Hacking Classrooms via Mars

1 08 2013
Preparing for the Hackathon project showcase at Mozilla headquarters.

Preparing for the Hackathon project showcase at Mozilla headquarters.

A short report today on the inspiring Mars Education Hackathon I recently had the good fortune to be invited to attend in San Francisco.

Hosted by the Mozilla Foundation, digital studio MX, and local PBS affiliate KQED, the two-day blitz included six ad hoc project teams – fresh and interdisciplinary collaborations between planetary scientists, computer scientists, educators, innovators, multimedia producers, and historians.

Attendees represented the gamut of potential stakeholders, from NASA’s Ames Research Center to science and education TV production firm Spine Films.  I was there on behalf of MX studios, with whom I’d had the pleasure of supporting as a space/planetary science consultant.

What was it exactly that brought such a motley crew together near the Bay?

Working as fast as we could, our mission was straightforward:  Leverage recent advances in computing and networking technology in combination with the truly stunning quantity and quality of data available to us from the Red Planet in order to give science education a much-needed kick in the pants.

In my view, it was a rousing success.

IMG_4613

View of hacking in progress – two of the Hackathon working groups at KQED headquarters.

The team projects were each ambitious and varied from virtual science learning environments using actual NASA rover models to orbital flight trajectory and planning simulators; from helping students pack for a trip to Mars to using VR headsets to explore the Martian landscape with their own eyes from the comfort of a classroom.

(Yes, I finally got to try an Oculus Rift – it lives up to the hype!)

It was also an excellent opportunity both to meet new faces as well as finally assign faces to names I’ve known (or even been working with from afar) for some time.  (Many thanks to MX and Mozilla for their support!)

In the end, I truly believe the seeds of future models for using computing technology to integrate frontier science into the classroom were sewn here.  Education needs this kind of work to compete with gaming multimedia that, unfortunately, is usually just much more engaging than learning-based systems.  But it doesn’t have to be.

Mars shows us that.

More to follow on the fruits of this little side-adventure…

IMG_4618

Could frontier exploration environments like Mars be the key to bridging the divide between new web-based technology and classroom education experiences? (View from outside Mozilla headquarters.)





Arsenic-based life and Astrobiology

3 07 2012

File:Arsenate.png

It’s been some time since the controvertial announcement that “arsenic-based life” had been discovered on planet Earth.  With time, however, the less-sensational reality of the discovery has been made more clear, and I think it is sensible to review the current state of the research as it relates to the biochemistry of life and the idea of “alternative” biochemistries.

An Imminent Announcement

NASA "meatball" insignia 1959–82 and 1992–presentThe recap: Making some serious waves back in November of 2010, NASA released a media advisory stating that a news conference would be held days later that would reveal “an astrobiology finding” that would “impact the search for extraterrestrial life.”

The journal Science strictly embargoed details until the news conference was held.

Of course, the internet went bezerk.  NASA’s announcement, the first of its kind since the announcement of potential bacterial fossils in Mars meteoriete ALS-84001, seemed to hint to many that a rover had finally hit paydirt.  Signs of extraterrestrial biology had finally been found!

However, the rampant speculation that followed only fueled an initial spike of disappointment with the actual announcement: that young biogeochemist and astrobiologist Felisa Wolfe-Simon led a research team that discovered, as was popularly-reported, “arsenic-based” life here on Earth.

Wolfe-Simon’s discovery was  published in the journal Science and was actually met with a fair degree of sensationalism right out of the gate, followed by sharp criticism that survives to this day.

File:GFAJ-1 (grown on arsenic).jpg

Magnified cells of bacterium GFAJ-1 grown in a medium containing arsenate. (Credit: NASA)

GFAJ-1: The Arsenic Experiment

A critical question of astrobiology is whether or not life is required to take advange of the same chemistry we do, i.e., that our biochemistry is the only biochemistry that works.  If other types of chemistry were available to life, (such as silicon-based life hypothesized on Saturn’s moon Titan,) then this implies that opportunities for life elsewhere in the universe are great in number.

