November 21, 2011

The Problem With Landing Humans on Mars (and How to Fix It) (Source: WIRED)
When NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory — scheduled to lift-off from Cape Canaveral later this week — touches down on the Red Planet in August of 2012, the one-ton probe will be the largest and most complex piece of unmanned machinery ever to land on another world.

But here’s a little secret: With current technology, nothing larger or heavier than MSL can be put on the surface of Mars. Anything more massive, including a human mission, which NASA estimates would require landing at least 40 to 80 tons of machinery, is completely out of the question.

“We’ve maxed out our ability to take mass to the surface of Mars,” said engineer Bobby Braun, former NASA chief technologist and co-author of a 2005 research paper highlighting this problem. The basic obstacle for large-scale missions is Mars’ tenuous atmosphere, which is more than 100 times thinner than that of Earth. The pressure of the Martian atmosphere at its surface is equivalent to what someone would experience flying at 100,000 feet on Earth. (11/21)

Further Defense Cuts Would be Shortsighted (Source: Des Moines Register)
Columnist Clayton Jones says further defense cuts would be a shortsighted measure by Congress. The cuts could lead to the loss of more than 1 million jobs in the U.S. "We cannot sacrifice our long-term national security for short-term political expediency," writes Jones. (11/21)

NASA Expands Women@NASA Website to Encourage Girls to Pursue STEM Careers (Source: NASA)
NASA has expanded its Women@NASA website to include Aspire 2 Inspire, a new feature aimed at helping middle school girls explore education and careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. The site features four short films and one overview film that explore the careers and backgrounds of early-career women who work for NASA in each of the STEM areas. A list of community organizations and NASA-affiliated outreach programs with a STEM emphasis also is available. (11/21)

Massive Blasts of Plasma Swirl on Sun’s Surface (Source: WIRED)
A new video from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory shows huge blasts of plasma, called solar prominences, curling around the sun’s tumultuous magnetic field. The remarkable activity was captured Nov. 14 to 15 using a wavelength of extreme ultraviolet light. For legal reasons it should be noted that only NASA is allowed to look directly at the sun.*

Solar prominences are made of filaments — relatively cool, dense strands of gas that erupt from the surface of the sun to follow the star’s magnetic field, arcing and twisting before either collapsing back in or ejecting into space to become a solar flare. These prominences can be exceedingly massive — the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory spacecraft recorded the largest yet seen at 430,000 miles long. That’s equal to the radius of the sun. Click here. (11/21)

Lightning Sprites Are Out-of-This-World (Source: Tel Aviv University)
TAU researchers predict "sprites" in the atmospheres of Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus. Only a few decades ago, scientists discovered the existence of "sprites" 30 to 55 miles above the surface of the Earth. They're offshoots of electric discharges caused by lightning storms, and a valuable window into the composition of our atmosphere. Now researchers at Tel Aviv University say that sprites are not a phenomenon specific to our planet. (11/21)

Missile Strike Unlikely Against Wayward Russian Mars Probe (Source: Bloomberg)
Russia probably isn’t capable of shooting down a wayward spacecraft with tons of toxic chemicals inside that may soon crash to Earth, U.S. space engineers said. The $163 million Phobos-Grunt, made by Moscow-based NPO Lavochkin, got stuck in low-Earth orbit after its Nov. 9 launch. It may crash within weeks if scientists are unable to establish contact and activate its propulsion systems. Russia may not have the capability to launch a missile to destroy the probe. (11/21)

Uniting in Congress on Behalf of NASA Glenn Research Center (Source: Cleveland Plain Dealer)
In a very tough budget year, especially for an agency stumbling to find its next mission, NASA did reasonably well in its just-completed appropriations process -- and so did the space technology and aeronautics programs that are the bread and butter of NASA Glenn Research Center and its Plum Brook Station.

One reason for that may be the presence, on the House-Senate conference committee that hammered out the final details of NASA's budget, of two appropriators who understand the importance of NASA Glenn to this region: Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown and Rep. Steve LaTourette. The fact that Brown is a Democrat and LaTourette a Republican ought to underscore both the value of bipartisan cooperation and the fact that shoring up NASA Glenn is a goal that transcends party labels. (11/21)

Harris Corp. Advances Radar Payload Work (Source: Harris)
Florida-based Harris Corp. has completed a two-day Preliminary Design Review for a synthetic aperture radar satellite payload that will provide military commanders in the field with timely, high-resolution radar imagery of the earth's surface — regardless of weather conditions or time of day. The review is a key milestone that confirms the Harris design approach is consistent with the customer’s technical requirements.

Harris was awarded a 30-month contract in December 2010 by Sierra Nevada Corp. to design, build and integrate the synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite payload for the Modular Space Vehicle. The contract is part of NASA's Rapid Response Space Works and Modular Space Vehicles program for the U.S. Department of Defense's Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office. (11/21)

What Would Mars Probe Failure Mean for Russian Space? (Source: BBC)
As Russian hopes of reviving the stranded Phobos-Grunt space probe fade, the nation's entire planetary exploration program for the next decade hangs in limbo. Designed to bring samples of ancient soil from the mysterious Martian moon Phobos, the spacecraft got stuck in low-Earth orbit immediately after its launch on 9 November.

