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Friday, October 1, 2004


Britain Pledges Cash for Robots, Says No to Humans

Martian Astronaut
Martian Astronaut
Credit: theage.com.au
Great Britain has pledged another £5 million towards the ESA's Aurora program, which hopes to send multiple robotic spacecraft to Mars, with the eventual goal of landing humans on the Red Planet. In the same statement, however, leaders ruled out British participation or funding for manned missions, saying that, "[A manned mission] hugely increases the costs without any obvious benefits."

Although the money for robotic missions will do a great deal to strengthen our understanding of Mars, we at Red Colony believe strongly that manned exploration is a necessity for humans to ever understand and utilize Mars. From a strictly scientific standpoint, humans with the right tools can outperform rovers to an unimaginable degree in almost every respect. Many scientists speculate that until we land actual humans on Mars we will never be able to resolve the question of whether or not life existed or exists on Mars. And when one looks the broader picture apart from purely scientific benefits, the advantages to a human presence on Mars can be seen to be incalculable. Not only would the public become much more involved, but we would have demonstrated the feasibility of many of the systems needed for actual colonization, which could pave the way for a new era for all of humanity.

Hopefully Great Britain, with its vast technical expertise and important legacy of investment in advanced technology, will reconsider this decision. In the meanwhile the robotic missions will continue to pave the way for the ultimate goal of spreading out to other worlds.

(More info: The Telegraph)


- posted by Brian @ 23:23 EST

(permanent link)

Monday, October 4, 2004


SpaceShipOne Wins X-Prize

SpaceShipOne Reaches Space
SpaceShipOne Reaches Space
Credit: CNN.com
The first private spacecraft went into space for the third time today and thus satisfied the requirements of the Ansari X-Prize foundation to win the $10 million prize. SpaceShipOne, piloted by Brian Binnie, well exceeded the target altitude of 62 miles and returned to its airfield without problems.

The spacecraft was built with miniscule funding compared to similar NASA programs, which proves the longtime theory that private organizations can go to space cheaper and more efficiently than governmental groups. In addition, the SpaceShipOne franchise is already lined up to be profitable; with the support of Virgin Galactic for space tourism, the company hopes to send 3,000 people into space within five years, orders of magnitude above what the world's space agencies have been able to do in much longer time.

It is quite possible that this marks the death of space agencies as we know it. No, NASA will not go away, but perhaps it will allow private agencies to do most of the work and focus instead on promoting difficult goals and performing tasks that cannot be made to be profitable. This may also lead to the reorganization of how contracts are handed out at NASA, for we all know that even though private contractors handle most of the work for large projects, they are not nearly as efficient as a pure private enterprise would be. It is even possible that NASA may turn into a sort of FAA for space, regulating private enterprise only.

Whatever the outcome, it is clear that space will now be much easier to develop, and competition will drive development onward. Already, the Canadian team that was trying for the X-Prize has announced that it will continue work on its spacecraft. Once the cost per pound into space lowers enough, other interests will look at what advantages may be had in space. Forget space tourism or hotels -- think zero-g manufacturing, research laboratories, and cities in space to support them. All of this may be possible now that the foothold is achieved. This has enormous implications for the future of space, and any effort we may make towards Mars.

On the other hand, it may be that there will be very little change from this. A lot hinges on how well the Virgin franchise can pull off their most brave investment.

(More info: CNN.com)


- posted by Brian @ 11:54 EST

(permanent link)

Tuesday, October 5, 2004


X-Prize to Become Annual Contest

X-Prize
X-Prize
Credit: Ansari X-Prize
If one X-Prize is good, two are better, right? Well, what about one every year? That's the thinking behind the recent announcement from the creators of the original X-Prize. An X-Prize Cup will be held annually in New Mexico in a new facility dubbed the Southwest Regional Spaceport. The participants will compete for five different categories: the fastest turnaround time between the first launch and second landing, the maximum number of passengers per launch, the total number of passengers during the competition, the maximum altitude and the fastest flight time. According to the X-Prize Cup website, this new competition will "dissolve the myth that [the average person] will never travel to space in their lifetime."

We are witnessing history of the most amazing kind. We are going to see the rapid development and proliferation of spacecraft and the advent of the true space age in the next few years.

(More info: X-Prize Cup, CNN.com)


- posted by Brian @ 22:40 EST

(permanent link)

Thursday, October 7, 2004


Opportunity Finds More Water Evidence

An image taken by Opportunity
An image taken by Opportunity
Credit: NASA/JPL
Opportunity has found more evidence for water in Mars' past. It has sent back images of cracks on rock. This suggests that there was water on Mars after the large lakes dried up. "These [cracks] are ... well-known in Earth to be associated with water," scientist John Grotzinger said. "The rocks become impregnated with water, it dries out and pulls in all directions."

