April 22, 2013
There may have been some applause in Russia, too. Antares uses Aerojet AJ26/NK-33 liquid kerosene rocket engines originally built for the Soviet Union’s canceled N-1 moon rocket in the late 1960s and early 1970s. After being warehoused for 20 years, the engines were purchased by American companies and modified. On Sunday they finally made it to space, powering the Antares first stage.
Antares is now scheduled to launch Orbital’s Cygnus cargo vehicle on its first trip to the International Space Station this summer. Meanwhile, Russia is looking at using the NK-33 on future Soyuz rockets.
A replay of the Antares launch for those who missed it:
April 19, 2013
The Kepler team’s announcement of the smallest, most Earthlike planets yet discovered in a star’s habitable zone naturally got SETI-ologists wondering whether alien civilizations might be broadcasting from Kepler-62e or -62f.
It turns out that one SETI group has already listened for signals.
Two years ago, a team led by Andrew Siemion of the University of California at Berkeley trained the giant Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia on 86 selected “Kepler objects of interest” — confirmed or suspected planets found by NASA’s orbiting telescope since its launch in 2009. The targets were chosen based on several criteria: if the planets were within a specific mild temperature range, or if they were just a little bigger than Earth and relatively far from their host star, or if the star had five or more candidate planets. One of the 86 stars on the list was an orange dwarf designated KOI 701, now better known as Kepler-62, home to the planetary system announced yesterday.
For each of the stars, the Green Bank telescope searched the entire frequency range between 1.1 and 1.9 gigahertz, listening for “narrow-band” signals no more than a few hertz wide, which, according to a paper by Siemion and his colleagues in The Astrophysical Journal, are, “as far as we know, an unmistakable indicator of engineering by an intelligent civilization.” Other SETI searches have targeted Kepler candidate planets, but the Green Bank search between February and April 2011 was the most sensitive yet.
Alas, “no signals of extraerrestrial origin were found” for KOI 701 or any of the other 85 targets, report the scientists. That’s not a surprising result in SETI, where absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
So the search will continue. Having looked for narrow-band signals, the next step, says Siemion, is to hunt for other patterns in the data that would be harder to detect. Within the next couple of months, he and his colleagues plan to add their Kepler data to the SETI@Home archive, so that volunteers around the world can use their own computers to help crunch the numbers and look for signals.
Down the line, he sees other opportunities to tune in to the Kepler-62 planets. One scenario for possible alien transmissions is that extraterrestrial civilizations would use radio to communicate from one planet to another — if, like us, they’ve begun exploring their own solar system. Because we see the Kepler-62 system more or less edge-on, the planets will regularly line up with each other from our point of view, so that we can search at radio or even optical wavelengths for a beam directed from one planet to another. The next such conjunction of Kepler 62e and 62f happens on July 30.
“The Kepler planets are so exciting,” says Siemion, not just in themselves (although at 1,200 light years away, they’re too distant to explore in detail), but because they herald a new era of studying planets we know to be Earthlike in size and composition. He’s looking forward to the launch of TESS (the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) in 2017. While Kepler’s job is to collect statistics about how common planets are around distant stars, TESS will hunt for Earthlike worlds in our own celestial neighborhood — 10 or 15 light years away. That’s close enough, says Siemion, where SETI searches could pick up FM radio and television transmissions of the kind now leaking out from Earth every day.
April 15, 2013
While meandering around aviation web sites, I came across an item that said the Blériot XI at Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in upstate New York might have been the one from which Harriet Quimby and a passenger fell to their deaths in 1912. Could this be true, or is it another aviation urban legend?
Photo and illustrations editor Caroline Sheen put the question to a couple of knowledgeable folks. Says Andrew King, once an Old Rhinebeck pilot and one of the most experienced fliers of early aircraft: “Harriet was killed in a two-seater, and the Rhinebeck one is a smaller one-seater. I think it is thought to have been at the  Boston meet though, so that might be where the rumor started.”
