News From The High Frontier

Tillyer’s News of the High Frontier

July 2017

-Recently the Coast Guard took NASA’s Orion capsule for a little ride in the Gulf of Mexico and dropped it in the drink. Currently NASA is testing the methods that returning astronauts can use to evacuate the capsule if things do not go as planned. Since the Orion is expected to be put to use in the next 4-6 years, it makes sense to use the time to consider when trouble might arise. One of the safety measures included on the capsule is a self-righting system that will inflate balloons designed to tip it over on its bottom in case of rough seas. Ideally, once the capsule is down in the Pacific Ocean, the astronauts merely wait for the retrieval boat. However, if there were a fire or a leak, astronauts who have recently spent significant time in space will not be able to immediately adapt to the Earth’s gravity and will need the easiest way to escape. Astronauts were ferried out to the Orion as it rode the waves in a dinghy and then proceeded to test out several escape methods.
-Asteroids are not as we’ve imagined. Recently scientists and some of our exploratory probes have begun to undermine our conception of asteroids as giant masses of solid rock. Instead they actually are more typically conglomerations of matter held together by their mutual gravitic attraction or the might be the result of mud. Now in space that sounds highly unlikely. But as the solar system formed from dust and ice some of the dust was actually radioactive. We know from observation that there are several moons in the solar system that have active interiors due to radioactive heating. So new theory is that asteroids may have muddy interiors due to the melted ice at their cores. The cooling of the exteriors could account for the solidification of the outsides of the asteroids and impacts with other bodies could also have created additional heat that would have melted layers as well. Scientists are finding that starting models with mud gives them results that are closer to the observed natures of asteroids.

 

Tillyer’s News of the High Frontier

June 2017

-Follow the water and you might find the history of the Moon’s poles. The Lunar Prospector mission was used to detect neutrons that were emitted from the surface. But finding the particles with the slowest speed, scientists were able to find evidence for hydrogen and water on the moon. What was unusual was the location of the water, which was frozen into ice– it was all close to the poles of the Moon. But it wasn’t exactly at the poles of the Moon instead it was offset by about 5.5 degrees in the north and in the south. The problem is that nobody initially noticed that both deposits were offset by the same amount from each pole. Suddenly, it became apparent that the water must have originally
accumulated at the poles and the poles actually shifted. That’s when things start to get interesting, because if this is the case, then that ice has been there for a long time. One theory that’s been put forth is that an eruption event occurred, which ultimately formed the lunar feature known as the Oceanus Procellarum. This event may have caused a wobble in the Moon’s orbit, moving the poles away from their original
configuration. Now some scientists are countering this assertion with the belief that the event itself would have melted and vaporized any ice present. Others argue that ice near the poles could be protected beneath insulating regolith or even present as hydrated minerals. There are even other theories that imply that the poles of the Moon have actually wandered a significant distance about the surface. The age of the water is something that would interesting to know as scientist have in the past conjectured that it was the result of asteroidal impacts or even produced by the solar wind. The implication that the water is ancient could mean that it might provide us with information about the nature of the Moon in the time closer to its formation. This certainly may provide an impetus to launch sampling expeditions to determine more about the ancient ice.

-It’s a Total Eclipse and we might not be ready for it. It’s been almost 40 years since the last time the path of the solar eclipse included the U.S. It will be a unique experience, since the last time something like this occurred, a coast to coast eclipse path, was around the end of World War I. As a country, we were obviously focused on other things. The eclipse 40 or so years ago, only covered several states in the Northern Plains and the Northwest. This years eclipse will traverse 14 states and the path will be around 68 miles wide. So that means there are a lot more opportunities to view the eclipse and in that case a lot more people who will be interested. In fact, there will probably be some major traffic issues that will occur in the totality path. There are around 12 million people who live in the eclipse’s path. But here’s the big picture, about 2/3’s of the population of the US lives within 500 miles of the path and could road trip. So if they wanted to, a significant portion of the population could road trip to the path of the eclipse. The problem is, no one really knows how many will actually go. Add to this, that the eclipse will be occurring during the time when most people tend to schedule their Summer vacations. Transportation experts expect that August 21st could generate more travelers than the Holidays. USDOT has issued material concerning the event and suggests that travelers reach their viewing destinations several hours before totality and also be aware that there maybe another traffic surge once totality has passed. They also point out that local and state Transportation Departments will be out in force to keep the peace as it were with the traffic. Finally, if anyone is planning this kind of trip, it will certainly pay to use common sense and assure that you have enough water and plan accordingly to have access to bathroom facilities and gas. Estimates for views now range from 1.85 million to 7.4 million. These cannot include anyone who decides to drive out at the last minute. So when the sun is blacked out in the sky—drive safe!