If all attempts to restore the contact with the probe fail, Russian scientists, and many of their colleagues abroad, would lose a unique opportunity for planetary research, for which they have been preparing for almost two decades. Even worse, Phobos-Grunt served as a flagship for the Russian planetary exploration program, intended to pave the way for an array of unmanned missions to many corners of the Solar System. (11/21)

The Ongoing Certainty of Budget Uncertainty (Source: Space Review)
Congress last week passed a final 2012 budget for a number of federal agencies, including NASA, supporting some programs but cutting back funding for others. Jeff Foust reports on the details of that appropriations bill and why, despite its passage, NASA's future funding remains highly uncertain. Visit to view the article. (11/21)

American Human Spaceflight and Future Options, Short- and Long-Term (Source: Space Review)
The future of America's human spaceflight efforts is uncertain given budgetary pressures and worries that the nation doesn't have the commitment needed to support a long-term program. UCF's Roger Handberg warns that if the US waits too long, it could be shut out of future international cooperative ventures by a rising Chinese space program. Visit to view the article. (11/21)

Mind Expansion (Source: Space Review)
What does shifting an orbit of an asteroid have in common with interstellar spaceflight? Lou Friedman describes how both out-of-the-box concepts may be key to expanding our thinking about humanity's future in space. Visit to view the article. (11/21)

Replica Red Planet Rover Built in Florida Garage (Source: Tampa Tribune)
The Mars Science Laboratory rover, NASA's next major mission, won't blast off from Cape Canaveral until later this week, but a full-size replica — built in a Thonotosassa garage — has already landed at New York City's premier history museum. Unlike the spacecraft scheduled to launch between Friday and Dec. 18, the 600-pound homegrown version is the creation of one man: Bruce Olds. Obsessed with America's space program since reading "Chariots for Apollo" in 1999, the 51-year-old has several Mercury 7 capsule replicas on public display.

His reproduction of the capsule piloted in 1961 by Alan Shepard, the first American in space, has been on exhibit at Tampa's Museum of Science & Industry since 2002. Since 2009, a different reproduction has been displayed at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord, N.H. Another of his capsules was purchased for $40,000 in 2008 by Tommy Bartlett Exploratory, Wisconsin Dells, Wis., home to 150 interactive exhibits on a range of activities, including space travel.

Olds' latest compact-car-size creation was completed in October and trucked to the 142-year-old American Museum of Natural History for an exhibition that opened Saturday celebrating manned and unmanned missions, "Beyond Planet Earth: The Future of Space Exploration." For Olds, the mission began five months ago when the bid by his one-man company, Spacecraft Exhibits, was accepted by the New York museum to build the rover replica. (11/21)

Delaware Names 'Ambassador to Mars' (Source: Toronto Sun)
NASA hasn't yet determined if Mars can sustain life, but that isn't deterring one American state from forging political relations with the Red Planet. On Friday, Delaware Governor Jack Markell named Dr. Noureddine Melikechi, the vice president for research at Delaware State University (DSU), the state's “Ambassador to Mars” in recognition of his achievements and role in the launch of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) planned for this Saturday. (11/20)

Japanese Quake Delayed Tests on Space Station Rocket (Source:
The launch of Japan's next space station resupply craft will likely be rescheduled for next June, giving engineers time to make up testing of the freighter's H-2B rocket after the deadly earthquake in March, according to NASA and Japanese space officials. The timing of the launch, which was previously expected in February, will also permit two U.S. commercial logistics vehicles to fly to the International Space Station in the first half of 2012.

The H-2 Transfer Vehicle is Japan's robotic spaceship for delivering scientific equipment, clothing, food, maintenance gear and unpressurized experiments and spare parts. The disposable craft completed two successful flights in 2009 and 2011. Japan developed the H-2B rocket, a beefed-up version the proven H-2A launcher, to loft HTV payloads into orbit. (11/20)

What You Need to Know About Curiosity's Power Source (Source: Florida Today)
NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory is equipped with a nuclear-powered generator that will provide electricity to run the Curiosity rover and keep it warm in an environment where the average temperature is minus 64 degrees Fahrenheit. Unlike the type of nuclear reactors that triggered the Three-Mile Island accident or the 1986 Chernobyl explosion, the generators do not use fusion or fission to produce electricity. Rather, they convert heat from the natural decay of plutonium-238 into electricity to power rover systems and keep it warm on the frigid surface of Mars.

Plutonium-238 is an isotope of plutonium that is not used in weapons and cannot explode like a bomb. It does not emit the type of penetrating radioactivity that can cause serious health problems. It emits alpha radiation, a type that is easily shielded. It cannot penetrate the skin, clothing, even a sheet of paper. It is only dangerous to humans if pulverized into a fine dust that subsequently is inhaled or ingested. (11/21)

Curiosity Has Tank Full of Rare Fuel (Source: Florida Today)
The end of the Cold War thrust deep-space exploration into a world of uncertainty, when two superpowers stopped making the plutonium that powers probes such as NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover. The diminishing supply that resulted could jeopardize some future missions to places too far from the sun or too dusty to rely on solar panels for energy. No plutonium, no more deep-space probes, some fear.

Some 10.6 pounds of plutonium-238 will keep the car-sized Curiosity rover humming along warmly, once it lands on Mars’ frigid surface more than eight months after its scheduled Saturday launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory is scheduled to blast off at 10:02 a.m. Saturday from Launch Complex 41 on an Atlas V rocket. (11/21)

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