Tuesday, 28 February 2017

SpaceX Mission to the Moon

Private company SpaceX plans to send people on a fly-by trip around the Moon in 2018! This is very big news - no one has been anywhere near the Moon in more than 40 years. Can SpaceX do it? Personally I doubt that it will happen next year but the fact that they're pushing for this is great news.

As much as I'm loving it, I do have a few concerns. Nothing serious - mostly just related to the ambitious timeline - but here they are...

(1) They're planning to use the Falcon Heavy rocket to launch this mission. This new rocket has never flown, it's quite a different beast to SpaceX's existing Falcon 9 and it will need a lot of testing before putting people on it. You could argue that as long as the launch abort system works well it's an acceptable risk to use a new rocket but I'd still be worried about climbing on top of that thing.

(2) The spacecraft that will go all the way to the Moon is also a new design. Called Crew Dragon, it's a new version of their existing uncrewed capsule. Again, I'm worried about putting people in a new spacecraft that won't have had many test flights.

(3) Do they have a launch license for this mission? I haven't seen any reference to that yet. They'll need one, which may be difficult given the newness of the vehicles and light testing schedule.

(4) SpaceX has a launch success rate of about 94%. Statistically they will have several more failures before launching the Moon mission - maybe more with the new Falcon Heavy. Each failure causes a delay to the whole programme. I really can't see them launching for the Moon in 2018.

Those are my concerns about the mission timeline. I also have a greater concern for the future of NASA...

If the SpaceX mission is successful it will make NASA look bad. That's because the SpaceX mission will be very similar to NASA's upcoming mission to the lunar vicinity. In fact NASA's mission probably won't even have a crew - just a test capsule - so SpaceX's mission will make NASA's look very weak in comparison. I'm not criticising NASA and I actually think their approach is safer and more reasonable but the issue is public perception.

On top of this, NASA's human spaceflight system, SLS  & Orion, is plagued by controversy and huge cost. Estimates vary but a staggering $2 - 5 billion per launch is a common assessment. If true, this is a scandal.

If a private company is perceived to be doing NASA's job better, faster and much cheaper, NASA's reputation will take a big hit. It could easily spell the death of NASA's entire in-house human spacecraft development programme. This would give NASA an unbroken history lasting more than a decade of aborted human spaceflight programs (Constellation and SLS).

Let's be clear: This is not NASA's fault. Their situation has been created by the unrealistic demands and inadequate funding from politicians. If NASA was left to make their own decisions I believe they could have an efficient, cost-effective programme.

So I'm actually a little bit ambivalent about all this. Of course I want SpaceX to succeed and I want to see people back to the Moon. I just hope they can do it without hurting NASA in the process. Alternatively, maybe this will give the politicians the push they need to sort out the disparity between their expectations and funding for NASA. Maybe they might even give NASA the resources they need to do what they're being asked to do. Miracles are possible.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Space Shuttle Streaming Through the Clouds

Over the past few weeks a lot of people having been forwarding me this image and asking if it's real...

In most cases it's claimed that this photo was taken from the International Space Station, of a space shuttle launching through the clouds, along with some comment on how small everything looks from outer space.

Is it real? Yes, mostly.

I've tracked down what I believe to be the original image and it's Space Shuttle Endeavour launching on May 16, 2011. As you can see below, the original photo doesn't have the same "small world" effect as the one above, which has also been further enhanced with some colour changes and sharpening.

Image source: NASA
Click the images for full-size versions.

There are several ways to achieve the "small world" effect. It can be done in-camera using a tilt-shift lens or (to some extent) simply by reducing the depth of field. In this case though the effect was obviously added afterwards by blurring parts of the image.

By the way, the photo wasn't taken from space, it was taken from a training aircraft that was observing the launch.

I haven't been able to trace the edited image to any particular source so I can't credit it (let me know if you can help with that) but it's a nice effort to be sure. Well done.

Here are a few more genuine examples of launches seen from above the clouds...

Space Shuttle Endeavour, 16th May 2011.
Credit: Lorrie "Bird" LeBlanc

Space Shuttle Endeavour, 16th May 2011.
Credit: Lorrie "Bird" LeBlanc

Atlas Rocket, September 2001.
Credit: Tech. Sgt. Rodney Jones/USAF

Space Shuttle Challenger, June 18th, 1983.
Credit: NASA

And my favourite... Delta II launch, June 7th 2007 (look closely in the background, below and to the right of the Sun):

Monday, 28 September 2015

NASA Announces Water on the Surface of Mars

NASA has made an announcement that's of great interest to planetary scientists and space enthusiasts: Evidence of liquid water on the surface of Mars. Until now the only place in the entire Universe that we've been able to find surface water is Earth. If there's water on Mars it has significant implications for the search for alien life. It's unlikely that there's any life associated with this particular water (for example, there's still lethal radiation to deal with), but it does make martian life slightly more likely than it seemed yesterday.

At the very least it makes Mars a more habitable environment than we previously thought, so it also has implications for colonizing the Red Planet.

It's important to understand that the latest evidence is indirect, meaning that we haven't actually seen it close-up or confirmed that it's really water. However the evidence is strong enough that we can be quite confident.

