Posts Tagged‘moon’

Chang'e 3

Chang’e 3 Launches: China’s First Luna Rover.

For a country that was barred from ever working with the leader in space technology the progress China has made in the last decade has been incredibly impressive. They’ve quickly gone from humble beginnings in 2003 where their first taikonaut made it into orbit to a fully fledged space station in 2013, showing that they have the technical expertise required to consistently attempt envelope pushing activities. Of course whilst the most interesting aspect of any space program is the manned activities (who doesn’t love seeing people in space!) there’s always the quiet sibling in the robotics departments, attempting missions that few humans will be able to attempt. I must admit that until today I was also ignorant of China’s robotic efforts in space but suffice to say they’re just as impressive as their human based accomplishments.

Chang'e 3China’s Chang’e program (the name of the Chinese Goddess of the Moon) is a series of lunar spacecraft tasked with creating highly detailed maps and models of the Moon’s surface with the intent that that data will be used for future manned missions. Chang’e 1 was launched back in 2007 and remained in lunar orbit for 2 years. It created the most accurate and detailed sufrace map of the moon to date and, once it was done, plummeted into the surface it just mapped to send up a spray of regolith that could be studied from here on Earth. It’s successor, Chang’e 2, was launched in 2010 and had similar capability (albeit with higher resolution instruments and a lower orbit) but instead of being plunged into the moon at the end of its mission it was instead sent out to do a flyby of asteroid 4179 Toutatis. Its current trajectory will eventually see it hit interstellar space however its likely it’ll run out of fuel long before that happens and the purpose of the extend mission is to validate China’s Deep Space Tracking network.

Chang’e 3, launched just yesterday, will be the first craft China has ever launched that will land on the Moon’s surface. For a first attempt it’s a fairly ambitious little project consisting of both a lander and a rover, whereas similar missions usually go for a lander first prior to attempting a rover. The lander is an interesting piece of equipment as it contains a RTG as a power source as well as an ultra-violet telescope, making it the first luna based observatory. Whilst it won’t be anything like the Hubble or similar space telescopes it will still be able to do some solid science thanks to its location and it makes the lander’s useful life much longer than it typically would be.

The rover is just as interesting, being roughly equivalent to the Mars Exploration Rovers (Spirit and Opportunity) in terms of size and weight. It can provide real time video back to Earth and has sample analysis tools on board. The most important instrument it carriers however is a radar on its base allowing it to probe the lunar surface in a level of detail that hasn’t been done before, giving us insights into the make up of the regolith and the crust beneath it. It will be interesting to see what its longevity will be like as its power source is its solar panels (unlike its parent lander) and the lack of atmosphere should mean they’ll remain clean for the forseeable future.

As of right now there’s another 2 more missions in the Chang’e line both of which have similar capabilities with the exception of Chang’e 5 which will be a lunar sample return mission. After that it’s expected that China will start to eye off manned lunar missions, starting with the traditional flag planting operations and then quickly escalating to a fully fledged moon base not long after. It’s quite possible that they’ll accomplish that within the next 2 decades as well as their past accomplishments show how quickly they can churn out envelope pushing missions, something that other space fairing nations have been lacking as of late.

Whilst it might not be of the same heights we saw during the cold war there’s definitely another space race starting to heat up, although this time it’s between the private space industry and China. Whilst it’s likely that China will win the race to the Moon and possibly Mars I can’t help but feel that the private industry isn’t too far behind. Heck, combine Bigelow Aerospace and SpaceX and you’ve already got the majority of the Chinese manned program right there! Still this does not detract from the accomplishments the Chinese have made and I only hope that eventually the USA changes its stance on co-operating with them.

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What Water On The Moon Means For Space Exploration.

