New Articles and Apologies

solar1Let’s start with the apologies. I’m very sorry for the prolonged absence of late, and I trust that people actually noticed I haven’t been around 😉 But both my day and my side job have both been very busy and have left me mentally and physically taxed by the end of the day. However, I do have things to show for it, mainly in the form of a new list of articles that were recently published on both Universe Today and HeroX.

I’ve taken to posting the new entries on their respective pages (over on the right there). However, if you’re like me, you don’t bother to check these out much and would rather be notified if something new is happening. And the way I see it, a post now and again that contains the links to all the latest is something people won’t mind hearing about (as opposed to being notified every time one does!)

So here they are, in order of publication:

  • Small Spacecraft Ejected from ISS Will Provide Same-Day, On-Demand Delivery – Basically, the ISS is getting a small fleet of return vehicles that will allow them to deliver samples back to Earth in less than 24 hours. This will help research and experiments quite a bit, and could also open the way for commercial use of the ISS’s National Lab.
  • Make a Deal for Land on the Moon – This one was not only fun to write, it contains a cautionary tale worth sharing. No matter what some realtors may tell you, there’s absolutely no way to buy land on the Moon… yet! However, given the way that commercial aerospace and space industries are heating up, this may soon change.
  • HeroX News: The Promise of Solar Power – This is probably the longest article I’ve written for either publication of late. It deals with recent innovations that are causing solar power to break its own the efficiency limits and usher in an age of renewable energy. And none too soon either!

Latest Articles Over At Universe Today!

center_universe2As the title would suggest, my third and fourth articles have just been published over at Universe Today. First off, let me assure people that I plan to post a link to UT in the near future so I don’t feel the need to do this every time a new article comes out. But since this is still a new experience to me, I naturally feel the need to share whenever a new one is published.

The first of the two, which was published on Monday, deals with a recent determination made about the source of the Moon’s water. This is based on research conducted by scientists over at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. Back in 2009, India’s Chandrayaa-1 probe conducted a near-infrared survey of the Moon during a flyby that showed signs of surface water.

moon_waterAfter years of speculation that claimed that the surface water – which exists strictly in icy form – was deposited there by meteors and comets, the National Museum team concluded that its actually formed by solar wind interacting with oxygen in the Moon’s surface dust. Quite the odd little occurrence; but then again, even Mercury appears to have icy spots on it’s molten surface.

The second is about a recent collaboration between NASA and SpaceX. While the latter was testing their Falcon 9 rockets, NASA filmed the performance using Infrared cameras. The information gleamed from this is helping SpaceX to develop their reusable rocket, but will also help NASA to figure out how they will land habitats and heavy equipment on the surface of Mars.

NASA_thermal1Sort of a win-win scenario, one that shows how the public and private sector are working together like never before to make the future of space exploration happen. And it’s another indication of just how serious NASA and its partners are in making a mission to Mars a reality.

Feel free to check them out, and stay tuned for the next subject of interest: Dark Matter Emanating From The Sun!

Writing for HeroX and Universe Today!

good_news_farnsworthGood news, everyone! My services as a freelance writer were recently enlisted by the good folks who run HeroX and Universe Today. Thanks to my old friend and mentor, Fraser Cain (who consequently got me started in the indie publishing bizz), I’m going to be bringing the experience I’ve garnered writing my own blog to a more professional format – writing about space exploration, innovation and technological development.

As you can imagine, this means I’ll be doing less in the way of writing for this here website. But I promise I’ll still be around! After all, I’ve got lost more work to do on my stories, and there are always articles and headlines that need to be written about that I won’t get a chance to cover at those other sites. So rest assured, storiesbywilliams will be in operation for a long time to come.

XPRIZE_GooglePlus_Cover_2120x1192For those unfamiliar, HeroX is a spinoff of the XPRIZE Foundation, the non-profit organization that runs public competitions intended to encourage technological development and innovation. It’s directors includes such luminaries as Google’s Elon Musk and Larry Page, director James Cameron, author and columnist Arianna Huffington, and businessman/ philanthropist Ratan Tata, and more. In short, they are kind of a big deal!