Also note that we've been accumulating evidence of martian water and ice for years, so today's news is a good incremental step forward in our understanding rather than a massive leap. I may seem a bit blasé compared to the breathless exhilaration being shown by some people, but that's just how I see it. Surface water is great but let's keep it in perspective. It's not a lake or river; at best it's a relatively small amount of liquid mixed up in the martian soil.

In any case, expect more evidence of water in the years to come.

Below:"Recurrent Slope Lineae", dark streaks that appear on the sides of craters and canyons. This is where NASA thinks the liquid water is, based on the changing patterns throughout the martian year.

One mystery is exactly where this water comes from. There are a few theories but they all have problems. That's part of the fun though - trying to figure these things out and learn more about planets and geology in the process (knowledge that can usually be applied here on Earth too).

What does all this mean for the "Mars One" mission to send people on a one-way trip to Mars? Sadly the answer is nothing because (in my opinion) that mission is unrealistic anyway. I seriously doubt whether it will ever get off the ground. Still, people will get to Mars one day and when they do, having easily accessible water on site would be a huge bonus.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Space Centre Update

It's been another long gap between posts and a lot has happened in that time. The new Space Centre has opened in Kihikihi and been up and running for about eight months. Things are going well and the public response to the new venue has been excellent (even better than expected).

We're currently averaging about 70 visitors per week which is pretty much the minimum we need at this stage. It's nowhere near enough for the long-term, when we'll need at least twice that many just to stay viable, but it's enough for now as we keep working to spread the word.

We're averaging one group booking per week. These are mostly schools but we're also getting other groups as well. If you'd like to make a booking, it's a good idea to check our calendar for available dates and then contact me.

Regarding this blog, I'm in the process of moving it to the same domain as our website (blog.spacecentre.nz) so there are likely to be a few hiccups along the way. Sorry about that. I'm planning to start using this blog for a few things so hopefully it will become a bit more active again.

Remember to follow us on Facebook and Twitter!

Friday, 3 October 2014

Is Pluto a Planet Again?

Some stories just won't die without a fight and neither will some planets. Pluto was kicked out of the planet club in 2006 and is now known as a "dwarf planet" or "minor planet". An article today at stuff.co.nz makes it sound like there's a new movement of support for Pluto becoming a planet again, but in fact this is nothing new - astronomers have been arguing about it for many years and will continue to do so for many more.

One important point the article missed is that next year NASA's New Horizons will be the first spacecraft to fly past Pluto. It will be all over the news so 2015 is the year when Pluto supporters will probably make a big push to get public opinion on their side.

Whether Pluto does ever back its planet status is anybody's guess as it depends so much on the personal views of people in scientific-political positions. However it's very unlikely that anything will change in the foreseeable future, even with all the publicity coming next year. The wheels of change turn slowly at the International Astronomical Union and they aren't likely to want to reverse such a major decision less than 10 years after it was made.

So for now, and probably for a long time, we have 8 planets in our solar system.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

The Moons of Pluto

Today the International Astronomical Union (IAU) announced the official names for Pluto's two most recently discovered moons. The temporary names P4 and P5 have been replaced with Kerberos and Styx respectively.

These days the IAU doesn't get to make their decisions in isolation or without public pressure. People want to have their say and are quick to criticize unpopular decisions. And of course many Pluto fans are still getting over the whole demotion thing.

Last year there was a public vote for new names for Pluto's moons. By far the most popular was "Vulcan", supported by William Shatner.

Not for the first time, the IAU ignored public opinion and went with something different. Did the IAU get it right?

I think so. I'm a Trek fan and it's always fun to watch William Shatner get excited about anything, but in this case Vulcan would have been the wrong choice.

  • In the 19th century Vulcan was the name given to a hypothetcal planet inside Mercury's orbit. Although the planet turned out not to exist, the term "vulcanoid" is still associated with objects very close to the Sun (which does not include Pluto's moons).
  • In Star Trek lore Vulcan is a very large, hot planet, totally unlike Pluto's moons.
  • There is a long-standing convention of naming planets after Roman gods and moons after Greek gods. Vulcan is a Roman god so it would break the convention.
  • Astronomical names need to last a very long time. Will the Star Trek reference still be relevant even in 5000 years? I hope so but I wouldn't bet on it.
  • Kerberos and Styx are good, relevant names.

Both in astronomy and Star Trek, Vulcan is strongly associated with heat. It's not logical to name an icy moon Vulcan. Let's save the name Vulcan for a hot extrasolar planet orbiting close to its star. That would be a fitting tribute.

Vulcan's time will come, we just need to be patient.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

My First Total Solar Eclipse

Some time ago we decided to book a family holiday to see the November 2012 total solar eclipse in Port Douglas, Australia. It was a tricky venture to plan and I agonized over how to approach it. Where was the best place to be? How much effort should I make to photograph and/or video the event? Should I take my solar telescope and good camera, or travel lightly and be more mobile?

As it turned out, practical considerations ruled out taking all my best gear. That probably wasn't a bad thing though, because I had already decided to concentrate on enjoying the experience rather than recording it. I didn't want to be stressing about camera settings when I should be looking at the freaking TOTAL ECLIPSE.

So here's a rough video of how it unfolded. I plan to rework this video at a later date and add more about the whole experience, including the eclipse-chasing culture. But for now here's what a total eclipse felt like, the best I can explain it...