NASA Study Proposes Airships, Cloud Cities for Venus Exploration


We choose to go to the Moon, old boy. Pip Pip

It’s a (criminally) little know fact that at one point after WW2 Britain had a space programme not only did we succeed in putting one satellite in orbit but we also managed to build a series of launch vehicles. Some now sit in various museums alongside the V weapons and in London, Apollo 10’s Command module. To date we’re the only country to create a home grown rocket and launch a satellite then give up. Prospero (after the sorcerer who gives up his powers in ‘The Tempest’) was launched after the cancellation of the programme. A victim of the post war economy and a decision to abandon it in favour of US built rockets.

Britains space programme languished in a sort of purgatory from the cancellation of the original programme until the mid 1980’s when the government started the HOTOL project, however like every other attempt that too was marked top secret and shut down. Since then if you wanted to be an astronaut you have to go to the US, which is what Piers Sellers and Michael Foale did or be funded privately like Helen Sharman.

So that sad tortured history of false starts brings us to now, the days of the MoD, DTI and BNSC are long gone, the UK Space Agency now calls the shots and thanks to pretty healthy financial circumstances (the UK space industry was one of the few sectors to grow during the recession) we now have a proper astronaut slated to launch next year in November, the UK government is actively supporting Skylon which is the successor to HOTOL and is making good progress, and an announcement this summer about the construction of a spaceport in the UK is all promising that this time UK Space is on the right trajectory.

So this brings me to today, on November 19 a consortium known as Lunar one announced a crowdfunding appeal for £500 million, this would be used to fund and land a probe on the Lunar South pole. Today the overview of the scientific mission was announced. The Lander will drill 100m into the surface and return information about the moons composition and whether it would be feasible not only for a lunar base but also as a place to site telescopes away from interference from the Earth. Not only this but people can pay to send pictures, text messages and hair samples on the lander as a way of “immortality” now theres £460,922 pledged of £600,000 goal with 
9 days to go. So as you can see, so very near the goal, of having something British on the moon, and not just a few bits of metal on Mars and a sad legacy of what could have been. So in the words of Prospero:

“But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands.
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,”

Dammit Jeb!

It looks like Orbital Sciences have let the Kerbals get their hands on their latest rocket, after the Antares craft exploded shortly after launching at Wallops in Virginia.

The company which has a $1.9bn contract with NASA to supply the ISS has come under fire over claims the problem with the craft are the aged Russian engines

Eyebrows have been raised because the AJ-26 engines date from
the former Soviet Union and were originally made in the 1960s. Part of the abandoned Soviet moon programme, they were ordered to be destroyed in the early 1970s – but the company that made them decided to defy the order and stored them in secret instead, plastering them in radiation hazard stickers to deter the curious.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, they were sold to an American company, Aerojet Rocketdyne, later in that decade. The United States has not developed a new rocket motor for more than 35 years, and Orbital Science subsequently bought them from Aerojet to use in Antares.

The loss of the rocket isn’t an issue for the ISS as a Russian progress craft also lifted off last night and while it is too early to say for sure what caused a $200 million plus firework show, I imagine this is a blow to Orbital and might perk SpaceX up who now stand to get more funds to replace the lost cargo on their next flight.

Although as we have seen in the 50+ years we’ve been doing this, rockets go wrong and we should be thankful it was only an unmanned craft this time.

Enter the Dragon V2

It’s been a good 3 days for spaceflight. First a Soyuz blasted away from Baikonur carrying Nasa’s Reid Wiseman, Russian cosmonaut Max Surayev and German Alexander Gerst, from the European Space Agency. They’re due to carry out a 6 month expedition to the International Space Station.

Not only that but the Orion manned capsule passed another milestone with the integration of the heat shield. The 16.5ft Avcoat ablator shield will protect the capsule from the reentry temperatures on its unmanned test flight slated for December 2014. The test will be a major milestone for the Orion project. The capsule will be launched into an orbit of around three and a half thousand miles (15 times higher than the ISS) and will be used to check out the systems and how it reacts during a steep re-entry expected from the proposed missions to the Moon and eventually Mars.



