prattrich

SLS is the Way to Deep Space

May 24, 2015
Leave a Comment

Destination: MarsI have been discouraged lately by what seems like almost no movement in our ability to send humans further into space than the moon, and the last visit to there was in the early 70’s. But an article in the June, 2015 Scientific American gives me renewed hope.
When President Barack Obama cancelled the Constellation program, which was supposed to get astronauts to Mars eventually, it looked like the NASA space program had lost all direction, and the Space Launch System (SLS) program which is designed to take its place was criticized as welfare for states and corporations that are home to large NASA contractors.
But the SLS will be able to carry out the President’s asteroid missions as well as giving us Mars capability, and the means to get to Europa in 2.5 years instead of the six it took smaller robot rockets to do it. And it is on time and on budget so far.
I am convinced we need a heavy lifter, not only because using smaller rockets to assemble an interplanetary vehicle in orbit would be awkward, expensive, and highly dangerous. but also because cutting transit time to any planet will allow astronauts to avoid some radiation exposure.
Anyhow, the article in SA lays out other convincing reasons for producing the SLS, not the least of which is that it will be less expensive than the Constellation program would have been, relying as it does on some off-the-shelf hardware (like shuttle main engines), with built-in improvements as they are developed. I can only add to the article that increasing NASA’s budget by a measly one-half per cent of GDP could kick the program into high gear and get us to Mars quicker than the 2030’s. Then I might even live to see it happen.

Advertisements

February 1, 2015
Leave a Comment
Taking a gander at one of the outlying objects in the solar system.
https://www.nytsyn.com/images/graphics/1853407

Christmas eve, 1968

December 5, 2014
Leave a Comment

Nothing was more amazing to me than when we actually launched a rocket that made it all the way to the moon with a human payload.  It was even more thrilling than when we landed on the moon because it was the first time humans had really ventured away from their earthly cocoon.

Sound on – watch on full screen

 


The Martian by Andy Weir–Read it

March 21, 2014
Leave a Comment

So you are a member of the third and biggest expedition to Mars, but something goes wrong.  There is a massive sandstorm and, as you try to get to the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle) before it tilts too far to take-off, the main communications antenna comes loose from the Hab and punctures your suit.  Air leaks out and your vital signs plunge.

The other crew members think you are dead and leave the planet in their MAV.  You are left behind with no hope of rescue for over 4 years.  How do you survive?  Andy Weir shows in exquisite detail how that might be possible, assuming you have dual degrees in mechanical engineering and botany, in a fascinating novel called The Martian. 

Mark Watney doesn’t die as his companions thought because the piece of antenna that punctured his garment,combined with frozen blood from the wound seals his pressure  suit until he regains consiousness and can apply a more permanent seal.  But by that time the MAV is gone and Mark is left to figure out how to survive in the real-life hostile environment of the planet Mars.  The things he does are realistic, ingenious and point to ways that lots of people could survive indefinitely on the red planet.  This book is available from Amazon and well worth the read if you are at all interested in space exploration or colonizing Mars.


Olympic Money Could Be Spent Better

February 10, 2014
Leave a Comment

One source says $51 billion will be spent on the Winter Olympic games in Sochi. If NASA were given an infusion of $51 billion, we would have a viable space program again. We could probably go to Mars several times for that amount–maybe even establish a permanent colony there. The long term advances in science and technology that this would provide would far outweigh any good that comes from Olympic competition.
Actually, we’re a rich enough world to have both, but neither Russia nor the United States seems to have the vision to do the more important thing.


Concentrate Funds on Deep Space

November 21, 2013
Leave a Comment

It’s time for NASA to quit funding its series of small robot missions which are obviously being put together based on what’s affordable in the near-term.  The latest Mars atmosphere explorer is an example.  How much more do we need to know about the Martian atmosphere that we haven’t found out already from previous missions?

NASA should be concentrating all its funding on big missions–manned space travel.  That’s where the future is, and doing an unending series of robot explorations is just spinning the wheels of the program.  Put more money into developing heavy lift capabilities, advanced propulsion,  crew protection, fuel stations in space, long term survival in hostile environments etc.  Its overarching goal should be to establish a permanent human presence on other solar system bodies.  From there we can do all the science we need to–and develop new resources for Earth.


Travel to Extra-solar Planets Possible? Well, Not Now But…

April 20, 2013
Leave a Comment

So the Kepler telescope has discovered two new planets, not too much bigger than Earth, and located in the “goldilocks zone” of their stars, meaning that liquid water, and presumably life, might exist there.  The nearer planet is “only” 1200 light years from us.  The farthest, 2800 light years.