Tillyer’s News of the High Frontier

May 2017

 

-Martian bricks could be pretty amazing. We are planning on going to Mars. We’ve been talking about staying there. But some people have been doing more than just that with surprising results. Taking soil that is very similar to that of Mars, scientists are making bricks that are stronger than steel reinforced concrete. The important part is they are only using compression to make these bricks. That means that all of the worries about the costs of moving materials to Mars, using exotic methods or chemicals to produce building materials could be replaced by—pressure. But why does that work? Apparently, the iron oxide (which is the reason Mars is so reddish colored) acts as agent to bond the soil particles together. Over the years many artists have imagined many fanciful ideas for our future outposts on Mars, oddly enough most never considered bricks as the building blocks…

 

-Made in Space has a new tool that could help us build structures in space called an Archinaut. Their first version, the Ulisses will have a 3D printer and three arms with various instruments and tools built into them. The idea is that Ulisses prints the building blocks of the structure: struts, connectors, etc from its central printer. The arms built attached around the outside of the central mass then assemble the pieces. Since this is being done in zero gravity, there will be some challenges built the benefits quickly out weigh them since we can built very large structures. Also since the pieces will be printed, they will have data and electrical connections and wiring already built in. The cost of importing the materials for printing is still a consideration, but imagine an army of these Archinauts at work. We could end up with one of 2001’s rotating wheel colonies. But Made in Space doesn’t want to stop there; they have another model call ed the Dilo. This unit will assemble piece by piece a large reflective parasol with itself at the center using its single arm. There are a number of possible uses: radio dish, solar reflector (soletta), or perhaps even a solar sail. If Made in Space sounds familiar, it’s because they were the manufacturer of the first 3D printer taken to the International Space Station. It’s obvious they haven’t just been resting on their laurels and also because NASA gave them a 20 million dollar contract to develop some of their Archinaut concepts.

April 2017

-DeeDee might seem like an unlikely name for a recently discovered potential dwarf planet, but you could be stuck calling it UZ224. Astronomers found DeeDee (their pet name) as part of a survey looking into information about Dark Energy. Turns out that while you’re looking for one of the most elusive phenomena in cosmology, plenty of other objects that are much closer happen to show up in your observations. Now closer is a very relative term because DeeDee is actually the second most distant observed object in orbit about the sun (about 3 times farther out than Pluto, but not quite as far out as Eris) New observations using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array or ALMA has allowed observers to find out more about this distant body. After measuring DeeDee’s diameter, about 635 km, astronomers now believe it is large enough to be spherical. At DeeDee’s great distance from the Sun, it takes about 1100 years to complete an orbit and its surface temperature is estimated at 30 degrees Kelvin, or just a tad over absolute zero. But why call it DeeDee. Once it appeared on a number of different observations, astronomers shortened the appellation of “Distant Dwarf” to DeeDee. While its observable characteristics fall in to the category, at this time, DeeDee is still waiting to be confirmed as a dwarf planet.
-Astronomers have every right to be pleased with themselves as they announce the first confirmed discovery of an atmosphere around an Earthtype planet. While GJ1132b is actually 1.4 times the size of the Earth and believed to be signficantly hotter, the confirmation of another atmosphere in another solar system is big news. Astronomers noted several bands visible when GJ1132b occulted its sun and are using these to learn more about this world’s atmosphere. The next step of course is to determine the elements making up the atmosphere of this distant world. It may take the advent of new telescopes, like the James Webb, to reach a definition that can bring this information to us. Another important aspect of an atmosphere on this distant world has to do with the nature of the sun it orbits. Low mass stars of this type are subject to magnetic activity generating ultraviolet and x-ray energy that can strip a world of its atmosphere. Since GJ1132b still has an atmosphere, astronomers are now believe that there maybe other atmosphere bearing worlds in spots that they had previously discounted. At a distance of 39 light years and orbiting a low mass star, GJ1132b is very similar to the TRAPPIST-1 planets that made big news after NASA’s recent announcement. It’s obvious that any observational techniques used on GJ1132b will definitely be helpful in identifying and confirming the presence of atmosphere’s on the TRAPPIST-1 worlds.

Tillyer’s News of the High Frontier

February 2017

-Where to land, where to land, where to land? NASA has started looking at where they might place their latest rover on Mars and have come up with three possibilities: Columbia Hills, Northeast Syrtis and Jezero Crater. Each spot has something unique to offer and represent a narrowing of the field of potential options. Initially 30 possible locations were designated, then cut down to eight in 2015. A recent meeting has brought forth the final three. The primary mission of the 2020 Rover is to search for ancient Martian life and Jerzero Crater looks interesting because it shows signs of a river delta that indicates the area was filled with water and drained. The Columbia Hills destination would put the rover in familiar territory since it is located in the Gusev Crater, which was partially explored by the rover Spirit. Since Columbia Hills was the only location that Spirit found signs of water, it makes sense that NASA would want to investigate further. It is also possible that at one time Guzev Crater may have also contained a lake. Northeast Syrtis, the final choice, is one the outskirts of the Syrtis Major
system of volcanoes. It’s thought that the vulcanism could have melted ice and produced hot springs that would be provide conditions to encourage life. The Syrtis site also features access to Martian bedrock and other interesting minerals. The rover’s ultimate destination will be determined in either 2018 or 2019 and the rover is expected to launch in July of 2020.
-Mars isn’t the only “M” world getting a visit soon, Mercury’s BepiColombo mission is expected to take off in 2018. The joint European and Japanese project will take a leisurely tour using gravity assists from Earth, Venus and even Mercury itself until it settles into its final orbit in 2025. At this point the Mercury
Transfer Module will launch two orbiters: the European Mercury Planetary Obiter and the Japanese Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter. During the MTM’s flight the Japanese orbiter will be dormant and the European orbiter will fulfill the communication duties as well as ordering the launch into orbit for both spacecraft. This mission has been a long time coming, first conceived in 1993 and approved in 2000. BepiColombo also has had its share of delays based on concerns about the completion of certain parts such as the solar array systems, a major electrical fault in the MTM and other issues, which delayed the initial 2014 date, the 2016 date and the 2017 date. Scientists are still hopeful that they will launch in October of 2018.

