March 30, 2012
The news that Russian scientists have finally drilled through the thick ice covering Antarctica’s mysterious Lake Vostok got me thinking, naturally, of Europa. Biologists hope to find previously unknown forms of life in Vostok, whose waters have effectively been sealed off from the outside world for eons. So, too, Jupiter’s moon might someday yield clues about — or even our first glimpses of — life beyond Earth. Europa is one of the first places to go if you’re searching for aliens, since it also has an ice-capped ocean.
Unfortunately, NASA’s planetary program is broke.
More about that in a minute. First, though, what could we do if we had the money? A team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory has come up with a concept for a Europa Lander that could be launched as soon as 2021. There are other, competing Europa concepts — an orbiter and a multiple flyby mission — but the lander is to me (forgive my childishness) the coolest. And, as JPL’s Dave Senske told NASA’s Outer Planets Assessment Group yesterday, it would be the “most definitive way to assess what’s on the surface.”
The team envisions a six-legged spacecraft weighing about 100 pounds, which could last on Europa for about a month (Jupiter’s intense radiation limits the lifetime). Equipped with cameras, spectrometers, and a seismometer, the lander would drill or jackhammer a few inches into the ground to collect samples from below the radiation-contaminated zone. One likely landing site, called Thera Macula (above), is streaked with intriguing reddish material that may indicate the presence of organics. There’s reason to suspect that pockets of liquid water exist less than two miles below the surface at Thera Macula. Reaching those underground lakes might be a job for some future Europa cryobot, but not this first lander.
Nobody knows how rough the landing site would be. Galileo and Voyager photos aren’t detailed enough to answer the question, and according to some thinking, Europa’s icy surface could be as rugged as Death Valley’s “Devil’s Golf Course” (pictured below), which poses an obvious risk to a legged lander. Potential sites would have to be scouted from orbit during the month before landing, using a camera similar to the HiRISE now orbiting Mars.
The JPL team tried very hard to design a mission using technology that’s already, or almost already, in hand. True, nobody’s ever done a precision landing on another planet using LIDAR for last-minute hazard avoidance. But as study team members pointed out at the OPAG meeting, such technology has been in development for more than a decade. They think it’s doable. Which is exciting.
Now the bad news. The Europa Lander would cost as much as $3.5 billion, not counting launch. And NASA has no money for such ambition. The agency’s planetary exploration budget has just been slashed, partly a victim of its own excesses. The Mars program has been among the biggest offenders of late, but advocates of missions to the outer planets have proven little better at bringing down costs. NASA’s top science official, John Grunsfeld, was briefed about the new Europa concepts yesterday, and reportedly liked what he heard. The orbiter and flyby estimates both came in under $2 billion, which is better than previous Europa concepts. Still, Grunsfeld could only quip to the JPL briefers, “Now we just need $2 billion.”
Until something changes, then, we’ll have to settle for Lake Vostok, or science fiction — like this upcoming film, The Europa Report, which takes place, presumably, in some distant, less economically pinched future.
March 29, 2012
When John Lasseter, Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer, learned that a Buzz Lightyear action figure from the movie Toy Story was going to the International Space Station, “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” he said.
Lasseter was at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum today for the formal ceremony presenting the action figure (which spent 15 months in orbit) to the Museum. “I started crying when Discovery connected to the International Space Station,” said Lasseter. “There’s a tube that the astronauts go through, to go from the shuttle into the space station, and they didn’t carry Buzz. They opened his wings, they put his arms out, and Buzz Lightyear flew, in space, himself, up that tube, into the International Space Station. I’ve got chills right now thinking about it.”
Lasseter remembers watching the televised Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions as a child. “They were my heroes,” he explains. So years later, when a script called for a flashy toy to replace a child’s favorite—Woody the cowboy—”I said we have to have the toy be the coolest one you could imagine. The origin of Buzz, in every way, comes from NASA,” said Lasseter.
Margaret Weitekamp, a curator in the Museum’s Space History Division, noted that the Pixar/NASA donation includes videos and educational materials produced by Disney and Pixar to inspire children to get excited about science and technology. Later in the summer, Pixar’s Mission Launch videos will help educate visitors about the concepts of rendezvous, reentry, and space science. And Buzz Lightyear will have a place of honor in the mockup of the space shuttle’s crew cabin in the Museum’s Moving Beyond Earth gallery.