The moon is our closest celestial neighbour and as a consequence is by far one of the most studied celestial bodies. By all accounts it’s a barren wasteland, covered in numerous pot marks from the asteroids that have bombarded it over its lifetime. However the more we investigate it the more we find out that, whilst there’s almost no chance of life being present there, many of the resources that life depends on can be found there. Whilst we’ve known for a while that it would be possible to extract water from the regolith on the surface new observations from NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper instrument aboard India’s Chandrayaan-1 have revealed that there might be actual water on the Moon, just waiting there for us to use.

india-chandrayaan-1-spacecraftThe initial implications of this are obvious. Water is one of the fundamental resources required for any human based space mission and the amount required usually has to be brought along for the ride. This means the payload capacity used for bringing water along can’t be used for other things, like additional supplies or more equipment, and presents a big challenge for long duration flights. Having a source on the Moon means that any potential bases or colonies established there would have much less reliance on resupply missions from Earth, something which is the primary limiting factor for any off-world colonies that we attempt to establish.

However that pales in comparison when compared to what water on the Moon means for space in general: it’s a primary component for rocket fuel.

Water’s basic composition is hydrogen and oxygen which are the components which power many of the liquid fuelled rocket engines that operate today. Of course in their bonded state they’re not a ready to use propellent exactly so a process is required to break those bonds and get those atoms separated. Thankfully such a process exists, called electrolysis,  which splits water down into its component gasses which can then be stored and later used to send rockets on their way. Of course such a process relies on a stable power source which would likely be some like of large solar array backed up by a large battery bank to last through the 2 week long darkness that regularly blankets half the surface.

The biggest challenge that many of the long duration or large payload missions face is the fact that they require more fuel. Carrying more fuel unfortunately also means carry more fuel and there’s points of diminishing returns where you’re spending far too much fuel just to get yourself out of our gravity well. Having a refuelling station or the Moon (or, even better, constructing and launch payloads from there) would mean that we would put larger payloads into space and then push them to the outer reaches of the solar system without having to waste as much fuel to get ourselves out of Earth’s gravitational influence.

Of course seeing this kind of technology implemented is some ways off as it seems like NASA’s next target will be a flag planting mission on Mars. Such technology would be quite applicable to Mars as well seeing as the soil there has a lot of trapped water (and there’s plentiful water ice pretty much everywhere but the equatorial region) but it’d be far more valuable if it was implemented on the moon. In either case I believe this is foundational technology that will be pivotal in humanity pushing itself to the far reaches of our own solar system and, maybe one day, beyond.

 

Moon Sand (Contains No Actual Moon).

I’m sure I’m not alone in being someone who loves playing around in the sand at a beach even though I’m pushing 30. My friends and I always seem to end up building some kind of sand castle whenever we all make our way down there even though we usually have no intention of doing so. There’s probably some nostalgia at work there, I mean almost everyone has great memories of playing the sand as a child, but I’ve also been told it’s actually quite therapeutic something a cursory stroll through Wikipedia appears to verify. However bringing the beach with you is usually frowned upon (What do you mean I can’t make sand castles on the carpet??) but it seems like there’s a pretty awesome substitute in the form of Moon Sand.

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It’s a pretty awesome substance, one that’s been around for some time from what I can gather, as it emulates the properties of wet sand pretty well without requiring water. I haven’t been able to track down the exact polymer that they use (confusingly the hydrophobic sand I blogged about also carries the name moon sand) but it seems a workable substitute can be made with good old fashioned corn starch. That does require water however which leads me to believe that the polymer they use has some non-Newtonian properties to it as that’s exactly what you get when you mix corn starch and water. If I could find the exact polymer they’re using (searching for non-toxic non-Newtonian polymers didn’t give me any viable leads) so if you happen to know what it is I’d be keen to hear from you.

One of the interesting points that came up in my research to this is people wondering whether or not this would be anything like real moon sand. Strangely enough the surface of the moon is coated in a layer of what you could classify as sand but it’s formed quite differently and it’s called regolith. Sand on earth is made by rock being slowly eroded away, typically by some form of moving water. Regolith on the other hand has rather violent origins with its primary mode of creation being through impacts on the surface by meteors. That’s why you don’t have regolith on earth as the amount of impacts required to generate it simply don’t happen (thankfully) due to our atmosphere. The moon on the other hand isn’t so lucky and gets bombarded constantly with generates the layer of dust upon it.