Tillyer’s News of the High Frontier

January 2017

-Could the dark streaks in Venus’s upper atmosphere be proof of life? The streaks have been observed since the 60’s and also proved the exceptional speed of rotation of our sister planet’s atmosphere. Since then, we still are no closer to identifying these streaks composition or origin. They have been observed absorbing ultraviolet radiation. Another interesting aspect is their location. The streaks are in a layer of the atmosphere that is actually closer to Earth’s temperatures ranging from 86 degrees to 158 degrees fahrenheit. Even the air pressure is similar to that of Earth, unlike Venus’s surface which experiences temperatures up to 864 degrees and 92 bars of atmospheric pressure. Venus has always been an area of interest for the Russians who have launched more successful missions to the planet than the US. Looking ahead to 2025, plans are beginning to be put together for a joint NASA/Roscosmos
mission to explore Venus with not only a lander but also some sort of aerial device as well. Scientists are considering either a balloon or a UAV(Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) and they will certainly want to explore those enigmatic streaks. Venus is so well known for its inhospitable conditions that it would be amazing to discover life there.
-Could we soon be calling Pluto something else? After being demoted to a dwarf planet, Pluto could be reclassified once again due to its companion moon Charon. Charon is actually more than half the mass of Pluto and their close relationship means that instead of Charon rotating around Pluto, the two bodies actually rotate around a common point called the “barycenter”. Now scientists are wondering if they should call the pair a binary planet instead. Another interesting aspect of their relationship is that Pluto actually shares some of its atmosphere with Charon. It’s thought that Charon’s close proximity to Pluto changes the nature of the impact of the solar wind on Pluto. Scientists actually believe that there is less atmospheric degradation on Pluto due to this interaction. However, when the atmosphere is stripped from Pluto due to the Solar Wind, a number of particles are deposited on Charon due to its proximity.
Scientists believe that the darker elements discovered at Charon’s poles by the new Horizon probe are the result of this atmospheric sharing.
-Breakthrough Starshot—the mission to use swarms of miniature solar sail driven probes, just announced that they would help fund renovations to the ESO’s (European Southern Observatory) VLT (Very Large Telescope) in order to boost the scope’s efficiency. In return the ESO will devote more time investigating the closest star system to Earth including Alpha, Beta and Proxima Centauri. Breakthrough Starshot hopes a detailed view can help them fine tune their destination since a rocky world was recently found around Proxima Centauri. Breakthrough also plans to possibly launch their own space telescope, Project Blue, dedicated to researching the Centauri system.

Tillyer’s News of the High Frontier

November 2016

Super Moon, Super Moon, SUPER MOON—was it really worth all the hype? Locally, clouds and late evening rain made viewing difficult. That however, doesn’t mean that you couldn’t enjoy most of the effect on Monday or Wednesday as well. As most of you’ve probably guessed, the Super Moon occurs at the Moon’s closest approach to the Earth. By nature, the orbits of the solar system are elliptical, so it should come as no surprise that there will be a closest point. In the grand scheme of things, there also has to be a Full Moon at the same time in order for the best effect. That explains why there hasn’t been a similar occurrence since 1948. The visual difference will be an increase in brightness by 16% and size by 15%. There’s a small problem here that may not be immediately obvious. If you’ve been looking at the Moon over the past week, you are already seeing it at an expanded size, it’s not going to be huge overnight. Unless you happen have an amazing memory, you really won’t be able to compare the size of the moon on the fly. In most cases, just because you know it’s a Super Moon, it will appear larger. If you really want to see something that looks super, try to catch the Moon at Moonrise or Moonset. Here the visual effect of the light bent by the horizon will magnify the image of the moon. This is an optical illusion, so attempts at photography will reveal the truth. November’s Super Moon is actually the middle of three that occur in 2016 with the October and December full moons also receiving the benefit of the closeness of our satellite. December’s Full Moon will cause amateur astronomers some problems because it occurs at the same time as the Geminid Meteor shower. Any Earth based astronomer will tell you that it is all about the light. The light you are trying to observe can easily be drowned out by stray light from nearby homes and cities or in this case the extra bright Super Moon. This time around the meteors will be drowned out by the Moon. Speaking of dark places, Cherry Springs, PA has recently become a haven for amateur astronomers because of its lack of stray light. Closer to home, Muddy Run Park is in the process of building its own observation area. The park’s location along the Susquehanna in Southern Lancaster County puts it away from urban sprawl. Finally, the conjunction of time and space that has brought us the November Super Moon will not re-occur until November 25th, 2034.

