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Space

InSight at Elysium Planitia

Tuesday, 27 November, 2018

This photo provided by NASA shows an image on Mars taken by the InSight spacecraft using its robotic arm-mounted camera after it landed on the planet yesterday. The spacecraft survived a perilous, supersonic plunge through the Martian red skies, setting off jubilation among scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California who had waited in suspense for confirmation that InSight had journeyed successfully across 100 million miles of space. It’s an historic, inspiring achievement.

InSight on Mars

InSight landed at a place known as Elysium Planitia, which is a relatively flat region free of boulders, craters and other potentially mission-ending obstacles. If all goes well, the spacecraft will probe Mars over the next two Earth years, and scientists hope InSight will help answer questions about how rocky planets become habitable (like Earth) or inhospitable (like Mars). We’ll be watching.


Vexillography and Mars

Wednesday, 20 May, 2015 0 Comments

Just learned today that the scientific study of flags is called vexillology, and the practice of designing flags is called vexillography. For that useful information, we’re indebted to Oskar Pernefeldt, who had designed the International Flag of Planet Earth as a graduation project at Beckmans College of Design in Stockholm. The flag could be used by explorers “representing planet Earth” as they travel across the solar system says the idealistic young Oskar, and he envisages it being planted on the arid soil of the Red Planet to mark the creation of an “Eventual colony on Mars in 2025.”

Earth flag on Mars

That’s pretty much in line with the projections of Elon Musk: “I think we’ve got a decent shot of sending a person to Mars in about 11 or 12 years,” he said last month during an episode of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk Radio show. FuturePundit is pouring cold water on this, however. Send robots first, he says. Argument:

“Only send humans once enough robots have broken down to justify a repair team visit. First thing we have to be aware of: Mars is a very hostile environment for humans. Little atmosphere, too much radiation, too cold, too far from the Sun, low on nitrogen (which is probably a bigger problem than low on water), very costly to ship to, too far away to do remote real-time control of equipment. Really a very unappetizing place to live.”

All very reasonable, no doubt, but the future belongs to optimists and visionaries like Oskar Pernefeldt and Elon Musk.


Current reading: The Martian

Monday, 8 December, 2014 0 Comments

The Martian “I guess I should explain how Mars missions work, for any layman who may be reading this. We got to Earth orbit the normal way, through an ordinary ship to Hermes. All the Ares missions use Hermes to get to and from Mars. It’s really big and cost a lot so NASA built only one.

Once we got to Hermes, four additional unmanned missions brought us fuel and supplies while we prepared for our trip. Once everything was a go, we set out for Mars. But not very fast. Gone are the days of heavy chemical fuel burns and trans-Mars injection orbits.”

So says the narrator of The Martian by Andy Weir. The book has been a commercial and critical success: The Wall Street Journal called it “the best pure sci-fi novel in years,” and the film version, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain, will be released in November next year.

The book is more topical than ever, considering the spectacular success of the Orion spacecraft, which soared into space on Friday before splashing down on target in the Pacific ocean. NASA says that Orion is destined to be the first of a fleet that will carry humans beyond the Moon to Mars. Opponent say that putting humans into space is futile, expensive, dangerous and ultimately harmful to science. They argue that robot craft represent the future of space exploration. It’s a debate that’s bound to get more heated in the coming years and The Martian offers a cautionary message:

The Ares Program. Mankind reaching out to Mars to send peo­ple to another planet for the very first time and expand the hori­zons of humanity blah, blah, blah. The Ares 1 crew did their thing and came back heroes. They got the parades and fame and love of the world.

Ares 2 did the same thing, in a different location on Mars. They got a firm handshake and a hot cup of coffee when they got home.

Ares 3. Well, that was my mission. Okay, not mine per se. Com­mander Lewis was in charge. I was just one of her crew. Actually, I was the very lowest ranked member of the crew. I would only be “in command” of the mission if I were the only remaining person.

What do you know? I’m in command.

I wonder if this log will be recovered before the rest of the crew die of old age. I presume they got back to Earth all right. Guys, if you’re reading this: It wasn’t your fault. You did what you had to do. In your position I would have done the same thing. I don’t blame you, and I’m glad you survived.


Elon Musk warned about old Russian rocket engines

Wednesday, 29 October, 2014 0 Comments

There’s nothing quite like fireworks to light up a front/home page, is there? Background: Yesterday evening, the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded just six seconds after lifting off from the Wallops Island spacepad in Virginia. NASA says that all personnel in the area have been accounted for, and there were no injuries.

Rockets have a history of exploding and the cause of the Antares failure is not yet known, but relying on old Russian engines may not be the wisest use of critical components. Which brings us to Elon Musk, the brilliant innovator and entrepreneur, CEO of Tesla Motors and founder of SpaceX. Two years ago, to the week, he said the following to Chris Anderson of Wired:

“One of our competitors, Orbital Sciences, has a contract to resupply the International Space Station, and their rocket honestly sounds like the punch line to a joke. It uses Russian rocket engines that were made in the ’60s. I don’t mean their design is from the ’60s — I mean they start with engines that were literally made in the ’60s and, like, packed away in Siberia somewhere.”

Four days ago, Musk’s Dragon capsule safely landed in the Pacific Ocean, returning some two tons of cargo and science experiments to Earth from the International Space Station. Instead of relying on rusty Russian parts, Musk is making rockets using an advanced technology called stir welding:

“Instead of riveting the ribs and hoops, you use a special machine that softens the metal on both sides of the joint without penetrating it or melting it. Unlike traditional welding, which melts and potentially compromises some metals, this process works well with high-strength aluminum alloys. You wind up with a stiffer, lighter structure than was possible before.”

Yes, SpaceX has had its setbacks, but nothing as spectacular as yesterday’s Antares fail.


Mars and the mundane

Tuesday, 27 May, 2014 0 Comments

In a week from now, NASA will launch its Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator test vehicle to Mars. If the experiment works, it could pave the way for much heavier payloads, which would include equipment and people. NASA has said it hopes to send astronauts to Mars by the 2030s. It all sounds very exciting, but what about those left behind? This rather droll animated short was created by The Brothers McLeod.