If not, then life may be more rare; waiting for the perfect “goldilocks” conditions before it can arise.

Testing this hypothesis, astrobiology researchers have been pressing for evidence of so-called “shadow biospheres,” or examples of life taking advantage of different or exotic chemistries right under our own noses.  In other words, seeking out environments where life might have evolved out of necessity to take advantage of different, ordinarily toxic chemical elements is one strategy to investigate the question here at home.

With this objective in mind, Wolfe-Simon (and colleagues) proposed that instead of phosphate (PO4), life might find a way to substitute arsenate (AsO4, depicted in the header)  into its DNA.  Specifically, by isolating an extremophile (an exotic bacterium) from the bizarre ecosystem at work in the alakaline, salt-ridden, and arsenic-laden Mono Lake, Wolfe-Simon’s research team claimed success: the identification of an organism that was capable of substituting arsenic for a small percentage of its phosphorus!

Clarifying “Arsenic-based” 

Wolfe-Simon’s findings, which were obtained when the GFAJ-1 bacteria were grown in a culture doped with arsenate, are more accurately described as identifying a potential “arsenic-utilizing” as opposed to “arsenic-based” form of life.  Even so, the results were considered a boon for those proposing widening the technical search for extraterrestrial life.  In this view, should life be utilizing very different biochemistry than what we’re accustomed to, it is possible that the instruments on our rovers, etc., might not even detect it (or recognize what it was that was being detected).

However, the results have been hotly-debated since, and more recently, have been outright cast into doubt when researchers just this year used a separate analytical method and failed to detect arsenic in the GFAJ-1 bacteria.

The Take-Home

The jury is still out considering whether or not we’ve actually detected so-called “alien” biochemistry or hard evidence of a shadow biosphere.  That having been said, the justification and approach is still in my opinion a solid one.

It remains within the realm of possibility that extraterrestrial life (or terrestrial life under extreme conditions) might, due to opportunity or necessity, be chemically different from our own.

Food for thought.





Xenoarchaeology: Reality and Fantasy

3 05 2012

Archaeological evidence of extraterrestrial involvement with ancient human civilizations, as seen in the movie, “Prometheus.” (Credit: Fox)

Cultural Xenoarchaeology

For reasons I can’t immediately explain, (the recent rash of technical publications addressing the concept of “xenoarchaeology” or “non-terrestrial artifacts” nonwithstanding,) there is a tantalizing idea cropping up in a number of recent and upcoming films and television programs.  (See: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Prometheus, Ancient Aliens.)

This concept, simply, involves the discovery of archaic evidence of the existence of Extraterrestrial Intelligence (ETI) and/or evidence of physical interactions of ETI in Earth’s (and mankind’s) past.  All of this, arguably, might be lumped under the auspices of the protoscience Xenoarchaeology.

Perhaps this increase in popular consumption of the idea that aliens have been around longer than we have indicates a mounting social awareness of cosmic deep time and the possibility of extraterrestrial life as it is stirred together with our classic, collective existential questions: “Why are we here?” and, “Are we alone in the universe?”

However, these pop-culture expressions and depictions of xenoarchaeology stray pretty far afield of what “scientific xenoarchaeology” would actually look like.

Separating Xenoarchaeology Fiction from Fact

In most part built upon ideas originally popularized by Erich von Daniken decades ago, (and fictionally by H.P. Lovecraft before him,) these modern concepts invoke the assistance of ETI in the development of human civilization as the “gods” of the religions and mythologies of antiquity.  However, this view has long since been shown by archaeologists to be entirely speculative and lacking in any direct, physical supportive evidence, (i.e., it is pseudoarchaeology.)  This stands in contrast to the physical archaeological evidence that does exist to directly support the idea that we humans created civilization, agriculture, the pyramids, etc., without need of assistance.

