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31 October 2008

Carnival of Space #77

Courtesy of Tomorrow is Here, we have the newest Carnival of Space!


29 October 2008

Solar Power on the Moon

A new type of solar cell that doesn't use silicon in their construction has been developed. According to New Scientist, the new design is dye based and sprayed onto a substrate of titanium dioxide. Titanium dioxide (TiO2) is found on the lunar surface. It is concentrated in the maria. Aside from free samples of TiO2 in the maria, it is locked up in ilmenite - TiO3. This is significant because ilmenite is a major source of lunar oxygen. Hydrogen reduction of ilmenite is one of the simplest processes for in-situ production of oxygen for fuel and life support.

FeTiO3+H2 ---->Fe+TiO2+H2O

The reduction produces free iron, titanium dioxide and water. The water can be cracked into its constituents through electrolysis.

The dye is used to coat TiO2 grains, which sit in an electrolyte in the solar cells. The whole mixture is sandwiched between two electrodes; a transparent glass sheet doped with tin oxide to make it conducting and an opaque rear panel. This allows a current to flow when the cell is placed in sunlight

But the efficiency of dye-sensitised solar cells designed for outdoor conditions is currently about 6%. That's light years from the 42.8% efficiency reached by some silicon solar cells and well below the 15% standard for many silicon designs.

Michael Grätzel of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland – who co-invented dye sensitised solar cells in 1991 – had thought it may be possible to double the efficiency of his low-cost cells simply by designing one that collects light from both sides simultaneously.

Now Grätzel's team, working with Seigo Ito of the University of Hyogo, Japan, has done just that. Their new dye-sensitised solar cell is almost as efficient at converting light into energy when it strikes the rear side as when it strikes the front.

To achieve the trick, Grätzel's team first replaced the opaque back panel with a second sheet of glass, making the entire device transparent.

The new panel is also coated with tin oxide and acts as the second electrode, donating electrons back to the electrolyte to complete the circuit. But because it is transparent, it lets light into the system from the rear.

Robert Hertzberg, chairman and co-founder of G24 Innovations, a company based in Cardiff in the UK that manufactures dye-sensitised solar products. "This technology allows you to capture power in low light, even rainy conditions," he says. "Silicon cells only allow you to capture power during a short window [when light is intense]." That means the cells give a better performance over the whole day even if they are less efficient under ideal conditions.


On Orbit IX

More design flaws found in Ares I rocket

ESA's Lunar Robotics Challenge: A tough task for the student teams

From The Space Review: Why the majority of the work in colonizing the space frontier will come from amateur effort


28 October 2008

Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge

Armadillo Aerospace has won the Level One portion of the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge! The flew at Las Cruces International Airport on October 25, 2008, and earned the $350,000 in prize money. While they made an attempt to win Level Two on the 26, they weren't able to pull off a double victory, leaving $1.65 million worth of prize money on the table. Check out some highlights from the first day of competition.

Seven seconds prevented Armadillo Aerospace from winning the second year of competition in the two million dollar Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. Over two days, Armadillo Aerospace attempted four times to achieve the two flights necessary to win the $350,000 Level I competition. Officials expected them to compete in both the Level I and Level II competitions this weekend, worth $1,350,000 in total first place prize purses. 

“They nearly made it in their second attempt,” said Dr. Peter H. Diamandis, CEO and Chairman of the X PRIZE Foundation. “There were more than 85,000 spectators willing them to succeed, as well as the officials and people working on the other teams. The persistence Armadillo has shown is impressive and deserving of recognition. I want to thank the team for their enthusiastic participation and I hope they will continue their important work!”

Armadillo used the MOD-1 vehicle for all four launch windows in the Level I competition, with each window requiring two successful flights. None of the four prize winning attempts were successful, and having reached the maximum number of attempts for Level I, Armadillo ruled out any attempts for Level II. 

Saturday morning’s attempt did not leave the ground due to an igniter problem caused by contamination in the feed lines. Saturday afternoon’s first flight, however, was perfect. The igniter problem reappeared in the return flight and blew a hole in the side of the chamber, preventing it from hovering the required 90 seconds. The landing was aborted with seven seconds left as a safety precaution, disqualifying the flight.

Sunday morning’s first flight was again perfect. The second flight left the ground briefly but was also aborted by the team for safety reasons related to earlier problems. 

The team continued to experience problems during the last attempt of Sunday afternoon. The engine exploded on ignition, resulting in a small fire and the flight was aborted. The team followed emergency procedures and fire engines were called in, however no one was hurt. 

“This weekend, we’ve had more problems than we’ve had in the last six months. We know what went wrong, but not why,” said Neil Milburn, Vice President, Armadillo Aerospace. “The Cup has given us an opportunity to show what we can do in front of multiple audiences, which we would not have been able to do otherwise. We know we’ll be back again, and we’ll nail it next time.”

