Terraforming Series Complete!

Terraforming Series Complete!

I’ve been busy over at Universe Today of late. In fact, as part of a promotional thing for my upcoming book – The Cronian Incident – I’ve been doing a series of articles about terraforming. And it’s actually kind of an interesting story, which I already touched on in a previous post. In any case, the series is now complete, with articles that cover everything from terraforming Mercury to terraforming the moons of the gas giants in the outer Solar System:

The Definitive Guide to Terraforming
How Do We Terraform Mercury?
How Do We Terraform Venus?
How Do We Terraform Mars?
How Do We Terraform the Moon?
How Do We Terraform Jupiter’s Moons?
How Do We Terraform Saturn’s Moons?

To give people the Cliff Notes version of this series, it is clear that at this point, humanity could colonize and terraform certain worlds in our Solar System. The only real questions are where could we? How could we? And why should we? To answer the first two, we could terraform Mars and Venus, since both planets are terrestrial (like Earth), both exist in our Sun’s habitable zone (like Earth), and have either abundant atmospheres or abundant sources of water we can work with. In any other case, the matter becomes impractical, except within certain contained environments (paraterraforming).

The “greening of Mars”. Credit: nationalgeographic.com

As for the third question – why should we? – that was one of the main reasons I tackled this subject. When it comes to terraforming, the questions concerning ethics and responsibility are unavoidable. And while I did my best to cover this in the course of writing the series, the real debate happened in the comments section. Again and again, people asked the following questions:

How can we live elsewhere when we can’t even take care of Earth?
Shouldn’t we take care of our problems here before we settle other worlds?
Wouldn’t those resources be better spent here?

All good (and predictable) questions. And rather than simply avoiding them or dismissing them as pedestrian, I wanted to seriously have an answer. And so I chose to reply whenever these questions, or some variation, popped up. Here’s the basics of why we should terraform other worlds in this century and the next:

1. Increased Odds of Survival:
As Elon Musk is rather fond of sharing, colonizing Mars was one of the main reasons he started SpaceX (which recently made their second successful landing of the reusable Falcon 9 rocket!) His reason for establishing this colony, he claims, is to create a “backup location” for humanity. And in this, he has the support of many policy analysts and space enthusiasts. Faced with the threat of possible extinction from multiple fronts – an asteroid, ecological collapse, nuclear war, etc. – humanity would have better odds of survival if it were a multi-planet species.

Artist's concept for a possible colony on Mars. Credit: Ville Ericsson
Artist’s concept for a possible colony on Mars. Credit: Ville Ericsson

What’s more, having other locations around the Solar System decreases the odds of us ruining Earth. So much of why Earth’s environment is threatened has to do with the impact human populations have on it. Currently, there are over 7 billion human beings living on planet Earth, with an additional 2 to 3 billion expected by mid-century, and between 10 and12 by the 2100. But it’s not just the number of people that matters. In addition to every human being constituting a mouth to feed, they are also a pair of hands that need to given something productive to do (lest they turn to something destructive).

Every human also requires an education, a place to live, and basic health and sanitation services to make sure they do not die prematurely. And providing for all of this requires space and a great deal of resources. As it stands, it is becoming more and more difficult to provide for those we have, and our ability to do so is dwindling (i.e. thanks to Climate Change). If we intend to survive as a species, we not only need new venues to expand to, we need other resource bases to ensure that our people can be fed, clothed, housed, and employed.

So simply put, creating permanent settlements on the Moon, Mars, and elsewhere in the Solar System could ensure that humanity survives, especially if (or when) our efforts to save Earth from ourselves fail.

Project Nomad, a concept for the 2013 Skyscraper Competition that involved mobile factory-skyscrapers terraforming Mars. Credit: evolo.com/A.A. Sainz/J.R. Nuñez/K.T. Rial
Project Nomad, a concept for the 2013 Skyscraper Competition that involved mobile factory-skyscrapers terraforming Mars. Credit: evolo.com/A.A. Sainz/J.R. Nuñez/K.T. Rial

2. Testing out Ecological and Geological Engineering Techniques:
Basically, there is no way humanity is going to be able to address Climate Change in this century if we do not get creative and start relying on techniques like carbon capture, carbon sequestration, solar shades, and artificially triggered global dimming and fungal blooms. The problem is, any or all of these techniques need to be tested in order to ensure that the results are just right. Altering our environment would not only threaten to disrupt systems human being depend upon for their livelihood, it could also threaten the lives of many people.

Such is the threat Climate Change poses, so we want to make sure the ways in which we address it helps the environment instead of screwing it up further. The best way to do that is to have testing grounds where we can try out these techniques, and where a misstep won’t result in the loss of innocent lives or billions in damages. Ergo, testing our methods on Mars and Venus will give us a chance to measure their effectiveness, while avoiding any of the political barriers and potential hazards using them on Earth would present.

3. Mars and Venus are Perfect Testing Grounds:
Astronomers have been aware for some time that Mars and Venus are similar to Earth in many ways. As previously mentioned, they are both terrestrial planets that are located in our Sun’s habitable zone. But of course, they are also different in several key respects. Whereas Mars’ atmosphere is very thin, it has no magnetosphere, and its surface is extremely cold and dry, Venus has an atmosphere that it extremely dense, hot enough to melt lead, and where sulfuric acid rains are common.