After the ceremony, Lasseter and Weitekamp took questions from the audience. “If Buzz was actually alive,” asked a young visitor from West Virginia, “what would those three buttons [on his chest] be for?” Lasseter explained they were Buzz’s communicator and voice box: “When he’s on location in the Gamma quadrant of Sector 3, and he’s out there as a space ranger, those buttons work different kinds of communication back to Star Command.”
When a visitor wondered where Buzz spent his time between flying on the shuttle and being accepted into the Smithsonian’s collections, Lasseter replied, “He was at Walt Disney World, Florida, riding rides.”
“Today is, without question, one of the greatest days of my life,” said Lasseter, of the donation.
March 22, 2012
In 1959, Robert Timm and copilot John Cook set an endurance record in a Cessna 172, staying aloft for a mind-bending 64 days, 22 hours, 19 minutes and 5 seconds. (Read about the flight here.)
When asked by a reporter if he would ever replicate the stunt, Cook replied: “Next time I feel in the mood to fly endurance, I’m going to lock myself in a garbage can with the vacuum cleaner running, and have Bob [Timms] serve me T-bone steaks chopped up in a thermos bottle. That is, until my psychiatrist opens for business in the morning.”
March 19, 2012
Jupiter’s innermost moon, Io, is one of the most fascinating planetary bodies in our solar system — with hundreds of volcanoes, it’s the most geologically active, constantly reshaping its surface. Today a group at the Planetary Science Institute have released a new geological map of the moon, integrating four “global mosaics” produced by the United States Geological Survey in 2006. You can download the whole map here (PDF).
David A. Crown, a senior scientists at PSI, explained in the announcement why this map is special:
This new map of Io’s geology provides for the first time a detailed record of the different types of landforms and deposits that form the surface and presents a global context that is important for understanding Io’s internal evolution and volcanic processes, as well as for targeting future observations of Io. Knowledge of Io’s volcanic activity derived from geologic mapping is an important contribution to our understanding of the nature and diversity of volcanism in our solar system.
What makes the map even more interesting is that it’s based off of information collected mostly from the Voyager and Galileo missions. Yes indeed: spacecraft launched over thirty years ago and currently passing the boundary of our solar system are still giving us new things to think about. The two Voyager spacecraft made their closest approach to Jupiter in 1979, which was when we first discovered that Io was geologically active. Galileo, launched in 1989, deepened our knowledge of the Jovian moon though a number of close fly-bys, observing the effects of volcanic eruptions and imaging the surface to show the sheer extent of the activity.
That we can continue to parse this data to reveal even more about our neighbors is a testament to just how much data these planetary missions can dig up, and how much we still have to learn about our own solar system.
On a similar note — that is, space missions “living on” well past their standard mission dates, the MESSENGER spacecraft, in orbit around Mercury, just began its first extension this week. It launched in 2004 and entered Mercury’s orbit on March 18, 2011, with a planned mission end on March 17, 2012. NASA announced last November that the mission would be extended another year. The spacecraft is studying many of the same things at Mercury, including the history of its volcanism and how the planet’s topography has changed. As the team announced last October, they’ve mapped nearly the entire planet and are using it, along with data collected from Mariner 10 in 1974-75, to learn how Mercury was shaped by its volcanic activity.
March 15, 2012
The writer at Ghosts of DC posted some great photos of Claude Grahame-White’s 1910 flight into Washington, D.C. Quite literally, the English aeronaut landed his small Farman biplane right next to the White House; he was arriving to visit officers in the State, War and Navy building. (We particularly like this image with the pilot’s doppelgänger doll.)
We thought we’d see what other photos exist for that 1910 flight. Above is a group shot, from the National Air and Space Museum collection, taken after landing and showing many of the officers Grahame-White came to visit (that’s him in the boots and bow-tie, fifth from the right).
Flying anywhere near the White House is certainly a rarity these days, although we’ll get to experience it soon when space shuttle Discovery is flown here to join the National Air & Space Museum at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia. The shuttle and the 747 it’ll be piggybacking have gotten permission to fly over the D.C. area before landing at Dulles International Airport.
Last year we cataloged some of the times aircraft have buzzed the capital, from daredevil aviators to giant airships.
We’ve written about Graham-White before, too, most notably how the Wright brothers “loathed the sight” of him.
It wasn’t just the Englishman’s smirking—though undeniably handsome—face that riled the brothers. It was his swagger, his lifestyle and his love of self-publicity. What really drove Wilbur and Orville mad was that in their eyes, Grahame-White was a charlatan, a man who knew nothing about aeronautics except that it was a good way to make a fast buck.
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