Lord Martin Rees in conversation at The Wellcome Trust


It’s dependably fun and illuminating to see Martin Rees unconstrained by the political “don’t go theres”. So, have some fun with this Lord Martin Rees in conversation at The Wellcome Trust [13 June 2014, 93 minutes]. Skip the first 10 minutes of formalities. Then as the interview begins with ‘where it all started’ Martin explains the basic principles of his grad school experience in the 1960s:

If you go into an established field you can only do something new by doing something that the old guys got stuck on.

Whereas if you go to a field where new things are happening, then the experience of the old guys is at a heavy discount.

Max Planck’s longer quote can be paraphrased as Science advances one funeral at a time.” I had to endure only part of that experience, as advisor Woody Bledsoe would try anything promising. But my mathematics chair was a classical guy who insisted that thesis exams concentrate on partial differential equations. Very relevant to planning the Juno rendezvous with Jupiter, not so helpful in computer science. Here’s the challenge: how do we develop young scientists without trapping them inside the boundaries of the department hierarchy?


SpaceX demonstrates a reusable first stage

My guess is this will prove to be a historic milestone – from the perspective of future historians studying how humans evolved to be a multi-planetary species. I’ll stick my neck out to speculate that in 10 years major component reuse will be the norm.

I love good engineering! Yes I know that landing the first stage 1 out of 3 tries isn’t good enough. But isn’t it remarkable that SpaceX succeeded in only three attempts? How many more launches before they are achieving 80% success? That’s most of the cost-savings right there. Sure 100% will be nice someday.
Think what it would cost to fly to the South Pacific if Air New Zealand threw the Dreamliner away at the end of each flight:-)

What Does A Real Astronaut Think Of ‘Gravity’?

Former NASA Astronaut Garrett Reisman now works for Elon Musk at SpaceX. We enjoyed his comments on the reality of the movie “Gravity”. Garrett liked it, here’s some excerpts:

The movie does an outstanding job of capturing what it is like to do a spacewalk – much better than any previous sci fi film. Having done three spacewalks myself, I can tell you – this is legit. The visual impact of having nothing but the glass of your helmet between you and the Earth is captured very well. (Although the Earth is a bit more sharp and vivid in the movie than the real thing. Plus there is almost always an interesting land-mass to look at when in reality you spend most of your time looking down at a less-interesting ocean view.) Also, the movement and physicality of doing a spacewalk is rendered in a very accurate manner. The ease of starting a motion and the difficulty of stopping it in the vacuum of space is captured accurately in many scenes. 

It’s amazing how many things “Gravity” gets right. When Sandra Bullock’s character turns the two valves to shut off oxygen flow to the Soyuz – those are exactly the correct valves to turn. When she wants to command the orbital maneuvering engine, the CKD, she pushes the correct button which is also labeled correctly. The interiors of the Soyuz and the International Space Station, are pretty realistic although the various modules are not the correct position.

Garrett has a few quibbles with the physics, such as the energy required to change orbits to match velocity with another satellite, but he summarizes (correctly we think):

But who cares?

All of these inaccuracies were done to help advance the plot or to add drama to the film which is exactly the artistic license we should be willing to grant the filmmakers. This is entertainment, not a documentary.

So, enjoy the whole thing.

Space Junk: How big a problem is the orbital debris?

The captioned topic is more popular since the new movie “Gravity” was released. Space.com has a short briefing on orbital debris – I can’t vouch for the accuracy, but if correct, this is interesting:

The majority of catalogued objects (65 percent) result from a Chinese anti-satellite test in 2007, and the accidental collision of two satellites in 2009. When objects in different orbits intersect, the collision takes place at a speed of thousands of miles per hour.  