Fraser Cain, founder of Universe Today, began HeroX as a way of combining the best of the XPRIZE with a crowdfunding platform similar to Kickstarter. Basically, the site brings together people with ideas for new inventions, finds the people with the talent and resources to make them happen, and funnels contributions and donations to them to bankroll their research and development.

big_bangUniverse Today, on the other hand, is kind of an old stomping ground for me. Years back, I did articles for them that dealt with a range of topics, including geology, natural science, physics, environmentalism, and astronomy. In both cases, I’ll be doing write ups on news items that involve technological development and innovation, and doing interviews with some of the people in the business.

If possible, I’ll try to link articles done for these sources to this page so people can check them out. And stay tuned for more updates on the upcoming release of Flash Forward, Oscar Mike, and my various other projects. Peace out!

Universe Today: Are Intelligent Civilizations Doomed?

Gaia_galaxyMy friend over at Universe Today, Fraser Cain, has been busy of late! In his latest podcast, he asks an all-important question that addresses the worrisome questions arising out of the Fermi Paradox. For those unfamiliar with this, the paradox states that given the age of the universe, the sheer number of stars and planets, and the statistical likelihood of some of the supporting life, how has humanity failed to find any indications of intelligent life elsewhere?

It’s a good question, and raised some frightening possibilities. First off, humanity may be alone in the universe, which is frightening enough prospect given its sheer size. Nothing worse than being on a massive playground and knowing you only have but yourself to play with. A second possibility is that extra-terrestrial life does exist, but has taken great pains to avoid being contacting us. An insulting, if understandable, proposition.

alien-worldThird, it could be that humanity alone has achieved the level of technical development necessary to send out and receive radio transmissions or construct satellites. That too is troubling, since it would means that despite the age of the universe, it took this long for an technologically advanced species to emerge, and that there are no species out there that we can learn from or look up to.

The fourth, and arguably most frightening possibility, is the Great Filter theory – that all intelligent life is doomed to destroy itself, and we haven’t heard from any others because they are all dead. This concept has been explored by numerous science fiction authors – such as Stephen Baxter (Manifold: Space), Alastair Reynolds (the Revelation Space universe) and Charles Stross (Accelerand0) – all of whom employ a different variation and answer.

kardashev_scaleAs explored by these and other authors, the biggest suggestions are that either civilizations will eventually create weapons or some kind of programmed matter which will destroy – such as nuclear weapons, planet busters, killer robots, or nanotech that goes haywire (aka. “grey goo”). A second possibility is that all species eventually undergo a technological/existential singularity where they shed their bodies and live out their lives in a simulated existence.

A third is that intelligent civilizations fell into a “success trap”, outgrowing their resources and their capacity to support their numbers, or simply ruined their planetary environment before they could get out into the universe. As usual, Fraser gives a great rundown on all of this, explaining the Fermi Paradox is, the statistical likelihood of life existing elsewhere, and what likely scenarios could explain why humanity has yet to find any proof of other civilizations.

Are Intelligent Civilizations Doomed:

And be sure to check out the podcast that deals strictly with the Fermi Paradox, from roughly a year ago:

The Fermi Paradox Explained:

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.


Space Video: Could Jupiter Become a Star?

jupiterMy buddy and mentor in all things space and internet-related, Fraser Cain, has produced yet another informative video that I wish to share today. The subject in question is, “Could Jupiter Become a Star”? Naturally, this question has a wider context which needs to be understood if it is to make any sense. You see, for decades scientists have wondered whether or not a gas giant could be converted into a smaller version of own sun.

This is mainly due to the fact that gas giants and brown dwarves are very similar; in some cases, it’s even considered acceptable to say that a gas giant represents a failed star. This is not entirely accurate, since a gas giant does not have the necessary mass to trigger a deuterium reaction (aka. fusion) in order to create one. But, as Fraser points out, there are those who have wondered if an explosion – like that created by the Galileo space probe crashing into Jupiter – could cause a sun-birthing explosion.

sun_magneticfieldThis question has become relevant once again thanks to Cassini’s ongoing mission around Saturn. Thanks to the prevalence of noble (and flammable) gases that make up this planet as well, some worry that crashing a nuclear powered satellite into it will trigger a massive thermonuclear reaction. But, as Cain points out in a blow-by-blow manner, the answer to this question is a “series of nos”. Put simply, the raw materials and mass simply aren’t there.

