This Week In Space – June 20, 2010


The latest edition of “This Week In Space” is now available!  Give us a watch…

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Falcon 9 Launch. Source: Chris Thompson/SpaceX

Hello and Welcome – I had a long interesting talk with the president of the Constellation Nation – ex officio – Mike Griffin. I asked him what he things about the success of Elon Musk’s Falcon 9 test launch – you may be surprised at his response – I also asked him about the latest skirmish in the war between old and new space.  The full answer – and much more – coming up after we check the rest of the weeks space news.

Let’s get started with some fire and smoke – at the Baikonur Cosmodrome – that’s the site and sound of the 24th Space Station crew leaving earth behind for a long stint at the orbiting outpost. On board the Soyuz Capsule – Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin and NASA astronauts Shannon Walker and Doug Wheelock. Their arrival at the space station went well – the crew up there had an inkling they might be dropping by – so they dressed up in their fresh jumpsuits – and didn’t say they gave at the office their new station mates knocked on the door.  The arrival of Shannon Walker marks a minor milestone in space for those of you who keep track of the stats. For the first time ever – two women are a part of the long duration crew at the same time. Right now there is no room at the ISS inn – 6 station keepers are up there…working in the coolest science lab anywhere.

Among the experiments on the schedule — A new way to take a look at the world’s shipping traffic. The ESA-sponsored experiment is using the ISS to track ships from space.  All big ships are required to have on-board transponders, but the equipment really only works when the ship is close to shore.

The VHF radio signals that power the system have a horizontal range of just 40 nautical miles – so open ocean traffic is largely un-tracked.   But, as it turns out, the vertical range of those radio waves is much greater…all the way up the space station.  The experiment runs on remote control and will last for two years.

In the meantime, another NASA eye-in-the-sky is also keeping tabs on ships.  The MODIS instrument on NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites captured these views of what you might think of as ship “contrails.”  It turns out the sulphur in a ship’s exhaust interacts with the water vapor over the ocean to form these bright streamers.  They wouldn’t be visible to the naked eye, but MODIS can sniff them out.

Source: NASA

Water, water everywhere.  let’s move now from the surface of the earth to the interior of the moon.  A new report suggests there could be more water in minerals deep within the moon than is in all of the Great Lakes.  Scientists reached their conclusions after taking a fresh look at minerals inside two Apollo rock samples and a lunar meteorite.  They also think that water was present when the moon formed four and a half billion years ago.  The current thinking – a massive object impacted earth, kicking debris into orbit that eventually glommed together.

Wonder if that big object – was, say, Mars? speaking of the red Planet – more evidence it was once warm and wet there – a new study concludes that a vast ocean covered one-third of the planet’s surface three and a half  billion years.  University of Colorado-Boulder scientists combined topographical data with features on the Martian surface such as river valleys and river delta deposits to determine to the shape of the shoreline.  They think Mars once had a water-cycle much like Earth’s, with lots of rain.  The big question – what changed on the fourth rock? Why did it become so cold and dry? talk about climate change…

The crew of the Mars 500 mission did not pack any rain gear for its 17 month simulated journey to the Red Planet and back. The six person crew from Europe, Russia and China is now a few weeks into their voyage to nowhere inside a human sized hamster habitat in Moscow. They are simulating a real mission to Mars as much as possible – limited comm – limited food and limited space.  The crew will arrive on “Mars” in early February – spend a month – er – there – and return home in November of next year. Man this coulda been a great reality show –  makes that Big Brother program look pretty wimpy, doesn’t it?

And here is my favorite story of the week. NASA’s Kepler Telescope is finding a a lot of needles in the cosmic haystack out there… After a 43 day gander at a little more than 150 thousand stars, Kepler found evidence about 700 of them likely have extrasolar planets in orbit around them. The team is doing follow up observations on 400 of those stars using the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes.  Kepler scans for extra-solar planets by observing subtle variations in a star’s brightness.  If it dims, even ever-so-slightly, that could be evidence of an orbiting planet.  All of the 461 known extra-solar planets are much bigger than Earth. And its still unknown if any of these newly identified stars might be host to an Earth-sized world. But let’s not forget 15 years ago, the number of known extra solar planets – was zero. If scientists find a pale blue dot – we promise you will hear it here first…well that might be one space story the mainstream media might care about. Good thing they have well trained specialists on the science and technology beat…oh…well…just keep watching us.

You may wonder how we stay abreast of space news – one of our favorite sources is the CSExtra – – which sponsored this story  – CSExtra is a daily collection of the top headlines impacting the space industry, compiled by the Coalition for Space Exploration.

Each class of astronauts gives itself a nickname in recent years we have had:  The Gaffers, The Hairballs, The Hogs, The Sardines, The Penguins, The Bugs, The Peacocks, and The Flying Escargot  (The Flying Escargot???? Those wacky astronauts…).  So what to call the the newest members of the white scarf club?  Members of the 2009 Astronaut Class – “astronauts candidates” or “ascans” as they are unaffectionately called  – toured  the Kennedy Space Center this week.   Training officially begins in August at the Johnson Space Center.  So what to name them? How about The Dodos? I’ll let you figure out my rationale…

Whatever you my say about Elon Musk, he is no dodo – and he is learning once again nothing succeeds like success.  Fresh behind the plume of his successful Falcon 9 launch –  his company SpaceX inked a half billion dollar deal to launch Iridium communications satellites.  SpaceX will launch the lion’s share of 72 satellites, all between 2015 – 2017.  It’s unclear how many Falcon 9 launches will be needed to put all of them up there – one rocket can carry multiple satellites to space.  For those of you who wonder why would Iridium be launching so many more birds – after all they hit chapter 11 only 9 months after their ballyhooed debut in 1998…they have lived on serving a niche market – with some big guaranteed government contracts – and some  commercial subscribers who need instant communication in remote places. Interesting – a mix of government and private sector customers – no wonder Iridium likes SpaceX.

But of course for much of the old space guard – SpaceX is a six letter word for stupid…oh yeah…I guess that is a 6 letter word…in any case…the increasingly stupid sounding debate over what to do in space after the shuttles are gone took a turn deep into the weeds of the grassy knoll this past week. The concept you need to become familiar with is “termination liability.” It is, in essence a rainy day fund that NASA routinely inserts into contracts with the companies it uses to build spacecraft and rockets. It requires those companies to set aside money to wind down a program should it be cancelled.  Well NASA told the Constellation contractors ATK and Lockheed Martin to put a billion aside for termination liability – per the terms of the contract. This could be the nail in the coffin for Constellation. I asked the unofficial head of the Constellation Nation – former NASA administrator Mike Griffin about this in a skype the other day.


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One Response to “This Week In Space – June 20, 2010”

  1. Maggie Mitchell Salem Says:

    Great piece! You are still very sorely missed every time I tune in to CNN (which is rare as there is little to distinguish it from Fox these days).

    Anyway, I head an organization — Qatar Foundation International, — that focuses on education and public health. We’re taking Qatari and American high school students to Kennedy Space Center on July 13-16 (Charles Bolden is aware, was just in Doha). Wondering if you’d be interested in participating, leading discussions with teachers/students, just adding that “Miles O’Brien flair for science” to our trip.


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