Follow Friday & Weekly Stumbles For 2011-06-17

This week I recommend to follow @SpaceRef for interesting tweets about current space news. For more Twitter follow suggestions see our astronomy list @TheAstroBlog/astronomy

Weekly Stumbles:

Bring home the sample
Sample return is something of a holy grail to planetary explorers. The advantage is that age dating and extensive compositional analysis can be done better with modern instruments in Earth-based laboratories than on miniaturized instruments that have to prepared years in advance for space flight. In the case of Mars, we have been pursuing sample return since the 1970s, with many real and false starts but never approaching a finish line. I was in charge of the NASA post-Viking Mars program for a while when we took the first serious sample return mission proposal to the National Academy of Sciences for endorsement.

Sooner, Not Later: Interstellar Voyages a Reality?
Projections for the first interstellar voyages, based on extrapolations of our current technological state and current investment into space exploration, will almost always place such missions hundreds of years into the future. To emphasize this point, the Augustine Committee, a review of the United States human space flight program, found that a heavy lift rocket that could return us to the moon – a destination that, in the grand scheme of things, is right on our cosmic front doorstep – would not be available until approximately 2030.

From “One Small Step” to Settlement
At the recent International Space Development Conference in Huntsville, Augustine committee member and CEO of XCOR Aerospace Jeff Greason gave a talk on the goals of human spaceflight. While he discussed many things that I agree with (in particular, making the use of off-planet resources a high priority), one idea in particular stood out. Greason said that we need some type of long-range goal or objective for our national civil space program. Picking up on a statement by his Augustine colleague Chris Chyba, Greason suggested that “settlement” should be the goal of human spaceflight; if not, “what the hell are we doing it for?”

Sun Headed Into Hibernation, Solar Studies Predict
Enjoy our stormy sun while it lasts. When our star drops out of its latest sunspot activity cycle, the sun is most likely going into hibernation, scientists announced today. Three independent studies of the sun’s insides, surface, and upper atmosphere all predict that the next solar cycle will be significantly delayed—if it happens at all. Normally, the next cycle would be expected to start roughly around 2020. The combined data indicate that we may soon be headed into what’s known as a grand minimum, a period of unusually low solar activity. The predicted solar “sleep” is being compared to the last grand minimum on record, which occurred between 1645 and 1715.

Human spaceflight for less: the case for smaller launch vehicles, revisited
Access to orbit is the common problem shared by the entire space industry. In particular, for human spaceflight to low Earth orbit and beyond, access is the main bottleneck between current space activities and sustained, meaningful space development. The lack of cheap, reliable space launch is felt by human and robotic space programs alike. At best, its absence limits what can practically be accomplished with current space budgets, and at worst, its absence masks the true economic potential of space by preventing some activities in the first place. The access problem is significant—and nowhere, it appears, is there more turmoil regarding the future of space access than the debate over NASA’s next launch system.

New strategies for exploration and settlement
It’s hard to imagine an audience more supportive of space exploration, development, and especially settlement than attendees of the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference (ISDC). For decades—this year marked the 30th annual ISDC—space advocates have been attending the conference to learn more about the latest developments and prospects for the future, looking forward to the day when humans are living and working permanently beyond Earth.

Project Icarus: The Gas Mines of Uranus
Project Icarus is an ambitious five-year study into launching an unmanned spacecraft to an interstellar destination. Headed by the Tau Zero Foundation and British Interplanetary Society, a non-profit group of scientists dedicated to interstellar spaceflight, Icarus is working to develop a spacecraft that can travel to a nearby star. Adam Crowl, Module Lead for Fuel and Fuel Acquisition for Project Icarus, investigates the pros and cons of various fusion fuels required to accelerate an interstellar vehicle to a nearby star.

NASA’s new robot challenge
On May 27, Worcester Polytechnic Institute posted draft rules for the Sample Return Robot Challenge, a new NASA-funded Centennial Challenge. The publication of the rules has not received much press: it appears that the only way one would know of their existence is by having previously subscribed to their mailing list. The rules are presented as a series of individual web pages for each section and subsection. A file containing the full rule set is not available “to limit access to a document that could be re-posted, shared, or kept and misinterpreted as a final set of rules”. A good summary of the challenge is not included in the rules, and it appears that the only way to come to an understanding of the objective is to read the entire rule set.