However that regolith isn’t composed of worn particles like sand is, instead the base structures are typically jagged and this actually became an issue with the early sample return missions to the moon. Those jagged particles stick to everything they and actually punctured the vacuum membrane on the sample return jars, contaminating them. More interesting still is that regolith appears to be highly reactive as Armstrong and Aldrin (and many other astronauts) reported smelling gunpowder after completing their moon walks something that wasn’t reported by scientists studying the samples back home. Moon Sand by comparison is quite inert and not at all abrasive.

Now I just need an excuse to buy some of this. I mean it’d be completely normal for a near 30 year old to do this, right?

The Moon: From Birth to Present Day.

To celebrate the Luna Reconnaissance Orbiter being in orbit around the moon for 1000 days NASA has celebrated by releasing not 1 but 2 very cool videos about the moon. The first is probably my favourite of the two, depicting the violent birth of our closest heavenly body:

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The second is equally as cool though showing (in incredible detail) what the moon looks like today:

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Europa, We Should Attempt Landings There.

Carl Sagan is quote as saying that “life looks for life”. Indeed if our own history is anything to go by we’re in a constant state of searching out other forms of life and just recently we’ve extended that search beyond the confines of the world that gave rise to us. So far our search beyond our home world has proved fruitless as we’ve been unable to find any direct indications of life on any other heavenly body that’s within our reach. Thus we find Earth in what appears to be some great isolation which is a somewhat disconcerting notion given the age of the universe and the number of potential habitable planets in our galactic backyard. We should not be discouraged however as our quest to find life elsewhere is only just beginning.

Of all the other heavenly bodies that inhabit our solar system there’s one that stands out as the best candidate for housing life. Now if I was to ask the question of which body it was most people would respond with Mars as it’s the only planet that resembles Earth in some fashion, with the next closest candidate being the raging hell of Venus. It’s not a bad guess either as we’ve proven several times over that there was once vast amounts of water there and there’s still a very good chance there’s liquid water present today. However Mars is a very inhospitable place so much so that the best hope for life there is nothing above microbial and even that seems like a far reaching prospect.

Europa on the other hand is quite the curiosity. As far as moons go it really is something out of left field being a striking combination of bright whites and browns. It’s surface is also one of the smoothest in the solar system thanks to it being made almost entirely of water ice. That doesn’t mean it’s featureless however as the entire surface is criss-crossed with fracture lines from the giant ice sheet breaking apart and reforming. Many have speculated that this is because the surface actually lies on top of a giant subsurface ocean and when cracks form the ocean rushes up to fill it, forming the characteristic lines. It’s this undersea ocean that makes Europa one of the best candidates for life forming outside of Earth and recent studies show it just got a little better.

The potential ocean on Europa would be some 3KM below the surface, quite a ways away from any direct sunlight or other potential energy sources. It’s theorized then that the ocean is kept liquid by the tidal flexing that Europa undergoes every time it orbits Jupiter which could also drive the same kinds of volcanism processes that gives rise to life in the depths of our oceans. However recent research shows that there’s potential for some subsurface lakes that are much closer to the surface than the great ocean below. These lakes would have a higher rate of churn between water and ice providing a much a habitat that’d be more nutrient rich and hopefully more hospitable to life. Of both these recently modelled oceans and the great subsurface ocean haven’t yet been conclusively proven, but that just makes Europa a really tantalizing target for exploration.