Spirit has also found evidence of water. After driving to Colombia Hills, it found that "[e]very single rock in the hills has shown alteration by liquid water," Steve Squyres said. The rocks Spirit analyzed were older than the floor of its landing spot, Gusev Crater.

(More info: Yahoo! News)


- posted by Jim @ 21:37 EST

(permanent link)

Friday, October 8, 2004


Russia Plans 2009 Phobos Mission

Phobos
Phobos
Credit: Unknown
Russia is currently planning a robotic probe of Phobos. To launch in 2009, it will be called Phobos-Grunt and will be part of an effort to develop space exploration programs using unmanned spacecraft. Although Mars' moons could become important to future colonists, it is unclear what Russia will be searching for with this mission.

In other news, Russia's 500 Days experiment to study conditions that could be present during a voyage to Mars and their effects on humans will begin in 2006. American astronauts have been invited to volunteer along with Russian counterparts.


- posted by Brian @ 11:36 EST

(permanent link)

Monday, October 25, 2004


New Clues from Martian Meteorites

Artist's Rendering of Martian Material Transfer
Artist's Rendering of Martian Material Transfer
Credit: NASA Ames Research Center
Scientists at Yale University have developed a fascinating new technique for analyzing meteorites, specifically those from other planetary bodies such as Mars. Meteorites from Mars are thought to come to Earth by a large impact striking Mars, dislodging material that then floats in interplanetary space until caught by Earth's gravity. Using their method, they can precisely date the timing and temperature of this original impact.

This is very important for many reasons. So far, many of our observations about Mars are based on these meteorites, which can reveal the secrets of Mars without much of the cost. In fact, some of the most controversial research about Mars has come from meteorites, such as the 1996 announcement that NASA believed it had found evidence of Martian life in a meteorite from Antarctica. This fueled speculation about the idea of panspermia, which is the process by which life on one planet could come to another by natural means. Panspermia is thought by some scientists to account for the origin of life on Earth. More information about the meteorites and they way they reach Earth can have important implications for such theories.

(More info: EurekAlert!)


- posted by Brian @ 16:57 EST

(permanent link)


Brazil Launches First Rocket into Space

Brazil's Failed VLS Rocket
Brazil's Failed VLS Rocket
Credit: INPE
Despite the deadly failure of a previous launch attempt in August 2003 that set back Brazil's space program significantly, Brazil yesterday successfully launched its first rocket into space. This is momentous for many reasons.

Traditionally the Southern Hemisphere, Latin America included, has been behind the Northern Hemisphere in terms of technology, power and prestige. This launch is a sign of the changing times and the growing power of these countries. Brazil, the largest and most wealthy country in South America, is in or near the top 5 richest countries in the world, yet has not wielded the significant influence that other countries do. This remarkable technical achievement will certainly increase Brazil's influence in the world and raise a signal that it is a major player in world events.

Brazil is ideally positioned as a platform for space launches. The Earth spins fastest at the equator, leading to a reduced cost to reach escape velocity, which translates into cheaper launches and larger payloads. The ESA takes advantage of this fact by using launch facilities in nearby French Guiana, and the United States and Russia both use their southernmost territory to launch from. Brazil's launch facility, being only a couple of degrees from the equator, should have the cheapest cost to orbit of any other facility. This makes Brazil into a serious contender for launching commercial payloads, as long as they can develop the technical expertise and success record that is necessary to attract investments.

In recent years, Brazil has come under fire for going to space while there are still so many domestic problems that it needs to address. This is similar to the calls in India, China, Russia, and elsewhere, and must be denounced for what it is. Were we always to try to solve problems at home before making steps forward, we would always be stuck looking at our world with its never-ending, petty squabbles, and we would miss completely the awesome majesty of Olympus Mons, the breathtaking beauty of Europa's frozen seas, and the sober glimmer of the stars. There is a place for introspection, and there is a place for taking bold steps forward. We must not lose sight of the basic human imperatives of exploration, and the many advantages that it confers.