Artist’s impression of a atmospheric generator on Mars. Credit: futurism.com

The reasons for this? Mars sits at the outer edge of the Sun’s habitable zone and receives less warmth. Combined with its eccentric orbit – and a lack of a protective magnetosphere that caused it to lose its atmosphere billions of years ago – this is what has led to it becoming the very cold and dry planet we are familiar with. Venus, sitting on the inner edge of the Sun’s habitable zone, suffered a runaway Greenhouse Effect early in its history, which caused it to become the extremely hot and hellish world it is today.

Terraforming Mars would therefore require that we thicken the atmosphere and warm it up. This means triggering a Greenhouse Effect by pumping lots of CO2 and nitrogen (probably in the form of ammonia) into its atmosphere and then converting them using cyanobacteria and other species of bacteria. So basically, to make Mars more Earth-like, we could build heavy industry there to pollute the hell out of the place – something we’ve been doing here on Earth for hundreds of years! – and then test out techniques designed to convert the atmosphere into something breathable. What we learn could then be applied here at home.

The same holds true for Venus. In order to terraform that world into something livable for humanity, the first challenge will be to arrest the runaway Greenhouse Effect there and convert the carbon dioxide/sulfur dioxide-rich atmosphere into one composed of nitrogen and oxygen gas. There are many ways to do this, and testing one or more of them out will yield crucial data for using similar techniques on Earth. In a nutshell, transforming Mars and Venus will help us save Earth.

Artist’s concept of a Venus cloud city – part of NASA’s High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC) plan. Credit: Advanced Concepts Lab/NASA Langley Research Center
Artist’s concept of a Venus cloud city – part of NASA’s High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC) plan. Credit: Advanced Concepts Lab/NASA Langley Research Center

4. Our Solar System has Abundant Resources:
Between the Moon, Mars, Venus, Mercury, the Asteroid Belt, and the systems of Jupiter, Saturn and beyond, there are literally enough resources to last humanity indefinitely. And while we can’t hope to possess them all at once, every step in colonizing the Solar System offers us the chance to expand our resource base, conduct scientific research and exploration, add more land which we can develop and use for human settlement, and ultimately grow as a species.

To break this process down piecemeal, we must start with the Moon. By establishing a colony in its southern polar region, we could leverage the local resources to create a permanent settlement and use it as a refueling base for mission deeper into the Solar System (a move which would save billions on all future missions). Solar operations could also be built on the surface to beam energy to Earth, the Moon’s rich minerals could be mined for Earth industries, and the mining of Helium-3 could power fusion reactors all over the world.

Already, NASA is eying the Shakelton Crater as a possible location, where there is an abundance of water ice and a dome could be built over it to create a contained atmosphere. The moon’s stable lava tunnels also present a good site, since they are large enough to fit entire cities within them and would hold an atmosphere nicely. And from there, humanity could mount missions to Venus and Mars, which would in turn add their abundant supplies of minerals to our economy.

The European Space Agency's concept for a Moon base. Credit: ESA
The European Space Agency’s concept for a Moon base. Credit: ESA

Mercury would also present a major opportunity for mining and solar operations.  And like the Moon, colonies could be built in the permanently shaded regions around the northern and southern polar regions (where there are abundant supplies of water ice) and in underground stable lava tubes. The Asteroid Belt literally has enough minerals and ices to keep humanity supplied indefinitely (hence the interest in asteroid prospecting of late), and the outer Solar System has enough ice, volatiles, and organic compounds to do the same.

In short, step by step, the colonization and/or terraforming of our Solar System offers humanity the opportunity to become a post-scarcity race. While many decry the idea of our species expanding because of the greed and abuse we have demonstrated in the past (and continue to demonstrate today), much of this greed and abuse comes from the fact that our current economic models are based on scarcity. By removing that from the equation, it would be that much more difficult for human beings to hoard resources for themselves while denying their neighbor.

Faced with all of this, the question no is longer one of “why should we”, but rather “why shouldn’t we?” Why shouldn’t we establish a human presence elsewhere in the Solar System, knowing that it could not only help us to save Earth, but ensure our survival as a species for the indefinite future? This of course does not address all the challenges that remain in doing so, but it does tackle one of the biggest arguments there is against space exploration and colonization.

Still pic from Wanderers, by Erik Wernquist
Still pic from Wanderers, by Erik Wernquist

As for the rest? Well, I’m sure we’ll tackle those questions, and then some, when the time comes. In the meantime, I encourage everyone to keep looking up at the stars and saying the question, “why not?”

The Cronian Incident – Setting The Scene

The Cronian Incident – Setting The Scene

In my last post, I explained how I was struggling with my latest story. Particularly, it has been the task of setting the scene over and over again that’s been tiring me out. Luckily, I’m beginning to get to work again, thanks to getting a second (or third) wind. But the challenge is still a big one, so I thought I might share some of what I’ve working on and see if it helps break the logjam.

As I also mentioned last time, there are four major settings in The Cronian Incident. These consist of the planet’s Mercury, a space elevator above Mars, Jupiter’s moon of Callisto, and Saturn’s moon of Titan. Establishing these places as backdrops for the story presented many opportunities. You have to think about how people would go about colonizing and living on these worlds.

But there’s also the fun that comes from figuring out what a culture that evolved to live on these planets and moons would look like. What languages do they speak? What religions do they practice? What does their clothing look like, what kind of music do they listen to? And what kinds of technology do they rely on?

The story opens on the planet Mercury, where mining crews diligently travel out onto the dark side of the planet, extract ore, and then return to the northern polar region. This area, which is permanently shaded, is the only part of the planet which is inhabited – after a fashion. In truth, no one really calls the planet home. But there are facilities located in the large craters, where convicts and temporary laborers harvest minerals, energy, and ice.