While the idea of meddlesome, elder-brother or mentor-type ETI is admittedly thrilling, the concept as it relates to xenoarchaeology does not automatically become scientific and in fact differs significantly from the groundwork currently being laid out for scientific xenoarchaeology.

Allow me to provide a few examples of where reality and fantasy diverge:

  • The practice of much fictional xenoarchaeology takes place on Earth, whereas future scientific xenoarchaeologists will likely find their skills of most utility on other worlds during in situ investigations.
  • Fictional/pseudoscientific xenoarchaeology typically centers on terrestrial features of human civilization, (e.g., pyramids, temples, large-scale geoglyphs,) whereas proposed xenoarchaeological investigations will likely center on extraterrestrial features of a possible artificial nature on other worlds.
  • Fictional xenoarchaeology usually assumes the involvement of ETI with a given feature of interest and works from there, whereas scientific xenoarchaeology will be required to rule out all other natural planetary, biological, and geological possibilities before hypothesizing ETI.  (In fact, ruling out features as xenoarchaeological in nature and disproving those making pseuarchaeological claims will probably be the most frequent uses of the existence of a true, scientific practice of xenoarchaeology.)
  • Xenoarchaeologists of popular fiction conduct investigations with their bare hands, whereas scientific xenoarchaeologists will primarily use remote sensing techniques, (satellites, robotic rovers,) to investigate/collect data.  (Or, if they are very lucky, they might one day even conduct work from within a spacesuit or biological quarantine facility.)
  • Fictional xenoarchaeology attempts to find evidence of ETI in terrestrial archaeological sites or artifacts, whereas scientific xenoarchaeology will rely on the fact that ETI was not involved in terrestrial archaeological sites and artifacts in order to construct relationships and methodologies that will be useful in the evaluation of a potential site of completely alien/unknown character. 

I could go on, but hopefully the potential difference between xenoarchaeological reality and fantasy, (like popular depictions of most sciences,) has been made clear.

Why Xenoarchaeology at All?

When considering the concept of scientific xenoarchaeology, invariably the question arises: “Is there a need for xenoarchaeology as a science at all?” 

Admittedly, this question is a good one.  Pseudoscience aside, there are currently no pressing sites of xenoarchaeological interest.  Why, then, expend the effort?

Well, let me first point you to the established field of astrobiology.  This is a field devoted entirely to the origin, evolution, and possibility of extraterrestrial life.  Associated with the field are multiple related academic journals, societies, and even college degree programs. 

Astrobiology is legitimate.  Yet, we have yet to discover even the smallest extraterrestrial microorganism.  Yes – Astrobiology, the scientific study of alien life, is currently conducted in spite of the complete absence of the known existence of alien life.  The field thrives regardless.  Why?

Astrobiology thrives because its underlying assumptions are viewed to be scientifically sound.  Life occurred on Earth, and considering the pantheon of worlds being discovered around other stars, by all modern physical and biochemical reckoning, signs seem to point that it will only be a matter of time until we discover life elsewhere.  (By similar reasoning, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence [SETI] continues its vigilant watch for technological [radio] signs of life in the galaxy, and few nowadays write off the pursuit as being in vain.)

The assumptions underlying the scientific development of xenoarchaeology are, indeed, indentical to those above.  And further, given the ambiguity of the term “intelligence” and modern knowledge of many cosmic threats that can cause mass extinctions, (novas, gamma-ray bursts, asteroid impacts, etc.,) it seems even more likely that material evidence of extinct extraterrestrial life will be encountered prior to the fortuitious discovery of life itself while it is still alive. 

That is, if I were a gambling man, I would wager that xenoarchaeologists get an opportunity to evaluate ultimately definitive evidence of extraterrestrial life prior to astrobiologists.