Still, it’s a cool idea, and it was the focal point of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and all subsequent novels in the series. In this seminal collection of classic sci-fi, we are told that an ancient race (the First Born) tampered with our evolution eons ago, thus giving rise to the hominid we see every time we look in the mirror. By 2001, when the story opens up, we see a space-faring humanity uncovering evidence of this face, in the form of a strange Monolith buried on the Moon.

2010_3After learning that this strange object is sending signals towards Jupiter, several missions are mounted which determined that these same extra-terrestrials are one again at work, this time in the outer Solar System. Believing there is life trapped underneath the heavy ice sheets of Europa, the First Born use their superior technology and know-how to convert Jupiter into a sun, which in turn melts Europa’s ice, giving rise to an atmosphere and letting the life out to flourish.

So while it’s sci-fi gold, its not exactly science. But then again, that’s the beauty of science fiction – you can always postulate that the means will exist somewhere down the road. But until such time as we can manipulate matter, download our consciousness into rectangular monoliths with perfect dimensions, and travel through the cosmos in said same objects, we’re going to have to get used to NOT looking up at night and seeing this:

2010_4In the meantime, enjoy the video. Like all Universe Today videos, articles and podcasts, it’s really quite informative. And be sure to subscribe if you like having all your questions about space, science and the answers to the big questions addressed:

Evidence for the Big Bang

planck-attnotated-580x372The Big Bang Theory has been the dominant cosmological model for over half a century. According to the theory, the universe was created approximately 14 billion years ago from an extremely hot, dense state and then began expanding rapidly. After the initial expansion, the Universe cooled and began to form various subatomic particles and basic elements. Giant clouds of these primordial elements later coalesced through gravity to form stars, galaxies, and eventually planets.

And while it has its detractors, most of whom subscribe to the alternate Steady State Theory – which claims that new matter is continuously created as the universe expands – it has come to represent the scientific consensus as to how the universe came to be. And as usual, my ol’ pal and mentor in all things digital, Fraser Cain, recently released a video with the help of Universe Today discussing the particulars of it.

big_bangAddressing the particulars of the Big Bang Theory, Cain lists the many contributions made over the past century that has led this so-called theory to become the scientific consensus has come to exist. They are, in a nutshell:

  1. Cosmic Expanion: In 1912, astronomer Vesto Slipher calculated the speed and distance of “spiral nebulae” (galaxies) by measuring the light coming from them. He determined most were moving away. In 1924, Edwin Hubble determined that these galaxies were outside the Milky Way. He postulates that the motion of galaxies away from our own indicates a common point of origin.
  2. Abundance of Elements: Immediately after the big bang, only hydrogen existed and compressed into a tiny area of space under incredible heat and pressure. Like a star, this turned hydrogen into helium and other basic elements. Looking out into the universe (and hence back in time) scientists have found that great distances, the ratios of hydrogen to basic elements is consistent with what is found in star’s interiors.
  3. Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) Radiation: In the 1960’s, using a radiotelescope, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered a background radio emission coming from every direction in the sky, day or night. This was consistent with the Big Bang Theory, which predicted that after the Big Bang, there would have been a release of radiation which then expanded billions of light years in all directions and cooled to the point that it shifted to invisible, microwave radiation.
  4. Large Scale Structure: The formation of galaxies and the large-scale structure of the cosmos are very similar. This is consistent with belief that after the initial Big Bang, the matter created would have cooled and began to coalesce into large collections, which is what galaxies, local galactic groups, and super-clusters are.

These are the four pillars of the Big Bang Theory, but they are no means the only points in its favor. In addition, there are numerous observational clues, such as how we have yet to observe a stars in the universe older than 13 billion years old, and fluctuations in the CMB that indicate a lack of uniformity. On top of that, there is the ongoing research into the existence of Dark Matter and Dark Energy, which are sure to bear fruit in the near future if all goes well.

big_bang1In short, scientists have a pretty good idea of how the universe came to be and the evidence all seems to confirm it. And some mysteries remain, we can be relatively confident that ongoing experimentation and research will come up with new and creative ways to shed light on the final unknowns. Little reason then why the Big Bang Theory enjoys such widespread support, much like Evolution, Gravity, and General Relativity.