For the miners, their facility is located in the Prokofiev crater, which one of the larger craters in the northern polar region. It is here where miners return with their hauls of ore, which is then processed and fired into space by the Sling – a magnetic accelerator that shoots it into orbit. Some food is grown on site, most of it is shipped in, and water is sourced locally from the ice deposits. And all waste products are recycled to provide the bare necessities of life.

It is a dark place, where convicts and laborers are housed four to a room and are administered regular doses of antidepressants (to address their natural feelings of isolation and lack of natural sunlight). Convicts also have the added bonus of being equipped with “Spikes”, a neural implant that monitors their aggression levels and incapacitates them if they ever attempt to do anything violent.

And just in case they attempt anything illegal, the convict population can be confined to solitary cells, where the room’s are entirely nondescript, tiny, especially dark, and they have no company at all except for their demons.


Along with Earth, the Moon, and Venus, Mars is part of the Triumvirate – a loose alliance that embraces the most advanced worlds in the Solar System. Over 50 million people live on its surface, whereas a few million more live in orbital habitats and the Ares Installation, which sits atop The Drift (the planet’s space elevator). This installation is essentially an O’Neil Cylinder (though its more like an O’Neil can) that consists of two “hemispheres” that rotate in opposite directions- simulating gravity up to the standard Martian 0.376 g.

This self-contained world is divided into Sadak, the Hindi word for road (which is one of the official languages on Mars). Each Sadak has its share of domiciles, parks, recreation facilities, and aerodromes, where people go to test out their personal fliers. At the “southern” end of the facility is Sadak Lovelock, which is the home of the Chandrasekhar clan. Within the Formist faction, the people dedicated to terraforming Venus and Mars, they are kind of a big deal. In tall towers that face towards the planet below (which is visible through massive panels) they plot the transformation of the Red Planet into a green planet.

Lovelock is named in honor of James Lovelock, the British scientist who co-authored The Greening of Mars (one of the seminal works about terraforming). It is here that the elder Chandrasekhar (Piter Chandrasekhar) lives in what is known as a Heilig Room. Also known as a Lattice Quantum Chromodynamics environment, this room allows Piter – who is basically an upload at this point in time – to assume physical form and interact with simulated environments.

Terrafomed Mars by ittiz
Terrafomed Mars. Credit: ittiz/deviantart.com

When Ward (the MC) meets him in this environment, he gets treated to familiar places from Piter’s life. This includes Mombasa, where Piter lived and worked during the mid-21st century, helping to create the coastal Lillypad city of Kimbilio. He then gives him a vision of Mars, of how it will look once the Formists are finished transforming it into a world with oceans, vegetation, and a breathable atmosphere.

In part III, Ward reaches the Jovian system – aka. the system of Moons that orbit Jupiter. His first stop is the moon of Callisto, which is the outermost of the Jovians. It is a cold, frozen world with virtually no atmosphere. All major settlements consist of sealed domes that were built into the moon’s massive craters. The largest of these is the moon’s capitol of Valhalla, which was built Callisto’s massive multi-ring impact crater of the same name.

The city consists of several rings, each of which is named after a different world of the Norse mythology. Working from the outermost ring, there is Vanaheim (where the spaceport is located), Alfheim, Midgard, Jotunheim, Svartalfheim, Nidavellir, Niflheim and Muspelheim. When travelling through the city to find an old friend, Ward stops in Niflheim. It just so happens to be one of the city’s poorer districts, where the moon’s radical elements (known as the Aquiline Front) live.

Credit: Kees Veenenbox/space4case.com
View above a methane lake on Titan. Credit: Kees Veenenbox/space4case.com

Last, there is the Cronian moon (Saturn’s moon) of Titan, where Ward inevitably goes to determine what happened to the man he’s trying to find. Much like the other moons of the outer Solar System, Titan is a world who’s surface consists mainly of ice. But unlike the other moon’s, Titan has a dense atmosphere of nitrogen, methane and other hydrocarbons. It’s surface is also covered in lakes of liquid methane, which is one of the planet’s chief exports.

The capitol of this world Huygens, a domed city named in honor of the moon’s discoverer (Christiaan Huygens). Located near the moon’s equator, this city is home to the moon\s main spaceport and is also the economic and administrative center of the entire Cronian system. As such, both the offices of the Cronian Union and the system’s more radical element – the Centimanes – are located here.

The city is also home to the infamous “Yellow Light District”, a pleasure dome that caters to every appetite imaginable. Naturally, I make sure that Ward visits here at some point, hoping to learn what he can from the moon’s many “pleasure technicians”. And of course, what he learns will both shock and intrigue him.

That’s what I got so far. And as I said, it’s been quite exhausting creating it all. I can only hope that the interest people derive from reading it will be proportional to the amount of energy it takes to write it all down!


The Cronian Incident – Halfway Done!

According to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, a work needs to be over 40,000 words long to be classified as a “novel”. This is just one standard, but right now, it’s an important one as far as I am concerned. Why? Two reasons: one, its what the SFSWA uses to classify books when considering them for a Nebula Award. Since science fiction is my chosen genre, I got to think these people know what they are talking about.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, it is because my WIP, The Cronian Incident, just passed this milestone. At present, the novel is 22 chapters and just over 43,000 words in length. And I’m only about halfway done! Problem is, this is where I begin to feel the crunch with most novels. Halfway is a bad point to be in when you’re me, because you’re feeling the weight of all that you’ve created so far, and are really aching to get to the finish line!