(More info: Washington Times)


- posted by Brian @ 17:08 EST

(permanent link)

Tuesday, October 26, 2004


Pratt & Whitney Develops New Nuclear Rocket

NERVA Rocket
NERVA Rocket
Credit: NASA
It is being widely reported that Pratt & Whitney, the giant engine manufacturer that specializes in commercial and military engines for aircraft and space systems, has developed a design for an advanced nuclear fission rocket. Named Triton, it has solved many engineering problems that plagued earlier concepts, and would be capable of anywhere from 30 hours of continuous operation to several years, depending on the expected output. It pollutes less, is more safe, and is much cheaper than earlier rocket designs, such as the famous NERVA program of the 1960s.

Pratt & Whitney estimates that it would cost approximately $600 million to $1 billion to get a working engine. When spread over the design period of any conceivable mission that this would be involved in, that amounts to much, much less than previously thought. With such an engine, astronauts could make regular trips on reusable vehicles to and from Mars, which much less time than with conventional systems. This would lead to more useful work being done, less risks to the crew, and cheaper spacecraft. This, combined with NASA's Project Prometheus, could allow sustained, profitable colonization of Mars. There is no word from NASA yet on whether such a system will be included in future missions.

(More info: NuclearSpace, Red Colony)


- posted by Brian @ 21:57 EST

(permanent link)

Friday, October 29, 2004


Severe Glaciation Responsible for Underground Ice

People walking on a glacier.
People walking on a glacier.
Credit: Unknown
For a long time, the distribution of ice on Mars has puzzled scientists. The prevailing theory involved sublimation from the regolith and distribution to the higher latitudes through the atmosphere, but the Martian regolith simply can't hold the amount of ice required to explain it. Now scientists at the Observatoire de Paris have come up with an answer.

Mars has been long known to undergo severe changes in the obliquity of its orbit. As on Earth, this tilting changes the amount of sunlight that each portion of Mars receives, which causes ice ages much more powerful than those found on Earth. During the periods of highest tilt, the northern polar cap evaporates, moving the ice to the colder areas around Tharsis on the equator. Then, when the tilt becomes smaller, the Tharsis ice evaporates and becomes deposited not only just on the polar caps, but also in a wide region of high latitudes. This accounts perfectly for what we've observed so far: high concentrations of ice underground near the high latitudes, and remnant ice on Tharsis.

Now that we better understand the process by which water moves around Mars, it will be easier to understand where best to find water. This will help greatly in the exploration and colonization of Mars.

(More info: SpaceRef.com)


- posted by Brian @ 16:40 EST

(permanent link)


Evidence For Recent Marsquakes Discovered

Earthquake damage.
Earthquake damage.
Credit: Unknown
When NASA first began collecting real data on Mars, it came as a shock, a dead world in every sense of the word: no life, no water, no geological activity at all. Compared to the previous tales of a struggling civilization and vast canals, it was very much a letdown. Yet, over the years, more and more evidence has mounted that Mars may still have a remnant of fire inside. There was the discovery of a liquid core, satellite images showing lava flows an eyeblink ago geologically, and controversial organic gases in the atmosphere. Yesterday, the Southwest Research Institute announced even more evidence: strings of depressions in the Martian surface that have not subsided with age.

The question of whether Mars is still active is not an academic one. Chemicals recently discovered in the Martian atmosphere, such as ammonia and methane, can only be formed by biological or volcanic processes. If Mars is geologically dead, then it must be formed from life existing today. However, if Mars still is active, the question is undecided.

There are other important issues involved. Because these pits tend to occur along aquifers, they are an ideal location to search for life. Also, if volcanic events are still occuring, they also would be ideal places to search for life, as the energy and chemicals provided by volcanoes make them likely sites for life to shelter. The very thing that may be leading to false indications of life may actually lead us the way to surviving life.

Whatever the eventual answer, it is likely that it will not be as clear-cut as once envisioned.

(More info: SpaceRef.com)


- posted by Brian @ 17:02 EST

(permanent link)

Sunday, October 31, 2004


Mars Rovers Snap 50,000th Picture

50,000th Picture.
50,000th Picture.
Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell
The 50,000th picture taken from the surface of Mars has beamed back to Earth, and NASA couldn't be more pleased. The two rovers have captured more images than the three previous Mars-surface missions combined, and since the ten cameras each carries can travel great distances, their pictures reveal exciting new landscapes with every shot. The image that marks number 50,000 is of Spirit's calibration target, the most photographed subject on the planet.

To put MER in comparison:

Viking Lander 1 (1976) returned 3,542 images in 79 months.
Viking Lander 2 (1976) returned 3,043 images in 43 months.
Pathfinder (1997) returned 16,635 images from its lander and 628 from its rover in 12 weeks.

(More info: AScribe)


- posted by Alex @ 11:26 EST

(permanent link)

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