Tillyer’s News of the High Frontier

October 2016

-You can become a part of the first nation in space—ASGARDIA. Named for the Norse city in the sky, this concept was developed by a group of space scientists who wish to create a place in orbit that will exist outside of the laws of the Earth, will provide opportunities to mine asteroids and evolve a system to protect the planet from impacts from asteroids as well as space debris. Asgardia’s first act will be to establish a foothold in space in the form of an independently owned space station set to be launched between 2017-2018. Asgardia’s web site—http://asgardia.space/ – will not only allow you to register as a member but also has information about a contest seeking a design for a flag, an insignia and a national anthem. The contest is open until       1-20-2017. But can you just set up a nation in space? WTS has looked at space legislation before with regards to the mining of asteroids. These are laws set up by the United Nations, but it should be mentioned that not all of the members are signatories to this legislation. If nothing else, this effort will put to the test if it is possible to establish a free haven in orbit literally above the laws.
-Asteroid hunters using the Pan-STARRS survey telescope in Hawaii have just found a second moon in orbit around the Earth. Now 2016 HO3 is not much of a moon and not really spherical measuring about 37.5 meters across and 91 meters wide. It doesn’t even do a good job orbiting the Earth since it travels along in an ellipse , where it’s closest approach is 14 million KM from us and ranges out to 40 million KM. Astronomers refer to 2016 HO3 as a “quasi satellite”. Since it travels with the Earth, 2016 HO3’s year is very similar to ours at 365.93 days versus the Earth’s 365.24 days, which shouldn’t be too surprising since it is traveling along with the Earth. There are other asteroids which travel along with the Earth in its travels about the Sun that are known as NEOs—near Earth Objects. The asteroids, however, do not orbit about the Earth, which makes 2016 HO3 a rather interesting object. Could we use this as we begin to explore space? Certainly, it now becomes a destination for exploration and possibly mining.

Tillyer’s News of the High Frontier

September 2016

-Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year’s winner Yu Jun has produced an image that is stunning on several levels and it looks nothing like any of the other astronomical photographs you’ve seen before. The image is a composite pictures of the limb of the moon during a solar eclipse both before and after totality. Until you know what it is you can visualize it as a side lit slinky on either side of a black circle. It looks like modern art, but it’s also a highly technical piece of work composed of more than 40 exposures at taken at exactly the right time to show how totality occurs. Yu’s picture also shows a phenomenon called Bailey’s Beads where small bits of sunlight appear along the edge of the moon during the final moments of the eclipse before totality. Along the top is a small red mark that repeats across the images on the left hand side. This is a solar prominence large enough that it shows over the edge of the moon. Yu Jun received a $13,000 reward for his groundbreaking photo.

-The Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation continues to tell us more about the beginnings of the universe. At about 380 million years after the Big Bang when atoms were first forming photons could be scattered and these became the origins of the Background Radiation. Because they have traveled so far so long, these photon’s wavelengths have dopplered all the way into the microwave range. There was another point in the history of the universe where it became ionized a second time and that has a lot of scientists wondering. Over time astronomers have continued to try to establish a timeline for this reionization as well as a reason. Up until now most believed that it occurred closer in time to the Big Bang. Now the scientist believe it occurred about 700 million years after the big bang after the death of the very first generation of stars. Since the universe was still relatively small in size, the novae and disruptions of the first generations of stars would have changed the state of the matter in the universe. This resulted in a polarization of the Cosmic Background Radiation, which tipped off scientists in the first place.


Tillyer’s News of the High Frontier

August 2016

-There are plenty of Science Fiction stories that are set on the worlds of the closest stars Alpha and Proxima Centauri, but astronomers have just given us the first proof of such a planet around Proxima Centauri. Not only is it a rocky world but also it lies within the Goldilocks zone of the star. Before we get too excited about our new neighbor there a few things to keep in mind, such as the very nature of their sun, which is an M dwarf. These stars have long lives and are very common, but since they are smaller than our Sun, their habitable zone lies closer in, much closer. Proxima B is scorchingly close to Proxima, ten times closer than Mercury lies in comparison to the Sun. These stars daily spew out radiation and flares all of which can be inimical to life. Finally, it’s easy for worlds in this situation to become tidally locked with one side facing the sun perpetually. This produces a number of issues that make it difficult for life to arise. Proxima B experience massive amounts of UV and X-Ray radiation 400 times greater than Earth.