Armadillo Aerospace is led by John Carmack, who is widely recognized in the video game industry for the creation of games like Doom and Quake. He started Armadillo in 2000 to compete for the Ansari X PRIZE, which was later won by Scaled Composites and SpaceShipOne. Armadillo made a smooth transition from suborbital flight to lunar landers when the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge was announced as one of NASA’s Centennial Challenges. In 2006, Armadillo’s “Pixel” was the only craft to fly at the X PRIZE Cup, and narrowly missed the winning the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge due to broken landing gear. 

“This was a weekend of outstanding competition,” said Dr. William Gaubatz, Chief Judge of the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. “We believe Armadillo set some records in terms of reusability. We hope they carry on and inspire other teams to shoot for the prize and new records.”

The third annual X PRIZE Cup was held at Holloman Air Force Base on October 27 and 28, 2007. It was the first space expo ever in which aircraft and rockets flew at the same event, and is the result of a unique partnership between Holloman Air Force Base, the State of New Mexico and the X PRIZE Foundation. In addition to the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, the 85,000 people in attendance were able to see a state of the art air show with F-117s, F-22s, the Wings of Blue Jump team, acres of static aircraft and space displays, and much, much more.


27 October 2008

Update to DIY Lunar Concrete

I'd like to issue a correction.

When news of Dr Houssam Toutanji's development of sulfur based concrete was released, I, in my infinite knowledge panned the innovation as too expensive due to low levels of sulfur.  I stated that sulfur was found in the regolith at levels of 400-1300 ppm.  However Peter Kokh, current president of the Moon Society, corrected me on the Moon Society's Yahoo discussion group.  I just want to say thank you to Peter for the correction.  He pointed me to this article here, and a little digging of my own led to this and this and if it doesn't take you to the right page, it's page 450.  From the paper USES OF LUNAR SULFUR by D. Vaniman, D. Pettit, and G. Heiken: Although sulfur is not so abundant that it is available without effort, it does rank eleventh in weight abundance among the elements in average lunar mare rocks. Gibson and M¢_re ( 1974 ) found that the high-Ti mare basalts, in particular, have high sulfur contents, in the range of 0.16% to 0.27% by weight. These authors also make the important point that lunar basalts actually have more sulfur than terrestrial basalts.

Sulfur is best found in mare basalts, specifically basalts that are high in titanium.  Given that NASA is looking at processing ilmenite for oxygen, the same regolith that we'd be processing for oxygen can be use to extract sulfur for construction.

Altair VI, a fellow space blog pointed me in the direction of a treasure trove for lunar enthusiasts.

I present the single paper "Uses of Lunar Sulfur" from the National Space Society's website and the "The Second Conference on Lunar Bases and Space Activities of the 21st Century, volumes 1 and 2" from the Harvard web-servers.


Arizona site of Lunar Rover Tests

NASA is testing its Small Pressurized Rover in the Arizona desert (large image).  At the 11th annual Desert RATS (Research and Technology Studies), two rover configurations were tested.

One configuration leaves the crew members free to get on and off the rover whenever they like, but they must wear spacesuits at all times to protect them from the lunar environment. The second configuration -- called the Small Pressurized Rover, or SPR -- adds a module on top of the rover’s chassis that the crew can sit inside as they drive the vehicle, donning spacesuits whenever they want to get out.


The Space Show

Thought I would help spread the word.

Programming For The Week Of October 27, 2008 :
1. Monday, October 27, 2008, 2-3:30 PM PDT: Louise Riofrio joins us regarding her positive pressure spacesuit and cosmology theories ( < /b> 

2. Tuesday, October 28 2008, 7-8:30 PM PDT: Dr. Gregory Berns returns as our guest to discuss his new book, "iconoclast" and more. 

3. Friday, October 31, 2008, 9:30-11:30 AM PDT: Brian Hanley returns to discuss the topic of bioterrorism as we go beyond the subject of space development for this special program. 

4. Sunday, November 2, 2008, 12-1:30 PM PDT: We welcome back noted economist, space advocate and SpaceShot founder, Dr. Sam Dinkin. 


24 October 2008

Selene Holds onto Her Secrets

Japanese lunar probe Kayuga (Selene) has tempered hope for large ice fields in the permanently shadowed crater floor of the Moon's polar regions as reported by New Scientist.

Shackelton Crater, one of NASA's targets for a future lunar outpost, was imaged by Kayuga using a camera specifically designed for low light uses.  The floor of Shackelton Crater is in permanent shadow, making it impossible to photograph using normal techniques.  Kayuga's Terrain Camera, a special stereographic imager, used scattered light to capture the floor of Shackleton Crater.  During a short time frame in the lunar summer, sunlight scatters off of the rim of the crater and allowed Kayuga to directly image the floor of Shackleton.  The results were telling in what was not found, rather than what was found.

