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Tonight is Yuri’s Night, when space enthusiasts around the world celebrate the first human trip to outer space made by Yuri Gagarin fifty two years ago. You can read about Yuri here. It is an excellent occasion to assess what is most exciting in space exploration. Unfortunately nobody has jumped forward to build a floating colony on Venus. Indeed NASA seems rather flat footed lately—building a series of colorless rockets and sending successive similar rovers to Mars. Fortunately there is one exciting mission which still has not definitively been cancelled because of budget stalemate.
The Europa Clipper mission is a $2bn dollar project to launch a probe to Jupiter’s moon Europa, a large icy satellite covered in cracked ice. Europa is slightly smaller than Earth’s moon and has a thin oxygen atmosphere. It is one of the smoothest items in the solar system. Astronomers believe that an ocean of liquid water lies beneath Europa which is warmed by tidal flexing (a process which causes orbital and rotational energy to be converted into heat). The surface of Europa is bathed in exotic radiation which rips apart water molecules and leaves oxidants like hydrogen peroxide. All of this means that Europa is the most likely planet in the solar system to harbor unknown life. It has even been theorized that beneath the ice the ocean could have black smoker type environments–and just possibly thermal vent or “cold seep” ecosystems.
Because of this, scientists have been anxious to get a closer look at the intriguing moon. Various proposals have been put forward for missions directly to the moon. The Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft took pictures of it as they flew through the solar system and subsequent missions also took readings and photos—but there has been no Europa-centric mission to really find out about the oceans below the cracked ice. One (amazing!) proposal was to send a nuclear powered melt probe to melt through the ice and sink to the bottom of the ocean, whereupon a mini-sub probe would emerge and explore the extraterrestrial ocean! That plan was shelved because it was too expensive (and nobody could figure out how to sterilize the probe). The proposed Europa Clipper mission is more modest but still quite amazing. Here’s how the Jet Propulsion Laboratory describes it:
The Europa Clipper mission would send a highly capable, radiation-tolerant spacecraft into a long, looping orbit around Jupiter to perform repeated close flybys of Europa.
The possible payload of science instruments under consideration includes radar to penetrate the frozen crust and determine the thickness of the ice shell, an infrared spectrometer to investigate the composition of Europa’s surface materials, a topographic camera for high-resolution imaging of surface features, and an ion and neutral mass spectrometer to analyze the moon’s trace atmosphere during flybys…The nominal Europa Clipper mission would perform 32 flybys of Europa at altitudes varying from 2700 km to 25 km.
That sounds amazing! Join me in lifting a glass to Yuri Gagarin and also join me in hoping that our moribund government funds this far-sighted mission to what might be life’s other home in the solar system!
After several blog posts describing spaceplanes (like the sleek experimental British Skylon plane), it is time to write about one of the alternative proposals for reusable space-capable craft which are capable of both take-off and landing. In the old spaceman fantasies from the golden age of science fiction, human explorers flew their rockets to another world, dropped through the atmosphere and landed vertically. Their rocket set around while the astronauts had fantastical adventures. Then they rushed back aboard and blasted off!
Last week (March 7th, 2013) an experimental rocket named Grasshopper flew a record 80 meters (263 feet) before landing perfectly on the launch pad where it started. Grasshopper was built by Space Exploration Technologies or SpaceX, the private space transport company founded by PayPal billionaire, Elon Musk (who–based on his name and his legacy–may be a James Bond villain or an alien philanthropist). SpaceX is the first privately funded company to successfully launch a spacecraft into orbit and recover it and the budding company has also been first past numerous other milestones in the commercialization of space. Instead of giving everything Roman names like NASA, SpaceX gives its crafts and components Arthurian names such as Merlin, Kestrel, and Draco (I’m going to pretend there was a grasshopper at least somewhere in T. H. White).
The reusable first stage tests of Grasshopper are breaking new ground in the fields of guidance and stability (which are required to land a Grasshopper). If all continues to go well the company plans on supersonic tests later this year. As these become more glorious and more dangerous it is unclear if they will seek to have their current Texas facility made into an official spaceport or if they will move out to the blazing glory of White Sands with the Airforce, NASA, and Virgin Galactic. Whatever the case I salute them for flying a smokestack around the countryside and then landing it on a basketball court. Perhaps I was too hasty to dismiss the possibilities of commercial spaceflight!