Quite a few missions have swung past Europa already with the most detailed analysis being done by the Galileo craft from 1995 to 2003. However we haven’t been back there recently save for a short flyby by the New Horizons craft that imaged it on its way to Pluto. If we were to go back there my favourite mission candidate would be the Crybot style mission. In essence it’s a probe that’s fitted with a giant heater on the front of it, capable of plunging through several kilometres of ice. Once it broke through it would then deploy a small autonomous underwater vehicle that could investigate the subsurface ocean. This mission hasn’t got past the back of the napkin style planning stages yet, but I’m hopeful that we’ll one day attempt such a mission.

Europa is a curiosity unlike any other in our solar system and there’s so much we could learn from it if we were to send a mission there. Whilst the environment there isn’t really human friendly (the radiation at the surface is quite large, about 450 chest x-rays a day worth) it’s definitely within our current capabilities of robotic exploration. I know that one day we’ll see a dedicate mission there but until then I’m quite content to continue fantasizing about the undersea world that it contains and the tantalizing possibility that as of yet unknown life forms exist there.

An Earth With Two Moons.

Our Moon has been a constant source of amazement and wonder for the human species. For as long as we’ve been able to observe it from our earthly bounds it has only ever shown us one side and wobbling ever so slightly as if to tease us as to what we couldn’t see. For the longest time we speculated about what could be on the other side of our closest celestial partner with theories ranging from the mundane to the outright fantastical. Of course since 1959 when Luna 3 first photographed the far side of the moon most of that mystery and wonder has since evaporated, but even today it still manages to throw a couple curve balls our way.

One of the most puzzling aspects is the distinct difference in terrain between the near and far sides of the moon. Comparatively the near side of the moon is quite smooth with many “maria” or land seas covering its surface. The far side on the other hand is deeply cratered with a considerably more rough appearance than the side we’re all familiar with. There are many explanations for this with the most accepted being that the near side contained a higher concentration of radioactive elements when it was first formed, and this has been confirmed from data from orbiting craft. There is however a new theory that’s come out and it depicts a story of an Earth that once had two moons:

The moon is thought to have formed when a Mars-sized body slammed into the infant Earth. This threw a cloud of vaporised and molten rock into orbit, which coalesced into the moon.

Simulations have previously shown that additional moons could have formed from the debris cloud, sharing an orbit with the one large moon that survives today. Eventually, gravitational tugs from the sun would destabilise the moonlets, making them crash into the bigger one.

Building off the most accepted theory of the Moon’s formation (the Giant Impact) this new theory about the far side of the moon’s appearance postulates that the impact also created another, smaller Earth bound satellite. Now usually smaller bodies are quickly engulfed by their bigger neighbours but this smaller moon stabilized into an orbit long enough for it to fully form. However millions of years later it impacted with the current moon at a relatively slow pace of about 8,000KM/H (for reference, the International Space Station orbits at around 25,000KM/H). So instead of smashing each other to bits they instead squished together forming a turbulent far side of the moon. Such a hypothesis also explains some discrepancies between mineral concentrations on either side of the moon as such an impact would have pushed the moon’s magma to the other side.

Now whilst this theory would explain some of the phenomena we’re seeing with our celestial sister there’s not a whole bunch of direct evidence to support it. The heavily crated far side of the moon could easily be explained by the tidal locking with Earth, which means any incoming asteroids are far more likely to hit the side facing outwards. This is made all the more difficult by the fact that there has been no landed exploration of the far side of the moon and definitely no sample return missions. Getting some rock samples from the far side of the moon would provide the answers we need to rule out or pursue this theory further.

I always find it amazing how we can think we’ve explored something so thoroughly yet it can still surprise us. The moon is something we’re all so familiar with yet it’s still so foreign when you get up close and it’s origins are as mysterious and intriguing as our own. I love that these ideas could lead to us sending a sample return mission to the far side of the moon and what’s even more exciting is that such a mission would probably lead to many more questions than answers. That’s the beauty of science, it’s a never ending journey of discovery into the origins and mechanics of the universe that surrounds us.

MESSENGER: Mercury’s First Artificial Satellite.