The absence of clean water ice in the images is sure to discourage advocates of a return to the Moon.  However, all the findings indicate is that there is no frozen lake of ice at the bottom of Shakleton.  Ice may be buried under the regolith or even mixed into the hard, glassy lunar soil.  Another possibility is that the hydrogen that Lunar Prospector detected is from another source.  Frozen methane would be a boon to the outpost, giving astronauts access to both hydrogen a carbon which are both exceedingly rare on the Moon.


23 October 2008

On Orbit VIII

Russia looking at consolidating aerospace industry assets into state agency.  Decision to be made in 2009.

NASA Goddard CIO joins the blogosphere:Goddard CIO Blog

NASA JSC Advanced Planning Office Blog: JSC Advanced Planning Office Blog

Official NASA blogs

SpaceDev to be acquired by the Sierra Nevada Corp:


22 October 2008

Chandrayaan-1 Lift-off!!!

In what is being touted as the 'Asian Space Race' ISRO's Chandrayaan-1 lifted off without a hitch for a two (2) year jaunt around the Moon.  Launching at 0052 GMT into an overcast sky, Chandrayaan-1 reached its orbit in nineteen (19) minutes.  It will be taking the leisurely route to lunar orbit and is expected to arrive in fifteen (15) days.  Chandrayaan-1 is primarily a mapping mission, with instruments from several nations aboard, including two from NASA.  The Moon Mineralogy Mapper will assess mineral resources, and the Miniature Synthetic Aperture Radar, or Mini-SAR, will map the polar regions and look for ice deposits.  This launch comes on the heels of rival China's first spacewalk.  Also in the Asian space race are Japan and South Korea.  China, Japan, India, Russia and the US are the only countries with active plans for a manned lunar landing.

Mini-SAR is particularly important for NASA's future plans.  NASA has announced that it plans to place America's first lunar outpost near the poles to take advantage of two rare resources in the Moon - ice and constant sunlight.  The Moon has a minimal atmosphere and any volatiles, water included, boil off into space.  At the poles, deep crater floor never receive any sunlight and because of that, the temperatures have remained at cryogenic temperatures, allowing ice to remain in the shadows.  As a direct consequence of having crater floors, in permanent shadow, there are peaks of eternal light at the poles.  These mountains have a constant view of the sun, allowing them to bypass the bi-weekly day-night cycle of the moon and use constant solar power.  Constant solar power is not a viable option for outposts anywhere else on the Moon because during the two (2) week long night, outposts would have to switch to battery power stored during the day or some other form of power like nuclear.  Or even lunar thorium powered reactors.  

Also getting into the satellite launching business is Brazil, with their own domestic launcher, the VLS-1, developed by the Brazilian Space Agency and Air Force with Russian help.


21 October 2008

Chandrayaan-1 Live Webcast

Catch the launch of Chandrayaan-1 live on the Indian Space Agency's (ISRO) website.


20 October 2008

2008 Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge

October 24th and 25th, Las Cruces International Airport in New Mexico will host the 2008 Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge.  Teams will compete for a $2 million prize.  The contest is managed by the x-prize foundation and the prize is provided by NASA.  The field has been narrowed from nine teams to two - Armadillo Aerospace and TrueZer0.  Another team I thought was going to make but had to pull out recently was Unreasonable Rocket.

The Competition is divided into two levels. Level 1 requires a rocket to take off from a designated launch area, rocket up to 150 feet (50 meters) altitude, then hover for 90 seconds while landing precisely on a landing pad 50 meters away. The flight must then be repeated in reverse—and both flights, along with all of the necessary preparation for each, must take place within a two and a half hour period. 

The more difficult course, Level 2, requires the rocket to hover for twice as long before landing precisely on a simulated lunar surface, packed with craters and boulders to mimic actual lunar terrain. The hover times are calculated so that the Level 2 mission closely simulates the power needed to perform a real lunar mission.

In the 2007 competition, held as part of the X PRIZE Cup, there were nine competitors total. However, despite the best efforts of all of the teams, only one of them, Armadillo Aerospace, was ready to fly. They missed winning Level 1 by 7 seconds.

The Challenge is closed to public for obvious reasons but will be webcast live here:


Chandrayaan-1 Almost Ready to Go

Chandrayaan-1, the Indian space program's first lunar probe is set to begin its 52 hour pre-launch countdown this morning at 0400 hours (eastern standard, GMT, Indian time?)  Launch is set for 22 October, at 0620 hours.


18 October 2008

Carnival of Space is live


DIY Lunar Concrete

An update to this article has been posted here.