Scientists have been driven to all kinds of speculation about Proxima B since the announcement of its discovery. An
interesting line of speculation was brought up about biofluorescence, which allows animals and plants to absorb harmful radiation and then re-radiate it at ordinary wavelengths. So other life could benefit from a relationship with biofluorescent life. There is also a comparison to plants inferring that organisms might be able to convert the UV directly into energy or even radiate away the excess energy as heat. There is even a really out there theory that says that life either re-radiating or bioflourescing would actually cause a flash visible to our next series of telescopes.

The other surge of interest focuses on the simple fact, how do we get there and find out? Breakthrough Starshot was initially aimed at Alpha Centauri, it certainly shouldn’t take to much to aim the swarm at Proxima instead. Here is a perfect target for this project.

Tillyer’s News of the High Frontier

July 2016

-This past Monday, the latest Space-X Dragon capsule carried up the IDA-2, a docking collar designed to allow a variety of transports to attach themselves to the International Space Station. As the number of private industries with the ability to bring payloads into orbit increases, the Space Station will benefit from being able to dock with different styles of ships. Currently, the American cargo vessels that approach the station have to be grappled into position. The IDA-2 will alleviate the problem and also allow the Russian ships to connect as well. The connector will be attached to the location of one of the former shuttle docks. This was the second attempt to bring up the IDA-2. The first failed when the Falcon-9 rocket broke up three minutes into its flight. Since they can be used with a variety of craft it makes sense to outfit upcoming missions like the Orion to ensure that most spacecraft can dock in case of an emergency.

-With the private industries moving forward into space, there is some concern about attempting to establish property rights on bodies other than the Earth. After the launch of Sputnik, the United Nations formed a committee called COPUOS, the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space to define principles that could guide the countries of the world in the use and exploration of space. There are 5 main treaties in place regarding the presence of humans in space: the Outer Space Treaty, the Rescue Agreement, the Liability Convention, the Registry Convention and the Moon Agreement. The Outer Space Treaty is comprised of three main points : Space is free, there are no sovereign claims and exploration will be used to benefit all; Nuclear weapons are not allowed off the Earth; and the launching state or country is responsible for damage caused by what they launch into space. With regards to the other treaties, the Moon Agreement has the most to do with property rights in space as it expands upon the details outlined in the Outer Space Treaty. It is however only signed by 16 of the participating nations, none of whom are primary explorers of space. Even though these agreements and treaties are on the books, there is no real methodology in place to punish any nation that might contravene them with the exception of economic sanctions. So far we’ve been discussing nations, what does that mean when it’s private companies? Discussions have suggested that space be treated in the same fashion as Antarctica, a place purely for scientific research. But current treaties would also allow private companies to remove ore and other items from areas while not claiming the locale exclusively. Obviously, there is a need for more definite treaties and legislation to deal with the instances.

Tillyer’s News of the High Frontier

June 2016

-Some of us are old enough to remember Skylab and the concerns that it caused about where it might land after re-entry. It sounds as though next year, unless measures are taken, we all might be watching the skies once again as China’s Tiangong-1 comes down to Earth. The spacelab, which was originally built as a docking test station and stepping stone to a larger permanent station scheduled for 2020. Observers have noted that Tiangong-1’s orbit will begin to decay unless it is boosted back up into a more stable position. As an observation station, Tiangong-1 provided large amounts of data on geologic and mineral locations to China, even helping to observe the Yuyao flood. Satellite watchers also hint that they believe China may have lost control of the spacelab and are concerned that this news will not be shared until the last moment making it difficult to correct the orbit.
-NASA Advanced Concepts Award winner Christopher Walker thinks balloons are the answer to better telescopes both near Earth and in space. Walker’s idea uses a dual balloon structure where half of the interior is covered in reflective aluminum to gather light and the exterior layer is similar to a stratosphere balloon providing both lift and protection to the inner components. The exterior should allow the telescope, referred to as the Large Balloon Reflector or LBR, to ascend to a projected height of 120,000 feet where the telescope would be able to observe outside of typical atmospheric conditions which limit Earth bound observatories. Walker also has plans for another model, the Terahertz Space Telescope or TST which would operate in space. After leaving Earth’s atmosphere, the telescope would shed its outer envelope. Unlike the LBR, the TST would not be subject to the forces of gravity and will be able to maintain the hemispherical shape of the reflector allowing for greater light gathering and accuracy. Walker believes that the LBR will help us scan into the far infrared and that the TST could observe galaxy formation.

 

Tillyer’s News From the High Frontier

May 2016

 Boeing just got a little closer to piecing together their crew carrier module, the Starliner, by joining together the two halves of the Structural Test Article. The STA will be subjected to various kinds of abuse to ensure that it will maintain integrity as well as not subject its crew to any lethal elements. The bottom half of Boeing’s first working crew module, Space Craft One, is already on site at the former Shuttle construction plant where the assembly is taking place. The top half of the unit is in Florida right now with an expected arrival before the end of the month. Boeing initially hoped to test the module in a crewed run in December 2017 but some set backs and changes in the docking software necessary to allow the capsule to mate with the International Space Station will delay the maiden flight until February. The capsule is designed for a re-entry with a touch down in the Southwest and that’s an interesting aspect. With the exception of the Shuttles, US re-entries have been done over water. It appears that the Starliner will be designed to imitate Soviet capsules that have been doing hard landings for quite some time. Also Boeing’s competitor, SpaceX continues to work on its rocket and transport project as well.