Back in 2011, as the space shuttle program wound down, Ferrebeekeeper published what seemed like an elegy to spaceplanes—mixed-use vehicles capable of operating both as spacecraft and aircraft (most notably the space shuttles). The dwindling national interest in science and exploration once seemed to indicate that the shuttle program would be the last spaceplane program for a long time. However, as the United States abandons its interest in cutting-edge Aerospace projects, other nations and private interests are picking up the slack.
Skylon is a British spaceplane concept from a private company, Reaction Engines Limited. During the eighties, Rolls Royce and British Aerospace, poured money and knowledge into the creation of a vehicle named HOTOL (an awkward acronym which stands for HOrizontal TakeOff and Landing). Although huge amounts of human energy went into HOTOL, it was canceled because of lack of funding. Reaction Engines Limited is trying to build on the extensive HOTOL designs.
Skylon certainly has a futuristic look. It has a long slender needle-like fuselage with stubby delta wings sticking out midway. Each of these wings is mounted at the end with a SABRE (Synthetic Air Breathing Engine). These next-generation engines are the real key to achieving single-stage-to-orbit spaceflight (a milestone which has long proven elusive for space engineers). Ideally the plane could take off from a runway and speed up to Mach 5.4 as it left the atmosphere and entered orbit. After deploying its payload it could then glide back down to Earth like a normal plane.
Skylon would be constructed of a carbon fiber frame with heat resistant ceramic tiling and it would employ liquid hydrogen as a fuel to loft its 82 meter long (269 ft) body into near-space (before switching to internal liquid oxygen as it left the atmosphere). Like HOTOL before it, Skylon was stuck in funding purgatory for a long time, but recently a huge chunk of funding became available to test the viability of the various systems. These tests were successfully completed in November of 2012 and Reaction is now moving forward with the building of Skylon.
Skylon is designed to be vastly cheaper than the shuttle or any current rocket programs (and it would cut down on space debris). Engineers estimate that one of the crafts could be ready to launch again in only two days after a successful landing (as opposed to the shuttle which required months of refitting). Let’s hope the technology works out. Although unmanned interplanetary craft are accomplishing great things, it has been too long since there was a flashy achievement
Today’s post concerns various contemporary news items regarding outer space. At first this list may seem like a bit of a mash-up, but it all comes together as a very specific polemical point.
This year has already featured a lot of space news, but, sadly, most of it seems like it could have come from the 1950s. Iran launched a monkey to the edge of outer space. South Korea placed its first satellite in orbit (which seems like a response to North Korea doing the same thing last year).
In US space news, the 27th anniversary of the Challenger disaster came and went (that was an epically bad day in 6th grade–which was hardly a picnic anyway). Additionally, America announced that its biggest space plans for the near future include landing a redundant lander on Mars which was not exactly what NASA wanted but it fit the budget and was politically expedient. Our not-very-exciting work on our not-very-exciting next generation rockets continues slowly.
Finally, in other space-related news, paleontologists discovered that a massive space event apparently bombarded the Earth with Gamma rays in the 8th century. Astronomers speculate that two neutron stars might have collided! Also on February 15th a 50 meter asteroid will narrowly miss the Earth (flying by closer than many of our communication satellites).
All of this paints a rather alarming picture of a turbulent and dangerous universe where catastrophic events can occur with little notice. Meanwhile on Earth dangerous rogue nations (not you, South Korea, we like your style) are venturing into strategically important low Earth orbit. NASA’s current large-scale projects are lackluster (although its robotic exploration of the solar system continues to be exemplary). Are we discarding our leadership position in space because of debt, political paralysis, and complacency? It certainly seems like it…
It has been a long time since we had a post about mascots, which is a real shame, since they tend to be the weirdest posts on Ferrebeekeeper (which is saying something since this is a blog about dark gods, strange art, exotic mollusks, and brain vivisection). Therefore today we highlight space-themed mascots—symbolic beings/objects which represent a group or entity by means of anthropomorphized celestial bodies (or other zany astronomical concepts). I am pleased by all of the stars and suns but somehow I wanted something more celestial and mysterious. Also why are so many of them yellow?
We mentioned the troubles Ole Miss was having phasing out their previous mascot in favor of something less divisive. Here is Star War’s own Admiral Ackbar filling in that role.
Hmm, I’m not sure whether that has furthered my dearly-held and oft’ stated goal to prod humankind back towards the exploration of outer space, but you never know what will work best with different people and, at least we saw some really strange mascots.