Normal concrete is cement + aggregates + water = concrete.  On the moon, this present a problem.  For all intents and purposes, water is non-existent.  Portland cement is carbon intensive like water, carbon is almost non-existent (5-280 ppm in the regolith).

Dr Houssam Toutanji, a civil engineer at the University of Alabama-Huntsville has developed a new process for making concrete on the Moon.  Dr. Toutanji proposes plain regolith be used as the aggregate and sulfur baked out of the regolith be used as the binding agent.    The sulfur needs to be in a liquid or semi-liquid state, so it needs to heated to between 130 and 140 °C.  To strip the sulphur out of the regolith will require a solar oven capable of heating the regolith to very high temperatures to extract the sulfur, which is only present in regolith around levels of 400-1300 ppm.

This new lunar concrete cures in hours, versus 7 to 28 days for normal concrete.  NASA's Marshall Spaceflight Center tested the new process  using a lunar simulant.  Mixing 35 grams of pure sulfur to every 100 grams of simulant into 5 cm, the blocks were cured and then subjected to thermal stresses before their compressive strength was meaured.  Plain lunar concrete withstood 17 MPa.  Silica, which is also present on the Moon, can be added for strength and that boosted the number 20 MPa.

As Milton Friedman said, there is no free lunch.  In order to get enough sulfur for the process, tons and tons of regolith will have to be processed.  Now if a full blown bootstrapping operation is going on, this is no problem, just one more step.  But if not, that is alot of expense to go through for just concrete.  It's another reason to make sure when we get up to the Moon we bootstrap to keep costs down.

Another NASA researcher, Peter Chen, came up with using epoxy as a binding agent.  However, epoxy cannot be made on the Moon and must be shipped up from Earth.  With current launch prices hovering around $10,000 per pound, it seems a long shot.


NASA Authorization Bill Enacted

HR 6063, aka the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2008, was signed into law by President Bush on Friday, 17 October 2008.  HR 6063 is not a full appropriations bill.  Rather it is a statement of declared intentions for NASA and sets upper limits for FY 2009, to the tune of $20.2 billion.  However, Congress is not likely to award this full amount.  The bill includes an additional $1 billion to speed Ares development.  

Notable parts of the bill include a "Reaffirmation of Exploration Policy," which sets out for the next Administration Congress's support for the VSE.  Also, the section entitled "Stepping Stone Approach to Exploration" mandates that future Administrators are to consider future use in exploring other celestial bodies when designing lunar architecture.

Congress also mandates that "The Administrator shall take all necessary steps to ensure that the International Space Station remains a viable and productive facility capable of potential United States utilization through at least 2020 and shall take no steps that would preclude its continued operation and utilization by the United States after 2015."

Addressing the life of the Space Shuttle, NASA is required to fly its established schedule plus one flight to life the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the ISS.  NASA is also prohibited from taking any actions that would make it impossible to fly the Shuttle after 2010 if the new President decides he wants to extend the Program, but Congress also states that by having that sections, they are not endorsing an extension of the program.  NASA has 120 from enactment of the bill to provide Congress with a report that "outlin[es] options, impacts, and associated costs of ensuring the safe and effective operation of the Space Shuttle at the minimum rate necessary to support International Space Station operations and resupply."


17 October 2008

On Orbit VII

Rosetta spacecraft has close encounter with E-class asteroid

Rescue Shuttle Atlantis getting ready to roll back

NASA's Pluto probe hits 1000 days in space

Carnegie Mellon to test robotic lunar prospector in Hawaii

British X-ray camera set to launch on India's Chandrayaan-1

Argentina joinsVenezuela in reaching out to Russia for Space Program assistance

ESA looking to develop independentcrew return vehicle

Hubble status report:


16 October 2008

Darpa Cancels Blackswift

From Flightglobal:

The fiscal 2009 defence budget approved last month slashes requested spending for the Mach 6-capable Blackswift Test Bed project from $120 million to $10 million. 

The combined-cycle Blackswift demonstrator was scheduled to complete first flight in 2012. It should have reached a top speed of Mach 6 using a combination of a turbojet and a supersonic combustion ramjet (scramjet). As a reusable aircraft, it should have been able to land and be ready to fly again after refuelling. 
The original request included a $70 million contribution from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and $50 million from the US Air Force. 

Blackswift was championed by former USAF chief of staff Gen Michael Moseley, who was fired by Secretary of Defense Bob Gates in June.

In a statement, DARPA said it would "not be possible" to continue the solicitation process with the available funding. Boeing and ATK and teamed up with Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works team to submit a bid. Northrop Grumman had not confirmed whether it intended to submit a competing offer.

"Obviously, we are disappointed that we will not have the appropriated funds to move forward with the Blackswift flight test program," said Steven Walker, DARPA programme manager. 