In the meantime, I am busy exploring the various aspects of Part III of the book, otherwise known as “Jovians”. In this part, the story’s MC, Jeremiah Ward, has traveled to the Jovian moon of Callisto (the fourth large moon of Jupiter) to meet his associate in the investigation. It is also here that he meets an old contact of his from his police-work days, and tries to learn more about the people he is working for.

One of the things that makes this challenging is that I spent the past few months developing characters and the settings of two different worlds. The story began on Mercury, moved to Mars, and now, its in orbit around Jupiter. From the surface of a cratered, hostile world, to a space elevator in orbit of Mars, and now to a frozen moon around a gas giant. Gah! I think I’ve officially OD’d on setting!

A possible base on the surface of Callisto. Credit: NASA
Artist’s impression of a possible base on the surface of Callisto. Credit: NASA

But I shall persevere. I’ve put too much into this idea to abandon it halfway, and this is one novel that I am determined to see through to completion! So – and I apologize in advance for this – expect to hear me blab a lot about it in the weeks and months to come. And you can bet I will be blabbing non-stop about it once its finished. Thanks to all those who are still paying attention 🙂


The Cronian Incident – Part II Complete!

The Cronian Incident – Part II Complete!

Hey folks! In recent months, I’ve hit two milestones in the writing of my novel. The first occurred weeks ago, when I chose to change the title. The second, and more important, is that book is now half done. Yes, with part II of the story complete, and approximately 40,000 words down on paper, the novel is now halfway towards completion. That means this book is not only out of the crib and walking, its off and running. Now it just needs to avoid any nasty spills and it will be in business!

But first, let me explain why I renamed it. Basically, this book is about an “incident” that takes place on one of Saturn’s moons (Titan). Here, a high-profile figure connected to terraforming interests on Mars goes missing. The investigation into this mysterious disappearance takes the investigator (Jeremiah Ward) from Mercury, to Mars, and then to Jupiter’s moon of Callisto before moving on to Titan. Since the focus of the investigation is on the these two moons, I decided to use the name “Jovian”, since this term applies to any moon that orbits a gas giant.

Jupiter's larger (Galilean) moons, Callisot, Europa, Io and Ganymede. Credit: NASA
Jupiter’s larger (Galilean) moons, from left to right – Callisto, Europa, Io and Ganymede. Credit: NASA

But eventually, I found this name to be problematic. For one, the larger moons that orbit Jupiter – Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto – are often referred to as “The Jovian Moons” (derived from Jove, the archaic name for Jupiter). While they are more properly known as “The Galilean Moons” (after their discoverer, Galileo), the name is applicable here more than with any other moon in the Solar System. Specifically, Saturn’s moons are properly called Saturnian or Cronian.

Another reason I wanted to call it the Jovian Incident was because I wanted it to be a compact volume consisting of three parts. Part I (Hermians) takes place on Mercury and shows the life of convict laborers; Part II (Martians) shows what life is like on a planet in the inner Solar System; and Part III (Jovians) covers all the action taking place in the outer Solar System and shows how people in this part of the universe live.

However, I finally realized this structure wouldn’t fly. For one, it would cause confusion to say the incident was “Jovian” when the moon where it happened on is called Cronian in the book. Second, I knew the three part structure wouldn’t fly, since it would mean Part III would likely be longer than Parts I and II combined. So I decided to add a Part IV (“Cronians”), and rename the book “The Cronian Incident”.

Saturn's moon Titan, which figures prominently in the story. Credit: NASA
Saturn’s moon Titan, which figures prominently in the story. Credit: NASA

And with Part II complete and Part III underway, I have covered all the necessary exposition and background, and am now moving onto the action part of the story. I would say this is where the fun part begins. But as I am sure many would agree, once you are half done a project, completing it somehow feels more difficult. For me, starting something is the easy part. Building on that foundation is also fun. But getting it from a work-in-progress to a finished work, that’s the hard part!

So feel free to wish me luck. Also, thanks for staying abreast of my progress. For those who had a helping hand, I intend to make this book available, free of charge, once its ready. And unlike some of the thing I wrote, it should work out to a (relatively) compact 80,000 words. No tomes here!

More to follow, stay in touch!

Top Image Credit: Lightfarm Studios

News from Space: Orion Spacecraft Completed

orion_arrays1NASA’s return to manned spaceflight took a few steps forward this month with the completion of the Orion crew capsule. As the module that will hopefully bring astronauts back to the Moon and to Mars, the capsule rolled out of its assembly facility at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on Thursday, Sept. 11. This was the first step on its nearly two month journey to the launch pad and planned blastoff this coming December.

Orion’s assembly was just completed this past weekend by technicians and engineers from prime contractor Lockheed Martin inside the agency’s Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O & C) Facility. And with the installation of the world’s largest heat shield and the inert service module, all that remains is fueling and the attachment of its launch abort system before it will installed atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket.

Orion-at-KSC_Ken-KremerThe unmanned test flight – Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) – is slated to blast off on December 2014, and will send the capsule into space for the first time. This will be NASA’s first chance to observe how well the Orion capsule works in space before it’s sent on its first mission on the Space Launch System (SLS), which is currently under development by NASA and is scheduled to fly no later than 2018.

The Orion is NASA’s first manned spacecraft project to reach test-flight status since the Space Shuttle first flew in the 1980s. It is designed to carry up to six astronauts on deep space missions to Mars and asteroids, either on its own or using a habitat module for missions longer than 21 days. The development process has been a long time in the making, and had more than its share of bumps along the way.