-Our little Curiosity just turned 2, in Martian years. There’s an ongoing meme on the web that Mars is the only planet in the solar system inhabited only by robots and it’s true. Our plucky little rovers have out lived everyone’s expectations and continue to send us back information that let’s us learn more and more about our neighboring planet. As far as Curiosity goes, to put things in perspective, a Martian year is approximately 687 days. The rover just passed its 1337th day on Mars, which means that our little one is just heading into the terrible two. If you do the math, you would find that Curiosity is about 3 and 2/3s years old with regards to Earth. We’ve been very lucky not to have to deal with any long distance tantrums from any of our faraway little explorers.

Tillyer’s News From the High Frontier

April 2016

Recently there’s been so much good news that it’s difficult to figure out where to begin, so instead of covering everything—we’ll just hit the highlights. On April 8th, SpaceX dropped their Falcon 9 right on the money and pulled off the landing they were aiming for on the barge at sea. After a flight to launch the Dragon cargo ship to the ISS, fifth attempt to land the reusable Falcon was a success. On April 12th, the Breakthrough Starshot program was announced in a press conference featuring Stephen Hawking, Freeman Dyson, Ann Druyan, Mae Jamison, Peter Wordnen and Yuri Milner, the primary funder. Using swarms of nanocraft with light sails as tiny as a postage stamp, the project intends to propel the probes with pulsed laser light up to 20% of the speed of light to make the flight to Alpha Centauri. This is a big step forward but it also has a lot ogf caveats built into the possibility of its success. First, our technology needs to improve—but fortunately not a lot as we already have many of the materials necessary to do this. Second we need to build that 100 gigawatt laser array, power it and then be able to focus it on these very tiny sails. The expected time frame for the project is about 30 years. Looking at it though, the experimental phases will begin to yield valuable information almost right away. The processes needed to focus the laser can be used to increase the abilities of our current telescopes. The test phases of the swarm flights will take place in the solar system and allow us to visit places in days or hours instead of years. There are a great many issues to overcome, the least of which is that data received from the probes will be coming in kilobits and traveling with significant time lag. All the same, it’s big news. So speaking of big let’s take things up an order of magnitude to the discovery of Crater 2, a galaxy that’s been orbiting the Milky Way that we just discovered. In fact, astronomers are a little perturbed they hadn’t noticed it sooner since it is not exceptionally far from our galaxy and is the fourth largest galaxy orbiting ours. What Crater 2 is though is one of the dimmest galaxies ever discovered so far. This is just another find reminder that there is still a great deal to be discovered even in our universal backyard. Finally, let’s jump the magnitude one more time and look at the discovery of a group of super massive black holes whose galactic jets all show the same alignment. So this is unheard of since we are looking at the most massive single item in a galaxy and its attendant enormous jet and then finding that they are similar to others due to an event, which is more than likely from the
creation of the universe itself. Never mind the fact that each is in a separate galaxy and separated by typical intergalactic distances. Aside from being really cool, this also offers us the opportunity to consider the cause of such as situation and then make conjectures about the early state of the universe. This a wonderful opportunity to encourage us to observe and learn more.

Tillyer’s News From the High Frontier

March 2016

-ExoMars started its voyage to the Red Planet on 3-14-16 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome at 5:31AM EDT. The mission consists of two craft: a lander- the Schiaparelli and an orbiter- the TGO or Trace Gas Orbiter. After a successful launch and a check in ten hours later, after the deployment of the solar arrays, the European Space Agency is rightfully pleased at their mission’s progress. The next mission critical step will be the separation of the two elements on October 19th. At this point the orbiter will settle into an orbit about 250 miles from the surface and begin serving as a communication link, a photographer to help choose future missions sites, as well as its primary function, the search for methane in the Martian atmosphere. Methane is often the byproduct of organic life, and the TGO will search out sources as well as investigate the processes which create them. In the past Curiosity has identified spikes in the methane levels on Mars and the TGO will help to identify their cause. TGO is hoped to operate for five years. Sadly, the lander Schiaparelli is expected to only remain viable until its batteries die- only a few days. Mostly, Schiaparelli is a proof of concept and design to prepare the ESA for their next mission, hopefully as early as 2018. The ESA has in the past had limited success on Mars. Their Beagle 2 arrived as planned but never sent any information back from the surface. Since NASA dropped out of the project in 2012, Russian Roscosmos has stepped up to provide the launch vehicles, instrumentation and upcoming rover’s landing platform.