We recommend the movie “Gravity”, bearing in mind that it is entertainment, not a documentary. IEEE Spectrum looked at the space junk issue on the day of the “Gravity” release:

The Kessler syndrome imagines a situation where the thousands of pieces of space junk in Earth orbit begin to multiply as accidental collisions create even more debris over time. In 2012, Donald Kessler and Darren McKnight argued in IEEE Spectrum that the sheer density of space debris leftover from decades of spacecraft and satellite launches, explosions and collisions had already reached a mathematical tipping point that would enable a runaway debris scenario.

Space debris already poses a very real danger to both astronauts and satellites, even when it’s not rapidly multiplying like the sped-up Kessler syndrome envisioned in “Gravity.” The ever-growing cloud of space junk has occasionally forced the International Space Station to dodge out of the way and even go into emergency evacuation mode. It also poses a danger for satellites, as was graphically illustrated in a 2009 collision between an active Iridium communications satellite and a defunct Russian satellite.


Earth is playing cosmic roulette: fund Sentinel! Detect, deflect, defend!

We just enjoyed the June “super moon” with binoculars. You should do this, studying the craters, visualizing similar asteroid impacts on our spaceship Earth. There are roughly ten million asteroids in earth's orbit, but we have not mapped them. Therefore we are just a target in the shooting gallery. If we know we are the address of a kilometer-wide package to be delivered on 5 July, 2050 we can arrange “non delivery” by shifting the arrival time plus or minus 3 minutes. We know how to do that, given enough notice.

We also know how to map those 10,000,000 dangerous rocks. Once mapped, then we can deflect and defend. How big a project is it to map the asteroids? Well, San Francisco citizens raised over $500 million to upgrade the Museum of Modern Art.

That is enough to Save the Earth! That is the budget of the Sentinel Project of the B612 Foundation. These are “just do it” people who have decided this is too important to leave to governments. Sentinel is underway, and you can help. Donate!

On June 28, 2012, the Foundation announced its plans to build and operate the first privately funded, launched, and operated interplanetary mission – an infrared space telescope to be placed in orbit around the Sun to discover, map, and track asteroids whose orbits approach Earth and threaten humanity.

“We’ve been given a gift, and the gift is that we have the ability now to go out there and actually do something which positively affects the future of humanity on Earth.” Dr. Ed Lu, B612 Foundation Chairman & CEO

The Sentinel Mission will provide a unique opportunity for the public to take ownership in a historic space mission that will protect Earth, while providing the necessary roadmap for future exploration.

Sentinel is a space-based infrared (IR) survey mission to discover and catalog 90 percent of the asteroids larger than 140 meters in Earth’s region of the solar system. The mission should also discover a significant number of smaller asteroids down to a diameter of 30 meters. Sentinel will be launched into a Venus-like orbit around the sun, which significantly improves the efficiency of asteroid discovery during its 6.5 year mission.

The spacecraft and instrument use high-heritage flight proven deep space systems, originally developed by NASA, to minimize technical and programmatic risks. These heritage missions include large space-based telescopes (Spitzer, Kepler), a large format camera made up of many individual detectors (Kepler), and a cryogenically cooled instrument (Spitzer). By detective and tracking nearly all of the Near Earth Objects greater than 50 meters in diameter, Sentinel will create a map of the solar system in Earth’s neighborhood enabling future robotic and manned exploration. The Sentinel data will also identify objects that are potentially hazardous to humans to provide an early warning to protect the Earth from impact.

Cycling near Palo Alto I listened to Ed Lu's B612 recent lecture at the Long Now Foundation. I'm looking forward to the release of the full video so I can see all of Ed's graphics.

Something Even More Amazing Than Curiosity on Mars

Depleted Cranium has a very nice new article on the Mars rovers, ending with this Curiosity graphic


With its RTG power source, the rover Curiosity will be able to spend much more time on the go and less time standing still. It will move faster and is likely to travel far more than thirty kilometers. That may well mean that the motors will degrade in a period of time faster than previous rovers. Of course, we still don’t know for sure. Furthermore, even if the rover eventually loses some or all mobility, it may still be operational for basic observations and measurements.