Xenoarchaeological Relevance

In the final analysis, popular depictions of xenoarchaeology are useful in that they engender a more sophisticated (if not completely sensationalized) view of our place in the cosmos and the possibility of intelligent life in it.  On the technical side, considering the current absence of evidence of extraterrestrial life, xenoarchaeology as a scientific pursuit is equally justifiable to astrobiology and SETI. 

Further, I would argue that like astrobiology, taking the time to rigorously conceptualize a scientific field tangential to those that exist but centered in an extraterrestrial context will help us see ourselves from a clearer scientific vantage; this will invariably serve to enhance our understanding of terrestrial archaeology, anthropology, biology, and yes, even astrobiology.  (Developing an additional means to address some of the planetary pseudoscience out there, e.g., Martian Cydonia, can’t hurt, either.)

And who knows?  Perhaps our space exploration investigations are only a rover or two away from the discovery of that first Martian or Titanean burrow or petroglyph, which history will remember as a moment that literally changes everything. 

My view is that it’d be far better in the event of such a discovery to be proactive and have scientific xenoarchaeology prepared, (in at least a cursory sense,) instead of being reactive and leaving the scientific establishment scrambling to catch up. 

In this sense, perhaps science could stand to learn a thing or two from Hollywood.





Spaceflight simulators, space games, and STEM

17 04 2012

Cockpit view from a simulated spacecraft in freeware spaceflight sim, "Orbiter."

For those who aren’t familiar, “STEM” is a particularly hot-button acronym in the professional space education community these days that stands for, “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.”

These are the college degrees and professions that ultimately keep the economy, innovation, and space exploration in particular going.

These are also the fields that have been suffering from declining numbers during the last couple of decades.  (Consequently, projects with heavy STEM education components are often bumped to the top of the funding pile…)

In response, there appears to be a waxing tide of development of vaguely (or overtly) educational space-centered video games.  This seems to be a new push during the past couple of years, distinct from the open-source processing endeavors such as SETI@home and MilkyWay@home.

In this light, I’d like to take a moment to review and highlight a few of many excellent spaceflight software options out there, historical and contemporary, that are worth checking out for yourself (and some of which may even need your help!)

Starlight: Inception

Based solely on personal bias, I must begin with the lost genre of the spaceflight simulator. Or, more specifically, the spaceflight combat simulator.

Much like a conventional flight simulator, spaceflight simulators provide exactly what they sound like they do: the in-cockpit experience of flying a spacecraft or space “fighter.”

While many of these as games are related to sci-fi franchises, (e.g., X-Wing, Tie-Fighter, Wing Commander,) and contain much scientifically-apocryphal content, such as sounds in space or apparent aerodynamic/non-Newtonian movements in a vacuum, I don’t think the impact of these games can be overstated.  I myself was in part inspired to a career in aerospace by games like these as a kid.

(More accurate but less-adrenaline-pumped simulators without a “game” component include Kerbal Space Program, Orbiter and Microsoft Space Simulator.)

Credit: Escape Hatch Entertainment LLC

So, this brings me to the present day.  It’s been many years since the last spaceflight combat simulator was released, (e.g., Descent: Freespace, Tachyon,) and in an attempt to restart the genre, Escape Hatch Entertainment LLC has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund their proposed game, Starlight: Inception.

Evoking design elements of classic Star Wars, Wing Commander, and even some of James Cameron’s “Aliens,” the game looks to hit all the right notes to inspire a new generation of impressionable gameplayers toward a future amongst the stars.

Frankly, I feel like having games like this out there contributing to the social fabric is critical.  Plus, being a privately-funded campaign, the project team is very receptive to the suggestion of its backers – the more people call for enhanced realism and technical accuracy, the more will be incorporated!

Check them out and offer your support if you feel so inclined – the game won’t be “launched” unless they reach their fundraising goals.  Future generations of inspired spacefarers (or other STEM professionals) may thank you!

NetworKing

From the fantastic to the strategic, I’d like to mention a free game developed by the technology office at NASA Ames Research Center called, “NetworKing.”

