November 1, 2013
November 5 update: India has launched the Mars Orbiter Mission. The spacecraft is now in its planned Earth orbit, and will depart for Mars on December 1.
In more than half a century of trying, only two space agencies — from the United States and Europe — have managed to pull off entirely successful Mars missions. Attempts by Russia, Japan, England, and China to send spacecraft to the Red Planet have all ended in total or near-total failure.
Now India’s space agency, ISRO, hopes to succeed where others have stumbled. Next Tuesday, an Indian PSLV rocket is scheduled to lift off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre near the country’s southern tip, carrying the Mars Orbiter Mission spacecraft, also known unofficially as Mangalyaan — Hindi for “Mars craft.”
It’s a bold step for India, but then so was its Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter, which mapped the moon’s surface in 2008. By designing the $70 million (cheap for a Mars orbiter) MOM mission as a technology demonstrator, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has taken the cautious route, and may have improved its odds. Rather than load up a big spacecraft with lots of expensive instruments (which would have required a bigger but more failure-prone rocket called the GSLV), ISRO went with the smaller, more reliable PSLV, and a modest payload.
Mangalyaan carries just five small instruments: a color camera, an infrared spectrometer for mapping minerals on the Martian surface, a photometer for measuring hydrogen and deuterium in the atmosphere, another spectrometer focused on the upper atmosphere, and an instrument for measuring methane. The last is of special interest to scientists trying to solve the mystery of methane on Mars. Telescopes on Earth and Europe’s Mars Express spacecraft in Martian orbit have detected enough of the gas in the atmosphere to suggest that it’s being produced currently by Martian organisms. But the Curiosity rover came up empty when it sniffed for methane near the surface. The Methane Sensor for Mars on Mangalyaan is designed to detect atmospheric methane down to several parts per billion. “That would be a valuable contribution,” says Michael Mumma of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, one of the leaders in studying Martian methane. “However, the technical difficulties [of achieving that sensitivity] should not be overlooked.”
We’ll keep our fingers crossed on that one.
If the spacecraft just arrives safely in Mars orbit and operates there for six to ten months as anticipated, that alone could qualify the mission as a triumph. Chandrayaan-1 was rightly seen as a success, but the mission was cut short by component failures, and operating at Mars is more difficult than orbiting the moon. The rocket engine designed to brake Mangalyaan into Mars orbit when it arrives next September will have to start flawlessly after a 300-day cruise through cold space. Communications, power, and thermal control will all be more complicated than they were with Chandrayaan.
The graveyard of lost Mars missions includes 19 from Russia alone (although, to be fair, half of those were early in the space age). Japan’s Nozomi spacecraft suffered a fuel valve problem in 1998, and never recovered enough to reach Mars orbit. China’s small Yinghuo-1 Mars orbiter had hoped to piggyback on the Russian Fobos-Grunt Mars mission in 2011, but both spacecraft were stranded in Earth orbit when a rocket misfired. England’s Beagle 2 lander, launched in 2003, crashed on the Martian surface. NASA has had its failures, too, including the Mars Climate Orbiter lost in 1999 due to a mixup over metric vs. imperial measurements.
So wish the team at ISRO luck. Launch is scheduled for 4:08 a.m. Eastern (U.S.) time on November 5.
Here K. Radhakrishnan, head of the ISRO, gives a lengthy guided tour of the spacecraft for New Delhi Television:
October 30, 2013
Scientists following up on data from the Kepler planet-hunting telescope have identified Earth’s closest twin yet—at least in terms of size and mass. Measuring only 1.2 times the radius of Earth, Kepler -78b is now the smallest planet for which we also know the mass: about 1.7 times Earth’s. The two planets have roughly the same density, which means Kepler-78b is probably made of rock and iron too.