Orion-at-KSC_Ken-Kremer1As Mark Geyer, Orion Program manager, explained:

Nothing about building the first of a brand new space transportation system is easy. But the crew module is undoubtedly the most complex component that will fly in December. The pressure vessel, the heat shield, parachute system, avionics — piecing all of that together into a working spacecraft is an accomplishment. Seeing it fly in three months is going to be amazing.

In addition to going to the Moon and Mars, the Orion spacecraft will carry astronauts on voyages venturing father into deep space than ever before. This will include going to the Asteroid Belt, to Europa (to see if there’s any signs of life there), and even beyond – most likely to Enceladus, Titan, the larger moons of Uranus, and all the other wondrous places in the Solar System.

oriontestflightThe two-orbit, four and a half hour EFT-1 flight will lift the Orion spacecraft and its attached second stage to an orbital altitude of 5,800 km (3,600 miles), about 15 times higher than the International Space Station (ISS) – and farther than any human spacecraft has journeyed in 40 years. It will be an historic occasion, and constitute an important step in what is sure to be known as the Second Space Age.

And be sure to watch this time-lapse video of the Orion Capsule as it is released from the Kennedy Space Center to the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility in preparation for its first flight:

gizmag.com, universetoday.com

News from Space: Rosetta Maps Comet Surface

Rosetta_and_Philae_at_cometLast month, the European Space Agency Rosetta’s space probe arrived at the comet known as 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, thus becoming the first spacecraft to ever rendezvous with a comet. As it continues on its way to the Inner Solar System, Rosetta’s sensing instruments have been studying the surface in detail in advance of the attempted landing of it’s Philae probe.

Because of this, Rosetta has been able to render a map of the various areas on the surface of the comet, showing that it is composed of several different regions created by a range of forces acting upon the object. Images of the comet’s surface were captured by OSIRIS, the scientific imaging system aboard the Rosetta spacecraft, and scientists analyzing them have divided the comet into several distinct regions, each characterized by different classes of features.

rosettamap-1All told, areas containing cliffs, trenches, impact craters, rocks, boulders and parallel grooves have been identified and mapped by the probe. Some of the areas that have been mapped appear to be caused by aspects of the activity occurring in and around the nucleus of the comet, such as where particles from below the surface are carried up by escaping gas and vapor and strewn around the surface in the surrounding area.

So detailed are these images that many have been captured at a resolution of one pixel being equal to an area of 194 square centimeters (30 square inches) on the comet surface. Dr. Holger Sierks, OSIRIS’ Principal Investigator from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Science, puts it into perspective:

Never before have we seen a cometary surface in such detail. It is a historic moment – we have an unprecedented resolution to map a comet… This first map is, of course, only the beginning of our work. At this point, nobody truly understands how the surface variations we are currently witnessing came to be.

Rosetta_and_Philae_at_comet_node_full_imageThe newly-generated comet maps and images captured by the instruments on Rosetta will now provide a range of detail on which to finalize possible landing sites for the Philae probe to be launched to the surface . As such, the Rosetta team will meet in Toulouse, France, on September 13 and 14 to allocate primary and backup landing sites (from a list of sites previously selected) with much greater confidence.

At the same time, Rosetta has revealed quite a bit about the outward appearance of the comet, and it aint pretty! More often than not, comets are described as “dirty snowballs” to describe their peculiar composition of ice and dust. But Rosetta’s Alice instrument, which was installed by NASA, has sent back preliminary scientific data that shows that the comet is more akin to a lump of coal.

Rosetta_Artist_Impression_Far_625x469Alice is one of eleven instruments carried aboard Rosetta and one of three instrument packages supplied by NASA for the unmanned orbiter. Essentially, it’s a miniature UV imaging spectrograph that looks for thermal markers in the far ultraviolet part of the spectrum in order to learn more about the comet’s composition and history. It does this by looking specifically for the markers associated with noble gases, such as helium, neon, argon, and krypton.

The upshot of all this high-tech imaging is the surprising discovery of what 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko looks like. According to NASA, the comet is darker than charcoal. And though Alice has detected oxygen and hydrogen in the comet’s coma, the patches of barren ice that NASA scientists had expected aren’t there. Apparently, this is because 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is too far away from the warmth of the sun to turn the ice into water vapor.

rosetta-1Alan Stern, Alice principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, had this to say about the revelation:

We’re a bit surprised at just how unreflective the comet’s surface is and how little evidence of exposed water-ice it shows.

Launched in 2004, Rosetta reached 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko by a circuitous route involving three flybys of Earth, one of Mars, and a long detour out beyond Jupiter as it built up enough speed to catch up to the comet. Over the coming months, as the Rosetta spacecraft and comet 67P move further into the solar system and approach the sun, the OSIRIS team and other instruments on the payload will continue to observe the comet’s surface for any changes.

alice-first-findings-3Hence why this mission is of such historic importance. Not only does it involve a spacecraft getting closer to a comet than at time in our history, it also presents a chance to examine what happens to a comet as it approaches our sun. And if indeed it does begin to melt and breakdown, we will get a chance to peer inside, which will be nothing less than a chance to look back in time, to a point when our Solar System was still forming.

Sources: gizmag, (2), jpl.nasa.gov, nasa.gov

News From Space: Rosetta Starts, Orion in the Wings

 Quick Note: This is my 1700th post!
Yaaaaaay, happy dance!