Mercury is a strange little beast of a planet. It’s the closest planet to our sun and manages to whip around it just under 88 days. Its “days” are 59 earth days long and whilst it’s not tidally locked to our parent star (like the moon is to us, always showing the same face to the earth) it is in a 3:2 spin-orbit resonance. This has led to some interesting phenomena when we’ve sent probes to image it as the only probe to ever visit it, Mariner 10, only managed to image 45% of the planet’s surface on it’s 2 encounter trip with the tortured little planet. That all changed a few years ago when MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) made its first approach to Mercury in January 2008 and sent back images of the as of yet unseen side of the planet. Ever since then MESSENGER has been on a long trajectory that will eventually bring it into orbit with Mercury and it will begin it’s year long mission of observations.

It just so happens that that day is today.

MESSENGER has been in space for an extremely long time, almost 7 years. You might be wondering why it has taken this craft so long to reach Mercury and the answer requires that you understand a little about orbital mechanics. You see as a heavenly body, in this case a satellite, moves closer to another body it will tend to speed up. This is known as the conservation of angular momentum and it’s the same principle that governs the increase in speed when you bring your arms in closer whilst you’re spinning. Thus for a satellite that’s launched from Earth to be able to orbit Mercury it has to shed all that extra speed so it can match up to it, otherwise it would just whiz right past it. Since doing this with a rocket is rather expensive (the fuel required would be phenomenal) NASA instead opts to shed velocity by a complicated set of maneuvers between planets, each of which removes a portion of the satellite’s velocity. This is cheap fuel wise but means the space craft will have to endure many years in space before it reaches its destination.

As I write this MESSENGER is making its final preparations to insert itself into an orbit around Mercury.  MESSENGER hopes to demystify the diminutive planet by providing hi-resolution imaging of the planet (there’s still 5% we haven’t seen yet), doing chemical analysis to determine the planet’s makeup and attempting to figure out why Mercury has a magnetic field. Probably the most interesting part of MESSENGER will be the last part as our current theories on planet formation point to Mercury being much like our moon with a solid core and no magnetic field to speak of. The presence of one there suggests that part of Mercury’s core is still molten and raises a number of questions over how planets and natural satellites like our moon form. It will also be the first ever artificial satellite of Mercury, something that still eludes many of the other planets in our solar system.

This is the kind of science that NASA really excels at, the stuff that just hasn’t been done before. It’s really amazing to see NASA flex their engineering muscle, designing systems that survive in the most unforgiving environment we know for decades and still function as expected. The next year will be filled with all kinds of awesome discoveries about our tortured little cousin Mercury and I for one can’t wait to see how the analysis of its magnetic field changes the way we model planet formations in the future.

 

Missions to the Moon: A Brief History.

Pop quiz: how many times has man landed on the moon? Whilst most people know the answer is “more than once” few know of more than 2 missions to the moon, namely Apollo 11 and 13. The first is firmly cemented in our history as one of the ultimate achievements of mankind. The second has stuck with us because of the near tragedy that befell those astronauts who, thanks to the brilliance of the NASA personnel, returned to Earth unharmed. Today I’m going to give you a brief history of the 5 other missions that touched down on our celestial sister and why they mean just as much to us as the two that burn so brightly in our minds.

The second mission to land on the moon was Apollo 12, crewed by astronauts Charles Conrad Jr, Richard F Gordon Jr and Alan L Bean. The launch was a dramatic one being launched in the middle of a thunderstorm. Moments after take off the Saturn V rocket was struck by lightening causing the main power source for the command module to go offline. It was at this time that flivght engineer John Aaron made the call that’s widely attributed to saving the entire Apollo 12 mission from abort, telling the astronauts to “Try SCE to AUX” which would switch them onto a backup power supply. No one, apart from Alan Bean, knew what the hell the command meant but Bean made the switch and brought all systems back online. The rest of the mission was quite tame in comparison.

