The entire universe in blog form

Dec. 8 2014 9:07 AM

Orion Is the Spaceship We Want. But Is It the Spaceship We Need?

Like a lot of people, I watched the Orion mission last Friday. I missed the launch (time zones reared their sleepy head), unfortunately. But I did see most of the mission—the capsule completing its first orbit, getting boosted to its second, much higher orbit, then falling back to Earth for a safe splashdown in the Pacific Ocean just off the coast of Baja California.

Twitter was bursting with live commentary, and nearly every person I follow was breathlessly excited about the achievement.

I myself… well, I wasn’t. Despite the mission going nearly flawlessly, I watched the whole thing with serious misgivings.

I can’t help it. After reading quite a bit about Orion, and the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket planned to take it into space in the coming years, I have come to an unhappy conclusion: Both are almost certainly the wrong direction for NASA.

Don’t get me wrong: I want us to go to the Moon, and eventually to Mars. I’ve written about this countless times. But I don’t think SLS is the way to get there.

The cost is a major factor—it’s underfunded, and likely to hobble NASA unless the White House and Congress give a lot more money to the agency—and the politics involved on a more detailed level are very likely to ensure cost overruns and scheduling delays. And even then, I’m just unconvinced that we really need this rocket that will cost many tens of billions of dollars, when far less expensive alternatives are possible.

Orion is figuratively and literally attached to SLS, and carries many of the same problems. Plus, I don’t think building these rockets and capsules is what NASA itself should be doing, anyway.

I’m not just blowing off steam here; I have plenty of evidence, as well as corroboration from ex-NASA personnel and other space experts who are even more skeptical of SLS and Orion than I am.

I put all this together in an article for Slate. Please go read that, and think carefully on it.

This brings me no joy at all to write this. None. I want NASA to be the can-do forward-thinking agency I knew as a kid, the one that put humanity on the Moon and would soon have us kicking up the rusty dust on Mars. I worked at a NASA research center for many years, and I’ve seen the heights the people involved can reach, and the stultifying politics that in so many cases has prevented them from doing so.

I know what NASA can do when it’s allowed to, and that’s why I wrote that article. Not to hold NASA down, but to make sure it has the chance to free itself so we can reach for the stars.

I know that future is possible. We just have to take one small step… but it has to be in the right direction.

Video Advertisement

Dec. 7 2014 7:00 AM

Soaring: Lights Over Norway

For years, I thought that aurorae—the northern and southern lights—were pretty stately phenomena. Sure, there were sheets and ribbons colored green and red and pink and purple, so it was clearly a flamboyant and amazing display.

But having seen so many static pictures, and then time-lapse videos, I got the impression that aurorae didn’t change rapidly. The motion was there, but slow. Then, earlier this year, I saw a video that showed the aurorae moving in real time, and I was shocked. It was amazing. They flicker and dance, sometimes moving quite rapidly.

Still, it’s rare to get the lights moving that way. They normally are relatively slow. But photographer Ole C. Salomonsen was lucky: In Tromsø, Norway, between August and November, he caught many such rapid displays using a really nice Sony A7s camera, and the results are simply spectacular. See for yourself:

Wasn’t that incredible? At the 3:30 mark I literally gasped as he tilts the camera up to see a corona, cascading colors like dripping ink.

Aurorae are caused by fast subatomic particles from the Sun when they’re channeled down into Earth’s atmosphere by our planet’s magnetic field. This can form long sheets of light as the particles scream down like bullets and excite the molecules in the air, causing them to glow. From a distance, these sheets look like streamers and ribbons, but if you’re underneath them you’re looking directly up into a 3-D phenomenon, like lying on the floor and looking up into curtains billowed by the wind. That's the corona.

On top of that, that part of the video shows bursts of color not usually seen, like pink, as nitrogen glows blue and oxygen and nitrogen glows red; combined they make the astonishing vivid pink.

Tromsø is a bit of a haul from Colorado, but Iceland is a lot closer, and has a lot of other science going on, too. I have my eye on that island and would love to make that trip soon. I’ve still never seen an aurora, but I’m aiming to fix that. Videos like this only make me more determined.

Tip o’ the Birkeland current to John Markus Bjørndalen.