And from early aircraft photographer Gilles Auliard, who has been shooting at Old Rhinebeck since 1988: “The Old Rhinebeck Blériot (c/n 56) was found in Lacomia, New Hampshire, in the early 1960s and is reputed to have participated in the Squantum meet, or so [Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome founder] Cole Palen told me. According to the Blériot production list, it was completed in 1909 (and it actually makes sense, as Blériot was turning out models XI like pancakes).
“Harriet Quimby was flying a brand new Blériot XI at the meet, which would imply a 1912 building date, and it was reported as a two-seater version (even though this is also questionable as pictures of the meet show her in a single-seater).
“Three years of flying in the early 1900s was long time. The life expectancy of an airplane was computed in months, not in years (even though they could be repaired and modified at will to reappear later).
“It also remains to be seen if Quimby bought a French-made Blériot or a U.S.-made copy or licensed version, as there was a plethora of authorized/unauthorized manufacturers.
“If one could determine that it was a U.S.-built machine, this would be the end of the controversy.”
So, the verdict: likely an urban legend.
April 12, 2013
This week NASA announced plans to capture a small asteroid in 2019 and bring it back to the vicinity of the Moon for later study by astronauts. It’s a good idea, for several reasons.
It’s of real importance to society.
The asteroid threat is sometimes overhyped, and it’s no wonder politicians don’t consider it an emergency when the last Extinction Level Event (to borrow a term from Deep Impact) happened 64 million years ago. Still, the fireball over Chelyabinsk in February demonstrated that even a small space rock can do damage, and hinted at even scarier scenarios. The rock that NASA plans to retrieve would be just half the size of the 60-foot Chelyabinsk object, small enough to burn up harmlessly if it entered our atmosphere. But learning to deflect or move even a mini-asteroid should give us valuable experience.
Public support for asteroid research is a no-brainer, yet NASA has had trouble allocating even a few million dollars a year (in an $18 billion budget) for a comprehensive search using a modest, space-based telescope. This new mission would help get the hunt started, because it requires an inventory of even smaller objects than we’ve tracked in the past.
Meanwhile, NASA still struggles to find a compelling destination for future astronauts that will sell with the general public. Expeditions to Mars or setting up an outpost on the Moon are fascinating projects, but hardly essential, and many taxpayers still consider them frivolous. Understanding asteroids and learning how to alter their course, on the other hand, are critical to humanity’s ultimate survival.
It advances space technology.
A mission that sounds straightforward, and is expected to cost no more than NASA’s latest Mars rover, would nonetheless require several new technologies that could also be applied to other projects. Solar electric engines for the unmanned tug that retrieves the asteroid can be used on future planetary spacecraft. Robotic tools for snagging an “uncooperative” target like a tumbling asteroid might also be used to clean up space debris or refuel satellites in orbit. After the rock is retrieved, astronauts will have to learn to live and work in what’s called cislunar space, something they’ve never done. In short, there’s plenty of cool and useful technology in an asteroid retrieval mission.
It sends astronauts farther than they’ve ever gone.
Does human spaceflight have a future? In 2013, the answer is not obvious. The technologies of robotics and telepresence are advancing far faster than rockets and space capsules, which are still spinning off ideas developed in the 1950s. Those who doubt that humans will ever be content to explore deep space virtually, as opposed to going there in person, should consider Skype and Oculus Rift. Behaviors deeply embedded in human culture are changing before our eyes. Military forces are rapidly evolving from a centuries-old model of flesh-and-blood warriors facing off on battlefields to drones fighting drones. Why should space exploration be any different?
This may not, in fact, be the last hurrah for old-school (human) astronauts. But choosing a just-over-the-horizon destination like the lunar far side, while reviving some of the old Apollo mojo, will help us decide whether to continue sending people farther out into the solar system.
It encourages cooperation.
Groups including the B612 Foundation already are working to characterize the threat of larger incoming asteroids (“city killers” upwards of 100 feet in size), while others have announced plans to mine smaller rocks. NASA might be able to leverage these private ventures to keep its own costs down and encourage more players in the space business.
Within the agency itself, an asteroid retrieval mission would demand closer collaboration between the astronaut program and the science side of the house than at any time since Apollo. Meanwhile, partners in the International Space Station, who’ve shown only polite interest in the Moon or Mars, might be more willing to join in a smaller-scale mission with obvious benefit to all nations.