"A significant effort was put forward over the last several years to develop the propulsion technology required and to build a national government and industry team capable of developing and flying a reusable hypersonic testbed," Walker added. 

The focus of hypersonics research will shift to focusing on supporting existing programmes. 

The DARPA/USAF Falcon programme awarded to Lockheed will proceed with fabricating hypersonic technology vehicles that will begin flight tests in 2009. 

See the DARPA/Lockheed hypersonic Falcon video:

Meanwhile, a Boeing/Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne team is aiming to fly the airbreathing X-51 Waverider hypersonic cruise missile in late 2009 and early 2010. 

That programme is sponsored by DARPA, the air force research laboratory and NASA.The Boeing hypersonic HyFly programme has also been extended. 

See DARPA's video:

DARPA and the Office of Naval Research agreed last month to provide funds to conduct a third test flight after the first two attempts failed for causes unrelated to hypersonic technology. 

The Blackswift Test Bed, meanwhile, will remain on DARPA’s shelf of discarded technologies, but Walker is still hopeful that it could re-emerge. 

Walker also hinted that competition from a rival power could eventually re-awaken interest in Blackswift."It was a good idea and good ideas have a way of coming back and getting done eventually," he said. 

"Hopefully, the US will do it first, but there are no guarantees."


14 October 2008

On Orbit VI

Japan Maps Lunar Far Side Gravity Field

ISS crew might not be expanded

Space Adventures Client, Private Astronaut Richard Garriott, Successfully Launches to the 
International Space Station


Ben Bova's Letter to the President

An Energy Fix Written in the Stars

You're heading into some rough times as you move into the White House, Mr. Future President, what with the economy in recession, financial markets in turmoil, global warming, terrorism, war and soaring energy prices. But I can offer you a tip for dealing with that last issue, at least: Look to the stars. 

That's right. You can use the powerful technology we've forged over a half-century of space exploration to solve one major down-to-Earth problem -- and become the most popular president since John F. Kennedy in the process. 

Right now, the United States is shelling out about $700 billion a year for foreign oil. With world demand for energy increasing, gas prices will head toward $10 per gallon during your administration -- unless you make some meaningful changes. That's where space technology can help -- and create new jobs, even whole new industries, at the same time. 

You'll have to make some hard choices on energy. Nuclear power doesn't emit greenhouse gases, but it has radioactive wastes. Hydrogen fuels burn cleanly, but hydrogen is expensive to produce and hard to distribute by pipeline. Wind power works in special locations, but most people don't want huge, noisy wind turbines in their backyards. 

Solar energy is a favorite of environmentalists, but it works only when the sun is shining. But that's the trick. There is a place where the sun never sets, and a way to use solar energy for power generation 24 hours a day, 365 days a year: Put the solar cells in space, in high orbits where they'd be in sunshine all the time. 


You do it with the solar power satellite (SPS), a concept invented by Peter Glaser in 1968. The idea is simple: You build large assemblages of solar cells in space, where they convert sunlight into electricity and beam it to receiving stations on the ground. 

The solar power satellite is the ultimate clean energy source. It doesn't burn an ounce of fuel. And a single SPS could deliver five to 10 gigawatts of energy to the ground continually. Consider that the total electrical-generation capacity of the entire state of California is 4.4 gigawatts. 

Conservative estimates have shown that an SPS could deliver electricity at a cost to the consumer of eight to 10 cents per kilowatt hour. That's about the same as costs associated with conventional power generation stations. And operating costs would drop as more orbital platforms are constructed and the price of components, such as solar voltaic cells, is reduced. Solar power satellites could lower the average taxpayer's electric bills while providing vastly more electricity. 

They would be big -- a mile or more across. Building them in space would be a challenge, but not an insurmountable one: We already know how to construct the International Space Station, which is about the size of a football field. And the SPS doesn't require any new inventions. We have the technology at hand. 

Basically, an SPS needs solar voltaic cells to convert sunlight into electricity and microwave transmitters to beam the energy to the ground. We've been using solar cells to power spacecraft since the 1950s. Solar cells are in our pocket calculators, wristwatches and other everyday gadgetry. You can buy them over the Internet. Microwave transmitters are also a well-developed technology. There's one in almost every kitchen in the nation, in the heart of our microwave ovens. 

Some people worry about beaming gigawatts of microwave energy to the ground. But the microwave beams would be spread over a wide area, so they wouldn't be intense enough to harm anyone. Birds could fly through the thinly spread beams without harm. Nevertheless, it would be best for the receiving stations to be set up in unpopulated areas. The deserts of the American Southwest would be an ideal location. You could gain votes in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and California! 

It's ironic, but when solar power satellites become commonplace, the desert wastes of the Sahara and the Middle East could become important energy centers even after the last drop of oil has been pumped out of them. SPS receiving stations could also be built on platforms at sea; Japan has already looked into that possibility. 