Tillyer’s News From the High Frontier

February 2016

                In ancient times in Rome there was graffiti on the walls of the buildings. When monks were illuminating manuscripts occasionally they would add some extra commentary to the books. Apparently, our astronauts are not a whole lot different. Apollo 11’s astronauts were just following a long tradition but the fact that they wrote on the walls of the capsule was a secret until recently. Apollo 11’s capsule was covered in a plexiglass skin until curators decided to move the capsule to a new exhibit “Destination Moon”. The move provided the opportunity to look over the interior in greater detail and allow a team to scan the inside to create a 3D model. The scanning itself was accomplished by running the cameras on booms since it was determined that people were not allowed into the interior. In the future the Smithsonian plans to make the results available to allow visitors a glimpse of what it might be like to sit in the capsule itself. The story could end right there but the scanning crew found some surprises—messages by the crew. A series of numbers were written on the inside of the capsule that referenced certain navigational data. In another spot someone had drawn a calendar checking off each of the days. Michael Collins is well known for writing “Best Ship to Come Down the Line, God Bless Her” on the command module after splashdown. However, in a typical fashion, more attention will be paid to the lines “Smelly Waste” and “Launch Day Urine Bags” because, well we are human after all.

Tillyer’s News From the High Frontier

January 2016

-Should we be more worried about the potential safety issues as the Mars mission develops? The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel has been keeping an eye on the plans for the Space Launch System and the Orion capsule. The dream is real but the reality is that budget cuts and time limitations are creating concern not only about the ability to produce but the safety of the end result. There are three factors that are the raising the most flags: the life support system, the launch abort system and the heat shields on the Orion. Every new project problems, but the question here is do they have time to properly test out the systems and effect repairs? Also will their testing put the crewmembers in danger? Issues with the design of the heat shield when tested in 2014 created the need for a redesign. The trouble here is there’s one test and then a live mission, hopefully in 2018. That’s not a lot of wiggle room. The life support system literally goes live with a live crew on board and finally there’s no scheduled test as of yet for the launch abort system. Our Mars missions will be longer than any other and sadly in that case have a greater opportunity to fail. Travel in space is always a risk, but we may need to ask how big a risk is worth the lives of the crew.
-There’s a picture making the rounds on the net of a small zinnia flower. Now granted since it’s winter here, that’s a little unusual but the truly special part is that the bloom is from the International Space Station. Let’s call this the more public face of the VEG-01 project which was put together to investigate growing sustenance in space. After all it’s a pretty flower and people are responding to it and sharing it perhaps more than a mere tomato. That is however, not the end of the story because the astronauts almost accidentally killed the plants before they bloomed. There was a little problem with water. The zinnias were grown out of plastic bags and that can mean little to no evaporation of extraneous water. Trouble was evident when water droplets were seen on the leaves. The astronauts turned a fan on the plants because they already had a spacewalk scheduled that couldn’t be postponed. Things went from bad to worse though as mold appeared on the zinnias. Now not only were the plants in danger but also the astronauts because mold spores are good for anyone. The affected areas were removed, sterilized and set aside for later study. After that something surprising happened. Much like in the Martian, the ground crew had their ideas about how often the zinnias needed to be watered and the astronauts disagreed, although they were finally given the go ahead to use their best guess. In the end two plants died but the other two grew enough to produce buds and finally one bloomed on January 16th.

Tillyer’s News From the High Frontier

November 2015

-When we look to the heavens with our exoplanet hunting telescopes we’ve been hoping to find another pale blue dot. Scientists believe we should be looking for something in the orange range to identify worlds that are on their way to becoming Earthlike. It’s not necessarily the color of the world in question but what the world gives off from its atmosphere, which may prove whether or not it has the ability to support life. The haze is a result of sunlight taking apart methane molecules and creating hydrocarbons. The early Earth had this haze and it protected the surface from harmful UV radiation before the advent of oxygen producing organisms. Finding hazy worlds circling other stars is a step toward identifying worlds similar to Earth and the nature of the haze may even provide clues about any life existing there. However, scientists also point out that in our own solar system, Titan is an excellent example of an orange haze that is the result of an abiotic process. So we’ll need to keep defining the process until we can determine if it is life producing the haze.

 

-A machine-learning system could offer cosmologists and astronomers galaxy models in a fraction of the time it would ordinarily take. The University of Illinois produced a system that makes approximations of calculations that typically take immense amount of supercomputing time. This new system is not 100% accurate but comparisons to previously created models show a variation that is so small as to be insignificant. These models are known as hydrodynamical N-body simulations and are created by considering the presence of dark matter and matter under the influence of gravity and allowing the reaction to occur over time. The presence of dark matter guides the flow of gas into structures where stars can form. The machine-learning algorithms are developed by observation of a full scale super computer run where the system learns to develop projections of expected data. In this case a machine-learning program can run a galactic simulation in minutes instead of the prohibitive amount of time the supercomputer might take.