Correction, Dec. 7, 2014: I originally misspelled the name of the town of Tromsø. Also, the wrong video was embedded in the post initially.

Update, Dec. 7, 2014: Also, the wrong video was embedded in the post initially. It's been swapped out for the correct one.

Dec. 6 2014 7:15 AM

Dawn Sees Ceres!

That picture may not look like much at first glance, but it’s actually very exciting: That is Ceres, the largest asteroid in the solar system, as seen by the Dawn spacecraft, currently on its way there for a rendezvous next spring!

This picture was taken by Dawn’s framing camera when it was 1.2 million kilometers (about 740,000 miles) from Ceres on Dec. 1, 2014. It’s a calibration image; a long exposure was used so stars could be seen, and Ceres was overexposed. A close-up is shown in the inset; the asteroid is about nine pixels across.

Dawn launched in 2007 and went first to Vesta, one of the largest asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter. It spent a year there, then moved on toward Ceres. It employs an ion drive, a very low-thrust but extremely high-efficiency engine. The acceleration is very low, but can be kept going for months at a time, so the spacecraft can reach pretty decent speeds.

An enhanced image of Ceres from Hubble, which may be the best image ever taken from near Earth. Dawn will surpass this soon.

Photo byNASA, ESA, J. Parker (Southwest Research Institute), P. Thomas (Cornell University), and L. McFadden (University of Maryland, College Park)

Ceres is an interesting beast: It’s not just a big rock but is known to have water ice on it and in it. It’s about 950 km (590 miles) across, and so far from Earth (more than 200 million km at its closest) that our best pictures show it as a fuzzy disk. Dawn will change that: It will orbit Ceres and—judging from its views of Vesta—take incredible high-resolution images as well as employ other scientific instruments to take the asteroid’s measure.

Dawn should arrive at Ceres in March/April of 2015, and as it approaches the asteroid will swell large in its cameras. We’ll be getting better and better images as it does. Nine pixels isn’t much … but it’s a great start.

Dec. 5 2014 6:30 AM

OK, Let’s Try This Again

Yesterday, a multitude of problems prevented the launch of NASA's Orion crew capsule on a Delta IV Heavy rocket, including a boat in the red zone (in the area downrange of the launch), high winds, and finally a problem with stuck valves in the fuel tanks.

The second launch attempt will be at 12:05 UTC (07:05 Eastern time) Friday morning, Dec. 5. As before, the launch window is well over two hours long. 

Up, up, and away!

Photo by NASA/Bill Ingalls

Update, Dec. 5, 2014, at 14:50 UTC: LIFTOFF! The Delta IV Heavy carrying Orion launched on time at 07:05 local time, and as I write this the mission is going very well. Orion looped around Earth once, then the second stage booster ignited again, pushing it into its second orbit with an apogee (max distance from Earth) of 5,810 km (3,600 miles), as planned, which it should reach at 15:10 UTC. Splashdown is expected at 16:30 UTC (11:30 Eastern) or so. 

Update 2, Dec. 5, 2014, at 16:00 UTC: NASA has released a pretty dang cool video of launch, which cuts to the onboard rocketcams. This is worth watching.

Update 3, Dec. 5, 2014, at 16:30 UTC: At 16:29 UTC, the Orion capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, right on target.  

Moments before splashdown, the three main parachutes deployed.

Photo by NASA, from the video stream

As I did yesterday, I'm embedding the NASA Ustream channel below, and you can also try NASA TV. I wound up watching yesterday's attempt on the NASA TV channel, since I found the online streams delayed by as much as a minute. 

Accuweather is saying the weather may not be much better for launch today, I'll note. We'll see. In the meantime, I have a post about the launch with links to more info as well. If the launch is delayed again, at least you'll have something to read!

Dec. 4 2014 10:00 AM

M83, Writ Very, Very Large

M83 is a lovely spiral galaxy located about 15 million light years from Earth. It’s the 83rd entry in Charles Messier’s catalog of bright objects in the sky (originally created by the comet-hunting astronomer in the late 1700s to keep track of objects he might mistake for his quarry), and one of the few big spirals I’ve never seen for myself through my telescope.

