Wednesday, October 08, 2014

The Spirit of Exploration: Comets, Pluto, Titan and Mars

NASA recently awarded contracts to Boeing and SpaceX to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, ending U.S. dependence on the Russian Soyuz for transportation of humans (at $70 million a seat). It's about time! It also makes clear the advantages of competition, which Elon's company has restored. How interesting that SpaceX is being paid only a little more than half what Boeing will be paid, for the same number of crew/cargo deliveries.  If Elon is trying to make a point... he is succeeding.
philae== Closing in on Comets! ==
As a licensed cosmet... I mean cometologist, I find this truly exciting news: In early November, the Philae lander — currently tucked inside the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft — will drop down to the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on November 12.  Philae will make measurements while anchored to the comet by a harpoon. 

Scientists have just chosen Site J -- located on the comet's head for touchdown. Landing will be challenging: the surface of the 4 km double-lobed comet is jagged -- with unpredictable outgassing jets that will become more active as the comet approaches the sun.
This cool online item visualizes Rosetta´s 10-year journey to explore a comet, with all important moments, current positions and also upcoming steps of the mission.
67P-Aug6-albedo-TR-580x417Upon approach to Comet 67P, Discovery.com reported: “A spacecraft chasing a comet in deep space has found that its target is surprisingly dark in color. Instead of arriving at a bright, reflective, ice-covered heavenly body, the European Space Agency's Rosetta probe found that its target comet, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (or 67P/C-G), appears darker than charcoal…”
In fact, this is old news. When the Giotto spacecraft flew past Halley's comet in 1986, there was "shock" that the dusty material was so dark. Though in fact we should have guessed, because other than water, a lot of material in the outer solar system is carbonaceous. At the time, my doctoral thesis on comets was new. It had predicted the dust layers, but not quite how dark they would be. In fact, that prediction was only made in one place, a sci fi novel called Heart of the Comet!
== Cosmets and the Red Planet! ==
maven-marsElsewhere in the solar system... MAVEN -- NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN craft entered orbit around Mars on Sunday Sept 21. After a ten month journey, Maven began its study of the Martian atmosphere; it will spend at least a year collecting data. Only two days later,  Mangalyaan -- or Mars Orbital Mission -- India's first interplanetary spacecraft successfully achieved orbit around Mars. A source of great pride to India. MOM? Seriously? As in Mars Needs Moms?
Ah... but then, a few weeks later....
Comet Siding Spring is heading toward a close encounter with Mars on October 19. Planetary scientists were worried about cometary debris harming delicate instruments on Mars orbiting spacecraft while could in turn hurt our relays from the rovers. The latest assessment indicates there should be minimal danger. But I'll be biting my nails, while eagerly peering at the science data!
 ==On to Pluto!==
New-Horizons-PlutoNASA's New Horizons probe was scheduled to cross the orbit of Neptune on Monday (Aug. 25), 25 years to the day after Voyager 2's encounter. (Voyager was our only probe ever to visit Uranus and Neptune.) New Horizons is now streaking toward a flyby of Pluto on July 14, 2015 that should return the first good images at the distant dwarf planet and its moons.
Now Paul Schenk of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston has produced created the best-ever global color map of Neptune's big moon Triton, by enhancing images taken by Voyager 2 probe during its flyby of Neptune and Triton, a generation ago.
(Alas “crossing the orbit” does not mean a flyby. There will be no Neptune science this time, from New Horizons.)
==And beyond==
Trailers for scientific papers? Hollywood has borrowed relentlessly from science (occasionally even respectfully), so why not turnaround? Sean Carroll reports that some young physicists have created a truly fun and cool trailer that in one minute teases you to know a lot more than you did before… about superfields and super-gravity and inflation! 
Yes, books have trailers too! Some of you have seen the amazing video preview-trailer for Existence, with incredible art by Patrick Farley! My web site also offers way cool trailers for Glory Season and Heart of the Comet.
Copernicus-Complex-ScharfHow Rare is Intelligent Life? Just released: The Copernicus Complex: Our Cosmic Significance in a Universe of Planets and Probabilities by Caleb Scharf argues that Earth will still be special, even after all sorts of alien worlds are catalogued. Unlike Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee, who argued in Rare Earth that intelligent life on Earth relied on so many unlikely accidents that we are probably alone in the universe, Scharf doesn’t think it’s likely we’re entirely unique, just rare. See more articles on SETI.
NASA is expected to sponsor a contest to build better airships, breathing new life — and funding — into the idea. High-altitude airships are still in their relative infancy. None has ever flown at 65,000 feet for longer than eight hours. But a recent study from the Keck Institute for Space Studies at Caltech suggests that a more capable airship may not be far-off.
Mind you, we have been reading “revival of airships” stories for thirty years! But the technologies now seem especially ripe. See my own portrayal of the vibrant future of towed zeppelins in “The Smartest Mob.”
==Toward Titan and Mars==
Super-ball-botSee the Super Ball Bot: this flexible tensegrity-style robot can land with a bounce -- and roll to explore planetary surfaces -- funded by NASA's Innovative and Advanced Concepts Group (NIAC). (I am on the external board of advisors for NIAC.) Researchers are considering Saturn's moon Titan for the robot's first mission.
Looking ahead: is it time to re-evaluate beamed power from space?
Win a trip to space -- and back! -- aboard XCOR's Lynx Mark II Spacecraft, a fundraiser to benefit MarsOne, and their plans to build a human settlement on the red planet.
Read also about Elon Musk's plans for a Mars colony -- he calls Mars a serious fixer-upper.
Mars-curiosityRecommended: a look at the teams of scientists and engineers who designed, built, launched, landed, and now operate the Mars Rovers: Curiosity - An inside look at the Mars Rover Mission and the people who made it happen, by Rod Pyle. These individuals are the ones who keep pushing at the frontiers of exploration...
Finally: Um… didn’t I already do exactly this, in a novel (Sundiver)? -- “NASA Announces Plans To Launch Chimpanzee Into Sun.” -- from The Onion!