Closer to home, Reaction Engines “SKYLON” passed another hurdle. An ESA report confirmed that Skylon is economically viable, this is a big achievement for the British company in their ongoing plan for a fully reusable space plane that can carry heavy payloads into orbit.

However the big news belongs to Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

Last night Musk unveiled Dragon V2. The manned variant of their dragon capsule. Designed to carry a crew of up to 7 to the International Space Station. Unlike the current capsule this one is designed to land on solid ground and comes complete with landing legs – although it also carries parachutes as a backup.
Not only that but gone is the claustrophobic capsules of Apollo, Dragon is pretty roomy for a capsule although I suspect a mission ready one will have more things inside than 7 seats and a giant iPhone. Musk said that this wasn’t the final design and that there was still padding and other things to put in.



What sets this aside is the reusability, NASA is currently paying the Russians for seats on Soyuz. However like Apollo, Soyuz isn’t reusable, once the capsules land that’s it for them. With Dragon they’re hopeful of a quick turnaround of capsules and with a heat shield that can survive multiple re entries that’s an easy claim to make. However they also said that of the Space Shuttle and the relentless schedule and the complexity (although not much of an issue with Dragon) resulted in some pretty close calls, and one tragedy.

Musk is onto a winner here, it’s no secret his ultimate goal is to get to Mars, and with a manned test flight (with NASA and SpaceX personnel onboard) planned for 2016 it looks like he’s just that one step closer.

Falcon flies!

SpaceX have once again successfully launched another Falcon 9 rocket into orbit. Classified as CRS-3 (Commercial Resupply 3) the Dragon capsule is carrying a variety of supplies including 4 HD cameras for Earth observation, Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS) which is a laser communication device similar to what is carried on the Lunar Reconnaissance orbiter and the recently departed LADEE. Not only is it carrying those but also a set of legs for Robonaut 2.

Douglas Bader-naut

More significantly, the 1st stage of the falcon booster is equipped with landing legs. In an ambitious test SpaceX plan on rotating the 1st stage back towards Cape Canaveral and fire the engines for a controlled descent then the legs will deploy and the 1st stage will gently land back on Earth to be reused. This is quite a big deal since it would dramatically reduce the costs associated with building new stages. The overall idea could work and “Grasshopper” tests have already been a success. SpaceX aim to complete these tests on all flights (where feasible) until they can “Nail” a pinpoint landing with the 1st stage.

Following on from that they then hope to achieve the same with the 2nd stage which will need heat shielding as it does reach Low Earth Orbit.

If, and it is a BIG IF, it can be done. Space X would have accomplished the seemingly impossible. A fully reusable space craft. Not even NASA achieved that with Shuttle since the large orange external tank burned up after launch.

For now though. Dragon will be arriving on station early next week and we should soon find out if the 1st stage test worked.

Also as an aside, a few days ago NASA announced that launch complex 39A would be leased out to SpaceX. 39A was the launch pad for Apollo 11 and numerous shuttle launched. It seems fitting that the site where man first left to land on the moon, is now the site for a new chapter in spaceflight.

Ladee pounded round the far side

NASA’s LADEE (Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer) has ceased to be. Controllers confirmed on Friday that the probe impacted on the Moon’s far side following the 28 day extension to its 100 day primary mission.

LADEE was launched in September to investigate the almost non existent atmosphere of the moon but also carried a demonstrator of a laser based communication system which is hoped could one day replace radio as a method of communication, especially if manned missions to an asteroid beyond lunar orbit and eventually Mars are to go ahead. The best demonstration was the transmission of the Mona Lisa to the Lunar reconnaissance orbiter in January 2013.

The laser-based communication system worked wonderfully, says team member Mihaly Horanyi at the University of Colorado, Boulder.”We had a really high rate of data transmission. You could have watched Netflix on the moon if you wanted to.”