I’ll have to fix that sometime. Of course, my view will never, ever be quite as nice as this one: 

Dec. 4 2014 5:30 AM

Watch Orion Rise

Update, Dec. 4, 2014, at 14:50 UTC: After a morning fraught with problems, the Orion launch was scrubbed for today and will be attempted at the same time tomorrow: 12:05 UTC (07:05 Eastern time) Friday, Dec. 5. The first problem was a boat in the red zone in the waters off the Cape, and after that was cleared the winds picked up, violating limits. The countdown resumed several times, but then a problem with fuel valves in the tanks held things up. Cycling the valves (essentailly turning them on and off again five times) cleared the problem for the liquid oxygen tanks, but not the liquid hydrogen tanks. The problem took too long to solve and the timer ran up against the end of the launch window, so the attempt was scrubbed. 

NASA's Orion test capsule is scheduled to launch on a powerful Delta IV Heavy rocket at 12:05 UTC (07:05 Eastern) today. That's 5:05 in the morning for me in Colorado, so I figure there's a chance I may not wake up in time to see it. Just in case, I'm posting this article early and embedding NASA's UStream channel here so y'all have a comfortable place to kick back and watch for yourself. You can try NASA TV as well.

The launch window is more than two hours long, so even if it doesn't launch on time it may still go up today. The mission itself (rounding the Earth twice and then splashing down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California) is four and a half hours long, so there's plenty of time to catch it. 

As I hear more (and get some coffee in me), I'll update this post. 

Dec. 3 2014 12:19 PM

The Art of Science

I do love posting pretty pictures on the blog, for many reasons. Of course, they’re pretty—that’s part of the point.

But a picture is worth a thousand scientific words: Behind every image is a scientific principle or two, something worth digging into a little bit. If a beautiful photograph of a galaxy or star cluster gets somebody’s attention, then maybe I can get a couple of minutes to show them something they never knew before.

I have no problem with that.

Recently, I posted a devastatingly beautiful photo of a patch of sky showing both a ruby-colored star-forming nebula and the cerulean blue bright young Pleiades cluster. After describing them, I took a moment to note the artistry of the sky, and of the photographer, Rogelio Bernal Andreo.

Andreo contacted me, thanking me for the article. He liked what I wrote so much that he took my words and put them over another photo of his (of the Rho Ophiuchi region).

Dec. 3 2014 7:00 AM

New Report Confirms Antarctica Is Melting Away as We Watch, Faster Every Year

A new report from NASA and UC–Irvine confirms—again—that Antarctica is melting away.

The scientists used observations from four different techniques to measure the amount and change in rate of ice loss from a region in West Antarctica. This area was already known to be melting at an astonishing rate; a recent study using Cryosat 2 showed that in the period from 2010 to 2013, the region was losing ice to the tune of 134 billion metric tons of ice per year.

The new study looked at four observation sets covering the years 1992–2013. They found that on average over that time, ice loss from West Antarctica was about 83 billion metric tons per year … but the average increase in that loss was 6.1 billion tons every year. By the end of the time range, the numbers between the new study and the one from CryoSat2 are consistent.

Amundsen sea
The location of the Amundsen Sea embayment, where the studies were done.

Illustration by NASA

This is staggering. Staggering. Imagine a block of ice a mile wide, a mile long, and a mile high—the size of a mountain. That would weigh something less than 6 billion tons.*

But it's worse than that. We're not just losing more ice every year; the rate itself is accelerating. We're losing ice faster now than we were 21 years ago, and the rate at which we're losing ice has more than doubled that average over that time span. 

Think of it this way. Imagine in a given year that area lost 100 billion tons of ice. At an increase of 6 billion more tons per year every year, then the next year it would lose 106 billion tons, then 112 the year after that, and so on.

But in fact that loss rate is increasing. So it goes from 100 billion tons one year to 106 the next, then (say) 113 the year after that, to (say) 121 after that ... The new study indicates that at the more recent end of the time range (2003-2011), ice loss is accelerating by nearly 16 billion tons per year every year.

This is the same math as freefall, an apt analogy. Antarctica is melting. Fast.

And this isn’t some natural variation, it’s not sunspots, it’s not the Earth’s orbit changing. It’s us. These changes aren’t happening on geologic or astronomical timescales, they’re happening on human timescales. We’re dumping carbon dioxide into the air at an accelerated rate, and there’s now more CO2 in the atmosphere than there has been for at 800,000 years. As my Slate colleague Eric Holthaus points out, the North Pole is draining away as well. We’re melting at both poles.