27 comments:

Paul Shen-Brown said...

I thought it was interesting that the ESA made the choice of landing site based on telemetry from Rosetta rather than planning the landing site before launch. Given how expensive these missions are, it's natural to want to plan everything out from the beginning, but probably more wise to save a decision like that for better quality data.

Does anyone know if there are any proposals out there for a submersible lander to go to Titan?

Tony Fisk said...

Titan submersible? There's this NASA proposal for a conceptual mission design, (ie someone give us money to think this idea through, please?)

Paul451 said...

Normally, I'd drop this at the end of the last thread, but it doesn't seem so off-topic here.

Randy Winn,
Re: Life begins at...
"Technically, life began several hundred million years ago..."

Best evidence is 3,800 million year ago. So at least 12 "several hundred million". (First direct evidence is 3.48 billion-year-old microbial mat fossils, indirect signs go back another 300m years. But it's in some of the oldest preserved rocks, so IMO it's likely that life pre-dated the late-heavy-bombardment.)

Paul451 said...

"while anchored to the comet by a harpoon."

Science, bitches!

Paul Shen-Brown,
"ESA made the choice of landing site based on telemetry from Rosetta rather than planning the landing site before launch. [...] but probably more wise to save a decision like that for better quality data."

They still picked probably the most conservative (least interesting) site.

Re: Release the Kraken-sub!

I think you'd need to see what the ethane seas are like from the surface before you consider diving. Visibility could be zero due to organic sludge. So the added difficulty of dealing with the extremely high heat-loss (higher density of the liquid over air), crush-pressures and communication issues, for what may be zero additional science over a simpler floating sensor boat.

Paul451 said...

3d Printed Gun! makes paper planes

http://3dprint.com/18406/3d-printed-gun-paper-airplane/

"It's... so beautiful..."

Daniel Duffy said...

Concerning airships and beamed energy...

I have been fascinated by the concept of airship to orbit (ASTO) where a derigible in the upper atmosphere equipped with an ion engine can eventually achieve orgital velocity.

Alas, the drag to weight ratio of such a craft makes it almost impossble to work in practice.

But suppose we ditch the heavy ion engine and push the derigible to speed with beamed microwave energy from ground sations.

I such an approach feasible?

locumranch said...


It seems a little premature to celebrate NASA's adoption of the private contractor model as it was this same profit-driven model that gave us (and keeps on giving us) the $400 toilet seat & the $100 million fighter jet.

