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Space for the rest of us is got just a little closer this past week. Over the high desert of California – in the rarefied air where the X-1, X-15 and the space shuttle first tested their wings – a new spaceship took flight for the first time. I am talking about the Virgin VSS Enterprise – bolted beneath its carrying aircraft – the VMS Eve – formerly known as White Knight 2. The test flight lasted just less than 3 hours – they reached 45 thousand feet – and we are told it went well. Eve/Enterprise designer Burt Rutan called it “a momentous day for the Scaled and Virgin Teams.” Ahead – independent glide tests and then powered flight this year and next. Once the team is happy – revenue service to space will begin… Eve will take Enterprise to 50 thousand feet – where they will part company – the rocket motor will fire – Enterprise will make a beeline for the dark sky – carrying a half dozen paying passengers into a new era.
It is springtime in the northern hemisphere of Mars – and while NASA’s lander called Phoenix has not survived the long dry ice encrusted winter – there are signs of – activity, though not life – elsewhere on the Red Planet. Check out this image captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The dark spots are patches of basaltic sand that is carried to the surface as the temperature warms and the dry ice sublimates – meaning goes straight from a solid to a gas – skipping the liquid stage (it’s just a phase). Notice how they all fan out in the same direction – proof they formed at the same time – when the wind speed and direction were identical. Basalt fans – a sublime sign of warmer days ahead on Mars – sorta like our Washington cherry blossoms here in the U.S.
It will be the fall of 2011 before the Mars Science Laboratory makes its way to the Red Planet. The ambitious rover mission was supposed to be there by now, but the launch was delayed after a host of technical and money woes (the two tend to go hand in hand – see: Constellation). In any case, the folks at The Jet Propulsion Lab in California – are glad they got an extra 26 months – because this mission is the most complex ever.
And while it may be a long time before humans ever get to Mars – you can simulate the long journey now – if you are so inclined. The Russian and European space programs have teamed up for an endurance experiment that seems like the premise for a bad reality TV show – survivor meets big brother I suppose…these are some of the applicants for Mars 500 – a 520 day trip to nowhere that will try to create the rigors and challenges of a piloted mission to the Red Planet. The ersatz spacecraft sits at the Russian Institute of Biomedical Problems. Three Russians, two Europeans and One Chinese will be hermetically sealed inside the steel container in May. They will live in 550 cubic meters – will only eat from food stored inside – and will communicate with the outside world either by deliberately ratty internet – or with a 20 minute one way delay once they reach simulated Mars. The goal: to better understand the psychological and physiological rigors of such a, long, isolated mission. The big question: whether to select a rainbow coalition Star Trek like crew – or a bunch of GI-Joe’s – who think act and look alike. So should we take a pool to on whether they will make it the full 520 days? I sure hope there is a webcam…appointment TV for space cadets for sure. Though the team final team has not been selected yet, candidate Arch’hanmael Galliard, of France, is feeling strong about his chances.
“I think that I will be accustomed rapidly to this environment. I thought at the beginning this environment could be smaller. No, I think everything could be done here – experiments, living, doing sports, there is many things that we can do, I think, during this period, we will see with time, if it is really possible or not, but I think that we can do it.”
The Mars 500 crew will sure have plenty of time to refine their video game playing prowess. And a now ESA is out with a new study that suggests gaming can enhance collaboration among scientists and engineers – and can be a good education and public outreach tool. The study suggests ESA strike deals with some game developers to create titles that teach – how about Grand Theft Spacecraft? I suppose not…