The Real Dr John writes: The Guardian has an article about Virgin Galactic's proposed launch site, Spaceport America, which broke ground in southern New Mexico's high desert in 2009 with almost a quarter of a billion dollars from taxpayers, $76m of which came from the two local counties. Truth or Consequences, population 6,000 and home to the Spaceport America Visitor Center, is one of the poorest places in the state. The increased taxes, adopted across impoverished Sierra County, contributed to about $5m as of 2014. Since 2009, state school budgets have been cut and an estimated $26m in necessary repairs to the town's water system has been put on hold. There's no more money to pay for it. The average annual income of residents is just $15,000 per year, one third of residents live below the poverty line, and just 20% over the age of 25 have obtained a bachelor's degree.
I was both pleased and disappointed, as always, when I heard that a book I enjoyed was being made into a movie. Andy Weir's The Martian was the best new book I'd read in years. It was written for nerds, by a nerd — by somebody with an obvious love for NASA, science, and spaceflight. How could it possibly be condensed into the format of a Hollywood blockbuster? Well, director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard figured out how. The Martian is an excellent film, well worth watching. Read on for my review (very minor spoilers only), and feel free to share your own in the comments.
StartsWithABang writes: Yes, asteroids might be humanity's undoing in the worst-case scenario. It's how the dinosaurs went down, and it could happen to us, too. The B612 foundation has been working to protect us by mapping and then learning to deflect potential threats to our planet, but their proposed mission needed $450 million, a goal they've fallen well short of. As a result, NASA has severed their partnership, which is a good thing for humanity: the risk assessment figures show that worrying about killer asteroids is largely a waste.
The Times of India reports that NASA has awarded a $25,000 first prize to Space Exploration Architecture for their design, called "Mars Ice House," of a habitat suitable for Mars. The concept relies on the (predicted) availability of Martian water, as well as on 3-D printing; according to the text accompanying the design. The 5-cm thick shell of ice which would serve as both skin and support structure for the shelter "protects against radiation without compromising life above ground." Two other teams (Gamma and LavaHive) were awarded second and third-place prizes, respectively.
coondoggie writes: NASA this week picked five possible contenders for a relatively low-cost robotic mission to space. The five candidates from a batch of 27 –include Venus, near-Earth object and asteroid operations – will ultimately be whittled down to one or two that will cost approximately $500 million, not including launch vehicle or post-launch operations, NASA stated. The DAVINCI probe would "study the chemical composition of Venus' atmosphere during a 63-minute descent. It would answer scientific questions that have been considered high priorities for many years, such as whether there are volcanoes active today on the surface of Venus and how the surface interacts with the atmosphere of the planet." A longer-range spacecraft called Lucy would "perform the first reconnaissance of the Jupiter Trojan asteroids, objects thought to hold vital clues to deciphering the history of the solar system."
MarkWhittington writes: NASA's New Horizons has returned a stunning series of images of Pluto, the dwarf planet that resides on the edge of the solar system, revealing a strange new world of ice mountains and glaciers of frozen nitrogen. NASA also released images of Pluto's largest moon Charon. Scientists expected a plain ball of rock pockmarked with craters, but what they saw was anything but plain and monotonous.
MarkWhittington writes: The current NASA thinking concerning the Journey to Mars program envisions a visit to the Martian moon Phobos in the early 2030s before attempting a landing on the Martian surface in the late 2030s, as Popular Mechanics noted. The idea of a practice run that takes astronauts almost but not quite to Mars is similar to what the space agency did during the 1960s Apollo program. Apollo 8 and Apollo 10 each orbited the moon but did not land on it before the Apollo 11 mission went all the way to the lunar surface, fulfilling President John. F. Kennedy's challenge.