To put that into perspective, it takes light about 8 minutes and 20 seconds to travel the 93 million miles separating us from the sun.  Traveling at the speed of light, it would take a ship 1200 years to get to the nearest of these planets.  That doesn’t take into account speeding up and slowing down.  We could make 50,478,400 round trips to the sun in the time it would take to get to the farthest of the two planets. And these two planets are relatively close in terms of just galactic distances.  So why bother even thinking about the possibility of life on these two worlds, or of some day visiting them?

Well,  back in Columbus’s time nobody had conceived of steam power or the internal combustion engine either–or of being able to plot a course with a computer.  On Star Trek, the Enterprise is powered by anti-matter conversion–right now the concept that would produce the most energy per unit of fuel.  We don’t have anti-matter conversion yet.  We don’t even know how to make enough anti-matter to give it a try. But  the best “scientists” in Columbus’s time didn’t know how to produce gasoline either.  Even if anti-matter engines became real they would produce only enough energy to make travel in this solar system an everyday occurrence.  It would still take hundreds of years to get much of anywhere else in the galaxy.  So Star Trek goes one step further.  The Enterprise uses dilithium crystals powered by the anti-matter to warp space.  Its engines shorten the fabric of space ahead of it and lengthen the fabric behind it.  That shortens the actual distance the ship has to travel.  Sounds fantastic but some parts of cutting edge physics suggest that space actually has a “fabric” that might be malleable.  For example, we know that the universe is expanding.  And when cosmologists say that, they don’t mean that galaxies are rushing away from each other.  They mean the actual fabric of space is expanding in all directions.    Still pretty far out.  But so would a passenger jet be to Alexander the Great.

Each generation prefers to believe that it has discovered most of what is important about reality, and all researchers have to do is fill in some of the details. We are in that mode now.  But sooner or later, a discovery or invention occurs that changes the world and the whole way scientists look at things. Einstein’s theories would be one example.  The invention of gunpowder might be another.  Computers and the internet a third.  I would prefer to believe that there is much we still don’t know and that one of those discoveries in the future will put us on a path to the stars.  Limitations are always challenges to human beings, and the accumulation of knowledge is proceeding at a much faster pace today than it was in Columbus’s time.


The Search for Life in the Universe

April 8, 2013
Leave a Comment

In order to find life on other worlds, we first must be sure of what it is–that is, what constitutes life as separate from non-life?  To do this, according to scientists, we must go back to life’s possible origins. 

Astronomers, who first thought that only separate atoms could exist in space,  discovered some time ago  that the universe is teeming with organic molecules.  By organic they mean that these molecules are present in large quantity in living organisms.  But these same molecules are present in other materials too that we wouldn’t identify as living. There is a bridge that must be crossed between living and non-living, and so far scientists admit, they don’t have evidence of how that bridge is crossed. But  life on Earth is carbon-based, meaning its essential molecules depend on carbon for their structure.  In the movie Alien an extraterrestrial creature is encountered whose molecular make-up is silicon-based, producing an especially hard outer shell.  The make-up of the universe seems to aruge against this possibility, however.

If you boil off the hydrogen and helium in a typical star, (not an easy task in reality), you’ll see that life has almost the same amounts of carbon, oxygen, and calcium as the star possesses.  Since other bodies in and around solar systems are made up of the remnants of dead stars and since the same rough proportions of parts of those  remnants appear in us, we can posit that life everywhere has certain “common cosmic traits” as Jacob Berkowitz puts it in his recent book The Stardust Revolution.   So other life is likely to be carbon-based just like us.  If we are star stuff, then so must they be.

To separate rocks from tadpoles, metallic ore from trees, Mexican evolutionary biologist Antonio Lazcano defines life as “self-sustaining, replicative chemical systems capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution.”  Presumably, since the same chemicals are involved, roughly the same kind of evolutionary processes would exist on any planet other than Earth on which organic chemicals somehow managed to arrange themselves in self-replicating ways.  These processes would involve the production of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and methane.  Scientists know of no other way that oxygen could be produced in the quantities present in Earth’s atmosphere other than through biological processes.

This is not to say that alien life would look pretty much like us.  Look at the diversity of structures present in the biosphere of our native planet.  But, for intelligent life,  there are obvious evolutionary advantages to standing upright, having our brains encased in a hard shell on top, possessing long fingers with opposable thumbs, and having complex voice boxes.  Had dinosaurs not been wiped out by a chance comet or asteroid, however, they might have been the ones to have evolved intelligence instead of mammals.  They might have done it sooner too, since they already had a head start.

