The idea of planets orbiting other stars doesn’t seem like a particularly novel idea today but it’s only recently that we’ve been able to definitively prove that there are planets outside our own solar system. Whilst there was the beginnings of evidence surfacing back in 1988 the first, definitive proof we had of an extrasolar planet came in 1992, a mere 2 decades ago. As our technology has increased in capability the number of planets we discover year by year has increased dramatically and, even cooler still, the different types of planets we’re discovering is also increasing. Heck we’ve even found planets that don’t have a parent star, something which was almost a fantasy as they were thought to be nearly impossible to detect.
What the last decade has revealed is that planets are not only a common occurrence in the universe but systems like are own, ones with multiple planets in them, are also commonplace. Initially most of the exoplanet discoveries were limited to certain types of planets, namely large gas giants with short orbital periods, but as our technology has improved we’ve been able to discover smaller bodies that orbit further out. Depending on the size of the star and the planet they could end up in what we refer to as the habitable (or Goldilocks) zone, the area where liquid water could exist on the surface. Finding one of these is cause for celebration as that closely matches our own solar system so you can imagine the excitement when we found 3 potentials orbiting Gliese 667C.
Gliese 667C is actually part of a ternary star system which means that each of these planets technically has 3 suns, although the other 2 appear to more like bright stars that have the same illumination capacity as the full moon does here on earth. The diagram above makes it look like there’s potentially 5 planets in the habitable zone (just barely for H and D) but those ones are far more likely to be closer to Venus and Mars respectively. C, F, and E on the other hand are what we call super earths, rocky planets that have a mass around 2 to 10 times that of earth. Typically they’re also quite a bit larger than earth as well which means that the gravity on these kinds of planets is actually quite comparable. Out of all of them Gliese667Cf is the best candidate for habitability and thus extraterrestrial life.
What’s particularly exciting for me is this provides more evidence for the idea that other stars are typically swamped in planets, making the configuration of our solar system quite common. This adds fuel to the already intense discussion that surrounds the Drake Equation which I’d argue has now been tipped towards increasing the left hand side dramatically. Of course you can’t consider that equation without also considering the Fermi Paradox since, as far as we can tell, we’re still all alone out here. The only solution is for us to visit these planets and to see if there is anything there although doing so in an acceptable time frame is still beyond the current limits of our technical ability (but not our theoretical capacity, however).
It’s really quite amusing to see the stuff of science fiction rapidly turn into science fact. As time goes on it seems that the wildest things we could dream of, like planets with multiple suns, are not only real but may not be that unusual either. Hell it’s almost an inevitability that we’ll one day go to places like this just because it’s there. It might not be this century or heck even this millenium but we’ve shown in the past that we’re a stubborn race when it comes to things like this and we’ll be damned if anything will stop us from achieving it. I can only hope medical science advances enough for me to be able to see that and, hopefully, experience such planets for myself.
It was just on a year ago today when China made history by becoming one of the few space faring nations to have a manned presence in space. Sure it wasn’t particularly long with the taikonauts staying on board for just over a week but it still demonstrated that they were quite capable of doing everything that other nations have. That’s made all the more incredible by the fact that they have essentially built this program from scratch in just over 20 years at a fraction of the cost. Ever since then I’ve been waiting to hear about their next (and final) mission to Tiangong-1 as that would demonstrate their ability to repeat what they’ve done.
Today they’ve done just that.
Shenzhou-10 launched early this morning carrying with it 1 returning taikonaut (Nie Haisheng , Shenzhou-6) and 2 first comers including China’s second female taikonaut. The mission profile is much like the Shenzhou-9 with the crew spending 15 days in orbit with the majority of that being aboard Tiangong-1. Primarily they’ll be engaging in technological and scientific experiments but they’re also doing some outreach programs with Wang Yaping conducting some lectures live via television broadcast. Once their mission has been completed and the taikonauts returned to earth Tiangong-1 will be de-orbited in preparation for its upcoming replacement Tiangong-2.
I’ve said it several times before but it bears repeating, China is doing some really impressive work here and they’re doing it at an incredible pace when compared to previous endeavours to do the same. Sure, there’s a little bit of standing on the shoulders of giants here (thanks to their initial technology deal with Russia) but being able to launch a space station, perform unmanned missions and then 2 manned missions to it all within the space of 3 years is incredibly impressive. Tiangong-2, scheduled for launch for later this year, expands on the capabilities they developed further and should that prove successful that will pave the way for their first modular space station in the form of Tiangong-3.