LADEE’s primary mission though was the atmosphere. The main discovery that the moon has a thin layer of dust encircling it caused by micrometeorite impacts confirmed what was suspected. However it still couldn’t explain what caused the mysterious rays seen by Apollo astronauts just before sunrise or sunset

Mysterious light rays documented by the crew of Apollo 17


While this doesn’t mean they don’t exist it just demonstrated the limitations of the orbiters detectors. However the information gathered by the craft will have real impacts on NASA’s future human spaceflight plans.
Over the next few days and weeks the LRO will be trying to find the impact site to see what remains. Although managers believe the spacecraft has vapourised due to the speeds it was travelling.

Repost: Apollo 13: Eyewitness to the Explosion

By Mike Klesius

Odyssey, You Have a Problem.”
If five men in Houston had realized what they were seeing through a telescope on the evening of April 13, 1970, they could have radioed those words to the crew of Apollo 13, who was still trying to grasp what had just happened: an oxygen tank on their spacecraft had exploded en route to the moon.George Wyckliffe Hoffler was at the time a young NASA flight surgeon assigned to study cardiovascular data gathered from the Apollo astronauts during their spaceflights. On the second night of the mission, Hoffler was taking a break from studying for his medical boards, and had joined four other NASA employees on the roof of building 16A at the Manned Spacecraft Center, now the Johnson Space Center. There they watched a television monitor hooked up to a 16-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope with a television camera mounted in place of the eyepiece. The monitor showed two dots flying in formation on their way to the moon: the brighter of the two was the spent third stage of the Saturn V launch vehicle; the dimmer one was the Apollo 13 spacecraft, which had separated from the third stage two days earlier.

The Apollo 13 spacecraft, as seen through the telescope, immediately after the oxygen tank blew. Credit: NASA

Every ten seconds the TV camera integrated, or updated, the image. “Between one ten-second integration and the next one,” says Hoffler, now retired in Titusville, Florida, “we can’t say exactly what second that was, the less bright dot was not a dot anymore. It was an expanded sphere, reflecting light. A disc. And I remember the guy who was in charge of the thing, Andy Saulietis,…he said, ‘What in the world is that?’ Every ten seconds it continued to grow a bit, and then started to fade as the gas dissipated into the vacuum of space. We watched it for two or three minutes I guess. In retrospect, none of us had the presence of mind to call next door to Mission Control and say, ‘Hey guys, you’ve got a problem.’ ”

What they were seeing was oxygen from the ruptured tank venting into space. In the vacuum, there was no atmospheric pressure to contain the expanding vapor. “We calculated the diameter of that reflecting sphere of gas surrounding the spacecraft to be approximately 25 miles. And it just blew out in just a few seconds,” says Hoffler. “It was under pressure, and when the cannister blew, the gas molecules jetted out with enormous velocity.” In this extended recording, astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise remain calm as they report various readings to mission control. Lovell finally looks out the window to say that he sees some sort of gas being vented into space.

Hoffler notes that the anniversary of Apollo 13, which launched on April 11, overlaps with the April 12 anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s flight as the first human in space in 1961, as well as the first flight of the space shuttle, launched on April 12, 1981. When offered the suggestion that April was a good month for human spaceflight, he says: “It was a bad month too.”

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Repost: Ocean discovered on Enceladus may be best place to look for alien life

Researchers have discovered a deep saltwater ocean on one of the many small moons that orbit Saturn, leading scientists to conclude it is the most likely place in the solar system for extraterrestrial life to be found.

Gravitational field measurements taken by Nasa’s Cassini space probe revealed that a 10km-deep ocean of water, larger than Lake Superior, lurks beneath the icy surface of Enceladus at the moon’s south pole.

David Stevenson, a planetary scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, said the body of water was so large it “may extend halfway or more towards the equator in every direction. It might even extend all the way to the north.”

The presence of a saltwater ocean a billion kilometres from Earth more than satisfies Nasa’s long-held mantra of “follow the water” to find signs of alien life, but water is not the only factor that makes Enceladus such a promising habitat. The water is in contact with the moon’s rocky core, so elements useful for life, such as phosphorus, sulfur and potassium, will leach into the ocean.