The objective of this educational Real-Time-Strategy game is very grounded: to build and maintain three separate space communications networks, (Near, Space, and Deep-Space,) and evolve them to the point of being unified into a single space communications network.

The equivalent of experience points are earned as NASA missions are successfully enabled by the network, and money for upgrades is earned as time on the network is leased to commercial satellites.

In all, an innovative way to communicate what it takes to run a communications network in space and definitely worth checking out.  -Playable now online or via free download.

Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond

On another side of the spectrum is the concept of the MMO, or Massively-Multiplayer Online game.

NASA recently experimented with the MMO concept as a means of education outreach and STEM inspiration with a project called Moonbase Alpha.

Evolving the success of Alpha a little further, NASA and Project Whitecard Inc. initiated another ultimately-successful Kickstarter campaign that kicked off the creation of a full-fledged, NASA-sanctioned MMO entitled, “Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond

Screenshot from NASA MMO Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond. (Credit: Project Whitecard)

The game aims to incorporate real locations, hardware, and mission profiles, leveraging the full support of NASA to create a tool to engage thousands of people simultaneously in realistic space exploration role-playing.

A beta-test version is expected this year, with the game to be released in 2013.

-So, in short, there’s lots of activity on the space-meets-video-games front, and much of it is being self-directed with the support of NASA itself.  Check it out and/or show your support!  (Even if only to point someone else in their direction.)

The astronauts of tomorrow will likely get their first space exploration thrills on games like these.  Let’s help make sure they have the opportunity.





H.G. Wells, Crichton, and Planetary Protection

22 02 2012

Much of the challenge of communicating scientific concepts to the public at-large comes in attempting to find ways to make ideas easily digestible.

When talking about human space exploration, the possibility of finding extraterrestrial life, or the recovery of cultural artifacts from non-terrestrial sources, the concept of planetary protection is key.  Basically, planetary protection stresses the importance of working to prevent the spread of biological contamination between worlds.

However, for those who are unfamiliar or who would prefer a succinct example to a rehash of the technical definition, allow me to take a stab at an explanation less esoteric:  Planetary Protection in terms of Michael Crichton and H. G. Wells.

As arguably two of the most well-known science fiction authors of the 20th Century, it seems only fitting that each penned a story that together provide planetary protection’s two worst-case scenarios.  [[PLOT SPOILER ALERT]]

In Crichton’s “The Andromeda Strain,” a returning military satellite inadvertently carries with it an extraterrestrial pathogen, with fatal consequences for a retrieval team as well as a small Arizona town.  This is a prime example of the dangers of returning to Earth from an extraterrestrial environment, and why planetary protection measures are important for us.

On the other side of the coin, in H. G. Wells’s “The War of the Worlds,” invading extraterrestrials, despite demonstrating an extreme level of technological advancement, are ultimately defeated by terrestrial pathogens due to their lack of planetary protection measures.

So, in short, (using Wells and Crichton as guideposts,) planetary protection is intended to prevent:

  • our being harmed by alien bugs
  • potential aliens from being harmed by our bugs.

To the point, the last thing we want to do is go to Mars searching for life, only to inadvertently kill it, or worse, track it back home so that it wreaks havoc on our ecosystem.

That’s it.  You can say it all between The War of the Worlds and The Andromeda Strain.  Planetary protection in a nutshell.





Summer Hits: Martian Water, Asteroid Nukes, Orbital Antimatter!

1 10 2011

Here’s a recap of some of this summer’s greatest hits in space news that you might have missed:

Water on Mars

Dark streaks as summer flow features in Newton Crater, Mars. (Credit: NASA)

In an utterly tantalizing development, scientists analyzing imagery from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) have announced what appears for all the world to be direct evidence of water on Mars!

Because the MRO has been orbiting the Red Planet since 2006, it has been able to view the same portions of the world at different times of year with an eye toward spotting any potential seasonal changes.  This past August, the MRO team reviewing this growing dataset hit paydirt.