Whilst I’m never going to be against more space stations the fact that the Tiangong series of craft exist can be directly traced back to the USA’s inability to work with China on anything space related. That may have made sense 3 decades ago but China has demonstrated pretty clearly that they’d have a lot to offer a joint space mission like the International Space Station. I’d even hazard a guess that the Tiangong/Shenzhou modules would be compatible with much of the ISS given their Russian technology roots or would likely only require minor modifications. Who knows, come 2020 when Tiangong-3 starts getting built we might see some collaboration from other nations but I don’t like our chances if the US gets involved again.
Despite that I’m all for the progress made by China as the more options we have for getting to and staying in space the better. The future of missions like this is looking to be increasingly private however, with companies and SpaceX and Orbital Sciences doing missions at a cost that even China says they can’t match. That’s a good thing however as it will allow them to focus on pushing the boundaries even further, taking on projects that will be truly awe inspiring.
Even if you’re not a space nut like myself you’re likely familiar with Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut who’s social media presence has captured the attention of hundreds of thousands of people. He’s been responsible for dozens of videos showcasing life aboard the International Space Station and has done numerous outreach programs during his time in orbit. As I write this he’s in the final stages of preparation for departure which will end his nearly 5 month tenure as the first Canadian commander of the ISS. As if he didn’t already have enough to do whilst he was up there he recorded this amazing video of him singing a (slightly modified) version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, and it’s bloody brilliant:
There’s nothing more I can add to this, really
Bar our own planet Mars is by far the most studied planet in the solar system. Despite the fact that almost half the missions sent to Mars have ended in disaster we’ve still managed to do a whole lot of science there and our most recent mission, the Curiosity rover, has managed to capture the attention of millions worldwide. The next logical step would then be to send ourselves over there as whilst robotic explorers are great at specific tasks there’s a whole host of other things we could do if we had a few pairs of boots over there. Such a mission has been on everyone’s minds ever since we first set foot on the Moon over 4 decades ago but progress towards achieving it has been slow, verging on non-existent.
This is not to say that there isn’t interest in doing this. NASA currently has a mandate set by the Obama government to reach Mars by 2030 a goal which they’re actively working towards with the Space Launch System. SpaceX has also expressed a keen interest in doing something similar, albeit without help from NASA, in a much more aggressive time frame. Russia has also alluded to a revamp in their space program, primarily aimed at modernizing their current fleet, which could see them establishing a moon base and possibly flying a mission to Mars. However none of these have created the stir that the fully private Mars One mission and that’s probably for good reason.
For the uninitiated Mars One is a non-profit organisation that has the extremely ambitious goal of landing 4 people on the surface of Mars by 2023. They believe they can do this at a total cost of about $6 billion for the first 4 ($4 billion for the second lot) and plan to raise a chunk of that change through making a reality TV show based around the recruitment process. This is where it gets interesting/controversial as the application process is open to anyone and has already garnered 78,000 applications from around the world. In case you’re wondering no, I’m not one of them because I’m quite sceptical that they, or anyone really, could pull off this feat with the budget they’re claiming. I’d do a detailed breakdown of why this is so but I came across this article this morning that does a far better job of explaining it than I’d do.
At the same time Buzz Aldrin has just released his new book Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration which is the culmination of his many decades of experience and ideas for getting us humans to our red sister. Whilst I haven’t had a chance to read it I do know of many of the things he’ll be discussing in it (like the Aldrin Cycler) and they’re solid, realistic goals that could be achieved by NASA in the time frames he sets out. If you’re doubting his credentials Buzz has a Phd in astronautics and has done a lot of work for NASA that’s still in use today. Whether or not NASA, or any other space faring nation for that matter, takes his advice under wing will remain to be seen but I’m sure the book will make great reading regardless.