NASA Unveils New Spaceship for Deep Space Exploration
NASA on Tuesday announced a plan to develop a new deep space vehicle, one based on an earlier capsule concept, in order to send astronauts on expeditions to an asteroid, and then on to Mars. The spaceship, known as the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), will be based on designs originally planned for the Orion spacecraft, NASA officials announced today (May 24). Orion was part of NASA’s now-canceled Constellation program, which aimed to return astronauts to the moon by the 2020s.

The last shuttle crew
NASA has scheduled the launch of the shuttle Atlantis for July 8. This is the last launch of the Space Transportation System, and the flight is STS-135. As I mentioned in my previous commentary, I mentioned that the last shuttle crew would go down in history among the most remembered simply because they are the last astronauts to ride about the space shuttle. So who are the astronauts of this crew and what is their mission? The crew of the last shuttle flight is, in fact, the crew for the rescue mission for STS-134, Endeavour.

New Solar System Formation Models Indicate That Jupiter’s Foray Robbed Mars of Mass
Planetary scientists have long wondered why Mars is only about half the size and one-tenth the mass of Earth. As next-door neighbors in the inner solar system, probably formed about the same time, why isn’t Mars more like Earth and Venus in size and mass? A paper published in the journal Nature provides the first cohesive explanation and, by doing so, reveals an unexpected twist in the early lives of Jupiter and Saturn as well. Dr. Kevin Walsh, a research scientist at Southwest Research Institute, led an international team performing simulations of the early solar system, demonstrating how an infant Jupiter may have migrated to within 1.5 astronomical units of the Sun, stripping a lot of material from the region and essentially starving Mars of formation materials.

46 Fabulous Photos of Endeavour’s Last Ever Spacewalk
Today NASA astronauts completed their final spacewalk, the last ever for Endeavour. During the 16-day mission, Endeavour and its crew completed NASA’s part in the construction of the International Space Station. This was the 36th shuttle mission to the ISS and this was the last spacewalkers that Endeavor will ever carry to space. The crew members for space shuttle Endeavour’s STS-134 mission are Commander Mark Kelly, Pilot Gregory H. Johnson and Mission Specialists Michael Fincke, Greg Chamitoff, Andrew Feustel and European Space Agency astronaut Roberto Vittori.

Rosetta Comet Probe Starts Years-Long Space Hibernation
The final command placing ESA’s Rosetta comet-chaser into deep-space hibernation was sent June 8, 2011. With virtually all systems shut down, the probe will now coast for 31 months until waking up in 2014 for arrival at its comet destination. The dramatic event marks the end of the hugely successful first phase of Rosetta’s ten-year cruise and the start of a long, dark hibernation during which all instruments and almost all control systems will be silent. The deep sleep is made necessary by the craft’s enormous distance from the Sun and the weakness of the sunlight falling on its solar panels, which cannot produce enough electricity to power the probe fully.

A Big Surprise from the Edge of the Solar System
NASA’s Voyager probes are truly going where no one has gone before. Gliding silently toward the stars, 9 billion miles from Earth, they are beaming back news from the most distant, unexplored reaches of the solar system. Mission scientists say the probes have just sent back some very big news indeed. It’s bubbly out there. “The Voyager probes appear to have entered a strange realm of frothy magnetic bubbles,” says astronomer Merav Opher of Boston University. “This is very surprising.”

Beam Me Up: Could Lasers Launch Rockets?
Overcoming gravity is not easy. Conventional rockets are 97 percent fuel and tanks. Even NASA’s mighty Saturn 5 moon launchers had just 3 to 5 percent available for payloads. A new technology under study would use ground-based lasers or microwaves to zap a heat exchanger on the rocket, releasing more energy from the fuel. The heat exchanger works like a hot plate, spiking the temperature of the fuel to more than 3,100 degrees Fahrenheit (1,704 degrees Celsius), which significantly increases the rocket’s thrust.

Twins! Distant Galaxy Looks Like Our Own Milky Way
Almost like a postcard from across the universe, astronomers have photographed a spiral galaxy that could be a twin of our own Milky Way. The distant galaxy, called NGC 6744, was imaged by the Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla Observatory in Chile. The pinwheel lies 30 million light-years away in the southern constellation of Pavo (The Peacock). We are lucky to have a bird’s-eye view of the spiral galaxybecause of its orientation, face-on, as seen from Earth. It’s a dead ringer for our own home in the cosmos, scientists say.

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