Apollo 12 delivered many scientific instruments to the moon’s surface including a nuclear powered ALSEPthat functioned for almost 8 years after it was deployed. There were also many light hearted moments such as when Bean, the savior of the mission, inadvertenly pointed a new colour camera directly at the sun frying the tube inside. The backup crew for this mission also managed to slip miniature centerfold pictures onto the astronauts mission checkbooks that were on their spacesuits, much to their delight. Bean also attempted to smuggle a camera self timer so that he and Conrad could take a picture together, confusing the image analysts when the film was developed. Bean never got to see this plan through as he misplaced the camera timer during the mission however.

Apollo 14 was crewed by astronauts Alan B Shepard, Stuart A Roosa and Edgar D Mitchell. Unlike its predecessors the launch was smooth and there were little troubles getting into orbit. However there were some problems docking the command module with the lunar lander and the crew, in essence, rammed the lander to get the latches to engage. Upon separating in lunar orbit the lander encountered two major problems, the first being a faulty switch causing the ABORT signal to be sent. Should this happen on approach the lander would automatically abort and return to lunar orbit. The fix required Mitchell to enter in a software patch requiring over 80 keystrokes in the lander’s console. This had the unintended consequence of causing the radar altimeter to not work until they were within 15KM of the moon’s surface, leading to some very tense moments just before touch down.

This mission is also famous for the attempted golf session that astronaut Shepard attempted whilst on the moon’s surface. Shepard said his shot went for “miles and miles” however more realistic estimates show it only went for a few hundred meters, still interesting considering the conditions. Mitchell then decided to start the first lunar olympics by using one of the lunar scoops as a javelin. The backup crew for Apollo 14 stashed their mission patches in every single locker and compartment of the lander and command module, drawing the ire of Shepard every time one would come flying out.

Apollo 15 was something of a technical and scientific marvel and was crewed by David R Scott, Alfred M Woden and James B Irwin. This mission was significant in that the astronauts underwent extensive training in geology prior to flight, all receiving honorary degrees or masters. This mission was also the first to carry one of the famous lunar rovers, even though it was originally slated to be a mission identical to that of its predecessors. It was also the first to carry the SIM bay, a collection of instruments that could perform a multitude of experiments during the time that the astronauts were on the lunar surface. This also necessitated an EVA on the way back to Earth so that the film could be retrieved before reentry.

This mission was important scientifically not only for the wealth of information that was gathered but also for one, distinct object that was brought back: the genesis rock. During the astronaut’s training they were told that if they should find something like this it would not only be a major geological find (as the rock would be almost 4.5 billion years old) it would also provide evidence for the giant impact hypothesis for the moon’s formation. Scott also performed Galileo’s experiment of a feather and a hammer, proving that two objects of differing masses would accelerate at the same rate in a vacuum.

Apollo 16 was crewed by John W Young, T Kenneth Mattingly Jr and Charles M Duke Jr. This mission shared a lot of the same qualities as the Apollo 15 mission, bringing along the SIM and lunar rover as part of their equipment. The launch and journey to the moon could not have gone smoother, with only a malfunction in a backup unit gimbal unit (responsible for aiming the engines) causing brief concern. Many of the issues that plagued Apollo 15 were rectified in this mission, such as allowing the astronauts additional sleep and a change in diet to ensure they wouldn’t suffer electrolyte loss.

This mission brought back the largest single piece of the lunar surface, nick named Big Muley and weighing in at 11kg. Young and Mattingly also took the opportunity to test out the limits of the lunar rover, achieving the highest speed ever set by a vehicle on another planet’s surface at 18KM/h. The rest of the mission was as routine as it could be and the astronauts returned to earth just on a week later with almost 100kg worth of lunar surface material.