Based on this knowledge and these fair assumptions, the search for other life in the universe will become a search for planets with easily detectable oxygen in their atmospheres.  However, Dr, Berkowitz points out that we shouldn’t be too in love with oxygen.  For most of Earth’s history, millions of species of bacteria were and are anaerobic–they breathe gases other than oxygen.  One possibility would be dimethyl sulfide, which smells sort of like cooked cabbage, or dead fish.  So the abundance of certain other gases in atmospheres might hint at the presence of some form of  life too.

Getting spectroscopic signatures of gases in exoplanet atmospheres will take a whole new generation of space-based telescopes, according to most scientists.  The Spitzer telescope or Hubble just aren’t designed for that.  Europe’s Darwin and Gaia telescope missions have been cancelled along with NASA’s terrestrial planet finder. The culture wars over evolution still go on stifling progress in these areas.   “The stardust revolution has changed our view of the cosmos, but perhaps we stand unwilling to change, and to embrace, a new view of ourselves,” says Berkowitz.

 

 


Music Parody illuminates NASA Accomplishments

December 20, 2012
1 Comment

Nothing makes it more obvious that we need to keep supporting NASA than a record of its past accomplishments.  No government agency (exept possibly social security) has been more effective at doing good for people.  At present NASA is at sea, uncertain of what ports it should be sailing toward.  It needs leadership from the people who supply its funding, and that leadership should be considering what’s the long-term best for this country and the rest of humanity.

Being given a vague mandate to develop more heavy lift rockets is not enough.  Heavy lift for what?  To where?  With what cargo?  The President should be setting a vision for future development, not just giving vague pronouncements not backed up by adequate funding.  Write to the White House.  Tell President Obama to create a vision for NASA equivalent to or better that John F. Kennedy’s vision that led to astronauts exploring  the moon.   We and our children and their children will reap the benefits.  Meeanwhile enjoy the video below.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Sar5WT76kE


Survival May Depend on Exploration

December 9, 2012
Leave a Comment

As I’ve stated before on this blog, our purpose here is to communicate to the world the importance of exploring more than just our tiny planet–large as it seems to some.  The universe is a big place–too big to ignore forever.  Ignoring what surrounds our world may ultimately be fatal to the human race.  Many members of our species have been imbued with a curiosity that drives them to find out as much as they can about the nature of reality, as the Star Trek series suggests: “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”  That applies not only in terms of exploration, but in terms of seeking all they can find about how natural processes work on this planet.

Others are happy to live their lives in a tiny shell, not caring about anything that doesn’t directly and immediately affect them.  The former are responsible for the majority of scientific and technological progress that has produced such comfortable lives for us all and that the latter enjoy, often not caring or even thinking about the source.

So we urge our readers to reject all forms of thinking or believing that don’t yield productive results, that is, results that don’t further the knowledge and/or well-being of humankind. We urge them to support research and education in the hard and soft sciences.  And, most of all, we try to point out the good that will come from humans moving out into what we loosely refer to as “space.”

In this endeavor, our governments, private industry, and ourselves all have important roles.  National governments (not just the U.S.) can pay for cutting edge research, the kind that doesn’t lead directly to profit that would sustain a private enterprise.  Business entrepreneurs can follow with investments in transportation and mining, tourism, or colonization when the possibility of sustainable profit becomes real.  And the rest of us can support such efforts by demanding that a reasonable part of our taxes be invested in government research as well as by supporting science education and companies that invest in space.

Right now, the primary goal should be research stations on and eventual colonization of Mars.  In 1492, it took Columbus 3 months to sail from Europe to the new world.  A journey to Mars today will take about 6 months.  That’s not so much extra time, especially when you consider how much improvement there has been in crew  survivability since then.  Both public and private funds should be being devoted to engines that can cut that 6 month time to 3 months and less, just as clipper ships and then steam power shortened the time to cross the ocean.

We can’t know today all the benefits in terms of new jobs and heightened spirits that will come from exploring Mars, the asteroids, the moons of Jupiter, any more than Columbus could have predicted all the benefits that accrued from exploring North and South America.

Currently, NASA’s funding is being cut.  It is floundering without any purpose that will fire people’s imaginations.   NASA spends about one half of one cent of every tax dollar Americans pay in.  As Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson has pointed out over and over, increasing that amount to just one penny per dollar would give this organization enough money to revitalize it and set goals it might actually be able to reach in less than half a lifetime. So write your congressman and senator and demand that space research be taken off the back burner and used to revitalize America.  The eventual fate of the human race may depend on it.


Next Page »