That’s pretty much where the similarity ends, though. Kepler-78b orbits perilously close to its host star—so close, in fact, that its year lasts only 8.5 hours, and surface temperatures are several thousand degrees on the side facing the star. No water, no life, and no good explanation—at least not yet—for how such a small planet ended up so close to its star. According to current theory, the star would have been two to three times bigger than it is today when the planet formed. But if -78b started off in its current location, “the planet’s orbit would be inside the star itself,” which is clearly not possible, says Dimitar Sasselov of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Boston, speaking at a press conference today. One possible explanation is that the planet is the dead core of a gas giant planet that migrated inward from farther away, but that theory is problematic too, says Sasselov. He called -78b “a poster child for a totally new class of planets” that has recently emerged from the Kepler data.
The discovery sets a new standard for observing small, rocky worlds. Kepler found the planet and measured its radius last spring, but it wasn’t until the summer that two independent groups—one working with the HIRES spectrograph at the Keck Telescope in Hawaii and the other with the HARPS-N spectrograph at Italy’s Telescopio Nazionale Galileo in the Canary Islands—were able to make the exquisitely sensitive measurements that allowed them to calculate the mass of Kepler-78b, based on the spectral signature of the tiny planet tugging on the much bigger star.
The two teams reported their results in Nature magazine today.
October 23, 2013
Suddenly, the “edge of space” is a hot destination.
No sooner had a documentary on Felix Baumgartner’s 24-mile-high leap last year come out (you can watch on the web) when a Tucson-based startup, World View, announced plans to take tourists up to the stratosphere starting in 2015. No jumping, though — just sightseeing, from a pressurized capsule hanging from a balloon. Ticket price: $75,000.
The plan, according to a letter from the FAA to Paragon Space Development Corp., the company behind the venture, is for a capsule carrying eight passengers to ascend from Spaceport America in New Mexico. Once they reach an altitude of 18.6 miles, high enough to see black sky and the curvature of Earth, the tourists will float there for two to six hours. The World View video shows lots of big windows for looking out.
In its communication with the FAA, Paragon called its passenger vehicle a “space capsule,” and generally seems keen to use the term “space” in describing the project. Purists might argue. Bear in mind that the balloon will reach less than one-tenth the altitude of the space station. But the experiences we generally lump together as “space tourism” are starting to come in different flavors, each with its pros and cons. For roughly the same price — $95,000 — you can book a ride on the Lynx spaceplane, which will go much higher (200 miles), but on a ride that lasts minutes instead of hours.
Meanwhile, the Perlan Project hopes to crowd-fund their idea to fly scientists up to the stratosphere in gliders to do research. They must be tired of watching their balloon-borne instruments have all the fun.
October 15, 2013
It’s been a year since space shuttle Endeavour made its last, winding trip through the streets of Los Angeles before going on display at the California Science Center.
We thought we’d seen pretty much all the photos by now, but a team led by photographer Scott Andrews—the same guys who produced the breathtaking time-lapse of Discovery’s journey to the launch pad in 2010—have given us one last look at the shuttle’s final victory lap past throngs of appreciative fans.
October 11, 2013
We’re right to eulogize early astronauts like Scott Carpenter (who passed away yesterday at the age of 88) for heroism in the face of unknown dangers. The Mercury astronauts and their Russian counterparts were, after all, the first people to venture off-Earth.
But Carpenter’s Mercury-Atlas 7 flight in 1962 lasted just five hours — three quick orbits, a Pacific splashdown, and that was the end of his space traveling. At the age of 40, the former Navy pilot then turned to exploring the ocean, which, he came to conclude, “is a much more hostile environment than space.” Carpenter’s experience on SEALAB II in the fall of 1965 bears this out.
SEALAB didn’t have a fraction of Mercury’s funding or publicity, but was just as daring in its own way. The Navy wanted to know if people could live underwater, in a highly pressurized habitat, for extended periods, where they could easily dive in deep water without the time-consuming preparation needed to avoid decompression sickness. SEALAB II was a 57-foot-long steel cylinder dropped to the ocean floor on the continental shelf off La Jolla, California. The pressure inside the habitat was 103 psi — seven times normal Earth atmosphere — to match the pressure at a depth of 203 feet. SEALAB’s hatch, a hole in the habitat’s floor protected by a shark cage, remained open to the water. The crew could put on their diving gear any time and just swim outside. A total of 28 men lived inside SEALAB, as many as ten at a time, during a 45-day span from August to October 1965. Of all the residents, Carpenter lived there longest — 30 days.