astroengine writes: In an interesting interview with Discovery News, retired NASA astronauts Clay Anderson (Expedition 15/16) and Steve Swanson (Expedition 39/40) discussed their views on how the US space agency should select the first Mars-bound astronauts — a mission that is slated to commence in the late 2020's. While Swanson thinks that the current NASA astronaut selection process should suffice for a long-duration foray to the Red Planet, Anderson isn't so sure, saying, "(Mars) doesn't require a jet fighter pilot. It doesn't require a Ph.D. astronaut — although those people would be just fine, but I think that it's going to take people that are very good generalists, that can do many things." As depicted in the upcoming Matt Damon movie, "The Martian," Mark Watney (Damon) is thrown into an unexpected, life-threatening situation, requiring him to use his general skill set to survive on the barren landscape until he's rescued. As the first manned missions to Mars will likely throw unforeseen challenges at the explorers, it will probably be a good idea to have a crew that are adept at thinking on the fly and skilled in many different areas rather than being a specialist in one.
New submitter universe520 writes: Using neat imaging technology that allows them to determine the chemical compound of a substance by looking at the light reflected from it, scientists have spotted the traces of flowing water on Mars. By looking at the dark streaks on some photos of Mars, Lujendra Ojha from Georgia Tech has found compounds that are made in liquid water—meaning that water may be trickling down those streaks when the climate is just right. From the linked Economist piece: Details remain to be worked out, including where the water in question originates. Possibly, it derives from subsurface ice. Or it might condense out of Mars’s thin, dry atmosphere. Wherever it does come from, though, the amounts in question are modest in the extreme. But even modest amounts of water are intriguing to biologists. If Martians evolved during their planet’s earlier, wetter phase, the continued presence of water means it is just about possible that a few especially hardy types have survived until the present day—clinging on in dwindling pockets of dampness in the way that some “extremophile” bacteria on Earth are able to live in cold, salty and arid environments.
MarkWhittington writes: The Houston Chronicle's Eric Berger published a piece that touched on one of the most vexing issues surrounding NASA's "road to Mars," that being that of cost. How does one design a deep space exploration program that "the nation can afford," to coin a phrase uttered by the old NASA hand interviewed for the article? The phrase is somewhat misleading since one of the truisms of federal budgeting is that the nation can afford quite a bit. A more accurate phrase might be, "that the nation is willing to spend."
HughPickens.com writes: Heidi Stevens writes in the Chicago Tribune that according to NASA astronaut Mae Jemison schools treat science like the class where fun goes to die. "Kids come out of the chute liking science. They ask, 'How come? Why? What's this?' They pick up stuff to examine it. We might not call that science, but it's discovering the world around us," says Jemison. "Once we get them in school, we turn science from discovery and hands-on to something you're supposed to do through rote memorization." But science doesn't have to be that way says Jemison. Especially in the elementary school years. "When you have teachers saying, 'I don't have enough time for hands-on activities,' we need to rethink the way we do education," says Jemison. "The drills we do, where you're telling kids to memorize things, don't actually work. What works is engaging them and letting them do things and discover things." Jemison has teamed up with Bayer to advance science literacy across the United States by emphasizing the importance of hands-on, inquiry-based learning opportunities in public schools. Bayer announced recently that it will provide 1 million hands-on science experiences for kids by 2020. "Science is around us everywhere," says Jemison. Farming is science. Cooking is science. Even styling hair involves science. "When we go to the hairdresser, we want her to know something about pH balance," says Jemison with a laugh. "Boy, do we ever want her to know something about pH balance!"
MarkWhittington writes: NASASpaceFlight.com published the results of current NASA thinking concerning what needs to be launched and when to support a crewed mission to Phobos and two crewed missions to the Martian surface between 2033 and 2043. The result is a mind-numbingly complex operation involving dozens of launches to cis-lunar space and Mars using the heavy lift Space Launch System. The architecture includes a collection of habitation modules, Mars landers, propulsion units (both chemical rockets and solar electric propulsion) and other parts of a Mars ship.