Today I am posting some pictures of what I think is the most beautiful deep space object. The Sombrero Galaxy (M104) is a nearby galaxy which is visible edge-on in the constellation of Virgo. Actually, calling it an object might be a bit misleading since M104 consists of more than 400 billion stars–not to mention numerous associated globular clusters, innumerable planets, immense clouds of gas & gas, and a supermassive black hole which lies in the center. The black hole in the center of M104 isn’t a mild mannered & quiescent black hole like the one in the center of the Milky Way either. Based on the speed of revolution of the stars near the middle of M104, astronomers calculate that the central black hole has a billion times the mass of the sun.
In cosmic terms, the Sombrero galaxy is nearby—which is to say it is merely 28-odd million light years away. The galaxy was discovered in the late eighteenth century by Pierre Méchain . Other prominent 18th century astronomers subsequently observed and studied M104, including Charles Messier (which is the reason the galaxy is included in the “Messier” catalog and has a M-designation) and the redoubtable William Herschel who noted a “dark-stratum” bounding the luminous central bulge. We now know that this ring around M104 is a toroid dust lane of vast proportions which halos the galaxy. Astronomers initially thought that the Sombrero Galaxy was an unbarred spiral galaxy, but thanks to observations from NASA’s Spitzer space telescope (an infrared scope orbiting Earth), the scientific community has revised their estimation of its size upward. It lies somewhere between a spiral galaxy and an elliptical galaxy. In other words, when you look at the Sombrero Galaxy, you are looking at something vast beyond human comprehension—a galaxy bigger than our own filled with who knows what things we will never know. And yet if you expand the Hubble photo at the top of this post, you will see that all of the little stars shining around M104 are other galaxies farther away.
There can only be one subject for today’s short post: congratulations to NASA for successfully landing the large space rover Curiosity on Mars! The touchdown was a stupendous triumph of engineering and space-faring: you can check out the ridiculous precision which was required on the NASA produced digital animation Seven Minutes of Terror. There is even an amazing photo of the actual landing taken from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a multipurpose spacecraft which has been orbiting Mars and diligently assembling a comprehensive picture of the place.
The Curiosity is a very alien looking vehicle. A deliciously irony about our space exploration program is the extent to which our current technology resembles the clichés of the golden age of science fiction. The Curiosity literally arrived via flying saucer. It has six insectoid wheeled legs and a laser blaster! If it landed it my back yard I would grovel before it and offer to take it to the president or maybe throw a hatchet at it and call the Air Force (depending on how I construed it intentions).
The Curiosity beamed back a few photos from Mars to prove it arrived safely: now it will go through a series of diagnostics and start-ups before the real research gets started. The actual measurements it takes will be pored over by astrophysicists and geologists for decades. However, in a larger sense, a substantial chunk of the real research has already taken place—the scientific and engineering challenges which went in to creating the lander are as big a part of the program’s utility as the information stream from the surface of an alien world.
Of course the success of the Curiosity has a frustrating side: the comments on all of the news sites were filled with complaints from myopic Luddites who were angrily whining that the United States is wasting its money on Mars. “We humans need to get our own house in order before we start worrying about red rocks on Mars. There are millions of children who go blind every year from parasites and malnutrition and you’re worried about sending a robot to Mars to collect stupid red rocks,” wrote Matthew Smith in a typical anti-research anti-progress comment. Fortunately, such views seemed to be a minority today, but they always call for a stern rebuttal. Many of the the technologies which we use every day and undergird our economy grew from the space program (and related defense research). To cut back on such research is to abandon our prosperity and technology leadership in the future but, more worryingly, it is to abandon the future.
Humankind needs to understand both astrophysics and aerospace engineering far better: missions like Curiosity are a way to accomplish both those goals. Additionally Curiosity is working on some questions unique to Mars, a world which once had oceans and an atmosphere and now does not. That seems like something we should understand better for its own sake, but it also suggests that microscopic life might still dwell on Mars (or at least the remains of extinct life could exist in fossils). Finally, we did not spend the money on Mars. The government spent all of that money here, on salaries for engineers and scientists and on R&D for high tech industries. China is amazingly proficient at penching pennies and producing plastic junk, but it will be a long time before they can build anything as complicated as the Curiosity and the equipment which took it to the surface of Mars (although hopefully they are trying—we could use some new partners in space and some friendly competition might get us moving a bit faster).
