Follow Friday & Weekly Stumbles For 2011-04-29

This week I recommend to follow @MAFNews for interesting tweets about space exploration, NASA and space technologies. For more Twitter follow suggestions see our astronomy list @TheAstroBlog/astronomy

Weekly Stumbles:

Fifty years of piloted spaceflight: Where are we going?
In fifty years of spaceflight, only 285 piloted spaceships were launched, carrying 1,154 travellers. Since some of them flew more than once, only 515 human beings have flown in space. And only two dozen Americans ventured beyond Earth orbit, up to the Moon, twelve of them having walked on it. That’s far from what we had in mind at the time Yuri Gagarin soared into space. We are in fact light-years away from what we had anticipated at the dawn of the Space Age. We were then expecting that by now, we would have built huge orbiting space stations in which hundreds of people would live and work. We were also expecting lunar colonies and even Mars bases, and perhaps that some of our spaceships would roam across the solar system.

Shocking Environment of Hot Jupiters
Jupiter-like worlds around other stars push shock waves ahead of them, according to a team of UK astronomers. Just as Earth’s magnetic “bow-shock” protects us from the high-energy solar wind, these planetary shocks protect their atmospheres from their star’s damaging emissions. Team member Dr Aline Vidotto of the University of St Andrews presented a new model based on observations made with the SuperWASP (Wide Angle Search for Planets) project on April 18 at the National Astronomy Meeting in Llandudno, Wales.

Funding the seed corn of advanced space technology
There is a sense of gloom, even despair, in the space community about the future. Many hopes have been dashed as a result of the muddle Congress created when considering the fiscal year 2011 budget. Human space exploration now lacks goals and is focused on debates of what to build, without consideration of what to build it for. Robotic space exploration is marked by cutbacks in expectations as well as plans as we dry-dock our hoped-for flagships. This takes place in a larger context of global economic and financial woes, the several wars in which we are now engaged, and increasing energy prices.

Primordial Weirdness: Did the Early Universe Have One Dimension? Scientists Outline Test for Theory
Did the early universe have just one spatial dimension? That’s the mind-boggling concept at the heart of a theory that University at Buffalo physicist Dejan Stojkovic and colleagues proposed in 2010. They suggested that the early universe – which exploded from a single point and was very, very small at first – was one-dimensional (like a straight line) before expanding to include two dimensions (like a plane) and then three (like the world in which we live today). The theory, if valid, would address important problems in particle physics.

Could Black Trees Blossom in a World With Two Suns?
A sky with two suns is a favourite image for science fiction films, but how would a binary star system affect life evolving on an orbiting planet? Jack O’Malley-James of the University of St Andrews has studied what plants might be like on an Earth-like planet with two or three suns and found that they may appear black or grey. Photosynthesis – converting sunlight into energy – is the basis for the majority of life on Earth. It is the energy source for plants and, hence, animals higher up the food chain. With multiple light sources, life may have adapted to use all suns, or different forms may develop that choose to use one specific sun. This may be the more likely option for planets on which parts of the surface are illuminated by only one sun for long periods of time.

Commercial crew’s final four
Last Monday, NASA announced that it would award nearly $270 million to four companies in the next step in the agency’s efforts to spur the development of commercial systems that can carry astronauts to and from low Earth orbit. The awards made under the second round of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development effort, or CCDev-2, are intended to mature technologies and components intended for those later crewed vehicles. The four companies that won the funded Space Act Agreements for CCDev-2 are not that surprising. Three of the four – Blue Origin, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada Corporation – won first-round CCDev awards last February.

An exercise in the Art of War: China’s National Defense white paper, outer space, and the PPWT
Even as China seeks a treaty banning the placement of weapons in space, it has tested direct-ascent ASATs, including a 2007 test that destroyed a satellite and created a cloud of debris. The United States rejected the PPWT in 2008, and the provisions of the proposal have raised questions among other members of the Conference on Disarmament, yet the Russian Federation and the PRC continue to press for its adoption. However, in spite of the PRC’s stance in its white paper, is the true policy of the PRC to prevent an arms race in outer space or does it have a different objective in mind? The teachings of a legendary Chinese general may offer some insight.

NASA’s continuing problems
It’s been fourteen and a half months since the Obama Administration announced plans to cancel the Constellation program, and only last week, with the passage of a final fiscal year 2011 appropriations bill, is NASA now free to cancel those contracts. Ironically, the Ares 1, perhaps the most controversial element of Constellation, may live on in some fashion: ATK has proposed under NASA’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program the Liberty rocket, using the same SRB lower stage and an upper stage derived from the core stage of the European Ariane 5 rocket. Since once of the goals of CCDev is to build up the American launch industry, Liberty may pose something of a headache to NASA.

Following SpaceX down the rabbit hole
In a month unusually full of significant anniversaries, April 5th – the day SpaceX founder Elon Musk announced his company’s plans to develop the Falcon Heavy rocket – may eventually prove to be a red-letter date of sorts in the American space history, one of a number that are beginning to accrue to his company. While SpaceX had made no secret of its plans to pursue a heavy version of the Falcon 9 booster, the numbers attributed to it did come as something of a surprise: 53,000 kilograms to LEO at about $100 million per launch for commercial customers.

Tobacco and beaver pelts: the sustainable path
In 2009, the Augustine Committee presented its report to the White House. Media attention focused on the committee’s apparent preference for a “flexible path.” Instead of the Moon as the destination of choice, this path required a new R&D agenda focusing on the development of improved propulsion systems, closed-loop recycling, in-space refueling, in situ resource utilization, and other engineering objectives to enable long duration journeys beyond low-Earth orbit. Oddly, few seem to have notice the commission’s most audacious finding: The ultimate goal of human exploration is to chart a path for human expansion into the solar system.

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