An anonymous reader writes: NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory just announced the winners of the 8th edition of the Global Trajectory Optimization Competition, aka the America's Cup of Rocket Science. For the first time, a joint team from ESA and JAXA won the prestigious award. They had to design a nearly impossible mission to perform space-based Very-Long-Baseline Interferometry using the formation flight of three spacecraft around the Earth. Their incredibly complex trajectory can be seen here on the YouTube channel of the winning team. The full final ranking can be also downloaded here.
MarkWhittington writes: While NASA is planning its road to Mars, a number of commercial interests and place policy experts are discussing what happens after the International Space Station ends its operational life. Currently, the international partners have committed to operating ISS through 2024. Some have suggested that the space station, conceived by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, could last as long as 2028. But, after that, there will still be a need for a space station of some sort, either in low Earth orbit, or at one of the Lagrange points where the gravity of the moon and Earth cancel one another out.
An anonymous reader writes: Sciencemag has an interview with the people behind the movie The Martian. Director Ridley Scott, author Andy Weir, and Jim Green, NASA's director of planetary science and an adviser on the film talk about the technology and the science in the movie. Scott says: "Almost immediately [after] I decided to do it, we started to have conversations with NASA about process, the habitats, the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), the suits and everything. And they sent us pictures, almost like photographs, of what they hoped it would all be. If there had been anything in [the screenplay] that actually was suspect—they are not shy—they would have said so."
MarkWhittington writes: NASASpaceFlight.com reported that NASA's so-called "Road to Mars" is starting to take shape. The deep space program that would conclude with human astronauts departing for the Red Planet in 2039 would require just over 40 launches of the heavy-lift Space Launch System, including an uncrewed flight in 2018 and one flight a year to cis-lunar space starting in 2021 lasting until 2027. A flight in 2028 would launch something called the Pathfinder Entry Descent Landing Craft to Mars as a precursor for a human landing. Then the Mars program begins in earnest with a mission to Phobos in 2033 and missions to the Martian surface in 2039 and 2043.
MarkWhittington writes: Ever since President Obama foreswore interest in returning to the moon in his April 2010 speech at the Kennedy Space Center, lunar exploration has been on the back burner at NASA. According to a story at Space News, that may change starting around 2020 thanks to a project called RP15, the letters standing for "Resource Prospector," a rover designed to drill into the lunar regolith and collect samples for analysis. The rover, originating at NASA Ames Research Center, was recently tested on a simulated lunar surface at the Johnson Spaceflight Center south of Houston. RP15 was built by the same team at JSC that developed Robonaut 2, now being tested on the International Space Station, with the software being written at Ames. The tests at JSC involved the rover being controlled by engineers at NASA Ames, half way across the country in California.
MarkWhittington writes: One of the more precious resources that asteroid miners are going after is water, something that is in abundance on Earth and, oddly enough, in space as well but not as easily be acquired. Iron, nickel and platinum group metals will certainly be valuable, but future space travelers will need water, not only for drinking, bathing, and agriculture but for rocket fuel. A story in Space.com reports on a new asteroid mining technique being funded by NASA that would use sunlight, concentrated by mirrors, to extract water out of excavated asteroids. The process is called "optical mining."
At IEEE Spectrum, James Oberg gives high praise to the upcoming film The Martian (release date: October 2). Oberg doesn't have much to say about the acting; he concentrates on the physics and plausibility of the plot and the technology portrayed, which beat those of most Hollywood space epics, and notes in particular "There’s no cheating on even highly-technical spaceflight topics, as shown in the treatment of the so-called “Rich Purnell maneuver,” wherein the Hermes slingshots past Earth back to Mars for a desperate pickup attempt. ... The basic strategy of the Rich Purnell maneuver is not fictional—a crippled Japanese Mars probe named Nozomi actually used a similar Earth-flyby scheme to set up a second chance for its own faltering unmanned Mars mission a dozen years ago." Oberg's background gives his appraisal some weight -- he's a former NASA mission controller who specialized in orbital rendezvous maneuvers. He has some quibbles, too, with the way mission personnel are depicted, and notes one excursion into "fantasy mode" near the fim's close, but concludes that it's a fair trade for the overwhelming sense of realism.