Remember that most of our celebrated extraplanetary success stories (the ISS, the Rosetta, the Philae lander, the Mangalyaan & the New Horizon) are the product of the old governmental non-competitive model, that over 90% of technological startup companies (like Space_X) fail within 2 years of launch, that Space_X's projected costs may have little or nothing to do with actual 'fait accompli' costs, and that most successful private contractors (like Boeing) tend to low-ball cost projections to 'win' contracts only to extort more funds once the project is underway.

Many of you (I'm sure) share my own less than complimentary experiences with private contractors who appear scrupulously honest & capable at the onset, only to extort, inconvenience, lie, falsify & delay in a purely legal, non-actionable & socially acceptable fashion.

But, then again, this is merely the price we pay for living in a technical, modern & highly-competitive Rape Economy such as ours where we know that the future of humanity & the sanctity of our posteriors depend on the good-will of the profit-driven.

Ad Astra.

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin in the main post:

Um… didn’t I already do exactly this, in a novel? “NASA Announces Plans To Launch Chimpanzee Into Sun.” -- from The Onion!


That article sounds as if it was directly inspired by "Sundiver". Or at least that it is a shout out to you.

They left out a gag about landing on the sun at night so it's not quite so hot. :)

David Brin said...

Paul, we had no info about the comet’s surface till Rosetta arrived.

Locum said: “It seems a little premature to celebrate NASA's adoption of the private contractor model as it was this same profit-driven model that gave us (and keeps on giving us) the $400 toilet seat & the $100 million fighter jet.”

Actually, it is the diametric opposite. Those were sole-source contracts.

“Remember that most of our celebrated extraplanetary success stories (the ISS, the Rosetta, the Philae lander, the Mangalyaan & the New Horizon) are the product of the old governmental non-competitive model”

Good point. Sole source can work well… when the contractor is highly motivated. What you ignore is that ALL approaches are flawed. We are feeling our way forward, trying pragmatic approaches. Your dismissal of all competition is just as wrong as those fools who say “government can never do anything right.”

Alex Tolley said...

@Daniel Duffy - You're talking about J P Aerospace's "Floating to Orbit"? It seems like such an interesting idea, but I think the L/D ratio is too low for even a rocket to push the airship to orbit. A better approach might be just to use their high altitude platform to launch more conventional vehicles, like the beam powered Skylon DB linked to. For reentry, an airship might be a good way to go (their book suggests the that inflatable Rogallo wings that were tested in the past is a proof of concept).

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Paul451,

"I think you'd need to see what the ethane seas are like from the surface before you consider diving. Visibility could be zero due to organic sludge. So the added difficulty of dealing with the extremely high heat-loss (higher density of the liquid over air), crush-pressures and communication issues, for what may be zero additional science over a simpler floating sensor boat."

Good thinking here. Given that I used to scuba, I should have thought of the visibility issue. A floater that could lower relatively inexpensive instruments into the liquid hydrocarbons would make for a good recon vehicle.

Tony Fisk, thanks for the link! I'm cooking up ideas for my earth science class...

Jumper said...

I remain in the "we are chauvinistic about 'intelligence' and profound surprises await" school.

Jumper said...

Veering off topic, but this is sometimes discussed here: a voter fraud story.
http://www.politicususa.com/2014/10/07/voter-fraud...
One irony not highlighted is that ID laws probably wouldn't have helped stop it; it was another aspect that did.

next door Laura said...

A rather partisan bit about the Arkansas voting issue, but the facts seem legit. Nonsense from either party deserves to be sought out and dealt with. Kudos for this coming to light in a "red" state. My feeling is that the quest for voter integrity is a little less stringent in some "blue" enclaves.

But whatever. The US Supremes have put enforcement of the WI voter ID law on hold as of yesterday. That's OK. There were some access issues that had only been partly addressed. They will be tuned up and the law most likely reinstated after a bit.

And both sides will use it to drum up their Faithful. And as one who always consideres higher turnout better, that is a good thing.

Of course if one of the relatively few races in WI that is close and consequential goes down to a recount there will be many unhappy noises..