Years later, he told an interviewer that part of his motivation in signing up for SEALAB was to conquer an old fear. As a Navy pilot, he had once been on a raft in the middle of the ocean — part of a survival exercise — when a radar reflector needed to attract rescue teams suddenly fell in the water.
It went overboard, and I thought of trying to get it. But I was afraid of the sharks and the critters in that water, and I didn’t do it. But my gunner’s mate, without a second thought, jumped overboard, was gone for a long time, but he swam down and got that corner reflector and brought it back up. And I thought, “There is a brave man,” and it made me ashamed of myself. That was the genesis of my need to conquer my fear of the deep ocean. It’s an important thing. Conquering of fear is one of life’s greatest pleasures, and it can be done a lot of different places.
If living on SEALAB wasn’t exactly scary, it could be tremendously uncomfortable, bordering on painful, and was every bit as alien as life on a spacecraft. For one thing, everyone sounded like Mickey Mouse. The atmosphere in the lab was 85 percent helium (nitrogen at that pressure makes people act drunk, so it was replaced with helium). At first many of the crew thought this hilarious, but eventually the squeaky, party-balloon voices got annoying, because the men couldn’t understand each other. (They even tested a “helium descrambler” designed to make the helium voices more intelligible.) According to the SEALAB II project report, “when asked, ‘How soon were you able to understand all nine other aquanauts quite well?’ the responses showed that 16 divers felt they could in one to two days, eight more by the end of four days, two more by the eleventh day, and one never.” Carpenter got laughs when he pulled out a ukelele and sang “Goodnight Irene” in squeaky voice. But the problem became more serious — or funnier — when he tried to put in a call to President Lyndon Johnson from SEALAB. Here’s the full recording, starting with the topside officer who asks White House operators to stand by:
In a public talk in 1986, Carpenter discussed some of the other oddities of life on SEALAB. In that weird, alien atmosphere, you couldn’t whistle. Matches didn’t light. Working outside the habitat chilled you to the bone (the crew tested heated suits, but they leaked). Said one aquanaut later, “You accept the fact that part of the day is going to be spent being miserable [miserably cold].” Said another: “It’s hard work, it takes a long time to do simple tasks in the water. It takes a good hour to replace a (light) bulb.”
The project report goes on for paragraphs enumerating the hardships, from skin rashes to headaches, and is fairly blunt for an official document:
Working inside Sealab was no picnic either. Crowded conditions in the entrance area presented probably the most vexatious problems. The entrance area was a bottleneck in a very literal sense. Men crowded around in bulky and uncomfortable gear waiting to get into the water. There was almost no place to stow gear out of the way. The habitat sat unevenly on the bottom, with a list of six degrees in two directions. As a result, drawers would slide open or shut, objects would fall off counters, and men would walk up or down hill while leaning sideways. Long hours of careful preparation were required to put a man in the water, and the work schedule was constantly interrupted, delayed, and revised by emergencies or necessities. Work time far exceeded an eight-hour day. Communications with topside and within the capsule were difficult at best, due to the problems of understanding helium speech, and aggravated by constant background noise which rose to a level rendering verbal communication nearly impossible when the Arawak pumps were running. Work involving writing was made difficult by lack of privacy and the fact that writing surfaces were not level and extremely limited in space.
And yet, like the early astronauts, the SEALAB crews suffered the indignities willingly, because they believed they were doing something historic in exploring the deep ocean frontier. The project scientists wrote: “The sentiment behind this high motivation was probably best expressed by one of the divers on Team 1 who, upon being congratulated, responded, “Hell, I’m no hero, 10,000 other Navy divers would have given their right arm to have been in Sealab.”
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