Wednesday, 31 December 2014

The Stuff About Space That I Missed In 2014

2014 was a busy year for space exploration. Whilst I've covered a few of the notable stories and discoveries of the year, there have been many more that I've missed for one reason or another. To round off the year then, here is a brief look at four interesting space stories that I missed...

Three images showing the distant 2012 VP113 moving against a background of stars. Image Credit: Scott Sheppard/Carnegie Institution for Science
Whilst I was busy writing about the discovery of rings around the asteroid Chariklo, another discovery in the solar system was vying for attention. The image above shows three observations of the same patch of sky, each taken two hours after the last. Moving against the background of stars is a tiny, yet remarkable dot. 2012 VP113 is no more than a thousand kilometers across, but is currently over 80 Astronomical Units (AU, the distance between the Earth and the Sun) away from the Earth.

It won't get much closer, and will swing out to 240 AU from the Sun at the furthest point in its orbit. That puts it way beyond the orbit of Neptune, the furthest planet from the Sun. Only one other object, Sedna, is in a similar orbit to 2012 VP113. In fact their obits are suspiciously similar, leading the discoverers to suggest that their passage around the Sun could be being shaped by a unseen planet in the far reaches of the Solar System. Or it could be coincidence.  
Artists impression of WISE J085510.83-071442.5, the coldest known "star". Image Credit: Robert Hurt/JPL, Janella Williams/Penn State University
In April astronomers at Pennsylvania State University announced the discovery of a very strange object. WISE J085510.83-071442.5 is a brown dwarf, one of a mysterious, ill-defined class of object that bridge the gap between stars and planets. Using NASA's WISE and Spitzer space telescopes, the discoverers had found that this brown dwarf was not only one of the closest objects to the Sun outside of our Solar system, at just 7.2 light years, but was also the coldest brown dwarf known.

The temperature on WISE J085510.83-071442.5 is between -13 and -18 degrees Celsius, as cold as Earth's poles. The low temperature shows that the object has a mass of around 3 to 10 times that of Jupiter, which is actually a little small for a brown dwarf. In fact it doesn't really fit into any of our current categories of astronomical objects- making it even more interesting.

Lift off of the Soyuz rocket, beginning the ill-fated voyage of the Russian space sex geckos. Image Credit: Roscosmos
"Russian Sex Geckos Lost In Space", or variants thereof, must be in the running for best headline of all time. Last August the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, launched the latest in a series of Foton laboratories, uncrewed spacecraft based on the old Vostock capsules. On board this particular launch were experiments studying the effects of spaceflight on various plants and animals. They included five geckos, sent into space to so see how their behaviour and sexual activity responded to weightlessness.

Disaster struck a few days after launch, as ground controllers lost contact with the tiny spacecraft. Stranded in the wrong orbit, the geckos were at risk of a fiery death in the Earth's upper atmosphere. Contact was restored a few day later, and the mission cut short before anything else went wrong. Sadly, when the capsule was recovered at the beginning of September, all of the geckos were dead. The Foton's heating systems had malfunctioned, freezing the unfortunate space lizards. Hopefully they died having a good time...

Artist's impression of the Kepler spacecraft, along with the different patches of sky that will be the targets of the K2 mission. Image Credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T Pyle
Closing out the year was the news that the resurrected Kepler spacecraft has spotted an exoplanet, the first confirmed discovery of its new mission. Launched in 2009, Kepler spent the first years of its life staring at a single patch of sky, looking for tiny dips in the light caused by planets passing in front of their stars.

Although highly successful, with over one thousand planet candidates spotted, this technique relied on the spacecraft being able to precisely control the direction in which it was pointing. Kepler achieved this using four gyroscopes, or reaction wheels. Unfortunately by the middle of 2013 two of the wheels had failed, leaving Kepler at the mercy of the buffeting solar wind.

With a continuation of its original mission impossible, engineers at NASA came up with an ingenious solution to allow the stricken spacecraft to carry on hunting for planets.  The pressure from the solar wind, that would otherwise push it of course, can actually be used to stabilize the spacecraft in certain directions. This new mission, dubbed K2, will see Kepler stare at several patches of sky, remaining at each one for around 80 days.