I admit, solar power satellites won't be cheap. Constructing one would cost about as much as building a nuclear power plant: on the order of $1 billion. That money, though, needn't come from the taxpayers; it could be raised by the private capital market. Oil companies invest that kind of money every year in exploring for new oil fields. But the risk involved in building an SPS, as with any space operation, is considerable, and it could be many years or even decades before an investment begins to pay off. So how can we get private investors to put their money into solar power satellites? 

This nation tackled a similar situation about a century ago, when faced with building big hydroelectric dams. Those dams were on the cutting edge of technology at the time, and they were risky endeavors that required hefty funding. The Hoover Dam, the Grand Coulee Dam and others were built with private investment -- backed by long-term, low-interest loans guaranteed by the U.S. government. They changed the face of the American West, providing irrigation water and electrical power that stimulated enormous economic growth. Phoenix and Las Vegas wouldn't be on the map except for those dams. 

Solar power satellites could be funded through the same sort of government-backed loans. Washington has made such loan guarantees in the past to help troubled corporations such as Chrysler and Lockheed. Why not use the same technique to encourage private investment in solar power satellites? If we can bail out Wall Street, why not spend a fraction of that money to light up Main Street? 

What's more, a vigorous SPS program would provide a viable market for private companies, such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, that are developing rocket launchers. Like most new industries, these companies are caught in a conundrum: They need a market that offers a payoff, but no market will materialize until they can prove that their product works. The fledgling aircraft industry faced this dilemma in the 1920s. The federal government helped provide a market by giving it contracts to deliver mail by air, which eventually led to today's commercial airline industry. 

A vigorous SPS program could provide the market that the newborn private space-launch industry needs. And remember, a rocket launcher that can put people and payloads into orbit profitably can also fly people and cargo across the Earth at hypersonic speed. Anywhere on Earth can be less than an hour's flight away. That's a market worth trillions of dollars a year. 

It will take foresight and leadership to start a solar power satellite program. That's why, Mr. Future President, I believe that you should make it NASA's primary goal to build and operate a demonstration model SPS, sized to deliver a reasonably impressive amount of electrical power -- say, 10 to 100 megawatts -- before the end of your second term. Such a demonstration would prove that full-scale solar power satellites are achievable. With federal loan guarantees, private financing could then take over and build satellites that would deliver the gigawatts we need to lower our imports of foreign oil and begin to move away from fossil fuels. 

I know that scientists and academics will howl in protest. They want to explore the universe and don't care about oil prices or building new industries. But remember, they howled against the Apollo program, too. They wanted the money for their projects, not to send a handful of fighter jocks to the moon. What they failed to see was that Apollo produced the technology and the trained teams of people that have allowed us to reach every planet in the solar system. 

A vigorous SPS program will also produce the infrastructure that will send human explorers back to the moon and on to Mars and beyond. It could also spur young students' interest in space, science and cutting-edge technology. 

Americans are a frontier people at heart. We have a frontier that begins a scant hundred miles overhead and contains more riches of energy and raw materials than the entire Earth can provide. Mr. Future President, if we use these resources wisely, we can assure prosperity and peace for the world -- and you have the opportunity to write your name in capital letters across the skies. 

Ben Bova is president emeritus of the National Space Society and the author of nearly 120 nonfiction books and futuristic novels, including "Powersat," a novel about building the first solar power satellite.

From the Washington Post


13 October 2008

RIP Jim Benson

Jim Benson, founder of SpaceDev, has succumbed to a glioblastoma multiforme brain tumor early Sunday morning in his home.  He was 63.


12 October 2008

NASA Science Mission Directorate Cost Overrun Coverup


Last year, before Ed Weiler came back to NASA Headquarters to be the Associate Administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, an internal cost study was done to see how much SMD overruns every year on its various projects and missions. That study showed $5.4 billion of cost increases over a 4 year period. The goal posts for this study involved measuring costs starting from either the cost contained in the FY 2005 budget or, if the project started later, from its Phase B cost. The costing period then extended forward to the amount that it had increased to for the FY 2009 budget submission. 

This large lump of overruns did not sit well with Ed Weiler, so he decided to order folks to make it go away. How to do it? Simple: just move the goal posts. In so doing, you use Congressional guidance (Nunn-McCurdy) as a smoke screen to hide the true magnitude of cost increases. 

According to sources inside SMD at NASA Headquarters, Weiler's approach was to forget the numbers that NASA and the scientific community originally bought into when missions were agreed to. Instead, Weiler directed that SMD now use the numbers that arose down the road - after a mission had reached Phases C/D - and then to look at cost growth from that point forward to FY 2009 budget. In other words, Weiler decided to pick numbers that were "more mature" as a starting point.  