Specifically, the team identified dark streaks on the slopes of steep terrain in the southern hemisphere that are found during Martian spring and summer; these features disappear during Martian winter only to return once again the following spring.

While there are multiple possible explanations, the most likely amongst them appears to be the flow of briny (salty) groundwater that warms in the hotter months, breaches the surface, and evaporates/sublimates as it flows downhill.

Time will tell on this one, but all eyes should be on the possibility of subsurface briny Martian aquifers!

Russian “Armageddon”

Asteroid impact as depicted in the film "Deep Impact." (Credit: Paramount/Dreamworks)

This past August, Russian scientists took a note from Hollywood and seriously proposed the use of nuclear weapons as a means of asteroid mitigation.

Under the scenario, a dual-spacecraft architecture would be employed, with one spacecraft, called “Trap,” ferrying a nuclear warhead to the target while a second spacecraft, “Kaissa,” (apparently and intriguingly named after the mythical goddess of chess,) analyzes the target asteroid’s composition to determine the appropriate warhead use scenario (deflection vs. break-up).

The spacecraft would be lofted by a Soyuz-2 rocket and/or Russia’s upcoming Rus-M rocket.

While much contemporary research casts doubt on the ultimate effectiveness of a nuclear detonation in such a context, the proposers stressed that the technique would only be used on approaching objects up to 600 yards in diameter.

Orbital Antimatter Belt

Antiprotons trapped in the Earth's magnetic field (in pink). (Credit: Aaron Kaase/NASA/Goddard)

Also this past August, researchers published a stunning (but in retrospect, sensible) discovery in Astrophysical Journal Letters: Earth possess a natural orbiting belt of concentrated antiprotons.

Succinctly, the interactions of high-energy cosmic radiation with the Earth’s atmosphere can produce infinitesimal and ordinarily short-lived bursts of antimatter.  These antiparticles normally react with standard matter present around the Earth and annihilate.

However, in the near-vacuum of space beyond the bulk of the Earth’s atmosphere, some of these antimatter particles are spared immediate destruction.  Many of these antiprotons are then herded by the Earth’s magnetic field into bands or belts, which were recently discovered by the antimatter-hunting satellite PAMELA.

Aside from the “gee-whiz” factor, there are certain technical and economic reasons to get excited about the finding.  For starters, the energy density of antiprotons is on the order of a billion times greater than conventional chemical batteries.  However, at a current production cost on Earth of nearly $63 trillion per gram, antiprotons are a bit hard to come by and even less practical to use for anything other than research; Identifying a natural reservoir such as, say, a naturally-produced orbiting belt could open up additional avenues of use for antimatter as well as be immensely lucrative… if only one could solve the lightning-in-a-bottle problem of antimatter storage.

In any case, this is definitely something to keep an eye on.  For the less techno-jargon-inclined, news reports on the find may be found from the BBC as well as Science Magazine.





The National Space Exploration Administration

26 05 2011

Is a National Space Exploration Administration the future of NASA? (Hypothetical logo credit: Ben McGee)

I’m a convert.  Yesterday, Apollo astroanut, geologist-moonwalker, and U.S. Senator Dr. Harrison “Jack” Schmitt made what amounts to one of the most daring space exploration suggestions to date:  End NASA.  -And I think I’m all for it.

Allow me to explain.

Dr. Schmitt testing NASA Apollo program field logistics. (Uncredited)

In a sweeping and devastatingly logical essay published on the “americasuncommonsense” blog, Dr. Schmitt makes a compelling case that NASA as a force for exploration and national growth has lost its way.  Irrecoverably.

Being the only scientist-astronaut to ever walk on another world, Dr. Schmitt possesses a unique credibility and vantage from which to make this sort of assessment.  He proposes that NASA and its administrative shortcomings be scrapped in favor of a new agency, which he calls the National Space Exploration Administration, or NSEA.