 The first hint that Enceladus might harbour a subterranean ocean came in 2005 when Nasa’s Cassini spacecraft photographed extraordinary jets of water vapour blasting out of fissures in the moon’s south pole. The source of the water was a mystery, and an ocean of liquid water was only one possibility.

The latest discovery, reported in the journal, Science, gives scientists the strongest indication yet that the source of water vapour coming from Enceladus is a large body of water underneath the surface of the icy moon.

An international team led by Luciano Iess at the Sapienza University in Rome inferred the existence of the ocean after taking a series of exquisite measurements made during three fly-bys between April 2010 and May 2012, which brought the Cassini spacecraft within 100km of the surface of Enceladus.

As Cassini sped past the Saturnian moon, researchers used Nasa’s Deep Space Network of giant antennas to monitor signals reaching Earth from the spacecraft’s onboard radio. They looked for subtle shifts in the frequency of the radiowaves, which revealed whether the spacecraft was speeding up or slowing down. The measuring technique exploits the Doppler effect, which explains why the siren of a police car has a higher pitch as it approaches, and a lower pitch as it heads away.

Cassini, the scientists discovered, sped up and slowed down by a few millimetres per second as it flew past Enceladus. Some of the change in speed was down to variations in the gravitational field of the moon as a result of different densities of material under the surface.

After taking account of other factors that could alter the spacecraft’s speed, such as drag from the plumes of water vapour, and even the modest pressure produced by sunlight, the researchers created a map of the gravitational field of Enceladus.

The shape of the gravitational field pointed to something more dense than ice – but less dense than rock – deep beneath the south pole of the moon. “Given the kinds of materials we know are used to make bodies like this, the natural thing to look for is water, because water is more dense than ice, and because it’s a natural thing to have in that environment,” said Stevenson.

When scientists first speculated that Enceladus might contain an ocean of water, one of the greatest puzzles was how the ice could be heated to make liquid water. Stevenson and his colleagues believe that gravitational forces that act on Enceladus as it orbits Saturn essentially knead the planet, producing enough heat inside to melt the ice. The process is known as tidal heating.

Enceladus is not the only moon in the solar system to have a subsurface ocean. Europa, a much larger moon that orbits Jupiter, has a more extensive, global ocean under the surface. But Enceladus has excited scientists because the vapour plumes from the south pole are known to contain organic molecules. These, along with basic elements, a source of heat and liquid water, make Enceladus a prime candidate in the search for alien organisms.

“The question is what conditions do you need to form life and, of course, we don’t know what temperature the ocean is today, nor do we know what it was back in the geological past. But it’s conceivable that it was warm enough, with circulation of water coming from the silicate core as well, to allow life to form even if today that ocean is maintained by antifreeze and is slightly below the freezing point,” said Jonathan Lunine, a member of the team at Cornell University in New York. The antifreeze in question is salt, which reduces the temperature at which water freezes.

In 2008, Nikolai Brilliantov, a mathematician at Leicester University, worked out how water vapour jets might blast out of Enceladus if it harboured an underground ocean. Confirmation of the ocean made Enceladus the most likely place so far to find extraterrestrial life.

“There are definitely regions on Enceladus where the conditions are such that life could exist. You have liquid water, you have chemicals and you have heat. And that is enough for life. To my mind, this is the best place we can expect to find life elsewhere in the solar system,” Brilliantov told the Guardian.

“On Mars there are some signs of water in the past, but now we have very, very serious indications that liquid water exists in Enceladus,” Brilliantov said. “It’s technically possible to send a probe that could drill a hole and test the water to see if we are alone in the universe or if something else lives here.”

Chris McKay, an astrobiologist at Nasa’s Ames Research Centre in California, said: “There are now several lines of evidence – the geysers, the plume chemistry, and now gravity – that indicate a substantial body of liquid water. For astrobiology this is confirmation of what we expected and is good news. My one view is that Enceladus should be the priority.”

Writing in the journal Astrobiology this week, McKay makes the case for an Enceladus flyby mission to return samples of the water vapour plumes and look for biomolecular evidence of life. “With samples of the organic material from the plume, we could search in terrestrial laboratories for organic biomarkers that would be conclusive evidence for life,” he writes.