science fiction fan, and she uses this as a basis to give a TEDx talk about what living on the International Space Station is like .
And finally… see the first official drawing of the U.S. Air Force’s B-21 bomber. And yes this is space-pertinent. It used to be our money spent on aerospace black projects would result… maybe once per decade… in taxpayers getting to see something cool that they had paid for. It has now been a very very long time since anything like that has been revealed, even though we know that there have been huge advances in hypersonic and waverider and other super-techs. The excuse has always been the need not to give any help to potential foes, and that’s understandable. But the accompanying philosophy has answered: “if adversaries DO know about something, then the American public should know at least that much.”
Come on fellahs and gals. Show us something cooler than a fuzzy artists conception of a super B-2. Make us feel we’re the kind of folks building Star Trek. We really need - right now - to feel that way again.