Maybe the biggest advantage of all.
Every so often, a U.S. President (Bushes 41 and 43 most recently) proposes a grandiose go-to-the-Moon or –Mars scheme, which quickly peters out when everyone realizes, once again, that it costs way too much. Space advocates with long memories might be forgiven if they no longer expect Charlie Brown to kick the football.
Today the economic situation is worse than at any time in the space age. With millions unemployed and uninsured, and with public and private debt skyrocketing, no politician is about to suggest an expensive mission to the moon or Mars. Sorry, that’s not strictly true. Those representing districts with NASA centers will. But don’t expect many others to join them.
That leaves NASA building a new rocket (the Space Launch System) and new vehicle (Orion), with no obvious place to go. Space agency managers rightly asked themselves what they could realistically do with the tools and money on hand, in a relatively short time. And the asteroid retrieval mission is what they came up with.
Some will say that grabbing a space rock – a tiny one at that – is not ambitious enough, not worthy of the nation that launched Apollo. “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp,” so this argument goes. Maybe. But while Robert Browning’s advice may be good for an artist, it can lead to frustration and failure for engineers and accountants.
So here’s a more pertinent line from the same poem: “Less is more.”
Let’s do something we can actually accomplish. And let’s get on with it.
April 11, 2013
You’re going to need a clock. That’s what the National Air and Space Museum wants to get across to visitors with its new permanent exhibit, Time and Navigation, opening tomorrow.
“If you want to know where you are, or if you want to know where you’re going, you need a reliable clock,” said Carlene Stephens, a curator at the National Museum of American History, which houses the Smithsonian’s collection of clocks and contributed to the exhibit. Appropriately, visitors enter the exhibit by walking under a beautiful blue and gold clock, in the “spirit of the early and truly magnificent European clocks,” says exhibit designer Heidi Eitel. She wanted to include the automaton clock that comes to life every quarter hour to tell “the story of when people began sharing time.”
The exhibit takes you through three eras, starting with Navigating at Sea, when sailors first used sextants and star charts to find their way across vast oceans. Though ships have had navigators since the 1600s, it wasn’t until the early 1800s that they had marine chronometers that kept reliable time at sea and allowed navigation with any precision. Galileo’s pendulum clock and an interactive 19th-century ship’s sextant that lets visitors navigate by the stars are highlights.
Next, the exhibit takes flight. Even aviation heros like Charles Lindbergh got lost before Navy Lieutenant Commander P.V.H. Weems developed air navigation techniques. Overhead, visitors can see the Lockheed Vega Winnie Mae, which Wiley Post and famed navigator Harold Gatty flew around the world in 1931 in just eight days — a feat that could not have been accomplished without precise location-determining skills.
In the third and final era, navigation gets three-dimensional as it moves into space. Throughout this section of the exhibit are star charts where Earth becomes just another potential destination on the map. Our education on space navigation starts with the story of NASA’s nine Ranger spacecraft, notorious for their failures to reach the moon, including two that completely missed the mark. But astronauts eventually made it to the surface, and visitors can see the Apollo sextant and space shuttle star tracker here. “When we go back into deep space,” said curator Andrew Johnston, “it’ll be very interesting to see how far we’ve come with navigation.” With the technology available today, the exhibit explains, spacecraft missions in 2012 were 100,000 times more accurate than they were in the 1960s.
Finally, the exhibit shows us how we navigate today. Atomic clocks (one is on view in case you need to set your watch) that keep time to three billionths of a second, GPS satellites that can be accessed from anywhere in the world, and smartphones that crunch all sorts of data have replaced chronometers and sextants and bulky books of charts. In fact, navigation today doesn’t even need people: Stanford’s driverless-car Stanley is also on display. It won DARPA’s 2005 Grand Challenge by navigating an off-road 132-mile race. But proving its necessity in our everyday modern lives, Time and Navigation ends with stories from today — a farmer, a fireman and a student explain how their livelihoods are affected by the technology developed since the first sailor located the North Star.
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