There is a precedent for this sort of rebirth or evolution, which Schmitt is quick to point out.  NASA itself was created as a combination of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics and Werner Von Braun’s Army Ballistic Missile Agency, (which was reponsible for one of the most ambitious space exploration initiatives, Project Horizon.)  Likewise, the U.S. Air Force was formed out of the U.S. Army Air Corps.

According to Schmitt, NASA’s climate activities could be cleanly adoped by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA’s space science activities could be neatly rolled into the National Science Foundation, and NASA’s aeronautics research and technology would go back to the coalition of national research centers from which they were originally derived, a recreated National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics.

This, he argues, frees the new NSEA to do what NASA should have been doing all along – driving the human exploration of deep space and reestablishing American space superiority.  The straightforward mission of this new agency, as Schmitt envisions it, is as follows:

“Provide the People of the United States of America, as national security and economic interests demand, with the necessary infrastructure, entrepreneurial partnerships, and human and robotic operational capability to settle the Moon, utilize lunar resources, scientifically explore and settle Mars and other deep space destinations, and, if necessary, divert significant Earth-impacting objects.”

Finally,  this represents a clear-cut national space agency mission that (I believe) everyone who supports space exploration can wholeheartedly endorse.  -And, perhaps more importantly, having such a clear agency objective would end the space exploration/terrestrial science/space science budgetary tug-of-war that has chronically crippled NASA.

Check out the essay and decide for yourself.  I think it’s time to send our governmental representatives a phone call or an email and make them aware of this concept as well, so they will begin to ask the question, “is a NSEA the future of NASA?”





NASA exploration goal to be announced

24 05 2011

Artist's concept of anchoring to the surface of an asteroid. (Credit: NASA)

A NASA media advisory released yesterday alerted the world to what may be a landmark announcement later this afternoon.  Specifically, the advisory states that an agency decision has defined the need for a human “deep space” transportation system.

What does this tell us?  Well, if we visit NASA’s exploration website, the first story would have us believe that we’ve decided to adopt Lockheed Martin’s Stepping Stones exploration plan (see previous story here).  -Will the announcement reveal that we’ve committed to venturing to an asteroid?

Check out the streaming audio feed here at 3:30 p.m. EDT today to find out.  (And cross your fingers.)





Finding the incentive to settle space…

19 05 2011

To many, the outward expansion of humanity into the cosmos is inevitable.  It seems that a portion of our population is (and has always been) innately possessed of a drive toward the frontier, wherever that might be at the time… 

The Antarctic exploration ship Endurance locked in ice, 1915. (Credit: The Royal Collection/2009 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II)

Whether venturing to the New World, exploring the farthest reaches of the Earth’s poles, probing the abyssal oceanic depths, or rocketing our way to the Moon – there have always been people who have emerged with the deep-seated desire to expand our horizons.  The exercise reaps clear benefits to our cultures, our societies, and our knowledge of the universe at large, and some part of our ancient psyche knows it.  As Johannes Kepler eloquently put it (nearly four centuries ago!):

“When ships to sail the void between the stars have been invented there will also be men who come forward to sail those ships.”

Clearly, the problem with exploration hasn’t historically been finding the desire to explore.  It’s been finding the commercial incentive. 

Human exploration is necessarily expensive; by definition it is  set away from convenience, requiring feats of transportation and logistics no matter the era.  Even more than survival on the frontier, history has shown that convincing financiers that the endeavor is a worthwhile (and often, also potentially lucrative) one has been an explorer’s paramount challenge.

So sits the human exploration of space today – idling on the runway.  Technologically, we are capable of venturing outward, well beyond the Earth.  Many of the risks of the space environment are now (at least partially) known, and we’ve nearly completed the first-order exploration of all of the major bodies of the Solar System. 

We’re ready to start getting out there.  We just need to find an economically-compelling reason to get out there.