Tillyer’s News From the High Frontier

October 2015

-The true “goldilocks” age of the universe is probably in the future—we simply came around too early. With all of the planetary search missions we’ve been running using both Hubble and Kepler, scientists have taken the resultant information and looked at it in a new way. They were trying to see where the Earth fits in the grand scheme of things of the developing universe. The results are a little surprising. According to astronomers, there is still plenty of material out in the universe that can eventually coalesce to form new planets. Early on, most of the material in terms of hydrogen and helium was tied up in the production of stars. The excess material and resultant creation of heavier elements over time is what allowed the creation of planets. Our own galaxy could have as many as 1 billion worlds about the same size as ours currently. This is a number, which could increase in the future dramatically. However, places like our home galaxy are not going to see a planetary boom because the excess material is tied up in existing stars. In other areas like dwarf galaxies and big galactic clusters there’s more free material. These could be the new planetary nurseries. It may be a great time to be alive, but apparently there could be a lot more opportunities for life in the future.

-One thing that can truly make these potential worlds more Earthlike would be the presence of life. Scientists have recently found new evidence that life actually started even closer to the formation of the Earth than we thought. Geochemists located evidence that puts the emergence of as early as 4.1 billion years ago, 300 million years earlier than prior signs. Cubic zirconium can be the poor man’s diamond but they are also time capsules that hold vital clues to the presence of life on the early Earth. Like diamonds they are resilient enough to last until we could find the proof. Scientists also believe that the Earth was more similar to our current state than the dead, hot, dry environment originally hypothesized. This doesn’t mean that life survived the massive bombardment that caused the cratering of the far side of the moon. It should be seen as proof of the resilience of life.

 

Tillyer’s News From the High Frontier

September 2015

Scientists are looking for ways to get a glimpse of one of the birth of one of the strangest objects in the night skies—a black hole. The problem lies in the properties of the hole itself. By definition, the attraction of the hole is so great that light cannot escape from it, so therefore you’re going to need something else to observe the actions of the stellar collapse that creates such denizens. In fact,
scientists are planning on using particles that are almost as difficult to quantify. If the black hole is the ultimate, inescapable presence then the neutrino is the ghost at the banquet. These particles pass through ordinary matter with little to no reaction; however, they are produced in large quantities during the final collapse stages of a super nova. One end result of a super nova of a star ten times greater than the mass of the sun is a black hole. Right now we have a few neutrino detectors currently in action like the DUNE or the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment. DUNE is located in an abandoned goldmine one mile underground and consists of large tanks of argon with detectors that observe the interactions resulting from inbound neutrinos. Right now the only super nova DUNE has seen was in 1987 and that event allowed the detector to find 19 neutrinos. So that gives you an idea of not only the limited amount of neutrinos that make it to Earth from a distant event but also the difficulty in detecting them. Scientists still remain hopeful because of the sensitivity of the DUNE system that they will be able to one day see the inbound flux of neutrinos that occurs when electrons and protons are crushed together resulting in neutrons where some of the excess energy is emitted as neutrinos. The researchers
speculate they could observe as many as 10,000 neutrinos in such a collapse. The key piece of evidence of the formation of a black hole would be a sudden cutoff in any emitted particles due to the
gravitational collapse of the black hole. Right now DUNE remains one of the most effective neutrino detectors, but there are plans for others in the works like JUNO in China and Hyper-K in Japan. By comparing data from all three detectors, scientists could develop a more thorough understanding of the pre-black hole collapse.
Additional information could come from the LIGO gravitational
detector. Finally, the event will also give us more neutrinos to study as well.

July 2015

-New Horizon’s big moment was yesterday. After nine years of transit time, a trip of 3 billion miles and a last minute hiccup that had everyone holding their breath, the probe meets up with the most distant planetary object in the solar system (excepting the Oorts of course). Already new pictures are showing us the variations that exist on the surface of Pluto and the differences between its appearance and that of its moon Charon. Pluto is referred to as “beige” and has a number of colorations that make up formations referred to jokingly as “the brass knuckles” and “the heart”. On the other hand, Charon is darker and much more gray in coloration. Starting at 11:30AM, NASA TV will begin broadcasting updates of the flyby. The data resolved will provide scientists information to study for years while New Horizons continues its journey
outward into the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud.
-Students of the University of California have successfully tested a 3D printed rocket engine. Their engine is about a foot tall and took one and a half years to envision and print.The
Ignus is an alternative to traditional engines but still follows most of the typical designs. However because the parts are created in the printing process, it is easier to make alterations to allow the team to experiment. It is possible to print the
reaction chamber as a single piece but the students decided to do it parts to allow them to review the state of the engine
after firing. There are some issues that had to be overcome, like the presence of the additional particles left over from the printing process that needed to be thoroughly cleaned from the engine before testing. Fired on April 18th the rocket
performed admirably generating the expected 750 pounds of thrust. The only glitch was that the data cable had come
unseated and no information was captured. Not giving up, the students re-attached the line, re-fired the rocket and captured the necessary data. In the future they hope to increase the size of the motor to the point that they can begin to launch micro satellites into orbit.

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