Even if Curiosity does not last as long as Spirit or Opportunity, it will almost certainly return many times as much scientific data, and that’s ultimately the important thing. The new rover is an amazing piece of scientific equipment, yet the amazing feet of endurance of its predecessors is none the less amazing.

B612 Foundation Plans to Launch Space Telescope to Track Asteroids

Thanks to Space, Science & Robots for the heads-up on the Sentinel Spacecraft. We sure hope B612 get the funding they need. The B612 data sheet on the telescope project doesn’t say anything about the status of fund raising.


(…) B612’s mission is to launch a space telescope, called Sentinel, that will track asteroids in Earth’s region of the solar system. The telescope will follow a Venus-like orbit around the Sun. The goal of the mission is to catalog 90% of the asteroids larger than 140 meters as well as discover smaller asteroids. B612 plans to start building Sentinel in late 2012. It says it will take about five years to build the telescope. 

A new X program?


They are at the very edge of current U.S. technological capabilities; one is a supposedly mothballed technology test-bed, the other a super-secret space plane that is currently on orbit – but set to land soon. They are the X-planes, experimental spacecraft that are proving out concepts and capabilities whose beginnings can be traced to the dawn of the space age.

It would appear from amateur observers on the ground that the secretive U.S. Air Force X-37B space plane – will be landing soon. This prediction is based off the fact that the craft is dropping in altitude and the more basic fact that it is nearing the limit of its orbital capabilities and has to return to terra firma. According to the U.S. Air Force, the X-37B can remain on orbit for around nine months or 270 days at maximum, this means that the craft should be landing sometime in the middle of January.

The X-37B or Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Apr. 22, atop an Atlas V rocket. Not much is known after launch due to a media blackout imposed by the U.S. Air Force.


Virgin Galactic and Spaceport America

… held an event to celebrate the completion of the New Mexico spaceport’s new 10,000ft runway. Spaceport America is actively recruiting for a deputy director who will handle the operational issues with the spaceport, a position Homans called “one of the plum jobs” for someone with spaceflight operations experience.

“Governor Richardson, you and I stood five years ago and shook hands on a simple pledge,” recalled Sir Richard Branson: the state would build the spaceport and Virgin would headquarter its operations there. “You’ve kept your word, and I like to say I’ve kept my end of the bargain as well.”

That was the prelude to the main event of the ceremony: a flyover by Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) carrier aircraft, with the SpaceShipTwo (SS2) suborbital spacecraft attached between the plane’s twin fuselages. For nearly a half-hour the aircraft swooped over the spaceport, making passes low over the runway and soaring above the terminal building, to cheers and applause from the audience.

(…) Branson interrupted the proceedings. “I rang the pilot of the spaceship and said, ‘Look, we’ve got a runway here. Why are you going back to Mojave? Why can’t you come and sort of show it off?’ I’m not sure I managed to persuade him, but maybe we could all sort of put some vibes up in the sky.” What followed was the odd spectacle of several hundred people shaking their hands, clapping, and stomping their feet, all at the insistence of Branson, to try and get WK2 and SS2 to return.

At first nothing happened, and the press conference resumed. Several minutes later, though, he again called on the audience to clap and cheer and, sure enough, the aircraft returned to the skies, this time to land on the runway and taxi up near the stage for a round of photo ops with Branson and Richardson.

(…) Virgin, as typical for them, shied away from specific timelines or schedules for bringing the system into service, although Branson said it would be “somewhere between 9 and 18 months” before commercial flights began at Spaceport America. That schedule, he said, would be dependent on the outcome of the extensive test program planned, including additional glide tests and powered test flights. “If you’re building a commercial spaceship program, you’ve got to offer return tickets,” he quipped. “So we just want to be absolutely sure we’ve got the program absolutely right; we’re giving ourselves the flexibility not to be rushed.”

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