Although never scheduled to be Apollo 17 was the last of the Apollo missions and the final time that a human would walk on the surface of the moon. Crewed by astronauts Eugene A Cernan, Ronald E Evans and Harrison H Schmidt Apollo 17 was the first ever night launch of a US human spaceflight. During the trip to the moon the crew took one of the most famous photographs in space history, the one known as the Blue Marble depicting Earth as a beautiful gem hovering in the cold blackness of space. It was also the first mission to carry a scientist astronaut (Schmidtt) as all other astronauts had been selected directly from the military. This was also the longest lunar mission to date, setting no less than 3 time records and boasting the largest lunar surface haul at 110kg.

The landing site for Apollo 17 was actually selected based on observations from the Apollo 15 mission called Taurus-Littrow. This site was chosen as the formations there looked to be lunar bedrock, something that hadn’t yet been acquired. They also investigated some strange orange soil (technically regolith) which turned out to be the result of long gone volcanism that formed glass beads. Overall the mission spanned a phenomenal 12 days and still stands as humanity’s longest ever mission past low Earth orbit.

For a youngster like who despite being too young to experience the stories of the Apollo missions unfolded they still mean a great deal to me. These brave souls took an extreme risk in pushing the human frontier further that it had ever gone before and I rightly salute them for it. I hope one day soon in the future that humanity will return to our celestial sister and hopefully will make our presence there permanent. I know its a hopelessly romantic idea to colonize the harsh, barren environment of the Moon but I know that one day we’ll do it and humanity will be all the better off for doing so.

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Solar Flares, Northern Lights and the Luck of Apollo.

Solar flares are one of those well understood phenomena that still manage to inspire all sorts of crazy ideas in people. Whilst many of them never make it past most people’s bullshit detectors there are still those out there that believe that at the end of 2012 a massive solar flare will cause all sorts of trouble on Earth. Of course we know that’s not the case as Earth has been bombarded by these flares for millennia with no such effect being observed. Still whilst solar flares might not be the death of us all they’re still quite interesting and can have quite an impact with our life here on earth.

The most known solar flare related phenomena would be the Aurora Borealis(and the less known but identical Aurora Australis). These are those ghostly lights than can be seen within a certain range in the Arctic and Antarctic regions of our world and come in a wide variety of colours. The lights are caused by charged particles from the sun slamming into the various components of our upper atmosphere causing them to become highly energetic. In order to release this energy they emit photons of light and depending on what the charged particles hit the colors produced will change.

Solar flares are also responsible for wrecking havok with satellites and sometimes even directly with devices here on earth. The events are quite rare however and designing systems with protection against them is usually not cost effective. Most satellites are built with enough shielding and redundancy that they’re only temporarily blinded and similarly earth based systems are usually only affected whilst the flare passes.

Earth is actually quite well protected from these energetic particles by our large magnetic field. However the field is distorted by the constant bombardment of solar particles, stretching it out into an elongated tear drop shape around the earth. Solar flares stretch the magnetic field even further and eventually the magnetic loop breaks, snapping back and draging the energetic solar particles with it. This protective barrier doesn’t extend very far past earth however and that poses risks not only to our satellites out in space, but also to our brave space explorers.

Space is a dangerous place at the best of times but there some areas that are safer than others. For nearly all of space history all our astronauts have been sent into Low Earth Orbit (LEO). There are two distinct advantages to this, the first being that it requires quite a lot less energy to achieve LEO than any other orbit. The second is that this orbit sits them comfortably within earth’s magnetosphere significantly reducing the amount of shielding required on the spacecraft, although most modern craft are quite well shielded despite this. Back in the heydays of the Apollo program however the vehicles that took our astronauts to the moon and back weren’t so quite well guarded and this could have led to disaster.

You see beyond the protection of Earth’s magnetosphere any craft and it’s occupying astronauts would be laid bare to the full fury of the sun’s wrath. This poses a significant risk as the sun is quite capable of delivering a fatal dose of radiation in some of its more extreme moments. Luckily for the the only astronauts to ever leave earth’s protective sphere no events ever occurred during their missions to and from our celestial sister. Had any of them been on a moonwalk or EVA during such an event the consequences would have been quite dire as whilst the spacesuits might protect astronauts from the hard vacuum of space they do little to stop the radiation. Fortunately the space craft that brought them there would’ve been sufficient shields to reduce the lethal dose to something more manageable, but it wouldn’t be a pleasant experience.