Rosetta_Artist_Impression_Far_625x469Space exploration is a booming industry these days. Between NASA, the ESA, Roscosmos, the CSA, and the federal space agencies of India and China, there’s just no shortage of exciting missions aimed at improving our understanding of our Solar System or the universe at large. In recent months, two such missions have been making the news; one of which (led by the ESA) is now underway, while the other (belonging to NASA) is fast-approaching.

In the first instance, we have the ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft, which is currently on its way to rendezvous with the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko at the edge of our Solar System. After awaking from a 957 day hibernation back in January, it has just conducted its first instruments observations. Included in these instruments are three NASA science packages, all of which have started sending science data back to Earth.

Rosetta_and_Philae_at_cometSince leaving Earth in March 2004, the Rosetta spacecraft has traveled more than 6 billion km (3.7 billion miles) in an attempt to be the first spacecraft to successfully rendezvous with a comet. It is presently nearing the main asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars – some 500,000 km (300,000 miles) from its destination. And until August, it will executing a series of 10 orbit correction maneuvers to line it self up to meet with 67P, which will take place on August 6th.

Rosetta will then continue to follow the comet around the Sun as it moves back out toward the orbit of Jupiter. By November of 2014, Rosetta’s mission will then to launch its Philae space probe to the comet, which will provide the first analysis of a comet’s composition by drilling directly into the surface. This will provide scientists with the first-ever interior view of a comet, and provide them with a window in what the early Solar System looked like.

rosetta-1The three NASA instruments include the MIRO, Alice, and IES. The MIRO (or Microwave Instrument for Rosetta Orbiter) comes in two parts – the microwave section and the spectrometer. The first is designed to measure the comet’s surface temperatures to provide information on the mechanisms that cause gas and dust to pull away from it and form the coma and tail. The other part, a spectrometer, will measure the gaseous coma for water, carbon monoxide, ammonia, and methanol.

Alice (not an acronym, just a nickname) is a UV spectrometer designed to determine the gases present in the comet and gauge its history. It will also be used to measure the rate at which the comet releases water, CO and CO2, which will provide details of the composition of the comet’s nucleus. IES (or Ion and Electron Sensor) is one of five plasma analyzing instruments that make up the Rosetta Plasma Consortium (RPC) suite. This instrument will measure the charged particles as the comet draws nearer to the sun and the solar wind increases.

oriontestflightNamed in honor of the Rosetta Stone – the a basalt slab that helped linguists crack ancient Egyptian – Rosetta is expected to provide the most detailed information about what comets look like up close (as well as inside and out). Similarly, the lander, Philae, is named after the island in the Nile where the stone was discovered. Together, they will help scientists shed light on the early history of our Solar System by examining one of its oldest inhabitants.

Next up, there’s the next-generation Orion spacecraft, which NASA plans to use to send astronauts to Mars (and beyond) in the not too distant future. And with its launch date (Dec. 4th, 2014) approaching fast, NASA scientists have set out what they hope to learn from its maiden launch. The test flight, dubbed EFT-1 is the first of three proving missions set to trial many of the in-flight systems essential to the success of any manned mission to Mars, or the outer Solar System.

orionheatshield-1EFT-1 will take the form of an unmanned test flight, with the Orion spacecraft being controlled entirely by a flight control team from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center located in Florida. One vital component to be tested is the Launch Abort System (LAS), which in essence is a fail-safe required to protect astronauts should anything go wrong during the initial launch phase. Designed to encapsulate the crew module in the event of a failure on the launch pad, the LAS thrusters will fire and carry the Orion away from danger.

Orion’s computer systems – which are 400 times faster than those used aboard the space shuttle and have the ability to process 480 million instructions per second- will also be tested throughout the test flight. However, they must also demonstrate the ability to survive the radiation and extreme cold of deep space followed by the fiery conditions of re-entry, specifically in the context of prolonged human exposure to this dangerous form of energy.

oriontestflight-1Whilst all systems aboard Orion will be put through extreme conditions during EFT-1, none are tested as stringently as those required for re-entry. The entire proving mission is designed around duplicating the kind of pressures that a potential manned mission to Mars will have to endure on its return to Earth, and so naturally the results of the performance of these systems will be the most eagerly anticipated by NASA scientists waiting impatiently in the Kennedy Space Center.

Hence the Orion’s heat shield, a new design comprised of a 41mm (1.6-inch) thick slab of Avcoat ablator, the same material that protected the crew of Apollo-era missions. As re-entry is expected to exceed speeds of 32,187 km/h (20,000 mph), this shield must protect the crew from temperatures of around 2,204 ºC (4,000 ºF). Upon contact with the atmosphere, the heat shield is designed to slowly degrade, drawing the intense heat of re-entry away from the crew module in the process.

orionheatshield-2The final aspect of EFT-1 will be the observation of the parachute deployment system. Assuming the LAS has successfully jettisoned from the crew module following launch, the majority of Orion’s stopping power will be provided by the deploying of two drogue parachutes, followed shortly thereafter by three enormous primary parachutes, with the combined effect of slowing the spacecraft to 1/1000th of its initial re-entry speed.

Previous testing of the parachute deployment system has proven that the Orion spacecraft could safely land under only one parachute. However, these tests could not simulate the extremes that the system will have to endure during EFT-1 prior to deployment. The Orion spacecraft, once recovered from the Pacific Ocean, is set to be used for further testing of the ascent abort system in 2018. Data collected from EFT-1 will be invaluable in informing future testing, moving towards a crewed Orion mission some time in 2021.

oriontestflight-2NASA staff on the ground will be nervously monitoring several key aspects of the proving mission, with the help of 1,200 additional sensors geared towards detecting vibration and temperature stress, while taking detailed measurements of event timing. Furthermore, cameras are set to be mounted aboard Orion to capture the action at key separation points, as well as views out of the windows of the capsule, and a live shot of the parachutes as they deploy (hopefully).

The launch promises to be a historic occasion, representing a significant milestone on mankind’s journey to Mars. Orion, the product of more than 50 years of experience, will be the first human-rated spacecraft to be constructed in over 30 years. The Orion will be launch is expected to last four hours and 25 minute, during which time a Delta-2 Heavy rocket will bring it to an altitude of 5,794 km (3,600 miles) with the objective of creating intense re-entry pressures caused by a return from a deep space mission.

And be sure to check out this animation of the Orion Exploration Flight Test-1:

Sources: gizmag.com, (2)

NASA’s Proposed Warp-Drive Visualized

ixs-enterpriseIt’s no secret that NASA has been taking a serious look at Faster-Than-Light (FTL) technology in recent years. It began back in 2012 when Dr Harold White, a team leader from NASA’s Engineering Directorate, announced that he and his team had begun work on the development of a warp drive. His proposed design, an ingenious re-imagining of an Alcubierre Drive, may eventually result in an engine that can transport a spacecraft to the nearest star in a matter of weeks — and all without violating Einstein’s law of relativity.

In the spirit of this proposed endeavor, White chose to collaborate with an artist to visualize what such a ship might look like. Said artist, Mark Rademaker, recently unveiled the fruit of this collaboration in the form of a series of concept images. At the heart of them is a sleek ship nestled at the center of two enormous rings that create the warp bubble. Known as the IXS Enterprise, the ship has one foot in the world of science fiction, but the other in the realm of hard science.

ixs-enterprise-0The idea for the warp-drive comes from the work published by Miguel Alcubierre in 1994. His version of a warp drive is based on the observation that, though light can only travel at a maximum speed of 300,000 km/sec (186,000 miles per second, aka. c), spacetime itself has a theoretically unlimited speed. Indeed, many physicists believe that during the first seconds of the Big Bang, the universe expanded at some 30 billion times the speed of light.

The Alcubierre warp drive works by recreating this ancient expansion in the form of a localized bubble around a spaceship. Alcubierre reasoned that if he could form a torus of negative energy density around a spacecraft and push it in the right direction, this would compress space in front of it and expand space behind it. As a result, the ship could travel at many times the speed of light while the ship itself sits in zero gravity – hence sparing the crew from the effects of acceleration.

alcubierre-warp-drive-overviewUnfortunately, the original maths indicated that a torus the size of Jupiter would be needed, and you’d have to turn Jupiter itself into pure energy to power it. Worse, negative energy density violates a lot of physical limits itself, and to create it requires forms of matter so exotic that their existence is largely hypothetical. In short, what was an idea proposed to circumvent the laws of physics itself fell prey to their limitations.

However, Dr Harold “Sonny” White of NASA’s Johnson Space Center reevaluated Alcubierre’s equations and made adjustments that corrected for the required size of the torus and the amount of energy required. In the case of the former, White discovered that making the torus thicker, while reducing the space available for the ship, allowed the size of it to be greatly decreased – from the size of Jupiter down to a width of 10 m (30 ft), roughly the size of the Voyager 1 probe.

alcubierre-warp-drive-overviewIn the case of the latter, oscillating the bubble around the craft would reduce the stiffness of spacetime, making it easier to distort. This would reduce the amount of energy required by several orders of magnitude, for a ship traveling ten times the speed of light. According to White, with such a setup, a ship could reach Alpha Centauri in a little over five months. A crew traveling on a ship that could accelerate to just shy of the speed of light be able to make the same trip in about four and a half years.

Rademaker’s renderings reflect White’s new calculations. The toruses are thicker and, unlike the famous warp nacelles on Star Trek’s Enterprise, their design is the true function of hurling the craft between the stars. Also, the craft, which is divided into command and service modules, fits properly inside the warp bubble. There are some artistic additions, such as some streamlining, but no one said an interstellar spaceship couldn’t be functional and pretty right?

ixs-enterprise-2For the time being, White’s ideas can only be tested on special interferometers of the most exacting precision. Worse, the dependence of the warp on negative energy density is a major barrier to realization. While it can, under special circumstances, exist at a quantum level, in the classical physical world that this ship must travel through, it cannot exist except as a property of some form of matter so exotic that it can barely be said to be capable of existing in our universe.

Though no one can say with any certainty when such a system might be technically feasible, it doesn’t hurt to look ahead and dream of what may one day be possible. And in the meantime, you can check out Rademaker’s entire gallery by going to his Flickr account here. And be sure to check out the video of Dr. White explaining his warp-drive concept at SpaceVision 2013:

gizmag.comIO9.com, cnet.com
, flickr.com

News from Space: Jupiter’s Eye Disappearing

jupiterJupiter’s Red Eye, that trademark spot on the gas giant’s surface that is its most recognizable feature, appears to be shrinking faster than ever. Earlier this year, amateur astronomers had observed and photographed the Eye and noted that it had grown smaller. Shorlty thereafter, astronomers observed it using the Hubble Space Telescope and came to the same conclusion. Based on their calculations, they estimate that Jupiter’s Eye, a giant long-lasting storm, is narrowing by more than 900 kilometres a year, much faster than before.

At this rate, they claim, it will be gone by 2031 – just 17 years from now. Using historic sketches and photos from the late 1800s, astronomers determined the spot’s diameter then at 41,000 km (25,475 miles) across. Now, it is turned from a giant ovoid into a discrete circle that is a mere 16,500 kilometres (10,252 miles) across. Many who’ve attempted to see Jupiter’s signature feature have been frustrated in recent years not only because the spot’s pale color makes it hard to see  against adjacent cloud features, but because it’s physically getting smaller.

Jupiter-GRS-Hubble-shrink-panel-580x399As to what causing the drastic downsizing, there are no firm answers yet. However, NASA has a theory, which was shared by Amy Simon of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, USA:

In our new observations it is apparent that very small eddies are feeding into the storm. We hypothesized that these may be responsible for the accelerated change by altering the internal dynamics of the Great Red Spot.

Michael Wong, a scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, seems to be in agreement. He stated that one theory is the spot eats smaller storms, and that it is consuming fewer of them. But for the time being, scientists can’t be sure why its getting smaller, why the eye is red in the first place, or what will happen once it is completely gone.

Jupiters_EyeThe Great Red Spot has been a trademark of the planet for at least 400 years – a giant hurricane-like storm whirling in the planet’s upper cloud tops with a period of 6 days. But as it’s shrunk, its period has likewise grown shorter and now clocks in at about 4 days. The storm appears to be conserving angular momentum by spinning faster and wind speeds are increasing as well, making one wonder whether they’ll ultimately shrink the spot further or bring about its rejuvenation.

In short, the eye could become a thing of the past, the sort of thing children many years from now will only read about or see in pictures to give them some idea of how the Solar System once looked. Or, its possible that it could blow up again and become as it once was, a massive red Eye observable from millions of kilometres away. Who knows? In the meantime, check out this video by NASAJuno, explaining what little we know about Jupiter’s most prominent feature (while it lasts):

News From Space: Curiosity’s Latest Photos

curiosity_sol-177-1April was a busy month for the very photo-talented (and photogenic) Curiosity Rover. In addition to another panoramic shot of the Martian landscape – which included Curiosity looking back at itself, making it a “selfie” – the rover also managed to capture a night-sky image that captured two minor planets and the Martian moon of Deimos in the same picture. At a time when Curiosity and Opportunity are both busy on long-haul missions to find evidence of life, these latest pictures remind us that day-to-day operations on Mars are still relevant.

The first shot took place on April 20th (Sol 606), when rover scientists used the Mast Camera to capture the minor planets of Ceres and Vesta, as well as the moon of Deimos, in the same frame. Ceres is a minor planet with a diameter of about 950 km, and is the largest object in the main asteroid belt. With a diameter of about 563 km, Vesta is the third-largest object in the asteroid belt. Deimos, meanwhile, is the smaller of Mars’ two moons, with a mean radius of 6 km.

curiosity_nightskyIn the main portion of the new image (seen above), Vesta, Ceres and three stars appear as short streaks due to the duration of a 12-second exposure. In other camera pointings the same night, the Curiosity’s camera also imaged Phobos and the planets Jupiter and Saturn, which are shown as insets on the left.  Dr Mark Lemmon from Texas A&M University, a Curiosity team member, explained:

this imaging was part of an experiment checking the opacity of the atmosphere at night in Curiosity’s location on Mars, where water-ice clouds and hazes develop during this season… The two Martian moons were the main targets that night, but we chose a time when one of the moons was near Ceres and Vesta in the sky.

Deimos was much brighter than the visible stars, Vesta and Ceres in the same part of the sky, in the main image. The circular inset covers a patch of sky the size that Earth’s full moon appears to observers on Earth. At the center of that circular inset, Deimos appears at its correct location in the sky, in a 0.25 second exposure.

Curiosity_selfieAs for the latest in Curiosity’s long-line of panoramic self-portraits, this one comes to us courtesy of Jason Major. As a graphic designer and amateur space explorer, Major assembled the picture from about the dozen or so images acquired with the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) instrument on April 27-28, 2014 (Sol 613). In the background, one can see the 5.5-km-high (3.4 miles) Mount Sharp (Aeolis Mons) that sits in the center of the Gale Crater.

One thing that Major noted about the picture he assembled is the way the cylindrical RUHF antenna and the bit of the RTG that is visible in the lower center seem to form a “toothy (if slightly dusty) grin”. But, as he stated:

…with almost 21 Earth-months on Mars and lots of discoveries already under her robot belt, Curiosity (and her team) certainly have plenty to smile about!

And the best is likely to still be coming. As we speak, Curiosity is making its way towards Mount Sharp and is expected to arrive there sometime in August. As the primary goal in its mission, Curiosity set off for this destination back in June after spending months studying Glenelg area. She is expected to arrive at the foot of the mountain in August, where she will begin drilling in an effort to study the mountain’s vast caches of minerals – which could potentially support a habitable environment.

mountsharp_galecraterIf Curiosity does find evidence of organic molecules in this cache, it will be one of the greatest scientific finds ever made, comparable only to the discovery of hominid remains in the Olduvai Gorge, or the first recorded discovery of dinosaur remains. For not only will we have definitive proof that life once existed on Mars, we will know with some certainly that it may again someday…

Stay tuned for more news from the Red Planet. And in the meantime, keep on trucking Curiosity!

Sources: sci-news.com, universetoday.com