The first confirmation of a new planet found with this technique was announced on 17th December.  HIP 116454 b has a diameter around two and half times the size of the Earth, with just under 12 times Earth's mass. This probably means that it is a small gas giant, known as a mini-Neptune. Hopefully this will be the first of many planetary discoveries from Kepler's new mission,  

My favourite space image of the year: The Philae lander heads off into the dark towards Comet 67P. Image Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

And that's all I have time to write about! There has been plenty more space stores this year, from the much-hyped but ultimately inconclusive BICEP2 results, interesting findings on Mars by NASA's Curiosity rover and a host of ups and downs for commercial spaceflight. More stuff about space will certainly come in 2015.

New blogs will be posted on Twitter. Happy New Year!

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

NASA Sucsessfuly Tests The Orion Spacecraft- But It's Not Going To Mars

A Delta IV Heavy rocket blasts off from Cape Canaveral carrying NASA's Orion Spacecraft on its first, unmanned test flight.
Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Warning: There may be opinions ahead...

On Friday the 5th of  December the world watched as the most powerful rocket in the world blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Atop the bright orange Delta IV Heavy was NASA's new human spacecraft, Orion, making its first flight.

Although there weren't actually any people on it- that won't happen until 2021 at the earliest. This was an uncrewed test flight only, looping around the Earth then boosting out to nearly 6000 km high.

Four hours after launch Orion hit the top of Earth's atmosphere traveling at 32000 kilometers per hour, 85% of the speed it would have had if it it had come back from the Moon. Protected by its heat shield, Orion parachuted down into the Pacific Ocean in a scene reminiscent of the Apollo program.   

The mission was a complete success, testing several of Orion's key systems such as the huge heat shield,  avionics and separation systems. It also looked spectacular, with the whole flight relayed live to Earth via camera on the spacecraft. Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know I was thoroughly enjoying it.

There was one bit I didn't like though. NASA have been promoting this launch as the first step on a "Journey to Mars", part of the agency's aim to land humans onto the Red Planet in the 2030s. But I don't think Orion will ever go to Mars. In fact, at the moment it doesn't look like it's going anywhere.  

Orion drifts down on parachutes: The future of space flight, or a step into the past? Image Credit: NASA
Orion first began development as part of the Constellation program. Announced by George W. Bush after the loss of the Columbia space shuttle in 2003, the plan was to replace the space shuttle with two rockets that would land astronauts on the Moon.  The huge Ares V would do the heavy lifting, carrying the lunar lander and propulsion systems into orbit. A smaller Ares I rocket would then launch carrying Orion, The two parts would then dock in orbit and head off to the Moon.

Constellation looked very good on paper, an Apollo style return to the Moon planned for the early 2020s. Unfortunately it never received enough funding to meet its goals, and it was eventually cancelled in 2010 after just one test flight of a half-finished Ares I.

Instead of a return to the Moon, NASA was ordered to set its sights on Mars. It would turn to commercial companies, such as SpaceX and Orbital Sciences,  to replace the role of the space shuttle in supplying cargo and crew to the International Space Station. This would free NASA up to focus solely on developing the technologies needed to take humans to Mars.

Unfortunately this didn't go down well with a number of US politicians, for whom the cancellation of Constellation would mean severe job losses in the Sates that they represented. After much debate Orion was back, this time to launch on a new rocket, the Space Launch System, cobbled together out of parts left over from the Space Shuttle Program.

But the destination remained Mars, and Orion simply isn't built to do that. It's far too small, no bigger than a large car on the inside. For a journey to Mars, which could take up to a year, a much larger spacecraft will be needed.

NASA have talked about a Deep Space Habitat, a larger spacecraft that would be assembled in orbit to make the journey to Mars- although this is yet to even make it on  to the drawing board. Orion would be used to ferry astronauts up to it, and to bring them home at the end of the voyage.

But in this case it's far too large and expensive, tasked with a job that would be much better suited to the cheaper, purpose built commercial crew ships such as the SpaceX Dragon and Boeing CST100.

Orion has found itself in the worst of both worlds, too small to make the whole journey to Mars and unnecessarily big as a crew transport. And no wonder, as it's perfect for what it was designed to do: Go to the Moon. 

Worse still is its projected time table. Orion is so underfunded that the next test flight isn't until 2018, the first time that the Space Launch System will be ready. And it still wont be carrying any people- the first piloted flight is planned for no earlier than 2021.

NASA doesn't have enough money to build the life support systems yet, so the test flight last week couldn't have carried people even if they'd wanted it to. With up to two new US Presidents between it and its first crewed flight, Orion's chances of ever flying with humans on board are shaky at best.

This isn't to say that we wont go to Mars, or that we can't. I think we should, and will have the technological capability to do so within my lifetime.

But I doubt that Orion will be a part of it.

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