Solar flares are one of those things that are both beautiful in sight yet terrifying in their magnitude. They are something that we will have to consider if we want to make any long journeys into our solar system or establish a permanent presence outside our earth’s protective shell. Realistically they’re just another engineering challenge that I’m sure we’ll overcome but until then I’m sure we can all enjoy a few pictures of what a flare looks in space when it strikes our atmosphere:

NEO, The Moon and Mars.

NASA’s in a real pickle at the moment. After having their budget repeatedly slashed year after year by various governments looking to save a few dollars and the scope of their works ever increasing they’re now faced with the challenge of choosing their future direction. A white house panel recently convened on the subject and had several proposals put forth, half of them requiring a cash injection to the beleaguered agency to the tune of $3 billion a year. It would seem the idea of visiting a Near Earth Object (NEO) has gained some traction recently:

BOULDER, Colo. – Call it Operation: Plymouth Rock. A plan to send a crew of astronauts to an asteroid is gaining momentum, both within NASA and industry circles.

Not only would the deep space sojourn shake out hardware, it would also build confidence in long-duration stints at the moon and Mars. At the same time, the trek would sharpen skills to deal with a future space rock found on a collision course with Earth.

In Lockheed Martin briefing charts, the mission has been dubbed “Plymouth Rock – An Early Human Asteroid Mission Using Orion.” Lockheed is the builder of NASA’s Orion spacecraft, the capsule-based replacement for the space shuttle.

If they are to follow such a plan (assuming it came from the white house panel’s proposals) it does have some interesting consequences for NASA. First of all it’s one of the more expensive options, meaning that their budget would need to be increased to cope with it. Secondly it would see the shuttle program extended for another year delaying its retirement until 2011. It would also see NASA divert their focus from the shuttle replacement Ares-I in favour of using commercial options like SpaceX’s Falcon 9, only relying on their launch capabilities as a backup. The last, and probably most important aspect, would be that America would no longer cease its involvement in the International Space Station in 2015, instead continuing until 2020. All of these points show a shift from traditional NASA thinking and it has me wondering where the push is coming from.

In all honesty visiting a NEO would make for an interesting mission. It would be a long duration flight of around 6 months with a maximum of a couple weeks spent actually in and around the object in question. The real benefit of such a mission isn’t so much in the science we can do at the asteroid (we’ve already done that) but in the verification that the new hardware is capable of such long duration flights. It’s definitely a step forward in terms of capability, but will it really serve as the stepping stone for manned missions to Mars and beyond?

Buzz Aldrin thinks not, and he’s been an advocate for NASA to focus on going directly to Mars for quite some time. His plan does seem incredibly sensible to me as collaborating with other space faring nations whilst pushing the envelope in terms of deep space exploration means that NASA can get the best of both worlds. I’m sure that Roscosmos and the ESA would jump at the opportunity to establish a presence on the moon as they did with the ISS. The main issue that Buzz hits on quite succinctly is that NASA should be actively seeking collaboration from international partners for projects such as a moon base as these have significant scientific benefits. It would be hard to justify it as a stepping stone to Mars and beyond, but as an international effort it almost looks like a no-brain-er.

It’s a troubling time for NASA as they’ve been presented with a whole swath of options and are faced with the hard choice of cutting back on their core programs or attempting the next-to-impossible by squeezing more cash out of congress. The next year will see many changes happen with the impending retirement of the shuttle and the realization of fully private launch capabilities so we can rest assured that NASA’s future won’t be in question for much longer.

I just wish they’d make up their minds about the shuttle so I can plan my trip over there to see the last shuttle launch ;)