Be sure to check out the full video, and subscribe to Universe Today for additional informative videos, podcasts, and articles. As someone who used to write for them, I can tell you that it’s a pretty good time, and very enlightening!

November 2013 Eclipse

Bloomberg Photos Best Of The Year 2012On this coming November 3rd, the people of the Africa will be treated once again (if that’s the right word) to a solar eclipse. And the good folks at Astronomers Without Borders – an independent outreach program with global reach – will be doing all they can to make sure that students and sky watchers can safety watch it take place. And they are looking for help…

Basically, they are looking for donations so they can send tens of thousands of eclipse glasses to schools in Africa just in time for the eclipse. In addition to allowing for students to safely observe a major astronomical event, it is also a rare opportunity to expose students to science in a region where science resources are often non-existent.

SOLAR-ECLIPSE-2013-pathAs Mike Simmons, who leads AWB, told Universe Today in an email interview:

We’re working with the IAU’s Office of Astronomy for Development who has contacts working with schools and able to distribute the glasses to them. The opportunity for this came up late so we’re working very hard to make it happen in the short time we have left.

According to the AWB website, schools have been identified and vetted by partner organizations in each country in Africa, and distribution networks have been verified. Every donated pair of eclipse glasses WILL reach a student for use for the eclipse, and will be given by the AWB free of charge.

SOLAR-ECLIPSE-2013-kidsThe International Astronomical Union’s Office of Astronomy for Development, which is based in Cape Town, South Africa, is providing invaluable support and assistance through their many contacts across Africa. But alas, the program depends entirely on private donations.  However, as Simmons explained, they are confident they can raise the money in time:

There’s no question we can get all the donations that are needed as long as we get the word out in time. We do probably a half-million dollars in programs each year based on the hard work of passionate amateur astronomers and educators around the world,” Simmons said, “all on way less than $25,000 a year.

If you’re interested in pledging a donation, simply go to AWB’s website by clicking here. Each pair goes for $1 to $4, depending on how many you want to buy. As for those of us who don’t live in Africa, I guess we’ll just to wait until Monday, August 21, 2017, when the next Solar Eclipse that will be visible from North America will take place.


News From Space: Asteroids in the Bag!

asteroid_earthFor some time, NASA has been forthright about its plans to tow an asteroid closer to Earth for the sake of study. As part of their long-term goals, this plan calls for the capture of a Near Earth Object (NEO) and positioning it at one of two Lagrange Points before conducting research on it. And late last month, they released plans on how they intend to go about doing this.

The first step, picking and choosing a potential target, would be handled by the telescope known as the Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). Launched in 2009, this telescope was charged with a two-year mission to image 99% of the visible sky in infrared wavelengths. Once this mission was successfully completed, NASA reassigned the craft a second four-month mission to track and discover near-Earth objects (NEOs).

orion_asteroidOnce that’s done, the next phase of the mission will involve launching an unmanned probe to intercept the NEO and drag it back into a retrievable position, probably by wrapping a bag around it. While this might sound improbable, keep in mind NEOs are rather small, and a bag of high-tensile material would do the trick. A crew would then be dispatched on an Orion capsule mated to the upcoming heavy rocket known as the Space Launch System to retrieve samples of the asteroid and return them to Earth.

Despite troubles getting the US Congress to approve a budget necessary to mount a capture mission, NASA remains committed to the plan, mainly because of the benefits it would entail. Many of these small asteroids are thought to contain minerals from the very early stages of the solar system’s formation, which means they’d be a useful means of investigating theories on how planets and planetoids form.

orion_captureIn addition, studying NEOs is also essential in creating safeguards against them striking Earth. The Russian meteorite explosion earlier this year put a new emphasis on the importance of tracking small asteroids, as the object that detonated in the skies above Chelyabinsk was too small to have been detected by other means. Much like many small asteroids, NEOs are too small to reflect visible light and must be tracked by infrared imaging.