For decades, we’ve played at geoengineering by accident. Now we know what we’re doing, and it’s time we stopped playing. The deniers may stick their fingers in their ears and ignore or distract or sow doubt about what’s going on around them, but the rest of us can hear what our planet is telling us quite well.

The science is in, the scientists agree, and the global thermometer keeps rising ever upwards. After all this time, maddeningly, we’re still at Step 1: acknowledging the problem. It’s way past time we got past that and started doing something about it.

As always, don’t be fooled by people saying Antarctic sea ice is growing. Its growth is tiny, far smaller than what’s being lost, and sea ice comes and goes every season; the ice loss in West Antarctica is from glaciers on land, and won’t be coming back.

*Correction, Dec. 3, 2014, at 14:30 UTC: I originally wrote that mass loss was increasing at 6 billion tons per year, but neglected to add that this loss was accelerating, and is now at 16 billion additional tons per year every year. My thanks to Twitter user @didaclopez for pointing this out.

Dec. 2 2014 4:35 PM

Was Colbert Colberted by Corbett?

I’m a big fan of Stephen Colbert (duh), and of nerdiness in general. So I was pretty happy when Colbert flew his geek flag high and spent a whole segment talking about the new trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens that had the internetosphere buzzing over the weekend.

Here’s the clip. Watch it … 

Pretty great segment, but I couldn’t help noticing the tweet Colbert mocked:

The tweeter of that tweet is Bill Corbett … from Mystery Science Theater 3000 and more recently from Rifftrax! He’s a comedian* known for sarcasm and satire. The tweet was obviously satire, but Colbert plays it straight with no indication he (or his staff writers) knew that they were satirically mocking a tweet that was satirically mocking others.

We’re at Inception-level mockery here, folks. Buckle up.

I don’t know how distressed this has made Bill. If you want to make him feel better, then maybe you could buy his book, Super Powered Revenge Christmas. He can cry all the way to PayPal.

*Full disclosure: Bill and I have been friends for a few years, though if you ask him he may delightfully claim he’s never heard of me, and please leave him alone, and now he’s calling the cops. 

Dec. 2 2014 1:23 PM

Hayabusa 2 Set to Launch Tonight

Update (Dec. 3, 2014 at 04:30 UTC): LIFTOFF! The launch went very well, and Hayabusa2 is, as I write this, on its way. It's in orbit, coasting for a little over an hour to get into position to reignite its second stage engine and head off to the asteroid 1999 JU3. I'll post another update when I hear more.

Up, up, and away!

Photo by JAXA

Update 2 (Dec. 3, 2014 at 14:00 UTC): Success! After its orbital cruise phase, the second stage reignited, setting Hayabusa2 on the path toward an asteroid rendezvous in 2018. Congratulations to everyone at JAXA and to asteroid scientists everywhere. Next update: 2015, for the Earth flyby. 

The Japanese space agency JAXA is scheduled to launch a very important mission tonight: The Hayabusa 2 space probe, set to visit the asteroid 1999 JU3. This is a very ambitious mission: It will land on the asteroid, collect samples, deploy three small rovers, and then send the samples back to Earth for study.

And that’s only part of the mission; you can read articles by Emily Lakdawalla at the Planetary Society and Paul Sutherland at Sen for more details.

JAXA will have a live webcast for the launch. (It also has channels on YouTube and Ustream.) I don’t know if other space agencies will carry it, but just in case here are the links for the ESA live feed and NASA’s Ustream channel. If I find out more, I’ll update this post.

Now if you want to watch, pay attention here: The launch is scheduled for 04:22 UTC on Dec. 3, which is 23:22 Eastern U.S. time tonight, Dec. 2. Living on a round planet can be confusing. Remember, launches are frequently delayed (this one already has been from an earlier scheduled date), so check the JAXA news page for updated information.

If you miss the launch, don’t worry overmuch. The asteroid rendezvous isn’t until June 2018 (with an Earth flyby to gain velocity in 2015), so there’s plenty of time to learn about this mission. If it goes as planned, it’ll be amazing.