When the topic actually rolls round to politics again I have a few thoughts on my recent adventures with the Affordable Care Act...

Tacitus

locumranch said...


Poor Tacitus.

Disillusioned by the ACA, mostly because he still believes in a healthcare system in decline, along with the typical false promises about a productivity-based quick fix, improved provider compensation and a ration-free future where 16 ounces of coffee are repackaged in 12 oz bags.

I'd buy THAT for a quarter. Hahaha.

Best

Robert said...

And now to mix science and politics!

http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2014/09/how-to-convince-conservatives-on-climate-change.html

Basically it's how you frame the message. We should be talking about how we need to preserve industry and our great country by preventing climate change. Or along those lines.

Tacitus2 said...

Oh, locum

The healthcare system is not in decline, it is expanding apace. The issue is that the resources we pour into it are not wisely utilized and that every penny of it is a "societal cost", ie something else we cannot do.

As it happens I am also not on production and most days not disillusioned.

Rationing is of course inevitable in some form.

But this is a thread about exploring strange worlds with toxic atmospheres. A discussion of health care politics is, well just that but lets postpone it until it is more the primary focus.

Tacitus

Alex Tolley said...

@Robert - I read that article too. My thought is that while framing is important, it only works when the appeal is not drowned out by massive propa...err, advertizing. This is the whole point about repeating a message (or lie) until it becomes perceived truth. And your opponent can frame the question too, so it is an arms race. And battles are usually won on strength.

Jumper said...

Is it possible to maintain an orbit low enough to Venus to collect - to "scoop" - CO2 and package it to dry ice and launch pellets of it to intersect Mars? Power supply solar.

Robert said...

It would be cheaper and easier to mine an asteroid for its carbon and send it to Mars. You're not fighting a gravity well or an average distance of 0.8 AU. (Earlier today I was trying to explain to another friend over Facebook why using solar mirrors in Venus to transmit light to Mars just was not tenable. I tried explaining about how much a laser diffuses focus when shining from the Earth to the Moon. I don't think he quite comprehended the distances and loss of energy.)

Rob H.

Jumper said...

"cheaper and easier," Robert? Citation needed! LOL

I didn't say it would be fast, but it would have the effect of terraforming two planets at once. And I was more interested in its possibility, not practicality, although obviously a system massing less than a hundred tons - the solar cells and plasma rockets and gas plant - is what I wondered about. A lot of power needed just to overcome drag.

As for mirrors, Venus needs a Venus-size parasol and Mars needs a very large mirror - Mars size or larger - and keeping them oriented as they orbit is difficult at best.

Robert said...

Okay. Here is the primary thing wrong with creating dry ice and launching it at Mars: you are creating cometary bodies that will start emitting carbon dioxide the moment it's in a vacuum. The amount of material that would reach Mars... well, you'd need to make a larger dry ice "comet" in order for sublimation not to cause the dry ice to just completely evaporate in the vacuum of space.

Not to mention that the material evaporating from the "cometary body" would provide chaotic propulsion. In all likelihood it wouldn't hit Mars.

Rob H.

Paul451 said...

Jumper,
Re: Sky-Mining Venus.

I've seen designs for air-scooping orbiters. It is theoretically possible to balance the drag and thrust to remain in orbit while "tanking up". But they usually rely on the captured gas to include oxygen.

Jumper said...

Into the circular file, then. I await Ceres.

Alex Tolley said...

In KSR's "2312", Venus was terraformed by precipitating out the CO2 into carbonate rock. I'm not sure what the details are, but it seems like a planetary wide, industrial scale version of what happened during the early Earth.

For Mars the proposals are usually add a CFC to trap heat, and then use the warming subsurface ice to generate the O2. The hardest part is getting nitrogen, not just for the air, but for life processes. Suggestions have been made that Titan's atmosphere is the best option for that,

Jonathan S. said...

As I recall, the problems with Venus include not only atmospheric carbon, but also high levels of sulfur. Somehow I doubt that merely scooping CO2 from the edge of the Venusian atmosphere is going to significantly terraform it...

Alex Tolley said...

@Jonathan S

As I recall, the problems with Venus include not only atmospheric carbon, but also high levels of sulfur

Gypsum.

So you precipitate out both CaCO3 and CaSO4