Ultimately, bagging and dragging one of the smaller ones may be the only way to successfully study them and find ways to divert the larger ones. And a mission of this nature would stretch NASA’s unmanned capabilities for probes and satellites — a useful factor when discussing exploration of targets like Europa or Titan. It would also serve as a test of the Orion capsule and SLS, which are the intended means of getting astronauts to Mars by 2030.

asteroid_neo_studyNASA’s news release included a series of photos and a video animation of how the capture operation would take place, which included crew operations, the Orion spacecraft’s trip to and rendezvous with the relocated asteroid, as well as astronauts maneuvering through a spacewalk to collect samples from the asteroid.

NASA will also be hosting a technical workshop at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston from Sept. 20th to Oct. 2nd to discuss potential ideas, and is looking for public input. Virtual participation will also be available to the public, and details on how to participate will become available soon. Stay tuned for updates, or check in with Universe Today, who is following the story.

And be sure to check out NASA’s video on what the NEO capture would look like. And check out more of pictures at NASA’s Asteroid Initiative website.


News From Space: Volcanic Eruption on Io!

Io.1Io, the innermost of Jupiter’s four largest moons, has always been a source of wonder for astronomers and scientists. In addition to its pockmarked and ashen surface, it is the most volcanically active object in the Solar System, with about 240 active regions. This is due to the immense tidal forces that Jupiter provides, which create oceans of lava beneath the surface and huge volcanoes blasting it hundreds of kilometers into space.

Naturally, these eruptions are not visible directly from Earth unless one is using infrared cameras. But recently, a new series of eruptions were observed by Dr. Imke de Pater, Professor of Astronomy and of Earth and Planetary Science at the University of California in Berkeley. She was using the Keck II telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii on August 15, 2013 when it immediately became apparent something big was happening at Io.

Io_eruptionIn a telephone interview with Universe Today, de Pater claims this eruption is one of the top 10 most powerful eruptions that have been seen on Io, and she just happened to have the best seat in the house to observe it.

When you are right at the telescope and see the data, this is something you can see immediately, especially with a big eruption like that. It is a very energetic eruption that covers over a 30 square kilometer area. For Earth, that is big, and for Io it is very big too. It really is one of the biggest eruptions we have seen.

However, the fact that it occurred in the Rarog Patera region of Io, aptly named for a Czech fire deity, is somewhat unusual. While many regions of Io are volcanically active, de Pater said she’s not been able to find any other previous activity that has been reported in the Rarog Patera area, which the team finds very interesting.

Galileo_IoAccording to Ashley Davies of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasedena, California, Rarog Patera was identified as a small, relatively innocuous hot spot by the Galileo spacecraft during its encounter with the Jovian moon during the late 90’s. However, the observations made indicated that the volcanic activity was at a level way, way below what was seen on Aug 15.

Though we cannot see the eruptions directly, observation using the Keck telescope in the past have ascertained there are likely fountains of lava gushing from volcanically active fissures. But unlike volcanic eruptions here on Earth, which are already awesome and frightening to behold, eruptions on Io would be roughly 1000 times as powerful.

And since Io has no atmosphere to speak of, and the planet’s mass is significantly less than that of Earth’s (0.015 that of Earth’s to exact), the lava shoots off into space. Thus, for anyone standing on the moon’s surface, the result would look very much like a space launch at night, with plumes of flames reaching from the ground and extending indefinitely into the sky.

Io_Earth_Moon_ComparisonAs de Pater further indicated in the course of her interview, volcanic activity remains quite unpredictable on the Jovian moon:

We never know about eruptions – they can last hours, days months or years, so we have no idea how long it will stay active. but we are very excited about it.

No data or imagery has been released on the new eruption yet since the team is still making their observations and will be writing a paper on this topic. One thing is clear at this point, though. Despite its mysterious nature, Io still has a few surprises left for Earth scientists.

And for more information on the mysterious planet of Io, check out this Astronomycast podcast, featuring an interview with Dr. Pamela Gay of Southern Illinois University: