Buzz Aldrin: Let’s Go to Mars!

Apollo11_Aldrin1This past weekend was the 45th anniversary of the Moon Landing. To mark that occasion, NASA mounted the @ReliveApollo11 twitter campaign, where it recreated every moment of the historic mission by broadcasting updates in “real-time”. In addition to commemorating the greatest moment in space exploration, and one of the greatest moments in history, it also served to draw attention to new efforts that are underway.

Perhaps the greatest of these is one being led by Buzz Aldrin, a living-legend and an ambassador for current and future space missions. For decades now, Aldrin has been acting as a sort of elder statesman lobbying for the exploration of the cosmos. And most recently, he has come out in favor of a mission that is even grander and bolder than the one that saw him set foot on the Moon: putting people on Mars.

mars_spaceXmissionIt’s no secret that NASA has a manned mission planned for 2030. But with space exploration once again garnering the spotlight – thanks in no small part to commercial space companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic – Aldrin is pushing for something even more ambitious. Echoing ideas like Mars One, his plan calls for the colonization of Mars by astronauts who would never return to Earth.

To be sure, the spry 84 year-old has been rather busy in the past few years. After going through a very public divorce with his wife 0f 23 years in January of last year, he spent the past few months conducting a publicity blitz on behalf of the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11. In between all that, he has also made several appearances and done interviews in which he stressed the importance of the Martian colonization project.

Mars_OneA few months ago, Aldrin wrote an op-ed piece for Fast Company about innovation and the need for cooperation to make a new generation of space exploration a reality. During a more recent interview, which took place amidst the ongoing crisis in the Ukraine, he once again stressed the importance of cooperation between the United States, Russia, China, and their respective space programs.

As he told Fast Company in the interview:

I think that any historical migration of human beings to establish a permanent presence on another planet requires cooperation from the world together. That can’t be done by America competing with China… Just getting our people back up there is really expensive! We don’t compete but we can do other things close by with robots, which have improved tremendously over the past 45 years (since Apollo 11). You and I haven’t improved all that much, but robots have. We can work together with other nations in design, construction, and making habitats on both the near side and far side of Mars. Then when we eventually have designs, we’ll have the capacity to actually build them.

SLS_launchSimilarly, Aldrin took part in live Google Hangout with Space.com’s managing editor Tariq Malik and executive producer Dave Brody. This took place just eight days before the 25th anniversary of the Landing. During the broadcast, he discussed his experiences as an astronaut, the future of lunar exploration, future missions to Mars and beyond, and even took questions via chatwindow on Google+’s webpage.

At this juncture, its not clear how a colonization mission to Mars would be mounted. While Mars One is certainly interested in the concept, they (much like Inspiration Mars) do not have the necessary funding or all the technical know-how to make things a reality just yet. A possible solution to this could be a partnership program between NASA, the ESA, China, Russia, and other space agencies.

terraformingSuch ideas did inform Kim Stanley Robinson’s seminal novel Red Mars, where an international crew flew to the Red Planet and established the first human settlement that begins the terraforming process. But if international cooperation proves too difficult, perhaps a collaboration between commercial space agencies and federal ones could work. I can see it now: the Elon Musk Martian Dome; the Richard Branson Habitat; or the Gates colony…

With that in mind, I think we should all issue a prayer for international peace and cooperation! And in the meantime, be sure to check out the video of the Google Hangout below. And if you’re interested in reading up on Aldrin’s ideas for a mission to Mars, check out his book, Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration, which is was published by National Geographic and is available at Amazon or through his website.


Sources:
fastcompany.com, buzzaldrin.com, space.com

News From Space: NASA Severs Ties to Russia

ISS_crewYesterday, NASA officially announced that it intends to cease most work with the Russian Federal Space Agency amid growing tensions concerning the Ukrainian crisis. The statement came from Bob Jacobs, NASA’s deputy associate administrator of communications, who formalized the space agency’s position with a message sent to Universe Today, a copy of which was then posted on it’s Google+ message board on Wednesday, April 2nd.

In the statement, they indicate that while the International Space Station will still see work to “maintain safe and continuous operation”, most work with Roscosmos (Russia’s federal space agency) will cease. In addition, they were sure to include a reminder to Congress, saying that they now face a choice between fully funding human U.S. launches again in 2017, or facing years more of sending money to the Russians for Soyuz launches from Kazakhstan.

Soyuz_capsuleThe full text of the statement appears as follows:

Given Russia’s ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, NASA is suspending the majority of its ongoing engagements with the Russian Federation.  NASA and Roscosmos will, however, continue to work together to maintain safe and continuous operation of the International Space Station.

NASA is laser focused on a plan to return human spaceflight launches to American soil, and end our reliance on Russia to get into space.  This has been a top priority of the Obama Administration’s for the past five years, and had our plan been fully funded, we would have returned American human spaceflight launches – and the jobs they support – back to the United States next year.  

With the reduced level of funding approved by Congress, we’re now looking at launching from U.S. soil in 2017.  The choice here is between fully funding the plan to bring space launches back to America or continuing to send millions of dollars to the Russians.  It’s that simple.  The Obama Administration chooses to invest in America – and we are hopeful that Congress will do the same.

So far, it’s not exactly clear what activities would constitute “safe and continuous operation” of the station. So, for example, whether or not NASA will continue to send photographers to cover launches and landing in Russia, or to what extent NASA TV broadcasts of Russian spacewalks would be affected, remains to be seen. And in the meantime, missions already scheduled for launch – such as Expedition 40, which will launch aboard a Soyuz spacecraft in May – are still expected to go ahead.

ISS_exp40Since the Space Shuttle Program was retired in 2011, NASA and other space agencies such as the European Space Agency have relied on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to bring astronauts to the International Space Station. Crews are generally made up of large proportions of Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts, as well as a few astronauts from other agencies. The current Expedition 39 crew has has three Russians, two Americans and a Japanese commander, Koichi Wakata.

The relationship between NASA and Russia stretches back to the 1970s when Russia was still the Soviet Union, with their first joint mission (the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project) taking place in 1975. The relationship expanded when several NASA shuttles visited the Russian space station Mir in the 1990s, laying the groundwork for the International Space Station agreement today. And 2011, that relationship expanded considerably, with Russian rockets not only transporting ISS crews, but also US and European satellites into orbit.

Earth_&_Mir_(STS-71)NASA is working on a commercial crew program that right now is slated to bring U.S. astronauts back into space from American soil by 2017. There are several proposals being considered: a human-rated version of SpaceX’s Dragon, Blue Origin’s New Shepard, Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser and the Boeing CST-100. However, these depend upon continued funding and it is currently unclear how much money the CCP program will receive in the upcoming fiscal 2015 budget request before Congress.

Historically, NASA has repeatedly received less funding than what it has requested, which has resulted in missions being delayed – sometimes by years. But the new tensions with Russia may alter that situation somewhat, and judging from their statement, NASA is counting on this very thing. In the meantime, International Space Station operations were extended to at least 2024, and NASA officials have pointed out that it and similar agreements have weathered other world crises.

Source: universetoday.com

Cassini, MESSENGER, and MOM: A Space Probe Odyssey

Cassini_Saturn_Orbit_InsertionIt had has been a big month in the field of space probes and satellites. Whether they are in orbit around Mercury, on their way to Mars, or floating in the outer Solar System, there’s been no shortage of news and inspirational footage to be had. And it is a testament to the age we live in, where space news is accessible and can instantly be shared with millions of people around the world.

First up, there’s the recent release of Cassini’s magnificent image of Saturn’s rings shining in all their glory. Back in July, Cassini got a good look back at Earth from about 1.5 billion kilometers (932 million miles) away. Known as
“The Day The Earth Smiled”, NASA has spent the past few months cobbling together this picture from numerous shots taken during Cassini’s circuitous orbit around Saturn.

cassini-jupiter-annotatedCassini has always been able to take impressive pictures in Earth’s general direction, but this picture was special since it used the enormous bulk of Saturn to block the usually confounding brightness of the Sun. Cassini, which was launched to survey the outer planets in 1997, captured an absolutely incredible image of both the Earth as a pale blue dot, and of Saturn as a striking, luminous apparition.

As part of NASA’s latest awareness campaign, which tried to get everyday citizens to smile at the sky for the first posed interplanetary photo most of us have ever experienced, the photo captured the halo effect that makes our sixth planet look truly breathtaking. In the annotated version (pictured above), you can also see Venus, Mars, and some of Saturn’s moons.


Next up, there’s the MESSENGER probe, which managed to capture these impressive new videos of Mercury’s surface. As part of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) ride-along imaging campaign, these videos were captured using the Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS). Even though the original high-res images were captured four seconds apart, these videos have been sped up to a rate of 15 images per second.


The views in each video are around 144-178 km (90-110 miles) across. The large crater visible in the beginning of the second video is the 191-km (118-mile) wide Schubert basin. In related news, there are new maps of Mercury available on the US Geological Survey website! Thanks to MESSENGER we now have the entirety of the first planet from the Sun imaged and mapped.

MESSENGER launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station back in August of 2004 and established orbit around Mercury on March 18th, 2011. It was the first man-made spacecraft ever to do so, and has provided the most comprehensive mapping of Mercury to date, not to mention evidence of ice, organic molecules, and detailed conditions on the surface.

India_Mars_Orbiter1And last, but not least, there was the recent launch of the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) new Mars Orbiter Mission (aka. MOM). The launch took place on Tuesday, November 5th from the Indian space port located on a small island in the Bay of Bengal. As the nation’s first attempt to reach the Red Planet, the aim of the $70 million mission goes beyond mere research.

In addition to gathering information that might indicate if life has ever existed or could exist on Mars, the mission is also meant to showcase India’s growing prowess in the field of space and to jump ahead of its regional rival (China) in the big interplanetary march. As Pallava Bagla, one of India’s best known science commentators, put it:

In the last century the space race meant the US against the Soviets. In the 21st century it means India against China. There is a lot of national pride involved in this.

India Mars probeIn addition, there has been quite a bit of speculation that the missionw as designed to stimulate national pride in the midst of an ongoing economic crisis. In recent years, a plunging currency, ailing economy and the state’s seeming inability to deliver basic services have led many Indians to question whether their nation is quite as close to becoming a global superpower as it seemed in the last decade.

MOM is expected to arrive in the vicinity of Mars on September 24th, 2014 where it will assume an elliptical orbit around the planet and begin conducting atmospheric surveys. If all continues to goes well, India will the elite club of only four nations that have launched probes which successfully investigated the Red Planet from orbit or the surface – following the Soviet Union, the United States and the European Space Agency (ESA).

India_Mars_Orbiter2MOM was also the first of two new Mars orbiter science probes that left Earth and began heading for Mars this November. The second was NASA’s $671 million MAVEN orbiter, which launched on November 18th atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida. MAVEN is slated to arrive just two days before MOM, and research efforts will be coordinated between the two agencies.

Much like MAVEN, MOM’s goal is to study the Martian atmosphere , unlock the mysteries of its current state and determine how, why and when the atmosphere and liquid water were lost – and how this transformed Mars climate into its cold, desiccated state it is in today. In addition to aiding our scientific understanding of the world, it may help us to transform the planet into a liveable environment once again.

For many people, these developments are an indication of things to come. If humanity ever intends to become an interplanetary species, an expanding knowledge of our Solar System is an absolute prerequisite. And in many respects, making other planets our home may be the only way we can survive as a species, given our current rate of population growth and consumption.

Sources: extremetech.com, nasa.gov, universetoday.com, planetarynames.wr.usgs.gov, theguardian.com, www.isro.org

News From Space: UrtheCast Cameras Blast Off!

space_cameraTwo High-Definition cameras designed to stream detailed views of Earth from the International Space Station blasted off into space yesterday. The cameras are the work of UrtheCast, a Vancouver-based company that distributes operational software for publicly accessibly HD cameras and broadcasts. Once installed, they will provide a view of Earth that is usually reserved for astronauts.

The cameras – one still and one video camera – launched at 3:52 p.m. ET from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazahkstan on an unmanned Russian Progress spacecraft aboard a Soyuz rocket. The two cameras will be attached to a platform on the underside of the space station that was brought up by a previous Progress flight in July and installed by Russian cosmonauts during a spacewalk.

Urthecastcam_UCThe cameras will be able to view a large band of the Earth between the latitudes of 51 degrees north and 51 degrees south, covering everything from the Canadian Prairies and the southern tip of Chile and Argentina. What’s more, their resolution will be high enough that people will be able to see things as small as cars, boats, their own homes, and even small groups of people.

The company stressed though that individual people would not be discernible as the resolution is simply not high enough to make out facial features. The fixed, still camera will take a continuous video panorama of Earth 50 kilometres wide as the space station orbits Earth 16 times each day. Meanwhile, the other camera will be pointable and able to be directed at specific points on the globe.

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????And while many of the images they take will be available free online just a few hours after they were captured, customers will also have access to specific footage captured by the second, pointed camera. So for a small fee, people will be able to take part in what the company likes to call the “world’s first near-live HD video feed of Earth.”

The company expects customers to include governments, non-governmental organizations and corporations that would like particular types of live and archival images for purposes such as monitoring the environment. As Chris Carter, director of wealth management for ScotiaMcLeod and CBC Radio’s Vancouver business columnist, claims that this expectation is valid since UrtheCast’s business model allows it avoid a major hurdle.

urthecaste.gifBasically, the greatest impediment to providing space-based footage of the Earth is the astronomical (no pun!) cost of getting cameras into space. UrtheCast has gotten around this hurdle by partnering with Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency, who transported their cameras in exchange for free access to images that it might otherwise have to pay for.

According to a statement made by the company earlier this month, as of Sept. 30, the company – which trades on the Toronto Stock Exchange – had annual purchase commitments worth $21 million:

Although these purchase commitments cannot be considered binding prior to the cameras being installed on the ISS, UrtheCast has already begun the process of converting these purchase commitments into binding commercial agreements.

The democratic space age is looming, people. Between regular updates on social media and webcasts from NASA rovers and space satellites, to live feeds from publicly-accessible cameras, we are entering an age where exploration and research are accessible like never before. Add to this the dream of telexploration, and we could be looking at a future where astronauts do NOT get to have all the fun!

Sources: cbc.ca, urthecast.com

Typhoon Haiyan From Space

typhoon_haiyanEarlier this month, the Super Typhoon Haiyan smashed into the island nation of the Philippines, leaving an enormous amount of death and destruction in its wake. According to NASA, the typhoon struck with winds that exceeded 379 kilometers per hour (235 mph), while the U.S. Navy Joint Typhoon Warning Center indicates that it has since sustained wind speeds of over 315 kilometers per hour (95 MPH).

Classified as a Category 5 monster storm on the U.S. Saffir-Simpson scale, Haiyan is reported to be the largest and most powerful storm ever to make landfall in recorded human history. The current estimates claim that some 5000 people have died so far, with the final toll expected to be far higher.

haiyan_8_november_2013_0019_utc_0-566x580Given the enormous scale of this typhoon, many of the clearest pictures of it have come from space. Since it first made landfall on Friday, November 8th, many detailed images have been captured by NASA, the Russian Space Agency, the India’s newly-launched Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), and even from the ISS – courtesy of astronaut Karen Nyberg.

According to NASA, the most detailed data on the storm came from the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite, which captured visible, microwave and infrared data on the storm just as it was crossing the island of Leyte in the central Philippines. In addition to gauging wind speed, the satellite was also able to measure precipitation rates and temperature fluctuations.

typhoon_haiyan1Far from simply documenting this tragedy, the high resolution imagery and precise measurements provided by these and other satellites have been absolutely essential to tracking this storm and providing advance warning. Whereas thousands have died in the effected areas, some 800,000 more have been evacuated from the central region of the country.

Coincidentally, NASA’s Goddard Flight Center has just finished assembling the next generation weather satellite known as the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM), an observatory that is scheduled to replace the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission. GPM is equipped with advanced, higher resolution radar instruments and is vital to the continued effort of providing forecasts and advance warning of extreme super storms.

typhoon_haiyan2In the midst of tragedies like Hurricane Sandy and Haiyan, not to mention the escalating risk of super-storms associated with Climate Change, it is good to know that there are silver linings, such as advanced warning and sophisticated instruments that can keep us apprised of the threats we face. For more information on Super Typhoon Haiyan and how you can aid in the recovery, check out the Internationa Red Cross’ website.

And be sure to check out this video of Haiyan as it made landfall, as captured by the Russian weather satellite Electro-L:


Source: universetoday.com, bbc.co.uk , icrc.org

Want to See Your Home from the ISS?

ISSA Vancouver-based company recently announced that it would be streaming images from the ISS to Earth, giving people a rare glimpse of what astronauts in orbit see on a daily basis. In an age where space travel is becoming increasingly public, thanks in part to social media, it now appears that at least one company want to get in on the ground floor of making space more accessible.

Scott Larson, CEO of Urthecast (get it?), said in a recent interview with CBC’s Curt Petrovich how his company is making this happen. This past Sunday, Urthecast launched a platform to the space station aboard the unmanned Russian Progress M-20M spacecraft as part of a delivery of 2.4 tonnes of supplies – including food, water, fuel and scientific equipment.

urthecaste.gifThis platform will soon be attached to the outside of the station and augmented with two HD cameras that will allow people to see things on Earth as small as one meter wide. One will be fixed will take a continuous video panorama of Earth 50 kilometers wide as the space station orbits Earth while the other will be a pointable one that customers will be able to aim at a particular spot on Earth, for a price.

These cameras will be launched aboard a different Progress flight on Nov. 20 and attached to the platform upon arrival. Though Urthecast has not specified what kind of fees will be involved for those looking to download pics of Earth, it has claimed that it intends to sell the video to corporations, governments and non-governmental organizations such as the United Nations for a wide range of need.

urthecaste_cameraHowever, these customers will not include the military since the apparatus will be on the International Space Station, which by law can only be used for “peaceful purposes”. Canadian law also requires the company to shut off the cameras as they pass over sensitive targets, if requested to do so by the federal government. Nevertheless, at least some investors are confident the company will make money of this idea. Since it first went public last month, Urthecast has raised some $46 million.

As part of what the company calls the “world’s first near-live HD video feed of Earth”, their cameras are expected to cover the planet between the latitudes of 51 degrees north (covering northern Canada, Russia and Scandinavia) and 51 degrees south (the southern tip of Chile and Argentina, South Africa and Australia). Once captured, the images will be downloaded to ground stations on Earth and be made available just a few hours later.

earth-from-ISSSo, between the accuracy of the cameras and the range they have to survey the planet, people will be able to capture images of their homes, neighborhoods, and even people that are accurate to a single meter. My advice? Get a portable device, lie down in your driveway, and then punch in your coordinates. And be sure to wave for a long time, so that when you download your images, you can see you waving back at yourself!

In the meantime, check out this video produced by Urthecast, and be sure to check out the company’s website to see how you can get in on this.

Sources: cbc.ca, extremetech.com, urthecast.com

New Podcast Series: Space Stations!

star_trek_space_stationMy good buddy, Fraser Cain, a co-inventor and publisher over at Universe Today, has just unveiled a new podcast series which I strongly recommend to anyone who loves space, science, and fiction pertaining to them. Those who follow this site may recognize the name, as Universe Today just happens to be my go-to source for all things space related. From the Curiosity Rover and the Cassini Probe to the mysteries of life on Earth and the universe at large, these guys can be trusted to be in the know!

I even had the honor of writing articles to them for about a year and a half, and I credit this experience with honing my ability to take hard science, gain a basic understanding of it, and then convey it to a general audience in an understandable fashion. Yes, before I worked for these guys, I was truly a geek-in-waiting, someone who didn’t know their quasars from their quarks. Now… well, I’m a little better!

In any case, the podcast series is called Space Stations, and comprises four episodes that take a look at man-made structures in space, beginning with Salyut and Skylab – the earliest Soviet and American attempts to put a manned station into orbit – and then moving onto Russia’s Mir space station, the International Space Station (ISS), and then taking a look at what the future holds for humans living and working in space.

ISSYou can check out the series at their website here, or just head on over to Astronomy Cast, the site for Universe Today‘s podcasts, and start listening willy-nilly. Me, my favorite is the fourth and final episode which takes a look at the future of space stations, and anyone claiming to know the first thing about me will not wonder why! I mean, c’mon, future of space, what’s not to love about that???

And of course, you can check out their voluminous archives, which contain podcasts on subjects ranging from Aliens to Physics, Astronomy to Planetary Science, and the history of space flight to current missions and the future of space exploration. I can promise you that if you’re the kind of person who finds the science jokes in The Big Bang Theory hilarious, you will feel like a kid in a candy store!

Trivia Question: Where does the name Universe Today come from? If you answer this question (no Googling!) you will have my enduring respect forever!

Sources: universetoday.com, astronomycast.com