All that being said I do get the feeling that we’re starting to see the beginnings of a mini-space race, one that’s taking place between the private space industry and the super power governments of the world. It’s anyone’s guess who will emerge the victor from this but I’m just thankful that there are multiple entities all driving towards the same goal as the more players we have in the field the more likely it is to happen. I’m sceptical that we’ll see humans on Mars within the next decade but we’re likely to push the boundaries of human exploration further than has ever been done before, fixing us firmly on a path to our celestial sister.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Virgin Galactic had disappeared into a cloud of vapourware. Whilst they had managed to build, fly and drop test SpaceShipTwo over two years ago there really hadn’t been much more from them since. Sure if you were keen you could find out what they were up to but the majority of the time it was more of the same: dozens of drop tests under their belt with no firm indication of when the next envelope push was going to happen. Indeed the last time I wrote about them was over 2 years ago and every time I wrote a space article since then I’ve always checked up on them to see if anything had changed. Unfortunately nothing did but a couple weeks ago I heard a rumour that they might be doing their first powered test soon.
That rumour appears to have come true.
WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo launched around 8 hours ago and performed their routine ascent up to about 14KMs. Then they separated and shortly afterwards SpaceShipTwo ignited its N2O/Rubber hybrid motor for 16 seconds, propelling it 2.7KMs higher and seeing it reach speeds just over Mach 1. SpaceShipTwo then glided back down to earth for a successful landing, aptly demonstrating the scaled up motor from the original Ansari X-Prize winning craft was quite capable of accomplishing its required task. It’s one thing to read the the text however and another thing altogether to watch it happen:
It’s a huge step forward for Virgin Galactic as it serves as a solid verification of all the critical systems required in order to get the craft into space. Further testing will see the motor burn for longer and longer each time, pushing SpaceShipTwo ever closer to that goal of passing the Kármán line at 100KM above sea level. Virgin Galactic appears to be quite confident in the craft as they’re planning for a full space flight before the year is out which, if the motor is similarly built to SpaceShipOne’s, would see them ramp the burn time from the paltry 16 seconds we saw today to well over 90 seconds. Considering the rigorous amount of testing SpaceShipTwo has undergone prior to this I can’t see much that would stand in the way of achieving this goal.
Virgin Galactic is going to be the first step in commoditizing space access. Sure right now it’s not much more than a joy ride (although even short suborbital flights can have some good science done with them) but SpaceShipTwo is the first to market in private space travel for regular people and with so many others already throwing their hats in the ring I can’t imagine it’ll stay so expensive for long. I might not be able to afford a ticket yet but I don’t think I’ll be waiting too long for my chance at it and that makes me incredibly excited.
Congratulations Virgin Galactic and godspeed.
It’s hard for me to hide my fan boy nature when it comes to private space flight. Whilst all credit must go to Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic for getting me inspired about all things space they have unfortunately taken a second seat to my current space crush. Not-so-long time readers will know that I’m talking about SpaceX, a company that has shown time and time again that they’re capable of not only developing technology that no private entity had previously but also delivering on their patently crazy promises. However I’m not in favour of monopolies/single points of failure (stemming from my capitalistic/engineering nature respectively) and the more options we have available to us for putting things in space the better.
Today it appears we have another contender: the Orbital Science’s Antares rocket.
Now I’ve only mentioned Orbital Sciences briefly in the past, noting that they won a contract to provide launch capabilities to NASA alongside SpaceX as part of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, but their legacy stretches back quite a long way. Founded in 1982 they’ve developed several different launch platforms in tandem with NASA and have also been involved in numerous high profile scientific missions. Most recently they developed the Dawn craft which is currently in the asteroid belt transiting from the asteroid Vesta to the dwarf planet Ceres. Needless to say if anyone has the chops to develop their own launch system it’s orbital sciences and the Antares rocket is their first such system.
On paper it looks to be somewhere between the Falcon 1 and 9 with a total payload to LEO of around 5000kg. The two first stage engines are curious little beasts, originally designed to form the basis of the Russian N-1 rocket that was bound for the moon. Considering that launch system was a dismal failure you’d then have to wonder about them using the engines from it but N-1′s issues were mostly process/design based rather than stemming from issues from one particular component. It also has a slightly wider payload fairing than the Falcon 9 at 3.9m in diameter which could come in handy for certain mission profiles.