Space tourism will help further the technology needed to expand our footprint into space, but such trips will be initially limited to those seeking largely intangible returns.  And, while there are fairly obvious economic and environmental benefits to utilizing extraterrestrial resources, we lack the infrastructure to justify the incredible expense of making a practical go of it.  We need something with a narrower field of view – something to help us build the first waystations that will open the doors to commerce off-world.

As it so happens, the space policy think tank Space Settlement Institute has developed such a plan.  -And it just might work.  Called the “Space Settlement Initiative,” it floats the idea (so-to-speak) of turning percieved international space law on its head by challenging the U.S. Congress to recognize the ownership of land on the Moon and Mars (or any other extraterrestrial body) by those who “settle” it (read: physically visit and claim).  This ownership, in turn, could be bought and sold on Earth.

View of the Taurus-Littrow Apollo 17 landing site, 7-19 Dec. 1972. (Credit: NASA)

Suddenly, extraterrestrial commerce is in full swing, with lunar and Martian land being optioned, sold, and traded just as mineral rights attached to land a person has never seen are regularly incorporated into his or her investment portfolio.  Now, the business model for building the initial waystations and transportation systems to Low Earth Orbit, Lunar Orbit, and the lunar surface is baited with the very real return of saleable physical property.

Various uses have been proposed for extraterrestrial land, from ecosystem lifeboats and knowledge repositories to low-gravity retirement communities.  Were the Space Settlement Institute’s plan to be adopted and a pioneer to venture out and stake a claim, each of these uses would suddenly have potentially real locations with a demonstrated means of transportation.

-And as we know, it’s a short period of time between when new locations show up on our maps and when we find a way to reach them.

I’m totally jazzed by this idea.  It seems to me that all the plan needs in order to gain traction is steady promotion to Congressional leaders, policy-makers, potential venture capitalists, and the public.  Who knows?  If they’re right, perhaps the next Rockefeller will be made in the pursuit of lunar real-estate. 

Food for thought.





Russia announces new Nuclear Rockets for manned Mars trip

16 04 2011

1960s Aerojet General rendering of a nuclear rocket in flight configuration.

For the first time in possibly four decades, two electrifying space technology phrases have managed to show up in the same sentence in earnest.  Quietly nestled in the murky details of a somewhat thrilling AP news story about a potential new Russian spacecraft to be produced in the next few years are the words: “manned mission to Mars,” and, “new nuclear engines.”

This is fantastic, as “nuclear engines” can only mean a resurrection of the triumphant nuclear thermal rocket technology pioneered and successfully tested during the Cold War.

Why is this significant?  First, U.S. and Russian testing of nuclear rockets during the Cold War proved not only that the relatively simple technology worked, but that it was amazingly efficient.  So efficient, in fact, that the rockets tested under the NERVA Program are still twice as powerful as our best rockets today, (half-a-century later!).  Secondly, these rockets are of the weight and power necessary to significantly trim down travel times and make interplanetary manned missions feasible.

So, if the nuclear rocket technology is superior, why don’t we have this technology today?  Well, politics and paranoia led to the death of the nuclear rocket back in 1972, when:

  1. a new project called the Space Shuttle drew funding away from the NERVA Program and set our course in space exploration for Low Earth Orbit (LEO) instead of back to the Moon and Mars, and
  2. in the Cold War nuclear holocaust climate, the word “nuclear” became (understandably) a source of irrational fear.

Only a few experts remain alive who worked in the thick of original nuclear thermal rocket research and testing, and with NewSpace set to take over LEO cargo and crew transportation services, it is time to set our sights back on the more ambitious goals of lunar settlements and expanded human exploration of the solar system.  Nuclear thermal rockets will be the technology to take us there.  The Russians apparently realize that, and perhaps an international kick in the pants is what the U.S. research and industrial community needs to realize that it’s time to pick this research back up.

A nuclear arms race between the U.S. and Russia nearly ended the world.  It seems a fitting contrast that in the 21st Century, a nuclear space race between the U.S. and Russia could help humanity settle new ones.








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