Ferrebeekeeper has looked at true space pioneers such as Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the father of theoretical astronautics, and Yuri Gagarin, the first person to actually visit space. However there are apocryphal tales concerning earlier space-explorers and aerospace pioneers. One of the shortest and silliest legends concerns Wan Hu, a (most-likely-fictional) petty government official in Medieval China who was reputedly the first astronaut. Wan Hu’s problematic story is set in 15th century China during the 19th year of the reign of the Chenghua Emperor (the 8th emperor of the Ming Dynasty who ruled from 1464 to 1487).
Wan Hu was obsessed with the heavens and he decided to travel to outer space by means of Ming dynasty technology (or possibly he was trying to catch a cartoon roadrunner). He assembled a “spacecraft/flying machine” from 47 powerful fireworks rockets, two large kites, and an armchair. The rockets were tiered into two stages to give the chair an added burst of power. When he gave the word, numerous attendants darted forward with torches and simultaneously lit the fireworks. Wan’s chair leapt into the sky and then exploded in a giant ball of flame. When the smoke cleared Wan and his flying machine were entirely gone. Even if he did not make it to space, he certainly succeeded in exiting this mortal plane!
Not only does the story contain implausible elements (!) but the first known version of Wan Hu’s heroic but doomed flight comes from an issue of Scientific American published in the October 2nd, 1909 issue of Scientific American (although the hero of that story was named “Wang Tu”). Subsequent retellings of the story (first in English and then in Chinese) changed the name to Wan Hoo and then finally to Wan Hu. Despite Wan’s nonexistent nature, the Soviets named a lunar crater after him in 1966. In 1970 the International Astronomical Union accepted the name—so an ancient crater which measures 5km deep and 52km wide on the dark side of the moon permanently bears the name of the imaginary adventurer. Surprisingly the Chinese have embraced Wan (choosing hopefully to admire his courage and foresight rather than his safety protocols) and there is a statue of him at Xichang Satellite Launch Centre.
One of life’s disappointments is the dearth of fine art concerning outer space. Outer space is vast beyond imagining: it contains everything known. Indeed, we live in space (albeit on a little blue planet hurtling around an obscure yellow star)–but cosmic wonders do not seem to have called out to the greatest artists of the past as much as religious or earthly subjects. There are of course many commercial illustrations featuring the elements of science fiction: starships, ringed planets, exploding suns, and tentacled aliens (all of which I like) and there are also didactic scientific illustrations, which attempt to show binary stars, ring galaxies, quasars and other celestial subjects. Yet only rarely does a fine artist turn his eyes towards the heavens, and it is even less frequent that such a work captures the magnificence and enormity of astronomy.
Fortunately the Dutch artist MC Escher was such an artist. His space-themed engravings utilize religious, architectural, and biological elements in order to give a sense of scale and mystery. The familiar architecture and subjects are transcended and eclipsed by the enormity of the cosmic subjects. Here are two of his woodcuts which directly concern outer space.
The first print is a wood engraving entitled The Dream (Mantis Religiosa) shows a fallen bishop stretched on a catafalque as a huge otherworldly praying mantis stands on his chest (the whole work is a sort of pun on the mantis’ taxonomical name Mantis religiosa “the religious mantis”. The buildings arround the bishop and the bug are dissipating to reveal the wonders of the night sky. The bishop’s world of religious mysteries and social control are vanishing in the face of his death. Greater mysteries are coming to life and beckoning the anxious viewer.
The colored woodcut “Other World” shows a simurgh standing above, below and in front of the viewer in a spatially impossible gazebo on an alien world. The simurgh is a mythical animal from ancient Persian literature and art which combines human and avian elements. Sufi mystics sometimes utilize the simurgh as a metaphor for the unknowable nature of divinity. Yet here the simurgh is dwarfed by the craters beneath him and by the planetary rings filling up the sky above. A strange horn hangs above, below, and to the side of the viewer. Perhaps it is a shofar from ancient Judea or a cornucopia from the great goat Amalthea. Whatever the case, the viewer has become unfixed in mathematical space and is simultaneously looking at the world from many different vantage points. A galaxy hangs in the sky above as a reminder of the viewer’s insignificance.
Above all it is Escher’s manipulation of spatial constructs within his art that makes the viewer realize the mathematical mysteries which we are daily enmeshed in. The multidimensional geometric oddities rendered by Escher’s steady hand in two dimensions characterize a universe which contains both order and mystery. Giant bugs and bird/human hybrids are only symbols of our quest to learn the underpinnings of the firmament. Escher’s art is one of the few places where science and art go together hand in hand as partners. This synthesis gives a lasting greatness to his artwork, which are undiminished by popularity and mass reproduction.