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kepler-k2_artistconcept

During the excitement of Ming Week, we missed NASA’s announcement about new discoveries from the orbital telescope Kepler.  Ever since the reaction wheels used to point Kepler started failing, the plucky space observatory has been in real trouble.  Kepler’s mission has been steeply downgraded and it is not the mighty force of discovery it once was…but…a huge amount of data which had been collected prior to these malfunctions had not yet been analyzed.  On May 10th, NASA announced that they had gone through this information and discovered another 1284 planets, a handful of which are somewhat Earthlike.

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This is more than 30% more planets than we previously knew about, all dumped on the public in one day.  It is a phenomenal number: more than a thousand new planets to think about.  It is surprising to me that none of these planets have the (approximate) same mass and orbital distance from their respective stars as Earth.  Maybe our solar system really is unusual.  There sure do seem to be a lot of weird hot Neptunes and giant fast rocky planets and other strange & unanticipated worlds.  What’s going on, planetary physicists? Could you start explaining some of this stuff?

However Kepler’s mission to find Earthlike planets was not a wash. There are indeed other planet in the habitable zone.  Some of them could have liquid water and clement atmospheres.

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The real excitement of this data is that astronomers will already know where to point the next generation of exponentially more powerful telescopes as they come online in the next decade.  I can hardly wait for astronomers to point the Webb Space Telescope and the Large Magellan Space Telescope at some of these newly discovered worlds!

A Pegasus Rocket launched from Orbital's airplane "Stargazer"

A Pegasus Rocket launched from Orbital’s airplane “Stargazer”

Tonight Orbital Sciences Corporation is launching a Pegasus rocket from Vandenberg Airforce Base in California (which is a sentimental, um, missile base for me since my grandfather was a workman there back in the ‘50s).  Orbital is one of those vaunted private companies which is reaching for space as the government defunds NASA, although, truth be told, the corporation seems to concentrate on launching satellites and building rockets for the government so it might not be too different from the classical aerospace companies which have been interwoven with the nation’s Space/Defense programs since back when grandpa was painting missile silos. The apex of Orbital’s ambition was to build a spaceplane to replace the space shuttle, but their proposal was not selected by NASA and they are winding down their efforts to build a crewed vehicle.

The IRIS solar observatory satellite (NASA)

The IRIS solar observatory satellite (NASA)

Actually the Pegasus rocket is launched from a high altitude airplane which is launched from Vandenberg.  This technology was developed during the cold war for interception (i.e. shooting down enemy spy satellites) but tonight it finds a higher calling: the rocket will be launching a small satellite named IRIS into orbit.  IRIS stands for Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph.  The satellite is a small ultraviolet solar observatory designed to study the mysterious chromosphere of the sun—the second of three layers of the sun’s atmosphere which, perplexingly, is much hotter than the region beneath it.  You can look at this old post for a proposal about why this is so–the answer probably involves solar tornadoes (IRIS will be able to tell us if this solution is correct).

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If you are turning in around 10:20- 10:30 EST you can watch the launch at this link (probably).  Go IRIS!  It’s exciting to have another robot spacecraft monitoring our star!

The US Air Force's Automated Space Shuttle X-37B (US Air Force/Sipa Press/Newscom/File)

The final mission of the Space Shuttle Discovery is currently underway.  Additionally, the X-37B, the “secret” robot space shuttle operated by United States Air Force, just concluded a successful seven month mission last December. The Air Force is primed to launch a second X-37B robot shuttle at 3:39 p.m. (EST) today. This flurry of activity leads to general reflection concerning spaceplanes, crafts designed to operate in outer space, fly back through earth’s atmosphere, and land on ground.  With two in orbit at the same time spaceplanes are now more in use then ever…while simultaneously fading away.

First let’s look at NASA’s space shuttle program. Here’s what NASA’s website has to say about the Discovery:

It’s certainly earned its retirement. Discovery has flown more missions than any other shuttle – more than any other spacecraft, in fact. After 38 missions to date, and more than 5,600 trips around the Earth, Discovery has carried satellites such as the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit and sent the Ulysses robotic probe on its way to the Sun. It was the first shuttle to rendezvous with the Russian Mir Space Station, and it delivered the Japanese Kibo laboratory to the International Space Station.

The objective of the current mission is to deliver spare parts and supplies to the International Space Station. Along with water, new personnel, sundry modules, and widgets, Discovery is also delivering Robonaut 2.  Despite the misleading number, Robonaut 2 is the first humanoid robot in outer space.

Robonaut 2--wait, what?

When the mission is complete the Discovery is scheduled to go off to some museum. The entire shuttle program is winding down: the program was supposed to end in 2010 but international obligations compelled NASA to tack on a few missions in 2011.  Endeavor is already on the pad for what may be its final flight and Atlantis is on standby.  Enterprise (which never made it to space) is already at the Smithsonian. And, of course, Challenger and Columbia are both gone, lost along with their heroic crews in our first doddering steps into space.

Space Shuttle Discovery Lifting Off (Photo by Matt Stroshane/Getty Images North America)

The shuttles seem so much a part of our culture that it is hard to recognize how revolutionary they were in the seventies and eighties (and still are). It’s true that they are shockingly dangerous but the technology used to create them pushed the limits of materials technology a long way.  For example the thermal shields of the shuttle protect the orbiters from re-entry temperatures that could otherwise reach as high as 1,650 °C (about 3,000 °F), well above the melting point of steel. The program also advanced rocketry by leaps and bounds.

The American Space Shuttle and the Soviet Buran

The shuttles were the first spaceplanes to go into orbit.  The only other spaceplanes that are known to have done so were the unmanned Soviet Bor-4 test craft, the Soviet Buran (a space-shuttel knock-off scrapped during the Soviet meltdown after one successful manned fligth), and the OTV-1 and OTV-2. Both of these latter vehicles are Boeing X-37B robot shuttles used by the United States Air Force to test (note to the Air Force and Boeing, please give your robot space planes cooler names).  The X-37B is a automated shuttle with a payload about the size of a Ford Ranger pickup.  Originally a NASA program which was scrapped for budget reasons the robot shuttle was picked up by DARPA and built by the Air Force which claims to use it to test guidance, navigation and control systems.  Since the OTV-1’s mission (which was tracked by amateur astronomers) took the craft over Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea, and China, it is reasonable to speculate that the craft may have reconnaissance purposes as well.


There are a number of suborbital spaceplanes which have managed to reach above the Kármán line but were incapable of going into orbit. Lately private companies have been jockeying to make more of these space hoppers and conventional wisdom asserts that the market will step in and deliver the next generation of spaceplanes. Hopefully private innovators will come up with some bright ideas. Budget and technical constraints have lead NASA to scrap its plans for ramjet scramjet and spaceplanes. There isn’t much else on the drawing board that we know about right now (other than the Japanese Space Program’s origami airplanes which are seemingly designed to be tossed into space for fun pictured below) .  The foreseeable future apparently belong to rockets.

The Japanese Space Program's 29-gram origami shuttle made of treated ricepaper--the future of spaceplanes?

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