Of course, this approach resulted in a smaller number since the growth from buy-in to Phase C/D was "forgotten". Weiler also ignored additional costs that were incurred to enhance scientific return and other factors deemed beyond the scope of NASA's responsibility. The new number? Only $1.5 billion in cost increases over 4 years as opposed to the earlier $5.4 billion figure. 

Sounds much better that way, right? Alas, this is simply another example whereby NASA cooked the books to make a bad situation look less bad. 

Of course, in his defense, Weiler will say that he used metrics and thresholds specified by Nunn-McCurdy. Congress may direct NASA to look at numbers and cost growth that way, but this approach simply does not cover the actual cost growth that has occurred from the original number NASA bought into to start with. 

One example is the game being played with real cost of the Mars Science Laboratory. MSL's cost has gone from an inital $650 million (recommended in the Decadal Survey as a "medium cost category" mission) up to the current estimate of over $2 billion. If you use the Nunn-McCurdy goal posts you do not start to track cost increases at the initial $650 million buy-in figure, but rather you start counting at the level that $650 million grew to i.e. $1.4 billion. 

When you move the goal posts to this new point, $750 million in cost growth just disappears. This way, NASA can cite Nunn-Mcurdy and say "it is a 30% increase from $1.4 billion up to $2 billion". NASA can now ignore the cost growth from $650 million up to $1.4 billion as if it never happened. 

But things have been getting so bad on MSL that even this approach cannot completely hide a serious (and growing) cost problem - one that threatens the vitality of NASA's entire planetary exploration program. 

In the end, the process of sweeping these cost increases under the rug means that the taxpayers get cheated out of the full story as to how the cost grew on this mission. The truth is obvious: NASA does not want them to know. 

 Editor's update: in a telecon with reporters today, a telecon that was supposed to discuss “technical and budget issues” on MSL, NASA personnel more or less avoided providing any specific budget news and tried to shift the discussion back to technical issues. 

Ed Weiler stated that his team had a third meeting with NASA Administrator Griffin to discuss MSL. We said that NASA has "made significant technical progress since the May meeting" and "we are heading toward a March 2009 launch". 

When asked to come up with a cost impact for current issues, Weiler said "we do not have exact numbers" and that NASA has "no exact estimate from JPL. We are going our own analysis." When pressed for exact numbers, Weiler said "I am not at liberty to pass out numbers." 

The MSL cost increase was described as being from an estimate of $1.6 billion in August 2006 to an estimated $1.9 billion today. 

When asked if funds will be needed and where they would come form, Weiler said "When we know the final cost in 2009 we'll first look within the Mars program and then outside the program." He noted that there are some cost phasing techniques that can allow resources to be freed up. 

When asked again to described what the final cost for MSL would be, Weiler said that "those numbers are being developed. We'll work with OMB and Capitol Hill. It is clear that funding is needed if we go in 2009." 

When asked to comment on why an initial MSL cost number of $1.6 billion was used as a basis to calculate cost overruns and not the original $650 million buy in figure, Weiler said "the way NASA accounts to Congress - the cost that NASA commits to - is the cost that NASA buys into - is at Phase C. You do not understand the cost of a mission until Phase C and that is what we have to report to Congress and that is What Doug is correctly quoting." 

P.S. If you want to see another example of where NASA constantly changes the cost of a mission, but never admits the true cost, have a look at these posts regarding the Mars Phoenix Mission. Not only did the cost change virtually every time NASA talked about it, they only admitted $100 million that had not been included this year when I pushed the issue. NASA then continued to use an old and inaccurate cost whenever they talked about the mission. Why should anyone believe any cost numbers coming out of NASA?

Why Does The Official Cost of Mars Phoenix Keep Changing?

The Actual Cost of Mars Phoenix is $520 Million


10 October 2008

NASA Glenn Releases Results of NIOSH Findings Related to Health Concerns

From The Cleveland Leader:

Due to health concerns at NASA's Glenn's Research Center, the results of a recent inspection by the Ohio Department of Health and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) were released this past Wednesday.

In an interesting twist, one government agency (NIOSH) found that two buildings owned by the other government agency (NASA) did not cause cancer in 65 (!) past and present employees.


Carnival of Space #74

Carnival of Space #74 is live!

Next Big Future's post about 20 ton Nuclear plant is my favorite, though this week, I had nothing to contribute.