The first launch of the Antares (dubbed A-ONE) was scheduled to happen in the middle of last week however some minor technical issues delayed the launch. The rocket itself was fine however one of the umbilical cables disconnected 12 minutes prior to launch, far too early when it usually happens right before lift off. Thankfully this didn’t require the rocket to be stood down and they were able to reschedule it for a couple days later. Unfortunately high winds on the second launch day caused them to issue a no-go due to weather and it was rescheduled for today. Thankfully conditions improved and they were able to launch, making the Antares rocket the second fully private rocket to make it to orbit.
Apart from that it’s still notable for many reasons. If the picture above looks a little unfamiliar to you it’s because the Antares wasn’t launched from the iconic Cape Canaveral. Instead it was launched from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility located in Virginia, a place that doesn’t usually see rockets of this size. Indeed the Antares rocket is the largest rocket to ever be launched from this facility and will likely become the defacto launch site for the rocket in the future thanks to its much less crowded launch schedule. If all goes to plan this site could see another 2 launches of the Antares rocket this year which would be on par with SpaceX’s rapid turnaround times.
Today marks a great achievement for Orbital Sciences and the greater space industry as it shows that not only is the private space industry viable, it can likely support several competing players. This will only help spur innovation forward as companies look to outpace each other on every aspect. Whilst SpaceX might be the current starlet Orbital Sciences has decades of experience behind them and I can’t imagine them being in the backseat for very long. As always this means that the cost to launch will trend downwards and from there it’s only a matter of time before it reaches the commodity level.
And that, my friends, is really exciting.
I’ll just put this here, a sunset on Mars as seen by the Curiosity rover:
I had one of those moments watching this video where I just considered the chain of events that led up to me being able to see this. There’s a robot on another planet, several million kilometers away, that’s beaming pictures back to Earth. Those pictures were then made available to the public via a vast, interconnected network that spans the entire globe. One person on that network decided to collate them into a video and make that available via said network. I then, using commodity hardware that anyone can purchase, was able to view that video. The chain of events leading up to that point seem so improbable when you look at as a completed system but they all exist and are all products of human innovation.
Isn’t that just mind blowingly awesome?
It’s hard to believe that it was only 5 months ago that SpaceX launched its very first Dragon capsule that was part of the Commercial Resupply Services contract they had with NASA. It was an unqualified success with everything from the launch to capture and finally to docking going as smoothly as you could possibly expect. Even more impressive was the fact that they accomplished this feat no more than 5 months after their previous ISS rendezvous attempt aptly demonstrating that they are very capable of meeting their aggressive timelines, something which many hardened arm chair space nuts like myself were initially sceptical of.
Today brings news of another successful flight of the SpaceX Dragon capsule, dubbed CRS-2, which has just docked at the International Space Station. Just like previous missions it’s been loaded quite lightly carrying 677KGs of playload which is about 10% of its total combined (pressurized and unpressurised) capacity. The vast majority of this is taken up with science experiments with crew supplies and replacement parts making up the lesser half. This is also the first time that the unpressurised section of the Dragon capsule has been used which is where the spare station parts were contained. These will be unloaded during an EVA whilst the Dragon is docked at the ISS.
CRS-2′s flight up wasn’t without some significant drama that threatened to send it plummeting back to earth. Whilst the initial launch was fine and second stage separation was completed (an area in which SpaceX has had troubles in the past) 3 of the 4 rocket pods contained on the Dragon craft reported insufficient pressurization in their oxidizer system. This in turn triggered another safety system which stopped the solar panels from deploying, a safety mechanism designed to protect the craft in an unsuccessful booster stage separation scenario. In this state the Dragon would not be able to berth with the ISS and would likely end up plummeting back to earth in a most ungraceful fashion.
The Dragon’s internal systems were then overridden and the rocket pods were allowed to continue pressurizing. Shortly afterwards 2 rocket pods were deemed active and the solar panels were deployed. Not long after that all 4 rocket pods were reporting proper pressurization and were brought back online. Whilst not a catastrophic failure it did push back the schedule by a day meaning CRS-2 didn’t dock until early this morning.
With this most recent launch SpaceX has shown just how reliable they can be as they’ve hit a launch every 5 months for almost a year. It might not sound like much but comparing that to any other launch system demonstrates just how far SpaceX has come in the comparatively short time they’ve been a company. With this all in mind it’s looking pretty good that they’ll be able to make their 2015 deadline of putting people into orbit which, considering that the replacement from NASA is a long way off, is extremely impressive.