09 October 2008

Newton Shows Lunar Scientists How to Make Telescope

Imagine if you will, a scientific outpost on the far side of the Moon.  No light pollution, no radio interference, nothing to block your magnificent view of the heavens.  You need a telescope and you intend to do some serious imaging, so you want it to be as large as possible.  How do you get it?  You could ship it up from Earth, at a cost of thousands of dollars a pound.  If lunar industry is developed enough, one of the near-side factories could gather up a few tons of regolith, separate the glass out and melt and grind a lens for you.  Or,build your mirror out of a spinning liquid.  On Earth, the largest liquid mirror is the Large Zenith Telescope operated by the University of British Columbia in Canada.  It's 6 meters across, 20% larger than the world famous Palomar reflector in California.  However the Large Zenith Telescope didn't even cost $1 million to construct - only 1/6 of the cost to build Palomar in 1948 dollars.  Today, $1 million is only a few percent of the cost to construct a normal 6 meter telescope.

Another benefit of the liquid mirror is that it's technically simple.  It needs only remain horizontal to local gravity, and to spin smoothly to maintain a smooth reflecting surface.  On the Earth's surface, the edge of a 4 meter telescope spins at 3 miles per hour.  With gravity on the Moon 1/6 that of Earth, the required spin rate would be even lower.  The mirror can only point straight up, so no need for heavy and complicated systems for moving the mirror.  It's aim can be adjusted by using some of the same techniques as the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico.  If the telescope is place in polar crater that never receives any direct sunlight, you would not need to cool the mirror, which makes it ideal for infra-red astronomy.

From NASA Science News


08 October 2008

32,000th Floor Please

American and Japanese scientists say that the manufacturing techniques and materials for building a space elevator should be ready around 2020 or so.  Currently, the stronget material available - carbon nanotubes - have only about a quarter of the strength needed.

Japan, unlike the United States, is prepared to spend $10 billion to develop the technology.  A space elevator would reduce the cost of putting an object in orbit to just the electricity needed to climb the elevator.  Electricity is much cheaper than rocket fuel.


07 October 2008

On Orbit V

From Colony Worlds, China draws on its vast manned spaceflight experience and offers to train other countries astronauts.

Update: India's Chandrayaan-1 lunar probe is scheduled to liftoff on 22 October with the launch window open until the 26th.

NASA's Cassini probe is scheduled for close flybys of Saturn's moon Enceladus on 9 October and 31 October at a height of 25 km (16 miles!) and 196 km (122 mi) respectively.  Cassini will be sampling Enceladus's many geysers because water vapor and organic compounds have been detected and scientists suspect the existence of underground oceans of water.

China looks forward to its first space station Tiangong 1 to be launched in 2010 or 2011.  Automated flights Shenzhou 8 and 9 will dock with Tiangong 1, a feat made easier given China's demonstrated ability to rendevous spacecraft in space.  The manned flight Shenzhou 10 will bring Tiangong 1's three man crew.  Things are moving quickly in the Middle Kingdom.  Can we keep up?


Breaking News!

Edit: Whoops!  A day late.  As a consolation prize,

Asteroid 2008 TC3 will become meteor 2008 TC3 when it hits the Earth's atmosphere.

However, 2008 TC3 is only a few meter across and will burn up in the atmosphere, creating an impressive fireball.  It's expected to enter the atmosphere at quarter to three in the morning GMT over Sudan.

As an added comfort, 2008 TC3 was only discovered less than 24 hours ago, not even enough time to send up roughnecks with mining equipment and secret space shuttles.


02 October 2008

Carnival of Space

Newest Carnival is live.  Checkout what everyone else has to say.


01 October 2008

Happy Golden Anniversary NASA

Welcome to our readers from Carnivals of Space.

I want to wish a happy 50th birthday to everyone at NASA.

Born out of the desire to prove American technical superiority, today's NASA has to struggle to prove to necessity of existence.  There are those that believe the paltry amount spent on NASA would be better used building smart bombs or funding the federal education bureaucracy.

Currently, NASA is struggling to maintain an aging shuttle fleet, provide American access to the ISS and develop the next-gen launch system Constellation.  The specter of being dependent on long time rival Russia for access to the ISS looms large with the presidential mandate to retire the Shuttle fleet in 2010.  NASA has a rough road ahead but with the right leadership, budget and motivation (Russian and Chinese lunar outposts), NASA can regain its past position of pre-emininence.

Per Aspera, Ad Adstra


On Orbit IV

NASA admin Michael Griffin states that given a choice, NASA would always buy launch services to the ISS from a private company.  Here's your chance SpaceX.  Griffin also affirms that "human populations must diversify if it wishes to survive."  

The Space Foundation has published "ITAR and the U.S. Space Industry." The report proposes steps to modernize ITAR, enabling the regulations to accomplish their original purpose of protecting important security technologies while allowing more U.S. space companies to compete successfully in the global economy.  Interesting because John Goff over at Selenian Boondocks posted about the problems domestic space companies have with ITAR.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of Iran has stated that Iran will be launching a domestic rocket capable of putting 700 kg into orbit.  The satellite Omid (Hope) will be used for natural disaster management and telecommunications.

NASA to announce new student contest to design tools an instruments to be used on the moon.