You’d have to be under a rock (ha!) to have not heard about the recent meteor that entered out atmosphere over Russia on Friday (which just so happened to be my birthday, what a present!). Thanks to the proliferation of cameras everywhere, predominately the dash cams which are common in Russia to avoid insurance scammers, the Chelyabinsk event was pretty well documented from multiple angles. If you had ever wondered what a decent sized asteroid air bursting in the atmosphere would look like and what it’d eventually do you couldn’t really get a better example, even from the wealth of smaller impacts that are witnessed every year.
There’s been a lot of questions about this particular event and I caught a couple of them when I was reading through the comments on some of the videos. One of them that caught my eye was one asking why there appeared to be 2 contrails (I believe it was on this video). From what I can tell that’s probably some time after the air burst as it took the shockwave approximately 2 minutes to reach the surface after it occurred. Reports from various space agencies afterwards state that there was at least 3 probable impact sites which would corroborate my idea of it breaking up after the air burst. Not that there’d be a lot of it left after that however as it was rated at something like 500kt, about an order of magnitude higher than the first atomic bombs.
By far the most common question was how we could have missed something like this when we were quite capable of tracking a near-miss asteroid that just happened to pass by 15 hours later. There are a couple factors at play here but I’ll start with the most pertinent. For starters this is actually quite a small meteor with current estimates pegging its original size at somewhere around 17m² with a total mass of approximately 7000 tons. 2012DA14 was about 2~3 times the size and several orders of magnitude heavier (~190000 tons) making it a lot easier to spot. Secondly whilst we are capable of spotting asteroids like this prior to them entering out atmosphere we purposely limit ourselves to track the bigger ones since they have a much greater chance of causing extinction level events. With greater funding to NASA and related space agencies it would be possible to get more warning about things like this before they happen.
There would still be ones that we wouldn’t see coming unfortunately as depending on their make up and direction they come from they can be incredibly hard to spot. The Chelyabinsk meteor was, as far as we can tell, rocky and this tends have quite a low albedo which makes them quite difficult to track, especially if they come from certain directions where they won’t get much illumination. Large, primarily metallic asteroids are quite easy to track and the most devastating should they collide with us, but they’re also somewhat rare so the vast majority are simply larger rocky asteroids that have a decent albedo.
It will likely be a long, long time before we bear witness to something like this again. Whilst we’re likely to capture any event of note thanks to the proliferation of cameras everywhere there’s still an awful lot of this earth where us humans just aren’t present to see it and as such many events like this go completely unnoticed. It’s a shame really as they’re quite intriguing events and they can help us learn about what will happen should a larger asteroid cross our path one day.
When I first wrote about Planetary Resources early last year I was erring on the side of cautious optimism because back then there wasn’t a whole lot of information available regarding how they were actually going to achieve their goal. Indeed even their first goal of building and launching multiple space telescopes sounded like it was beyond the capabilities of even veteran players in this industry. Still the investors backing them weren’t the type to be taken for a ride so I figured they were worth keeping an eye on to see how they progressed towards their goal.
And boy have they ever:
The above video shows off one of their prototypes of the Arkyd-100 space based telescope. Now back when Planetary Resources first started talking about what they were going to do I wasn’t expecting something of this size. Indeed I don’t believe anyone has attempted to make a space based telescope that small before as you’re usually trying to amp up your light gathering potential with a large mirror. Still despite the relatively small mirror size they should be quite capable of doing the required imagery that will lead them to potential mineable asteroids.
Their communications set up is also highly intriguing as traditional space communications require large dishes and costly receiving equipment back here on earth. Planetary Resources are instead looking to use lasers for their deep space communications an idea that I didn’t think would be possible. A quick bit of research turns up this document from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab which goes into some detail about their feasibility and shockingly it appears to only be an engineering challenge at this point. How long it will take to turn it into something usable remains to be seen but considering Planetary Resources are looking to launch within the next couple years I’d hazard a guess that they’re already pretty close to getting it working.
Looking at all this you’d think I’d be ashamed of my initial scepticism but I’m not, I love it when people prove me wrong like this. Indeed the work that Planetary Resources are doing closely resembles that of the early days of SpaceX, a company which has gone on to achieve things that no other private company has done before. Given enough time it’s looking like Planetary Resources will be able to do the same and that gets me all kinds of excited.